Tag Archives: audio engineering

Yet More Live Gonzos, part 2: This Hungry Life – Tanya Donelly

When researching this album, I came across a website of travel memories by Steph and Craig Smith, who were at the second night of recording, and they graciously agreed to talk to me about the experience, and allowed me to use some of the photos they took that night. Their recollections were invaluable to me when writing this piece, and I’d like to thank them again for sharing their time and memories with me.

Over two hot and sticky August nights in 2004, a small audience gathered in the lobby of The Windham, a disused historic hotel in Bellows Falls, Vermont. They were there to witness a special live performance by Tanya Donelly, former Belly singer-songwriter and lead guitarist in Throwing Muses and the Breeders. Over the two evenings, Donelly performed three sets, all of which were recorded, with two of them consisting of entirely new material except for a cover of George Harrison’s White Album masterpiece Long, Long, Long. Selected takes from those two sessions were released as her fourth solo album, This Hungry Life, in 2006.

In a recent piece, I looked at Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, which consists of tracks recorded live in concert, in motel rooms, backstage and even on the tour bus. But we didn’t really spend much time comparing live recording with the typical studio experience, either as it existed then or now.

In a studio environment, tracking often becomes a near-scientific process of totally separating sound sources, allowing for completely independent processing and editing of all of those isolated individual tracks, during both tracking and mixing. Even if the band aces a take and no edits are required, if all the sound sources were recorded in the same room without separation, you wouldn’t be able to process one sound source without changing the sound of the others, at least subtly: if I wanted to brighten the overheads on the drums with some EQ, it would boost the treble on all the guitars, too. For this reason, while musicians may play takes together live while standing in the same room, they usually do so while wearing headphones and with their amps all isolated from each other in separate booths or behind screens. Musicians who play acoustic instruments need to be in a separate room (usually small, acoustically treated “dead” rooms called iso booths).

In the 2000s, this began to change due to the advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW, recording software), which allows for high-resolution digital recording not necessarily in a dedicated studio environment or with all the expensive analogue technology that pro studios routinely employed.

I’d venture to say that nowadays most artists of Donelly’s stature record much of their music at home with Pro-Tools, Logic, Cubase or some other recording software, heading into a professional facility at the start of the process to track live drums (if any) and maybe at the end to mix the record on a pro-level desk and/or print the mixes to half-inch tape. Projects get passed around between band members, who add their parts remotely using their own home recording set-ups*.

However, sixteen years ago in 2004, the full impact of DAW software was yet to be felt within the music industry, and most veteran artists like Donelly would still have been used to recording almost entirely in studios, if on smaller budgets than they’d have had 10 years previously.

What Donelly was doing in Bellows Falls was rather different to either the traditional studio recording experience or the emerging trend towards home recording (albeit that on-location recording was made easier by the advent of digital technology and This Hungry Life was almost certainly recorded digitally). Having all the musicians play live together with no separation between sound sources limits the possibility of independent editing or punch-ins to fix small flubs, and an audience there to witness any mistakes is a long way from the controlled environment of the professional studio. Working that way is pretty brave, and may be seen as more than a little eccentric.

So why do it? Many musicians – perhaps most – will tell you that the downsides outweigh any potential benefits. Those people, on the terms they’re arguing, may even be right.

But the pressure of needing to perform and be great in the moment – so you don’t blow things for the rest of the band, and so you entertain the audience – can force everyone to raise their game. Musicians, especially seasoned ones, are often most comfortable recording the way they’re used to playing at gigs and rehearsals – everyone in a room together, with lots of non-verbal communication such as eye contact to help everyone navigate complex sections. Perhaps the majority of musicians nowadays do prefer incremental, additive recording strategies, but there are still a cadre who like doing things a bit more old school.

Donelly seems to be one of those who do thrive on the pressure of recording live and needing to get things right there and then. This Hungry Life was not the first time she’d done something like this. She and her former band Belly had recorded their second album, King, live at Compass Point studios in Nassau, with just a few overdubs. This lent it a vintage, somewhat messy feel in its early 1995 context of highly produced and clinically mixed pseudo-alternative records such as Throwing Copper and Collective Soul. This Hungry Life was simply the same idea as Donelly had had with King taken a few steps further.

I asked Steph and Craig what it was like to be present at that Saturday session, as I was particularly interested to know whether it felt like a gig that was being recorded or a recording session that happened to have an audience:

It felt more like a recording session. There were strict rules for the audience; we couldn’t take photos during the songs or do anything that might possibly make a sound. We were instructed to allow a moment of silence after each song before applauding, so that there was no bleed-over into the song itself. The weather was extremely hot and the air conditioner was too loud to run during recording. So this meant there were breaks after every couple of songs, so that people could go outside to get some fresh air and so that they could run the air conditioning for a few minutes to try to cool the room down. So it felt more like “takes” of songs rather than a cohesive set. That being said, they did all 10 songs, then circled back to do additional takes of songs that needed it (“Littlewing” being one). Plus these were brand new songs that nobody in the audience had heard before (with the exception of the folks who had attended the prior night, of course).

Steph also took me through the layout of the room itself:

The room was very small but elegant. There were blue velvet curtains on the windows and a blue velvet curtain separating the main room from the bathroom area. There was a bar in the rear corner of the room. There were six rows of chairs set up, accommodating around 50 people. There were a couple of tables in the back of the room. We were seated in the third row.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmps, mikes and cables at the Windham

Steph’s memories of the night accord with my experience of listening to it. There’s a definite charge from the fact that this was happening live, but overall it’s still a carefully controlled sound (props to the recording engineer Brian Brown). Indeed, certain songs, lacking audience noise and applause, either before or after, make it difficult to tell it was recorded live at all, the biggest giveaway being the sound of Joan Wasser’s electric viola.

If you’re going to record live, it helps to have a crack team of musicians at your disposal, and Donelly did. Her band at the Windham sessions comprised Rich Gilbert (Human Sexual Response, Frank Black, Jack White) on pedal steel and electric guitar, Dean Fisher (Juliana Hatfield) on guitar, Joe McMahon (Smoke or Fire) on double bass, Arthur Johnson (Come) on drums and Joan Wasser (Rufus Wainwright and Antony & the Johnsons; she also records her own songs as Joan As Police Woman) on viola and backing vocals. Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz also sang backup.

These are folks are all capable of playing expressively and powerfully, or pulling back to something restrained and minimal when the moment demanded. The songs on This Hungry Life saw them doing plenty of both. Kundalini Slide and the joyous River Girls alternate between gentle verses and passionately forceful choruses, while the cover of Long, Long, Long is a very creditable attempt to replicate the spectral wooziness of the Beatles recording. Steph spoke fondly of the exuberant NE, which opens the record with a reference to New England’s unreliable weather (“It’s June, and I’m still wearing my boots”), and Littlewing, which is built on a cool bowed double bass part from Joe McMahon (and isn’t a cover of the similarly titled Hendrix song).

My favourite, though, remains the title track. This Hungry Life is a song of extraordinary empathy and wisdom. Written in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the song begins by surveying the wreckage of a world on fire (the title of another song on the record):

Night falls and the rain comes
And the rain goes
And the moon is a stain when you’ve lost something.
And you wait and you wait
And you wait
For the end or the girl or the song
Or the boy or the faith
Or the leader who won’t bring you shame
And you wait and you wait
And you wait.

But crucially, it offers the hope that we, in whatever small way we can, might be able to make a difference, even if only in our own lives and the lives of those closest to us:

This hungry life won’t let you out whole
But you can change a thing or two
Before you go.
This hungry life
Might not leave you with much,
But you can change your story
And throw a hand up from the mud.

Donelly had seldom taken on such big themes in her work without the use of metaphor. She talked often in her days in Belly of her attraction to fairy tale and fable, which allowed her to find ways to explore the world in her songs without staying in the world of the literal and material. There’s no fairy tale in This Hungry Life – it’s one adult addressing another, simply and directly, a small moment of solidarity and understanding and hope that things may one day be better. It’s depressing how relevant This Hungry Life still feels (anyone else waiting for a leader who won’t bring you shame? I know I am), nearly 15 years down the line.

It’s a remarkable performance from the band, too. Johnson keeps a quiet pulse with brushes, while McMahon’s double bass reinforces the little suspended riff on electric guitar that recurs throughout the song. Both parts are perfect as unobtrusive accompaniment. It’s Gilbert who really shines, though, dealing in texture rather than melody, never distracting from Donelly’s vocal, or the supporting harmonies from Wasser and Janovtiz. It’s a delicate spell that the band cast for the song’s six minutes, but it’s a powerful one.

This Hungry Life (the album) won’t be to everyone’s taste, and seems to be a little bit forgotten in Donelly’s discography, for reasons perhaps unrelated to the way it was recorded. Some fans will miss the refinement of a true studio recording, though I suspect those who liked Belly’s King more than Star would find this one appealing too. My one gripe with the way the album is presented is the inconsistent way Donelly and Brown handled the applause from the audience, which is an issue Steph and Craig raised while talking to me about the record:

The applause and audience reaction on the album is a bit of a curiosity to us. They probably could have omitted the applause altogether to get more of a studio feel, or they could have left more of it intact to give more of a live feel. The way it stands now, the audience reaction is present but the levels are way down (sounds like a soundboard bootleg). I fall on the side of thinking that they should have put more audience in… double down on the enthusiasm the crowd expressed after hearing these new songs in such an intimate setting. Whereas Craig is surprised that they included it at all, as he was under the impression from the first that they were going for a studio feel and we were just observers who would have been in the sound booth if possible.

I feel similarly to Steph that, since they decided to include the applause, it would have been nice if it had been more prominent. Equally, I see where Craig is coming from – having asked the audience to wait a second or two after the last chord faded out before applauding, they could easily have left the applause out altogether. The way it’s mixed on the album is a rather unsatisfactory half measure.

That said, it’s a minor flaw and it doesn’t really spoil what’s still a really interesting album, especially if you’re interested in live recordings; this is a way of working that virtually no one practises anymore. And if you do hear the record, you’ll probably find half of its songs sticking with you. While, like Steph and Craig, I find other Donelly records more satisfying (Beautysleep is my favourite among her solo albums; King is my Belly pick), the title track alone makes This Hungry Life one to hear if it passed you by on its release in 2016.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARich Gilbert, Tanya Donelly and Dean Fisher, tuning up, I reckon

*Obviously, Covid-19 is forcing everyone to work this way, but it was already a prevalent recording strategy for musicians looking to maximise budgets. Sending files between musicians via Dropbox or WeTransfer and having everyone record separately saves on travel expenses, studio costs, accommodation and F&B. I’ve made almost an entire album with Yo Zushi this way during lockdown. One song contains a live basic track of drums and acoustic guitar we made in the same room last November – the rest has been done remotely, with files sent back and forth via WeTransfer.

Reverb, echo & delay revisited

Seven years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a piece about how frustrated I was with the ways I heard reverb and echo being used in recorded music, particularly indie rock. It really ground my gears, which I think you can tell when you read the thing, but I also think I did a pretty poor job of explaining why. Unless the reasons it annoyed me then are different to now but the change in my thinking has been gradual enough that I’m not even conscious of there having been a change. I guess that’s a possibility.

The damn piece still gets traffic, though, so I feel like I want to put a more nuanced take out there for anyone passing who might, for whatever reason, be interested.

Ultimately, what I found – and sometimes still find – annoying about the overuse of reverb and echo is that they’re a shortcut to a gravitas and weightiness that the music may not have earned. The application of reverb and echo puts a sound source in a (simulated) large acoustic space. The sound source is thus received by the listener with a bunch of signifiers we habitually attach to sound heard in those types of spaces.

In the real world, unless we happen to hang out in aircraft hangars, we encounter spaces big enough to produce prominently audible echoes rarely: churches, most obviously, but also arenas, theatres, warehouses, town halls and other types of communal and assembly halls. Spaces in which someone who has something important to say speaks, while the rest of us merely listen. Spaces in which sermons are delivered. Spaces in which musicians transmit and the rest of us just receive.

That’s what always got me about prominent reverb. It always sounded to me like the musician getting above themselves, blowing their inconsequential thoughts and words up to giant size, and inviting you to receive them in awe. When the music isn’t good, the effect can be pure bathos.

Now, there are all kinds of things going on in that response, and a lot of them come down to my own prejudices about what music, particularly alternative music, should be.

In my teens, I acquired a bias against self-consciously grand and epic music that’s taken years to shake off, and reverb and echo are such obvious signifiers of that kind of stuff that I’ve tended to hear all uses of reverb and echo as being informed by a sort of sonic will to, not power exactly, but a sort of will to importance.

In fact, a lot of time these kinds of exaggerated reverbs, echoes and delays are used by artists who don’t want to be made big but rather made indistinct. Again, that’s not high up my lift of desirable sonic qualities, as it tends to diminish a lot of the physical excitement I get from listening to music. But wanting to hide behind a 5-second reverb trail is something I can understand, even if it’s not the way I cope with being a basically shy and undemonstrative person who unaccountably also wants people to hear the music I make. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.

So these days, when listening to music, particularly indie rock, that’s still swathed in an omnipresent reverb haze, I try to focus on effect rather than intention. OK, I wouldn’t make this aesthetic choice, but is it being executed effectively? And the answer is, sometimes yes, sometimes no. You do hear records where the guitarist’s insistence on using their EHX Cathedral pedal absolutely all the time puts the band in a sonic box; if the guitar sounds like it’s in being played in the nave at St Paul’s, it’s going to sound a bit weird if the rest of the band sounds tight and dry. Records where each element seems to exist in different, overlapping sonic spaces remain a bugbear of mine, because it’s distracting and amateurish. If you create different sonic spaces within a mix, you have to learn how to blend them to make a coherent whole. Equally, though, I hear records that would be very different, inferior, experiences if mixed dry and close.

I’m still not keen on Sun-style tape delay, though.

west cath
Singer in the pulpit, band on the sanctuary, guitarist can take a solo from on top of the baldacchino. Perfect tracking environment.

New single out on 14 March

Hi everyone. My apologies for keeping you waiting for the next More Live Gonzos post. The last one was a pretty serious investment of time, and in the week since I’ve been busy and a bit stressed, and just not able to make time for the listening, thinking and drafting I’d need to put in to do the next one properly. So I figured I’d post about some other things in the meantime, while I try to get into gear on the next live album.

One of the things I’ve been working on is a digital-only single. My main focus over the winter has been to finish and release an EP that my partner Melanie and I are working on. The EP will be six songs, three songs each, and is basically all acoustic folky stuff: only one song features a full band arrangement. But both of us have interests across the musical spectrum, and we both had a couple of strong songs that didn’t fit the style of the EP. Rather than let them sit there for months, or years, we figured better to just put them out.

My 2-song single You Won’t Need to Cry b/w Hard to Begin will come out on Saturday 14 March. The songs are both, broadly speaking, indie-pop. You Won’t Need to Cry is a slightly mechanised 1980s kind of thing, with harmonies and doubled vocals and a lot of layered guitars. Hard to Begin is more of a McCartney/Elliott Smith type of song, with an extended chord sequence in the verse, a proper middle eight, some very Ringo-ish drums and all that kind of stuff.

It’ll be available through Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes (at least, I think so. iTunes will soon be defunct so not toally sure), Apple Music, Google Play, Soundcloud and a whole bunch of other platforms. But I thought I’d offer free-of-charge advance copies to readers of the blog, as a thank you for coming here and reading my blatherings. It means a lot that you do. If you’d like a free download code, email me through the blog or send me a DM on Twitter.

The Mel-and-Ross EP will be available shortly thereafter (I reckon April), and Mel’s single will come out not long after that.

You Won't Need to Cry sleeve w text 5 square
Home-made cover art. Excellent picture taken from the top of St Paul’s by Melanie. Less-than-excellent text by me.

Dummy at 25 – Portishead’s masterpiece

The first thing I heard was horror-movie Hammond organ, with an extremely present snare drum cross-stick and jazzy double bass underpinning it. Then the song seemed to turn itself inside out. There was a sampled bleating kind of noise, and a drum track so mercilessly compressed that the ride cymbal made a sucking noise, as if being played backwards, with a backeat that sounded more like a bell than anything resembling a snare drum. Then a vocal: intimate-sounding, close. “I’m ever so lost,” the singer declared. “I can’t find my way.”

The song was of course Numb, from Portishead’s Dummy. The album’s lead single, Numb made my head spin round. This sound – I had no name for it, and I still don’t think there’s a satsifactory one. Certainly not “trip-hop” – was composed of some elements I recognised (bass, scratching, vocals), others that sounded bizarre and novel to me (that tolling, sucking drum track) and an old black-and-white-movie vibe, and in total was something genuinely new. For all that Portishead were making use of analogue sounds and occasionally sampling old records, there was nothing retro or kitschy about what they did. The band was in earnest. DJ/creative mastermind Geoff Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons felt the way their songs sounded.

Portishead seemed to specialise in picking up and reusing neglected or forgotten sounds. Mysterons features a Theremin. Sour Times samples Lalo Schifrin’s The Danube Incident (a 2-minute instrumental from Mission: Impossible), which makes use of a prominent bell-like stringed instrument: there’s still debate online about whether its a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) or a Marxophone. Numb had the aforementioned Hammond organ, played on its most Gothic-sounding voicing. Roads is built around a simple, spine-tingling progression played on the Fender Rhodes, a staple of jazz-inflected balladry in the 1970s but hopelessly old-fashioned in 1994. Adrian Utley played guitar, but he was schooled in jazz, and he played cool, tremolo-soaked spy movie riffs.

A budding guitarist in thrall to distortion-saturated American rock music, I nonetheless loved Dummy and all these strange new sounds. The album was like nothing else I’d heard; even when I learned that the band came from the same town as Massive Attack and Tricky (Bristol), and that Barrow had worked as a junior engineer on Blue Lines, it still sounded entirely new and without precedent.

Those who remember Dummy coming out will know what happened next. Bottomlessly sad but undeniably chic and current sonically, Dummy was an immediate hit. It became too big for its creators to handle. Not in the sense that it was number one for weeks on end, but in its cultural omnipresence. Its songs appeared in too many TV shows, its sonics, vibe and atmosphere were copied by other, inferior bands. Some tastemakers turned on Portishead themselves, wrote them off as middlebrow, coffee-table moaners. The criticism stung, and their next record was harsher, angrier – without the warmth of songs like It Could be Sweet and Strangers that provided such effective contrast to the darker songs on Dummy.

Portishead’s debut became, then, a glorious one-off, one that no one else ever equalled and that the band themselves had no interest in recreating. Give it a spin, and you’ll find it’s more than you remember: more sad, more sweet, more lonely, more singular, more inventive, more itself. Happy birthday to a classic.

 

Mix techniques

I’m not a professional mix engineer. However, I see so many articles of the “Five Tips to Improve Your Mixes” type that are just filled with bad advice (or at the very least poorly worded advice) that I sometimes feel like the last sane adult out there. So much reliance on processing. So little attention paid to the integrity of the recorded performance.

So, here are my tips. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, this is the stuff I pay attention to when mixing. But first, a disclaimer: I’m only talking about rock, indie and acoustic music mixes, here; I don’t do EDM or pop productions, and little of what I have to say would be relevant if those are the fields you’re working in. If you’re working with acoustic instruments, though, maybe I have something useful to teach.

The spine
The key to mixing an arrangement involving vocals, drums and a bass instrument – that is, almost all rock, indie and pop music – lies in the relationship between the lead vocal, the kick drum, the snare drum and the bass. These instruments and sound sources constitute the spine of your mix, the trunk of the tree.

For backbeat-oriented music, it’s standard practice to mix the drums so the kick and snare have equal weight within the aggregate mix. This doesn’t just mean putting the faders for both at unity and leaving it at that. We’re concerned with their level within the drum mix as a whole; if you have a pair of stereo mikes on the kit, they’re contributing, too, so the relative volume of the snare compared to the kick within that stereo pair will also be a factor (if you’re using spaced overheads, typically the snare is prominent and the kick, while present, is more distant and clicky). Pay less attention to the visual level of the transient and more to the felt volume of the meat of the drum. And don’t compress those transients into nothingness – those transients provide energy and excitement.

Whether the kick or the bass occupies the perceived “lowest” portion of the frequency spectrum will depend on the song and what the bassist is doing. If the material features the bass being played mainly in the second octave, the fundamental of the kick drum will live below the bass’s centre of energy. If the bassist and the kick drum are competing with each other, try rolling off the kick’s low end a little and emphasise the beater (more of that later) to give the kick more clarity and audibility.

I like to think of the vocal as sitting on a platform created by the kick and snare drums. Mix it too loud and the voice seems to float above the music, creating what I call “big giant head” syndrome. To check you’ve got the balance about right, here’s a hack that actually works: slowly turn the master volume down until the music is only just audible. If the last things you can hear are the vocal and the snare drum, that’s usually a good sign.

A lot of rock records have the vocals sunken a little further in the mix (an aesthetic that goes back at least as far as the Rolling Stones). If that’s your thing, make sure the vocal is still legible. You can drop it a long way back (e.g. the Police, early R.E.M., Dire Straits, etc.), but don’t bury the vocal entirely; i

Balance – panning
They used to call recording engineers “balance engineers”, and the term is an instructive one. Achieving a balance between all the elements in the mix on a second-by-second basis is what we do.

That means getting the relative volume levels right, of course, but it also means placing the elements within the stereo field to acheive a pleasing spatial balance. We’ve already discussed the relationship between the kick, snare, bass and vocal. These elements are almost invariably centre panned, and have been since the late 1960s. But what to do with harmonic instruments? Where do they go?

It’s going to depend a lot on what has been recorded for the production, as well as the panning scheme you favour as a mix engineer.

I’m a proponent of LCR panning, meaning elements are panned 100% left, 100% right or centre (except close tom mikes, which I pan to the places that the toms appear in the stereo image). Panning this way means that the instruments retain their relative positions in the stereo field wherever you may be standing in relation to the speakers; a guitar panned 18% left will be perceived as 18% left only as long as you sit right in the middle of the speakers. Move away from that point, and you change your perception of where all non-centre-panned instruments are.

Now, some mix engineers don’t care about that, and they happily pan elements slightly off centre, or nearly all the way left but not quite. Me, I prefer the clarity and stabililty of LCR.

But LCR requires a degree of forethought. If you track a four-piece band (bass, drums, rhythm and lead guitar) as live, it might make sense to pan the two guitar tracks left and right, but what happens when the lead guitarist plays a solo? Do you move it to the centre? Keep it out wide? Have the guitarist not play a solo during the live take but instead double the rhythm part, then overdub the solo later? Record the rhythm player through two amps, split left and right, and put the lead guitarist in the centre with the vocalist? All are defensible strategies, but it pays to consider them before tracking. If you’re just mixing and you’ve had no say in what was tracked, don’t try to force a panning scheme on the track that the arrangement doesn’t support. Better to have a narrow mix with everything in the centre than a completely wacky mix with the acoustic rhythm guitar left and the bass guitar right, simply because you want to make the mix “more stereo”.

Balance – volume
So programme-dependent it’s hardly worth talking about, but here’s one thought. One of the biggest differences I hear between modern mix topologies and those from the 1960s and 1970s is the treatment of simple rhythm accompaniments on acoustic guitar or piano.

There’s a tendency towards giving everything a big sound these days (largely because instruments are usually all tracked separately with close mikes), which tends to make mixes feel cluttered and airless. To compensate, engineers end up carving loads of lows and low-mids out of, say, an acoustic rhythm guitar and adding lots of top end to give it “air” and reduce the sense of clutter. Consider miking simple acoustic rhythm guitar parts a little more ambiently and mixing them lower. If the acoustic is the main instrument, that’s different, but if it’s just providing harmonic glue and texture, does it need to be prominently audible in every single moment of the song? Probably not. If you’re after a 1970s feel, listen to how the acoustic rhythm part is treated on (just to think of a few artists from across the spectrum) Pink Floyd, Van Morrison or Eagles records, and try treating it similarly.

Compression
Ah, the great Satan of modern mix. The humble compressor. So many ways for them to kill your mix stone dead. Let’s take them one at a time.

Mix-buss compression
I don’t do this usually. Many engineers take a compressor they feel is euphonious and adds a pleasant density or tonal characteristic, and use it on the stereo master outs. If you’re going to go down this road, be careful not to overdo it: medium attack and release times and a relatively gentle ratio (1.5:1 or 2:1) will probably sound more transparent  than more extreme settings, and remember you can destroy a song’s feel really quickly by not paying attention to the tempo and groove, and applying inappropriate attack and release settings for the song.

Channel compression
I tend to be looking for a classic rather than contemporary sound, so I don’t like to hear a compressor working (certainly not when listening to the sound source within the aggregate mix). Depending on the instrument – and certainly for vocals – I like to apply post-fader compression and solve some of the bigger dynamics issues with automation. The compressor then gently reduces dynamic range of a slightly more idealised version of the performance. I’m working digitally (and therefore not limited by needing to have lots of expensive hardware), and one upside of that is that you can chain compressors a lot more cheaply than you can in the physical world! If I need a lot of gain reduction and don’t want to choke the life out of a source entirely, I’ll set up a couple, typically pre- and post-fader, and let fader moves and the compressors split the work between them.

Buss compression
All engineers approach this differently. I typically set up a buss for drums (minus toms), toms, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, ooh- and ahh-type backing vocals, and lead and close harmony vocals. I may buss single instruments like piano and bass guitar, but usually only if they’ve been recorded with several mikes or, say, DI and amp for the bass. Drums I tend to hit with a few dB of gain reduction, vocals likewise (again maybe post-fader – it depends on the dynamic of the performance). Electric guitar is very programme-dependent; distorted guitar I likely won’t compress at all, anywhere down the line. Acoustic guitar and clean electric, I’ll probably use a little to glue things together a little tonally, rather than for significant gain reduction, and use fader moves to make the guitars sit where I want them to.

Equalisation
There’s a long- and widely held belief that subtractive EQ is better than additive EQ. It is, I think, a myth. Those who counsel against additive EQing on the grounds that you’re trying to boost what isn’t there have a point – but only if that is actually what you’re doing, which is rare for anyone who isn’t a total newbie. Trying to add brilliance to a bass drum track by boosting 10k is absurd. Trying to emphasisr the beater impact of a kick drum by making a boost somewhere between 2k and 4k (depending on tuning and beater material) is just emphasising what self-evidently is there.

On the whole, I probably do subtract frequencies more often than boost them, but I’m always happy to make small boosts where needed. For example, I often add a little high end to vocals (above the range of sibilance so things don’t get spitty) and, within a dense mix, I’ll look to give a boost to the audibility of toms by bringing out the stick impact rather than the drum’s fundamental.

In terms of subtractive EQ, I work in fairly conventional ways. I’ll look to take some low mids out of boomy acoustic guitar tracks, and often emphasise the low end of a tom by cutting a little into the mids. If a bass drum is moving a lot of air but feels a little less present than I want, sometimes rolling off below ~60Hz can be helpful (I often do this in conjunction with the beater-frequency boost mentioned earlier).

I’m usually working in quite naturalistic sound worlds, so I want to get a sound in front of a microphone, capture it, and present it in mix transparently, so EQing is not something done in the box after tracking. Rather, the instrument being played, the pickup used, the pedals and amps used, the position of the mike, the choice of mike – all of these are factors in whether I use lots of EQ or none at all.

Hand in hand with the natural-sound thing, the ideal situation, if I’ve been recording a good player on a good instrument and done my job with mike positioning, is that I apply no EQ at all. If I liked the sound in the room, there really should be no reason not to like it on tape, so to speak.

Which I guess leads us to…

Conclusion
The biggest issues I have with a lot of the “5 best tips to help you mix like a pro!” nonsense I see all over the internet is that so many of them present techniques that are sometimes useful (often as hail Marys more than anything) as regular, staple techniques that you “should” be using. I read one guide the other day that said something to the effect of “You’re going to want to high-pass filter all your tracks to remove the low end”. But why? Can’t I listen to the track first to see if that’s necessary? What if the band knows how to arrange their music and the tracking engineer recorded them in such a way that there is no build-up of clutter down there?

The best tip I could give anyone is this: do nothing simply for the sake of doing something; leave well alone if you can’t account for your intervention; resist the temptation to process just because you can. A good 80% of mixing lies in the performance and tracking – if a performance is captured well and is solid in terms of sound and technique, the results mix themselves. Any engineer who works as a tracking and mix engineer and doesn’t simply mix would, Steve Albini style, benefit from putting most of their efforts into improving their miking techniques and gain structuring. The mix will then be an infinitely simpler process.

Geoff Emerick RIP

Geoff Emerick passed away on 2 October.

It’s basically impossible to overstate the importance of Emerick in the history of audio engineering. Born in 1945, he took over the engineering of Beatles sessions at Abbey Road in 1966. His first session as the band’s lead engineer, the first for what would become Revolver, was on Tomorrow Never Knows. That’s quite an auspicious start. The technical achievements of that session alone – the thunderous slack-tuned drum sound, the tape loops, the heavy compression that made Ringo’s cymbals sound like they were being played backwards, the vocal effect on Lennon’s voice, achieved by running it through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet designed for use with an organ – would ensure that Emerick went down as an AE immortal. It was just his first session.

Time and again, Emerick broke the rules of engineering to give the Beatles the effects they wanted. The band, and sometimes George Martin, may have been the architects of these sounds and effects, but Emerick (as well as Ken Scott, once Emerick quit Beatles sessions in search of more regular hours and a less poisonous atmosphere) was quantity surveyor, clerk of works, builder, carpenter and electrician all rolled into one. They commissioned the house; he built it. I mention “rules of engineering” above – at Abbey Road in the 1960s, they were literally rules, and Emerick could have been fired for his experiments in sound if the studio management had known exactly what he was doing with their expensive equipment to make these records. He invented an arsenal of techniques and effects that are still in use today, often by using equipment in a way no one had designed it to be used. Engineers in that era had to be familiar with their gear at component level, and Emerick was no exception.

Emerick’s career may have not matched up to its early years, and the fallout from the book he wrote 10 years back (in which he was relentlessly critical of George Harrison and frequently dismissive of Martin, seeming to only have much time for McCartney – the only Beatle to employ him once the band split) was ugly. But Emerick remains a giant in the field. His work transformed the practice of audio engineering. As long as people are recording sound, his work will be studied and he will be remembered.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

prince-hall-of-fame

Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

Separated by Water – new single to download

Hi everyone,

It’s time for a small plug. I’ve put a new song called Separated by Water up on Bandcamp, with reliable old Crossing Oceans as a B-side (chosen over several other contenders for the nautical connection). You can pay what you like, minimum price is zero. Zilch. Nada.

Click play on the player below to stream or Download to claim your very own copy, in the file format of your choosing, with artwork. Clicking Download will open up a Bandcamp window in your browser and you’ll be prompted to enter a sum of your choosing. Fear not – 0 is acceptable.

I recorded and mixed it at home, playing all the instruments in my usual fashion, but had some help from Melanie Crew and James McKean on backing vocals, who did a wonderful job. I hope you like it!

Things that are happening round here

Just a little update on things related to my own music.

This Sunday, 7th February, I’ll be playing a live session for Doug Welch on his folk show on BBC Kent. It starts at 9pm, and I’ll be doing three or four songs and talking a bit about them. I’m really honoured to have been asked to do it, and am looking forward to it a lot. I’ll put a link up to the podcast once it’s up, which will probably Monday.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a digital-download single, which is a trailer for full album to come out in the spring. It’s a song I wrote just before Christmas called Separated by Water, and I’ve been working on it at home for the last month, which has been slow progress due to a cold I just haven’t been able to shake and which meant it was touch and go whether I was going to be able to get a usable vocal done in time (colds tend to completely destroy my voice and leave me unable to sing properly for a week or so after I actually feel better). Anyway, I’m mixing it tonight and tomorrow, and will let it out into the world on Saturday, so I’ll put a download link up here then.

As for the album, I’ve finished it, I think! Just need to find a mastering engineer, get some artwork, photos, all of that jazz. I’ve never done a full album release with an actual physical product, and I want to make sure I get it right.

Added to that, James McKean’s second solo album, No Peace for the Wicked, is mastered and ready for release on 27 March. I mixed it, recorded a lot of it, played my usual assortment of instruments on it, and will be playing at least one live show with James to launch it (and potentially more), so I’d like leave my release till after his one’s done and dusted. James’s record is wonderful – very well sequenced, with excellent songs and brilliant performances from a pretty substantial cast of London-based musicians, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve all done on it.

Expect mine to follow it in late April or May.

In the meantime, here’s a bunch of songs more or less certain to be on it.