Tag Archives: recording

Yet More Live Gonzos, part 2: This Hungry Life – Tanya Donelly

When researching this album, I came across a website of travel memories by Steph and Craig Smith, who were at the second night of recording, and they graciously agreed to talk to me about the experience, and allowed me to use some of the photos they took that night. Their recollections were invaluable to me when writing this piece, and I’d like to thank them again for sharing their time and memories with me.

Over two hot and sticky August nights in 2004, a small audience gathered in the lobby of The Windham, a disused historic hotel in Bellows Falls, Vermont. They were there to witness a special live performance by Tanya Donelly, former Belly singer-songwriter and lead guitarist in Throwing Muses and the Breeders. Over the two evenings, Donelly performed three sets, all of which were recorded, with two of them consisting of entirely new material except for a cover of George Harrison’s White Album masterpiece Long, Long, Long. Selected takes from those two sessions were released as her fourth solo album, This Hungry Life, in 2006.

In a recent piece, I looked at Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, which consists of tracks recorded live in concert, in motel rooms, backstage and even on the tour bus. But we didn’t really spend much time comparing live recording with the typical studio experience, either as it existed then or now.

In a studio environment, tracking often becomes a near-scientific process of totally separating sound sources, allowing for completely independent processing and editing of all of those isolated individual tracks, during both tracking and mixing. Even if the band aces a take and no edits are required, if all the sound sources were recorded in the same room without separation, you wouldn’t be able to process one sound source without changing the sound of the others, at least subtly: if I wanted to brighten the overheads on the drums with some EQ, it would boost the treble on all the guitars, too. For this reason, while musicians may play takes together live while standing in the same room, they usually do so while wearing headphones and with their amps all isolated from each other in separate booths or behind screens. Musicians who play acoustic instruments need to be in a separate room (usually small, acoustically treated “dead” rooms called iso booths).

In the 2000s, this began to change due to the advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW, recording software), which allows for high-resolution digital recording not necessarily in a dedicated studio environment or with all the expensive analogue technology that pro studios routinely employed.

I’d venture to say that nowadays most artists of Donelly’s stature record much of their music at home with Pro-Tools, Logic, Cubase or some other recording software, heading into a professional facility at the start of the process to track live drums (if any) and maybe at the end to mix the record on a pro-level desk and/or print the mixes to half-inch tape. Projects get passed around between band members, who add their parts remotely using their own home recording set-ups*.

However, sixteen years ago in 2004, the full impact of DAW software was yet to be felt within the music industry, and most veteran artists like Donelly would still have been used to recording almost entirely in studios, if on smaller budgets than they’d have had 10 years previously.

What Donelly was doing in Bellows Falls was rather different to either the traditional studio recording experience or the emerging trend towards home recording (albeit that on-location recording was made easier by the advent of digital technology and This Hungry Life was almost certainly recorded digitally). Having all the musicians play live together with no separation between sound sources limits the possibility of independent editing or punch-ins to fix small flubs, and an audience there to witness any mistakes is a long way from the controlled environment of the professional studio. Working that way is pretty brave, and may be seen as more than a little eccentric.

So why do it? Many musicians – perhaps most – will tell you that the downsides outweigh any potential benefits. Those people, on the terms they’re arguing, may even be right.

But the pressure of needing to perform and be great in the moment – so you don’t blow things for the rest of the band, and so you entertain the audience – can force everyone to raise their game. Musicians, especially seasoned ones, are often most comfortable recording the way they’re used to playing at gigs and rehearsals – everyone in a room together, with lots of non-verbal communication such as eye contact to help everyone navigate complex sections. Perhaps the majority of musicians nowadays do prefer incremental, additive recording strategies, but there are still a cadre who like doing things a bit more old school.

Donelly seems to be one of those who do thrive on the pressure of recording live and needing to get things right there and then. This Hungry Life was not the first time she’d done something like this. She and her former band Belly had recorded their second album, King, live at Compass Point studios in Nassau, with just a few overdubs. This lent it a vintage, somewhat messy feel in its early 1995 context of highly produced and clinically mixed pseudo-alternative records such as Throwing Copper and Collective Soul. This Hungry Life was simply the same idea as Donelly had had with King taken a few steps further.

I asked Steph and Craig what it was like to be present at that Saturday session, as I was particularly interested to know whether it felt like a gig that was being recorded or a recording session that happened to have an audience:

It felt more like a recording session. There were strict rules for the audience; we couldn’t take photos during the songs or do anything that might possibly make a sound. We were instructed to allow a moment of silence after each song before applauding, so that there was no bleed-over into the song itself. The weather was extremely hot and the air conditioner was too loud to run during recording. So this meant there were breaks after every couple of songs, so that people could go outside to get some fresh air and so that they could run the air conditioning for a few minutes to try to cool the room down. So it felt more like “takes” of songs rather than a cohesive set. That being said, they did all 10 songs, then circled back to do additional takes of songs that needed it (“Littlewing” being one). Plus these were brand new songs that nobody in the audience had heard before (with the exception of the folks who had attended the prior night, of course).

Steph also took me through the layout of the room itself:

The room was very small but elegant. There were blue velvet curtains on the windows and a blue velvet curtain separating the main room from the bathroom area. There was a bar in the rear corner of the room. There were six rows of chairs set up, accommodating around 50 people. There were a couple of tables in the back of the room. We were seated in the third row.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmps, mikes and cables at the Windham

Steph’s memories of the night accord with my experience of listening to it. There’s a definite charge from the fact that this was happening live, but overall it’s still a carefully controlled sound (props to the recording engineer Brian Brown). Indeed, certain songs, lacking audience noise and applause, either before or after, make it difficult to tell it was recorded live at all, the biggest giveaway being the sound of Joan Wasser’s electric viola.

If you’re going to record live, it helps to have a crack team of musicians at your disposal, and Donelly did. Her band at the Windham sessions comprised Rich Gilbert (Human Sexual Response, Frank Black, Jack White) on pedal steel and electric guitar, Dean Fisher (Juliana Hatfield) on guitar, Joe McMahon (Smoke or Fire) on double bass, Arthur Johnson (Come) on drums and Joan Wasser (Rufus Wainwright and Antony & the Johnsons; she also records her own songs as Joan As Police Woman) on viola and backing vocals. Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz also sang backup.

These are folks are all capable of playing expressively and powerfully, or pulling back to something restrained and minimal when the moment demanded. The songs on This Hungry Life saw them doing plenty of both. Kundalini Slide and the joyous River Girls alternate between gentle verses and passionately forceful choruses, while the cover of Long, Long, Long is a very creditable attempt to replicate the spectral wooziness of the Beatles recording. Steph spoke fondly of the exuberant NE, which opens the record with a reference to New England’s unreliable weather (“It’s June, and I’m still wearing my boots”), and Littlewing, which is built on a cool bowed double bass part from Joe McMahon (and isn’t a cover of the similarly titled Hendrix song).

My favourite, though, remains the title track. This Hungry Life is a song of extraordinary empathy and wisdom. Written in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the song begins by surveying the wreckage of a world on fire (the title of another song on the record):

Night falls and the rain comes
And the rain goes
And the moon is a stain when you’ve lost something.
And you wait and you wait
And you wait
For the end or the girl or the song
Or the boy or the faith
Or the leader who won’t bring you shame
And you wait and you wait
And you wait.

But crucially, it offers the hope that we, in whatever small way we can, might be able to make a difference, even if only in our own lives and the lives of those closest to us:

This hungry life won’t let you out whole
But you can change a thing or two
Before you go.
This hungry life
Might not leave you with much,
But you can change your story
And throw a hand up from the mud.

Donelly had seldom taken on such big themes in her work without the use of metaphor. She talked often in her days in Belly of her attraction to fairy tale and fable, which allowed her to find ways to explore the world in her songs without staying in the world of the literal and material. There’s no fairy tale in This Hungry Life – it’s one adult addressing another, simply and directly, a small moment of solidarity and understanding and hope that things may one day be better. It’s depressing how relevant This Hungry Life still feels (anyone else waiting for a leader who won’t bring you shame? I know I am), nearly 15 years down the line.

It’s a remarkable performance from the band, too. Johnson keeps a quiet pulse with brushes, while McMahon’s double bass reinforces the little suspended riff on electric guitar that recurs throughout the song. Both parts are perfect as unobtrusive accompaniment. It’s Gilbert who really shines, though, dealing in texture rather than melody, never distracting from Donelly’s vocal, or the supporting harmonies from Wasser and Janovtiz. It’s a delicate spell that the band cast for the song’s six minutes, but it’s a powerful one.

This Hungry Life (the album) won’t be to everyone’s taste, and seems to be a little bit forgotten in Donelly’s discography, for reasons perhaps unrelated to the way it was recorded. Some fans will miss the refinement of a true studio recording, though I suspect those who liked Belly’s King more than Star would find this one appealing too. My one gripe with the way the album is presented is the inconsistent way Donelly and Brown handled the applause from the audience, which is an issue Steph and Craig raised while talking to me about the record:

The applause and audience reaction on the album is a bit of a curiosity to us. They probably could have omitted the applause altogether to get more of a studio feel, or they could have left more of it intact to give more of a live feel. The way it stands now, the audience reaction is present but the levels are way down (sounds like a soundboard bootleg). I fall on the side of thinking that they should have put more audience in… double down on the enthusiasm the crowd expressed after hearing these new songs in such an intimate setting. Whereas Craig is surprised that they included it at all, as he was under the impression from the first that they were going for a studio feel and we were just observers who would have been in the sound booth if possible.

I feel similarly to Steph that, since they decided to include the applause, it would have been nice if it had been more prominent. Equally, I see where Craig is coming from – having asked the audience to wait a second or two after the last chord faded out before applauding, they could easily have left the applause out altogether. The way it’s mixed on the album is a rather unsatisfactory half measure.

That said, it’s a minor flaw and it doesn’t really spoil what’s still a really interesting album, especially if you’re interested in live recordings; this is a way of working that virtually no one practises anymore. And if you do hear the record, you’ll probably find half of its songs sticking with you. While, like Steph and Craig, I find other Donelly records more satisfying (Beautysleep is my favourite among her solo albums; King is my Belly pick), the title track alone makes This Hungry Life one to hear if it passed you by on its release in 2016.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARich Gilbert, Tanya Donelly and Dean Fisher, tuning up, I reckon

*Obviously, Covid-19 is forcing everyone to work this way, but it was already a prevalent recording strategy for musicians looking to maximise budgets. Sending files between musicians via Dropbox or WeTransfer and having everyone record separately saves on travel expenses, studio costs, accommodation and F&B. I’ve made almost an entire album with Yo Zushi this way during lockdown. One song contains a live basic track of drums and acoustic guitar we made in the same room last November – the rest has been done remotely, with files sent back and forth via WeTransfer.

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.

High-strung fun; Nashville tuning

You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals on Music Row. They know how to make records. They certainly know a thing or two about recording acoustic guitars. High-string tuning is so closely associated with the capital of country music that a majority of guitarists refer to it as Nashville tuning.

To reassure those of you who aren’t really down with endlessly retuning your instrument, Nashville tuning isn’t really an alternate tuning, per se; it’s more about the strings you actually put on your guitar. The tuning involves taking the four octave strings from a twelve-string (the E, A, D and G) and putting them on a regular six-string guitar. That gives you a guitar with only one wound string (the low E), and means the D and G strings will be higher in pitch than the B and E strings respectively, leaving you with a guitar that sounds jangly indeed. D’Addario and Martin both sell high-strung/Nashville tuning sets (10-27 and 10-25 respectively), and possibly other manufacturers do too*. All you need to do is maybe adjust the neck on your guitar. I have a spare acoustic I often Nasvhille-ise; saves a lot of hassle when, as now, I’m looking to add a few jangly touches to a nearly complete recording..

So what can you do with it?

I’m very fond of the massed – but unobtrusive – overdubbing of acoustic guitars. I love the tonal colours you get by blending tracks of different guitars, different tuned, and so routinely track two to four acoustic rhythm tracks of various types, with the aim of blending them together so it sounds essentially like one instrument, but with a richer sonority and wider frequency response than you get from a single track of one acoustic guitar.

Sometimes they’re all in standard tuning but I use a capo to play each track with different chord shapes (e.g. a song in E is played with open E shapes, and in D with a capo on the second fret, or C with a capo on the fourth). Sometimes it’s a mix of standard- and alternate-tuned performances. Sometimes it’s a mix of six- and 12-string guitars, and sometimes a Nashville-tuned part is in there, too. Adds a lovely shimmering brightness to a bed of acoustics.

But that’s just the easy stuff. If you don’t have access to a 12-string guitar but you want the effect on a recording, you can also try tightly doubling a six-string part in Nashville tuning to create an effect that’s very like a 12-string. Experiment with panning the parts  left and right in stereo as well as together down the middle for different effects.

If you’re really into making work for yourself, try doubling a fingerpicking part. If done perfectly and panned down the middle, voila, instant 12-string effect. And again, you can pan the parts off on opposite sides for a striking stereo effect.

To hear examples of Nasvhille 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). Or for something a bit more mainstream, try Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. There’s a high-pitched fingerpicked part panned centrally, fairly low in the mix but audible between Stevie Nicks’s vocal lines. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s a 12-string or a Nashville-tuned six string, but the more I hear it, the more the thin-ness and clarity of the part suggests Nashville tuning to me.

nashville tuning
My old spare acoustic, Nashvillized

*When I bought a set of Martin 10-25s the other day, the dude in the shop told me he hasn’t been able to reorder them and thinks that Martin may have discontinued them. Nonetheless, you can still buy single strings of the appropriate gauge: to replicate the Martin set, you’d need the following gauges: E: 0.025; A: 0.017; D: 0.013; G: 0.008; B: 0.012; E: 0.010.

Hal Blaine RIP

Hal Blaine, one of the most prominent members of the group of LA-based session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, has died of natural causes aged 90.

Blaine’s career was truly remarkable. Like the majority of the Wrecking Crew players, Blaine’s background was in jazz. He got his professional start playing with Tommy Sands, but, adaptable and open-minded enough to move into rock ‘n’ roll, Blaine began playing studio dates, and was soon the go-to guy for Phil Spector. His enormous intro to Be My Baby I’m sure you’re familiar with. OK, sure – it is to drummers what the Smoke on the Water riff is to guitarists, but it got to be that for a reason. Great music is about tension and release. That dropped backbeat on the two and the huge reverberant snap on the four is tension and release. That’s why it worked.

The keen student of Spector’s Wall of Sound that he was, Brian Wilson naturally wanted to hire the same musicians and studios as his idol had used, so before long Blaine was playing for LA’s next boy genius. It’s arguably those Beach Boys songs, particularly the ones on Pet Sounds, where you hear the best of Hal Blaine: his taste, his creativity, his avoidance of orthodoxy.

But if you’re not a Beach Boys fan, you can still hear Hal doing brilliant, innovative things in hundreds of different musical settings. You can hear him on records by Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, the Byrds, the Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel, the 5th Dimension, the Carpenters, Glen Campbell, the Mamas & the Papas, John Denver,  Sonny & Cher, the Association, Neil Diamond, Johnny Rivers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and Barbra Streisand. And that list is far, far from exhaustive. It’s tip-of-the-iceberg stuff, just what came to mind.

In interviews, Blaine always came across as a very likeable and humble guy. He spoke highly of the artists he worked with, always making a point of saying how much he learned from them playing with them all.

Farewell, Hal, and thanks.

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.

Geoff Emerick RIP

Geoff Emerick passed away on 2 October.

It’s basically impossible to overstate the importance of Emerick in the history of audio engineering. Born in 1945, he took over the engineering of Beatles sessions at Abbey Road in 1966. His first session as the band’s lead engineer, the first for what would become Revolver, was on Tomorrow Never Knows. That’s quite an auspicious start. The technical achievements of that session alone – the thunderous slack-tuned drum sound, the tape loops, the heavy compression that made Ringo’s cymbals sound like they were being played backwards, the vocal effect on Lennon’s voice, achieved by running it through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet designed for use with an organ – would ensure that Emerick went down as an AE immortal. It was just his first session.

Time and again, Emerick broke the rules of engineering to give the Beatles the effects they wanted. The band, and sometimes George Martin, may have been the architects of these sounds and effects, but Emerick (as well as Ken Scott, once Emerick quit Beatles sessions in search of more regular hours and a less poisonous atmosphere) was quantity surveyor, clerk of works, builder, carpenter and electrician all rolled into one. They commissioned the house; he built it. I mention “rules of engineering” above – at Abbey Road in the 1960s, they were literally rules, and Emerick could have been fired for his experiments in sound if the studio management had known exactly what he was doing with their expensive equipment to make these records. He invented an arsenal of techniques and effects that are still in use today, often by using equipment in a way no one had designed it to be used. Engineers in that era had to be familiar with their gear at component level, and Emerick was no exception.

Emerick’s career may have not matched up to its early years, and the fallout from the book he wrote 10 years back (in which he was relentlessly critical of George Harrison and frequently dismissive of Martin, seeming to only have much time for McCartney – the only Beatle to employ him once the band split) was ugly. But Emerick remains a giant in the field. His work transformed the practice of audio engineering. As long as people are recording sound, his work will be studied and he will be remembered.

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.

 

Mixing James McKean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fade Out

No, this isn’t a cryptic way of announcing that the blog is going to end. I’m not stopping. Ever. In fact, things are about to get exciting round here. I want to talk about actual fade outs.

I miss the fade out. Last night I was walking home listening to Jon Auer’s quite wonderful You Used to Drive Me Around, enjoying the long, slow fade, and thinking about how little of the newer music I listen to actually makes use of the technique. Then I started wondering if anyone else had noticed.

Turns out I’m not imagining this, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Actually, people who pay more regular attention to proper pop music than I do noticed years ago:

The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. Among the year-end top 10 songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the ’90s, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top 10 lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out, Robin Thicke’s purposely retro Blurred Lines. Not since the ’50s have we had such a paucity of fade-out songs.

William Weir, A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now…, Slate (2014)

The reasons for the decline of the fade out are fairly obvious and don’t take a lot of unpacking. Artists are terrified of fans skipping their song and moving on to the next, so they need to stuff them full of anticipation or incident until the moment they stop, so no one reaches for the skip button. A trend towards songs that build continually until they stop is the inevitable result.

For years, I thought fade outs were a “pop” technique, a cheap trick that my lo-fi, alt. and indie-rocking heroes were better than. If you can’t work out a way to bring your arrangement to a proper close that’s reproducable in real time on stage, then what kind of musician are you? And for sure, anyone who’s seen that famous live clip of the Eagles doing Hotel California at the Capital Center that ends with them just suddenly all hitting one chord four times and stopping – cha-cha-cha-cha – will attest to the difficulty of coming up with a “live” ending to a song that faded out in its studio recording. Whether you like the song or not, you’d have to admit that the way the Eagles closed out Hotel California live was lame as hell and undercut the whole thing.

But of course, there are no hard and fasts here. The fade out on Hotel California is effective, and on the whole it was worth ending the studio recording that way, even with the knowledge that they’d not be able to do it the same way live, rather than compromising the recording by ending it in a way that they could be replicated. And when you start thinking about some of the truly great fade outs – Sara by Fleetwood Mac, for example, which ends with Stevie Nicks calling out into infinity about a “heartbeat that never really died” while an ocean of Lindsey Buckingham’s multitracked vocals and guitars swirl around her – it becomes clear how effective an emotional tool the fade out can be.

You Used to Drive Me Around works the same way. The sort of situation that Jon Auer is singing about is not an easily resolvable one, so the long fade out isn’t just an excuse for Mike Musburger to play some more expansive drum fills; it’s actually wholly appropriate to the subject and the mood of the song itself.

I hope that some enterprising artist or other starts championing the fade out and it catches on again with this generation of musicians. They’re missing out on a potentially really powerful technique through letting it fall into disuse.

 

 

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 4: I Heard it Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine is one of Motown’s highest achievements: a fantastic song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (writer and original performer of Money (That’s What I Want), produced brilliantly by Whitfield and featuring an inspired arrangement by Paul Riser, a career-highlight vocal from Gaye and top-notch performances from every musician and technician involved in it.

As was often the case when his staff produced something technically innovative or emotionally raw, label boss Berry Gordy was suspicious of the record and blocked its release as a single. Whitfield went on to produce another version with Gladys Knight. Despite a busy bassline by James Jamerson, Knight’s version is approximately one-tenth the record that Gaye’s is: a rather lame attempt to muscle in on Aretha Franklin’s turf. Gordy didn’t much care for Knight’s cut, either.

What Gaye’s version had and Knight’s lacked was genuine edge, the desperation that’s evident in Gaye’s record from the first note of its ominous intro: a single snare hit like the slamming of a door, quickly followed on the other side of the stereo field by that classic intro riff, supported by a simple kick-and-hi-hat groove, over which a tambourine hisses like a rattlesnake. The right hand of the piano and a harmonised guitar enter (again on opposing sides of the stereo field), the brass swoops in, and Marvin starts singing.

“Oooh-oooh I bet you wondered how I knew…”

It’s a bravura moment, and the record’s barely begun.

Whitfield’s genius extended right down to the way the drum track was arranged. Playable by one person, the drum part for Gaye’s take on Grapevine was – at least according to this article – performed by two drummers, with a third adding bongos. The three guys in question were Uriel Jones, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Benny Benjamin. I don’t know for sure who played what, but most of the sources I’ve seen suggest Allen and Jones both played “drums” (meaning a drum kit) and Benjamin “percussion”, implying that he was on bongos (the tambourine was almost certainly Jack Ashford). One of the two drummers played kick and hi-hat, with occasional full-kit fills, while the other simply hit two and four on what sounds like either a particularly slack-tuned tom-tom or a similarly low-tuned snare with the wires off.

It’s a fundamental part of the grammar of pop music that the backbeat is provided by a snare drum. Any time a drummer chooses to substitute a snare drum for a tom, the alert listener will feel that something is up. It creates a tension. Is the drummer eventually going to break out of this pattern and switch to the more open-sounding snare drum, releasing the tension, or will the drummer simply keep going and ratchet it up even further?

At 1.57, for four bars, the drummer playing full kit finally brings in the snare, while the other drummer reinforces the beat with his tom. But just as soon as the tension is released in this way, the final verse begins and the original groove is restored. And that’s how it stays, with Gaye unable to break free of the trap he’s caught in. It’s a demonstration of how a great drum track can narrate a song, just as surely as any singer.

grapevine
The unbelievably incongruous sleeve of I Heard it Through the Grapevine