Walter Becker

Record production incorporates a huge range of styles, from hands-off diplomacy to megalomaniacal control and everything in between. Approaches from across the spectrum have led to highly successful results and in this sense there is no correct way to make a record.

The production of Steely Dan’s records embodied a particularly distinctive configuration of personal input. Unassuming producer Gary Katz applied his great taste to the band’s arrangements by recommending particular session musicians and musical 'feels'. At the same time Katz also granted the fastidious Donald Fagen and Walter Becker complete free reign when it came to recording actual takes.

Steely Dan Can't Buy A Thrill Recording Studio Session 1972

And on this front there were many. Prolific musicians who guested on various Steely Dan tracks report an almost masochistic approach to perfection during sessions, slaving through dozens of takes, well into the small hours. Sometimes players were hired just to assist the feel of another player’s take without using their performance on the final master. Other times players were hired and fired with minimal explanation.

The irony of the effortless West Coast style epitomised by albums like Aja is that it was the product of an exceptionally meticulous approach in the studio. This is not to say the results were clinical; there was no finer connoisseur of soulful r’n’b than Becker. His unexpected and unexplained death aged 67 robs us of a great American musician. 

Rudy Van Gelder

In many ways Rudy Van Gelder, the New Jersey-based jazz recording engineer who died on 25 August aged 91, was an anomaly. There aren't many veterans of the recording industry with a similarly impressive list of credits who would claim not to listen to the music because they're focusing on the sound of a session. Marc Myers writes, "he never developed much of a passion for the music, despite being an ear-witness to some of jazz greatest studio performances. Rudy simply didn't have the time to become a pure fan given how much he had to get right with the studio's technology on his sessions. As Rudy put it, he didn't have the luxury of listening for enjoyment."

In a 2012 interview with Myers, Gelder admitted "When I'd see photos of jazz musicians recording or performing, I found myself looking at the mikes, not them." Having recorded seminal LPs by Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, to name a few, one would hope for more of an insight into the sessions. Yet Gelder's recollection of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which he engineered in 1964, was that "The session was hypnotic, exciting and different. But I didn't realize that until I remastered the tapes many years later."

Rudy Van Gelder mixing desk

Other producers and engineers, particularly from Gelder's generation, rarely claim to put anything other than the music at the top of their priority list. Whether he truly heard things differently or was simply being more honest than his peers, Gelder's recording philosophy is refreshing. 

He also took an unusual route into the industry. An optometrist by trade and a notoriously reticent character, Gelder famously twilighted on a home recording setup in his parents' Hackensack living room. As more and more artists of repute went to work with him, these sessions gradually took over his daytime until he was working full time for labels like Blue Note, Prestige and Vox Records. Whereas most practitioners would learn their craft through studio-based apprenticeships – watching their mentors operate tape machines, consoles and disc cutters and working as part of a sizeable in-house team – Van Gelder began his recording education in solitude, reading much of the domestic recording literature aimed at the amateur market.

There is a fastidious sound to his records, much as if he approached each instrument one by one. His mic placement on the rhythm section gives an impressively crisp sound, partly due to the relatively dry acoustic, but perhaps it also bypasses the sounds that invariably emanated from between the players in the room. If it's an acclaimed sound that defined much of what postwar jazz is thought to be, then it's an acquired taste too. 


Van Gelder's personality traits, along with his unique career progression, led to the saddest tragedy of all  the fact he resisted all interview questions about technique and ultimately took the majority of his recording secrets to the grave.

Sir George

George Martin's career spanned an incredible diversity of musical genres from baroque, light classical, comedy, children's and novelty records, to pop, rock, psychedelia, trad jazz, jazz fusion and numerous other crossover styles. It's easy to forget this when remembering his role as the 'fifth Beatle'. His pre-1962 work at EMI's Parlophone is the subject of a part-time Edison Fellowship I will be taking up at the British Library in September. There are unexplored musical connections that take root during Martin's training at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and continue into his work producing the English Baroque Orchestra, Bernard Cribbins and others. More to follow...

George Martin Peter Sellers Sophia Loren Abbey Road Studios EMI Parlophone

Producing EWF

Not only did Maurice White sing and write for Earth, Wind & Fire, he also produced most of their records. A drummer himself, White valued the band's ability to groove live in the studio and nowhere is this more evident than on "Jupiter" (1977). At a time when session musicians were increasingly being asked to play to a click track, and digital samplers were being developed by Fairlight, Linn and others, the performance on this record is testimony to the importance of human feel. Compare the BPM at the beginning and end of the track for a masterclass in natural acceleration:


Fast forward to the 2010s and software companies are returning to this idea. A sophisticated tempo detection algorithm in Celemony's Melodyne 4, for example, means the "click keeps time with the musicians, not the other way around". Personally I've never been a fan of metronomes, and technological advances like this seem the best way to continue White's legacy into the twenty-first century.

Starman, Waiting in the Sky

Shel Talmy produced some of David Bowie's earliest records. Looking back, Talmy said "the only problem with what I recorded [in 1965] is that it was about six years ahead of the market." When Bowie 'retired' onstage as Ziggy Stardust in 1973, his band were shocked by the premature announcement. In a sense, Bowie was always one step ahead of his audience, and his death leaves the world catching up...