Tag Archives: Ten

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So 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. I 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 (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) 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**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

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Like Suicide – Soundgarden

I felt very proud to be part of a music scene that was changing the face of commercial music and rock music internationally, but I also felt like it was necessary for Soundgarden — as it was for all of these Seattle bands — to prove that we deserve to be on an international stage and we weren’t just part of a fad that was based on geography. I knew we had the ability to do that, and I also knew that the timing was important. This was the time.

 Chris Cornell, Get Yourself Control: The Oral History of Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Spin

Soundgarden were the first of the big-name grunge-era Seattle bands to release a record, the first to sign to a major and the first to get a Grammy nomination. But they were last of the big beasts to really catch on commercially. 1991’s Badmotorfinger (mixed by the incomparable Ron Saint Germain, making a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that was Terry Date’s wimpy, tinny tracking on such mighty cuts as Slaves & Bulldozers) was a hit, as was single Outshined, but it was overshadowed by the mega-success of Nevermind, Ten and Dirt.

In 1993, Soundgarden began work on Superunknown with producer Michael Beinhorn. Beinhorn had developed a reputation for breaking alternative acts big following his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Mother’s Milk) and Soul Asylum (Grave Dancer’s Union). His methods were confrontational; he was, shall we say, not afraid of conflict. He had the balls to (temporarily) can Anthony Kiedis from the Chili Peppers for his drug use and hire Sterling Campbell to replace Soul Asylum drummer Grant Young’s playing, and would go on to fire Hole’s drummer Patty Schemel while producing Celebrity Skin.

While all four members of Soundgarden made it through production without getting fired,  but Beinhorn didn’t let them off easy, and he’s had some interesting things to say about them in the years since*. If they were to be the next band to ascend to the alt-rock stratosphere, they were going to have to earn it, was his attitude. He went toe to toe with Chris Cornell in an effort to get him to broaden and diversify the band’s sound and include more Beatlesy songwriting and less Zeppelinesque yowling, alienating guitarist Kim Thayil in the process, who was used to being a major source of the band’s material.

There’s still a healthy dose of yowling on Superunknown, but the riffs are beefier and less twisty and dissonant than before, Cornell sings with great imagination and musicality across those riffs and drummer Matt Cameron gets the drum sound his magnificent contributions deserved.

Cameron is one of my very favourite drummers – he’s powerful, groovy and imaginative, making the twisty-turny Soundgarden material sound like the most natural thing in the world. He’s on superlative form on the record’s last track, Like Suicide, and Beinhorn and his team (Adam Kaspar, Jason Corsaro and Brendan O’Brien) really allow him to shine.

Like Suicide illustrates a lot of the ideas I was getting at in my last post on Radiohead’s The Bends. Superunknown is a record that is frequently referenced for drum sounds; bands want to sound like this, engineers put their own work up against this. But the reason that Cameron’s drums sound as big as they do is because of the sparseness of the arrangement. Kim Thayil was never a wall-of-sound type of guitar player and his from-the-get-go decision to play a certain way had the benefit of freeing up real estate for Cameron. It just took until the band’s fourth album for full advantage of this to be taken on record. But this is the key thing: half the bands trying to get their drums to sound like Matt Cameron on Like Suicide will never get there because their band isn’t Soundgarden. Superunknown may not be the group’s best record, but it’s undoubtedly one where their unique sonic potential is fulfilled.

Like Suicide is, mostly, a half-time feel, with acres of space inside the lines for fills. For the first half of the song, Cameron keeps it tight. He plays a small kit with the snare wires off, and only plays a minimum of fills, largely laying off the toms. His masterstroke (or maybe Beinhorn’s), is the switch to the big sound at 3.30: a full-kit, large-room sound, with monstrously huge toms and a big reverb (listen to the size of the cymbals, how live they sound). At this point, he begins to cut loose and the 22-second stretch between the heavy section starting and Cornell’s vocal coming back in is one of the most exciting passages in rock music, with Cameron playing a de facto drum solo. He’s still playing the heavy half-time beat he started the song with, albeit with loads of kick drum variations, but the fills are just so creative, it takes it beyond just playing the groove. Note also how the tempo speeds up subtly when the group switches out of half time at 4.30. Absolute adherence to absolute time has never been a virtue in rock; just listen to some Zeppelin for proof.

It’s a killer end to a great album, and when Thayil and Cameron are cutting loose at the same time, it’s as exciting as rock music gets, as good as Page and Bonham during the guitar solo on Since I’ve Been Loving You. I can’t think of any higher praise to bestow on a rock band.

SOUNDGARDEN
l-r Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil

“It was kind of nightmarish. These guys did not get along” – Beinhorn in a radio interview on Australia’s Triple J