Book Review: Behind the Glass (volumes I and II)

Behind the Glass (2000)
Behind the Glass: Volume II (2009)
by Howard Massey

“I don’t like options, because they just mean you take more time.”

When he said this, Michael Bradford was referring to musicians who save every single take, and every single idea they have while recording. This producer and engineer (who’s worked with Deep Purple and the Butthole Surfers) says that, while sorting this mess out later on gives the mixing engineer a lot of options for the final song, it’s too high a cost: The original intent of the song is lost. The record producers and studio engineers interviewed in the books Behind the Glass and Behind the Glass: Volume II mention this theme of limitations again and again. Plowing through a menu of options enables craftsmanship at the expense of artistry.

In a pro studio, time is money and the producer’s job is to make sure the artists get their best performances on tape–without spending too much time getting it “perfect”. The engineer is, in theory, there to handle the technical side of the project: Running the multitrack rig, whether it be a touchy analog deck or Protools on an overpowered PC. But studio roles don’t have to be that simple. At the very least, successful producers and engineers have a healthy respect for one another, and an ability to jointly zero in on the feel a recording should have, discarding anything not relevant to the final product. That feel can include painstaking polish, every note brought crisply into focus, but a lack of refinement can also be a valid choice. Some music breathes best when it’s raw and simple.

Artistry and spontaneity might seem to have no place in the recording studio, a place filled with arcane gear and intimidatingly expensive microphones. The interviews in both volumes of Behind the Glass do talk about the gear, but the theme of limiting musicians, of giving them a small box to play in, comes up repeatedly.

All that expensive gear can turn into a distraction. Nearly every single pro that the author interviewed sends the message that it’s not the audio toys that make a pro, it’s getting the song to sound good in the first place. One engineer even jokes that he has a strict policy against answering the too-common question, “what mic do you use for a kick drum?” Get everything sounding good, and only then do you worry about getting things “on tape”. That sound is shaped by the room’s acoustics, but more by the room’s energy level and the dynamics of the people involved.

The home studio, only seen in very recent decades, can be a lonely place. There’s nobody there to give you a nod when you play something good, or push you in a direction you might not have thought of–or to guide you away from a musical dead end. Any excitement at a good take is internalized, not turned outward to fellow musicians. The job of music producer is as much about being a diplomat and a manager as it is about being a liaison with the engineer. And, in modern times, the jobs of “producer” and “engineer” have blurred a bit. Sometimes, the same person does both, but some producers say they’re unqualified to work an engineer’s magic. But more than a few producers and engineers have home studios on top of their “real” job in a commercial facility where they wear both hats, qualified or not.

Behind the Glass (2000) was compiled from magazine interviews in Musician and EQ Magazine. The first book’s cover touts some fairly well-known names–George Martin, Brian Wilson, Phil Ramone. The second volume, published in 2009, focuses more on smaller productions, but is the more up-to-date of the two. Both are worth the time of anyone who records music professionally.

When I started reading the first book, I was intimidated by the sheer quantity of knowledge that these folks have. How could I, a guy who runs a small private studio, ever hope to catch up? But as I read on, I realized that many of these interviews contradicted each other. Opinions are spawned by experience and time, nothing else. Good recording is really about making the best choices you can. Along with the music you’re committing to tape, the gear you have, no matter how high- or low-end it is, is a framework for those decisions. That framework doesn’t have to be a stifling limitation.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a sample edit. He’s fascinated by places where language and music intersect, and he writes music and lyrics as often as possible. He’s also in the studio with his band Baroque & Hungry.

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