What Is That Sound?

/May 11, 2016

Do you have a favourite album, or albums? I suspect you do.

Just about everyone I know in the music industry can point to a specific album (or albums) that defined their musical experience and inspired them to become part of this crazy and diverse industry.

Question is, how do our favourites relate back to the work we do now?

If you have a defining ‘Top 5’ for argument’s sake – and assuming you haven’t done this already – I’d urge you to drag these classic, life-affirming masterpieces out of the closet and listen to them again, only this time from your current perspective of professional engineer, producer or musician.

What makes these albums so memorable do you think? Have they attached themselves to your subconscious by accident, or was there something specific about them that hooked you in as a young listener? In my case I know there were lots of albums that enthralled me, and because I was lucky enough to have four older brothers and sisters, I heard lots of great stuff from the ’60s and ’70s when I was young.

I loved some albums as much for their personal associations as the music itself. Neil Young’s Harvest, for instance, was significant to me not only because it was a fantastic record, but because I associated it with driving around with my brother in his Kombi – freedom at the age of six! Abbey Road got lots of airplay at our house too (as did basically every Beatles album), and I always remember being fascinated by the sounds on Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. I could never quite work out what the hell that ghostly wailing sound effect was on that song. It sparked my imagination in a huge way. Later I became fascinated with bands like The Cure and Talking Heads, and early Brian Eno records.

There were dozens of albums that influenced me. Whenever I’m forced to make a list of my favourite albums, before I know it I’ve written down 100…

But if there’s one thing they all have in common it’s the sense of escapism they provided. They took me away from the mundane, even though I really had no idea this was happening at the time.

I was addicted to sound from a very early age, and albums that created a sense of ‘other worldliness’ particularly fuelled this addiction. I loved songs that had big dark atmospheres, mysterious qualities or hard-to-define instruments. I loved hearing depth and detail down to the faintest whisper. There has always been something intriguing to me about never being able to quite determine what’s going on at the back of a mix. For me, that’s part of what makes them memorable I guess.

 

Now that I’m a ‘grown up’ it’s my job to help make other peoples’ records memorable, and one of the ways I do this is to try and develop a ‘sound’ for them as early as possible. If I’m producing I’ll embark on it during pre-production; if I’m mixing it starts to happen before a single knob is twiddled.

 

THE INDEFINABLE

But… particularly when you’re mixing an album, it’s not always easy to define a record’s ‘sound’ before you dive in. Some records stubbornly resist every effort you make to define them, and sometimes an album’s sound only really emerges after it comes out. That’s cool… not everything needs to be predetermined and planned, although when there’s no planning at all I often regret certain mixing decisions later.

When you’re mixing someone’s album it’s important to sit down with the musicians involved before embarking on it – either over dinner, at the footy… wherever – and try to work out what sort of sound you want the overall outcome to have.

Should it be dry and resolutely analogue sounding, deep and wide with spectacular reverbs, hard and heavily compressed, or gentle and dynamic with superb fidelity?

When there’s no plan of attack it becomes a bit like storming the castle with naught but spears and blue face paint. You may look the part and sound tough, but there will be casualties.

It’s not always enough to ad-lib a mix situation, especially when you’re heavily restricted by time. Having certain aims and expectations in your head before you start can get you further down the road in a shorter time frame, and with less disagreement. Frankly, it’s a waste of everyone’s time if you spend a week trying to make someone’s folk album sound like heavy rock when no-one had any such ambition for it except you. If only for this reason alone, a pre-production dinner where everyone gets to have a chat about the sound of their record can save you a huge amount of time and effort in the long run.

The next time you’re about to dive headlong into a mix project try this idea on for size: have a dinner at your place and get everyone involved to bring along three albums they think are relevant to the project in some way, no matter how tenuous the links might be. Over a lamb roast, or couscous, or whatever it is you’re serving up, the idea is that everyone gets to play a few songs off their albums, elucidating what it is they love about them and how they relate back to the project.

Particularly when you’re working with a band, dinner is a good way to bond people together too. It helps clarify the aims of the group and gives everyone an insight into everyone else’s perspective. And if there are issues to resolve, they’re far easier to discuss over the dinner table than the studio console.

 

REAL ENGINEERS THINK

Nothing annoys me more than hearing records that were clearly mixed by someone with nothing between the ears. To me it’s far more important to apply thinking to your mixes than compression and reverb. Plan ahead whenever you can and make sure you have the right tools wired into place and working well long before the project begins. There’s nothing more embarrassing than spending half of Day 1 on a project trying to resolve technical problems…

If you’re ever having trouble with a mix, think of ways to resolve it, don’t just twiddle knobs and hope. That rarely gets you far.