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More More More! In Praise of Overproduction

June 22, 2010

Part 1

I get a lot of my ideas in the sauna. I go in there after my workout, which seems to do as much for my brain as my muscles, oxygenating synapses, clearing out some of the fog.  As the temperature passes 180, the heat melts things stuck in my subconscious and they float up into my freshly vacated mind. Or something like that.

A little speaker on the wall pipes in the radio, low. I leave it on or off depending on my mood, and on the station.

The other day it played a song I hadn’t heard in years, “More More More, Howdoya like it ….”  It’s a pretty weak tune, not helped by the singer, who, if she were properly tone-painting, would be belting out the hook. Instead she wisps it out like she’s about to fall over, like rather than wanting more she’d had quite enough in her previous job, which was in adult entertainment.

As the song faded out, one of those random thoughts bubbled up, and had me laughing:. Though it’s a lousy song, it captures perfectly my taste in music production.

The next week, I was pleased to find that I wasn’t alone. My friend John Van Eps was telling me about how he was producing a new album for Chicago. I was impressed, and said,

“You know, I like some of their stuff.”

“It’s overproduced.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Oh, I’m not saying that as a negative. I like that overproduced sound.”  That was the cue for “If you leave me now” to start playing in my head, Peter Cetera’s voice reaching up into its sweet spot on “Whoa, baby please don’t go,” that riff on some ethnic guitar-like instrument complimented by the syncopated horn cadence that follows.

There was always something a little oily about Cetera’s hits, but I couldn’t resist their productions. They gave me the courage to turn my guitar up and play it against a full string section. I found other fat productions in the Carpenters and the Philly Sound. They empowered me to toss in the kitchen sink, along with the fridge and a couple of cabinets.

The Kitchen Sink (by wonderlane via flickr)

Unfortunately for me, most pop music was headed in a very different direction. As in visual art, minimalism had become the rage in music – not just classical, but popular forms from punk to rap to new wave and grunge. I watched people nod their heads, intoning the catechism “less is more” with a note of self-satisfied rectitude I found familiar.  They reminded me of puritans.

I wanted no part of it. The first time I had the chance to record on 16 tracks I couldn’t wait to find things to fill them up with. When I hit 24 tracks, I was in heaven.

As strings and horns steadily disappeared from the radio, I looked elsewhere for the big sound. And found it. Nothing is fatter than a symphony orchestra, and the later the fatter. Give me Bruckner, with 15 brass, including 8 french horns. Or Saint Saens, whose organ symphony features triple woodwinds and brass plus a four-handed piano for just a few brilliant measures of arpeggios.

Though I tend to avoid 20th century classical music, I was blown away when I heard the BSO perform Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” last summer at Tanglewood. I was lucky enough to be sitting front and center in the 13th row.  Before the show, the musicians, who usually lazily warm up, were furiously practicing their parts. And no wonder. The piece pushes everything to the limit. I counted at least ten percussionists. It was like having a musical hurricane blowing in my face for 45 minutes. And it was loud, even to these ears, which are half deafened by years of standing next to a drummer’s crash cymbal.

After hearing enough orchestral music, the 24 track at the studio where I was a producer no longer satisfied my hunger.  In 1985, I talked the Digital Equipment Corporation (who by odd coincidence had their offices in Maynard, MA, right across the street from that studio where I’d long worked at fat productions) into hiring a small orchestra. I enlisted a copyist to help prepare the parts. He came to my house, shaking his head, “You’re overwriting this stuff. You don’t have to do this much work.”  He shuffled through the pages, pointing to elaborate doublings and tuttis (in which all instruments play together) that filled up the page. I suspected he might just be lazy and not want to copy all those notes. I remembered Mozart. Someone had infamously complained that he wrote too many notes. (“And which ones would you have me take out?” He rejoined.)

Still, I thought, maybe he was right.  Fortunately, it turned out, he wasn’t.  My score was a hit at Digital, and then became reborn as some of the more popular library music of the 80’s. So again, I wasn’t alone in liking a fat sound.

I sometimes wonder, why my unsatisfiable hunger for more in music? Was I deprived of toys as a kid? Did I eat too few cheeseburgers in my dietary ascetic 20’s? Did I have too few girlfriends in High School? (Ain’t sayin’, read my memoir.) I definitely sense that there’s a large hole in me that I need to stuff big music into. And it works. And I guess it’s healthier than booze or overeating.

  1. Ok, I’ll go along with you…up to a point and then I’ll be off to listen to simple piano or guitar based stuff. Actually, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’ is by far my most loved orchestral piece and it cannot exist without the huge orchestra it requires. Somehow a chamber version just wouldn’t cut it.

    Also, Brian Wilson’s orchestral stylings in the pop world are a necessary part of his art and I wouldn’t argue there either but sometimes bands just need to shut up and listen to themselves. Then they need to go away and listen to bands like Garbage who know when to push and when to hold back. Shirley Manson must be the quiestest singer in a rock band yet the effect is dazzling. Sometimes less is more…but not all the time.

  2. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing though. David Foster is an example of a producer who knows how to over-produce and make it work– Chicago 16, 17, and 18 are all cases in point (as is Bill Champlin’s Runaway album).

    On the flip-side, Chicago went with Jay DeMarcus from Rascal Flatts to produce Chicago XXX. He out-Fostered David Foster with his overproduction. Chicago XXX was so overproduced it was completely sterile. He produced it to the point that there was no emotion and no soul left on the album whatsoever. He also totally botched the order of songs… All of the ballads are within the first 5-6 tracks and all of the meaty uptempo stuff is in the last 7-12 tracks. It basically ensures that the listener is in a coma before he/she gets a chance to hear anything that could even loosely be described as “up-tempo.”

    • My “praise” of overproduction is a little tongue-in-cheek. Obviously what we want is the porridge that’s just right. If the song’s bad, it’s still bad no matter how you dress it up.
      For all my musical gluttony, I like nothing better than Glenn Gould playing Bach by himself (though he can make it sound like several pianists playing at once.)
      There’s also the fact that when I was a producer and punk and new wave came in I was out of work as an arranger.
      Perplexio – I love David Foster’s overproduced work. What you’re referring to with that DeMarkus cat is another thing in my book: the overpolished, overdone, lifeless production, which is hateable. Kind of like the difference between a good Baroque painting and one which has been worked to death.

  3. I hope Van Eps does a better job working with Chicago than DeMarcus did. I look forward to hearing the fruits of his labors.

  4. One kind of overproduction that deserves its bad name is the singer-songwriter who plays reasonably interesting guitar; if she (Shawn Colvin, I’m looking at you) moves up to a fancier label, they often insist on adding a bass player and a drummer, and totally mucking the whole thing up so they can sell it as Pop. Or something.

  5. For me it all depends on the type of over-production. Sometimes it just sounds like bombast. Other times it’s appropriate. Most -prog rockers new how to use it. IMHO the 80s version of Chicago didn’t. Their later music was bombast only, no substance but I know a lot of people like it.

  6. I love BOTH bloated, seemingly endless layers of stuff, AND, THE SEX PISTOLS!

    • Well Krishna, now you will have to finally introduce me properly to punk music. (If anyone can, you can.)

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