The other day I met up with a record-producer friend, in the recording studio where he’s logged long hours making records. He said he had something he wanted me to hear, and naturally I assumed it was some baby band he’s been producing. After a few mouseclicks, though, the room was filled with a familiar and almost immortal sound: The introduction to Marvin Gaye’s low-key lament “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
This wasn’t some souped-up CD version. Hardly. Through his network of producers, my friend had wrangled a digital replica of the multitrack master. There are apparently lots of these floating around: If you know the right people, it’s possible to snag versions of classic records by the likes of the Police, John Lennon and many others. With software (like, say, ProTools) linked to a mixing console, it’s possible to hear exactly what went on in the making of the music. Track by glorious track.
For the next half-hour, we listened all kinds of ways. My friend started with the full ensemble, and then, right on a downbeat, he’d isolate just the drums – and we’d marvel at how Motown’s engineers captured such a warm and completely natural sound from the kit. We checked on the saxophones – somewhat out of tune! We scrutinized the keyboards, then the backing vocals. Sometimes we toggled back and forth between the full ensemble and one of Marvin’s lead vocal tracks – you can hear him drawing breath before he starts singing, and sense how close he is to the microphone. And how relaxed he is doing his work.
This was listening on another level, like peeking behind the curtain and seeing the magician do his routine from an unauthorized vantage point. I’ve heard “Mercy Mercy Me” hundreds of times, and somehow missed key details. Not only did this provide great insight into one of the gems from Gaye’s life-changing What’s Going On (1000 Recordings, pg. 304), it reminded me about the particular type of listening producers do every day. Most of us hear one big tidal wave of sound; they zoom right in on that faint extra rattle coming off the surface of the snare drum. Back in the days before computerized recording, those artifacts from the instruments (or the room) were unavoidable, and became part of the character of the final product. In modern computer-aided recording, they’re “fixed” in the mix – scrubbed, pitch-corrected and airbrushed away. For your protection.
I’d argue that such obsessive fixing is one reason, among many, that contemporary recordings sound so brittle and sterile. Funny how a computer-aided encounter with the multitrack master could make a compelling case for old-school lo-tech analog recording. And, at the same time, add another layer of meaning onto the song’s already prophetic hook. You know the one, about how “things ain’t what they used to be.”
Recordings of Interest, from The List
#1 from Fred Mills/managing editor, Blurt, Asheville NC - 09/16/2008 5:03
Hello Tom—Apologies for sending a message this way but there doesn’t appear to be any method of contacting you directly that I can see on your site. Just wanted to make you aware of a review we published today of your book. Link below. Cheers,
#2 from Pop Cesspool - 10/03/2008 10:44
There’s a great scene near the end of “Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music” where Dowd picks apart “Layla” the same way.
#3 from Aage - 10/06/2008 7:30
It certainly is something how this new computer generation can contribute to such classic music. Thanks for the article.
Blichers Big Band