Zen of Recording

Thread of Mystery: Mastering the Sequence

Road Trip! Gas? Check. Ice chest full of snacks and bottled water? Check. Cool Ranch Doritos (I only eat them on long drives)? Yep. Tunes? Ummm… I run out to the Toyota Yaris I’ve rented and have a look at the console. Satellite radio is not for me, but there’s no CD player either. I quickly scan the owner’s manual and find that there is a USB jack in the glove compartment! Cool. I’ll be able to keep my iPhone charged and listen to all of the music on it as well. Perfect.

I lock up the house, throw in my guitar and suitcase and start the car. After a little fumbling, the system recognizes my device and begins playing “Act Nice and Gentle” from the Black Keys’ album Rubber Factory. The loping, country-inflected feel seems to underscore the feeling of a journey just getting underway. As I merge onto the I-15 north for the 12-hour drive from San Diego to Salt Lake City, the musical vibe intensifies with the swampy, feedback laden “Aeroplane Blues” from the same album. My hands grip the wheel in determination as my thumbs beat out the rhythm.

Then something weird happens.

The third song to play is “Afraid” by a promising new band, the Neighborhood. What? Ohhhhh… the car is playing all of the songs on my phone in alphabetical order. There’s obviously no way to learn the ins and outs of this automobile’s Mp3 playback functionality while cruising down the highway at 70 mph, so I’m forced to just go with the flow and enjoy Radio Sven until the next time I stop for gas.

I am decidedly not a shuffle mix guy at all. I’m a fan of the album. When a listener hears an artist’s album, there is usually a reason for every song and the order that it appears. Ultimately, this is the way the artist and producer have chosen to present their musical vision. It is not just a collection of tunes, but rather a musical experience. When you read a book, you usually don’t just pick it up and start going through chapters randomly, do you? No. You follow the story, letting it unfold along the way…

The shuffle is its own musical experience, if not the one intended, and it comes with its own special voodoo as well. So many times I’ve heard people exclaim, “How did it know what to play next? Is it reading my mind? My iTunes shuffle just seems to know me so well!”

Meanwhile, my personal “road mix” has moved toward playing instrumentals: Delicate Steve’s “Afria Talks to You” and the Eels’ “After the Earthquake.” As cars merge, billboards shout, and the scenery changes, the music begins to lock in with these images with a spooky and surreal synchronicity. I have to actually remind myself that not only is the player not reading my thoughts and surroundings, it’s presenting these songs in a predetermined order as well. Still, it is fun to think that somehow all of this has some spiritual significance.

I’ve often said that song sequencing was the first production tool that I acquired. It may even be the thing I’m best at. Many years before the term “mix tape” entered the pop lexicon, I was painstakingly piecing together collections on cassette tapes. I would select the songs and write out a list. I would try to hear the song transitions in my head, then carefully add up their playing times. I would even round up the seconds. Every six seconds is a tenth of a minute, so a song that is 3:36 would be marked down as 3.6 and so on. I would do the all math, filling every inch of that tape with music, never leaving more than 20 blank seconds at the end of a side. As I added each entry, I might notice that I prefer a slightly different order, back up and start again.

I never organized them by key.

I never organized them by tempo.

Or style.

Or lyrical content.

These are all things I’ve been asked to do by my clients and I’ve never found that criteria useful. All of the best song orders I’ve presented were born from instinct: this song comes next.

It used to be my observation that the single was quite often the third song on side one (especially true with Motown releases) or the first song on side two. The CD era, however, ushered in a different sensibility: lead with the single, because it may be the only chance you get with a first time listener. As Joe Jackson’s “Baby Stick Around” plays, I try to imagine that album (Look Sharp!) starting with the third song “Is She Really Going Out With Him” instead of “One More Time.” I sense a loss of intensity without that song’s itchy opening guitar riff. That album just sort of arrives when it leads with the single.

When you decide upon the order, you take control of the listener’s experience. It’s this very experience that is key in making your album more or less memorable and engaging.

When I recorded my CD Passion’s Little Plaything several years ago, I knew what the order of that album was going to be at the very outset. I adhered to that sequence of songs even in the recording of them. When it was finally finished and I heard all of the songs in order for the first time, I absolutely hated the record, which seemed to resonate with all of the grace of a missed free throw clanging off of the rim. For several days, I was dismayed and discouraged. Then I simply tried changing the order and the music seemed to suddenly come to life! It was a lesson well learned: You have to let the music decide.

I find coupling songs into smaller groups of two or three that transition into each other well is a good start. You can then couple these groups together in a modular way until it all snaps together into a solid whole. Listening through, you may find switching a couple of songs helps to complete or strengthen that thread.

Providing this order to your mastering engineer at the top of your session will additionally help to ensure smoother song-to-song transitions as well as keep volume and eq settings consistent and complementary throughout.

All told, I listened to 703 songs on my trip. I arrived in Utah in the G’s and back in San Diego in the M’s. I was kept awake through the evening hours by the sheer randomness of the selections and soothed upon my return my listening to Peter Bolland’s Two Pines in its intended order.

Then I slept for 11 hours.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning producer, singer, and mastering engineer. www.kaspro.com

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