In Songs & Sonics, I review an album in two stages. First, I write a bit about the songs on a record and what I think of them, then I turn my attention to sound quality.
by Robert Cowlin
Vogue Noir (stylised as VOGUE.NOIR on his releases but you’ll forgive me for not littering this page with capitals) is the brain child of Dominique Cologne, formerly of the synth duo SATO SATO. In Vogue Noir, Dominique maintains that band’s machine-based approach and combines popular elements of 1980s underground electronic genres to convey a reflective and melancholic sound with the energy of dance music. I first became aware of Vogue Noir through his superb collaboration with DRIFT. (more capitals!) on the spellbinding “Segments”. That song has frequently graced the PA at A New Dusk during peak dance hour and continues to invoke a positive reaction from our punters. What particularly pleases me about “Segments” is that, along with being a simply excellent modern synth-pop track that encapsulates an enormous chunk of what A New Dusk is about and celebrates, it has also been recorded, mixed, and mastered to a very high standard. Unfortunately, a great deal of contemporary -wave music is ruined at the mastering stage through high amounts of dynamic range compression and bizarre EQ choices that turn perfectly good sounding songs into fatiguing sonic messes (popular and prime examples come from the likes of The Soft Moon, Trust, and Light Asylum). In contrast, when I first heard “Segments” I was drawn to its silky presentation of the vocal, expertly controlled instrumentation, and expressive drum sound. The single version is mastered with an incredible (by modern standards) 11 dB of dynamic range (as defined by the Dynamic Range Database) which is almost unheard of in today’s climate of brickwalled recordings, created under the false belief that a dynamically compressed master sounds better on the radio or at a nightclub. In fact, the very opposite is true and anyone who has danced to “Segments” at A New Dusk will notice the manner in which it fills the room and leaps from the PA, in contrast to the flat and congested sounds of the poorly mastered competition. The reason why all those old electronic tracks from the ’80s and early ’90s sound so great in clubs (and at home!) is because they take advantage of the PA’s ability to react quickly to dynamic shifts in the music, thus creating a powerful beat that the body responds to through the medium of the deux-étapes gothique. Consequently, when I heard that Vogue Noir was releasing an EP, I was filled with a great amount of hope and expectation that it would continue on the same sonic trajectory laid out in “Segments”, both stylistically and technically.
The EP consists of five new tracks plus “Segments” as the sixth. “Crush!” – our starting point – is overwhelmingly bleak; with the deep oppressive synths representing a locked gate to the listener. As one discovers as the EP progresses, an interesting to and fro is developed throughout the record whereby Dominique flits between the powerful aural dominion exhibited on “Crush!”, and a sweeter more euphoric release on latter tracks. The creative palette on show is precisely restricted, but it is through these concisely defined threads that the Vogue Noir EP sews its cloth. The EP confronts the listener with two emotions: on the one hand there is an aching anxiety, whilst on the other there is a sense of bliss or relief. These are primarily inspired by the instrumentation as one merely glimpses the vocal through a wash of effects. The EP simply darts between these states thus recalling the Eno-Schmidt axiom: “repetition is a form of change”.
On “Belief”, the listener is presented with the first contrast. The sense of crush is preserved through a rarely distinguishable lyric – “just stay, forever” – yet the instrumentation has a positive and upbeat air that recalls some of Vogue Noir’s ’80s inspiration. I’m not going to directly reference older bands because I don’t feel this EP needs to be propped up by such references. It is perfectly capable of taking the listener on a profoundly present journey all by itself.
“Stratosphere” retains the sense of euphoria or uplift introduced by “Belief”; an avenue that is explored further in “Berlin”. At this point in the EP, the gradual sonic shift that starts with the power of “Crush!”, and carefully introduces elements of the ambient and chill-out genres through the pop of “Belief” and sleekness of “Stratosphere”, lands elegantly in “Berlin” with its endless synth streamers and cool vocal by Tullia Benedicta. “Void” takes this concept full circle. The aforementioned aching anxiety returns as a wrenching guitar rains over the listener, washing away any sense of euphoria that may have been experienced on “Berlin” or “Belief”. “Void” appeals to the same sensibilities as “Crush!”, but approaches them from a slower introspective angle that juxtaposes yet recollects its bubbling emotional maelstrom.
My one criticism is that “Segments” should not have come after “Void”. It should be marked clearly as a bonus track, or incorporated at the centre of the EP where it would actually sit quite adequately. It’s pop veneer feels somewhat incongruous after the impassioned “Void”. Nevertheless, Nathalia Bruno’s (DRIFT) vocal is superbly rendered and further demonstrates Dominique’s diversity when it comes to songwriting, as well as his excellent ability to place a choice guest vocal.
These notes are based on listening to the official download of the Vogue Noir EP purchased from the Unknown Pleasures Records bandcamp page. At present, this is an internet only release and the lossless download is in high resolution at 24 bits / 44 kHz. I listened to the 24/44 download through two systems, the primary one consists of a: Rega DAC-R for digital-to-analogue conversion, Rega Elex-R amplifier, and KEF LS50 loudspeakers. The secondary headphone system comprises a: NwAvGuy designed ObjectiveDAC, Rega Ear headphone amplifier, and Sennheiser HD 650 reference headphones. I also listened to the EP at work with a pair of FiiO EM3 open earphones. The EP was recorded, mixed, and mastered entirely by Dominique (with some extra ears at times, he tells me) in his bedroom studio using a combination of vintage and modern hardware synths (Roland GAIA SH-01, Roland SH-101, Roland Juno-60, and Korg MS-10) and digital sampling for the drums.
Upon playing “Crush!”, the first thing one notices is the space between the instruments. The deep pulsating bass synth is never intrusive or intruded upon by the rest of Vogue Noir’s electronic arsenal. The vocal is slightly recessed for my liking, which is unfortunate as the performance throughout the EP is strong and it certainly could have been brought to the fore. However, this style of vocal mixing is very common amongst the current crop of dark wave tinged bands so it certainly isn’t incongruous. In a similar fashion, “Belief” exhibits a careful separation of the electronic instruments that is impressive, with each synth occupying a distinct zone in the frequency band. There is a clever but subtle widening of the stereo field here with some ping-pong synths that dart around the room. “Stratosphere” also does this and it points towards an overall sonic impression that one develops listening to this EP, the techniques are ones that rely on simplicity and they work very well. I perhaps would prefer a greater expanse of the sound-stage as – on the whole – sounds appear to stem from a somewhat narrow area, nevertheless this is sewn together very nicely. “Stratosphere” is the most dynamic track on the album and its endlessly arpeggiating synths benefit from the added headroom. If this track were subject to brickwall compression, the arpeggios would become fatiguing and the listener would soon become bored with the track. By maintaining space between the loud and quiet notes, the ear can tune in and out of the arpeggios as they rise and fall. The synth itself keeps a steady volume, but it is natural rather than overly effected. “Berlin” is the best sounding track on the record. I particularly love the aforementioned ‘synth streamers’, the vocal is perfect, and the stereo tom-tom drums that periodically splatter the sonic plain are perfect in their minimalism. Again, the synths that rise and fall in volume benefit from the preservation of dynamics. One minor thing I noticed when listening is that the silence between tracks felt a little rushed which meant I didn’t have enough time to savour the end of a song before the next one started up.
Setting aside the excellent songwriting, careful selection of instruments, and perfect vocal collaborations, this recording is important from a sonic perspective as it proves that excellent sound quality can be achieved even in a bedroom studio environment. Dominique is a sound technician by trade so he knows what he’s doing, but the fact that this release is entirely DIY puts many a modern recording to shame. If one focuses solely on the post-punk revival genre (a loose collection of contemporary post-punk, cold wave, and minimal acts wherein I would include synthesiser artists like Vogue Noir), the past ten years has witnessed the release of many great songs that are – from a songwriting perspective – perfectly acceptable in their position next to the old classics. However, the thing that lets many of these new recordings down (and the reason why they never truly sound like the real deal) is the terrible engineering decisions made in the studio. Oftentimes the recordings and mixes are perfectly fine and it’s important to remember that recording quality is never an indicator of songwriting quality; however many artists and engineers working in the post-punk revival genre appear to have little to no idea about mastering, dynamic range, tonal balance, or the development of a cohesive sound-stage that the engineers of old were so adept at. High amounts of brickwall compression are particularly problematic within this genre, and the result is that songs quickly become fatiguing and just blend into the background (or, worse, get turned off). Are the artists actually asking for this, or is it an assumption being made by mastering engineers who really should know better? Listen to the Vogue Noir EP in its entirety, then listen to something like the In Tension EP by Light Asylum (don’t adjust the volume) and notice how quickly the sound of the Light Asylum recording becomes stressful and annoying. Now imagine if all the sounds in nature were the same volume (this is essentially what brickwall compression does to a recording) and think about how intolerable that would be. The great thing about a dynamic mastering such as the Vogue Noir EP is that the music is constantly shifting, therefore requiring a higher amount of the listener’s attention and thus a greater sense of exchange takes place between the artist and listener. In addition, the sound is never fatiguing which means one can go on listening for longer. Quality mastering seems to be the one thing missing from the post-punk revival genre and it means that, in the long-term, few of the songs will stand the test of time as they will simply become part of the wallpaper. A sludgy sonic cesspool that does very little for the advancement of the wider post-punk umbrella. If artists would only stop to think about how much better their already good sounding recordings could sound with some careful mastering moves that preserved the dynamic integrity of their mixes rather than crushing them, I think the current state of the post-punk genre (one littered with excellent songs) would be further enhanced. We already have a myriad of good bands writing worthwhile modern classics, we just need to push the quality finished product envelope to get everything perfect.
- Songs : 8/10
- Sonics : 8/10
- Overall : 8/10
If you’re in a band and are interested in assessing the dynamics of your mixes and finished masters, you can analyse them with the simple Dynamic Range Meter app, available from the Dynamic Range Database. Plain old listening is of course the most important test, but it is sometimes handy to be able to assign a simple number value when making comparisons to other recordings.