Revved Up Tracks With The Rev – Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower”

Album: Electric Ladyland
Producer: Chas Chandler, Jimi Hendrix
Engineer: Eddie Kramer
Mixing: Eddie Kramer
Year: 1968

It doesn’t happen often that a cover version becomes as big as the original version of a song. Even more rarely does it happen that the original artist thinks so much of the cover version that he adopts it himself. That was exactly what happened when Jimi Hendrix put his own spin on Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”. I remember the first time I heard it like it was yesterday. I was 13, had just gotten into the blues , had just gotten my first electric guitar and I’d been hanging out with a bunch of dudes much older than me (like, 18 or so) who had told me that I needed to hear Hendrix. At that point it wasn’t all that easy getting hold of something that wasn’t in the charts so I had to take a leap of faith. I saved up some pocket money (import CD’s were much more expensive than the usual stuff stores sold) and got a store in Cape Town to order a “greatest hits” compilation for me. On collecting the disc, I asked the guy if I could have a listen.  He put the disc in the player and handed me some headphones. When I hit “play” “All Along The Watchtower” started playing. My life changed at that exact moment.

There is something about Hendrix that just makes you realise that he must’ve been some sort of freak of nature. I’ve watched every bit of footage I’ve been able to find over the years and I’ve spoken to folks who have seen him live. He always seems like a guy who was, at the same time, wilder than everybody else but also more together. That aspect of his character comes across beautifully in this track. It seems beautifully calculated but it’s as unpredictable as driving through a Karoo pass. There is incredible beauty that surprises you around every corner but it’s dangerous at the same time. Just like Hendrix lived.

That dangerous way of doing things was apparently exactly the beginnings of Hendrix’s version of AATW. One legend has it that he was out partying, then got a bunch of musician friends together and, under the influence as they were, decided that it was time to go record the song, which he’d been wanting to record since he first heard it.  There is something to be learned from the way they did the initial tracks on this song.  And it’s the way a whole lot of classics had to be made. Four tracks were all they had so decisions had to be made fast.  Maybe that translates to the urgency of the track.  Having only four tracks to work with at any given time means having to bounce things.  And having to bounce things means that you have to get everything JUST RIGHT before you move on. Ain’t no turning back. I love this mentality of committing. So call me old… I still find that, in my own work, committing leads to instant results because you know exactly where stuff is gonna go and you can play into its strengths. These old cats had that concept down to an art form. Maybe that’s why, even though this record was done in different parts, over different continents, in different studios, on different equipment, it never sounds disjointed or slapped together. Hendrix knew what he wanted to achieve and Eddie Kramer could help him realise that dream.

The basic tracks were apparently cut live, which accounts for the energy in the track. I’ve not found any approach, in any genre requiring real musicians playing together, that yields the same results in terms of vibe than tracking a bunch of good musicians playing together. Hearing players feed off of each other and having that electricity that happens during a great, tight performance (apparently there were no rehearsal so they did just shy of 30 takes to get the vibe they were looking for) will get you excited to the point of having the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your feet not being able to stay still. Hot damn!

There is something really wide and epic about the soundscape of AATW that seems to support its soaring lead lines and Hendrix’s vocals, which delivers Dylan’s poetry in a way that seems almost soft but still aggressive, much as he hated his own voice. This depth and width can be attributed to a bunch of things: Firstly, that bassline (which, depending on whose story you believe, Hendrix played after Noel Redding got pissed off and walked out) is so round and soft that the whole track just seems to bounce on top of it. It doesn’t have much top end but still it sits in exactly the right spot in the mix and never turns the mix to mush. Then there’s Kramer’s use of delays and reverbs. I gotta say, this was a revelation to me. Getting into record production I had no idea of the differences between digital, analog and tape delays and all its variants. I just knew that I couldn’t get that depth, no matter what I did with my digital delay. Learning that our ears were designed to perceive anything with rolled off top end as something that’s far away – space, in other words – made this track’s size “click” in my mind. The delays, which were done using tape, which has a natural roll-off at the top of the frequency range, is so smooth that it swirls and sits behind the elements triggering it, making AATW so 3D that I can picture that wild cat growling in the distance.

The arrangement, of course, is masterful. The percussion in the tracks highlights certain sections and creates intensity for the leads and more aggressive vocal parts to break loose from. The bassline bounces in an almost “happy” way, still leaving lots of space but really making the low end of the track truly stomp-worthy. The way that things pan across the stereo spectrum and shift back and forth must have been nothing short of science fiction back in ’68. Hendrix’s vocals capture your imagination and never feel like “this is really a guitar guy’s album.” Nope, Eddie Kramer understands how, no matter how good you play that lick, if the listener can’t hear the guy sing the single don’t mean a thing.

A concept that influences the very core of records like these is how great engineers and artists like Eddie Kramer and Jimi Hendrix was/is able to use very few tools – even ones he doesn’t find particularly inspiring, like the console used in the USA-part of AATW’s production, which Kramer didn’t particularly care for – to bring life to their vision, going onto capturing the imagination of a whole generation. That seems to happen a lot less in these days of virtually having all the tools at our fingertips.

Hendrix had about 4 years to do what he did. It seems like he came in, never lost focus and was always dangerously pushing his own boundaries. I don’t think you can make meaningful music without having that mentality. AATW inspires me to commit, to use what I have and to exploit every possible tool I have at my disposal every time that spooky first chord hits my ears.

Revved Up Tracks With The Rev – Breaking Benjamin’s “Diary Of Jane”

Album: Phobia
Producer: David Bendeth
Mix: Chris Lord-Alge
Mastering: Ted Jensen
Released: 2006

Chris Lord-Alge is a genius. Whether you’re one of the folks on the internet who love to hate on him because of tons of reasons that might even seem reasonable, or you’re one of the thousands of audio guys out there who would give anything to know his secrets, there is no denying that he is one of the biggest of the big guys. It may very well be because he’s gotten the most important skill of this record-production business 100% right: rather than just giving the listener some good audio, he knows how to sell emotions. He might come across as walking a super fine line between confidence and arrogance but just in the way that he talks about the records he works on you pick up that he is SUPER excited about what he does and that translates to his mixes. He seems to squeeze every ounce of energy and emotion out of whatever song he’s working on. Breaking Benjamin’s “Diary Of Jane” is the track where this first hit me. All the hours of effort I may put into what I try to achieve as a producer/engineer/mixer are pointless if what I deliver doesn’t make the listener feel the way I feel when I hear this.

Now, obviously the beginnings of this record were crafted masterfully by the band and producer David Bendeth. They captured beautifully thick guitars (which apparently had them retuning baritone guitars every 8 bars) with soaring lines that still stay thoroughly out of the way of a vocal performance with energy that most of us can only dream of, supported by some of the most cleverly constructed backing vocals I’ve ever heard. The bass line does that melodic thing where it makes the guitars almost sound “sad” in some parts, while laying down the low end so hard that it feels like it’s about to bloat everything up, yet never does. The drums strike that perfect balance of providing a backbone so that the song never seems to lose any power while still being extremely intricate. It’s almost like, since the kick and snare have basically zero dynamics through the bulk of the song, the toms and cymbals add the dynamic back in by being wonderfully exciting and complex without ever becoming overbearing. And I love the use of atmospheric soundscape-y type stuff that they bring in to offset the blunt-force groove of the rest of the track. The source is friggin’ everything!

Thing is, I’ve heard the other tracks on the rest of the album that was not mixed by CLA and, while by no means bad, they just didn’t do nearly as much for me as “Diary Of Jane.” Not even close. They don’t seem to have the cohesion that this mix has while still jumping out of my speakers (even a pair of small el-cheapo PC speakers) and they don’t make me want to pump my fist in the air and growl that guttural “noooooooo” like Diary Of Jane does. But there are more than a few of his mixes that do fit these criteria, so: Chris Lord-Alge.

Maybe CLA cheats or gets super lucky. Many times. I know he uses that one kick sample and that one snare sample that you’ve heard on a bunch of “his” hits a lot. Maybe those just worked really well with the guitars and bass in this track. His use of what is probably be the original snare for just a few bars in the beginning before that snare sample kicks in is the kinda thing that makes me walk around for days asking myself “who does that?”. The bass sound is something I strive for in every rock mix. That thing where, when I drive in my car, it sounds like the bass line is being sent up from the road below the car. Not many mixes do that without becoming muddy and bloated. No, I can still hear every single note that’s being played. Then there’s the way that the vocals sit in everything, or the way everything sits around it – I struggle to make up my mind. It seems like everything is super aggressive and it almost feels like Benjamin Burnley is fighting to be heard but also not really because at the same time his vocals are being carried by this massive force that will plant it right in your face. And everything is clear and bright, but not overly so, to the point where it seems like the mix is extending way beyond what any speaker should be capable of. The cymbals are so smooth they could’ve been made of that ice cream Heston Blumenthal makes at Christmas.

There is massive space behind/around the mix but it sounds like it’s a transparent and dry space that never softens its brutal force. CLA’s use of delay is masterful. I wish I could carve a snare reverb the way this guy does. The depth in the guitars during the verses literally pounds me in my chest even at low volumes (I never listen to music at super loud volumes) and feels like it goes “whoob whoob” without it ever feeling like anything is breaking loose from the tightness of the overall mix. And with top and bottom end like that it’s not like the mids are so scooped that the mix ever loses its energy and stops flying out the speakers. No, it’s as if they were carved with a scalpel. For a guy who constantly overcompresses, according to lots of folks in audio-forum-land (what serious, busy studio dude has time for that BTW?), this mix is stupidly punchy and dynamic, from that atmospheric intro, through the 2nd part of the intro where you think “hot dang, this kicked like a mule” to the parts after that which left you without teeth. Hurrah for the one dude who taught me what automation can do!

I think my favorite thing about this track is that it’s like a good Mel Brooks film – you can either just sit back and enjoy something that’s so good that you can’t help but be excited about it, or you can dig deep and discover layer upon layer of genius that went into making it. This is one of my reference tracks so I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. I’ve been listening to it on repeat since I started writing this. Every time – every single freakin’ time – that breakdown/bridge happens where the whole production comes to a head, with Burnley screaming “what have I becoooooome”, sending it into that final chorus – I get goosebumps and I have to stop typing for a bit. Hoping that one of my mixes/productions can have that kind of effect on someone is what makes me get up and open my studio every morning.

Things That Make My Ears Go “Hell Yeah!”

Jo (aka Rev J Ellis II)

Records have always fascinated me. Even some of my earliest memories have a soundtrack of whatever was playing in the background, like my parents playing old Willie Nelson tapes in the car as we drove to my grandparents’ farm on holidays, and even before the thought of making a living from producing records entered my mind certain records just always had a “certain something” that, back then, I couldn’t put my finger on but it gave me goosebumps and drew me right into it. I later on learned that that “certain something” was great production.

I’m of the opinion that great songs don’t always equal great production, but for any production to be great the song most definitely needs to be. Through the years of honing my skills as a producer I’ve learned a lot about what I like and what I don’t like in records. Having quite specific tastes in this regard has, at different times, felt like both my biggest blessing and my biggest curse. I spend my life working towards making the records I work on sound and feel the way that the music that inspires me does. When amazing songs are captured in such a way that they jump out of the speakers, hit me in the chest and cause me to feel what the artist intended me to feel, I feel like there’s nothing in the world that compares to that.

That said, when people ask me exactly what it is that I like (and don’t like) in records, it can be pretty hard to explain. Those around me, though, know that I love talking about the things I love so I thought it would be cool to write about tracks that I feel were done particularly well. For as long as I can keep it up I’ll do this once a week. Be warned that “Revved Up Tracks With The Rev” will be nothing but my own opinions about productions that excite me and make my ears go “HELL YEAH!”, which many may find to be completely off, so please join in the discussion. We may very well learn some cool stuff from each other.