Getting this Song Exploder project started proved itself quite trying - the task of choosing a song to recreate in the style of another producer sufficiently messed with my brain.
First step was deciding on a producer whose style I would want to aim to recreate, and I went back and forth several times between a modern act or a 60s/70s-based producer. After much research, I went with Phil Spector.
I have admired Spector’s work for a long time now, and researching his methodologies bore much solid information - information that I found extremely absorbing and interesting. His practice was highly innovative and experimental for its time, and has influenced music ever since.
I decided then, that I would attempt to replicate the 'Wall of Sound' production style, specifically basing my style on Be My Baby by The Ronettes - one of Spector’s most popular ‘Wall of Sound’ tracks (and one of my favourite songs). Its feel and energy is wonderful, so I knew that being able to emulate any part would teach me a huge amount and be beneficial for my own making.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g_FD_sYazk
Reading up on the processes involved, I realised what a huge production it all was. Firstly, he would have all the musicians play live, in a room not at all large in size (about 5x7x4 metres) and not just a few musicians for each instrument - up to 4 guitarists, 3-4 pianists, 2 bassists, two drummers, several brass players and a chorus of percussionists and backing vocalists (as explained by Hal Blaine, Spector's regular drummer, in The Guardian article How We Made The Ronettes' Be My Baby). All with about 11 microphones in the space. There were sessions of Spector’s where there was no space to walk; he’d squished so many people into the recording space. This all meant the sound was large, but also affected by much dampening! (More bodies = more dampening).
Beginning this project I wanted to try to replicate this by bringing all the musicians in for one giant session! But the planning necessary for that would have exceeded the time limit I had, and it was impractical making everyone agree on a single day, let alone subjecting people to the amount of rehearsals that would have been necessary! Spector was known for making musicians play a ridiculous amount of times on recording days before accepting a take (often more than 40 times).
This translates that a very important aspect to Spector’s production style was the room itself. Because everything was tracked live and down one channel, the levels and interaction of instruments was born of the space - as it is naturally! I was entertained to hear that if editing microphone arrangements did not solve an issue, and the balance was not coming through as desired, Spector would ask musicians to play differently, louder or softer! I thought this was great, and has made me think more about the effect and importance of the actual playing to the mixing process.
Leading up to recordings, it’s been said Spector would spend whole days in the space learning its qualities; testing microphone arrangements and planning for the space's acoustics. Which microphones and where was paramount to the 'Wall Of Sound' sound, and even on the day, mics would be arranged and rearranged to have the greatest effect with the least possible bleed.
It was great to have found a Sound on Sound article (Classic Tracks: The Ronettes' Be My Baby), that pieced together where Spector would position instruments in the space, and what mics were used where. Although I didn’t have the recording live as I would have hoped, I was able to use the information to at least try to maintain where the instruments were positioned in the space, use microphones as similar as possible to what he did, and record with extra dampening / smaller spaces (where possible) to replicate the effect of so many extra bodies.
The first challenge for me after choosing Spector was finding the right song to cover. After changing my mind approximately six times, I went with Alt J’s Hunger of the Pine.
I wanted a modern song, something quite polar to Be My Baby, a bit electronic whilst at the same time one I could conceive becoming a Wall of Sound. When I played HoTP I started to envisage an eventual Wall of Sound track. HoTP is quite drum-dense and heavy, a bit like Be My Baby, with much potential for backing singers, and melodically quite simple. It’s just a cool, creative track, I like the lyrics and the structure, and I became excited for the project once I’d chosen it.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vk-GJDlAYVA
Arranging the song as a demo was a matter of constantly going back between listening to the Ronettes and Alt-J; hearing for parts to come forward, cull, replicate, alter etc. and listening to how Spector-style songs used instruments. I started with the drums, with the vibe taken directly from Be My Baby. I made the part mainly kick and snare, because they are extremely prominent in the Spector tracks (plus a bit of ride, for some colouring from a higher frequency). It needed to maintain a quite simple, steady rhythm, and I also wanted a more complex constant floor tom part to underlie it, as well as a wide array of fun and ‘in-your-face’ percussion instruments.
Recording drums was an awesome experience. In the same SOS article, Be My Baby's engineer, Larry Levine, explained how the production crew would mic a kit - three mics only (which I was stoked about - I like simple micing and more raw sounds). They used two Neumann U67s as overheads and, interestingly, a ribbon (the RCA 77s) on the kick. For my set-up this translated to using two U87s (the most similar I had available) and a Royer 121 for the kick - which was placed directly above the kick - with the Figure 8 pattern blocking out the rack-tom and ride cymbal (as the OHs were picking them up). We had to make sure the OHs were equal distance from the Royer, as the centre of the kit.
The sound was unreal. Completely unaltered and unprocessed it sounded so clean. It came out amazingly similar to the Be My Baby sound too! I was in awe of how three mics - set up in a very purposeful, conscious arrangement - could have such a wholesome, full, genuine sound! I was very pleased with it, and it's something I will definitely likely reproduce.
After the kit, I recorded a floor tom pattern throughout the song (with the same mic arrangement as the kit) to create another consistent rhythmic level, which adds to the ‘wall’. This was double-tracked (and compressed with a Universal Audio LA-610 compressor), along with the percussion (a castanet, a tambourine, a shaker and claps) tracks. The summation of these parts produced a slightly hectic underlay of rhythm... Just like I wanted.
The micing for the kit!
For piano, I fit the new key (D major) onto the drums with some piano chords, that I hoped would drive the song, as in Be By Baby, but with a rhythm suited to HoTP. The three chords were simply D Major, F sharp minor and E major. The guitar also mirrored this part, and the bass mainly went between the notes d, f# and e! The simplicity lends itself so well to a 60s pop song.
Recording piano was enjoyable, thanks to the beautiful upright piano in the Neve recording space. I trialled about five to six different mic arrangements, between four microphones, before getting the sound I wanted, as similar to the Spector-sound. For Be My Baby, they had three pianos - a Grand, an Electric and an Upright - mic'd up with RE15s (either just one or two for all the pianos). As I just had the upright, I played separate takes of the song at three different octaves - low, medium and high - to layer, and added microphones to have a greater impact of sound.
I used a Beyer Dynamic M88 as substitute for the RE15, as it is also a hyper-cardioid condenser, placed just behind me playing, and another capturing the strings (with the piano lid open). Along with an RE20 mic (as I was auditioning which would sound better). It did end up sounding cool and fuller with the two of them though so I kept both in! I also added a U87 in the room, as there would have been some in close proximity to the pianos recorded in the Be My Baby sessions, and for added natural room sound. (I very regrettably forgot to take photos of the piano set up!)
I was very happy with the sound as it came in, so didn’t want to process these too much! I didn't do any InTheBox EQ, but did pass the low piano through the Urei Model 545 parametric EQ just to take out some muddiness and clear the sound a little. And compressed all of them through Distressors.
The guitar and bass recordings went smoothly too. I used an M88 on the guitar, as that also originally had an RE-15, and layered two separate takes of guitar together (both compressed with an LA-2A classic levelling amplifier). I also double tracked the bass to have more impact, and compressed with a Fatso.
The vocals were extremely difficult, I kept wanting the lyrics to sound 'Alt-J-y' - very soft-spoken and close, but Phil Spector tracks aren’t like that! The voices are normally more projected and strong. Plus there’s not a lot of space for them if they’re soft, they need to compete with all the noise, and match the intensity of the tracks! The vocals I recorded with a U87, as Spector used a U67.
With the entire mix, I tried not to over-produce, over-'perfect' it, simply because the original style was performed live, so there would have been human imperfection, and they didn’t have a DAW to edit everything! I also just like the loose, human feel to it.
But I did do some corrective EQ if anything was too stand-out as negatively influencing the mix. I then applied a decent reverb (only two different types across all the tracks - one for the vocals and one for the instruments). Once the individual tracks were ready, with everything in MONO (as Spector did) it was up to balancing the final mix.
I heard the song in a café recently, from a speaker in another room, and tried to hear what was most forward in the song - it was the mids - the snare, piano, her voice, the percussion and, probably most prominent were the castanets! How hilarious. So I brought them forward in the mix, as much as it felt weird pumping clicking castanets up in a mix. I listened again in low volume to hear what was most pronounced, and did my best to match the sort of levels Spector produced.
Listening back to my mix though, I think I misjudged certain aspects, and working on a song almost non-stop for four weeks disturbed any sense of an objective view of it - I found it hard to conceive the mix as a whole! I'd like to not listen to it for a while then re-balance.
Then was time to add the final Spector productions. A very audible defining feature of these ‘Wall of Sound’ tracks is the use of an echo chamber. They used a ribbon mic to pick up the mic signals straight from the rec space being sent to a speaker in the chamber. This would be near-impossible to too closely re-create because of the very unique echo chamber at the studios at Gold Star. But at least I could mimic how they mixed dry signals with the wet coming from the speaker. I used a Royer 121 close the corner of a room, blocking out the signal straight from the speaker with the figure 8 (to mainly get the space). I did quite like the effect of this! I would next time choose a space probably more echo-y though for greater effect.
After getting a wet-dry mix I was happy with, the final touch was tape! Thanks to a friend's tape machine, I was able to pass the final mix through tape to try to gain some aspect of the distinctive harmonics. I think I quite like what it did to the mix! It sounds like a fuller, even sound across the instruments. To this final print I added extra reverb (in retrospect I could have maybe added even more actually).
I will though, after a decent break from the song, go back, listen more objectively to it, and edit my mix again, plus I would love to add horns! (Which I wanted to do all along but ran out of time / neglected / forgot / resigned to not having). I also would like to possibly re-record vocals, and properly do harmonies along with the main vocals (rather than just comp different takes as harmonies as I did haha).
Because of the specific nature of this production style, like the echo chamber, the space, the vintage gear and microphones, there were hesitations in choosing Phil Spector as my producer. Also because of its need of various resources I had to figure out how to either source or to imitate, like tape. But I figured it’s better to try something a little different and difficult and learn a heap, than comfortably follow a simple arrangement. And anyway it’s more enjoyable for me to do something I am interested in!
In future I would consistently go back to my research, and Spector's music as inspiration - I often forgot to go back and listen to his works to inform my actions, and continued rather to naturally make something I think personally sounds good, as it is technically my artistic product. It is quite counter-intuitive really - to be creative but with the ways of another creative. I think I found that most difficult: making my own creative decisions and simultaneously following the style of another.
It was extremely interesting and beneficial though, and I think by emulating the methods of another producer I have gained so many new ideas, and formed skills I can engage to improve and experiment with my own practice.
Speaking of the track, here it is in its current state:
(and mastered) -