Tag Archives: production

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.

New single out on 14 March

Hi everyone. My apologies for keeping you waiting for the next More Live Gonzos post. The last one was a pretty serious investment of time, and in the week since I’ve been busy and a bit stressed, and just not able to make time for the listening, thinking and drafting I’d need to put in to do the next one properly. So I figured I’d post about some other things in the meantime, while I try to get into gear on the next live album.

One of the things I’ve been working on is a digital-only single. My main focus over the winter has been to finish and release an EP that my partner Melanie and I are working on. The EP will be six songs, three songs each, and is basically all acoustic folky stuff: only one song features a full band arrangement. But both of us have interests across the musical spectrum, and we both had a couple of strong songs that didn’t fit the style of the EP. Rather than let them sit there for months, or years, we figured better to just put them out.

My 2-song single You Won’t Need to Cry b/w Hard to Begin will come out on Saturday 14 March. The songs are both, broadly speaking, indie-pop. You Won’t Need to Cry is a slightly mechanised 1980s kind of thing, with harmonies and doubled vocals and a lot of layered guitars. Hard to Begin is more of a McCartney/Elliott Smith type of song, with an extended chord sequence in the verse, a proper middle eight, some very Ringo-ish drums and all that kind of stuff.

It’ll be available through Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes (at least, I think so. iTunes will soon be defunct so not toally sure), Apple Music, Google Play, Soundcloud and a whole bunch of other platforms. But I thought I’d offer free-of-charge advance copies to readers of the blog, as a thank you for coming here and reading my blatherings. It means a lot that you do. If you’d like a free download code, email me through the blog or send me a DM on Twitter.

The Mel-and-Ross EP will be available shortly thereafter (I reckon April), and Mel’s single will come out not long after that.

You Won't Need to Cry sleeve w text 5 square
Home-made cover art. Excellent picture taken from the top of St Paul’s by Melanie. Less-than-excellent text by me.

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.

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

There is no commercial analogue playback format that is capable of reproducing the sonic quality of an analogue master. Unless you’re into storing and playing back your digital music as 24 bit WAV files at a sampling rate of 192kHz, there’s no way to come close in the digital realm, either (and how close 24 bit/192kHz actually gets to accurately representing the soundwaves captured, well, that’s a huge can of worms it’s better not to open right now as it’s a side issue).

Whether held on 2-inch analogue tape, or 1-inch, or as digital files on a hard drive, masters are the recording, from which all commercially released mixes of a song are derived. They are the primary source. Let’s say it again: the masters are the recording.

It’s only when we grasp this that we can understand what was lost in the fire on the Universal backlot in 2008, the full details of which have apparently been something of an open secret within the industry but are only now being reported to a wider public thanks to Jody Rosen’s excellent piece for the New York Times Magazine.

In 2008, a fire swept through the backlot, destroying several iconic sets (the New York skyline, the town square from Back to the Future and more) and swiftly consuming a building known to Universal employees as the video vault. That would have been bad enough, but the vault also contained a large store of audio masters. Rosen itemises what has been lost:

There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. The tape masters for Billie Holiday’s Decca catalog were most likely lost in total. The Decca masters also included recordings by such greats as Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.

Virtually all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost in the fire. Most of John Coltrane’s Impulse masters were lost, as were masters for treasured Impulse releases by Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and other jazz greats. Also apparently destroyed were the masters for dozens of canonical hit singles, including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man,” Etta James’s “At Last,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

[Also probably lost in the fire were] recordings by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.

I’ve quoted from Rosen at length as it’s only when we see his lists written down that we begin to grasp the full extent of what was lost.

Why does this matter so much?

Two reasons: firstly, session reels contain sessions, not just the final take of a song and its attendant overdubs. Every time you buy an expanded edition of a record with alternate takes and unreleased songs, someone has been going through the archive to source that material. Who knows how many incredible alternate tales of canonical recordings we now have no chance to discover in future, how many stunning outtakes? You may think, well, we still have the released records, and that’s right, we do. But I’ve been delighted by too many work-in-progress versions and rough mixes and outtakes in my lifetime to be cavalier about what may have gone up in smoke.

Just yesterday, I listened to some of the material that Radiohead have made available from Thom Yorke’s leaked Minidisc archive from the OK Computer sessions. Within 10 minutes of the first disc starting, there is an astonishing early version of Airbag – a much looser, live-sounding take with Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway playing very different parts to those that made it to the album. What burned in the fire are the millions of potential instances of the delight I took from hearing that kind of audio snapshot of a song’s development.

But that’s not all. As I said up top, commercial playback formats lag a long way behind both analogue and digital masters in terms of the sonic quality. Neither vinyl nor any commercially widespread digital standard get close to the 24bit 44.1kHz masters of the recordings I make, let alone a 2-inch 24-track analogue master made by a good engineer in a world-class studio.

While new, higher-resolution digital formats are becoming a little more widespread among listeners, we have lost the ability to go back to the master tapes to create higher-res digital masters. You can’t simply take a CD and upsample it – you can’t put back what wasn’t captured in the first place. You need the masters. This is before we begin to factor in all the “audiophile” vinyl releases sourced from copies of the master or even the CD mixes. That’s why many of us prize the expanded/remixed/remastered editions of catalogue releases. Going back to the source is the only way you can improve on older-generation transfers made in a hurry on inferior equipment, as was the case for the first CD releases of the majority of heritage artists.

My apologies to Rosen for stealing his metaphor but it’s the best way to explain the issue. Listening to a vinyl record or a CD or an MP3 is like looking at a print of a great work of art. Some formats get closer to capturing the true experience of seeing the artwork, but there’s always a gap between the two. What burned in that fire were the paintings, not the prints.

The prints we still have, the paintings are lost for ever. And until yesterday, most of us didn’t know what we’d lost.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Four: Fool (If You Think it’s Over) – Elkie Brooks

Apologies for my elongated absence. I moved house last week, so it’s been crazy busy.

If you didn’t know anything about Middlesbrough’s Chris Rea, born into an ice cream-making family, or Salford’s Elkie Brooks, formerly an English Tina Turner-style screamer in Vinegar Joe and latterly an MOR Pebble Mill at One regular, you could easily hear Fool (If You Think it’s Over) as a species of yacht rock. Especially in Brooks’s version, it’s smooth, opulent, adult and eminently yachty. Have JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair claimed it as one of their own? Maybe they have.

Fool (If You Think it’s Over) was first cut by Rea for his 1978 debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini. It’s an undeniable song, but I always feel like his version’s a little too slow, and as a result doesn’t feel quite as effortless as it could do. Elkie Brooks’s 1982 cover, from her album Pearls, picks up the tempo by a few bpm, and this makes a world of difference.

The same producer, Gus Dudgeon, was in the chair for both recordings, so it’s instructive to compare the two, even if we need to be a little careful in suggesting that the differences between the two versions amount to Dudgeon “fixing” the flaws he heard in Rea’s version. Especially as so much of it is the same. While the tempo is faster for Elkie’s version, the basic layers of the drum track are constructed in the same way, and it’s an excellent construction. Both recordings begin with drum machine, which runs throughout the track. The rhythm box on Rea’s recording is notably more lo-fi than on the Brooks version, but they sound like the same machine to me: the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78. You’ll have heard this classic drum machine on countless recordings from the late seventies, including In the Air Tonight, Heart of Glass and I Can’t Go For That.

With the drum machine in place to give the song a steady four-square chassis, on top are laid some sort of shaken percussion (shekere, I think) congas and then full drum kit. On both versions, the drummers are almost heroically understated*, just playing two and four with a good feel and keeping fills to an absolute minimum. Brooks’s drummer plays the odd pssst on the hats, a little double tap on the snare going into the chorus and a few gentle cymbal crashes.

It’s beautifully simple, but the effect when all the layers are added together is an ultra-smooth, great-feeling rhythm track (aided by some superlative bass playing) that has a machine-led tightness and a very human sense of power kept in reserve – and if you’ve heard Brooks belting her way through Proud to be a Honky Woman or Pearl’s a Singer, you’ll know how much vocal power she keeps on reserve during this song, too.

I almost never do a post like this when I don’t know the identity of the drummer on the recording, but unfortunately, since Pearls is a compilation album, three drummers are listed on the sleeve, and no resource I could find online breaks down who plays on which song. So the drummer was one of Trevor Morais, Graham Jarvis or Steve Holley.

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

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.