99 Problems – Danger Mouse – Danger Mouse – 2004


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OK, let’s remember to listen objectively here. The listening diary is about focusing on what can be heard in the track, over and above the things we may know about the track/artist etc. that cannot be ascertained simply by listening to the track.

So, in this case, let’s forget that it is a mash-up of the vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album. Let’s not highlight the differences between the sources that have been sampled and the samples as they appear in this track, let’s just concentrate on what they sound like now and how they operate within the context of the track.

The track begins with a solo rap vocal. Throughout the track the vocal is dry, as is typical of rap vocal production; no reverb or delay. However there is extensive use of doubling and what I will call ‘harmonising’ – by which I mean a second vocal that reinforces the lead vocal with a slightly different performance style. For example, the second line of the vocal is ‘I got 99 problems’ and is ‘harmonised’ with a slightly whispered vocal.

At the same time the backing enters with a heavily EQed Beatles vocal ahh, the EQ thinning it out and pushing it under the rap vox. There are cymbals and possibly guitars in this Beatles sample but being so heavily processed it is hard to tell.

The main musical backing, which is a bass heavy throb, enters soon after. There is heavy tom thud on the 1 and 3 for a few bars before the throb drops out for the entrance of a snare drum fill accompanied by an electric guitar descending lead line. The throb returns to join a now steady drum beat. Lead guitar lines burst in for a moment then another drop for the return of the thin ahh to show through. Its over this that the ‘chorus’ vocal line is featured. At other times the backing drops out entirely for the vocal to exclaim Hit me!’

This sets the general pattern for the track – alternating between the throb and the drum fill/lead break and the thin ahh and a complete drop out in the backing.

At the 1:15 mark the lead vocal is processed to imitate a traffic cop speaking from a slight distance away. It is thinned a little with EQ and slightly lower in volume so that the two voices (both Jay-Z) can be differentiated in the to and fro of the verbal exchange.

There are some ‘wooh’s and ‘yeah’s at the end that aren’t immediately identifiable as either Jay-Z or the Beatles, mostly because they have reverb on them in a way that seems inconsistent with the rap vocal. The very last moment of sound (a snare drum and a vocal ‘whoop’) reveals a reverb tail that again seems inconsistent with both the Beatles sources and the Jay-Z vox. Perhaps there has been this reverb on the drums and many other aspects of the backing track all the way through, tying them together to sound like one band playing one song rather than a mash of songs.

Notes; in actual fact the backing track is a fairly faithful remake of the Jay-Z original backing, both in terms of thickness and shape, but without staying true to the harmonic content of the Jay-Z track. By that I mean the Beatles samples have not been overtly pitch adjusted to ‘play’ the Jay-Z chords and they retain their recognisability as the Beatles Helter Skelter etc. For example the main lead line from Helter Skelter remains intact melodically, despite that melody not being part of the Jay-Z original. However, it is only used by Danger Mouse at the exact moments when a heavy distorted electric guitar appears in the original.

Overall the production stays faithful to the principle rule of modern production – the vocal remains the focus of the track and is intelligible throughout. The backing serves to add drama and reinforce the lyric narrative. There are moments when the backing track is quite full and stereo is used to make space in the centre of the track for the vocal. However there is little adherence to an obvious verse/chorus structure, which perhaps is a result of mimicking Jay-Z’s original song structure rather than a conscious decision by Danger Mouse.

1979 – Smashing Pumpkins – Flood – 1996

smashing pumpkins 1979

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The track begins with a processed drum loop that sounds almost like clattering stones or the bubblegum card clacking in the spokes of the kid’s bike. Most interesting is the absence of a backbeat in the loop which creates a false rhythm (ie. the impression that the 1 is occurring later) and makes the entrance of the band a surprise.

That entrance consists of muted sounding drums (possibly electronic or even a drum machine) and fairly clean electric guitars playing muted lines – panned to separate them. In this 8 bar intro the main point of focus is a processed vocal sample that is a descending slide in pitch and it is processed to flutter and reverb pushes it a bit into the distance. It continues to repeat every 4 bars, even under the lead vocal.

The lead vocal is somewhat back in the mix for a lead vocal and is hard to tell if it has much verb or delay on it – it seems quite dry. In the chord change under the fourth line of vocal a subtle synth strings fades in as a build to the entrance of the bass and ‘real’ drums, after the first four lines of vocal.

Now we hear a cracking woody snare and more insistent hi hats. The guitars and bass remain indistinct without any really overt riffs as such.

The first chorus is preceded by another synth string swell, and then the chorus arrives with bigger sounding guitar strums. The chorus features some sparkling synth effects that shimmer, whistle and chime in the distance – heaps of reverb creating this effect. This synth sound is neatly fused with the clanging guitar strums and may even be an effect on the guitar – except there is a clear melody line on the synth at one point. There is a subtle lift in the drums too – a tambourine perhaps, a doubled snare maybe. The chorus vocals are supported by a second vocal harmony.

After the chorus the mix drops down in intensity for the second verse, which is much the same as the first but instead of synth strings building to the chorus there is some heavier sounding guitar chugging at the end of the verse, providing that build to the chorus.

The second chorus, much the same as the first, segues into the middle section.

In the middle section the guitars get heavier but also there is an overall thickening of sound. More drum layers and vocal layers.

After the middle section the mix drops down and returns to the muted guitars of the intro – bass and ‘real’ drums drop out for two lines of vocal (the remaining drums sound even more electronic and crunchy here – hinting at the drum loop that started the track) before the bass and ‘real’ drums return for the next two lines of vox.

Another chorus, much the same as the first one. It is important to note that the processed vocal hook that is the main point of focus for the verses is not present in the choruses.

The outro is much like the intro except the ‘real’ drums remain as the final two lines of vocal are sung. The song ends on the final word ‘around’ but as the final chord strums decay we can hear the thin processed drum loop from the beginning is still there clattering away and quickly it fades out. This suggests the processed loop had been going the whole time …

Overall an interesting production that takes the energy of a fairly heavy guitar band and pushes it toward electronica territory. The absence of guitar riffs and solos and drum fills is compensated for with drama being created subtly in the mix. Heavily processed samples and loops become the bedrock of the production, with the guitars playing a more subtle support role.

You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC – Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange – 1980


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The track begins with two electric guitars playing a riff with fairly open ringing chords. There is warm amp distortion on the guitars, most noticeable when they come together to strum the main chord. The guitar playing the more rhythmic part is panned left, and the other guitar playing the more detailed fiddly bits is on the right. This is actually the stereo position that the two guitars stay in for the whole track (and practically every other AC/DC track ever recorded!) but it is subtle in this intro because the material they are playing is pretty much the same – it is only differentiated by the extra detail in the playing of the right side guitar (we’ll call this the lead guitar and the other we’ll call the rhythm guitar even though they both play rhythmic material at different times).

After a short pause the drums enter and the lead guitar begins the main riff – this odd unbalanced section, with just one guitar hard right, drums and vox centre and no bass is particularly strange in headphones. No one would mix like this today – well except for AC/DC who just keep remaking the same songs over and over again. The guitar playing is in the classic AC/DC riff style of short bursts of guitar, each chord cut short and not allowed to ring out. After eight bars the vocal enters with the first verse – both drums and vocal are dead centre. Half way through the verse the second guitar joins on the left doubling the main riff (but still no bass guitar).

The bass finally joins in the pre-chorus which is a short 2 bars long. The guitars here are played with a more open sound, filling in the gaps and making for a bigger sound as the band builds up to the chorus.

The chorus is the full band playing full chords and the vocals are added to with harmonies. The vocal harmonies are of a group and set back in the mix with either reverb or distant miking.

The instrumental break is the one time the hard panned guitars switch to both being centred – so the rhythm guitar (doing a choppy riff for the first half then sustained chords in the second half) is filling the centre and the lead guitar is mixed to sit on the top but also in the centre. So here the mixing technique changes from using stereo to separate the guitars to using volume to separate the guitars.

Overall a big guitar focused production, but notice how there is little use of big stadium reverb. The guitars are remarkably dry. And the vocal too. Only the drums have much in the way of a big verb sound. Notice the reverb on the very last moment of the track – it sounds like spring reverb???

Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who – Glyn Johns – 1971


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The track begins with a distorted guitar chord strum from which emerges a rhythmic organ/synth solo for about 30 seconds. The solo is a true solo in that there are no other instruments for this section. The EQ of the synth is modulated from bright to dull and back again. The synth/organ part is a consistent element of the track, present for the whole 8 and a half minutes, although not always with the EQ modulation, as this destabilises its place in the mix.

The intro comes to an end with the return of the guitar with another burst accompanied by bass and drums. Sporadic drum fills build up the intro and then a section of just drums and organ before the lead vocal arrives for the beginning of the song proper.

The guitar essentially plays power chords with occasional flourishes while the bass is very busy, playing a lot of notes for each chord change. There is an acoustic guitar just noticeable on the left, more noticeable in the second verse. It too is playing choppy power chord riffing. The overall effect is the organ is filling in space in the mid to high range but in a constant quarter note rhythm, while the bass fills in the bottom end but with lots of melodic detail while the guitars play a more rhythmic function, just punctuating the sound at key points. This also frees up the drumming from a strictly time keeping role, allowing for all the fills and busy flourishes.

The first verse begins and then leads directly into the chorus. There are some vocal harmonies underneath the lead vocal in the chorus, which ends with a break in the playing for the delivery of the title line.

There are some hand claps in the first instrumental break. The middle section, which is a key change, features some lead vocal doubling.

In the second instrumental break which features the electric guitar solo, the EQ modulation on the organ is more noticeable allowing for the sudden emergence of synth through the mass of guitar/bass/drums.

This is followed by another section of synth solo. This section is different from the song’s intro in that the acoustic guitar is present at first. Also the reappearance of the rest of the band starts with the arrival of the drums first, with scream/guitar/bass arriving together. This is essentially an outro as there are only two lines of vocal. You can really hear the vocal double on the lead vocal in the last line ‘Same as the old boss’.

Overall, it’s a big rock production made unique by the distinctive synth/organ part. The overall effect is much like a live band sound. The guitar overdubs and vocal doubles are used sparingly, just subtly reinforcing certain elements but without breaking the illusion of a rocking live band. Similarly effects are used sparingly – stadium reverb on drums and vocals but not overt.

Wish You Well – Bernard Fanning – Tchad Blake – 2005


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The track begins with an acoustic guitar. Its a clean, close miked steel string – you can hear the plectrum strums. And it feels slightly off to the right.

After a few bars of intro the lead vocal enters, dead centre. At the pattern change mid way through the first verse the bass guitar, second acoustic (off to the left) and percussion enters. For the final line of the verse the drums enter and the vocal is reinforced by a harmony. It is a neat and subtle way to introduce all the instruments, so that they are all trucking along quite naturally by the second verse.

The percussion sound on every second snare beat sounds like smashing crockery – could be a sample because it sounds identical for each occurrence.

After the second verse the pre-chorus features piano and additional percussion that sounds like distant banging on metal or clanging cymbals. There seems to be a pad of some sort, probably an organ, filling out this section to build it up for the chorus.

The chorus is a return to the chords and instrumentation of the verses but with full vocal harmonies singing the title just twice.

The third verse is much the same as the second. Except that at the end a slide guitar line takes over from the lead vocal as the main focal point for a brief instrumental break. It is soaked in reverb and slightly off to the right.

This is followed by a pre-chorus that has the piano more noticeable in the mix. This is followed by several choruses that feature full group vocals with some variations in the lead vocal. There seems to be a slight build here, hard to tell how it is done, is the percussion getting fuller and busier? Or is everything just slightly rising in volume?

The final chord strum is given a nice healthy 10 seconds or so to fade out naturally.

Overall a deceptively involved production. It seems simple at first – a short acoustic track with little drama but closer inspection reveals several elements that arrive at different times. Generally speaking though it is a very ‘natural’ sounding production – very little in the way of obvious processing, with all the elements sounding ‘played’.

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