The Top Ten Record Makers of Today

As we enter this new decade, it is already apparent that in the rock production world, a changing of the guard is at hand. There is a whole new batch of producers, engineers, songwriters and arrangers that are setting a new standard for music today, and thanks to them, it seems we’ll have many more years of memorable tune-age to expect. This list compiles the people who, in my mind, currently stand out as the ones to watch, for their future potential as much as their already impressive achievements.

10. The Brewis Brothers

David and Peter Brewis are at the core of Field Music, an experimental pop group from Sunderland, England. Peter used to play drums for neighboring band The Futureheads, and some members from that band and Maximo Park were members of Field Music at one time. However, Field Music is a completely different beast from these other bands. Their music is varied and at times hard to understand, but it’s always compelling. One of the most compelling aspects of these Field Music records is their production, which is always credited to David and Peter. Their new double album, “Measure”, furthers their tendency towards creating unapologetically challenging chamber pop that combines the textural abundance of Brian Wilson with the cutthroat edginess of Brian Eno.

9. Wilco

Ever since their inception in the mid-nineties, it seems Wilco have been pursuing the goal of creating wonderful rock records on their own. The first album with production credits given solely to the band was their second—1996’s “Being There”— and with how much versatility and flexibility it showcased when compared to the band’s pallid debut “A.M.”, it became clear this was the right move. By the time they were ready to record “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, the band had set up their own recording studio in their hometown of Chicago. Simply called The Loft, the now-famous location has seen the recording of every Wilco album from “Yankee” and beyond, and it seems to have become the perfect place for the band to continue to create some of the best modern rock music out there.

8. Jim Vollentine

You may not know his name, but it’s likely you have listened to a number of albums he worked on—namely albums by Spoon, White Rabbits, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and plenty of other big releases by bands from the Midwest. Based in Austin, TX, Vollentine’s spatial precision and pure love for the job has helped him become one of the top go-to engineers in the area. If you haven’t heard of him, it may be because he wants it that way—rumor has it that his position in life has everything to do with his love and insatiable curiosity of technology and engineering, and nothing to do with celebrity. But, the consistent greatness of the projects in which Vollentine is involved will not go unnoticed for long. He has done production work on some small releases, and could soon rise up to be a true behemoth in the industry.

7. Chris Walla

Aside from being guitarist/co-songwriter for indie giants Death Cab for Cutie, Walla has become an established producer in the last decade. His influence no doubt lent a great deal to the overall sound of the Death Cab albums, which get progressively better and better the further down the discography you go. His influence on other acts, however, could be considered saving grace in a few scenarios. Walla produced the last two Tegan & Sara albums and made great ones out of both of them, despite how same-y the group’s songs can sound at times—apparently, the dude likes making lemonade. But it’s always better when he doesn’t have to, and when Walla throws his ethereal pop sensibility into already amazing albums like Nada Surf’s “The Weight is a Gift” and “Give Up” by his own project The Postal Service, it pushes them into classic territory.

6. Owen Pallett

He has already made the best album of the year, or at the very least one that will be on dozens of year-end lists (the self-produced “Heartland”; buy it now!), and even has two other solo albums that are pretty damn good (both were released under the now-retired name Final Fantasy). He has also lent his gloriously imaginative orchestral arrangements to the likes of Arcade Fire, The Last Shadow Puppets, Jim Guthrie, Grizzly Bear, and The Pet Shop Boys, just to name a few. It seems most of the music industry has noticed and paid respects to the talents and abilities of Owen Pallett, so now it’s time for the music listening public to get on board. The fact that he is gay might make some people squirm in their seats; the fact that he is Canadian might make them jump ship altogether. To have a problem with either of the above is one thing, but to use them as an excuse to completely ignore Pallett’s brilliance is just plain wrong. (And let’s be honest, if you really do have a problem with gays or Canadians, you’re an idiot.)

5. Phil Ek

The album that first shoved the work of Phil Ek deep into the hearts of most of his current hardcore fans was “There’s Nothing Wrong with Love”, the second full-length from Built to Spill. In 1994, it was rare indeed to hear an album rock so whimsically without sounding like They Might Be Giants or some shit. And while there are certainly guitar freak outs to be had on the album, it was Ek’s clean, almost sterile approach that really complimented BTS’s (at the time) loose and rubbery style. Since then, Ek’s sonic abilities have evolved considerably, but his approach of adding only what is needed to accentuate the best qualities of a band has become greatly appreciated by record geeks everywhere. A great variety of bands grace his credentials—such as Mudhoney, Throw Me the Statue, The Dodos, Fleet Foxes, and more—and in no case is it obvious that Phil Ek produced the record. What is plain to see, though, is that any band who works with Ek is going to be captured at their absolute best.

4. Steve Albini

Steve Albini famously abhors being called a “producer”, which is part of the reason why this list is titled “Greatest Record Makers” and not “Greatest Producers”. (The other reason being that there are other very important and influential people involved in the record making process, of course.) In his early years, he most certainly was NOT a producer, and would simply mic a band in a room and hit record. To this day, this is pretty much what he does. However, Albini has developed an elaborate system of room and instrument mic placement that has become extremely sought after and widely influential in the rock and roll community. Because of this, he’s more or less considered a producer now. The first five Jesus Lizard albums showcase his growth as an engineer, and his work gets progressively more brutal and unforgettable, peaking with 1990’s “Goat”, that perfect moment when band and engineer clicked wildly. And though Albini talked some shit on the band, the incendiary sound he lent to Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” is no less than legendary. David Lovering wasn’t even that hard of a hitter, and his drums sound freaking enormous.

3. Dave Fridmann

Having produced nearly every release from The Flaming Lips and his own former band, Mercury Rev, Dave Fridmann has made a name for himself as the guy who’ll take the lid off your fucking record. One of his most recent projects, The Flaming Lips’ “Embryonic”, shows Fridmann stepping completely outside the box, utilizing one-mic recordings from the band’s “practice” sessions in the final mix. Back in 1996, he engineered the more scathing portion of “Pinkerton”, enabling Weezer to transform from alternative geeks to take-no-prisoners rockers. His most important work has arguably been with the Lips, though, especially on the rule-changing “Soft Bulletin” and its noise-drenched, oft-overlooked predecessor, “Clouds Taste Metallic”. The fact that one man was behind these two very different albums is only eclipsed in craziness by the fact that both albums were made by the same band, and maybe by the sheer impact and influence both albums have had on modern rock music. If you were a recording engineer and could put either of these two albums on your resume—let alone both—you could probably die happy. Dave Fridmann has that privilege.

2. Nigel Godrich

George Martin set an example as an older producer heralding in the young talent and dressing it up for the public, and the untamed vigor of rocking youth coupled with the steady wisdom of age behind the boards has made a winning combination ever since. Cut to 2010, and 39-year-old Nigel Godrich is already fifteen years into a storied career that includes producing the most heralded works of Radiohead, a band who considers him their sixth member—and Godrich is younger than any of them. Just as he did with Martin’s age-old standard, Godrich’s production often overturns any available conventions. His utilization of complex sound layers creates beautiful and haunting atmospheres, while his crisp instrumental recording and expert mixing and programming abilities have set a new standard in the recording industry. Martin eventually suggested Godrich to produce Paul McCartney’s “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard”, an album still viewed as one of McCartney’s most vital works since the breakup of The Beatles. If you can effectively collaborate with a living Beatle (and based on the possibilities of today’s technology, I must stress living), it’s pretty much set in stone: YOU RULE.

1. Rob Schnapf

Admittedly, Rob Schnapf is not as well known as producers like Albini or Godrich, nor has he built as impressive of a resume as that pair. Let’s be fair, though—considering how comparatively new to the game he is, Schnapf has only started to build his legacy. His initial thrust into the record-making spotlight came on Beck’s major label debut “Mellow Gold”, on which Schnapf was one of the producers of the breakthrough hit “Loser”. Later, he began working with Elliott Smith, and subsequently co-produced his three best albums. Since then, Schnapf went on to hone his style of big, bright, badass rock production to amazing precision, and was at the helms of the best post-Tobin Sprout Guided By Voices album (“Isolation Drills”), the daring and psychedelic sophomore album from The Anniversary (“Your Majesty”), and one of the top five best albums of 2008 (“Mission Control” by The Whigs). A Rob Schnapf record is pretty bare-bones as far as how many tracks are used—normally, there isn’t much more than guitar, drums, bass, and the occasional keyboard or whatever—but he has a way of allowing each instrument their own little sound world. He does his best to represent bands as one would see them onstage, but he also makes sure that literally EVERYTHING in the mix sounds amazing. There seems to be no trace of half-assedness in his work—even when making records for horrible bands like The Vines, Schnapf is obviously 100% dedicated to his craft

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9 Responses to “The Top Ten Record Makers of Today”

  1. Richard Barron Says:

    Rob has worked at my studio for many years on many projects, and I have to say… the reviewer got it right as far as Rob’s style goes. We see lots of engineers and producers through here, but no one is as thorough as Mr. Schnapf. He always knows where he’s going and one way or the other, he gets there. All aspects of the sound are important to him.. from the guitar strings through the A-D converters. His production is about performance and the broad stroke of the project while at the same time giving incredible attention to the most microscopic details.

    • recordgeekheaven Says:

      Thanks for the comment! I’ve never had the pleasure of working with Mr. Schnapf, but as a lover and maker of music, I have endless appreciation for his ability to make his work simultaneously subtle and hard-hitting, and his amazing attention to detail. I hope to record with him one day!

  2. Jon LaChance Says:

    Nice post! I totally agree on Rob Schnapf. The beauty of Rob’s production style is that there is none beyond serving the music and the artist faithfully. A listener would be hard-pressed to identify a unique thread running between Rubberneck, Odelay, Either/Or and Isolation Drills (best guitar sounds, ever) and that’s exactly how good production should work.

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