Shoegaze is the maligned term for a subgenre of guitar music that started in the British Isles around the late eighties and culminated in the early nineties. Coined by an NME journalist as a derogatory reference to the guitarists’ motionless performance gazing at their pedalboards, it encompasses the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Seefeel, The Jesus & Mary Chain and Ride.
Taking inspiration from the washy dream pop of Cocteau Twins and the new-wave Goth sensibilities of The Cure, along with the psychedelic, hypnotic noise jams of Sonic Youth, somehow shoegaze came to be.
Largely based in Oxford, Reading and London this small scene of indie bands rejected the label, not wanting to be compartmentalized by idle and apathetic print media. However shoegazing has come full circle, and it’s a badge of honour to be enshrined in the same auditory category as the luminaries who created it.
After a brief decline around the mid-nineties, the genre has had a resurgence with bands such as M83, Ulrich Schnauss, A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Amusement Parks on Fire, My Vitriol and Deerhunter developing the idiom with modern production techniques and electronics.
Part of its sonic makeup is the heavily processed sound achieved by using many layers of distortion, reverb and other effects. The sounds are saturated in warm fuzz and carefully caked in slow, undulating modulations, asynchronous delays and swirling washes resulting in an ethereal but heavy sound that is still sought after by bands and producers today.
Typically shoegaze pedalboards are constructed with a combination of rare discontinued oddities, quirky digital multi-fx units and a plethora of vintage and boutique effects. The main focus of the sound usually comes from distortion, reverb and delays, and how they’re ordered in the chain.
These sounds are achievable within modern DAWs, even with just what’s bundled in Logic and Ableton. I’m going to try and get some of the signature sounds with, where possible, just those plugins and some creative programming.
Kevin Shields is probably seen as the Lionel Messi of shoegaze and his band My Bloody Valentine are Pep’s Barcelona. Their album Loveless is a coffee-table classic and source of inspiration for guitarists since its release in 1991.
The term game changer is probably bandied around far too easily but this album has certainly left an indelible mark, and its influence is still felt rippling through music. That makes it prime for looking at throughout this article.
Loveless was released on Creation Records and took four years to make due to engineers being hired and fired by the band, moving studios, ill health of drummer Colm, alleged budgeting problems and Kevin’s fabled perfectionism.
That said there is a certain amount of mythology around the recording of the album: in Mike McGonigal’s book for the 33⅓ Series, Shields puts to rest rumours of nearly bankrupting Creation with their sustained delay (‘geddit?) of the record, citing other artists on the roster who were doing much the same.
Also around this time a licensing deal had been brokered with Warner Brothers to the tune of around £70,000, which made a large down payment on studio and other production costs. The album was produced by Alan Moulder and you can read a really interesting write up about making it here, large swathes of which I will be quoting liberally.
I’m going to start by trying to get close to the distortion sound on their opening track, Only Shallow in Logic X:
We’re using a Gordon Smith GS01 guitar with a Stetsbar Pro 2 whammy bar fitted. That’s going straight into a TL Audio Ivory 2 5060 for a small amount of gain on the way in. No other external pedals or amps are used throughout this article. (Huuuuge thanks to Zeroes and Ones editor Kieran Jones for playing and helping out with some of the guitar demos for this article).
The intro to Only Shallow is built on four power chords (just the root and fifth notes, very common in punk, metal, rock etc.): F5, G5, Bb5 and C5.
I’m going to start by adding the Logic Pedalboard plugin. This allows multiple effect units that simulate popular guitar pedals to be used and easily reordered. Add the RAWK Distortion and adjust the Crunch to 10 o’clock and the Tone to just shy of midnight.
Alan Moulder recalls:
I seem to remember all the rhythm guitars went through a 1960s Marshall head with an old 4×12 cab that matched the amp, and also a Vox AC30. The signal was split between the two amps and they were close mic’ed with SM57s right on the cone. I always mic guitar amps right on the cone and usually in the middle.
It’s impossible to know what amp combination was used on each song but we can get close to the Only Shallow sound with an instance of Logic’s excellent Amp Designer. The patch is a driven sound but has plenty of clarity to it using the Small Brownface Amp and Vintage British 4×12 cabinet with a Ribbon 121 microphone.
To get a bigger sound, I’m going to double-track the guitar using the same effects chain and pan the resulting takes to hard left and hard right. I’ve added a third take down the middle of the stereo field with a much harsher, aggressive fuzz using FabFilter’s Saturn and the Monster Fuzz from Logic’s pedalboard. This can go much further down in the mix, just adding some buzz to the higher frequencies:
Shields was famed for using Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars and part of his playing style was strumming with a constant motion of the whammy bar, giving a warbly old tape-like sound. This can be heard throughout not only My Bloody Valentine’s back catalog but also as a much-emulated effect by other guitarists, even those outside the shoegaze scene.
Here’s the man himself giving a super-quick demonstration of what I’m talking about here:
Loomer is a particularly good example of this: the wall-of-sound guitars almost feel like you’re listening to them through an old Walkman running out of batteries. The two chords in this example are Gadd9 and Bb∆7:
The guitars are again double-tracked for extra width and depth. I’m using the Happy Fuzz Face (emulation of an
Arbiter Dunlop Fuzz Face) and Candy Fuzz on the pedalboard plugin with the Clean Jazz Fat preset from Logic’s Amp Designer. There are also some doubled-tracked bends in the mix too, with some reverb and distortion and Logic’s ES2 (Choir Pad preset) running into plenty of reverse reverb and delay.
Delays and Reverbs
Shoegazers are certainly known for having a lot of pedals (have a peep at this shot of Kevin Shields’ pedalboard) and, as the next key foundation of the sound, I thought I’d look at some plugins that get close to some of the more sought-after shoegaze delay pedals.
You don’t need the most complex DSP reverb or boutique handcrafted-in-Portland delay pedals to get the shoegaze sound; often cheap compacts and bundled delays can get you close. Interestingly, here’s Kevin dispelling every myth about the ethereal tag MBV are often filed under:
Firstly an absolute staple in many boards is the Memory Man from Electro Harmonix, which you can see here on Lawrence Chandler of Bowery Electric’s board. The Memory Man is an analog pedal known for its crusty sound and lush modulation. Logic’s Pedalboard Delay pretty much nails the sound:
I’ve tweaked the preset it comes loaded with by adjusting the Time, Feedback and Mix to suit my needs. I’ve keep the Dirt and Flutter high and been liberal with the Lo and Hi Cut filters to keep the sound as boxed-in as possible.
Next up is the Digitech PDS-8000, a digital 8-second delay sampler known for its grainy sound; it was used by many guitarists of the era, in particular Kevin Shields and Neil Halstead of Slowdive. Earlier this year SoundToys released a free plugin, the PrimalTap, which I think gets pretty close to the sound. It also has a handy feedback loop.
Jumping over to Ableton Live now, I’ve recorded four basic arpeggios into the Looper plugin at 91 bpm. To simulate the lo-fi sound I’ve added a Redux plugin at 12 bit with half the sampling rate. I’ve set the time to 329 ms (1/8th note at our tempo) and used the Multiply to reduce the sample rate of the repeats (set to 8x). I’ve driven the input and adjusted the feedback and mix so as to not swamp the sound:
A lot of the early shoegaze sound would be made using a combination of analog and digital delays, pedals and rack units to create complex sounds. Units such as the Yamaha SPX900, Roland SDE-1000, Ibanez HD1000 and Alesis Midiverb were common in racks around this time.
Here, using four sends, I’ve created a big wash of cascading delays: Send A uses the aforementioned PrimalTap patch; Send B is using Live’s own PingPong Delay, set to 3/16ths;
Send C is Live’s Filter Delay; and for Send D I’ve used an Audio Effects Rack with four instances of Waves SoundShifter with +12, +7, -5 and -12 semitone tunings, respectively. This is running into Live’s Simple Delay and then the four sends are balanced with the dry signal:
Finally, the Alesis Midiverb II had a particular preset (Bloom, presets 45 through to 49) known for its use by Kevin Shields and others. Let’s start of with the dry sound. Using the same clean fuzz tone for Only Shallow, I’ve recorded something a bit like To Here Knows When.
The chords are G, D, F and C power chords with the top three strings left open and the guitar is tuned to EADGBD:
It’s okay, but it’s not perfect. I’ve inserted an instance of the excellent and reasonably-priced Valhalla Shimmer on a send. Using a tweaked version of this preset (designed to emulate Bloom) we’ve got a much thicker sound:
The Mix is set to maximum because it’s used as a send/return and not an insert. Moving the Diffusion to 0.618 makes the reverse effect kick in and I’ve adjusted the Size to work better with my tempo.
If you’re still searching around for inspiration, FiveWays from GuitarGeek has produced an excellent guide to stompbox and rack units for ambient music and Andy Othling has made a great YouTube playlist of some extra shoegaze/post-rock tips that’s well worth checking out: