Mix and Zen with Bob Power: Musings of an NYC Music Master

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Bob knows (almost) all. (Photo Credit: Michel Legrou)

FASHION DISTRICT, MANHATTAN: If you could burrow inside the mind of Bob Power, chances are it would sound mighty good in there. For this softly-spoken but hugely influential member of the New York City production scene, music is always the message.

Certainly, just the track record of this multi-multi-platinum GRAMMY-nominated, Emmy-winning producer/mixer/engineer composer/professor/Yoda would be enough to warrant an interview: dig on D’Angelo, Chaka Khan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ozomatli (2002 Grammy “Best Alternative Latin Album”), De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Miles Davis, the Roots, Macy Gray, Curtis Mayfield, David Byrne, Spike Lee, The Brand New Heavies, Maceo Parker, Pat Metheny, KRS 1, Run DMC, PBS, Coca Cola, Mercedes, AT&T, and the hundreds more people and things that grace his client list.

But the impetus to reach out, and have a pow-wow in his cozy downtown mix suite is bigger than that. Even a shallow investigation into the NYC music and sound creation landscape will uncover a Disciple of Bob. What top audio pros can name him as a mentor, motivator or friend? It’s easier to count the ones who can’t.

The longer I talk to music pros around NYC – producers, engineers, mixers – the more I hear, “Bob Power taught me this. Bob Power was my mentor and he said that.” So many roads seem to lead to Bob Power. Why is this?
I very humbly respond that it’s often difficult for me to say, “I know best.” My way of doing things is only one way of doing things. What you’re hearing is  partly due to longevity. I’ve been doing this for long enough, and I try to be supportive of people coming up. Still, I’m amazed by the fact that you say that.

It’s odd to look up and realize that you’ve been doing this — recording and producing music — for 40 years. I started out playing, and I played for a living for 20 years with  guitar as my primary instrument. I scored TV for seven years on the West Coast, then came back to New York here where I got heavily into industrials and jingles – then from the late ‘80s and 90’s, almost exclusively records. I was trying to do both for a while — big records and scoring for big clients like AT&T and BMW, but it was killing me.

If there’s a thread that runs through all this stuff, it’s that I have seen audio production from all of these different angles. Many of them are musical — purely musical – and many of them are technical. Both are fascinating for me: I grew up as a musician, and I have two degrees in music. A dirty secret is that I’ve never taken an engineering course in my life.

Nonetheless I’ve learned a great deal about music engineering and music recording. One thing I’ve realized teaching music and recoding is that you have to think of it as music first. I often get asked, “Wow, I love your kick drum sound. How do you record it?” But music is a moving target, and people forget about that. So when people get into electronics and physics, they forget that every day is something different. A C9 is never the same twice.

The six-string remains his muse.

I’ve come to a place with producing, recording and mixing music that is very music-oriented. At the same time,  I happen to love things where the sound itself is as interesting as the music is. But the music always has to come first.

What’s the opposite of that? If the music isn’t coming first, then what is?
Engineers on the way up sometimes put themselves and their engineering into the process too visibly, and it can get in the way of people’s creativity. I can only say that because I did that a lot, myself. Now, it’s more important to me to make the recording process as transparent as possible.

It’s all about understanding the part of the process you’re in at any given moment..When I’m writing, I have to force myself not to perfect my parts. I do a lot of programming and sequencing, and not perfecting is a very conscious decision. It reminds me of what I have to do with someone who’s in creative mode. I keep things moving forward.

Momentum – creative, musical, and productivity – are key. The only time you’ll see me getting steamed is when people are on the studio floor (during a session) and some piece of gear isn’t working, because the creative energy of those players is the most important thing at that time. It’s the same as asking someone to play something too many times – the spark, the vitality goes out of it.

We don’t listen to records to hear the right things in the right place. That’s nice, but with the mechanics of records – taking soundwaves into the transducer of a mic, storing it onto an analog or digital medium, and then doing the reverse trip to listen back – being able to hear any emotion in that is a modern miracle. That’s the thing that’s kept so many of us recording geeks so amazingly fascinated for so long.

Turning off that “perfect” button is definitely something I have a hard time doing. How do you manage to do it?
I have learned that perfect is not always good. As musicians, when we come up and try to get our chops together, we lose sight of the inner push that makes the music come alive. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some real genre-bending, genre-creating artists, and realizing that they were right about a lot of things they pushed me toward. They didn’t want it perfect — perfect was too 1987!

All the musical experience one has contributes to who you are as a music practitioner, whether it’s as a recordist or a player. As a kid, I beat the guitar with some guts. It may not have been in tune, but my primary impetus at the time was feel. You do something for enough years, all that stuff coalesces.

Another thing is that my taste in what I like to listen to has veered from perfect. Perfect is nice – I grew up listening to and loving Steely Dan like many people – but what I try to do now as a music producer is to make music breathe. Among other things, I’m really into dynamics, which is not to say I don’t like compression: I may master things loud. It has to be competitive, for what it’s worth.  But what I’m talking about is musical dynamics; how an arrangement unfolds.

There needs to be an inner dynamic to a song where it’s allowed to rage and sit back, rage and sit back, An example is the contrast between the chorus and verse; it’s part of the drama of music.

Another big issue – the expression I use- is, “I don’t hear any blood on those tracks,” — it’s a nod to the Dylan metaphor. The most compelling music I hear has the blood. It doesn’t even have to be screaming; it can be soft. It can be Kate Bush. But you need to hear the emotion, the blood behind it.

Bob and Meshell: expressively connected.

That’s a vivid way of putting it. Can you point to a project that you’re currently involved in that’s calling that out?
Every gig is about that. #1, as a producer, I don’t take gigs unless I think someone has something special to say. If I do, I expend all my energy going where they live. One long-standing relationship I have on a musician and human level is Meshell Ndegeocello, who’s influenced me tremendously as a person and a musician. There are certain things she does that she doesn’t necessarily try to do, but  like any great artist, that’s just what and how they do.

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  • Justin

    Incredibly inspiring piece. Thanks Bob and Dave!

  • Bob, Thank you for sharing your wisdom.