Archive for the ‘2013 listening diary (nat)’ Category

Bicycle Race – Queen – Roy Thomas Baker – 1978


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Intro begins with thick vocal harmonies separated with hard stereo panning. Lead vocal enters in the centre with piano (slightly to the left) and bass guitar. Second block of harmonies (with piano and bass) are joined by drums with the floor tom panned left. Last part of the intro features lead vocal, bass and most drums in the centre, piano to the left, hi hats to the right. The last word of ‘I want to ride my bicycle’ is doubled with a falsetto and has reverb and a triangle hit panned right.

Verses feature a call and response pattern interspersed with stabbing drums, piano and bass marking the beat. The call ‘You say black’ etc. is a doubled ‘backing’ vocal while the lead vocal responds ‘I say white’ etc. There is quite a difference in sound between the call and response. The call sounds distant, a bit to the left and thickened by the doubling, almost like a chorus of voices while the lead vocal is very present and up front, with reverb panned right. It is almost call is on the left and response is on the right but not quite.

The chorus is musically the same as the intro but fuller with more strident piano and subtle electric guitar back in the mix.

The middle section switches time signature and features big droning guitar chords and piano flourishes before climaxing with lead guitar warbles and a nice bit of stereo backing vocal action; ‘Bi -‘ on the left is responded to with ‘cycle race’ on the right, the ‘Bi’s climbing three steps.

Another chorus but this time featuring a decelerando (slowing down) – technically a Rallentando.

A moment’s silence then a bicycle bell ‘solo’. Its actually several bells, carefully pitched and placed around the stereo field. The playing is timed without being rhythmic so that they build up to a crescendo. Then the electric guitar solo enters, with calls on the left and responses on the right. The drums and bass re enter as the solo calls and responses keep shortening in length to reach a climax.

Second verse much like the first but with electric guitar featuring more, as well as backing vocal accents as it builds to the final climactic chorus. Songs ends with the last part of the chorus acting like a coda with muted electric guitar line and finishing on the word ‘bicycle’ in falsetto and triangle hit.

Overall a very intricate and ornate production with a great deal of stereo placement. The call and response nature of the verses and guitar solo is emphasised by hard panning in the mix.

Be My Baby – The Ronettes – Phil Spector – 1963


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Booming drum introduction with a cracking snare. Boom. Ba-Boom. Crack! Boom. Ba-Boom. Crack! Shows off the big reverb sound that is characteristic of Spector productions and was totally unique at the time.

The overall effect is a BIG sound but with an ‘over there’ distant quality. When the other instruments all come in after the intro the instrumentation becomes hard to identify as everything gets a bit swallowed and blurred. There’s piano, strings, acoustic guitars maybe, bass of some sort and lots of percussion (castanets, tambourine, shakers, hand claps etc). Horns enter in the pre chorus. Backing vocals enter in the chorus and continue in the second verse as wordless oohs and ahhs. The instrumental break is lead by strings and includes oohs and ahhs backing vox.

Just before the climax of final choruses that fade out, everything stops and the drum intro is repeated. It’s a clever way to recycle the striking intro and remind us of the unique reverb sound of the song, and to set us up for the climax of the song.

As the climax fades out several drum fills are played. In fact the drums in this track are almost a lead instrument – the thumping heartbeat intro, the castanets, the cracking snare filling in the spaces between vocal lines in the first verse, the tumbling tom fill leading into the chorus, the steady beat that pins down the choruses, and finally the sputtering tom fills during the fading climax. Certainly in the mix the drums are given a lot of emphasis, often competing with the lead vocal.

The lead vocal also sounds distant but every word of the lyric is intelligible – as are the harmonised backing vocals. The lead vocal is absolutely belted out and the recording seems to be straining to contain it. Listen to the second verse Oh, since the day I saw you and how those high notes seem on the verge of distortion. And yet she still sounds like she’s way ‘over there’ somewhere, quite at odds with the close mic crooning of Sinatra and co. from the previous decade.

Almost With You – The Church – Bob Clearmountain – 1982


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Begins with drums (tom fill) EQed to be soft and deep, a gentle tumbling intro to the song. Early 80s jangly guitar folk/rock.

Despite usual ingredients (electric guitar, bass and drums) it has a softness to it. The guitars have been recorded in such a way that the plectrum on the strings is a present sound, providing a rhythmic element. Distant (reverbed) wooden percussion enters in second verse. The reverb on drums is most noticeable in the bridge section when the guitars pause with single strums; Who you trying to get in touch with? snare/tambourine hit. In this bridge section the acoustic guitar strum stands out, panned left, and is responded to with an electric guitar strum panned right – call and response. Thin 60s electric guitar sound.

Apart from the bridges, the dynamics are fairly constant throughout. A noticeable use of hi hats and ride cymbal to raise energy levels. There is a lead in chorus for the final chorus repeats where the drums and bass drop out then build up to re enter.

The most remarkable thing about the track is the low baritone vocal. The first note is a low G ‘See…‘ (although I think there’s a low E in there too – ‘See the chains WHICH bind the men’). Such low singing is usually notoriously low in volume and in a live situation quite difficult to lift above a guitar/bass/drums ensemble. In this recording it sits perfectly above all the instruments so it has been carefully recorded and must have been compressed. In the middle chorus where the bass and drums drop out the singing sounds almost whispered or muttered, as if being told a secret. There is no really strident singing, even in the backing vocals during the main choruses. There is subtle doubling and harmonising throughout all the singing.

This makes the choice of a nylon string spanish guitar for the solo interesting, in that it is also an instrument of low volume and in that way is a perfect mirror and replacement for the lead vocal – even though it covers a much wider range of notes (interestingly, the chord sequence during the solo is different to the rest of the song).

Overall a controlled production that maintains interest despite minimal dynamics and a wall of jangly guitar almost from start to finish. For me, it is compelling to hear low volume instruments (soft low singing and nylon string acoustic guitar) sitting on top of electric rock instruments (guitar bass drums).

Notes: it is difficult to say that this sounds typical of Bob Clearmountain productions because he is deliberately trying to avoid having a signature sound. He aims to have each mix sound as if the artist has mixed it themselves. What’s interesting about this Church track and the album Clearmountain did for them is that it is a band favourite for its clarity of production while still being complex and intricate. In actual fact, nowadays the Church self produce their recordings so they have ended up literally mixing themselves.

All Apologies – Nirvana – Scott Litt – 1993


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The differences with the so-called Steve Albini mix are remarkable. From the very beginning there is less hiss (although the track ends with the sound of the tape being stopped more obviously) and a lot more presence in the intro guitar line and cello part – probably as a result of compression and EQ. The cello is panned off to the left and the guitar line to the right – keeping the drums, bass and vocal centered. When the drums enter it becomes apparent that there IS high hat – presumably played with the foot – lightly keeping the beat. So, a clear advantage of the sharper, clearer mix is that we can hear the hats now (but at the expense of the kick perhaps?). There is a slap delay on the snare and toms (panned hard left) – particularly noticeable on the snare in the fills at the end of the choruses. Notice the wide panning on the toms and cymbals too.

The vocal is a lot more present and up front – again probably as a result of compression and EQ but also simply raised in volume. The vocal room sound on the first syllables of the second and fourth lines of the verse are even more noticeable here – perhaps it has been reinforced with added reverb.

The eruption of the chorus is less violent in this mix – because the whole song has been compressed – but also because the stereo separation of guitar and cello helps spread the instrumentation across a wider field.

The coda has different distortion and feedback sounds than the Albini mix, so perhaps they had a few takes to choose from? The higher vocal part is panned off to the right slightly making the separation between it and the lead vocal more obvious.

Overall a much cleaner and tighter mix. EQed to bring out the highs, panned to spread it out and compressed to even out the changes from verse to chorus to coda. It has less of the bottom end of the Albini mix, so the low drone of the cello and the thud of the kick are lost, but more focus is given to the vocal and the higher frequencies of the cello part and distorted guitar(s).

It is easy to see why it was done. Not that I don’t like the muddier, dirtier, roomier mix but the Litt mix is much more radio friendly – which makes sense for a single release, being one of the more melodic and sweeter songs on the In Utero album.

Comparison of Steve Albini production with Scott Litt’s remixes

All Apologies – Nirvana – Steve Albini – 1993


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Noticeable hiss at the beginning (and end) suggests it was recorded using tape.

Begins with an intro of muted guitar line and bass for 4 bars, and then drums and cello enter. Drums is mostly kick, toms and snare – opening hats and cymbals only used sparingly. Cello is droning a very low note giving the bass a heavier, lower feeling. Vocal enters. The main vocal sings most of the song alone – backing vocals join only in the coda.

Room sound on the drums and vocal. Particularly noticeable on the first syllable of the second and fourth lines of each verse.

What else should I be?
All apologies.
What else could I say?
Everyone was gay.

(eg, ‘All‘ and ‘Ev…’). These are the highest notes of the verses and they are sung with a raspy sound. It sounds like Cobain backs off the mic to hit these notes, allowing for more room sound. Vocal sits back in the mix.

Chorus is overwhelmed with distorted guitar, possibly two guitars (overdubs?). Hats and cymbals used as normal here. Chorus ends with sustained guitar and bass while drums do various tom fills over high hat on the beat, with the vocal ‘Married! Married! Buried!’ over top.

Coda features guitar line from intro but with distorted guitar backing, full drums and cymbals, and a loose backing vocal part that overlaps with the lead vocal by the end. The coda breaks down bit by bit as instruments drop out and feedback and distortion plays out underneath the vocal parts which come more to the front of the mix as the song concludes.

Overall a slightly muddy and roomy sound, with the vocal sitting back in the mix with room sound noticeable on the high verse notes, giving the feel of a live band in a room. The guitar overdubs or doubles do not interfere with this picture but the overlapping vocal parts, all recognisably Cobain, unsettle the live illusion as it becomes obvious he would have had to overdub these vocals.

Notes: this is a somewhat unfair example of Albini’s work. Firstly, we don’t know for sure if this is how Albini intended it to sound before the decision was made to get it remixed by Litt. Albini has refused to confirm or deny if this mix, released around 2005, is his. He certainly would be pissed off with the crappy mp3 that i’ve posted here (best version i could find i’m afraid) as he is notoriously anti digital. (Note the nasty brittle mp3 artefacting particularly in the chorus when the full cymbals and distorted guitars come in.)

The REAL reason why this is a good recording to study is because it makes the changes in Litt’s mix more obvious… so read the Litt post!

Comparison of Steve Albini production with Scott Litt’s remixes

More musings on how different the world would be if Albini’s mix was released…

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