Before he produced even a demo disc, Steve Fishell was traveling, recording and performing with Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. Though he clearly enjoyed the experience, spending so much time — over a decade — on the road eventually led him to make some career-changing decisions.
“I decided if I ever wanted to have a family that it would be better for me to find something else in the music business that I could do that wouldn’t necessitate some much traveling,” he said.
“So I started working with Howie Epstein (former bassist with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers until his untimely death in 2003) cutting demos for Rosie Flores. Howie really loved country music and he was a fabulous musician and wonderful inspiration,” Fishell said. “That was my introduction into the production end, doing those eight-tracks with Rosie that ultimately helped her get a label deal. Howie’s support and the quality of that material that we made gave me the confidence that I could make the switch.”
Fishell eventually not only became a successful producer and A&R executive, but a Grammy winner.
Now, after helping such artists as Pam Tillis, Jann Browne, Charlie Major and Radney Foster score No. 1 hits; producing hit albums for The Mavericks, Dixie Chicks, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Emmylou Harris; managing projects at Sugar Hill and Vanguard for Nickel Creek, Billy Joe Shaver, The Duhks and Willie Nelson (among others); and co-producing Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster in 2005, Fishell is bringing his knowledge, insight and love for music to a new project.
He’s founding the Music Producers Institute (MPI), a series of intensive four-day monthly sessions at the Sound Emporium Studios (3100 Belmont Blvd, 383-1982) beginning June 17.
The opening session is slated for June 17–20, and continues Aug. 7–10 and Sept. 11–14 (all from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.). Students will work with a live band and go from early pre-production details through tracking and vocals, mixing and mastering.
Other elements to be explored during the sessions include the producer’s role in budgeting and project planning; contract details and interfacing with labels and managers; assembling a team of musicians; critical listening and assessing a performance; and moving from rehearsals and demos to overdubbing, editing, and the final mixes and masters.
Fishell says that while such schools as Vanderbilt, Belmont and Middle Tennessee State universities all have fine programs dedicated to the music business, MPI will focus more specifically on production areas.
“These other institutions tend to place most of the emphasis on audio engineering or other aspects of the business, while MPI is going to really focus on exactly what happens in the studio and how you become confident and successful in that environment,” Fishell said. “The studio is a very special and different place, and there’s not really any one set approach or way to operate in that setting.”
Fishell wants to show students producing techniques that can work in any type of situation and for any type of genre.
“We’re not doing country sessions or rock sessions, but showing you how to approach producing any type of music,” he said.
While Fishell acknowledges every session and every performer is different, he says that there are some key things that separate the great producers from those who aren’t so accomplished or successful.
“One thing that is critical is knowing when to step in and when to lay back,” Fishell said. “When you’re dealing with experienced musicians, you usually don’t need to get as involved as when you’re working with newcomers, but even then you still have to watch and monitor the situation and be judicious with your comments and input.
“Another mistake is not knowing when to move on. I’ve seen situations where producers will say, ‘that was perfect, let’s do it again.’ You have to know when you’ve gotten the best out of everyone involved, and when another chorus or another run-through might improve what you have,” he added. “It’s a tricky thing, and one that you can really only master through time and experience.”
Fishell adds that being a musician or having academic training isn’t essential, but can be help matters in the studio. He noted that some of the greatest producers in history weren’t musicians such as journalists John Hammond, Leonard Feather and Bob Thiele, or even scientists such as Tom Dowd.
“What you must have is a real love for music and an ear to pick up when things are working and when they’re going off course,” Fishell said. “Where musical knowledge always helps is in terms of making suggestions. If you can say to the musicians why don’t we try this chord or this sequence, or ask the singer if the tune might work in a different key or where do they feel they’ll sound most comfortable, all those things help. But you’ve got to have a strong love for music and the ability to get along with people much more than technical knowledge of music.”
Some of the finest studio technicians and musicians in Nashville and the nation will also be guest lecturers at various times during MPI sessions. The list for the earliest sessions includes Chuck Ainlay, Ray Kennedy, David Sinko, Frank Rogers, Buddy Miller, Jay Joyce, David Leo and engineer Andrew Mendelson of Georgetown Mastering.
“We’re going to keep bringing in as many outside people as possible to keep the sessions fresh,” Fishell said. “I’m sure that the students don’t always want to hear me droning on and on about things.”
While technology has greatly improved and changed since he began in the industry, Fishell feels that there are still some things that remain the same when it comes to making great records.
“The biggest thing that the digital revolution has done today is provide a safety net, and sometimes that can be a problem,” Fishell said. “But the important thing is that you’ve got to get that soulfulness and that energy into the performance, no matter what type of technology is recording the music. That’s the quality that we’ll emphasize in the sessions — teaching that respect for artistry and integrity remains the most important part of the process and that the producer’s main goal is to nurture the artist and help them make their finest music.”
For information on upcoming MPI sessions and registration details visit musicpi.com.