At best I get to play drums a couple of times a week, at a rehearsal and subsequent gig or studio session. And that level of activity isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows depending on what the artists I work with have going on, what I can fit in. In the past I’ve played daily, but where I live now, that’s not an option. Still, I’ve played more than enough to know what it sounds like to sit at a drum set and give the snare drum what for when it’s two feet away from your ears. I know how it responds to strokes of different power, what it sounds like when it’s played softly, or firmly, or with violent intent. Recordings of drums, by and large, don’t capture it. They can’t. Mix engineers can’t bring the full dynamic possibilities of the drum kit to bear on most pop or rock material and have it work. The dynamic range of the playing has to be constrained, in arrangement, execution, then mix. Same with the voice, which has – if anything – an even wider possible dynamic range.
So we get used to it and on occasion we have to reassure fellow musicians that what seems an overpoweringly loud pattern we’re playing on the bell of the ride will sound very different in a mix than it does in the rehearsal room. We live with the more or less frequent disappointment that comes from yet another recording that doesn’t sound like we know a drum kit sounds.
But fashions in mixes change, and there have been periods in mix fashion where engineers have got close, and other periods where representing that sonic reality never seemed to be on the agenda at all. We lived through an example of the latter about ten years ago, starting in around 1999 and continuing for five years or so before it levelled off very slightly (it’s still a very dark era in the history of recorded sound).
By the early noughties, with credits on Weezer’s Pinkerton, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Dave Fridmann had become a big-name producer, something of an indie-rock Trevor Horn. The sound he had deployed on the latter two records was immediately identifiable, and made those who valued transient energy in drum performances despair. As a result of what’s often called the Loudness War – broadly, the attempt by bands to have their records be louder than those of their competitors, principally through the use of digital brickwall limiting, in both the mixing and mastering processes, and often in recording too – which began in earnest in the mid-late-nineties, snare drums no longer went ‘blap’; they went ‘wap’ instead. Bass drums became muddier and more indistinct as their transients were brutally lopped off in the quest for ever-louder end product. But Fridmann’s work was something else again, so removed from a realistic representation of a drum kit played in a room that it was almost funny. Except when it was being deployed on records I cared about.
Having seen them at the Union Chapel in 2000, I can attest first-hand to how majestic the Delgados’ music was around the time they released The Great Eastern, similar in its sweep and ambition to that of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but more intimate, grounded in observation of people and emotions, rather than wide-eyed, faux-naif magical realism. The Great Eastern was big – bigger perhaps than it needed to be – but its follow-up Hate was an atrocious-sounding record, big but thin and fatiguing to listen to due to its sheer wearying RMS levels and accompanying digital distortion. A complicated record full of ugly emotions demanded a subtler treatment than it received.
One song works, though. There have been occasions in Fridmann’s post-Soft Bulletin era (after the near-universal criticism of the sound of At War with the Mystics in 2006, Fridmann did dial down his worst excesses) when his approach coincided with the right material. His oafish work on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is a perfect fit for the material and the aggressive commitment the band brought to it. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way, although I can’t listen to it on headphones for more than a song or two at a time. It also, and I have to assume it was by accident, fit the opening track from Hate, The Light Before we Land, which is almost a parody of Fridmann’s production and arrangement tricks: choir, strings, distorted percussion, monstrously overblown low end, furious clipping and digital distortion, unidentifiable sound effects. It shouldn’t work, it should overwhelm what is in mood a small song, but through some kind of alchemy it’s glorious. I can hear in it what Fridmann seemed to be going for, and it makes me wonder why he so frequently missed the mark.
Indie heroine: Emma Pollock
Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann