Tag Archives: mixing

Multiverse, save me: Love Story (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift

In multiverse posts, I examine alternate recordings of songs. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.

For any artist, power – and money-making potential – lies in owning your masters. If you own your master recordings, you can fully control what is done with your work. If you don’t want it licensed for use in this film or in that advert, you can say no. Moreover, the revenue earned by your records goes to you, not to a company that then pays you a small percentage of what they’re making.

Under the terms of her record deal with Big Machine, Taylor Swift did not own her masters. This was not in any way exceptional; few artists actually do. Young musicians, signing their first contract, are negotiating from a position in which they have no power; granting ownership of master recordings to a label is almost always a necessary price of signing a record deal.

In 2019, Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and others, bought Big Machine. The deal to buy the label included Swift’s masters, which the label owned. Braun subsequently sold them to a private equity firm called Shamrock Holdings, owned by the estate of Roy E. Disney, for a sum said to be in the region of $300 million dollars. Under the terms of the deal, Braun continues to derive a percentage of the earnings from the masters. He is, we can presume, a very rich man.

Swift had, by her own account, been trying to buy her masters for a while, and she was furious at the deal. Coverage of the story made the mainstream press, with lots of ink spilled over what it all signified, who was the goodie, who was the baddie, etc.*

Early on in the dispute, Swift signalled her intent to rerecord her old catalogue, or at least part of it, so that she could own the masters to her old songs at last, derive fair value from them, and control how and when they’re used. And so, two years later, we have this: a re-recorded version of Love Story (parenthetically titled Taylor’s Version – that is, not Shamrock’s version). A new version of Fearless, her second album and pop breakthrough, will follow next month.

Love Story in its original form is only 13 years old, and pop music mix topologies haven’t changed as much as you’d think in that time.** Even so, the two versions of Love Story are appreciably different, despite sharing an identical arrangement. This is because the new version of Love Story is, to my ears at least, rather less pop than the original, and significantly more indie.

Over the last year, Swift has worked extensively with the National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner, and from him she appears to have developed a taste for reverb, which the National slather all over their recordings to give an air of profundity to their lugubriousness.

A reverb haze on everything is ubiquitous in indie, but is seldom to be heard in pop music. The density of the mix topologies works against it. OG Love Story is, as these things go, relatively organic, but the wall of sound in the choruses (nine acoustic guitars, according to producer Nathan Chapman, plus nearly as many electrics, as well as fiddle, pedal steel, splashy hi-hats and backing vocals) renders long reverb tails an unwelcome distraction, if a creative mix engineer were actually able to make them audible above the wall of sound in the first place.

Taylor’s Version of Love Story, then, is most noticeably different from the original in its treatment of the vocal. There is audible reverb throughout, which is especially prominent in the first verse. The harmony vocals are downplayed throughout in favour of the lead, and that lead vocal is heavily Auto-Tuned, in a way the original lead vocal surprisingly wasn’t. We’ll get back to that.

The results are, if you’ll pardon the pun, mixed. There are things I prefer about the new version. I like that it sounds more like it was recorded in a shared physical space; the disjunct between the dry vocal and wet drums in the original recording is unpleasant and jarring to my ears. I think Dessner has overdone it with the reverb, as usual, but there’s been an attempt to make the mix coherent in terms of space, and it does work better than the 2008 recording.

However, the praise Swift has received for the greater level of control*** of the new vocal in many reviews strikes me as pretty clueless. Love Story was written when Swift was 16, and her youth is always apparent in the original recording – both in the song’s sentiment and the sound of Swift’s voice. The breathless, barely-in-control quality of the original vocal works in the song’s favour by getting it over some of the awkward turns of phrase: the lines that don’t have enough syllables to fit the metre, the lines that have too many, and the lines where an unnatural word or syllabel is stressed to fit the rhythm. The new Auto Tuned vocal is bland – the robotic sound of it doesn’t match the lyric or emotion of the song. It could have been delivered by any early-rounds American Idol contestant, and would have been subjected to the same brutal processing.

Whether Taylor’s Version of Love Story or any of the other songs from Fearless will supplant the originals – on radio or in the hearts of the fans – only time will tell. Early signs from fans are encouraging, but radio may be a tougher nut to crack in the long term. The Nathan Chapman-produced original was machine-tooled to work on radio, and it does work. The National’s sound – bigger low end, less mid-range info, lots of reverb – is more of a headphones/home-stereo kind of sound, so is less attractive to radio stations whose primary concern is being audible on a small stereo in the corner of a shop or office, or in a car. And those original versions are not like the original cuts of Star Wars that George Lucas pulled when he released his Special Editions. They’ll still be out there, winking at radio programmers who’ve loved them all this time.

Then there’s simple attachment and inertia. Despite Jeff Lynne’s best efforts, DJs are still playing the ELO recordings from the 1970s and ’80s, not the versions he’s recreated at home by himself, despite them being more or less identical. If anyone has the fan power to buck this trend, it’s Taylor Swift, but I remain sceptical that it can be done.

*My own take (simple version): the baddie is clearly Scooter Braun, who comes over as a complete prick.

But here’s the more complex version. Record deals with most labels are profoundly weighted in favour of the label in a way that would be judged illegal in almost any other industry. She’s been shafted, no doubt, and maybe a really sharp manager might have been able to do a better job for her when she was a kid, but probably not. As I said, all young artists get shafted.

However, old school label deals did pay off handsomely for a small percentage of artists, and Swift was one of those. She has an aboslutely gargantuan reported income and a considerable fortune that increases every year. If she wants to play the long game, she’ll have more than enough stashed away in five years to buy the masters from Shamrock, pretty much whatever their price. The only question will be, is she willing to pay it. But there’s a price for everything. The masters may increase in value, but they can’t go on tour, they can’t sell merchandise, and they have no claim on the money Swift makes from her post-Big Machine records, which it’s safe to assume will earn her tonnes more cash.

Re-recording your old songs is one way for Swift to try to regain control of her work, but it’s a very time-intensive way and, long term, there’s no guarantee it would be successful in terms of supplanting the old recordings, especially as she gets to songs released relatively recently, where the differences between an old and new versions would be minimal and the new recordings would benefit less from the curiosity factor that is undoubtedly helping Taylor’s Version of Love Story.

There’s also the opportunity-cost element: what writing and recording work isn’t Swift doing while she’s doing this? Surely cracking on with that will be more fulfiling, and with every radio play and Spotify stream, she’ll be closer to buying back her old masters in future, too.

**There are differences, of course, but a 2008 recording and 2021 recording have a lot more in common than a recording from, say, 1963 and 1976, 1982 and 1995, or 2000 and 2013.

***Her much the “control” comes from the singer’s performance and how much from the mixer is – literally – impossible for the listener to judge. The vocal is Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life – that much will be apparent to basically every listener. But when mixing in the box, you can do almost anything to almost any musical element in the mix. That includes shortening the length of a given syllable by hundredths of seconds to make it tighter if you choose to. If you’re good at it, you can do it without notable artefacts, too. It’s simply not possible to tell, as the listener, exactly what editing and processing has been employed during the mix, and any critic who makes confident claims on behalf of Swift here is overstepping the limits of what they can know.

Borders (Cruel Expectations) – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Six months ago, I wrote about the Spirited Away EP by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar.

Since that EP’s release in June, we’ve also released an album, Borders (Cruel Expectations), but I didn’t post about it at the time. At this remove, I can’t remember exactly why, but I suspect I felt like I’d been plugging my stuff too frequently, as I’d also put out a single and an EP with Mel during lockdown. But Borders deserves a plug or two, and it’s way overdue, so here goes.

It’s the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record, and it’s quite unlike the others. Previously, the band had been James, me and whoever we could rope in to help for live shows and recording. The songs on the first two albums were tracked at my dad’s house, my flat, James’s flat or One Cat studio, with a revolving cast of musicians. James and I were pretty creative with production; arrangements feature violins, double bass, pedal steel and touches of keyboard, as well as guitars, drums and electric bass. The downside was, though, it was hard to replicate some of the arrangements in a live setting and there was a noticeably different feel from song to song – inevitable when some of the tracks were recorded one instrument at a time by James and me, while others were tracked by a full band playing live in a studio. It’s amazing, frankly, the records are as coherent as they are, much of which is due to James’s talent for sequencing (and an excellent mastering job from Ben Zushi Rhodes on No Peace for the Wicked).

For his third album, James wanted to do something a bit different. These time, we set out to record all the songs live, with all the interaction between musicians that entails, and to retain the same band on everything. Jon Clayton, from the band Hurtling, was the recording engineer. The rhythm section was Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) on drums and Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union) on bass. Singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic.

James’s vocals were overdubbed, as were occasional keyboard parts. Chris, Jono, Matt and I all pitched in with harmonies, as did Mel and singer/songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Basia Bartz from Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band played violin on two songs. But basically, it’s more of a rock album than a singer-songwriter record, especially compared to the previous two.

As I’ve written previously, progress on final mixes was slow until I was furloughed last April. Borders was the first project I finished during that period, and we released the record at the end of July last year.

I’m really proud of it, as I am of every album I’ve worked on with James. He’s an excellent singer and writer, and he covers a pretty wide stylistic territory. This album has hints of country, gospel and soul, as is usual for James. But there are also songs that suggest the Clash (on Home on High, there’s some of that London Calling swagger in Jono’s drumming), Haircut 100 (In the Twinkling of an Eye has Heywardian major sevenths and brass) and the Smiths (some Marr-esque jangle on Wine Dark Seas).

Borders has some of James’s best songs, and it was so cool getting to mix the songs and become really familiar with all the details in the other guys’ playing – stuff that you don’t quite get to hear in reheasal. They’re all really fine musicians, and I miss playing with them so much. I’m hoping we’ll get to reconvene in the summer when, hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is over and music venues (the ones that survive lockdown) are able to reopen.

Things are pretty worrying here right now. Transmission, hospitalisation and fatality rates got scarily high just after Christmas, and while they’ve receded a bit, they’ve not gone down all that much. Not enough. Mel and I are fortunate – we both work from home, so we just leave the house to buy food and to go for walks a few times a week. And happily, my mum and my dad have both had a first dose of the vaccine now. But life still feels on hold, plans are all provisional.

In the meantime, working on music (writing music, recording music, making plans about what do to do with the music I’ve recorded) is one of the things keeping me sane. There are a few things going on, which I’ll be able to say more about soon, I hope. Borders is out now, though, available on Spotify and Bandcamp, and it’s a fine piece of work, if I say so myself.

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan.

I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf – which is to say, bombastic, overwrought and cheesy. I didn’t really have a handle on the man’s story or the shape of his career, and how this could all be part of the same thing.

I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much, either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.

He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.

Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.

Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.

*

The title track will need no introduction. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.

Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation. An artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early. That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention-grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.

A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is never the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.

Cover Me is barely disguised disco rock (originally written for Donna Summer), with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that’s natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.

Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs are more than a little not OK. A clanging misstep.

Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.

Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its very adult, quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.

No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.

Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.

I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.

Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.

With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.

Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three. This gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.

Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.

My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.

It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.

So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.

What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s just so hard, so bright and so loud.

It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.

In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.

All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.

Reverb, echo & delay revisited

Seven years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a piece about how frustrated I was with the ways I heard reverb and echo being used in recorded music, particularly indie rock. It really ground my gears, which I think you can tell when you read the thing, but I also think I did a pretty poor job of explaining why. Unless the reasons it annoyed me then are different to now but the change in my thinking has been gradual enough that I’m not even conscious of there having been a change. I guess that’s a possibility.

The damn piece still gets traffic, though, so I feel like I want to put a more nuanced take out there for anyone passing who might, for whatever reason, be interested.

Ultimately, what I found – and sometimes still find – annoying about the overuse of reverb and echo is that they’re a shortcut to a gravitas and weightiness that the music may not have earned. The application of reverb and echo puts a sound source in a (simulated) large acoustic space. The sound source is thus received by the listener with a bunch of signifiers we habitually attach to sound heard in those types of spaces.

In the real world, unless we happen to hang out in aircraft hangars, we encounter spaces big enough to produce prominently audible echoes rarely: churches, most obviously, but also arenas, theatres, warehouses, town halls and other types of communal and assembly halls. Spaces in which someone who has something important to say speaks, while the rest of us merely listen. Spaces in which sermons are delivered. Spaces in which musicians transmit and the rest of us just receive.

That’s what always got me about prominent reverb. It always sounded to me like the musician getting above themselves, blowing their inconsequential thoughts and words up to giant size, and inviting you to receive them in awe. When the music isn’t good, the effect can be pure bathos.

Now, there are all kinds of things going on in that response, and a lot of them come down to my own prejudices about what music, particularly alternative music, should be.

In my teens, I acquired a bias against self-consciously grand and epic music that’s taken years to shake off, and reverb and echo are such obvious signifiers of that kind of stuff that I’ve tended to hear all uses of reverb and echo as being informed by a sort of sonic will to, not power exactly, but a sort of will to importance.

In fact, a lot of time these kinds of exaggerated reverbs, echoes and delays are used by artists who don’t want to be made big but rather made indistinct. Again, that’s not high up my lift of desirable sonic qualities, as it tends to diminish a lot of the physical excitement I get from listening to music. But wanting to hide behind a 5-second reverb trail is something I can understand, even if it’s not the way I cope with being a basically shy and undemonstrative person who unaccountably also wants people to hear the music I make. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.

So these days, when listening to music, particularly indie rock, that’s still swathed in an omnipresent reverb haze, I try to focus on effect rather than intention. OK, I wouldn’t make this aesthetic choice, but is it being executed effectively? And the answer is, sometimes yes, sometimes no. You do hear records where the guitarist’s insistence on using their EHX Cathedral pedal absolutely all the time puts the band in a sonic box; if the guitar sounds like it’s in being played in the nave at St Paul’s, it’s going to sound a bit weird if the rest of the band sounds tight and dry. Records where each element seems to exist in different, overlapping sonic spaces remain a bugbear of mine, because it’s distracting and amateurish. If you create different sonic spaces within a mix, you have to learn how to blend them to make a coherent whole. Equally, though, I hear records that would be very different, inferior, experiences if mixed dry and close.

I’m still not keen on Sun-style tape delay, though.

west cath
Singer in the pulpit, band on the sanctuary, guitarist can take a solo from on top of the baldacchino. Perfect tracking environment.

So long, 2019

And farewell to the decade, too. It’s been quite the ride for me. I hope everyone who reads this has made it to the end of the year unscathed.

I’m still finding it hard after the election results here to muster any optimism about our country’s short-term future, and the longer-term picture is apocalyptic. Yet, what choice do we have but to carry on in our daily lives? And eight years (nearly) since I started it, doing this remains a big part of my life. In the next few weeks, I’ll probably do what I did at the start of last year, and think of a few themed posts to give structure to my output. Maybe more live records, maybe something else (debut albums, comebacks by reformed bands – a few ideas come to mind).

In the meantime, to see out the year, here are some links to my favourite pieces from this year, including my first proper crack at film reviewing (The Kindergarten Teacher) and a couple of TV things.

Take care now, and see you in 2020.

Live – Donny Hathaway

Never Any Clapton: Hello – Lionel Richie

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

The Kindergarten Teacher

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can’t Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

Things We Lost in the Fire – The Masters Lost in 2008’s Universal Backlot Fire

Mix Techniques

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Alternate Tunings

 

 

Your Ghost – Kristin Hersh and Nashville tuning

To hear examples of Nashville tuning used outside a country context, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think).

Reacquainting myself with Hips and Makers yesterday and today, I could kick myself for being so cloth-eared. Nashville tuning is as prevalent on that album as it is on Strange Angels.

I started listening to the album’s opening track, Your Ghost – a duet with Michael Stipe that is one of the best things Hersh has ever done – because I’m mixing a song with an arrangement of acoustic guitar, cello and two voices, and wanted to hear how they balanced Jane Scarpantoni’s cello against the vocals. I was surprised, then, to find that I’d never noticed previously that there is a second guitar on the track, mixed off to the right-hand side. It’s a Nashville-tuned strummed part that exactly duplicates the main rhythm track. On each chord change, Hersh plays two single notes (root, fifth, I assume) then strums the chord – the single notes of the Nashville-tuned part tend to get drowned out by the standard-tuned guitar, but I think she’s doubling the whole performance, not just the strummed chords.

It’s a nice detail, one for headphone listening, and creates a rich, enveloping acoustic guitar sound. I’m not sure if it was Hersh’s idea, or Lenny Kaye’s (Kaye was the producer), but according to Steve Rizzo, who was assistant engineer on Hips and Makers and is Hersh’s co-producer/engineer today, it’s something she still does:

“We’ve been using that on almost every solo record. A lot of people think she’s playing a 12-string, but what’s happening is it’s the 6-string and the Nashville [a Gibson J-45] played together. She can play the exact same thing from take to take so they sound like a 12-string, which is pretty cool. And sometimes it sounds very physical. Her hands can be so strong that it’s like, ‘How the hell is she playing that?’”

The key to it is the element Rizzo identifies: Hersh’s doubling of the parts is so tight that it does sound like a 12-string. When the two takes are panned down the middle, it’s impossible to tell that’s it’s two performances, not a single 12-string. But panning one of the parts off to the side, as on Your Ghost, creates a really cool effect that’s worth the effort it must take to create it.

hersh
Kristin Hersh – Nashville-tuned Gibson J-45 not pictured

Mix techniques

I’m not a professional mix engineer. However, I see so many articles of the “Five Tips to Improve Your Mixes” type that are just filled with bad advice (or at the very least poorly worded advice) that I sometimes feel like the last sane adult out there. So much reliance on processing, and so little attention paid to the integrity of the recorded performance.

So, here are my tips. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, this is the stuff I pay attention to when mixing. But first, a disclaimer: I’m only talking about rock, indie and acoustic music mixes, here; I don’t do EDM or pop productions, and little of what I have to say would be relevant if those are the fields you’re working in. If you’re working with acoustic instruments, though, maybe I have something useful to teach.

The spine
The key to mixing an arrangement involving vocals, drums and a bass instrument – that is, almost all rock, indie and pop music – lies in the relationship between the lead vocal, the kick drum, the snare drum and the bass. These instruments and sound sources constitute the spine of your mix, the trunk of the tree.

For backbeat-oriented music, it’s standard practice to mix the drums so the kick and snare have equal weight within the aggregate mix. This doesn’t just mean putting the faders for both at unity and leaving it at that. We’re concerned with their level within the drum mix as a whole. All your sound sources – stereo mikes on the kit (usually overheads, but not always), room mikes, close tom and cymbal mikes – contribute to the overall sound. So, when balancing snare and kick, the relative volume of the snare compared to the kick within all the other drum track will be a factor (if you’re using spaced overheads, typically the snare is prominent and the kick, while present, is more distant and clicky). Pay less attention to the peak level of the transient and more to the felt volume of the meat of the drum. And don’t compress those transients into nothingness – those transients provide energy and excitement. Try letting a little transient through – even setting your compressor’s attack to 2.5ms rather than 0ms will make a difference.

Whether the kick or the bass occupies the perceived lowest portion of the frequency spectrum will depend on the material and what the bassist is doing. If the song features the bass being played mainly in the second octave, the fundamental of the kick drum will live below the bass’s centre of energy, but if the bassist is playing first-octave stuff and bass andkick drum are competing with each other, try rolling off the kick’s low end a little and emphasise the beater (more of that later) to give the kick more clarity and audibility.

I like to think of the vocal as sitting on a platform created by the kick and snare drums. Mix it too loud and the voice seems to float above the music. To check you’ve got the balance about right, here’s a hack that actually works: slowly turn the master volume down until the music is only just audible. If the last things you can hear are the vocal and the snare drum, that’s usually a good sign.

A lot of rock records have the vocals sunken a little further in the mix (an aesthetic that goes back at least as far as the Rolling Stones). If that’s your thing, make sure the vocal is still legible. You can drop it a long way back (e.g. the Police, early R.E.M., Dire Straits, etc.), but don’t bury the vocal entirely, unless the band’s aesthetic really is to have the vocal is a texture (as in much of My Bloody Valentine’s work, for example)

Balance – panning
They used to call recording engineers “balance engineers”, and the term is an instructive one. Achieving a balance between all the elements in the mix on a second-by-second basis is what mixing is.

That means getting the relative volume levels right, of course, but it also means placing the elements within the stereo field to acheive a pleasing spatial balance. We’ve already discussed the relationship between the kick, snare, bass and vocal. These elements are almost invariably centre panned, and have been since the late 1960s. But what to do with harmonic instruments? Where do they go?

It’s going to depend a lot on what has been recorded for the production, as well as the panning scheme you favour as a mix engineer.

I’m a proponent of LCR panning, meaning elements are panned 100% left, 100% right or centre (except close tom mikes, which I pan to the places that the toms appear in the stereo image). Panning this way means that the instruments retain their relative positions in the stereo field wherever you may be standing in relation to the speakers; a guitar panned 18% left will be perceived as 18% left only as long as you sit right in the middle of the speakers. Move away from that point, and you change your perception of where all non-centre-panned instruments are.

Now, some mix engineers don’t care about that, and they happily pan elements slightly off centre, or nearly all the way left but not quite. Me, I prefer the clarity and stabililty of LCR. Mixes done that way sound bigger and more pleasing to me.

But LCR requires a degree of forethought. If you track a four-piece band (bass, drums, rhythm guitar and lead guitar) live, it might make sense to pan the two guitar tracks left and right, but what happens when the lead guitarist plays a solo? Do you move it to the centre, or keep it out wide? Do you have the lead guitarist not play a solo during the live take but instead double the rhythm part, then overdub the solo later? Do you record the rhythm player through two amps, split left and right, and put the lead guitarist in the centre with the vocalist? All of those approaches are workable strategies, but it pays to consider them before tracking.

If you’re mixing but didn’t track the recording, don’t try to force a panning scheme on the track that the arrangement doesn’t support. Better to have a narrow mix with everything in the centre than a completely wacky mix with the acoustic rhythm guitar left and the bass guitar right, simply because you want to make the mix “more stereo”.

Balance – volume
So programme-dependent it’s hardly worth talking about, but here’s one thought. One of the biggest differences I hear between modern mix topologies and those from the 1960s and 1970s is the treatment of simple rhythm accompaniments on acoustic guitar or piano.

There’s a tendency towards giving everything a big sound these days (largely because instruments are usually all tracked separately with close mikes), which tends to make mixes feel a little cluttered and airless. To compensate, engineers end up carving loads of lows and low-mids out of, say, an acoustic rhythm guitar and adding lots of top end to give it “air” and reduce the sense of clutter. Consider miking simple acoustic rhythm guitar parts a little more ambiently and mixing them lower. If the acoustic is the main instrument, that’s different, but if it’s just providing harmonic glue and texture, does it need to be prominently audible in every single moment of the song? Probably not. If you’re after a 1970s feel, listen to how the acoustic rhythm part is treated on (just to think of a few artists from across the spectrum) Pink Floyd, Van Morrison or Eagles records, and try treating it similarly.

Compression
The great Satan of modern mix: the compressor. So many ways they can kill your mix stone dead. Let’s take them one at a time.

Mix-buss compression
I don’t do this routinely. Many engineers take a compressor they feel is euphonious and adds a pleasant density or tonal characteristic and use it on the stereo master buss. If you’re going to go down this road, be careful not to overdo it: medium attack and release times and a relatively gentle ratio (1.5:1 or 2:1) will probably sound more transparent than more extreme settings, and remember you can destroy a song’s feel really quickly by not paying attention to the tempo and groove, and applying inappropriate attack and release settings for the song.

Channel compression
I tend to be looking for a classic rather than contemporary sound, so I don’t like to hear a compressor working (certainly not when listening to the sound source within the aggregate mix). Depending on the instrument – and certainly for vocals – I like to apply post-fader compression and solve some of the bigger dynamics issues with automation. The compressor then gently reduces dynamic range of a slightly more idealised version of the performance. I’m working digitally (and therefore not limited by needing to have lots of expensive hardware), and one upside of that is that you can chain compressors a lot more cheaply than you can in the physical world! If I need a lot of gain reduction and don’t want to choke the life out of a source entirely, I’ll set up a couple, typically pre- and post-fader, and let fader moves and the compressors split the work between them.

Buss compression
All engineers approach this differently. I typically set up busses for the drum mix minus toms, toms, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, ooh- and ahh-type backing vocals, and lead and close harmony vocals. I sometimes buss single instruments like piano and bass guitar, but usually only if they’ve been recorded with several mikes or, say, DI and amp for the bass. Drums I tend to hit with a few dB of gain reduction, vocals likewise (especially if I’m looking to glue lead, double tracks and close-harmony tracks all together). Electric guitar is very programme-dependent; distorted guitar I likely won’t compress at all, anywhere down the line. Acoustic guitar and clean electric, I’ll probably use a little to glue things together a little tonally, rather than for significant gain reduction, and use fader moves to make the guitars sit where I want them to.

Equalisation
There’s a long- and widely held belief among mix engineers that subtractive EQ is better than additive EQ. On the whole, I think it’s largely a myth. Those who counsel against additive EQing on the grounds that you’re trying to boost what isn’t there have a point – but only if that is actually what you’re doing, which is rare for anyone who isn’t a total newbie. Trying to add brilliance to a bass drum track by boosting 10k is, of course, absurd. Trying to emphasise the beater impact of a kick drum by making a boost somewhere between 2k and 4k (depending on tuning and beater material) is just emphasising what self-evidently is there.

On the whole, I probably do subtract frequencies more often than boost them, but I’m always happy to make small boosts where needed. For example, I often add a little high end to vocals (above the range of sibilance so things don’t get spitty) and, within a dense mix, I’ll look to give a boost to the audibility of toms by bringing out the stick impact rather than the drum’s fundamental.

In terms of subtractive EQ, I work in fairly conventional ways. I’ll look to take some low mids out of boomy acoustic guitar tracks, and often emphasise the low end of a tom by cutting a little into the mids. If a bass drum is moving a lot of air but feels a little less present than I want, sometimes rolling off below ~60Hz can be helpful (I often do this in conjunction with the beater-frequency boost mentioned earlier).

I’m usually working in quite naturalistic sound worlds, so I want to get a sound in front of a microphone, capture it, and present it in mix transparently, so EQing is not something done in the box after tracking. Rather, the instrument being played, the pickup used, the pedals and amps used, the position of the mike, the choice of mike – all of these are factors in whether I use lots of EQ or none at all.

Hand in hand with the natural-sound thing, the ideal situation, if I’ve been recording a good player on a good instrument and done my job with mike positioning, is that I apply no EQ at all. If I liked the sound in the room, there really should be no reason not to like it on tape, so to speak.

Which I guess leads us to…

Conclusion
The biggest issues I have with a lot of the “5 best tips to help you mix like a pro!” nonsense I see all over the internet is that so many of them present techniques that are sometimes useful (often as Hail Marys more than anything) as regular, staple techniques that you “should” be using. I read one guide the other day that said something to the effect of “You’re going to want to high-pass filter all your tracks to remove the low end”. But why? Can’t I listen to the track first to see if that’s necessary? What if the band knows how to arrange and play their music well, and the tracking engineer recorded them in such a way that there is no build-up of clutter down there?

The best tip I could give anyone is this: don’t do anything simply for the sake of doing something; leave well alone if you can’t account for your intervention; resist the temptation to process just because you can.

Even today, when naturalistic, organic mixes are not particularly fashionable even in indie and acoustic music, a good 80% of mixing lies in the performance and tracking. If a performance is captured well and is solid in terms of sound and technique, the results do still mix themselves. Any engineer who works as both a tracking and mix engineer and doesn’t simply mix would, Steve Albini style, benefit from putting most of their efforts into improving their miking techniques and gain structuring. The mix will then be an infinitely simpler process.

How Do You Stop – Joni Mitchell

My apologies for taking so long to post anything new. I had this almost complete last weekend, then, attempting to read the draft on my phone, I managed to overwrite it with nothing, and couldn’t work out how to revert to the saved draft. So with heavy heart I started again. Guh. There’s nothing like doing the same work twice.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of England’s current Test series against India is the form of opening batsman Alastair Cook. Now a 33-year-old veteran, Cook has been struggling for runs this year and the aura of impregnability he had at the crease seven or eight years ago is long gone.

Cook, the national side’s former captain, is the highest run scorer and leading century-maker in the history of English cricket. By really quite a long way. At his peak, he was concentration, patience and self-discipline incarnate. A back-foot player, he knew his strength lay on the leg side and so he simply left anything outside off stump alone. Frustrated by his unwillingness to take risks on the off side, bowlers who erred too much to leg in their attempts to force him to play a shot would simply find themselves cut away for four. As his technique and footwork were then sound enough that he could play forward defensively when necessary, eventually all bowlers became frustrated and bowled too straight to him. He was remorseless and indefatigable. The sheer length of his biggest innings beggars belief: it wasn’t his highest score, but in 2011, he scored 263 against Pakistan off 528 balls in 856 minutes. I’ll leave you to work out how many hours of batting that is.

Many would argue that his late-career struggles are simply a result of the sheer amount of batting he’s done for England over the last 12 years or so. That, quite simply, he’s gone to the well so many times that there’s nothing left down there. I don’t know if that’s true, and I would love to see him score just one more century before this series against India ends. He’s never been as beloved by English fans as he should have been, not being a swashbuckling sort of player, but surely that hundred if it came would be the most warmly received of his career – one last big success to savour before he’s gone for ever, as he surely soon will be.

Why do I mention all this?

Because I’ve been when listening to and thinking about Turbulent Indigo, Joni Mitchell’s Grammy-winning 1994 album, and it strikes me that the way it was received in the media and by many of her fans was somewhat similar to the way in which that notional final test hundred by Alastair Cook would be.

Joni Mitchell was by then in her fifties, and seemed to have come to some kind of accommodation with the changing of fashions and the passing of the era in which she was a mainstream figure. Her synth-heavy mid-eighties records, Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, had alienated old fans without attracting new ones, but even more so than 1991’s Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo was the sound of Mitchell simply being who she was in 1994. Most reviewers praised the album generously, glad to hear the veteran Joni Mitchell being recognisably Joni Mitchell again, and doing it rather well.

It being the 1990s and not the 1970s, there were some hurdles that simply couldn’t be gotten over. Her voice had already coarsened from smoking, leaving her unable to hit high notes without belting and neccessitating ever-deeper guitar tunings – Last Chance Lost sees her tune down to Bb, and even then there’s an unattractive hollowness to her vocal timbre in that key, a sort of paperiness that’s particularly noticeable on headphones.

Then there were the rods she made for her own back. Nobody forced her to use the sterile guitar sound that features on around half the tracks (it’s too early for it to be her Parker-Fly-plus-Roland-VG8-guitar-synth set-up, so I assume it’s just a processed, DI’d acoustic), and we have to assume she signed off on Larry Klein’s clinical bass guitar sound: active bass, tight strings, hyped EQ, loads of low B string – a “hi-fi” sound that was big in the early nineties on high-budget singer-songwriter records by people like James Taylor and Sting. Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t like that sound, but urgh, I really don’t. The whole mix is soggy with reverb, too – a slightly baffling choice in 1994 when mainstream rock mixes tended to be quite dry.

Sounds are one thing, though. Songs another. And on Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell had a pretty good strike rate. Opener Sunny Sunday (decorated with Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and Jim Keltner’s drums), David Crosby co-write Yvette in English, the title track, Borderline and The Magdalene Laundries are all successes, and all stand comparison to her work at her peak. Yet the song that I come back to most often, and that for me contains the biggest emotional charge, is not a Mitchell originall.

In 1986, James Brown released an album called Gravity. The previous year, Brown had had a hit with Living in America (as featured in Rocky IV), a song written for him by Dan Hartman* and Charlie Midnight. Whether because of Brown’s well-documented troubles with drugs (PCP and cocaine) in the mid-1980s or simply because Hartman and Midnight seemed to Brown’s label to have a winning formula is realms-of-conjecture stuff, but for whatever reason, Gravity was entirely composed of Hartman-and-Midnight co-writes.

Among them was a ballad called How Do You Stop. Stiff and clogged with synths, and with a vocal performance by the great man that could barely be called perfunctory, How Do You Stop was still the album’s standout song, and Mitchell evidently heard in it a diamond in the rough. She recorded her own version for Turbulent Indigo, replacing the stodgy synths with her strummed acoustic, Larry Klein’s bass, Carlos Vega’s drums and electric guitars by Steuart Smith and Michael Landau. Pitched in a key that suited her new range, How Do You Stop was probably the finest vocal performance from Mitchell on Turbulent Indigo, but guest singer Seal (a publically acknowledged Joni fan), did her one better. His tightly harmonised interjections in the choruses function as the song’s main hook, and his ad libs in the final chorus – a wordless falsetto cry and a descending moan of “too late” – are the single most goosebump-inducing moment on the album. At the peak of his own commercial success, he nevertheless agreed to appear in a video for the song.

Its success at least partly driven by How Do You Stop, Turbulent Indigo was received by its audience as that notional final Alastair Cook century would be. It even won a Grammy for Best Pop Album – ludicrously over-generous for an album that’s in the bottom half of its creator’s list of accomplishments, but indicative of how we love to see veterans come back and score one last big success.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

* Dan Hartman of I Can Dream About You, Instant Replay and Relight My Fire fame. Dan Hartman who was in the Edgar Winter Band and played bass guitar on Frankenstein. I like Dan Hartman.

 

 

 

Mixing James McKean

I’m just getting going on a mix project: the next album by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.

It’s not ideal timing. I’ve only been in my new house with Mel a couple of months, and I’ve not yet had time to really do anything with our music room in terms of acoustic treatment, and as a result it’s still echoey as all hell. But we’re under the gun, so I need to get going. I’m familiar enough with the material from listening to it in my old monitoring environment that I know there are no major EQ issues to compensate for, so as long as I keep to modest, sensible EQ treatments, and listen to mixes frequently in other rooms, on headphones, on my iPod etc. to check I’ve not done anything wacky, I won’t go too badly wrong. Hopefully by the time we’re ready to finalise all the mixes, I’ll have dampened the room down and fixed some of its frequency-related inaccuracies to the point where I can trust it.

It is, however, really exciting being at the start of a project like this. There are ten songs to mix, plus two B-sides, with the ten songs for the album all having been recorded semi-live at the same studio with the same band at three sessions between February and December last year. By semi-live, I mean we set up amps in an iso booth, plugged the bass guitar straight in, sat in the room with the drummer, and ran the songs down all together, recording drums, bass, acoustic guitar (played in the control room by James) and two electric guitars all at the same time (I’m one of the two electric guitarists). There are vocal overdubs, and the occasional extra bit here and there (some brass, a keyboard or an occasional add guitar), but it’s the most documentary-style album-length project I’ve been involved in making.

This is album number three I’ve made with James. The first one was often just him and me (though we had the benefit of overdubs from a great guitarist and a pedal-steel player), and I was a real novice recordist and mixer at the time, with inadequate gear. The second one was done over a protracted period, with a wider team of players, but still there are three or four songs that are largely/entirely just him and me. So this is a very different affair, a five-man effort, with one recording engineer (Jon Clayton) for the basic tracks, and the rest recorded by James or me in our respective homes.

This is how a lot of albums are made nowadays, especially rock records. Budgets are tight so you cut costs however you can. In most cases, bands go to a studio to track drums (drums are loud, they require space, and most importantly they’re difficult to record well because you have to manage the phase relationships of lots of microphones pointing at different aspects of a relatively small sound source), then you do as much as you can at a home studio. Some artists take their stuff back to a pro studio for mixing. Some (the foolhardy ones, the poor ones, the control freaks) do it themselves.

Mixing isn’t my favourite part of the process – I prefer tracking and building up the arrangement – but it’s the one that’s most obsessed over these days, far more than tracking, where a “that’ll do” mindset prevails. The power of computer recording software is such that any sound source can be shaped almost infitely: equalised, tuned, compressed, limited, repitched, replaced with a sample, compressed again, edited for timing, modulated and compressed some more. Then given a final smash.

(So if you’ve been wondering why so many records from the last 15 to 20 years sound like aural sausage meat, there you go.)

We will be resisting most of that. We ain’t Steely Dan, but as a group we can play our own music pretty well. Editing has been minimal. A few notes/beats here and there, but nothing even nearly approaching the snap-to-grid, to-the-16th-note uniformity that overtook rock music in the noughties (I stopped listening, so I don’t know if that’s gone away. I sure hope so). James is a very fine singer indeed, so Auto-Tune is a non-issue, too. At any rate, I did not istall it on my current laptop. I have an old laptop with a tuning plug-in, so I can use it if I really need it, but there’s going to have to be a damn good reason. This will be an old-school affair: an LCR-mixed project with a consistent treatment of instruments in terms of panning, time-domain effects and mix density. Oh yeah, and some really good songs, too.

If any of that sounds appealing to you, check back in three months when the Rocks & Pebbles EP will be coming out. I’ll be releasing my own EP (it’s mixed; just needs mastering, artwork and pressing) at around the same time, so exciting times ahead!

 

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 2: Don’t Wanna Know Why by Whiskeytown

The line-up of Whiskeytown that recorded the group’s last album, Pneumonia, didn’t much resemble the one that cut the band’s debut, Faithless Street, around four years earlier, with only David Ryan Adams and fiddler Caitlin Cary remaining. Three dates from the end of the tour to promote Srangers Almanac, tensions between the band members (particularly between Adams and founding guitarist Phil Wandscher) came to a head, Adams announced to the audience that they’d just witnessed the last show Whiskeytown would play, and he and Cary finished the remaining dates on the tour as a duo.

When the group next went in the studio it would be as a core three-piece of Adams, Cary and Mike Daly (a replacement for Wandscher), with a team of session musicians, utility players and friends augmenting the songs where needed. Luckily that group included Tommy Stimson (the Replacements), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, guitarist Brad Rice and bass player Jennifer Condos.

I’ve written before about the quality of Ethan Johns’s musicianship, and while both he and Jennifer Condos are credited with bass on the album, I’m going to take a leap and assume Condos was the primary bass player on Pnuemonia*. I’ve not been able to find any material to settle the issue, but if anyone happens to read this and knows for a fact who played which instrument on which song, do please leave a comment.

Whoever played on each song, the standard of bass playing throughout the album is high. The bass is always crucial yet is always understated, by both necessity and design. This edition of Whiskeytown was quite a big band but the arrangements for each song were so astute that the songs actually feel less cluttered than those on Strangers Almanac. Don’t Wanna Know Why is a case in point.

The basic skeleton of the song is drums, bass guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitars and keys. The mandolin is mixed left, the acoustic guitar right and there’s at least one electric guitar on each side of the stereo field. Adams’s lead vocal is centred, as are the bass and drums, and in the choruses there is a close harmony on the left (Mike Daly?) and a Caitlin Cary counter melody on the left. Within that, each player plays relatively simple parts, and Ethan Johns’s mix spotslights little character moments in turn: Cary gets her fiddle melody in the intro, the outro and after the second chorus, the mandolins (and possibly mandocello) comes chugging up in the back half of the same sequence, providing a lovely opposing texture to Cary’s fiddle and the guitar alternates Peter Buck-style arpeggios with glorious ringing open chords in the choruses.

With all that going on, Condos has no room for showboating. Her job was to hold down the bottom, fill out the sound and lock in with the kick. All of which she accomplishes easily. It’s the extra little things that make her playing on the song special. My favourite detail is the use of a passing melody in the chorus, to get from one chord to the next in a way that is interesting and pushes the song forward but that doesn’t detract from the other players or the vocal arrangement.

The change from C to A minor illustrates the technique. The kick drum is playing a Mick Fleetwood-style pattern (think Dreams), so Condos plays the root C locked in with the first three strokes on the kick, then – when you think she might descend to a B as a passing note down on her way to A – she actually plays a low E and comes back up to A through G. On A minor, she repeats the trick, going once more to low E, then back to A as a springboard down to G.

There are other cool details too (such as the lovely scalar melody Condos plays at the end of the second verse), but all of them are subtle and in the service of the song. This kind of musicality is what gets players like Jennifer Condos hired: the fine judgement about when a extra little push is needed and when it’s not, and the ability to judge whether their instrument is the best choice to provide it.

Whiskeytown+colour
Whiskeytown, Jennifer Condos third from left

*If for no other reason than that Johns is the primary drummer on the album, and I’d guess he and Adams prefer tracking at least somewhat live.