Nov 152010

B.A.D. production?

Don’t you hate it when there is a really good song that you used to love, but listening to it now you realize that the production sounds horribly dated? Maybe it’s because the production screams, “Hey, this new synthesizer just came out, here is factory patch #11 as the song intro!” Or, “Check out the massive reverse gated snare sound!” Or, “Listen to my new guitar effects processor!” Now, this is not the same thing as a recording that is simply of its time, or from an artist with a unique sound. Whether or not you like the B-52s, the sound is their own, and not really dated. And a crappy song isn’t really hurt by a dated production style. I’m talking about songs that would be great if they just toned down the production, but instead are mediocre or worse. And the opposite: a song so good it overcomes the dated or excessive production.


  25 Responses to “Ruined by Dated Production”

  1. I liked Stevie Winwood’s Arc of a Diver album. I could get past the creeping synth sounds and drum machines, but his subsequent ’80s releases had no chance with me thanks to that ’80s Michelob production sound. I cut Winwood a lot of slack thanks to his voice and his overall musical ideas, but I had to draw a line on some of that “Back in the High Life” kind of stuff. My guess is I would have liked some of those songs if the production had been toned down. When is that guy, by the way, going to make a straightforward album with a classy producer? What’s he have to prove with his occasional attempts at hit-making?

  2. I wonder what would constitute the short list of songs that work because of gated snares?

  3. BigSteve

    Bowie’s Low and Peter Gabriel’s third album use this sound, and those are pretty great albums. Not because of it, but Revolver isn’t great because of the snare sound.

    I think that there were lots of great albums with ’80s production.’ It left a bad taste because it was overused on albums we don’t like. But we don’t blame guitar distortion for all the sucky albums that use distortion. Why is that?

  4. The difference, BigSteve, is that we DO attribute our love for a number of albums with guitar distortion because of the distortion. Unless there are enough records we love because of gated snare, I think it’s fair that we give that effect as hard a time as we do. By the way, I’d say the gated snare on Low is essential to what’s cool about that album. I’m not a great fan of Gabriel, either, but I wouldn’t object to that album’s snare being cited for these purposes either. I’d suggest Springsteen’s Born in the USA, as much as I hated that sound when it came out. In retrospect, I don’t think it was a bad departure for his poorly produced ’70s-style albums, and I think it worked as musical steroids for the anthemic nature of those songs.

  5. Don’t those three XTC albums that Hugh Padgham worked on have gated drums to varying degrees? I certainly think a song like “Travels in Nihilon” wouldn’t work quite as well without them.

  6. cherguevara

    Lillywhite and Padgham created that sound working on “Intruder.” It was the sound of the “listen” microphone on the SSL console, which has a built in compressor, combined with the room sound of Townhouse Studio. Then they gated that room sound and voila. Discovered by accident, they had the studio tech mod the console so they could record that sound.

    Everyone else, in trying to replicate that sound, did it in a different way, using a reverb and gating it. The difference could be slight, though the method is a bit different, and is obviously a matter of dialing it in to taste. But Graceland, Back In The High Life and Born in the USA stand out as obvious offenders.

    A while back, I acquired Talk Talk’s album “Asides Besides,” which contains some demos for songs that were on the first album. Electric pianos instead of synths. Drums instead of Simmons exploding sheep. Way, way better. You can actually hear the songs for what they are. I never listen to that first album because of the production.

  7. Yes, Oats, first Lillywhite’s engineer and then producer of English Settlement, Hugh Padgham (sp?) would take that snare effect to the heights of commercial success and influence on his work with Phil Collins. I agree that the gated snare effects on those XTC albums are great contributors to the success of those albums. Good call!

  8. cher, I’m going to take issue with criticisms over the snare sound on Born in the USA. What remotely good production idea ever came out of any of the preceding Boss albums? Would the title track and “Dancing in the Dark” really be better if they repeated his old sound of everyone banging away on damp particle-board instruments? I’m not a big fan of The Boss, you know, but anything good he ever did up ’til that point was the result of the songs and the performances, not the production. On Born in the USA you could at least say the production played a prominent role in the album’s sound and success. At least that’s my opinion. The River sounds like crap!

  9. trigmogigmo

    (My apologies if the original post was a bit rambling. I was just putting some ideas down, then decided to wait until later without ever saving this version, but it still went through. Good enough!)

    Cher, interesting to know the technical origin of that sound! I think it’s great on “Intruder”, and helps create the claustrophobic feeling I get from that album (which I love), but is a prime bad example when it got imitated in all those other places.

    PG is guilty of one of the other examples. The flutey sound sample that prefaces “Sledgehammer” is some kind of preset sound that I remember hearing as clear as day somewhere else. It’s not really “dated” but it bugs me. Just because you got serial #000001 on the newest gadget that comes with a sample no one’s yet used, does not mean you have something unique that you should build a song around. The other studios will have it next month.

    Simmons edrums and overbearing synth string patches can do the trick in an instant if you’re not careful.

  10. misterioso

    Ehh, half true: the production on Born in the USA plays a prominent role in the albums sounds. In its success? I don’t think so. Much of what I dislike about that record is its sound. I think I dislike the sound even more than the songs. Which, by and large, I also dislike. It’s true, though: the production on the Springsteen records I do like pretty much through and through–The River and Darkness–is no great shakes, either; but it does not make me want to turn them off, either.

  11. cherguevara

    My response was interrupted by my actually listening to “Born…” and “Dancing…” and it seems my memory failed me, as those snare sounds aren’t perhaps as egregious as I thought.

    I suppose what is key to this whole thread, though, is the question of a statute of limitations on production crimes. At what point do you stop hearing dead 70’s drums as a fault and identifier of an era and begin to hear them as an artifact you can hear past?

    I don’t listen to Beatles’ stereo albums and think, “man, those vocals to one side is so 60’s.”

    I’m sure the age of the listener is key. You

  12. cherguevara

    Well, that was interesting…. somehow went back a page and my unfinished post got posted. WTF?


    I hadn’t really proofread that.

    I was going to say that a musician who lived through the 80’s might run away from those sounds. I mentioned Talk Talk before, and there are others who abandoned their synths to prove that their songs stand-up on guitars and pianos.

    Then you have a guy who was probably born in the late 80’s, who only two years ago, did this:

  13. BigSteve

    I don’t listen to Beatles’ stereo albums and think, “man, those vocals to one side is so 60′s.”

    No? I do, and I think it sounds dated and stupid.

  14. cherguevara

    But then won’t almost all music sound dated to you? Where do you draw the line? Does it matter to you that those stereo mixes were made that way for technical rather than artistic reasons? Do the mono mixes bother you also?

  15. BigSteve

    But then won’t almost all music sound dated to you? Where do you draw the line? Does it matter to you that those stereo mixes were made that way for technical rather than artistic reasons? Do the mono mixes bother you also?

    No the mono mixes don’t bother me, and yes almost all music sounds dated. My point is that, out of all the dated production styles, we single out the 80s for ruthless condemnation, while we indulge the 60s for their supposedly charming deficiencies.

  16. ladymisskirroyale

    Do you think there’s a correlation between independent record labels and less-dated production values? Maybe the big labels were falling to the pressure to sell more and thereby were going with the sound du jour?

  17. I don’t. I think of many SST productions, which were not only “bad” to my ears but dated out of the gates with the sound of limited technology and more limited engineering skills. Husker Du, for instance, is a band I might have liked a little better if their productions weren’t so atrocious and of that era’s, “Hey man, let’s just turn on the tape and kick it out!” aesthetic.

  18. Born In The USA was only half over-produced. Remember it came from two sessions that were over a year appart. Downbound Train, No Surrender..etc were recorded long before Dancing In The Dark.

    The big change was when Bruce added electric drums to Max’s drum kit as they got going on the arena part of the tour….

  19. I think we have dicussed this one before, the ZZ TOP SIX PACK. This was the 6-disc remixed + remastered set of their 1st 5 Lps and their 7th LP (#6 Deguello was thankfully spared, due to a copywright issue with the song “Dust My Broom”)

    Since I was not aware of pre – 1981 ZZ Top save “La Grange” I grabed this the day it came out (1987??).

    Gated Drums galore, in fact I think they added trigger to the original drums, making them electronic drums. they added 80’s guitar tones (digital delay, flanger, compression), took the balls out of Dusty’s Fender bass, and compressed and EQed the crap out of it until the 6 lps all sounded like they were recorded in 1983 (or like out takes from Eliminator).

    It was MANY later when I realized that I’d been hosed. Releases of Tres Hombres and Fandango were a huge improvement.

    I just got the Chrome Smoke and BBQ box set which showcases the 7-8 best songs from each record (most had 10 songs, so this is a huge portion) and I swear this is a whole other (better) band.

    They sound like three Texas rednecks playing in a farmhouse instead of beaming their “space rock” from Jupiter. Warm, organic, soulful and a better show of their influences (Hendrix, Albert King, 13th Floor Elevators, James Gang).. and they actually sound like they were playing in the same room.

    I plan to take the 6-Pack to the used Cd store this week and get this out of my collection.

  20. Not at all. I was listening to some 90’s lo-fi stuff that wore it’s lousy production like a badge of honor and thinking how dated it sounded. Things like Crooked Fingers or Built to Spill; Pavement and GBV (sometimes) used it to good effect.

  21. Born in the USA is the only Springsteen production that really irks me. The comment about Downbound Train and Darlington County are really pointed up the fact that those two are Nebraska outtakes.

    And Born to Run was pretty much a landmark production. Big sounds from a big group all tied together by the themes of the lyrics and the rousing production across the entire record.

  22. It’s funny to learn that the boring, for me, songs from Born in the USA were recorded at a different time and related to, for me, the incredibly boring Nebraska. My love for “Dancing in the Dark,” like my mild like for Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and some other Innocent Man songs, is probably an indication of how little I appreciate “vintage” Boss.

  23. I do remember that discussion. I don’t even like ZZ Top, but that sounds like a Rock Crime!

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