Producer Gil Norton has often come up recently in a variety of places. First, there are lengthy interviews with the man in Fool the World:The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies as he produced the Pixies' three albums for Elektra. Then, he's the one that produced some of my favorite tracks by Feeder (especially ones from their fourth album, Comfort in Sound). Plus, he produced probably the best Counting Crows record to date, Recovering the Satellites (an album I'm just now beginning to understand its brilliance). Lastly, he produced How We Operate, the fantastic new record by Gomez. So, what's the scoop on this guy?
Norton's name was first brought to my attention back when I listened to Modern Rock Live, a syndicated radio show that aired on Sunday nights. One particular show that stood out for me was when the Foo Fighters were on. They were promoting their new record at the time (The Colour and the Shape) and Norton's name was brought up since he produced it. Dave Grohl said he wanted to work with Norton because of his work on Trompe Le Monde, the final Pixies record. Saying the record was "the most accessible" and curious about the Pixies in general, I decided to pick up Trompe Le Monde per Grohl's word.
What's crazy is that Norton's work with a variety of bands (from Echo & the Bunnymen to Dashboard Confessional) is some of the best "produced" stuff I've heard that doesn't sound zapped of life. What I've found with Norton' work is that his projects consistently yield great stuff. But what exactly does a producer do? Even after all these years of following music, I'm still not sure.
From what I know, producers are guides for a band or artist. They coach, cheerlead and hound them to get the best possible results. I've heard stories of producers being jerks and not getting along with the band, but I've also heard stories where the producer essentially becomes a welcome member of the band while in the studio. There is no magic formula that producers follow, but there is definitely a sound that is hard to describe that gets attached to producers.
In the case of somebody like Mark Trombino, his drum sound is one of his calling cards. The drum sound on Jimmy Eat World's Clarity is probably the best I've ever heard. Wide, but not over-bearing, the sound of Zach Lind's drums feel so natural and not glossed over. Trombino has delivered some great sounding records that are slicked up but not devoid of spunk. Some of his best examples are Drive Like Jehu's Yank Crime, blink-182's Dude Ranch and all of his work with Jimmy Eat World.
With Gil Norton (and speaking of Jimmy Eat World), he was brought in to work with the band after they parted ways with Trombino for what would become '04's Futures. Norton could get some great sounds, especially with the drums, and did a fantastic job with the album. Definitely not the sound of processed cheese, Norton's work (even on Dashboard Confessional's A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar) elevates this stuff beyond the average mall punk sound.
Looking on his website, I'm pleased to know that Norton's latest work includes Other People's Problems by the Upper Room, a record I look forward to hearing. This stuff isn't the kind of music you'll hear on Top 40 radio or TV in America, but you'll definitely hear it in England. For me, that's perfectly fine because there are so many examples of production making artists sound like robots.
Though people think pitch-correcting (via the use of Auto-Tune) is a new thing, it is not. Singers' wrong notes have been smoothed out for years, but not until the last ten years has the practice gotten out of hand. Coupled with a vocoder, more pop singers have been sounding like robots (ie, the pitch remains the same and never wavers). From Cher to Faith Hill to Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, the mechanical-sounding pitch correction is a touch that's become an epidemic. I guess this comes with the territory: the more certain people claim to have no problem with singers sounding like robots, the more other people will be turned off and seek denser music.
For me, I like hearing a good sounding record that has life to it. I'm talking little nuances (from slight melody variation to flavorful drumming) along with the big nuances (songs that strike a deep chord with the listener). Producers like Gil Norton, Mark Trombino, Stephen Street, Ethan Johns, John Agnello and J. Robbins all have their various sounds, but the bands they produce on record often sound like they actually sound in a live setting. In other words, if one of these guys produced Def Leppard, you'd realize that the band doesn't really sound all that big when they play live as compared to their recorded work with "Mutt" Lange.
There's a big line between coloring up a band's sound and depleting the feel for the sake of the lowest common denominator. Depending on the artist, this works fine for them. I like stuff like Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," Hall and Oates' "Do It For Love" and Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" because there's a lot of bang in the melody department over the rhythm department. These are rarities as so much mainstream music places a bigger emphasis on the beats over the melodies. In a lot of cases with mainstream R&B and rap, I can barely hear the melodies over the beats. Sure, that stuff sounds good on a club's PA system when you're dancing, but what's really there to dig in when you're listening to the record by yourself at home?
The production of a record is a major factor to the life of the record (whether it's listening to the album once or many times over many years). While I can tolerate the tape recording hiss of early Centro-matic and Guided By Voices material in small portions, I prefer to hear a good-sounding recording. Whether it's produced to a T or not, if I'm feeling something good from what I'm hearing, I'm happy.