Don Was: The Desktop Warrior:
Producing Records in "Ancient" and "Modern" Times
By Rick Boggs
Perched high upon the southern face of a canyon, the J. Paul Getty Museum houses ancient artifacts from the earliest civilizations and looks down toward the congested, West Los Angeles concrete jungle. There, at the edge of urban development, lies an oasis of green grass and oak trees surrounding the modern digital recording studio of the renowned record producer, Mr. Don Was. From his work in the late '70s with The B-52s up until the most recent Black Crowes album, this Grammy Award-winning producer's success crosses the threshold between two completely different music-industry eras and includes a body of work as diverse as the radio listening public itself. His work with The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan certainly gets the attention of his baby boomer peers, while rockers half their age appreciate his craft with The Barenaked Ladies, Paul Westerberg, The Black Crowes and Joan Osborne. But each generation might be a little surprised that Don's catalog also includes records from Willie Nelson, Paula Abdul, Johnny Clegg & Savuka, Felix Cavaliere, Garth Brooks, Bette Midler and many, many, more.
I recently had the opportunity to have lunch with Don at a cool little restaurant in the shadow of the Getty Museum. As the owner and operator of my own recording studio, I was interested in hearing Don's thoughts on the ever-changing recording process, the digital revolution and what he really listens for in the grooves. But as the restaurant began to fill with the lunch crowd, I soon realized that there is more to Don Was than meets the eye. Not only does he have music flowing through his veins, but he's also extremely intelligent, well read and a master at the art of living. By the time lunch had evolved into dinner, I had found myself a new rock & roll hero and his name is Don Was.
During the past quarter of a century, the record business has evolved into a new species--and Don Was adapts his career accordingly. His first real success began back in 1988 when his band, Was (Not Was), were splashed over the airwaves with the infectious "Walk The Dinosaur." Back then, songs were recorded on analog tape and record companies were focused on long-term artist development. Today, Was' masterful work feeds a new, hungry record-industry animal that favors digital hard disc recording and short-term, bottom-line management. Adapting to ever-changing recording formats, restructuring and consolidation of record companies and a fragmented, strictly formatted radio market is not always easy, so Don turns to wisdom from Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell for guidance. With his own deeply philosophical perspective, Don explains the challenge of survival as a music producer. "In earlier ages, we became hunters or warriors and would remain so until we died. These days, politicians quit, clergy quit, people get divorced and we may attend many different schools. There is nothing to hang your hat on anymore."
In the same way that the 20th century worker has all but vanished--since we no longer learn a trade and stick with it for 40 years--neither can a record producer in today's music industry stick to the same methods and practices that gained him his fame. Perhaps the most obvious and controversial change in the industry has been the switch from analog to digital recording. The workhorse two-inch 24-track tape machine has given way to the Macintosh computer with 24-bit ProTools software and hardware from DigiDesign. Don reflects on his own professional evolution, "I was an analog holdout. In the last year, it's been very hard for me to hold that old line and say, 'I'm an analog guy.' Yet there is a sound to analog. I don't know anybody but engineers, producers and some musicians who are over 50 who care about it, but you could actually hear the difference. Digital definitely made records thinner sounding. But today, with the better converters and 24-bit ProTools, you can really look an artist in the eye and say, 'The technology is not your problem. Go write a better song.'"
In essence, Don Was overrides his DNA, reprograms his brain pathways and turns to history to understand the future. "For thousands of years we went through some rite of passage to gain our identity and skill, which we kept until we died. Now for record producers, ProTools is that thing. There is a period of months where this thing is totally enigmatic before you finally have it at your fingertips the way a bass guitar is. Once you learn it you cannot unlearn it, and I think that is why people go so crazy for it. It truly is my spear. I guess I'm a desktop warrior."
But how is the digital producer's work different from his analog ancestors? It's definitely more than just pushing a different kind of button. The very size and cost of analog equipment required producers and engineers to work together in a large facility, marking tape and moving faders. Long, tedious hours in that sterile environment, repeating sections of a song over and over, could drive a person right over the edge. "I remember working on one particular record with a well-known person whom I respect very much. We got down to marking tape and so forth to such detail that I actually started to get bored and asked to be released from the project," recalls Was. With digital technology being so affordable and portable, records are now being produced at home, on the beach or even on airplanes. "I was just writing and recording the theme song for this CBS show with Richard Dreyfus with Marcia Gayharden called The Education Of Max Pickford and was literally doing it in bed on a Macintosh G4 Titanium laptop." And to make it even more amazing, Don used the free downloaded version of ProTools, (www.digidesign.com), which offers eight tracks of audio recording. "I can really get mesmerized. Sometimes I am sitting in my house and I know where I live yet I don't know where I am. It's just me and the screen. It's kind of sick."
The feel of working on a record may have changed over the years, but Don Was sees the role of the producer as very much the same today as yesterday. "Every producer has a different interpretation of what his role is," mentions Don. "It has to do with what you enjoy. Guys like Babyface, L.A. Reid, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, they are really the artists, aren't they? They write the songs, play instruments and sing. They are really artists with guest vocalists. That is a perfectly legitimate means of producing a record. But other guys are known for being on the phone the whole session. They may come in and listen and say, 'That bridge sucks!' and that's just as valid. I have my own style. I try to work with people who have a very strong point of view, who have something valid to say and are really articulate storytellers. I try to stay the fuck out of their way. Someone's got to know what the artist's initial vision was and then sort of be a bodyguard. I have to make sure that they don't stray off the path or for that matter, we can stray completely off the path and do something different, but just let them know they are doing it. If people are losing their perspective, I try to think of what they would do if they were disengaged enough to see it objectively. I try to get into their heads and that is fun for me."
The pitfalls involved in producing records are the same today as ever. In the analog studio you had to resist the temptation to record and re-record, forever chasing a better take, while you lose the best take you will ever get. In the digital studio Don says, "You have to be careful not to beat the life out of a song. With ProTools you can always make it a little bit better. It's like the geometry principle that says, 'There is always another point between two points.' It's really tempting to go the extra hour, but the danger is that you beat the life out of it.
"To me, the technology is a neutral color and it's up to artist, producers and engineers to use it responsibly. Sgt. Pepper was the first time that technology became part of the fabric of the music--a musical texture. The Beatles did a beautiful job of it, but thereafter, people missed the point that you still had to write 'A Day In The Life' and 'She's Leaving Home.' Technology alone wouldn't carry it. You've got to keep it in its place, and that's the hardest part."
Another essential survival skill for a producer is to be adept at interpersonal communication. He must create an inspiring atmosphere for the artist and must be able to direct the mixing engineers without offending anyone. Don explains, "A producer has to create an environment in the studio that will inspire the artist to do their best work--and that does not mean putting up Christmas lights and candles. You've really got to listen and pay attention. You can't be reading the newspaper back in the booth or whatever. You've really got to keep your ears open and let them know someone's listening to them and gets it."
Don's diplomacy affords him the chance to work alongside the best engineers in the business. "I work with some really great people. Ed Cherney is as good an engineer as there is in the world. Rick Paconan was Glyn Johns' assistant on the Crosby Stills & Nash album. He's fucking great. So, out of respect, I leave them alone until they think they have something. If you come back in the room and you don't like it, guys don't like to hear you say, 'Pull the faders down and start over. This sucks.'
"Mixing is imaginary architecture. Some guys like Ed Cherney just build really beautiful rooms. It's total illusion. For the most part the artists are never in the same room at the same time. He builds great depth without making the thing sound like it was recorded in the Staples Center. There are two ways to build dimension, really: One is through equalization--where something goes further away by reducing the mid-range--and the other is by building fake walls by using digital delay to create the illusion of sound bouncing off walls."
Not only has technology evolved, but the professional landscape has undergone some cataclysmic tectonic shifts as well. One factor that seems to enable Don to adapt effectively is his total lack of resentment or bitterness about the changing times. "I don't knock anybody who is running a record company now. The record business has changed--it's not about developing careers, it's about making your quarter and having your bonus kick in. That's just the way it's been set up. If I was accountable to shareholders and was head of a record company, I'd do what every one of these guys is doing. That would be my job and I would not want to be fired. So, I don't blame any of them." Don does not necessarily agree with the industry's values today, however. He points out how difficult it is to do anything truly original. "It's really hard to do something different today. Not only that, there is no premium being put on being different. A year ago Leon Russell told me, 'In the '60s, if you turned in a record and someone said, "Wow, that is great, it sounds like so and so," it was like being punched in the face. Today, if you can't go in and say, "It's great, it sounds like a cross between this and that," you are fucked!'"
Optimistic and forward-thinking as Don Was is, he is already preparing for his next metamorphosis that will keep him at the forefront of the record industry. "I'm 48 years old and am part of the largest demographic group in the country. People are selling us brokerage firms, vacations and BMWs, but nobody is marketing music to adults. I'm going to change that. Corporations are built around the 10,000,000-copy-Britney Spears record. They are not tooled up to go out and sell 200,000 Jackson Browne records. But I just made a record with Bette Midler who sold as many tickets on her arena tour as The Stones did--however, she made more money then they did. She doesn't need an extravagant road show and she has a huge group of fans that comes out to see her. There are easily 20 people out there like that who have built an audience over 30 years: Carly Simon, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett, etc. There is a great opportunity as the contracts expire for these artists."
When asked whether the new, strictly formatted radio market influences the way he produces records, Don refers to his recent Black Crowes release, Lions, as an example of his new attitude. "It is a struggle to make something that sounds not so perfect. People work hard to get something that sounds like a band playing live. Yet it is so tempting to just hit that compressor--but you'll lose something in exchange for the gloss. I took the record to Steve Marcason, who is an incredible mastering engineer, and because he was looking out for me he said, 'You know, nobody's records sound like this. People come in here and say, "Make it as loud as you can,'' which translates to, "Compress the shit out of it." And I said, 'Steve, this is the way I want it to sound.' So he stood by me, but it took a couple of hours to convince him I wasn't out of my mind. Hey, the band wanted that and I love the way that record sounds. It's like nothing that's out there today. And if radio needs a different sound, I just let someone else like Tom Lord-Alge mix the single. My attitude now is, 'Do whatever you gotta do to get on the radio, but don't ruin the album.'"
And coming up next, Don will go into the studio with that same sense of freedom as he works on the new Joan Osborne record. "It's going to be a radical departure in a way, but I want her to have a hit single. She's too young not to have a record deal. In the '80, I couldn't get a hit record to save my life and that bothered me then. Now, I think of a quote from Bob Dylan talking about radio and successful records. He said, 'Sometimes it just is not your time. You've just got to ride it out. It comes around. Everything is cyclical.'"
And when it comes to radio airplay, Don has some rather unexpected reasons for hoping for airplay for his records. "I feel responsible. I view the record companies as modern-day Medicis. They are our benefactors. They give us a shitload of money--and even though they usually make it back and break-even a lot sooner than the artist does, I do feel a responsibility to make sure that they get something that they can sell. I also feel responsible to the artist, too. The artist may already have a billion dollars, but he may not be doing it for the money. They're doing it because they want people to hear their work. It's really frustrating to work hard on an album and have it ignored. It's really painful."
Don Was' longevity and success in the music business may be a prime example of natural selection and survival of the fittest, or it may be attributable to his claim that he was one of the few students in his high school class who neglected to learn another trade as a backup. Whatever the explanation, Don has abounded in the good times and endured the bad times. Now he can honestly say, "This is a great business. Even though we tend to listen to the radio now as adults and say, 'Oh turn this fucking shit off.' I remember when I was a teenager, the week that 'Like A Rolling Stone' was No.1, 'They're Coming To Take Me Away' was No. 2. There has always been shit and there has always been genius. The same is true today. There is a lot of great stuff out there. I have got nothing to complain about, I dig my life. It is the life I chose."
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