Tag Archives: In the Air Tonight

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

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Wide open spaces, tiny little rooms; or, recorded drum sounds in the late 1970s

In the seventies somebody decided that all ambient sound was bad. Studios created this completely unnatural environment with not a hint of any reverberant sound coming off of anything. And if you listen to a lot of records from the seventies, the deadness on them, I find, it makes my skin crawl.

Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

In 1976 a long-running, well-respected band with roots going back to the English blues-rock boom of the late 1960s were in a California studio, making the follow-up to their first popularly successful record in the US. While astutely and occasionally adventurously arranged (principally by the group’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham), Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is not a sonically radical record and it adheres to the engineering and production orthodoxies of its time in most respects. The drums may be mixed a bit louder than the Eagles had theirs, but they were recorded close and dry, and presented that way in the mix. The snare has a pillowy, plumpy sound: it goes ‘duh’ rather than ‘tssch’. The drums on Dreams go ‘buh duh, buh-buh duh’, not ‘boom tssch, boom-boom tssch’. This dampened drum sound, coupled with the sense of closeness to the band that results from the relative lack of echo and reverb, is the defining sonic quality of seventies records.

In the autumn of 1977, Bruce Springsteen, working at the Record Plant in New York, had had enough of it. Perhaps his band only rehearsed in vast, reverberant spaces, but he felt that the sound of the times was unnatural and that the music should be as big on record as it was at a big show, which, since the success of Born to Run, was the increasingly the sort of show he now played, as he moved out of clubs and into theatres. In particular he wanted a big, reverberant drum sound that was all about body, not attack. This type of drum sound felt “bigger” to him than the standard, damped-and-dry 1970s sound, and he was willing to suffer for it.

In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen, bassist Garry Tallent and engineer Thom Panunzio recall ruefully the torturous process Bruce put them through trying to get a drum sound that discarded the sonic qualities that had thitherto been synonymous with high-budget records in the seventies. While Springsteen sat on a couch in the control room, with engineer Panunzio and producer Jimmy Iovine working the desk and attending to microphones, drummer Max Weinberg was required to hit his snare drum. If Bruce could hear the attack of the stick hitting the skin – which naturally enough he always could – he’d drawl “Stick”, and the engineer and producer would be required to do something to lessen the apparency of the stick hitting a skin. But, of course, that’s exactly what was happening. He nearly drove his bandmates and the studio staff crazy with his obsession. Usually it’s engineers and producers driving musicians crazy with their quest for perfect drum sounds.

The result of all this work is a drum sound that is the opposite of close. But Weinberg’s snare drum on Darkness goes “tssch” even less than Mick Fleetwood’s on Rumours. It’s more like a cannonball hitting a crash mat in a cathedral. It’s an absurd sound, and Darkness is one of the records that began a decade and a half of absurd drum sounds (other key influences being Bowie’s Low and of course, a couple of years down the line, Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight from Face Value).

In 1981, Fleetwood Mac’s breakout star Stevie Nicks fell into this enormous new soundworld when Jimmy Iovine (and Tom Petty) produced Nicks’s solo debut album Bella Donna at LA’s Studio 55, recreating the gargantuan Max Weinberg/Darkness on the Edge of Town drum sound on the West Coast. The subtext was clear: This is my own thing. This is not a Fleetwood Mac album. There’s tons of space around the instruments, Russ Kunkel sounds like he’s playing the world’s biggest drums with a pair of clubs – it’s all very impressive. But I do wonder what kind of acoustic spaces Springsteen was used to if this was his idea of a “natural” sound picture when he began work on Darkness. It’s as much an exaggerated presentation of music played within an acoustic space as the damped, small-room sound of seventies clichés. Record-making, after all, is not about documentary depictions, if it ever was; it stopped being that a long time ago, the first time someone panned a drum kit in stereo.

Fleetwood Mac themselves never really went the way of the ambient drum sound, even at the height of the silliness in the late eighties. As much as it was possible for a superstar band to go a different way from the crowd to pursue their own sound, they did, and so Fleetwood’s drums on Tango in the Night are relatively small, relatively close, by the standards of that decade at least. Certainly they are not the musical heavy artillery of, say, Bad or Hysteria from the same era. Listening to Stevie Nicks on Bella Donna, then, represents the sonic road not taken for Fleetwood Mac. It’s a curious experience, not always pleasant for someone like me who loves dry drum sounds and thinks Rumours the best-sounding record ever made.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to Gypsy, from the 1982 Mac album Mirage, on which the band went back to their little room, where they should be.

nickspetty

Who’s draggin’ whose heart around? Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, 1977.