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Rope

by Foo Fighters

‘Walk’, the other big single off the Foo’s album Wasting Light, has one of my favourite arrangement drops at the start of its final choruses, but I’ve chosen to focus on ‘Rope’ here because it’s a great example of some stalwart rock arrangement fundamentals in action. An easy way to make your drummer sound powerful in the face of epic guitars is to punch a few holes in the main guitar/bass riffs, allowing you to really hear the details and sustain of his playing, particularly on the snare. It worked for 'Back In Black' and it’s just as useful in the verses here.

Speaking of the verses, notice how the guitar texture’s mid-range pretty much evaporates when the vocals arrive, allowing Dave Grohl’s restrained lower-register delivery to carry through — although that spectral energy reappears briefly to emphasise the sustained-note hook riff that straddles each new phrase’s ‘missing’ downbeat. Then, where the guitars regroup at 0:56, the vocals mostly join the snare in the riff’s perforations. You can gauge how effective this is in retaining the audibility of the vocals by realising how much more difficult it becomes to make out the one lyric that does trespass over the guitars (“I thought I’d save my breath for you”). It’s only when Grohl reaches bona fide howling registers for the chorus at 1:10 that he can afford to take on the full might of the guitars, and even then with a fader hike to help him out. This is common sense, but it amazes me how often I encounter home-brew recordings that haven’t taken even these kinds of rudimentary concepts on board, and hence struggle unnecessarily to achieve a good balance at mixdown time.

Here’s another mastering-related poser too: although this track is mostly flat-topped to 0dBFS throughout, the brickwall level reduces to -0.3dBFS just for the solo (3:08-3:28). Is this some kind of last-minute ‘fix it in the shrink-wrap’ post-mastering level tweak? Have they tried to splice together files from two different mastering engineers (Emily Lazar & Joe LaPorta are both credited)? Your guess is as good as mine…

Interesting to note that a keyboard player Rami Jaffee is credited with playing keys on this song. Did you hear him in there? Me neither. The possibility that someone slipped up with the liner notes did cross my mind, but I think that’s fairly improbable given that Jaffee’s also credited with keys on album-opener ‘Bridge Burning’ and is no more audible there. So I’m guessing that what this means is that Butch Vig and the band decided to sneak in some ‘stealth’ keyboard parts around the guitars to make the overall sound apparently a bit more tuneful and less noisy. This is a technique that I frequently find useful in Mix Rescue, but it’s something that you can rarely point out with any certainty in commercial tracks, simply because the mix engineer will typically be doing their best to avoid the keyboard sound being audible in its own right – the idea, after all, is to enhance the guitars, not to add an identifiable keyboard overdub, especially in the context of this particular album’s ‘the band playing live in Dave’s garage’ marketing spin. As such, those two Jaffee-credited tracks bear comparison with some of the other numbers on this record, and for my own part I think I can hear just a suspicion of Rhodes character coming through during a couple of moments, so I’m guessing that some kind of electric piano was used, which would make a lot of sense. However, given that I’m expecting something to be there, it could easily just be my imagination…