In this article, the Pro Tools Expert Team shares a selection of albums that inspire them in music production. These days album production may be falling a bit by the wayside but never underestimate the power of a great album. Great albums that have been written and produced well are often a great source of creative inspiration.
We love music here at Pro Tools Expert so please share the albums that inspire you and the reasons why in the comments below.
Spilt Milk By Jellyfish - Dan Cooper
Jellyfish were a popular band for a short time in the early 1990's. Sadly they only released two studio albums. The first album named "Belly Button" which is also a brilliantly written, produced and recorded album. However, their second and last album "Spilt Milk" is where I really feel the genius of Jellyfish came out.
Jellyfish were a band that really embraced their musical influences. Elements from The Beachboys, Queen and The Beatles are heard throughout their music in both writing, arrangement, instrumentation, energy and production.
I love "Spilt Milk" because the songwriting throughout the journey of the album is top-draw. The arrangments are second to none with each song having its own identity and theme that's all tied together with exceptional musicianship. The quality of the recording and mixing is also world class. This is an album that doesn't sound like it came out of the 1990's yet I feel will always stand the test of time.
This album has always inspired me in song arrangement and has reminded me time and time again about the merits of a well-written song. Many of the songs on both "Belly Button" and "Spilt Milk" can be found online as early bootleg recordings. The recording quality is not great but these bootlegs do showcase the strengths of the songs and the vibe of the band.
What's my favourite song on the album? I don't have one, it's a fantastic album as a whole that takes me on a crazy journey from start to finish. If you wish learn how to arrange music then you have to critically listen to this album
Toto IV By Toto - James Ivey
IV by Toto is not only one my favourite straight up "rock" albums in my collection, but it could well be my favourite album of all time and for several good reasons.
I was just 5 years old in 1982 when the album came out and believe it or not I was already playing drums. However it was not until I was 13 and in a band called "The Fridge Magnets" that I discovered the first track on the album "Rosanna". IV is home to 2 of Toto's most famous tracks, those being "Rosanna" and "Africa" but there was just something about that mystical shuffle groove from drummer Jeff Porcaro that got me hooked.
I have this album on LP somewhere (in the loft I think) and one of the things I love about a proper gate-fold cover is being able to read the sleeve notes. As a 5 year old boy I didn't know what the engineer did but it turns out that many years later I would come to meet him, be tutored and inspired by him and become friends with him. His name is Al Schmitt. Funny how these things come full circle isn't it?
For me Toto IV is the ultimate combination of fantastically written and arranged songs with stunning musicianship and instrumental skill that has been captured beautifully and honestly. This is the sort artist I want to be. Not to be a copy-cat but to be make music that is honest, real but still really catchy and has a groove and a hook like you can sing.
Some years later (2011) as a project to try out my then brand new home studio I decided to have a go a recreating my favourite track from this seminal album. let me know if you think I nailed the Porcaro Shuffle.
A Few Small Repairs By Shawn Colvin - Russ Hughes
Suggested to me as an album I should hear over a decade ago, 'A Few Small Repairs' by Shawn Colvin has for a me something that a lot of albums do not have... production mystery.
To put this in context, my introduction to the world of music production in the 1980s was as a programmer. Part of my role was being hired by top bands who were taking their albums on the road and I was hired to work out what sounds had been used on the album and recreate them for live use. So I learnt to deconstruct albums, in fact I got so good at it that it spoilt the listening process for me on many albums, I would sit there hearing the sounds of the drums, the synths, the guitars and even the effects, whilst it might sound cool it can become a curse. Somewhat of a party trick, being able to say what synth it was and what patch, or what snare and what reverb, soon wears thin as listener.
So the first time I heard A Few Small Repairs I was enraptured by the songs and the sounds. For example the guitar parts in the track 'I Want It Back'. if you know how they did it then please don't tell me how they did it, I don't want to know.
The production is outstanding, classy and sensitive. Highlights for me are as already mentioned 'I Want It Back' and 'If I Were Brave'. If you ever use strings on tracks then listen to 'If I Were Brave' to hear how to arrange strings without invoking the usual cliches found in many pop records. If you like recording guitars then this is the album to hear how it's done.
Add to this the quality of the recording and mix are simply excellent - they really help to elevate this great collection of songs.
If you've never heard 'A Few Small Repairs' then I suggest you do so. Nothing has taken it from my album to aspire to record.
Ellipse By Imogen Heap - Julian Rodgers
Spilt Milk was my first choice too, It was a delight when I was introduced to it as it is such an achievement. If you don’t know why Jack Joseph Puig has a signature line of plug ins then have a listen to this. One thing Dan didn’t mention which makes this album particularly fascinating to people wanting to improve their mixing and arranging skills is the related release “Stack-a-Tracks”. This is both Spilt Milk and Bellybutton (Jellyfish’s other album) but without the vocals. These are dense arrangements and being able to hear these instrumental versions is as close as we’re ever going to get to accessing the multitrack. Unfortunately, because of tape speed variances with the different passes and the other differences introduced by the analogue workflow it wouldn’t be possible to null these mixes against the full album (yes, I tried…).
Considering Dan has already taken my first choice I’m going to suggest Ellipse by Imogen Heap. This album received the 2010 Grammy for best engineered album and having had very brief access to the Pro Tools session of one of the tracks I can see exactly how much work went in to the mixes. The fact that all the de-essing on this album was done using volume automation playlists has always stuck in my mind. While much of the recording community obsesses over analogue workflow and introducing colour, this album is unashamedly in the box and is the perfect example of how digital clarity can be just as involving as analogue warmth.
An honourable mention also has to go to the DVD Audio 24/96 5.1 release of the Beatles Love album. If you ever get a chance to hear it in 5.1 make sure you do, it is simply stunning