Great Moments in Music Production

I'm starting to get some ideas together for a new album, music production is my first love and I remain extremely interested in all the latest technology and am always listening to new music to try and excite my ever-ageing earbuds with some new ideas. To me there's nothing quite like a well-made record, I don't particularly like live music, the joy of listening on good headphones to a record with great songs and amazing production is second to none...

I used to teach sound recording at a school (it's now part of the Higher music syllabus) and I loved taking new students through a very quick history of sound recording and opening their ears to what was really happening in songs.  Those little details that the musician and producer will have slaved over, but the casual listener may not hear.  I kind of miss those classes, it was a great job to have!  It should be noted that 'produced' records are not always the best way forward.  Take 'Hurt' by Nine Inch Nails.  The original is produced to the maximus, but I don't think anyone will disagree that the Johnny Cash version, dry, live, simply recorded, just cuts right through you in a way that the original doesn't.

I thought it may be interesting to have a think about some of my favourite bits of music production. Not always my favourite songs (although some are) but tracks that I think are really exceptional when it comes to production:

Almost any Radiohead song from Ok Computer onwards is worth a listen purely for production values.  This song though... this song is just INCREDIBLE!  Check out the way they merge the sampled drum pattern with the real kit 24 seconds in. The sound of the kit in itself is a revelation. Dry, so close-miked it sounds like your head is right next to it.  The interplay between sequenced drums and the real kit throughout make interesting listening (1:49 through to 2:00 is a great example).  Thom's voice is also interestingly produced, almost completely dry with reverb being brought in and out at choice moments.  But the pièce de résistance is the entry of the bass.  You almost don't notice that it's not there until 2:07 it enters, playing a little downward fall that just makes your ears go ON FIRE (almost). Then at 2:13 there's a random group of children shouting - little special effects like this keep the ear interested but are non-obtrusive to the whole reason for the recording existing - the song. Later on there's some play with wobbly synths, backwards drums and more school children shouting as the bass continues falling off a cliff and Thom becomes more and more embroiled in his performance before he also falls, this time into a reverb-created cavern, at the end.  The final few seconds are a combination of everything we've heard before alongside some beat-boxing that adds in another rhythmic layer.  I really could listen to this ten times over and find new things every time.

Try to ignore the video with this one.  First of all, the drumbeat... I'm sure someone somewhere must have sampled it, if not - why not?!  Kate Bush was one of the first producers to really let loose on the Fairlight sampler (see Peter Gabriel talking about his here) and I assume that that beat comes from her mastery of that technology.  But the bit in this song that blows my mind is at 1:37.  It's a few seconds of cut up, fast repeating brilliance.  It only happens once in the song, it flies by, but it still knocks my socks off.  This song has a lot to offer in terms of sounds, effects (check out the delay on the chorus bits "I must admit" to signify a change in tone), song structure and just generally breaking the rules but still producing something that is 'accessible'.

Warp records have a number of fascinating tracks to really make your music production head spin - "how did they do THAT?" I have frequently thought to myself.  I think this track by Aphex Twin is the epitome of what I like about this kind of music.  It's unique, it has no 'real' instruments but it still creates a sound that we can musically understand. He layers the sounds, brings in new instruments and builds up to a climax in a very traditional way, but using  unique sounds. Stretched and manipulated, I assume, on, now, old-school hardware samplers.

It's a music production cliche.  But cliches are cliches for good reason.  This song still blows the mind 50 years on.  Riffing on an idea inspired by Indian music where the chord never changes (listen to the bass pumping out the same note the whole way through) and with Paul McCartney creating backwards tape loops inspired by the work of Stockhausen, it is an aural feast.  The most famous aspect of the song is probably John Lennon's vocal that was fed through a rotating Lesley speaker (usually used on organs) but for me the songs killer production choice is the highly compressed drum sound. The Chemical Brothers were clearly inspired by it in their song 'Let Forever Be'.  And it is the contemporary sound of the drums that really strikes me.  Of course we get all kinds of exciting things in this song, like lyrics from the Tibetan Book of the Dead through to backwards guitar solos and the eerie seagull-esque sounds of the tape-loops, but through it all the drums just take you into another land.

That's enough for now, there are, of course thousands of amazingly produced songs and - more importantly in my mind - albums.  From pretty much all of Pink Floyd's work through to stuff like Imogen Heap  there is a whole world of really exciting production out there, get yerself some great headphones and get stuck in!


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