Future People... a Sonic Teardown
Track: Future People
Artist: Alabama Shakes
Album: Sound & Colour
Label: ATO Records
Producer: Blake Mills
Engineer: Shawn Everett
Recorded at: Sound Emporium Studios, Nashville
Released: 19th of March, 2015
Tempo: 154 BPM
Key: F# Major
Song Length: 3:22
Genre: Blues Rock
Sub-Genre: Psychedelic Soul
Alabama Shakes are...
Brittany Howard | Heath Fogg | Zach Cockrell | Steve Johnson
Ben Tanner | Paul Horton | Rob Moose | Blake Mills
With their GRAMMY-nominated debut Boys & Girls (2012), Alabama Shakes have proved they could master the mix of psychedelic soul-drenched rock 'n' roll, and have really succeeded a sound of their own. Sound & Colour, is the latest record from the group, and appears to be leaning into the soulful realm. Some would even go to the lengths of saying Howard's newly formed vocal is sounding more and more similar to the likes of Marvin Gaye and Patti Labelle, showcasing that mix of powerful head voice and chesty belts. The album was launched in March 2015, on the back of the release of their gritty first single, Don't Wanna Fight. Straight out of the gate, Alabama Shakes had showcased their modern movements with their almighty rock sound completely letting loose; and front-woman Howard amazes, hitting the high notes like the best of them.
In the making of Sound & Colour, the band called upon producer Blake Mills, who had ultimate experimental freedom, which is nearly unheard of in the recording industry. Mills took full advantage and received a wealth of credit from reviewers. And as so often, there was also the unsung behind–the–scenes engineer and mixer, in this case it was Shawn Everett, who was to a large degree responsible for the album’s thunderous bass, sonic depth and wide array of colours.
This being the second album from the southern stars, there was the old 'second-attempt at success' hanging over the bands shoulders. They approached Mills and Everett with a handful of finished tracks, ready for recording, as well as a heap of unfinished ones, which were in dire need of some input. Mills had made a name for himself from earlier, experimental works. His debut album, Break Mirrors (2010), produced by Mills and recorded by Everett, which purely through word–of–mouth ended up being name–checked by a few dozen artists as an inspiration.
“I made my album with Shawn, and the idea was to just experiment. It was shocking to me to see something low–key made at a friend’s house turn into this calling card for me working with other artists. I first met the Alabama Shakes a couple of years ago when they were doing a show in Los Angeles, and afterwards we talked about the process of record–making, and they asked me questions about how we did Break Mirrors. They were in a place that’s familiar to most musicians with a first record under their belt: having a few finished songs that they want to record, and others that are incomplete and being in need of some input. So last year we went to Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville for some toe–in–the–water sessions, and as things went really well it gradually turned into us more or less taking over the studio. We treated it like home and were being very experimental, just like with my first solo record.” - Mills [in an interview with Sound on Sound Magazine]
Future People is another example of the Shakes' fine song writing style. Well written, well structured, well produced and recorded, and performed live by a tight, professional band of Southern American musicians. This track isn't the most complex on the album, but its impact serves its purpose.
Structurally, the song is quite straight forward. It has been built off a 2 chords progression, a minor which functions as the root (F# Minor), and a fourth of the relative major (B minor). The main guitar riff, played by Heath Fogg, is simple and mechanical. It utilises syncopation and the minor pentatonic to create an unsettling vibe. The band makes a virtue of their obvious lack of chops by crafting a plodding thudding four-to-to-the-floor beat behind it. They have used their inabilities as their strengths and have produced a well proportioned song, with untainted space in the mix.
So basically the arrangement looks like this...
The intro is Howard alone, riffing away on the pentatonic scale, the counter-acted by Fogg (Guitar) and Johnson (Drums), again keeping it simple. A subtle Rhodes warmth ads colour to the mix. Then, a gospel like sadness drops in for the verse. Cockrell hits that first bass note, and Howard fronts her falsetto with the lyrics "Some want to see". But she isn't alone, the haunting 'Ooohhh' of the backing vocals shine through the verses and really create a compelling strong-hold for the listeners, and also helping the song through its transitional phrases.
The band uses a push-me-pull-you sonic feel, ignoring both hook and rhythm, and rather opting for a long obligato. This ads value for the listener, as you reconcile all the different rhythms competing for your attention. And Brittany Howard, being the show-woman she is, really is the bands captivating factor. Watch any live performance of this band, and I bet she is the one you feel the most.
"As a producer, the first thing I focus on is the quality of the songs. I want them to be strong, lyrically, melodically and harmonically, and so each song was combed over for that. Some songs were perfect, and for others I offered suggestions as to how to improve them. That might be as simple as saying to Brittany (Howard, the band’s singer and guitarist), 'Your lyric idea in the first verse was really good, stick with that!’ But after that, producing is a bit like being in the restaurant business. If you’re dealing with ingredients that are of a high quality, you can take advantage in the way you prepare and present them, or you can overwork things and lose what you started out with." - Mills [in an Interview with Sound on Sound Magazine]
In today's studios, everyone has access to a laptop with plug-ins and software, that has allowed anybody to capture their music with the ultimate simplicity. This means, that while it is easy to quickly capture a piece of music, the ability to present a 'performance' has been entirely undervalued, especially in recent generations. And more importantly, capturing a musical performance the right way, to make the song exciting, unique and imperfectly-perfect. This was very much the case on Alabama Shakes' debut album. The approach for Sound & Colour's production was complete performance focused. Mills knew that Alabama Shakes had that aesthetic about them, and it needed to be captured. This became the fuel for the sessions.
"I wanted a record that really hit me sonically with its energy, not just with the performances but also the way that the performances were captured and presented. For me recording is much more like painting then taking a photograph. It requires technique in painting just to get it to feel real and emotive, as opposed to just set the microphone up in the room and get out of the way. It requires a bit more finesse to get something to connect." - Mills [in an Interview with Sound on Sound Magazine]
Shawn Everett was the engineer responsible for 'painting this picture'. A total of four two-week sessions, with 20 tracks in total, plus the final track on the album, Over my Head, which was recorded at United Recording Studios, LA. Everett and Mills had their work cut out for them. They didn't talk much about the sound image they were trying to achieve, therefore agreeing on filling the frequency range as much as they could, with the highest highs and the lowest lows, and undoubtedly making an album that sounded good, and cool.
This screenshot was taken in the final Bridge of the track. Showing Mills and Everett's success in an almost flat range.
There was continuous experimentation in the studio. The band would attempt to structure their tracks on paper, then rehearse them, whilst Everett was capturing every moment of it. The band would keep on playing and it was becoming very obvious that something special was happening. Everett's ProTools session became several hours long, with little to no edits in place. They keep on playing the song, until there was a point at which they'd nailed it. Which became the takes that were used in the final fix. Everett only very occasionally went in and tried to grab something from another take to improve the main take, but all in all, the tracks on the album are as raw as they come.
Stock microphones were setup to record the band. Sometimes they were moved or adjusted to suit a new amp or instrument, but other than that, the quality just came from good artists, good isolation, and a large, and beautifully sounding live room at Sound Emporium Studios. Studio A (10m x 13m with a 6m–high ceiling) became the Shakes home. Everett and Mills tracked the band live, in the one room, as much as they could. 90 percent of the album was recorded this way. Drums, guitars, and Howard's vocals were all tracked in the main room, with some baffling applied for isolation. Sometimes they utilised a separate drum booth, in the search for a smaller drum sound. All sources were masterfully recorded, however the bass cabinet had to be isolated its own booth as well, due to the amount of spill making it impossible to later get a bigger kick sound.
The guitar sounds took a bit of toying with. Both Howard and Fogg alternated through two different guitar amps. A Royer 121 ribbon on one cab, and an SM57 on the other. This gave Everette some options in the mixing stages, he would choose between the two amps depending on the sound, which would later determine the guitar blend. They were recorded in Studio A, majority of the time, unless a cleaner drum sound was needed, then the amps were isolated in separate booths. All microphones went through the desk, without any compression or EQ. Everette and Mills wanted to record everything neutral as possible. There were some keyboards added as well. A Vox Continental [organ], and a piano, which they recorded with a pair of Neumann 67s, and on the rare occasion, a 57 as well. A Hammond B3 was also used on the album, on which they had a D12 for the bass and again two 67s. The vibraphone also was recorded with two 67s. All these added keyboard layers were part of the experimental choices that were made by Mills and Everette in the time of 'winging-it'.
"Some of the guitars were played through my custom–madeShawn Everett’s Ocean Way outboard recreation of his in–the–box mix was subsequently exported as a stem session. guitar amp, which is an old Bell & Howell film projector which had its audio section rebuilt by Austen Hooks. These projectors have hi–fi amps with low–gain tubes, and have characteristics on the guitar that I really like, like a lot of high–end information that does not sound shrill. The first time I went to Nashville I brought a bunch of my guitars and amps that I thought might inspire the band if they wanted to experiment with different tones. But they ended up largely using their own equipment. I found that the more I meddled with Heath’s equipment, the less he sounded like himself. You can drastically influence the way people play and sound by giving them different instruments." - Mills [in an Interview with Sound on Sound Magazine]
Eight weeks period was spent at Sound Emporium Studios, in Nashville. Everett and Mills work tireless hours treating sounds that had been recorded. They took their time and made sure there was room to try everything. Whatever Everett tracked through ProTools, he would lay over the desk, to try and get a rough enough mix, trying to get a cool vibe, without any processing or plug-ins. Once the vibe coming out of the desk was succeeded, and the overall sonic idea was in place, Everett would then start mixing inside the box, later using plug-ins and software processing. Everett states his trials, and working towards a mix that's is now a competitive standard in todays music industry:
"One essential element when I work, whether tracking, rough mixing or doing the final mix, is that I have a bunch of plug–ins over the mastering bus inside of Pro Tools, so that when we listen to the mix, it sounds like a record. I have developed a mindset over the years, particularly because of the loudness wars, of always working with the question in mind of how the mix is going to sound once it’s mastered, and I am adjusting what I am doing for that. I know how loud people want things nowadays, and it is almost like an art form to see how loud I can get my mix and at the same time retain all the things I like about records that aren’t loud. If everything is balanced in the entire frequency spectrum, it can naturally feel loud, without having been limited to death. So a lot of the experimentation I did at Sound Emporium, running things through cassette recorders, VHS tapes, reel–to–reel tape, amps and so on, and applying all sorts of different EQs, was a matter of making sure all the different instruments have their own place, and that it sounds as loud as possible."
In search of the big bass sound, Everett and Mills made this a major preoccupation for the making of this record. Mills talks about their thought process:
"The low end is really important in a record, to get it right. You can have sounds fighting for their place in almost every other register, and somehow they will find their place. But elements that are disagreeing in the low end, don’t only fuck up the bottom end, but can mess with the entire recording. There’s a hierarchy to the low end. Sometimes the kick sits above the bass, sometimes it's the other way around - not necessarily in terms of volume, but also in terms of their frequencies. There is this battle, and if everybody is the lowest, nobody is the lowest."
Everett and Mills are both fans of big-bass. Everett has spent years trying to deconstruct Hip-Hop records, and how they had managed to get their big-bass punch, so it could be applied to rock albums such as this. To achieve this, the rigged up a second, half-opened bass kick drum, next to the primary kick drum, for more resonant characteristics. They miced the second kick as well and blended the two kick mics to get a massive low-end kick sound. The aim was to get an 808 like kick sound, without the later applied samples. They wanted it as organic as possible, and if that still wasn't enough, they would later re-amp the recorded kick sounds, and capture it in an empty room, thus giving them an enormous low-end, that wouldn't clutter the mix, and would still work well on vinyl.
The Secret Weapon
Everett and Mills jumped into this album with full experimental purpose. Their ideologies were more ideas than thought out processes, so coming into the studio, they allowed themselves heaps of time to trial different approaches. Both Everett and Mill used their obscure artistic-minds to develop sounds from out-of-the-box influences. Mills referred to his sessions like painting a picture. Aiming to capture the emotions, feelings, and sporadic moments in the performances, that happen in the production process. Keeping the outcome artistic and unique. Everett, with similar artistic flare, is influenced by film and photography. He spoke of referencing a photograph when trying to create his sonic ideologies. Take the albums first single for example, Don't Wanna fight. Everett intuitively mixed the track, aiming to achieve the same weird feeling as a photograph taken in the early 80s by Bruce Davidson of this woman staring at the camera. Everett and Mills have latched onto the inspirations, giving them a whole new avenue for finding their creativity. Even though the album was co-produced by the Shakes, and a few ideas weren't viable, Everett and Mill really took on a work load and kept the ball rolling. A good producer or engineer will allow the band to be themselves and keep them moving forward through the entire process. And this is why the album won a Grammy. The aim to experiment, in a productive and efficient way, within a labels budget, is a challenge in itself. These two man took on that opportunity, and it has undoubtedly benefited both their careers.
Here's an interview with Shawn Everett, talking about his influences, techniques and travels through the music industry:
An interview with Blake Mills, talking of his recording ideas, career progression, and working with Alabama Shakes on Sound & Colour:
Tried and Tested
Tracking Brittany Howard's vocals was an experiment in itself. Everett came up with weird ways to capture the masterful voice, and in turn, gave the crew some unique options when it came time for the mix. They sometimes tracked in front of the monitors in the control room, to capture song bleed. They tried taping a set of headphones to Howards head, which wired up like a microphone, for a LoFi, in your face mid range vocal. Similarly, they tracked through a re-wired NS10 woofer speaker, for a strangely muted tonal result. They also went to the lengths of numbing Howards tongue, with numbing gel from the local pharmacy, and then jammed a whole heaps of cotton balls in her mouth, resulting in a muffled approach. Weird, but wonderful.
So, for my tired and tested, I hunted down an old home hi-fi speaker. An Audio Telex - ATC 5010, 8 inch, 5 Watt speaker, with a mounted ATC - 5006 transformer.
NOTE: Microphones and Speakers are both Transducers. A Transducer is a device that converts variations in a physical quantity, such as pressure or brightness, into an electrical signal, or vice versa. So normally, a Speaker would be regarded as an Input Transducer, receiving a signal from an Output. For a microphone, it's the opposite.
To turn this speaker into a microphone, it's a simple as swapping the input to an output. For this instance, and a more user-friendly function, I fitted a Male XLR Plug (Output), to send the signal to an audio interface (Input). It's really that simple.
Then I rigged my new microphone up, and tested out the response. I recorded two very quick takes, one from my new make-shift microphone and the other from my Rode NT1A Condenser, to show a comparison. Here's the results:
A lot of mid-range, and a strong low-mid boost. Sounding quite distorted.
A more even frequency response, with clearer high and low outputs.
The results were obviously going to be very different, but for a generic example, my make-shift mic delivered quite a unique, Lo-Fi output, and I love it. It could be the blend I need for my next vocal project, or act as an added Sub-Kick. Either way, it's a very cool and unique option for tacking in any genre. I was fascinated by these approaches. Unorthodox, out-of-the-box, vocal recordings.
From live room tracking, to recording vocals through a set of headphones, this really was a triumphant production for all involved. Blake Mills kept the Shakes moving forward with his warm and untainted production approach. Shawn Everett pushed the recording boundaries with his madman like studio techniques. And the band themselves, well, I'm surprised these guys haven't won a Grammy yet. They're masterful songwriters and they deliver with such emotional integrity, that even the listener will feel their inner blues through the sound waves. An amazing band, with an amazing producer and amazing engineer, resulted in an album that is beyond the fact. If you haven't heard the album, do you homework. It's a truly astounding production. Definitely in my Top 10 albums of all time.
Charrow, A. (2018). Music Geek Track of the Day: Alabama Shakes’ ‘Future People’ | Nerdist. Retrieved from https://nerdist.com/music-geek-track-of-the-day-alabama-shakes-future-people/
Buchanan, D., Staff, C., Hughes, K., & Staff, C. (2018). Album Review: Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color. Retrieved from https://consequenceofsound.net/2015/04/album-review-alabama-shakes-sound-color/
Tingen, P. Inside Track: Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color |. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.soundonsound.com/people/inside-track-alabama-shakes-sound-color
What musical aspects are weaved into the song Future People by Alabama Shakes that makes me inclined to believe there is no better song? - Quora. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.quora.com/What-musical-aspects-are-weaved-into-the-song-Future-People-by-Alabama-Shakes-that-makes-me-inclined-to-believe-there-is-no-better-song
Interview with Blake Mills:
Interview with Shawn Everett: