The Influence of 3 producers who have worked with Coldplay
An analysis of three producers who have worked with Coldplay. Very briefly looking at what happens when those same producers work with other similar sounding artists and focusing on how Coldplay’s sound changes under the influence of each producer’s individual techniques?
Throughout Coldplay’s career there have been many changes and developments to their sound and music. They have worked closely with a multitude of producers and technicians, each with their own approach and style. By contrasting and comparing each producer, the albums they worked on, as well as one or two similar sounding groups they have worked with a deduction of how important the producers presence is in the artistic and musical aspects of creating an album will be made. Before beginning this analysis however, it is important to understand the context in which the band stands. The music and music technology that influenced them and the roads that were walked by many groups and musicians before the band assembled.
There is a vast temporal variety in the bands that heavily influenced Coldplay. They span from the late seventies with U2 to the early nineties with bands such as Travis and Oasis. One can hear, when listening to the records these artists made that indeed Coldplay’s original style leans heavily on what one might call a fusion of all their influences. The band assembled in 1996, which means that the technologies available to them would have been similar the technology available to their influencers especially as most of them were based in the UK. It has been suggested that the 90s were a pivotal time for music production, and Coldplay walked straight in to this new and exciting world of music where people were quickly shifting from analogue to digital. While the first DAWs were in development in the seventies it wasn’t until 1992 that the commonly known “Cubase” was released to the general public . This created an outbreak of home recording style music, the mixes were close to the ear and the settings were suddenly more intimate. This fact influenced Coldplay through the bands and artists they admired and looked up to.
The discussion of how this band has evolved begins with the biggest turn for them both musically and technically . Everything changed for Coldplay after the release of their album “X&Y” in 2005. The album wasn’t exactly a flunk, but it didn’t see the same success previous releases had. Among many reasons for this was the lack of innovation some say, which is why on their next album they brought in, composer and producer, Brian Eno. It must be observed almost immediately that Coldplay’s success seems linked to the interaction with their production team. The Guardian writes that Eno lead the band creatively, redirected their sound as well as contribute to the production, in fact, he even kicked lead singer Chris Martin out of the group for two weeks in order to allow the other members of the band to experiment with and expand on certain material. This brings us to the album “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends”, this album marks the beginning of a new era for the band. By first looking at Producer Markus Dravs and his contributions to the album it will begin to become apparent why and how these changes occurred.
Viva La vida
“Viva La vida or Death and All His Friends” was released in June of 2008and carried the Tittle of one of Coldplays most famous releases, “Viva La Vida”. Markus Dravs who in fact won a Grammy for his work on the album came in as a fresh pair of ears to work with the band for the first time. Mixing engineer Michael Brauer states that there was a general consensus on the difficulty of producing the song “Violet Hill”. Coldplay had evoked a certain feeling of anger in this song which contrasted and almost clashed with the rest of the album hence to technical difficulties. With Markus Dravs at the helm they created a thirty-five-track session, twelve of which were drums, which means that there was a dominance of harsh rhythmic precision as well as the surrounding instruments, guitars, bases, stereo amps. The issue with this, some might say, is that the voice becomes a little buried, which is a criticism that has been made about this album. It has not yet been confirmed whether or not that was simply an artistic decision to accentuate the music. In order to obtain an edgy sound while retaining Coldplay’s very alternative approach to the rock genre a decision was made to record the entire song in analogue, using a DAW system simply as a tracker.
Interestingly a lot of these techniques were also used on other tracks in the album, techniques such as, using samples behind the drum and snare to enhance the groove and accentuate their tonality within the mix, or using a variety of compressors on the bass such as a EAR 660 compressor, a Altec 436B compressor.
Taking “Viva La Vida” as an example, knowing what types of techniques and equipment were used in this album it is possible to begin taking apart the songs technical composition. The piece begins with strong staccato string section that comes in with an accentuation on the mid-levels balanced between both ears with an overlaid synth pad that is resounding like small bells. Small clicks can be hear ever so slightly indicating the presence of analogue. Indeed, when the voice comes in it sits at the back of the mix and yet the illusion of closeness is given by the mic having been set close to the singers mouth, an informed guess at distance taking into account a pop filter would be no more than seven or eight centimeters. This allows an intimate texture on the vocals but still provides space for the large arrangement. The drums sit slightly further behind the vocals with a pronounced treble that give the sense of a single acoustic drum being played, a clever technique that reflects the lyrics of the song “Shattered windows and the sound of drums”.
If a criticism were to be made it is that the vocals seem slightly crushed by the wall of sound that comes pouring in on the chorus with the staccato and legato strings, the driving bass that, without the compression previously mentioned would be very crushing. The Vocals on the chorus are invaded and yet this sound was very new for the band which can be credited to Brian Eno’s clever arrangement and suggestion to use strings as well as Markus Dravs thoughtful recording and specialization techniques. To further understand Dravs however it might be useful to briefly look at another project he worked on, “Walls”, by Kings of Leon. Listening to the album one can immediately hear the same type of decisions being made about the vocals, close to the mic but sitting back in the track, the groove (percussion, base and guitar) dominates the track which suggests that this was his influence coming through. It is also possible to see through the arrangement and the balance between the synths and the typical Drum base guitar arrangement that Markus Dravs was rather influential to how the band sounds even now. Chris Willman suggests in his article for EW that the band’s sound had been brought back to life, things that had seemed old in their previous album came back fresh and new. Credit is given to Brian Eno as well as Markus Dravs for this so-called re-imagination of Coldplay’s sound due to their innovative use of modern recording technologies .
Moving forward in time now to two thousand and eleven which places the band in the middle of the creation and recording of the album “Mylo Xyloto”. Having worked alongside Dravs and Eno in “Viva La Vida” Rik Simpson entered the scene as a producer and was now leading the production, engineering and part of the mixing of Mylo Xyloto. Simpson became close with the band during the recording of Viva La Vida, even helping them set up both of their West London studios named The Bakery and the Beehive. He has been working for almost thirty years and has been involved with artists such as Jay-Z, Kasabian, and Portishhead but is most famous for his work with Coldplay for which he too won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album with “Viva La Vida” in two thousand and nine. He is known for his contributions, both creatively as well as technically.
The process began in selecting a venue for the recording. In an interview Simpson stated that they collectively decided to record in the Beehive, which is essentially a large hall, like a church. He also says that all the sessions were conducted live, meaning that everyone played in the same room which lead to some issues with bleed, on the other hand there was no issue with phasing. This style of recording was very new two Simpson, saying that he has not control room, simply recording everything flat using only a computer. This unconventional style seems to have proven fruitful as the album sounds very rich and dynamic. Much of the work on the album took place after the recording session in which Simpson took extra care, making sure the microphones were paced correctly and efficiently. He has also been recorded saying that the band has evolved into using more electronic sounds which changes from the previous albums. The space of the recordings was accentuated by the almost excessive use of drum and room microphones spread out through the recording. Simpson also used a lot of digital compression on the tracks mostly using UAD plug-ins plugins such as 140 Classic Reverberator, 250 Classic Electronic Reverb and A800 Multitrack Tape Recorder all of which embellished the sound braking from the tight sounding mix of the previous album and opening up the entire sound bracket. After playing around with the sample rate he also found that 48 kHz was the most appropriate for the project.
“Paradise” is arguably Coldplay’s most popular track on “Mylo Xyloto”, which is not surprising considering the “Pop” aspects that were introduced to the track as well as the more simplistic structure. The song opens with string, yet again, however this time there is less of an emphasis on the mid-levels and the sound coming from the strings is less grainy and metallic which suggests that not only were they mixed differently but also have a lighter compression and less accentuated EQ. When the beat drops the track suddenly opens up through the heavy use of reverb on the synth and the solid base line which is spread to the back of both the left and right ear. The track was not recorded using quantization which means that although it uses electronic elements it retains many natural components. In general, this track and in fact, album, display many signs of a pop album rather than rock. the smooth sound and unbroken flow is reminiscent of this and yet it is not surprising considering that Simpson is used to producing pop artists as previously mentioned. The song Paradise, base and drum heavy as it is a testament to this observation. One last observation should be made however, for Simpson also worked on Coldplay’s recent album “A Head Full of Dreams” which takes the band further away from its heritage than ever before, which songs such as “Hymn For The Weekend” which was a collaboration with Beyoncé. The session itself contains 171 tracks and many plugins also typical outcomes of a modern pop arrangement. The use of large reverbs, soft synths and unconventional mic techniques have brought Coldplay far from where they began. Rik Simpson has played a big role in this and yet the band has retained a precise song structure and instrumental arrangement that has marked the blue prints of their sound. We can determine from this that Simpson played a large role in the stylization of Coldplay’s sound as well as the decisions made when recording, producing and mixing the tracks.
Between “Mylo Xyloto” and “A Head Full of Dreams” came Coldplay’s seventh album released in two thousand and fourteen titled Ghost Stories. For this album the band snatched up producer, Paul Epworth, who has been referred to Adel’s right-hand man. Epworth has worked on a very wide variety of styles, from classical music in his famous two thousand and five recording an acclaimed quartet which earned him two Mercury Music Prizes to mainstream pop such as with Adele’s album “25” for which he won a Grammy in two thousand and fifteen, needless to say that he is quite versatile. It is likely for this reason that Coldplay brought him in on this particular project. The themes and approach to this album was different both on the creative and the technical sides. Having recently divorced his wife Gwyneth Paltrow, Martin went through a deep sadness which he infused into this album . Compared to previous releases this one is truly pulled back. In an interview, the bands discuss how much of the album was recorded in guitarist, Guy Berryman’s home .
To better understand how this album’s production was pulled together it is essential to look at how Epworth works from which it will be determined if and how Coldplay’s sound was yet again sculpted by the producer’s influence. Epworth states that his relation to production, similarly to Rick Simpson’s, involves both technical and artistic contributions in certain circumstances. He also discusses his unique signature approach to recording alternative music materials, a category which, by two thousand and fourteen, Coldplay definitely fit in to. He uses a combination of strong drums and a clear dominant bass lines. This is achieved by avoiding using Dynamic microphones on the drums at all costs and instead using a RE20 inside the kick for example or A Neumann U87 on the outside. All be it slightly unconventional, Epworth assures its effectiveness. It is clear that he puts an extra emphasis on live takes. With a preference and a tendency to create punchy rhythm sections. Epworth also has a weakness for his hardware for example under his mixer one might find his Emax sampling keyboard, the SP1200 to be precise. All this to say that it was not for no reason that his particular approach was brought in on this project, but to further appreciate to what extent that influence became a part of the album one must look closer at some of the tracks.
As soon as the album begins it is possible to hear the synths as well as that old SP1200 sampling machine hard at work. This gives a haunting texture that has not often been explored in Coldplay’s albums. The percussive elements in the song, “Ink”, are particularly crisp and obvious, a collage almost of click and kicks that throw the song into a very pronounced rhythmical paced grove which the accompanying instruments and even vocals imitate. The vocals are extremely processed in most of the songs of the album however, using a combination of delays, reverbs and backing track layering the song are given a sense of dimension which allows the compression and other instruments to remain tight, while keeping in mind the pulled back theme of the album. The song “Magic” is an exception to this, it is for the most part minimal and produced in a very intimate manner. The vocals are placed at the for-front surrounded by a simply kick snare and base line accompaniment. Other instruments are introduced later on as well as the vocal processing but essentially the track begins and ends in an intimately minimal setting. This album has also been criticized by writer Alexis Petridis from the Guardian for not truly being a reflection of sadness and divorce, this might be for various reasons, the mixing and production is reminiscent of an alternative pop album rather than Coldplays usual soulful rock, not to say that the album does not retain its message, simply that it is, yet again, different from those that came before it. It might simply be a misunderstanding of the radically different approach Epworth contributed to the album. Interestingly Epworth is also known for his work with U2, one of Coldplay’s oldest influences, and indeed, in their album “Songs of Innocence” similarities in the mix and placement of the vocals verses drums can be heard, however U2 bears no similarities to anything in the alternative pop genre.
In conclusion it is safe to say that Coldplay has come a long way from its beginnings and initial influences. Some might say that what they have lost in their heritage they have gained in their innovative approach to what might be called a new genre of music. In an interview with The Telegraph Chris Martin suggests that there is nowhere left for Rock music to go confirming that in a way they have left their roots behind them and have moved to different pastures1 . That being said, one can clearly see that without the influences and contribution of the producers and engineers they worked with Coldplay would perhaps not have come as far and progressed quite as much in the stylization of their sound. From Dravs to Simpson to Epworth the features Coldplay has moved into the world of “New Sound’ says Martin. Prominent features contributed are illusions of close proximity to the microphone from Dravs as well as the beginning of the dominant introduction of synths, The smoothing out of those synths and reworking of song structure and vocal positioning from Simpson and finally the liberation from Epworth, who acted almost as a conduit, channeling what Coldplays had picked up over the many years of their career and infusing the final touches of the alternative pop style that Coldplays has now adopted.
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