Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Well, What Does a Producer Do Anyway?"

I have written a few words about the important role a producer plays in the recording process. My friends in the Sellaband community have made some interesting comments and have asked questions which caused me to take a step back and approach the subject from another angle.

In a perfect world, we would all abide by the sage words of Rodney King and "Just get along." Musicians would make music, engineers would see to it that the music was recorded to broadcast specifications and producers would steer the ship in the most efficient direction. Ego-less collaboration would be the order of the day, flowers would be in full bloom, the lion would lay down with the lamb and every day would begin with a happy ending.

NEWS FLASH! This just's not a perfect world. Collaboration implies cooperation. Making records, as in any endeavor where success hinges on sacrificing the needs, goals or opinions of the individual in favor of the welfare of all, can often become a competition of urinary ballistics or an exercise in comparative male protrusion measurement.

Engineers often see themselves as producers or are themselves frustrated musicians. And musicians are forever grabbing knobs and faders to show that they also know a thing or two about engineering. After the smoke clears, the producer will have a word with the musician, telling him to ignore the engineer's tips on how to play the guitar, tell the engineer to put the knobs and faders back to where they were before the drummer played with them, and try to get a good take so the day hasn't completely been a waste of time.

My friend Pieps, a very talented guitarist and songwriter from The Netherlands checked into the Sellaband forum and asked, "...But what if it all goes wrong...and an artist with a huge potential works with a bad taste producer?" Well, producers can be thought of as soccer referees. They never have a home game and the operative word, "taste", is in the tongue of the beholder. Is a recording bad because we don't like it? Or is it bad because it doesn't make money?

Pieps' question opens a far reaching discussion concerning the cyclical cause and effect inherent in commercial music. The music must sell in order to justify the production costs which support the artists who make the music which must sell in order to justify the production costs which support the artists...etc. But what if we turn this question around? What happens when a producer is assigned an artist with worlds of potential but lacking in the skills associated with professional recording and/or the desire to acquire those skills?

The title of this entry is a direct quote from a young songwriter who was also the guitarist and bandleader of an act we attempted to produce at Shangri La. I'll call him Dip-shit although that isn't his real name. His band mates were John the drummer and an eye-candy bassist and co-writer called Dingbat. The band, Shit-for-Brains (also a pseudonym), had great potential. Their songs were catchy, they had a good look and there was commercial potential in their sound. We assembled a production team consisting of Dennis St. John, Neil Diamond's former musical director and producer, engineer Ron Hitchcock, and me. I was to assist Ron in engineering, help the band dial in great sounds using Shangri La's collection of vintage amps and instruments, oversee the vocal sessions, and help Dennis with any musical issues.

Dennis had been working with Shit-for-brains for two months polishing their songs. He helped them with song forms, had them re-write some weak lyrics and rehearsed the process of basic track recording. All of us, including the studio owner who was underwriting the project, believed that a hit record was in the making. After a long day of loading in, setting up the studio and getting sounds, we put a precious roll of tape on the Studer and mounted up.

What followed can only be described by a caravan of words. Funny, curious, innovative, frustrating, exasperating...and six weeks later, as we listened to the final mixes, the very walls of the studio oozed with vitriolic ill will. Shit-for-Brains respected nothing, learned nothing, acted every bit the superstars and left the studio without doing the production team the courtesy of listening to the mixes all the way through.

When we pushed the record button, Dip-shit lead his band through the first song. Without any discussion with us, Shit-for-Brains decided to ignore the weeks of pre-production with Dennis. It was a classic case of passive-aggressive nutless behavior. Dennis went into the room and tried to give Dip-shit a way out by humorously asking if they had forgotten their medication. But it was clear that there was conflict within the band. Dingbat, who's day job was telephone dominatrix ( I swear I'm not making this up!), stared daggers at Dip-shit as he stammered to Dennis that the band felt that the changes made in pre-production didn't reflect "where the band was coming from." As the studio owners representative, I stepped into the discussion to explain that a great deal of money and resources were being extended to Shit-for-Brains with the intent of realizing commercial return on investment. Therefore the production team, respecting the best interests of all parties, had a responsibility to use our best judgement in creating a viable product.

Everyone pretended to kiss and make up...but every change, every suggestion, every effect, every tone...every last detail was a fresh battleground. We would talk to Dip-shit in the control room, he would go into the studio and talk to Dingbat, she would yell at him and hand him one of his balls so he could remember that he had a pair at one time, the band would half-heartedly run through our version, tell us, "See, it doesn't work!" and go back to their original demo versions. It was absolute hell and if it were left to me, I would have stopped the bleeding immediately. The studio owner didn't deal well with confrontation so he went to Italy leaving me with instructions to "just get it done." I think Dingbat the Dominatrix scared the shit out of him and he couldn't wait to get away.

Speaking of Dingbat the Dominatrix, She really set the bar for stupid when we began to cut background vocals. Her bass playing was weak and out of time. She complained that she couldn't hear the kick in the headphones but when she took them off, they were roaring like a boombox. We decided that she was deaf and planned on letting her overdub the bass parts without the drummer later. When it came time to set her up for vocals, I noticed that before putting on her headphones, she put wax earplugs in her ears! I was twisting the knobs on the headphone box with a Makita trying to get her enough gain...and she was wearing WAX EAR PLUGS!!! I started to point out how counterproductive this was and she launched into a self-righteous ignorant rant that this is the way she always worked and why everyone should think about protecting their ears and do the same. I tried to explain the obvious downside of her listening strategy but it was like pissing into a stiff wind. Besides, it was really hard to make words, I was laughing so hard.

You will never hear the music of Shit-for-Brains. I listened to a copy of the mixes and wondered what could have been. Here was a band that we believed in strongly enough to invest six weeks of studio time and three salaried professionals toward recording a product that would benefit everyone. Ultimately it was our error. They just weren't ready. And to answer Dip-shit's question, "What does a producer do, anyway?"...well Dip-shit, you may never find out. But it's lucky for you that euthanasia is not part of the skill set.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Demo By Any Other Name... still a demo.

There is a lively discussion on the Sellaband forum which asks the question, "Does the quality of the sound recording really matter?" The comments in answer to that question display the wide diversity of experience and expectations present within the Sellaband community. Opinions vary between artists, investors and fans. I take a very firm approach and answer with a resounding and inflexible "Yes...and No...well, maybe...sometimes."

Most of the mp3 recordings posted by Sellaband artists are of demo quality, that is to say, they are recordings meant to demonstrate the writing, performance and/or production potential of artists hoping to raise sufficient capital investment for the production of professionally recorded products. These recordings can vary widely from nearly complete studio versions to song fragments recorded on the humblest of devices. I'm not aware of any aspiring artists on the site posting previously signed material so I can only assume that the music, regardless of recording quality, is posted to demonstrate potential as opposed to finished, marketable product, although there may be exceptions.

I think of a demo as being in one of three distinct categories:

1. The Writing Demo: This can be as simple as a vocal rendition of a song accompanied by one instrument. The object of a writing demo is to sell a song to an artist, producer or publisher.

2. The Artist Demo: The purpose of an artist demo is to demonstrate the performance level of a particular artist. This could be a singer, a solo instrumentalist or an entire band. Artist demos are not limited to recordings of original music as they are frequently used to showcase talent for audition purposes.

3. The Production Demo: When a band or artist has written or secured material, a production demo can be recorded in order to demonstrate and conceptualize elements of style, instrumentation, character etc. An artist or producer will frequently make a production demo to focus attention on production concepts, explore different effects or to edit arrangements before spending precious or unavailable funds in a professional setting.

When an artist is also a songwriter and is struggling to hone his concept into something worthy of recording, he is frequently self-cast in the role of producer. The advent of relatively affordable recording technology has seduced many aspiring artist/writer/performers into believing that they can produce viable products. In some cases I'm sure that this can be the case. The fact that more and more of the listening audience hears music via mp3 and computer speakers further obfuscates the value of professional production techniques.

But again, allowing for the occasional home recording genius, thinking of even the best demo recording as a finished product can be a mistake. If you put two measures of ground coffee in your mouth, pour in boiling water and milk, and then put your face in front of a steam iron, you haven't made cappuccino. All the elements are present, yes. And you've done a great job of gathering the ingredients and simulating the process. But what you've created is a convincing demo of a potential cappuccino. Before you go into mass production, you will need a pro and you will need pro-level tools.

The last project I took part in at Shangri La was the album "Suitcase" by Keb' Mo'. Keb' has many years of recording experience and two Grammys under his belt and I was thrilled to assist producer John Porter and engineer Rik Pekkonen for the project. During the process of recording, I was in awe of what I heard coming out of the studio monitors. To me, it was all gold. But time and time again, after what seemed like a brilliant take, John would go out into the room and have a word with the musicians or go into the vocal booth with Keb'. It seemed like he was just taking a short break or resting his ears or maybe just sharing a joke. But every time he came back into the control room and had Rik push the "record" button, the next take would be magic. And the difference between Keb's original demos and the grammy nominated album demonstrates to me the inestimable value of the collaboration between artist and producer.

I have written reviews of various Sellaband artists and in every case what is most compelling about these artists is potential. When I listen to The Francis Rodino Band, I bow in respect to his songwriting and the performance abilities of the band. But I also know that what I'm hearing is the tip of the iceberg. The same goes for The Vegas Dragons, Kontrust, Lone Pine, Wetwerks and so many more. Mandana, the voice of Solidetube, and Lucia Iman have the potential of making beautiful recordings. And then there is ConFused5, a band that has resurrected itself after a 20 year hiatus and still retains the exuberance of a band of 20-year-old guitar rods. All of these artists and many more on the Sellaband web site have demonstrated massive potential by way of their demo recordings. But only the open-minded collaboration of a professional producer and all that comes with that will result in a great cup of coffee.

Because a demo by any other name...well, you know the rest.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sonata Allegro Form and the Gentle Art of Persuasion

Sonata Allegro Form is a compositional formula which began to take shape in the early classical period and reached maturity in the works of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A detailed description of the concept can be found here. In discussing how this compositional vehicle relates to the art of persuasion, I will address three elements of the form.

1. Exposition
2. Development
3. recapitulation

These three elements of Sonata Allegro form are at the heart of most logically composed pieces. A composer will make a musical statement. He will follow by expounding on the statement and developing the material by use of various methods. He may restate the material in the relative minor of the original key, or invert the intervalic relationships of the statement. He may cast the statement in a different rhythmic setting or pass the statement like a relay baton between various instruments. And when the original statement has been developed to the composers satisfaction, he will pick up the loose ends in a logical manner and restate the original material.

After the piece has come to a conclusion, the listener has been given information, had the information explained, during which time the listener may have asked himself some questions regarding the material, and finally, the listener is given a conclusion which attempts to answer whatever questions may have arisen during the development.

This form can be as complicated and convoluted as the composer chooses to make it but this is the Sonata Allegro Form in a nutshell. Make a statement, expound upon the statement, and restate the original idea. I think of this formula as being the primary building block of every musical phrase. When the formula of Exposition, Development and Recapitulation is brought to bear in popular music, every element of a song can be crafted not only to express more precisely the message of the writer, but also to make the song more accessible and pleasing to the listener.

Popular music is by definition commercial music, music to be bought and sold for the enjoyment of the listening audience and for the financial gain of the writer and performer. A pop song is really an advertisement for itself. The more persuasively a song is presented in the media, the more likely it is that the public will embrace the song and the more commercial success the writer of the song will enjoy.

The form can exist in miniature in even the shortest musical solo. A great soloist will make a musical statement, show off a bit as he develops his idea, and then wrap it up. A song lyric will follow a formula in order to convey everyday ideas in a more poetic setting. Even a simple joke can be analyzed in terms of Sonata Allegro form...

Statement: A dog with his arm in a sling walks into a bar.
Development: The bartender says "get outta here, we don't serve drinks to dogs."
Recapitulation and conclusion: I don't want a drink...I'm just gunnin' for the hombre that shot my paw!"
And now we know why the dog went into the bar and why his arm was in a sling.

Humans seem to seek form in all things, Form pleases us, it makes us feel safe. We buy cars, shoes, furniture, appliances and most things based on form. You may think that studying over the specifications of a dishwasher will give you the upper hand in deciding which manufacturer best fills your needs, but at the end of the day you'll put your money on the one that looks the best in your house. Developing the shapes and sizes of products in their most persuasive forms is a much larger component of research and development than any consideration for technical advancement. We buy packaging, not products. And we do so because the form of the package is appealing and persuasive.

Persuasion is not a bad thing in and of itself. We try to persuade children to be good and not to hurt themselves. We try to persuade our friends to use certain products or think in a certain way because we care about their health and welfare. We tell others about the merits of this movie or that recording artist because we believe that these things will make their lives better. But sometimes our efforts to improve the lives of our loved ones are met by "Mind your own business, will ya?" And even though we care deeply about the welfare of our friends and neighbors, one such rejoinder can cause us to give up.

Enter the Sonata Allegro Form as a tool of persuasion. Let me illustrate by using as an example something which I feel strongly about, the exploitation of recording artists by the music industry in general and major record labels in particular. Picture this scenario...I'm listening to new music with some friends and the conversation turns to the hot new act on the billboard charts.

Friend: "Hey Pete, have you heard the new album by the Lizard Wieners?"
Me: "Yeah they really rock!"
Friend: "yeah, I read in Billboard that they signed a multi-album deal and got 500 thousand advance money. They really made it big man."
Me: "Oh really? And how much of that do they get to keep? Did you know that now they are really in debt to the label for 500 thousand and that they'll be lucky to see any royalties in their lifetimes? There's a lot better way to go for new bands you know."
Friend: "What do you mean?"

Here comes the exposition...

Me: "There is this new internet thing called Sellaband that treats artists much more fairly than the major labels. Being a musician, I really care about this a lot. I've looked into it and not only do the artists get a fair deal, but its a great site for music fans to find cool new music and even get involved with the artists themselves."
Friend: Yeah right. I've heard about those sites, they're probably all bullshit. The Lizard Wieners got a pile of new shit man, and the label paid for everything. Your full of shit."

And now, the development...

Here I would log on to my Sellaband page, show off some of my favorite artists, or read over some choice comments on my page from bands that are every bit as good as the Lizard Wieners thereby showing how any fan has access to any artist on the site. And I would further expound on my original statement by illustrating how the Sellaband business model works to the benefit of artists, fans and label unencumbered by the greed that drives the conventional music industry. My friend may have some questions which would give me an opportunity to further develop my original statement. And my motive of persuasion would always be clear, this is a better way to go for everyone involved because it offers more freedom to the artist as well as the music fan. I would develop the original statement until any and all questions my friend might have are addressed.

And finally, the recapitulation...

Me: "Now you know what a skeptical prick I am, especially when it comes to getting screwed by labels. Hell, I've starred in that movie more times than I want to admit. And I don't intend on that happening again. So I've researched this Sellaband thing to death and you can do what you like, but I'm running with it. And so are some of my music bros...and you know they aren't into bullshit."

The Sonata Allegro Form came about as a vehicle for composers to organize their musical ideas in a persuasive form that appealed to more listeners thereby making their compositions accessible and successful. There is form in everything we do, we thrive on form. And the principles of form can be a powerful tool when used in the gentle art of persuasion.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Memories of a Studio Virgin

There is still a stack of moving boxes that have remained untouched since my untimely escape from Shangri La. It has been over a year now, so I decided to start at the top and work my way through the hastily packed memories representing my years in Malibu. Years ago, when my grandfather died, I was sent a few boxes of his things, photo albums, trinkets, his military medals...I had the same feelings now as I unpacked my own things, as if they belonged to someone else...someone who had lived a different life.

In the very first box I found a videotape I had forgotten existed. In the last two months at the studio, I had a camera set up in the control room to record whatever may prove interesting. What a find. There was Jonathan Moffett cutting drum tracks for a Gary Miller production. There was footage of the great Greg Leisz demonstrating what was one of the first Rickenbacker electric guitars, nic-named the "frying pan." There was Keb' Mo' cutting vocals for the "Suitcase" album. And most of all, there were people living, laughing and loving every moment.

Watching the footage cut short my efforts at organizing the contents of the boxes, but I couldn't stop watching. Here was a studio that pulsated with music, life and laughter. I wonder if the final product ever conveys this ingredient to the listener of an album. Ultimately, a final mix is more than just notes, effects and soundwaves. That which reaches the ears of the listener is a combination of every emotion, every joke, every cup of coffee, every prank, every callous and every heartbeat of every soul involved with the making of the record.

As the tape unwound, my thoughts drifted back over the many studios, musicians and engineers that led up to the moments captured on that short video cassette. I tried to remember my first real studio gig. I had recorded in many makeshift multitrack home studios. There was the eight track living room of Steve Gillette. And I had done some commercials in another eight track room/garage in North Hollywood that I would later find out was built by my Shangri La partner in crime, Jim Nipar. And almost everyone had a four track. But what was the first real studio? Hmmm...

It was about 1980 I think. I played bass and was musical director for a revue type of show at the old Sahara in Lake Tahoe. We had been on the marquee for almost six months and I decided that I wanted to come back to Los Angeles. I secured a gig with a lounge singer who was quite successful and would play the occasional Nevada dates, but I would be able to spend most of my time playing in L.A. When I gave the show my notice, the producers decided it would be a good time for them to change over to recorded music. They asked me if I would be able to produce tracks which they could use for the show from that time forward. I told them that I would be happy to, providing that I could hire the musicians currently playing the show at premium rates to compensate for the fact that they would soon be without work.

Did I want to produce the recordings? Hell yes! Did I have the slightest idea of how to produce twenty-two separate cues and numbers? Yeah, sure! I was at least as well prepared as Balaam's ass! But they were giving me a studio, musicians and money...what could go wrong? Luckily, not much did and the job turned out to be acceptable. But little did I know how deeply smitten I would become with the world that exists in the holy of holies, the recording studio.

At this time, I knew nothing, zero, nada about microphones, mixing desks, monitors and headphone mixes. To me, outboard gear sounded like boating equipment. These were all assets which I chose to hide from the staff of the studio which was a typical mix of gear geeks, roadies and solder junkies. I kept my ears open and my mouth relatively shut...didn't want to show ignorance. I had a strong musical background and was confident in my abilities in that regard so I told (lied to) the engineer that I was really under the gun to get the best I could get out of the musicians in a short time and that I would leave the technical considerations up to him. Whenever he asked me questions like "Which reverb would you prefer?" I would scratch my chin, look into the air and act like I was mulling it over. Then I'd ask him what he thought, scratch and mull a bit more and agree with his choice.

But where I got the lethal dose, the point at which I knew that I wanted nothing more than to live and breathe in this environment forevermore was when I sat and listened to the first playback. It was the first day of school, the first beer, the first hit of good weed, the first handful of warm breast and the first rush of acid all rolled up in one illuminating moment. It was the high that happens once and only once...but nevermore goes unpursued. I know that I've been in better studios, listened to better monitors, mixed on better desks with better outboard gear...but I have never heard anything that had a greater impact than the first time I pushed "play" in that little sixteen track room in Reno, Nevada.

Watching the tape of our shenanigans at Shangri La brought it all back. The holy "Why" of it all. Anyone who has spent time in recording studios has stories to tell. Stories of legendary all-nighters or marathon three day sessions. Most are amusing and many are true. But can you imagine an insurance adjuster or accountant loving his job so much that he stays at it days on end? I've seen musicians and engineers miss meals, miss weddings, funerals and graduations. I've seen people dodge phone calls or hide under the console to avoid having to leave the studio. And all for the ostensible reason of getting the perfect EQ curve, or the right reverb or a more precise edit. Once inside, they just don't want to leave. Why? Why ask. I don't know why, but every time I listen to a recording I get a glimpse of the sweat, work and sheer joy that went into it. Everybody should be so lucky.

And now... it's back to the boxes. Maybe I'll find another tape.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sellaband...Year one

I have a twisted respect for annoying people...well, let me clarify that. I have a great deal of respect for people who are driven by perseverance. Whenever the Mormon missionaries show up at my doorstep with their clean haircuts, white shirts and ties, I invite them to lean their bikes against the fence and I listen to what they have to say. It takes courage to talk to strangers about your deepest beliefs, especially if you're a teenager fresh out of high school, and the stranger is in his underwear and offering beer and cigarettes on a Saturday morning.

I'm usually willing to give anyone a few moments of my time as long as they are sincere. I've sent many of these missionaries away with their heads shaking and questioning their own beliefs...but only because my sincerity rivals their own. There was only one occasion that I had had enough. There were two Jehovah's Witness ladies that just wouldn't see things my way...but they kept coming back. I had to respect that, but I had my fill. The next time they came to my front door, I greeted them in my socks...and nothing else. It seems that I had found the limit of their perseverance. After gathering their jawbones up from their shoes, they fled, never to darken my doorstep again.

Sellaband is celebrating its first year. The web-based alternative to conventional record labels now boasts over 4500 artists and just over one million dollars invested. Both reasons to celebrate...but now that the honeymoon is fading, it is time for the Sellaband community to take stock in what has been accomplished and to assess ways in which these initial milestones can be parlayed into real and substantial success for the artists, the investors, or "believers", and the label itself.

Everyone has experienced the first month or so of a new relationship. It's fresh and exciting, full of energy and discovery. But as the relationship develops, cute personal habits can become annoying, and one finds that they can no longer ignore the bad breath, farting, nose-picking and scab peeling that was once so very charming. Long term relationships require hard work. Communication and perseverance become more instrumental than the pre-coffee tumble in making the relationship a successful one for both parties.

It is difficult to sustain energy in almost any endeavor that requires a long timeframe. This is the area that will make or break the Sellaband community efforts. When a new artist posts music on the web site, the community of believers are quick to support the artist's efforts. The first rush of investment can be intoxicating. But raising $50,000.00 takes time by any standards and even the artists with 20 or 30 thousand under their belt will find that raising the last $10,000 will likely be more difficult than the first.

The answer lies in perseverance, not only on the part of the artists, but also the investors. It is critical for everyone in the Sellaband community that the system succeeds. But the nature of the "crowd-funding" business model requires something which many people find difficult. When I visit the pages of my favorite artists, I see many of the same believers. Many have become E-friends and I enjoy discussing musical ideas and exchanging holiday greetings with them. But for the system to succeed, everyone in the community must now take on the role of the missionary. We have to put on our white shirts and ties, hop on our bikes, and go talk to strangers.

I think that it would be fairly accurate to say that Sellaband shareholders fall into one of three distinct groups. There are the friends, fans and family who provide the first rush of investment. Out of this group there is a growing element of what I call travelers. Once they establish their favorite artist, they roam the profile pages and invest according to the opinions shared by friends and fellow believers. And then there are the hardcore investors who look at this system as a way to be involved in a business hitherto unapproachable.

From the ranks of these three groups, there must evolve a second generation of investment from those who are either sitting on the fence or perhaps have yet to hear of Sellaband. In order for the crowd funding model to sustain itself, those already involved must take advantage of the viral effect of personal communication. The most effective tool available to the current investors is sincerity. If investors wish to see their investments come to fruition, they must make Sellaband a topic for conversation. True belief is sustained with sincerity and perseverance...and true believers have a passion for evangelism.

I want Sellaband to succeed. The importance of a forum for new ideas and independent music unencumbered by the greed which characterizes the conventional record label's motives cannot be underestimated. Now that Sellaband has had a year to teethe and take its first steps, it is time to spit out the pacifier and begin the maturation that will define success. No true believer should be shy about sharing the least not unless someone answers the door dressed only in socks.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Nature of Sensory Nostalgia...Sellaband's Radio Orange

Of the five senses, the sense of smell is reported to be the strongest stimulus in recalling past events. The smell of buttered popcorn, lead-based paint or pencil erasers can summon amazingly vivid memories. But what I call "sensory nostalgia" can also be triggered by what we hear. A creaking floorboard, the whistling purr of an old Volkswagon, a basketball bouncing on the hardwood floor of an empty gym...there are so many ways that sound can stop us in our tracks to ponder the episodes of our lives in vivid hindsight.

The music of each generation makes a sonic imprint that ages like fine wine and furniture. There are favorite artists and songs, of course. But I'm interested in the sounds that burrowed their way into our psyche clinging to these favorite songs like stowaway banana spiders on a cargo ship. These are the magical sounds that imbue certain songs with shamanistic qualities of recall.

The crystalline tremolo "Ding ing ing ing ing ing ing ing...Ding ing ing ing ing ing ing ing introducing Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" is such a sound. The gurgling Ieslie guitar intro of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is another. And the phased guitar intro of Dobie Gray's classic "Drift Away" yet another. In most cases these sounds came about through the use of the latest technology of the times. Sound production has made incredible advances in the ensuing years. And yet recording artists are ever in search of the mystic combination of sounds that trip our nostalgia buttons.

Sellaband's Radio Orange is a band from The Netherlands that twitches my nostalgia nerve with every cut. The opening mood of "So Sad" immediately brought me back to the first time that I heard the Classics IV hit "Spooky." It wasn't the notes or the was the mood. And mood is one of those ethereal qualities that can't be written into a score. Establishing a mood in this way requires seasoning and experience. In surrounding their lyrics with great sounds, Radio Orange hypnotizes the listener to pay attention to the lyric.

Radio Orange has handcrafted their songs very wisely. It's the sound that pulls you in and the lyric that holds your attention. But the soundscape evolves as the song progresses and the listener is rewarded with bits of this and glimpses of that and before the song comes to a close, one is left with the feeling of having been on a journey well-spent.

And Radio Orange has much more to offer than great sounds and interesting lyrics. The songs seem very simple on first listen but the harmonic vocabulary of Radio Orange is very sophisticated. Harmonic tension and resolution, combined with excellent choices in instrumentation make these songs seem much shorter than they are. The song "Breathe" displays a very sensitive awareness of how powerfully the Major/minor harmonic relationships can be used to frame a lyric in a very specific way.

Radio Orange is not a band of children. Their music and production values are the work of experience and maturity. The Sellaband method of "crowd-funding" has come along at the right time for this band. The three songs available on their profile page are interesting and well executed. It's now up to the public to decide when this very talented group of musicians will have the opportunity to share a full album with the world.

Sound is a potent factor in triggering sensory nostalgia. Through the years I have put away the toys of my youth and now sound is my only drug of choice. And Radio Orange makes for a pleasant trip indeed.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Not-So Secret Weapon...The Shure SM7

During the years that I was associated with Shangri La Studio, the studio owner very wisely invested in vintage microphones. Working with engineers like Jim Nipar, Chuck Ainlay, Ethan Johns, John Porter and John Hanlon, among others, was my education in the subtle nuances intrinsic to the various makes and models of vintage microphones available at the studio.

Every engineer has preferences as to how best to mic a guitar amp, which is the best vocal mic or which array will best capture the colors of a drum set. The single factor common to every great engineer, however, comes down to one word...EARS. Every engineer seemed to have a formula for quickly getting a sound up on the mixing desk. And although every engineer has a "secret weapon" or signature approach to mic strategy, engineers are always ready to try new approaches and different gear in their quest for the ultimate acoustic guitar tone or magic snare drum.

I remember setting up drum mics for a noted engineer and while we plugged in a pair of Sony C37a mics as overheads, I mentioned that "So and so" had just done a session and had preferred a pair of C-12s. After hearing about how "So and so" didn't know shit about how to mic up a drumset, we put up a pair of C12s and made comparisons. Engineers can be stubborn, defensive and secretive of their methods, But they are also open-minded enough to listen and appropriate more effective methods.

One of my favorite engineer/producers has a much more open approach. Sammy (not his real name) has been making great records for over thirty years, and he reminds me of the magician you may have read about in a previous blog. Sammy had no secrets. He would tell you every trick in the book, how it worked, and how really simple it all was. And Sammy hipped me to a piece of kit that should be in every recording environment, from major studio right down to the most humble home writing rig...the venerable and extremely affordable Shure SM7 microphone.

Sammy came to Shangri La to produce a record that would ultimately be nominated for a Grammy so I was eager to learn from him. When I asked him about mic preferences he answered that the fine collection at the studio would suit his needs adequately and that he would be bringing his Shure SM7 "just in case." We had C12s, M49s,M50s, U47s, U67s, 251s...anything an engineer could want, anything but a Shure SM7.

In talking to Sammy in the off moments, I would ask an occasional "What would you use on an acoustic guitar?" or "What do you like for a vocal mic?" and in almost every case, he would answer with two or three options but would always end with "But an SM7 would work just fine." During the course of the sessions I set up the SM7 on guitar amps, bass amps, Leslie rotating speakers, drums, acoustic guitars, pianos and to my surprise, the SM7 had the inside track when it came to recording the lead vocals.

I've recently set up a small writing/recording environment in my home. I record on an iMac using Cubase4 and the mic locker at Shangri La is a distant memory. When deciding on which microphone would best suit my needs, I researched all the usual suspects from the new affordable condensers to the USB models that would eliminate the need for expensive mic preamps. By chance, I had Sammy on the phone one day and asked his advice. "What's wrong with you...get an SM7 and leave me alone!" were his words of encouragement.

This microphone is the best $250.00 I have spent on gear...ever. There are just no issues with it. I can't remember cutting a track that didn't work. It does exactly what it is meant to do and does it without offering an opinion or whining. The perfect partner in crime. I have used it through a really good mic-pre and have also plugged it directly into a Pre-sonus firewire interface with equally impressive results. And without getting into the technical minutia, I can say that the most important question..."How does it sound?" has been answered in a positive way every time.

It seems that everyone has a studio at home now. The industry catalogues are rammed full of the latest in technical breakthroughs that will allow the home-recordist an opportunity to realize the creation of a masterpiece. You can buy lots of shiny crap for $250.00, or you can invest in the real thing.

As so many producers and engineers have said, a recording can only be as good as what goes into the mic. So go practice, get really good...and put it through an SM7.