Producing Music for Families (Tor Hyams / Dean Jones)

I can't remember when I first realized that producing kids music was a new sub-specialty I wanted to investigate, though it couldn't have been hurt by the kids music production panel at this year's Kindiefest. But more significantly, it just seemed to me like in the past year, more artists were securing help in recording their albums, and I was curious why that might be happening.

I spoke with a couple of the producers on the panel, Tor Hyams and Dean Jones, last month, prior to their panel in Brooklyn about producing albums. Hyams has produced kids albums by Frances England, the Okee Dokee Brothers, Jim Cosgrove, and Lunch Money as well as Milkshake's Grammy-nominated Great Day and his A World of Happiness compilation. (He's also produced albums for Lou Rawls and Joan Osborne, among others.) Jones' producing credits include 5 albums for his band Dog on Fleas, 2 solo disk, Uncle Rock's The Big Picture, and the forthcoming benefit compilation Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti. He's also done work for various film, stage, and TV projects -- "an awful lot of awful work for awful TV shows," as Jones jokingly puts it. They have as much broad background as any as producing albums for families these days.

Zooglobble: What do you actually do as a producer? Does that differ from project to project?
There is no single answer, and, yes, that varies from project to project. Jones notes that "the term 'producer' is a loose one - I might do exactly the same thing for 2 different artists and be called a producer on one of the records and engineer on the other."

Hyams says,

"I typically do everything from helping to finesse the songwriting, advising on song arrangements, sitting in on band rehearsals to determine sounds and arrangements, booking the recording studio, hiring musicians (if needed), planning out the recording (the order of tracking based on number of days, overdubs, etc). Once in the recording studio, I acquire all the right sounds, from getting the right amp sounds for guitar and bass to choosing the right microphones for acoustic based instruments and vocals. During the actual recording or 'getting takes,' I will often comment and advise on performance (suggest a better or different way to play a part, come up with parts on the spot and work with the musician to execute those parts), all the while making sure the recording is sonicaly rich and, ideally, doesn't sound like anyone else. All in all, I like to help create the sound of a band/artist or, at least, bring something new the the table the artist has not produced before. The ultimate goal of producing for me, though, is to serve the singer and the song, to make the best sounding recording available given the performers.
While Jones' response isn't as technical, he makes the same point -- he serves the artist:
"I think ultimately a producer should have the overall vision of a recording project in mind, and help the artist make a great record. It really can differ from project to project. A producer may be making decisions as to what songs an artist records, or have no say in that at all. Some producers have their own "sound" that they apply to every record they do, and others try to make themselves go unnoticed.

In the producer role, I like to hear what songs an artist wants to record, and try to hone in on an overall mood and sound for the record. Should it sound loose and homey or full and layered with lots of instruments and sounds? I try to find what will make each song reach its full potential."

Hyams notes that because he's been a professional recording artist, he's "been on both sides. Musicians seem to like that I can hear when they play a wrong note or chord or comment on intonation issues (maybe not the tenth time, but certainly at first!).

And Jones' work on compilation disks such as Many Hands is another beast entirely:"It's more about emailing and waiting for emails than making music. I can see why I don't like very many compilation CDs. It's easy to be lead away from one's original vision. You have very little control. But I must say, with the Many Hands CD, I held on to a belief that the musicians would come through and be on the mark, and I was pleasantly rewarded!"

Is there a difference between producing kids' albums and albums for adults?
Yes and no, Jones and Hyams differ a bit here. Jones says, yes, that the main thing for him is "keeping them short and exciting -- kids are very receptive listeners, and they don't need to be hit over the head with tons of aural information. Too many layers of instruments and not enough breathing room will tire kids' ears out. (Mine too!!)" Hyams initially says no -- "I only know how to produce a great album to the best of my abilities and the capabilities of the act/artist" -- but subsequently notes that he is "somewhat more careful to bring out the lyric in a kindie-oriented album since kids really like to hear the lyrics so they can sing along." Another difference Hyams points out is that he's "not usually faced with issues of being or sounding 'cool' when it comes to a kids' album. Everyone on those projects just seem to want it to be pure and have good energy."

What was your favorite producing experience -- not your favorite album, just what was the best experience (kids or adult)?
Hyams recalls producing Lou Rawls, describing it as a "huge high" in his career, but also surreal:

"I remember sitting at the recording console when I was producing his vocals and, for the first time in my career, I wasn't concentrating on sound or gear or anything. I was just having a great time listening to this magical performer. Then, as if I was separted from myself, I looked over at the engineer and exclaimed 'Wow, that guy sounds exactly like Lou Rawls!'"
Hyams also credits producing Edwin McCain with changing him as a producer:
I went in, as I used to do with every album project, ultra prepared. The arrangements were done, the players were hired (including Ivan Neville!), and the studio was set. I had never been this well planned to that point. Then, Edwin said 'let's just try some stuff and see how it goes.' Basically, he threw out all my plans and only said 'I want this to be a dirty southern soul album. I want to feel like I need a shower after listening to this album.' That statement changed my life. I tossed all my preconceptions and just went along for the ride. It was a great ride! I truly learned the lesson of open-mindedness on that album. It's one of the best albums I've ever worked on."
Jones mentions Uncle Rock's recent release, The Big Picture, "banging around ideas and being really open and creative with the process." Jones did a lot of the mixing by himself and then had Uncle Rock come in to listen. Says Jones, "I like the freedom of experimenting on my own, and then having the reality check come later."

What is some of the advice you give to the artists you work with?
The producers offer advice both practical and philosophical. Practically speaking, Jones suggests that artists "find 3 or 4 songs that work really well together and build an album around them; if the other songs you have don't work with them, write more." Hyams advises that artists "practice [their] ass off before [they] even book the recording. When a musician knows their material inside and out to the point where they don't have to think about it anymore, it makes for the best recording because the artist becomes detached from their creation. They approach it in a way that is free from any previous precious feeling they had about their song or their performance."

As for the philosophical side, both producers have similar takes. Jones notes, "Stay loose. Have fun. It won't sound fun unless you're having fun." Hyams seeks energy in performances that translates to listeners -- "Savant musical talent is great, but honesty and authenticity of a performer is much more desirable. Ideally, you get both!"

Also, Jones comments on the difficulty of working with others. "I think it's good to ask yourself if you will want to hear the music you are making in 5 years, or 10 years. I find that it's easy to be butting heads with people over ideas that have no relevance to you a month or more later." In some way, this advice echoes Hyams when he says that the artists should "only concentrate on the process of performing and recording, not on the end goal or what happens after."

Has producing become easier for you over time?
It's amusing to me to see how the answers from Hyams and Jones echo each other here. They both talk technology, with Hyams saying that since "technology is constantly in flux and evolving, there is always a new piece of gear to consider and a different way to make something sound good, weird or beautiful." Jones admits to missing his tape machines, which he hasn't used for a couple of years -- "they make recording easier in some ways... or maybe not." Jones also says he enjoys mixing now, which he used to "struggle" with.

But both producers say that it's philosophical approach to producing that has made things easier. Hyams says that becauses he loves producing music, "it's never difficult -- challenging, yes, but difficult, no." He notes that the greatest part of his job is he gets to learn on every project: "When I feel like I've been though it all, something happens that proves I still have so much left to learn. So, in a sense, it does get easier, but it's less the 'job' and more the 'letting go' that gets easier." Jones feels like

"it's gotten easier to look at the big picture and not get caught up in ideas and tools that just clutter up the vision, and things that don't stand the test of time. I really, honestly try not to think. Just let everything be spontaneous and inspired. Sometimes a brilliant idea doesn't hold up the next day, but I try to go with the feeling in the moment."

That's about as serendipitous a set of responses you'll probably hear about this subject...