The Most Mysterious Hitmaker in Rock

What does a producer do?

It’s safe to say that almost every recording nerd, musician, and serious music fan has a favorite producer—someone who wasn’t part of the band, but who was instrumental in shaping their sound in the studio. 

These are the big guns with proven track records that the major labels hire to increase the record’s chances of success. When a band is signed, they’re signed on their potential for all the bigger things the marketing muscle of a major label can bring. That potential almost always includes musical potential, because indie bands typically haven’t worked with big producers in professional studios until they get signed.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot that’s shaped my understanding of the producer’s role in the recording process. For one, I’m a musician who’s worked with a few producers, and I largely produce my own records. I’m also a music history fan (rock, pop metal, and alt rock being my genres of choice). I had also done a lot of research on the topic for my book Indie Rock 101, which includes an overview of the producer’s role.

If I had to boil it down to its bare essence, the record producer’s role consists of these elements:

  • They are essentially the “director” of the record, like a director is to film
  • They write and arrange songs (sometimes partially, sometimes every note)
  • They perform certain parts on the record, sometimes multiple instruments and vocals
  • They direct recording and mixing sessions
  • They make the artist feel comfortable (or uncomfortable, depending on what the producer wants to get out of them)

But I would say the #1 thing the producer does is this: They bring out the best in the band—“the best” being bringing out the best songs, performances, and recordings.

Check out this clip and see if you can guess who the producer is—who also happens to be my favorite producer…

The song that redefined rock for me

When I was 13, I was asked to be the lead singer in a pop metal cover band (…even though as a self-conscious, pudgy kid, I was much more interested in playing drums, but that’s another story). I was at the age when I really started getting into music, particularly hard rock. That same year, I went to my first concert—Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind tour (I remain a fan). Vinyl like Journey, Survivor, Asia, Night Ranger, Styx, The Police, The J. Geils Band and Motley Crue filled the space between my parent’s stereo and our in-wall bookshelf.

One day at school, I was playing volleyball in gym class along with a bunch of other pre-teens when my ears picked up on a song playing on a boombox from the bleachers. The volleyball probably flew past my head as I walked closer to the source of the music. All other sounds seemed to fall away as I focused on the song. 

I’d never heard anything like it. It was melodic like pop, but the singer sounded like some sort of man-tiger tunefully screaming his head off. Layers upon layers of beautiful harmonies buttressed the sing-along chorus, along with chimey, heavy guitar arpeggios that seemed to be flowing out of the speakers like the heavy mist of a sun-drenched waterfall. A beautifully composed, highly melodic guitar solo kicked in that made Eddie Van Halen’s finger-tapping techniques sound downright crudely technical by comparison.

To top it all off, there was some high-tech synthesizer wizardry going on in the pre-chorus that was almost subliminal, but that made the song sound different than anything I’d ever heard in hard rock—or anywhere else for that matter.

I soon learned I was hearing Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” which remains one of my favorite songs of all time. The record made a huge impression on me because while it was hard rock, it was incredibly tuneful, and sounded so polished and big. The production style started my love affair with that “big rock” sound that carried into late ‘80s pop metal bands like Guns ’n’ Roses, Poison, Motley Crue, Night Ranger, and countless others from this era. The same sound carried into ‘90s alt rock bands like Blink-182, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and even metal bands like Metallica.

Years went by and I remained only vaguely aware of the guy who produced “Photograph,” mostly because of the unusual name—Robert John “Mutt” Lange.

 A very small sampling of Mutt Lange's biggest records.

A very small sampling of Mutt Lange's biggest records.

Who is Mutt Lange?

In short, Mutt has worked with the biggest names in the music business, across multiple genres including rock, pop, and country—even blending them to create new genres and crossover hits.

A short list includes huge acts like Britney Spears, The Boomtown Rats, Michael Bolton, Bryan Adams, Huey Lewis and the News, The Corrs, Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, Nickelback, and Muse. He’s also worked with Shania Twain, who’s 1997 Come on Over, is the best-selling country music album, the best-selling studio album by a female act, the best-selling album of the 1990s, and the ninth best-selling album in the U.S. (Side note: He ended up marrying Shania, but unfortunately, they're divorced).

With decades of hit records under his belt, Mutt is possibly best known for his legendary work with AC/DC, Def Leppard and Foreigner, having produced their biggest records.

The hallmarks of Mutt’s signature sound

So how does he do it?

You can try to find interviews of Mutt, but good luck with that—he hasn’t given one for decades.

Over the years, I’ve pieced together the stories and techniques his bands and colleagues have shared publicly, which starts to form a picture. Please keep in mind that by all accounts, the man is a musical genius. No itemized list of his techniques (which is by no means official or complete) is going to make anyone Mutt Lange—though it can help to know what they are. He might not agree with how I’m describing things here—and it’s by no means a complete inventory of his contributions—but let me share this treasure trove with you now:

  • Mutt sings a lot of those multi-tracked background vocals himself. He layers on tons of these tracks, often close-mic’d and performed in a very breathy, quiet manner for that silky smooth wall of sound behind the lead vocal (Examples: Def Leppard’s "Photograph," the Cars “You Might Think,” and Heart’s “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You”—which he also wrote and was the band’s only gold single, and last top 10 U.S. hit). He even recorded the quasi-Satanic, spoken word intro for Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages."
  • On guitars, Mutt has asked bands like Def Leppard to play and record guitar arpeggios one string at a time, and separately. When each note/track is played back to form the guitar part, each string/note is able to ring longer, lending them that big, chimey sound (Listen to the arpeggios in “Photograph” during the chorus).
  • Mutt is known for asking guitarists in AC/DC and Def Leppard to use small amps and pioneering amp simulators like The Rockman, instead of the larger amps and heads they used live. As nice as it is to record a real, live amp, amp modelers and smaller amps are of course more portable and can have a tighter, easier to control sound in studio settings.
  • Drum machines - Virtually all of the drums on Def Leppard’s Pyromania and Hysteria are drum machines, based on Rick’s Allen’s drum parts. Drum machines can be dialed in to sound huge, and can be programmed and controlled in a way a real drummer’s performance can’t. I often supplement my own real drumming with sampled drums for this reason.
  • Hearing a riff and making it a hit - Def Leppard’s biggest hit, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” was actually the last song recorded on that record, which had already taken some three years and exhausted the band. It was a riff singer Joe Elliott was playing in the studio when Mutt got excited and suggested they turn it into a song.
  • Mutt is known for using synthesizers to make a track sound more layered and textured, while sounding fresh and new against everything else out there. Listen to song like “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “Urgent” by Foreigner, or the synths on Def Leppard’s “Photograph” (during the pre-chorus) to hear how these parts elevate the entire song. Trivia: Did you know these parts were played by Thomas Dolby (“Blinded Me with Science” ‘80s hit), who also attested to Mutt’s…
  • Perfectionism. The recording is forever, and a great, memorable recording needs to sound perfect. Which is partially why Mutt asks the band to perform dozens, even hundreds of takes for each part.
  • Keeping the listener engaged – It’s tough to get people to listen to a song from beginning to end. In addition to have a great song, performances, and recording, this is done by introducing new elements throughout. This can come in the form of bigger structural variations like key changes and adding a bridge to layering in new sonic elements and creating little variations in the main melody as the song progresses (such as the “I wanna touch you” break and build-up near the end of “Photograph”)

The producer difference

The best way to discover how drastically Mutt affected any band’s sound is to listen to their records before they started working with them… then listen to the ones he produced. It’s like night and day.

I talk about the difference a great producer can bring to any band, to any recording, in my book Indie Rock 101. But in this forum, I can provide a demonstration.

Below are links to two AC/DC songs: “It’s a Long Way,” and “Back in Black." The first was not produced by Mutt, whereas the second one was, with that album remaining the second highest-selling of all time. Please play the sample from the first song, then the second...

AC/DC - “It’s a Long Way to the Top” (1976)

AC/DC - “Back in Black” (1980)

With all due respect to Bon Scott, I always thought Brian Johnson (on the latter track) was a much stronger, more interesting vocalist. 

But do you hear the difference between the tracks themselves?

Night. And. Day. And for that, Mr. Lange, we salute you.

Sound off in the comments

Am I missing any juicy Mutt anecdotes or techniques in this post? Is anything inaccurate, or need correction?

Are you a musician or recordist with your own favorite producer? Who are they and what do you love about what they bring to their recordings?

Sound off in the comments!