Despite exposure to a legion of synth afficionados during my work for Sound On Sound magazine over the years, I’ve never really taken the time to get into Kraftwerk at all. Following founder member Florian Schneider’s passing a few months ago, however, I figured it was high time I remedied my ignorance of this pioneering German electro-music group. And where better to start than their biggest hit, the radio edit of the 22-minute-long title track of their album Autobahn?
Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of the music is the way the band use their synths to mimic real-world sounds associated with motorway driving. “We used to listen to the sound of driving,” commented band-member Wolfgang Flür, “the wind, passing cars and lorries, the rain, every moment the sounds around you are changing, and the idea was to rebuild those sounds on the synth.” To modern ears some of these attempts come across as a little bit lame – the car horn at 0:10, for instance, which doesn’t fare well in the realism stakes when directly juxtaposed with the intro’s real recording of a motor vehicle starting up and driving off. There are moments, though (such as the doppler-effect lorry horns around 4:17), where this sound-collage is genuinely evocative, an impressive achievement given that this is well before the invention of the easily editable MIDI data most of us take for granted today.
Much is made of the band’s single-minded dedication when it came to sound-design and programming, and there’s certainly a good deal of evidence of that on display. Probably my favourite section in this respect is around 3:26, where the proto-motorik beat arrives and we’re treated to a whole section where white noise has been modulated in a variety of creative ways – envelope retriggering, filtering, phasing, panning, and goodness knows what else. It’s a great example of how much expressive potential can be drawn from the most modest of sonic raw materials. A shame, then, that that bit only appears in the 2019 radio edit (which seems to be the current ‘official’ version on iTunes and Spotify, and which I listened to for this critique), not on either of the original 1975 edits (the 3:28-length version that reached number 25 in the US Billboard singles chart or the 3:05-length version that hit number 11 in the UK).
Given the care clearly lavished on the electronics, it therefore puzzles me slightly that so little attention appears to have been given to the vocals, with their wayward tuning, sloppy timing, overbright consonants, and starkly dry presentation. They just feel hokey and low-budget compared with the fastidiously lush and sonorous synth textures. That said, given that ‘Autobahn’ was apparently the band’s first release with vocals on it at all, and was also their biggest hit, there’s a strong argument that this cognitive dissonance constituted a powerful hook in itself. That said, another thing that’s interesting about these vocals is that they give the lie to film critic Richard Corliss’s normally pretty reliable observation that “nothing ages so quickly as yesterday’s vision of the future,” because I think the ‘futuristic’ electronic textures here have actually aged a whole lot better than the ‘traditional’ acoustic vocal recordings! The same goes for the flute layering at 1:57, which drags me into the era of The Carpenters much more strongly than any of the synths do.
By the by, that car noise in the intro doesn’t half remind me of the car recording in the middle of Mungo Jerry’s 'In The Summertime'), which also pans left to right. And it makes me wonder whether there might be some kind of Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon-style game you could play with sound-effects like this. OK, so let’s go from the car in ‘Autobahn’ to the car in ‘In The Summertime’; then from Mungo Jerry’s farting sounds to the fart sound in Todd Rundgren’s ‘Onomatopoeia’; then from Todd Rundgren’s bottle ‘ping’ to the bottle percussion in Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’; then from the party noise Foley in ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ to the party noise Foley in Outkast’s ‘Bowtie’…
Now how do I get from there to the cash register in Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’?
Have a listen to this Grammy winning track and ask yourself this: does the stereo image feel narrow? You see, it’s easy to get into the habit of assuming that live drums have to be in stereo, but on this track they’re pretty much mono. And, if you ask me, I don’t think there’s anything amiss with the stereo picture at all, because there’s plenty of alternative width-enhancing elements: the main bass synth’s midrange and upper spectrum; the subtle stereo organ pad; and the selection of stereo effects on the guitars. One great thing about mono drums is that they tend to feel more focused and upfront, and that seems pretty appropriate here, given the hard-hitting confrontational lyrics. Another advantage is that the drums suffer no tonal damage under mono playback conditions, so they’ll remain just as forward-sounding in single-speaker playback situations. (To be fair, there is a stereo snare sample that sneaks in to add width and emphasis to every second backbeat during the hook sections, but that’s not a huge loss.)
Nevertheless, there’s an impressive sense of cohesion and blend here – something that’s trickier to achieve with mono drums, or indeed when trying to blend synths and guitars together. Now there’s a lot that room ambience can do to help with this kind of thing, and that’s clearly one of the techniques being used here. You can hear it on the intro’s background guitar riff (0:12-0:35), for instance, or on the outro’s backing vocals (5:16-5:40). It’s also there less audibly on the verse lead vocals, and more generally on the drums and guitars during the title hook section (eg. 1:33-1:45). Mind you, I think the way so many of the sounds are using coloristic distortion is also a cohesive factor, effectively giving the drums and vocals more timbral commonality with the electric guitars – which are of course already distorted by nature!
One typical characterestic of electric guitar recordings is that they don’t necessarily have that much dynamic range, and as such you’ll often find that rhythm parts will hold a pretty consistent place in your mix balance without any real dynamics or automation work. Solo parts, on the other hand, are a whole different kettle of fish, because of the way an overdriven amp responds to different types of playing. A single note will come through pretty cleanly even with lots of overdrive, as will open-fifth powerchords. The moment you start hitting other intervals and chord-shapes, though, you get a whole load of complex intermodulation distortion components that completely change the tone, and usually increase the noisy, non-pitched sonic components too. The result is that even if you heavily compress the electric-guitar solo in your mix (which may not be musically appropriate to start with!), it’s very common to find that some sections of the line will cut through effortlessly, while others struggle to avoid getting submerged by other parts such as rhythm guitars and keyboards. And if the guitarist’s using modulated effects-pedal processing too (like the wah pedal in this case), that only complicates things further.
All of which makes the guitar-solo balancing in this track particularly impressive, not only in terms of how the instrument’s level remains so solid, but also because the tone never gets harsh or piercing, no matter what the part’s doing or where the wah pedal’s set – something that I know from experience can be tremendously difficult to achieve. It’s conceivable that we might just be hearing an amp that’s been miked from a couple of feet away, as that’s one way you can maintain a smoother sound with distorted guitars in general, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some kind of EQ automation were at work here as well.