‘Call On Me’
Once any commercial electronic music style has progressed beyond sheer “Whoa! Cool robot noises!” sonic novelty value, one of the perennial challenges facing producers is how to imbue their synthetic/sampled raw materials with enough humanity to elicit slightly deeper emotional responses. The most obvious way of doing this is by layering in a lead vocal with plenty of grain/ style/ wistfulness/ soul/ lewdness (delete as appropriate). These days, however, the extreme corrective and/or intentionally destructive processing frequently meted out on lead vocals in the name of genre-friendly ear-candy can undermine their emotional immediacy somewhat, as in the case of this recent debut single from Starley. She’s not a bad singer by any means, but whatever unique character she might have had is all but stifled under a ton of band-wagon EDM effects that in themselves aren’t evocative enough to draw me emotionally into the production as a whole.
Which is why the opening acoustic guitar part’s such a lifesaver. By contrast with the vocal, it’s full of plenty of authentic-sounding character, thereby adding a crucial extra organic dimension to the verses of this song. The musical content of the part itself isn’t anything to write home about, but that’s not the point, because what’s special is everything that’s going on around the notes: the little creaks as left-hand fingers are repositioned on the fretboard; the faint suggestions of the player’s breathing and the rustle of their clothing; and the air-band background hiss that’s pumping in response to the channel’s dynamics processing and/or automation. By conjuring a convincing image of a physical, warts-and-all performance occurring within the arrangement, that guitar part significantly increases the song’s overall sense of emotional sincerity for me, especially since its intimate sonics naturally support the verse’s upfront, breathy lead vocal delivery. Mike Senior
‘Never Be Like You’
Had it not recently bagged the Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album, this fabulous record might well have slipped under my radar, given Flume’s poor showing in the UK charts. And what a loss that would have been, because I don’t think a mainstream EDM track has impressed me this much since Skrillex properly went overground a few years back. Although the fabulous stuttering dirty-south-esque drum programming and opulent smorgasbord of ear-catching spot-effects are both big parts of the appeal of ‘Never Be Like You’, for me the biggest ‘wow’-factor comes from the lavishly modulated main rhythm pad first heard at 0:40. What impressed me about Skrillex was his realisation of the untapped riff-making potential of butt-edited samples (see December 2013’s column), and as I see it Flume’s rhythm synth is capitalising on another under-utilised production concept: namely, the idea of synth gain-pumping.
Now I don’t mean to say that kick-triggered gain-pumping of synths is new — you’d have to have been locked in a safety deposit box for at least 30 years to have missed that trick! Neither is it uncommon for EDM tracks these days to maintain their gain-pumping in the absence of the drum sample that’s ostensibly driving it, but the essential pumping effect is almost always an extremely simple four-to-the-floor job. What’s so great about Flume’s production is that its gain-pumping effects are extraordinarily complex, and it remains ambiguous to the listener how they’re being triggered. To what extent are they influenced by other arrangement elements? Are there unheard background tracks being used solely for triggering (ie. not being fed to the mix buss)? Or is it all just MIDI controllers or some kind of modulation matrix? So, for instance, under “never be like you” at 1:07 it almost sounds like the rhythm pad is being ducked in response to the vocal phrase for a moment, but immediately afterwards the pumping rhythm then seems to lose any relation to the rest of the arrangement (or indeed the metric grid) at all, while still implausibly somehow making musical sense! Another head-scratcher occurs under “hoo-oo” at 0:50, where the synth pad doesn’t seem to respond much to kick or snare for a moment, but then audibly gain-pumps to the subsequent hits. Exactly how this has all been brought about is immaterial — the point is that it keeps you guessing constantly about the relationship between that pad and the vocal and percussion elements of the arrangement, and expands the synth’s independent expressive potential enormously.
But there’s so much more synth goodness to admire in this production besides: the almost Christmassy opening layered synth/chimes wash; the grimy sub-bass riser at 1:09; the sudden random synth ‘A’ accenting “you” mid-verse at 1:23; the pitched and stutter-edited strings sample layered with the main pad from 3:20; and the fabulous filter-sweep moments at 0:38 and 3:35. Honestly, the level of detail in the programming and mixing here is jaw-dropping, so if this is the future of mainstream EDM, then let me be the first to cry “Hallelujah!” Mike Senior
‘I Hate U, I Love U’
Although I confess I initially groaned inwardly at this ballad’s lazy ‘female singer too maudlin to stretch beyond wistful block chords’ cliché, I did eventually warm to the production’s overall restraint and economy of means, which focus more attention on the vocal performances, for example the brilliant moment when Gnash unexpectedly lashes out with “you said you wouldn’t then you fucking did”.
Within that context, the production’s highlights for me are actually its end-of-section gaps — or, to be more specific, that portion of piano sustain tail that remains unadorned between the end of the vocalist’s final word and the onset of the next section’s first chord. The first such hiatus (0:21) already feels quite long at almost two seconds, but the next two (0:44 and 2:31) add another whole second to that, and the final one clocks in at about 4.5 seconds — an eternity in pop terms. Max Martin would have hit you with at least two hooks in that time! Not to disparage it, though, because I actually think it’s incredibly effective at underpinning the lyrical mood here, creating a musical embodiment of the uncomfortable silences that arise in relationship conversations wherever questions of hurt or betrayal are involved. Mike Senior
La La Land (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
‘City Of Stars’
There are few stars of the modern screen I’d personally class as great singers, which is perhaps why it often seems that sung vocals in live-action films have been (ahem) ‘over-sanitised’ using overdubbing and various digital audio manipulations. A major reason why I like the winner of Best Original Song at this year’s Oscars, therefore, is that it resolutely avoids this, wearing its imperfections on its sleeve as a talisman of emotional authenticity.
Let’s take the tuning, for instance. Now while I’m certainly not going to assert that surreptitious Auto-Tuning is entirely absent here (my instinctive suspicion of the Hollywood myth is far too deep-seated for that!), I simply can’t detect a single audible artifact of it. Indeed, the main reason I’d deduce the presence of behind-the-scenes pitch-correction is that the occasionally wayward tuning of the duet sections (eg. “I don’t” at 1:37) is so utterly convincing! You see, apparently this song’s on-set vocals weren’t replaced in post-production, as would normally happen in film musicals, and I’d imagine that the polyphonic audio from the actors’ comparatively noisy concealed miniature mics (or out-of-frame shotgun mics) would have been almost impossible to fully correct without introducing noticeable digital gargles, even using the borderline magic of Melodyne’s DNA algorithm.
And speaking of the noisy signals, I think those enhance the sense of immediacy too. Pretty much everyone nowadays recognises the noise-pumping that occurs when the built-in limiter on a handheld camera attempts to even out the signal from its little internal mic — and furthermore that it provides a powerful subliminal cue that what they’re hearing is unadulterated audio that was actually recorded live with the video. So, for example, the very fact that the background noise noticeably increases as the quieter words are faded up towards, say, the end of “I felt it from the first embrace I shared with you” suggests a certain ‘reality TV’ cachet that a slick ADR overdub wouldn’t normally possess. You just believe you’re actually hearing that actor singing live.
Of course, it’s certainly possible we’re actually victim to an elaborate ruse here. After all, we’ve all heard rumours of Hollywood stars being surreptitiously airbrushed frame by frame visually, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to conceive that artificial ‘realism’ might have been added to traditional ADR recordings to prop up the heavily marketed conceit that ‘it was all performed live’. Fortunately, whether we’re hearing ‘real real’ or ‘fake real’ in this case is a moot point — the bottom line is that the end product feels 100 percent convincing to me, and I only hope that La La Land’s enormous success discourages more film-makers from polishing singers to death in future. Mike Senior
Classic Mix: Domenico Modugno ‘Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)’ (1958)
It’s worth shopping around to find an original mono version of this single, as all the stereo versions I found appeared to have been ‘stereo-ised’ by veiling the details with a layer of more or less hamfisted stereo reverb, which is a shame given that the arrangement here is something rather special.
The backing band accompanying Modugno’s lead vocal is already a little unusual, comprising bass, drums, guitar, piano, Hammond organ and harp, something that initially impressed me was how these forces were used to cover a surprisingly large timbral range. At the very opening of the song, for instance, cymbal rolls and a harmonic-rich Hammond sound provide a truly creditable illusion of strings, while the layered harp chord and Hammond stab that follows the first “Nel blu dipinto di blu” at 0:59 creates a tremendous impersonation of vibes. Indeed, the Hammond player is totally the star of the show for me, exhibiting enormous sensitivity and expression with the volume pedal throughout, and delivering that lovely shimmering flute-like countermelody at “una musica dolce suonava”.
But the quality of this arrangement extends beyond pure timbral invention. Notice how the harp, piano, and Hammond take turns to court the listener’s interest whenever the vocal falls silent during those rubato sections that precede the first and third “Volare! O-oh!” entries. And there are also some lovely section contrasts, for example between the Hammond-driven richness of “Volare! O-oh” and the tight bass and guitar texture of the “Nel blu dipinto del blu” section — the latter again strongly reminiscent of a string orchestra, although this time in pizzicato mode.
There’s one curious thing I noticed about the mix, though: the drums take a significant step backwards in the balance for the second half of the song. It starts off as a bit of a hi-hat concerto, to be honest, but I’m guessing the prominent cymbal hit at the second “Volare!” (1:25) must have woken up the balance engineer, because the kit then slowly subsides to a more musically appropriate level over the following five seconds... Mike Senior