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The Producer as Composer, Shaping he Sounds of Popular Music

by Virgil Moorefield
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
143 pp. Trade, 14.95
ISBN: 0-262-13457-8.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Producers shaping the sound of popular music are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, since the rise of technologies enabling to record and playback any type of music, technicians and producers have had a very important role in the process. But only gradually have they come to the forefront. Till the Sixties of last century they often didn’t even get credited on LP sleeves. But step-by-step, their visibility has increased, and the names of some have become——in some instances——synonyms for a certain sound, a way of recording and mixing, a particular concept of presenting music to the audiences, and even a subgenre. George Martin and Phil Spector were not the first ones, but they certainly stand out in most people’s memories as the pioneers of the producer’s trade as we know it today: wizards of the mixing console who sometimes transformed a simple unplugged composition into a pseudo-symphonic experience. Later on, Tony Visconti and Brian Eno integrated electronic instruments in pop music, leading the way for electropop, disco and the more recent hip hop, house and techno or dance genres. Today, some artists/producers have done with singers and musicians altogether and are using samples and synthesisers to create their products. The stage has become in some ways obsolete, and the studio is the real instrument for music that is to be enjoyed at raves and in clubs, instead of being listened to from the stands of the pop concert hall.

Virgil Moorefield is an associate professor of new media and composition at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and has been working as an assistant to some of the great producers of the Seventies and Eighties. His book is a more or less chronological narrative of the coming of age of sound producing as an art in it self. As such, that is not a very new story. Many authors have been writing about the history of producing——and we have reviewed some of them in these columns. What is special and enlightening in this unassuming book is the thorough musicological analysis he presents of some of the most successful songs in pop music. Ever listened to ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys? It is almost impossible you haven’t because it has been a classic ever since its release in the Sixties: One simply can’t avoid some of these damned parasites. But anyway, for any music lover who is even only just a little bit interested in understanding why some music seems to be simply better than the rest, the question is: How did they do it? Well, "they" didn’t, but he did. Brian Wilson turned this song into his own ‘pocket symphony". And Moorefield describes this symphony in such a way that you can’t resist plucking it from the Internet somewhere and listening to it with new ears. This is just one example from this well-balanced and well-informed book. Don’t expect a deep ethnological analysis or a discussion in the vein of media criticism or culture studies. Rather, this is an historical account, written with a lot of love and insight. You will even come to love the Nine Inch Nails’ song, "Mr. Self Destruct," produced by Trent Reznor. Try it.



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