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.

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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.