I pulled out CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN for a listen all the way through the other day for the first time in quite a while. And I thought, “This is the album that kind of ‘put me on the map’? How messed up is that?”
It’s a pretty odd one when you think about it. So many songs, most of them very short. Some pretty weird subject matter. Some pretty oddball vocal performances. Some pretty odd production choices. I didn’t think anyone would like it then, and it still surprises me that it’s maybe the most popular thing I’ve ever done.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s worthy of the attention. I think it’ll always be one of my own personal favourites in my discography. I just never expected so many other people would think so too.
Another thing that struck me was the sound/production quality. At the time, this album was by far the best-sounding thing I’d ever done. After I finished listening to it the other day I threw on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS and just about lost control of my bodily functions for a moment. Most of the important gear (mics, preamps, compressors, mixer) has remained pretty much the same over the last five albums, but it’s interesting to hear how much has changed sonically just in that short time. I guess I really am still getting better at whatever it is that I do…but it doesn’t tend to register just how much some things have improved until I’m looking at two examples that stand in such stark contrast to each other.
If I recorded CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN today it would sound a lot richer and fuller. But it wouldn’t necessarily be better…just different. It wouldn’t be the same album it exists as now. I think it’s as it should be — a document of the time in which it was created. Five albums into the future, I’ll probably be thinking the same thing about NIHILISTS.
Every album comes from a different place, and things are always shifting and changing, even if it’s such a subtle thing that it isn’t immediately obvious what’s shifted. It’s all just a big never-ending journey, with floppy-shoe-wearing clowns and cynical princesses and suicidally depressed court jesters. Or maybe that’s the concept for my first music video. Who can say?
To that end, I’ve read all kinds of things about the Loudness War (google it if you’re interested in reading about how most music sounds like poo these days). One thing that was always interesting to me was how, through compressing the crap out of everything to get it to stand out, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Once your song hits the radio, it’s going to go through another limiter — the one radio stations use to make sure all the songs are at an even level — and it’ll sound awful when it hits the airwaves, with whatever transients that weren’t crushed at the mastering stage now turned into complete mush. It might be louder than everything else when you pop it in your car, but on the radio it won’t be any louder than any other song. Meanwhile, a song that isn’t squashed at the mastering stage and has some dynamics left intact will jump out as sounding a whole lot better than the competition, because it’s only getting squashed once.
I never imagined I would get to hear a demonstration involving my own music. Theresa has played my stuff on The Rock a few times, on her Sunday night show that spotlights local music (thanks, Theresa). Tonight I tuned in, because she announced on Facebook I was one of the artists she would be playing and I was curious which song would get the nod. Turned out it was “Crustacean Cancer Survivor”, which seems to be one of the songs on the new album people like most.
What was instructive for me was hearing how much modern music — even music that comes out of this city — sounds pretty much the same from a production standpoint. Or at least the “rock” music does. Much of it is electric guitar-based, and the electric guitars are all recorded and processed to sound the same way. The drums are mic’d up to within an inch of their lives and sound about the same from one song, artist, and recording studio to the next.
I’m not saying it’s wrong. I understand this is the sound that’s “in” right now. It’s what you hear on commercial radio, so if your aspirations are to get your songs heard in that realm, it makes sense to go for that sound.
What was really interesting, though, was hearing my song in the midst of all this. I mastered it myself, using no real mastering equipment at all. I didn’t use a ton of compression, and I recorded, produced, and mixed it at home. Compared to some of the other songs, many of which were recorded in more traditional studio spaces and properly mastered, what I heard was pretty shocking. The other songs just sat there, sounding pretty limp. Mine came blasting out of the speakers, full of life and depth.
I’m not saying my music sounds better. At least it shouldn’t sound better than something recorded in a professional studio. But it’s fascinating to compare professionally produced stuff and recorded-by-some-dude-in-his-house stuff, and to hear how the two different kinds of stuff sound on the radio. I think my stuff sounds pretty good in that context. So hooray for me!
On another note, Tom Lucier (a stuff-doer if ever there was one) has started doing this thing where he uses the audio recording function on his iPhone to interview other local stuff-doers, and also to get down some thoughts. To my surprise, his latest audio recording kind of has a bit to do with me. I wasn’t expecting that. Thanks to Tom for the kind words. I think crafting ukulele lullabies for his children is a wonderful idea. How many kids can say they were lulled to sleep in such a way when they were growing up?