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PBS' 'Soundbreaking' series goes inside the recording studios — from Stevie Wonder to Beyoncé

Record producer Malcolm Cecil in studio. PBS
Record producer Malcolm Cecil in studio. PBS "Soundbreaking."
Credit William Matthias

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If you could be a fly on the wall when The Beatles were recording at Abbey Road studios what would you see? Who exactly are those faceless collaborators that artists rely on to realize their vision?

The new eight-part PBS documentary series reveals the process behind some of the most influential music ever recorded. 

"The relationship between a producer and an artist is critical," says Maro Chermayeff, who co-directed and produced the series. "They can be freeing up that artist, they can be taking their ideas to a new level, they can be introducing them to sounds and ideas around a song that they didn't have. Or they can just be helping them to realize, I have this vision but I want to make it deeper and how can we do that? I think that great producers do that. They lift artists to a new level because they are artists themselves. So it was a really great opportunity in this series to really introduce you to the artistry on both sides of the glass."

"Soundbreaking" investigates the stories behind classic music spanning the 1960s through to today, albums including The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton," and Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key Of Life." 

It features interviews with music icons Paul McCartney, Sheila E., and Smokey Robinson — and, equally important, with the people on the other side of the recording booth glass who helped bring that music to life —  like music producers Rick Rubin, Jimmy Iovine and The Beatles' producer George Martin.

Below are some highlights from the conversation that The Frame's John Horn had with director-producer Maro Chermayeff.

Hear more by clicking the play button at the top of the page. 


On Beyoncé's "Single Ladies":

Tricky and The Dream, the producers of "Single Ladies", really talked about the roots that Beyoncé had in gospel. The roots she had singing and clapping and drawing back to those original church spirituals and church moments with that solid clap. She was able to take a very rhythm-based beat and then bring her own soul and spirit to it — and yet apply it to something that's such a modern idea in terms of how to deal with a relationship and what you're going to be doing in the club and how you're not going to be taken down for being a single lady and moving on. It's really fun to just take a song and hear that there are deep roots that go back. She had that history and knowledge. Tricky and The Dream had that history and knowledge and they sort of put the spirit back into what is an incredible pop song. 

On Stevie Wonder's recording process:

Obviously, Stevie Wonder is one of the most important and one of the greatest artists of the last 50 years going forward. I mean, he was a child star. He was just completely amazing, but he was also really hemmed-in creatively in some ways, though. Built by the Motown system and all of the great things that came with that, but also some of the things that held him back. So when they talk about how he came into the studio when he was hitting his 20s and he wanted to find his own voice and express himself. He hears this crazy synthesizer album and arrives in a chartreuse jumpsuit in the middle of the night with an album under his arm and says, 'Hey! I've got all of these songs inside of me that I want to share.' As Bob [Margouleff ] says, he walked in the door and they didn't wake up for five years because he had so much music in him.

They literally were just recording, recording, recording — leading to Grammy winning albums. Five in a row in the 1970s. You love those songs but you also just love the idea that this relationship between a technology, a producer and a talent and how they bring each other up. 

On Joni Mitchell's decision not to over-produce herself:

She wanted to be a woman expressing herself and her sound and her soul is in that voice and in that lyric. She's an amazing songwriter and she said, I don't want to be in a studio with potentially a male producer lording over my work. That's not how I see myself shining. So Joni is an example of just going back to that basic, authentic sound — the singer-songwriter model of writing these incredibly meaningful songs that are coming out of them that, who needs to gussy it up? 

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