(Written for Audio Production II at San Francisco State University, December 2012)
Our last recording to mix was “Bottle Of Wine”, the “rock” track. We began with a simple setting of levels and panning, with the drums in drummer’s perspective (we kept the overheads and room mics in the mix hard-panned in stereo, because they added some decent ambience), bass guitar in the center, and the six guitar tracks out further in the margins. (9:00, 10:00, 2:00 and 3:00)
The organ tracks were all centered. We had toyed with the idea of setting the organ off to the side, where it would be complemented by some of the guitars placed on the opposite end of the space, but it sounded better to have it a little lower and dead center, functioning as a background color that helped glue everything else together. We used automation to bring up a particular chord/drone on the first organ track, because it came up in the chorus with a more high-pitched drone/chord part that emphasized the drama and suspense as the sad, grizzled narrator’s hopes for the future were thwarted by the sassy, enticing woman in the bar who wasn’t into commitment.
For EQ we used a lot of presets. The “Massive Kick” preset sounded good on the “Kick Out” track. We reduced the level of “Kick In” because there seemed to be no way to make it sound good; it took a volume drop to minimize that ugly high-end thwack. The “clean hi-hat” preset worked like a charm on the ride cymbal track. We deepened the bass to give it some more power.
We added much-needed compression to the lead vocal track. The singer had a tendency to mumble some of his lines. He would deliver the first line loud and clear while the second line would be incomprehensible. The compression helped that.
We did a couple of automation tricks that, in a real studio situation, would be the sort of thing a producer would present to the artist by saying, “I have an idea that might seem crazy. We don’t have to use it, but let’s just try it and see what you think.” I noticed that the phased guitar solo sounded extra-shrill after the compression had been added. (We had limited it pretty hard in response to a couple of errant notes that pushed it into the red.) I tried putting the project in Grid Mode, setting the pencil tool to a triangle, and setting the grid at 100 milliseconds. I changed the guitar solo from waveform to pan and drew the triangle pattern on the entire guitar solo. Strangely, this over-the-top move made the solo sound less irritating and more exciting.
We also put a send on the lead vocal that was bussed to a separate aux track with a delay set to a “simple eighths” preset. I changed the send fader to “auto write” and only brought it up when the singer went “Whoahhhhh” before going on to “bottle of wine”, so that only the “whoa” would echo. I brought the echoing “whoas” back up in the middle of the guitar solo, which sounded really cool and made us all smile. Suddenly the resigned, despondent bar pickup scene turned into something more disorienting and more evocative of how such a scene might really feel: a little exciting and confusing, something you may regret later but can’t resist now.
I admit I have a strong feeling that so-called “classic rock” styled bands should not be afraid to inject something supposedly “weird” into their music. Even a group as self-consciously rootsy as The Band knew how to do that. (Think of the wah-wah clavinet on “Up On Cripple Creek”.) It’s the “what the hell was THAT?” element that gets an audience’s attention and should not be overlooked in a producer’s tool chest.