Archive for category Production

Demoitis

Studioitis isn’t the only widespread malady in the world of recording. There’s also the much more serious demoitis.

Artists often make quick ‘demo’ versions of songs they’ll consider recording properly later on. In fact, during the making of an album dozens of versions of a song might circulate for the consideration of the creative team in the studio, and sometimes the business team at the label. The differences in the demos may be subtle: slight variations in volume levels, an altered word here and there, a few bars edited out. Or they may be sweeping: a new draft of the lyrics, a different tempo, drastically rethought instrumentation. But when a collaborator or an executive fights to retain elements they’ve become attached to in an earlier iteration of a track they are said to have a case of demoitis.

Debates follow. Often heated, sometimes explosive.

‘I just can’t get used to that new line in the second verse. It feels awkward to me.’

‘Cut those four extra bars before the bridge. The demo got right into it…I wouldn’t have changed that.’

‘This new tempo doesn’t give me the energy the demo had. What happens if we speed up the final mix digitally?’

Though experienced musicians often agree when something is ‘wrong’ with a song, music is ultimately a subjective thing. And it can be particularly difficult to maintain perspective on an ever-changing song you’ve heard played back a hundred times. How do you decide what goes out to the public?

First, try to hold back on presenting a song to the label or the artist’s management until it’s as close to finished as possible.

Making creative decisions by committee can leave a piece of music bloodless. Especially when the incubatory environment of the studio has been opened up for business executives to phone in some input from their offices. I’ve been involved in situations where two ‘final’ versions of a song were given to a room of A&R people at a label to vote on. In the end they asked for the two ideas to be merged, creating a frankensteined chorus that didn’t really preserve what was good about either version.

In my opinion, the Clive Davises and David Geffens of the world—music business executives who aren’t necessarily experienced in creative work but have a golden ear—are few and far between. (Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and Berry Gordy at Motown are examples of label presidents with an inside understanding of craft. They spent a good amount of time writing and producing themselves.) From what I’ve experienced, the majority of music executives are business-minded people with a love for music. While they will jump at the opportunity to participate in a creative decision, much of their input seems arbitrary. Suggestions seem to be lifted from trends or rules they’ve heard bandied about in the office.

‘How about a dubstep breakdown in the bridge?’ was popular this past year.

‘What about a filtered radio voice in the intro?’ was big with executives around the turn of the millenium.

I don’t want to fault execs for wanting in on the excitement of making music, but if it’s actually a situation of ‘I want to be able to tell people I suggested this [obvious, trendy] idea in a successful radio hit’ while at the same time being vague enough to claim no responsibility if the song flops…well that’s not helpful. Nine times out of ten the suggestion made becomes an awkward corporate mandate for some clashing parameter the studio peeps now have to work into the song. It’s not a solution; it’s just created more problem-solving work. As evidenced by the most successful labels and managers, who send a trusted producer and artist into the studio and have the wisdom not to open the door until the souffle rises, I think it’s better for all involved if executives use their creativity to come up with a kickass marketing plan instead. That’s something the artist likely can’t do, and the expert executive can take full credit for.

Ahmet Ertegun: Good Executive Input

What about the decision-making that happens between the creatives behind that closed studio door?

Many times I’ve worked with a relatively green artist that wants to take demos home to get the input of their friends, family or significant other: input from people who aren’t necessarily creative but are either regarded as a Average Joes in the target market or a good barometer of whether the song is right for the person they know. I get it. Songwriting is new and mysterious, and on top of that you’ve been thrown into the studio with an opinionated person like me that you don’t know well enough yet to trust.

To be frank, it takes time to develop a sense of what’s working in the studio. When people have to go outside for input, it’s because they’re aware on some level that they don’t have enough experience to feel it when something—a line, a snare sound, a chorus vocal has squarely hit the mark. It’s a palpable feeling most experienced people in the room agree on when it happens. I started to recognize it after I’d been recording for about 6 years, and it took another few years to begin to know how to problem-solve things that weren’t giving me that ‘right’ feeling. (Don’t panic. Some people are faster at getting it than I was. And I make it my mission to help new artists get there ASAP.)

There’s a strong argument against doing a whole lot of market testing in lieu of relying on the gut instincts of a few professionals when you’re being creative. I’m gonna go all granola here and say that the origin of the song’s feelings and ideas is situated inside of the writers. I don’t see how polling others outside of the process can bring the song closer to its emotional center, and therefore closer to emotional impact for listeners.

The beauty of making music is that any new song you work with may have its own set of rules that generate a new approach. When you’re truly open to where a song wants to go, there are always new worlds to visit. No one person in the room has the answers, but if everyone drops their egos and taps in to what the song is dictating, a common direction usually emerges. In some cases of an extreme loss of perspective on the part of the makers, I think you can get an opinion about structural issues or the overall approach from another trusted professional who has their craft down.

Sometimes the demo does have something special about it.

For my solo work sometimes I like to write lyrics at the mic, changing words and lines until the puzzle pieces come together. And I usually feel the most effective vocal deliveries are the takes I record while I’m writing, moments after I’ve come up with the words I’m about to sing. That’s because I’m usually writing about something that’s going on with me at that time, and there can be an honest moment of catharsis or discovery in that first take. I’m not averse to re-approaching the vocal later on to try different things, but almost inevitably I end up with final vocal tracks made up mostly of my ‘discovery’ takes. One great thing about modern recording technology is when I’m co-writing with an artist I can get proper recordings of everything we come up with, using the same microphone as we go. This is like shooting a documentary film, trying to capture something that’s happening now to the singer, or even just a moment of honesty as they recall something in their past with great clarity. You never know when you’ll capture lightning, and I think it’s valid to fight to preserve moments like these from a demo, tweezing out individual recorded lines and conforming them to a later version of the song if necessary.

Other times—usually with seasoned performers that possess both highly developed vocal control and an actor’s ability to inhabit a song—I’ve found that capturing a great performance is a two-step process toward the end. 1. Have them take it home and learn the finalized version of the lyrics. 2. Have them come back in and record it three or four times, more or less straight through, over a fully produced track. The disjointedness of recording line by line with this type of performer tends to break their flow. What they want is to hear the song roll for a while so they can get inside it again and access the emotions of what they’re singing. As a producer, this is more akin to letting an actor play their part in a fictional narrative film. They’re skilled at using the power and nuance of their voice to create an illusion that this is happening to them right now. In truth it might be something they wrote years ago, or a fictional situation someone else wrote about.

When it comes to choosing vocal takes—or guitar solos or drum tracks—it doesn’t really matter how you got there. Whichever take gives you a chill down your spine is the one to go with. Though another version may be sonically better, or tighter, or more lushly produced…I’ll always feel that the version to go with is the one that made me, the producer, feel something. That’s a distillation, ultimately, of a producer’s job.

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Pop Smarts: Robyn

In 1997, RCA Sweden and legendary writer-producer Max Martin unleashed cute 18-year old popster Robyn on the world, sending flares up international charts with the R&B-tinged ‘(Do You Know) What It Takes’ and ‘Show Me Love’. The rest of the world was left to wonder once again how—from Abba to Roxette and The Cardigans—many a Swede has been able to tap in effortlessly to the North American pop sensibility. Further, she was a nordic girl with a measure of genuine soul in her voice. After a few more minor hits in Europe, Robyn disappeared from the world stage as quickly as she had arrived.

Body Talk Pt. 1

Self-Packaged Pop Heroine Robyn

Fast forward a decade.

Word of mouth began rippling through the English-speaking world: undefeated by her major-label crash-and-burn, she’d quietly and intelligently risen from the flames. Taking the reigns both creatively and businesswise, she’d honed her songwriting craft with some hot producers and tested a new electro-pop direction locally with singles like ‘Dream On’. After necessary alterations, a deftly conceived full-length album—titled, simply, Robyn—followed on her newly christened Konichiwa Records. (The album also kicked off with the braggadocio rap ‘Konichiwa, Bitches’ — it’s Japanese slang for ‘Good Day’.)

A further revised version of the album arrived internationally and was supported with exhaustive touring. In concert she gives 110%, with heaps of cover songs along with her extensive canon of self-penned work. Her choice of covers shows a wide appreciation of other artists’ work: ‘Buffalo Stance’ by Neneh Cherry, ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ by Alicia Keys and ‘Hyperballad’ by Bjork. Why all the YouTube links in this post? Because each one is worth it.

What’s special here is not that she’s come with great material, or that she put in the grunt work to rebuild the value of her brand from the ground up. It’s that she has the rare gift of self-awareness as an artist; the intelligence with which she’s packaged and marketed herself.

This year was the best example of it yet. After a couple years of radio silence, late 2009’s stunning collaboration with Röyksopp, ‘The Girl And The Robot’, primed us for a well conceived three-part ambush in 2010. Rather than releasing an album, she presented three shorter EPs. Distilled, the contents of Body Talk, Parts 1-3 would make a solid longplay album. But in an era when digitally downloaded music makes the number of songs on a release irrelevant, by conceiving a flexible new model like this she’s found a way to keep the excitement going all year long. Installments arrived in June and September. The final disc is slated for November 22.

Musically, the Robyn formula is smart. By giving us 1 part emotionally-level dance fun (‘Handle Me’, ‘Dancehall Queen’, ‘We Dance To The Beat’) and 1 part pseudo-gangsta attitude (‘Curriculum Vitae’, ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’, ‘Fembot’) upfront, we’re ready to go the distance with her as her heart bleeds through the remaining third of the material. And this is the material that really sticks: ‘With Every Heartbeat‘, ‘Be Mine‘, ‘Dancing On My Own’, ‘Hang With Me’, ‘Indestructible’.

Cleverly, the first two EPs also contained acoustic ‘preview’ versions of the lead-off single planned for the next EP, guaranteeing a boost of familiarity when the single versions of ‘Hang With Me’ and ‘Indestructible’ arrived with a Giorgio Moroder-esque thud.

What’s also striking is that Robyn, the artist and the businesslady, seems to have captured a demographic few else realized was there for the taking: the 30-something ex-raver that still craves rap and club music but wants something personal, melodic…clever.

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The Creative-Commercial Cycle: How Pop Eats Itself

If it’s agreed that the following creative-commercial cycle occurs continuously in popular music…

The Cycle Of Music

The Cycle Of Music

…then there are a couple of things I find interesting. Namely, the process by which naturally compelling artists learn to create music with mass appeal, and the fact that this cycle seems to be speeding up as the executives get quicker at identifying and exploiting new trends.

U2 In 1980

U2 In Their Freeform Days

For an example of the cycle, we can look at U2’s output. In the early 80s they had underground ‘alternative rock’ cool factor. The songs on their first two albums Boy and October were somewhat freeform.  Melodies were cockeyed and noncommittal, lyrics never too direct. Bono’s voice and Edge’s guitar sound, together, supplied compelling personality. Steve Lillywhite’s production captured the band’s raw electricity without stylizing it.

War and The Unforgettable Fire followed, with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ showing the first signs of a desire to write for radio. However, an inspired change in personnel brought a new depth to the sound of that fourth album: ambient visionary Brian Eno and roots musician Daniel Lanois were brought in to produce.

Not surprisingly, the subsequent writing on The Joshua Tree was significantly distilled.  The straight-ahead stock chord changes and emotive melody of ‘With Or Without You’ as well as the clear, sweeping subject matter of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ brought a mainstream audience to them as if by magnetic pull. If Eno and Lanois hadn’t purposely educated the band about mainstream pop writing, some form of growth-through-osmosis had happened as they opened up their creative circle.

Here’s a wordy section from ‘Drowning Man’ on War, followed by the confidence of the continuously building ‘With Or Without You’.

Since the watershed success of that album and the Rattle & Hum stadium tour–amid their core audience’s protests that the band had sold out–U2 has ridden out the last 20 years in various states of expectation-busting experimentation (Zooropa, The Passengers’ Original Soundtracks project) and pop duty fulfillment (All That You Can’t Leave Behind).

Bjork Exploring Blindly

Bjork’s Explorations With Kukl

Bjork–who, incidentally, at first used her voice much like Bono had in the early 80s–first helmed Icelandic band Kukl, followed by The Sugarcubes. Her childlike voice and persona showed commercial promise amidst the disarray of the bands’ post-punk art-rock.

Teaming up with respected electronic producer Nellee Hooper, she emerged as a solo artist in 1993 with Debut, securing her place in pop history. The follow-up album was Post. ‘It’s Oh So Quiet,’ the big band single America loved to hate, was as straightforward as she would ever get before making her way back into ever-deeper experimental waters.

Compare the atonal rant from ‘Copy Thy Neighbour’ by Kukl with the soaring melody on the chorus of ‘Hyperballad’.

10,000 Maniacs Before Leaving Jamestown, NY

10,000 Maniacs Of Jamestown, NY

10,000 Maniacs is an interesting case that I made an effort to crack recently. I always had a like-hate relationship (as opposed to love-hate) with their In My Tribe, Blind Man’s Zoo and Our Time In Eden albums because I never quite understood how a band could sabotage moments of melodic virtuosity with such poorly considered arrangements. Or how such a compelling voice–meaning Natalie Merchant’s vocal instrument as well as the interesting angles she took on the songs’ subject matter–could be ruined by an equal helping of preachy condescension. As well, even after a string of five pop singles (‘Like The Weather,’ ‘What’s The Matter Here,’ ‘Trouble Me,’ ‘These Are Days’ and ‘Candy Everybody Wants,’) the band seemed to retain ‘alternative’ cred. Surely it couldn’t just have been based on their name.

A listen through their early recordings, reissued later on Hope Chest and The Wishing Chair, explained much. Like early U2 and Kukl, these songs are meandering stabs at writing, with hookless melodies, wordy, unclear lyrics and unremarkable chord changes. Also like Bono and Bjork, Merchant’s singular personality came through in her voice and the way she used it.  10,000 Maniacs guitarist Rob Buck, too, had an original style. Perhaps not as iconoclastic as Edge’s, but enough to show promise to a record company like Elektra. The band’s ‘alternative’ roots show in these recordings: in addition to the beginnings of their brand of quirky rock, we’re taken through painful world music experiments in Soca, Zouk and Dub Reggae.

‘Death Of Manolete’ from Hope Chest demonstrates the freedom of their wide-open creativity while the exquisite ‘Dust Bowl’ from Blind Man’s Zoo shows us the focus that took hold by the band’s second album with major label producer Peter Asher.

And so we have the artists, feeling around for something new to chew on, and the executives, racing to learn how to capitalize on a movement, a sound, an idea, a persona. They can’t exist without each other, so I don’t mean to imply that executives are the Cruella DeVilles of the world. But the crops need time to grow before the combine comes along to harvest. And in the age of the internet, traces of new artistic energy are identified and absorbed into the machine with breakneck acceleration.

One such ‘absorption cycle’ that makes me shudder is what occurred somewhere between 1995 and 2008, when Jill Sobule and Katy Perry each released a song called ‘I Kissed A Girl.’ Sobule’s song felt like the honest confession of a woman testing the fluidity of her sexuality. Perry’s felt like a market-researched ‘girls gone wild’ capitalization on straight mens’ fascination with girl-on-girl action. The sincere feminist perspective of artists like Sobule through the early 90s was officially absorbed into the machine when Simon Fuller auditioned British Barbie dolls for the Spice Girls. What was their mantra?  ‘Girl Power’? Fast forward a decade, and it’s as though the feminist consciousness of the early 90s never existed. Lillith Fair sales are slipping this summer while the promo machine runs full-tilt for Katy Perry, who’s selling an updated Betty Page wet dream. Well, straight men still pull the budgetary levers at the major labels.

I was never fond of the smugly-named British band ‘Pop Will Eat Itself.’ As this creative-commercial cycle accelerates, however, I’m beginning to wonder if they were onto something. Adding momentum to this cycle is the fact that music went post-modern about 20 years ago. That is, sampling signified the gradual decline of truly new forms of pop music in favour of mixing original combinations of retro styles. If artists’ formulas weren’t made of old ingredients, it would be that much harder for executives to hack the recipe.

Janelle Monae Now

Janelle Monae Now

The ‘no rules’ artist to watch at this moment is Janelle Monae. She’s 24, she’s thoroughly disregarding anything that might be put on her as a female or a person of colour (in her own words: ‘I don’t have to do anything by default’), she’s got a big budget and she’s interesting. And–oh yes–she can sing. She can perform.

Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast began working with her years back, and P. Diddy, of all people, has diverged from pop formula long enough to sign her and give her the kind of backing true artists only dream of in 2010.

Her trip is highly conceptual. Through a four-part suite, she’s reportedly telling the story of a robot named Cindi Mayweather who orchestrates an uprising in Metropolis. Her lyrics are so cryptic, however, that this storyline is barely apparent in the songs. At this early stage her output is coming across as a whole lot of disjointed concept, borrowed from many sources. If Fritz Lang doesn’t turn over in his grave at her shameless appropriation of his story, other visionaries like James Brown might. Virtually every song ends up a pastiche of the styles of several decades over the last century.

Melodically, the material is somewhat flat, the most memorable hooks lifted from elsewhere. Near the beginning of  ‘Many Moons,’ a single from 2008’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite, she blatantly bites a riff from the Sesame Street pinball song we all know. After escaping the distraction of the very high budget of the ‘Many Moons’ video, it struck me that the most memorable moment of the song itself was that riff.

Selections from the new album, The ArchAndroid, include: ‘Cold War,’ its arresting single-shot video summoning the moment Sinead O’Connor shed a single tear for the camera in ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’; ‘Tightrope,’ with its main ‘on the scene’ hook lifted from ‘Sex Machine,’ (something she appeared to cop to as she donned a James Brown cape while performing it on David Letterman); ‘Sir Greendown,’ something like Shirley Bassey singing a version of ‘Moon River’; and ‘Make The Bus,’ like an outtake from David Bowie’s 70s trilogy produced by Brian Eno.

Another album track, ‘Locked Inside,’ feels good because it’s written over the chords of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Golden Lady’. It’s all crammed in there, cryptic and disorganized, from cabaret to hot jazz horns and 80s hip hop. And though it’s the work of an artist getting her bearings, both overdoing the concept and underdoing the original substance, she does appear to have the potential to change the game.

In order to keep that high budget record deal so she can mature creatively, it’s important that she have a bonafide hit sometime soon. And for that to happen the songs may have to fit into a framework that people understand a little more readily. There’s the catch-22: before the artist can ignore creative boundaries and lead the way, it seems she must first learn to simplify her writing. In days gone by labels could allow an artist several albums to reach a commercial stride. These days, it’s possible that other executives may be able to pinpoint what’s special about Monae early on and manufacture other acts that are capable of overtaking her. Hurry, Janelle, hurry and grow your garden!

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Pressed Up Against The Glass: Visualizing And Discussing Sound

In 1966, during the recording of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ for the Beatles’ Revolver album, John Lennon came up with a request phrased in the language of an artist: ‘I want my voice to sound as though I’m a Lama singing from a hilltop in Tibet’.

Producer George Martin had to interpret this request and come up with a concrete plan of action, which he then had to describe in technical terms to the recording engineer, Geoff Emerick, and the other assistants working under him.

Martin’s plan, documented in BBC’s interviews with George Martin on The Record Producers, was to play back the vocal track through a spinning Leslie speaker inside a Hammond organ and record that. I don’t know if the resulting warbly sound was exactly what Lennon had heard in his mind, but he was delighted with the freshness of the effect.

One of the greatest challenges producers face is coming up with the right language in discussions with artists and engineers. We’re all supposed to be sculpting the same thing. Mixing, for example, involves deciding on the placement of each instrument in a song – from its relative volume and clarity to its spatial positioning in the stereo field. Since we all interpret and describe sound differently, how do we take the seed of an idea born in one person’s esoteric imaginings and explain it clearly to a team?

The right metaphor helps.

A friend with musical leanings (and great skills in metaphor) once told me he likes to feel that he can walk into a recording and move around, visiting each instrument at will. He earmarked Steely Dan’s 1977 offering Aja as a good example of a sonically spacious album.

This idea of being able to ‘walk into’ a mix resonated with me, because I’ve always had a similar visualization of sound: I imagine the song is contained in a big glass box immediately in front of me. Sometimes I describe this model to the people I’m working with so we have a language for discussing our mix decisions.

How I Visualize Stereo Sound

How I Visualize Stereo Sound

In this box, a sound can be anywhere, left to right, in the stereo spectrum. It can be low or high, like the bass of a kick drum or the treble of a cymbal. It can be far away because it’s quiet and soaked in reverb (that residual echo of a bathroom or church), or it can be near because it’s loud and dry (just the direct sound with no reverb).

Trends in mix aesthetics come and go, and most of them are set in motion by an advance in technology. In the 60s drums were fed through analog compressors that tended to add a pleasing distortion, and big boxy reverbs were thrown on vocals using a huge room called an echo chamber. In the 70s 24-track recording became a reality and elements could be separated and controlled, making lush stereo arrangements possible. Digital reverb boxes came of age in the 80s, and reverb was applied liberally to snare drums and vocals.

Today the trend is for both of those elements to be almost completely dry.  And recordings are significantly louder these days because with new digital compression plug-ins we can make each element much louder than we ever could in analog.

However when this is the case, as a listener I get the sense that the sound is aggressively being pushed out toward me–and pressed up against the glass–rather than inviting me in to explore. In fact I don’t like to be aware that there is a piece of glass between me and the music, but the more compression is used on the sounds in a mix to unnaturally increase their volume, the more obvious it becomes that the sound is hitting a wall, a limit. (Compression is explained beautifully in this two-minute video on the loudness war.)

This loudness war created a connundrum for radio stations that play both old and new music. Because their broadcast machines are calibrated for the loudness of newer material, older music sounded weak in caparison. That is why, a few years back, many major labels began remastering older music at higher levels in an effort to keep their catalogs in rotation–and to sell the same albums all over again to hardcore fans.  Even if this meant the music sounded one-dimensional.

While striving to satisfy radio stations’ technical expectations, I look for ways to limit my participation in this ‘loudness war’ because aggressively mixed music tends to induce listener fatigue quickly. I want people to be able to put the records I produce on repeat! I listen to a lot of indie rock these days because those producers seem to have learned the subtleties of the new technology and found ways to make things impactful without flattening them against the glass in an obvious way.

My hope is that an upcoming technological breakthrough will steer us back toward utilizing the sonic depth we once valued. Most of the music I go back to exists casually in its space, enticing the listener in rather than forcing itself on them.

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The Fate Of The 808

The machine has been co-opted countless times to lend street cred to artist branding: early 90s UK techno act christened themselves 808 State; Kanye West dropped it in the title of his disc 808s & Heartbreak.  And it’s regularly referred to by name in tracks like–wait for it–’808′ by Blaque.  By now, the machine is more famous than some of the artists that use it.  When Blaque sings ’cause I’ll be going boom like an 808,’ or Will.I.Am chants ‘we got the beat, that 808′ on the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Boom Boom Pow’, we know they’re talking about the SUV-shaking kick of the world’s most celebrated drum machine, the Roland TR-808.

Legend has it that, in 1981, fledgling New York producer Arthur Baker travelled out to Jersey to buy a used 808. Roland had been manufacturing the unit for a couple of years, but like many new boxes, years can pass before someone stumbles upon a way to bring the art out of the technology. Baker brought the machine home and, reportedly, not knowing how to program it yet, he used a beat left in its memory by the previous owner as the basis of seminal rap track ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, thus lifting the 808 from a potential fate of being a cheap novelty item stacked on pawn shop shelves for eternity. And that is how the disillusioned previous owner of that 808 turned out to be the nameless, faceless originator of that foundational ‘freestyle’ rap beat.

As the 80s progressed simple 808 beats began appearing on R&B jams by monster artists.  After a short lull the machine had a strong resurgence in the early 90s, newly realized, in the stuttering double-time swing of ‘miami bass’ and ‘booty’ tracks. Post- millennium, its status as a classic has regularly been reinforced with new rap trends like Plies’ Southern post-booty beats and most recently in the sparse, ultra-high impact production sound of Kanye West and Drake.

808

Roland TR-808

Here are the basic, untweaked sounds of an 808.

The low, long tone of the kick drum is what most people recognize first. The clap, snare and cymbal sounds have come to feel like the sleek natural compliment to that low end, and the ‘cowbell’ sound, which bears little sonic resemblance to a cowbell at all, is really some kind of synthesized fifth chord.

Some 808 beats over the last 3 decades: the  original freestyle beat of ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force (1982); straight ahead R&B jams ‘Sexual Healing’ by Marvin Gaye (1982) and ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ by Aretha Franklin (1985); the syncopated miami bass beat on Inoj’s cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ (1998) which incorporates a snare sample from another machine; Southern rapper Plies’ ‘Plenty Money’ (2008); the sparse 808 kick intro ‘Heartless’ by Kanye West (2008); ‘Successful’ by Drake ft. Trey Songz (2009).

In the early 80s Roland made a complete line of something-oh-something units.  The 303 was a bass sequencer, initially relegated to the accompaniment of one-man polka bands and the like until it found a perfect home within the rhythms of late-80s acid house and mid-90s techno.

Roland TR-909

Roland TR-909

The 909 drum machine also sat, semi-used, until disco re-emerged…re-branded as ‘house’ in the late 80s: the 909 is to House as the 808 is to R&B and Hip Hop. The machine’s solid, pointed kick drum, crisp high hats and full-bodied clap, used together, ushered in the meditative swing of house music. In particular, rolling the 909’s snare in a multitude of syncopated patterns became the thing to do.

The 909 in action: pre-house snare rolls and echoey clap patterns on ‘Pump Up The Volume’ by M.A.R.R.S. (1987); syncopated snare on ‘E.S.P.’ by Deee-Lite (1990); Shep Pettibone’s snare-happy house mixes of ‘Escapade’ by Janet Jackson, ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘Vogue’ by Madonna (1989-90); MK’s 909-heavy remixes of ‘Movin’ On Up’ by M People, ‘Can You Forgive Her’ by the Pet Shop Boys and ‘Heart Of Glass’ by Blondie (1993-95); and a 909-only beat on the Musk Men bootleg of ‘I Never Thought I’d See The Day’ by Sade (1995).

Linn LM-1

Linn LM-1

There are a few other early drum machines worth noting for the impact they had on music as we know it.

Roger Linn created the Linn LM-1 in 1980, and it quickly became the go-to machine for pop production in the U.S. and U.K.

The LinnDrum and Linn 9000 models followed, adding a few more sounds to the initial palette.

Countless instantly recognizable beats were programmed on these machines including ‘The Look Of Love’ by ABC, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ by the Human League, ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar, ‘Shock The Monkey’ by Peter Gabriel, ‘Dress You Up’ by Madonna, ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ by Michael Jackson, ‘Mama’ by Genesis and ‘Everything She Wants’ by Wham.

A friend used to joke that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis must have had a climate-controlled room with a sleek black box the size of a tank to produce sounds as big and clunky as they used on Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ and ‘Rhythm Nation’ albums.  Evidently, however, the production team often used Linn machines drenched in gated reverb for Jackson’s signature sound.

Drumtraks

Sequential Circuits Drumtraks

Prince crafted virtually everything he produced in the 80s with these machines as well as two others, defining a funk sound we all know.

The raw sounds on Sequential Circuits’ Drumtraks sounded like this:

Oberheim’s OB-DX sounded like this:

OB-DX

Oberheim OB-DX

With a little manipulation (re-pitching the sounds and adding various effects to them) he was able to create a fresh basis for each new song while defining his production sound. In particular, he seemed to use the Drumtraks clap a different way on virtually every track.

Some samples of Prince’s production from ‘Nasty Girl’ by Vanity 6, through a range of his solo work over the decade including ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married,’ ‘Little Red Corvette,’ ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ When Doves Cry,’ ‘The Beautiful Ones,’ ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘Kiss’:

No tour through notable 80s drum machines would be complete without mentioning Simmons drums. These were actual physical drum kits produced in varying incarnations between 1980 and 1990 with hexagonal electronic pads that triggered a synthesizer box.

Simmons

Simmons SDS-7 Drum Kit

Some individual sounds.

The instantly recognizable white noise fakeness shows up sporadically on all kinds of prog rock, new wave and funk. Some examples are the intro to ‘Somebody Told Me’ by the Eurythmics, the whole drum groove of ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ by Thomas Dolby, the accents in the break of ‘Mr. Roboto’ by Styx, and the snare on ‘Word Up’ by Cameo.

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Studioitis

A few years ago I switched family doctors, and at my first physical he asked me what time I got up in the morning. He then quickly corrected himself: ‘Oh, sorry, you’re a musician…what time do you get up in the afternoon?’ Ha ha. But I was kind of relieved to find that my body’s stubborn adherence to a late-night schedule was so normal for a musician, even the doctor had a de facto acceptance of it.

In my late teens, when I began writing and recording in earnest, the quiet and dark of the night proved to be an effective ‘blank slate’. Without the overt influence of weather, or the sound of the neighbour’s lawnmower asserting what season it was, or somebody phoning for a chat, it was easier to stay inside a song about almost any subject or feeling.  A late schedule worked so well for me that I intentionally booked my university classes and part-time job around it, and all of these years later my body is so attuned to the rhythm it’s a tricky manoeuvre to shift out of it, even temporarily.

Most studios have no windows, partly to reduce the unwanted sonic reflections of glass, but mostly, I believe, to block out the influence of the outside world on creative types who are trying to be inside the work together. There’s a long-running joke sound engineers throw around about having a ‘studio tan’: that sickly pale look fair-skinned individuals get when they see no daylight for weeks on end.  And there’s the joke about the ‘studio diet’ that traditionally consists of sugar, caffeine, and nicotine.

But of all the maladies specific to musicians, the one that’s the most fun by far is studioitis.

Studioitis

For those who know the feeling but have never heard it by name, I’ll spell it out.  I myself am just coming out of a long bout with studioitis, lasting several months, while working with the very talented Micah Barnes on his upcoming record.

It’s not like tonsillitis or any of the other common itises we hear talked about. Studioitis is more like what happens around 4 AM at a junior high slumber party: everybody starts getting stupid, and everything is funny. Except in the studio the predisposing exhaustion might come at 8 in the evening if you’ve already been looping the same few bars of music for six hours, approaching that point where sound begins to unravel into something very abstract…like what happens when you stare at a word on a page for too long and it starts to look foreign.

Working on an album in an expensive facility usually means blocking out weeks of studio time without days off, because you’re riding a wave of creativity, you need the room to remain set up for you, and you’re on a deadline.  So an acute case of studioitis might strike early some afternoon weeks into a project. While staring at a screen that no longer makes sense, or arguing about the conceptual purpose of a guitar riff, or trying to capture a fleeting, ethereal feeling in a vocal take…it will strike, and you will find yourself in a bizarro world where everything is funny.

Last month Micah spent long days here in the vocal booth, in an unbearable heatwave, getting his lead vocals down.  My job, producing, meant lots of discussion between takes about motivations and intentions around the lyrics. Soon enough, we found ourselves in Studioitis, Population Two: the funniest thing imaginable was stopping the take to yell ‘LOOK’ or ‘LISTEN’ at each other in the most convincingly angry tone possible.  ‘FEEL’ and ‘SMELL’ got thrown in…who can say why?  It’s the mad nature of the illness.

Probably my favourite episode of the itis struck 15 or 16 days into sessions with Jon Levine for JackSoul’s second album, ‘Sleepless’.  We had been focused for hours on getting a groove right, and, scrolling through drum sounds on a machine I came across a sample of what sounded like a group of middle eastern men yelling ‘HEY!’  It may have been Israeli men, at a wedding…I’m not sure.  But definitely the sort of ‘HEY’ you’d hear with traditional middle eastern folk dancing of some kind.

It broke Jon’s composure, so I triggered it a few times until we were both on the floor, laughing loudly…then laughing silently because we were unable to breathe.  I slowly and pointedly reached up from the floor to press the button again, once, which started us all over again, and I did it again until Jon was begging me to stop.  Lead singer and frontman Haydain Neale, rest his soul, was not impressed. A couple of days later, in the afternoon, the studio secretary came into the room with a bag of candy and mentioned there was a fully-stocked candy store around the corner.  Jon and I looked at each other silently for a moment and then bolted out of the studio for our own bags of candy, with Haydain’s yell fading behind us: ‘awwww guys come onnnnnnn!’ He was feeling the pressure of a looming deadline from BMG.

But it was no use…it seems studioitis kicks in when your body actually needs a break from the kind of serious focus music takes. My theory anyway. And believe me, there is no use fighting it.

Oh look–it’s 4 AM…almost time for bed.

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Sade As Wounded Warrior

It hurts to write a single sour word about Sade. Being a lover of music in many disparate genres it’s difficult to play favourites, but over time I’ve come to realize that Sade does hold the Best Artist spot for me. Against much more obvious competition, ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ has unexpectedly landed as my favourite song, and 1985’s ‘Promise’ would be the album I’d take to a desert island.

She, the woman, and they, the band, have come to represent high taste and integrity in music. They’ve built a trust in their fans that the product will be filtered and distilled before it reaches us: there is no chance for cheapness to get through. Much of their music has been slow-burn: it takes time for such subtle grooves and sparse melodies to get under the skin. The last few albums of new material, each released in a different decade, have been increasingly moody and subtle–increasingly less immediate, but with a satisfying payoff after repeated listens. Although Sade has never professed to be a vocal athlete, the band is always on point and the ambiance she brings with her cool presence makes them one of the few live acts that I cannot miss. With a 10-year gap since their last studio album, curiosity and expectations were high. I put off writing about the band’s new album, ‘Soldier Of Love’ for several weeks in order to digest it and give it a fair shot.

Sade has allowed unprecedented media access this time around, and in the course of it much has been made about her previous insistence on privacy. She shook hands around the room at the NYC album listening party, performed the single on every major talk show, and satirized herself in a guest appearance on the Wanda Sykes show. Articles like this one in the London Times have combined historical context with personally revealing interviews. Soundbites from a recorded interview were made available here. A short film surfaced discussing the making of the album, and then another appeared about the making of the first video.

Sales have been excellent, indicating that the band’s following is still a faithful army in this day where the pirate download has become standard. The album went straight to number one on the Billboard chart and held strong, proving strong radio action is not required to sell such a trusted band these days.

So is the new disc good? It is. I’m afraid to say however that it’s not phenomenal, and certainly not groundbreaking or revelatory.

SadeRecording1

The Making Of 'Soldier Of Love'

Let’s do a little bit of history. The band began as a live jazz outfit. 1984’s ‘Diamond Life’ was made up largely of songs they’d already been playing around London, including most notably their throwback anthem ‘Smooth Operator’. Robin Millar produced, beautifully packaging their organic jazz café sound, a sound which spun out into a movement in 80s England with bands like The Style Council and Simply Red filling out the genre. In the first few videos a narrative was built around Sade as a jazz-club diva mixed up in a gangster plot. Album tracks like ‘Frankie’s First Affair’ and ‘Sally’ brought seedy, urban characters to life. ‘Hang On To Your Love’ and ‘Your Love Is King’ were classic, universal love songs.

The band’s follow-up, ‘Promise,’ arrived just a year later with the melodically sweeping first single ‘Is It A Crime’ continuing the torch song tradition. ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ was a light singsong with darker lyrical undertones, built around a highly original syncopated kick-and-rimshot pattern not heard in music before or since. ‘You’re Not The Man,’ another stunning jazz ballad, only appeared on vinyl as the b-side of ‘Taboo’; it was thankfully included on the non-vinyl versions of the album. ‘Maureen’ and ‘Tar Baby’ were again character pieces, but this time Sade took a page from her personal life, singing about her best friend and her grandmother. The first hint of sequenced electronics appeared on ‘Never As Good As The First Time’ and a quick scan of the album credits reveals that this was one of the band’s first forays into sharing production duties with Robin Millar. It was the first sign of a departure they were about to take.

While it’s easy to see that most of their early material was built around elaborate, classic melody, ‘Never As Good’ is a groove-based song.  Sitting somewhat conspicuously next to fully organic songs on the album, the drum machine loop and percolating synths settle us into a hypnotic groove, and the verse vocal weaves itself rhythmically into that groove, the melody flipping between two neighbouring notes. It is a different way to write music: it comes from the opposite angle, building on a rhythmic foundation rather than a melodic one.

There was a 3-year break. When the band returned with ‘Stronger Than Pride’ in 1988, they had taken over production duties from Millar, who, tragically, had gone blind from an inherited retinal disease during the recording of ‘Promise’. The jazz influence had faded, echoed only on the horn arrangement in ‘Clean Heart’. It was replaced by the band’s own unique R&B sensibility. Most importantly, they were favouring this new approach of writing over programmed loops, and here I believe is where Sade’s melodic and lyrical approach began to change from the lighter character-based storytelling of ‘Sally’ and ‘Maureen’ to a longer, drawn-out process of feeling around for the singer’s own subconscious undercurrents. There seemed to be a belief that the lyrics needed more sombre depth to them, more of a message.

1992’s ‘Love Deluxe,’ and 2000’s ‘Lover’s Rock’ furthered this direction, forging original works over many different feels and grooves. Unlike the big jumps on the first two albums, melodies generally fluttered between a few neighbouring notes, except on the more commercially viable songs ultimately chosen as lead-off singles (‘No Ordinary Love’ and ‘By Your Side’ respectively).

SadeRecording2

At The Microphone

And now ‘Soldier Of Love’.

Despite the band’s insistence that they work hard not to repeat themselves, for the first time I feel there is a degree of repetition going on here. The title track bites chord progressions from ‘No Ordinary Love’ and melodic bits from ‘Somebody Already Broke My Heart’. The bouncing tambourine in the drum groove on ‘The Moon And The Sky’ also recalls ‘No Ordinary Love’; the rhythm track on ‘Skin’ recycles that of ‘Cherish The Day’. After ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ and ‘The Sweetest Gift,’ the title ‘The Safest Place’ looked oddly familiar in the track listings. It is also the obligatory beat-free moment on the album–a tradition that began with ‘Fear’ on ‘Promise’ and carried through, one track per album, with ‘I Never Thought I’d See The Day,’ ‘Pearls,’ and ‘It’s Only Love That Gets You Through’. If they were putting out records every two years, these similarities wouldn’t matter so much. But considering we’ve just had the longest gap between releases, I would have loved to see the band forge new paths rather than rely on old habits.

Once stating that timelessness was one of the mandates of her writing, Sade’s first lapses in taste have now happened: the cheap reference to Kool Moe Dee’s ‘Wild Wild West’ on the ‘Soldier Of Love’ single, perhaps meant to show light irony; the reference to ‘Michael, back in the day’ layered with a simulated MJ holler behind it on ‘Skin,’ likely included to acknowledge the loss of a personal hero;  and a few somewhat embarrassing moments in ‘Babyfather,’ beginning with ‘she liked his smile, she wanted more, the baby’s gonna have your eyes for sure.’ The idea of including Sade’s daughter Ila and bandmate Stuart Matthewman’s son Clay as a childrens’ chorus on ‘Babyfather’ points toward a lapse in judgment due to unchecked parental pride. It is unfortunately likely to be the second single because it is the only light storytelling moment on the record, and there’s not much else with an obvious radio hook.

Production- and writing-wise there are some developments on the disc. A blues influence–something we first heard in the band’s cover of ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ on 1994’s ‘Best Of Sade’ collection–has emerged more strongly here on ‘Long Hard Road’ and ‘Bring Me Home’ among others. The reggae influence of ‘Lover’s Rock’ has deepened in the form of dub basslines peppered through the album and some lush three-part harmonies reminiscent of The Wailers on the bridge of the ‘Soldier Of Love’ single, which also boasts the new sonic colours of army battery drumming, futuristic synth effects and one ferocious hip hop snare. I welcome back Stuart Matthewman’s saxophone lines after their absence on ‘Lover’s Rock’. Upon sitting with the record, ‘The Moon And The Sky’ seems as though it will be one of the songs that will deepen with time. ‘Morning Bird,’ while cryptic and mournful, is exquisite and feels like the gentler moments of the 1996 Sweetback album (the band’s side project without Sade). ‘In Another Time’ feels like lazy writing, full of melodic gaps, but lyrically it is special in the way it captures a mother-daughter advice session.

There is a sentiment of sombre fortitude or bitter resolve present throughout the album; a running theme of being a soldier (the title track) or warrior (the closing track). The rest of the songs tend to lament loss or to wearily offer encouragement. I’m not sure whether this darkness reflects where Sade is at personally, or whether she feels it is only worthwhile to document the heavier things inside her, because the writing itself also feels quite laboured to me. One of her gifts as a writer has been her ability to reach in and describe a feeling directly or metaphorically, yet without a trace of cliché…case in point: the phrase on ‘Be That Easy’ where she states both simply and profoundly ‘for I am a broken house, I’m holding on a broken bow’. However I believe she has become fixated on this one particular gift rather than using her complete palette: for a very long time the songs have not been melody driven and they have not included those narrative stories less related to her personal demons and philosophies.

In the ‘Making Of Soldier Of Love’ footage–the first time information has been let out about the band’s creative process–there is a lot of talk about the ‘struggle’ involved in the writing process. The band and Sade herself express, wearily, an exhaustive search that goes on in the writing of each song. She explains that she stays away from the studio for long stretches of years because it’s such a commitment to go in and make an album. She sighs with the heavy weight of her own expectations that the music be built on truths and constructed with love. She flips through a stack of papers several inches thick saying ‘look how many words, look, all of this, it’s one song,’ revealing that there are endless rounds of adding and chipping away at words in the search for the right ones.

Writing & Rewriting

Writing & Rewriting

She analogizes her process: ‘once I start working on a song I sort of feel I’m on a boat, and the boat knows which way it’s going…sometimes the boat will go off course and I have to fight to steer it back.’ Also, ‘the three minutes where the song really comes together in that moment where it sort of arrives from the ether or wherever, then the rest, a lot of the rest is working on maintaining the spirit that came to you from no will of your own, and that’s the difficult part…being loyal to the original vibration and spirit of feeling that came with that song.’  This struggle, I feel, is a process Sade has put on herself, and in my experience it’s what would produce the heaviness, the laboured feeling of the music. While this gradual syphoning of the subconscious–of connecting to the ether without staring it down directly–is not an uncommon approach and it is valuable for some songs, we also know from her earlier work that she’s capable of balancing out this heaviness by writing sweeping melodic stories off the cuff.

And this is really what I want to say about the new album: it may be that Sade now goes into the studio simply trying to initiate the purge she believes is expected of her. In that way I believe she’s gradually misconstrued, by small degrees, what her job as a musician is. At the other extreme we have artists that push the boundaries as far as possible with each new album to break out of the shell of what’s expected. I feel the best work happens somewhere in the middle, in a space when original ideas are allowed to flow naturally with little reaction to what’s worked before. And the best songs seem to come when the conscious mind vaguely teases the subconscious out, but it is not always helpful to approach the studio expecting drawn-out martyrdom. I want Sade to have fun writing the music she presents to us.

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Sound Of The Funky Drummer

FunkyDrummer45

Funky Drummer

1. At a 1969 recording session drummer Clyde Stubblefield played a beat on a James Brown song that came to be called ‘Funky Drummer’.

The beat was so in-the-pocket that in the middle of the song Brown asks the rest of the band to lay back and give Stubblefield an 8-bar drum break to really sink into the groove.

The track was released, split in half, on two sides of a 7″ single in 1970 but was never included on an album.

In The Jungle Groove Compilation

In The Jungle Groove

2. Some James Brown rarities and remixes were culled together in 1986 and released on a compilation called ‘In The Jungle Groove’. For the first time ‘Funky Drummer’ was available in its uninterrupted form, clocking in at 9:15.

The compilation also included a 3-minute Funky Drummer ‘Bonus Beat Reprise’ put together by New York DJ Danny Krivit which was essentially the cleanest and deepest bar of Stubblefield’s solo jam looped relentlessly, peppered only with the occasional guitar jab or James Brown vocal grunt to mark time.

Fine Young Cannibals 'I'm Not The Man I Used To Be'

Not The Man

3. Producers the world over knew what this Krivit re-edit was for.

Aside from a critical mass of rappers including Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, Ice Cube and De La Soul jumping on the loop as the basis of new tracks, it began showing up as a rhythmic grid laid over pop songs far and wide.  From 1988-1990 in particular it was an undeniable bastion of street cred for artists, and it is thought to be the most-sampled recording in history.

Fine Young Cannibals were among the first to arrive on the scene with the sweeping ‘I’m Not The Man I Used To Be’ from ‘The Raw And The Cooked’, lightly funkified with muted guitar riffs weaved into a sped-up Stubblefield groove.

'I Am Stretched On Your Grave'

Stretched

Sinead O’Connor’s ‘I Am Stretched On Your Grave,’ from her seminal ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’, LP was unapologetic about its use.  Bottom-heavy and slightly slowed, the loop was upfront, holding the track down under O’Connor’s acapella vocal for over a minute before synth bass and eventually a celtic violin riff are introduced.

Some of the other best-known upfront overlays of the beat from that period include ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ and ‘The Boomin’ System’ by LL Cool J, as well as ‘Freedom 90’ and ‘Waiting For That Day’ by George Michael.

This Year's Girl'

Baby Love Child

4. Although the loop became fused with the aesthetic of its golden period, it hasn’t gone bad. The straight-up funk of it is impossible to deny, so it has continued to appear in a steady trickle, the producers dealing with its oversaturation in various ways.

Perhaps wanting in on the action while still recognizing its burgeoning overuse, the Beastie Boys threw in one dirty bar of the loop at the end of ‘Shadrach’.  On 1993’s ‘Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space)’ Digable Planets tastefully reinvented it by chopping it up and weaving it subtley into the jazzy beats of ‘Where I’m From’ and ‘Swoon Units’.

Japan’s Pizzicato Five did some crafty cut-and-paste on ‘Baby Love Child’ by laying the loop over an interpolation of the chords of the Righteous Brother’s ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’. (If the song title is meant to be a mash-up of ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Love Child’ by the Supremes, we really have a mutt of a track here.)

'B-Boy Stance'

B-Boy Stance

Genre-defying artist K-Os brought the loop full circle on 2004’s excellent ‘Joyful Rebellion’ LP by putting an aggressively distorted Funky Drummer upfront again on ‘B-Boy Stance’–as if to credit it, at least partially, as the roots of his rap attachment.

The only other drum loop that may approach the ubiquity of the Funky Drummer is the drum break on ‘Amen Brother’ by The Winstons. Virtually responsible for the entire genre of music known as Drum & Bass (or Jungle) the aural etymology of the sample, from inconspicuous b-side break to 24-hour assault on Drum & Bass internet radio stations, is tracked brilliantly in this video by Nate Harrison.

Clyde Stubblefield: The Funky Drummer

The Funky Drummer a/k/a Clyde Stubblefield

So…what about Clyde?  The most-sampled man in history is in need of a liver transplant, but his musician friends have had to rally to raise the funds for him.

Since James Brown regularly taught his band the songs in his head part by part, it’s unclear whether Brown or Stubblefield came up with this beat. But because rhythmic contributions to music are not considered copyrightable ‘intellectual property’ in the same way melody and lyrics are, Stubblefield would not have been credited as a writer on the song either way. As such, beyond the original session fee, he wasn’t entitled to further royalties.

This lack of respect, at least legally, for rhythmic innovation is probably rooted in the fact that the system of notating chords and melody developed centuries ago in Europe is not equipped to capture rhythmic ‘feel.’  Because a drum beat lacks melody, it’s not considered unique enough to copyright. It’s interesting to note, then, that over the past 30 years popular music has become more and more dominated by rap, with hooks that are gradually becoming more rhythmic…we actually value melody less than we used to.

It’s also interesting to see that the unstoppable appropriation of audio and video in our new digital world has given rise to new fair-use philosophies such as that of Creative Commons licensing. Some people believe that a degree of freedom with intellectual property creates a healthy creative climate.

Still, in recent years the American Federation Of Musicians has developed something called ‘Neighbouring Rights’ in a bid to channel royalties to the individual players on recordings. Had this system existed at the time the Funky Drummer was laid down on tape, Clyde Stubblefield might have been up there on the Forbes list.

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I’m Only Inhuman: Vocal Trickery Through The Ages

Not content to replace pianos with synthesizers and drum kits with drum machines, producers have spent the last few decades pushing against that final frontier: the mechanization of the human voice.  How have we dehumanized ourselves?  Let me count the ways.

Vocoder1

Classic 70s Korg Vocoder

1. The Vocoder

In the mid-70s ‘robot voice’ tracks began turning up in earnest. Kraftwerk was at the forefront with the Vocoder (not the Vocorder, as it is so often mispronounced, but the Vocoder: it is a ‘coder’ of ‘vocals’).  For many years the Korg Vocoder was the standard unit, but all vocoders work on the same principle: you sing into a mic and the electric signal created by your voice shapes the sound coming out of the synthesizer.

One of the first commercial hits with a female robot vocal upfront was ‘Funkytown’ by Lipps Inc., in 1980.  In 1983 Styx gave us ‘Mr. Roboto’.

Orange Vocoder Software Plugin

Orange Vocoder Software Plugin

In recent years software plugins like the Orange Vocoder have appeared, eliminating the need for another physical keyboard taking up space in the studio. The sound is a little less cutting–as the raw, aggressive squelch of old analog vocoders are still somewhat outside the realm of the computer–but tracks like 2002’s ‘Remind Me’ by Röyksopp have carved out a different niche for the software vocoder’s silkier sound. Korg’s MicroKorg keyboard and Ensoniq’s rackmount DP-4 have kept hardware vocoders alive.

2. The Talkbox

Stevie Wonder began using a talkbox in the early 70s, but after Parliament-Funkadelic alumnus Roger Troutman mastered the physically challenging device and formed funk band Zapp, radio got a steady stream of funk/R&B hits through the first half of the 80s.

A Talkbox

A Heil Talkbox With Hose

A talkbox setup is in many ways the reverse of a vocoder. A synthesizer–typically a Yamaha DX100–set to produce a very strong, pure tone is plugged into the talkbox. A speaker driver inside the talkbox pumps the focussed sound out through a hose which is inserted into the corner of a singer’s mouth. As the singer forms words, their mouth physically shapes the sound from the synthesizer.  This happens in front of a mic, which picks up the shaped synth sound coming out of the player’s mouth.

Roger Troutman’s command of the instrument shines on ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’.

For a visual demonstration, check out the great Stevie Wonder covering ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’.

Akai S1000 Sampler

Akai S1000 Sampler

3. Retriggering

Evolving through the 80s, samplers like the Synclavier, Fairlight and Ensoniq Mirage were initially intended to realistically recreate acoustic instruments. The Emulator seemed to encourage more creative sampling however, and the Emu SP1200 was the sample-based drum machine that spawned the dopest hip hop beats. But by the late 80s the Akai S1000 was the rackmount sampler of choice, and the fact that you could expand the memory to load entire vocal tracks into it made retriggered vocal riffs the next logical step in house music.

In 1989 Black Box sampled parts of Loleatta Holloway’s vocal on 1980 disco hit ‘Love Sensation,’ placing it over new piano chords and a housebeat.  The rhythmic retriggering of her impassioned vocal–the computerized sonic repetition of those growling phrases of sound–brought a clean, futuristic sensibility to dance music, an effect akin to referencing ‘Love Sensation’ in quotations.  However at first those quotations were used without the appropriate footnotes…so court cases followed.

4. Stuttering

Through the early 90s house producer MK (Marc Kinchen) ran with vocal sampling, taking the retriggering concept to extremes.

Four examples of his work follow. On his remix of the B-52s’ ‘Tell It Like It T-I-Is’ he experimented with stuttering the last syllable of individual lines. This became a common technique borrowed by many producers, so MK forged further, finding a more individualistic practice: he began pulling single syllables from various places in the vocal track, reordering them to create hooky melodies (with nonsensical words). His 1993 remix of the Nightcrawlers’ ‘Push The Feeling On’ made massive waves, superseding the original version of the song without using a single intact vocal line. In demand as a remixer, he created hooky vocal stutters for the Pet Shop Boys on his remix of ‘Can You Forgive Her’ and for Blondie on his updated remix of ‘Heart Of Glass’, dropping the full vocal in between stuttered sections…and reportedly turning out one remix per week at $15-20K.

The Amazing Slower Downer

The Amazing Slow Downer

5. Timestretching

In the mid-90s Armand Van Helden took the baton, building a brand in part on the innovation of cheeky vocal processing techniques. ‘Timestretching’ audio using software plugins is a commonplace practice now, to make beats match in tempo or to conform an acapella to the desired speed of a remix. At the time, Armand Van Helden pushed the relatively new technology to the limit, placing ridiculously elongated vocal lines in the climaxes and dropouts of his tracks as dancefloor payoffs.

A few examples of this new intersection of the machine and the biological: he stretches the line ‘Sugar Daddy’ as a re-entry to the beat in his remix of CJ Bolland’s ‘Sugar Is Sweeter’; he stretches the hook vocal to prepare us for a drop out of the beat in his own track ‘The Ultrafunkula’ (the same track also exists as ‘The Funk Phenomena’); and finally during a dropout in his remix of Janet Jackson’s ‘Got Til It’s Gone’ he obsessively retriggers the sample of Joni Mitchell singing ‘don’t it always seem to go…’ (from ‘Big Yellow Taxi’), building to an unidentifiable, impossibly timestretched spoken line before dropping the beat.

All samplers and audio production software have a timestretch function, but it sounds like he used an early version of the ‘Amazing Slow Downer’ Mac program. Either that, or the application was conceived later specifically to achieve that Armand Van Helden sound.

Antares Autotune Plug-In

Antares Autotune Plug-In

6. Auto-Tune

In 1997 a company named Antares marketed a rackmount box that could automatically correct a singer’s pitch in real-time. Shortly afterward, they released a software plug-in that did the same thing but also allowed graphical re-drawing of the pitch of individual notes in a recording.

Strangely perfect-sounding vocals began to appear on pop, country and R&B recordings, like the silky layers of Brandy’s voice on ‘Almost Doesn’t Count’ and ‘Angel In Disguise’ from her 1998 album ‘Never Say Never’:

Applied subtley the processing isn’t obvious, but the singer’s voice does take on an otherworldly pitch-perfection that we’ve all now come to expect. Singers, producers and engineers now assume that one of the phases of recording will be tuning the vocals.

7. Abused Auto-Tune

Put auto-tune into overdrive and you get what became known as the ‘Cher Effect’.  In an interview in Sound-On-Sound producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling attributed the ear-twisting effect they applied to Cher’s vocals on 1998’s ‘Believe’ to a complicated vocoder setup. But what was obvious to most producers was exposed soon afterward: this was an auto-tune plug-in set to ruthlessly round the note up or down, causing lightning fast, perfect-pitch trills in the vocal. Madonna producer Mirwais took things a step further on tracks like ‘Impressive Instant’, redrawing the pitches of notes to create impossible, unexpected jumps in the melody.

Melodyne: The New Auto-Tune

Melodyne: The New Auto-Tune

8. Melodyne

In recent years hip hop hook singers like T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Akon and Kanye West have recorded exclusively with an effect universally referred to as auto-tune. I’m convinced however that these guys are mostly using a newer program called Melodyne. It works in a similar fashion but allows much more precise editing of multiple layers of vocals, as well as control over an additional attribute of the performance: the tonal quality of a singer’s voice–from munchkin to giant– independent of the pitch.

Kanye West’s vocal on ‘Heartless’ and T-Pain’s vocal on ‘Chopped And Screwed’ (a song whose subject incorporates reverence to vocal trickery) demonstrate the metallic sound of multiple takes of the lead vocal processed through Melodyne. On 2009 single ‘D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)’ rapper Jay-Z started a backlash against the generic use of tuning as a crutch for singers.

Celemony, the makers of Melodyne, will soon be releasing a new version that will be able to isolate and manipulate the pitch of each note within chords on recordings (as opposed to individual notes).  It’s anybody’s guess where this will take producers next in the field of vocal cybernetics.

Digitech Vocalist

Digitech Vocalist

9. Digitech Vocalist

For some reason Digitech is not one of the major go-to companies when it comes to effects boxes, but they’ve always pushed the envelope of digital processing. Imogen Heap’s 2005 hit offering ‘Hide And Seek’ was entirely acapella-and-effects, bringing a fresh ear-bending sound that could have been a traditional vocoder but for the oddly futuristic slides between notes. The lush, fanned out harmonies were created from single vocal tracks by the Digitech Vocalist box, which is able to digitally extrapolate live harmonies on the spot based on chords played on guitar or keyboard.

Look for additions to this article as new vocal processing technologies are used and abused by producers.

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For Those About To Make An mp3…

…these guidelines will ensure that you don’t populate the web with awful sounding files.

  • Don’t use ‘Joint Stereo’. This saves marginally on file space by allowing the left and right channels to share information as necessary, which results in warbling treble.
  • Don’t use ‘Variable Bit Rate (VBR)’. This allows the file quality to lower when there’s less complexity in the music, and again you can hear the treble change as the file quality shifts fluidly like this. Always use Constant Bit Rate (CBR).
  • The Sample Rate needs to be 44.1, like a CD.  Lower it and lose quality fast.
  • The only thing you should play with if you want to create smaller files is the Bit Rate, and don’t go below 128. 320 is very close to CD quality, and since most of us have high speed access now we should always be using it.
  • Do not make an mp3 of an mp3, or an mp3 of a CD that was burned from mp3s. This makes worse and worse sounding files (see below for why).

These guidelines go for whatever program you use for your mp3s. But to set this up in iTunes, open Preferences/Settings and click on the ‘Import Settings’ button. Where it says ‘Import Using:’ select the ‘MP3 Encoder’. Beside ‘Setting’ select ‘Custom…’

ImportSettings

Then set things up this way:

mp3settings
In iTunes you do not want to check ‘Filter Frequencies Below 10 Hz’ because although we can’t hear bass that low, its absence does affect the impact of the sound we do hear. Check ‘Smart Encoding Adjustments’ though. Might as well be smart.

On another note…media files come in two types: ‘lossless’ (large files that capture all of the information (used for large-format print applications, store-bought CDs and DVDs) and ‘lossy’ (smaller files that approximate the sound or image, but are easier to share on the net).

So if you’re a graphic designer and you need high quality image files to print posters from, you use TIFF or EPS files…but if you’re designing for the web you use jpg or gif files.  They’re not as visually clear, but on a small web page they look fine. What you don’t want to do is make a jpg of a jpg because the image will gradually degrade.

jpg of a jpg of a jpg

jpg of a jpg of a jpg

In audio, if you want to retain all of the information perfectly you use WAV, AIF or SD2 files (the highest quality file you can get from a standard CD is a 44.1 kHz stereo WAV/AIF file). But ever since file sharing began on the net, we’ve relied increasingly upon mp3, and mp4/AAC files.

If you make an mp3 from a CD or WAV file with the settings described above, you’re getting something that is virtually indistinguishable from the original CD. But if you open that mp3 file to make changes to it (like edit the beginning and end of it) and then you save it again, you’re making an mp3 of an mp3…and that’s akin to repeatedly making a jpg of a jpg, losing information each time.  Here’s what you get if you keep making lossy files of lossy files:

mp3ofmp3

Below is what the sound wave looks like for the three passages you just heard…details in the wave get lost with each generation:

mp3 of an mp3 of an mp3

mp3 of an mp3 of an mp3

It’s especially important to be vigilant about this issue if you’re a producer who’s sampling off of mp3s to make your beats. Realize that when you’re done mixing your CD-quality WAV file, the first thing that’s going to happen is someone is going to make an mp3 of it.  And then some of the elements in your track are going to lose impact because the source files were already mp3s.

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