Dream Engineer: Stereophonics and “Dakota”

Many times when you hear a song it simply flashes in and out of memory. You might take note of some of the lyrics or a particular riff, but beyond that once you’ve heard the tune it is disappears into the background. In the case of “Dakota” by the Stereophonics, I imagine something different; a very specific experience. “Dakota” is a song I want to engineer.

slsvoAlthough there are a number of good songs on the band’s “Language. Sex. Violence. Other?” album, “Dakota” jumps out from the rest. Yes, it was popular and overplayed, but there’s something about the layers of guitars, the sizzle of the cymbals, and the rise and fall of the vocals that make me want to stand behind a console at a live show and put my foot on the gas once again.

During my stint in live sound, I had the chance to learn from a number of great audio folks. Byrd was a recording engineer in New Orleans who I worked with during some live house gigs, and was one of those rare guys who could take the sound of a mediocre band and with a few adjustments transform it into something epic. Byrd is what I would call a formula engineer — once he knew the lineup of the band, he’d go to each channel on the console and dial in a sound for each instrument that was based on a sound he had in his head before anyone even tuned a string. Once the band showed up, he’d do a quick sound check, tweak again, glance at the stage, say “fuck it”, and wander off to get a drink.

When a Byrd show started, he listened intently during the first song to create the classic “wall of sound” with a tweak here and there. For the second song, he’d listen to the entire mix and then adjust the gas — the main outs of the console — to get the balance right for the size of the room and the number of people in the club. By the third song, he’d be grooving with the band and by the fourth song he’d be done, there’d be another “fuck it,” maybe a comment about disco, and a drink. From then on Byrd let the band do its thing; he didn’t mess around with the mix other than a little twiddle of a knob or slider and adjustment of the gas to match the vibe of the room.

Listening to “Dakota” reminds me of a Byrd mix — a balanced wall of sound that is epic in capturing the band’s energy without resorting to a lot of noticeable processing to make a statement. However, there’s one small bit of processing that is very Byrd and would appear later in the evening around the third set after he got bored.

If you listen closely to the verses in “Dakota,”you’ll notice that at the end of every line of the vocal there’s a trailing echo that “catches” the last word of the lyrics. The verse isn’t doubled throughout the phrase; just the last word is caught by the delay to create the trailing echo. Catching the end of a line with a delay is one of those little audio details that takes a mix from just amplified sound to something grand. During those gigs with Byrd, I spent a lot of time studying his technique of manually adjusting a Lexicon delay to match the tempo of the song and raising the output of the delay into the mix at the precise moment to double the last word or two of the vocal line.

My first solo live gig was for a run-of-the-mill metal band that did the biker bar circuit on the west side of the Mississippi River. I’d never worked with them before and they were a bit perturbed to get the new guy (it was a very busy weekend and we had more shows than staff). After a bit of a rocky start with some nasty monitor feedback, things started rolling and they (and their friends) were okay with the sound I had mixed for the room. We were good and they were fine.

At start of the second set, however, I noticed that the energy was low among everyone in the bar, so I decided to try catching a lyric or two in the delay just to relieve my own boredom. I listened to the first verse of the opening song to get a sense of how it was structured and tried catching the lyrics in PFL to my headphones. By the last verse where they started dialing up the energy a bit (with little reaction from the crowd), I opted to punch in the delay and try catching some lyrics live. When I caught the last word of the first line of the last verse and doubled it, the lead singer shot a look of utter amazement at me — the crowd turned and started paying attention. The next line ended and I caught that word, doubled it, and the lead singer and crowd went wild, and I pushed up the gas.

When I hear “Dakota” I remember that night — the night when a little bar on the West Bank had an arena show, I put my foot on the gas, and turned it into something much more.