Listening to Past Productions to Be a Better Modern Music Producer-ABBA Edition

I am doing a bit of a production exercise today. I am not feeling too well and it is best if I don’t actively work on my tunes when I am in this state. However I can’t let a day go without advancing in some way musically.

So today is training day. There is no shortage of tutorials, videos, and other resources online that can help to turn a producer into a better producer. I am not going that direction today though. I am listening to some of the production masters of the past. Today I am studying the wizardry of Bjorn and Benny of ABBA. Don’t laugh, the sounds and production those guys got out of the studio back in the day is just amazing.

ABBA by Peter Forett

Think about it this way. The reason so many of us can call ourselves producers today is the availability and price of modern equipment. A computer with Ableton Live, Cubase, Pro-tools (insert favorite DAW, Digital Audio Workstation, here) is a full featured production studio these days. We have unlimited tracks, all the effects and virtual instruments we could ever want, and all the training online for free. Add real instruments, mics, interfaces, and control surfaces, all which are cheaper than ever, and things get out of control quick. Out of control in a good way of course.

Our DAWS let us see the music as well as hear it. We can visually edit. We can’t make mistakes as we now have non destructive editing. We can try one to fifty effects on a track quicker than and old school studio engineer could wire in one effect into a track. We have unlimited tracks to get things right.(limited by computing power alone) We have midi edited visually in real-time with zero latency interfaces. We can draw our music out now as well as play it live into a system and then edit it visually until it is something totally different from we started with, then change back with a mouse click. We can change tempo, key, speed, and on and on, with the touch of a button on the fly.

It is seriously cool how far technology has come. So far in fact that we can now produce great tunes and sounds with more trial and error than knowledge. Not to say we producers are not knowledgeable, but our knowledge is more from doing and trying, thus learning as we go. Back in the day you could not get a job working in a studio without serious, real skills and knowledge of sound, processing, and recording. School or serious apprenticeships were the norm.

Imagine recording straight to tape. No visual cues, no waveforms to edit visually. Instruments had to be 100% in tune as the ability to correct pitch and speed with one click, or even automatically, did not exist. The tracks were sacred as you had a finite amount to work with. A bad take meant re-doing a whole part as you could not cut and paste to replace things that were not up to snuff.

If you wanted to double parts to make them fuller it meant recording a second or third part. If the part was not perfect, it was back to recording. If you started to run out of tracks you had to find parts of silence on already recorded tracks or bounce tracks down to create more space. This made mixing skill more important than today as if you messed up a mix while bouncing it was time to scrap things and go back to square one.

To insert effects, you had to know your equipment inside and out. Each effect was its own physical unit which was wired into the mixing boards. The option of dropping effects into a track, then trying another, then another, then removing them all as you want to go in a different direction meant serious and time-consuming work back then. Also, everything you wired into the board also created its own amount of unwanted noise that the engineer and producer had to know how to deal with. Want a compressor setting on track one different than on track four? That is two different units. Another reason all recording was once done in expensive professional studios. Who had the money, space, and time to learn all this equipment?

So, maybe ABBA, and other groups with amazing production values are not your cup of tea style wise, but listening to what those guys achieved is an education. While listening try to figure out their tricks and how they achieved their sounds. It will make you a better producer.

Especially on those days when you are not feeling well and don’t feel like working on your own tunes. Try it out.

By the way, I do like ABBA. The group has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Don’t tell anyone, alright.

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