Tag Archives: Don’t Dream it’s Over

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 2 – Luka by Suzanne Vega

Music fans can get pretty hung up on constructing taxonomies – making connections between artists, giving a name to every genre and sub-genre, and fitting everyone neatly into their boxes. Bookshelves groan under the weight of literature telling the story of popular music through the prism of scenes (be it Merseybeat, Brill Building, Chicago blues, Motown, Laurel Canyon, grunge, or whatever). The problem with taking the scene-based approach to pop music history, though, is the tendency to overlook musicians who don’t fit easily into a sonic, chronological or geographical category. They get forgotten.

Take Suzanne Vega – a huge fan of both Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, whose first recordings were released through Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk magazine, also a vehicle for the much more obviously rootsy likes of Lyle Lovett, John Gorka and Shawn Colvin (all were regulars at Hardy’s Greenwich Village Songwriter’s Exchange). Vega’s early work was produced by Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, and her later, more electronic work would see garner her US Modern Rock hits (number ones, even, in the case of Blood Makes Noise), yet she has always been an essentially mainstream figure, one whom my grandparents recognised and approved of. It’s a strange space she occupies, or so many spaces that she ends up in a sort of non-space.

Her famous early recordings aren’t much help as we try to work out what kind of music we’re listening to. There’s something a little prissy about Small Blue Thing and Marlene on the Wall, in both sonics and arrangement, that doesn’t sound alt. or indie; the Suzanne-in-a-cavern reverb of Small Blue Thing, meanwhile, immediately dates the recording to the mid-eighties, and tells us we’re not listening to a straightforward folksinger record, which typically are recorded and mixed drier, closer and more intimate.

Things become a little clearer on Solitude Standing, Vega’s second album – the record that gave us Tom’s Diner and her breakthrough hit Luka. Rather like contemporaneous records such as Crowded House’s Don’t Dream it’s Over or Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, Luka’s sound is inflated a little bigger than it needs to be, and the guitarist’s tone is regrettable (that quacky out-of-phase Strat tone was already a cliché in 1987), but the sensibility of the production isn’t at war with that of the writing on Luka (everyone seems to agree that they’re making pop music, whereas no one seemed really to know on her debut) – and while Stephen Ferrera’s drums are a little on the big side, he delivers a performance that’s just as musical as it is muscular.

Ferrera assumes more than just a timekeeping role on Luka. From his opening snare fill, he provides a sort of commentary on the song as it progresses, responding to Vega’s vocal with emphases on the toms, anxious snare fills and cymbal crashes. When the guitarist comes in with his first quacky solo, Ferrera begins to vary his kick drum pattern to provide more lift and propulsion. It’s a clever detail that gives the song a push without actually shifting the tempo.

The most notable element of the rhythm track is of course those huge tom hits that are used as punctuation at the end of every second bar in the verses. As Ferrera’s hi-hat maintains steady eighth notes at the same time, and as most drummers who play the song with her live forsake those tom hits,* I guess they were overdubbed. Possibly their being recorded in isolation from the rest of the kit accounts for how huge they are in the mix; they make a pretty mighty thud. Either way, they’re really integral to the arrangement; the song always loses something, for me anyway, when I hear a live performance that doesn’t feature them.

Ferrera’s ear for detail eventually took him from studio drummer to producer to A&R to record executive. He landed the American Idol franchise for RCA, helping to launch Kelly Clarkson’s recording career, before becoming Senior VP of A&R at Columbia. He died of lung cancer in January 2014. As a drummer, he was the very definition of underrated.

stephen-ferrera
The only photo I could find of Stephen Ferrera from his drumming days

*One exception was Anton Fig, when Vega played the song on Letterman. I assume it was Fig, anyway. That performance was 1987, and he joined in 1986, so it’s him unless someone was depping that night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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: