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June 21, 2007

Filed under: music»business

The Big Three Killed My Baby

I had to stop reading Boing Boing at some point. The air of wide-eyed technofetishism just got to be too much for me--one more adoring post about some hipster-kitsch art piece or ridiculous Web 7.0 application, and I might have been forced to hunt the whole bunch of them down with a meticulously-crafted clockpunk chainsaw somebody made at Burning Man.

That said, sometimes I still peek in, because if you can sort out the nonsense they do tend to be a clearing house for a certain kind of web zeitgeist, and a couple of days ago I followed a link to Good Copy, Bad Copy, a Danish documentary about copyright--particularly as it applies to music. You could be forgiven for thinking that not much new could be said on the topic, because most of the dialog about copyright and music in this country centers around the music industry's complaints of lost revenue, copyleftists scorning the industry's antiquated business model, and everyone else trying not to get caught. Good Copy does spend a slight (and tedious) segment on this, including everyone's favorite ex-IP lawyer, Lawrence Lessig. But the intriguing part of the movie, and the thread to which it devotes most of its narrative, is following the path of a piece of music around the world as it is digitally reinterpreted by a series of artists.

It starts with Danger Mouse, who created the "Grey Album" out of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album. That was an Internet hit, and then it was basically cease-and-desisted out of existence by the labels, but Danger Mouse goes on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, and release a hit single named "Crazy." Halfway around the world, that song is then sampled and remixed by a Brazilian producer into a genre called techno brega, which is basically "cheesy techno" based on '80s electronica. The producer gives the new .mp3 to a pirate vendor for free, instead making money when the music attracts dancers to their gigs. Finally, the Brazilian version of "Crazy" finds its way (in a scene that may have been prearranged, but is no less clever for it) to Girl Talk, a.k.a. Greg Gillis, a goofy-looking Philadelphian known for producing illegally sample-dense remixes. So that's three or four layers of continuity taking place, and it's fascinating to watch.

Having read Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music lately, I was struck by not just the chain of events, but also what it said about the musical climate. Faking It (which I highly recommend) spends some time talking about the "authentic" music of Leadbelly and other primitive blues musicians, while noting that those musicians were actually carefully selected by White record companies as a way to present the most primitive, savage portrait of Black music possible. Fast-forward to only a few years ago, of course, and we find Kurt Cobain playing Leadbelly songs live to tap into that same mood. Yet many of those early recordings were of folk songs or traditional songs--stuff like "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," for example, or "Stagger Lee." No-one knows the exact provenance of those pieces. Hundreds of different versions were recorded, by artists both White and Black, in the genres that we now would consider blues, jazz, country, and rock. They have no copyrights. I find that fascinating.

As a rock musician, I don't normally sympathize with the copyright-fighting proponents of sampling. I'm not vehemently against them, understand, but I don't have a deep appreciation for the traditions of hip-hop, so I prefer to make my own noises most of the time. My common ground is the realization that there is no rock "Stagger Lee." If someone had written it now, that song would be owned by a major label and no-one else could have played it. We have no music that is community property, that anyone can reinterpret and claim as part of their personal culture. I think that's unfortunate. It would be an interesting project to hunt down those songs, reinterpret them, and reintroduce them into the musical community, to see if they could act as raw material again. And I would hope, with the spread of Creative Commons and other licenses, that we might be more likely to see music isolated from its creators, twisted, and changed along an almost oral tradition. That way, music becomes something people do, and not something that they own. It stops being a noun, a piece of property, and becomes a verb, which is all the more thrilling in its transitory action.

June 12, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

Not with an O

It's a little unfair for me to write a review of Guerilla Home Recording that pans its lack of digital awareness, without providing any information on the gaps I'd like it to fill. Here's a list of common problems that I've faced since I started learning about digital audio, and which I've rarely seen addressed in textbooks on production, either for pros or project studios.

  • Vocals: Getting good vocals is really, really hard to do on a budget. People are very sensitive to imperfections in the recorded voice, because we're wired to respond to the real thing. I'm never completely happy with my vocal recordings, although they've certainly improved. Doing it right seems to require developed skills with compressors, EQ, and technique--and might honestly be one of those places where you've got to spend some money on a good mike and even a preamp. Maybe this is one of those cases when it just takes practice, but it's rare that I read something that really changes the way I think about vocal recording.

  • Getting the most from a limited number of inputs: Books like Guerrilla Home Recording seem to be aimed at solo musicians, but there are a lot of people out there who need to record their bands. Inputs on digital audio interfaces are expensive, especially if you try to get past 8 inputs, because many 16- or 24-channel boxes are including lots of digital ADAT or S/PDIF connections in that count. That's great for people who want to expand using different preamps and A/D converters, but it's kind of a hassle for the beginning project studio. For reasons that I can never understand, it's easy to buy a box that will do 4 inputs and 10 outputs, but hard to buy one with 10 in and 4 out, which would surely be more useful to the average garage band. The extra outputs are meant to be used for mixing through an external console, but at project studio prices you're better off doing the bounce through software than through a cheap mixer.

    In any case, eight inputs don't go very far for a full band, much less four (or less). Some people use that just for the drums. If you're smart and mix in the box with plugins, you can manage to record a power trio with seven inputs (two drum overheads, snare/hat, kick, guitar, vocals, and bass), but getting fancy, recording a live show, or adding more people is going to take more than most budget interfaces offer. Something will have to be mixed down, and that means making decisions that will play into the mix later. Guidance on how to do that is something that's sorely needed, far more than learning how to cope with a limited number of tracks (something I doubt many modern musicians seriously consider).

  • Reverb: Reverb is another thing that totally mystified me when I first started. How much is too much? What's the difference between a hall, a church, and a room reverb? What's damping do, exactly? Why is it that I always find myself putting the reverb at 6%--what would I use the other 94% for? I know the answers to these now, but it always seems like the books I read want to talk about first reflections, the basic idea of a reverb, and the mechanics behind the scenes, and I was always grasping for practical information. It's taken a long time to feel like I've got a good feel for reverb, and I never felt like anything I read helped in any real way.

  • Soft signal routing: I'm proud of the ducking setup I created for our voiceovers at work, as well as the virtual effects rig I created for doing bass looping--justifiably so, I think. But figuring out how to route audio through a piece of software is crucial to bouncing tracks, setting up side-chains, and working around the restrictions of budget software. Using Senderella to get more flexibility in Cubase, creating aux sends in Ableton, or chaining VST effects inside of each other for higher plugin counts--that's the kind of thing that you have to do on a limited budget, and it took me a little while to put together what I needed.

  • Mastering: Most lessons treat mastering with a mixture of distaste and fear. To its credit, Guerrilla Home Recording doesn't. But most books are written from the perspective of people for whom a professionally-mastered CD is the final goal, as well as from the point of view that the "loudness wars" have become a detriment to pop music. Problem is, not everyone gets to that stage. Small, independent bands don't necessarily want to pay for the improvement in polish over a home mastering job, and a lot of bands may never even go to CD now that .mp3 files on MySpace are such a hit. But just because your tracks aren't being pressed en masse, that doesn't mean that you don't need the equivalent of mastering. I always wondered why my songs were so much quieter than everything else, even when I was pushing the peak levels. When I stopped treating mastering like something that only Bad People do and finally put Kjaerhaus's Classic Master Limiter in the mix bus, the apparent sound quality of my recordings jumped substantially. It's my belief that mastering should not only be covered by beginner textbooks, but it should be encouraged.
So if I had a book deal and a lot more experience, that's what I'd write. I guess you'll just have to settle for reading my complaints here.
Filed under: music»recording

Book Review: Guerrilla Home Recording

There is a virtue to the subtitle of Karl Coryat's Guerrilla Home Recording, which claims to teach readers how to get great sound "no matter how weird or cheap your gear is." I heartily approve of this sentiment, but it's a wide field to cover, and invariably something's going to get left out. Unfortunately for Coryat, the gap here is basically all of digital audio, and that's kind of a big revolution to ignore, especially for a book published in 2005.

But first, let's establish what the book means by "guerrilla home recording." Basically, it means tossing aside a number of established pro-studio techniques, like never printing effects to tape, in favor of more pragmatic small-studio use. Coryat is a big fan of using sampled drums, for example, and he recommends close-miking everything instead of investing in expensive (and often ineffective) acoustic treatments. Above all, the book aims to convince readers that a perfectly adequate recording can be produced without $50,000 worth of studio gear. So far, so good. All of this is good advice, and something that non-pro musicians need to hear more often.

When it actually comes to recording the sound, Guerrilla Home Recording treats the process as a "black box" that's the same whether you're using analog or digital--and that's where the book falls flat on its face, because digital isn't just analog inside a computer. It's a radically different beast, and it means that a lot of Coryat's advice just doesn't apply any more. For example, he recommends owning a mixer and several stand-alone hardware effects units, including a compressor and a reverb. Now, a mixer's a handy thing, and I love buying new effects. But a digital project studio doesn't need any of that--it can all be done in software, for free, at a quality level that easily rivals budget-level hardware (in the case of the SIR convolution reverb plugin and a few others, it even rivals pro equipment). Likewise, it's a little silly to talk about "printing effects to tape" in this age of non-destructive effects. Sure, some musicians might use bounces and printing in something like Ableton Live Lite or Pro Tools LE when they run out of tracks, but those instances are both rare and easily reverted.

Whether or not the "professionals" have embraced it yet, digital is a true revolution for music recording, much the same way that it changed filmmaking and photography. Everything's faster and cheaper. The software's cheap and excellent (Reaper may still be a little ugly, but it's incredibly sharp for only $40) or even free and more than adequate (Krystal, bundled apps like Cubase LE and Live Lite, Garageband for Mac users), the plugins are free or cheaper than the hardware equivalent, and all of it will run easily on least year's computer (or last decade's). And tracking using these tools isn't like using analog, anymore than linear editing on film compares to Final Cut and Premiere in HD or using a darkroom compares to Photoshop.

Now, I understand that there are still holdouts on the old technology. I've played at session musician for people who are using standalone hard drive recorders or even cassette four-tracks. And I agree that a book on supporting "weird or cheap" gear should cover their use, to some extent. But Guerrilla Home Recording devotes a significant portion of its text to using older technologies for mixing, and even includes diagrams for mixing "out of the box" with a digital system. It's not that the information provided won't work with both analog and digital systems, but there's almost nothing provided on the only-digital side, and that's where the real guerrilla musicmaking is happening nowadays, in my opinion.

So if you've got any kind of computer-based studio setup, and once you eliminate the "here's a wave, here's what a compressor/reverb/distortion does" advice that every sound textbook offers, what you're left with is about half a (thin) book. That half is pretty good, sprinkled with tidbits of cool advice (using a drum machine to trigger a synth bassline is clever, for example), but it's not $25 good. There are big, thick sound guides out there for $25--and while they're not "guerrilla," they're up-to-date and cover conceptual frameworks that even free computer studios can use effectively.

June 9, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Eleven

Trouble, oh trouble set me free

It's been a while since I did any recording. And I've been meaning to do a new cover for a while, using more production instead of looping. So here's a punk cover of Cat Stevens' "Trouble," done just using the Variax and an assortment of Cubase plugins. I don't really have the voice for this kind of thing, but I like the rest, and I'm very proud with the drum programming.

April 30, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production»post

Filmsound

For my own future reference, but others may find it interesting: FilmSound is a site devoted to sound design and scoring for films, including foley and post-production. There's a large section on Star Wars that's fairly interesting, including the method of creating the lightsaber (a mic was placed inside a long tube, then that was waved between speakers playing the lightsaber "drone" to create its doppler-like movement).

April 23, 2007

Filed under: music»business»distribution

Burying Caesar

To the surprise of even myself, I'm going to say nice things about Myspace.

In a recent conversation over in the bass forum, I got into a kind of genial alteraction about the nature of music production. Some poor, helpless guitar player wandered over and wanted to know how to buy a bass for recording "professional results." After a few of the usual answers, a forum member who works as a session bassist in LA stepped in with a more complicated--and much more expensive--answer.

For real professional results, he said, you should be running through a good DI and preamp, proceeding to name preamps that run in excess of $3000 each. At the very least, the recommendation was a Universal Audio unit that starts at $700. In further posts, much was made of the barely-audible differences between analog, tape-and-tube recording versus digital recording, even at very high sampling rates and resolutions.

Now, this rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it was just the invalidity of the argument--clearly, a great album can be made without spending money on ridiculously expensive components. But another part was the elitism of it all: your music isn't "professional" unless it's gone through one of these preamps, or been recorded in a certain prescribed way, or distributed on vinyl (last refuge of music snobs, despite its limited dynamic range and high noise floor).

I know that I never shut up about how bad .mp3 and other compression sounds to me, or how ugly and misformed Myspace is. But at the same time, let me praise these two technologies for how they have immeasurably improved the state of the small-time musician, and how they have democratized music. While Myspace in particular hasn't lived up to the hype--with one or two widely-publicized exceptions, nobody has been able to use it to bypass the studio distribution system--for "local bands" and other unsigned musicians, it has opened new doorways for the hobby. You might be able to get 500 people to buy a homemade CD, but it's easy enough to get 1500 friends on Myspace to listen to at least one song, and it beats putting up fliers on lampposts to announce gigs.

Privileging "professional" production and distribution methods is a way of locking out the poor or the unprepared from being "real" musicians. Digital production and distribution, which make it possible to write and record music cheaper and faster while still maintaining a basic benchmark of quality, threatens that heirarchy. It won't necessarily produce superstars, but it forces us to ask: what does "professional" even mean? What do we value in music? And how successful do we really want to be?

April 17, 2007

Filed under: music»business»distribution

Congress Killed the Net Radio Star

The administrators of Pandora Internet radio have started a web campaign to petition against the retroactive increase in broadcasting fees for web-based radio, located at SaveNetRadio.org. I have always been critical of the online letter-writing campaign, but I think the past has shown that they actually work for putting pressure on representatives who are not necessarily well-informed about these issues.

Why save net radio? For myself, this is the primary way nowadays that I discover new artists. If it weren't for places like Pandora and Last.fm, I wouldn't know about Actionslacks, Mon Frere, or Viva Voce, just to name a few. You're certainly not going to hear them on terrestrial radio, assuming that I had time to listen to that anyway these days.

I thought it was interesting, in an interview with the AV Club, when Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) made the point that his was the first generation that could "own" a copy of a movie. Before the VCR, you could see a movie while it was in the theater or on TV, but you couldn't have a version to watch and pore over on your own schedule. Music went through that transition long before, and in a way the next step was the formation of net radio stations, where people could not just take ownership of the music, but could also program it into playlists and share it. If independent record shops hadn't already been fatally wounded, this would have killed them. I think it's important that we not let this channel of discovery die.

April 16, 2007

Filed under: music»performance»band

It Rubs the Lotion On Its Skin

Great moments in band ad responses from Craigslist:

[name removed] harp rusty vocals interested in the space no guitar gives me interested in taking in what other people do. currently: studio work in falls church background music for commercials.No where enough to pay thief bills but is there. Last band [band name removed] comedies only took place of what a guitar. You are Arlington based. I doubt it but have you ever herd [band name removed]? Improvationial (Sort of shhh) band va. I played with them for years off and on The guy with the floppy brown hair and the hermonica. That's me.I don't hang over there to much. It is going to do what is does. play parties and living rooms. for twenty years. I am a 40 don't act it.usually. I would like to check out the craft of what you do.

April 10, 2007

Filed under: music»performance»busking

Violins in the Media

Have you seen this ridiculously pretentious article from the Washington Post Magazine? The writer got an award-winning classical violinist to play in a downtown Metro station here in DC, then put a camera on it to see how many people stopped to listen. Not surprisingly, no-one did, a fact that the author milks for all kinds of "why has beauty died?" angst.

It's possible to respond to this rationally: to mention, for example, that the people walking through L'Enfant Plaza station are probably going to work at the Department of Transportation, the FAA, the Department of Energy, or any of other government agencies located nearby, and if they're late they could be fired. They don't necessarily have time to listen to music, no matter how good it is. That would even be true if they're riding an efficient, reliable underground system, which (as any visitor to the city can attest) the DC metro is emphatically not.

You could also point out, to the author's snotty suggestion that every child stopped while every parent urged their wayward offspring on, that children also enjoy stopping to talk to crazy homeless people and eat candy that they find on the ground. Children are not flawless barometers of musical enchantment. When I was a kid I listened to Wee Sing and watched Ernest movies, but I don't see anyone suggesting that we should install the corpse of Jim Varney with a recording of folk songs in Metro stations. Kids in that part of town mean that the parents have to drop them off at daycare before work, which no doubt makes the family schedule less flexible.

Don't forget to take note of the "high culture" snobbishness of the article. How dare those lowlife office workers not recognize the genius of this world-class violinist, playing the greatest music ever made? Except of course that beyond a certain level of competency, hardly anyone ever notices the subtleties of musicianship. Most people are not musicians. They don't care that someone added a fine semi-tone quaver to a phrase, or that you did something tricky in the dorian mode there (good job, by the way!). Even many music buffs do not really notice the intricacies of a given tone or instrument. Especially, I want to stress, in a Metro station.

And is this the greatest music ever made? That's a little Eurocentric, isn't it? Why didn't the Post put a great tabla--or gamelan, or mbira--player into the Metro station? Perhaps because that music would be something a little more out of the ordinary. People might have actually stopped for that--still not many, during a morning rush hour, but a few. And then no-one gets to write a condescending article about it.

But I think the best response to the article that I've seen is from composer Richard Einhorn, a.k.a. Tristero at Hullaballoo. He writes that we should do this more often:

Let's get other great musicians play in public spaces anonymously and unannounced. It's what the Beatles did in Liverpool. It's what Bach did every Sunday, and at the coffee-house Collegium in Leipzig. Branford Marsalis, Zakir Husain, Rory Block, Leila Josefowicz, my God, there are so many great ones! Let's get this music-making in front of people, so it becomes part of their lives. The problem isn't with people's ability to understand anything but the most insipid music around. The problem is that great music is too hard to find, too hard to learn about, too hard to hear live.

Exactly. And perhaps more importantly, let's stop putting those great musicians on pedestals in expensive auditoriums, where only the rich can pay to see them, and the price tag grants them a gleam of exclusivity far in advance of their talents. I'm not denigrating great musicians. I'm not saying that Joshua Bell's playing isn't a thing of great value. But instead, consider how terrible it is that most people will never really listen to this kind of music because it is presented poorly and to only a privileged few--or moreover, how discouraging it is for most people that good musicians are seen as untouchable (and unattainable) for the common man.

April 9, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production

We Have a Theme Song

I love theme songs. If the Bank promised me I could write one a week, I'd never leave. I'd also never have time to write here, as you can tell.

Gender Statistics Theme

I like this one. It's for a narrated slideshow on gender statistics, aimed at policymakers. I spent an hour or two writing it, and although I really wanted formless female vocals to fill it out, there aren't a lot of singers in my department, and I think the Cello in Sampletank is lovely.

So I call the task manager in to listen, being very proud of myself. He gets through ten seconds, and then says: "No, no, no. This sounds like a theme for gender statistics. I don't want that."

You didn't?

"No. Gender statistics is exciting! I wanted something with a beat!" You didn't say that. I can only write for what I'm told. "What did we use for those instructional videos?" So I play him the crappy stock music, and "Perfect. That's what we'll use."

Anyone want a cello theme? Slightly used? But seriously, I'm thinking about fleshing it out a bit this weekend, and it could be a great backing track. Not a total loss.

Slum Upgrading Theme

This snippet is for a self-running slideshow on urban slum upgrading. In the next thirty years, urban areas will grow tremendously in the developing world, and most of them will be slums unless we do something about it. The slideshow is meant to give people a few options, and keep them from losing the political will to take action, because the solutions aren't honestly that difficult.

It's also being presented in Nairobi in a week or two, and the task manager wanted drums. I hate drums as a shorthand for Africa, and I always feel hypocritical doing it. So I worked with one of the team leaders from the project, and proposed doing something more like this instead. It uses a rhythmic synth drone to give the piece movement and an urban feel, a little West African-wannabe guitar, and kalimba to provide the "tick-tock" sounds. There's African instrumentation, in other words, but it doesn't scream "Tarzan." It also doesn't sound too depressed, too excited, or too martial, all of which would be inappropriate for slums.

Future - Present - Past