What Is Up With The Recording Industry?

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Home recording offers an ease and affordability to musicians, but according to acclaimed New York rock producer Martin Bisi, it’s also dangerous. Bisi has recorded some of the best rock albums of all time, working with artists like Helmet, Swans, Cop Shoot Cop, Blind Idiot God, etc. He knows what makes a strong document, and worries that file-swapping is killing the soul of records, as well as draining its funding.

BTRtoday spoke to Bisi, who has run BC Studio since the late 1970s, a period of time he has mixed feelings about.

BTRtoday (BTR): You’ve produced a ton of great music, especially in the New York City scene, over the past decades. What initially inspired you to embark on this musical path?

Martin Bisi (MB): It’s funny, because people always ask me what inspired me, in the positive. And I think that the real reasons are mostly negative. I got into what I’m into because I really—and to this day—I pretty much hate the music of the late ’70s. To this day, I still don’t like classic rock, for instance. I don’t like guitar solos, that sort of thing. So, I think a lot of punk was really reactionary, and I was definitely a part of that.

BTR: As for the sound of the ’70s, do you find it’s just too self-indulgent? Is that why you dislike it?

MB: I actually like some of the prog records by Jeff Beck, so I do listen to some of that stuff, but I was always so bummed by the separation [of recorded instruments], and I think the reason there was so much separation in the late ’70s is because that was almost the gimmick of the time. That was the beginning of real multi-track recording.

I remember in New York, I would go to some of the disco/live venues, which were really important in the early ’80s—places like Danceteria and the Mudd Club—and there would be a big system. It really mattered how it would sound in a large room. This was before boom-boxes.

Stuff like the Talking Heads—we don’t think of it as dance music, but that stuff did get played in clubs—really had to sound good in a big room. It was big rooms, big speakers in peoples’ homes; it was not geared toward little ways of listening to things. And for that reason, separation became crucial.

“One of the biggest changes is that rock is dramatically less commercial. It’s rare to even see a rock record on the top 40. It’s really bad, economically.”

BTR: How do you envision the future of record producing?

MB: Recently, I’ve decided not to work with artists that are out of town. I’m getting a lot of requests. People in Europe, for instance, and Europe is particularly a problem, because of the time difference. People ask me to mix things, long-distance mixing. Two days ago, a band told me someone would play sax on a track and they were going to record it at home and send it to us.

And Dropbox is a big deal. I mean, Dropbox is really useful sometimes, but I find the whole culture around Dropbox kind of upsetting. It’s like this false utopia. “Wow, we don’t even need to be near each other anymore… how liberating… drop it in the box, it’s just as good.”

I think something is lost. Anytime someone sends me files that they recorded somewhere else, I’m skeptical. This is one aspect of where the recording industry is going that I’m not into.

BTR: Has this been the biggest change in the recording industry over the past decade?

MB: One of the biggest changes is that rock is dramatically less commercial. It’s rare to even see a rock record on the top 40. It’s really bad, economically. And the reason I’m talking about the top 40 is that, specifically in terms of studios, it really brings the whole standard down, the money that’s being allocated to recording studios.

One of the reasons I brought up Dropbox is because it’s going to be freaking hard to have recording studios where you can have loud music, you know, in Brooklyn, where people are. Increasingly, if you want that kind of studio, you have to think about outside of town, and then that’s going to involve travel. It’s really pretty ruinous.

BTR: During your career, you’ve definitely walked the line between being a recording engineer and being a producer. You seem to play a much more active role in helping artists realize their vision during the process. How do you go about walking that line?

MB: The first thing is realizing that it’s always a co-production. Producer Steve Albini is someone who says he’s a “transparent” recording engineer. He doesn’t even like saying he’s a producer. He has almost a jazz ethic, which is not one of a lot of studio manipulating and mixing. In the jazz world, the engineer is supposed to almost be a technical presence.

The reality is not that, though. The reality is that Steve Albini’s records are very identifiable, and his biases shine completely through. So the engineer does make a big difference.

I try to be very diplomatic and very patient. An important part of my job is managing time, and more importantly, managing creative energy.

I’m not even that technical. I don’t even know that much about compressors or different kinds of microphones, etc. I know people with a lot more knowledge, and they’ve actually succeeded less. The reason I’ve been able to sustain work is because I get the work done, and then that increases my experience and makes me better.

BTR: You mentioned Albini records and how identifiable they are. What makes a Bisi record?

MB: I think I’m generally good with density. I like to say that I’m good with too much. I sometimes say that there’s too much information happening, but I tend to say that less than some people. I tend to want to work with too much. I work less well with stuff that’s more minimal. I shy away from singer-songwriter stuff or just acoustic guitar. I might enjoy the music, but as an engineer, it’s a little less exciting and a little more purist.

I feel an affinity and a need to articulate things. It seems I have this pathological fear of being misunderstood.