Tag Archives: music production

Archives and remixes

Recording isn’t simply about documenting a musical performance. Nor is it just the painstaking creation of an artistic work in musical form. Still less is it about making something to be bought and sold, at least in my world. Recording is what one must do to have a proper archive.

At my dad’s house, in my wardrobe and under my bed are shoeboxes full of TDK SA90s. These tapes contain old four-track demos of songs I recorded between 1999 and 2006, many of which I haven’t heard in over a decade, some of which (as the old joke goes) took longer to play than they did to write. On my laptop (and my old laptop, and my old desktop, and on several external hard drives), are the hundreds of recordings I’ve made since I started recording digitally in 2006.

I’ve not just archived my own songs, either. I have recordings I’ve made of at least a dozen other musicians, maybe as many as twenty. My archive of recordings by Yo Zushi, for example, stands at more than 50 songs, of which only around half have ever been released. Every now and then I like to go through them, and of course, once the project file is loaded and I’m listening, I can’t help but hear possible improvements to the mixes. At times I do a proper remixes, for my own listening, of songs that have already been released.

What’s that about? It’s not like I don’t have live projects I could be working on. I think it’s about something more fundamental. To make a recording of something is to fix it into place, to say “this is a thing that happened”. It helps make sense of the past. To someone with my cast of mind, that’s a reassuring thing; I can measure my life as an adult in recordings I’ve made on various media with various other players. But it’s also a track-by-track record of my development as a musician, recording engineer, mixer and arranger. Some of it is precociously good, but inevitably some of it is terrible. Most of it is OK but would have benefitted from having the self-confidence to play less, to not try to fill up space the whole time. My drum performances until about 2014 bother the hell out of me – why is it that drummers that can’t play always want to play the most stuff? I can’t resist the urge to relive the past while simultaneously making it better, airbrushing it. I’ve even recorded proper versions of songs by my high-school band, with me playing everything (I was the bass player).

The elephant in the room here is the fact that, while I’ve played on and/or mixed records that have had proper releases (a couple on labels, more that were self-funded), I’ve never done a physical release of my own music. When you release something digitally on, say, Bandcamp, you can replace the master files at any time, allowing you to to continue tinkering with mixes. The song is released and it’s out there, but you can call it back at any time. Once you’ve pressed up vinyl or CDs, you can’t do that. It’s out in the world, and not yours to control any more.

This year, I’m forcing myself to put out a couple of physical releases of my own music: first an EP with a couple of non-album tracks, then the album itself. I doubt I’ll be able to truly say goodbye to those songs even when I have, but it’s a big step for me to learn to let go. Saying that a project is done, putting it out there, and watching as it’s received (or not) by whatever audience it finds (or doesn’t) is a brave new world for someone who spends as much time as I do messing around with past projects.

But right now, I have a couple of hours’ worth of unreleased Yo Zushi songs waiting for me. He wrote some great stuff in 2009/2010 or so that few ever got to hear.

 

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No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James was taking law and I was reading English. We bonded over music, started having little jam sessions in each other’s rooms and one way or another have been been playing music together ever since. Back then it was every day or so, playing covers and each other’s songs on acoustic guitars**; nowadays it’s rarer, and more formal: gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions only.

James decided he wanted to make a solo album in, I guess, 2010 and we put it together over the course of a year. Where the River Runs Both Ways was the first record I ever engineered or produced, and it sounds like it, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and there was never much question about whether we’d do another. It was pretty much a given that we would.

Except in 2011, even before the launch gig for River, I’d started to feel just a little bit unwell. Heavy, tired, bloated. Over the next few months it got worse, until on 23 December, my 30th birthday, I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with heart failure. Again, if I have any regular readers, please feel free to skip. You know this already.

It didn’t look great. Doctors were talking about an LVAD (an artificial pump for patients in end-stage heart failure) and a transplant, but they stabilised me, monitored my condition for a couple of weeks and sent me home to see how things would go before deciding whether to put me on the transplant list.

I had been told it was extremely unlikely I’d ever be well enough to work again, and that no one could tell whether my condition would improve or deteriorate. I just had to be patient while the doctors worked out how to treat me, and spend the time working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, however long it lasted. I was, penniless, unemployed, living with my father, and with a heart condition that had damn near killed me.

I decided to keep making music. It was all I had, really.

I started writing songs again within a week of being discharged (angry and confused songs, as you can imagine), but even at that point I didn’t know whether I’d ever be well enough to play drums again. I just hoped I would be. The idea of not playing drums was particularly hard to contemplate as I lay in my hospital bed, and I’m not even really a drummer – guitar is my real instrument. Didn’t matter. I wanted to still be able to play the drums.

I don’t know whether it was James or me who suggested he come and stay for a couple of days to work on some new songs, to give me something to do. But he came down about a month after I was discharged, in February 2012. Throwing caution to the wind, I set the drums up, sat behind them and played. At that session we began Silver City Bound, No Peace I Find, an unreleased track called Noah’s Dove and Will Sunbeams Find You. No Peace was later re-recorded from scratch. I had to go back and redo the drum tracks for Silver City Bound and Sunbeams. But I’d sat behind a drum kit and played. OK, I played badly, and OK, just doing a few takes wiped me out, but it was such a huge victory for me to do that. It meant I still had the freedom to make music and record my own stuff the way I love to do, during days that would otherwise be long and purposeless.

So that’s how No Peace for the Wicked started. It took James and me four years to complete. In that time, just about everything in our lives has changed. But this record has been there all the time, waiting for us to haul it over the finish line.

It is, if I may say so myself, a terrific piece of work: James has a huge catalogue of really strong songs, but he chose the perfect ones to include on this the album and sequenced them incredibly well. It really feels like an album, in the old-fashioned sense: like Dark Side of the Moon is an album, like Rumours is an album. I had the pleasure to mix it all, and I got to play on most of the tracks, whether guitar, bass, drums, piano or organ (or sometimes all of them). James pulled together a fabulous team of musicians to play on the record and be part of our ever-expanding team of players for live shows: Kurt Hamilton on pedal steel; James’s brother Dan on guitar and bass; all of the South London band Hoatzin (Kit Jolliffe on drums, Colin Somervell on double bass, Jim Willis on guitar and violin); Noura Sanatian on violin; and Zoe Carassik-Lord and Hana Zushi-Rhodes on backing vocals. These people have done amazing things on these songs, as have Ben Zushi-Rhodes, who mastered the record at Metopolis Studios, and Jon Clayton, who recorded some of the basic tracks at One Cat.

On Sunday evening (27 March), we’ll officially launch the album at the Gladstone Arms in Borough, which has been our home base since before we started Where the River Runs Both Ways, but the album is already on Bandcamp and I urge you to buy it. It’ll be the best £7 you spend in a while.

I’ve had the good fortune to record a lot of very good songs with some very good musicians, but this record means something to me even the best of those don’t. This record is the soundtrack to my recovery, and I’m so thankful to James for letting me be a part of it. I’m so very proud of it.

1James album

*Which means that, yes, I technically lived in Mayfair for a year. That’ll never happen again.
**James’s weapon of choice back then was the fondly recalled “dump guitar”, a battered old classical with a hole in it. Looked like Willie Nelson’s guitar. James actually did retrieve it from a municipal tip where he worked for a spell.

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

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

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

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

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

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis

Mathis’s reading of My Funny Valentine is a troubling record.

My Funny Valentine (like The Lady is a Tramp and You Took Advantage of Me) comes from a Rogers & Hart show called Babes in Arms. The song is sung by Billie to her lover Valentine (Val), who is all the things she says he is: funny, dopey, but sweet. She sees him as he is, loves him anyway, and tells him so, dismissing any fears he may have about their relationship or his need to change.

The long, pseudo-medieval first verse is omitted in many recordings. The classic Sinatra take left it out. Chet Baker left it out. Ella Fitzgerald, in her 1956 reading, included it, yet the tempo she took it at suggests a desire to be rid of it as quickly as possible, so she could get to the good stuff, the real meat of the song.

It’s clear why Sinatra and Baker would drop it – any male performer taking the song on would have to reckon with the gender ambiguity that resulted from a lyric written to be sung by a female character:

Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend,
The picture thou hast made.
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent,
Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

But Mathis wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He includes the long introduction and lingers over it, glorying in the parodic courtliness of Lorenz Hart’s lyric, while the two guitarists play interweaving lines like the left and right hands of a harpsichord player, throwing in every counterpoint idea they can think of.

But sensitive as he is to sound, he seems insensible to meaning. Mathis, in his anxiety to avoid any gender confusion that might come from a man singing a woman’s song, changes the word ‘Thou’ which begins the penultimate line to ‘I’m your’ and spoils the joke; a second ago he had a dim-witted friend. Now he’s the dimwit.

It’s an awful moment. A clanger.

What’s going on here? Could any singer be that deaf to the implications of a pronoun change in a song that is specifically a woman’s song? Surely he would recognise that he had two good options available (drop the verse, or sing it as written and trust the audience would understand that Mathis was only reciting the original text), and that changing the lyric was the worst option possible?

Perhaps. Or maybe something else is going on here. Vocal androgyny was Mathis’s whole shtick as a young singer. His supple, opera-trained voice, with its bell-like purity, high tessitura and heavy vibrato, sounded feminine. It was capable of performing whatever whims he fancied, as the mood took: great leaps landing each time in the middle of the note, or sweeping legato slides up or down the octave.

He revelled in these qualities; his early vocal performances speak of a singer near-drunk on the possibilities of his instrument. Every phrase of Mathis’s take on My Funny Valentine displays his self-confidence. Indeed, the setting of the whole album (Open Fire, Two Guitars – it’s an apt title since double bass apart, all that is present in the arrangements are two jazz guitars and Mathis’s vocal) speaks to his, or producer Mitch Miller’s, absolute faith in his tone and technique, stripping his accompaniment back to the barest bones, letting the spotlight fall solely on that voice.

Still just 23 when he recorded Valentine in 1959 and (as he would remain until 1982) a closeted homosexual, Mathis may not have known precisely whereof he sang at this point in his life. Perhaps he did, but was hypersensitive to charges of effeminacy and so changed the lyrics so he wouldn’t be singing a ‘girl’s song’.

Whatever the reason, Mathis’s version, as beautiful as it is, achieves its beauty by misreading the lyric, tonally as well as texturally. He flattens the song out by approaching the music from one emotional angle only. What makes My Funny Valentine a classic, most particularly in its Sinatra/Riddle incarnation, is the way that singer and arranger acknowledge and mirror each other’s shifts in tone, from playful teasing to romantic devotion and back again. This is why Sinatra’s reading remains definitive, lack of intro verse notwithstanding.

Mathis’s reading remains an enigma. He picks endlessly surprising routes through the text in the company of his two guitarists, with note and phrasing choices that are inspired and frequently thrilling. So while his reading of the song ultimately comes over as gauche (whatever the reason), Mathis’s remains one of the very finest, and most predictive*, versions of one of the greatest songs in the canon.

johnny mathis

*With the clean electric guitars, the androgynous falsetto, the voice of almost limitless potential held back only by its limited emotional palette, Open Fire, Two Guitars reminds me almost constantly of Jeff Buckley. It’s often uncanny.

The philosophy of music production: or, ‘portrait painting’ vs ‘photography’; and how this applies to Yo Zushi

There’s an analogy that used to be routinely employed when discussing music production philosophy – to painting and photography. Some producers, said this analogy, were like portrait painters, more interested in getting to the emotional truth of the subject than in presenting the most detailed and realistic possible depiction of them. Some painters (Lucian Freud, say), while still doing work that is clearly representational, move a long way into the realm of stylisation or expressionism, or even abstraction.

In music, some producers – goes the analogy – aren’t interested in documenting a real-time performance of a song but instead creating a sonic artefact of which a band’s original live performance (if there was one) is just a basic line drawing. Layers of overdubs can be employed, and any number of signal processors (equalisers, delays, echoes, reverbs, compressors, limiters, modulators, pitch correctors). Acoustic sounds can be, and are, routinely remade in the service of the overall work.

Other producers, goes the analogy, work more like photographers. The camera doesn’t lie; neither does the microphone. These producer-engineers set up microphones in a room and have the band play in front of them. And it’s true that early in the history of sound recording, this was the only way to make a record: musicians would be arrayed around a recording horn and, as sound waves travelled down the horn and moved a stylus, inscribing an ‘analogue’ of the sound wave into a wax disc, every record was a document of a single performance.

Since the advent of multitrack recording, this production philosophy has become less and less widespread, to the point of scarcely existing today. Even engineers famed for the liveness of their sound would probably admit that they create effects (such as a drum kit presented with a wide stereo field) that the listener couldn’t experience if they were in the room with a band during a performance.

But the analogy starts to break down here. It’s true that long after the recording engineer had 24 or 48 tracks to play with (and a potentially even greater number if bouncing tracks together), the photographer still only had one camera and a very limited palette of after-the-fact effects. But this is a long way from the reality today. Multi-camera rigs are, if not common, certainly far from unheard-of, and the same information theory that underpins the science of digital recording and mixing also allows for huge levels of post-production tweaking of photos.

It’s as well to assume when you see a photograph in a magazine today that fair amount of work has gone into editing and processing it after it was taken. Similarly, the vast majority of recordings you hear will have been layered from the ground up, likely with no live performance to use as a foundation. Many recordings don’t dissemble their artifice so much as advertise it boldly.

Some people, occasionally, make a record the old-fashioned way. Yo Zushi, for example. Over the last few years I’ve been working on and off with Yo on his songs, recording 20 or so them in that time. Recently, he picked a bunch of them to finish off and make into an album, and the new record will be coming out in July. On Thursday last, I played with him at his single-launch gig. The song in question, Bye Bye Blackbird, was a late addition to the album. It comes from a session we did last autumn at One Cat in South London, with the excellent Jon Clayton engineering. Yo was enamoured of a couple of songs we’d recorded where his basic guitar track had been recorded live while I or Dave Brown (Lazarus & the Plane Crash) played drums. He wanted to do more like this, but take it further, go properly old-school in approach.

We put together a band (Kit Joliffe on drums, James McKean on guitar, me on bass) and went to One Cat to record live, all together, in the room. This was very different from most sessions: recording drums in the same room as acoustic guitar is a scary process, because drums get everywhere. If you solo the guitar tracks, Kit’s performance is clear as a bell.

When it came time to mix, the possibilities open to me for independent processing of channels was limited by the amount of bleed. Changing the guitar sound would change the drum sound and vice versa. The record, so to speak, mixed itself. Put the faders in a line, 90% of the mix is done. There are very few ways to change the balances without making the overall result sound worse. The vocals and lead guitar were overdubbed, I grant you, but the vocals were recorded as performances (the backing vox by James and Hana Zushi were done together) and the number of edits on the vocals is super-minimal by modern standards. There are no edits on the instruments. Not one.

One song from the session (Green Briar Shore, also on the album) even includes live vocals, recorded in the same room, at the same time, as the drums, acoustic guitars and bass.

Bye Bye Blackbird is not a photograph. But it’s just about as close as anyone ever gets these days.

Yes, this has been an 850-word plug.

Go here to hear Bye Bye Blackbird. Go here or here to download it. Go here to hear it played by Steve Lamacq on BBC 6 Music.

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Bye Bye Blackbird cover by Zoe Taylor

 

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At One Cat: l-r James McKean, me, Jon Clayton (seated, obscured), Yo Zushi, Kit Joliffe. Photo by Hana Zushi