Friday, May 19, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 3

During the late 1960s, the hip crowd hated pop music because it represented their parent's generation. Today, the hip crowd hates pop music because it simply sucks. But it has not always been that way. As mentioned, some of the most influential artists of the 1960s enjoyed chart-topping pop. For instance, John Lennon's adoration of Motown girl groups would be the equivalent of Radiohead's Thom Yorke singing praise for the Spice Girls.

When the Beatles stopped touring, Phil Spector retired and the Beach Boys failed to show up at the Monterey Pop Festival, that was the beginning of a downward trend in pop music. First of all, the great wall-of-sound would all but disappear, except for isolated gems like Lennon's "Imagine." Pop eventually settled into a quasi-rock style featuring more guitars and beats. Some pop songs of this era were truly great, such as Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running." But most were just extended band jams, or sounded like one, as vocals became less prominent and had fewer hooks. Also around this time, Elton John introduced the world to a new kind of adult-oriented pop featuring 5-minute ballads of less than 80 bpm. Elton John is a brilliant artist, but he opened the doors for lesser artists to produce melodramatic music. Within twenty years, pop vocal hits would be torturously slow, expansive songs like Whitney Houston's "I WIll Always Love You" and Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." The world of Del Shannon's 2:20, 150 bpm "Runaway" seems like a million miles away.

I know this is a very simplified history of rock and I apologize if I am leaving some big holes in the narrative. If you want the canonical history, please read the RollingStone guide, available from any good bookseller. Many of my examples and assertions are designed only to inspire you to reflect on your own experience with music throughout the decades.

Here I will share a personal anecdote. I have a friend who, when shown music from the 1960s, would comment, "I don't like this song because it sounds dated. It sounds like music our parents listened to."

I do not blame my friend for holding this opinion. I blame it on a needlessly fast-moving consumer society that encourages us to trade in our broken appliances after five years of use, a society of fads and trends, where you are constantly comparing yourself to your neighbor, a society where glossy magazines published by the elite will tell you what colors to wear and what electronic toys to buy. The spectacle around us has conditioned us to think that new is good, old is bad.

And as I suggested in the last chapter, young people do not only get their opinions from the spectacle. They will emulate it. And when you have a situation where increasingly bad music is put on display, it only gives the young people permission to do it. When young people don't see barbershop quartets under spotlights and on television, how can we expect them to make that kind of music anymore?

Our radio stations play only new music, as though music is supposed to get better and better. Yes, there are college radio stations, but they, too, play mostly new music from independent labels. And much of this independent music is made by young people who are influenced by the easiest styles they can emulate, such as electronica and garage guitar rock.

My friend, new is not necessarily better. The thesis of this essay is that new recording techniques is not any better than old ones, and, when improperly used, can actually damage a good song.

A good example is Boyz II Men's 1992 hit "End Of The Road." Yes, they are sort of a boy band, but I ask you to set aside your feelings as I dissect the song. "End Of The Road" has more melody and a more aethestically-pleasing chord progression than most songs written since the mid-1960s. Boyz II Men's singers are some of the strongest since the Four Tops, and their harmonies are as tight as the Beach Boys'. And they were on Motown, the record label that came closest to the wall-of-sound in the few years after Spector and Wilson.

But times, they were soon a-changing. The younger producers and engineers, perhaps eager to prove themselves with new ideas, came up with ways to make every instrument and voice stand out on a recording. By the early 1990s, a well-trained engineer could isolate the different channels so well that you could swear the song was recorded in a vacuum.

"End Of The Road" is one of the most clinically clean song ever recorded, and so I am using it as an example of the aesthetic problems that can happen when you achieve technical perfection. Drums are mixed way in the front, and sound too crisp to be believable, and worst, they are nearly the same volume as the vocals. And there is no reason for drums to be so clear---"End Of The Road" is a slow waltz, not a danceable song. Just as annoyingly, the bell is mixed so close to the front that it sounds like a click track that has not been taken out. Furthermore, the keyboard sounds like a Radio Shack keyboard. The backup singers are so well-mixed, their voices so compressed, that they sound flat (in the spatial sense, not pitch-wise) against the equally flat accompaniment. It sounds like it's being performed from a single point inside your speakers instead of in a large room. In addition to failing to sound big and important, the song's lack of depth tells the listener: this song has no depth; it is not authentic. Furthermore, the sparse, indifferent instrumentation suggests karaoke music. The listener may not realize it consciously, but that's what they hear. No doubt much of the cool kids' distaste for pop music comes from the artificiality and hollowness of its sound. "Waterfalls," the Grammy-winning song by TLC, also suffers from drums that sound fake (because they obviously are).

"But why do people continue to buy modern pop CDs?" you ask. "I know plenty of people who love the music and I myself enjoy today's pop music."

Imagine you are, like most people in the world, a casual listener of pop. You've never heard anything from the 50s and 60s, because you don't listen to oldies radio (and besides, oldies radio don't play anything from the 50s). You've spent most of your life hearing pop on the radio. You go to dance clubs and you dig the beats. Why wouldn't you enjoy the latest Christina Aguilera single? It probably has a reasonably good melody and it gives you a certain amount of pleasure, as much pleasure as you will ever know from music. But what if you didn't live in a world of manufactured electronic dance pop? Would you still like it?

You protest, "Well, this is the world in which we live in. If a bad pop song gives us pleasure, what's the difference?"

The difference is that we are losing a recording technique and philosophy which, because of the tragic circumstances surrounding its inventors, is still in its infancy. It is a philosophy that I think can bring together the casual fans of pop and fans of "serious" music. Sure, the mainstream recording industry can continue cranking out its pop, and the alternative and indie recording industry can do its own thing indefinitely. But why not combine the best in both camps? Rock artists can learn from pop artists about what it takes to be accessible, and pop can learn about what it takes to achieve a more "honest" sound. I believe the wall-of-sound is a powerful effect that can give a song a timeless sound.

"Sure, I'll buy that. But why did we have to spent all this time on music history? Why not just give me the formula for the wall-of-sound?"

First of all, wall-of-sound demands that the producer know why he or she is employing the wall-of-sound. You need to be independent and thoughtful in choosing your methods. Following a strict formula without understanding it is as bad as the blind pursuit of a perfectly clean sound. Another reason for my lecturing is that if you are going to study wall-of-sound, you will discover that 90% of the best examples are found in old music. And finally, because a good wall-of-sound producer is also an artist; you have to think outside the box given to you by today's music industry.

Phil Spector's wall-of-sound had little to do with rock-and-roll of the time. Instead, it was influenced by the sounds of Richard Wagner. A good wall-of-sound producer should have more to do with a scholar of classical literature than a graduate of a recording school. Yes, you need to know how to use the equipment, but it is more important to know what you want to get out of the mix, what you mean by the mix. Again, it is important to know that a completely clean, clear sound is not necessarily the best sound for a song. That may sound illogical, but it is the essence of wall-of-sound.

I think we are now ready to talk about the specifics of the wall-of-sound. In the next section, we will begin with a history of the sound.

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