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John Leckie: Record Producer? You're Lucky!

Opinion | Music Production (Production Lines)
Published October 1994

There are very few people who can make a living doing a job that they really enjoy. Producer John Leckie feels he is one of the lucky ones — and that's why it irritates him when people he works with in the studio don't realise how lucky they are. He explains why he thinks that artists, engineers and producers should all count their blessings...

Every time a producer or engineer goes into a studio with a band they have an opportunity that very few other people get — they can literally make magic. And I think people who work in recording studios should remember that we are all extraordinarily lucky — we certainly shouldn't be taking it for granted.

Producers and engineers have so much technology at their fingertips that it is sometimes easy to become blasé. Every day we walk into rooms equipped with incredible state‑of‑the‑art technology. We might have an SSL console, a tape machine that's worth at least £20,000 and microphones worth £5,000, and we sling them about as though they were worthless. Then we create sounds which we bung through a black box that costs £10,000 and we think nothing of it. But all these pieces of equipment are like magicians' tools — and we should remember how privileged we are to be able to use them.

When I first started working in this business, I was awe‑struck by the big loudspeakers and the big sounds coming through them. I thought it was fantastic that it was possible to do so much, and as technology moves on and we can do more and more with sound, that sense of amazement has never left me. I love what I do and that's why I get so annoyed with people who have a lethargic attitude to recording. People who work in studios should realise that every moment counts and that all the time spent in the studio should be cherished and made use of.

Of course, not everyone deserves to be criticised. A lot of people feel just the same as me — they know how lucky they are to work in this business and they do make the most of all the opportunities. But there are some who have forgotten that it is a privilege. To them, I would say that there is no other job that allows you to make magic and create illusion to this extent. Maybe one could draw a parallel with film and TV, but it's not as intimate as recording. When you're in a studio, you're dealing with emotions, because you're recording the emotions of the performer and exposing them to the listener. If you have the right attitude you get a far better performance from the band. We should all remember that recording is a creative process and by working in a studio equipped with the best that technology can offer we have the opportunity to create something very special.

Most bands these days have some home recording equipment, so perhaps that's why they don't feel so astonished by what can be done in a professional studio. This means that they are a lot more knowledgeable, but this can also be a problem, because they're expected to perform so many different roles.

When the Beatles recorded their early albums, they were not even allowed in the control room — and they certainly were not allowed to touch the equipment. These days a lot of bands know almost as much as the producer, and in some cases you can virtually let them do the whole thing. But I don't see why we should expect all bands to have the ability to produce as well — they have enough to do as it is; they have to be the song writers, the singers, the musicians, the video artists, the marketing guys and even the philosophers, when it comes to interviews and projecting their image. I think that in the studio, at least, they ought to be able to sit back and let the producer and engineer look after the recording. I personally don't see anything wrong with an artist who only sings — but record companies expect a lot from their signings, and that does make it harder for them.

It would certainly do no harm for people to remember that recording ought to be enjoyable. If you are working on a long project it can get tiring and frustrating, but you also have an opportunity to build up an intimate relationship and have some fun in the process. If you can do that, you end up with a much better result. There are times when I've looked back on a long project and realised that, for whatever reason, we missed out on opportunities because we couldn't keep a long‑term perspective.

Another point that's worth remembering is how important it is for bands to play live. I've just finished working with Radiohead — a band that does know the importance of live work — and it was amazing how much difference it made to the recording session. We started recording in March, then they took a break and went on tour and played the songs we had already recorded in front of an audience. When we got back into the studio we ended up re‑recording them and found that songs that had taken three or four days to get down were now taking a matter of hours. We were literally doing three or four songs in an afternoon because they could play them so well and because they knew where the magic came from. When they were in the studio they could remember how the audience responded when they played live and were able to capture that feeling on tape.

Technology has theoretically speeded up the recording process, but it has also made it possible to spend weeks looking for the exact sound you want. I don't mind that, provided the session remains fun rather than frustrating — in fact I'd like to have a go at a project that was heavily programmed, because most of the work I do tends to be with 'live' bands.

I've been doing this job for years, but whenever I go into a studio I still feel that I am enormously lucky to be able to do what I enjoy, with so much freedom to do what I want. And if you want to produce good music, enjoyment is the key.

John Leckie's list of production credits reads like a Who's Who of modern music, including George Harrison, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Marc Bolan, Pink Floyd, Bill Nelson, Simple Minds, XTC, Magazine, The Fall, Verve, Ride and The Stone Roses. His latest project is the Radiohead album mentioned here, which is scheduled to be completed around now.