Sir George Martin had a last project: a documentary series on the impact of recorded music. Unfortunately, the legendary Beatles producer died before the final work was completed, but his spirit imbues every frame of Soundbreaking: Stories From The Cutting Edge of Recorded Music, an 8-part series that airs on PBS beginning Nov. 14.
Featuring never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with more than 150 top artists, producers, engineers, and musicians, Soundbreaking is a love letter to the recording process as well as historical trek from the invention of the microphone to digital streaming. Among the names who appear are Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Roger Waters, Roger Daltrey, Barry Gibb, Elton John, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Lindsey Buckingham, Questlove, RZA, Nile Rodgers, Nigel Godrich, Brian Eno and Rick Rubin.
Each hour-long episode tackles a different topic, including recording vocals, the electrification of instruments, the artistry of sampling and the rise of the music video.
“The hardest part was figuring out how we were going to tell the story,” says Show of Force’s Jeff Dupre, who, along with Maro Chermayeff, produced and directed the series, in association with executive producers Higher Ground. “George’s vision was always to show how technology transformed music and then how that music transformed us.”
Though Dupre declined to put a figure on the project’s budget beyond “significant,” he adds, “everyone in the record industry stepped forward and wanted to help us because it was George Martin’s project and because they understood that it’s a valentine to the music industry.”
The first episode examines the inner workings of the studio and the role of the producer, something that even those involved have trouble defining. “The producer services the artist’s vision,” says Don Was, who, along with fellow producers Peter Asher, Linda Perry and Hank Shocklee, all appear in the series and talked to Billboard after a panel on Soundbreaking at the Television Critics Assn. this summer. “One of the cool things about this series is it condenses the continuum,” Was continues.
“Linda and I were discussing how we both pine for an earlier era, which seems more romantic, but when you see it all together, you realize presently we’re doing the same thing that was done before. Even though the methodology and the distribution has changed, we’re still about capturing emotional magic.”
For Perry, the series serves as way to show a younger generation different possibilities. “Kids don’t know to put a microphone in their living room and they can’t record an 18-piece band because they’re on GarageBand and these quick easy fixes,” she says. “There has to be the space of motivation, drive and vision. I do believe with the fast paced world we’re in, we’re taking short cuts left and right. With matters of the heart, you can’t do shortcuts.”
For Shocklee, the series shows how artists bring everything that comes before them into the studio — he talks in one segment about playing Motown records for Public Enemy. “That’s just allowing the artist to open up his frequency,” he says. “Bringing in other musical genres allows you to open up that frequency range a little bit.” He elaborates on Perry’s points: “The art of collaboration is the key that has to happen with the new producers and the new artists because everyone is making music by themselves in their own little room without any outside energy. It’s about bringing back collaboration.”
Asher hopes viewers take away an appreciation for the art of making a hit record and see what’s behind the curtain.“There’s capturing a great performance plus the separate art of making a great hit record,” he says, “which is the kind of record where, regardless of who the artist is, the minute it finishes you want to take the needle and put it back at the beginning because it sounded so great. How did they do that? It can be not necessarily a great music record, but there’s an excitement about a hit that you have to hear again.”
In the exclusive electrifying clip from the fourth episode below, producers Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff describe working with Stevie Wonder. “We let him in the studio and we didn’t wake up for another five years,” Margouleff says, as they captured an extraordinary phase in Wonder’s creativity. I had an 8-track tape running at all times,” Cecil says.
Each Soundbreaking episode will be available for next-day digital purchase via multiple platforms including iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play. The series will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, Nov. 29.