Tag Archives: Reverb

Building a pedalboard

At the end of last year, I decided it really was time I put a pedalboard together, as I seemed to be absolutely the last guitarist in the world not to have one, and it was getting to be a little bit embarrasing being that guy at soundcheck taking precious minutes to plug all his pedals in.

I grew up in a time when pedalboards were still a rarity among non-pro guitarists. No one I knew used one – mainly because as teenagers we didn’t have the money for enough pedals to require a board. In fact, in my high school band, we didn’t even have a tuner pedal between us – just a distortion pedal each. (Our tuning was, naturally, rather approximate, but we were plenty distorted.) Then, for a while in the late 1990s, those early digital multi-effects pedals by Digitech and Zoom* were the big thing – again, no board required if a multi-effect unit is your only pedal.

Since most of the gigs I’ve done in the last few years have been playing guitar for James McKean, though, it made sense to have a small, lightweight and portable pedalboard for gigging, rather than carrying four or five pedals in a rucksack along with sundry cables, patch leads and a power supply, and then having to faff around with them between soundcheck and showtime.

Little did I know then that we’d only get to play one gig all year because of Covid-19. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have available, I suppose.

Anyway…

I settled on one of the smaller Pedaltrain boards, the Metro 20, as I decided I’d limit myself to five or six pedals: a tuner, a distortion or two, echo, modulation and reverb. For added portability and flexibility at gigs, I decided to go with Pedaltrain’s Volto rechargeable battery pack, which supplies more than enough current for six pedals, easily lasts the length of a long rehearsal and mounts on the underside of the board, saving space up top. It uses a USB charging cable but it comes with a wall adaptor, too – extra points for flexibility.

I also picked up some new pedals as I was lacking a reverb unit and a satisfactory compact distortion. I also just felt like freshening things up and having some new gear to get me excited about creating the pedalboard. Some of the pedals I settled on have been on the market a few years, and others are recent-ish releases.

First up, I needed reverb. My original choice was:

TC Electronic Skysurfer
This is a budget option I bought without trying out, thinking it would probably do well enough for live applications, since for recording I either use the spring reverb on my Vox AC15 or add reverb in the box when mixing. Unfortunately, the Skysurfer wasn’t the pedal for me. Even dialled right back, the reverb sounds were still over the top, with a clangy, metallic tail even on room settings – what’s the room made out of? Tin?

So, I decided to write that one off and replace with:

Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Neo
The EHX Holy Grail family of reverb pedals is extensive, but I decided to go with one of the nano-sized pedals, as they have such a small footprint, yet contain a lot of features.

It came down to a choice between the Holy Grail Nano and the Holy Grail Neo. The difference is that the Nano has hall, spring and Flerb settings, while the Neo ditches the Flerb and replaces it with plate reverb setting. Flerb is a flanged reverb – quite a cool sound, but not one you’d need often, so the Neo won the day for me. The sounds are very musical and refined, with the plate and spring ‘verbs sounding particularly good to my ear. I tend to use reverb subtly most of the time, so the hall setting probably won’t get much use, but in all it’s a really usable, good-sounding bit of kit.

I also needed some distortion. I used to get dirty sounds from a 120-watt all-valve Peavey head turned up loud, but sold that amp when I moved into a flat in London and replaced it with the AC15 I mentioned earlier. At that point, I bought a Blackstar HT Dual pedal for high-gain stuff, as even with the preamp and power sections dimed, you’ll barely get an AC15 into Keith Richards territory, let alone Jerry Cantrell land. Also, you’ll be completely deafened and find yourself beseiged by angry neighbours with pitchforks and flaming torches; for a 15-watter, the AC can go mighty loud when provoked.

The HT Dual is a fun, versatile pedal that sounds quite amp-like, and the dual-channel thing makes switching between crunchy overdrive and high-gain, super-saturated lead stuff easy peasy. Unfortunately, it weighs a metric ton, is the size of at least two ordinary pedals and needs a dedicated 22v supply. Its absence from the pedalboard left me needing two new pedals: an overdrive and a higher-gain distortion. The solutions I chose also came from Electro-Harmonix, as I’d been won over by the small footprint of their nano pedals. I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
The Soul Food is, EHX tell us, an emulation of the Klon Centaur overdrive, an example of which can easily set you back a couple of grand on reverb.com. Whether the Soul Food is that close to a Centaur, I’m not qualified to judge as I’ve never used one, but the economics are compelling: the Soul Food is around £70 new, which is not a lot for a very good overdrive. It’s refined enough with the drive turned down below midday that you can use it as an always-on tone shaper, it’s really responsive to dynamic playing, and if you turn the gain up full it will spit and snarl convincingly in a Stevie Ray Vaughan kind of way. It allows the tone of the amp and guitar to shine through, so it feels surprisingly close to amp drive.

It is quite low gain, though, and won’t take you into proper distortion. For that I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Flatiron Fuzz
Sitting halfway between a fuzz and distortion, the Flatiron Fuzz is, EHX say, their take on the good old Proco Rat 2. To my ears, it’s not as throaty as a Rat, with more high end on tap if that’s what you’re after, but it’s a really fun, quite versatile pedal for ’90s-style rock guitar sounds. It’s also smaller and ligbter than a Proco Rat 2. Electro-Harmonix’s demo video has their dudes comparing it to the Rat (while of course saying they prefer the Flatiron), and showing it off by playing the riffs from Song 2, What’s the Frequency Kenneth? and Foo Fighters’ Weenie Beenie, which pretty much sums up what this pedal does. Also, it has the Flatiron Building on it, so it’s the prettiest thing on my pedalboard by a distance.

I love a good modulation pedal, and fancied having something a bit unusual in the toolbox for the right occasion. I settled on:

TC Electronic Vibraclone
This is a take on the Fender Vibratone, a speaker cabinet from the late sixties that was essentially a Leslie 16 redesigned as a guitar cab; it had a guitar speaker and Leslie rotor rather than a horn and woofer with twin rotors, like the organ unit.

I’ve never heard a pedal that really nails that whooshy Leslie speaker thing; there’s something about the way the rotors disperse sound that’s hard to replicate when you’re playing through standard drivers. However, the Vibraclone is absurdly cheap (approximately £40) and while the sound is not particularly adaptable (there’s no depth/intensity control; just drive and speed), it’s a sound I happen to like very much. When I first sat down with it, I came up with the main riff for my song You Won’t Need to Cry, and it’s all over a bunch of songs from the upcoming Yo Zushi album I’m producing at the moment. For most gigs, I’d probably leave it off the board and sub in my old Marshall tremolo pedal, which is a lot more flexible, but it’s a fun one to have at home. One small negative: the TC boxes are rather big – bigger than a Boss pedal chassis.

So in full the pedalboard is: Boss TU-3, EHX Soul Food, EHX Flatiron Fuzz, Marshall EH1 Echohead Delay, TC Electronic Vibraclone and EHX Holy Grail Nano. At some point I might look to upgrade the delay to something more comprehensive, with a dotted eighth note setting in case I ever want to play Run Like Hell or Where the Streets Have No Name.

This post is not sponsored by Electro-Harmonix, and neither am I. I am open to offers, though, if they’re reading this.

*I still have somewhere in my cupboard of random audio crap a Zoom 509 – a late-1990s digital multi-effect pedal, with chorus, phasing, flanging, harmonising, ring modulation and a simple doubling effect, like a slowish slapback. The presets were all, of course, unusably heavy handed except for two: a relatively useful octave-down effect and a combination phaser and tremolo effect that I used to use on a few songs I played in old bands. Seemed pretty cool at the time, but I imagine it would make me cringe now.

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.

Day of the Dead, Disc One – some thoughts

Not a fan of either contemporary indie or the Grateful Dead? This series of posts may not be for you.

This week I’ve mainly been spending my time (or at least my music-listening time) on Day of the Dead, a 5-CD compilation of contemporary artists playing music by the Grateful Dead, organised and produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the National in aid of the Red Hot Organisation, a charity that raises money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS.

The Grateful Dead’s approach to music was wholly unlike that of most other rock bands. Sure, they could do brief and straightforward takes on their songs live in concert, but the idea that they’d go on stage and do every song exactly the way that it was on record (or almost the same but with a slightly longer solo) was anathema to them. Songs were simply vehicles for the guys to be what they were: a major nexus of American music, connecting folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and the contemporary avant garde. Their songs are hugely malleable, so the fun of a compilation like this is in seeing how all the artists involved approach the project (and guessing who are the deep fans and who’s in it for the prestige and PR).

Things get off to a strong start with the War on Drugs’s take on Touch of Grey, the Dead’s big MTV-era hit. Musically, Adam Granduciel ups the tempo by a couple of bpm and goes for that mix of mechanised-sounding live drums topped by exploratory guitar that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who connected with Under the Pressure or Disappearing from 2014’s Lost in the Dream. It’s great, and the song’s a fine vehicle for Granduciel’s signature sound, but that doesn’t stop his vocal impression of Bob Dylan being absurd.

Jim James plays Candyman straight, with a pretty evident love for the material. He transforms Garcia’s pedal steel solo into a heavily modulated fuzzathon, and sings the choruses with an audible grin. As ever, though, I could do without the omnipresent reverb haze he, along with so many bands, feels compelled to shroud his music in. I’ll never get what some people like so much about reverb.

Black Muddy River is a song from In the Dark, the same mid-1980s album that gave us Touch of Grey. On Day of the Dead, Bruce Hornsby (who played more than 100 shows with the Dead between 1988 and 1995, maintained a close musical connection with the surviving members after Garcia’s death and was part of the band when they did their farewell shows at Soldier Field in 2015) tackles the song with a specially reformed DeYarmond Edison, the group that split into Bon Iver, Megafaun and Field Report. Hornsby and (I assume) Justin Vernon sing the song beautifully, and the musicians (Hornsby most of all) play with a moving commitment and reverence. No one else involved in the record sounds as thrilled to be there and as determined to do right by the material.

Phosphorescent’s take on Sugaree, with a guesting Jenny Lewis, and the Lone Bellow’s Dire Wolf are both fine, but they both lack a little of the sly humour that is always inherent in Garcia’s delivery (a verse like “When I awoke the Dire Wolf, 600 pounds of sin, was standing at my window. All I said was ‘Come on in, But don’t murder me'” is darkly hilarious when Garcia sings it).

Morning Dew by the National sounds exactly like you’d expect. Matt Berninger’s doleful baritone is a good fit for such a bleak song. Courtney Barnett’s New Speedway Boogie has been overpraised, I think. The decision to recast half of the song in a minor key changes the melody and harmonies in a way that weakens it, though I’m sure the guys would salute the attempt to put a new spin on the song. More problematically, Barnett’s deadpan vocal takes all the fun out of the thing.

Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear does a good job with Loser, a hard song to get a handle on. Robert Hunter’s lyric is one of his most cynical and violent, and if a singer doesn’t commit to it, they’ll sound like a little boy playing at being a tough guy. Droste sings the song on the cusp of falsetto, yet I never doubt him. (That said, the song is called Loser, the implication being that for all his protestations, the guy has every chance of losing this time).

Anohni’s Black Peter, turned into orchestrated chamber music and given a typically tremulous reading, is weighed down by its own solemnity (again, the gallows humour of Garcia is missed), while Perfume Genius does an Art Garfunkel impression on To Lay Me Down. It’s as if he heard the title, asked himself where he’d heard the phrase “Lay Me Down” before, then decided to give the song the full Bridge Over Troubled Water treatment. As with Sugaree, the big-name backing singer, in this case Sharon Van Etten, doesn’t get to sing a verse. It probably would have improved matters.

Still, being as fair as I can, neither are big misses, and neither anger me. The big miss is of course Mumford & Sons’ horrific take on Friend of the Devil. Now, I wanted to like it. Honestly. I’d have been thrilled to like it, to have my preconceptions about Mumford challenged, maybe even overturned. Perhaps hearing them take on a beloved Grateful Dead song would allow me a way into their music? But no, it’s as awful as anything else they’ve ever done. I’m sure their presence sold a few more copies, and the money is going to charity, so I’m guessing that’s why they’re there. It can’t be because the Dessners like them. No one with working ears ever could.

So that’s Disc One. My picks are Black Muddy River, Touch of Grey, Loser and Candyman.

Back soon with Disc Two, where things get weird.

jerryJerry. Was he the greatest guitar player of his era? Very possibly.

Judith – Heather Duby

Let’s fast-forward 10 years from the heyday of the Pixies.

More cynical souls than me might deny that there ever was such a thing as an alternative rock movement, but if it ever did exist, by the late nineties it was done, and its signifiers – dirty guitars; long hair; a general, to quote Jack Endino, ‘loud intent’ – had been put to bed. Distorted guitars were now the preserve of nu-metal bands. Pointy guitars with Floyd Rose vibrato units were back. 7-string guitars were selling in thitherto unknown quantities. Light-grunge records still did pretty good business, but Pearl Jam aside, the big beasts of a few years before were all defunct.

Artists with one foot in singer-songwriter world and another in the world of alternative rock music who might, a few years ago, have looked to dirty up their music with a Les Paul and a Marshall, now looked to other means to add a bit of edge. And there are always other means. Dirty basslines and thumping drum loops were one way, some electronic flourishes, different textures. A little bit of what Soul Coughing were doing. A little bit like what Folk Implosion were doing. I don’t know who had the thought first, but suddenly these arrangemental ideas started turning up in all kinds of places. PJ Harvey’s A Perfect Day Elise and Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, for example, were pretty successful singles demonstrating a lot of these production tics, but they were far from alone. Electronica and big beat were big business, and presumed by rock writers to be much more forward-looking than the heavy guitars of a few years before, which were just updated Black Sabbath.

In 1998, then, ambient noises on top of a dirty groove seemed like alternative rock’s future, and it came about partly as a function of fashion, partly out of a development in technology. The year before, Digidesign had released the first 24-bit, 48-track iteration of their digital audio workstation (DAW), Pro Tools. Pro Tools had begun life in the late 1980s as Sound Tools, and at that time was only capable of handling a mono or stereo signal, but Digidesign’s ambitions for it had always involved it becoming a multitrack recording environment. The limitations of the era’s computers and audio convertors simply didn’t allow it yet. This new version of Pro Tools not only allowed direct-to-disk multitrack recording, but in-the-box mixing as well. As a fully fledged production environment, it was expensive – beyond the means of any home recordist who didn’t work as a Wall Street trader – but seemed to many pro musicians an obvious road to go down. And this started affecting the nature of the music you heard on the radio pretty quickly. Loops and samples started to replace live drum tracks on records at a rate of knots. After some years of frankly undanceable music, this wasn’t unwelcome.

Steve Fisk was Washington-based engineer, producer and musician. He’d been a producer on Soul Coughing’s second album, Irresistible Bliss and his own project Pigeonhed was in the same sonic ballpark. But he’d been active during the grunge boom years, too, engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP sessions, the Fopp EP by Soundgarden and much of the Screaming Trees’ SST-era output, as well as records by Girl Trouble, Negativland and Beat Happening. He had, in other words, been around a while and was a respected figure in the Seattle music scene.

So when he expressed an interest in working with Heather Duby, a young songwriter, still at college in Olympia, this was a significant break for her. It guaranteed her that influential local figures would hear the results, and pretty much ensured the record would get at least an indie-label release. When it did, it was on Sub Pop, a label trying hard to shake off its past and establish a new identity for itself.

Her first single was a song called Judith, and it exemplified almost all the trends we’d identified above: programmed drums, augmented by live drums for the choruses, spacey keyboards, soft, high-register vocals (the sort almost always described as ‘ethereal’ by hack writers) and a huge bass line, in this case an enormous, surging synth part in the choruses, double tracked and panned hard left and right, placing you right in the middle of it. It’s a pretty amazing moment the first time you hear it on a good pair of headphones.

The sonic world the parent album exists in – Post to Wire – is a weird mix of stuff that still sounds really cool and stuff that sounds very much of its time; the faux-fi crackle effect on A Healthy Fear of Monsters, for instance, is pretty risible, an example of what could be achieved very quickly with a couple of cheesy filter plug-ins, but would have been better off not achieved at all. You Loved Me’s low-register grind and lo-fi drum loop, however, sounds vital today, and For Jeffrey’s mix of eastern-sounding vocal harmonies, harmonium-style drones and tablas is still ear-grabbing.

The more gothic aspects of her music would recede over time and by the time of the Latency EP of January 2011, her music was a lot drier and closer, more organic-sounding and built on what seem to be live-band basic tracks. Judith remains an awesome single, and the moment when Duby’s songwriting approach meshed most seamlessly with Fisk’s production.

Sadly, Duby was involved in a bike accident in 2011 that seriously damaged both her hands and left her unable to play music. It could apparently have been a lot worse; her doctors were at one stage considering amputation. A benefit was held in Seattle to raise funds for treatment and physical therapy, but what information I could get online suggests she hasn’t yet been able to return to making music. Let’s pray that in time she can.

Update (23 January, 2017): The year after I wrote this, she did! Duby was credited with both piano and vocals, so it seems her injuries were repaired well enough to give her good use of her hands. Great news.

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Heather Duby, 1999

Luv n’ Haight – Sly & the Family Stone

In 1969, the outrageously talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, was one of the most celebrated figures in popular music. His band had triumphed at Woodstock, their seemingly warm-hearted, outward-looking psychedelic soul making even Motown seem old hat and forcing them to change their game and turn increasingly to the visionary producer Norman Whitfield. Their late-sixties hits, calling for love, peace, understanding and integration, were made all the more powerful by the mere sight of Stone and his band on stage: they were both multi-racial and multi-gender in an era where such things were extremely uncommon. 1969, remember, was the year of Kent State and just one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

But by 1971 Sly Stone had retreated to a very strange headspace. Holed up inside an LA mansion belonging to John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, Stone sacked half of his band (the white members, supposedly at the insistence of the Black Panthers, but also master bassist Larry Graham, upon whom Stone apparently took out a contract), surrounded himself with goons, dealers, pimps and hookers, and haphazardly set about making what would be his masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Recording was undertaken at the Record Plant in Sausalito near San Francisco, in a room Stone had had installed there for his own use. Progress was glacial, with Stone playing much of the record himself, or inviting guests in at the expense of his bandmates (Bobby Womack, for example, is much in evidence on guitar), cutting tracks and recutting them, over and over. The protracted nature of the recording took its toll on the master tapes, and they completely lost their high end through wear and tear. The resulting murk – in a happy accident – suited his new material perfectly, the cracked and paranoid deep funk shocking those enamoured of his outward-looking pop hits.

Family Affair was the album’s most enduring hit (its only hit). But it’s not exactly representative. Riot is not an album of expansive, memorable melodies. Family Affair is one of the few songs to let a bit of light in. For the most part, it’s an intensely claustrophobic album; Christgau nailed it when he called it ‘Despairing, courageous, and very hard to take’. These days, Luv n’ Haight – the album opener – seems to me the most crucial track: all that Riot is, is contained in its churning groove and airless (literally – the mix is dry as a bone) swirl of vocals and wah-wah’d guitars.

 

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Sly, with Telecaster, 1969

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

Mexicola – Queens of the Stone Age

Anyone who went to a Queens of the Stone Age show on their breakthrough UK tour in November 2000 will remember the eardrum-threatening volume. I went to one of their two shows at the London Astoria with my friend Yo and I certainly remember it. I suspect he does, too. I particularly remember the bass guitar signal forming a monstrous standing wave at the back of the hall during the last song that scattered the crowd very quickly, and did funny things to the stomachs of those who tried standing their ground. I’ve never seen My Bloody Valentine or Dinosaur Jr, but Queens were so loud I can’t really imagine anything louder.

Extreme volume is a funny thing, particularly when dealing with the zero-sum world of digital audio. Faced with an absolute ceiling of 0dB, how can a band like Queens – who made the pursuit of volume their rasion d’être – make a truly loud record? One that sounds loud compared to everyone else’s on an iPod, not just when you turn it up on a good stereo? How can you be louder than everyone else when the volume knob doesn’t work any more?

Well, one way would be to call Joe Barresi. And so they did. Barresi, at least back in the nineties, had a way of making very loud records that didn’t seem squashed lifeless, that retained the punch in the drums that is absolutely crucial to good-feeling rock records. Presumably he did this through compressing in stages all the way along, rather than by allowing them to be brickwalled during mastering. Eventually even his work came to seem static and over-compressed, but he was so skilled at the loud game that his work stood up better far longer to the age of shock-and-awe mastering jobs that was in full swing by the time the Queens made Songs for the Deaf in 2002. That record, produced by Josh Homme, Adam Kaspar and Eric Valentine (mixed by Kaspar) is a sonic atrocity, a crying shame given the quality of some of the songs on it.

Mexicola, though, is from Queens’ eponymous debut. This version of QotSA was essentially a two-man crew: Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, both former members of cult stoner/desert rock band Kyuss. From the sludgy bass riff (played by Homme, under the pseudonym Carlo Von Sexron) that opens it and the tiny SM58 vocal sound, to the guitar solo mixed hard right, it’s an immediately identifiable, bone-dry sound with few precedents in mainstream rock (Kyuss producer Chris Goss’s Masters of Reality are the most obvious forebear – Goss and Homme share distinct vocal similarities – but then, MoR were not a mainstream band. Perhaps the acid-drenched psych-grunge of Screaming Trees, with whom Homme toured as a guitarist, were the closest this kind of sound got to a wider audience).

But the social and geographical context of Queens of the Stone Age (the Palm Desert scene) is not to be overlooked here. Their sound had some key components in common with other desert rock mainstays such Fu Manchu. The use of downtuned guitars, shifting the instruments’ centre of tonal gravity downwards, created sonorities that are rarely heard in mainstream rock, where standard tuning makes everything sound, well, rather standard. Heavy use of the crash and ride cymbals in place of the hi-hat, creates a ‘washing’, hazy kind of sound to the drums (often emphasised by the trick of recording the cymbals after the rest of the drums, allowing both elements to be processed separately). The use of (formerly) unfashionable amplifiers and pedals resulted in a distinctive, unscooped heavy guitar sound, that got away from the scooped guitar sounds of metal and the thin gnarly sound of some of the grunge bands. The guitarists in desert rock bands have tended to eschew the Marshalls that are the sine qua non of commercial hard rock and metal, instead using amps by H/H, Hiwatt, Orange, Matamp and the ubiquitous Sunn, plus vintage fuzz pedals. Stuff found in pawn shops. Treble is dispensable and clarity is over-rated; thumping low end and boxy mids are much more deserty. Hi-fidelity guitar sounds are avoided in favour of huge slabs of hyper-distorty gunk-o-fuzz.

So in lots of ways, early Queens were the archetypal desert rock band. But Homme found his way out of this commercial backwater pretty quickly. The basic unit of rock songwriting is the riff, which tends to describe only very simple chord changes, or no chord changes at all, and this can lead to melodic stasis. Homme worked harder than most as a tunesmith, and once Queens began attracting attention in the early noughties critics fell over themselves to claim they’d known about Yawning Man, Fu Manchu and the rest all along. A likely story. When this scene was finding its feet, all eyes were on Seattle. Those that had noticed them dismissed them as purveyors of mere retro skater-rock, as if grunge was Vorticism or something.

Queens of the Stone Age would soon abandon this sound for a poppier and more conventional take on hard rock on their second album, Rated R. But for fans of Josh Homme’s original ‘robot rock’ concept (simple riffs played over and over again; Black Sabbath covering Kraftwerk, if you will) – and for a hardcore minority, it’s the only version of Queens worth bothering with – this is the place to come.

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Josh Homme

 

Dog Leap Stairs – Kathryn Williams

For any artist who sticks around for a while, record-making gets to be routine after a time. Just like anything else. But debut records aren’t routine by definition. Their stories usually stand out a little. So it is with Kathryn Williams’ Dog Leap Stairs, which had me spellbound for a year or so after its release in 1999.

With the British music press then briefly focused on a trend they dubbed the ‘new acoustic movement’ (NAM), it was a good year to be a singer-songwriter putting out a debut, so Williams’ timing was right, but the fact that the artists who got national-press exposure of the back of NAM were largely horrible helped, too.

The story behind Dog Leap Stairs has been told often, so let’s get it out the way quickly. It was reportedly recorded for £80, and was released on Williams’ own Caw label. She worked in a greengrocer’s shop, a baby-wear shop and as a cleaner to make ends meet in a pre-minimum wage world. She gained precious exposure through a Nick Drake tribute concert at the South Bank, by the clever ruse of not destroying the song she covered (Saturday Sun), and was the subject of a laudatory write-up and interview in The Times from Caitlin Moran, which is how I, and I suspect much of her early audience, came to hear of her.

A new singer-songwriter with the right influences would have been interesting to me, but it was the DIY nature of her career and her lo-fi recording methods that really got my attention. As a 17-year-old aspiring musician who was cynical about the music industry and his own chances of making a successful living within it, anyone who managed to bypass the industry and attract attention on their own terms was an example to me, a hero even. So I was duly smitten with Dog Leap Stairs.

Fifteen years later, it has lost some of its magic for me. I’d love to be able to claim it’s a masterpiece, and its relative modernity wouldn’t be a barrier to that: I claimed precisely that for Nina Nastasia’s Dogs a couple of weeks ago on this blog. It’s just that Dog Leap Stairs feels too insubstantial for that. It’s only half an hour, and 10 songs, long, but identifying weaker tracks (Night Came, What am I Doing Here?, Lydia) is very possible, and occasionally the lo-fi nature of the recording is double-edged: while Handy benefits from its lack of polish, and you feel like you’re in the room with Williams as she sings to you, Leazes Park, creepy as it is, would have benefited from its drums being plainly audible, rather than an indistinct, barely perceptible background presence.

So why am I talking about a record that I seem to have a lot of reservations about? Well, for its flaws, it was a significant gateway to other artists. But, furthermore, I do think it’s a strong, distinctive, very likeable album.

It has a more pleasing overall shape than Williams’ others by virtue of a couple of outlier songs that don’t share her usual chord sequences (the reliance on simple C/F/G- and D/G/C-type chord sequences that crept in on second album Little Black Numbers has been a major limiting factor on her songs, surprisingly so for an acknowledged fan of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Kurt Cobain, all of whom, in their different ways, expanded the vocabulary of chords and progressions in pop music), or familiar patterns in their tunes. Someone coming to Dog Leap Stairs after having heard Little Black Numbers and third album Old Low Light would likely be surprised not by the album’s lack of sonic clarity, but by the sometimes spiky, unconventional songwriting of Something Like That and the aforementioned Leazes Park.

It’s the last four songs that elevate Dog Leap Stairs above Williams’ other work, and way above the mulch which came out at the same time (the likes of Starsailor and David Gray). Stripped of the fake reverb in which Night Came almost drowns, with Wiliams’ fingerpicking unsteady and somewhat unsure, her voice sometimes dropping into near inaudibility, Handy has an extraordinary presence. Dog Without Wings, meanwhile, is as graceful song about love going wrong as you’re likely to hear; a song that manages the feat of incorporating a glockenspiel without sounding twee.

Fade is the album’s best song, and was the album’s ‘push’ track. Produced, like Leazes Park, by PJ Harvey collaborator Head (as a demo for a record label who wanted to sign her; a good reason not to put too much faith in the ‘recorded for £80’ legend), Fade has Dog Leap Stairs’ most fleshed-out arrangement, with jazzy drums and piano, and a beautiful, sighing chord sequence in the verses (Cmaj7, Em, B7, Em), but once again the lyric is elliptical and sometimes sinister: ‘there’s nothing more sexy than watching someone who doesn’t know their being watched’, Williams concludes at the end of the second verse. The vocal is uncertain, sometimes off key, but I doubt she could deliver a more resonant, haunting one today, no matter how much more conventionally strong her voice has become in the last fifteen years.

The album concludes with a live version of Madmen and Maniacs, an open and vulnerable recording of a song that is itself a plea for openness and vulnerability. It’s a lovely end to the album, the small burst of applause surprising on this most introspective and solitary-sounding record.

It seems extremely unlikely that Uncut’s prediction, ‘In 30 years’ time they’ll be cooing over Dog Leap Stairs with the reverence currently afforded to Nick Drake’s albums’, will come to pass. But now, after confident-sounding single Heart Shaped Stone made the BBC Radio 2 B list in late 2013, is a good time to remember the songwriter Williams started out as, and that her journey, which has in truth been disappointing to this early fan, isn’t over yet and may still lead somewhere exceptional.

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Kathryn Wiliams

Wide open spaces, tiny little rooms; or, recorded drum sounds in the late 1970s

In the seventies somebody decided that all ambient sound was bad. Studios created this completely unnatural environment with not a hint of any reverberant sound coming off of anything. And if you listen to a lot of records from the seventies, the deadness on them, I find, it makes my skin crawl.

Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

In 1976 a long-running, well-respected band with roots going back to the English blues-rock boom of the late 1960s were in a California studio, making the follow-up to their first popularly successful record in the US. While astutely and occasionally adventurously arranged (principally by the group’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham), Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is not a sonically radical record and it adheres to the engineering and production orthodoxies of its time in most respects. The drums may be mixed a bit louder than the Eagles had theirs, but they were recorded close and dry, and presented that way in the mix. The snare has a pillowy, plumpy sound: it goes ‘duh’ rather than ‘tssch’. The drums on Dreams go ‘buh duh, buh-buh duh’, not ‘boom tssch, boom-boom tssch’. This dampened drum sound, coupled with the sense of closeness to the band that results from the relative lack of echo and reverb, is the defining sonic quality of seventies records.

In the autumn of 1977, Bruce Springsteen, working at the Record Plant in New York, had had enough of it. Perhaps his band only rehearsed in vast, reverberant spaces, but he felt that the sound of the times was unnatural and that the music should be as big on record as it was at a big show, which, since the success of Born to Run, was the increasingly the sort of show he now played, as he moved out of clubs and into theatres. In particular he wanted a big, reverberant drum sound that was all about body, not attack. This type of drum sound felt “bigger” to him than the standard, damped-and-dry 1970s sound, and he was willing to suffer for it.

In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen, bassist Garry Tallent and engineer Thom Panunzio recall ruefully the torturous process Bruce put them through trying to get a drum sound that discarded the sonic qualities that had thitherto been synonymous with high-budget records in the seventies. While Springsteen sat on a couch in the control room, with engineer Panunzio and producer Jimmy Iovine working the desk and attending to microphones, drummer Max Weinberg was required to hit his snare drum. If Bruce could hear the attack of the stick hitting the skin – which naturally enough he always could – he’d drawl “Stick”, and the engineer and producer would be required to do something to lessen the apparency of the stick hitting a skin. But, of course, that’s exactly what was happening. He nearly drove his bandmates and the studio staff crazy with his obsession. Usually it’s engineers and producers driving musicians crazy with their quest for perfect drum sounds.

The result of all this work is a drum sound that is the opposite of close. But Weinberg’s snare drum on Darkness goes “tssch” even less than Mick Fleetwood’s on Rumours. It’s more like a cannonball hitting a crash mat in a cathedral. It’s an absurd sound, and Darkness is one of the records that began a decade and a half of absurd drum sounds (other key influences being Bowie’s Low and of course, a couple of years down the line, Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight from Face Value).

In 1981, Fleetwood Mac’s breakout star Stevie Nicks fell into this enormous new soundworld when Jimmy Iovine (and Tom Petty) produced Nicks’s solo debut album Bella Donna at LA’s Studio 55, recreating the gargantuan Max Weinberg/Darkness on the Edge of Town drum sound on the West Coast. The subtext was clear: This is my own thing. This is not a Fleetwood Mac album. There’s tons of space around the instruments, Russ Kunkel sounds like he’s playing the world’s biggest drums with a pair of clubs – it’s all very impressive. But I do wonder what kind of acoustic spaces Springsteen was used to if this was his idea of a “natural” sound picture when he began work on Darkness. It’s as much an exaggerated presentation of music played within an acoustic space as the damped, small-room sound of seventies clichés. Record-making, after all, is not about documentary depictions, if it ever was; it stopped being that a long time ago, the first time someone panned a drum kit in stereo.

Fleetwood Mac themselves never really went the way of the ambient drum sound, even at the height of the silliness in the late eighties. As much as it was possible for a superstar band to go a different way from the crowd to pursue their own sound, they did, and so Fleetwood’s drums on Tango in the Night are relatively small, relatively close, by the standards of that decade at least. Certainly they are not the musical heavy artillery of, say, Bad or Hysteria from the same era. Listening to Stevie Nicks on Bella Donna, then, represents the sonic road not taken for Fleetwood Mac. It’s a curious experience, not always pleasant for someone like me who loves dry drum sounds and thinks Rumours the best-sounding record ever made.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to Gypsy, from the 1982 Mac album Mirage, on which the band went back to their little room, where they should be.

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Who’s draggin’ whose heart around? Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, 1977.

On reverb, echo and delay as studio effects

Give someone with a practiced ear a recording and they’ll be able to date it for you pretty quickly, to within a range of two or three years probably. Fashions change in music production and mix topologies, and so any element in a record may potentially give away when it was made: a particular guitar sound, the presence of a certain bass drum sample, the sound of the snare drum (tuning, size, damping, volume), the presence of programmed sub bass; anything really.

But perhaps the quickest route to determining the date of the production will be the amount and the type of reverb or echo used.

In the very earliest days of recording, making a record meant bringing a group of musicians into a room and positioning them around a recording horn. You’d base their positions on how loud you wanted their instrument to be in the end product. If you were working in a reverberant, live-sounding room, you’d make a reverberant, live-sounding record. In a dead room, you’d make a dead-sounding record. As magnetic tape became the standard recording medium and as consoles got bigger and engineers developed ways to treat signals during mix that had been recorded without effects (‘dry’), it became possible to create unusual, even other-worldly, sound pictures that weren’t at all based on the reality of the room the music was tracked in. As often as not, the appearance of reverb in a pop record would be an illusion, separate to and grafted on to a musical performance during mixing. You could solo the vocal, play it back in a cathedral nave and record the echoey sound produced by the sound bouncing around such a large structure, and hey presto, cathedral reverb. Generally speaking, then, the performer probably did not hear the echo or reverb that appears on the record while he or she performed; it was an extra-musical event. It may have been there to add a sheen, a sense of dimensionality, to make the music ‘sound expensive’, to make the record ‘sound like a record’ (to employ a couple of studioland clichés), but like most everything else in the realm of recorded music, it was an artifice.

Engineers developed a whole gamut of such techniques in order to better serve the wishes of their artist and producer clients, but history shows that any such technique can become wildly unfashionable at a moment’s notice. The use of the gated snare (that is, gigantic reverb on a snare drum turned on and off abruptly by applying a gate to an ambient microphone) was so prevalent in the eighties that it could be counted an absolutely standard studio technique. In 1993, nothing sounded more dated than the gated snare and a record-maker employing one would likely have been laughed out of town.

Broadly speaking, in the fifties/sixties and eighties the trend was towards spacious, reverby mixes and the seventies and nineties saw a move towards tighter, drier productions. The sixties reverb sound was produced by the use of large acoustic spaces to track in, and/or the use of plate reverbs or echo chambers. The eighties’ reverb sound was more likely an effect added at mixdown by using the Lexicon 224, an early (hardware) digital reverb processor, or some other similar signal-processing device. They produce very different effects – some of the Lexicon sounds are so over the top as to be cartoonish, and over-enthusiastic engineers and producers did some terribly heavy-handed things with them.

However, even then synthetic reverb effects (that is, effects produced not by tracking in a live room, or playing back the signal in an echo chamber, or through a plate or spring unit) were not new. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, made a trademark of creating an echo effect on the vocal by multing it and running the copy though an extra tape machine, delaying the copy slightly compared to the original. This sound became synonymous with Sun Records, and with rockabilly more generally. This sound has since been endlessly copied, revived and parodied. At this very minute, somewhere in the world, someone is making a record right now with a tape-delayed vocal, and congratulating themselves for their witty and original use of this fresh and innovative production technique.

Which kind of gets me to my point. Pop started eating itself long ago and while new techniques are always being created and employed, nothing really new has happened with the use of spatial effects (that is, echo, reverb and delay) since dub. Reverb, echo and delay are now so loaded with signifiers, so weighted down with the history of record production, that if one hears a striking, prominent use of a spatial effect on a contemporary record (or a very dry record that contains almost no such processing), what one is hearing is merely a quotation or a reference from another, older – and almost certainly fresher – record. All that differs is the number of quotation marks around the effect.

Perhaps this will change. Modern pop records are so dense, so loud and compressed that things like reverb tails tend to get swallowed up by persistent, steady-state instruments such as synths and programmed bass. But rock and indie is still rife with lazy, heavy-handed and uncreative uses of echo and reverb, and personally I want to hear something more driven by personal emotional expression and less driven by the desire to do something just because Sam Phillips (or Spector, or Clearmountain) did it.

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The vast nave of Westminster Cathedral, © Mike Quinn