Songs That Might Have Been – How Mixing And Mastering Have Shaped Rock History

Previously the conversational preserve of tedious musos and Tommy Saxondale types, the subject of record production, and more specifically mixing, has gone overground in recent months.

In September 2008 an outcry over the slender dynamic range of Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’ album (wait, come back!) sparked a passionate debate about the modern trend for sacrificing subtlety and warmth in favour of brute volume.

Now it turns out Pearl Jam, remedying an eighteen-year bugbear, have decided to ‘fix’ the production of their 1991 album ‘Ten’. Ever since its release the band have been keen to go back and strip away the swathes of slick reverb added by producer Brendan O’Brien.

According to guitarist Jeff Ament, the newly retooled version of the album – released on a variety of formats (including a version on ‘Rock Band 2’) on March 21 – enables listeners to hear “the texture of Ed [Vedder’s] voice” for the first time.

Rock stars’ sensitivities to seemingly trivial production details are nothing new. Kurt Cobain was apparently horrified by the glossy mix that Andy Wallace brought to ‘Nevermind’ (including digital samples to boost Dave Grohl’s drums and, yes, lashings of reverb), complaining it sounded “like a Motley Crue record”.

Without that radio-friendly topcoat, though, the album never would have been such a titanic crossover success. Listen to Butch Vig’s original mix of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Denuded of Wallace’s sonic tricks, the guitars lack bite. There’s no incision, no sense of take-off in the chorus.

Evidently, the right mix can make or break a record. Recognising this, it’s possible to construct an alternate history of rock: how things might have been, had the knobs been twiddled a bit differently.

Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ would never have sounded so immense had it not been for the last-ditch efforts of Owen Morris. The album passed through a number of hands – first Dave Batchelor, then Mark Coyle – but by all accounts the songs sounded frail and bloodless until Morris came along, stripped away Noel’s endless guitar overdubs, and whacked everything that was left up to 10.

Check out the demo version of ‘Live Forever’: without the sonic heft brought by Morris, it’s just another mid-90s Britpop ballad.

Radiohead, too, could easily have ruined their second album, had they listened to the advice of their US label, who subjected ‘The Bends’ to a bland remix courtesy of Bob Clearmountain. Fortunately, Thom Yorke and co stood their ground, and these alternate versions of ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High And Dry’ et al – complete with pin-sharp digital FX and multi-tracked vocals – were never released.

However, you can get a sense of them by listening to Chris Sheldon’s US mix of ‘Stop Whispering’. Overlaid with strings that neutralise the uniqueness of Thom Yorke’s voice (and note the excision of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar wig-out at 2.07), the difference is subtle but significant. It’s like Radiohead only…not.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgO3pD7GLX0

These are all examples of bands making wise production decisions. Pearl Jam were not so lucky with ‘Ten’. However, their desire to rewrite history makes me wonder how many other albums and songs might benefit from this revisionist treatment…

A version of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’ that doesn’t sound like a swarm of angry wasps trapped in a flannel?

Jeff Buckley’s ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’ with proper, lush ornamentation rather than Tom Verlaine’s spiky, charmless treatment?

Metallica’s ‘…And Justice For All’ remixed to include a trace of bass?

What else..?