The Art Of Mixing

Some years back I was lying in bed leafing through a book called The Art Of Mixing.  It might strike you as odd that I would be that keen on improving my interpersonal skills, but the book isn’t about that at all.

Some people will tell you they love music, but when you dig a little deeper, their enthusiasm mirrors the Miss Universe candidates gushing wishes for “World Peace”. For me it’s like water, an element essential for life. So, as we approach the summer solstice, I thought I’d let up (a bit) on the political history and discuss a little musical history.

The reason all this started was that I woke up at 6am about a month ago, when the EC and the IMF were in Lisbon negotiating the Portuguese bailout, and wrote a song in my head (and in my bed) called the IMF Blues. Quite aptly, and like many a blues, the first lines were:

I woke up this morning
I had the IMF blues

As you know, the standard twelve bar blues repeats the phrase, and then provides a punch line:

They took all my money
And they’d stolen my shoes

The first line seemed appropriate, since I’ve had a ten percent pay cut imposed since the beginning of this year, which seems grossly unfair since neither has my productivity gone down nor am I even remotely overpaid.

The second reflects the fact that the Portuguese economy has no short-term chance to grow itself out of this crisis, due to the nature of the measures imposed. Long-term, aspects such as the reform of employment legislation are badly needed. The present status reflects a strong Marxist leaning in our post-revolutionary constitution, and completely cripples small businesses.

In Portugal, when a small business hits a market reduction, it can’t cut staff, because market oscillations are not a legitimate business reason. It then boils down to one of two choices: either the company goes broke paying staff it doesn’t need, or it goes broke paying compensation on unfair dismissal. As a corollary, small companies, which should be the tidal wave of economic growth, become shrew-like and unadventurous.

This command economy vision on employment, together with draconian rent laws that are responsible for the derelict condition of the beautiful older buildings in Lisbon and Oporto, has resisted change for thirty-five years. No government has been willing to take the political flak for the much needed changes, so this imposition by the IMF was  secretly welcomed.  A week today there will be a general election, and the Commies know that when the IMF troika agreement is implemented, Portugal will be marching to the sound of a different drum.

Ironically, it was to the Komi Republic that I turned when I needed a drum track for the In My Face Blues. Now, unless your name is Mr. Bojangles, drums are the only ‘instrument’ where you’re actually playing several instruments at once. Playing a snare, foot cymbal, and kick drum at the same time, while rolling the tomtoms or thumping the bass cymbal, and making the whole thing sound good, requires the skills of an F-15 jockey. You may even occasionally nibble at the cowbell, which the late Frank Zappa described as an instrument of unbridled passion.

And even if you can play drums, recording them is a task for the devil himself. Drums are typically miked up independently, so it’s not unusual to have about ten tracks to mix down, including various overhead and room microphone tracks. The Komi Republic gave me eight. The combination of a drum kit, a good drummer, and thousands of bucks’ worth of mikes explains why home studios generally use a drum machine. The only problem with a drum machine is that it sounds like, well… a machine.

I had to use a minimal amount of hacking to look up the IP of the company I used, and then hunt them through internet registration archives. I suspected they were Russian, but I found, to my infinite joy, that they were in fact from a town in Респу́блика Ко́ми, located west of the Urals, part of the old Soviet Union. According to the oracle, the enclave consists of 70% forests and 15% swamps. I’m guessing the other 15% is where the people live, presuming they are neither arboreal nor amphibian. It gets better: the corporation is domiciled on Lenin Street. My blues became reds overnight.

I live in a world of technojoy, and the idea that a company on Mars could lay a drum track for me for under a hundred bucks was irresistible. And it worked like a charm. And I got eight back. An embarrasment of riches. My father had a collection of old ’78s, thick enough to be  bread boards, and I grew up with ’33s and ’45s, which for reasons known only to themselves couldn’t be made with a standard central orifice diameter.

Tape spools came and went. I saw cartridges and cassettes invade the world, and spent many a happy moment glueing C-120s, which readily split due to the thin tape. No one worried about piracy in the days of analog, each tape copy was worse than the last. Along came digital. Big corporate headache.

If there’s one thing life holds, it’s the endless mix of good and evil, pleasure and pain. There’s a saying here:

Tudo o que é bom, é ilegal, imoral, ou faz mal.

 Loosely: good things are either illegal, immoral, or bad for you. Good bit of catholic retribution hidden in there somewhere. And it rhymes.

A visual representation of the mixdown for a blues song. It all boils down to three elements: volume, frequency, and effects.

Back when Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde, one of the seminal albums of the 1960’s, four tracks were all that he could use. All the licks from Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper had to fit in there. Wonderful tunes like I Want You, one of the sweetest love songs ever written, on four analog tape tracks.

Nowadays, mixing down involves dozens of digital tracks, and a world of effects. It can be clean, or a wall of sound, like Spector’s mix of John Lennon’s Starting Over. When I remixed the IMF Blues I detuned one of the guitar tracks ever so slightly. Sounds crazy, but it adds depth. Too much perfection, we become machines. Life needs a little imperfection to be satisfying.

Compression has been one of the most popular tricks for years. It came from the days of radio, when only a range of dynamics could be heard. Anything above that would be compressed, so if you applied a 4:1 compressor above a certain threshold, an increase of 16dB would result in only a 4dB gain. It allows the overall signal to be boosted, by compressing the peaks, and cuts hiss. It also puts the music right in your face. That’s why TV ads are always compressed, and jump out at you when you don’t want them. They’re not really louder.

So one week (to the hour) of when I’ll be voting, here’s my contribution to the election campaign. If my readership has dropped to zero next week, I’ll know the reason why.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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