Learning the Art of Production from the Great Roy Cicala
BY JOHN HANTI with Steven Acker
When you put too much of yourself into a production, it becomes your production and your music, not the artist’s. This is what I learned about the art of production from Record Plant engineer and producer Roy Cicala early in my career. I learned to trust the musicians.
When I first stepped inside the Record Plant in New York in 1971 as an eager young rocker from Sharon, PA, John Lennon was there. Roy was producing him. I didn’t meet Roy or John that day but just knowing how close I had come fired up my ambition. Seven years later, I returned with a band signed by Roy to his record label. When the band broke up, Roy took me under his wing. For the rest of his life, he served as my Yoda.
In this article. I will relate just a few of the lessons I learned about the Art of Production from one of the greatest producers and engineers who ever made a record.
Just as an orchestra conductor waves a baton, so does a good record producer wave a metaphorical flashlight. A producer illuminates hidden corners within the music. He points his flashlight and says, “The part you’re looking for is over there somewhere. Go find it.” You give the artists just enough direction to get started. You light the way to that corner and let the artists themselves find the musical treasure concealed in the darkness.
“Atmosphere” is a term Roy used often, as do I. Atmosphere is the vibe of the record. A record will grow naturally if you let it. When you put great musicians together in the studio and illuminate those dark corners, you can be reasonably certain that they will produce a chemical reaction--a radioactive isotope that is electrifying and surprising.
It’s going to be real, it's going to be valid, it's going to have atmosphere.
Another producer I was once fortunate to work with, Grammy winner Kevin Killen (Peter Gabriel) told me something I never forgot. “The secret of a great recording,” he said, “is to ensure that the music is “in-tune, in-time, with feeling.” Capturing the right feel and the right atmosphere was, to him, the essence of production. Getting the musicians to play in tune, in time, and with feeling is an art in and of itself.
Before every session I did with Roy, he would give the musicians time to get comfortable, to relax, and to become secure and confident with the music of the day. As a producer myself, I continue to practice that process.
Software has created an environment that lets records be made more efficiently, cheaply, and quickly, without demanding perfection from the artists. It has allowed young producers who know how to use plugins to make records without knowing how to use their flashlights.
For years when I was younger and didn't really understand what was going on, I felt that some recording engineers purposely confounded engineering for the rest of us as a mountain too high to climb. “Don’t bother me with that question, kid. You'll never understand.” Engineering was their domain. Now it’s anyone’s domain.
Roy Cicala wasn’t like that at all. He was generous with his knowledge. Digital technology didn’t exist when he started teaching me. As technology advanced, so did he and so did I. But I am still conflicted. Roy taught me that a producer’s primary purpose is to help the artists actualize their music, to help them articulate their own sound and to capture it on tape…or hard drive, as it later came to be. That is the part of production that many young producers don’t get.
Another production ideal Roy strove for was the luxury of time. Roy hated being under the pressure of the clock, and so do I. I hate knowing that every minute that ticks by is another $5 and that the guy funding the session is sitting on my shoulder, watch in hand, counting the minutes and counting his money.
Art takes time. Art costs money. That is a reality. But when making money is the sole purpose of making art, it becomes the enemy of art. Making money should be merely a happy by-product of creating something extraordinary. For me, art has always come first. Putting money before art is not conducive to creating art, and sessions that are rushed to stay under budget are not conducive to making hits.
A producer must possess the ability to move the session along and to know when it’s not working. The vibe’s not right or the song’s not right or the drummer’s not getting the groove right. That’s when a good producer stops the session and says, “Let’s try something else.”
Again, it’s the artist’s record. The players need to feel that it’s their talent and their hearts going into it, not mine or anyone else’s. Roy Cicala had a wonderful way of handling these situations. He was sensitive to the artists’ feelings.
A typical scenario: A dozen takes and the bass player still isn’t in the pocket. Roy calls it a night and sends the band home. He calls in a heavy hitter who comes and lays it down in minutes. The next day, the band troops in. Roy cues the tape and says “We must have been kickin’ last night. I was wrong. I'm sorry I sent you home with a bad vibe. I was real tired last night; it sounds so much better to me today." There were times, though, when more dramatic measures were called for and at those times he took fell back on a lesson learned from legendary madman, Phil Spector.
Spector had a nasty habit of brandishing big guns in the middle of sessions and frequently firing them into the ceiling, terrifying the artists in the rooms. Roy, too, was not above using guns for effect. Lose your focus, go off-track, push Roy's patience to the limit, and he to a production technique seldom taught in today's recording schools. He would crank up the volume of the echo chamber channel and silently stroll out of the room into the chamber itself. He would then fire his gun into wadded-up socks mounted on its walls solely or that purpose.
The sudden shock within the control room of that massive explosion would knock unsuspecting musicians right off their seats. Oh yea, they got the message, and the message was “Roy is not happy.”
Roy had his ways. Madman or genius? It’s always a thin line.
A producer is only as good as the engineer he works with. There have been many great producer/engineer teams. Some endured for decades. It’s like a perfect marriage. Once you hook up, you never break up. Jack Douglas and Jay Messina, Quincy Jones, and Bruce Swedien. George Martin and Geoff Emerick. These are teams that have learned to trust each other.
Martin and Emerick were as important to the Beatles’ mid-60s sound as the Beatles were themselves—a groundbreaking production team. Emerick once broke an Abbey Road cardinal rule: never, ever place a microphone where the capsule might get damaged. Emerick tossed that rule out the window. He put a mic inside Ringo’s kick drum! He broke the rules of engineering. He redefined what you could do with the equipment and how hard you could push it. He shattered the old rules forever. Of course, he had that luxury because the Beatles had the clout…and the money.
Innovation is the common characteristic of great producers and engineers: Phil Ramone, Roy Cicala, George Martin, Geoff Emerick. Tony Visconti, Eddie Kramer, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Tom Dowd, Ken Scott. They were all innovative. They all broke new ground.
Let’s talk about black boxes. Roy was one of the few guys who knew how the black boxes worked and what made them do what they did. “If I take this black box,” he would imagine, “and hook it up to that black box and take that black box and modify it, I'll get this sound and that delay, this echo and that reverb, this compressor and that limiter,” and it would work! Most engineers had no idea how they really worked. Roy knew. Roy knew how everything worked.
To put Roy’s concepts into a modern context, it was software morphing before software. Sound over sound over sound to create new sounds. Roy and other engineers like him, created groundbreaking techniques because they understood the essence of engineering.
Abbey Road engineers wore lab coats in the studio because they were science guys as much as audio guys. They designed the Black Boxes. They knew what worked and what the boxes were supposed to do. Flanging, phasing--Itchycoo Park, Are Your Experienced, Revolver—those engineers invented all those wild new sounds. Decades before digital, they morphed analog sounds with their black boxes to produce the sounds of tomorrow. They broke the rules of engineering and today, their innovations are the rules.
Roy is the only guy I ever saw who could guide a musician into playing the part Roy was looking for with the headphone mix alone. He could channel a guitarist, for example, into playing the riff he wanted by taking certain parts out of the headphone mix to leave just the right hole to play just the right part at the just right moment. It was amazing! He could produce by manipulating the headphone mixes…without even speaking!
It wasn’t rocket science, but it was genius.
In 2012, I took a New York artist to Roy’s studio in Brazil. It was one of the last projects of his career. My Yoda succumbed to cancer on January 22, 2014
I have now passed the flashlight on to a brilliant young engineer named Billy Perez. Billy runs our studio at SST in Weehawken, NJ—IIWII Recording. Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lopez, Foreigner, and the Rolling Stones are but a few artists he’s recorded there. I have done my best to pass the lessons I learned from Roy on to him.
In tune, in time, with feeling. Trust your ears, trust the musicians. That is the art of production, as I learned it from Roy, in a nutshell.
John Hanti founded SST Studios and Rentals in Weehawken, NJ. In 1982 to serve the production and backline needs of The Second British Invasion bands, working with bands like Motorhead, Bad Brains, the Smiths, New Order, and the Police. SST is today one of the leading recording and rehearsal studios in the New York City area.