Case Study: Rockin’ Rocks

album art

Album art for Vulture Street

Song: Rockin’ Rocks
Artist: Powderfinger
Album: Vulture Street
Tempo: 136bpm
Key: D Major
Producer: Nick DiDia

Band members:

Bernard Fanning – vocals, guitar
Darren Middleton – guitar, backing vocals, keyboard
Ian Haug – guitar, backing vocals
Jon Coghill – drums
John Collins – bass

Powderfinger are a Brisbane rock band formed in the late 1980s, with influences such as The Beatles, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden, Slade, Hoodoo Gurus, AC/DC, and Sunnyboys among many others. Due to the vast range of influence from 1970’s rock, 1980’s shred guitar, and a range of more intimate rock, Powderfinger have said in interviews that they definitely wanted to make Vulture Street a rock album, but it took them a while to find the right type of rock. They just knew that they wanted it to sound like an album you could party to, as a listener or as a musician playing the song.

Powderfinger’s producer on this album, Nick DiDia, has produced numerous big names in the rock business such as Bruce Springsteen, Alice Cooper, Audioslave, Pearl Jam, Incubus, The Living End, Rage Against the Machine, The Offspring and more. His experience really shows in making Vulture Street a uniquely raw party rock album, and this includes the quirky and catchy mix that he has concocted for Rockin’ Rocks. The mix lets Powderfinger explode into a combination of crunchy, AC/DC-esque riffs and Bernard Fanning’s inner grunge rock vocalist. DiDia uses a great processing chain for his drums that allow the song to have some real punch while retaining the unfiltered aesthetic. The overdriven rhythm guitar in the left of the mix contributes heavily to the barebones feel as well. DiDia uses a small room reverb on many of the instruments to create the vibe of a small club that is suitable for the musical aspirations of the band on this album.

Song Structure

Song structure for Rockin’ Rocks

Rockin’ Rocks has 15 song changes including an intro (1), one verse (2), one verse 2 (3), four bridges (4, 6, 8, 13), one verse 3 (5), three chorus’ (7, 9, 11), one guitar solo (10). two outro verses (12, 14), and a finale (15).

The sound field in Rockin’ Rocks begins very left-heavy, gradually adding more right-side components of the mix as the song shifts from the intro to verse to verse 2 where the distorted guitars come in. It is at this point that the sound field feels balanced, but not full, which makes the next three sections a lot more lively in comparison, creating a build up to the climax at the first chorus.

The list of instruments in this song includes (in order of analysis):

  • Drum Kit (Kick, Snare, Toms, Cymbals)
  • Rhythm Guitars (Overdriven, Distorted)
  • Lead Guitars (Left, Right)
  • Bass Guitar
  • Vocals (Lead, Backing)
  • Piano
Sound Field

Sound field of Rockin’ Rocks

Drum Kit

Kick

The kick sounds like a felt beater as opposed to the plastic beaters used in heavy metal for the extra click that comes through in the high frequencies. The felt beater creates a very boomy kick sound when combined with room mics and overheads. It sounds like DiDia has made a 2-3db boost to a band at 75hz to reinforce the natural sound of the felt beater. The transient from the beater doesn’t sound altered by equalisation, but is still present thanks to a microphone on the beater side of the kick drum. The kick drum is very far forward in the mix as evident in verse 3, however don’t stand out as much once both rhythm guitars come in for the choruses. After this, the kick is more of a pulse than a feature. In verse 3 the kick can be heard to have a small room reverb that is applied to the kick channel(s) post-gate. The kick has retained a lot of it’s dynamic range, suggesting a restrained use of compression with a 2:1 ratio and modest release time.

Snare

The snare is warm and snappy, with a similar, if not the same reverb as the kick, as heard in verse 3, and it is even more evident in the bridges with drum fills. You can really hear the room and overhead microphones pulling their weight too. I think that DiDia probably sent the snare to the same bus as the kick so that they had a sense of togetherness. DiDia also uses the same compression technique on the snare that he does on the kick, using a gate and compression on the snare and adding reverb at a later point to ensure he gets the punchiness out of the close mic. The snare’s transient sits at about 1.7khz while it’s body sits at about 480hz.

Toms

The toms can be heard in two different bridges (8 and 13) and sit behind the snare in terms of volume in the mix. The high-pitched tom sounds like it goes to a separate reverb bus to the snare and kick as it has a much shorter release, while the lower-pitched toms sound like they are sent to the snare and kick reverb bus. It also sounds like the close microphones were compressed in a similar fashion to the snare and kick. The toms range in panning from about 60% pan to the right for the higher-pitch tom and work their way across to the centre as they get lower in pitch. The toms are mainly present around 120hz with some transients around 1.5khz.

Hi-Hat

The Hi-Hat is quite bright and most likely has had a high-pass filter applied to it to clean up the signal on the close mic. A small boost to around 9khz-10khz may have been applied but otherwise sounds fairly natural in terms of equalisation. The compression on the close mic is minimal as you can still hear the dynamic range when Coghill opens his hats mid-beat which is hard to replicate with time-based effects. It sounds like the reverb for the hi-hats is mainly taken from the overheads and/or room mic as it is fairly minimal.

Crash Cymbals

The crash cymbals sound like they’re exclusively coming from overhead and room mics, as they are quite low in the mix as opposed to other rock albums, sticking with Vulture Street’s mid-frequency orientation. As such, they don’t have an individual panning and their placement in the mix is determined by the stereo microphone technique that DiDia employed in the recording process. This has resulted in one crash cymbal at about 5-10% right and a quieter crash at about 15% left. Due to coming from microphones that other instruments in the drum kit are also utilising, I doubt that there has been much processing applied as it would interfere with the sound of the rest of the kit. If there is any equalisation, it might be a small high shelf in the frequencies from 9khz up.

Guitars

Rhythm (Overdriven)

The overdriven guitar on the far left is the starting point for the song, being alone in the mix until the verse, at which point it is joined by Fanning’s vocal and some additional signal in the right hand channel. The fact that the sound field is set up like this builds anticipation, as the viewer can immediately tell that there are parts of the song that are being kept from them. This guitar has been given a gradual high shelf from 2.2khz upwards as that is where the transients of the strings and harmonics mainly occur, though DiDia has also boosted the body of the guitar at around 320hz as well.

Rhythm (Distorted)

This guitar comes in for verse 2 and fills out the stereo image, making it’s entrance on the right. The difference between the type of distortion used for the first guitar and this one is that the first guitar uses overdrive, which utilises soft clipping and is more reminiscent of bands like The Angels and Hoodoo Gurus. The version of distortion on this guitar utilises hard clipping, which forsakes more of the clean signal than soft clipping in favour of a more hard-edge sound. This version of distortion is favoured by hard rock and heavy metal bands. This guitar is more present around 600hz and between 1.5khz and 4khz. It occupies the right-hand side of the mix during verse 2 and from thereon, the majority of the song, only relenting in verse 3 and the bridges.

Lead Guitars

There are two lead guitar tracks in Rockin’ Rocks, and they are both fairly quiet, barring the guitar solo section. The majority of the lead guitar parts occur on the right-hand side of the mix, however from the outro verse onwards, a secondary lead part can be heard on the left. The screeching tone they achieve suggests that they both use hard clipping distortion as was used for the right-hand rhythm guitar. Once again, the distorted guitars are shown off in the 1khz-2khz range. The dynamic range of the playing has not been compromised with compression as you can still hear all of the tails of notes release fairly organically.

Bass Guitar

The bass guitar enters in verse 3, one bar before the bridge leading up to the first chorus and doesn’t stop except for the bridge with the drum fill at (8). It isn’t used as a lead instrument in this song, but rather a backing, and sits to the centre and behind the kick drum in the mix. It sounds like there is a high-pass filter at 50hz and a low shelf up to roughly 550hz that determines the bass guitar’s placement in the frequency spectrum. The bass guitar has been compressed significantly to get the volume that it has, and you can hear a lack of dynamic range as a result of this. A small room reverb has been applied to the bass as well, with a slow attack, fast release, and a little bit of pre-delay to make the bass sound bolder and a little hum-like.

Vocals

The vocals enter in the first verse, and sit at the centre and behind the toms in the mix. The same room reverb is used on the vocals to give them the small club sound that DiDia was no doubt aiming to accomplish. The vocals cut through the mix at about 2khz-3.5khz, with a high-pass filter  around 1khz to clear up the rest of the mid range for the guitars. DiDia applies a whole-beat delay to Fanning’s voice for certain lines, such as “if you hurry we’ll be back real soon” in verse 2 and multiple lines that Fanning sings in the guitar solo.

There are also backing vocals, one channel sitting right behind the lead vocals that is a mainstay of the song past the first chorus, and one channel to the left that crops it’s head up momentarily, as can be heard in the lyric in the second chorus “jugglin’ scissors in the afternoon”. The backing vocals sound like they are EQ’d to have more of a bass tendency than the high frequency focus that the lead vocal has but otherwise have been processed almost identically.

Piano

The Piano comes in for the final sections of the song, first heard at the start of the outro chorus that really just sounds like the band enjoying being rock stars. The piano has this great brightness and resonance to it. It’s kind of a shame it’s so far back in the mix, but there can only be so many stars of a song, and this one is jam-packed already. The piano cuts through at frequencies above 8khz, with some fundamentals in the mid frequencies to support it. It is backed by a hall reverb that has been gated so that the reverb of one note cuts off as the next note starts.

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