In this laconic post I'll be looking at this cover of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP), focusing on one specific element: the keyboard solo; specifically, production-/mix-wise.
In the piece, ELP (and I'm guessing E in particular) have gone to great lengths to stay truthful to Prokofiev's original score while still adapting it to their own style. They achieve this not by creating a 1-1 transcription—which would be awkward at best—but by carefully filtering and merging the essential musical elements. The result sounds powerful despite the occasional use of now dated synthesizers (although I'm sure you hipsters love that analog sound). Take a listen:
Pay attention to the solo as it comes in at 2:18 and try to notice anything that might seem extraordinary in the way it's mixed. I would suggest using headphones. Did you catch it?
The pan is all over the place! This has always struck me as a weird production choice. Usually, you'd want your solo to firmly stand out. Unless there are extra soloistic elements (like an alternating or competing solo line) you would expect a straightforward middle placement. The auto-pan effect can be used to make an element stand out from a dense mix, but it can also be a bit jarring and could eventually overshadow the actual performance in favor of the effect, as I argue is the case here. So why did they go for it?
I think the answer is exactly the fact that it makes the element stand out from the mix. The solo, being the only thing not written by Prokofiev, quite literally does not belong in the track and so, its constant movement is a symbolism of its struggle to find its place in the piece. Simple, yet effective; a truly creative use of an otherwise mundane effect.
And that's it. Cheers.
I was listening to the ELP album "Black Moon" last night and made some observations that I'd like to share with you. Some are about form, some are about symbolism but they all have to do with damn fine songwriting and are worthy of notice however small and detailed.
The song under scrutiny: Affairs of the Heart (Geoff Downes, Greg Lake) from the album Black Moon (1992) by Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
A brief overview of the song's structure:
*I have decided to merge the pre-chorus and chorus since the latter is basically just the titular lyrics on the song's main chords. Think not too much of it, titles are just word-symbols, as long as were all on the same page.
This is pretty typical song structure. But there are two things about this track that work great:
A. Musical economy: With the exception of a bass and a few synths showing up in verse B, this is basically an acoustic guitar track. The first percussion only come in at the Bridge and they are still very sparse. The final Verse (C) has some drums—again no more than the bare minimum—but because of the previous sparseness, the (softly mixed) drum hit that comes in the fourth beat of Verse C communicates the exact amount of subtle power that the song needs. At the end of the Verse, the snare roll introducing the Pre-chorus is a truly cherishable moment. Meanwhile the synths are keeping the perfect balance between melodic and harmonic fills at just the right places to make the song uplifting but never grandiose.
Am I making too much of this? Well, think for a moment how would you produce such a song? It's very tempting to go big: think full string explosion (perhaps even live orchestra) and larger than life drums. But the song is not about that, despite the music surely being able to carry such grand gestures. The song is about watching your step, being unsure. In such situations you'd probably want to tread lightly.
The lesson here: be economical, always keep an overview of your material, don't get carried away by the music; a song is also about the lyrics.
B. The transposition in the bridge, particularly, where to this transposition leads us.
The harmonically-inclined among you might have noticed the transposition takes as from the major key to the homonymous minor, namely from E to Em. While this may not go down in the music history books, it is nonetheless rather symbolic. Can you guess why?
Remember what I said before about lyrics? No one is too smart in affairs of the heart, every affair has its ups and downs. The minor key symbolises those downs but it's within the same one affair with the same one person, ergo one key.
Am I making too much out of this too? Could be. Does it work like a motherf***er? It sure does. And given the artistry on the rest of the album I'm willing to bet this is no happy accident. There's some thought behind these tracks, that's why I'll write about another one of them next.