Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 7

When you're a producer, you hear a lot of demands from your various musicians. They sound something like this:

Drummer: "I want every piece of my drumset to be distinguishable in the mix, so people don't miss the cool patterns I'm doing."
Electric guitarist: "I didn't buy my $2200 Les Paul Standard for nothing. The world needs to hear my awesome tone."
Acoustic guitarist: "Can I get the vintage Martin sound on this record? I did spend $2400 on this guitar."
Bass guitarist: "Don't make me sound muddy, especially on the part where I'm soloing"
Vocalist: "I hate my voice. Let's put double-tracking, delay and reverb on it."
Arta: "Where's my pick?"

A good wall-of-sound producer will ignore all of these comments. You cannot make everyone sound the way they want, if you expect to create the kind of depth required by the wall-of-sound.

Think of yourself as the conductor of an orchestra. You are in control of your musicians. If your musicians want to go and create their own records so that they would individually sound the way they want, they can do so. But right now they are working for the collective good, the wall-of-sound, and you are the organizer of this project.

I make these points because musicians who do not appreciate the wall-of-sound will certainly not appreciate having his or her instrument buried under layers of echo and reverb, and also because the most common kind of the wall-of-sound has multiple instruments playing the same melody to create a new, bigger sound. This is a trick employed by both Phil Spector and Brian Wilson to create the most monumental hits.

The more instruments you hear playing a melody, the more powerful the melody sounds. Having more instruments also creates more depth to the song, because following the rule in Part 5, you would have to move the instruments farther away from the listener in order to hear the lead singer.

Here are some examples of this technique:

Bass with piano: The Ronettes - "Sleigh Ride"
Lead vocals with oboe: The Beach Boys - "I'm Waiting For The Day"
Electric guitar with piano: The Beach Boys - "California Girls"
Glockenspiel with flute: The Beach Boys - "Sloop John B"
Piano and piano an octave up: The Ronettes - "Baby, I Love You"
Electric guitar and electric guitar an octave up: The Crystals - "Then He Kissed Me"

Remember, even if you have a room full of instruments, it is not wall-of-sound unless you apply the appropriate amount of echo and reverb to all the instruments, as described in Part 5. And remember, too, you don't always need to have a room full of instruments for the song to be wall-of-sound. Think about the sparse instrumentation on "Instant Karma." Or the opening bars of "Imagine," where the piano echoes are sufficient to create a deep sound.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with your fundamental assumption that music production has to be a hierarchical and authoritarian project. The "conductor" of an orchestra provides a beat and helps each of the hundred instrumentalists stay in sync with the whole -- he doesn't "ignore" anyone's will or act as a veto. Does a string quartet have a conductor? Why does the producer have to "ignore" the wishes of the bandmembers -- why create that kind of dichotomy in the first place, a rigid binary between "band member" and "producer"? That might be the way Phil Spector operated, (the man was also fond of pointing guns at his musicians) but plenty of bands have been able to have a cooperative, egalitarian artistic process. You might think that Radiohead started to sound shit when their producer started to let them have free rein, but I think they actually started to suck when Thom Yorke essentially became the band leader and yeah, producer - the one who was free to ignore the rest of the band, make final decisions, and be unaccountable.

In other words, why should people run their bands in a way that you and I find repugnant when applied to the organization of larger institutions (such as the state)?

Anonymous said...

As a footnote, take our own band as an example:

We've always been a completely egalitarian institution. We do all our own recording, producing, mixing, mastering. It's not a perfect process, we revise and redo things a ton of times until everyone's happy, but isn't that sort of consensus-driven system a hell of a lot better than having some outside producer who dictates to us?

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