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Pete Wingfield: What Is A "Classic" Record?

Opinion | Music Production (Production Lines)
Published December 1994

What constitutes a classic record? Why is it that one record still sounds fresh and exciting 20 years after its release, while another seems dated within six months?

According to producer, songwriter and musician Pete Wingfield, the secret lies in keeping the musicianship as real as possible, and not resorting to drum machines and sequencers.I wouldn't want to give the impression that I am against computerisation in music — in fact, there was a time when all the records I made were partially machine‑based. But I do think listeners are getting bored with heavily programmed music, because there is a certain emotive level at which people react, and most of that reaction is engendered by human rather than machine performance. Putting it simply, people respond better to a real drummer than a drum machine, because it is one stage less removed from the person listening.

Now that machine‑made records have been around for over 15 years, it is possible to make judgements about what has stood the test of time and what hasn't. Generally speaking, the machine‑made music of the last decade sounds horribly dated — far more so than music that was recorded earlier. I never thought I'd say this, but even the horrible disco music of the mid‑ to late 1970s sounds fresher, and, in my view, it's all down to the fact that real musicians were used, in real time, and not machines.

Maybe the tide is turning. Take keyboards — you find that people are now far less excited about new keyboards coming onto the market than they once were. I think the recession has had something to do with that — very few people can afford to keep going out and buying the latest model. But I also suspect it's because there's a limit to the number of pad sounds you can get excited about. After a while, most people — me included — got bored with scrolling through hundreds of preset sounds, and ended up using the same five over and over again.

Michael Jackson's Bad album is a perfect example of how that approach can eventually age a record. When Bad was released, it was immediately possible to identify the Roland D50 presets he had used, and although it sounded fine at the time, it quickly became very dated. By contrast, real instruments like guitars and Hammond organs don't date — they stay fresh forever, and that's what makes a good record last beyond the current fashion. The moral is that if you want to make classic records, you have to be real, and not rely too heavily on machines.

Personally, I've gone back to my R&B roots, and deliberately moved away from projects that are heavily machine‑based, because I wanted to avoid the remix scenario — something I find particularly irritating. I think there is a lot of lunacy around when it comes to remixing. Record companies spend more money on remixing than they do on the original production, which is crazy. If all they want is a name that will sell a record, why not employ that person in the first place? Most remixers are musical cuckoos, parasites rather than creators. They can only re‑shuffle and steal, rather than come up with something new. Call me old‑fashioned, but I cling to the quaint belief that the only people who know how a record should sound are the people who originally created it — the band, the producer and in some cases the original A&R man — not some guy who has been thrown at the project for a day to remix it.

The modern view that you can go on tweaking and changing things forever, with no one version more valid than the next, is totally alien to me — I believe that there is a right and wrong way to do something. Production is very specific, and everything is done for a good reason. For example, if you are overdubbing, and you put in a harmony that has a specific relationship to a lead voice, you know why you have done that, because you have an overall vision of how the end result will sound. There is a reason for it, and nothing else can be right. So if some remixer comes along and shoves the harmony up until it's louder than the vocal — well, I'm sorry, but that's not an alternative way of looking at it, it's just wrong.

There have been some awful remixes in recent years. The most criminal were the remixes of classic Motown material, which were enough to make you grind your teeth in horror. Who, in their right mind, wants to re‑touch a Picasso? I think a remix is certainly valid when it's done by the original production team — for instance, Jam and Lewis's 12‑inches were fine. But for the most part, remixing is totally boring and uncreative. Life's too short, and there's too much good original music around to have to listen to one track jigged about in five different ways.

Some producers don't mind having their work endlessly remixed, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. I'd rather work on a project, finish it, deliver it in such a state that it doesn't need remixing, and then move onto something new. In any case, I've been fortunate personally in that over the years my work has hardly been affected by remixing — the hits have tended to be with the original mixes. Furthermore, I try to protect my artists from remixing, by doing projects that are more acoustic‑based. So it's possible to side‑step the issue by only working on non‑dance‑based projects — but it does seem a shame that it has to be an issue at all.

Pete Wingfield is a long‑established record producer, session keyboard player and songwriter — he's been signed as a writer to Island Records since 1974. As producer, he has worked with many famous artists, including Dexy's Midnight Runners, Jools Holland, Hot Chocolate, Alison Moyet, and The James Taylor Quartet. His keyboard skills have adorned hits from bands and artists as varied as The Beautiful South, Beats International, and Terence Trent D'Arby.