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All in the Mix: When Bob Power opened up about his legendary studio career, on The Third Story

courtesy of the artist

What do A Tribe Called Quest, David Byrne, The Roots, D’Angelo, Pat Metheny, Erykah Badu, Jason Moran, Me’Shell N’degéocello, India.Arie, J Dilla, Run DMC, and Theo Croker have in common? They all benefited from the sound of Bob Power’s recording, mixing or production.

Bob has had a profound effect on the sound of hip-hop and modern music in general. Despite the fact that he says “I learned early on from working in television that if someone notices your work, you’re probably screwed,” I did notice what he was doing and I think a lot of people did. He has degrees in classical composition and jazz performance, and spent his early professional years both gigging and composing music for television. He was 30 years old and living in San Francisco when he decided to move to where the action was in the music business at the time: New York.

An unexpected gig as a recording engineer for early rap sessions ended up re-orienting Bob’s career. He says he thinks he was one of the few people in the recording establishment who took the new music seriously and cared enough to make it as good as possible, even though it was being made in a different way (using samples, drum machines and intuition). He tells me, “Great music is made by people who either don’t care or don’t understand what is ‘normal’ so they do something extraordinary.” And he says, “In popular music, wrong has become right, and we love it.”

Talking to Bob, one gets the sense that his contribution has been multi-fold. Part of it is indeed the sound that he gets. It’s undeniable that his records have a sound: it’s in the depth of his mixes, the way they round and present, deep and forward at the same time. They have dimension. He tells me, “Just being able to hear everything in a mix is a lifetime of study.”

But the other part of what he offers in the room is his way. It’s his personality. Bob is happy to talk about his technical approach, the way he thinks about recording, mixing, and mastering. But he is equally happy — maybe even more so — to talk about pop sociology, Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Gladwell, Timothy Leary and larger cultural trends of the the last 50 years. He says, “The state of the art in electronic media, the bar is very high. So making things fluid in the creative atmosphere is the thing.”

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Leo Sidran is a Latin Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and composer. Since 2014 he has hosted an influential podcast called The Third Story, featuring interviews with musicians, producers, songwriters and creators of all kinds.