I’m not going to make any vocal examples as no singer am I, but we can briefly speak about some clichés attached to the shoegaze style. Vocals tend to be delivered “unconfidently”. I put this in quotation marks because that’s how it comes across, it’s not an assertion about specific vocalists.
As with ambient music part of what makes up shoegaze is the absence of the melody being the most dominant feature. In lots of pop music the vocals are supposed to be what’s pushed the furthest forward in the mix – it’s the bit designed to make you hum it for the rest of the day.
With shoegaze there are countless examples of the voice being used more like an instrument, contributing to a wider picture, an almost wall-of-sound texture dripping in artificial spacious effects. A good start would be recording a dB or two quieter than you might ordinarily. The use of slapback echo and reverse (or other nonlinear reverbs) helps, too.
Of course, the size of the genre means there’ll be countless examples that don’t conform to what I’ve just said but the genesis of the sound has roots in Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500 and Spacemen 3:
They used an entire second mixing desk just for vocals, sometimes doubling the vocals up to 24 tracks – using a whispered voice and layering many times, the subtle nuances and slight pitch variations of each take would create that lovely phasey & bending vocal effect. They stated that they would pick the best vocal and have that slightly louder in the mix and give it some top end. The other layers would be quieter with a little top rolled off. The whole lot would be compressed to glue and voila. I’ve tried it and with the correct technique it sounds incredible.
There’s not much to be said here: all bass players have different setups but what’s important is to keep it tight and relatively clean. Distortion can be used but I would avoid any modulation, especially anything that messes with the stereo image. Alan Moulder talks about recording the bass on Loveless:
The bass went into a vintage Ampeg SVT amp, which was a pretty standard bass amp in those days. It was a big valve one with an 8×10 cabinet… to capture the sound, Alan remembers positioning a Neumann U87 about three inches from the Ampeg and also believes that there was DI recording taken at the same time. “He also had a Vox Tone Bender distortion pedal and used that on the bass pretty much all the time. There are lots of different models but he had a great one.
Electric bass is hard to emulate but Native Instruments’ Kontakt Player does a pretty good job. Load the Classic Bass preset. I’ve added in some Noise and disabled the Instrument FX (we’ll be using a separate plugin for this). Disable the Reverb and Cabinet, too.
Also from Native Instruments, Guitar Rig 5 has pretty much everything we need. Using the Bass Pro head with the Control Room Pro we can blend the 8×10 cab sound with a DI signal, allowing us further control over the sound. I’ve added an optional Demon Distortion in front for a fuzzier sound if you need this. Eventide’s UltraChannel has a nice O-pressor and EQ to stop any rogue dynamic notes poking though.
With its origins in live music, it’s safe to assume most shoegaze music out there uses live drums. More recently, for example with A Sunny Day in Glasgow, the aforementioned Ulrich Schnauss and M83 and other artists working within the (awfully-named) Nu Gaze genre, it’s less of a necessity and electronic drums and samplers have been used instead. Moulder remembers about the recording of Loveless:
All but two of the drum tracks are composed of samples performed by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig. Because Ó Cíosóig was suffering from physical and personal problems during the album’s recording, samples of various drum patterns that he was able to perform in his condition were recorded.
Logic has a feature called Drummer where we can get dynamic MIDI tracks with tweakable amounts of swing, complexity, fills and various other factors. It’s not something I’d use on a finished record but being the limited drum programmer I am, it’s fine for some purposes.
What’s nice about Drummer is the ability to split each drum mic out onto separate channels, allowing further mixing. Here I’ve split out each mic giving it an instance of the Waves SSL E-Channel and Tone Booster’s TB Ferox, emulating the channel strip and tape machine, respectively. They are summed into Bus 1 with a Waves CLA-76, an emulation of a classic vintage compressor.
The Drum bus has two sends, the first of which is for parallel compression. I’m using one of my favourite free compressors, Rough Rider by Audio Damage, which is hugely aggressive and sounds great when blended in with the less compressed drums. Again from Alan Moulder:
Kevin was sub-compressing the drums pretty hard to get them to cut through,” remembers Alan. “It’s the age-old mix problem that we all have to fight with when there are really loud, overwhelming guitars. It is hard to get the whole drum pattern loud without it taking over, and if you are compressing it hard and you hit a cymbal, that’s all you hear, because the cymbals and hi-hats get through the compression.
The second bus is Logic’s Space Designer with a small, realistic room reverb. On our master we have a Bit Crusher simulating the resampling of the drums on Loveless. I’ve added a dB of input gain, have set the bit depth to 12 bit and 2 x downsampling (half CD quality sample rate); also there’s a Waves PuigChild (emulation of a Fairchild mastering compressor) and the ever-present L2, also by Waves:
Other bands, either for stylistic or other reasons, resorted to cheap drum machines. The Casio RZ-1, Alesis HR-16 and Yamaha RX5 are examples of digital drums easy on the wallet. A lot of these have been sampled for EXS24 and Ableton’s Drum Rack; a cursory Google search should find you something suitable:
Big shout-out to Sample Magic for their new instrument BLOQ that has many classic drum machines and synths sampled within it:
Finally, it’s not unheard of for artists to sample other records – this example is Chapterhouse’s Mesmerise, which samples the Hot Pants break (famously sampled in the Stone Roses’ Fools Gold):
The Hot Pants break:
It’s said about most music when it comes to mixing but due to its complexity and thick textures, mixing shoegaze can really be a balancing act (dreadful cliché). Getting four or five layers of distorted guitar to gel whilst having delicate delay and reverb algorithms sing over the top while leaving space for vocals, bass and drums is no easy task.
My primary piece of advice would be to mix into a spectral analyser like Voxengo SPAN, which is by far one of my favourite and most-used plugins. This allows you to keep a careful eye on any rogue or overlapping areas that are getting congested and ear-splitting high frequencies.
Secondly I would advise to keep your channels low. It’s tempting to mix with each channel at 0dB and start there but I’ve found starting things off as little as -10dB means you’re likely to left with more headroom.
A very bad panoramic photo.
Another tip in this vein is to keep your soundcard volume high: this forces you to mix more quietly (although I wouldn’t doubt others would rebut this). Using busses and groups can help compartmentalize sounds, such as drums, groups of synths, backing vocals etc. If you can get the relative volume of your drums settled then it’s a case of just moving one stereo fader rather than all of the channels together.
In terms of reverbs and delays: of course, the sound is anchored around their presence but choosing one or two really effective ones is going to give you a clearer mix than throwing four or five poorly-chosen ones into your mix down.
Most of all getting things to sit well is about choosing the right part to play, playing it constantly with the rest of the backing track and choosing complementary sounds and/or designing sounds, paying attention to their context.
Finally here’s a friend of a friend who made a My Bloody Valentine pastiche song for his under graduate degree in 2009. It’s really, really convincing and, quite laughably, got picked up by the MBV community who claimed it to be an unreleased demo:
He says on the matter:
…It was a pastiche assignment. Yes it was run through tape (hence the original file name “pastiche tape” which I quickly changed) but it was originally tracked in Logic Pro. I’m fucking good at mixing. The video got flagged from my channel just before ‘MBV’ was released as I was trying to pass it off as original (many of you chumps bought the bait). If anyone is interested I might make a quick video of how the session was put together. Also, what’s all this shit about the elusive anonymous Japanese dude? I’m from West Yorkshire, England. Robin
If you like this, be sure to check out the rest of his music. For some additional shoegaze history, A Future in Noise have done a handy timeline while 3am Magazine have done something similar. Both well worth reading and very informative.