Tag Archives: transient energy

Andy Wallace, mix engineer

I’ve mentioned before here that Nirvana were the band that inspired me to start playing guitar and making music. Without hearing them when I did, I’ve no idea where I might have channelled my energies. As it was, I did put them into music, and having never been one to do things by half measures, I became a Nirvana obsessive. One of the marks of the young obsessive then (and it may still be, for all I know) was to profess a love for In Utero over Nevermind. The reasons for this are fairly simple: Nevermind was a huge hit record, and therefore middlebrow, and Cobain himself had said derogatory things about it in public (how it was closer to Motley Crue than punk rock, etc.), as had Steve Albini (who recorded In Utero).

The man responsible for the final sound of Nevermind was Andy Wallace. Not coincidentally, Wallace is one of the most in-demand, highly remunerated mix engineers of the last 25 years or so. The records he worked on defined the sound of rock music (certainly at a major label level) from the very start of the 1990s for about ten years, when gradually the Lord-Alge brothers’ (Chris and Tom; they work singly, not as a team) sound took over until it was everywhere, on vocal records from pop to country and gospel, to major-label rock. By the time of American Idiot, it was all over: what the Lord-Alge brothers did was now standard methodology.

For the tech-minded and interested in home recording, I’ve been doing some podcasts of late on the subject of recording drums in the home studio. The CLA/TLA approach to compression is discussed briefly in the podcast on snare drum recording. They use a combination of heavy/fast compression and sample triggering to create a very controlled, compressed snare drum sound, which I surmise from interviews with them they think of as aggressive-sounding. To me, it’s the opposite. By reducing the transient/attack element of the snare drum stroke so heavily, they’re reducing the excitement of the music. The benefit to them is that there’s more room for everything else, and it’s easier to turn in a very controlled, loud mix with all the critical instruments presented with persistent audibility.

As I became alive to this stuff, and realised why I disliked the sound of modern records so strongly, two paradoxical things happened. Firstly, I began to properly understand the nature of Steve Albini’s complaints about Andy Wallace’s mixes (most people who talk smack about Wallace would be unable to identify compressor or limiter if it were placed on a table in front of them, let alone actually work the thing). Secondly, I began to respect the hell out of Andy Wallace’s work, which to my ears gracefully walked a fine line between the controlled and focused sound that labels tend to look for, but still retained an awful lot of the sense memory I have of what it sounds – and, crucially, feels – like to sit a couple of feet away from a snare drum and cymbals while giving them what for.

This is really hard to do.

It’s why Wallace’s work sounds like his work. Sure, there’s been an evolution over 25 years or so, but there are certain things he still does that are Wallacian hallmarks: he still uses the acoustic drums to trigger samples of ambience, he still rides the room mics up (and the overheads too) for a bigger, roomier sound in the choruses (both of which are done in the context of mixes that are still on the dry side) and he still leads the listener by the nose to whatever it is they should be listening to, while never making it apparent to them that that’s what’s going on. And sure, if you’re Steve Albini and it’s your drum recording he’s using to trigger samples and your stereo field that he’s narrowing (as he did on Helmet’s Albini-recorded In the Meantime) that might be annoying and seem disrespectful, but Wallace (or any mixer) has to serve three masters: the record company paying the tab up front, the band who created the music and the listener who’ll ultimately be enjoying it. It’s a difficult place to be and hard to keep all three parties happy all the time, but Wallace has managed it more often than not for a very long time now.

Unfortunately times change and even Wallace’s work misses the mark sometimes now. The Joy Formidable’s 2011 release Wolf’s Law, for example, is one of the most horrendously squashed and flat-sounding records I’ve ever heard, and it’s hard to know whom to hold responsible: the band, listed as the producer; Wallace, who mixed it; or Bob Ludwig, who mastered it. Both Ludwig and Wallace have done stellar work over the years, so maybe they were painted into a corner by their tracking engineers. Who can say? But I can say this: if you listen to a Wallace mix from the 1990s, whether it’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, Grace or The Globe Sessions, you’ll hear a guy giving a repeated masterclass. It’s interesting, too, if you can stand it, to listen to his work on heavier records in the early 2000s (Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, Slipknot, System of a Down, Disturbed, etc.); you’ll hear that it’s definitely the start of a different era, but a lot of the old Wallace techniques are still audible, and whatever the artistic merit of those groups, Wallace’s mixes were still efficient and ruthlessly focused.

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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