The “Tame Impalic” Sound — An Audio Engineering Perspective
The band Tame Impala has one of the most interesting blend of melodies in contemporary music. I would describe their sound as a fusion of psychedelia, progressive and alternative rock with pop rhythms you can sort of “play in your head”. When I first heard their song “Elephant” I thought it was some bootleg Beatles tune that was finally released. Other tracks like “Desire Be Desire Go” have that raw analog energy of the 70’s, processed in a modern studio.
It kind of reminds me of the psychedelic late 60’s Beatles getting pushed into the synth-pop age of the 80’s, emerging in the alternative rock 90’s and rising to the indie scene of the 2000’s. There is so much music going on with Tame Impala tracks, it is a truly unique sound (i.e. “Tame Impalic”). It makes you feel like you missed a large part of the 60’s and 70’s, but Tame Impala brings it all back with their own flavor.
The mind behind most of this ear candy is Kevin Parker, their multi-instrumentalist vocalist. If the objective is to feed people a new kind of drug, then they have succeeded in making new addicts. If you listen to tracks like “Elephant”, it takes you back to another time and place. It is in that same groove as the Beatles, with a really 70-ish sound. The way the equipment is setup you wouldn’t think it is a band from 2012.
It appears that Parker uses a Sennheiser MD421 dynamic microphone, which is not that extraordinary compared to other types. This mic does not have a large diaphragm condenser, which would be ideal for vocal recordings. Dynamic mics are actually nice to record with in open areas, not enclosed studio environments. Some of Tame Impala’s early recordings were not exactly in studio, it was at a beach house in Western Australia. They are not too sensitive to their surrounding, they can just pickup most of the audio from the source closest to the mic.
Parker’s vocal effect sound like it is coming from the guitar amps. The EQ filtering gives it that sort of effect, with some intentional distortion at times. It has that “buzz sound”, but with a cleaner output through equalization. The vocals also have that layered sound, like putting two takes at different tones or rhythms and then mixing them together to create a chorus.
Most of Parker’s pitch rolls up to the higher frequency ranges, from falsetto to mid-range. There is something about how the pitch elevates the song and makes it sound more energetic and cheerful. It is in the higher register, but not in a “Bee Geesque” kind of way. It is not like Philip Bailey (of Earth, Wind and Fire) either. I don’t even think Parker is an actual classically trained singer, but that style works because you cannot really imagine a Tame Impala song in a different pitch.
I found so many tutorials out there about how to get the Tame Impala drum sound. This is in particular to the snare drum sound that has a classic beat and at times reverberated. The band uses a Ludwig Sparkle Blue ‘66 drum kit with a Supraphonic 14x6 snare drum.
Regarding the mic positions, they would place a Rode K2 ribbon mic as mono overhead, an SM57 on the kick and another one on the snare. According to Parker, everything would sound like crap if the drum bus wasn’t compressed with the Dbx 165 with a slow attack and a fast release, to create the so-called “pumping effect”.
According to Equipboard, Parker uses a 1967 335 Rickenbacker as his main guitar. He also uses a Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster, Hagstrom Impala and Fender Deluxe Roadhouse Stratocaster on certain occassions when playing with the band. Tame Impala is not heavy on guitars or feature guitar solos in every song, but they use it more for a rhythm effect.
It appears Tame Impala relies on Vox amps and pedals to get that fuzzy tone sound. You also get what is called the reverb and phaser sound. Now we get a more velcro-ish type of riff. At this point it gets to the noise rock level of Sonic Youth or Fugazi. Tame Impala doesn’t get to much with the guitars drowning the melody though, which is what makes their sound much different.
If you can produce a melodic tune without worrying about the complexity of composition, with more emphasis on chill energy, than you get a Tame Impala sound. The production is however, not disorganized or amateurish at all. Tame Impala also incorporates rhythmic synthesizer and keyboards to their sound, which we did not dive too deeply on. It could be described as synth-pop with a blend of psychedelia (great blog here about the synths).
For audiophiles, if you want to hear a piece of every type of genre in a wide range of melodies, it could be a Tame Impala song. They can be an inspiration to both analog and electronic musicians when it comes to creating original content. The beats are timeless though nostalgic to a bygone era at the same time. Perhaps timeless in the sense that it can be played at any time from now and well into the future. That is what makes a band worthy of hall of fame status.