Monday, April 2, 2012

Recreating an album on stage

In a multi-track recording of an album in its simplest form, it has only the same number of recorded tracks as there are people to play instruments.  This means that we're looking at the basics of drums, bass, guitar, keys, vocals, and any other instrumentalists you want to include.  Each of these instruments would get its own track in the recording that you can then use to mix together to create an environment around the music that best suits it.  This could mean creating an intimate venue for an acoustic performance, or a concert hall for an orchestra.

This is not how many recordings are released, though.  Most will have layered vocal tracks providing multiple harmonies, perhaps multiple guitar tracks to create a broader musical arrangement, string pads, or other sampled instruments to create a wider dynamic range.  So the question becomes, after going through the process of creating a detailed and intricate mix in the studio, how can you recreate the album on stage?

Most artists, in the internet and social media age, are discovered by the majority of their fan base through a recording, either streamed, downloaded, or shared by a friend, not a live performance anymore.  This way of discovering new music has a tendency to create a certain expectation when you hear that band.  You go into a show wanting to hear your favorite track performed live, but if the production was too sophisticated and layered that becomes very hard to duplicate.  So how do you keep your fans happy while still taking into account that a high quality production will help draw more people to you?

There are 3 ways that I've seen this done well that are generally accepted:

1.     Hire more musicians to play the extra parts.  Sure, your track may have 3-4 guitar tracks that layer themselves in the recording, so why not hire at least one extra guitar player to help you pull it off and make the live performance a little bigger and more dynamic?  This way, of course, generally takes a little extra cash to be able to pay these musicians, which isn't always available.
2.     Focus on the simplified version of the song.  Namely, lose the layers.  John Popper is one of the guiltiest musicians when it comes to plugging in massive amounts of layered vocal tracks.  Many times he's not even singing the same lyrics or melodies.  So how does he do this live?  He picks the main vocal line and sticks with it.  Understanding the separation of the recording and live performance and how to do each can be an art in and of itself.  So when you're on stage, find a way to keep it simple.
3.     Digitize/automate the extra tracks.  This can be seen as a way of lip-syncing for musicians and some might look down upon it, but it will allow you to create those multiple layers and would be one of the most accurate ways of duplicating the album as you can use the exact same digital tracks as were used during the recording.
I'm not going to state which of these is better than the others because the fact remains that it is completely dependent on your budget, the type of music you're playing, the venue you're playing, and the engineer you're working with as to what the best solution may be.

I bring this up only as a cautionary point to those young musicians that are planning to put out their early materials.  If a young engineer tries to talk you into getting overly complicated in the production, and if your goals are gigs and exposure, then create something that you can repeat as close to the original recordings as possible.  You are getting out there early in your career and are using these materials to grow your mind share with the fans.  Give them the same experience away from your performance that they can get at one of your shows.  This will keep them coming back for more as your career and materials develop and improve.  Don't sell your fans a production; sell them who you are as an artist and performer while creating music that demonstrates that and let the fans flock to that. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Great song or Great Engineer?

What would you rather have:  

A great song that tugs at people, drawing them into the music and evokes emotions connecting the listener to you and your music


A great production that has the music jumping out and wrapping itself around the head of your listeners with balance and proper blending that focuses their attention on the nuances that are within? 

Of course in a dream world, you could have both of these, but that is a much harder prospect to come by, so let's examine the benefits of both.

I once heard it said, (and I'm paraphrasing here) "I've never heard a shitty band sound so good."  

How you look at that statement is generally going to be reflective of what you want your take away to be.  If you look at that statement and emphasize the "sound so good" portion, you definitely are doing your best to remain optimistic that someone thought you sounded good.  But you are ignoring a very important part in that they called you a shitty band.  A shitty band or song with a great production behind it may only emphasize and expose all the flaws, mistakes, and issues that a band has.

By the same turn, a great band or song can have issues overcoming a terrible mix.  The best example of this is hearing a band’s album and thinking that the music was just decent but not exceptional.  Then you go and see the act perform live and the music just has a whole new life to it that leaves you humming your new favorite tune as you exit the show. 
This is one of the most common examples where a bad production can actually hurt good songwriting and performance. 

Good songwriting can overcome a poor production, but poor songwriting will only be more exposed by a bad production.  

The reason that I'm emphasizing the idea of good songwriting vs. good production is because in the modern age of the home studio, artists sometimes get too attached to their music and aren’t able to let it breathe beyond their vision or get too caught up in the production aspects causing them to forget why they wrote the song in the first place.  

A good song will carry an artist no matter how high quality the production may be.  So musicians out there, please, focus on your craft.  Emphasize the playing and the writing.  The production can be simple and the song will speak for itself.  Use the talents that you have to create a high quality product, and when the time and opportunity come, get the high quality engineer to take it to the next level.  But never forget, it all starts with you and your songs, the production is secondary.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Vocals: Front & Center

A few weeks back I was asked to participate in the "Face the Music!" panel (a Fiero Flair production) at the California Lawyers for the Arts Music Business Seminar.  This was the second time that I had participated in this event and it is always a treat for me.  Looking back, being a part of this event in the past was the original inspiration for this blog.

For me it's always a great treat to hear what emerging artists are putting together as they begin their careers and start developing a library of their own recorded materials.  But while it excites me to see what they're doing, it also demonstrates to me how few of them know how to utilize the recording equipment correctly, or are able to find engineers that are capable of helping them.

What makes these engineers so good and sets them apart in their industry?  Vocals.  It has been demonstrated that anyone can be fooled by instrumentation and orchestration for bands or artists, but the way that vocals get set up in a mix is an art form that can be very hard to get right.

Let me emphasize here:  I am NOT talking about the performance of the vocals.  That aspect is solely based on talent alone.  Good engineering of bad vocals will only expose them more.  Some might argue that many of the pop artists out there are poor vocalists that have a career based on image and no vocal talent at all.  I'd argue that you have to have a starting point, and while some of these pop princes and princesses don't have the world's greatest voices, some of them have a set of pipes that can light the venue on fire, but the material they are asked to perform does not emphasize that.

So what is it that makes a good vocal track?  Intelligibility.  How can you enjoy the vocals if you can't hear or understand what's being sung?  Setting a vocal track apart takes 3 pieces of understanding:

First and foremost, you have to make room for them in the mix.  This means working with the EQ in order to make sure that the vocals will not be stepped on by the guitars, keys, bass, drums, or any other instrumentation involved.  Keeping the frequencies surrounding enunciation in the voice will allow for the crispness to cut through the mix and help make the vocals the focal point.

Once you have the EQ set the next part is balance of signals.  This might seem like an obvious thought, but there are so many times that I hear tracks where just turning the vocals up in the mix would have been a problem solver.  This can sometimes involve a great deal of automation to make sure that the vocals rise and fall based on the levels of everything else supporting them.

The last piece of keeping the vocals the focal point of the mix is compression.  For those of you unfamiliar with what compression actually does I'll give you the base line overview.  What a compressor does is limit the gap between the highest levels of volume of a signal and lowest levels of volume of a signal.  So if a vocalist is varying how loud they are singing the compressor allows you to limit the level of variance.  It does this mainly by putting a soft ceiling on how loud a signal can get.  A hard ceiling would be a limiter and could potentially cause distortion, but with the soft ceiling of a compressor, signal can breach the highest levels but still go above.  By knocking the level of the loudest signals down, you are able to turn up the overall signal without distorting when the performer hits those emphatic notes.  In turn, this also means that the vocals can be much more consistent throughout a song, allowing your EQ and balance to always remain out in front of the rest of the band backing them.

This isn't to say that vocals shouldn't rise and fall with the dynamics of a song.  Songs should have ebb and flow, a rise and a fall, but the vocals should not get lost in the mix when the song rises because everything around them rises faster and louder.

Keeping these thoughts in mind when you're mixing your next vocal track will help you create a song that will add a level of professionalism to the recording and stands up against the best engineers.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Musical Trinity: Arrangement

The third and final installment of this series that was originally posted on

Next week - new content...I hope you're ready!

When you listen to a song that you haven’t heard before, what is it that draws your attention?  Is it the beat that gets you moving?  Is it the lyrics tugging at your heart strings?  Is it the arrangement and interplay of the instruments?  A great song has a bit of all of these elements, but what can set a song apart from the rest often involves the hidden science and art of the audio engineer helping to put those pieces together.  

With the diversity in music today we can all find something that draws our attention.  What I want to look at is how the Musical Trinity of engineering, songwriting, and arrangement creates those songs that linger with us.


The last prong of the musical trinity is the arrangement.  This is where the artists start to separate themselves from the musicians.  Many years ago I was playing bass in a jazz band.  I was the least experienced member of the group by far, as I was only just learning to play the bass at the time.  My conductor took more time to work with me that week than any other member of the band to make sure that I would be able to contribute to the group.  Being as we were all just teenagers at the time, he had to work with us to make sure we understood how to get the best performance required.  This included teaching us how to play what we were supposed to, as well as listening to what the other musicians around us were playing.  It was the musical conversation that made the songs appealing.  Each instrument having a role to play; I don’t remember how he described each section, but I will never forget the following two descriptions:

The drums are the headlights of a band – letting everyone know where they are headed.  Are we speeding up?  Are we slowing down?  Are we going into a shout chorus?  Are we hitting a break?

The bass is the heartbeat of the band – it keeps everyone locked down to the tempo, it drives the chord progressions, it gives everyone the down beat to realize where they are at any time.

And it’s that understanding of how the instruments are talking to each other that becomes so vital in an arrangement.  A musical conversation doesn’t just have to be a call and response, it can be simultaneous.  What the conversation actually refers to is the interplay of notes, chords, and melodies that everyone is playing.  If it is a minor progression it draws a certain emotional picture and tone for the song that becomes dark.  A major progression tends to keep our emotional connection to a song more positive.  Creating this interplay between the instruments and using the knowledge of how to evoke those emotions allows the musician to create a backdrop for the lyrics.

It’s like looking at a picture or painting.  There may be a focal point in the near field such as a person (the lyrics) but the world around that focal point finishes the image (the arrangement).  Is the person in the country or the city?  Was it night or day?  Was it sunny or raining?  The lyrics can convey the message very directly to the listener, but the arrangement is what completes and compliments that image.  Without an arrangement we don’t get the whole image of what was happening.  With an arrangement that contradicts the lyrics, listeners can become confused as to the intent of the song.  The instrumentation plays into this scenario by acting like the type of brush or the color selection used to contribute to the background.  Do you want broad brush strokes (which could be similar to a horn section)?  Do you want subtle color enhancements (string pads)?  Do you have a specific theme to the artwork (a repeated musical line that continues throughout a song?  All these considerations must be made as the development of the arrangement proceeds.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Musical Trinity: Songwriting

This is the re-posting of an article that I wrote posted on last fall...Enjoy part 2 while I continue writing new articles for your consumption!

When you listen to a song that you haven’t heard before, what is it that draws your attention?  Is it the beat that gets you moving?  Is it the lyrics tugging at your heart strings?  Is it the arrangement and interplay of the instruments?  A great song has a bit of all of these elements, but what can set a song apart from the rest often involves the hidden science and art of the audio engineer helping to put those pieces together.  

With the diversity in music today we can all find something that draws our attention.  What I want to look at is how the Musical Trinity of engineering, songwriting, and arrangement creates those songs that linger with us.  


Songwriting is a completely subjective thing to people.  So while I could write about the formulaic ideas that can create a hit song, you could also just think of yourself at the age of 14 and write to that kid and you’ll probably reach the same point.  The key with songwriting is to draw your listener into the song by giving them something they can relate to, effectively creating an emotional attachment. 

Nick Hornby once wrote about songwriting in his book “High Fidelity” (and John Cusack embodied it) that we listen to thousands upon thousands of songs about love and heartbreak.  So why is it that the most common theme across ALL musical platforms is misery over lost love?  Because it is something that everyone goes through, something that everyone can relate to, and something that is a fundamental human understanding as we go through life.  That topic brings together more people than anything else.  Seems like a bold statement to make, but how many of us turn on music for at least an hour a day?  Next time you’re listening to the songs blaring through your speakers or headphones count how many of them carry the underlying theme of love or heartbreak.  Yes, I am including the types of songs that include lyrics like “finding my bitches in this club” – momentary love is still love – call me a romantic if you will, but it still counts. 

Beyond the lyrics, songwriting involves having the basic fundamental chords that will move with the song.  As you develop the structure of a song make sure that the chords that are chosen convey the message you wish to express.  Do you want dissonance in your song to express tension or sadness?  Do you want more upbeat sounding tones?  Then stick to major chord structures.

The last piece of songwriting goes with tempo and feel.  If you’re writing a song designed to get people up and dancing in a club on a Saturday night, you’re not going to want it to be slow.  The same would be true for the style of song.  If the base of fans that you’re trying to reach out to listens to country, giving your songs a reggae feel probably won’t draw them in.  Knowing what kind of audience you’re trying to reach can help you tailor the feel of the song and tone of the song to maximize exposure.  It can also help you determine instrumentation, which leads us to…

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Musical Trinity: Engineering

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to have this 3 part series run on  As I have been absent for a little while, I thought we'd kick off the new year of posts by re-running them and getting back to the basis for what this blog is all about.

When you listen to a song that you haven’t heard before, what is it that draws your attention?  Is it the beat that gets you moving?  Is it the lyrics tugging at your heart strings?  Is it the arrangement and interplay of the instruments?  A great song has a bit of all of these elements, but what can set a song apart from the rest often involves the hidden science and art of the audio engineer helping to put those pieces together. 

With the diversity in music today we can all find something that draws our attention.  What I want to look at is how the Musical Trinity of engineering, songwriting, and arrangement creates those songs that linger with us. 


Some people hear “engineering” as a dirty word when it comes to music; they start to think about the dreaded auto-tune and how someone has manipulated the recordings to make flawed artists sound like premiere musicians.   Sadly, this has become more commonplace with the more famous artists as they want to have that absolute perfection to the recording.  But what about the up-and-comers?  They can’t all afford the studio time or the necessary equipment to put out that top notch production.  This has created an interesting gap between the self-produced albums and the label productions.  Is one production better than the other?  Sure, you can hear a better fidelity with a label production but that doesn’t take anything away from the quality of the self-produced albums.  The key thing to look for when listening to the production of an album is balance.  Having that discerning ear to notice where instruments are placed in space, to notice if they all sound like they are playing in the same room, to be able to close your eyes and actually picture it, as if you are sitting in front of this group watching them perform. 

The idea behind a modern recording studio is to record the sounds as closely as possible so as to not hear any of the environment around them.  During the production and mixing of the album, the engineer will help to create the room that those sounds should be placed in.  The engineer creates that width so we hear something from the far left to the distant right.

A lot of inexperienced engineers, though, forget that we don’t just hear in 2 dimensions when we’re listening.  This means that they tend to forget to take depth into account.  When we listen to a concert are all of the musicians right at the front of the stage, hitting us at the same volume?   No, of course they’re not.  The drummer is usually towards the back of the stage, the singer is front and center, and the guitars and bass will be sitting between the two.  We hear with depth, we recognize that a sound is far away or right in front of us.  (If you want to know more about that look up the Doppler Effect.)  
It’s that principle of placing instruments in a three dimensional field that is the foundation of balance in a recording.  I say the foundation because once you’ve figured out where in the environment you are placing the instruments, you have to look at the listening environment and ask yourself the following question:  if a sound is directly in front of me or far off, how much ambient noise or reflections in the room will I hear?  That question tells you how much reverb and delay to use so that all the instruments will sound like they are playing together.