Tag Archives: Andy Wallace

King by Belly

Belly have reformed. Let’s start there.

I didn’t expect that to happen. I got the impression from Tanya Donelly’s somewhat sporadic musical activity in the last ten years that she was done with the music industry, and that she’d soon fade from public view altogether, as implied by the title of the EP series she’s been working on for the last few years, Swan Song. I was totally cool with that. There’s something dignified and graceful in getting out and choosing to stay out.

But there are plenty of precedents for reunited bands doing great work in their second phase: Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, The Go-Betweens, Alice in Chains, even, with a different lead singer. So if Belly are going to come back and do it for real – a new album as well as a tour – sign me up. I’ve got nothing but respect for them – I hope they have a blast and make some decent dough doing it.

It’s somewhat over 21 years since the band’s second, and so far, final album came out. King is one of those records that has stuck with me a long time. I first heard it in 1998, after the band had already broken up, and it stayed on heavy rotation on my stereo for a couple of years. Nowadays, as with most of the records that if pushed I’d pick as my favourites, I don’t really listen to it. But the announcement of a new tour (tickets on sale tomorrow – if I don’t get any, you’ll probably hear my anguished cries) made it inevitable that it would soundtrack my journey to and from work today.

I’ve written about the record very briefly before but let me recap, even more briefly. King was recorded by engineer/producer Glyn Johns at Compass Point studios in Nassau. Johns had worked on Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Stage Fright, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin (just to take the five biggest titles from his discography). Working with a guy like that was an extremely unusual move for an alternative rock band in 1995, when every record label just wanted Andy Wallace or, if he wasn’t available, one of those Lord Alge brothers with that new-fangled drum sound of theirs. Johns was as old school as it got, and his work on King made it stand out a mile.

Johns encouraged the band to record the album live: two guitars, bass and drums, all together, all bleeding into each other. Even the vocals. “Any band that can play a gig can play live in a studio,” he’s said. “There was no backup plan.”

This was not standard industry practice in 1995, and in 2016 is practically unheard of. When you record this way, every microphone contains ambient sound as well as the direct sound of whatever instrument the microphone is primarily picking up. Bass goes into the guitar mics. Drums go into the bass amp mic. Everything goes into everything else. Fine, if the band can play well. But because nothing can be edited independent of any other sound source, it’s a method of recording that forces you either to not make mistakes, or to make them and live with them.

King is full of mistakes. It’s a document of band, and a band that were, for all their many virtues, not Steely Dan. Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on Seal My Fate and Silverfish. Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible.

It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.

This sound is perfect for the set of songs Donelly had written (largely in collaboration with Tom Gorman). Less surreal and sinister than the songs on Star, King tracks like Judas My Heart and The Bees still demonstrate that quality of prime-era Donelly: a gorgeous, indelible melody coupled with a lyric that seeks to hide its vulnerability behind images and symbols, the urge to be plainspoken and honest fighting with the urge to protect oneself. Thus The Beeds can contain lyrics as imagistic as:

Now the bees behind my eyes sing beware

and as plain-spoken as:

I steal a piece of your diary
I don’t think that looks like me
Am I so cold now that I’m older?
I tell you stories
That doesn’t mean you know me

At this point, the record’s slower, more interior-looking songs – The Bees, Seal My Fate and Silverfish – are my favourites, but if sparkly, guitar-heavy pop is more your thing, King has plenty of that too. Red, Super-Connected and Now They’ll Sleep are all neglected White Album-ish classics, and the title track is a grindy, initially unpromising grower that halfway through suddenly becomes something else entirely.

Star is the record that Belly will be remembered for, and its obvious why. Its best songs are extremely portable. Taken out of their context and played on the radio or placed on a iTunes playlist, Gepetto and Feed the Tree sound just wonderful. Star has some great second-tier material too. Dusted. Slow Dog. Sad Dress. White Belly. I love them all. But King? King is timeless. King is its own thing. Nothing was like it then, nothing is like it now.

belly stephen dirado

Contractually obligated Donelly-related picture of Belly on the beach (Nassau, 1995)

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When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

bob clearmountain

A rough demo of a new song:

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: