Critical Listening Part 2b

cooltext170963325809258Critical Listening task

As I introduced in my Critical Listening Part 2a blog yesterday [March 2015], the reference track I am going to critically listen to today is:
“The Real Thing” written by Johnny Young, performed by Russell Morris, produced by Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. Released in 1969 in Australia under the label of EMI/Columbia , it was tracked and produced during 1968 and 1969 at Armstrong Studios in Melbourne, Victoria.
The Real Thing stamp - Image                                     (Australia Post stamp 1998)


The genre is Psychedelic Rock, and due to its heavy studio production basis, it follows the British version of Pyschodelic Rock. British Psychedelic Rock exponents in this era were:  Pink Floyd, The Yardbirds, Procol Harum, and The Moody Blues (George-Warren and Romanowski. 2001). Additionally, there a number of non-Psychedelic Rock bands such as The Beatles and The Small Faces who produced albums or singles in the Psychedelic Rock genre (Max TV 2015). Psychedelic rock as a genre was established attempting to create a soundtrack to the emerging experimental and social drug culture of the day – relaxant and hallucinogenic drugs such as marijuana, mushrooms, and artificial produced LSD. As the psychedelic movement developed, people started identifying with alternate beliefs and spiritual philosophies from a number of global cultures such as Indian (Hindu), Eastern (Buddhist) and American Indian (Shamanic) cultures.
Therefore the musical characteristics and sonic qualities of psychedelic rock were to simulate and replicate the experiences of a user whilst under the influence of these mind-altering drugs.  Included in the performances and productions were: electric instruments including the newly developed keyboards and synthesisers of the day; electronic sound effects including the newly developed samplers; musical form including extended improvisation and solos; and world music influences such as non-Western music form, scale, instruments including percussive, stringed, wind and vocal chants of numerous cultures from Indian, Eastern and American Indian cultures (Wikipedia 2015).
As introduced in my blog “Music Practitioner Part 2 – What brought me here” [October 2014], although “Russell Morris was an acoustic pop performer of the day, playing either 6 string or 12 -string guitars -….  this song uses the basis of acoustic music (acoustic guitars, bass, drums) with layers of keys, processing applied and sampled sounds (such as news recordings, laughter, choral bomb sirens and it concludes with a bomb blast) over the top” (Page 2014).

Musical Characteristics

The Real Thing PT Session Screenshot.20150312.P1.png
The tempo of this track is 189 bpm, in a 4/4 time signature. The song is 6 minutes 16 seconds in length (I trimmed the blank opening 6 seconds of the track within the DAW) – 298 bars – more than double the length of the usual pop song of the day in length. [Though there was however a 3 min 46 second version played on radio].
The structure of the song as it was written was a AABA form with A being the Verse, and B being the Pre-Chorus and Chorus. However, as it was produced in its psychedelic rock form, most of the second half of the B sections (chorus) were extended into what I am calling a Chorus Refrain (and labelling B+ or B++ or B+++ depending upon the length of it).  Therefore, overall the song structure is: A A B A B B+A B B++ B B+++:  I have listed below the structure, and noted the main musical elements (instrumentation) as they are added in each of the sections, and the harmonisation (chords) as well.
  • Intro [Bar 0] – acoustic guitar – D A E B
  • Verse 1 [Bar 9] – bass -D A E B
  • Verse 2 [Bar 19] – acoustic guitar – B E A E B, B D A E B
  • Pre-chorus – [Bar 27] -drums and tambourine – B
  • Chorus [Bar 31] – D F G Bb D
  • Verse 3 – extended [Bar 39] – organ and harmony vox  – B E A E B, B D A E B
  • Pre-chorus – shortened [Bar 57] – B
  • Chorus [Bar 60] – D F G Bb D
  • Chorus Refrain {extended form of chorus}[Bar 68] – choral vox – D F G Bb D
  • Verse 4 [Bar 85] – acoustic style keys
  • Pre-chorus  {irregular} [Bar 103] – multiple choral vox
  • Chorus [Bar 106]
  • Chorus Refrain {extended form of chorus} [Bar 114] – D F G Bb D
  • Pre-chorus [Bar 122]
  • Chorus [Bar 131]
  • Chorus [Bar 139]
  • Chorus Refrain – with extreme sonic manipulation {Bar 147]  – D F G Bb D
    • Introduce Samples [Bar 187]
    • Keys and Processing [Bar 226] – hi-fi
    • More extreme Processing [Bar 242]
    • Bomb Siren [Bar 258] – lo-fi
    • Bomb blast [Bar 285+] – very lo-fi in places
  • end [Bar 298]
The harmonic progression as listed above is very simple. In fact, it is very repetitive when it is played in its originally written format on an acoustic guitar. In this highly produced format, this song in many ways depends upon the extreme contrasts of musical and sonic variations throughout; however most notably from Bar 114 there are a variety of points of interest included in order to hold the listener’s interest in the song* {*It is interesting to note that Bar 114 represents 2 minutes 22 seconds, which is around the usual length of a song in that era}.
This is done in four primary ways:
  • maintaining a very simple lyric to the song throughout;
  • repeating of the structure {A A B A B B+A B B++ B B+++:) so that it is repetitive, expected and therefore easy to follow;
  • changing the musical elements within the arrangement such as:
the changing of the instruments frequently throughout the later half of the song allowed my interest to be maintained, as I was not able to predict what was going to feature next.
adding other points of interest such as the samples from a wide range of social and cultural situations also helped me to maintain my interest as again I was not able to predict what was going to feature next.
  • with the changes to the musical elements came sonic differences of timbre, pitch and amplitude, adding another layer of interest and unpredictability for the listener.

Sonic Qualities

This song is clearly psychedelic rock in character, with numerous technical processes applied. There are multiple textual layers that Meldrum’s production team achieved via the recording, overdubbing and processing techniques applied.

Recording techniques applied

In 1969, the four track recording device had recently been expanded to included devices capable of recording eight tracks simultaneously. “‘The Real Thing’ was recorded on an eight-track machine” (Max TV 2015).

Overdubbing applied

Going through the above listing of musical elements contained in this song, it is a safe to assume that the track count would exceed eight tracks, necessitating a process of overdubbing the additional required tracks. As I listened to the song, it was clear to me from verse 3 that overdubbing was to be a central aspect of this production.  The article The Story of the Real Thing, notes how elaborate this production was over a relatively long period of time. “The song just grew and grew. ‘The Real Thing’ became the living thing. It was like an alien monster in the basement” (Max TV 2015). In my 2014 blog Music Practitioner Part 2 – What Brought Me Here I noted it had been reported that Meldrum was heavily influenced in this production by the “likes of US Producer Phil Spector, and his wall of sound style” (Page 2014); a production style that not only relied on maximising tracks in the recording process, but also layering of overdubs to build up the sonic texture of the song.

Processing techniques applied

But the most obvious technical characteristic in this production, linking it beyond dispute to its’ psycholdeilc rock genre, is the extreme use of time-domain processing.
From the song’s introduction it is obvious a heavy dose of reverb is being used. Reverb provides an element of spaciousness into a recording suggests the song’s sound stage is in a different space to where the song was actually tracked. Large amounts of natural reverb indicate a very large space, and by applying large amounts of reverb processing the producer leads the listener to imagine the singer is in another location. The large amount of reverb processing used here aligns to the experimental and social drug culture of the day, helping transport the listener to an imagined ethereal, mystical or drug-induced state. From the first verse [Bar 9], the liberal use of reverb is noticeable exaggerating the sibilance in Morris’s vocal line. Adding time-domain processing to high frequencies will exaggerate the quality. In the production of another genre – eg jazz – such processing is likely seen to be indicative of poor tracking or mixing processes. However, in this context and genre, such sibilance is used deliberately to support the magined ethereal, mystical or drug-induced state.
From verse 3 excessive flanging is introduced, applied to both the music and the vocal line. As the song progresses, this becomes more of a feature of the song, with excessive amounts of reverb, delay, and flanging to name a few, further supporting the imagined ethereal, mystical or drug-induced state, and I for me, adding interest levels for the listener.
Because of the large amount of processing applied to the song progressively, the sonic quality became quite lo-fi from verse 3, and degenerated from that point into extended periods of poor quality signal. From the third Chorus Refrain at bar 145 the signal was noticeably distorted in places, a sonic quality not usually associated with a pop song of that era.
The dynamics of the song vary dramatically across the entire song, with instrumentation, sampling, amplitude, frequency and processing constantly changing, quite often drastically within a particular section of a song. For example, at bar 225 the signal returned to a typical hi-fi quality for about six bars with the return of some acoustic recorded keyboards. However, at bar 331 the distorted and heavily processed signal was reintroduced.  At bar 242 the signal degenerated further into a very poor quality lo-fi signal and was immersed in the deliberate state of sonic and arrangement chaos until the end of the song.
The use of these technical features, the extent and the amount of processing, along with the full use of the stereo field with liberal use of panning., helped create and place the listener in a mystical or drug-induced type state as the producer had intended. Target achieved – bullseye!



Tools used to assist in the analysis of a reference track

Analysing  a reference track is an exercise in Critical Listening. As mentioned in last month’s blog, it will take time, practice and considerable dedication to learn to listen for the nuances of the cultural production – the genre, musical and the sonic qualities to a level of mastery. As audio engineering is a craft and art that relies not only the auditory, but also on visual cues as well, you will note some of the tools I have used: my DAW, Pro Tools as the primary tool, along with several plug-ins. I used a Pro Tools session to confirm the tempo, the time signature, and analyse the structure of the song. In terms of the sonic analysis, visual cues I used as part of this Critical Listening task were: virtual meters, spectrometers and vector scopes to confirm what I was hearing with my ears. I suggest these tools can also assist aspiring engineer in the development of their critical listening skills.
(AE 2015)
Next month [April 2015] we will continue to develop our Critical Listening skills to a deeper level.
AE 2015 Music note montage in the universe image courtesy of: Angelic Exorcism (AE) Studio Projects  Accessed 11th March 2015
Australia Post 1998 stamp image courtesy of Australia Accessed 4th October 2014
George-Warren, Holly and Patricia Romanowski. 2001. The Rolling Stone encyclopedia of rock & roll, edited by Jon Pareles: Touchstone.
Page, David L. 2015. Critical listening Part 1  Critical Listening Part 1  05/02/2015 blog. Accessed 11th March 2015
Page, David L. 2015. Critical listening Part 2a   Critical Listening Part 2a  11/03/2015 blog. Accessed 11th March 2015
Page, David L. 2014. Music practitioner Part 2 – What brought me here  Reflective Practice Part 1 – What Brought Me Here  05/10/2014 blog. Accessed 11th March 2015
Max TV. 2015. The story of the real thing  Accessed 11th March 2015
Wikipedia. 2015. The real thing (Russell Morris)  Accessed 11th March 2015
 The Real Thing article courtesy of  The Real Thing Accessed 11th March 2015
 The Wall of Sound article courtesy of  The Wall of Sound Accessed 11th March 2015
– ©David L Page 12/03/2015
Copyright: No aspect of the content of this blog or blog site is to be reprinted or used within any practice without strict permission directly from David L Page.

David L Page

View posts by David L Page
With over 20 years experience in the arts & post-compulsory education, David has lived, studied and worked Internationally including Japan, India, Fiji, the US and NZ. David has extensive interests as per the extensive blogs hosted on his site (see below). Additionally, David has published in both lay texts and academic (peer-review) publications.

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