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Behind the Glass Curtain: New PBS Series ‘Soundbreaking’ Underscores the Art of the Record Producer

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“When I first started, the ideal for any recording engineer, was to make the most life-like sound he could possibly do.  To make a photograph that was absolutely accurate to the live version.  Well, the studio changed all that.  Instead of taking a photograph, we were now painting a picture, over a picture, adding layers on top of layers.  You were now, in essence–painting with sound.”

There’s a historic sketch on SNL–you know the one–where music producer Bruce Dickenson, yes, THE Bruce Dickenson, played by Christopher Walken, presides over the recording session of Blue Öyster Cult’s 1976 song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”.  Walken, not only looks the part of an eccentric genius, complete with slicked back hair, tinted aviator glasses, and a leather jacket, but also in his attitudes and the unconventional direction he proposes to the band.  “You have got, what appears to be, a dynamite sound”, Dickenson exclaims, but after the band abruptly stops playing multiple times, citing bandmate, Gene Freckle’s (Will Ferrell), incessant and emphatic use of a cowbell, an angry Dickenson barges into the studio demanding answers, and also–strangely enough–“more cowbell”, much to the chagrin of the other bandmates.  While the band, initially resist the producer’s peculiar intuition, they eventually accept his suggestion for the fabled track–complete with the now unabating and prominent sound of a cowbell–making the song the band’s most memorable and biggest commercial success.

Despite being a parody, there’s a lot of truth imbedded in Walken’s portrayal of the idiosyncratic–man behind the curtain–music producer, and the influence and overall impact that these sometimes, larger-than-life characters have on an artist’s work.  Music producers have always been a bit of an enigma.  One third ringmasters, two thirds Willy Wonka-esque Svengali’s–they’re as renowned, as they are reviled. Some of whom are complete with egos just as big as the musical acts they work alongside.  Regardless, from the earliest Edisonian beginnings of recorded sound, there’s been a handful of conduits–musical explorers rather–from across a landscape of distinct and sometimes, nebulous genres, who have fearlessly dared to step beyond the known boundaries of sound, embarking on a journey to discover uncharted territories, through unconventional recording techniques and new technological processes.  Collaborating with artists to turn their dreams into realized artifacts.  Two powerful gravitational forces colliding, creating some of the most indelible songs and albums ever recorded, causing a transformational tear in the sonic universe, forever altering music and history as we know it.  These real-life accounts are captured in Soundbreaking:  Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music, an engrossing eight-part PBS series which takes audiophiles inside the studio, exploring some of your favorite artists and the influential producers behind the glass.

From musician Les Paul’s innovative multi-track recordings to George Martin’s ground-breaking Frankensteinian collaborations with The Beatles, the show is a virtual tapestry of the recording arts–a history lesson which crosses back-and-forth in time, connecting innovators of the past with contemporary artists and producers like Dr. Dre and Bon Iver.  The personalities are here, and so are their methods: magnetic tape, overdubbing, layering, amplification, distortion, oscillating space, sampling, scratching, electric, acoustic, organic, and yes, even Auto-Tune.  Through a series of intimate interviews and footage, with the singer-songwriters and the producers themselves, the documentary helps audiences understand the how–just enough without exposing the magic–behind some of your favorite or possibly loathsome songs, albums and musical genres.

ADELE – CHRISTINA AGUILERA – AFRIKA BAMBAATAA – THE BEACH BOYS – THE BEASTIE BOYS – THE BEATLES – THE BEE GEES – JEFF BECK- BECK – BEYONCÉ – THE BLACK KEYS – BLONDIE – BON IVER – JAMES BROWN – JOHNNY CASH – NENEH CHERRY – CHER – CHIC – CREAM – ROGER DALTREY – MILES DAVIS – DEVO – DR DRE – SHEILA E. – BRIAN ENO – PAUL EPWORTH – THE EURYTHMICS – FLEETWOOD MAC – MARVIN GAYE – NIGEL GODRICH – THE GRATEFUL DEAD – BEN HARPER – JIMI HENDRIX – MICHAEL JACKSON – ELTON JOHN – QUINCY JONES – LITTLE RICHARD – MADONNA – GEORGE MARTIN – PAUL McCARTNEY- JONI MITCHELL – GIORGIO MORODER – TOM PETTY – PINK FLOYD – PUBLIC ENEMY – BONNIE RAITT – MERRILL GARBUS – LES PAUL – RADIOHEAD – SMOKEY ROBINSON – NILE RODGERS – MARK RONSON – THE ROLLING STONES – RICK RUBIN – RUN D.M.C. – RZA – CARLOS SANTANA – FRANK SINATRA – SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE – PHIL SPECTOR – DONNA SUMMER – RINGO STARR – U2 – SUZANNE VEGA – DON WAS – KANYE WEST – AMY WINEHOUSE – THE WHO – STEVIE WONDER – WU TANG CLAN – YUSUF/CAT STEVENS – STEVEN VAN ZANDT

So whether you’re a music aficionado like me, or simply a person “who puts your pants on, one leg at a time–except, once your pants are on you happen to make gold records”, this show’s for you!

The first episode aired on 11/14/16 and the series will conclude on 11/23/16.  Watch them as they drop here.  Once you do, share your favorite moments, songs or albums featured in the series.

Rock on!

Article written by Matthew Mahone

Follow me on Twitter @M_E_Mahone