May has arrived and in our area we’re still waiting for spring to appear. Two weekends ago we went out to create some video footage and ended up being in a snow squall. The funny part is that it probably improved the feel of the video footage for the song we’re going to use it for. If life presents you with lemons, make lemonade. I think that a lot of what makes creating fun, whether it is music, photos, video or painting is the ‘happy accident’. It’s happened to us when writing songs or recording. You make a ‘mistake’ while playing and when you listen to the replay it sounds better than the original idea. People who enjoy photography know it’s all about the light. I’ve taken pictures with overcast, stormy skies where one break in the clouds allows a stream of light to illuminate the main focus of the photo. What were the odds of that happening? When I listen to my favorite songs and they get to a part that really hits home I often wonder: was that planned or was it a ‘happy accident’? I think anyone who creates will have those moments. Just keep creating.
First Up: The Nude Party – ‘Lonely Heather’
This song starts out blazing and never slows down. Great keyboard intro with a pounding, honky-tonk feel. One of the tricks in mixing a song like this is getting the volume of the intro just right as you’re going to have to pull it back in to the rest of the mix once the other instruments come in. The next thirty seconds of the song brings in the rest of the instruments. The pace is just right. The parts are kept pretty simple and they fit together perfectly. There’s a nice little guitar riff thrown in before we get to the vocals. You can hear all the instrumental pieces, but nothing is pushed too far to the front. Then a piano slide introduces the vocals. Nice touch. The vocals match the pace of the rest of the instruments. Straight forward and full speed ahead. Not a lot of stereo separation for the instruments. That works for this tune as you want the pace and feel to wash over the listener. In the middle of the song you get a drum break down in to the guitar solo. I like that they kept the sound of the guitar solo in line with the rest of the song. Not mixed too far out front, not too crisp so it sits in the pocket and not on top of the rest. The vocals come back in and the song races to a built up and sudden stop. Two minutes of pure fun.
I wanted to throw in a bonus cut from The Nude Party. It’s called ‘Chevrolet Van’ (my van when I was that age was a customized 1971 Ford Econoline). For anyone who’s ever played in a band and then ended up in a day job because, well, having food and shelter is kinda nice, this song’s for you. The video is also hilarious.
Next Up: Benchmarks – ‘Wolves Outside The Door’
One of the things you decide on when you’re writing a song is what part of the song you want to highlight. Sometimes it’s a great riff, or the interplay of the instruments. In a dance song it could be the rhythm. In some songs it’s the lyrics that take center stage. In ‘Wolves Outside The Door’ Benchmarks put the lyrical content front and center. It’s definitely the right choice. The song starts with a guitar playing chord arpeggios. It’s a very clean sound. Next an electric with some distortion comes in strumming the chords. These instruments are placed on opposite sides of the stereo field. A third guitar is brought in filling the middle of the stereo. Finally the drums and bass come in and the middle guitar plays a melody style line. This build up goes for the first minute of the song. It’s a great move as it develops the mood before the lyrics even begin. When the vocals come in the music drops down to just drums and bass. The vocals are clear and up front giving full attention to the lyrics. In the middle of the first verse the arpeggio guitar returns softly in the left channel. The rest of the instruments return for the chorus and a lead guitar part takes over after the vocals stop. Everything that is played maintains the song’s mood. In the second verse the vocals are accompanied by the more distorted guitar in the right channel. There’s backing vocals added towards the end of the verse. All the instruments come back in for the break which is matched with the payoff lines of the lyrics. The song outros with the chorus repeated with spare, then full instrumentation. The lyrics give you the feeling of sitting on a mountain watching the sunset and reviewing your life. Beautiful.
Finally: The Asteroid No. 4 – ‘Northern Song’
Let’s finish with a song that feels both retro and modern. ‘Northern Song’ has the feel of a song that could have been written back in the 1960’s. The highly reverbed guitar arpeggios have a throwback feel to them. There’s numerous parts of percussion and vocals in the background, but everything is tied together with a great wash of reverb. The sound in this song is achieved by blending most of the instruments together rather than separating them. How you mix a song can have just as much to do with the overall tone and feel as what instruments are used and what they are playing. The drums are layered back in the mix and if you listen you can a percussion instrument in the left side of the stereo mix. It could be a tambourine, or it could be electronic percussion and it adds to the jangle sound the song is putting across. There’s lots of vocals throughout the song, and the heavy use of reverb blends them together. A good example of this blend is heard at about 1:40. A lead guitar part comes in at 2:07 but even this is draped in reverb and is not put out front in the mix. The mixing strategy in this song was used to create a mood rather than to heighten each individual instrument. The way the parts of the song were written work with this strategy. When all the components of a song are pulling in the same direction you can achieve your sonic goal. The band has certainly achieved this with ‘Northern Song’.
Retro: Matthew Sweet – ‘Girlfriend’
This song is from Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album ‘Girlfriend’. There’s so much I like about this song. To me it epitomizes the ‘power pop’ genre at it’s finest. Let’s start with the guitars. The intro is a master class on how to record and mix guitars in this type of song. It starts with the rhythm guitar that has a great, crisp distorted sound. In the background you hear the sustain from the lead guitar. Drums come in. The rhythm guitar slides in to the right channel with the lead down the middle. Then a second rhythm guitar is added to the left channel and the bass appears. All this before any vocals even start. When the vocals start they have the rhythm guitars in opposite channels, with the left channel guitar only playing sporadically. The vocal is not overwhelmed by reverb. There’s multi tracks of background vocals in parts. When the first verse ends, the vocal starts the second before the music comes back in. The starts and stops give everything a real loose feel. Another cool feature – the music stops and there’s a vocal count in before the lead guitar part. The leads are played by Robert Quine. His style adds so much to the overall sound of the song. The lead guitar stops and starts are wonderfully ragged. The drop out at 3:00 is great: drums in first, scratchy leads and then vocal back in. It takes a whole lot of work to make a song sound so live and loose. Another interesting choice is that most of the video is taken from a 1982 anime movie. A song from the days before ‘pop’ became so computerized and auto tuned.