What is the ultimate music producers reading list? Here’s my shot at it…
To compile this list, I pulled out those few books I’ve encountered at various points over the last 15 years that had that profound, ‘eureka moment’ affect: in terms of giving me insight into technical skills, and how people with far more experience manage the physical processes of recording and mixing – but also that made me think about and listen to music in a whole new way, with a fundamentally deeper understanding.
Here I’ve brought together books on recording, mixing, mastering, orchestration, film scoring, sound design, EDM and House music production, Pro producer interviews and tutorials, musician and producer biographies, and academic/philosophical writing on the more abstract aspects of music and its construction.
You may think the title of this post is a little over the top – but if you’ve ever been struggling for days, weeks or months with some aspect of your music-making, or come across a new album, artist or idea that just blew you away… You’ll know it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration at the time to say it was life-changing :)
By the way, if you’d like to support Get That Pro Sound, you can always do so by clicking and purchasing through my affiliate ads and links to Amazon and elsewhere. I don’t get rich through the site, and I only ever link to things that I genuinely endorse, because I use them myself. Thanks a lot, and I hope you find this list super useful!
Author: Bob Katz
352 pages; Focal Press, 2007
The title of this book refers not just to the catch-all term for the final processing stages of a track or album, but perhaps also to the idea of becoming a ‘Master of Audio’. It provides pretty definitive information on working with digital audio, dithering, metering, levels and decibels, monitor calibration, album sequencing, and mixing as it relates to creating a complete record.
I particularly like Katz’s explanation of dynamics on micro and macro levels (the music’s rhythmic feel and “bounce” vs. the loudness differences of each larger section of a track), which also serves as a proper introduction to how and why compressors and other dynamic processors are used at any stage in the recording, mixing and mastering processes.
A book on the more technical aspects of this stuff could be fairly tedious to say the least, but Katz is a great guide and somehow never lets things appear more complicated than they need to be. He’s entertaining and philosophical, and always keeps the explanations of each topic straightforward and actually useful for others to follow. Clearly, his experience (he’s won three Grammys) and passion shine through.
Which aspiring producer wouldn’t want a book with chapter titles like How To Make Better Recordings In The 21st Century? Buy it now on Amazon.
Authors: Fred Karlin & Rayburn Wright, foreword by John Williams
560 pages; Routledge, 2004
On the Track is another definitive guide, in this case to scoring for film and television. What I love about this book is that it really does cover everything: you get the expected chapters on using melody, harmony, rhythm, electronic vs. traditional instrumentation and orchestration; but you also get chapters on meeting and working with the director and production team, developing the concept for the score, using temp tracks, whether to play ‘through the drama’ in a scene or hit the action beats, and in the final chapter, some tips on actually getting jobs and what life is actually like for professional composers. (Hint: it ain’t always as glamorous as it seems…)
The other aspect of this book that makes it so valuable is that it features hundreds of quotes, explanations and insights from the biggest names in the business: as well as the intro from John Williams, you get Howard Shore describing the torture involved in coming up with a great theme, for example, and James Newton Howard, John Powell, Jerry Goldsmith, Elliot Goldenthal, Thomas Newman, James Horner, Harry Gregson-Williams, and many others.
Also, every chapter ends with a list of Scores For Study, which include timecode numbers for every cue referred to in the text, so that you can watch the DVD and pinpoint exactly the moments in the films being discussed. It’s that detailed. Buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Roey Izhaki
600 pages; Focal Press, 2011
There are lots of books and resources on mixing, but few seem to actually help you become a better mixer. Roey Izhaki’s book is one of the few, striking a pretty good balance between covering all the essential tools and processes you need to know about, and making sure that you’re approaching the whole thing in the right way, with a strong vision of what you’re trying to achieve, to begin with.
It’s partly so useful because as well as the text, you also get a DVD with clips from each of the mixing case study examples (they’re arranged by genre: Rock, Hip Hop/Urban, D&B, Techno, Metal etc.), and access to a companion website with another 2000 downloadable clips. Buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Mike Senior
352 pages; Focal Press, 2011
Finally, a proper book on mixing dedicated to small/project/bedroom studio owners everywhere. The most significant aspects of Mike Seniors book for me are the emphasis on monitoring – you can have all the software to rival a professional studio, but if you can’t hear accurately what’s coming out of the speakers it’s still going to be a frustrating experience; and the idea of planning a mix strategically, learning not just what compression or EQ do, for example, but when and how it’s best to use them in context. Recommended for everyone! Buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Howard Massey
Volume I: 224 pages; Backbeat Books, 2000
Volume II: 330 pages; Backbeat Books, 2009
A bit like On The Track for rock production, the two volumes of Behind The Glass are probably the most insightful and inspiring collections of first-hand interviews with top record producers to be found anywhere. It’s like sitting in a bar and eaves-dropping on conversations with George Martin (The Beatles), Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix), Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) and Alan Parsons (Pink Floyd). Favourite quote (from David Bowie producer Tony Visconti): “I want to work with people who have a vision. It’s boring to work with a person who lies back in bed and says, ‘Do me.'”
It’s a brilliant mix of discussions and detailed advice on the technical and creative aspects of producing, all wrapped up in anecdotes that give you a privileged peek into the inner circles and creative processes of legendary bands and artists. And the way both books are organised, it’s also a disguised history lesson with the interviews arranged by the age groups and locations (US and UK) of the producers, so you get a real sense of how things have evolved over the decades.
Volume II also features Daniel Lanois (producer of U2 and Bob Dylan), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse), Trevor Horn (Grace Jones) and Rodney Jerkins (Mary J. Blige). Get the first one here and Volume II here from Amazon.
Author: Jake Brown
232 pages; ECW Press, 2009
Rick Rubin is certainly one of the most influential producers of the past 25 years, not least for his role in blurring the borders between Hip Hop, Rock and Metal. He’s produced so many of my favourite albums and artists it’s quite amazing: the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Linkin Park, Metallica.
What’s most fascinating is the way the book builds up a picture of Rubin’s production approach through all the different styles and genres he’s worked in. The main thing you take away is this: “When I started producing, minimalism was my thing. My first record actually says, instead of produced by Rick Rubin, ‘reduced by Rick Rubin’…” Less Is More!
Buy it now on Amazon.
Authors: Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton
336 pages; Grove Press, 2000
I feel that anyone who wants to know how to make dance music absolutely must read this before reading any technical manuals or buying any equipment or software. Why? Because I guarantee that you will have a completely different impression of what electronic music is, where it came from, what it’s designed for and why it sounds the way it does, after you’ve read it.
The book goes right back to the very beginnings of DJing and dance music with the Northern Soul scene in the North of England, and takes in the stories behind Reggae, Disco, Hip Hop, Garage, House and Techno. For me, the House and Techno chapters especially were a revelation, detailing how these styles were really local scenes that grew out of specific cities, clubs, producers and DJs, before they went on to global domination. There are plenty of interviews with the key people who were actually there, and of course you come away with a list of classic tracks and forgotten gems that you might otherwise never be aware of.
Fill in the gaps in your EDM knowledge and understand the heritage of pretty much all modern music, buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Rick Snoman
528 pages; Focal Press, 2008
Ok, so you’ve now got Last Night A DJ Saved My Life…, right? Now, if you want to make electronic dance music of any style, this should probably be your next port of call. Most music production books and guides are written with rock or pop production firmly in mind, so it was refreshing to find a book that strictly cuts to the chase for EDM producers. You won’t find masses of information about how to mike guitar amps and real drum kits, but you will learn how to sequence, arrange, sample, compress and process your electronic tracks, as well as tips on mastering, publishing and promoting your tracks once you’re done mixing. The programming and sound-selection conventions of each genre are discussed as well, which can really get you going fast if you’re a beginner wondering why your hard-edged Techno track ended up sounding like a Donna Summer disco special… Buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Marc Adamo
144 pages; Sample Magic, 2009
This one is from the sample-makers Sample Magic, so of course it comes with a handy 500MB of samples to get going with if you’re just starting out. The style is quite different from Snoman’s Dance Music Manual, focusing more on tutorials (in Cubase, Logic and Ableton Live) for creating very specific ‘genre’ sounds, but I found some amazing tips and tricks that I hadn’t picked up anywhere else or discovered for myself. Modern dance music production is so tight and specific-sounding you really just have to be very accomplished at a few recording, programming and processing techniques – this book is good for this, saving you from being overwhelmed by discussions of gear and more complex (albeit more flexible) working methods.
There are also some good contributions from producers including Way Out West and American House DJ/producer Wolfgang Gartner. Buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Ric Viers
326 pages; Michael Wiese Productions, 2008)
Ric Viers is the founder of sound effects company Blastwave FX, and has contributed sound effects to collections from Adobe, Sony, The Hollywood Edge and Apple. Basically, he knows his stuff.
The Sound Effects Bible covers all the gear and many of the techniques you’ll need to create any kind of movie-style sound effect. But it’s also incredibly useful for EDM and electronic producers, who have to be as much sound designers as musicians. For me, Chapter 17 – Sound Design covered things about dynamics, layering, pitch shifting and Worldizing that I haven’t found anywhere else, and which had an immediate impact on my sound designs and scores for films, as well as my own electronic tracks. Whether you want to record massive trailer-style bass hits or Burial-style dubstep atmospheres and shell-casing percussion, this will help.
The book also goes over essentials like explaining the nature of sound waves and frequency, amplitube and decibels; acoustic treatment for your studio, sound editing and archiving your sounds and samples. Recommended: Buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Samuel Adler
864 pages; Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002
If you want to learn how to use your orchestral sample libraries properly (let alone write for actual orchestras), this is one of the most useful resources you can find. Yes it’s expensive, but that is partly because it comes with a set of CDs that include examples of pretty much every instrument and articulation you could ever need to refer to. It really is the most comprehensive book on the subject I’ve found (I was actually first recommended it by a visiting tutor from the Royal College of Music when I was at film school). I wanted to learn how to get the most out of East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra and ProjectSAM’s Symphobia, and it hasn’t disappointed: a very worthwhile investment, and still a lot cheaper than enrolling at your nearest conservatory. Buy it now on Amazon.
Author: Bobby Owsinski
424 pages; Publisher: Course Technology PTR, 2009
We’ve talked a lot so far about mixing, concepts, arranging, orchestrating and mastering. This is the best book that focuses on the fundamentals of actually choosing microphones, physically sticking them in front of instruments and recording them for the best possible sound, at source. The bulk of the book is a long chapter on miking any kind of instrument you’re ever likely to encounter, including suggested mic placements and EQ settings, with particular emphasis on drums and how to get a great kit sound. A brilliant reference guide from a real pro. Buy it now on Amazon.
Also see: The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski.
Author: Bob Dylan
220 pages; Simon & Schuster, 2005
Not as obvious a choice as some of the others here, but Bob Dylan’s autobiography had a profound effect on how I thought about music and the creative process. There’s a lot of mileage out of quotes like, “Basically you have to suppress your own ambitions in order to be who you need to be.” Read this, and take a leaf out of Dylans book (no pun intended): make the music you need to make, not what you think everybody else wants to hear. Buy it now on Amazon.
There’s also a Kindle Edition of this one.
Author: Eric Tamm
246 pages; Da Capo Press, 1995
Brian Eno is quite literally the inventor of Ambient music, as he coined the term to describe a series of four instrumental albums, starting with 1978’s Music For Airports. He has had a huge influence on the fields of film music, sound design and electronic music, as well as bringing some great experimental, sound design-y touches to seven of U2’s albums.
But as well as putting out interesting and groundbreaking music, Eno likes to analyse and discuss his work, influences and methods on a philosophical level. While this means he’s maybe not for everyone, if you’re serious about music production you can’t fail to be provoked and inspired by his ideas and comments. Buy it now on Amazon.
If you enjoy reading about Eno and the intellectual / philosophical side of music, you must also check out Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Also, check out this online version of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, which are designed to give you a mental jolt when you hit a creative impasse and don’t know how to proceed.
Author: John Cage
312 pages; Wesleyan, 2011 (50th Anniversary Edition)
John Cage makes Brian Eno look like a straight-laced conservative. He was an American composer and music theorist who famously based his compositional technique on the I Ching (“Book Of Changes”), an ancient Chinese classical text, and Silence is regarded as a bit of a masterpiece in music/academic circles. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” and “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living…”
Before you flick to the next item on this list though, consider this: he also pioneered the non-standard use of musical instruments (such as the prepared piano), championed the use of Eastern and South Asian modes and instruments in Western music (something we now take for granted), and since it was first published in 1961 Silence has been translated into more than forty languages and sold over half a million copies worldwide. I think he was on to something… Buy it now on Amazon.
16. Ocean of Sound
Author: David Toop
320 pages; Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, 2001
David Toop explores the emergence in the 20th Century of music that “could be characterised as drifting or simply existing in stasis rather than developing in any dramatic fashion.” So not strictly a book on Ambient music, although he does include Brian Eno and Aphex Twin; it’s so much greater in scope than that. It starts off with composer Debussy first hearing the Javanese gamelan being played at the 1889 Paris Exposition (you can hear it too, front and centre, to awesome effect on Cliff Martinez’s score for Solaris), and the twisting story takes in the recording-studio-as-instrument techniques of Jamaican dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry and Beach Boy Brian Wilson, John Cage again, Jazz and Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Techno duo the Orb, sci-fi and semiotics.
Very difficult to describe how inspiring this book is, and how broad an education it is. Essential reading for anyone who appreciates a good pad sound as much as the glory-stealing lead parts. Buy it now on Amazon.
Authors: Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, aka The KLF
157 pages; Ellipsis London Press, 1999
So if after you’ve read all of the above and you’re still not inspired, track down this, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s legendary/infamous/tongue-in-cheek “Manual”, and you’ll still be topping the charts in no time… :p
The Manual is a very funny expose of the realities of the music business (at least as they were in the 80’s), told by two guys who were in several bands (but best known as the KLF) and who realised the often ridiculous, sometimes deeply cynical nature of the pop industry, and set out to lampoon it’s ridiculousness by writing exactly how the mechanics of financing, producing and promoting a hit actually work – and perhaps highlighting the cynical, shallow, dark side while they’re at it.
It’s something of a rarity/collectors item now, but you can still buy it on Amazon second-hand.
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