Tag Archives: sound

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.

How Do You Stop – Joni Mitchell

My apologies for taking so long to post anything new. I had this almost complete last weekend, then, attempting to read the draft on my phone, I managed to overwrite it with nothing, and couldn’t work out how to revert to the saved draft. So with heavy heart I started again. Guh. There’s nothing like doing the same work twice.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of England’s current Test series against India is the form of opening batsman Alastair Cook. Now a 33-year-old veteran, Cook has been struggling for runs this year and the aura of impregnability he had at the crease seven or eight years ago is long gone.

Cook, the national side’s former captain, is the highest run scorer and leading century-maker in the history of English cricket. By really quite a long way. At his peak, he was concentration, patience and self-discipline incarnate. A back-foot player, he knew his strength lay on the leg side and so he simply left anything outside off stump alone. Frustrated by his unwillingness to take risks on the off side, bowlers who erred too much to leg in their attempts to force him to play a shot would simply find themselves cut away for four. As his technique and footwork were then sound enough that he could play forward defensively when necessary, eventually all bowlers became frustrated and bowled too straight to him. He was remorseless and indefatigable. The sheer length of his biggest innings beggars belief: it wasn’t his highest score, but in 2011, he scored 263 against Pakistan off 528 balls in 856 minutes. I’ll leave you to work out how many hours of batting that is.

Many would argue that his late-career struggles are simply a result of the sheer amount of batting he’s done for England over the last 12 years or so. That, quite simply, he’s gone to the well so many times that there’s nothing left down there. I don’t know if that’s true, and I would love to see him score just one more century before this series against India ends. He’s never been as beloved by English fans as he should have been, not being a swashbuckling sort of player, but surely that hundred if it came would be the most warmly received of his career – one last big success to savour before he’s gone for ever, as he surely soon will be.

Why do I mention all this?

Because I’ve been when listening to and thinking about Turbulent Indigo, Joni Mitchell’s Grammy-winning 1994 album, and it strikes me that the way it was received in the media and by many of her fans was somewhat similar to the way in which that notional final test hundred by Alastair Cook would be.

Joni Mitchell was by then in her fifties, and seemed to have come to some kind of accommodation with the changing of fashions and the passing of the era in which she was a mainstream figure. Her synth-heavy mid-eighties records, Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, had alienated old fans without attracting new ones, but even more so than 1991’s Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo was the sound of Mitchell simply being who she was in 1994. Most reviewers praised the album generously, glad to hear the veteran Joni Mitchell being recognisably Joni Mitchell again, and doing it rather well.

It being the 1990s and not the 1970s, there were some hurdles that simply couldn’t be gotten over. Her voice had already coarsened from smoking, leaving her unable to hit high notes without belting and neccessitating ever-deeper guitar tunings – Last Chance Lost sees her tune down to Bb, and even then there’s an unattractive hollowness to her vocal timbre in that key, a sort of paperiness that’s particularly noticeable on headphones.

Then there were the rods she made for her own back. Nobody forced her to use the sterile guitar sound that features on around half the tracks (it’s too early for it to be her Parker-Fly-plus-Roland-VG8-guitar-synth set-up, so I assume it’s just a processed, DI’d acoustic), and we have to assume she signed off on Larry Klein’s clinical bass guitar sound: active bass, tight strings, hyped EQ, loads of low B string – a “hi-fi” sound that was big in the early nineties on high-budget singer-songwriter records by people like James Taylor and Sting. Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t like that sound, but urgh, I really don’t. The whole mix is soggy with reverb, too – a slightly baffling choice in 1994 when mainstream rock mixes tended to be quite dry.

Sounds are one thing, though. Songs another. And on Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell had a pretty good strike rate. Opener Sunny Sunday (decorated with Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and Jim Keltner’s drums), David Crosby co-write Yvette in English, the title track, Borderline and The Magdalene Laundries are all successes, and all stand comparison to her work at her peak. Yet the song that I come back to most often, and that for me contains the biggest emotional charge, is not a Mitchell originall.

In 1986, James Brown released an album called Gravity. The previous year, Brown had had a hit with Living in America (as featured in Rocky IV), a song written for him by Dan Hartman* and Charlie Midnight. Whether because of Brown’s well-documented troubles with drugs (PCP and cocaine) in the mid-1980s or simply because Hartman and Midnight seemed to Brown’s label to have a winning formula is realms-of-conjecture stuff, but for whatever reason, Gravity was entirely composed of Hartman-and-Midnight co-writes.

Among them was a ballad called How Do You Stop. Stiff and clogged with synths, and with a vocal performance by the great man that could barely be called perfunctory, How Do You Stop was still the album’s standout song, and Mitchell evidently heard in it a diamond in the rough. She recorded her own version for Turbulent Indigo, replacing the stodgy synths with her strummed acoustic, Larry Klein’s bass, Carlos Vega’s drums and electric guitars by Steuart Smith and Michael Landau. Pitched in a key that suited her new range, How Do You Stop was probably the finest vocal performance from Mitchell on Turbulent Indigo, but guest singer Seal (a publically acknowledged Joni fan), did her one better. His tightly harmonised interjections in the choruses function as the song’s main hook, and his ad libs in the final chorus – a wordless falsetto cry and a descending moan of “too late” – are the single most goosebump-inducing moment on the album. At the peak of his own commercial success, he nevertheless agreed to appear in a video for the song.

Its success at least partly driven by How Do You Stop, Turbulent Indigo was received by its audience as that notional final Alastair Cook century would be. It even won a Grammy for Best Pop Album – ludicrously over-generous for an album that’s in the bottom half of its creator’s list of accomplishments, but indicative of how we love to see veterans come back and score one last big success.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

* Dan Hartman of I Can Dream About You, Instant Replay and Relight My Fire fame. Dan Hartman who was in the Edgar Winter Band and played bass guitar on Frankenstein. I like Dan Hartman.

 

 

 

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 3

The Forgotten Arm was sold to the public as that most prog of things, a concept album: a story in song about two lovers, Caroline and John (a boxer with a habit – Caroline is defined by her reactions to John rather than her own personality), who meet at a state fair and leave Virginia together, only to find that John’s problems are travelling with them.

While the narrative is present throughout all the album’s songs – Mann is too disciplined a writer to drop her concept halfway through – the music that supports the text is far from prog. For The Forgotten Arm, Mann hired a new (for her) cast of studio pros and had them play mid-’70s roots rock in the style of The Faces and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or in the album’s softer moments The Band and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John). For some of these players, this sort of meat-and-potatoes country rock was second nature; guitarist Jeff Trott, for example, who made his rep on Sheryl Crow’s second album. Others were slightly removed from their usual sphere; fellow guitarist Julian Coryell is more associated with jazz than cowboy-chord rock.

At times the wailing guitar crosses the line from authentically 1970s into schlock, with the worst excesses come from Trott. On She Really Wants You, he sounds like a wind machine is blowing his hair. His solo on Dear John, which is similar in style, tone and technique, is even more stadium; the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether Trott could possibly be being serious.

The Forgotten Arm does have some really good songs*. I’ve gone into bat on this blog for That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart, and I’m fond too of King of the Jailhouse, She Really Wants You, Going Through the Motions and I Can’t Get My Head Around It. Joe Henry’s production is, for the most part, spare and unobtrusive (that said, the wide-panned mixes of King of the Jailhouse and Going Through the Motions are love-it-or-hate-it stuff), and while the mastering is loud, the lack of steady-state noise in the arrangements means the songs mostly emerge unscathed, if a little misshapen. All in all, though, this is the least Aimee Mann-like album in her discography sonically, and while I can imagine Mann non-fans enjoying it, I doubt many of them got to hear it.

Many artists, when they have been making records long enough, reach a point where each new album is a reaction to the one before it, and much effort is expended in trying to correct the things that the artist didn’t like about the last one.

@#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ll let you make of that what you will.

Aimee.jpg
Aimee Mann circa The Forgotten Arm

*On my way home I listened to the first couple of songs on The Forgotten Arm and what struck me was that while their verses and choruses are built – as the majority of Mann’s songs are – on repeating four-chord patterns over which Mann sings attractive but narrow-ranging melodies, the middle eights have chord sequences that seem to have been driven by the movement of the melody, giving the chorus more focus and punch when it comes back round.

In my own songwriting, I’ve usually felt that the strongest songs I’ve written have come when the melodies and the chords have either come to me at the same time as each other, or I can hear where I want the tune to go and have to work out what chords work best to support that movement. I’ve written decent songs when I’ve fitted a tune to a predetermined chord sequence (or riff that implied chord changes), but I’ve always felt that writing that way was essentially what rock bands do, and writing from the melody downwards was how “proper” composers write. Horribly snobbish, I know, but old prejudices die hard.

Anyhow, my hunch is that this aspect of Mann’s writing died away after The Forgotten Arm. I’ll look into this and see if it’s true. Yep, listening to songs while counting chord changes. The things I do… For now, it’s more of a side note, as the series of posts is more about engineering, mixing and arrangement than songwriting per se.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

lost-in-space

Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 1

We’ve talked before how the sonic trends we identify as belonging to a given decade don’t magically spring into being fully formed when the ball drops and a year ending in 0 begins. Forgive me for a lengthy self-quote, but this extract from an old post summarises my argument better than I can manage right now:

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

Except, no. It wouldn’t.

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

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

Aimee Mann’s solo debut, Whatever, sounds like it wants to be a 1990s album, but can’t quite let go of the eighties. There are some really strong songs on it – Mr Harris and 50 Years After the Fair are as good as anything she did before or has done subsequently. But Bob Clearmountain’s mix* still has some of his 1980s big-room sheeniness, which was old hat in 1993, and some of the instrument sounds are a little unfortunate, particularly on album opener I Should Have Known, which aims for Posies-like power-pop heaviness but lacks the gargantuan drum sound the Posies had, and has pretty wimpy guitar sounds, too.**

Don’t let me put you off investigating Whatever, though; these are nitpicks. If you’ve ever liked any of Mann’s work, Mr Harris, 50 Years After the Fair, Stupid Thing, Say Anything, Could’ve Been Anyone and I Should Have Known are songs you should hear.

I’m With Stupid (1995) is an intriguing mess of an album, her least coherent, but still one I’d recommend over some of her later more streamlined and tidier records. The obvious things first – this is the album where Mann got comfortable with singing mostly in the middle and lower reaches of her register, it makes extensive use of drum loops, and it’s also her most Anglophile record: Mann lived in London in 1995, during which time some of these songs must have been written. She became friendly with the late Tony Banks MP, co-wrote Sugarcoated with Bernard Butler (it’s about his departure from Suede) and reportedly penned You Could Make a Killing about Noel Gallagher.

Like her next two records,  I’m With Stupid features numerous collaborators: co-writers, instrumentalists, producers, engineers and mixers. But unlike the Magnolia soundtrack and Bachelor No.2, I’m With Stupid is a little weakened by its variance in texture, feel, mood and sonic topography. Unlike Whatever, it definitely sounds like a ’90s record. Unfortunately it sounds like two or three different ’90s records, with the feel and textures changing from song to song, despite being mixed mainly by one engineer: Jack Joseph Puig.

Quality-wise, it’s a little up and down, too. Long Shot and Choice in the Matter begin the record well, but most of its rock moments veer between forgettable and regrettable; it’s tough to think of a less essential song in her discography than Superball, and All Over Now and Frankenstein are similarly nondescript. I’m With Stupid‘s best moments, largely, are its quietest moments: Amateur is one of Mann’s finest songs, and You’re With Stupid Now and You Could Make a Killing are both first-rank, too.

Next time: Mann hits Hollywood and gets Lost in in Space

*Quite why Whatever sounds the way it does is something of a mystery. Clearmountain’s work on, say, Crowded House’s Together Alone in the same year was stellar, and pretty much bang up to date sonically.

**All Fender top end, no Gibson meat.

On Recalls & Mixing in the Digital Domain

At the moment I’m working quite hard on a couple of recordings I’ve got in progress. I’m a one-man-band kind of guy, playing all the instruments, and recording and mixing the tracks myself. That necessarily leads to a certain way of working if, like me, you have a full-time day job. I fit recording and mixing work into spare hours and half-hours whenever they occur, or save up a few tasks to justify the effort of setting up a drum kit, or a guitar-and-amp rig, and placing microphones. In the past, when I was a freelancer and worked from home, I could block out chunks of time to record pretty much whenever I wanted to, and could have the recording of a song mixed within 24 hours of writing it. Nowadays it takes a few weeks usually. It’s a drawn-out, accretive process.

This way of working is dependent on the ability of DAW software to recall every aspect of the audio project for me. I load the project file in my DAW of choice (Cubase), and every channel is the way I left it: all the inserts are there with exactly the same settings I was using before, the tracks are all routed to the same busses, all my automation data is the way it was last time. What would take hours of work in the analogue realm is reduced to the 30 seconds or so my laptop and edition of Cubase require to load a complicated project.

The implications of this technology for the way music is mixed and the way it sounds when you hear it on the radio are enormous, and are probably only truly understood by recording engineers, especially those who learned their trade during the analogue era.

Almost any record you care to name from the pre-digital era (digital recording that is, not digital playback) has flaws or idiosyncrasies in it that could have been ironed out with one last recall session, but which weren’t worth the time and effort required to do the recall. If you were working on analogue tape with a console, doing a recall to make a couple of tweaks to the vocal level was an expensive luxury few could afford. To allow the tweaks to be made, the engineer or the engineer’s assistant would have to reconstruct the mix on the desk, using notes and snapshots taken during the previous session. Hardware audio processors would have to be re-inserted over the correct channels, tracks bussed appropriately, EQ settings precisely dialled in. It took time, and it wasn’t always easy to get everything exactly the same. An engineer skilled at quickly and accurately recalling a mix was worth his or her weight in gold to a producer or mixer.

Even so, a band was unlikely to get the producer to consent to a recall unless the producer felt the tweaks the band wanted were justified. A recall meant 3-4 hours’ work, and time is money in the recording studio, as it is anywhere else. Digital mixing consoles began to include some recall functions in the 1990s, which sped up the process a bit, but these desks rarely sounded as good as the real analogue deal, and they only went so far: no console can actually plug in an LA2A for you.

It was the DAW that allowed the situation we have now, where any mix can be perfectly recalled, tweaked and printed (that is, mixed down to stereo) whenever the band or producer want. As with anything else, it’s a double-edged sword. When listening to other people’s music, I may decry the primped sterility of the end result: recordings that have been airbrushed to within an inch of their lives, where every instrument and vocal performance is in fixed audibility at all times in a way that could never happen in a live performance captured to tape, and with no technical flaws or blemishes, no matter how tiny, allowed to make it through to the master. Yet I’m dependent on that same technology to make any recordings at all, and I’m as guilty as the next man of stewing over a mix for several days before going back in and systematically fixing all the things that bugged me about the last version.

So what else is new? Replace “digital mixing” with “CGI” and let a movie buff give you their cri de coeur on the superiority of in-camera practical effects work. This is simply the world we live in. When you next hear a brand-new recording straight after a classic on your iPod or on the radio, listen to the differences. Feel them. I know which I prefer to listen to, and sadly, I also know which kind of recordings I’m making.

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Doing a recall in 2016

The sound of Hüsker Dü

This is a revised and updated version of a piece I first published in July 2013. Excuse the repost, but it’s been a heavy couple of weeks and I’m fried. Back soon!

The first time I read about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was in a column Jawbox’s Bill Barbot wrote for Guitar School in 1996. He was writing about how to make “a brilliant recording without spending a military budget and the rest of the decade in the process”. Zen Arcade was his Exhibit A.

Zen Arcade is the kind of album that doesn’t get made now. The most tangible change in record-making wrought by the advent of affordable digital recording gear is the drawn-out, accretive nature of the process as it is engaged in by many (perhaps the majority) of artists. When you have your own gear – and in effect your own studio – and when you are your own producer and you’re not footing the bill for an engineer, why hurry? Why not go at your own pace? Why not weigh things up over days – or weeks – one element at a time?

In 1984, a punk rock band like Hüsker Dü on a punk rock label like SST couldn’t do this. They worked quickly because SST couldn’t afford for them to work slowly. When they decided to make a double album, that meant doing twice the work in the time allotted, not doubling the amount of studio time. Zen Arcade‘s 23 tracks were recorded and mixed in 84 hours. The last session comprised 40 straight hours of mixing. The whole enterprise cost $3200 (about $7000 in today’s money), which is not a lot for a double album people still sing hosannas to 30 years on.

Total Access, the studio in Redondo Beach where the album was recorded, was not then, and isn’t now, an amateur facility. But the way the band worked – first takes being used for all but a couple of songs on the album, the whole band tracking live, the use of SST’s house producer/engineer Spot (Glen Lockett) rather than the studio’s own staff – did lead to a record with a somewhat amateurish sound, one that’s certainly had its detractors. Robert Christgau observed drily, “It wouldn’t be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it’s downright depressing to hear Bob Mould’s axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.”

The Hüsker Dü sound was at least partly a product of choice not chance, however. When the band left SST and signed with Warner Bros., they didn’t leave their indie-era sonic signature behind them, like their cross-town rivals the Replacements did. The recordings the Hüskers made for Warners were still very spindly, given how crushingly powerful they were live. Hart never had the meaty, powerful drum sound that is the sine qua non of any rock music worth the name. Greg Norton’s bass was always a clanky, indistinct presence in the mix. Candy Apple Grey, the band’s first record for Warner’s, has a little more polish (there’s a more audible echo on the vocals, the hint of a gated reverb on the drums) than Zen Arcade, but compared to the records that Jack Endino would make in a year or so for Sub Pop (to take an example from indie land), it’s still a tame-sounding thing indeed, no matter how ferocious Mould’s guitar sound was.

Ultimately, though, Hüsker Dü were a band that demanded to be taken for what they were. Greg Norton’s bass may have been largely devoid of actual bass frequencies, Grant Hart may have sounded like he was playing the world’s smallest drum kit (and possibly a different song to the one Mould was playing), and Mould’s buzzy, fuzzy guitar was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing (it’s nothing I’d model my own guitar sound on, but somewhat predictably I love it), but the sound of these guys tearing through their songs with absolute conviction and vein-bulging ferocity is one of the most thrilling experiences in rock’n’roll. Almost everything else sounds effete in comparison.

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The Dü: l-r Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould

I Want You – Marvin Gaye

I have a little theory to float about Marvin Gaye.

If What’s Going On and Trouble Man had turned Marvin into one of the most vocal social critics among mainstream black popular musicians (Marvin’s dissent, after all, paled next to that of Gil Scott Heron or Charles Mingus), Let’s Get it On saw him turn his energies once more to the carnal. His biographer David Ritz has suggested that Gaye’s most sexual works are also his most spiritual. Five minutes in the company of Here My Dear, Vulnerable or What’s Going On should be enough to dispel that as a ridiculous myth.

As for so many others in the seventies music industry, Gaye’s interest in sex was intimately bound up with his interest in cocaine. The very sound of the Marvin Gaye albums that are seemingly most concerned with sex – Let’s Get it On and the later Midnight Love (parent album to Sexual Healing) – give away the true inspiration behind them: not eros, and certainly not agape, but coke. Trebly, bright, cold and essentially hollow, they are competent, intermittently inspired, but not much more. Efficient and easy to admire, but hard to love.

There’s a difference in the voice and in the sound. When Marvin cared, it showed in the attention he lavished on his vocal arrangements and on the warmth of the instrumentation. Let’s Get it On (the single) in comparison to, say, What’s Going On (the single) sounds tinny, the bassist and drummer are seldom together, and the wah-wah guitar part is sketchy. After the famous opening lick, the guitarist quickly runs out of ideas; by the end of the song his playing is pure wibble. Compare this to the care taken over What’s Going On, which saw him scrap the original, perfectly good, Detroit mixes and start again in LA, honing the sound until he arrived at a finished product which is unquestionably one of the greatest-sounding records ever made. As the producer of his own work, Gaye could have worked harder and called for better takes from his players. Instead he kept the performances given to him, oversaw mixes that skimped on the bottom end (maybe to hide the looseness of the playing), and went on his way, presumably to get it on again.

I Want You is a curious album that occupies a middle ground between the two extremes, containing both the best and the worst of Marvin Gaye as an artist. The title track trumps Let’s Get it On and Sexual Healing by managing to be all at once a wracked love song, full of romantic and sexual desire, and a genuinely spiritual piece, with Marvin pleading for the soul and the body of his love, not just the latter. The vocal tracks are so dense with harmony and counterpoint that they almost bury the lead vocal, which paradoxically works in the song’s favour: Gaye’s pleading surges and recedes in intensity and audibility as he puts to use all of his registers: a close and intimate near-whisper, an airy falsetto and a strident, throaty wail. Gaye’s ability to multi-track his own voice, in different registers, is unparalleled in pop music (Prince did similar things, but he didn’t need to invent any of it). I Want You would be captivating if reduced to only the vocal tracks; a documentary I saw on Gaye did just that to soundtrack one section – it was absolutely thrilling. With the jagged lead guitar and the drum track, playing the snare on every other offbeat (creating a weird, stop-start effect that seems to switch the song into half-time every half a bar), added to Marvin’s voice, the song becomes undeniable.

The rest of the album, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the title track; although it has its moments, it’s second-division Marvin, with too few ideas stretched over too many minutes. Ian MacDonald’s off-handedly damning reassessment-cum-obituary characterised him as ‘a charming muddle who hadn’t much to say’ and bemoaned the ‘supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work’. This was on the harsh side, but I share his reservations about this aspect of Gaye’s work. Further, his closing comment about Marvin’s inner world, ‘wherein ecstasy, melancholy and ennui were entwined in troubled complicity’, seems to me an accurate encapsulation of his music, and indeed this gets to heart of why he’s so fascinating, even when he was wasn’t, um, really trying.

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Marvin Gaye, troubled man

The Light Before we Land – The Delgados

At best I get to play drums a couple of times a week, at a rehearsal and subsequent gig or studio session. And that level of activity isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows depending on what the artists I work with have going on, what I can fit in. In the past I’ve played daily, but where I live now, that’s not an option. Still, I’ve played more than enough to know what it sounds like to sit at a drum set and give the snare drum what for when it’s two feet away from your ears. I know how it responds to strokes of different power, what it sounds like when it’s played softly, or firmly, or with violent intent. Recordings of drums, by and large, don’t capture it. They can’t. Mix engineers can’t bring the full dynamic possibilities of the drum kit to bear on most pop or rock material and have it work. The dynamic range of the playing has to be constrained, in arrangement, execution, then mix. Same with the voice, which has – if anything – an even wider possible dynamic range.

So we get used to it and on occasion we have to reassure fellow musicians that what seems an overpoweringly loud pattern we’re playing on the bell of the ride will sound very different in a mix than it does in the rehearsal room. We live with the more or less frequent disappointment that comes from yet another recording that doesn’t sound like we know a drum kit sounds.

But fashions in mixes change, and there have been periods in mix fashion where engineers have got close, and other periods where representing that sonic reality never seemed to be on the agenda at all. We lived through an example of the latter about ten years ago, starting in around 1999 and continuing for five years or so before it levelled off very slightly (it’s still a very dark era in the history of recorded sound).

By the early noughties, with credits on Weezer’s Pinkerton, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Dave Fridmann had become a big-name producer, something of an indie-rock Trevor Horn. The sound he had deployed on the latter two records was immediately identifiable, and made those who valued transient energy in drum performances despair. As a result of what’s often called the Loudness War – broadly, the attempt by bands to have their records be louder than those of their competitors, principally through the use of digital brickwall limiting, in both the mixing and mastering processes, and often in recording too – which began in earnest in the mid-late-nineties, snare drums no longer went ‘blap’; they went ‘wap’ instead. Bass drums became muddier and more indistinct as their transients were brutally lopped off in the quest for ever-louder end product. But Fridmann’s work was something else again, so removed from a realistic representation of a drum kit played in a room that it was almost funny. Except when it was being deployed on records I cared about.

Having seen them at the Union Chapel in 2000, I can attest first-hand to how majestic the Delgados’ music was around the time they released The Great Eastern, similar in its sweep and ambition to that of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but more intimate, grounded in observation of people and emotions, rather than wide-eyed, faux-naif magical realism. The Great Eastern was big – bigger perhaps than it needed to be – but its follow-up Hate was an atrocious-sounding record, big but thin and fatiguing to listen to due to its sheer wearying RMS levels and accompanying digital distortion. A complicated record full of ugly emotions demanded a subtler treatment than it received.

One song works, though. There have been occasions in Fridmann’s post-Soft Bulletin era (after the near-universal criticism of the sound of At War with the Mystics in 2006, Fridmann did dial down his worst excesses) when his approach coincided with the right material. His oafish work on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is a perfect fit for the material and the aggressive commitment the band brought to it. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way, although I can’t listen to it on headphones for more than a song or two at a time. It also, and I have to assume it was by accident, fit the opening track from Hate, The Light Before we Land, which is almost a parody of Fridmann’s production and arrangement tricks: choir, strings, distorted percussion, monstrously overblown low end, furious clipping and digital distortion, unidentifiable sound effects. It shouldn’t work, it should overwhelm what is in mood a small song, but through some kind of alchemy it’s glorious. I can hear in it what Fridmann seemed to be going for, and it makes me wonder why he so frequently missed the mark.

 

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Indie heroine: Emma Pollock

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Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann

Fidelity

When you’re discussing ‘fi’, whether ‘lo’ or ‘hi’, it’s worth unpacking the terms a little.

‘Hi-fi’ is an abbreviation for ‘high fidelity’.

What does that mean?

For some, to say that something is ‘hi-fi’ is simply to say that it sounds good.

In audiophile circles, it’s more likely to mean that the object being described (since ‘hi-fi’ in the audiophile sense is almost always used as a modifier) provides accurate reproduction of a sound source, that the system is ‘faithful’ to the sound source: an amplifier and CD player can be described as ‘hi-fi’ if a CD being played on the system sounds like it should. How does an audiophile know what it ‘should’ sound like? Unless he was in the control room while the record was mixed, he probably doesn’t. But if it sounded good in the way the audiophile expected, ‘hi-fi’ was the term of choice.

And now we’re getting somewhere. Assessments of fidelity are often little more than guesses. Dark Side of the Moon is often said to be a hi-fi record, but how do we know if we weren’t there with the band and Alan Parsons when they printed finals? It’s a good-sounding record, but to stretch to saying it’s a ‘hi-fi’ record is presuming a little, since only Mr Parsons (and maybe the band themselves and any seconds who worked on the album) are in a position to tell us what Breathe sounded like coming through the bigs on first playback.

When we get to recording equipment, we’re on different ground again. The debate in studio-land about whether tape or digital is the more accurate medium has run for a couple of decades and will probably run for a long while yet. Both sides believe that their favoured medium provides more accurate results, and hence is the more hi-fi of the two.

About the only thing that we can all agree on is that 1/4″ cassette tape and Portastudio recording is an inherently low-fidelity medium. Thin tape (liable to stretch), low bandwidth and high noise floor, combined with the mechanical limitations of the Portastudio’s transport mechanisms, and then compounded by the poor quality of the preamps and monitoring sections of the machine, combine to produce a result that certainly degrades any signal passed through it and on to tape. No one would argue otherwise.

But the key question – always – is, does it sound good? Many fans of lo-fi rock and indie music found that recordings made on Portastudios had a quality they liked. For them the issue wasn’t, ‘Does this tape accurately represent what it would be like to sit in the same room as Lou Barlow and have him sing to you?’

The question of why a lo-fi fan would prefer recordings that sounded palpably less good than the sound source is another question again, one I hope to get the chance to write about tomorrow.*

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Alan Parsons likes his fi to be hi

*I’m moving this weekend. It’s a busy time. This piece was scribbled in a few stolen moments. It probably reads like it was.