Tag Archives: time-domain effects

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On reverb, echo and delay as studio effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The vast nave of Westminster Cathedral, © Mike Quinn