Producing singer/songwriters can be a double edged sword for the producer. A singer songwriter will have very firm ideas as to the sound of a song, when it comes to laying down the tracks and developing that final mix. In Tracy Chapman’s case, David Kershenbaum was the magic ingredients needed. David’s early experience with producing the legendary album “Diamonds & Rust” (1975) for 60’s/70’s singer songwriter Joan Baez, gave David the edge in producing what would be grammy winning and mulitplatinum songs & albums. “Building the music around Tracy’s vocals” was key. I spoke with David recently and explored his craft with him.
JR: With the broad catalog of artists, was Tracy Chapman your most successful artists?
DK: I think Tracy has sold the most records. I have had other multiplatinum artists and albums, but her record event to today sells catalog like crazy.
JR: It still stands up, I have her “collection” albums, its one of my favorites. One of the things I love about that sound is that it is so organic, and it feels like the band is in the room with you, and that’s one of the things I really appreciate with that production. It really feels like the band is playing together. Is that something that you aim for in producing?
DK: Yes and theres a lot of different ways to approach a production. I do it backwards from the way most people do, I start with the vocals and work backwards, where most people start with the music and work forwards, so I build everything around the vocals.
In Tracy’s case, it was an exercise in restraint. I wanted her to really be in the forefront. I felt like her songs and her message and the vulnerability of her vocals where what was going to capture people. Not a lot of sound and tricks, I just needed something simple to keep the interest going. The (Music)tracks were supposed to be much more of an undercurrent to Tracy, so that’s how we developed it. We put her up front, and built around her. And that’s the way I approach most singer songwriters.
JR: Did you use predominantly the same musicians throughout the albums?
DK: Yes, we did. And one of the things that I did that was fairly unusual, is that I realized that it was going to be for music that I had only heard on the guitar was going to change when I got it in the studio, so I tested five or six drummers and five or six bass players, and I had her recorded guitar vocal and I had each one of them play with that guitar vocal, and then I mixed and matched, so I thought I could try this drummer with this bass player till I got just the perfect combination. A lot of the time it’s the three piece that you’re listening to, and that had to be right on the money or that wasn’t going to work.
In the test part, I had Tracy record her guitar and her vocals on two tracks of a digital (I was using a Mitsubishi at the time on a digital recorder), and then I put drums and bass from different drummers and bass players on separately, not playing together and then I had them all in sync, so I could say I would like to hear this bass player with that drummer until we found just the right combination. And once we found them I pretty much used that drum and bass combination on the first, second and fifth album.
JR: So is that a technique that you just developed yourself or is that something you’ve borrowed from another producer?
DK: I’ve never heard of anyone doing that and I’m not saying that they didn’t, but it was something that I had the opportunity and the budget to do, and it was something I always wanted to do and I think that it contributed greatly to the overall impact of the record. That record was for the most part, bass drums and Tracy and her vocals recorded live, it was not a bunch of edits and things put together, it was coming off the floor just what you hear.
JR: So that was the final take, live with the drum, bass, guitar & Tracy live?
JR: Some of the other artists like Joe Jackson, Brian is a seasoned record artist, what was your input to his career
DK: Brian I actually signed to A&M when I was head of A&R, and he was actually doing disco records in Canada when we found him, and I put him with Bob Clearmountain, he was an up and coming engineer in New York, and that was Bob’s first production. And first record was OK but we really got it on the second record, so I was really A&R’ing Brian more than actually in studio production, but at the end, you know when I was partners in the film company Morgan Creek, I actually executive produced with Mat Lang “everything I do”, which was of course one of Brian’s biggest hits and of course in the soundtrack for the movie…..
JR: Compare the range of artists like from Brian to Tracy.
DK: Totally different animals although Brian is an extremely good performer, Different people are in different stages of their careers. Way back when I started, I produced Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust, and that record was very similar to Tracy, in that the band and Joan played and sang live, in fact at that time Joan came into the studio and I was standing with her in the vocal booth and we’d set up the mic, and the musicians were the super stars of the day (LA studio musicians) and a young guitar player named Larry Carlton, this was his first arrangement. So that’s how far back it goes. So the band could play it really perfectly and they could play it really well, Jimmy Gordon from Derrick and the Dominos was playing drums and it was just a great band. And Joan came in and I said “Joan, we’ll record your vocals, but don’t if we don’t get it we’ll have plenty of chances to fix it” and she said,
“No, you don’t understand, I’m going to sing it once, and what you get is what you get, and I’m going to sing it perfectly so you’d better get it right”. And she was right, all those vocals were live takes and she just same them great. And of course, I just shivered when she said that, because I’ve never really recorded a live vocal before it was so early in my career you know with the bands, but it turned out great.
JR: Do you find that with other artists as well that that first take there’s that certain magic in those earlier takes?
DK: I do, because what artists to is they get in their head. I think that the best takes is the ones that they do when they don’t know that they’re recording, because there’s nothing at stake, you know the minute there’s something at stake, then all of a sudden they tense up and they’ve got to concentrate on getting this right and that right, rather than just letting it just flow through them and just feeling it. I think early on is just the best, and although technically and maybe pitch wise, they get it better as you go along, I think it’s true (With musician’s too) that it just gets to get a little bit tired, as it goes through the process. Musicians I have found can do really well on the first take, but sometimes it’s the second or third take that they really lock, unless they’ve been playing the song for a long time. So its kind of a trick to get the artist (If your doing live vocals) and the band to catch it at the same point.
JR: How many takes would you keep of a live vocal track, just out of convenience and technique, and how much time do you spend (Vocal comping).
DK: Vocal comping depends on the artist if we go back to analog, when it was 16 – 24 track before syncing machines together, you didn’t do itbecause you didn’t have the tracks. Once the links and the ability to sync multi tracks (you could make a slave) was the do a number of vocal tracks. But in those days, you had to go down a generation if you had to do a vocal comp. Today its all digital, and really there’s no limit to the number of takes you can do. I think with the band and with the vocalist that after three to four, no more than five takes, it pretty much either going to be there or it’s not. If it’s not, your going to need to do it at a different time. And if it’s there, if I’ve got at least 4-5 really good takes I can usually get a master vocal from that. But again, there’s different ways of doing it. I can put a vocal together, word by word if I had to and tune and slip do all the things that you can do today, but it comes down to sounding rather clinical. So my preference is to get larger sections and put them together, because I think there’s and emotional flow that gets lost when you start to put together too many different interpretations.
What you’ve really got to do with an artist is tell them what you want. If they’re singing something a certain way, you’ve need to sing it for them, and show them what you’re looking for and how you want it to be shaped. Where as a lot of producers will say, “OK, just sing four or five tracks and I’ll fix it later”, and sit there and read a magazine that’s not the way to produce a vocal.
About David Kershenbaum
(Source: Wikipedia 2008 ) Born in Springfield, Missouri, David Kershenbaum an internationally known producer and A&R man. Kershenbaum’s productions are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of record sales around the world and his touch has aided some of the biggest names in the business: Duran Duran, Tracy Chapman, Joe Jackson, Bryan Adams, Cat Stevens, Tori Amos, Josh Kadison, and Blessid Union of Souls. As a producer he has earned 75 international gold and platinum albums. His work has yielded multiple Grammys and an Oscar nomination.
David is also the founder & CEO of Music Pros – Hollywood http://www.musicproshollywood.com/