Monthly Archives: October 2014

Andy Wallace, mix engineer

I’ve mentioned before here that Nirvana were the band that inspired me to start playing guitar and making music. Without hearing them when I did, I’ve no idea where I might have channelled my energies. As it was, I did put them into music, and having never been one to do things by half measures, I became a Nirvana obsessive. One of the marks of the young obsessive then (and it may still be, for all I know) was to profess a love for In Utero over Nevermind. The reasons for this are fairly simple: Nevermind was a huge hit record, and therefore middlebrow, and Cobain himself had said derogatory things about it in public (how it was closer to Motley Crue than punk rock, etc.), as had Steve Albini (who recorded In Utero).

The man responsible for the final sound of Nevermind was Andy Wallace. Not coincidentally, Wallace is one of the most in-demand, highly remunerated mix engineers of the last 25 years or so. The records he worked on defined the sound of rock music (certainly at a major label level) from the very start of the 1990s for about ten years, when gradually the Lord-Alge brothers’ (Chris and Tom; they work singly, not as a team) sound took over until it was everywhere, on vocal records from pop to country and gospel, to major-label rock. By the time of American Idiot, it was all over: what the Lord-Alge brothers did was now standard methodology.

For the tech-minded and interested in home recording, I’ve been doing some podcasts of late on the subject of recording drums in the home studio. The CLA/TLA approach to compression is discussed briefly in the podcast on snare drum recording. They use a combination of heavy/fast compression and sample triggering to create a very controlled, compressed snare drum sound, which I surmise from interviews with them they think of as aggressive-sounding. To me, it’s the opposite. By reducing the transient/attack element of the snare drum stroke so heavily, they’re reducing the excitement of the music. The benefit to them is that there’s more room for everything else, and it’s easier to turn in a very controlled, loud mix with all the critical instruments presented with persistent audibility.

As I became alive to this stuff, and realised why I disliked the sound of modern records so strongly, two paradoxical things happened. Firstly, I began to properly understand the nature of Steve Albini’s complaints about Andy Wallace’s mixes (most people who talk smack about Wallace would be unable to identify compressor or limiter if it were placed on a table in front of them, let alone actually work the thing). Secondly, I began to respect the hell out of Andy Wallace’s work, which to my ears gracefully walked a fine line between the controlled and focused sound that labels tend to look for, but still retained an awful lot of the sense memory I have of what it sounds – and, crucially, feels – like to sit a couple of feet away from a snare drum and cymbals while giving them what for.

This is really hard to do.

It’s why Wallace’s work sounds like his work. Sure, there’s been an evolution over 25 years or so, but there are certain things he still does that are Wallacian hallmarks: he still uses the acoustic drums to trigger samples of ambience, he still rides the room mics up (and the overheads too) for a bigger, roomier sound in the choruses (both of which are done in the context of mixes that are still on the dry side) and he still leads the listener by the nose to whatever it is they should be listening to, while never making it apparent to them that that’s what’s going on. And sure, if you’re Steve Albini and it’s your drum recording he’s using to trigger samples and your stereo field that he’s narrowing (as he did on Helmet’s Albini-recorded In the Meantime) that might be annoying and seem disrespectful, but Wallace (or any mixer) has to serve three masters: the record company paying the tab up front, the band who created the music and the listener who’ll ultimately be enjoying it. It’s a difficult place to be and hard to keep all three parties happy all the time, but Wallace has managed it more often than not for a very long time now.

Unfortunately times change and even Wallace’s work misses the mark sometimes now. The Joy Formidable’s 2011 release Wolf’s Law, for example, is one of the most horrendously squashed and flat-sounding records I’ve ever heard, and it’s hard to know whom to hold responsible: the band, listed as the producer; Wallace, who mixed it; or Bob Ludwig, who mastered it. Both Ludwig and Wallace have done stellar work over the years, so maybe they were painted into a corner by their tracking engineers. Who can say? But I can say this: if you listen to a Wallace mix from the 1990s, whether it’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, Grace or The Globe Sessions, you’ll hear a guy giving a repeated masterclass. It’s interesting, too, if you can stand it, to listen to his work on heavier records in the early 2000s (Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, Slipknot, System of a Down, Disturbed, etc.); you’ll hear that it’s definitely the start of a different era, but a lot of the old Wallace techniques are still audible, and whatever the artistic merit of those groups, Wallace’s mixes were still efficient and ruthlessly focused.

Podcast #3 – How to record the snare drum

Podcast time again! This time we’re talking about the snare drum: we discuss tuning, mic placement and mic choice, compression, EQ and gating. I hope it’s of use to some of you! If you’d like to download it, click on that little downwards-arrow icon.

I’ll be doing a regular post on Thursday, so if that’s your bag, check back as normal on Thursday for a written post.

As before, if all you’re seeing is a grey Soundcloud box, refresh your browser till you can see it properly!

 

These are the results I’m getting at the moment using the methods detailed in the podcasts:

Podcast #2 – How to record a bass drum

Hi there. Another podcast for you. This one’s focuses on the bass drum: approaches to take to miking it up, and a discussion of compression, EQ and editing. I hope it’s of use to some of you!

I’ll be doing a regular post over the weekend. I’ve already got a song in mind – it’s one of my favourite-ever records so it may be quite gushy. Just to warn you in advance.

As before, if all you’re seeing is a grey Soundcloud box, refresh your browser till you can see it properly!

Podcast #1 – Introduction to recording drums at home

Hi there. So as promised, I’m going to try uploading some podcasts and see if anyone bites. I’m thinking that I’ll start by having a couple of different series: one focused on some of the technical aspects of recording music, and one where I discuss music with various bloggers, writers and musicians. Don’t worry though: I’ll still be doing written posts too. Although in the first week or so while I get off and running, perhaps not quite as many as usual.

Here’s the first of the technical ones. It’s the first in a series about recording drums, aimed at the independent/unsigned musician on a budget. Hope it’s of interest to some of you! As ever, soundcloud embeds in wordpress somewhat erratically, but if you can’t see the podcast link below and you’re getting a grey soundcloud box, refresh your browser and it should appear. It is downloadable (as a mono MP3, about 16MB in size).

Enjoy!

News & a Sunday plug

Hi there. I’ve just got back from a trip to my hometown of Southend in Essex, so haven’t been at home in the flat much in the last few days. Indeed, it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and as I’m playing a show next Sunday with James McKean, it’s going to stay busy for the foreseeable.

However, just wanted to give you a heads-up that I’m planning something with the blog that I’m quite excited about, and which I hope will be appreciated by the people who come here and read my witterings. I’ll just say one word about it for now: podcasts.

In the meantime, here’s a quick reminder that you can find my recorded musical works at soundcloud (see player below – refresh your browser if not visible) or bandcamp.

 

Coast is Clear – Curve

Bands, all bands, have context. Curve’s context is not the plants and refineries of Grangemouth, like the Cocteau Twins, or the low-achieving, living-in-penury, C86 world of My Bloody Valentine. Curve’s context is Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox

The Eurythmics were not cool in 1990 when Curve formed. They weren’t cool when Stewart was making cheesy-listening smooth-jazz/pop crossover hits with Candy Dulfer. They weren’t cool when Lennox decided to measure herself against Aretha Franklin and didn’t even have the humility to find herself wanting. If they had, briefly, been cool, five minutes either side of releasing Sweet Dreams in 1983, they had already fallen from cool by the time they hired a bass player called Dean Garcia for their live band, later the same year.

Garcia hung in with his insufferable bandmates until Stewart introduced him to a young singer called Toni Halliday in 1985. They formed a duo called State of Play, playing post-New Pop, synthesiser-based pop music, with huge programmed drums and funk-influenced rhythm guitars. Their music lacked much in the way of spark or originality, and its grim, joyless efficiency (learned at the feet of Lennox and Stewart, no doubt) failed to find an audience.

Halliday – ambitious, photogenic and, truth to tell, a bit of a chancer – then went for it a second time, now as a solo artist. Her solo album was in the mould of Roxette and post-Go-Gos Belinda Carlisle – huge drums (again), pop-rock guitars with the odd squeally metal solo, and big harmonies in the choruses. It was a better example of its type than State of Play, but again, it sank without trace. At this point, probably no one in popular music was carrying more baggage than Toni Halliday.

In one of the most enormous stylistic about-turns in pop history, Halliday once again hooked up with Dean Garcia, this time as Curve. Their guitars were loud, the vocals were mixed low, the drum loops were obvious. They were a shoegaze band.

Shoegaze was an easy bandwagon to jump on, an easy sound to adopt, and Curve were pros. All they needed to do was stand still, look down at their feet, appear somewhat ill at ease, and play tremendously loud. Halliday and Garcia had been around the block a few times each, they had contacts and by now they knew what they were doing in the studio and on stage, so the this shoegaze thing was almost too easy. They welded furious guitar noise to oddly insistent melodies, unlike their contemporaries (Slowdive for instance), many of whose songs are so evanescent they practically fade away while you listen to them. Perhaps they adopted their new sound too studiously. Maybe they’d have been bigger if they’d dialled back the guitars a bit – listening to the chorus of Coast is Clear is like listening to music in a wind tunnel, particularly in its viciously over-compressed remastered form. As it was, they stayed a cult act, best remembered for doing pretty much everything Garbage ever did, five or six years before the latter act formed. By that time, Curve themselves were chasing the big-beat trend, leaving behind the wind-tunnel guitars in favour of an aggressive rock-dance hybrid, as in thrall to Nine Inch Nails and the Chemical Brothers as My Bloody Valentine.

Never respected in the music press, who knew all about Halliday’s big-hair period and Garcia’s Eurythmy, Curve nevertheless received an after-the-event blessing from the King of the Jazzmaster himself – Kevin Shields – who played on their mid-noughties comeback album, when they returned to guitar-led shoegazing. Garcia (now in his mid-fifties) can’t leave it alone – he’s in a shoegaze/electronic duo with Halliday’s daughter, Rose Berlin (less vixenish than Halliday, perhaps, but very obviously her mother’s daughter). I don’t know if that’s sweet or creepy.

curve

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 10 – Out on the Weekend – Neil Young

If you play something he doesn’t like, boy, he’ll put a look on you you’ll never forget. Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has ’em play as stupid as they possibly can.

Neil Young famously likes his drummers to play simple. Sometimes it feels as many as half his songs are built on the same rhythmic chassis: boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch, about 80-90 bpm. It’s his feel, and he’s always made it work for him. It’s impossible to tell whether he adopted it because it was all Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina could play, or whether he suggested it to Molina, but either way it stuck.

He said to me, “I don’t want any right hand” – no cymbals – which was really tough for me, because I was havin’ to think about what I was playin’ rather than lettin’ it come natural.

That’s Kenny Buttrey (taken from Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey*), who occupied Young’s drum stool for Harvest and its quasi-sequel Harvest Moon, talking. Buttrey was a successful Nashville drummer who’d played on the R&B track Anna (Go to Him) by Arthur Alexander in 1962 and crossed over into rock with his appearance on Blonde on Blonde. Buttrey’s best performances on that album are things of wonder – country funk with a great-feeling backbeat. He’s wonderful on Visions of Johanna, Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and on more delicate tracks like Just Like a Woman. However, it’s not nit-picking to say that he didn’t quite have the right authority for Pledging My Time and Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (compare the oafish but so much more physical take from the 1966 tour with the Hawks – the “Royal Albert Hall”** show with Mickey Jones on drums. Compare also how much more satisfying Bobby Gregg’s heavier performances on Highway 61). Buttrey, then, wasn’t a great pick for live heavy-rock shows, as would become apparent on the Time Fades Away tour, but fantastic in the studio with the right kind of material.

Having been at the forefront of the early crossover between rock ‘n’ roll and country music on subsequent Dylan records John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, though, made him a natural fit for Young’s Nashville band the Stray Gators, even if, like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, he was brought in by producer Elliott Mazer because the guys he really wanted all spent their weekends fishing. And, appropriately, my Buttrey choice – and really it could have been any one of another half-dozen tunes, since the differences in beat are often minimal – is Out on the Weekend, Harvest‘s opener.

Like most of the Harvest material (the time and tempo changes of Words (Between the Lines of Age) being the obvious exception), Out on the Weekend allows one to play the fun game of listening out for the little licks and subtle variations Buttrey tries to sneak in without Young noticing: the odd little semi-quaver stutter on the kick, a little bit more of that dreaded right hand, in the second half of the second verse. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Harvest is a reminder that while playing to a demanding artist’s specifications may be an ordeal (what first-call Nashville player would cheerfully submit to being transformed into a Ralph Molina clone?), it can pay huge artistic (and financial) dividends.

Stray gators
Young and the Stray Gators rehearse in Young’s barn. l-r Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Jack Nitzsche (piano), Ben Keith (pedal steel), Young

*I’ve retained the punctuation as it appeared in Shakey. McDonough’s habit of representing a Southern accent by dropping terminal “g”s, and rendering “interesting” as “innaresting'” whenever Young says it, becomes rather wearying over 700 pages, but source material is source material.

**It was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but the show – with it’s “Judas!” moment – went down in legend as having been at the Albert Hall. The quote marks do appear on the record sleeve, by the way.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 9 – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – The Hollies

I hope you’ve been enjoying our series deconstructing some of the less heralded great drum performances. Our 2014 series is nearly at an end. I’ll do one more this weekend, then it’ll be back to business as usual

As we noted in the last installment, a truth known to record-makers through a process of deep listening and bitter experience yet understood by the majority of pop fans by instinct is that popular music is about rhythm first and foremost. Successful pop records are, in the main, built on great rhythm tracks. Even songs you might not think of as particularly rhythmically driven are often enhanced by and even built upon really good-feeling rhythm tracks, whether they were played or programmed.

For an example of this, we might take a perennial favourite like He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother in its most famous version, by the Hollies. Sure, the track is defined by the group’s vocal harmonies (even after Graham Nash left, the group remained a formidable harmony-singing collective) and by Alan Clarke’s passionate lead vocal, in which his commitment to the material is audible and moving. Music trivia fans might point to the piano — played by a pre-fame Elton John — as the crucial element in the arrangement. But this is my blog and I’ll say it’s the drum track, played by the group’s drummer Bobby Elliott.

The song is a taken at a slightly brisker tempo than you might remember if you haven’t heard it for a while. For a song with a weighty lyric, it’s light on its feet, by turns authoritative (those build-ups on snare and floor tom going into the second and final choruses) and graceful (the middle eight, where the canny Elliott plays dancing triplet rolls while Clarke proclaims that he’s not laden, or if he is it’s only with the fact that people don’t feel the same love he does). It’s a drum performance that’s as full of emotion as the vocal and a huge part of why it’s such a great record. If you can hear that 4-stroke snare fill and the five mighty cymbal crashes that accompany the line “and the load doesn’t weigh me down at all” without getting a little misty-eyed, you’ve got a harder heart than me. This song gets me, has always got me.

Produced by Ron Richards and recorded at Abbey Road in 1969, He Ain’t Heavy has an of-its-time mix, with of-its-time wide stereo panning. The drums are out hard right, the piano’s hard left and the bass is soft left. Listen to the song with the right channel only and you’ll be able to hear just the vocal, strings, harmonies, drums and a little bit of bass. It’s a really instructive way to hear the track’s most compelling elements, as well as Elliott’s little stumble at around 1.40 – a neat reminder that a drum track doesn’t have to be perfect to be a perfect drum track.

Bobby elliott hollies
The Hollies, c.1968 (Bobby Elliott w/hat)

Some of my recent work:

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 8 – All the King’s Friends – Soul Asylum

Sooner or later, every rock band writes a song that one or more of its members doesn’t play well.

In jazz it’s never been a big deal. Players slip in and out of ensembles all the time. If Chick Corea was what Miles Davis felt he needed on a certain tune, Chick was in and Herbie was out. But rock bands, particularly punk rock bands, have always been about the band as an organic, hermetic unit. Everything for the band, nothing outside the band. It’s way more volatile; way more infantile if you want to be harsh.

When a band’s in the studio, the spotlight usually shines most unforgivingly on the drummer. This is because producers know one thing to be true: music is first and foremost about rhythm, and there has been little truly great music made by ensembles with a lousy drummer. The Byrds and early Oasis are the only exceptions that spring to mind (and Tony McCarroll wasn’t that bad – his oafishness suited an oafish band’s oafish material). In recent years, the DAW has made these kinds of problems rarer. You can, almost always, get a drum track up to a point where it is at least steady. You can fix problems in timing with editing and problems with dynamics with sample replacement/augmentation. In the analogue era, before digital editing, if the drummer wasn’t up to snuff, you’d have to cut the tapes up to physically edit an acceptable take together or have a different drummer play the part. Most would opt for the former, as the latter is politically very hard to handle. When Dave Grohl pulled that one on original Foo Fighters drummer William Goldsmith, recutting songs himself behind his back, Goldsmith was understandably hurt and left the band.

But Goldsmith’s wasn’t the most high-profile drummer departure in the 1990s. That would be Grant Young from Soul Asylum, whose sacking halfway through the sessions for Grave Dancers Union dogged the band ever after, severely hurting their cred. That he was fired for not being able to provide the drum track to Runaway Train – a truly ubiquitous hit single – and was replaced by Sterling Campbell (who by his own admission knew nothing about underground rock music and whose credits included Duran Duran and David Bowie, in his least vital era) only added to the problem. Soul Asylum wanted a hit so badly that they wrote an acoustic-guitar sellout ballad like Runaway Train and fired their founding drummer for not playing it right? Fuck those guys.

Ah, the thorny issues of authenticity and credibility in indie rock. I think Runaway Train’s a very good song, for what it’s worth. But it’s hard to deny the band made a bad choice in pursuit of good records. And while they did make a good record (and their good record certainly made them), the cost was probably too high to the band, who never really seemed to have much fire left in them after Young departed. Sure, they had a level of fame for a couple of years that seems incredible now when you look back on it (the band playing on the White House lawn, Dave Pirner dating Wynona Ryder), but when it came time to follow GDU up, the band had lost something vital. Perhaps handled differently, Young could have stayed on board. Perhaps with a different set of personalities involved, Young may have been coached to get the performance Pirner and producer Michael Bienhorn wanted. Because Young was a fine drummer. There’s ample evidence of that on previous Soul Asylum records, from their punkier, goofier, scrappier Twin/Tone and A&M eras.

And that, finally, is what we’re going to talk about. All the King’s Friends is the twisty, turny final track on …And the Horse they Rode in On, the band’s patchy final album for A&M and the one that immediately precedes Grave Dancers Union. It’s a complex song, with time and feel changes all over the place (so much so that it feels like an early essay in math rock), and Grant Young pretty much nailed it. And interestingly, the producer involved was, for a drummer, probably even more off-putting than the trigger-happy Bienhorn*: Steve Jordan (Patti Austen, Neil Young, Eric Clapton Keith Richards, John Mayer and many more). Jordan is an amazing drummer. Yet rather than trying to intimidate his charges into doing it right, he and Joe Blaney created an environment (on a soundstage with a mobile recording unit) where Young could do his best work, which is what producing’s all about. Probably the finest recorded moment by a drummer who’s had to spend the last 22 years being the guy who couldn’t play Runaway Train and a great performance by a guy and a band who’ve been saddled with a bad rep for a long time.

SAHRC
Soul Asylum with HRC, no big thing (Grant Young left)

*Bienhorn makes fine-sounding records (GDU, Superunknown, Celebrity Skin), but often at the expense of the bands he’s worked with. He had a big hand in firing Young and Hole’s Patty Schemel, he has talked less than flatteringly about every member of Soundgarden who isn’t Chris Cornell, and even temporarily fired Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The producer has a responsibility to the label to get a product into the marketplace on time and on budget and I can understand being driven crazy by an unreliable junkie, but in a personality-driven band like RHCP, if you have no frontman, you have no band. How much, then, would the CD in the racks really matter?

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 7 – I Give Up – Quasi

My last few posts have been in praise of drummers who played for the song. The strength of Earl Young’s performance on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is the well-placed, authoritative backbeat. The more I’ve played with drummers as a songwriting guitarist, or as a drummer with another songwriter, the more I’ve valued that skill. While the title of this series of posts is slightly tongue in cheek, the skill involved in playing a simple groove with precision and a good feel that works for the song is something I’ve come to appreciate more with each passing year.

Teenage wannabe drummers don’t get it, of course. It’s all about notes per second. I understand that. I do. As a teenage guitarist, I considered myself above appreciating ‘shred’ guitarists, being more attracted to noise-mongers on one hand and ‘feel’ players on the other. But as a music fan who understood a little bit about drums from playing bass in a high school band, I loved to hear drummers playing loads of really cool fills, preferably ones with a lot of notes, so to speak. And in 1998-99, no one I listened to played more cool fills than Janet Weiss, particularly on the Quasi album Featuring “Birds”.

It sounded like no other record I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs and then covered them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord. Janet Weiss’s drums, meanwhile, were frantic, full of nervous twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

Quasi were a 2-piece – organ/vocals and drums/vocals – so there was a lot of space. Weiss had no bass player to lock in with, no lead guitarist to give room to. In any other style of music, to play as Weiss did on Featuring “Birds” would have to be considered overplaying. With Quasi, she had almost no restrictions, even fewer than with Sleater-Kinney, so the fun in listening to Featuring “Birds” for me was the wacky shit Weiss would throw in there.

I Give Up is a great example of their Featuring “Birds”-era style. It starts off with a melodic theme played by Sam Coomes on the organ with the right hand on the organ, no vocals, while his left hand plays a wandering, rising-and-falling bass line. The tone is distorted, and there’s some fun dissonance in there to stop everything sounding too perky. The B section, arrived at via a big fill from Weiss, is still eighth-note 4/4, but based on a five-bar pattern, and with a pushed accent and a huge fill that starts halfway through the fourth bar while the organ holds an E chord. After repeating this four times, the feel shifts to triplets and the drums temporarily stop. Coomes begins singing in his nasal monotone while Weiss harmonises on top. Lyrically, the song takes an unexpected turn for the serious:

They say ‘Hold on to your dream’
That plays good on TV
But never worked for me
Now I need to find a way to occupy my time
Until the day I die
‘Cause I give up
I give up
It’s gone so wrong, so long
It’s gone so wrong
So long, so long
I give up

Concision was the great strength of early Quasi, diluted when Coomes tried to play his former Heatmiser bandmate Elliott Smith’s game and adopt conventional song structures and lengths. I Give Up says more in its 11 lines than anything on Sword of God, When the Going Gets Dark or American Gong. But anyway, back to Janet Weiss. When she comes back in, it’s with a shuffle pattern on floor and snare, at the line ‘Cos I give up’. Then, at the song’s emotional climax (‘It’s gone so wrong, so long), she lifts the song by shifting back to a full triplet pattern on hats and, after that, ride. The key thing is that at each point of the song’s journey from its playfully circular and twisting beginning, through its goofy middle section to its unexpectedly poignant ending, Weiss always does the right thing: when the openings are there to be filled in the middle section, she fills them confidently, vigorously and with a sort of quizzical aggression. You get the sense her mind’s only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she doesn’t quite know where she’s going to go next. But when she has to rein it in and give space to the lyric, she’s just as adept. Indeed, with Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens, Weiss has shown she’s more than capable of backing more classic singer-songwriters than Coomes, her former colleagues in Sleater-Kinney and her illustrious post-S-K employers, and with the frankly impossible Drumgasm (a drum trio record with Matt Cameron and Zach Hill) behind her, I’m intrigued to see who she’ll team up with next.

JW
Janet Weiss c. 2000-ish?

Some of you may be interested in hearing some of my own recent work. Here you go!: