I came across this wonderful article in The New Yorker about a YouTube-posted version of Toto’s “Africa” made to sound like it’s playing in a shopping mall:
In my 3 a.m. mood, the YouTube edit, uploaded by a user named Cecil Robert, was almost too affecting to bear; it sounded like longing and consolation together, extended into emptiness, a shot of warmth coming out of a void.
Oddly, listening to Toto’s “Africa” in a mall seems to trigger some fundamental human emotion … hearing a song you love when it’s playing from elsewhere is a reassuring, isolating experience: you feel solitary and cared for at the same time.
Recall that Brian Eno conceived of what he termed ‘ambient music’ after being forced to listen to a harp recording at low volume, accompanied by the natural sound of rain outside his window. Eno probably never heard a harp mixed with outdoor rainfall before, so there wasn’t a past emotional reference that affected him. It was the context of where the music existed in his mind, inspired by factors like environment, volume, reverb (natural or otherwise), and sonic quality (the frequencies that were accented or muffled). Just the same, I’m not sure if the author of the New Yorker article experienced “Africa” at a shopping mall in her childhood. But the combination of imagined context (a shopping mall, where she spent time in her youth) and a beloved song from the era triggered an emotion from a memory that probably never happened.
The YouTube clip shows a photo of a shopping mall interior, located in Everytown, USA, and the parenthetical subtitle “playing in an empty shopping centre.” This description in itself is odd, as the poster’s US origin makes me expect “center.” Perhaps he’s fittingly an anglophilic victim of the ‘80s British Invasion? But I digress – my point is that the recording would not have the same effect without the photo of the mall or the subtitle planting the seed in our heads. Instead, the picture could be of an aircraft hanger, subtitled “playing in an empty aircraft hanger.” Would retired airplane mechanics suddenly get all swoony?
Probably not. The shopping mall is powerful for contextualizing as we’ve all heard music blaring through similar retail compounds. It’s doubtful an airplane mechanic regularly heard music blasting through a hanger. The potency is in connecting two parts of the brain that agree on a possible spatial and temporal environment for a song. This song sounds different — that’s because we’ve been told it’s playing in a shopping mall. Our experience allows an understanding of this context, and now we’re feeling twice as nostalgic.
This experiment is insightful. I’ve always felt that, as a music producer, creating make-believe settings for songs can accentuate the song’s ability to connect with listeners. By constructing a world that the song takes place in – whether a particular room, or a landscape, and/or a different time – and allowing this to influence production decisions like reverb, stereo placement, equalization, and extraneous sounds, the song has the potential to open the listener’s imagination. However, there’s no reason to state that you’ve set the song in a shopping mall or any other imagined territory. By following through on intention and delivering context, the song becomes more of a living thing and cinematic, with the listener encouraged to create his or her story.
This idea isn’t original. There are a number of songs and albums inspired by fictional places. But, if you haven’t considered this creative game, then I recommend it. And I’m asking you to fabricate the whole story, look, and feel of the place. Is it rocky or is it soft? Is it high up or underground? Are you there alone or are people, plants, or animals with you? Does this place have a name?
Early in my recording career, I met producer Howie B., and he gave me this advice: “Invent a mental movie scene and record the soundtrack.” Howie meant this in terms of an imaginary film dictating the builds and turns of a song, but the movie’s setting would naturally influence the sonic characteristics. Even without action, a scene set in outer space gets scored differently than one occurring on the Amalfi Coast. And, to emphasize this point, no one has to know the location or plot of your mind-movie. Keep it your secret – that will encourage you to stretch, go to places that you might be embarrassed to reveal, places from your memory, or even appropriated scenes from movies that exist in the real world.
I’m simply proposing a creative exercise to give your muse some extra juice. Unless you’re making music that Eno would define as ‘ambient’ — that is, background music meant to be listened to alongside its environment – you shouldn’t use a fantastic imaginary setting to compensate for a half-written song. And subtlety is key. Overdoing your ‘sailing through the Grand Canyon’ tune with heaps of reverb and bird noises will probably be more distracting than affecting. But contextualizing music, as an occasional practice, might guide the producer toward fascinating discovery and, like Toto in a shopping mall, give the listener an unexpected jolt of emotion and haunting familiarity.
Do I know someone over at Vox? Perhaps there’s some psychic mind-link? I ask because the music topics the site covers in its ongoing video series are coming from my unbeknownst internal wishlist.
I mean, here’s an eight-and-a-half minute video on gated reverb. Holy cats.
Okay, so we’ve got to talk a little bit about music production trends. These trends represent sounds, styles, and motifs that, at best, enhance a song and, at worst, shackle the recording with the baggage of its era. This is a prison where the Yamaha DX-7 electric piano serves jail time with the drum n’ bass time-stretch. The gated reverb drum part is in a curious place as past uses of this technique do often sound dated, but also curiously contemporary in some examples.
I think that Peter Gabriel’s use of the technique still holds up (listen to “I Have The Touch“). This may be due to the artist’s objective. I always believed Gabriel embraced the gated sound not for trendiness but because it evoked the big tribal drums that shaped his rhythmic fascinations. In this way, the huge drum parts create an uncanny overlay to his songs. This reminds me of Jon Hassell’s definition of fourth world music: “unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques.”
Notwithstanding a period’s technological limitations, if an artist makes production choices that are evocative and intentional, as opposed to ‘on trend,’ there’s a better chance for the music to have persistence. In the case of the gated drum, Gabriel and his cronies helped set the trend, but you get the picture.
On the other hand, you get the preponderance of heavily gated kits (kick drums included, yikes) that overtook some strains of ’80s electronic music and a couple of Cocteau Twins albums. Of course, much of this is enjoyable, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being anchored to a particular era of music production. But the key is to be mindful. I’m not convinced Cocteau Twins would have gated the kick drum if they were making those records now, but I’m sure Phil Collins would still add the reverb to the drums of today’s “In The Air Tonight.”
Vox notes gated reverb is being rediscovered by modern producers and is trendy again. I can’t say I would have noticed at first as these productions are so processed overall. And I think there’s a distinct difference to those using the technique to fill out the aesthetic vision of the song and those looking to evoke ‘that ’80s sound.’ Both processes are intentional, but the passing years will tell if they are timeless (or, unstuck in time, as the case may be).
I ran across the blog Songs From So Deep which provides some closing thoughts on the subject:
This is the thing. Production fashions are an arms race. This is how it happened last time gated reverb was the thing. One artist does something, the next one repeats it but takes it further, everyone piles in until a point is reached where someone says, OK, enough, and sets their own trend.
When I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, listening to contemporary rock music and forming my own tastes and preferences, nothing could have sounded older, more tasteless or garish to me than a big, gated-reverb drum sound. It was the preserve of poodle-haired corporate metal bands. Later on when I’d grown up a bit, I had to train myself to put those objections aside, to listen past the obvious signifiers and give the music a fair hearing. But nevertheless, my tastes were formed in the era they were formed in, and despite this being the sound of the popular music of my childhood, it’s not my sound. Perhaps the folks making these records are too young to have these hang-ups.
Side Note: Susan Rogers is interviewed for the Vox video. That gives me an opportunity to highly recommend this interview with Rogers over at Tape Op. It’s one of the best production-related behind-the-scenes interviews I’ve ever read. A must for Prince fans, too.
Posted by the Polyphonic YouTube channel, this video essay illustrates all the remarkable things that happen in the three minutes and thirty-nine seconds that comprise The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” It is remarkable when the details get laid out: the convention-defying sections of the song, the ingenious chord combinations, the metamorphosing moods and transitions, even how the deceptively simple lyrics reveal a deeper meaning. “Good Vibrations” is indeed a “pocket symphony.”
The making of “Good Vibrations” was unprecedented for any kind of recording, with a total production cost estimated between $50,000 and $75,000 (equivalent to $370,000 and $550,000 in 2016). Building upon the multi-layered approach he had formulated with Pet Sounds, Wilson recorded the song in different sections at four Hollywood studios from February to September 1966, resulting in a cut-up mosaic of several musical episodes marked by disjunctive key and modal shifts. It contained previously untried mixes of instruments, including jaw harp and Electro-Theremin, and it was the first pop hit to have a cello playing juddering rhythms.
Its title derived from Wilson’s fascination with cosmic vibrations, after his mother once told him as a child that dogs sometimes bark at people in response to their “bad vibrations”. He used the concept to suggest extrasensory perception, while Love’s lyrics were inspired by the Flower Power movement that was then burgeoning in Southern California.
The instrument that steals the show in “Good Vibrations” is more often than not mistakenly referred to as a theremin. Kudos to Polyphonic for initially calling the instrument on the recording by its actual name: the Electro-Theremin. He gets it wrong the second time around, though.
… in the 1950s, trombonist Paul Tanner and an amateur inventor named Bob Whitsell made an instrument that made sounds similar to Leon Theremin’s creation, but made it a lot simpler for non-experts to hit specific notes and control the volume.
Tanner’s instrument — like the theremin — was used in science fiction films and a very popular television show from the early 1960s called My Favorite Martian. Tanner featured it on his 1958 album, Music for Heavenly Bodies. The few people who bought The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds when it came out in May of 1966 would have heard Tanner’s instrument on the song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” But in the autumn of that year, every American teenager heard that weird sci-fi sound on every AM pop radio station, when Paul Tanner performed his Electro-Theremin with The Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations.”
One more observation: near the end of the video I found myself thinking, “Wow, Brian Wilson did look exactly like Paul Dano.” Then I realized that was Paul Dano. Sneaky.
Thanks so much to Jaco & Co. for turning me on to this fantastic three hour (!) conversation with production hero Trevor Horn:
Hearing Horn’s ’80s production work when it was new and still otherworldly had the hugest influence on me, as his sound transformed my teenage daydream goal of rock star to music producer. When I heard Frankie’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome (with its insane technical details in the CD liner notes), Propaganda’s A Secret Wish, and – especially – (Who’s Afraid Of) The Art Of Noise? I had to know exactly how these recordings were made. This led me down a rabbit hole that I’m still enjoyably descending.
Fondest memory of the time: via Art Of Noise, learning about this thing called a ‘digital sampler’ and then, mind blown, writing down a long list of all the household objects I would sample once I eventually acquired one. That record rewired my brain and the way I listened to everything around me. And, before you ask, I, unfortunately, have no idea what happened to that list.
One of my favorite parts of this conversation (hosted by Trevor Jackson who gets some delightful anecdotes out of his subject) is when Horn talks about his Fairlight CMI sampler, bought using “Video Killed The Radio Star” royalty. (An aside: this made me think how different music production history would be if that record hadn’t been a hit!) Horn reckons that he was the only prominent Fairlight owner who treated the device with a sense of humor, the other early UK Fairlight-ers being Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. This was cool to hear as the fun and levity that Trevor Horn (and Fairlight engineer / Art Of Noise member J. J. Jeczalik) brought to sampling was one of my attractions to this work, and shaped how I approach my time in the studio. I think you can hear this in my own music.
Trevor Jackson’s musical selections in this show lean toward rare remixes from the period and it’s fascinating how prescient they were, and how Horn somewhat humbly downplays their brilliance. I was reminded of this stunning (and, yes, humorous) 1986 remix of Frankie’s “Rage Hard” which I hadn’t heard since it was relatively new, and I’d totally forgotten about it:
The often excellent Song Exploder podcast has dropped an episode featuring DJ Shadow pulling apart his seminal 1996 track “Mutual Slump”:
It’s difficult to overstate just how much of a creative gut-punch DJ Shadow’s early recordings were to those of us producing electronic music at the time. I remember how the pre-Entroducing singles on Mo’Wax – such as “Lost & Found (S.F.L.)” – totally blew my mind and forced me to raise my studio game. I know I wasn’t alone.
I met Josh Davis / DJ Shadow at a record show in Austin in the early 2000s before one of my gigs. After introducing myself he laughed and said, “ohhh, now I know what my friend meant when he told me DJ Q-Bert was in town.”
The Crudlabs Crudman is a new tape-based instrument consisting of a hacked cassette Walkman controlled by pressing notes on a keyboard. It might remind you of a Mellotron, another tape-based keyboard popular in the 60s and 70s, but Crudlabs points out that the Crudman “is not designed to replace a Mellotron and it does not sound like a Mellotron.”
“The Crudman can provide endless atonal sounscapes but has been designed specifically to be just accurate enough to function as a traditionally melodic musical instrument. You can record anything onto a tape, so if you’re a fan of the sound and idiosyncrasies of tape, the possibilities are pretty much endless.”
WANT. This is pretty great, though having multiple units (at $375 a pop) for polyphony seems to be an expensive requirement for those Boards Of Canada-ish pads. I’m quite curious just how this works so I plan on digging into the documentation found here. And the product’s main site has more video of the Crudman in action. If you can’t afford this lo-fi sweetness, then perhaps you could just pepper your samples with Goldbaby’s Dirt and Layers pack. (My teenage self – who regularly lost sleep over an inability to completely remove tape hiss in his four track demos – is giving me the stink eye.)