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Article: Sounds To Me...
Writer: Brinepacer
Date Posted: 01/03/00

I've been a production trainspotter for ages. Me and my friend Ronan used to go to gigs and comment on the snare drum and whatnot. I love anything produced by Steve Albini (although he hates to be called a producer, he simply sees himself as an engineer, which is fair enough, but he does have a sound). Production was always really important to me when my old band (Pacer) went into the studio, I used to drink too much coke and worry over bass drums! I worked myself into such a state once the engineer tried (in vain) to get me some valuum. I hated a few of our demos cos the production was too clean. Remixes were the order of the day, and if something didn't sound right I just couldn't bring myself to listen.

In the past year or so however, possibly due to listening to loads of shittily produced 70s/80s punk, I've kinda dropped the whole thing. I mean, I got to the point that I would completely discount a punk song if it was too clean, or not be able to take garage recordings seriously. But now, I really don't care; I've come to see that the song is first. I still go mad if a guitar or a set of toms sounds fan-tazzzle-tastic, but it's not such a big deal anymore. But recently I played a song for a mate by a kick ass Dublin band Mixtwitch. It was an MP3 off their new single, out soon and up on the net at a low sample rate to allow people to suggest tracklistings. But the guy thought it sounded too amateurish. But the thing is, he wasn't referring to the song, given a chance he thought it was really good. He was instantly turned away cos of the sound of it, the production. Now, he's no prodution trainspotter like me and Ronan were, he's an ordinary bloke and he instantly disliked the song due to the way it sounded.

The experience made me ashamed of the times I've done the same thing. It makes me think "Shit, how many decent bands have I missed out on due to some shitty engineer?". But when you think about it, if something sounds shitty, it will have a detrimental effect on the overall sound of the performance. Think of how many punk demos you've heard where the drummer sounds shit cos hes got a bad mix. Hell, even the Beatles demos I have sound like crap, and they're just John Lennon and a guitar, but the sparseness doesn't suit and it sounds a bit, well, shit.

But there really are some instances where production can get in the way. Some songs sound better when they sound like shit. Take 18th Dye's album 'Short Bus'. For those of you who don't know (being most of you I imagine), 18th Dye were a fantastic french band who played kinda minimalist punk/indie. Steve Albini produced said album and proclaimed them the best band in the world (though he does have a tendency to talk in outright proclamations, so its hard to take his word). Some of the songs started off with, or descended into (either permenantly or momentarily) noise, feedback, your general white-wall-of-noise kinda stuff. Some of the songs were just a bass line, a single chord on an old Hammond organ, and a snare drum. Shit as it may sound in words, they were truly fantastic. Thing is, the production was central. It sounded like shit, but in a huge-turd-getting-ready-to-flatten-new-york kinda way. Y'know, Steve Albini's sound (for those of you who are completely lost, he also produced Bush's album 'Razorblade Suitase', single 'Swallowed', and Nirvana's 'In Utero', single 'Heart Shaped Box'). But if it was produced by Bob Rock (Bon Jovi, Metallica), it would've sounded like shit. It really excelled when ripped apart, and layering and cleaning it would've denied it of it's beauty and power, two things that rarely go together, but existed side by side in this record.

On the other hand, some songs sound better all cleaned up. Take Smashing Pumpkin's 'Siamese Dream'. That album was produced to the last. It took them 8 months to make it (as compared to 18th Dye's week, or the two days it took to make At The Drive In's 'In Casino Out', another record that is all the better for half dodgy production). The 18 months were no doubt spent getting that guitar sound, tuning the drums, and layering the vocals. And the album is all the better for it, it sounds well because of it, and would sound shit if produced by Albini.

But the thing is, it shouldn't really matter. The songs should stand up on their own, and in fairness, both the aforementioned albums would stand up as good albums whatever way they were recorded, because they have songs. But the majority of people need to hear something that is produced so well, you can smell the polish off the CD case. I bet if you took a shittily produced version of 'Hit Me Baby One More Time', people would proclaim it a turd (which it is, but... well, y'know). What does it matter? Are we so lost in drum machines and Yamaha SR728s's that we can't spot a decent song no matter how it's played? To be fair, the shit in the charts has got better, but people still need to be placated, gently drawn in by a nice hi-hat or a craftily layered vocal. Personally, I'm hoping that the strength of the new U2 material will draw poeple back to the spirit we had in the early nineties, where songs ruled over everything else, fuck how it sounds, just listen to the song. Won't it be great? I hope they have good producers.