Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 2

So Mark Linkous retreated to his barn in Virginia to record Good Morning Spider. This time, there was no official engineer or outside producer. There was just him, David Lowery, Sophia Michalitsianos (Sol Seppy), Johnny Hott, Scott Minor, Melissa Moore and Steve McCarthy, under the direction of Linkous and Lowery, both of whom are credited with production.

The majority of the instruments on the album (guitar, bass, keyboards, samples, drum programming) were handled by these two, with Hott and Minor playing live drums on a couple of tracks, Michalitsianos playing cello, Moore playing violin and McCarthy playing pedal steel.

Yet Good Morning Spider sounds broadly similar to Vivadixie. More of the drum tracks sound and feel – and presumably were – programmed (which is easy enough to explain: drums are hard to record well, and drum sounds tend to reveal the character of the rooms they’re recorded in, which is not usually a good thing for those recording at home), but otherwise Spider and Vivadixie inhabit broadly similar soundworlds of multi-tracked distorted vocals, low-tech drum (machine) sounds and rickety keyboards.

Probably the most notable difference for me lies in the electric guitar sounds, which are drier on Spider than on Vivadixie, and in the placements in the mix of the drums and vocals, which is fairly consistent on Vivadixie and varies wildly from song to song on Spider. It is this that makes Good Morning Spider sound like a lo-fi record, despite being a record on a big label, made by a guy who had acquired some decent, if idiosyncratic, gear and was in no sense a recording novice (and who had another old hand there to help, in the shape of David Lowery).

Mixing engineers within the context of an album project tend to create mixes that have similar densities and in which the relative levels of bass and ambiance are consistent track to track. To a practiced mixer, this becomes second nature. They put the key elements of the track in the places that they feel they need to be and fill out the picture from there. This is why mixers seem to have distinctive sonic imprints; their work reflects the way they like to hear music and will tend to be fairly consistent from project to project, even with different artists.

Linkous and Lowery on Good Morning Spider mixed each song only in terms of itself, rarely (I would guess) referencing the others to check balances across the whole album, which is why the drums stick out miles on Maria’s Little Elbows and Cruel Sun and are completely buried by distorted guitars on Pig and Happy Man. It is this lack of a consistent balance, a sonic picture that changes from song to song, that makes Spider feel like a lo-fi record, although the instrument and vocal sounds aren’t always all that lo-fi in themselves. Big-label records don’t tend to sound like this, because very few audio professionals would ever mix like this.

But would it have been a better album if it had been mixed by Andy Wallace? That’s another question, for another day.

Sparklehorsex

Linkous on a stage with pedals

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, a key track from Good Morning Spider:

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