With such an iconic record, it’s easy to overlook how odd it sounds – even leaving aside the pioneering fuzzed ‘placeholder’ guitar riff that was initially just a placeholder for horns! (It only remained on the record because Jagger and Richards were out-voted by the rest of the band, the producer, and the engineer.) The drum pattern’s about as simple as it gets, with kick and snare pounding down together on every beat, and the hi-hat playing eighths over that, although you’d be forgiven for missing the latter given how diffuse the hat sounds in the mix. (Would it have been too much to ask for a hi-hat mic?) And then there’s the tambourine, which effectively sounds bigger than the whole of the rest of the backing band!
The acoustic guitar and piano parts are also borderline inaudible, although doubtless the band texture would feel significantly skimpier without them. To get a feel for how the mix might have sounded if they weren’t there, try comparing the song’s opening riffs: neither acoustic guitar nor piano are present for the first iteration; the acoustic guitar just hits a couple of downbeat chords when the drums enter for the second iteration; and then both acoustic guitar and piano properly start vamping for the third – if you notice the F# that appears round 0:09, that’s the piano!
And, speaking of that F#, it makes what might have been a I-IV4-3 progression into one of the most celebrated pop/rock harmonic tropes: the bVII-IV-I falling fourths that have spawned hits like Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine', Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, the end of The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’, Ray Parker Jr’s 'Ghostbusters', The Rolling Stones' later ‘Sympathy For The Devil’… the list goes on and on! Unlike those other celebrated examples, however, ‘Satisfaction’ puts one of the chords into inversion (the bVII chord’s over A in the bass), a trick you can also hear in AC/DC’s 'Back In Black', which puts its IV chord into first inversion. (The ultimate falling-fourths prize, though, has to go to Jimi Hendrix for his bVI-bIII-bVII-IV-I in ‘Hey Joe’.)
Much is often made of Richards’s guitar and Jagger’s vocals, but from a performance perspective, Charlie Watts impresses me far more here. Just marvel at how tightly the kick and snare match each other the whole way through this song – so much so that when kick drops out for a couple of beats during the exposed break after “no, no, no” (first heard at around 1:03) you hardly notice. You might think this is nothing special, but pretty much every project-studio drum performance I’ve ever mixed featuring simultaneous kick+snare hits (eg. with disco or reggae beats) has needed remedial editing to remove unintentional intermittent flams. Yes, the beat in ‘Satisfaction’ is almost childlike in its simplicity, but that only makes Watt’s performance more akin to Giotto’s O: the perfect rendition of a pure concept that indicates the practitioner’s technical mastery more forcefully than could any flashy theatrics.
A well-deserved winner for Best American Roots Performance at this year’s Grammies, this song demonstrates tremendous vocal maturity and control. On the one hand, there are spine-tingling moments of technical mastery, like the long, developing sustains of “honesty” (2:31), “need” (2:43) and “rain” (3:31), or the seamless transitions between head and chest voices on “so what if the hardwood stains” (0:22) or “we won’t drown in the tears” (2:06). But on the other hand there’s a breadth of long-term range and register, from the sultry lows of the first verse to the forceful highs of the middle section at 3:01-3:22.
But this kind of performance will frequently bring technical challenges with it at mixdown. If your singer only uses a fairly narrow expressive range, then mixing is typically a lot easier, because plug-in settings that suit one part of the track remain just as suitable elsewhere. Where vocal mixing can get really tough, on the other hand, is where your vocalist covers a large register, a wide range of performance intensities, and switches between various head voice and chest voice timbres – as Sara Bareilles does here.
For example, it’s so easy for the low mids to get bloated and the true midrange to take a dive on head-voice notes like “[hones-]ty” at 1:01, but there’s not a hint of that here – switch onto a mono midrange speaker, and the vocal balancing sounds as dependable as on full-range monitors. Likewise, it’s super-common for an airy vocal tone to become over-strident and even shrill when the singer moves to louder, higher-register notes. But when Bareilles really opens up after 3:01 the tone remains smooth and full, yet it’s not as if the harder edge that you’d subjectively expect has been completely stripped away – it’s just in its place and beautifully balanced against the rest of the vocal tone, so you can turn this track up all the way without a hint of abrasiveness.
Engineer Mike Piersante has made it look easy, but this is a vocal-mixing tour de force. The overall tonality is, it has to be said, quite warm, so that’s something to bear in mind, but even if you lift the highs to be more in keeping with pop sensibilities, the vocal tone loses nothing of its perfect poise.
I did have one small technical niggle, though: the occasional bursts of distortion during the song’s middle section. The most audible of these are probably on the first and fourth eighth notes of the bar at 3:01-3:03, on “bone” at 3:08, and on “sow” at 3:14, but there are a few lesser instances besides those – you can hear them most clearly if you solo the stereo Sides signal like this: play_arrow | get_app For the most part, they sound like mastering-stage clipping distortion and, sure enough, if you zoom in on the waveform, you can see the tell-tale flat-tops. Now, you might justifiably say that it’s nothing compared with the kind of flat-topping routinely meted out to a lot of chart productions, and that’s true in absolute terms. However, the thing with mastering-stage clipping is that its distortion side-effects are much less audible and distracting in noisy, saturated, drum-led productions than they are in such an acoustic and restrained production sound as this. Loudness processing isn’t something that can be applied with a one-size-fits-all attitude, because each different production will best tolerate a different balance of processing artefacts. Rampant clipping distortion on Skrillex’s 'Bangarang' is all grist to the mill, whereas even the smallest sprinkles of it here feel obviously out of place.