You have to have been living on a remote island to not know who Miles Davis is, but yet few have heard of Teo Macero. Teo is arguably the creative mastermind behind Bitches Brew, who had such a meticulous and distinct style to his craft that he changed entirely the landscape of music production, and employed a cutting and splicing technique that was the precursor to the huge take off of sampling later seen in hip-hop. As a producer for Columbia Records, Teo was behind the greatest selling jazz albums of all time. The Revivalist interviewed some of our favorite DJ/Producers—Rob Swift, Raydar Ellis, Carlos Nino, DJ Spinna, and DJ Logic —to gain their insight about Teo’s imprint on American music and the advent of new technologies to the music studio that lead to the evolution or devolution (depending on who you ask) of sound.
Teo produced so many pivotal jazz records like Mingus Ah Um (Mingus), Time Out (Brubeck), and Bitches Brew (Miles). Do you think the success of these albums was due to his own production techniques or more so his ability to partner with such talented musicians?
Rob Swift: I’d say the latter. Artist like Mingus and Miles worked with Teo for a reason. That is to say, if he wasn’t musically inclined or trustworthy, he obviously wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to work with such jazz legends. At the same time, an album like Bitches Brew only succeeds when it’s a collaborative effort. Everyone played a roll in making that album a classic. Whether it was Miles’ forward thinking vision of where his music should go, Macero’s ability to think outside the box as a producer or the engineers manning the boards, classic albums are always a group effort.
Raydar: I think it’s a double sided situation as much as a musician can benefit from the guidance of the engineer, it’s not all coming from their instrument. Being an artist you can easily be caught up in what you’re creating, it can place you in a bubble. Having someone on the other side of the glass is really important to leverage your ship. It also speaks to the balance of the engineer to be able to fine tune and be able to notice and catch the intricacies of the song and to divide. It’s a two-way thing. They benefited from Teo as much as he benefited from them. It’s just a like a band. No member is as powerful as they are with the entire band. The engineer is just like another band member, and Bitches Brew is proof of that.
Carlos Nino: The success of a record always has to be attributed to the Music! I always say, that without the Music, there’s nothing. You can have the best studio, the most classic or modern technology, and all the most genius engineers, producers, etc., and if the Music isn’t happening, it doesn’t matter.
In the case of the legendary Teo Macero, he’s got it all – The Music first, (which he had a big hand in courting, developing and documenting, not to mention seeing through to the final mix, master and release). He had the vision, and the ability to communicate his ideas to the artists and musicians, arrangers, recording artists, mixers, etc. and the executives. Truly marvelous!
I give people credit for even being present during sessions of the magnitude of any of Teo Macero’s productions. The fact that people trusted him to lead the way is amazing, and he made the ultimate most of it!
DJ Logic: I think it’s a little bit of both. Mingus and Miles were all talented musicians, but Teo was a musician first and then a producer. He brought in characteristics of his ideas and creativity, and was building with different artists at the same time. He would never take away from the artists and what they were creating, but would bring in his own technical ideas: tweaking the sounds, his voice, and his ideas were a collaborative thing between him and the artists. Teo at the time was doing what he was doing, but he was able to relate to each artist.
DJ Spinna: I would say the success of those records are the result of both the artists and the engineer. It takes the vision of both to produce greatness.
In 1969, arranging and composition through editing and rearranging tape was not common practice, yet Teo and Miles went into the studio and did it all the time. How important was that for the evolution of the studio as a creative force?
Rob Swift: This was extremely important. Miles and Teo broke the rules, hence making it OK for those that followed in their footsteps to continue to go against the systematic way of recording. As a DJ, I find that I’m most creative when I challenge the idea a scratch or beat juggle technique is supposed to be done a certain way. Innovation stems from fearlessness and Miles and Teo weren’t afraid of what people thought regarding their approach. They literally tried everything and that’s what I most admire about their work.
Raydar: It’s humongous. Aside from Teo there were also the forefathers, Teo, Bruce Haack, Les Paul, people like that that really looked at tape and said “there’s a little bit more to this.” What they did in the studio on record was really the prototype and the blueprint for what we do today. You look at Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live. None of that would have been possible without cats like those, especially Teo spending countless hours scrubbing tape. To think that someone had to do that all of the time just to make an edit, let alone to add creative energy to the record, I tip my hat completely. Every generation enhances the music so that what they went through is not as difficult for the next generation, and then the next generation has a new set of problems. At the same time, if they didn’t have to worry about computers crashing, and laptops overheating, and files not transferring and working, and things cutting off mid section on stage; they still had to deal with pounds and pounds of tapes, overdubs, audio degraded quality. Every generation has a different world of problems. What they did kind of gave us a little less to worry about in terms of the analogue world.
Carlos Nino: My favorite year of recorded music is 1967. A lot of my favorite artists that were making music in 1967 note the work of Teo and Miles from the late 50s and early 60s as a major influence. By 1969 Teo and Miles were already in their 3rd generation of collaboration. Their experimentation was definitely informed by the innovations of the mid 60s work of the Psychedelic movement, though maybe not directly, it’s like they were on a parallel journey.
The work that Teo and Miles did is groundbreaking, hallmark, zenith, inspired, inspiring, and magical, on every level. The innovative production work they did is very important to mention. With Teo you have the classic late 50s sound that is so special, along with a unique spin on Psychedelic experimentation in the late 60s. The fusion that’s referred to is, to me, one of multi-dimensions. It’s alchemical. You have the variety of texture, rhythm, groove, color, and sound. With technique and an explorative energy that’s key! I see it more like painting, and less about styles, like, “hey, this is Jazz + Rock.” It’s so much more than that. In a word it’s consciousness.
DJ Logic: It was a whole other experiment. They didn’t follow the traditional way. They stepped out of the box. They wanted to do something different musically, and editing-wise, by cutting and splicing. That was like mixing, that was like DJing, but he did it with the analogue tape. As a DJ myself, I do that with vinyl. Being a producer and a musician, he urged certain things and certain parts, and messed around with the tape. He had a good ear, and knew exactly where to slice, where to bring it in, making certain tracks longer, and switching certain sections of tracks, sometimes bringing the end section to the beginning.
DJ Spinna: Tape editing was major for the evolution of the recording world. It was another form of production in itself. Sometimes a few splices of an extended piece can make or break a tune. When used creatively tape edits can make a whole project monumental.
Teo opposed releasing box sets, which include alternate takes and such because he believed people should focus on the work of art meant for release. What do you think about this?
Rob Swift: I can respect that. I honestly don’t have an opinion one way or the other regarding how my audience eventually hears my work. What I mean by that is, if I die tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind loved ones in control of my musical estate releasing unreleased material of mine. Sometimes we are our worst critics and who knows, I may be suppressing a piece that my audience might connect with more than me. By the same token, I know that what I have released to the world is how I meant to be viewed as a musician at that specific time.
Raydar: I can understand what he means by that. The fan in me is always looking forward to “Oh what’s the alternate version of that, and how is this different?” The fan in me always wants to hear those alternate tapes. But I can understand because he’s part of the piece. When you are making the records, it’s not just a piece of music. I equate music with painting the picture. If he paints the picture in a certain way now there are no other brush strokes on it. It’s understandable that he sees it that way, but the fan in me enjoys it though. That’s my personal preference.
Carlos Nino: I think Teo had his vision, and bless him for seeing it through. Follow through is a crucial part of the make up of a great producer. The records he released are that vision. Outtakes and all the other things that show up on bootlegs and box sets aren’t necessarily a part of that original vision. It’s up to fans to find the music that’s not released. Labels have clearly caught on to the hard work of such fans and decided to pull up the tapes and put everything out, and being a fan, I love that too. What I’m not into is the wrong people getting their hands on the music, because some executive doesn’t really know what’s up, has an exploitive streak, hands it over to someone to “remix/remaster” it, and ends up messing with it disgracefully.
To Teo though, it all may have been against his concept, and most importantly, that of the artist / bands. I see both sides: On one hand, Teo and Miles should have the final say on everything, period. On the other hand, the music is bigger than them, and will find it’s way out, in one way or another. Hopefully, it’s in good spirit, not in the name of profit!
DJ Logic: I was there when he talked about that; I was at a meeting where he was going through all of that stuff. He couldn’t understand why the artist and a producer would do that, he thought of an album as an artist who has created something magical. He didn’t want no one to hear outtakes and stuff, but remember that he’s coming from a whole other era. People like us now, we like hearing outtakes and stuff like that, people want to know—it’s like food. You want to know what’s in your food. You want to know whether its Asian food or whatever, what’s the seasoning? What makes it so good that I want to come back and eat this? You want to capture the element what they were doing in the studio. I agree with what he’s talking about, not letting people break his working ritual, his way as a producer. Then you have those fans who want to hear more. How was Kind of Blue created, or Bitches Brew? That’s all news.
DJ Spinna: It’s an objective subject matter. On one hand it’s great to hear the process to which classic albums are made and the alternate versions of compositions, but on the contrary the finished product is what it is. Most artists I believe would oppose to releasing alternate takes of their material if they sound incomplete.
“I think that the effects that we created in those days were much more real. Everything today, with electronics is synthetic. You turn a button here, you get it a half step higher, turn a button there you get it half a step lower, or you stretch it out. But they’re not doing it correctly. I don’t think they’re doing it the right way- there are no highs and no lows. There’s just a bunch of noises. We always had direction. When we were doing it, there was always a pivot point and then you moved on from that and then created these sounds. And that brought them back to simplicity again. Now everybody gets out there and they want to play that stuff, I do it myself, but after fifteen minutes your mind starts to wander and the players start to wander and there’s no definition. I mean music has to have lines, has to have dynamics, has to have emotion, all the elements that make it in music. But today, with the synthetic stuff, you got a gimmick here and a gimmick there, that’s still not going to make it.” (http://www.furious.com/perfect/teomacero.html) - Teo Macero. Thoughts?
Rob Swift: I concur. Technology does have a way of making us dumb or less creative. It’s like having it easier behind the boards makes it so we don’t use the full potential of our brains. To this day, when I record music, I still resort to machines like my SP1200, my AKAI 950 and regular old vinyl because it forces me to think of clever ways of sampling or altering a sound.
Raydar: I mean I respect his opinion, but I don’t agree completely. I feel like music is whatever you want it to be. Whether there be a synthetic sound or a completely analogue tape, or a plug-in or Auto-tune—It’s just like when someone says, “I can’t stand all of these Auto-tune records.” Some of the records I like, some of them I don’t. I don’t blame Auto-tune for that. I don’t blame the brush; I blame the people who are the painters. I look at it like that. Everything that we do in music that we try to pigeonhole by a certain rule ultimately gets broken anyway. Anytime we have a rule, it ends up getting broken. Thelonious Monk broke rules, Miles broke rules. Every rule that we’ve ever done in music has been broken. Hip-hop itself is a broken rule, one after another. It all depends on who is listening. For Teo, I understand he comes from a different line of thinking. I respect that. Everyone has their own line of thinking. It’s all comes down to what’s real for that person, what’s real to that fan base? That’s what makes art art: the content, defining and redefining, the deconstruction and reconstruction of sound.
Carlos Nino: Teo was a master producer in what I refer to as the Golden Age of Music. There have been other Golden Ages, and will be others still. If I had access to what he had with the projects I’m doing, I would largely employ his concepts above. I also see the ‘do it yourself,’ makeshift artistry as valid. The most important thing is the Music. I’ve worked on orchestral projects where I recorded every single instrument, one at a time, and had to mix stems of strings, woodwinds, brass, etc., separately just to be able to even hear what it was all sounding like. It worked, but that’s not the way I would have done it if I had access to Columbia Studios and a Philharmonic. Teo’s standards were obviously very high, so he probably wouldn’t have settled with my living room over dub marathon. I can’t blame him either. I have no interest in gimmicks either, just the music. The more the music comes through, the better the record will be. You can tell when an instrument has been messed with, for me; it’s all about how it’s treated and how it’s affected. It has to serve the music.
DJ Logic: They had analogue, they had tapes, they had tubes, they had knobs and stuff like that. Going back to Teo, another session I had with them, when I recorded with him (he played on my record), he brought in one of his effects boxes that he used for all of his records. It was a Roland effects box; he used a lot of his records to enhance the whole mix. It was a flavor; it was his personal, secret little magic box. I was honored to have that. The movement, emotion, feeling, when you listen to analogue, it’s much more thick, it’s warmer, and you feel it more. It captures certain elements, certain ways the music sounds, the instruments. Now with digital, everything is more compressed and flat. With the sound of electronic, you have these patches that are already preset, and sounds that were already preset. Back in the day, he was creating those things, he was creating those sounds. He would do just the littlest things here and there to enhance the record and whoever he’s working with.
DJ Spinna: I do agree with this to a certain extent. Nothing will ever compare to analog experience. There’s a human element that went into building analog machines that will always create warmer results.
Although analog sounds better technology has found a way to emulate it very well. You can’t however avoid the enhancements that technology has to offer. At the end of the day it’s the man behind the machine. If you have the right vision and experience you can do some amazing things in the digital world. You can also combine both techniques, a little analog processing here, a little digital there. The digital method of working allows for infinite possibilities such as slowing down an entire recording session in real time without changing the pitch of individual tracks. Something like this could never have been done 50 years ago.
What about the idea of the studio as a musical instrument?
Rob Swift: Whether you have a home studio or record out of a professional one, every piece of equipment at your fingertips should be viewed as an extension of the other. Working all of them together properly will not only enhance your overall ideas, it will also improve the actual recording experience. An artist should always work towards mastering how every piece of equipment at their disposal works. Doing so will propel you to higher levels of innovation.
Raydar: The studio as a musical instrument, I feel is something often felt but not necessarily heard. It’s not so much the notes that are being played. It’s the sonic texture sometimes. You can see this especially in Nashville. You look at some of the studios in Nashville and they have full rooms just designed for reverb. Those rooms have some of the best reverb that you’ll ever hear. That’s a studio set, it’s not exactly an affecting play, when they access those reverbs when they access those delays, here the engineer is put to work, it changes the mood of a song or record. I always go back to the shades of the picture or the nuances that make it stick out. That to me is just as important as who’s playing on it, the notes, or the composition. One of the reasons that we like to go out and party and dance is because of how the music sounds when it comes out of the big speakers. I was at this place called MJQ’s [Atlanta based night club] last night and they were playing this amazing hip-hop set, and funk and they went through all of this stuff, and what was so beautiful was just the way that the people all moved to the frequencies. Where would we be without a full lush bass line, or a big hard kick, and a snare drum that just cracks? It’s partially what the music is in terms of the creation, but it’s also the process in the studio. All of that is so important to the final outcome, to the final perception. It’s like going to a job interview. You have to make sure you are dressed well for your interview. You want to have your best foot forward—have your best presentation. Especially when a record is being played for the first time, because first impressions are the most important. Why would it be any other way with music? I feel like studios are so important to that aspect.
Carlos Nino: I have a lot of experience recording music live in a room – performances in various venues, and in the studio—the living room even. Studios can be an essential element in the greatness of a record, but it’s all about chemistry, and alchemy as far as I’m concerned. You’re going to get the best result in the best environment for the music and that can’t be exactly calculated. It’s an intuitive science more than a physical one. Mostly it’s about energy. As we’re all instruments, and we’re all vibrating, so are studios, so are all the tubes, all circuitry, all knobs, organic elements, and machine forged ones, etc. A great studio is a great musical instrument. A great engineer will know how to tune and flow with the studio, thus being a great instrument, his or herself. It wouldn’t be anything without the Music.
DJ Logic: The studio is an instrument with all of the options that you have of things that you could use. Now it’s different. There aren’t too many outboard gears, and toys to experiment with. Everything now is a software or a plug-in. All of that vintage gear, there are studios who have it, but everything now is going condensed. There are people recording in their apartments and in their house. It’s great when you can record live, you feel like you can capture everything you want with everybody. That’s why I like recording with musicians, because we are all there and we all create together. It’s more whole. Now you get home alone, it’s just you and the computer. Just you and your mouse (ha-ha).
…I have a song that Teo wrote for me. It’s in a box somewhere I have to pull it out. Eventually I want to record it. It’s a sheet of music that he wrote up for me the last time that we spoke. It’s special. He was a wonderful person, and funny. A funny and wonderful old man.
DJ Spinna: I wouldn’t say that the studio is totally comparable to a musical instrument itself, but the components that make up the recording process can produce similar effects, especially when you get into effects processors like delays, modulators, filters, etc. Again, if used correctly mystical results can happen.
Interviews by Eric Sandler
Rob Swift is a world-renowned turntablist (as distinguished from plainly a DJ). Formerly of the legendary X-ecutioners Swift was part of one of the most awe-inspiring DJ crews in history, later forming Ill Insanity, Swift continues the hip-hop tradition by touring around the world and sharing his skills.
Official Website: http://www.djrobswift.com/
Raydar is a New York based international recording artist. Raydar goes beyond the triple threat status of emcee/producer/DJ by also holding the credentials of a college professor at the Berklee College of Music, where he founded the Dilla Ensemble.
Signed to the progressive West Coast label Plug Research, Nino is a staple producer in the world of non-conformist airy, hallucinogenic jazz/hip-hop, or vaguely some variety or combination of each. As host of the Spaceways radio show, and as a member in Ammoncontact, Nino is pushing our aural boundaries and breeding new music(s).
Logic has taken more than his share of risks as a turntablist. Playing with everyone from Christian McBride to Vernon Reid to Medeski, Martin and Wood, Logic has created some of the most interesting collaborations with musicians spanning all genres from the jam band circuit, to hip-hop, as well as jazz and funk. Logic continues to expand our ears with brilliant new concepts.
Official Website: http://www.djlogic.com/
DJ Spinna has released at least 26 records since 1996 whether they be solo or with groups like Jigmastas, the Domecrackers, Polyrhythm Addicts, Tortured Soul, and Grand Pianoramax among others. As a producer, Spinna has brought the jazz, funk, and soul roots of contemporary music to artists like Mary J. Blige, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Guru among many more. He continues to be one of the hardest working artists around.
Official Website: http://www.djspinna.com/