Record producers pose for portraiture in front of sprawling, NASA-like mixing desks. It’s conventional if not obligatory, but the role of producer should not be confused with that of the knob-twiddling, signal-routing, sound-shaping, decibel-counting engineer. Because producers operate at the intersection of every stream of the recording process – the artistic, the technical, the economic – their role is commonly misunderstood and often weirdly mythologized. In hip hop, for example, the job often seems to encompass branding and marketing synergies as much as music.
Some producers aren’t all that technically savvy. Some keep themselves deliberately in the dark, as if all those wires were snares that might distract them from the big picture, forest-for-the-trees style. One thinks of celebrity producer Rick Rubin telling Johnny Cash, “You’re Johnny F*%*&ing Cash” and issuing impossibly Zen directives from his mouthless beard, and of Johnny Cash hearing them and then being Johnny Cash for the microphone, and of Rick Rubin being a genius and then taking a French leave. But that notion of producing as an oblique and (in Phil Spector’s case) a gunpoint artistic facilitation has largely perished – an artifact of a time when there was money and a budget line for hokum.
If a tree falls in the forest, should the producer give it his signature sound? If I asked New Paltz-based producer/engineer Kevin McMahon that, he’d probably yawn and suggest that, no, it is not really the part of the producer to have and to impose a trademark sound – but sometimes it happens anyway. Being human, producers have tastes, techniques, limitations and unique hearing damage profiles that can influence the way in which sound gets to tape. And in the case of studio-owning producers like McMahon, they also have distinctive recording spaces and specific gear lists and preferences, all of which can impart a recognizable sonic stamp. But, philosophically, no: Producing should be more about discovering the sound of the artist and developing the implications of the song than about the producer’s brand.
Still, at his busy facility – Marcata Recording, a large barn-and-silo studio outside of New Paltz – McMahon, willfully or not, has become a producer with a signature sound and a brand identity – one that national bands deem worth traveling for and that sympathetic local acts want a piece of. Along with Team Love, the national record label that magically appeared on Church Street in New Paltz one day [also featured in this edition of Almanac], Marcata has given indie bands in this town an emblematic reason to like themselves and to hold their heads high – which is not indie’s traditional posture, especially around here.
Once home to at least three kick-ass Grateful Dead cover bands, New Paltz is now the town where the legendary “no wave” band Swans mixed their epic comeback album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky and recorded its follow-up, where New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus did its wildly popular Civil War-inspired indie punk concept album The Monitor and where chimey guitar popsters Real Estate recorded their glistening sophomore effort Days – and more and more, all with McMahon at the desk. In this way, the producer’s signature sound accrues over time, the residue of affinity-driven word-of-mouth: One band does well, and kindred bands make pilgrimage to the source. Next thing you know, the producer has a sound.
Many sounds, actually, because McMahon is, if nothing else, a radical sound-getter, an experienced audio engineer, a gear aficionado, a working musician and even a repair tech who can service his own two-inch, 24-track tape machine: his medium of choice. McMahon knows intimately how to use and abuse the tools of recording toward extreme ends. A typical Marcata production is characterized by a wealth and density of palpable, confrontational sounds – excited, distressed, remote, weird, abrasive, enveloping and pretty sounds – and by the high drama of their deployment.
Despite its rustic setting, it is a contentious, urban vibe emanating from Marcata, perhaps reflecting McMahon’s many years as a New York City music dude, working with the influential band the Walkmen in a large industrial facility in Harlem, also called Marcata. Now local bands flock to the silo for a bit of that action: Breakfast in Fur, Battle Ave., By Land or Sea, Black Horse Riders and many more, including “name” acts who call our region home, such as Rhett Miller and the Felice Brothers.
So does Marcata have “a sound,” or is it an accident of its client list? The answer, I think, is to be found in McMahon’s work as music-maker, not producer. In his “fictitious band” project Pelican Movement, dark ether fills the space between discrete sounds that, at times, are positively broken. Obscure pop textures rise and fall amidst lush, ominous ambience; clawing and scratching sounds form on the periphery and then disperse. I conclude that this really is the way that he hears it, and it is no mystery why so many bands are drawn to this dramatic blend of beauty and disturbance.
For more on Kevin McMahon and Marcata Recording, visit www.marcata.net.