Too Much Darkness?

"Stick!" darkness.jpegMy favorite part of The Promise, a documentary about the making of Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town that was on pay TV this month and will be available for sale next month, is when we learn that one of the many reasons recording took longer than it should have is that Springsteen felt he could hear the sound of Max Weinberg's stick hitting the drum. That ruined the sound of the song for him, and many hours were devoted to making the drum sound all drum and no stick. Springsteen sits in the control room, says, monotonously, "stick ... stick ... stick" as he hears the playback, and you can feel the whole recording operation grind to a stop. There are two responses to this. First, it's fascinating to watch an artist so dedicated to his work that he's willing to put everything on hold until a minor mistake, one few in his audience would ever suspect is there, is fixed. Second, he's nuts.
How much attention to detail is too much? I've spent my career working with creative people and often the hardest part of such an exchange is knowing when you're done, when you've taken it as far as you should, when it's time to share it with other people. Different people have different ideas about when it's done. Sometimes, going obsessive gets you Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which seems like a fair trade. Sometimes, though, sculpting a work of art for way too long gets you Guns N Roses' Chinese Democracy, which didn't work out for anyone. The Springsteen documentary leads to another question: How much of a good thing is too much? It's part of a six-disc boxed set coming out next month, which also includes a remastered version of the original Darkness on the Edge of Town, two CDs of outtakes from those sessions, two concert films, and some more video esoterica. I've written at length about Springsteen, so I won't bore you here with an extended analysis of Darkness (brief synopsis: breakthrough sound and songs, unified tone, overdramatic singing that he dropped live). There are people very excited about this, who can't get enough. There's nothing wrong with serving the most dedicated parts of your audience (hence this), but I wonder whether all these additions, however worthy, distract from the 10 taut performances at the core of this repackage, the record he decided was worth putting out in the first place. The dessert is now much bigger than the main course. In the early days of CDs, a reissue of Richard and Linda Thompson's amazing Shoot Out the Lights came out with a bonus track tacked onto the end. It was an adequate song, but nowhere near the quality of the performances on the originally released record. It was meant to add to the original; instead, it subtracted. There was a reason it was left off the original release. When that reissue was reissued, as seems to happen every few years with many records, the extra track was gone. The last song on the record was still the last song. Everything was as it should be. And now the record is coming out again, in its fourth CD incarnation — as part of a boxed set.


    1. Interesting doc. Bad on names, but a ‘disinterested’ engineer was brought in late who did a remix based on a listen and that was all it took mostly – a third party who hadn’t been part of the preceding madness. In later interviews, Bruce was candid about his obsessive compulsions.

  1. …am I the only person who looks at that picture of Bruce and think that he looks like a preoperative character that the ended up on the cutting room floor from the movie TRANSAMERICA?

    1. Chochituate,

      No you are not.

      Also, aren’t the sticks supposed to hit the drum? Anybody have sound files of what the sticks hitting the drums sound like versus just the drums?

  2. I attended a solo Springsteen show back in, oh, the late eighties? early nineties? Here in my home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

    It was a great show, he really delivered the songs, no problem there.

    Between songs, however, his patter — or more often mutter — was vaguely disturbing … the ramblings of a man whose soul is not firmly rooted in his body, perhaps … reminiscences about life on the road, spending nights alone in anonymous hotel rooms, watching television, and then watching more television … interspersed with muttered giggles … and then he uttered a phrase I’ll never forget:

    “Fame fucks you up. [Giggle, huh-huh, huh-huh.]”

    He sounded serious as a heart attack, and I took him at his word.

  3. I’m no expert but I think there is something called “EQ.”

    I’m nuts for sure, but you can tune a drum sound using this “EQ” thing.

    In fact, I’m positive.

    1. Despite popular sentiment, you cannot just fix an outright undesirable instrument timbre using EQ. There is no big knob to turn that will make it sound un-crappy.

      What does a drum sound like without a stick striking its head?

      1. What does a drum sound like without a stick striking its head?

        Sounds just like this: “boom”

        Ow. My ears.

        Anyway, as a drummer, I know what Bruce is talking about. When the stick hits the drumhead, most of the sound comes from the two heads: the batter head which is being struck, and the resonance head on the other end. Also, the drum shell itself provides resonance. But the stick itself is not silent, and I can see how imperfect miking might record more of the stick sound than is ideal. But usually it’s not gonna be much of a huge deal to get a usable sound. As others have pointed out, getting a good drum sound is one of the most challenging and time-consuming parts of recording. But it’s not exactly on a par with putting a man on the moon.

        That said, some people have extraordinary ears and unbelievable attention to detail. Angus Young of AC/DC tells the story of how, during the recording of Back In Black at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, while the band was blasting away at full volume, producer Mutt Lange stopped them because he could hear a faint clicking. Everyone looked around, and they discovered the source of the sound: a small crab had wandered into the studio and was tiptoeing around while the band were playing. And only Mutt could hear the damn thing.

  4. The best part of the Extras on the Evil Dead DVD is the “Making Of” scene where Sam Raimi tells an actress that the take was “OK” but he wants to do the whole thing over again. This is the one where she’s in several pounds of make-up and pushing open the trapdoor to the (real) cellar of a falling apart cabin to flawlessly deliver a paragraphs long speech in a voice that’s so creepy I’d have sworn that it had to have been added post-production. Note also that he’s doing this during a movie made almost entirely on his own dime ($375,000 total budget stretched over 1.5 years) as the daylight and, probably, his financing are running out. The end result was about 2% creepier.

    If you want Extras get the biggest possible edition of all of the LOTR films. There’s far more footage in them than there is in even the extended versions of the movies. The “Making Of” segments cover every single aspect of film making to a depth where they constitute a pretty good correspondence course in same.

  5. Stick hitting the drum, or stick hitting the *rim* of the drum? Or he just didn’t like the drum sound?

  6. Hey Jimmy — Interesting take on Springsteen’s obsessiveness. The director of the doc, Thom Zimny, captured a fantastic moment in his previous Springsteen film, Wings For Wheels, about the making of Born To Run, and there’s really no equivalent in The Promise — it’s the moment when Springsteen’s appetite for perfection runs out and he finally, FINALLY releases Born To Run. (I wrote about it at Huffington Post this morning.) I really missed that note or something like it in The Promise, which was, for me, a weaker film overall than Wings For Wheels.

  7. Recording drums is typically the most difficult and time-consuming part of any record. You’re working with a set of separate acoustic instruments with vastly different sounds and frequency ranges that can completely change depending on how and where they are struck. It’s a pain, and can take an entire day (just getting the right sound, not even the tracking part).

    Also, he totally looks like Al Pacino in that picture.

  8. Obsessiveness make you successful. Success makes you nuts, but its worth it because all adults are nuts. Much better to be a successful one.

  9. I won’t say Bruce or anybody else is right for being so OCD about their work, but I will say I understand it, because I do it too. When a particular project is special to you, it becomes very important that the real-world manifestation of it matches your imagination as closely as possible. That can often mean a lot of fussing over the same things until they’re just the way you need them to be, whether other people get it or not.

    The outside audience thinks it’s crazy because they don’t have the imagined project in their minds to compare the material thing to. But it’s not about them; it’s about the artist communicating as clearly as he or she possibly can. It’s like being a god, in a very understated way; starting with only the spark of an idea, then shaping that idea, bit by bit, carefully as you can, into something you think is beautiful and perfect, or as close to perfect as you can get.

  10. Well, for me it is not too much. I’m not a superfan, but whatever his working method was, it produced one of the great albums, maybe my favorite springsteen album of all. As mentioned above, the album is also sort of a foil to Born to Run, where perhaps greater obsessiveness resulted in “just the album,” but here it resulted in a pile of extra songs.

    Also, I kind of like listening to Bruce’s poetic rambling style of speaking in interviews.

    I can’t really afford to buy the set though….

  11. Okay, so, as explanation, I play an Irish drum called a Bodhran. Frame drum, played with a double-ended stick, balanced in a motion peculiar to bodhran playing, tone changed with the hand on the back of the skin.

    Once upon a time, a bodhran was just a goat skin stretched over a ring, and any piece of wood would work for a “tipper” — the stick.

    Today, there is a wide variety of skins being used for serious, professional bodhranii (the term for bodhran players) — from goat, sheep, cow, kangaroo, even one man memorialised his dog by turning the dog’s skin into a drum (and the furore and scandal that caused is a tale unto itself).

    Because of the extremely fine nuances many of these skins allow an artist to get from their drum, oftentimes the gain on the microphone picks up the sound of the stick hitting the skin as well – the “pop” before the “boom”.

    Different shaped stick heads produce different characteristics of pops. Different wood types produce different flexibility, balance, and ‘scrape’ characteristics (the swinging stick is swung in an arc which intersects the plane of the head of the drum). Most professional players have minimised the ‘scrape’ and have found the ‘pop’ they prefer.

    There are innovative techniques, one called “Top-end” (which is interesting as it is almost soleyl the bottom of the stick striking the drum), using sticks that resemble small versions of rock / snare drumsticks, using snare drum techniques. John Joe Kelly of the band Flook is well-thought-of as a virtuoso of this technique – the pops of his playing are very tonal in nature, the bass boom awesome —
    — gives you an excellent example of how he can control the balance of pop versus boom, elicited by a variety of snare techniques, angle of stick striking the drum, and pressure into the head applied.

    The contests, however, are (until very very recently) won only by those who can get a “traditional” sound from their drum – one which has a particular pop, a particular boom (think The Chieftains). That requires a stick with a relatively larger striking head.

    So, it’s very much possible for legitimate artists to be concerned by the sound of the stick striking the head of a drum, when they’re looking for a specific mood to be captured, tone to be produced, an atmosphere, and the sound of the stick hitting the head is a very real phenomenon that players work to have at their disposal if necessary.

    Personally, I’ve carved my own sticks from mpingo (blackwood)*, lignum vitae*, acrylic, and even built one out of a sports razor handle (the silicone created a very sharp pop without concentrating pressure in one spot). I carefully shape the striking ends to get the sound I want, and I have been pleased with the results.


  12. Good is the enemy of great.
    Great is the enemy of done.
    There is a difference between “better” and “different.”

  13. Brings to mind my all-time favorite quote, from none other than Duke Ellington:

    “I don’t need time. I need a deadline.”

  14. Screw this. Going out, do some racing in the streets:

    PS RE That great photo on the album cover:

    Back in late ’78 I remember mentioning to a friend, after listening to this album ( we had been Springsteen fans for some time already by then, since the release of his “The Wild, The Innocent, etc.”), that I had read somewhere that Springsteen used no dope, and that he drank no booze.

    My friend immediately said: “Bullshit!”
    I said “How can you say that? How would you know?”
    The reply: “Look at his picture on that album cover. And you’re telling me he doesn’t drink?! Yeah… riiiight.”

    True story!

      1. Oh nuts…that last linked photo is the CD cover…and I’ll have to assume that that was the album cover too, as I don’t feel like digging the old LPs out of storage just to check!

  15. I always loved Springsteen, especially the early stuff (first 4 albums). It’s funny to read that he was so picky about the recordings though.

    I always felt they were muddled(?). I like a good clean mix where you can easily pick out each individual instrument.

    Bruce’s stuff, to me, sounded more like a live mix miked from the crowd. Obviously that was what he was looking for and you cannot argue with success

    1. He is a disciple of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. That’s why his early albums sounded so thick and murky.

  16. He writes the songs. He records. This is his follow up to Born to Run. He’s under a little pressure. He’s a bit obsessive. Bottom line is the album is close to genius. Ill give him a pass. He’s still the boss.

  17. I dunno. He created several of the greatest, best-loved, most influential albums of the 1970s. Who are we to judge? I don’t know what it takes to make an album like Darkness, but apparently The Boss does. Maybe nuts is what it takes. Born to Run, Darkness, and The River make up one of the most amazing triptychs in rock n’ roll.

  18. I would guess that the judicious use of compression, or maybe even a noise gate, would trim off the initial impact sound that a drum stick makes on a drum head. Leaning a little heavier on some reverb or the room sound would finish the job.

    Nothing brings out the obsessive compulsive like studio work. For instance, I wrote this comment and I don’t even care for Bruce Springsteen’s music. I will, however, defend to the death your right to enjoy it.

  19. I was at a creativity convention lat week and nearly every speaker pointed out the importance limits and deadlines.

    This is what happens to artists without limits. You just go back and try and take out that one noise, or re-kern every damn letter in a headline, or put you’re feet in tissue boxes and build the worlds largest wooden plane.

    The Ramones’ Ramones album started recording in early February 1976, it was released on April 23 1976. That’s creativity without the ego.

  20. Well, I do have to add, that thanks to Bruce’s obsession with perfection, Max Weinberg’s drum sound was one of the most widely sampled by early hip hop artists.

  21. You guys are missing the point i think.

    Hes just asserting himself, and playing the role of “master”

    I’d ask, who else was in the room? Did the studio try to interfere too much with the record?

    I can think of a few other guys who act like they emanate special sauce, Trent Reznor, Dr. Dre.

    Bruce wanted everyone in the room (is there a video clip?) to go “ooh, ahhh, hes so talented and obsessive. I for one, cant even hear what hes talking about!!” he MUST be a great musician!!”

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