I am currently reading Make Mine Music by Bruce Swedien. You probably have never heard the name, but you have definitely heard his work. He engineered hundreds of hit records and albums, with his most famous being Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Bruce has worked with Quincy Jones and dozens of other great producers over the last few decades. Unfortunately, Bruce passed away last year, but his work will live on forever.
The reason I bring up his autobiography is that it does not read like other life stories. This isn’t written like a chronological “this is what I did and what happened to me” type of book. Instead, Bruce presented his chapters as anecdotes of his experience in the recording studios that he worked at during his lifetime. He talks about famous artists he engineered, but from the perspective of how he captured their sounds on tape more so than what they were like as people. He has chapters on what equipment he used over the years, like the changes in technology from cutting wax discs to tape machines to digital trends. He talks about the different microphones he has used, what made them unique, and in what situations he put them through.
This is the type of autobiography that I enjoy reading. Someone listening to Jackson’s “Billie Jean” will like the beat, or the storyline or the groove. I, on the other hand, like to go much deeper. I like to know HOW certain sound were captured, why songs were arranged the way they were, and what was going on in the minds of the people behind the studio glass. Bruce does give some perspective of how he got into the business, his parents’ attitude and where he got his training, but he knows that his audience is interested in more in his actual work and how he created it.
Another great book in this vein is Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music by Phil Ramone. The record-buying public may consider Michael Jackson the “King of Pop,” but from a production standpoint, Phil deserved that title. Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Quincy Jones and Elton John are just a few of the superstars that he produced or engineered. He passed away in 2013, leaving behind a list of artists that other producers could only dream of working with. His autobiography has a similar take. Instead of the usual childhood-to-success-story movement, each chapter is its own little story of an anecdote that happened in his musical life. Incidents like running sound for John F Kennedy’s birthday party and setting up the microphone for Marilyn Monroe, or his work with Sinatra. People like me who love the behind-the-scenes stories of the music industry, especially from a production standpoint, tend to love these type of books.
The general music-listening public tend to forget, or are apathetic to, the amount of manpower that goes into recording a hit song. We see the artist standing in front of the microphone belting out a vocal treasure and think that is all that needs to be done. It is the heroes behind that artist that intrigue me the most. That is why I rarely download or stream music. I like to have that album in my had to see the whole story. The writers, producers and engineers, which studios were used, guest musicians, the mastering of the album – all of that is important to a listener like me. Skyscrapers were not designed and built by one person, and neither were million-seller records.
I recommend that, if you are into learning about stories of popular music recordings and basic technology, then snag one or both of these books.
Chew on it and comment.