March 29, 2014 | Nick Payne

Establishing a sound

Some albums can take your breath away, whilst others breeze past you without notice. What is it that places an album in the first category and not the second?

What sound should this album have? #countrymusic #songwriting

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Every artist wants their album to be great. So as I started down this path I reached out for ideas on albums that I could listen to, in order to find inspiration as to how my album could sound. I posed the question on the Dear Orphans Facebook page and received 29 recommendations from 13 people as well as general encouragement from 9 people as “Likes”. I published the full list below.

After a day of wading through the list and listening to as much of it as possible, I found a handful stood out to me. From these handful I gleaned some important ideas.

Neil Young

Neil Young was conspicuously present being recommended separately by three different people. Glenn Santy suggested listening to Silver and Gold, Luke Collings suggested On The Beach and after some prodding Lachlan Bryan put forth Harvest. All of this reminded me about my favourite NY album Harvest Moon.

All of these albums hung together on Neil’s acoustic guitar. Creating colour and interest was pedal steel and harmonica, but they never challenged the guitar, just beautifully complemented it. Backing this up, was drumming that was sensitive and not overpowering.

The Decemberists

Long Live The King was an album I had on my list, that Luke Collings seconded. Listening again to this album I realised this has the acoustic guitar at the centre as well, with electric guitar and other instruments providing the colour. The difference with this album being the heaviness of the drums. In this case the drum sound is huge, giving the whole album a strong “chug-a-chug-a” that really drives it hard. Even the quiet songs are big!

The Boss

Karl Broadie suggested I listen to Nebraska. This album blows me away.

Once again the acoustic guitar is king and other instruments add colour. This album is much more sparse than the others but makes amazing use of space. The guitar and Bruce’s vocals are close and intimate, when other instruments come in the are distant and spacious. The reverb here gives this amazing atmosphere like you’re in a room with him as he plays.

Interestingly, the actual recording of the sounds is dirty and saturated. It’s not clean and perfect, but this somehow backs up the emotion of what he’s singing about.

Jason Isbell

Geoff McKeown threw Southeastern on the table. “He has sparse, rocky, folky, sad and joy all knocked into one album,” were his words.

I loved this album instantly. Like the others it was the acoustic guitar and amazing vocal performance that everything hung off. The electric guitar was there creating texture. It was subtle - occasionally sticking out and making you notice it.

There was the same sense of space as Nebraska with the guitar and vocals being intimate, but the other instruments distance. Unlike Nebraska, it was much cleaner, but still had the rawness of an amazing performance.

Start with the songs

Lachlan Bryan, Geoff McKeown and Karl Broadie all made the point that you should start with the songs themselves.

I couldn’t agree more! There’s no greatness in simply replicating what someone else has done, and it would make no sense to adopt a sound that didn’t match the subject matter and emotional intent of the songs. An album is great when sound and message come together as a coherent whole.

In Karl’s view, the first three songs you record determine the sound for the rest of the record. After three songs there must be a thread that will go through the whole work and tie it all together. His view: get going and see what happens.

The Performance is everything

It’s one thing to aspire to a particular sound, but ultimately the thing that creates that sound is the choice of instruments you use and the sensibility of the musicians playing them. Having the same instruments and musicians throughout the album ties it all together. You’re then free to create as much variety as possible with the songs and how you use the instruments.

However, the thing that takes you that final step to greatness, will always be the performance itself. You can have great players, great sounds and great songs, but if the performance is lifeless and unmoving then you’ve got nothing.

Key for me in getting a great performance, is having everyone in the room at the same time, playing the songs together. In these days of digital multi-tracking, it’s a well worn, but safe path to layer a song up one instrument at a time so you can control every aspect and fix every mistake. In many circumstances this leads to uninspiring and clinical performances.

I don’t want to play it safe. I want to play these songs with great musos together in a great sounding room. I want to be inspired to give it my all as I see the commitment of these other players to the songs, in the moment we are playing them. I don’t care if there are mistakes and I don’t care if it’s not technically perfect. A great performance will trump these every time.

What have I decided

I have decided the following:

  • The acoustic guitar and vocals are the thread that combines everything together - they must be front and centre
  • I want to record with musicians with great sensibility - folks who know how to subtly weave in and out of each other without overpowering others
  • I want to track live as much as possible and I’m not afraid of mistakes

Many thanks to Paul Sun, Daniel Barry, Craig Moffat, Luke Collings, Aleyce Simmonds, Glenn Santry, Peter Christie, Jen Mize, Geoff McKeown, Lyn Taylor, Lachlan Bryan, Karl Broadie and Katie Brianna for joining in the conversation.

Feel free to add more ideas and thoughts over at


The full list

Paul Sun

  • The Ramones
  • The Pogues

Daniel Barry

  • Slayer - Reign In Blood

Craig Moffat

  • Sixteen Horsepower - Sinnerman
  • Murder by Death - Red Tooth and Claw
  • Days Of The New - The Yellow Album
  • Jackson C Frank
  • Woven Hand
  • Cripple Black Phoenix
  • Alice in Chains - Unplugged
  • Mark Lanagan - Whiskey For The Holy Ghost
  • Gutter Twins
  • Mad Season
  • Above
  • Edward Sharp And The Magnetic Zeros

Luke Collings

  • The Decemberists
  • Neil Young - On The Beach
  • Charles Jenkins & The Zhivagos

Aleyce Simmonds

  • Kim Cheshire - Dead Man's Shoes

Glenn Santry

  • Neil Young - Silver and Gold

Peter Christie

  • Darrell Scott - Modern Hymns

Jen Mize

  • Tom Petty - Wildflowers

Geoff McKeown

  • Jason Isbell - Southeastern

Lyn Taylor

  • Glen Hansard

Lachlan Bryan

  • Neil Young - Harvest

Karl Broadie

  • Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska
  • Bruce Springsteen - The Seeger Sessions

Katie Brianna

  • King Curly - Family Man
  • Robyn Hitchcock - I Dream Of Trains