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Classic Mix


by Pixies

Following the sad news of Steve Albini’s death, I found myself returning wistfully to his seminal early production of the Pixies’ album Surfer Rosa. What I hadn’t realised until recently, though, was that this song was actually recorded and mixed a second time by producer Gil Norton as a radio single at the behest of the record label – and it’s fascinating to compare the two versions, because the two men’s visions for the record are so very different. (You can hear Norton’s version on the Wave Of Mutilation compilation.)

With Albini’s album version, we’re clearly getting something much more rock-oriented, with huge, weighty kick and snare sounds, thick and abrasive guitars, and a comparatively tucked-in vocal to avoid undermining the illusion of power from the band. Although Albini has something of a reputation for using plenty of room sound on drums, I get the sense that the kick and snare are both quite tightly controlled in terms of sustain, which means that the close-mic signals can keep the main beats sounding tight and punchy nonetheless. The fairly low snare tuning is another key factor here, giving the backbeat real power and drive, and its comparative stature is only helped by contrast with the restrained and fairly distant-sounding hi-hats and cymbals.

Gil Norton’s sound, on the other hand, feels rather lightweight by comparison, with a higher-pitched snare; less low end on the kick, bass, and guitars; and more of an emphasis on the hi-hat and cymbals – and I’m not sure the louder hi-hat flatters the prechorus texture either, as its slightly fussy figurations at that level feel like they’re bogging down the groove to my ears. It’s also very clear that Norton is aiming for a more mainstream ‘radio-friendly’ sound with his more homogeneous layered guitar and backing-vocal textures during the choruses, the more upfront and stereo-widened lead vocal sound, and the strong midrange presence given to the bass line’s melodic riff.

Now, it would be easy to dismiss Norton’s vision as robbing the band of power and sacrificing some of their emotional authenticity in pursuit of production polish. But if you compare the two mixes under the kinds of bandwidth-restricted and broadcast-limited playback conditions that most radio listeners experienced in the late 80s, I reckon that the dense and controlled midrange texture of Norton’s mix delivers the main musical material of the song more strongly and retains a better illusion of power than Albini’s. So it’s a definite case of horses for courses.

Not that I don’t have a few unanswered questions about both productions. Why has Albini chosen to pan Kim Deal’s lead vocal off to the right? Why does Norton have her so much quieter in the first verse than in the second? And why are both mixes rather narrow-sounding? With Albini, it seems like a wasted opportunity when mono-compatibility wouldn’t surely have been a huge concern; and with Norton, I’d have thought a wider stereo spread for some of the guitar layers would have played well with headphone listeners, especially if he’d used that added width to add extra arrangement drama for the choruses.

Beautiful Things

by Benson Boone

In traditional music theory, your harmony is considered diatonic if it uses only the notes of the key it’s in, and there are plenty of great songs based around entirely diatonic progressions. However, once your song sets up an expectation of diatonic harmony, it gives you the opportunity to provoke an emotional reaction from the listener at any moment by introducing a chromatic chord – in other words, any chord containing one or more notes from outside the established key. The difficulty with using chromatic chords within traditional diatonic progressions, though, is that they can easily sound a bit awkward, as if you’ve just plonked down some random chord without any sense of trying to create a harmonic logic through the progression. And this particular Benson Boone song nicely demonstrates one of the most common solutions to that problem: a secondary dominant chord.

Here’s how it works. You choose any diatonic chord other than the key’s tonic chord, and then do a V-I perfect cadence to that chord as if it were the tonic chord (of a different key). So, in this song, for instance, the opening verse section from 0:07 to 0:33 (“For a while there it was tough… I think I might have it all”) is based around a simple repeated diatonic chord progression of IV-I-V-vi-IV-I-V. But the following section (“And I thank God every day… He can take away” at 0:34-0:47) introduces a secondary dominant chord of D major, creating a fleeting perfect cadence to that pattern’s Gm chord, the vi in the progression – giving us, in the process, a nicely evocative chromatic F# note that lends extra emotional weight to the words “the girl He sent my way”. Furthermore, the juiciness of this chord has been further intensified by embellishing it with the diatonic seventh and flattened-ninth notes of C and Eb, lending the chord a strong diminished-seventh flavour, given that the root D note only appears in the lead vocal.

Now if you’re wondering whether I should instead be calling this an F# diminished chord (with an anticipatory vocal D note) rather than a first-inversion D flattened-ninth chord, you’re not alone – it’s a topic I’ve seen classical harmony teachers get quite worked up about on both sides of the debate. As you can probably tell, I’m more in the ‘flattened-ninth’ camp, because it seems to make more sense musically in terms of the voice-leading (ie. where the individual notes in the chord progress to) – I’d expect the major third of a dominant major chord to rise, and its flattened ninth to fall, as they do in this instance, so irrespective of how much it looks like a diminished seventh, I think it functions more like a dominant chord. Let’s be honest, though – these are a pretty wafer-thin distinctions in practice, so I’m not about to unfriend anyone over it! As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing with any music theory is that it’s useful for your music-making, so if you get best use out of this kind of chord by thinking of it as a diminished seventh, then that’s definitely how you should think about it – whatever my thoughts on the subject!