The Arctic Monkeys album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was released on 23rd January 2006, selling more than 360,000 units in its first week, a new record at the time for a debut release in the UK. Prior to that, the band had seen their full commercial release, ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ reach number 1 in the UK singles chart in October 2005. The record won the prestigious Mercury prize for UK album of the year in August 2006, and it was one of only two albums released by independent record labels to appear in the Top 50 Global Best Selling Albums Chart for 2006.
The groundwork for this success was widely attributed in national, music and music industry press to the dissemination by fans of the band of copies of demos across MySpace and other user generated content and social networking sites. These demos, recorded between July 2003 and November 2004 were given away by the band on CD to fans after gigs, and the subsequent free distribution of these songs over the internet was seen by many commentators as fundamental not only in building a substantial fan base for the band, but also in presenting a new DIY model for success in the music industry.
The success of the demos in establishing an audience for the band also meant that many of the debut album’s listeners were already familiar with alternative recorded versions of many of the tracks. As a result, there is disagreement as to which of the recorded versions is more authentic, with many listeners preferring the apparent immediacy and spontaneity of the demo versions to their more polished cousins that appear on the first album. It is the intention in this paper to investigate, then, how far these qualities can be seen to be affected by recording process, environment and practice. This will be addressed by comparing the approaches of the two producers concerned and the studios that they used. A technical comparison of some of the recordings, to compare stereo image, differences in spectral emphasis, tempo, apparent distortion and phase issues, will also be presented. This will lead to a discussion of how far authenticity and lo-fidelity are linked in the minds of listeners, and also of how far it is possible to make correct judgments about the recording process through aural analysis.
While issues of reception will be discussed later in the paper, I feel that it is appropriate at this point to note my subjective opinions on both sets of recordings, and the assumptions that I had made about the recording process as a consequence of both my listening, and my experience as a producer and engineer at a project studio which had more in common with the environment where the demos were recorded, than the more “professional” environment where the album was created. My subjective opinion was that many of the demo recordings had a certain intimacy, immediacy and energy that was lost to an extent in the album versions, despite being clearly superior in terms of recording quality and clarity (particularly in comparison to the digital distortion apparent on the demos in their mp3 format). Being aware of the time constraints usually involved in creating a demo, I had assumed that they had been recorded virtually live with minimal editing, although the separation on the vocal and its staging suggested overdubbing in a vocal both. I had attributed the apparent looseness or “participatory discrepancies” (Kiel, 1987) to the engineer not employing a click track, and guessed that a relatively humble environment, not dissimilar to the kind of rehearsal room a young band would typically frequent, had allowed the band to take ownership of the recording space and perform unselfconsciously. The pace at which the tracks would have been recorded, meanwhile, had prevented boredom or fatigue becoming a problem, and promoted the sense of immediacy and energy in these recordings.
The album versions, by comparison, sounded much tighter. I had assumed that the time available to the producer had allowed for composites to be constructed from multiple takes, with additional timing correction employed through careful editing on the DAW. This in turn suggested the use of click tracks, possibly involving changes in tempo to preserve dynamic feel, to allow for easy editing between takes. My subjective view was that the time taken on this process had sapped some of the energy from the performances in the pursuit of accuracy, particularly in the case of vocal delivery and performance.
I believe it is relevant to discuss my assumptions, because while my research proved some of them to be correct or at least plausible, it also revealed some of them to be very wide of the mark. The producer/practitioner as a listener will, inevitably, make assumptions about recording process, and the level of accuracy in my own assumptions will, I hope, help to highlight why this is problematic, even when it is done in combination with detailed technical analysis. It also leads to the question of how far the reception for a recording can shed light on its production.
Although anecdotal evidence had suggested that I was not alone in my appreciation of the demos, I investigated the responses of fans to the album recordings in comparison to the demos by looking at views posted on a variety of fan forums, and also looked at the critical reception for the album where the demos had been mentioned in the review. While there was certainly not a universal preference for one set of recordings over the other, there certainly seemed to be a strong preference for a number of the demos as the definitive version. While it is perhaps not surprising that hardcore fans of a band would prefer the demos for no other reasons than a sense of ownership and familiarity, the language used in expressing the preference is in itself interesting. Words such as energy, passion raw and edge reoccur, as does a particular preference for the vocal delivery on certain demo versions. The music critics who express a preference, also tend to concur, with the critic Tim Jonze (2006) commenting in his NME review “the tidier production here fails to add any more life to those snarling [demo] versions”.
Much of the language used by fans in praise of the demos suggests that they perceive them as in some way more authentic than the album versions. Moore (2002, p210) notes that authenticity is “ascribed, rather inscribed”, and that “intimacy…and immediacy (in the sense of unmediated forms of sound production) tend to connote authenticity”. (Ibid, p211). Moore (2002) offers three ways in which this authenticity tends to be ascribed:
- i. The apparent authenticity of the artist’s mode of expression in terms of his/her own experience, unmediated by technological trickery or fakery.
- ii. The validation of the listener’s experience through a sense of connection with the artist’s mode of expression.
- iii. The execution of musical style or genre, which can be perceived to belong to a tradition of artists to whom authenticity has previously been ascribed.
Arctic Monkeys have certainly found authenticity ascribed to them under all of the above terms. The lyrical content, with much use of vernacular language, delivered in a regional accent, and often in the form of a first person narrative offers both “authenticity of expression” (Ibid. p214) and “authenticity of experience” (Ibid. p220), as do the simple arrangements and “live” sound, suggesting a relatively unmediated style of production to the listener. Music critics such as Hasted (2005) have tended to place Arctic Monkeys as the next link in a chain of independent-spirited, raw-sounding bands after The Libertines, and stretching back to bands such as The Clash. Interestingly, the band themselves have publicly distanced themselves from any connection to The Libertines, allying themselves instead to the American garage rock tradition, recent notable exponents of which have included The White Stripes and The Strokes. This can be evidenced by anecdotal evidence of Arctic Monkeys playing covers of songs by both bands in their fledgling live performances, and more recently with a performance of The Strokes ‘Take It Or Leave It’ for a live performance on French TV in 2007. Shepherd (2007) has suggested that there are certain sonic characteristics common to garage rock, and this will be addressed further in the technical analysis, particularly in relation to which set of recordings belongs to this tradition more than the other.
Further to Moore’s discussion, there is another way in which authenticity can be ascribed to the band, which could be described as authenticity 2.0. The nature of the method of discovery of the demos, via UGC sites ranging from MySpace to fan forums and peer-to-peer file sharing networks, renders the demos authentic by being unmediated by the music industry either in terms of supervision by a producer or promotion by a record label or other marketing company. The role of the producer of the demos has also been largely ignored, with even the band’s wikipedia entry making no mention of Alan Smyth in this context. As such, the demo recordings can be seen to be the band’s version.
It is intended to produce a detailed comparative technical analysis of both sets of recordings in future research, but some of the differences analysis has revealed will be discussed here, particular with regard to how this might impact on reception.
Comparison of the recordings reveals that staging is relatively similar; two guitar parts are present most of the time, and both producers decided to pan these left and right of centre respectively, although there is a greater apparent width of separation of the two guitar parts in the album versions. Vocal, kick and snare are positioned centrally, with the rest of the kit appearing across the stereo image as dictated by the hard panning of the overhead mics, with the main difference being that the drum kit imaging is from the drummer’s point of view in the demos, and from the audience point of view in the album versions.
Notable differences on listening are that the demo vocal sounds brighter and louder in the mix than its album counterpart, the demo guitars are harsher, and the demo mixes sound more muddy and louder than the album versions, having been compressed to the point of noticeable clipping distortion. A comparative listen of both versions of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ in the purpose-built listening room at UMASS Lowell revealed the demo to be harsh to the point of ear fatigue in the mid range, while the album version had considerably more separation of instruments across the stereo image, and a greater apparent depth from front to back. A visual comparison of the waveforms confirms the demos are louder, as did the need to reduce the demo version wav (supplied by Alan Smyth) by 4.3dB for its highest peak energy to be consistent with the album version for the purpose of comparative spectral analysis. The ambience on the vocals is apparently subtler on the album versions, but more noticeable and with a longer decay on the guitars and drums, while separation of instruments is clearer on the album versions, and the bottom end is fuller. The sound of the snare drum in the demo recordings suggests that phase cancellation leading to comb filtering has occurred between the close kit mics and the overhead mics. This is especially apparent in ‘Mardy Bum’ where there are audible phasing problems on the drums in the chorus sections. Spectral analysis of an excerpt of ‘A Certain Romance’ confirms that the album version has less energy in the “muddy” low mid 250-380Hz frequency range, while the demo has more energy in the “harsh” mid range frequencies of 1-4KHz. Comparison of the two recordings with a goniometer reveals that album version has a wider stereo image than the demo version.
Shepherd (2007) has suggested that sonic characteristics of recordings considered to be in the tradition of garage rock include a narrow stereo image and significant energy in the 1-2KHz range, which would allow the conclusion that the demos are sonically more authentic to a garage rock tradition, while the finesse of the album in terms of frequency range, separation and consistency of ambience suggests a grander production scale that might be attributed to classic rock. The apparent digital distortion of the demos also places them in the more lo-fi tradition of garage rock; I had assumed this distortion had been created by file-sharers in converting the demo CDs to mp3. Alan Smyth had shared this view, but his subsequent analysis of the original ProTools sessions revealed that a limiter plug-in had been inadvertently bypassed, allowing this clipping to occur.
Figure 3. Logarithmic spectral plot of “A Certain Romance”, album version, verse 1, bars 1-4
Figure 4. Logarithmic spectral plot of “A Certain Romance”, album version, verse 1, bars 1-4
A comparative analysis of tempo was also conducted, to discern whether or not one of the reasons for the perception of greater energy in the demo recordings was simply because they were played faster. This revealed that clicks were used in the demo recordings, although they usually seemed to be disabled by the final chorus. It also showed the band’s relative inexperience, because although they were clearly using a click to keep tempo consistent, they can also be heard to drift ahead or behind at a number of points. This perhaps explains the loose sound of the demo in spite of this tempo mediation. The album versions vary much more in tempo, suggesting that they were recorded without a click, although the exception to this may be ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ which is at a steady 103BPM except for the instrumental introduction and its reprise near the end of the song. If anything, the album versions are also played slightly faster than the demos, suggesting that perceived energy is not due to tempo in these cases.
Arctic Monkeys recorded demos on five different occasions between August 2003 and November 2004 at 2Fly Studios, Sheffield, engineered and produced by Alan Smyth. These demos plus a few early live recordings make up the collection know as Beneath The Boardwalk, originally distributed by the photographer and friend of the band, Mark Bull, on his website, but which subsequently became very widely distributed across the internet. Seven of the demos recorded with Alan Smyth were re-recorded for Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. In future research, I will undertake a detailed examination of four tracks as case studies, namely ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, ‘Mardy Bum’, ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ (originally entitled ‘Scummy Man’) and ‘A Certain Romance’. Of these, the last three were all recorded by Alan Smyth on his fifth and final session with the band on 2nd November 2004, while ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ was one of three tracks recorded at the previous session on 28th July 2004. For the purpose of this paper, some examples of key differences in approach and result in these recordings will be discussed.
I visited Alan Smyth at 2Fly Studios on 14th July 2008 to look at the recording environment and to interview him about the processes involved in creating the Arctic Monkeys demos. Smyth was able to show me the original ProTools sessions for the demos in question to verify the recording, editing and mixing techniques detailed below. He also answered supplementary questions via email as my research continued. 2Fly is situated within a single storey concrete building in the courtyard of a Victorian industrial building called the Stagworks, which is split into a variety of work units. 2Fly is essentially 1 large room with an angled dividing wall separating the control room and live area. The control room is approximately 3.6m x 3m, and the live room approximately 5.5m x 4.5m, with a small triangular vocal booth built into one corner. Acoustic treatment consists of frames covered with carpet and filled with off cuts of climbing jacket filling in both the control room and live area, and a large carpet hanging on the rear wall of the control room. Various shelves, boxes and discarded pieces of equipment in both rooms make for “a lovely diffusion” according to Alan Smyth. Using approximate values for the total absorption coefficient of the room suggests a reverb time of between 0.26 and 0.35 seconds at 1Khz, with this time lengthening at lower frequencies.
Figure 1. Exterior, 2 Fly Studios, Sheffield (Morey, 2008)
It is a basic and functional working environment. According to Alan Smyth, the premises was originally acquired as a rehearsal space for his band, Seafruit, and the studio still has the feel of an inexpensively converted rehearsal space, or, as he puts it, “it’s a bed-sit basically with recording equipment in it. I thought it was homely” (Smyth, 2008)
Figure 2. Live Room, 2 Fly Studios, Sheffield (Morey, 2008)
Recording Process – Tracking
At each of the sessions, three or four tracks would be recorded and mixed in one long (12-14 hour) day. Drums, rhythm guitar and bass would be recorded together in the live area with Alex Turner usually singing along unmiked while playing guitar. It was possible to verify this process by listening to the drum overhead tracks of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ where there was minimal audible bleed of bass, guitar and vocal. At the time the band had small practice amps, and while these were sometimes miked up, the guitar sounds on the demos were created using the Amp Farm plug-in in ProTools on DI tracks (the Vox AC30 preset in the case of the rhythm guitar), with the amps used more to give the band the sense of playing together in one room, as not all band members always wore headphones. The drums were recorded using a set of Shure drum mics, with a standard set-up of one mic on kick, toms and hi-hat, two overheads, and a snare miked top and bottom. Jamie Cook’s guitar would usually be overdubbed later in the session, and vocals were overdubbed in the small vocal booth using a Rode NT2 mic via a TLA Fatman preamp. All sources were fed into ProTools via a Soundcraft Spirit Studio desk, but were monitored and processed “in the box”.
Recording & Editing Process – Time and Tempo
Time constraints were clearly an important part of the recording process and final outcome at 2Fly, with four live takes being the maximum that Alan Smyth would record for each song. The first of these takes would generally be used to listen to how the band performed the track, and then assess how far they would need the guidance of a click track. According to Smyth (2008) during my interview with him:
“If it felt tight, but it should be tighter, I would give them a click, but just for the first minute or so. If I had to, I would design the click track to allow the band to speed up and slow down”.
Smyth (2008) provided further justification of this methodology in a subsequent email:
“The reason, I didn’t think the songs ever sounded settled at the beginning and for me the earlier part of a song must settle comfortably so that everyone knows when the next beat’s coming!! (Band included!) Don’t forget the band were still 17 and were pretty ragged if left to their own devices! However it always sounded much more exciting if I let them go click free when they started to pull away, there was always a point in each song where this would happen, not always the same point in each take, just when it felt natural”.
Of the four tracks in question in this case study, analysis of tempo showed that ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘A Certain Romance’ both follow a click until the last chorus and instrumental coda respectively (at 102BPM and 140BPM). With ‘Scummy Man’, the (drum-free) intro was recorded in free time, while the rest of the song was played to a click that changed tempo for verse and chorus. With ‘Mardy Bum’, Smyth used a technique which he describes as ‘variable click” where he tapped along to the band’s initial take, recorded without a click, and designed a variable click track which replicated the way the band naturally sped up and slowed down, but allowed for greater tightness and consistency between takes.
Smyth assembled a master track from the 2-3 takes recorded with his click method of choice and with the integrity of component sections preserved. Jamie Cook’s guitar parts were overdubbed (but this was due to his daytime work commitments rather than any production consideration) as were Alex Turner’s vocals, but again, due to time constraints this was generally a composite of two takes. Sometimes Smyth copied and pasted sections of backing if the band had been unable to produce a relatively consistent recording, and bass player Andy Nicholson’s playing in particular needed additional correction to improve timing, although both of these practices became less common in the later recording sessions as the band’s experience and technical competence improved.
Mixing and Mastering
With the demos, Smyth adjusted the mix during the tracking process. Drum sounds were EQ’d on the desk prior to recording, but any dynamic processing was done within ProTools and incorporated into the monitor mix from tracking onwards. Smyth noted that he liked to automate compression rates and attack times “especially with vocalists that go from loud to soft…it lets the thing breath”. Any reverb or delay effects were also added within ProTools, and a combination of mastering plug-ins, including Sony Oxford Inflator And EQ and Waves C4 Multiband Compressor, were applied to the master bus. Smyth preferred to send the band away for an hour or two while working on the final mixes, with them returning to the control room for approval towards the end of the process. Final masters would normally be run off at the end of the day’s session.
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was recorded at Chapel Studios, Lincolnshire over 15 days in September 2005, engineered by Ewan Davis and produced by Jim Abbiss. Much of the process of tracking and mixing is described by Abbiss in an interview with Paul Tingen for the September 2006 issue of Sound On Sound magazine, and he has responded to my additional questions about this session via email.
Chapel Studios is a well-appointed residential recording studio facility situated in the village of South Thoresby, Lincolnshire. Studio 1, where Arctic Monkeys recorded the album is a former Wesleyan chapel converted by Munro Acoustics. The live room is approximately 12m x 6.7m x 5.5m high with carpeted and wood flooring, as well as a range of drapes and acoustic screens to alter the room ambience and isolate the sound of the performers when recording. The control room is 5m x 6m and has also been treated by Munro Acoustics (with additional “tweaks” by other specialists over the years) for optimal listening.
Recording Process – Tracking
According to his interview in Sound On Sound, the process of recording the album shared some features with those used on the demos. The band played live together in one room (including Jamie Cook, who didn’t have other work commitments to be concerned about at this stage in the band’s career), but with the guitar amps placed in booths and the bass amp placed in a corridor to provide separation. The musicians had their own mini-mixers to tailor their headphone mix to their own preferences. Alex Turner chose to sing live on a few of the songs, for which additional baffling was used to allow for better isolation of the vocal recording. The recording schedule allowed for one day for the tracking of each song, with a day at each end for set-up and breaking down respectively. Jim Abbiss used a combination of preamps when recording the band, with half the mics going through the Amek desk in the control room, and the remainder via Massenburg, Telfunken or API external mic preamps.
The drum recording was achieved using considerably more mics than the demo. Kick drum and toms were double miked in addition to overheads and room mics. The snare was miked top and bottom, “with an AKG 451 placed at the side of the snare drum, heavily compressed to give front end to bass [kick drum] and snare.” (Tingen, 2006) Guitar and bass amps were also double miked, and vocals were recorded with valve Neumann M149 through a Urei 1176 compressor. Jim Abbiss used ProTools for recording “as a tape machine and for quick editing, very much the same way people used razor blades years ago”. (Ibid)
Recording Process – Time & Tempo
I asked Jim Abbiss about the number of takes he did when tracking each song for the album. He thought the average for the band was four takes, and if Alex Turner was overdubbing lead vocals he was “very quick, we’d generally do a warm-up take and a couple more to choose between.” Other overdubs were not numerous, and mainly consisted of “occasional backing vocals, percussion and organ” (Abbiss, 2008)
Having discovered Alan Smyth’s variable tempo track method when I interviewed him, I asked Jim Abbiss if had had employed similar methods when recording the album. He replied:
“A couple of songs had clicks just at the start to set a tempo and then we faded them out of the guys’ headphones, but I didn’t do this with any of the four songs in question, they were all free time. Matt Helders has naturally good consistent tempo.” (Abbiss, 2008)
Analysis confirmed Abbiss’s comments, although other than the introduction and its reprise, the remainder of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ is at a metronomic 103 BPM, suggesting that Abbiss may not have remembered events correctly for this song. He also emailed me back after the initial interview with an interesting additional comment about the recording process:
“”[A] Certain Romance” incidentally my favourite song on the LP, was recorded all live in one take. Alex wanted it to be special & wanted a “warts & all” version. I was a little wary of this, as I wanted it to be as good as it could be, but said OK lets try it. Myself & Ewan (engineer) then sat transfixed as they played an amazing take with no mistakes all through.” (Abbiss, 2008)
Mixing & Mastering
Unlike Alan Smyth, who had to track, mix and master in a day, Jim Abbiss was able to conduct his mixing sessions at a different location (Olympic Studios, London) with a different assistant (Barny). Mastering was not a consideration for Abbiss, with this being undertaken by George Morino at Sterling Sound, New York. While Smyth had mixed “in the box”, Abbiss opted to go for a manual mix on a vintage EMI TGI 16 channel console, with some sub-mixing in ProTools. Abbiss also suggested that timing correction and editing was kept to a minimum:
“If a take can be nudged in a couple of places to sound better while keeping all the dynamic & sonic character of that original “magic” take then I do it rather than re-recording, but my goal is never a “perfect” grid-aligned result”. (Abbiss, 2008)
Recording, Mixing & Environment
Some of the conclusions drawn from this research would be of little surprise to recordists or producers. Certain elements of the sonic differences between the recordings can, quite reasonably, be put down to the range and quality of equipment available to Jim Abbiss, whether it be pre-amps and mics, or compressors, EQ and other outboard. The live room at Chapel Studios gave Abbiss the option of recording and incorporating the room ambience, although he may have used this in conjunction with a high quality reverb unit. Alan Smyth had to mix drums recorded in a live room with DI’d guitars and vocals recorded in a very small booth, so it is perhaps not surprising that the ambience doesn’t sound quite as consistent as in the album versions. Similarly, a combination of time, to correct any phase problems, technique and equipment has led to much clearer drum recording. Spectral differences may be at least partly due aesthetic choices, but in the case of Alan Smyth, it may also be due at least partly to monitoring on nearfield speakers with limited bass definition, leading to boosting in the more audible low mid range to improve apparent bass definition, with a consequent boost in the 1-4KHz range to prevent the mix from sounding muddy.
There is a consistency of practice across demo and album versions, in that the majority of elements were tracked live into ProTools in both cases, and a similar small number of takes were recorded, from which composites were assembled. What is interesting is that counter to my assumptions, and those of many fans, the album versions have undergone far less technical mediation by the producer than the demos. Overdubbing was confined to some vocal recordings and additional percussion and keyboard parts, and timing correction was kept to the minimum. Even the album mixing process can be seen as more “authentic” in terms of Abbiss performing a traditional manual mix, harking back to standard studio practice in the days before SSL desks and other automation. The question does remain, though, as to how much automation and other “in the box” mediation occurred in the ProTools sub-mix prior to its break-out to the EMI TGI 16 desk.
In terms of the reception of the demos as having more energy or passion, it is perhaps not the recording process itself that has created these differences, but a combination of both the environment and activities around both sets of recordings, and the band’s development as musicians. Abbiss says in his interview with Sound on Sound (Tingen, 2006) that the mics, amps and drums were permanently set up throughout the 15 days of recording. Given that there was minimal technical set up during each day of recording, and the band recorded virtually the same number of takes of each song as they had done when recording 3-4 different songs in a day with Smyth, there is the question of what was going on in each recording session when the band were not performing the take. My analysis had shown that while the album versions felt slower than the demos, the actual difference in tempo was minimal. It is worth noting that according to the band’s official website, Arctic Monkeys played 59 gigs between their last recording session with Alan Smyth in November 2004, and the commencement of the album sessions in September 2005. It is this intense performing schedule, then, that led to the apparent tightness of the album versions, rather than Abbiss’s technical mediation. This touring schedule had also created a problem for Abbiss, in that the band had been accustomed to playing the songs more quickly and aggressively as their technical accomplishment increased, which led to Abbiss having to work with the band to rein in these tendencies, and take the sound and feel back to what had been captured in the demos. Abbiss confirmed this approach to me via email:
“ It is something myself and Lawrence Bell [head of the band’s label, Domino Records] both felt was necessary. The guys had been touring and playing the songs faster and faster, and in most cases the lyrics had become garbled and the grooves of some of the tunes lost. So I wanted to get the feel back and allow Alex to get his words out”. (Abbiss, 2008)
This process had not been achieved to the satisfaction of Lawrence Bell in the case of the song ‘Mardy Bum’, which had led to the band re-recording it while on tour in Germany on 11th November 2005. As Jim Abbiss was not available for this session, Alan Smyth recorded the band at Telstar Studios, Munich, again employing his variable click track method from the demo sessions:
“Album version of Mardy Bum was definitely done to a variable click to slow them down! They’d got so used to playing it that it was miles too fast and ruining the song. The same technique as [the demos] was employed but it was a lot harder as they really wanted to race away in places”.
Abbiss notes in his Sound on Sound interview that no pre-production was done for the album, so I would suggest these comments from both producers would lead to the conclusion that at least some part of the album recording sessions for the previously demoed songs involved working with the band to curb their natural urge to play the songs harder and faster. It is perhaps this factor, then, rather than technical mediation, which has lead the audience to perceive greater energy or edge in the demos, where, although the band were harnessed to a click track for at least part of each recording, they were playing at the limit of their technical accomplishment as musicians at that time, whereas the album sessions had required a curbing of this energy. It perhaps also suggests why a preference has been expressed by the audience for the vocal performances in the demos; Alex Turner had developed a vocal delivery that was suited to live performance in front of an audience, but which had lost some of the intimacy of the recordings realized in Alan Smyth’s cosy vocal booth. This can be evidenced not just in the reception to both sets of recordings, but in Jim Abbiss’s decision to use the demo intro to ‘Where The Sun Goes Down’, and edit it on to the front of the album version in preference to the recordings made during the album sessions.
I would suggest that the choice of location for the album sessions had also contributed to performances that in some cases seemed to lack some of the edge of the demo versions. In my interview with Geoff Barradale, the band’s manager he noted:
“It was a town record and we made it in the countryside, which just didn’t fit – it was available and we could get it done”. (Barradale, 2008)
This reveals the pressure on the band, management and label to get the album released before the intense interest created in the band by the demos began to dissipate. The demos for an album ordinarily function as a blueprint for the band and the producer, but in the case of Arctic Monkeys, they also acted as a blueprint for the audience. The awareness of this by both label and producer can be seen in their intervention to insure consistency between the album recordings and their widely appreciated demo forebears. Geoff Barradale also revealed that Jim Abbiss had originally been contacted to remix the original demo recordings for the album release, and had done so for both ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘Mardy Bum’; it was intervention by the band that had vetoed this process, as they had felt that it would be ripping off fans to sell them remixed and repackaged versions of songs that they had already downloaded for free.
Producer As Author
Some of these conclusions raise the question of the extent to which either producer can claim authorship for the recordings. It could be argued that Alan Smyth, through his technical mediation, had shown the band their potential at a point in their career where their musicianship was yet to quite reach the standard that the demos implied. In this way, the demos not only provided a sonic blueprint for the band, but a template for the live performance of the songs. As Geoff Barradale commented:
“When you put a recording down it kind of finalises it. Once the ban knew what the songs were going to be, they had nailed them live within a week or two”. (Barradale, 2008)
As such, Smyth can be seen to have a greater claim to authorship in his productions than Abbiss. The album was a more collaborative effort, with different assistants for tracking and mixing, and mastering realised by another person in another country. Alan Smyth had had to fulfil all of these functions in a highly compressed timeframe, and yet his role as producer of the demos has been largely ignored by fans and critics alike. By contrast, Jim Abbiss had the task of creating an album that remained as true as possible to the recorded version of the Arctic Monkeys already familiar to their audience, but with a separation, and a frequency and dynamic range more acceptable to radio broadcast. As such, his most significant mediation was to ensure that the band remained true to the original blueprint established by Alan Smyth. When Geoff Barradale described Abbiss as “a safe pair of hands”, I took this to be indicative of the need for a producer who could precisely focus his creative and technical energy to a brief, which required an adherence to an established template.
Methodology & Authenticity
It is interesting that the reception for the demos often involves language that would suggest these recordings are the definitive or authentic expression of the songs in question, and yet considerably more manipulation of these source recordings appears to have been employed than on the album versions. My study of these recordings has shown that it is not until the producers have revealed their methodology that a true picture of the process can be understood. However, without critical listening, technical analysis and a study of reception, I suggest that it would be difficult to formulate the necessary questions to unpick the recording process. I therefore offer this multi-faceted approach as a reasonable model for the investigation of the art of record production.
My research so far leads me to agree with Moore’s view that authenticity is ascribed rather than inscribed. The demo version of ‘A Certain Romance’ sounds more authentic to listeners because the relative amateurishness of the band, Kiel’s “participatory discrepancies”, continues to shine through in spite of Alan Smyth’s mediation. These same listeners will find the album versions less authentic by virtue of the professionalism of both the band and the producer, as “technical mastery…is equated with artifice” (Moore, 2002, p213). Thus, the album version of ‘A Certain Romance’ will be seen as the less authentic expression despite being recorded entirely live by the band in one take. A careful listen to this version reveals in the few seconds of silence at the beginning the voice of, presumably, recording engineer Ewan Davis saying “shall I keep rolling?”, an attempt perhaps by the producer or band to inscribe this version as immediate and authentic.
Brian Eno makes the following comment about the studio :
“The effect of recording is that it takes the music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension. As soon as you do that, you’re in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you had most certainly missed the first time through, and to become very fond of details that weren’t intended by the composer or the musicians”. (Eno, 1983, p127)
This is true for the producer, but equally true for the listener to a finished recording, especially if that listener is a fan of the artist in question. This also perhaps explains the disappointment by listeners with some of Alex Turner’s vocal delivery on the album; it is not an exact match for the demo, and some of the nuances that they have come to know and love have gone missing.
One issue of an ethnographic approach in my methodology remains the reliability of the witnesses, not because of any intention to mislead on their part, but because it is quite possible to remember details incorrectly, especially, as in the case of the interviewees here, two or more years have elapsed since the events in question. But, like the model proposed by Davis (2008) of the production analyst as detective, the analysis tools available to a researcher should allow for either confirmation, or reveal the need for further investigation.
I would like to thank Jim Abbiss, Geoff Barradale and Alan Smyth for agreeing to be interviewed as part of this research, and Dr Bob Davis for his help and advice.
About The Author
Leeds Metropolitan University
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Notes On Interviews
Jim Abbiss answered my interview questions via email on 1st October 2008, and added additional thoughts via another email on the same day. Geoff Barradale was interviewed on 30th September 2008. Alan Smyth was interviewed on 14th July 2008, and answered additional questions via email between 21st July 2008 and 5th November 2008. In this paper, I have attributed quotations made by the interviewees to the speaker in question. I have omitted transcripts of interviews and the emails that formed part of the research process from the references to protect the contact details of the subjects, and because the reader will not have access to this material.
Notes On Discography
The demo versions of the songs referred to in this paper are available at the following website:
The website claims that these songs are made available with the permission of the copyright owners, but the author would like to make it clear that he has neither verified this nor used this website to gain access to the songs in question.
Arctic Monkeys. 2006. ‘A Certain Romance’ on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Domino
Arctic Monkeys. 2006. ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Domino
Arctic Monkeys. 2006. ‘Mardy Bum’ on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Domino
Arctic Monkeys. 2006. ‘When The Sun Goes Down’on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Domino
Strokes, The. 2001. ‘Take It Or Leave It’ on Is This It. RCA