Play by ear to call the shots

By Adam Gifford

Wayne Bell started out as a drummer but is now enjoying success as a producer. Photo / Supplied
Wayne Bell started out as a drummer but is now enjoying success as a producer. Photo / Supplied

Musicians take a winding road to the mixing desk, says Adam Gifford.

You can't become a record producer by completing a degree, so how do you get to the call the shots behind the mixing desk, and what exactly is it you do?

"For a long time in this country, engineers were producers," says Wayne Bell, who has helmed releases for Jan Hellriegel, Victoria Girling-Butcher, Lindon Puffin and others.

"If you engineered a record, you produced it, which sometimes worked but often didn't."

Bell started out as a drummer, learning his chops on the brewery circuit in the early 1980s with unrecorded band The Innocent.

The first time he appeared on a record was in a 1985 single by Everything That Flies, an Auckland band fronted by Dianne Swann - he has just co-produced an album by her current band, The Bads.

"I am an average engineer so my contribution to a project is from the creative side, and also the boring side which is budget - pushing the project through, getting it done on time, the nasty stuff of ego management and hiring and firing people, which is never pleasant," Bell says.

He looks for great engineers: "I have been doing a lot of work with Olly Harmer at The Lab and Neil Baldock at Roundhead. They have amazing ears and amazing skills and nothing is a problem or too far-fetched."

They're the two studios he uses most, when he's not cranking out music for commercials and television soundtracks in a spare bedroom in his Freemans Bay apartment.

His shift into production wasn't a conscious decision.

"I was playing with a whole bunch of people who needed a drummer, then moved into studio work in the early 1990s doing albums with Jan Hellriegel and These Wilding Ways.

"I found that's what I wanted to do. I enjoyed it more than the live thing, which was frustrating because so many factors are fraught - the venue doesn't sound good, someone else is drunk. In the studio you are in control of the situation.

"I have always unwittingly taken the role of trying to find more in a song than what is obviously there.

"It's funny how a lot of drummers move into the production side of things. Maybe it's something about forming the basis of a piece of music - you are more inclined to hear what needs to go on top of it than a guitar player or a singer would."

His philosophy includes room for accidents. "You've got to be prepared to try anything, because even if it is the craziest idea you have it may be the best idea you ever have.

"So many times I hear something and say, 'You can't play that note there,' and if you give it a chance after a little time you go, 'That is beautiful, that just works."'

Bell rarely cuts more than four takes. "The first is going to have that rawness, that seat-of-your-pants sort of thing; you're still feeling your way through it but there is an excitement about the music. The second one will be better, tighter, you will probably work out what things are not working. The third will be perfect - which is not what you want - and after that you start losing energy."

He credits producer Ian Morris for a lot of what he knows.

"Ian has always been an amazing engineer. He has great ears and I possibly don't share his aural ideas but in terms of being a producer, working with people, coaxing a performance, how to make a session feel good and keep people up and get out a product, everything I know I stole from him.

"I remember him telling a sax player after a take, 'Perhaps a slightly sharper crease in the pants.' It doesn't mean anything, but everyone knew what he meant."

Bell sits with the artists before going into the studio to get an idea of where their songs can go. "If you do not have a good song, you do not have a good record, simple as that.

"Then I am a firm believer in getting a bunch of people that you trust and bashing it out in the studio, see what happens. A lot of the good stuff that happens in the studio has never been rehearsed."

He says rather than dealing with big egos, most artists don't have enough of an ego "so your job becomes the sort of psychological support thing. It's getting someone to a point where they believe in themselves."

Bell's current purple patch started when he offered to helm Jan Hellriegel's 2009 comeback, All Grown Up.

That was followed in short order by an album for Andrew Keoghan (which has been short-listed for the Taite prize), projects with Kirk Shanks from Stellar*, recent chart-topper Annah Mac, Lisa Crawley, Lindon Puffin, and co-producing Victoria Girling-Butcher's Summit Drive album with Jol Mulholland.

Girling-Butcher built up a backlog of songs after her third Lucid 3 album, 2007's Dawn Planes.

"[Bell] was very helpful in nailing down which ones I should do. When you are writing, you often can't see the wood for the trees," she said.

"He's wonderful to work with because of his temperament, he reads people and has a good way of getting the best out of them."

Puffin, who had self-produced two alt-country albums, was doing building work on The Lab to earn credit for studio time while Bell was recording Keoghan's Arctic Tales Divide.

Impressed by how Bell transformed Keoghan's quirky songs, he gave the producer a pile of his demos.

Puffin said after his experiences spending months labouring over tracks in a home studio, the speed with which Bell got tracks completed was a revelation.

"He's a truly modest guy. He doesn't lead from the front, but somehow magically got everything got done without games or drama."

- NZ Herald

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