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, “wow…this is the album that kind of ‘put me on the map’, so to speak? how messed up is that?” it’s a pretty odd album 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. just…weird. i didn’t think anyone would like it then, and it still surprises me that it’s possibly the most popular thing i’ve ever done. it’s not that i don’t think it’s worthy of the attention; actually, i think i’ll always feel that it’s one of the high points in my discography. i guess i just didn’t expect that so many other people would think so, too.
another thing that struck me was the sound/production quality. at the time, that album was by far the best-sounding thing i had 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 essentially the same over the last five albums, but it’s interesting to hear how much things have changed sonically just in that short time. i guess i really am still getting better at whatever it is that i do…but i don’t often notice how much things have improved, until i’m looking at two examples that stand in such stark contrast to one another.
if i were to record CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN today, it would sound so much richer and fuller, it’s not even funny. but it wouldn’t necessarily be a better album…just different. it wouldn’t be the same album that 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 think the same thing about NIHILISTS.
the whole point is that every album comes from a different place, and things are always shifting and changing, even if it’s such a subtle thing at times that it isn’t immediately obvious just what’s changed. 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 everything sounds like poo these days), and one thing that was always interesting to me was how, through compressing the crap out of everything to get it to stand out, you actually shoot yourself in the foot in some ways (aside from obviously making things sound like poo). because once your song hits the radio, it’s going to go through another limiter — the one that radio stations use to make sure all the songs are at an even level — and sound absolutely awful when it hits the airwaves, with whatever transients hadn’t been crushed at the mastering stage now turned into complete mush. it may 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 is not squashed during the mastering stage to be as loud as everything else and has some dynamics to it will jump out as sounding a whole lot better, because it’s only getting compressed/limited once. makes sense.
i never, however, imagined i would 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 had announced on facebook that i was among the artists she would be playing, and i was curious what song would get some play. turned out it was “crustacean cancer survivor”, which seems to be one of the songs on the new cd that people like most, for whatever reason.
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 generally recorded to sound a certain way. the drums are mic’d up to within an inch of their lives, and sound about the same from one song and artist to the next. there’s that same snare drum crack. there’s that same smashed-to-hell-with-compression sound. i’m not saying it’s wrong — i understand that 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 was hearing my song in the midst of all this, which was mastered by me using no real mastering equipment at all, not overly compressed, and recorded/produced/mixed in a very different way…and realizing how much more depth there seemed to be, compared to some of the other songs, many of which were recorded in more traditional studio spaces and properly mastered.
again, i’m not saying my music sounds better. it’s just interesting 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, if i do say so myself. 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, i saw that his latest audio recording — over HERE — kind of has to do with me. i wasn’t expecting that. thanks to tom for the kind words…and i think ukulele lullabies are a wonderful idea. i mean, how many kids can say they got ukulele lullabies to lull them to sleep?
seriously. that’s your homework assignment for tonight. come up with a number, and get back to me with your findings.