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Say Something

by Justin Timberlake
feat. Chris Stapleton

As his fans become savvier about backroom production tricks, how can Justin Timberlake convince them he’s not just a fashionable mediocrity with a big budget for studio fakery? I know! Join forces with more-credible-than-thou roots artist Chris Stapleton, hire warts-and-all music documentary purveyors La Blogothéque, and do an ambitiously choreographed ‘live in a single take’ music video! Well, you’ll forgive me if I forego the widespread ‘OMG! How amazing they did it all live!’ reaction, because a fundamental attribute of live performance is that there’s no safety net, and nowhere to hide if you goof or your tuning/timing is wayward. Judging by the setup described in this in-depth_Sound On Sound_magazine article ' feature, I don’t think there was actually any such jeopardy at all. Let me explain…

The bass, Rhodes piano, and both ‘lead’ acoustic guitars were DI’d. Elliot Ives’s guitar is seen being recorded in a separate room (with a door), and none of the mics inside the upright piano (with the lid closed), in the bells of the horns (as shown in the article), and right by the kick and snare would have picked up much spill either. The article’s Pro Tools screenshots reveal that the drum overhead channel is mostly muted, apart from infrequent cymbal hits. All the lead and backing vocals were close-miked with lavaliers, and the lack of mechanical noise from the vintage elevator during Timberlake’s first verse suggests those were pretty effective at keeping spill levels low — so I doubt either lead singer picked up much spill from anything other than the drums and their own guitars. As for the ambient and choir mics, heaven knows how much of those we’re actually hearing, given all the reverbs on display in the Pro Tools mix project and the engineers’ own admission that they did choir-only overdubs that were “really helpful later during mixing”.

In short, I reckon you could have grid-edited the band and Melodyned the living daylights out of all the vocals without tremendous difficulty. Even the spill on the vocals wouldn’t have been very problematic, because the unpitched and diffuse nature of drum ambience wouldn’t be very revealing of pitch/timing-shift artifacts, while the song’s multi-layered acoustic-guitar texture would disguise any phasey-sounding guitar spill. While it’s not impossible that this soundtrack is a truly unvarnished live performance, personally I think it’s pretty long odds, given the more wayward tuning of Timberlake’s live performance on The Tonight Show, for instance. And once that seed of suspicion is sown, who’s to say that the engineers didn’t comp parts between their six takes? Or even just re-record everything (except the choir overdubs) in the studio and sync things back up with ADR software? Sure, no-one mentioned anything of the sort, but long-time Sound On Sound readers who recall their article about the production of Cher’s ‘Believe’ will know that producers aren’t always entirely frank about corrective editing as regards their highest-profile clients.

So if you strip out the credibility of the video’s central audio conceit, you’re basically left with two middle-aged guitar-strummers strolling around and riding lifts. Big hairy deal! Hell, in purely visual terms, I’m more impressed by the Spice Girls’ one-take wonder for 'Wannabe'