That ’70s Sound

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Sometimes I wonder if technology really does make things better. Case in point is the recording and mixing of music.

These days, ProTools and other digital audio workstations make it easier to record music, but sometimes there’s a loss of craft that gets buried in the plug-ins, Auto-Tune, and even the instruments used. Some may listen to a piece of music and say it sounds too “clean” or it’s “slammed” (slang for pushing the audio levels of all the elements to max). I’ve been guilty of slamming audio in the production work I’ve done for radio ads to get something to “stand out,” so I’m not trying to come across as a purist in terms of “Oh, here’s the best way to record something.”

I’m not a recording engineer, nor am I a music producer or someone who plays in a band. Rather, if there’s something I think I have a talent for it’s being able to really listen to a piece of audio with more depth than average listeners. I wouldn’t say I have “Golden Ears,” but I do have the ability to discern the difference between the audio quality of a song (so-called, “A-ing and B-ing” of mixes and masters).  Because I’m picky about audio quality (like the Moody Blues  searching for the lost chord), I often dissect the production quality in search of a “sound” that I really like.

Now, I’m not saying that my audio preference is ideal, because like many things creative, it’s a subjective thing.  I mean, I’m not a fan of the mixes on hip-hop records because there’s very little mid-range, too much bass and way too much treble. But if you’re a fan of that genre, you want a lot of bass to give it that badass feel.  With hard rock, you want an aggressive feel so you pump up the extremes (highs and lows) while kicking out the “warmth” for most songs.

There’s a mix I really enjoy listening to because it’s “expansive” and you can hear each instrument in a way that doesn’t crowd everything out or just slam all the elements together into a sonic bombardment of the eardrums.  Many Beatles records have an expansive sound, and just today there were two songs that came up on my iPod while taking a walk that had an early “’70s Sound” I really like.  One song was “Poke Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White, and the other was (don’t laugh) “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond (Oh, and you can add “Daniel” by Elton John on that list, even though it’s not on my iPod).  Now, just bracket your judgement of my song selections for a moment, and let me explain why I like the production of one of these tunes.

For “Poke Salad Annie” the placement of the instruments in the mix is key.  Tony Joe White has a pretty cool sounding guitar that is amplified to have a “wide” sound.  It’s not “crunchy” like hard rock or grunge, nor is it twangy like country music, rather there’s a kind of soul rhythm that is brought out by the way he tunes his guitar and, of course, plays it.  If you listen to the song, you’ll hear the guitar at the front of the mix.  The drums are actually pushed to one side of your speaker (at a lower volume) while his voice is mixed so it’s heard through both speakers to the front of the mix as well.  The horn section is pushed to the other side of your speaker (and are brought up in volume for the horn punches).  Now, these instruments aren’t just on one side, but they are enough to one or the other side that it helps your ears focus better on the individual instruments and not crowding everything out by bringing up the volume on all instruments.  By giving the instruments space to breathe by keeping the volume levels in the right proportions, it creates a more dynamic range of sound that, for me, is more pleasing to the ears.  Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Daniel” by Elton John have similar production techniques that make the songs sound have more depth.

Think about it this way:  Songs that are “slammed” versus songs that “breathe” is a bit like the difference between AM and FM radio.  When a song is mixed too hot and all the instruments are slammed together to make the biggest noise, your ears can’t focus on one or another instrument.  Instead, it’s like a room full of people shouting at the same time.  After awhile, it gets fatiguing and you just want to get out of there.  When musical elements are spaced out and mixed at volume levels that aren’t all pushing the limit between signal and noise, suddenly the music sounds more interesting.  One person is talking, and then another, and so on.  You can focus and enjoy what’s being said instead of trying to understand a room full of shouting people.

The other thing that makes for better recordings are engineers who know how to mix and record music (not an easy thing to do), know what microphones, amps, and rooms will bring out the best possible sound, and understand that digital (though easier to use) isn’t always the best method of producing quality recordings.  Some recording artists are departing from digital recording and using real tape again, and they seem pleased by the results. Of course, even though analog methods of recording are used, there is a digital conversion to mp3s, CDs, and even vinyl is cut from a digital recording.  So, you can’t entirely “go back,” but musicians, producers, and engineers should listen to how certain songs were recorded and mixed back in the analog days of the early ’70s and see if they can bring that kind of depth to the music of today — well, at least for some genres.

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