Tag Archives: the evil that men do

Farewell to the Glad

First up, I’m sorry for the long silence. Last week, following a death in the family, I went home and spent a week with my dad, taking a couple of days off work and commuting into London the rest of the week. It wasn’t the right time or place to be thinking about blogging, really. Then, in rather happier news, I was at my cousin’s wedding, then back in London to play a gig at The Gladstone Arms, more of which shortly.

I’ve been struggling with a piece all week, writing a bit here and a bit there, and it’s not really come together. I don’t know whether to persist or junk it, or maybe use the bits of it that most interest me as a starting point for another piece entirely. Maybe the latter. That might be a good way out of the hole I’ve found myself in on that one.

But I did want to write something, and this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the Gladstone, having played there the other day for what may be the last time.

I wrote about the threat to The Gladstone last year, but the situation has changed a bit since then. The company that bought it wanted to pull it down and build flats on the site, but in the face of local opposition and Southwark Council listing it as an asset of community value, the developers changed strategy. They instead offered the leaseholders a new lease at a greatly increased rate. They can’t pay it, and as things stand The Gladstone will close when the current lease expires at the end of October.

My partner Melanie wrote a piece on her blog last night that gets to the heart of why the Gladstone is so precious, so I don’t need to say any more about that. I just want to relive the memories that are most precious to me.

The time I saw Adam Beattie play A Song of 100 Years for the first time and was brought to tears – genuine big fat tears – by it.

Watching fleet-fingered guitar pickers like Oli Talkes and Chris Brambley and wanting to go home and get practicing right away, so I could do the things they do too.

Seeing the guys from Hoatzin transform themselves into one being with four brains and eight arms, playing a set of complex, intricate jazzy post-rock without making a single mistake or breaking sweat.

James McKean’s album launch show on Easter Sunday earlier this year, and the biblical rainstorm that followed it.

The carol-singing evenings at Christmas.

The pies, especially the Moo.

The late evenings spent hanging around outside the pub, chewing over the evening’s music, catching up with friends.

And finally, the Sunday evening in August where I played what may end up being my only solo show at The Gladstone. Where, because the billed headliner pulled out, I was given the opportunity to transform my favourite London venue into my own front room for the evening, and invite James and Mel on to the stage with me, to sing a few of their songs each after I’d played my set, and finally to relive the days when James and I used to sit at the kitchen table, swapping songs and playing covers, just for the joy of making music.

The joy of making music was what The Gladstone was all about, and I fervently hope some way will be found to save it.

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Tune-o-matic bridges on Gibsons & Epiphones

So here’s something I’ve been thinking about this evening. Beware – guitar geekery is to follow.

A couple of months back, after spending a while wondering whether it might be nice to have a hollow-body electric guitar in my armoury, motive met with opportunity. I was informed that I’d been entitled to a bunch of annual leave I didn’t know about, and that the company was willing to give me a lump-sum equivalent to the number of days off I hadn’t taken in 2013. So a week or so after that, I took myself of to Macari’s on Charing Cross Road one lunchtime, played a natural-finish Epiphone Casino they had hanging up on the wall and decided on the spot to buy it. It sounded great and was really comfortable to play and I could hear in my head how it would blend with my other electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster (yeah, whatever – you may not think they’re cool, but I do. Mine’s finished in a dark blue stain, the grain of the wood clearly visible. It looks bitchin’).

I got the Casino home, played it a lot, recorded some parts with it and was generally really happy. It felt like great value at £449. However, I soon started to notice a rattling coming from the tune-o-matic bridge, particularly noticeable on the D and G strings. It took a while to pin down the culprit, but I eventually realised that it was a thin retaining wire at the front of the bridge that sits over the threads of the saddle screws (for those of you unfamiliar with Casinos and similar hollow-bodies with tailpieces rather than stopbars, the bridge is properly fitted with these adjustment screws at the front to prevent the strings from snagging on them behind the bridge due to the back angle created as the string passes into the tailpiece). This is a fundamental design flaw in that style of bridge. It wasn’t the end of the world but it was annoying enough that I took it back to Macari’s and asked whether they had any suggestions for a fix.

They directed me to Andy Gibson, a repairer based in the basement of their other shop on Denmark Street. He suggested that as any attempted fix would be a bodge, the best thing to do would be to upgrade to a Schaller or a Gotoh unit, which I was happy with — I figured £30 or £40 for a better bridge that didn’t buzz or rattle was a reasonable expenditure when it would also likely give me more sustain, cause fewer string breakages and have more widely adjustable saddles for finer tweaks to the intonation. In the event, while waiting for the one he ordered to come in, Andy found a TonePros unit in his workshop that he reckoned would fit, so as of this evening I have a brand-new AVR tune-o-matic on my Casino, the buzz is gone, the bridge is locked to the posts (a nice little feature, that) and if anything the guitar sounds better than before.

I’m a happy little chappie.

But here’s the thing. Both Andy and the guys from Macari’s mentioned that fitting one of these bridges (Schaller, TonePros and Gotohs) is a popular mod that a lot of guitarists make, not only to Epiphones but to Gibsons as well. Now, that’s staggering to me. Epiphones are made to a tight price point so spending a little more after the fact to improve certain parts of the hardware is a good investment, no question. Having said that, I think a lot of guitarists would be happy if they put the prices up a little on their more expensive models and included better hardware on them as standard – after all, they’re buying thousands of bridges at bulk trade discounts, so the extra cost to them of using a better bridge (or tuners, or whatever) would actually be very minimal.

This is not some sort of cheap slam on Far Eastern manufacturing, by the way. A lot of lazy, ill-informed, unconsidered and frankly pretty racist nonsense is spouted on that subject. Epiphone guitars are made to specifications laid down by the people at Epiphone headquarters (in Nashville, Tennessee, since you ask) and any deficiencies in manufacturing are all directly attributable to the company’s US management, who are responsible for overseeing the process (however closely they choose) and awarding the contracts. And anyone who thinks Western production is automatically superior needs to read up about Detroit or British Leyland in the 1970s.

But while we’re on the subject of Western manufacturing, here’s another thing. Andy showed me the bridge off a newish Gibson Les Paul Custom he happened to have in his workshop right now. It appeared very similar to the one off my Epiphone, with noticeably less mass than the TonePros unit now on my guitar. It felt flimsy and surprisingly cheap. Andy had attempted to refile the grooves in the saddle once before but the owner was still breaking strings every gig he played and just wanted rid of it. The going rate in the UK for a new, US-made, LP Custom like this is £2999, by the way. Three. Grand.

If the use of such substandard hardware is standard practice for Gibson now, that’s really poor. If it’s a one-off rogue bit of ‘recycling’ by one enterprising member of staff, it’s hardly reassuring, as it doesn’t say much for their QC process. What the hell, Gibson? Show your customers a bit of respect.

The joy of a new guitar; or, I love my Epiphone Casino

I’ve mentioned before that I love recording electric guitar, building up layers of stuff, blending complementary tones. A big part of what makes it so satisfying when you’re happy with your work is how complex a process it is.

Recording one electric guitar rig means assembling a complicated system. When you plug an guitar into a pedal or two and into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier and thence to some sort of recording device (analogue or digital), you’ll be working with preamp and master gain controls on the pedals and the front face of the amp, the tone controls on the amp, equalisers on the mic pre, trims, faders, pads — the variables are endless (and remember, gain is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal). To get one good sound, with one guitar and one amp, is a substantial job of work. To get two or three… that’s a big endeavour.

And more and more, musicians will likely be trying to figure all of this stuff out for themselves. Demo studios exist in fewer and fewer numbers, and if you can’t find anyone local to you whom you trust to record you well, you may be better served by trying to record yourself. That’s why I started; the engineer my band had worked with for a couple of years went into post-production, and no one else in the area was as good as him.

Right now, I’m a pig in shit with this stuff. I recently bought a new guitar, an Epiphone Casino, as a present to myself after I completed the first year in my new job (I still call it my ‘new job’ despite have started nearly 13 months ago). That means I’m working out how it works with the two amps I have with me in my flat in London (a Vox AC15 and a big-ass Peavey half stack, a 120-watt single-channel all-valve behemoth, which I had intended to sell but find it difficult to part with), how it sits in a mix alongside my Strat, what it sounds like with pedals… This all takes time, and it’ll be some months before I’m really on top of it, but it’s a load of fun. So many new possibilities open up to you with a new instrument, and this is one I feel immediately at home with. I’d played Epiphone semis before (mainly Sheratons, possibly a Dot too), but fell quite hard for this Casino when I tried it in Macari’s. The decision to buy it was more or less instant. It has a more open, resonant acoustic-type tone played clean than I had been expecting (probably because it’s all hollow, while Sheratons have a solid centre block), but the thing can also kick like a mule; at higher gain structures, it gets into SG-like territory if you dial in the preamp right, and that’s a tone I can do business with.

Of course, like any guitar geek I’ve been on the net looking into who else has played Casinos. The Beatles — that is, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and most famously John Lennon – are the most obvious, but the list is long and distinguished, with a few favourite players and singer-songwriters among them. Which is nice; it’s cool having your gear choices validated and seeing what company you’re in. I’m looking forward to the day when the tone is so ingrained in me that I can identify a Casino in a dense mix merely from the sound (I’m a pretty reliable Strat spotter). Right now, though, I’m still exploring all the possibilities that this guitar offers, and it’s really inspiring.

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The Casino, in my flat

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

Everytime You Go Away – Hall & Oates, Paul Young

It was like looking down into a sea of mullets. I think I even had one myself back then. They were very popular.

Andy Kershaw, Rocking All Over the World

So said the BBC’s troublesome voice of world music, and one-time scourge of dinosaur rockers, in a 90-minute documentary about Live Aid from a year or two back. Perhaps for the benefit of some of the younger readers of this blog, Live Aid was a 1985 benefit concert for the victims of the famine in Ethiopia, organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, in collaboration with music promoter Harvey Goldsmith, the BBC, ABC in the US, sundry TV channels and networks around the world, and the ‘help’ of Bill Graham. It was the biggest event of its type ever organised, an enormous feat of satellite communications technology, which was very much in its infancy.

There are fascinating, and still relevant, debates to be had about the usefulness of this type of ‘celebanthropy’, whether it is self-righteous, self-promoting do-goodery, or whether it is genuinely helpful in the face of structural, governmental and/or macro-economic inequalities which go unaddressed by first-world governments simply because it’s not in their interests to do anything about them.

However, the BBC discussed these issues only briefly, bringing on a nurse who’d worked in famine relief in Ethiopia to say that she had once believed Geldof’s motives to be cynical and ended up converted. On the whole, it stuck to discussing the music (where it was snide), the behind-the-scenes wrangling and technical details (where it fascinating), and the hair and clothes, where it was predictably groan-inducing. Someone had obviously decided they’d be on safe ground sticking to mullet jokes. Hey, everyone had one! Bono had one! Paul Young had one! Daryl Hall had the biggest one of the whole decade! Even mullet-bashing Andy Kershaw himself had one back then.

This is what happens, you see, when a decade’s worth of music is reduced to a joke about hair. It becomes very difficult to get anyone to discuss it seriously. Regular readers of this blog will know that my heart belongs to the seventies and nineties, but I grew up in the eighties, I was born in the eighties and my earliest memories of music are largely of eighties music.

When I was young, whenever my mum put the radio on in the car, Paul Young seemed to be on it. Wherever I Lay My Hat and most particularly Everytime You Go Away were never off it. I absorbed their strange soundworlds before I knew what was making those noises. I didn’t know what I was listening to was a fretless bass, a digital piano, an electric sitar, digital synths with wobbly pitching, drums fed through a delay and a Lexicon 224 digital reverb box. I had no context and no knowledge of wider musical history, so I simply took these sounds and their overall effect at face value. I knew what a Paul Young record sounded like, but would have struggled to describe it.

I’d have been even more flummoxed by Hall & Oates’ original version of Everytime You Go Away, released on their 1980 album Voices, if I’d heard it. Voices as a whole embraced slightly leftfield new wave (as had Hall’s recent but then unreleased solo album, produced by Robert Fripp), which had been an increasingly prominent part of their sound for a couple of albums, but Everytime You Go Away was the album’s outlier: stately and churchy, with a dominant gospel organ and soul/R&B guitar, the drums kept to quarter-note rimshots, bass drum and soft, unobtrusive hi-hat. It’s a sound that had nothing to do with mainstream pop or rock at the start of the eighties, instead recalling the Band, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles. The discipline of the players leaving wide-open spaces for a moaning  brass section and Daryl Hall (the song’s sole author) to holler in. Some of the time in his long career, there’s been a sense that Hall was playing at being a soul man; he had the chops to do it and a genuine love for the music, but there was just a little distance between him and his material. Not on Everytime You Go Away (and not on She’s Gone, my favourite H&O record). He puts his heart into every note of it.

Issues of authenticity don’t impinge on Paul Young’s version at all. That’s not what the man was about. The churchiness of Hall & Oates’ original is entirely gone, replaced by new-fangled, modern production and instrumental touches that reached back to the previous decade (the electric sitar, for example, which is impossible to use without recalling the Chi-Lites) but no further.

If you knew Young’s version first, and then hear Hall & Oates playing the song, it’s possible to fool yourself into believing that the makeover that Young gave it was obvious, just waiting to happen. It wasn’t. Given the song and its original arrangement, it’s a very imaginative record, a strange combination of textures and elements. OK, giving it a pop treatment and a backbeat – that’s straightforward enough. But who decided to put those clattering, banging-metal noises in the mix during the solo? Whose idea was the electric sitar? The Leslie guitar? The drums through the delay? Who hired Pino Palladino and let him loose to do his post-Jaco fretless noodling? That the whole record coheres, and was a successful enough blend to be a US number one (and a British number four), is a testament to the creative hunches of Young and producer Laurie Latham. A Paul Young record really does have its own sound, and that kind of immediate distinctiveness is largely a thing of the past in pop music now.

Young was a walking punchline for rock fans in 1985, so he didn’t get a fair hearing. And true, No Parlez  had been a weak brew. His version of Love Will Tear Us Apart was spectacularly ill-conceived and borders on the unlistenable. His cover Love of the Common People revived a song that was overdone and tired already. But a good record is a good record, and in the recorded performance and again at Live Aid, Young sang the hell out of Everytime You Go Away. Yes, yes, the clothes and the hair were dreadful, and no, it doesn’t move me like Hall & Oates’ original does, but getting on for thirty years after I heard it, if Paul Young’s version of Everytime You Go Away comes on the radio, I’m still glad to hear it.

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Top: Hall & Oates, Voices (pre-mullet Daryl Hall, left)

Bottom: Paul Young

Experiment, part 4 – Conclusions

I undertook this experiment to see what level of fidelity a Portastudio was capable of, if used by someone with a bit of knowledge about tracking, which I definitely wasn’t when I was using a four-track recorder regularly between 2000 and 2006 (strange to think I’ve been recording digitally longer than my analogue period lasted).

I should clarify at the start that I am not particularly ‘pro’ digital or ‘anti’ digital, and neither am I ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ analogue. There are a few things I have observed in relation to the debate and that for me are truths:

1) Modern records do not, speaking generally, sound very good to my ears.

2) The problems I hear are not necessarily related to the fact that the songs were recorded to hard disk rather than tape. They have more to do with persistent and unmusical use of tools such as compression, EQ, pitch correction and quantisation in a manner that would be close to impossible in the analogue domain.

3) Continued use of 16 bit/44.1 as the digital standard in this day and age strikes me as daft. Ditto MP3s. As hard drives get bigger and bigger, lossless files could easily replace MP3s (they could have done already). The sticking point seems to be the replacement for many people of the dedicated MP3 player with multi-purpose smartphones, with smaller hard drives and more kinds of media content competing for the limited space. I don’t know the size of the hard drive in my Samsung Galaxy, but it sure ain’t the 120GB in my iPod Classic (a form of iPod that Apple now seems to consider entirely obsolete, damn them), which allows me to carry around a significant percentage of music in WAV format.

4) Most of my favourite records sonically were recorded to tape. But not all. I can think of many digitally recorded albums/songs I think sound very good, some of them going back to the Soundstream days (my beloved Tusk).

5) I recognise the flaws digital has as a long-term data-storage solution (the main point Steve Albini makes against digital nowadays – it’s a point well made).

6) My attraction to lo-fi when I was younger had (I now think) a definite self-conscious, purist aspect to it, but also grew genuinely out of a conviction that simple presentations allow the song to shine through.

So to specifics, then. Funnily enough, the thing I’m least satisfied with about the four-track version of Find Out In Time is the 12-string acoustic sound. The drums do their job well enough. The snare drum doesn’t have the focused crack I look for at the front of the stroke, but that’s probably to be expected since there was no close snare mic. The floor tom gets lost a little bit but it’s only hit during one fill – the placement of the kit mic at the front and middle of the drum set, pointing at the snare, was always one that would lead to compromises. I made the choices I thought best given the part I intended to play. Overall the drums sound decent enough.

The bass (Fender Jazz through Laney amp), is OK, although boy would I have liked a little bit of compression on the track. The vocal’s mixed too low, as is my habit when mixing my own songs, but it sounds OK – listened to in solo, everything’s audible and the vocal sits way above the noise floor without getting into crunchy territory (accomplished by recording the verses first, then resetting the gain levels and doing the choruses separately).

But the guitar? It sounds kind of warbly and has an unpleasant hardness to it in the upper mids that really doesn’t sound like my guitar sounds normally do. The mic, the instrument, the room and the player were the same as I would normally use – the only different element was the Portastudio. I’m not saying that those unpleasant qualities are definitely from the four-track, and if they are, with practice I’m sure I could develop techniques to get around them and find a way to get something closer to ‘my’ acoustic sound, but of all the elements on this recording, the acoustic guitar is definitely my least favourite.

Of course, tastes vary. Some people might hear this and prefer it to the digital version I made last year. While that version’s sure not as good as it could have been (I recorded it in D after trying and failing to hit the harmonies satisfactorily in E. In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed in E and either persevered with the high harmonies or found someone else to sing them), it better captures what I want the song to be than the four-track version does.

I don’t know whether I was expecting to find the Portastudio capable of greater or lower fidelity than I encountered during this experiment. I think it unlikely, though, that I’ll be recording much on analogue tape again until such time as I can work on some real-deal gear.

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This is the Soundstream digital recorder, invented by Thomas Stockham in, would you believe, the late seventies. Stockham also played a crucial role in bringing down Nixon. Good dude (Stockham, that is. Not Nixon).

Experiment, part 2.1

48 hours later, I’m back where I was on Thursday night. A tolerable drum part and guitar part. Not that I’ve been slaving over this all day, but still progress could be quicker.

Bass next. Wonder if I could hire Lee Sklar?

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Leland Sklar. Bass ‘n’ beard.