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Song Improving Tools – Things That Make Songs Sound Better

There are many things that make songs sound crap – the pitch of the singer’s voice, a terrible guitar solo, or it could just be plain old rubbish (Chris Martin, I’m talking to you).

However, in the big book of record producing, I like to think there is a chapter marked “Things to turn a turkey into a cast iron hit”. At the moment in Popland, that chapter appears to have been ripped out and replaced with a post-it that says “Get Timbaland or Pharrell to do it for you”, but on the alternative side of the universe, there are some tried and tested methods of making a song shine like a new penny. Here’s my top 5:


We’ve all done it, probably drunk at a wedding; stood on a dance floor with your legs spread and your arms in the air clapping in time to “We Will Rock You”. Come on, they even make Queen good.

It’s an incontrovertible truth of music that hand claps make everything better. Take The Magic Numbers – without the handclaps they are just the hair-bear bunch in human form with some reasonable pop tunes. Add hand claps, and they are the next big thing.

Or Fountains of Wayne – they twiddle along quite nicely for 10 years making power pop records for discerning individuals.Go a bit OTT on the hand claps on “Stacy’s Mom” and they are number one in 200 countries and nominated for “best new artist” at the 2003 Grammys (they didn’t win – just as well, as I think they would have got done under the trade description act). Alright, Rachel Hunter tarting it up in the video may have helped a little, but it was the hand claps that swung it, I tell you.

Eighties production

The production values of the best part of the eighties appear to be based entirely on making real instruments sound fake. Synths where none were required, implausible guitar solos, drums reverbed until they sound like 150 Cadbury Gorillas playing in time. Fucking genius. In keeping with the decadence of the decade, as the amount of tracks available increased in recording studios, it was as if someone said “it’d be rude not to use all 480” .

Oh, and how they did. Aside from the LA-hair-rock explored elsewhere on this blog, who used this technique to make EVERYTHING sound better, pop went mental. Listen to Bananarama now – they sound like they are singing inside a tin can (and they still piss all over the Sugababes). Similarly, mediocre rubbish like Fine Young Cannibals, Duran Duran and Culture Club excelled on the back of some frankly ingenious turd-polishing on the part of their producers.


As Mr Walken so succinctly put it on the Saturday Night Live Blue Oyster Cult sketch– “I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell”. The cowbell is the king of percussion, and as “Don’t Fear The Reaper” proves, it rocks. Literally hundreds of classic songs have benefited from use of the ‘bell – “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, “Go your own way” by Fleetwood Mac, “Holiday” by Madonna. More recently, Rilo Kiley’s “Breakin’ Up” gave it a new lease of life that frankly makes me want to dance round my living room. And, I’m not expert on this, but I’m pretty sure the sight of Jenny Lewis beating that bell on the live version is enough to make a grown man a little stiffer.

Shouty chorus

Be It a Shalala, a na naaa na na na or a chanted phrase, the shouty chorus is guaranteed to raise your spirits faster than 20 prozac and a bottle of meths. J. Geils Band get a special distinction in this category, but there are many others worth a mention. The Bay City Rollers original of “Saturday Night” is topped only by the Neds Atomic Dustbin cover, where Jonn Penney shout S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y NIGHT with a gleeful menace that 5 gangly guys in tartan would never have managed.


Or as I like to call it, the ringing and singing and tringing guitar. Embodied most beautifically in the opening TRIIIIING of “A hard day’s night”, this beautiful instrument has been used on manys a classic tune. Peter Buck used it to unbelievably good effect on early R.E.M., even before he knew how to play it properly. The Byrds used one to make everything sound sparkly and magic – most brilliantly on the only known pop song about a man’s love for his horse (as long as you don’t count Father Ted, obviously). This is the instrument that made Johnny Marr the man he is today. ‘Nuff said.

So, any aspiring artists out there, take this Pop Recipe and you will make it big. Fact.


9 Responses

  1. 1 – right good close harmonied backing vocals ; BUT not the saccherine crap the beach boys etc do – more like what you get from Crazy Horse or Keef, never fails.

    2 – There is a definate production trick in mixing the main vocal just a little lower or unclear so that the words are not immediatly apparent ; I feel this draws the discerning listener in.

    3 – Avoiding fade outs. Rubbish, I hate `em.

  2. 4 – how could I forget ; songs that have the sound of a telephone ringing in them , always good I think.

  3. Yep, fade outs….what’s the point of that? End the fucking thing!

  4. “Esta Noche” by The Twilight Singers has a ringing telephone in it and thats a top tune so that must be true. 🙂

  5. sorry to be pedantic, but Johnny Marr actually used a Telecaster on most of the Smiths first 3 albums, and a Gibson 335 and Les Paul on later ones.

  6. Bells, ELM, the bells. Where would we be without the epic sound of bells in epic records? Playground Twist by The Banshees, for one…..and er, cant think of another right now but you get the pic.

  7. ‘Jeannie Needs A Shooter’ by Warren Zevon. Top belling. And ‘Stay Another Day’ by east 17…actually, no, ignore that.

  8. …fighting the purile urge to make the cheap gag about ending with a bell being better than starting…

  9. A bellend if you will?

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