The Road to Becoming a Record Producer
I’ve had amazing mentors in my life. Steve Gronback was one of the first of a long line. Steve introduced me to the world of the recording studio when I was 18 years old and I wanted to record a legitimate album. I traded off with labor helping Steve build TGS Studios bartering for his production skills and studio time to make that dream happen with my debut album “Both Sides of the Shore” for Moon Light Records, an independent imprint for Warner Bros. TGS was the premier 24-track studio in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill region for years to come recording projects for many national acts like Mike Cross and The Red Clay Ramblers.
I left the area in 1981 and moved to Nashville to build Nashville Sound with John Loudermilk Jr. Nashville Sound became an instant hit with many acts in Nashville. Steven Durr designed the room acoustics and the studio had state of the art equipment using the much sought after MR 2 Harrison Console with an A-800 MKIII 24 track Studer and a Studer A-80 half-inch analog machine to mix down to. The studio was picked by Chet Atkins to be used for the RCA master series recordings so here we were a couple of kids from North Carolina working with acts like Chet and Jerry Reed. It was an amazing time to learn the art of recording and production.
My next participation in studio construction was Treasure Isle in Berry Hill, which is considered by many to be Music Row B. The room was twice as big and eventually where I brought Sting to record a duet with Waylon Jennings, more about that later. The gear was pretty much the same with the exception that Treasure Isle had a Trident B series console out of London. I love these warm consoles, very straightforward and discreet.
During this period I was being coached and mentored by Nashville’s best audio engineers and producers, Ron “Snake” Reynolds, Blake Mevis, Mike Bradley to name a few. You don’t earn a certificate or diploma moving up through the ranks as I did so you don’t really know what you know; I always felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants. Most of the house engineers loathed doing work-tape recordings for the many songwriters coming through the door so I started engineering simple recording projects, usually guitar vocals with maybe a keyboard. Without a doubt that was where my production hat found my head. I’d recorded my own album complete with a 5-piece band, plus real strings scored and conducted by Don Dixon of REM fame, so I had experience with a large production, but learning on the fly how to create the best sound for the buck was an invaluable experience for the things to come in my career. I learned how to create the most production value for the aspiring artists and songwriters coming through the doors looking for a big sound with a tiny budget.
My whole world in my early days in Nashville was writing and recording and playing gigs. There was very little money coming in and to this day the smell of tuna fish is both nostalgic and nauseating at the same time! There wasn’t much structure or any fast and hard rules on how to succeed in Nashville so you grabbed hold of what was offered. I work so many facets of the industry that I don’t recall all the jobs I held at one time or another. My main goal then was to get a record deal with a major label.
I finally had contracts being drawn up for a deal with what was then CBS Records when out of the blue Sony bought them and all deals on the table were off. I was back to square one with the exception that I was offered a staff writing deal with my mentor and the former president of CBS Records Rick Blackburn, the one who was intent on signing me to CBS. The publishing company was Venture Harbor and that’s where I learned to write a real song. We had a staff of 15 or so writers and we wrote solo or with each other day and night like our hair were on fire.
Eventually Blackburn was to head up the new Atlantic Records Nashville Division and rather than give me an artist deal, which I desperately wanted, Rick encouraged me to come on board as the chief of Artist and Repertoire (A&R.) This was a life changer. I had immediate access to a multi-million dollar budget and the power to sign acts. I signed John Michael Montgomery and produced his debut, multiplatinum CD “Life’s A Dance,” next came Neal McCoy, Tracy Lawrence and Michael Johnson. This is where all that time spent in the studio payed off. It felt like I was a natural but in reality I had so much experience that it just felt easy. Today you can go to a number of well-respected colleges and universities and get a degree in music business, production, etc. Atlantic gave me a million dollar education in the studio. It felt like lived in the studios for 4 straight years.
After my stint in the major label arena I stepped back into my love of songwriting and partnered with Miles Copeland to open Bugle Publishing Group. I once again had a sturdy budget and knew a number of great songwriters that needed a home. Once again I was in a position to sign great writers but also great artist for Miles’s management company Firstars where the Police had been managed and Sting was managed at the time.
I brought Keith Urban to Firstars Management for Miles and Anastasia Brown to manage. I took Keith and his trio “The Ranch” into the studio and for the next three years we shook out all the songs Keith was writing with my staff songwriters. It was an amazing time in Nashville and Keith was one of the best up and comers. What a privilege it was to produce Keith during that period. We landed his first record deal, which was on Warner Bros. Keith would move to Capitol Records before releasing his debut Nashville record. Keith was off and running at that point, I’m very proud to have been a part of his career launch.
Another artist of note that I helped unfold was Paul Thorn. One of my favorite production projects was producing “Hammer and Nail” with Billy Maddox and Greg Wells on Paul. We landed Paul on A&M Records out of L.A. Paul has gone on to build an amazing cult following and records for his own label Perpetual Obscurity Records.
The Nuts and Bolts of Recording:
I’ve established a formula for approaching the studio that sets out a road map for tracking day and for vocals, back ground vocals, overdubs and mixing and even mastering. Because of my history and reputation in Nashville I can call on the best of the best musicians, engineers and studios. Of course this is a huge bonus for my clients and the only way I choose to work. Why do it any differently when I can use the same teams used by the current biggest selling artist. In the end it saves time and money for the client and the end result is always a world-class product. My method is to be prepared by honing the songs before they get charted and knowing what the tempo, the best keys for the artist are a must for the sake of time in the studio. The studio is not the place to experiment unless you’ve got a huge budget!