Details, details, details. I have spent the less-committed parts of the last couple of days mixing, mixing, mixing. In addition to reworking some of the MFG stuff, I’m trying like crazy to finish off the Eutoxita songs where the recording phase is done so that I can throw down a couple of last-minute compositions and then move on to putting the final form of the album together. The problem is, when I mix a lot, I start to totally hyper-focus. Forget seeing the forest for the trees, I start following the maze patterns on the bark of individual trees in that forest. It’s like the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when they’re looking at Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” but even more intense. (Speaking of artists, in my commitment to finding/thinking up interesting little titles for each of these blog pieces, I cheesed out and googled quotes+details. Nothing remotely interesting turned up. That’s what I get for being cheesy. However, by some googlian fluke, Picasso’s name appeared somewhere and—bam!—that was it! Picasso is one of my favorite artists… the diary quote relates both to mixing—haha… nice dual meaning!—and to blogging. Yeah. On to the actual mixing stuff…)
My brother and I used to have a band called Naked (because that’s what an artist should be), until a major-label version came out and we had to ditch the name. After years of trials, tribulations, and cassette four-track self-releases, we finally got some scratch together to go into an actual studio and cut an EP. This experience was, in itself, filled with trials and tribulations. The item most relevant to this blog entry, though, was when I had a freak-out session because I felt—during mixdown—that the timing of one of my bass parts was a train wreck. My brother and the engineer both assured me that I was crazy, that the track in question was in fact rock solid, but I just couldn’t shake it. That’s what happens when I keep my ears in microscope mode for too long… and that’s what I’ve been running into this past week.
The main hyperfocus spawner has been to compress or not to compress, mixing and remixing around changes in track compression, group compression, mix buss compression, etc. My primary audio production goal these days is to get the clearest, most detailed, yet loudest mix possible without squashing the daylights out of everything, as seems to be the unfortunate current craze in popular music. When I produced the album The Invisible Thread for my friend Kevin Farley, he was adamant that I compress as little as humanly possible. He is “The Irish Music Guy” and the CD was a collection of cleverly arranged Irish pieces, as well as a handful of originals. He wanted it to be as airy and open as possible, and I think, by and large, we achieved that. The Eutoxita project, on the other hand, is wide open for more rock-oriented production techniques. While the current album is a bit of a mish-mash (more on that later), it is all rock of one flavor or another. Compression is not only acceptable, it’s downright necessary to get “proper” rock noises.
For example, the modern electric bass sound is almost always recorded direct rather than through an amp and cabinet. The bass track is then compressed, usually somewhat heavily, in order to have that smooth, ever-present floor beneath the rest of the music. I prefer what is sometimes referred to as the “Motown method”, where you run the bass track into two channels of the mixer (or, in computer-based recording, make a digital copy), leaving one track relatively unaffected in order to preserve the natural dynamics, while squashing the living daylights out of the second track. This gives you the best of both worlds and is also useful on vocals and drum submixes (the “New York drum mix”).
The main song I’ve been tweaking lately is called “Oasis”. If I were a major-label artist, it would definitely be the single. It’s a hooky, melodic, classic Beatle-esque track. The Beatles touch is a deliberate extension of the original genesis of the song—I wrote it for a friend who happens to love the Beatles. It’s one of our common interests. There are several aspects to the song’s recording arrangement that are direct nods to various Beatles songs and/or sonic signatures. For example, in the bridge there’s an “ooh-ahh” choir built up from seven tracks of my voice in basically three-part harmony. The timber of the choir is modeled on tracks like “Because” and “Here Comes the Sun King.” I even fattened up the group with an opposite-panned, stereo, backwards-reverbed copy.
One of my favorite aspects to the arrangement is a totally Pete Townshend inspired guitar part, which totally goes back to the story behind the song… which you won’t find here. Some things are better left unsaid. I tracked it with my trusty Epiphone Wildkat (thanks, JP!) through a blonde Fender Hot Rot Deluxe set to a nice, crunchy distortion. While I am a giant fan of the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi (Pink Floyd… David Gilmour’s solo on “Time”… ‘nuff said…), the Deluxe’s built-in all-tube crunch was just what the doctor ordered. I used two mics: a Shure SM57 up against the grill cloth, and an AKG Perception 200 large-diaphragm condenser parked a few inches back from that. This is one of three distinct rhythm guitar parts, and is intended to punctuate the pre-chorus and chorus sections.
I must say, with the individual mics panned moderately wide and pretty high up in the mix with no compression, this part really does the job. The other two rhythm guitars were single-mic’d (AKG), panned as a stereo pair, and pretty well compressed to keep them present and punchy throughout the song. The left channel is the Wildkat through my little Epiphone Valve Junior combo, and is really the main guitar in the song. The right channel is the same amp but this time with a Yamaha EG303 Strat copy. (The Yamaha is a cheap starter guitar I bought years ago. There’s just a nice resonance to it, and I love the feel of the neck). With that pair a steady push, the Townshendy part adds… the magic. There’s no other way to put it. It makes the track breathe. It’s a looser, simpler version of the main riff. It crashes in and out like breaking surf. If I had compressed it in the least, it just wouldn’t be the same, but if the other guitars weren’t compressed under it, it just wouldn’t be the same.
Details, details, details…