Tag Archives: drum loops

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Five: Streets of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen 

Hi there. Hope you had a good Christmas!

In the early 1990s, the Boss went through something of a trough, with the Human Touch and Lucky Town LPs both critical and commercial misses, and an MTV Unplugged set failing to hit the mark, too. Bruce had temporarily parted ways with the E Street Band and was using LA session players on his records – another source of fan ire. So when those fans heard Streets of Philadelphia, it was received as something like a 1990s version of Nebraska – Springsteen throwing out the trappings of stardom and big-time rock’n’roll to make something hushed and intimate alone in his house. And if the record featured synth and drum machine rather than acoustic guitar, so be it. Better a drum machine than the drummer from Toto.

Me,  I had (have) no real attachment to or fondness for the E Street Band. They’ve always been a little too gaudily showbiz for my taste. Not lean enough, not hard enough. Much of my favourite Bruce music (Brusic?) doesn’t feature them at all. And I loved the sound of Streets of Philadelphia. The warm synth and drum machine* sounded perfect to me – and completely emotionally appropriate to the song. The artificiality of the programmed beat puts me in mind of the kind of devices (pacemakers, LVADs, artificial hearts) that allow the weakening body to continue to live. The drum machine thus provides the song’s pulse in both a literal and figurative sense.

The key thing about drum machines is that they aren’t people; try to make a programmed drum track stand in for a human drummer and you’re on a hiding to nothing. But allow the drum machine to be what it is – a metronome that can play something more than just quarter notes – and they can be wonderful tools for writing and recording. In the case of Streets of Philadelphia, the feel provided by the drum machine just wouldn’t have been achievable with a human drummer – not without editiing the performance to the point where it would have been much quicker simply to program the beat.

The song’s instrumental backing, steady and unobtrusive, was an ideal accompaniment for Sprinsteen’s heart-rending vocal, so full of empathy and humanity – much needed at the time. Streets of Philadelphia was written for the soundtrack to the movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. In the movie, a lawyer with Aids, played by Tom Hanks, is fired from his firm, and though dying enlists a former colleague, played by Washington, to represent him in an unfair-dismissal suit. That kind of thing did happen (indeed the story was the subject of a legal case brought by the family of Geoffrey Bowers, whose story inspired the film) – and probably still does, though the prejudice underlying it would have to be more carefully disguised.

In 2017, it may be hard to remember the ignorance and fear that surrounded Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, or the prejudice that attached to those with the disease. But at the time, even the existence of Philadelphia attracted controversy. It is reported that director Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for the soundtrack specifically in the hopes that Springsteen’s presence would reach out to audiences who may not otherwise be receptive to the movie’s message. In that sense, Bruce probably never wrote a more important song. In my view, he never wrote a better one. And it’s impossible to imagine that all the players in the world and all the fanciest technology could have produced a more moving result than Springsteen cooked up at home. For those purists who disdain the programmed or looped rhythm track, Streets of Philadelphia is a powerful rejoinder.

 

*I’ve read in one biog that during this period Springsteen was actually writing using premade loops from a CD he’d bought. Most writers and fans discussing the song have assumed he used a drum machine (no one seems confident which one though), so I’ve gone along with that for the purposes of this post.

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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.

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A rough demo of a new song:

Coast is Clear – Curve

Bands, all bands, have context. Curve’s context is not the plants and refineries of Grangemouth, like the Cocteau Twins, or the low-achieving, living-in-penury, C86 world of My Bloody Valentine. Curve’s context is Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox

The Eurythmics were not cool in 1990 when Curve formed. They weren’t cool when Stewart was making cheesy-listening smooth-jazz/pop crossover hits with Candy Dulfer. They weren’t cool when Lennox decided to measure herself against Aretha Franklin and didn’t even have the humility to find herself wanting. If they had, briefly, been cool, five minutes either side of releasing Sweet Dreams in 1983, they had already fallen from cool by the time they hired a bass player called Dean Garcia for their live band, later the same year.

Garcia hung in with his insufferable bandmates until Stewart introduced him to a young singer called Toni Halliday in 1985. They formed a duo called State of Play, playing post-New Pop, synthesiser-based pop music, with huge programmed drums and funk-influenced rhythm guitars. Their music lacked much in the way of spark or originality, and its grim, joyless efficiency (learned at the feet of Lennox and Stewart, no doubt) failed to find an audience.

Halliday – ambitious, photogenic and, truth to tell, a bit of a chancer – then went for it a second time, now as a solo artist. Her solo album was in the mould of Roxette and post-Go-Gos Belinda Carlisle – huge drums (again), pop-rock guitars with the odd squeally metal solo, and big harmonies in the choruses. It was a better example of its type than State of Play, but again, it sank without trace. At this point, probably no one in popular music was carrying more baggage than Toni Halliday.

In one of the most enormous stylistic about-turns in pop history, Halliday once again hooked up with Dean Garcia, this time as Curve. Their guitars were loud, the vocals were mixed low, the drum loops were obvious. They were a shoegaze band.

Shoegaze was an easy bandwagon to jump on, an easy sound to adopt, and Curve were pros. All they needed to do was stand still, look down at their feet, appear somewhat ill at ease, and play tremendously loud. Halliday and Garcia had been around the block a few times each, they had contacts and by now they knew what they were doing in the studio and on stage, so the this shoegaze thing was almost too easy. They welded furious guitar noise to oddly insistent melodies, unlike their contemporaries (Slowdive for instance), many of whose songs are so evanescent they practically fade away while you listen to them. Perhaps they adopted their new sound too studiously. Maybe they’d have been bigger if they’d dialled back the guitars a bit – listening to the chorus of Coast is Clear is like listening to music in a wind tunnel, particularly in its viciously over-compressed remastered form. As it was, they stayed a cult act, best remembered for doing pretty much everything Garbage ever did, five or six years before the latter act formed. By that time, Curve themselves were chasing the big-beat trend, leaving behind the wind-tunnel guitars in favour of an aggressive rock-dance hybrid, as in thrall to Nine Inch Nails and the Chemical Brothers as My Bloody Valentine.

Never respected in the music press, who knew all about Halliday’s big-hair period and Garcia’s Eurythmy, Curve nevertheless received an after-the-event blessing from the King of the Jazzmaster himself – Kevin Shields – who played on their mid-noughties comeback album, when they returned to guitar-led shoegazing. Garcia (now in his mid-fifties) can’t leave it alone – he’s in a shoegaze/electronic duo with Halliday’s daughter, Rose Berlin (less vixenish than Halliday, perhaps, but very obviously her mother’s daughter). I don’t know if that’s sweet or creepy.

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That’s the Way Love Goes – Janet Jackson

I wasn’t a huge fan of this when it came out. Janet Jackson has never been a particularly commanding vocalist, and with That’s the Way Love Goes being sung softly against a very prominent groove, the record didn’t seem to contain much Jackson at all. I was, what, eleven at the time, without a good stereo of my own to listen to it on, so I only heard the song on little radios and in my parents’ car; with the low end being inaudible in that context, a lot of the point of the record was lost with it. And truth to tell, the song was thematically a bit adult for the 11-year-old me to really relate to.

Now, I find myself really taken with the sexy, unhurried groove. Musically, the track still contains traces of new jack swing (of which Jackson’s producers Jam and Lewis were early pioneers, along with Teddy Riley) but crossed with the more naturalistic (often sample-based) sounds of the then-infant genre of hip hop soul. The triplet swing is still hinted at, but the drum sound is more natural, more expensive-sounding, less brash, than it would have been in the late 1980s. Early NJS had used the Roland TR-808 to program complex, layered grooves that would have been very difficult if not impossible for a single human drummer to recreate. That’s the Way Love Goes samples its drums instead, from James Brown’s Papa Don’t Take No Mess, then augments them to make them bigger (the time stretched, quantised, heavily compressed and as a result somewhat shaky Brown groove is clearly audible in the mix though). It sounds more grown-up than true NJS had done; muted earth tones rather than stark primary colours.

The drums aren’t the only signifier of adult sophistication, though. The jazzy guitar, playing lead licks in parallel fourths on what sounds like a big-bodied archtop guitar (an updated Breezin’-style George Benson kind of thing) and chord voicings with 6ths and major 7ths, does much to define the mood of the record.

But ultimately, it’s Jackson’s voice – very confident and intimate, soft and gentle without leaning too heavily on the breathy half-whisper that was already a cliché in slow jams and bedroom records – that really sells it. It deservedly won her a Grammy for Best R&B Song; she’s won six Grammys in total, but That’s the Way Love Goes is the only one to win for songwriting. All things considered, it’s probably her best single, despite strong competition from her Control hits.

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Judith – Heather Duby

Let’s fast-forward 10 years from the heyday of the Pixies.

More cynical souls than me might deny that there ever was such a thing as an alternative rock movement, but if it ever did exist, by the late nineties it was done, and its signifiers – dirty guitars; long hair; a general, to quote Jack Endino, ‘loud intent’ – had been put to bed. Distorted guitars were now the preserve of nu-metal bands. Pointy guitars with Floyd Rose vibrato units were back. 7-string guitars were selling in thitherto unknown quantities. Light-grunge records still did pretty good business, but Pearl Jam aside, the big beasts of a few years before were all defunct.

Artists with one foot in singer-songwriter world and another in the world of alternative rock music who might, a few years ago, have looked to dirty up their music with a Les Paul and a Marshall, now looked to other means to add a bit of edge. And there are always other means. Dirty basslines and thumping drum loops were one way, some electronic flourishes, different textures. A little bit of what Soul Coughing were doing. A little bit like what Folk Implosion were doing. I don’t know who had the thought first, but suddenly these arrangemental ideas started turning up in all kinds of places. PJ Harvey’s A Perfect Day Elise and Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, for example, were pretty successful singles demonstrating a lot of these production tics, but they were far from alone. Electronica and big beat were big business, and presumed by rock writers to be much more forward-looking than the heavy guitars of a few years before, which were just updated Black Sabbath.

In 1998, then, ambient noises on top of a dirty groove seemed like alternative rock’s future, and it came about partly as a function of fashion, partly out of a development in technology. The year before, Digidesign had released the first 24-bit, 48-track iteration of their digital audio workstation (DAW), Pro Tools. Pro Tools had begun life in the late 1980s as Sound Tools, and at that time was only capable of handling a mono or stereo signal, but Digidesign’s ambitions for it had always involved it becoming a multitrack recording environment. The limitations of the era’s computers and audio convertors simply didn’t allow it yet. This new version of Pro Tools not only allowed direct-to-disk multitrack recording, but in-the-box mixing as well. As a fully fledged production environment, it was expensive – beyond the means of any home recordist who didn’t work as a Wall Street trader – but seemed to many pro musicians an obvious road to go down. And this started affecting the nature of the music you heard on the radio pretty quickly. Loops and samples started to replace live drum tracks on records at a rate of knots. After some years of frankly undanceable music, this wasn’t unwelcome.

Steve Fisk was Washington-based engineer, producer and musician. He’d been a producer on Soul Coughing’s second album, Irresistible Bliss and his own project Pigeonhed was in the same sonic ballpark. But he’d been active during the grunge boom years, too, engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP sessions, the Fopp EP by Soundgarden and much of the Screaming Trees’ SST-era output, as well as records by Girl Trouble, Negativland and Beat Happening. He had, in other words, been around a while and was a respected figure in the Seattle music scene.

So when he expressed an interest in working with Heather Duby, a young songwriter, still at college in Olympia, this was a significant break for her. It guaranteed her that influential local figures would hear the results, and pretty much ensured the record would get at least an indie-label release. When it did, it was on Sub Pop, a label trying hard to shake off its past and establish a new identity for itself.

Her first single was a song called Judith, and it exemplified almost all the trends we’d identified above: programmed drums, augmented by live drums for the choruses, spacey keyboards, soft, high-register vocals (the sort almost always described as ‘ethereal’ by hack writers) and a huge bass line, in this case an enormous, surging synth part in the choruses, double tracked and panned hard left and right, placing you right in the middle of it. It’s a pretty amazing moment the first time you hear it on a good pair of headphones.

The sonic world the parent album exists in – Post to Wire – is a weird mix of stuff that still sounds really cool and stuff that sounds very much of its time; the faux-fi crackle effect on A Healthy Fear of Monsters, for instance, is pretty risible, an example of what could be achieved very quickly with a couple of cheesy filter plug-ins, but would have been better off not achieved at all. You Loved Me’s low-register grind and lo-fi drum loop, however, sounds vital today, and For Jeffrey’s mix of eastern-sounding vocal harmonies, harmonium-style drones and tablas is still ear-grabbing.

The more gothic aspects of her music would recede over time and by the time of the Latency EP of January 2011, her music was a lot drier and closer, more organic-sounding and built on what seem to be live-band basic tracks. Judith remains an awesome single, and the moment when Duby’s songwriting approach meshed most seamlessly with Fisk’s production.

Sadly, Duby was involved in a bike accident in 2011 that seriously damaged both her hands and left her unable to play music. It could apparently have been a lot worse; her doctors were at one stage considering amputation. A benefit was held in Seattle to raise funds for treatment and physical therapy, but what information I could get online suggests she hasn’t yet been able to return to making music. Let’s pray that in time she can.

Update (23 January, 2017): The year after I wrote this, she did! Duby was credited with both piano and vocals, so it seems her injuries were repaired well enough to give her good use of her hands. Great news.

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Heather Duby, 1999