The first take is always the best one — as is usually said on the studio set.
I have been a session singer[i] since 1982, the year I first entered a recording studio. This circumstance allowed me to spend hours inside hundreds of recording studios, both in Portugal and abroad, actively participating in recordings, listening to diverse conversations amongst musicians, sound engineers and singers, and observing behaviours; over these three decades, I have witnessed important historical transformational moments regarding audio recording technology — namely, the transition from electrical recording to digital, which had an enourmous impact on my work — and I have (happily) lived surrounded by different recording sounds and different ideas of what a “good sound” should sound like. My professional course has naturally informed my research projects so far.[ii]
Following research I conducted for my Master’s degree, which took Rui Veloso’s recording career as a case study, the aim of this
article is to launch several questions regarding performance in the studio and the relations involved in the construction of distinctive conceptualizations of production sound in popular music. Can a particular recording sound, conceived, created and
materialized in a specific geographic, social and cultural context successfully be emulated elsewhere? What other issues, besides technology, are involved in this matter? What is the dynamics between technology and human agency in the recording studio? Who decides what for whom?
These questions will, I hope, raise discussion about the power relations between the different actors present in the recording set — the artist, musicians, sound engineer, producer, the label’s AR —, but also issues concerning:
- musicianship and its effect on the production sound;
- language and verbal communication regarding the abstract world of sound;
- technology and experience — does having the right equipment actually mean taking the maximum benefit from it?
Methodology will include ethnography based on interviews with musicians and sound engineers involved in this particular case. These interviews, addressing five informants, were conducted in three different contexts: as fieldwork for the ARP conference which took place in San Francisco last December (the ones with José Fortes and Tó Pinheiro da Silva, two sound engineers who worked with Veloso in different time periods); as research for a conference I participated in in Barcelona last September[iii] (Tó Zé Brito, a musician and composer); finally, both the interview with Rui Veloso and with Manuel Paulo were part of the fieldwork I developed for my Master’s thesis in 2009. Apart from José Fortes, who spoke with me in his recording studio, all the other interviews were conducted outside a studio setting — either the subjects’ houses (Rui Veloso, Tó Pinheiro da Silva and Manuel Paulo) or their work place (Tó Zé Brito, at SPA – the Portuguese author’s association). The interviews were semi-directed, having a number of set questions that easily turned into many more, a situation I consider to have been closely connected to my common professional past with all of these subjects.[iv] Also, I sensed a certain pleasure on their part in speaking about their work with someone who could actually understand and appreciate what they were saying — specially the sound engineers.
I will also attempt to ground my arguments in a theoretical framework that I have been trying to establish for the past year and a half, bearing in mind that a great deal has yet to be done in terms of studio ethnographies in ethnomusicology.[v]
In Portugal, the 80s were a defining decade for the development of musical practices associated to popular music, mainly what later became known as “Portuguese rock.” Rui Veloso is considered, despite his reluctance to accept the title, as “the father of Portuguese rock.” However, to understand the impact of Veloso’s music, I will draw a brief overview of the historical background that preceded this decade.
Portugal lived under a dictatorship for forty eight years (1928-1974). Salazar, the most prominent political figure of this period until 1968,[vi] believed that a closed, culturally limited society was the best way of exercising power. The following story provides a small example of the kind of atmosphere under which the country lived: in a letter to the director of Coca-Cola’s European divison, Salazar defined Portugal as a “conservative, paternalistic and — thank God — ‘retarded’ country,” a term he considered “appreciative rather than pejorative.” In the same letter, he claimed to fear the introduction in Portugal of what he detested, above all — “modernism and the famous efficiency.” (Hatton: 2011, p.149)
In this scenario and before the appearance of pop-rock, light music, a generic term covering a variety of musical styles, involving compositions with orchestral or piano arrangements, occupied a considerable space in the musical production and dissemination, both through the radio and records (cf. Castelo Branco 2010a). The “canção” (Portuguese for song) was its main genre, and so national and international artists were regularly disseminated via radio.
Yet, around the 60s, when pop-rock was becoming increasingly popular both in the USA and Europe, the mediated soundscape started to include Portuguese pop-rock groups who either followed the Anglo-American paradigm closely — by using both the English language and the rythmic and melodic structures adapted from their musical references such as The Beatles — or tried to establish a distance from it — expressing themselves in Portuguese, seeking inspiration in Portuguese history and poetry for their lyrics. An example of the former tendency was the group The Sheiks, at times considered “the Portuguese Beatles.”
In 1974, a political revolution took place in Portugal, putting an end to the forty-eight year dictatorship. The “25th April,” or the “The Carnation Revolution,”, generated a new type of music conceived as a means of social and political action, represented by what was then called “the intervention song” (a canção de intervenção), a type of composition characterised by heavily politically loaded lyrics, usually acompanied by an acoustic guitar. As a consequence, the pop-rock styles that had been implemented in the 60s lost importance.
However, by the end of the decade, patterns of change were noticeable in the new pop-rock styles, as a result of the negotiation for a new artistic space carried out by the performers who had been, until then, associated to the intervention song style (Castelo Branco 2010a). Ar de Roque, Rui Veloso’s first LP record took shape from this historical background.
“I wanted to have that sound!”
Ar de Roque was released in 1980. This record was a major hit, selling over 20,000 copies. It showed obvious roots in the blues-rock model, although sung in Portuguese. The lyrics of the songs, written by his lyricist and music companion Carlos Tê, were inspired by the profound social developments of a rapidly changing society. The demo-tape shown to the label was all sung in English, except for one song — “Chico Fininho” — a last minute inclusion. According to the author, this was a song written from a “Zappian[vii] perspective, an artistic exercise.” It was, however this “exercise” that determined their acceptance by the label, provided they wrote and composed all of their songs in Portuguese, something they had never done before (Campelo: 2010).
Having overcome the novelty of composing based on Portuguese lyrics, Rui Veloso had another major challenge ahead: production sound.[viii]
Veloso’s production sound references were based on American and British pop-rock groups that he listened to through records that circulated among his friends. One of these groups had a special impact on his sound ideal: Steely Dan. This north-American group, characterized by a very particular musical style, with influences from jazz, rock, funk, R&B and pop, is also well-known for its studio perfectionism. The two best known albums of this group — Aja (1977) and Gaúcho (1980) — took months to be released, the majority of that time having been spent on the studio set. Veloso recorded his first record… in two weeks.
So, finally, we reach the core question: how can a production sound generated in a specific place (Los Angeles) be emulated elsewhere — Portugal? As differences between the north-American popular music context and the Portuguese were huge (particularly, in terms of the music industry and studio technology) the difficulties were very hard to overcome:
[In the 1980s] There were no producers and no engineers […]. Today, I still listen to the records of Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan of 1975, 74 […] and I wanted to have that sound… Ten years later, I wanted that sound and the fact is I couldn’t have it… not for any lack of microphones, it was a set of situations. […] There was no experience. (Rui Veloso, 8/5/2009, Vale de Lobos)
A set of situations
In an attempt to scrutinize what possible situations Veloso was talking about, I would consider one of them to be the language in which he composed. As already stated, Veloso’s demo-tape was all sung in English, except for that one song — “Chico Fininho.” The switch to Portuguese, demanded by the record label, was in accordance with the new political and social context: the Portuguese language acquired a new value, since questions of national identity became a major topic in society. It was, however, a difficult challenge for both Veloso and Tê, the lyricist, and it obviously had a major impact on the musical sound: language is sound and if we consider Portuguese and English, we are dealing with very different sonic universes. Quoting Tó Zé Brito, a well known musician and composer, former AR[ix] of major recording labels such as Polygram and Universal Records:
We have much longer words, unlike English, which is loaded with monosyllables and bisyllables. Therefore, the musical sentences are much shorter. In Portuguese, the musical sentences have to be longer, you have to compose in a different way. (Tó Zé Brito, 8/7/2011, Lisbon).[x]
Experience is certainly put forward as being one of the major flaws of the Portuguese popular music context, especially where the recording studio set is concerned. José Fortes, the sound engineer who recorded Veloso’s Ar de Roque, is very clear about the subject. Using the parable of the disciple who asks his master about the necessary steps to become a wise person, he believes that what actually distinguished the Portuguese recording status from others abroad was knowledge — or lack of it, in this case —, acquired through experience, which in its turn is acquired by making mistakes. And what about the equipment?
As far as the equipment is concerned, I keep saying more and more that it`s irrelevant… I come from the steel thread times and until the magnetic tape (the Dolby system years, around 1971, 72) a guy had some problems, particularly on account of the signal-noise relation; afterwards, that situation ceased to exist and what was done in the 80s, what was done differently from today I’m convinced that has nothing to do with equipment, but with knowledge. Because today we have recordings from that time made abroad with guys with other knowledge that have nothing to do with ours and that are still today spectacular recordings. (José Fortes, 7/11/2011, Vilar)
Having gone to AES meetings for a long time, talking to other foreign sound engineers made him realize that “the advantage that those guys had not only in terms of experience but of knowledge had nothing to do with us… they always did things in a different way.” (ibidem).
The words of Tó Pinheiro da Silva, another sound engineer who recorded Veloso’s second album, add valuable data to this issue:
One of the things that differentiates the technological side is that abroad they were reseachers… both in England and in the States there were sound research projects and in Portugal…we were imitators… we never had anyone dedicated to the construction of sound equipment, while out there there was a close association between the electronic field and the musical field, with cooperation habits from the industrial point of view; here we got the things much later than they did. (Tó Pinheiro da Silva, 8/10/2011, Oeiras)
Although acknowledging a set of situations as the basis of his discontentment regarding the sound in his earlier records, Veloso also believes that a certain amount of responsibility can be attributed to the person who “stirrs” — the sound engineer —, because, after all, “it all comes down to a great pot-full of food, with all its ingredients: you add EQ or not, compressor or not, reverb or not, and then you balance everything…”(Rui Veloso: ibidem)
If, then, apart from the language issue, technology is under-estimated compared to experience and knowledge, where are we to find it? On the side of the “stirring” person? Or somewhere else?
[…] many musicians are mistaken when they believe that the sound comes from the sound engineer…they come with a reference to some guy who has nothing to do with them and they want that sound… wrong… they have to produce that sound first and, once they’ve done that, the sound engineer may not damage it a lot. (José Fortes, 7/11/2011, Vilar)
Proceeding with his metaphorical way of expressing himself, he adds that:
[…] if somebody brings me apples, they cannot expect me to produce beautiful strawberries… no… they’re just apples… what I can do is not damage the apples… turning them into strawberries is another issue. (José Fortes, 7/11/2011, Vilar)
In other words, the responsibility of the recorded sound is considered differently from the point of view of the sound engineer and the musician. Whereas for the musician, as a whole, it is the sound engineer’s, for the sound engineer, musicianship is seen as the central issue regarding this matter. Facing the situation of an attempt to emulate a certain production sound, especially that particular Steely Dan sound, one cannot stop thinking about the recording processes that characterized the group’s best known albums, where dozens of top session musicians were scrutinized in search of the right solo, the right groove, the right beat. Therefore, what is the importance of musicianship in a production sound such as this? Or, even before this question, what is the LA Sound?
It is one of the easiest to define, on account of the concept of silence. Everything works wonderfully because there is this big concern around leaving free space for silence. The arrangements were never overloaded with information, where it is difficult to separate the instruments as far as timbre is concerned and therefore each one managed to accomplish its function perfectly in the spectrum. (Tó Pinheiro da Silva: ibidem)
Therefore, “the musicians’ choices” and “the way they phrase” (Pinheiro da Silva, ibidem) are of the utmost importance. Of course, this “school of silence” (Pinheiro da Silva) was central for some of the main features attributed to the LA Sound, particularly after digital audio technology appeared. “The Nightfly,” the first solo album by Donald Fagen and one of the first records to be recorded digitally, is also one of Veloso’s referential records:
If we think about it, Ar de Roque was released in 1980… but in that very year, another album was released, one which for me is still a paradigm of what sound is… excellence in sound… “The Nightfly”[xi]… so while out there, stuff like that was recorded, here… it was either eight or eighty [one extreme or the other].[xii] (Rui Veloso: ibidem)
Now, the sound engineer’s point of view:
[…] the absence of noise stopped masking the sound, which became much clearer… the width of the sound spectrum of that record… the space that it has… all the clarity that it has… back then, I thought that was the sound engineer’s work exclusively; of course, there is the sound engineer’s work, who took advantage of that circumstance of noise absence; but if we listen to the Steely Dan records, they have stuff like that too, only not as clear… the esssence was there already! And the sound engineer thought: “Wow!!! Now I can make this sound even better! (José Fortes: ibidem)
Language, technology, experience, knowledge, musicianship. I would add, to this list of possible situations regarding the difficulties of emulating a certain production sound, that of time — and, necessarily, money. José Fortes mentions his experience of recording Veloso’s first album as “something very quick, which lasted one or two weeks.” Referring to the production sound of Veloso’s second album, in 1982, one of the musicians, Manuel Paulo, says:
It all sounded very… small… But then I don’t know how much time there was available for that, to reflect upon the mixes, to do things right. If I’m not mistaken, at the time, the studio sessions, even for Veloso, a top artist, with certain privileges, were all very fast. (Manuel Paulo, 11/6 /2009, Parede)
The economic scope of the Portuguese music industry, even in a period of great investment, established very tight studio schedules. Again, compared to the time spent recording the Dan albums, one is forced to say, as we do in Portugal, despite the country’s Roman Catholic affiliation: “there are no miracles.”
Between the apple and the strawberry
The recording studio is a privileged set where multiple layers of possible analyses are embedded. Due to the richness of this arena, with all its human, technological, social, cultural dynamics involved, it is “the perfect opportunity” to develop what Geertz called “thick description.”(Moehn: 2005, p.48) Ethnographies based on a recording studio are not numerous in ethnomusicology, but I would like to cite Louise Meintjes’s Sound of Africa: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio and Frederick Moehn’s chapter in Wired for Sound “The Disc is not the Avenue.” Apart from these two referential texts, Thomas Porcello’s and Paul Greene’s already mentioned book Wired for Sound provides different case studies that can allow a possible theoretical framework for this scenario. However, and following the words of Thomas Porcello, my approach bears in mind “the specifics of how technology is deployed,” which in turn “vary from situation to situation; as such, they actively resist efforts to impose a single, theoretical framework.” (Green and Porcello: 2005, p.271).
The notion of “overseas” is developed by Louse Meintjes both in her book and in a chapter of Wired for Sound. Defined as a constructed “value-laden discursive category through talk amongst engineers [….] in foreign countries, as well as through stories about the studio experience of others” (Meintjes: 2005, p.23), it resonated with two expressions used by some of my informants, very present in everyday Portuguese speech: “lá fora” e “no estrangeiro” (“out there” and “abroad,” understood as synonyms). In this ethnography, they are both positively charged and represent, basically, an ideal locus where everything is done right; or, using Meintjes words, “out there” is “artistically enabling.”
The dynamics between technology and human agency is central in this scenario. Control over the recorded sound is usually the core issue, where questions regarding power, audio perception, social relations and language use intersect, especially in the eighties, when “distinctions between musician and engineer” were not as blurred as today (Greene: 2005, p.1). In this attempt to emulate a production sound from “out there,” the value attributed to distinctive phases in the recording process is noticeable: while the sound engineer enphasizes questions regarding musicianship and micking, the musician considers recording and mixing to be essential.
Language use concerning sound in the studio set can be a complicated issue: following the idea of sound that a musician has may not be the easiest task on earth, but both sound engineers in this particular case refer to this situation with Veloso as having been amicable. For different reasons, though: one, because “at the time (of his first record), he didn’t quite know what he wanted yet” (Fortes), the other stating that “I would try to follow his ideas” (Pinheiro da Silva). Being a musician himself, maybe this circumstance placed him in a similar frame of mind to Veloso’s. However, I would like to point out the language use revealed through the interviews, particularly that of José Fortes: “not damaging the sound” of the musician “too much” is an extremely loaded expression, which, in my view, involves questions of aural perception. Presenting the musician’s sound “as it really is” may not be the best option. Would it be fair to say that some of us — musicians, singers — like to listen to our sound as “damaged” (i.e technologically manipulated) by the sound engineer?
Discourse about sound in the studio set involves questions regarding timbre, a parameter so far understudied in musicology as a whole (Meintjes: 2003, p.12). A different focus of our disciplines — both ethnomusicology and musicology — , added to the study of other formal parameters such as tune, scale and rhythm — is needed, considering timbre as a powerful tool of engendering feeling and musical meaning. Quoting Simon Zagorsky-Thomas:
[…] by not developing the language and theory to describe the gestural complexity of musical sound, by sticking to structure and harmonic progression and, more importantly, by studying the score rather than the sound, musicology is missing the point. (Zagorsky-Thomas: 2011)
Returning to the central question of this article: can a particular recording sound, conceived, created and materialized in a specific geographic, social and cultural context successfully be emulated elsewhere? At this point, I do not have a straightforward answer to present. The best one would be: it depends on what one wants to emulate and where one wants to emulate it from. However, quoting Louise Meintjes again:
[…] the specificities of a studio`s political context as well as its technological history and position in the global market are implicated – and often audible – in the sounds the studio produces. (Meintjes in Greene: 2005, p.25)
As such, “any technology is not only culturally constructed but […] its uses are culturally defined as well.” (Wong quoted in Greene: 2005, p.271)
The path between the apple and the strawberry, to use one of my informant’s fruit metaphors, is a long and complex one; but at the end of the day, we all want beautiful strawberries, even when our raw materials are mere apples.
About The Author
Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal
Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas
I wish to thank all the musicians and sound engineers that took some time out of their extremely busy lives to answer my questions, most of the time not fully realizing the purpose of them. Thank you for your trust! It is never too much to mention their names once more: Rui Veloso, Carlos Tê, Tó Zé Brito, José Fortes, Tó Pinheiro da Silva and Manuel Paulo. Being a non-granted student, I also wish to thank my family for allowing my endless hours in front of the computer, and the frequent absences from home (even when I am there…), either working or studying and researching. Thank you Jorge, Joana, Margarida, Guilherme and Mike (the dog) for your understanding and patience.
[i] In the Portuguese context, this means recording backing vocals for both the record industry and advertising. It also involves (in my particular case) doing voice-over for different formats (whether documentary films, cartoons or TV series).
[ii] My Master’s dissertation, entitled “On the Road with Rui Veloso: The Construction of a Performance” (Campelo: 2010) focused on the relation between the studio performance and the live one; at the moment, I am starting fieldwork for my doctoral thesis which will be about a Lisbon recording studio and its course over three decades.
[iii] Xenographies II: The Representation of Foreigners in Literature, Travel Writing and other Discourses. The title of my conference paper was “A Sense of Otherness: The Use of the English Language in the Construction of Portuguese Pop-rock” and will be submitted for proceeding paper very shortly.
[iv] I worked with José Fortes and Tó Pinheiro da Silva in the recording studios where they worked twenty years ago in Lisbon – Angel Studios and Valentim de Carvalho, the latter associated to a record label. Tó Zé Brito is a composer and a musician and I recorded many backing vocals for songs composed by him. As for Rui Veloso and Manuel Paulo, I met them both in 1988 when I recorded with Veloso as backing vocalist and toured with him for some time; Manuel Paulo was his keyboard player at the time.
[v] I wish to thank Eliot Bates and Phillip McIntyre, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the ARP conference last December in San Francisco, for the very interesting reading suggestions around studio ethnographies. I have not had the time to use them for this article, but they will certainly be part of my ongoing research.
[vi] 1968 was the date of his withdrawl from the political scene, after a severe fall from a chair.
[vii] In this context, the adjective “Zappian” (from Zappa, Frank) means that the lyrics were explicitly provocative, using slang words that were not usually allowed in a song that suposedly would be mass-disseminated over the radio.
[viii] I consider production sound to be the sound produced in a recording studio, involving technological manipulation of different levels (according to the actors present in the studio scenario), and usually following a certain conceptualization which can either come from the musician or musicians, the musicians and the producer, or the musician and other actors in the set (such as the label`s AR or the sound engineer himself).
[ix] AR is the abreviation of Artists and Repertoire, the professional responsible for hiring artists, as well as supervising their artistic development (Campelo: 2010).
[x] In the conference paper I mentioned in note iii, I argue that Portugal may constitute a singular case-study as far as southern European countries are concerned — Spain and Italy — which share a similar historical, cultural and linguistic background, in the particular issue of “othering” one’s own language in the pop-rock mainstream. Unlike Veloso, there are many groups and solo artists in Portugal who sing only in English and refuse to do so in any other language. It is my belief that a national attitude of distrust and lack of protection towards our own cultural values, together with the overwhelming expansion of the Anglo-American record industry are among the possible reasons for this bilingual trait of the pop-rock scene, in a country where illiteracy is still an issue.
[xi] Actually, “The Nightfly”’s release year was not 1980, but 1982.
[xii] This is the translation of a Portuguese expression, which means, in this case, that a lot was being done abroad in terms of record production, compared to what was happening in Portugal around the same date.
Campelo, Isabel (2011) ‘A Sense of Otherness: The Use of the English Language in the Construction of Portuguese Pop-rock’. Paper presented at the International Conference Xenographies II: The Representation of Foreigners in Literature, Travel Writing and other Discourses, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, 8-10 September 2011.
—. (2010) Na Estrada com Rui Veloso. Tese de Dissertação de Mestrado em Ciências Musicais-Etnomusicologia. Universidade Nova de Lisboa.
Castelo-Branco, Salwa El-Shawan (2010a) ‘Pop-Rock’. In: Castelo-Branco, Salwa El-Shawan (coord.) Enciclopédia da Música Portuguesa do Século XX. Lisboa: Ed. Notícias/Círculo de Leitores.
—. (2010b) ‘The Sheiks’. In: Castelo-Branco, Salwa El-Shawan (coord.) Enciclopédia da Música Portuguesa do Século XX. Lisboa: Ed. Notícias/Círculo de Leitores.
—. (2010c) ‘Música Ligeira’. In: Castelo-Branco, Salwa El-Shawan (coord.) Enciclopédia da Música Portuguesa do Século XX. Lisboa: Ed. Notícias/Círculo de Leitores.
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Hatton, Barry (2011) Os Portugueses. Lisboa: Clube do Autor.
Meintjes, Louise (2003) Sound of Africa!: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
—. (2005) ‘Reaching “Overseas”: South African Sound Engineers, Technology and Tradition’. In: Greene, Paul D. and Thomas Porcello (eds.) Wired for sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, pp. 23-46.
Moehn, Frederick (2005) ‘“The Disc is not the Avenue”. Schismogenetic Mimesis in Samba Recording’. In: Greene, Paul D. and Thomas Porcello (eds.) Wired for sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures. Wesleyan University Press, pp. 47-83.
Zagorsky-Thomas, Simon (2011) ‘How Does Music Work?’ http://simonzagorskithomas.wordpress.com/ (Accessed: November 2011)