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THE WHITE STRIPES, GARAGE ROCK AND THE

PRODUCTION OF RETROSPECTIVITY

Becky Shepherd

Macquarie University, Sydney Australia
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Abstract

 

 

Discussion and analysis surrounding popular music and the art of record production has begun to de-mystify of the role of the producer in the recording studio, and similarly begun to deconstruct the intricacies and subtleties of record production in relation to recorded sound as artistic text. This paper aims to continue discussion within this domain, by acknowledging the integral role of record production in relation to the construction of popular rock music forms. Analysis will focus on rock music of the 21st century, in particular the production of vintage/retro sounds in the context of contemporary rock music, including the popularity of analogue recording techniques, ‘lo-fi’ production, the popularity and use of ‘vintage’ equipment and the aesthetics of rock music authenticity.

 

 

This research, which also forms an integral component of my doctorate study, aims to introduce a method whereby sonic soundscapes are examined as three- dimensional texts, incorporating x, y and z analysis categories. This method aims to illustrate the temporal and spatial characteristics of a recorded text, while similarly examining the arrangement of such characteristics in the crafting of a studio mix.

 

 

 

The western popular music press acknowledge a trend toward retrospective sounds within some contemporary rock music. In July 2001 Rolling Stone magazine reviewed Detroit’s latest international export The White Stripes, and their third album, Red Blood Cells (2001). The article suggests that the aesthetic and sonic representation of the group is a revival of a ‘gothic garage type punk music, with a sound that recalls the Kinks and the Melvins’ (2001).

 

 

In 2003 Britain’s Channel 4 offered similar commentary citing the music of The White Stripes as “a rich, bottom-shaking analogue sound that is [both] ancient and modern” (http://www.channel4.com/music/features/artists/whitestripes/htmlAccessed 4th September 2007).

 

 

Closer to home, in the same year, an article in Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) suggested that a noteworthy resurgence of retrospective sounds had come to characterise the contemporary western popular rock music industry. The article proposed that this resurgence was “the answer to a decade of manufactured pop, part of a rock’n’roll revival that has seen the Strokes, the Vines and the White Stripes translate the new rock into huge sales’ (Jan 24 2004 www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/01/23/1074732598358.html?from+storyrhs Accessed 4 September 2007).

 

 

My research questions the validity in such commentaries, and asks can we, and shouldn’t we be more specific than the popular music press? Can we identify retrospective sonic references and observe how such representations of the past are re-contextualised within contemporary popular culture? How can we further understand connections made between the sound of some contemporary rock music and the sound of rock music created over 50 years ago?

 

 

My research suggests that by engaging with the processes of record production, we can begin to investigate the crafting of some contemporary rock music, and subsequently offer more accurately composed observations to accompany assertions such as- ‘that sounds ‘retro’ or ‘it reminds me of Led Zeppelin’, for example. An analysis of this kind means necessarily engaging with the musical track as a primary text.

 

 

There is much thought to be given to theoretical considerations  surrounding the contemporary popularity of ‘retro’ rock, and such deliberations are integral to a comprehensive understanding of this trend. However within the scope of this particular discussion today, focus will be directed to an analysis of those sonic elements that characterise retrospectivity within contemporary rock music.

 

 

Terms such as resurgence, revival, nostalgia, garage rock, and ‘neo-this’, ‘neo-that’ appear ubiquitously throughout commentaries on new, emerging rock releases. So, paradoxically that which appears to be new also carries the label ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’.

 

 

Analysis will proceed via a brief case study of the music of The White Stripes, a contemporary two-member rock outfit from Detroit Michigan, and, prompted by comparative assertions made by the popular music press, the music of The Sonics, a quintessential representation of 1960s garage rock.

 

 

Garage rock began as an underground trend in the American northwest. It became recognised as a style only retrospectively, as it was not considered a genre in its own right during its most productive years. The style included such artists as The Sonics, The Remains, and The Kingsmen. Garage Rock, as the name implied, was characterised by a DIY approach, realised in garage studios on minimal amounts of analog equipment: the result, a spontaneous, raw, and overdriven, amateurish recorded sound.  The garage rock style proliferated in Detroit during the 1970s, with the arrival of groups such The Stooges and the MC5.

 

 

In an attempt to employ a comparative commentary on the music of the White Stripes and 1960s garage rock, this paper will compare two tracks from The Sonics 1965 debut release Here Are The Sonics, and two tracks from the White Stripes’ second and third albums released in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

 

 

Textual analysis of the case study material suggests that the proliferation of retrospectivity in contemporary rock music is largely facilitated by more traditional approaches to record production, including the popularity of ‘old’ instruments, studio equipment, and recording techniques.

 

 

To engage with analysis of record production I refer to one of the key contributors to the research of record production in popular music, Albin Zak II. Zak outlines “three distinct compositional layers” (Zak II 2001, 24), involved in the art of studio production. Each level of Zak’s analytical framework aims to detail the crafting of a studio production compartmentally. Each individual process of the recording method is regarded as integral to the production of an overall recorded sound. The first of these layers is the ‘song’ (2001, 24).

 

 

Zak II explains that the song is “what is represented on a lead sheet; it usually includes words, melody, chord changes, and some degree of formal design” (2001, 24).  Following Zak, we can consider the following elements part of the song component of pre-production  -

 

 

chord progression;       tonality, riff

 

melodic material;         phrasing, range

 

meter and Rhythm;      time signature, rhythmic ostinato

 

structure;          formal design (Zak II 2001, 24)

 

                lyrics

 

 

In reference to the construction of the song, we can acknowledge several consistencies between the repertoire of The Sonics and The White Stripes. The framework of traditional garage rock and the structural premise of much of the melodic and harmonic material released by the White Stripes is minimalist, stripped to the basic elements of three chord trajectories, and loosely delivered in a 12-bar blues structure. The music is largely riff-based. The melody is generated by the rhythm/lead guitar, and repeated ostinato patterns, which characterise the bass lines. Collectively, the composition of garage rock was an affirmation of electric blues, with a harder, more abrasive edge, and less commercialism than other surrounding electric blues artists during the mid 1960s, including for example, The Yardbyrds, The Animals and The Rolling Stones.

 

 

Jack White, like Gerry Roslie, lead vocalist for The Sonics, demonstrates a melodic vocal range that is noticeably broad and experimental. The performances heard on the recordings from both artists are largely characterised by screams, yelping, nonsense falsetto, and dirty, ‘gritty’ timbres. There is however, seldom anything in the way of vocal ornamentation that detracts from the simplicity of the song’s arrangements. Additionally, meters are almost always even and seldom change tempo within the space of a track. Essentially, the song constructions identified in both garage rock and the music of The White Stripes are largely characterised by a raw and energetic simplicity.

 

 

This characterisation can be further observed via analysis of the processes of production complimentary to the composition of the song: the arrangement and recording of the musical material. Such processes refer to Zak's subsequent levels of analysis: the arrangement and the track.

 

 

Zak II defines an arrangement as the musical setting of a song. “[The arrangement] [he explains] is a more detailed prescriptive plan; instrumentation, musical parts, rhythmic groove, and so forth” (2001, 24).

 

 

Analysis of the arrangement of a track should not be considered in isolation from the intricacies involved in the planing and application of recording sound as music, or more specifically, the construction of the “track”.  Zak II states that

 

 

While most recorded songs can be easily separated from their specific contexts and performed in any number of ways, arrangements are often more dependent upon the particularities of the recording[………] in many cases a track’s arrangement develop[s] according to criteria that are specific to recorded sound (32).

 

 

Subsequently, decisions made in reference to the arrangement of a track are entirely consistent with decisions made in reference to the crafting of the track, as recorded sound, in the studio environment. Thus, observation of instrumentation and equipment choice, including studio facilities, outboard equipment and auxiliary effects are necessary points of enquiry identified in the arrangement of a track.  Collectively, components of the arrangement incorporate -

 

 

 

Instrumentation; choice of equipment; brand and model

 

 

Studio equipment; choice of microphones, pre-amp selection, portable effects   chains; guitar pedals

 

 

Rhythmic groove:  pulse, tempo (‘feel’ and ‘vibe’)

 

 

The arrangement of both The Sonics material and that of The White Stripes, is largely characterised by: simplicity, particularly in reference to chosen instrumentation; overdriven timbres, largely a result of portable effects such as guitar pedals and choice of amplification; and studio facility, all of which is characterised by analog equipment.

 

 

Both The White Stripes and The Sonics layer the soundscape of their music with limited instrumental parts, allowing the guitar, vocal track and drum kit percussion to collectively dominate the minimalist sonic scape of the material. A large part of the characterisation of these instrumental parts is a preference for raw, overdriven timbres, all of which attempt to capture the sound of the room in the recorded signal.  This approach is facilitated by analog recording facilities including magnetic tape, portable effects such as fuzz and phase guitar pedals, distant microphone placement, and the effect of spring reverb units built into valve-operated amplifiers.

 

 

For purposes of my research, techno-musical analysis, meaning analysis of technology which contributes to the characterisation of the musical track, suggests that the tracking and mixing of the music of The Sonics and The White Stripes involves the deployment of similar production practices, all of which are directed by the use of analog equipment, and a preference for the raw energy, and amateurish aesthetic of lo-fidelity recording techniques. 

 

 

 

The track, Zak explains, is the “recording itself” (Zak II

 

2001, 24). He qualifies this definition by explaining that

 

“the track represents the finished musical work, it

 

subsumes the other two (song and arrangement)” (ibid, 24).

 

Moreover, when we hear a record, we experience both song

 

and arrangement simultaneously through the delivery or

 

presentation of the sound of  the track. Elements of the track

 

incorporate equipment use, the individual and often

 

collaborative roles of recordists in their studio environment

 

such as record producers, audio engineers and musicians,

 

and many integral processes exclusive to the practice of

 

tracking and mixing sound, including –

 

 

microphone placement

 

 

effects; equalisation, delays, modulations, compression

 

 

mix placement; track distribution across an audible picture

 

 

The Sonics debut album was recorded to 2-track tape. Both The White Stripes’ debut album, The White Stripes, and their second release De Stiljl, were also recorded on tape machines. Their 2003 release Elephant, made explicit reference to this preference for analog equipment, by featuring in the liner notes, clearly legible admission that “no computers were used in the production of this record”.

 

 

Have Love will Travel’ (Here are the Sonics 1965) and ‘Astro’  (White Blood Cells 2001)_

 

 

Audio examples

 

 

 

My analysis will proceed via a focus on individual instrumentation, the principal soundscapes of which are characterised by vocals, electric rhythm and lead guitar, and the drum kit. The techno-musical elements characterising the overall mix of each track will be conceptualised across an x, and y-category framework, representing points of position across the auditory picture, separating and isolating the presence of various production techniques including audio panning, equalisation (EQ), and microphone placement.

 

 

The x-category will be used to represent left and right panning, although in the monophonic recordings of The Sonics, for example, this axis simply represent one centre signal synonymous to both channels: the horizontal image of the recording. The y-category represents the vertical dimension of the recording picture by addressing aspects of equalisation (EQ), characterised by frequency level. My doctoral research additionally includes a z- category representing the third dimension of the recording: the depth of sonic material in the audio picture, including effects, which facilitate the ‘spatial and temporal’ parameters of such sounds (Doyle, 2005), including the use of reverbs and delays.

 

 

The drum sound featured on both Have Love Will Travel (1965) and Astro (2000) is characterised by top end frequencies and cymbal wash. While the drum track on the White Stripes recording features more bass frequencies than the Sonics track it is, by today’s recording standards quite ‘toppy’. This higher end frequency spectrum from the drum kit on both recordings is a result of the use of a combination of distant microphone techniques and equalisation. The Sonics for example, are famous for having achieved a distinct and ‘snappy’ top end drum sound with the facility of one distant microphone covering the entire kit. Conversely most modern recordings utilise excessive close microphone techniques in an attempt to separate and stylise the sound of individual drums within the kit. Therefore, a drum sound characterised by EQ placement and distant microphone techniques sounds particularly retrospective.

 

 

While it is clear that the White Stripes have employed some close microphone placement, it is their minimal use of such close microphones and the room reverb produced by distant microphone placement that characterises their recordings. Such techniques facilitate close comparison to The Sonics recording, which is also characterised by room reverb and ambience, most of which is largely facilitated by the use of distant microphones, and recorded spill from live tracking.

 

 

The guitar tracks on both the recordings of The White Stripes and The Sonics, are the signature harmonic and melodic features of each track respectively. Both guitar tracks sit within an upper-mid range peaking at frequencies between 1-2 kilohertz.. The timbre of the guitar tracks is characterised by overdriven amplifiers, or distortion, which also contributes to the upper-mid range of the audible frequencies, (distortion emphasises the upper frequencies of an audio signal).  Both amplified guitar tracks demonstrate the use of a spring or plate reverb, built into the amplification of the sound. Again, not dissimilar to the drum track of the White Stripes recording, the guitar track on Astro (2000) features slightly more bass than the Sonics track, demonstrating firstly, the bass friendly facilities of contemporary playback mediums and secondly, a contrived presence of bass in the absence of a bassist in The White Stripes ensemble.

 

 

Both vocal tracks are distorted, and feature top end raspy, gritty timbres. Jack White’s vocal tracks appear to be significantly compressed, allowing for the vocal to sit on an even dynamic axis with the drums and guitars, again characterising the recording with an overdriven, cluttered lo-fidelity sound: a presentation synonymous with garage rock recordings of the 1960s.

 

 

The following diagram set 1 demonstrates the average range of audible frequencies featured on the recordings of both The Sonics and The White Stripes’ tracks.

 

 

 

The White Stripes – Astro (2000)

 

Fig 1.1   Spectrum Analyser – audible frequency range

 

 

 

The Sonics - Have Love Will Travel (1965)

 

 

Fig 1.2   Spectrum Analyser – audible frequency range

 

 

 

 

We can observe preference for mid- upper frequency levels across the overall audio mixes. Notice also the additional bass frequencies in The White Stripes’ track.

 

 

Both tracks champion a monophonic approach. The Sonics track, is of course, a mono recording having been released as a garage rock single of the 1960s. Similarly, The White Stripes have favoured a monophonic approach. Astro (2000) has been recorded in very narrow stereo, which represents prominent characteristics of a mono recording, demonstrating a level of audio clutter in the sound. Monophonic sound, while originally a necessity for recordings pre-dating stereo techniques, represented a particular approach to the arrangement of performing media. Such a practice was reliant on the careful application of equalisation and microphone placement to individualise sound sources within the mix, as is the case in The White Stripes recording. The fact that both recordings are characterised by upper-mid end frequencies the result of overdriven guitars and vocals, and distant microphone techniques, allows the mono recording techniques used on each, to remain free of excessive ‘muddiness’ created by lower end bass frequencies. Too much bass frequency and a mono recording resembles a ‘sonic soup’: less space within the audio picture.

 

 

Diagram set 2 demonstrates a preference for monophonic sound, featured on each recording.

 

 

The Sonics - Have Love Will Travel (1965)

 

 

Fig 2.1   Gonimeter– left and right channel signal

 

 

The White Stripes – Astro (2000)

 

 

 

Fig 2.2   Gonimeter– left and right channel signal

 

 

 

The narrow stereo spread of The White Stripes track is entirely uncharacteristic of the spread of audio preferenced by contemporary rock recordings, the majority of which valorise the spatial movement and expansion of stereo sound, and the hi-fidelity of localising sound sources within wider spaces: Radiohead, U2, Muse, Coldplay.

 

 

Further analysis conducted on these two albums suggests a consistency comparable between the different artists. Both albums proliferate a preference for lo-fi recording techniques, including the raw, spontaneity of tracking and mixing to tape, the use of analog recording equipment, and similar production practices including the use of distant microphones, live tracking and mixing in mono.

 

 

The Witch’ (Here are the Sonics 1965) and ‘Jumble Jumble’  (De Stiljl 2001)

 

 

The drum sound on both these tracks is again characterised by room reverb and upper frequencies precipitated by distant microphone and equalisation techniques. The White Stripes have once again used a combination of close and distant microphone techniques, the latter taking preference. Such a preference for distant microphone use, accounts for the harsh, top-end of both the high hat and snare, but The White Stripe’s use of some close microphones allows for a 'bassier' sound to the overall drum track, as compared to that heard on The Sonics recording.

 

 

The guitar tracks again feature overdriven, raw sounding timbres, demonstrated by a gritty, harsh top-end sound. Both guitar tracks again sit in the mid-range of the frequency spectrum, making each abrasive and lo-fi sounding: complimentary with overdriven vocals, and a preference for an emphasis on upper-end frequencies throughout.

 

 

Conclusively, we can suggest that the intentions of contemporary rock groups such as The White Stripes are focused on the appropriation of the sound of 1960s garage rock within a contemporary context. This, in turn, popularises a ‘retro’, lo-fi presentation.

 

 

The sonic observations made throughout this brief study assist in the deconstruction of discourses disseminated by popular cultural channels such as the popular press, and additionally help to ascertain validity to such claims. Collectively, we can observe a preference for the recycling of more traditional recording techniques, and a sense of traditionality that differentiates ‘retro’ sounding rock music from its contemporary counterparts. This trend, almost exclusively facilitated by the processes of studio production, provides a noteworthy canvas upon which the intricacies and subtleties of record production can begin to be understood in reference to the crafting of contemporary rock music.  

 

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES

 

 

Appadurai, A (1996 ) Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis

 

 

Blashill, P (2001) ‘Album Review‘, Rolling Stone 19 July

 

 

Hagan, J (2001) ‘ Hurling Your Basic Rock at the Arty Crowd’, New York Times 12 August

 

 

Grajeda, T (2002) ‘The Feminzation of Rock’ in Rock Over The Edge. Duke University Press

 

 

James, D (2003) ‘Liam Watson and Toe Rag Studios. The White Stripes’, Sound on Sound October

 

 

Regev, M (1994) ‘Producing Artistic Value. The Case of Rock Music’, The Sociological Quarterly v 35

 

 

Scapelliti, C (2004) ‘The House That Jack Built’, Guitar World May

 

 

Westenberg, K (2002) ‘Basic Instinct’, MOJO September

 

 

Zak II (2001) The Poetics of Rock. University Of California Press

 

 

Discography

 

 

The Sonics Here Are The Sonics (1965)

 

 

The White Stripes The White Stripes (2000)

 

 

The White Stripes Red Blood Cells (2001)

 

 

The White Stripes De Stiljl (2001)

 

 

 

The White Stripes Elephant  (2003)

 

 

Radiohead Ok Computer (1998)