Canadian songwriter, producer, arranger, keyboardist and synthesizer player Robbie Buchanan has played on a lot of records. Reading through his discography is like a journey through pop music since the 1980’s (Discogs has his contributions at just over 1100 individual recordings!!) . Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Dionne Warwick, and Julio Iglesias represent just a fraction of the artists he’s worked with over his five decades in the music business.
Splitting time between his native Vancouver, BC and his musical home of Los Angeles, Robbie’s focus these days is still on music production (“I have just finished playing on a few songs on the new Whitney Houston movie coming out this December”), but tempered with, “…whatever makes my family and me happy”.
We caught up with Robbie and got some insight into his storied career as one of the prime movers in modern music:
Q: I didn’t know you hailed from Vancouver. It’s a pretty metropolitan city, compared to most of Canada, but coming to LA for the first time in the late 1970’s, and especially jumping in as a studio musician in Hollywood, must have been like coming to another planet. Was it at all intimidating?
Well, it was definitely an eye opener. I had no idea what a producer did and (when living in Vancouver) always idolized all the players on the records I grew up listening to. The first session I ever witnessed was on my friend Carl Graves’ solo record. Carl and I were in R&B bands in Vancouver in the late 60s/early 70s. The keyboard player on the session was Joe Sample, and it was just stunning to watch and hear him play on these songs, some of which I’d arranged. That was probably 1975. The producer allowed me to do one overdub session for the album. I remember playing one, yes ONE, low note on an ARP Odyssey on a song called Funky Labels…nothing to cherish there 😉
Q: The studio scene in the 1980’s was pretty intense, I saw first hand the guys doing three sessions in a day: two record dates in the daytime, and a TV date in the evening…or a scoring date all day, then off to do a couple record dates at night. For the busiest cats, and you were one of them, it seemed exhausting. What aspect of that time stands out most to you?
I was primarily a record session guy. I didn’t want to do TV unless it was songs. Also, I didn’t do movie dates unless it was for end credit songs. However, once I met Michel Colombier, I started doing more movie stuff. He became a very close friend and I played on much of what he wrote, Purple Rain being one of the bigger ones.
Q: It’s not just that you played on so many amazing records, but the variety of sessions from records to film and TV, and not just playing but writing and arranging as well, is staggering (Discogs has you just north of 1100 recordings!). Is it as fulfilling to contribute as a session musician as it is to have a hand in the writing, arranging and production?
This is a great question that I’ve never been asked. Firstly, I had no idea how many recordings I have been involved in thus far, and I like it 😉
Re: playing vs writing/arranging/producing. I find them all separate as to what the contributions are. I’ve always loved playing on records and coming up with cool intros/chords etc that will improve the musicality of the song. When you arrange, you are dictating more of what you want everyone else to play as well, and that has it’s own rewards, especially on the outcome of the final product. Producing has the ultimate control on the outcome, especially when you are arranging AND playing (AND writing). However, producing has it’s caveats…you have to balance the record budget, (do) some baby sitting, and a TON of editing. Editing can eat up your life. The only good thing I like about editing is the end result. It’s a wonderful feeling to record 8+ tracks of lead vocals, comp them, tune/time them and hear the final comp’d vocal. It’s a real feeling of doing your best and having that “best” be immortalized in a comp’d vocal.
Q: You’re living in Vancouver, BC again. How has the digital age allowed you to live where you want, but still be able to work on music in a meaningful way? What does the rig in your studio space consist of?
Yes, I was raised in Vancouver, and moving to LA was a means to an end. I wanted to do something with music that was not achievable in Vancouver, so LA was an obvious choice.
I always planned to return to Vancouver when it was the right time (like retirement). My wife and I have known each other since we were kids, and the plan came to fruition in 2008. I decided to move based on the decline of the music industry from the incessant downloading of songs and the advent of streaming. All these things were the downfall of the music business, as there was no financial returns to pay for record budgets. Vancouver has always been my love as daily living goes, but LA was king for making music, by far.
The studio I have in Vancouver is compromised of a couple of Mac Pros, a Mac mini, a 24 channel Avid board, Avid HDX, X-Mon, Tannoy 10” co-axial speakers in Manley cabinets and, of course, a pair of Yamaha NS10M’s with the matching Yamaha sub. My pianos are Yamaha C7s, and my Hammonds include a B3 with three Leslies (122, 147 and a custom one), an RT3 paired with a PR40 cabinet, and their digital XK-5. I use lots of great software by Waves, UAD, Spectrasonics, Sound Toys, EWQL and many more.
I was afraid you’d bring up this question. The Tele 251 is probably the singular best microphone ever made for vocals, room mics, and many more scenarios. I’d bought a pair of them way back in the 80s to be the mics for my piano in my studio. They are completely smooth across the spectrum, and have always lived up to their reputation. As time and technology has progressed so much over the years since these beauties were first released (late 50s-early 60s), many companies have tried to duplicate the sound of them. I sold my 251s because the plausibility of repairing them is becoming increasingly difficult. I do not want to be chasing down a repair facility (that would need to be of such high competence) which could go out of business because the primary tech would retire, etc. Most of these great techs are from another era. Some have passed, and some are on the edge of retirement. So, I decided to ask my great friend, Bill Schnee, if he knew of a comparable mic because I was thinking of selling mine. He suggested I look into the Vanguard V13 gen2 mics. So, I ordered a matching pair (consecutive serial numbers) and A/B’d them against one of my 251s. I was shocked. The sound was not the same BUT…the sound was fabulous. The V13 had a little more top end than my 251. The 251 had a little more warmth in the middle, probably because the top wasn’t as prevalent. This was a vocal session and we were all very excited about these “new” mics I’d brought onboard.
Q: You really got your foot in the door in the music scene nearly 50 years ago. What advice would you give to young musicians trying to get in the door now? What parts of your journey still apply, and what might be different today?
The music business is a shell of what it was in the 80s and 90s as mentioned earlier in this interview. That being said, there are new approaches necessary to make a career out of music. I’m not a business person, but the bottom line? You still have to best your craft as much as you possibly can to get to a higher place. Work on your playing, writing, arranging, producing chops every chance you can. Everyone else is doing that, so you don’t have the luxury of “waiting for the big call”. the opportunities are not what they once were, but they are there. Be in the right place at the right time (Nashville, LA etc).
My journey was moving to LA with a few thousand dollars saved up and my Rhodes piano in the back seat of my car, driving down the 5 freeway from Vancouver to LA. When getting there, I played on everything I could…for friends for free, auditions (that’s how I got the gig for The Rose movie), demos for ridiculously low fees or free, etc. At some point, someone of importance will hear you and hire you. That’s how I got the chance to play on the Quincy Jones/James Ingram hit “Just Once.” That song got me started and I played, etc. on a string of hits from there on.
Q: Tell us what you’re working on now?
Living in Vancouver, the pickin’s are slim. I play/arrange/produce songs that are sent to me online. I have just finished playing on a few songs on the new Whitney Houston movie coming out this December. I am actually in a couple of scenes. I only got the call cuz I played on the original version of “Greatest Love of All.”
Q: What’s next for you?
Next is whatever makes my family and me happy. We have a place in Whistler (BC) and the whole family loves skiing. I also play a lot of tennis, which I’ve missed out on because of working so hard in music…just making up for lost time. Still, I love making music and I am offered a good amount of projects to keep me happy.
Thanks Robbie! Welcome to the Family. You can check out Robbie’s info and book him for a session at robbiebuchanan.com.