Last week, the New York Times ran a Jon Caramanica piece featuring Kuk Harrell, the vocal producer for pop stars including Bieber, Rihanna, and J-Lo. Caramanica tries to walk a fine line while highlighting the technological wizardry of studio production without betraying what he seems to see as the true marker of musical authenticity: the singing voice. The technological bits, then, are written in a familiar sci-fi style, where disparate bits and scraps of a song are built into a unified performance, with Harrell breathing the life into the final amalgamation. This is followed with a re-enforcement of authenticity in a section about good old-fashioned vocal power.
Mr. Harrell, 47, is one of those figures, shaping the sound of radio from the shadows. His client roster also includes Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna, and his job is to make sure that the star’s vocal is as powerful and flawless as it can be.
That happens in parts. In the studio, rarely, if ever, does a star sing a song the whole way through. Instead Mr. Harrell builds a gleaming whole from granular bits. A singer working with Mr. Harrell covers a few bars — a line or two, maybe four — over and over, with different emphases and inflections, until Mr. Harrell hears what he wants. The process repeats for each section. Only later, after the singer is gone, does Mr. Harrell stitch the best pieces together, Frankenstein-like, into the song you hear.
On this February night Mr. Bieber retired to a smaller studio in the back of the building to work on “Sunday Morning,” an aching midtempo ballad, warming up by singing long stretches of the song. But once Mr. Harrell sat down at the computer, they broke “Sunday Morning” down into small vocal bites, with Mr. Bieber sometimes echoing what Mr. Harrell sang to him moments before. All the while Mr. Harrell’s eyes remained fixed on the computer screen, where each new take was represented in ProTools, the production software, by a jagged line, like heart-rate tracings on an EKG, inside a brightly colored rectangle. The data were piling up.
Though he’s reliant upon technology, Mr. Harrell insists that most of his work is navigating personalities, getting stars to trust him when they’re in the recording booth, at their most vulnerable. “It’s never, ‘Man, you screwed up,’ ” he said. “I can tell Jennifer she’s not singing it the right way without telling her that she’s not singing it the right way: ‘Give it a sexy vibe like you’re singing in the shower,’ or ‘Sing it like no one else is in the room.’ ”
When superstars work with Mr. Harrell, they aren’t running to the machines and away from their own voices. Quite the opposite: they’re trying to ensure that they sound as engaged and alive as possible. Paradoxical as it seems, working with newfangled technology and old-fashioned pep talks Mr. Harrell makes singers sound even more like themselves.
You can read the full piece here.
And, following up on last week’s links to the Emily White-David Lowery kerfuffle, we have a compilation of responses to Lowery’s claims at TechDirt. Here, Mike Masnick pulls from several writers, perhaps most notable Steve Albini, to point out the factual fallacies of Lowery’s arguments. The general point seems to be something like, “It’s not a perfect system now, but it’s better for most musicians than it was in the past.” There’s a great deal of smart pushback against Lowery here, though it seems that too many are eager to paint stars under the old system as lucky instead of talented and as lazy beneficiaries of a broken business model than as hard-working musicians. Seems like something in the middle is true. Still, when Albini says it, it makes a good pull-quote:
As is true every time an industry changes, the people who used to have it easy claim the new way is not just hard for them but fundamentally wrong. The reluctance to adapt is a kind of embarrassing nostalgia that glosses over the many sins of the old ways, and it argues for a kind of pity fuck from the market.
Even with all of the pushback, I’m not seeing anything that calls out Lowery for his use of an outdated and inappropriate analogy in the “Net neighborhood” section, where he equates downloading digital files with stealing CDs from a store. Maybe there’s no need to address this because it’s so obviously ill-fitted?
H/T to Mike D’Errico and Ali Colleen Neff for the facebook links to this.