In the latest docuseries from Apple TV+, the world’s most in-demand producer takes a step out from behind the boards to lead us on a meditative quest to better understand the elements of music and music production that inspire him. Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson serves as a master class in mixing, mastering, experimenting and breaking it down.
Watch the Sound season 1 review
Mark Ronson is a man whose sound you no doubt know, even if his name might not be familiar to you. He’s a music producer, DJ and musician who, like Pharrell Williams (and to a lesser extent guys like Dan the Automator, Danger Mouse and the villainous Jack Antonoff), helped shaped pop music for the last 20 years.
Just as there was a summer where every hit was produced by Pharrell, chances are if you had a song stuck in your head in the last decade but don’t know the name of the artist, Ronson was involved.
“Uptown Funk,” “Rehab,” “Shallow,” “Like a Feather” and more extremely catchy tracks are all Ronson’s handiwork. As a result, many music fans are likely curious about his methods and interests. Thankfully, here’s Watch the Sound, an engrossing docuseries produced and guided by Ronson. It is both a look into his process and his life, and also a window into the curiosity that drives so much of Ronson’s music.
Split into six episodes about different components of recording equipment and technique (“Autotune,” “Distortion,” “Drum Machines”), Ronson and a rotating cast of guests, including Gary Numan, Thurston Moore, Angel Olsen and Flavor Flav, get into the history and impact of innovations and technology.
On Auto-Tune and other musical tools and techniques
The show starts with the most perfect window into Ronson’s process. He’s explaining Auto-Tune using the audio stem of Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” performance. He applies Auto-Tune to the vocals to illustrate how the feature works, then plays her voice unadorned — and admits you can’t possibly make it any more perfect.
The whole episode focuses on Auto-Tune’s effect on music. And in general, the show agrees that it’s a useful and interesting tool. (T-Pain is heard out, thankfully, after a lot of industry pros turned on him for popularizing Auto-Tune something like 10 year’s after Cher’s “Believe” went platinum many times over.)
Ronson opens with the admission that Auto-Tune has a time and place, and some voices don’t need it. It’s an instrument like anything else, and only skilled practitioners know how best to make it work.
Ronson doesn’t believe music must travel in any one direction. That’s why his audio experiments are so interesting to watch. In the episode about reverb, he goes into an abandoned building with a friend so they can record the amazing echo they find there. In Ronson’s hands, music has a beautiful, infinite perspective. It can be anything.
A slick show with some blind spots
The show is produced by industry veteran Morgan Neville, which explains its slickness and the high production value, though thankfully he only directs one episode. Neville came under fire recently for using an A.I. program to read lines in the voice of Anthony Bourdain for his latest film, Roadrunner. Beyond the ethical grossness, Neville isn’t a very talented or interesting voice. So I was pleasantly surprised that the show is as interesting as it is.
Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson still bears Neville’s fingerprints in a couple of ways, though. Ronson, for instance, is pretty forthcoming about his privileged background. (He came from obscene wealth; his stepfather was Mick Jones from Foreigner, and he likely had the least net worth of anyone in Ronson’s family.)
However, we don’t hear much talk about how having that crazy wealth allowed him to pursue a slow career path as a DJ without needing to pay the bills. It isn’t exactly integral to the story, but I mean, how else do you become one of the most sought-after producers in the world? You have all the time you want to experiment and find your voice, usually with high-profile clients willing to let you do whatever you want.
Can’t get enough of Mark Ronson
Ronson is such an interesting and likable presence that the show overcomes its biases. By the end, you like spending time in his world with his mind. He’s got a series of lovely affectations that make him a very unusual camera subject, and I came to love listening to him talk.
The first season consists of just six short episodes, and I wanted more almost the second it ended. It helps that his guests are equally interesting, for the most part. I don’t know anything about King Princess (except that she, too, comes from obscene wealth) but she didn’t prove essential as either a screen presence or musician.
Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill and the Beastie Boys prove more forthcoming and more interesting, having lived at the mercy of the music industry while its rules were being rewritten.
Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson serves up a great swath of perspectives, and most prove interesting, even if no one needs to hear from Ezra Koenig ever again for any reason. Thankfully, no guest ever dominates an episode. So if you don’t care for someone, they’ll be gone in a minute anyway. I could have used a little more Gary Numan, but I was grateful for the few minutes with him we got.
Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson on Apple TV+
Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson debuts July 30 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.