The more I analyze these classic recordings the more I realize how our modern obsession with looping and perfection betrays the virtues of the simple chords and melodies of what has made the music industry what it is today. The beauty of having a small group of talented musicians who can perform off each other in the moment blossoms in luscious soundscapes like what we have here in Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon. Download it here so you can listen along!
We have a little guitar orchestra to kick it off, stomatology and what is impressive is how complete the sound is with just guitar. It hits my ear as 4 different guitars. Two played with a pick as a low rhythm panned hard left & hard right and then two played with fingers which play the melody (also with hard left and hard right panning). What’s cool about the rhythm is that the pick gives it a nice dynamic percussive attack with a smooth low open fifth making that bass pulse. The pair of leads have different timbres, and one smooth and sustained while the other has a subtle twang as it resonates.
Once the “guitar symphony” plays through the melody once, cure the rest of the ensemble comes in: bass, Rhodes, and drums. Since the picked guitar is pulsing out the low chord, it handles the rhythm and low frequency duties usually handled by the bass guitar, leaving the bass guitar to explore an almost syncopated arpeggiation of the upper parts of the chord. It’s almost another melody part, the subtleties inherent in a bass guitar allow it to aggressively explore in a way that an electric guitar just can’t without sounding like a featured solo. You get this whole alternate melody implied just by virtue of the way a bass sounds.
The Rhodes. Crystal and tinkly, yet smooth. It’s pretty eased back in the mix with a gentle Leslie (rotating speaker) spreading it around the speakers left to right. What’s significant I feel about this sound is the coincident frequencies it shares with the guitar. They extend out from each other in a very complimentary way, and the way the keyboardist improvises around the guitar is divine.
The lead vocal has incredible texture not because of anything done engineer-wise. It’s just a great voice recorded well with no funny business like you’d have today. The reverb on the lead vocal is really unique. It’s low volume so you barely notice it, especially in softer sections of the voice, but it really opens up as her volume increases. It gives a dynamic space and dimension to match the space of the rest of the track. There is a slight pre-delay before the reverb hits which makes it really blossom. In modern recordings you’d usually have a sort of multi-effect delay which echoes. This has none of that, it just gently blossoms. I think another thing that helps the interplay of the reverb and the lead vocal is how naturally dynamic the vocal recording is. It hasn’t been compressed to be one constant volume so the loud and soft interplay works out where she’ll hit a note hard and back off it quickly, the predelay makes the vocal reverb hit like an eighth note later by which time her voice is already soft again but this luscious reverb shines through. This bypasses the need we’d have today for multi-layered and double vocals to gain back some dynamic space that we get here with just a simple vocal and reverb.
The beautiful background oohs are just perfectly balanced to support the lead vocal. As a note, modern recordings will usually have the backgrounds much lower volume in relation to the lead- but I think a big reason they can get away with it is that the lead vocal timbre is so unique that it holds it’s own despite loud volume “oohs” panned across the spectrum.
The electric guitar solo is slightly to the left. Tasty, a bit gritty. Very sparse so it really bites when it does play. Not worthy of an overindulgent air guitar solo as you listen, but it has that full ripping attitude in just a few notes.
The harmony which comes in on the 2nd verse around 1:59 is so brilliantly mixed you almost don’t hear it. It just sounds like another dimension to her voice. You can’t do this with just any singer because they have to match all their breaths and articulations that they did on the lead exactly. It takes a singer with excellent duplication and the ability to really listen.
The way the band plays off each other throughout the song is divine. Tasty BG vocals, balanced, tuned, sensible, non-repetitive.
Now lastly, it’s so important I almost forgot to mention. THE DRUMS. The snare only gets played on beat 2 of the measure while the toms are played throughout. WHAT?! Think about this, the part of the drum kit which is usually relegated to big boisterous fills are now THE instrument. It takes a very particular style of microphone technique to pull this off, not to mention a very talented drummer. You get a crisp unobtrusive attack with a rather fast decay of each drum note. These drums are so stable and vital to the song- it would be interesting to hear a mix without them. What I learn here is that when you have a real person behind the drum kit you can pull off things you never could with a machine. No drum machine sounds are ever recorded like these drum sounds in this song. Because the basic part in this song is so generally constant but always varying slightly throughout, you never tire of listening.
In modern looping machine precision style this song would be horrendously boring because it’s pretty much the same parts throughout. Since it’s NOT modern looping precision you get a dynamic interplay which is truly inspired and constantly interesting.