This site is about making your music sound fantastic. And in my last post I listed twelve of my favourite outstanding albums for sound. Lots of people replied with their own suggestions in the comments – so far, so good.
I agreed with many of the suggestions, but was interested in one album that was mentioned several times: “Rage Against The Machine” by Rage Against The Machine. Now, there’s no question that RATM sounds great. Let’s face it, it’s something of a classic. It sounds heavy, hooky, dynamic, hard-hitting, impactful and balanced.
But I wouldn’t have chosen it for my list, and I still wouldn’t. Why ? Because just sounding great isn’t enough – to sound fantastic, the audio needs to have personality.
What do I mean by that ? Well, this wasn’t in my mind when I wrote the list, but looking through it again, every single album on that list has a very clear, instantly recognisable sound – a sonic signature, if you like. And so, for that matter, do all the “also-rans” I mention at the end.
In some cases, all that’s needed to achieve this is a voice. The JJ Cale and Alison Krauss abums for example, have nothing truly startling in the sounds or mixes, but the voices themselves are instantly recognisable. Whereas albums like “Untrue”, with it’s reverb-drenched vocals, or “Welcome To The Pleasuredome” define themsleves sonically right from the outset. Others are so pioneering that later albums can only imitate and steal from them – “Security” and “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”, for example.
“Rage Against The Machine” doesn’t do any of that for me. Sonically, it’s Metal By Numbers – it sounds (as Brian Eno said about some of the new U2 album) “too vanilla”. Yes, it does exactly what you want a heavy rock record to do – but sonically there’s nothing remarkable or memorable enough to help it stand out from the pack.
Whereas, one of the other suggestions from the comments – Nirvana’s “Nevermind” – is different matter entirely. Incredible playing, awesome mixes and Cobain’s voice make this unmistakeable sonically – to be honest, it should have been on my list.
Lack of personality is a problem that’s being made worse all the time by the new technology that’s becoming available. Autotune, amp simulators, virtual instruments and the rest all make it easier and easier to make slick, “professional” – sounding records. Meaning, they sound exactly like everything else out there – and tedious beyond belief, as a result !
Do we really need to hear another Pod-preset guitar record ? Say what you like about Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” (and I’ve already said more than enough about that) but at least it has a sonic identity, a personality.
That’s why I often suggest people bring a little punk DIY attitude to their music – or even make music from sand, or trees, or burning pianos. If you have an otherwise “standard” sounding mix, try overdubbing a real tambourine, or a shaker that’s actually a jar of dried peas from your kitchen, or mic up the stairwell and use it as a reverb chamber, or even just chose a different guitar tuning – something, anything – to add spice and make the sound of your music unique.
Don’t get hung up on “quality”, either – some of the best-sounding music was recorded on distinctly low-fi equipment, and in highly unusual locations. Experiment with mic placement too – take a listen to the tablas on this track for example – despite being very ambient or “roomy” sounding by the usual standards, they sound incredible and literally make my hair stand on end every time I hear them.
Sounding great isn’t good enough. Strive to be inventive and make it sound fantastic, and allow yourself to experiment and make mistakes along the way – sometimes they’re the best thing about a recording.
After all, you want people to remember your songs, why not their sound, too ?
Edit – Great discussion about this in the comments !