Shoegazing (or Shoegaze) is a genre of alternative rock that originated in the late 80s. The genre is very difficult to define, and it is even more difficult to evaluate music within it. Generally, the genre is characterized by its shimmering vocals, reverberating guitars, and textural distortion that create a tranquil, opaque feeling.
The term "shoegaze" was coined by an NME journalist after attending a concert by the British band Moose.
Throughout the performance, the band's vocalist stood with his head down, reading lyrics from a piece of paper on the floor. It was as if he were gazing at his own shoes, which is what shoegaze means, "gazing at shoes". The term was fixed because shoegaze band guitarists use bundles of many guitar methods to create a complex sound. Its control requires concentration, so the musicians, like the Moose vocalist, don't move a lot and throughout concert carefully look at the floor
The peak point of shoegaze's first wave popularity is an album by My Bloody Valentine Loveless in 1991 - a typical example of a perfectly knocked-down, overloaded sound and atmospheric melancholy. A remarkable melodic combination came from The Jesus and the Mary Chain in a release of their debut album Psychocandy in 1985, making them one of the earliest shoegazers in the 80s alternative music scene. It was an unusual combination of pop music structures and experimental noise arrangements. Singles released from it, such as Just Like Honey and Never Understand, became hits of the underground, and the album itself, with its sharp, detached, but melodic sound, became iconic.
Around the same time, the dream pop masterminds Cocteau Twins came to their characteristically unearthly, fueled by an absorbing reverberation of sound. The album Treasure truly lived up to its name, becoming a memorable record along with their 1982 debut Garlands, with the song Head over Heels being a gorgeous proto-shoegaze record. Heaven or Las Vegas is their sixth studio album, released on 17 September 1990 and is known as one of the best-ever releases of the label.
In the early 90s, there was another musical giant besides My Bloody Valentine - Slowdive. Just for a Day, their debut studio album, was released on 2 September 1991. Eight years later it was ranked at number 7 on the list of ″The 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time″. Their second album Souvlaki was released on 17 May 1993 and was proclaimed as "the definitive shoegaze statement".
At the time, Britpop and Grunge had slowly taken the spotlight and that was the moment when the genre’s downfall began. In the late 90s the attention on shoegaze started fading, and the press interest wasn't as high as it used to be. Alan McGee had dropped Slowdive as their singer and called My Bloody Valentine his “joke band”. Shoegaze bands at the time either chose to disband or to start playing Britpop and Dream Pop, as the majority got overshadowed by bands like The Killers, Oasis, Blur and Pulp. That was the “end” of the short-lived shoegaze era.
Start by trying to get close to the distortion sound on their opening track - the example will be Only Shallow in Logic X:
- Use a Gordon Smith GS01 guitar with a Stetsbar Pro 2 whammy bar fitted. That’s going straight into a TL Audio Ivory 2 5060 for a small amount of gain on the way in. No other external pedals or amps are used throughout this article. The intro to Only Shallow is built on four power chords: F5, G5, Bb5, and C5.
- Add the Logic Pedalboard plugin. This allows multiple effect units that simulate popular guitar pedals to be used and easily reordered. Add the RAWK Distortion and adjust the Crunch to 10 o’clock and the Tone to just shy of midnight.
Alan Moulder recalls:
I seem to remember all the rhythm guitars went through a 1960s Marshall head with an old 4×12 cab that matched the amp, and also a Vox AC30. The signal was split between the two amps and they were close mic’ed with SM57s right on the cone. I always mic guitar amps right on the cone and usually in the middle.
It’s impossible to know what amp combination was used on each song but you can get close to the sound with an instance of excellent Amp Designer. The patch is a driven sound but has plenty of clarity to it using the Small Brownface Amp and Vintage British 4×12 cabinet with a Ribbon 121 microphone. Shields was famed for using Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars, part of his playing style was strumming with a constant motion of the whammy bar, giving a warbly old tape-like sound. This can be heard as a much-emulated effect by other guitarists, even those outside the shoegaze scene.
Here’s a demonstration of what we're talking about:
- Loomer is a particularly good example of this: the wall-of-sound guitars almost feel like you’re listening to them through an old Walkman running out of batteries. The two chords in this example are Gadd9 and Bb7
- The guitars are again double-tracked for extra width and depth. I’m using the Happy Fuzz Face (emulation of an
ArbiterDunlop Fuzz Face) and Candy Fuzz on the pedalboard plugin with the Clean Jazz Fat preset from Logic’s Amp Designer. There are also some doubled-tracked bends in the mix too, with some reverb and distortion and Logic’s ES2 (Choir Pad preset) running into plenty of reverse reverb and delay.
Delays and Reverbs
Shoegazers are certainly known for having a lot of pedals and, as the next key foundation of the sound, look at some plugins that get close to some of the more sought-after shoegaze delay pedals. You don’t need the most complex DSP reverb or boutique handcrafted-in-Portland delay pedals to get the shoegaze sound; often cheap compacts and bundled delays can get you close. Firstly an absolute staple in many boards is the Memory Man from Electro Harmonix. The Memory Man is an analog pedal known for its crusty sound and lush modulation.
Next up is the Digitech PDS-8000, a digital 8-second delay sampler known for its grainy sound; it was used by many guitarists of the era, in particular, Slowdive. It also has a handy feedback loop. Jumping over to Ableton Live now, Recorded four basic arpeggios into the Looper plugin at 91 bpm. To simulate the lo-fi sound you have to a Redux plugin at 12 bit with half the sampling rate. Additionally, try setting to 329 ms and use the Multiply to reduce the sample rate of the repeats (set to 8x)
A lot of the early shoegaze sound would be made using a combination of analog and digital delays, pedals and rack units to create complex sounds. Units such as the Yamaha SPX900, Roland SDE-1000, Ibanez HD1000 and Alesis Midiverb were common in racks around this time.
Here, using four sends, create big wash of cascading delays:
- Send A uses the aforementioned PrimalTap patch
- Send B is using Live’s own PingPong Delay, set to 3/16ths
- Send C is Live’s Filter Delay
- Send D used in an Audio Effects Rack with four instances of Waves SoundShifter with +12, +7, -5 and -12 semitone tunings, respectively.
This is running into Live’s Simple Delay and then the four sends are balanced with the dry signal:
- Finally, the Alesis Midiverb II had a particular preset (Bloom, presets 45 through to 49) known for its use by Kevin Shields and others. Let’s start off with the dry sound
- The chords are G, D, F and C power chords with the top three strings left open and the guitar is tuned to EADGBD
- The Mix is set to maximum because it’s used as a send/return and not an insert. Moving the Diffusion to 0.618 makes the reverse effect kick in and I’ve adjusted the Size to work better with my tempo
If you’re still searching around for inspiration, FiveWays from GuitarGeek has produced an excellent guide to ambient/shoegaze pedalboards.
Loveless, My Bloody Valentine's album, is riddled with drones, often as little add-ons after some of the tracks; a nice one is Sometimes (from 4:58 onwards):
Starting off with the Pedalboard, add Fuzz effect to it (with the same clean fuzz sound I’ve used in previous examples) and Logic’s EQ to high-pass filter some sub frequencies, boost the signal a little around 74 Hz and 1560 Hz and remove some mud around 148 Hz.
Next, disable the track’s output to route it exclusively to two Send tracks, each with a Tremolo plugin set at different speeds (0.54 Hz and 0.44 Hz). The Akai sampler range was a popular addition to studios in the late eighties and early nineties.The sampler might be the most important invention since MIDI. You can get close to this with most DAWs’ built-in samplers. On a reorded basic loop in Ableton Live’s Looper add a PingPong delay (importantly with more than 50% feedback), then a Compressor to bring up the levels of the delay and finally Live’s Reverb.
Hit the Freeze button on the Reverb: this makes the reverb almost endless. I’ve then resampled the result on to another audio track and cropped out a section of a continuous tone. The drone sounds pretty good on its own, but let’s add it to Live’s Simpler instrument. Hit shift + cmd + t to create a new MIDI track and drag the sample on to the Clip/Device Drop Area. On the Simpler instrument, enable the Loop and Snap buttons and adjust the Fade if you’re hearing any clicks or pops on the loop. I’m also going to adjust the Volume envelope, increasing the Attack and Release, to get a softer transitioning pad (if you’re unfamiliar with the concept of envelopes, have a read of this.)
Finally, let’s enable the filter and switch it to LP24 (Low-pass with a 24dB-per-octave slope) and get some slow LFO modulation going. You can also add some unison spread and removed any velocity modulation. But drones don’t have to just come from guitars and samplers. Then, add Ableton’s Resonator and change the root to C2 and the intervals +7 (G2), +14 (D3), -5 (G1) and -10 (D1). Set the Filter to Low-pass (the top button) and sweep out some of the hiss from the top. Now run this into your reverb of choice.
Synthesizers, keyboards and DSP processing have become an integral part of modern shoegaze as the sound has evolved. Without knowing exactly what’s going on, you can still get close to the sound. The composition is quite simple, a straight sixteenth-note-style bassline, two chords, and a repeated lead figure. Let’s start off looking at the bass; you are working at 120 bpm.
Program the chord changes and use Ableton Live’s Arpeggiator MIDI effect to trigger new notes. This way you can change the gate length later on. The sequence is eight bars of D, four bars of B, two bars of G and two bars of A. After the arpeggiator add a Velocity plugin for a small amount of random velocity. The instrument itself is mostly the sound of the Arturia Modular V using the preloaded CE_BassClem4 preset without much tweaking at all (just disable the chorus effect).
This is layered with Native Instruments’ Kontakt aPlayer Classic Bass preset. You should reduce the Tone, increase the Noise and change the Stop to 1/8th. Also disabled the Reverb and brought the lowest band down in the EQ section. In the Options tabs, enable a small amount of random velocity to make it sound a bit more human. Layering is the key to this sort of sound and the chordal part is similarly layered up. The two chords are simply D and G7
The body of this sound is the Native Instruments’ Reaktor synth 2-OSC, using the Softpad patch as a springboard. Removed the resonance from both filters, synced LFO 1 and 2 to 1/4 and changed the phase of LFO 2 to 0.5, making it bounce off LFO 1. Finally, Disable the stereo delay
This is layered with kv331 Synthmaster 2 doing a slightly modulated wavetable sound. It’s important when layering to check the tuning of each layer, ensuring no additional notes are being added unnecessarily. The final part to this is an Ableton Core Library sound, M Tron Strings, reducing the Bright, Filter Reso and Overtone macros and adding a longer Attack and Release.
The lead is a simple three-note ostinato. This is comprised of three sounds:
- The excellent and free Sound Magic Piano One (be sure to tweak the Rel Vol)
- Ableton’s Tension instrument for some bright pluck
- Native Instruments’ FM8, using a tweaked version of the Electric Harp
The final piece in the puzzle is the sound of some primary school kids playing. Overlap various sections and pan them around slightly - everything has a little reverb on a send and there’s a touch of the Glue Compressor on the master.
The next sound is a sine wave lead. Apply two slightly detuned sine waves and some Analog detuning: give envelope 3 (hard-wired to amplitude) a tiny bit of attack, around 300ms of decay, just under 50% sustain and a healthy bit of release (around 600ms). Enabling the Soft Osc Start will ensure the oscillator’s phase starts at 0º each time. Finally add some of the built-in chorus and some Valhalla Shimmer. At the end of each block of four bars is an ascending pattern caked in delay. Using the Summing Stack in Logic you can send a MIDI part to two or more instruments.
Starting off with the Factory Default in Logic’s physical modeling synth, Sculpture, you're close already (with the Delay disabled). I’ve added Arturia’s CS-80V underneath, shortening the attack times of both oscillators. These are both run into TAL’s Dub III and Softube’s Saturation (both of which are free) followed by the basic Logic Compressor and some low-pass filtering coming from the Auto Filter. The chordal part D- and Bb7: D F A C, Bb D F A.
There’s Reaktor’s Titan, another CS-80V, some GarageBand synth called Hybrid Morph and Lennar Digital’s Sylenth, each with their own channel strip. It was close but not close enough. The next step is a sampler in the background
You can experiment and add Eventide’s UltraChannel on the stack (utilizing its excellent H3000-esque Micro Pitch Shift as well as the Parametric EQ, Compressor and Stereo Delay). In addition, there’s an instance of Valhalla Shimmer, some compression, and EQ. The loop was finished off with some wavetable synthesis courtesy of Native Instruments’ Massive, using two out of phase LFOs doing amplitude modulation and some ring modulation of OSC 3. I’ve also added in a very quiet kick drum (sine wave from ES2 with envelope pitch modulation) and a pitch-bent sine wave with some delayed vibrato, again from ES2 at the end of the loop. Some healthy compression and limiting on the master help glue everything together
Speaking to Barcode back in 2008, a quick insight into some of the synths used to create his unique sound:
- A lot of these can be procured digitally. The Oberheim OB-8 is nicely modeled by the OBXD, and it’s free! He claims it’s one of his most used synth – a great starting point as it’s both warm and rich.
- The Waldorf Wave is something else synonymous with his sound. While many manufacturers offer wavetable possibilities (Synthmaster and Massive have already been mentioned) Waldorf’s own Waldorf Edition is probably the best starting place.
- Other synths notoriously used by the man are the Yamaha DX7, The Rhodes Chroma and MemoryMoog (both of which appear in Kontakt’s Retro Machines Mk2 library), the Prophet VS, which Arturia offers an emulation of and the Elka Synthex, which XLIS Lab has modeled.
Vocals tend to be delivered “unconfidently”. As with ambient music part of what makes up shoegaze is the absence of the melody being the most dominant feature. In lots of pop music the vocals are supposed to be what’s pushed the furthest forward in the mix – it’s the bit designed to make you hum it for the rest of the day.
With shoegaze there are countless examples of the voice being used more like an instrument, contributing to a wider picture, an almost wall-of-sound texture dripping in artificial spacious effects. A good start would be recording a dB or two quieter than you might ordinarily. The use of slapback echo and reverse (or other nonlinear reverbs) helps, too.
There’s not much to be said here: all bass players have different setups but what’s important is to keep it tight and relatively clean. Distortion can be used but avoid any modulation, especially anything that messes with the stereo image. Alan Moulder talks about recording the bass on Loveless:
Electric bass is hard to emulate but Native Instruments’ Kontakt Player does a pretty good job. Load the Classic Bass preset. I’ve added in some Noise and disabled the Instrument FX (use a separate plugin for this). Disable the Reverb and Cabinet, too.
Also from Native Instruments, Guitar Rig 5 has pretty much everything you need. Using the Bass Pro head with the Control Room Pro you can blend the 8×10 cab sound with a DI signal, allowing us further control over the sound. I’ve added an optional Demon Distortion in front for a fuzzier sound if you need this. Eventide’s UltraChannel has a nice O-pressor and EQ to stop any rogue dynamic notes poking though.
With its origins in live music, it’s safe to assume most shoegaze music out there uses live drums. Within the Nu Gaze genre, it’s less of a necessity and electronic drums and samplers have been used instead. Logic has a feature called Drummer where you can get dynamic MIDI tracks with tweakable amounts of swing, complexity, fills and various other factors.
What’s nice about Drummer is the ability to split each drum mic out onto separate channels, allowing further mixing. Split out each mic giving it an instance of the Waves SSL E-Channel and Tone Booster’s TB Ferox, emulating the channel strip and tape machine, respectively. They are summed into Bus 1 with a Waves CLA-76, an emulation of a classic vintage compressor.
The Drum bus has two sends, the first of which is for parallel compression. You can use one of the best free compressors, Rough Rider by Audio Damage, which is hugely aggressive and sounds great when blended in with the less compressed drums.
The second bus is Logic’s Space Designer with a small, realistic room reverb. On the master, there is a Bit Crusher simulating the resampling of the drums on Loveless. I’ve added a dB of input gain, have set the bit depth to 12 bit and 2 x downsampling (half CD quality sample rate); also there’s a Waves PuigChild (emulation of a Fairchild mastering compressor) and the ever-present L2, also by Waves:
Other bands, either for stylistic or other reasons, resorted to cheap drum machines. The Casio RZ-1, Alesis HR-16, and Yamaha RX5 are examples of digital drums easy on the wallet. A lot of these have been sampled for EXS24 and Ableton’s Drum Rack. Big shout-out to Sample Magic for their new instrument BLOQ that has many classic drum machines and synths sampled within it. Finally, it’s not unheard of for artists to sample other records – this example is Chapterhouse’s Mesmerise, which samples the Hot Pants break.
It’s said about most music when it comes to mixing but due to its complexity and thick textures, mixing shoegaze can really be a balancing act.. Getting four or five layers of distorted guitar to gel whilst having a delicate delay and reverb algorithms sing over the top while leaving space for vocals, bass, and drums is no easy task. My pieces of advice are:
- Mix into a spectral analyser like Voxengo SPAN first
- Keep your channels low. Start things off as little as -10dB means you’re likely to be left with more headroom
- Keep your soundcard volume high, as this forces you to mix more quietly
- Using buses and groups can help compartmentalize sounds. If you can get the relative volume of your drums settled then it’s a case of just moving one stereo fader rather than all of the channels together
In terms of reverbs and delays: of course, the sound is anchored around their presence but choosing one or two really effective ones is going to give you a clearer mix than throwing four or five poorly-chosen ones into your mixdown. Most of all getting things to sit well are about choosing the right part to play, playing it constantly with the rest of the backing track and choosing complementary sounds and/or designing sounds, paying attention to their context.
Cited from this site
Artists in the genre include, but are not limited to:
- Beach House
- Catherine Wheel
- Life on Venus
- My Bloody Valentine
- Palms On Fire
- Sounds of Sputnik
- Sweet Trip
- The Verve
- your friends polymers
- Акульи Слёзы
- Деревянные киты