Interview: Dann Huff, part 1: On Being a Producer and Keith Urban
In the first installment of our two-part interview, Dann Huff discusses Keith Urban’s guitar work on Defying Gravity, how he defines his role as a producer, and the pros and cons of plug-ins and effects.
(2 of 2)
Is Blackbird your primary recording studio?
I can do 90 percent of an album at Blackbird, but it’s small for tracking. I rarely venture out from that studio. Blackbird is a musical playground. John and Martina McBride—their passion has always been recording. John has done well with his sound company. He’s one of the biggest live mixers; he used to do Garth Brooks when he was touring, and he’s content to put everything into this. It’s now a complex that everyone on this side of the Mississippi comes to. It’s not just the physical rooms but also his mic and gear collections—pro audio, guitars, drums, bass. He’s a serious collector. They’re not in humidity-controlled rooms to look at. He has them on the walls, and the availability of acoustic and electric guitars is beyond anything ever done in the recording business. He called me five or six years ago and asked, “Would you work in my place if I built you a room?” It was a field of dreams! He’s got a who’s who in there on any day. With Keith’s record we tracked at the Castle in Franklin (TN). I’ve recorded there since I was 18 or 19. Then we overdubbed and mixed at Blackbird.
When was the last time you recorded in analog?
Probably three years ago, I think with Keith. We tried to go back in a way. It was interesting. We loved it, but it didn’t make the music better. It was a fun drill, like going back to the days of yore. We all prefer the sound of records back then, but this MP3-crazy world we live in, the speed with which people want records, it’s not the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B. Engineers are so good that I’m not sure it’s worth the time and expense of working in analog anymore, at least in the records I’m making.
What is your definition of a producer?
Just an enabler, basically. Hopefully, you’re a creative partner—and a transparent partner—in the life of a project. The definition, for me, is someone who takes the vision, dreams and wishes of an artist and helps them get to that point. Helps, not does it for them or sits back while they do it. It changes from project to project because the needs are different. I always pray that people don’t say, “That’s a Dann Huff record.” I’ve been described usually in a way I can deal with, the quality of it, but I don’t have a defined methodology because one size doesn’t fit all, even with the same artist. Honestly, I’m still defining it as I go. My answer next year won’t be the same as it is now. I’m building on a train of thought that it’s 100 percent interactive. That’s where collaboration enters into it. You learn to listen and never arrive. I’m always learning new ways to listen, suggest, maneuver and gently nudge the artists to find new ways to say what they want to say. Or sometimes I just change guitar strings for them. It’s an intense time when people put down musical thoughts that will represent them for the next year or two. I move on to the next project, but this is their life and how they are judged and it’s a building block for their career. Sometimes it’s just talking about what somebody is going through, being a friend. We do a lot of that. Enabling somebody to be at their best. It’s coaching, and coaches come in all sizes and shapes. I’ve known producers who aren’t great musicians. It helps, but you don’t have to be, and sometimes it doesn’t help. Sometimes it handicaps you as you look through a different lens. I try to get away from my musical skin to be an effective producer.
How has technology changed the way you make records?
It’s not like it was five years ago. I usually don’t endorse things. I prefer to buy and not be beholden to a company. I don’t use stuff because I get it free. Several engineer friends are flabbergasted at the guitar parts I bring in thanks to the DAW and plug-ins. All I have to do is plug in and do it, and they’re shocked because they hear it for what it is, not for a direct recording process. These are discerning ears, so if they don’t hear the difference …. This virtual guitar stuff sits in the track differently. The new POD Farm has a list of effects, twenty distortion pedals, ten delays; they’ve gotten so good at modeling these things. Ultimately, my favorite lesson about sound came from my hero, Mutt Lange, the greatest producer of all time. I didn’t do this on purpose, but I modeled my take on sound from him. I worked with him a lot as a guitar player, and whatever was there, you used. He’s used Rockmans on massive records and you’d never know. He says there is no bad sound—turn it up and it becomes greater sound! All sound is usable. The trick is how you use it.
The effects are easier to achieve, but at what price to creativity?
Not at any price. I look at it in two ways. The biggest problem
with technological breakthroughs is that you have limitless options. You fight against learning to make a decision, and that’s the toughest thing these days. With limited technology you spent a lot of time trying to come up with guitar effects, amps, all kinds of stuff, at the price of losing the moment. Now you can store the sound. With the click of a mouse you’re back to it and can immediately move on to what you’re trying to create. If the Beatles had had all this, they would have used it, and we worship the music they made with limited technological advances. Part of their genius was being able to see limitations. All the guitars and amps we’re reverent about are what they used, which were shiny new guitars and amps right from the store. There was no reference for them. They grabbed guitars, strung them, turned on the amps and there their minds went. Nowadays we’re inundated and overwhelmed with options and we forget what we’re trying to say. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m curious about the next round of technology. There’s a lot of new stuff out there, but I don’t think a lot of it really matters.
How important is it for a musician to explore different genres?
All music is the same language, and being exposed to it helps you express yourself better. I have three kids, and Elliott, my 14-year-old son, is the instrumentalist. He’s a drummer and he’s really good; he has that thing, whatever that thing is. They have more at their disposal because of YouTube, which is an incredible tool. They can see things we never could see. He has all of his music and we talk about older drummers. I want him exposed to those musicians, and he’s not going to know about them unless his old man tells him. We saw Steve Gadd do a symposium on the groove, and he learned on the spot. He jams a ton with his friends—we have a noisy house. Kids these days have way more distractions than any preceding generation, an insatiable appetite to be entertained, and instant access at all times. Trying to focus on one thing is the hardest thing for any young musician. They can be exposed to everything at every moment of every day. The greatest musical university is in your home, if you have internet access. Will they redefine music? We’ll see. I don’t know. We’re all too close to it.