Tag Archives: mixing

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. 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; if you have a pair of stereo mikes on the kit, they’re contributing, too, so the relative volume of the snare compared to the kick within that stereo pair will also 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 visual 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.

Whether the kick or the bass occupies the perceived “lowest” portion of the frequency spectrum will depend on the song and what the bassist is doing. If the material 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. If the bassist and the kick 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, creating what I call “big giant head” syndrome. 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; i

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 we do.

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.

But LCR requires a degree of forethought. If you track a four-piece band (bass, drums, rhythm and lead guitar) as 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? Keep it out wide? Have the guitarist not play a solo during the live take but instead double the rhythm part, then overdub the solo later? Record the rhythm player through two amps, split left and right, and put the lead guitarist in the centre with the vocalist? All are defensible strategies, but it pays to consider them before tracking. If you’re just mixing and you’ve had no say in what was tracked, 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 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
Ah, the great Satan of modern mix. The humble compressor. So many ways for them to kill your mix stone dead. Let’s take them one at a time.

Mix-buss compression
I don’t do this usually. Many engineers take a compressor they feel is euphonious and adds a pleasant density or tonal characteristic, and use it on the stereo master outs. 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 a buss for drums (minus toms), toms, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, ooh- and ahh-type backing vocals, and lead and close harmony vocals. I may 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 (again maybe post-fader – it depends on the dynamic of the performance). 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 that subtractive EQ is better than additive EQ. It is, I think, 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 absurd. Trying to emphasisr 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 their music 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: do nothing 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. 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 mix themselves. Any engineer who works as 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.

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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.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 3

The Forgotten Arm was sold to the public as that most prog of things, a concept album: a story in song about two lovers, Caroline and John (a boxer with a habit – Caroline is defined by her reactions to John rather than her own personality), who meet at a state fair and leave Virginia together, only to find that John’s problems are travelling with them.

While the narrative is present throughout all the album’s songs – Mann is too disciplined a writer to drop her concept halfway through – the music that supports the text is far from prog. For The Forgotten Arm, Mann hired a new (for her) cast of studio pros and had them play mid-’70s roots rock in the style of The Faces and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or in the album’s softer moments The Band and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John). For some of these players, this sort of meat-and-potatoes country rock was second nature; guitarist Jeff Trott, for example, who made his rep on Sheryl Crow’s second album. Others were slightly removed from their usual sphere; fellow guitarist Julian Coryell is more associated with jazz than cowboy-chord rock.

At times the wailing guitar crosses the line from authentically 1970s into schlock, with the worst excesses come from Trott. On She Really Wants You, he sounds like a wind machine is blowing his hair. His solo on Dear John, which is similar in style, tone and technique, is even more stadium; the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether Trott could possibly be being serious.

The Forgotten Arm does have some really good songs*. I’ve gone into bat on this blog for That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart, and I’m fond too of King of the Jailhouse, She Really Wants You, Going Through the Motions and I Can’t Get My Head Around It. Joe Henry’s production is, for the most part, spare and unobtrusive (that said, the wide-panned mixes of King of the Jailhouse and Going Through the Motions are love-it-or-hate-it stuff), and while the mastering is loud, the lack of steady-state noise in the arrangements means the songs mostly emerge unscathed, if a little misshapen. All in all, though, this is the least Aimee Mann-like album in her discography sonically, and while I can imagine Mann non-fans enjoying it, I doubt many of them got to hear it.

Many artists, when they have been making records long enough, reach a point where each new album is a reaction to the one before it, and much effort is expended in trying to correct the things that the artist didn’t like about the last one.

@#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ll let you make of that what you will.

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Aimee Mann circa The Forgotten Arm

*On my way home I listened to the first couple of songs on The Forgotten Arm and what struck me was that while their verses and choruses are built – as the majority of Mann’s songs are – on repeating four-chord patterns over which Mann sings attractive but narrow-ranging melodies, the middle eights have chord sequences that seem to have been driven by the movement of the melody, giving the chorus more focus and punch when it comes back round.

In my own songwriting, I’ve usually felt that the strongest songs I’ve written have come when the melodies and the chords have either come to me at the same time as each other, or I can hear where I want the tune to go and have to work out what chords work best to support that movement. I’ve written decent songs when I’ve fitted a tune to a predetermined chord sequence (or riff that implied chord changes), but I’ve always felt that writing that way was essentially what rock bands do, and writing from the melody downwards was how “proper” composers write. Horribly snobbish, I know, but old prejudices die hard.

Anyhow, my hunch is that this aspect of Mann’s writing died away after The Forgotten Arm. I’ll look into this and see if it’s true. Yep, listening to songs while counting chord changes. The things I do… For now, it’s more of a side note, as the series of posts is more about engineering, mixing and arrangement than songwriting per se.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

lost-in-space

Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”