Tag Archives: Blueberry Moon

The NME is fragile; no more print editions of the NME

Obscure David Bowie reference for you there. Before we turn to the NME, I just wanted to let you know that James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar, have just released a new track called Rocks and Pebbles. And here it is. A full EP to follow in June, then an album. All mixed by your genial host at this weblog.

And now to the NME.

The NME lost me in the early noughties, when it became obsessively focused on the Strokes, the White Stripes, Interpol and, slightly later, their inferior British knock-offs. I simply wasn’t interested in a paper that could find nothing more worthy of discussion and analysis than Pete Doherty. It seemed to me then, and still seems now, that Conor McNicholas (the paper’s then editor) had driven them into a cul de sac, and was at some point going to have to reverse out of it, allowing his writers to turn their attention to something beyond retro indie rock.

When the NME did pivot away from indie towards pop, it was far too late.

But wider forces are at work here, of course. Chief among them is that, for all McNicholas likes to think his paper “owned” that cultural moment, and he’s been quoted plenty saying that it did, all the initial heavy lifting that made Brooklyn indie into the dominant form of rock for a decade was done online, by MP3 blogs, webzines and the young Pitchfork.

Like any long-lived print publication, the NME did not think digital. It’s now a web-only publication and it still doesn’t. Of all the music-writing portals online (they are legion, and some are spectacularly good), none has an uglier, more badly designed website than the NME. They’ll need a total site redesign immediately to have any chance in such a saturated market.

There’s also the thorny issue of music fans not needing gatekeepers to tell them what is and isn’t worth listening to, when they can do it themselves on their phones immediately and at no cost other than data. Oh, and the whole issue of editorial focus. These are not partisan times, musically. We all listen more widely than 20 years ago, because it’s so easy. The NME needs a staff who know stuff, can offer insight and analysis. If all they’re going to do is publish lightly edited press releases or stories off the wire, they’ll be completely dead inside 18 months.

I never knew the NME in its glory days, whenever you consider those to be. But I grew up with the NME still a thriving, widely read publication that could set an agenda, and seeing it slowly crawling to its end is a deflating experience. I hope those working for it are able to find new work, but my gut tells me that most of them won’t be able to find gainful employment in a similar sphere. The online ad market won’t support the number of titles it’d take for everyone to keep their jobs. The issue remains, how do you make money from something that everyone can get for free and that no one’s willing to pay for? And if you can’t get people to pay for music writing, how can you pay the people writing it?

Advertisements

Mixing James McKean

I’m just getting going on a mix project: the next album by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.

It’s not ideal timing. I’ve only been in my new house with Mel a couple of months, and I’ve not yet had time to really do anything with our music room in terms of acoustic treatment, and as a result it’s still echoey as all hell. But we’re under the gun, so I need to get going. I’m familiar enough with the material from listening to it in my old monitoring environment that I know there are no major EQ issues to compensate for, so as long as I keep to modest, sensible EQ treatments, and listen to mixes frequently in other rooms, on headphones, on my iPod etc. to check I’ve not done anything wacky, I won’t go too badly wrong. Hopefully by the time we’re ready to finalise all the mixes, I’ll have dampened the room down and fixed some of its frequency-related inaccuracies to the point where I can trust it.

It is, however, really exciting being at the start of a project like this. There are ten songs to mix, plus two B-sides, with the ten songs for the album all having been recorded semi-live at the same studio with the same band at three sessions between February and December last year. By semi-live, I mean we set up amps in an iso booth, plugged the bass guitar straight in, sat in the room with the drummer, and ran the songs down all together, recording drums, bass, acoustic guitar (played in the control room by James) and two electric guitars all at the same time (I’m one of the two electric guitarists). There are vocal overdubs, and the occasional extra bit here and there (some brass, a keyboard or an occasional add guitar), but it’s the most documentary-style album-length project I’ve been involved in making.

This is album number three I’ve made with James. The first one was often just him and me (though we had the benefit of overdubs from a great guitarist and a pedal-steel player), and I was a real novice recordist and mixer at the time, with inadequate gear. The second one was done over a protracted period, with a wider team of players, but still there are three or four songs that are largely/entirely just him and me. So this is a very different affair, a five-man effort, with one recording engineer (Jon Clayton) for the basic tracks, and the rest recorded by James or me in our respective homes.

This is how a lot of albums are made nowadays, especially rock records. Budgets are tight so you cut costs however you can. In most cases, bands go to a studio to track drums (drums are loud, they require space, and most importantly they’re difficult to record well because you have to manage the phase relationships of lots of microphones pointing at different aspects of a relatively small sound source), then you do as much as you can at a home studio. Some artists take their stuff back to a pro studio for mixing. Some (the foolhardy ones, the poor ones, the control freaks) do it themselves.

Mixing isn’t my favourite part of the process – I prefer tracking and building up the arrangement – but it’s the one that’s most obsessed over these days, far more than tracking, where a “that’ll do” mindset prevails. The power of computer recording software is such that any sound source can be shaped almost infitely: equalised, tuned, compressed, limited, repitched, replaced with a sample, compressed again, edited for timing, modulated and compressed some more. Then given a final smash.

(So if you’ve been wondering why so many records from the last 15 to 20 years sound like aural sausage meat, there you go.)

We will be resisting most of that. We ain’t Steely Dan, but as a group we can play our own music pretty well. Editing has been minimal. A few notes/beats here and there, but nothing even nearly approaching the snap-to-grid, to-the-16th-note uniformity that overtook rock music in the noughties (I stopped listening, so I don’t know if that’s gone away. I sure hope so). James is a very fine singer indeed, so Auto-Tune is a non-issue, too. At any rate, I did not istall it on my current laptop. I have an old laptop with a tuning plug-in, so I can use it if I really need it, but there’s going to have to be a damn good reason. This will be an old-school affair: an LCR-mixed project with a consistent treatment of instruments in terms of panning, time-domain effects and mix density. Oh yeah, and some really good songs, too.

If any of that sounds appealing to you, check back in three months when the Rocks & Pebbles EP will be coming out. I’ll be releasing my own EP (it’s mixed; just needs mastering, artwork and pressing) at around the same time, so exciting times ahead!