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Pete Brown: Production Lines

Interview | Music Production
Published March 1995

Pete Brown describes himself as an old‑fashioned producer who prefers to let his engineer handle the technical side while he concentrates on the music and lyrics. Over the last 30 years he has also been a first‑rate musician and songwriter — he wrote many of Cream's original lyrics, including 'Sunshine of Your Love', recently credited with one million plays. Here he talks about production from the perspective of a veteran Jack Of All Trades.

The British music business has become a fly‑by‑night operation, latching on to the latest trend without really paying attention to artist development. It's a "take the money and run attitude", which is why I feel record companies keep signing people who have very little talent.

Artist development is a slow business, and in many ways the Americans are much better at it than we are. It is as though they have taken our traditions and made them their own. They take a broader view of the music they make, and in many ways that's what we should be doing. The British have become very parochial, which is something we ought to be trying to change.

As a producer, you're halfway between being an artist and a businessman. You have to be aware of your responsibilities to the musician and his creativity, but you also have to be aware of your responsibilities to the record company who wants music that will sell. From my point of view, I love good music and I want to work with good artists. I'm not selfless because obviously I need to earn a living, but the kind of music I produce — Jazz and Blues, mainly — doesn't tend to make big bucks. I prefer to concentrate on producing quality music because I think that if you create something of lasting value it will sell. When you produce Blues and Jazz, you can't get away with recording rubbish, as the people who like that type of music tend to be very discerning. The atmosphere you create in the studio comes over in the recording and is picked up by the people who hear it.

There's a lot of emphasis these days on using synthesizers and drum machines, which is something I hate. If you're working with a great musician who has a unique sound, you shouldn't mess around with that sound by mixing in a lot of electronics. If you do, you take the risk of making the original sound unrecognisable. I think there are too many producers around who have an engineering rather than a musical background. Of course, there are some projects where this type of producer is the best man for the job, but in general it worries me that too much emphasis is placed on the technical side of production rather than on the creative side. I do use modern technology, but I try not to drown in it or use it to create gimmicky sounds. I believe good production is really about capturing a great performance by recording it well and mixing it carefully. I prefer to concentrate on the arrangements, lyrics, performance and grooves rather than playing with the equipment.

As a producer, one thing I have found is that the better a musician the performer is, the more he or she will listen to what you have to say. Good musicians recognise the importance of a producer and they want you there for your objectivity. You are the sounding board for their ideas and because you can be more objective than they can, you are able to point out ways in which their work can be improved.

Producers need musical ability so that they understand the structure of the songs they are recording. These days, there are too many producers who prefer to work with machines rather than with people. Given the insecurity of some rock stars, perhaps that's understandable — there is a true story (which typifies the current rock and roll star) about a very well known singer, who had better remain nameless, who came into the studio wearing a balaclava, which he refused to take off even though he was recording a vocal. That kind of behaviour is stupid and it's one of the reasons why I don't actively seek out rock jobs. People like that are a pain in the backside, but even so, I still believe that no matter how difficult the job can be, there is nothing more satisfying than getting someone to give a great performance and capturing that performance on tape.

Pete Brown is a veteran of the British music indistry; recent projects include a Duffy Powell album for Magmasters, a Sunset Heights album for Viceroy, and various Dick Heckstall‑Smith albums. He is currently working with Peter Green on the Songbook Project for Viceroy, which will feature guest appearances from Ian Anderson, John Mayall, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood.