Jay Hodgson's Understanding Records

One of several great discoveries in the course of writing the 33 1/3 book on Portishead's Dummy was Jay Hodgson's wonderful Understanding Records: A Field Guide to Recording Practice. Hodgson has a talent for demystifying modern recorded sound, without ever detracting from the thrilling qualities of the music. As an example, as part of a discussion of distortion:

Reinforcement distortion does not necessarily require signal processing. Jimmy Miller, for instance, often reinforced Mick Jagger's vocals on the more energetic numbers he produced for the Rolling Stones by having Jagger or Keith Richards shout a second take, which he then buried deep in the mix. "Sympathy For The Devil," for instance, features a shouted double in the right channel throughout, though the track is faded so that it only sporadically breaches the threshold of audibility; "Street Fighting Man" offers another obvious example. "Let It Bleed" provides another example of shouted (manual) reinforcement distortion, though Miller buried the shouted reinforcement track so far back in the mix that it takes headphones and an entirely unhealthy playback volume to clearly hear. By the time Miller produced the shambolic Exile On Main Street, however, he had dispensed with such preciousness altogether: the producer regularly pumps Jagger's and Richards' shouted reinforcement tracks to an equal level with the lead-vocals on the album.

Hodgson is every bit as insightful and enthusiastic in person as he is in text. He was incredibly generous with his time and, over the course of a couple of conversations and email exchanges, helped me hear Dummy from the perspective of an audio professional, which was invaluable as I prepared to speak to Dummy and Portishead sound engineer Dave McDonald and mastering engineer Miles Showell. There are passages of my book -- particularly around the recording techniques for the album's vocals and its drum sounds -- that are informed by his insights and coloured by the questions that I only knew to ask after he had helped trained my ears.

While certainly intended for a professional audience, Understanding Records is a great read for the music enthusiast: Hodgson's writing is clear and alight with anecdotes and examples that illuminate music that you may only think you know. I'll never hear recorded music quite the same way again.