The “Virtual” Producer In The Recording Studio: Media Networks In Long Distance Peripheral Performances

Introduction

The producer has for many years been a central agent in recording studio sessions; the validation of this role was, in many ways, related to the producer’s physical presence in the studio, to a greater or lesser extent. However, improvements in the speed of digital networks have allowed studio sessions to be produced long-distance, in real-time, through communication programs such as Skype or REDIS. How does this impact on the role of the producer, a “nexus between the creative inspiration of the artist, the technology of the recording studio, and the commercial aspirations of the record company” (Howlett 2012)?

From observations of a studio recording session in Lisbon produced through Skype from New York, this article focuses on the role of the producer in these relatively new recording contexts involving long distance media networks.  Methodology involved participant observation carried out in Estúdios Namouche in Lisbon (where the session took place), as part of doctoral research. This ethnographic approach also included a number of semi-directed ethnographic interviews of the different actors in this scenario—musicians, recording engineers, composers and producers. As a theoretical framework, the research of De Zutter and Sawyer on Distributed Creativity is used, as the recording studio sets an example of “a cognitive system where […] tasks are not accomplished by separate individuals, but rather through the interactions of those individuals” (DeZutter 2009:4). Therefore, creativity often emerges as a result of this interaction.

Also, the Actors Network Theory (ANT) proposed by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon can be a useful analytical tool when considering one of its main premises­, the proposition of a ‘sociology of associations’, instead of a ‘sociology of the social’: “the social dimension of a phenomenon does not objectively exist a priori and therefore cannot be utilised as a starting point for research” (Dudhwala 2009:3). The flat ontology proposed by these theorists, where “microfibres, machines, fish and humans are all endowed with the same level of agency and sense of ‘being’ in terms of their capacity to create and engender relations” (2009: 5) resonates with the setting at stake in this article, where technology plays a fundamental part, as all human actors involved.

For ethical reasons, all the names mentioned apart from the recording studio and the sound engineer are pseudonyms.

Back to Namouche

NOTE: From this point the article is reported in the first person representing the participant observer experience of co-author Isabel Campelo.

From the second half of the 20th century, along with the development of recording technology and of the record industry, studio recording became an essential feature of musical practices, from art to popular music. As a consequence, the recording studio became a fundamental locus of fixation, experimentation and invention of different types of music all over the world.

Until the end of the 80’s, due to the high cost of professional recording equipment, recording in a studio was a privilege generally only available to musicians associated with a record label. As recording technology became more available and affordable, that situation changed, originating the advent of home studios. Consequently, many high-end studios had to shut down. The music industry’s crisis of funding caused by the rise of illegal internet music downloading contributed to the ever more difficult situation of recording studios.

Namouche Studios is one of the oldest and largest Lisbon recording studios. The building of the studio began in 1967. It opened in 1972, under the name of Radio Triunfo, also the name of record label that owned it. In my first years as session singer—approximately from 1982 to 1985—the majority of sessions I was called to in this studio were for the record industry. After 1985, the studio was sold to two well-known Portuguese musicians who, apart from their personal musical projects, had developed significant activity in the advertising business. Namouche, the studio’s new name, dedicated itself to this activity for approximately twelve years. In the 90’s the development of digital technology in both audio recording and musical instruments made it very difficult for the studio’s survival, according to João Pedro Castro, a former sound engineer of the studio, in an interview I conducted in April 2012.

From 1998 to 2005, following the abandonment by both musicians of the project, the studio became the property of a third equity partner who left it more or less unused (Castro 2012). Joaquim Monte, a sound technician, took over Namouche in 2005 and since then a lot of recording activity has been going on in the studio, covering diverse musical genres.

Having learned about the studio’s “second life” from friends and musicians who had recorded there recently, I decided to focus my doctoral thesis on this interesting case-study. This article reports on the first time I went to Namouche as a participant-observer. The date was January the 15th, 2012.

The setting and its main actors

By the door, a big crowd holding plates with food, others eating sandwiches…the same thing at the lobby and down the stairs until the recording room, where I find: the sound engineer; an English musician who seems to be producing the session; another person sitting next to the sound engineer who I actually know but do not recognize at that moment and who is mediating the communication with the musician at the live room; and another person who I don’t quite know what is doing (at this moment, he is reading the score with the English musician). (Campelo, field notes, 15/1/2013)

There was a lot of information—both visual and aural—to process. To summarize: a group of young people were hanging outside the studio, from the street to the lobby, eating (these were the orchestra members who were already having lunch). Inside the control room were four people, two of them with clear functions, according to my perception: the sound engineer and the English composer. I was not sure who the two others were or what they were doing. A fifth person was audible, but not seen—a musician inside the live room.

Let’s identify the actors in the control room. The person who was mediating the communication with the recording room, whom I realized I had already met, was Tiago, keyboard player, pianist and music producer. The sound engineer was Joaquim Monte. The audible voice inside the live room was the conductor, Joseph. The English musician was the composer Simon, and the other person reading the score with him was the mentor of everything I was observing: António.

This orchestra is a project conceived by Antonio, a young Portuguese musician, who studies film scoring in New York. The purpose of it was to be able to record film scores with a minimum rehearsal time and great recording efficiency. All the musicians were supposed to be extremely good score readers, as well as performers. They were, in the majority, art music students from Lisbon High School of Music where they had been recruited (Tiago 2013).

In this recording session, António was trying to elaborate a portfolio of the orchestra, promoting its music skills, but also promoting the recording studio and the work of several score composers. These included himself, Simon—the English citizen at the studio—and Keil—an American colleague of António who was in New York at that moment. We will come back to him later.

As I came to realize much later on, most of the musicians had never played together and hardly knew each other; although it was not clear as to the exact date the scores had reached the musicians’ possession, it had surely been very recently. Apart from this, there had been some logistical problems during the morning session, which created a degree of tension. Nevertheless, the orchestra sounded beautiful, as if none of these events had had any influence in the musical performance—at least, according to my perception.

Calling New York

Although for me the setting appeared mainly as confused, it was a highly charged session, with a lot of aspects involved:

– a commercial aspect, as the orchestra was a project by António, both musician and entrepreneur, and his father;

– a musical one, as the success of the commercial side of the orchestra would depend largely on the musical performance;

– a logistical one, as there were a lot of people involved who hardly knew each other, both personally and musically, with different needs (travel, food, and others);

– a psychological/emotional one, as there was nervousness and tension, but also excitement regarding this new challenge for everybody involved.

There was another factor that increased the level of tension: Keil, the third composer mentioned, who was in New York, would be following the session on Skype. Although in this particular session, the orchestra was offering its services freely, these young composers were regarded as clients or, rather, future clients, by António, who addressed them in these terms in the following interview I conducted with him. The idea of having a “client” listening to the orchestra for the first time through such a medium, with the possibility of bad connections arising from the situation, was, to António, worrying.

Before the Skype connection was made the orchestra had been recording Simon’s pieces. It was, actually, at that stage that I entered the recording room, when I remarked in my field notes that there was “an English musician who seem(ed) to be producing the session”. Everything seemed to be in control, with the composer in loco assuming the role of the producer.

When the Skype connection took place, the general “tone” of the session changed. There was a lot more communication going on, as well as different layers of communication.  


Snake Eyes

In the first scenes of Brian de Palma’s 1998 film Snake Eyes, we watch a politician being killed in a boxing match; as the film continues, the same scene is presented to the viewer from different perspectives until one realizes what actually happened. That moment of revelation reconfigures the film’s main characters, assigning them different values. It took me six interviews with the different participants in this setting to be able to determine the roles played in the recording session more clearly, adopting a “snake-eyed” look. However, before initiating that dialogical moment, I will delineate the different levels of communication observed:

  • Visually, the Skype connection allowed, at first, the people in the control room (Monte, António and Tiago) to see Keil, and the opposite was also true; however, as the image was interfering with the sound stream, it was disconnected. For the most part, there was no visual contact between the composer in New York and the orchestra in Lisbon.
  • Aurally, the communication was taking place between: António, Keil (the composer, in New York), Joseph (the conductor), and some musicians (the percussion and the brass section) in the live room; and other people in the control room would join in at times. The fact that some musicians had headphones and others did not is relevant for the understanding of the whole communication process, as we will see later.

Following the observation of what, back then, I perceived as a unique research scenario in terms of performance in the studio, I conducted a series of interviews with some of the actors present in the setting. The first of these was with Joaquim Monte, the sound engineer.

Looking for the producer

Monte’s comments about the session were, first of all, related to the musician’s enthusiasm:

They were extremely happy for the fact of having somebody on the other side of the world listening to them; I’ve never seen an orchestra behaving like that, as orchestras are, usually, very difficult to control, unless they have a very firm maestro, which was also the case. (Monte: September 2012)

I was interested to know whether he thought the performance had been, in any way, altered by the fact of not having someone physically present in the studio directing them.

If the producer is good, he can do the same work being present or not; the question is the control room is not there, but away, and he can’t go to the live room if he needs to. But most of the times, communication is established through the talkback system, so there isn’t too much difference. (ibid)

From Monte’s words, an assumption can be seen of a producer in the session: the composer. The physical absence of the producer/composer was an additional reason for them to alter their performance for the better—particularly because he was the composer, and he was not Portuguese, a detail that seemed to validate his credibility even further. Tiago would say the same thing, in his interview.

My next informants were António and Lucas, a French horn player, both of them contacted through email. António’s comments about the session were very straightforward. Referring to the streaming process as a common tool in the recording industry these days, he stated that it had worked out very well—for both the musicians and the conductor. The performance of the musicians would not have changed a great deal had the composer been physically present, because “the composer was, in fact, there, only through the internet” (António: May 2013).

The streaming session was not new for Lucas either. It required, above all, patience. This time I asked what seemed to be the “billion dollar question” (one which I had not included in the previous interviews): who was the producer there?

The answer is not an obvious one, as everybody you mentioned—António, Keil, Tiago, Monte, Joseph—is also a producer; but the biggest and most responsible producers are the musicians, because the natural product, which later on is filtered and improved with the help of technology, comes from them. (Lucas: May 2013)

Stating, later, that a producer is someone closer to the technical side of the session, he would attribute that responsibility to António and Joseph, the maestro. However, if he had to choose one person, that would be António.

Tiago is an experienced keyboard player, pianist and producer. He was supposed to be the music producer, although according to him:

In an orchestra, there isn’t so much this figure of the record producer; that happens more in light genres where the performers don’t have music education. In this project, you had: the composer, who writes and knows what he wants; the conductor, who interprets what the composer wants, so the role of the music producer is fairly relative…

In any case, his function would be to establish the connection between the orchestra and the technological part, because I was the one who knew both worlds—technological and musical—and was able to decodify what each of them wanted. (Tiago: May 2013)

Tiago’s interventions in the session were very few, according to my observations. This idea is corroborated by my next interviewee, Joseph. Being in the most delicate position—he was at the centre of the communication process between the composer, the control room and, above all, the musicians—Joseph’s interview allowed me to reinterpret some of the features of the session. His leadership position regarding the musicians resulted in his undermining Tiago’s suggestions—at least the one regarding the use of click-track.

I didn’t accept his suggestion, because I am not used to a figure such as that of a producer; besides, I was interfacing with the musicians, so I have to think twice before giving in to any suggestion coming from the booth. (Joseph: May 2013)

Once more, it is important to remember that some musicians had headphones on. Regarding the physical presence of the composer, Joseph was the first to state overtly that it would have made a lot of difference. What I perceived and noted in my field notes as “minor corrections” from the composer to the musician’s performances, were, according to Joseph, last minute changes that the composer had decided to try. The orchestra was already tired, so,

had he been there, it would have been completely different, a different type of respect […] As a conductor, my psychological approach to the orchestra is on the positive side, respecting everybody equally even with a central figure such as the conductor or the composer. For that you need contact. You need empathy, both on the musical as well as on the personal side. (ibid)

What about Keil? How did the composer “on the other side” of the communication stream, perceive the session? His answers through email present another perspective, with some common points of view to other participants, namely to Joseph, the conductor. However, what stems from his answers is the clear recognition that the session was “a very disorienting experience”, and much of the recording that he got back was not usable “due to the musicians not playing in time to the click track” (Keil: December 2013). Unlike the other interviewees, he had never been involved in a remote recording session, and this scenario presented some challenges difficult to overcome, such as the inability to see what was going on in the recording room, and the fact of not being physically present in the setting.

The subtle body language cues from the musicians are missing. Are they stressed? Are they not getting into the music enough? Being able to jump in during a break and talk with individual musicians becomes impossible. (ibid)

Unlike the majority of the interviewees, he was not confident about the session. Apart from mistrusting Skype as an effective means to transmit music,

there was just too much that I couldn’t observe. How were the mics set up in the room? Was the mixer being attentive enough? Was the conductor being clear and transmitting the right gestures to achieve the desired results? (ibid)

When asked about who was the producer in that setting, Keil stated that,

by strict definition, a producer is essentially a manager. Who was managing that session? I definitely wasn’t. For that particular session, I took on an advisory role more than anything else. (ibid)

Preliminary conclusions

My preliminary conclusion is undoubtedly the recognition that what I had perceived as a unique recording scenario turned out to be a relatively common one for most of my informants.  In a “normal” recording session, communication, both verbal and musical, is established between the central performance (the music-making) and the peripheral performance (what goes on in the control room). In this context, there was one central performance and two peripheral performances separated in terms of space, turning the communication process into something more complex, and the acknowledgment of the producer more difficult.

Some of the roles undertaken by a producer, as defined in co-author Howlett’s article “The Producer as Nexus” (2012), are recognizable in this set: António was both the project manager and the mediator—although there was no record company involved, he was responsible for the ultimate result of the recording session, which would lead to an expanded portfolio for his orchestra. The role of performance director was assumed by both composers—Simon and Keil (at least, as perceived by Lucas, the French-horn player, and Monte, the sound engineer). The psychologist role in this session was divided between these two composers, as well as António, and particularly the conductor Joseph. Joseph had to make the necessary adjustments to the information he received both from the composer and from António, with the added complication that some of the musicians were using headphones, and so could hear his conversations with the other “producers”, while some could not. Finally, Tiago, who was supposed to be the music producer, ended up deferring from his function due to the many voices involved. With this attitude—giving space to the other collaborators—he demonstrated one of the assets usually expected from a producer, which he has been for many years: sensibility. The authority and evaluation expected from a producer was, therefore, primarily assumed by the two composers, as stated by the interviewees, with the disagreement of Keil, the American composer, who did not acknowledge himself as such.

The choice of this session as a case study was meant to launch questions regarding the role of the “virtual” producer in these increasingly common recording scenarios.

Will these scenarios begin to replace the usual recording session, with all the actors present in the setting? Can there be such a thing as a “virtual producer”?

I believe the session would have been completely different if I were in the room. At least I would have been able to monitor the click track and would have noticed that the musicians were getting way off track. In this day and age of instant global communication, we easily forget the power of human proximity. Sometimes, there’s no substitution for just being there. (Keil: December 2013)

How does a long-time producer, who has worked in the recording studio for 30 years perceive this particular session and others of the same type?

Mike’s conclusions

Note: From this point the article is written from the perspective of co-author Mike Howlett.

The remote, or “virtual”, aspect of this session highlights the specific question of the producer’s role: in any completed session a production is the outcome—whether it is a “good” or “bad” production is another matter. The decisions and choices that are made about, for example microphone placements or performance values and so on will determine the nature of a given outcome. This particular session is complicated further by the decision of the “appointed” producer, Tiago, to step aside from this role in the interests of the project—an honorable course of action, and possibly a pragmatic choice, as noted above. This decision was possibly also driven by Tiago’s experience of having his proposal to use a click track dismissed by the conductor. From his later comments above, the composer, Keil, clearly did not realise that a decision had been taken not to use a click track. Keil also declined to accept the designation of “producer”. This absence of a specific producer reveals much detail about the process: without a designated producer the decisions and choices that determined much of the quality of the final product were made according to a somewhat random process. In this instance power seems to go, first, to those with a greater investment in the composition, and then to the performers, as represented by the conductor, but also to the commercial interest, as represented by António. He is the client in this instance, and, interestingly, able to say, on reflection, that he was satisfied with the outcome—that it had achieved his aims.

In spite of this evident flow of choice-making, the perception of one of the orchestral players, Lucas, was that ultimately the decisions lay with António, although Joseph, his conductor, was a strong runner.

Regarding the question of the virtual producer, as is pointed out by Joaquim Monte, the engineer, much of a producer’s direction is conveyed through the talkback system anyway, and physical presence is not that significant. However, the ability to get out into the studio to discuss a specific detail, which is sometimes necessary, is, of course, not available. The absence of this capacity to engage directly and spontaneously with the musicians was stated by Keil as a significant frustration. A viable alternative is to collaborate with fellow participants, as is seen here when the conductor interprets the composer’s changes and conveys them to the musicians. The process may be delayed somewhat, but the desired outcome is achieved, more or less. It is this “more or less” that needs further investigation: would the outcome have been closer to the composer’s intent had he been in the room? It would most likely have been different. Keil specifically cites the lack of a click track as having rendered the entire outcome “useless” for him. Some resistance is also evident here from the conductor to taking direction from the perceived producer. As Joseph, the conductor, states, “I have to think twice before giving in to any suggestion coming from the booth”. The notion that to comply with an instruction “from the booth” constitutes “giving in” reveals much about his perception of the producer’s role. Had there been a producer physically in the room an alternative dynamic could have developed between these two personalities. A persuasive person could have convinced the conductor to use the click track, which would have had a material effect on the outcome.

Keil also states his frustration at the lack of visual contact, due largely to the limitations of Skype which also filters audio to optimize voice and dialogue and minimise musical content, which is clearly not appropriate for a recording session such as this. This information was not known until after the session, and a useful outcome learned here would be to use Skype only for visual information and have a separate high quality communication system for the audio.

A further area of research to be developed from this study is of the process of distributed creativity. Sawyer and DeZutter define the group creative process as “[o]ne that generates a creative product, but one in which no single participant’s contribution determines the result” (2009); and also state that, “We use the term distributed creativity to refer to situations where collaborating groups of individuals collectively generate a shared creative product” (ibid). Sawyer’s earlier work on creative collaboration (2003) describes “group flow” as a balance between “specific extrinsic goals” and “shared structures”, with an excessively structured, predictable framework being too restrictive, and the lack of clear goals being “chaotic and ineffective”. In the session considered here, the absence of a clearly designated and functional producer allowed precisely the conditions to attain a balance between excessive structures and chaos, but although, the participants were able to step up and share the responsibilities where possible and defer where necessary, the result in the end satisfied the commercial aims of António by providing material for his orchestral portfolio, but not the creative aspirations of Kiel, the composer. Future advice learned from this process would be to establish clear roles, especially that of the producer, prior to the session. And, of course, this is just one case study and many more studies are evidently desirable.

Final Conclusions

NOTE: From this point the article is reported in the first person representing the participant observer experience of co-author Isabel Campelo.

Based on my personal experience as session singer for almost thirty years and in that capacity having been present in many different recording sessions, I believe it is fair to say that a certain amount of creativity is distributed among the several actors in these scenarios. Even when there is an appointed producer, physically present in the studio, some personal input is delivered by musicians, singers and, not least, sound engineers, resulting from their interpretation regarding the producer’s indications. Of course, this delivery is dependent on many factors, namely the space allowed by the producer for the participants’ interventions, as well as the willingness for the participants to intervene. When, as noted by Howlett in the previous section, there is an absence of a designated producer, that distribution assumes a greater importance, as evidenced by Lucas when he stated that,

[…] the biggest and most responsible producers are the musicians, because the natural product, which later on is filtered and improved with the help of technology, comes from them. (Lucas: May 2013)

At the time of his answer, this statement did not make as much sense to me as it does now, considering the whole session in retrospect: there was a creative process going on and he considered himself an integral part of it. The “presence” of the “virtual” producer—assuming the apparent contradiction—emphasizes this situation to a larger extent. The whole communication system involving a long distance peripheral performance reinforced that cognitive system’s interaction in terms of the participants physically present in the recording session. In other words, the physical absence of the producer/composer conditioned the process, strengthening the dynamics inside the recording room—as there was always a continuous tension regarding his judgment in New York, more than a city, a symbolic space—and consequently the musical performance resulting from it. The fact that the composer, although in aural communication with the recording session, but having been cut off visual communication from the beginning, felt his role reduced to an “advisory one”, contributed to this strengthening.

It also seems evident, from the case study presented above, in considering the recording studio as a setting where creative groups frequently gather, that the Distributed Creativity approach, being non-reductionist and non-individualistic, may constitute a powerful theoretical tool for recording studio ethnographies.

Regarding the flat ontology proposed by the ANT theory—or method, as there is no unanimity regarding its definition—I believe that the setting described above is a good example for its application. Technology assumes a fundamental role in the associations between the actors involved in this recording session, as I hope to have showed. Even admitting that technology always plays a fundamental part in any recording scenario, in this particular case it is especially important, as it conditioned the type of communication—or the lack of it—that was taking place in the studio. Therefore, only an approach according to which all entities, human and non-human, are put on the same plane could follow the actors closely, considering technology as one of them.

What will be the future of recording sessions? I hope this article will contribute to further debates around this issue. As a final remark, and admitting a generational bias, I would repeat one of Keil’s comments: “In this day and age of instant global communication, we easily forget the power of human proximity. Sometimes, there’s no substitution for just being there” (Keil: December 2013).

Bibliography

Campelo, I. (2012) ‘Central and peripheral performances in a pop-rock live performance’. Paper presented at Performance Interaction, BFE Annual Conference 2012, Durham, 29th March-1st April.

Dudhwala, F. (2009) What is Actor-Network Theory? What are its strengths and limitations as a form of sociological theory? Available at: http://www.academia.edu/542543/What_is_ActorNetwork_Theory?login=icampelo58@gmail.com&email_was_taken=true (Accessed: October 2013)

Howlett, M.  (2012) ‘The Record Producer As Nexus’. In: Journal on the Art of Record Production. 6 [Online]. Available at: http://arpjournal.com/1851/the-record-producer-as-nexus/. (Accessed: August 2013)

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social – An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.

Sawyer, R.K. (2003) Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sawyer, R. K. and DeZutter, S. (2009) ‘Distributed creativity: How collective creations emerge from collaboration.’ In: Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. 3, 2, pp. 81-92, PsycARTICLES, EBSCOhost, viewed 30 August 2013.

Interviews

António, May 2013 (email interview)

João Pedro Castro, April, 2012, Lisbon

Joaquim Monte, September 2012, Lisbon

Joseph, May 2013, Lisbon

Keil, December 2013 (email interview)

Lucas, May 2013 (email interview)

Tiago, May 2023, Lisbon