You know, life takes us to change, to grow, to evolve.
Right now I’m reading “How Music Works” by David Byrne. An enlightening book that I highly recommend reading to anyone who happened to come across this article. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician or just a fan. The notions contained in the book are reflections, anecdotes, studies and analysis of historical periods and the evolution that music has had overtime in accordance with culture, society and technological advancement.
The Singers is a band I was proudly a part of between 2011 and 2016. A family that I joined when their identity had already been well-defined by the album The Room Went Black, which they released before our meeting and which I had not participated in the creative phase. My first performance with them was at the album’s showcase! I had immediately fallen in love with the acid guitar riffs, the dirty indie rock with which I had grown up in pre-adolescence. The Singers embodied many of those influences and combined them with so much more and made them even more interesting.
As a keyboardist, I had to make room for me between the wall of sound built by the two guitars, the bass, the drums, and (well, from the name of the band you could already understand) the 4 voices. A vocal and musical chorality that already had its own specific identity but was so near to me that in the end, it didn’t cost anyone any effort. On the contrary, we managed to create an even more uniform sound without upsetting anything/anyone: in hindsight, it was instinctive but at the same time very well-thought-out work. We rehearsed 3 times a week, 3 hours each time. Few bands I know are involved in this way, none of the others I’ve played in. I basically acted as a glue, dubbing many of the existing parts with synth and piano sounds, adding counter melodies to some vocal parts of the verses and choruses. Everything was aimed at enriching the harmony of the parts, but without giving up the dirty spirit of rock that had fascinated me so much. A bet won on all fronts.
9 years and still going strong
Why am I telling this story? As I was saying, The Room Went Black is an album released independently in 2011. It took us on tour in Italy on many dates. However, we sang in English, so we dreamed of crossing the Alps and reaching international audiences. The choices of arrangement and sound also looked in that direction. We didn’t succeed (we partially did). The lack of experience at the time did not allow us to have the lucidity to take the right steps and invest the resources available to achieve that goal. At that time I was playing with several bands and I still had to start both my path in the conservatory and my adventure in Cosecomuni Recording Studio.
However, the situation found a turning point 9 years later. Today I have become the producer we would have needed at the time for artistic, technical, and market skills. I work on a daily basis for delivering production music, often contributing to the catalog of music licensing companies. Periodically I ended up listening to the album on digital platforms in a nostalgic way, then a light bulb went on: why not relaunch it in a new guise as a record for synchronization with media productions? A short time later I proposed it to the band and then to Flipper Music International. I didn’t receive such a strong response and in such a short time as this turn. So, I tried asking the sound engineer who was in charge of the recordings and the mix of the album then if he still has the original projects crammed somewhere in his hard disk. It was a long shot, but it was worth a try. I knew that if the answer was “yes” it was an opportunity to revive an album with enormous potential.
Well, against all probability, a few days later I received the link to download the original Pro Tools projects. I was genuinely excited as a child! I’ve never had the chance to even put my hands and listen to the full multitrack of the album and I smelled right away that my intuition hadn’t lied to me: that album rocked.
Re-editing, remixing, remastering, reissuing…in short, looking for a new sound.
All these terms may seem too many, but believe me when I write that the work done on this album has been really dense and I had to go through all those processes.
One of the things I noticed right away was the total absence of any possible editing. Honestly, I was very surprised about that. Let’s be clear: I’m not one to defend the reckless editing no matter what. But, come on, how would it have been possible to think of the mathematical joints of albums such as Silent Alarm by Bloc Party or Antidotes by Foals, without frightening attention to the sync of the parts? Let me try to explain. Just in “How Music Works”, David Byrne underlines the difference between what is the sound of a live band and what is the sound of their record product. So I’m not referring to how the sound of a band is solid when they perform live and how cohesive and perfect the breaks within the tracks are. When you record, you enter a completely different field: the band is often not used to the metronome and yet must be a slave to it (unless it’s a live recording, of course). The sound that identifies them is not given by the volumes of their gears in a rehearsal room or a stage, but by a mixer desk and the skills of those who manage it. All the instruments have to fit together to find a rhythmic, dynamic and timbric way of being together, defining a common identity. To support this, there is the direct experience I had: even before starting any form of a mix, I started to edit the basic elements that defined the rhythm of the tracks (drums, bass and guitars). Believe me, once I finished editing and pressed play to listen to the result, the record already sounded way better than the original. The cohesion of the bass, snare drum and bass transients created a solid foundation to support the weight of the guitars, which, once edited, in turn, reinforced this structure by armouring the sound even more. Only then did I have a clear path to work on the mix.
The idea was to have a record that preserved the roughness of the early 2000’s indie but had a full-bodied and hi-fi sound. It is often said that “once you found the sound of the drums you made 50% of the mix”. I can’t tell whether this is true or not. But I do know for sure that the original drums were not convincing at all: the sound was somehow plastic and very weak sound-wise. Having a drum sound that was frighteningly sharp was something that many tracks on the record required as a natural need. I had to work a lot with compression (standard, multiband, upward, parallel) and EQ to get it right but in the end, the sound of the bass drum and snare drum became what I was looking for. Massive, tight, and well cohesive.
The bass was next on the list. I have to say, it’s the one I had the least trouble with. Unfortunately, I’m not given the details of the recordings (what kind of amp, microphones, room were used), but I can only say that it was the most convincing thing of all. Of course, I had to work on it anyway: compression and equalization made sure that dynamics and frequencies were optimized to cope with the new more aggressive drum sound. Finally, this album had the rhythm session it ever deserved.
The guitars very often intertwined in hypnotic rhythmic joints. They too, fundamental for the dynamic development of the songs, had to have a sound review: the originals were too “closed” in terms of frequencies, it seemed they had a cold. I know these songs by heart and I know exactly which parts have to stand out as well as at which points of specific songs. Very often the two guitars are divided into rhythmic and melodic. However, in this record, they happen to swap roles too. In short, both are fundamental to each other. Precisely for this reason, they should not be “hunted” by the listener inside the mix. Rather they should be shot in the face and always audible. In the old version of the record, a fairly closed stereo field had been chosen which, eventually, made one guitar prevail over the other. I made a radical opposite decision: one guitar would always be all over the left channel while the other all over the right. Clearly both guitars had their own stereo delays and reverb anyway, so it’s as if they were playing in the same room but “leaning against the walls one in front of the other”. In the center, in full mono, there was just bass drum, snare drum, bass, and lead vocals.
The voices, starting with the lead, were another well-recorded item, yet needed treatment. Here I allowed myself to work a bit more creatively on effects, panning and enriching many passages with additional layers spatialized in stereophonic to get an even more full-bodied sound. They used to sound muted, undefined. I have been looking for surgical clarity and modernity. After all, it was all about the idea of the new sound that I was aiming for.
Finally, I gave my contribution as an honorary member of the band. Since I joined the band, I’ve been building additional keyboard parts (both piano and synths) and choirs to fit into the live sound that we brought on stage. So I reconstructed those sounds and put them into the tracks. Long story short: I’m in The Room Went Black now as I was with The Singers on the stage.
The last step was the management of the sound space: beyond what is the planar panning (from left to right), I have taken care of the parameter of depth and rooms as best as possible. Playing with reverbs I put the proximity parameter into play. Sometimes I even played with psycho-acoustics through the use of mono-to-stereo tools in layering that allowed me to enhance individual tracks, phase-compensating, and rebalancing the spatial imaging of stereo mixes. On choirs and backing vocals I used delays and pitch modulations, achieving an extraordinary richness and texture. All of this was taken into account especially during the mastering phase where I made sure that there were no phase inconsistencies during the delivery by working carefully in terms of compression and equalization in Mid/Side mode.
Enough talk, let me listen to it!
Okie dokie! There you go: