What Do Album Producers Do, Exactly? We Asked One of Portland's Best.

He's recorded the Decemberists, Neko Case, and R.E.M.—now, Tucker Martine explains his craft.

By Aaron Scott March 2, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

After years of songwriting and recording, the legendary indie band Modest Mouse needed help finishing the follow-up to a chart-topping 2007 album. The band recruited Tucker Martine. “There were a lot of songs, in various states of completion,” the 43-year-old producer says on a sunny afternoon in his North Portland studio. “The goal was to make it sound like there was an album.”

Martine has recorded a legion of prominent bands and singer-songwriters, including the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, R.E.M., Neko Case, and Laura Veirs. In 2007 he was nominated for a Grammy; Paste Magazine named him one of the top 10 producers of the past decade, alongside the likes of Rick Rubin and Danger Mouse. He describes his craft as a combination of technical skills and aesthetic vision. “It’s the producer’s job to make sure the record is good,” he says, “and that things happen efficiently and on budget.”

The task generally starts with demo recordings and a discussion of how best to arrange and record songs. Martine then schedules the band and any extra musicians and captures the basic recordings. He uses a wall of black boxes, and the software that powers them, to choose among hundreds of effects to make the complex sonic tapestry sizzle.

The process varies greatly from project to project. For the Decemberists’ The King Is Dead, the band wanted a barnstorming live sound, so Martine took them to an actual barn and recorded most of the songs in one take. In contrast, he spent much of 2014 in the studio with My Morning Jacket, experimenting with an arsenal of reverbs, echoes, and other effects for two meticulously orchestrated albums: April’s The Waterfall and another scheduled for 2016.

For Modest Mouse’s Strangers to Ourselves, Martine played more of a “fixer” role, helping front man Isaac Brock find his way out of the labyrinth created by years of recording and reconnect with the rawness of some of the band’s demos. On one song, for example, Martine pushed Brock to make his vocals “irresponsibly loud.”

“Part of the producer’s job,” Martine says, “is knowing when the artist can do it better, and when they nailed it.”

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