Words by Tom Pimlott
I’m obsessed with sound. Whenever I’ve read about my favourite bands, I’ve always tried to soak up as much info on how they recorded their classics as I could. The whole process and it’s literally endless spectrum of outcomes fascinates me, so attempting to write about it seemed like an obvious, if not difficult, idea. Sound can make or break a record. This seems like such an obvious statement, but I do feel that it’s worth discussing. When it comes to the sound and production on a recording, I believe that out of necessity there are no hard and fast rules. The sheer amount of variables in the recording process alone (and that’s not even considering mixing and mastering) is just too great to ever reproduce any recording accurately. Room size and shape, equipment, musicians, recording gear, they all make a huge difference. Even the seemingly tiny details can have a massive impact on the finished product. No two bands will ever sound the same (unless you’re on Fat Wreck…). Maybe one guitarist uses really heavy picks and hits the strings like a drum and another tickles them with a paper triangle. Another might use really light gauge strings. One drummer might have a slack snare head, the other might crank it like a concrete block. There could be twenty-four tracks on one recording and four on another. There might be a dirt floor in one room, shag carpeting in another. Painted walls, wallpaper, soundproofing, high ceilings, low ceilings, close mics, distance mics, tape, digital, it all counts and makes each recording as unique (sometimes more so) as the band that recorded it. Thus, I don’t really want to talk in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ production, as my tastes often tend to deviate from the path of the bell-clear high fidelity that most would consider to be ‘good’, hence the name of this webzine. So in short this is essentially a list of sounds that get my own blood pumping for various reasons, other than the actual songs themselves. I originally planned a top ten, which then expanded to twenty, then I finally had to say enough was enough at thirty. I decided to do the list chronologically, as it would take me longer to rank them in order than it would to swim from Liverpool to Cape Town, and in decade sections, so it wasn’t too overwhelming. So here we go…
What better way to kick off this list than with the King Of Rock And Roll himself? Practically a double A-side, this single is incredible and the production backs it up, especially on ‘Hound Dog’. This wasn’t the first version of this slice of genius of course, originally penned by Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller and first recorded by Big Mama Thornton who hit with it back in 1952. But if Thornton had hit with it, then Elvis knocked it clean out of the park with his version four years later. ‘Hound Dog’ on it own easily makes my list of greatest songs ever recorded, and if you crank it up it’s easy to see why. Imagine hearing that huge, airy, resonant drum kit slamming along to this twelve bar blues in 1956! ‘How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?‘ wasn’t exactly ancient history at this point, to put it in a pop context, and the loudness of this recording must have been terrifying to parents of the day. It sounds so live and fun, like it was recorded at a house party. The highlights for me are the lead guitar tone, used so sparingly for most of the song and then wildly for the solo sections, that booming kick drum and the big fat snare on those rolls into the stop gap, and finally those distinctly 1950s sounding doo-wop-esque backing vocals. Just like those haunting scratchy early 20th century vocal sounds, the techniques of the 50s produced their own unique stamp on vocal recordings of the time. Another amazing thing about this record, and others of the era, is that it took just 11 days to record, master, press and release it. Less than two weeks from studio to shelf. Absolutely unthinkable now. Thanks a lot, Record Store Day.
Muddy is easily the closest link on this list to the very roots of rock and pop music, having learned his craft from the original first wave of rural bluesmen, to who whom we owe everything for most of the music we know, love and play today. The owners of Chess Records, two Polish immigrant brothers in Chicago named Phil and Leonard Chess, took care of production for their label in-house, and this is my personal favourite sounding example. It feels like every part of this record is living and breathing, just pushing into the red, giving it a nice raw but warm edge. The rhythm section bounces along slow and tight as if it were glued together on the moon. And then there’s the piercing clean guitar that busts in for the solo, only dirtied up by sheer volume and most likely overloading the microphone. Waters’ vocals sound big and powerful, comfortable in the peak of his electrified prime. It is also worth noting that as he had learned his blues trade from the likes of Son House et al, his first recordings were firmly rooted in that style, and this is what audiences were anticipating when Muddy and his contemporaries toured the UK in the late 50s, where traditional blues music was amidst an unexpected surge in popularity following the gradual decline of rock and roll’s major players. Instead of ‘authentic’ country style delta blues, Muddy Waters turned up with a Chicago style backing band, plugged in a Fender Telecaster and cranked up the volume. The style would go on to inspire a whole generation of British musicians that would evolve into The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Animals etc. This single is the result of Muddy and his band honing that new electrified style of blues in the Chicago clubs, and what a fine result it is.
There’s a great B-side to this single by the Native American guitar master from North Carolina. You’d be forgiven for having never heard it though, because the A-side ‘Rumble’ is practically impossible to flip over. It is probably the highest high of perfection that any instrumental song will ever achieve, and part of that is down to the incredible sound. Link Wray pioneered two extremely important techniques that essential elements of rock music ever since, both of which are showcased in ‘Rumble’. Firstly, the power chord. There is some debate as to whether Link actually invented the power chord, but at the very least he undoubtedly popularised what would become rock’s bread and butter. Secondly, and more pertinent to our little discussion here; distortion. This wasn’t a fuzz box though, nor was it an overdriven signal or overloaded microphone. That sublime just-over-the-edge-of-breakup tone was achieved by piercing the speaker cones on his amplifier, a technique that was then employed for years after by garage bands searching for that same sound. It’s not exactly Bolt Thrower tone, but in 1958 it was enough to make some more straight-laced folks wet their pants.
In fact, due to the title, guitar sound, chord progression and that creeping beat, this is one of the only songs in history to be banned from radio stations without having any lyrics. Today this seems crazy, but it’s understandable in an era that was still getting to grips with Little Richard sweating profusely and screaming his head off at the piano. The word ‘rumble’ was quite commonly used at the time in reference to gang fights, and the whole thing just sounds so mean and menacing, to the point where you can almost hear the jangle of chains and the click of switchblades in the guitar tone. Another great little detail in this recording is that each time he rings out on the last section, you can hear Link turning up the vibrato on his amp a little more, ending up sounding almost underwater. Mean sounds for the toughest song of the 1950s.
(NB. Link Wray’s little known 12-bar blues banger ‘Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’ was in consideration for this list too. Vocal tracks were rare from Link, as a bout of tuberculosis during the Korean War forced the removal of one of his lungs and made singing very difficult for him, hence the abundance of his signature vocal-mimicking guitar instrumentals. The sound on the record is incredible)
Coming soon: The Sixties…