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.