Tag Archives: mastering

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

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Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing drums for the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.

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Radiohead’s The Bends at 20

Like many records that were among my favourites in the 1990s and early 2000s (that is, my teens and early twenties), Radiohead’s The Bends is not one I pull out much anymore. But the recent spate of articles to mark the record’s 20th anniversary prompted me to dig it out for a few, hugely enjoyable spins.

The first listen was pretty weird. I have so many memories connected to this album, and I’d have said it was one I knew well, but while my recall of the key elements of the songs and their structures was fairly unerring, little details did leap out at me for the first time.

First the bad stuff, to get it out the way. It’s definitely a guitar player’s album, which I loved about it in 1996-7 (The Bends and OK Computer were sacred texts to me, and Greenwood and co. sort of guitar-playing high priests), but there are times when the focus is on the guitars so much that it’s to the detriment of the overall: listen to how much more authority Phil Selway’s drums seem to have during the intro to, say, Bones than the during the intro to The Bends; to allow him to fit inside a mix utterly dominated by rhythm guitars, he’s been so heavily compressed on The Bends that not only do his drums sound tiny, they seem to drag behind the beat. Drums give rock music its drive, its weight and its physicality. A more balanced, harder-rocking mix exists within the master tapes, I’d wager. I hope one day some enterprising soul at Parlophone gives album producer John Leckie the masters and lets him do a remix (25th-anniversary edition in 2020, guys? Just an idea).

But the weight given to the guitars by mix engineers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie does allow us to hear how every song on The Bends is filled with amazing parts, whether it’s Greenwood’s constantly ascending octave-chord lead during the intro to Just (repeated at the end of each chorus), the pillow-soft acoustic guitar strumming of [Nice Dream], or the decelerating tremolo effect (Jonny again) in the verse of Bones. Radiohead’s early albums saw Greenwood, O’Brien and Yorke expanding the vocabulary of rock guitar more than any of their contemporaries with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, a veritable one-man factory of astonishing effects and textures.

Let’s take a couple of the album’s less frequently hailed tracks and look a little closer at what’s going on. The “big”‘ songs on The Bends have been dissected and analysed to death, so let’s go with Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was and Bones, a couple of album tracks you’re not likely to hear on the radio soon.

Bones sounds to me like the most confident full-band performance on the album. Some of that may be a perceptual thing, a result of the space afforded to Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass (great tone!) by the sparse guitar arrangement in the opening verse. But really, it swaggers in a way that very little else in the Radiohead canon does, and that’s encoded in the song’s DNA. Yorke and Greenwood’s later involvement in the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine merely confirmed what a listen to Bones suggests: that behind their studious exteriors lurked a couple of long-time glam rock fans struggling to get out. The vamp on A played by the guitars at the during the chorus to Bones – possibly the lowest-IQ guitar riff in existence – goes back through Keith Richards all the way to Chuck Berry, but when it’s played with that much distortion and an almost audible leer, the only provenance can be glam. If Noel Gallagher were to end up in a pub with Greenwood or Yorke, they’d be fine as long as they talked about T. Rex and Bowie and Sweet.

Elsewhere during the song, Greenwood pulls out his old favourite, the oblique bend (when a note played on, say, the G string is bend upwards by a tone to sound in unison with a note two frets down on the B string), for lead guitar interjections between Yorke’s vocal (“You’ve got to [whee] feel it [whee] in your bones”). Apart from the decelerating tremolo I spoke about earlier, none of the stuff going on in Bones is clever or unusual or groundbreaking. But, given the typically dour subject matter, the musicians seem to be having an awful lot of fun on this track.

Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was is something else again, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently played by O’Brien and Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless Leckie got the scissors out). But it’s Greenwood’s delicate arpeggio part on the chorus that’s most telling. It’s done by playing a fifth and third on the D and B strings and letting the open G string ring out in the middle, so it only works on a few chords, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been playing variations of that riff on my own songs and other peoples’ for a good long while, in fact.

It’s another song where the rhythm section shines, too. An unfortunate by-product of modern (and in the terms I’m talking about, The Bends is modern) mixing and mastering practice is that quiet, sparse songs tend to have more weight in the low end and greater size to the drums than their louder counterparts, and Bullet Proof is a great example of this. The more you turn it up, the more impressive it sounds (The Bends and Just exhibit the reverse behaviour). Colin Greenwood’s bass line, in which he plays single high-register notes with quite a thick, sustaining sound, is particularly effective and foreshadows the pivotal role he’d go on to play in OK Computer and Kid A.

The band may see The Bends as a piece of juvenilia, or a necessary step on the path to where they wanted to go, but it shouldn’t be judged by its influence on bands with scarcely half of Radiohead’s combined imagination (you can probably guess who I’m thinking of). This is a collection of top-notch songs* topped with some of the most inventive guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear.

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Radiohead circa The Bends: Yorke kneeling in front; Colin Greenwood, O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Selway l-r

*Not Sulk

Jon Auer live at The Islington/You Used to Drive Me Around

The last time I saw Jon Auer play was with the Posies at the Reading Festival in 2001. They were on in the bigger of the two tents, in front of several thousand people. On Friday night I was among around 100 lucky souls who saw him play in the back room of a pub in Angel, a room where I played drums with Sumner about 8 months ago, in front of not many fewer than were there the other night.

Jon Auer London 4 - photo Katherine Mengardon
Jon Auer, The Islington, 15/08/14. Photo courtesy of Katherine Mengardon/Jon Auer

Auer and his fellow Posie Ken Stringfellow are both very talented singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. That had always been obvious. But while I knew that Auer was a really technically proficient guitarist, I didn’t realise quite how good he was until I watched him play electric guitar for 90 minutes from about 6 feet away, with no band behind him to help him fill space. He played magnificently. I’d been expecting a sit-down, acoustic, sensitive singer-songwriter set. He played acoustic a little, including a wonderful entirely unamplified version of Throwaway, but basically he gave us a rock show — without a band — that still managed to rock. There wasn’t a dull moment all evening.

I figured before the gig that I’d know a decent amount of the songs he’d play, since I’ve got the Posies’ first four albums (Failure, Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace) and one of the reunion discs (Every Kind of Light), and since it seemed that Auer hadn’t been quite as busy as Ken Stringfellow in the years between Posies activity (one solo album to KS’s three). In the event I knew maybe half the songs he played and was perplexed, albeit delighted, to realise that the songs I didn’t know (those off his solo record, the one he wrote for Big Star, a bunch of others — maybe from Posies EPs or that aren’t released yet) were even better than the ones I did.

Jon Auer London 2 - Photo Sue Edmond 2
Photo courtesy of Sue Edmond/Jon Auer

Having met him briefly after the set to tell him it was amazing and to verify that it was indeed him that popped up to school my ass in the comments section here, I dashed home and immediately scoured iTunes for what I’d missed out on. Particularly, I was looking for songs called Josephine and You Used to Drive Me Around. Both of these are on a solo album I was only dimly aware he’d released, Songs from the Year of Our Demise.

You Used to Drive Me Around has been killing me ever since.

It’s not a world away from what Auer used to do with the Posies: he still bases his guitar riffs on surprisingly out-there tunings, making them dark and grindy as much as they are sparkly and melodic; the drums are still prominent (mercifully left intact by the mastering job); he’s still one of the best harmony singers around. But there’s a weariness to his writing, to the performances, that I didn’t recognise from his earlier work.

Sometimes his lyrics are hard to parse, and while I don’t know and wouldn’t wish to speculate on who the subject of You Used to Drive Me Around is, the song seems very much to be going over emotional territory that’s familiar to me personally, which is doubtless one of the reasons it’s hit me so hard. Frankly, the third time I heard it on Friday night (which is to say, the second time I listened to the recorded version, when the line ‘You come clean and I’ll come closer’ suddenly hit me), it moved me to tears.

And I got to thinking, this record has existed for eight years, and I didn’t know about it. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who Jon Auer was either. Sometimes it’s made clear to you, with all the people in the world making music — all the old favourites, the new favourites, the soon-to-be favourites, the people slogging away in practice rooms, and pub back rooms, the people who died 20 years ago — how much might be getting by you every day, and it’s pretty overwhelming. How much great art do we miss out on when we’re looking the other way?

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The poster from the show – photo of Auer back in his Antonio Banderas-lookin’ days


Some recent work of mine!

The Light Before we Land – The Delgados

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.

 

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Indie heroine: Emma Pollock

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Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann

Mexicola – Queens of the Stone Age

Anyone who went to a Queens of the Stone Age show on their breakthrough UK tour in November 2000 will remember the eardrum-threatening volume. I went to one of their two shows at the London Astoria with my friend Yo and I certainly remember it. I suspect he does, too. I particularly remember the bass guitar signal forming a monstrous standing wave at the back of the hall during the last song that scattered the crowd very quickly, and did funny things to the stomachs of those who tried standing their ground. I’ve never seen My Bloody Valentine or Dinosaur Jr, but Queens were so loud I can’t really imagine anything louder.

Extreme volume is a funny thing, particularly when dealing with the zero-sum world of digital audio. Faced with an absolute ceiling of 0dB, how can a band like Queens – who made the pursuit of volume their rasion d’être – make a truly loud record? One that sounds loud compared to everyone else’s on an iPod, not just when you turn it up on a good stereo? How can you be louder than everyone else when the volume knob doesn’t work any more?

Well, one way would be to call Joe Barresi. And so they did. Barresi, at least back in the nineties, had a way of making very loud records that didn’t seem squashed lifeless, that retained the punch in the drums that is absolutely crucial to good-feeling rock records. Presumably he did this through compressing in stages all the way along, rather than by allowing them to be brickwalled during mastering. Eventually even his work came to seem static and over-compressed, but he was so skilled at the loud game that his work stood up better far longer to the age of shock-and-awe mastering jobs that was in full swing by the time the Queens made Songs for the Deaf in 2002. That record, produced by Josh Homme, Adam Kaspar and Eric Valentine (mixed by Kaspar) is a sonic atrocity, a crying shame given the quality of some of the songs on it.

Mexicola, though, is from Queens’ eponymous debut. This version of QotSA was essentially a two-man crew: Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, both former members of cult stoner/desert rock band Kyuss. From the sludgy bass riff (played by Homme, under the pseudonym Carlo Von Sexron) that opens it and the tiny SM58 vocal sound, to the guitar solo mixed hard right, it’s an immediately identifiable, bone-dry sound with few precedents in mainstream rock (Kyuss producer Chris Goss’s Masters of Reality are the most obvious forebear – Goss and Homme share distinct vocal similarities – but then, MoR were not a mainstream band. Perhaps the acid-drenched psych-grunge of Screaming Trees, with whom Homme toured as a guitarist, were the closest this kind of sound got to a wider audience).

But the social and geographical context of Queens of the Stone Age (the Palm Desert scene) is not to be overlooked here. Their sound had some key components in common with other desert rock mainstays such Fu Manchu. The use of downtuned guitars, shifting the instruments’ centre of tonal gravity downwards, created sonorities that are rarely heard in mainstream rock, where standard tuning makes everything sound, well, rather standard. Heavy use of the crash and ride cymbals in place of the hi-hat, creates a ‘washing’, hazy kind of sound to the drums (often emphasised by the trick of recording the cymbals after the rest of the drums, allowing both elements to be processed separately). The use of (formerly) unfashionable amplifiers and pedals resulted in a distinctive, unscooped heavy guitar sound, that got away from the scooped guitar sounds of metal and the thin gnarly sound of some of the grunge bands. The guitarists in desert rock bands have tended to eschew the Marshalls that are the sine qua non of commercial hard rock and metal, instead using amps by H/H, Hiwatt, Orange, Matamp and the ubiquitous Sunn, plus vintage fuzz pedals. Stuff found in pawn shops. Treble is dispensable and clarity is over-rated; thumping low end and boxy mids are much more deserty. Hi-fidelity guitar sounds are avoided in favour of huge slabs of hyper-distorty gunk-o-fuzz.

So in lots of ways, early Queens were the archetypal desert rock band. But Homme found his way out of this commercial backwater pretty quickly. The basic unit of rock songwriting is the riff, which tends to describe only very simple chord changes, or no chord changes at all, and this can lead to melodic stasis. Homme worked harder than most as a tunesmith, and once Queens began attracting attention in the early noughties critics fell over themselves to claim they’d known about Yawning Man, Fu Manchu and the rest all along. A likely story. When this scene was finding its feet, all eyes were on Seattle. Those that had noticed them dismissed them as purveyors of mere retro skater-rock, as if grunge was Vorticism or something.

Queens of the Stone Age would soon abandon this sound for a poppier and more conventional take on hard rock on their second album, Rated R. But for fans of Josh Homme’s original ‘robot rock’ concept (simple riffs played over and over again; Black Sabbath covering Kraftwerk, if you will) – and for a hardcore minority, it’s the only version of Queens worth bothering with – this is the place to come.

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Josh Homme