Tag Archives: record 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.

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 at 20

I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.

DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.

It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.

Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.

Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.

In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).

For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the grandest, most Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.

From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.

Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.

Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.

For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a  piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.

LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**

At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.

Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.

I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).

Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)

I’ve written before about Pretty Mary K, so forgive me for repeating myself, but it still pretty much sums up my thinking on it:

This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.

Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.

There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers, but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.

Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.

Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.

The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.

Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work.

Despite this, I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there are four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-esque experience.

ADW Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.

*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8 the song, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark the end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.

  1. Son of Sam
  2. Everything Reminds Me of Her
  3. Everything Means Nothing to Me
  4. LA
  5. Stupidity Tries
  6. Figure 8
  7. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
  8. Color Bars
  9. Happiness/The Gondola Man
  10. Pretty Mary K
  11. I Better Be Quiet Now
  12. Can’t Make a Sound
  13. Bye

**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.

***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.

****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

 

 

 

So long, 2019

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

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

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

Take care now, and see you in 2020.

Live – Donny Hathaway

Never Any Clapton: Hello – Lionel Richie

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

The Kindergarten Teacher

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

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

Mix Techniques

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Alternate Tunings

 

 

Honey Down a String – Krista Detor

A few years ago, I came across a song on Soundcloud called Honey Down a String, by an American singer-songwriter called Krista Detor.

Honey Down a String was not (and still isn’t) on Detor’s own Soundcloud, but on the Helber Sisters’. The Helbers are natives of Bloomington, Indiana, where the California-born Detor is also based. A folksinging duo in the 1970s and ’80s, they began singing together again in the last decade after a long lay-off. Detor asked them to add harmonies to Honey Down a String, from her 2014 album Flat Earth Diary. The sound of Detor and Janet and Vicki Helber all singing together is absolutely heavenly, and it was that sound that hooked me when I first heard this song. I’m a sucker for voices in harmony.

As a song, Honey Down a String deals with the emotional resonance of small moments and images: looking at a field of wheat in the distance and being reminded of a faded photograph; overhearing someone nearby singing Autumn Leaves; stopping a while to muse on who left that ginger ale outside to grow warm in the sun. Detor constructs these little moments and ties them into, not a narrative exactly, but at least a context where we know that what she’s really thinking about is someone close to her, and that these little moments are fragments of thoughts that cross her mind briefly, before floating away. Which is why the key lines of the song are “Don’t you go carrying on so carelessly when you are so close to me, when you are so near” – the moment when she addresses that person directly.

It’s a beautiful little miniature of a song – one that I’ve come back to frequently since first hearing it three or four years back – and as a recording it has all the intimacy and immediacy that is missing from the contemporary indie reverb-haze productions. You can hear every detail of Detor’s vocal – every breath, every little shift in the timbre of the voice – and every nuance of her piano, including her pedal movements, as if you were in the same room as her, a few feet away. It’s that level of detail I love in 1970s singer-songwriter recordings, and it’s a big part of what I find so attractive about Honey Down a String.

 

Once More into the Multiverse – R.E.M.’s Monster remixed

Warner Brothers’ ongoing programme of 25th-anniversary editions of R.E.M. albums has reached 1994’s Monster. Part of the package is a remixed version of the album. Let’s see what a reconsidered 2019 mix from original producer Scott Litt can do for the band’s divisive, guitar-heavy used-bin staple.

Monster always was quite an odd-sounding record.

Coming out in 1994, it seemed like a slightly delayed reaction to the dominance of alternative rock, most of which up to that point had been based on scorchingly distorted guitars. In truth, it was more of a reaction to inter-band politics. At some point in 1993 or so, Peter Buck had put his mandolin and dulcimer in the cupboard, turned up the tremolo and distortion on his AC30, grabbed a Les Paul and rediscovered the joy of simple, swaggering rock riffs. Drummer Bill Berry had already threatened to leave the group if the next album wasn’t louder than Automatic for the People and Out of Time, and if the band didn’t go out on tour to promote it. R.E.M.’s follow-up to Automatic was going to have be a loud rock record or there would be no follow-up at all.

The band cut the basic tracks for Monster live on a soundstage, and Scott Litt’s finished mix always suggested to me a degree of overthinking. Having the guitars forward in the mix was a good thing, given how crucial Buck’s tone (and on a few songs temolo) was to the sound of the record, and I’d argue that dropping the level of Michael Stipe’s vocal was a sensible thing to do too, but on some of the songs the weight of the guitars pushed the drums so far back that they became tiny. I’ve always felt the masters contained a more energetic and more satisfying mix, with the drums a bit more prominent.

Sadly, Scott Litt’s remix isn’t quite that, and goes a long way to convincing me that what might seem “wrong” with Monster when listened to critically is actually right in a greater, more fundamental way.

We can surmise from Litt’s new mixes that he felt his original mixes left the vocals too quiet and the drums too processed and too quiet. The new mixes correspondingly give us a whole lot more Stipe, and a less polished drum sound.

For evidence of the latter, A-B the intro of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream – the EQ-ing on the toms in the 1994 mix is absent (or reduced), giving them a perceived higher fundamental, and less detail in the range of stick impact; they boom less, and they cut less. Of course, these decisions are personal, but I prefer the 1994 mix as far as the tom sounds go, and it’s not even close. On the plus side, the snare is EQ’d differently, with a less present, less hyped-sounding top end. It’s an improvement.

Unfortunately, on many songs you don’t really get the benefit of it. One of the issues with distorted guitars is the amount of sonic real estate they take up. Monster‘s guitar sound is crazy huge. This necessarily leaves less space for the drums. Perhaps the top-end hype on the snare on the 1994 mix was to try to bring it out against the guitars. In the 2019 remix, Litt goes a different way: he adds more compression, to flatten the transients, turn up the sustain of the drum and position the reshaped snare as a solid block in fixed audibility against the guitars. But he goes rather too far for me. On What’s the Frequency Kenneth, the drums actually feel like they lag behind the beat due to the heavy compression as they fight against the wall o’ Buck and the newly prominent Stipe. They have no transient left at all. I’ve never previously heard an R.E.M. record and felt like Berry was dragging. If anything, he tended towards being a little early. The new mix is, on the loudest songs at least, extremely unflattering to him. The decision to take off the little bursts of tremoloed guitar in the choruses, meanwhile, merely removes one of the song’s best supporting hooks. A strange choice.

Other weird choices abound. The main guitar and drums crushed into the middle on Crush with Eyeliner, while the sides are crowded with clean overdubs and Thurston Moore’s backing vocal is drowned out by multi-tracked Stipes? Definitely odd. Anchoring Tongue with a tom-heavy drum track right from the intro? Yep, strange again. Other choices, such as remixing of the guitars on Let Me In, are just misguided. The whole point of Let Me In is that incandescent distorted guitar sound, presented so ambiently that actual strums are hard to make out. With only a minimum of pick attack and volume change to tell you where the beats were, the guitar sound became disortientating and weightless, but also uncanny and beautiful. The new version sounds all too earthbound, with Stipe mixed so dry it sounds like he’s singing into your earhole from six inches away. Being brutal, it almost suggests Litt didn’t get what worked about the song first time round.*

Of course, this is just a bonus-disc remix, a parallel-universe version (a Bizarro World remix, if you like). It doesn’t replace the actual album mix of Monster. But it does spotlight the choices made by the band and Litt 25 years ago, and reinforce to the non-audio-engineer fan that so much of what we hear when we listen to recorded music is mediated by mix engineers and producers. When different choices are made, the result is a different album.

monster

*Just to prove how subjective all this stuff is, Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott talked about the remix on their podcast, R U Talking REM Re Me? Both preferred the remixes to the album mixes for the majority of songs, and both felt Let Me In is the biggest improvement. To which all I can say is, whaaaaaaaaaaaa?

 

Memory Cassette – Hurtling

Here’s the first of a couple of posts about some new music…

If you were lucky enough to have gigs playing additional guitar for Graham Coxon, Charlotte Hatherley and My Bloody Valentine, what kind of band would you form as a vehicle for your own music?

Jen Macro, faced with exactly that decision, went with a power trio. I mean, you would, wouldn’t you? However satisyfing, however much a privilege, it might be to get called in to provide extra firepower for celebrated guitar wranglers like Coxon, Hatherley and MBV’s Kevin Shields, when playing your own music you’d want all that sonic real estate for yourself. To just go out there and blast without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes.

Hurtling’s debut album, Future From Here, came out a couple of weeks ago, and has already gotten some strong reviews and good airplay. Rightly so: it’s a top-to-bottom solid record of guitar-heavy pop songs in the vein of Last Splash-era Breeders and Bakesale-era Sebadoh. Which is, to say the least, my kind of thing. Especially when it features an awful lot of that guitar.

Memory Cassette, the band’s new single (I assume it’s a single, as it has a video), is my favourite track on the album, and there’s nothing I don’t like about it. It’s all brilliant: the sparing but well-chosen use of vocal harmony to lift key lines, the whisper-to-a-scream quality of Macro’s delivery when she sings “Get set, go!” as the band drop out for a brief second then pile back in, the “From here” backing vocal by Simon Kobayashi, whose bass playing might be the band’s secret weapon, Jon Clayton’s drum part, which knows exactly how exciting a four-stroke snare fill can be when the band’s going headlong into the chorus, and – most of all – Macro’s absolutely enormous guitar sound.

Future From Here is a great-sounding record generally, but the guitar tones are particularly cool, a product of both the tones Macro dials in (a function of instrument, amplifier and pedal choices) and the way drummer and recording engineer Jon Clayton captures them. Jon runs a studio called One Cat near Brixton (if you’re a London-based musician and don’t know about One Cat, you’re missing out), and he’s an excellent engineer I’ve had the pleasure of working with several times over the last five years or so*. On Memory Cassette, with the arrangement stripped down to drums, bass and a single guitar track (the bass and guitar are panned off left and right), Hurtling are at their most primal and exciting, and the quality of the sounds and playing is clearest.

I’ve not seen them play live yet, but I can’t wait.

Here’s the video for Memory Cassette.

*Jon recorded basic tracks on some of the songs on James McKean‘s and Yo Zushi‘s recent albums. More recently, he recorded all the drums, bass and scratch guitar tracks for the upcoming third James McKean record, and being a multi-talented, Captain Manyhands kind of guy, played a beautiful cello part on one of my songs from the EP I’m working on with Melanie Crew, which I absolutely cannot wait to share with you.

 

Your Ghost – Kristin Hersh and Nashville tuning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

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.

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.