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Phil Da Costa: Young Musicians V Old Record Producers (Ageism In The Music Industry)

Interview | Music Production (Production Lines)
Published August 1995

Why do mainstream record producers regard young remixers with such suspicion, and why do thrusting young remixers regard producers as such boring old farts? Engineer/producer Phil Da Costa thinks the answer lies in the different approaches to making records held by producers and DJ/remixers alike.

Years ago, kids became interested in making music by picking up an instrument and learning how to play it. Not only were they learning the rudiments of melody, chord structure and composition, but through playing with other musicians, they were learning how to be musicians themselves. They would form bands, play gigs, and maybe even get as far as a record deal, all from the initial desire to play an instrument.

Today's kids, however, have a choice. They can either learn to play an instrument, or with a relatively small outlay they can buy a computer, some sequencing software and a sampler, and learn how to create tracks. By experimenting on computers and DJ decks, they are certainly making music, but they are not learning how to be musicians in the traditional sense, and as a result their compositions can appear to lack a certain musicality.

Maybe a traditional grounding is not needed to make computer‑generated dance music, and if dance producers and remixers are creating music that the public enjoys listening to and wants to buy, who has the right to criticise? One thing that should be considered though, is that there is still a definite role for older producers in the dance market, because their experience is invaluable when it comes to recording 'live' instruments.

There is a definite skill involved when working with singers and instrumentalists. A good producer has to act as an interface between the artist and the tape recorder, and coax/encourage/drag a great performance from that artist. Many of the younger producers who started out at DJs and remixers don't have a strong background in production. They haven't worked their way up through the ranks of tea‑boy, tape‑op, assistant engineer and so on, in a studio where they can learn by watching more experienced people at work. As a result, their general production skills are not as finely tuned as they might be.

Getting a good vocal from an artist is something that really has to be learned through experience, so it's no surprise that when a remixer from a club background is asked to produce a vocalist, they often come unstuck — not because they don't have the talent, but because they have never had the opportunity to learn the relevant skills, and have no experience of this type of recording. Also, in many dance tracks and remixes, vocals are often so oversimplified that they sometimes become nothing more than a repetitive phrase or riff. When a track is remixed, the remixer may change the whole backing track, restructure the vocals, alter the tempo, and even change the key, resulting in the vocals becoming so divorced from the music that the two elements are no longer dependent on each other.

If you want to create a cross‑over hit, you often need a more emotionally stimulating vocal and lyric as well as a great backing track. Record companies now recognise this, and tend to employ separate producers and remixers. They get the more experienced producer to record a good vocal track and then rely on the DJ/remixer, who usually understands the current dance floor trends, to come up with the backing track to launch the record via the clubs into the charts.

There is no moral to all this, but there is a conclusion — a little more understanding and teamwork — something that was advocated by many producers and remixers at the RePro Remixing seminar, held last year. In theory this is a great idea, but in practice the more 'traditional' producer and the remixer/DJ have too little in common for it to work successfully. For the time being at least, dance music will continue to be split between two people in two different studios, producing music in totally different ways, but who are both ultimately working towards the same basic goal — a hit record.

Most recently, Phil Da Costa has been concentrating on his production, remixing, and songwriting career. He has produced singles by Ipso Facto (Debut/Skratch), Jenny Jay (indisc/Arcade) and remixes for Imagination (Berwick St), Conrad (indisc/Arcade) and Jannicke (MD Records, Norway). Latest productions include two tracks on the new Jaki Graham album Real Life (Avex/Pulse 8) and five tracks on the Technoclassix album (Avex). Comfortable working in any style of music as an engineer, producer or remixer, Phil is busy with his latest project — his own 24‑track pre‑production studio.