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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Pitch correction software like Auto-Tune is just one tool in a big box of gadgets available to musicians to build a polished product. In a recording studio, the producer decides the best way to do that.

The term producer is often tossed around when discussing records. But do producers do? How do they fit into the bigger picture of music and technology? To help answer those questions, we spoke to three award-winning record producers.

(Soundbite of song "Sunny Came Home")

Ms. SHAWN COLVIN: (Singing) She says days go by I don't know why. I'm walking on a wire.

HANSEN: John Leventhal has worked with artists like Shawn Colvin and Rodney Crowell. He tried to define the role of producer.

Mr. JOHN LEVENTHAL (Music Producer): You know, my glib response is, it can run the gamut from somebody who knows when and how to order a good lunch, to somebody who is, you know, a really a total hands-on, deeply involved music person who understands the language of music and understands the language of audio engineering. So I think you can be a successful producer at either end of the spectrum.

HANSEN: But however a producer approaches a recording session, Leventhal notes that these days, producers are feeling more pressure to use technology like pitch correction software.

Mr. LEVENTHAL: What is interesting is that, I think, communally and socially and culturally, our ears over the years have gotten more attuned to pitch discrepancies because we've been so assaulted by totally correct perfect pitch for years now. So there's a tendency to want things to be a little more in tune.

(Soundbite of song "Down to You")

Ms. JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) Everything comes and goes marked by lovers and styles of clothes.

HANSEN: Producer Larry Klein is best known for his work with great singers like Luciana Souza, Madeleine Peyroux, and Joni Mitchell, who don't seem to need a whole lot of post-production studio magic. But it's not like they do it in one take.

Mr. LARRY KLEIN (Music Producer): Perhaps I'll have a singer do a series of takes of a vocal, and then after they finish doing the series, we'll sit together, and we go through. And there are places in it - you can feel them kind of make your heart pulse in a funny way. Once we kind of put those together, then you can very delicately hold onto all of the invaluable emotional content.

(Soundbite of song "Between the Bars")

Ms. MADELEINE PEYROUX: (Singing)The people you've been before that you don't want around anymore that push and shove and won't bend to your will, I'll keep them still.

(Soundbite of song "Like Fugitives")

Ms. ROSEANNE CASH: (Singing) The priest has been praying for your soul and the doctor for your heart.

HANSEN: John Leventhal is married to Roseanne Cash, the country singer and daughter of Johnny Cash. He says he'd never use Auto-Tune for one of his wife's recordings because she wants the performance to be as authentic as possible. But he does use it for other artists.

Mr. LEVENTHAL: Like, I just produced a commercial country record for an artist who's a great artist and really super-talented and with acute ears and a finely-tuned sense of their own artistic vision. But I definitely used more Auto-Tune and more sonic manipulation to make her record sound punchier and quote, unquote "more radio-friendly," to be more competitive with the market in which she's trying to operate because that's what this artist wanted.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: It's not just pop music that's subject to the smoke and mirrors of studio technology. Bassist and producer Steve Rodby has worked with jazz artists Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, and Eliane Elias. He says that even jazz and classical recordings are usually pieced together from multiple takes in the studio. Steve Rodby talked about one of the records he was most proud of producing - the two-CD set of the jazz group Oregon performing with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. STEVE RODBY (Music Producer): In that case, we were under such enormous time pressure, performing this very difficult music with this huge orchestra and everything, that we had to do the music in sections. And there was no way we could just play it as a performance like on a stage. So, it had to be assembled, essentially. It's just - it couldn't all happen at once. You know, sometimes what a producer will do with various technological tools is just be able to give the artist the rehearsal they didn't have.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: In the end, every situation is different. All three producers said it comes down to a trusting relationship between an artist and a producer. And only that can tell you how much or how little technology should be used. John Leventhal.

Mr. LEVENTHAL: I think there's an intuitive moment between the producer and artist where you're looking for the most compelling, expressive experience in listening to the music. And if something is slightly out of tune but you still feel mysteriously compelled and moved by it, you don't care whether it's in tune or not. And then I think there are those moments where you go, ah, there's something just not right, and then, at those moments, you'll maybe try anything to see if you can enhance, correct, change the recording experience.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can hear songs crafted by our three producers, learn more about Auto-Tune, and watch a short video of my ill-fated visit to Avatar Studios at our music website. That's nprmusic.org.

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