Gentlemen Songsters Studio Diary: Mixing

Tom’s been mixing as he goes, getting a feel for the songs while we’ve still been adding bits. Mixing an album is a complex job that (in a way) if it’s done well, isn’t really noticeable to anyone who hasn’t played on it, or doesn’t listen with a technical ear. It’s hard to think of an analogy for it,  but perhaps it’s like combining disparate ingredients into a dish that’s consistently delicious and satisfying: more then the sum of its parts.

Tom’s dealing with the technicals and aesthetics of sound, but in a very musical way.

Art deco nightstandIn reaching for an inadequate metaphor I’m thinking of the songs as a suite of art-deco furniture. They’re already well designed, constructed and presented: Tom, however ensures the drawers glide open and shut, sands off any rough edges, varnishes, polishes, ensures the fixtures match and sometimes goes right inside them to reinforce their (sonic) structure. It really is like dancing about architecture.

Late on Saturday night Tom sends us the album to download as one long file (it’s standing at 16 tracks) which we review and offer back notes – Tom’s unambiguous about requesting notes that aren’t ambiguous, we know he’s he’s dealing with a lot of data, so our responses are time-coded and brief.

vintage mixing deskYou can only hear something for the first time once. It’s sounding pretty marvellous – I listen to it all the way through, then re-play the ones that demand it. There aren’t many notes. A missed solo here, drums could be a little louder here: it’s less than 10 suggestions for change within quite a lot of music. Tom also masters it which means adjusting the relative volume/intensity of all the different tracks on the album to ensure a kind of consistency across the collection.

Track Order

Via email, Sam and I go back and forth on the order of the tracks. This kind of sequencing is perhaps less important in the download era, but it’s a paradigm I’m happily stuck in. The album of recorded music could be likened to an exhibition of paintings – a collection of images created and arranged to evoke a particular ouvre. There’s a main entrance (the front door) that people have historically used, and therefore submit to the path the curator has dictated; experiencing the exhibition/album in a singular way, a sequence in time,  determined by the artist’s intention.

But haven’t we always skipped and re-played and re-curated music from albums – from LP’s to Cassettes to CD’s?

To pursue the exhibition analogy, the availability of music in digital form online might imply the destruction of the main entrance: that now, people are climbing in through the windows, and can sprint around the pictures in their own set of 10-second audio previews, effectively curating the experience themselves. Or they can just steal the lot.

But that doesn’t mean an exhibition shouldn’t be designed at all,  or an album of new songs shouldn’t be carefully sequenced. There must be an initial structure, even if it exists to be departed from, or re-structured.

Track order and artwork

working on the sequence of songs

As I look back over the emails we exchanged to determine the sequence of songs, I can see that it was about having a memorable top and tail, a program that shifts moods, feels and emphasis over time. Right now most of the material seems pretty strong so it’s not a matter of burying the duds or filler in the middle somewhere.

Two songs of similar mood or feel may be separated. The songs talk to each other as well, there’s a kind of ‘mutual framing’ effect in which (for example) a more sincere song suddenly followed by a silly tune could be perceived as mutually detrimental.

All these complicated decisions are being made in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We’re not heroes, we all should be in bed, but this thing has to be finished. It’d be nice to luxuriate in the process, but the focus and intensity that’s been there from the beginning continues into these final stages. Now each of the completed songs flies to a virtual drop-box , and migrates to our in-boxes and glove-boxes. There are 16 songs.

The next step is to complete the artwork, such as it is, take the master to the people who make CD’s, and upload the audio and paratext (what genre is this music?) to the aggregator who will distribute it digitally. That’s all fiddly work, but… it’s do-able.

We have an album.

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