Thursday, March 10, 2011

There's No Such Thing As A Demo

Once upon a time a demonstration recording, or demo, was pretty much required in order to get a record deal. Today in our Music 3.0 world, the idea of a demo has pretty much become passe. Here's an excerpt from the band improvement book How To Make Your Band Sound Great that explains why every recording should always be your best.

By way, the picture on the left is Coldplay's original demo tape.
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About the only thing that I would consider a “demo” is if you’re in a cover band and need a sample of the songs from your set list to prove to a promoter or club owner that you actually play acceptably well. If you record these songs too well (like in a professional studio), you run the risk of having the recording backfire on you, with the club owner thinking that you really don’t sound that good because everything was polished in the studio. That’s why I always felt that a controlled example of your set, like at a rehearsal, made a lot better sense for getting a gig. You don’t want to spend too much time or money on this, and luckily, you don’t have to.
If you’re recording some of your own songs, erase the word “demo” from your mind. A demo will always keep you in the “good enough” mindset. You have to approach each song as if it were a finished master because these days it’s easier than ever to  get some really excellent recordings without spending a huge amount of money. So forget about demos. They’re just an excuse for a recording that’s inadequate in some way.
The idea of the demo came out of practicality since up until about the year 2000, you just didn’t have the ability to make a record that sounded like a major release anywhere but in a real recording studio. Yes, it was done occasionally, but the vast majority of songs that you’d hear on the radio had real pros with real pro equipment involved. What would happen is that you’d make a “demo” that was just good enough to get a label or producer interested in taking you to the next level. Because studios were so expensive to record in (typically $100 to 250 an hour, plus engineer, tape, etc), it was usually impossible to spend enough time to make a recording that was up to snuff with a major label release. And if you weren’t located near a reasonably high-end studio, you were forced to use whatever was available, so as a result, almost everyone made a demo before moving on to a deal with a label where you got to make a real record in a real studio with some real pros who knew what to do.
Most of that has changed with the last few generations of affordable recording gear that are now readily available, and with the fact that the listening public doesn’t care as much about audio fidelity as they once did (maybe they never did but the record companies sure thought so).  So now it’s easy enough to record for not a lot of money and distribute it for next to nothing, people expect every recording to be as good as you can make it.
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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating the music business.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Properly Setting The Mix Buss Compressor

Hardly a mix goes by these days without the mixer placing a compressor across the mix buss, even if he's not sure exactly why he's doing it. Here's an excerpt from Mixing And Mastering With T-RackS; The Official Guide that explains both why a buss compressor is used, and how to properly set one up.
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Along with compressing the individual track of a song, many engineers place a stereo compressor across the mix buss to affect the entire mix as well. Originally this came about when artists began asking why their mixes sounded different in the studio from what they heard on the radio or when their record came from the pressing plant (it was still vinyl in those days). Indeed both the radio and record did sound different because an additional round (or two) of compression was added in both mastering and broadcast. In order to simulate what this would sound like, mixing engineers began to add a touch of compression across the mix buss. The problem was, everybody liked the sound so much that now the majority of records have at least a bit (a few dB’s) of compression added to the stereo mix despite the fact that it will probably be re-compressed again at mastering and yet again if played on the radio or television.

Why Use Buss Compression?
Generally you’ll find that most renowned mixers use the buss compressor to add a sort of “glue” to the track so the instruments fit together better, but that also means that they’ll actually use very little compression. In fact, sometimes only a dB or two of gain reduction at the most is added for the final mix. That being said, many mixers will also offer their clients (artists, band members, producers and label execs) a more compressed version to simulate what it will sound like after it’s mastered. This “client mix” is achieved by using a signal path across the mix buss that’s similar to what a mastering engineer would use, that is, a compressor that’s fed into limiter at the end of the chain to raise the level to a point similar to a mastered release (see Figure 5.1).

Because the clients get used to hearing the “client mix,” it’s so easy to let buss compression get out of hand. One of the problems with compressing too much is that it leaves the mastering engineer a lot less room to work, and in the case of a track that’s “hyper-compressed”, virtually eliminates the ability for the mastering engineer to be of much help at all (see chapter 10).

Setting The Compressor
In most modern music, compressors are used to make the sound “punchy” and in your face. The trick to getting the punch out of a compressor is to let the attacks through and play with the release to elongate the sound. Fast attack times are going to reduce the punchiness of a signal, while slow release times are going to make the compressor pump out of time with the music. 
Since the timing of the attack and release is so important, here are a few steps to help set it up. Assuming you have some kind of constant meter in the song, you can use the snare drum to set up the attack and release parameters. This method will work the same for individual instruments as well.

1) Start with the slowest attack and fastest release settings on the compressor.
2) Turn the attack faster until the instrument (snare) begins to dull. Stop at that point.
3) Adjust the release time so that after the snare hit, the volume is back to 90-100% normal by the next snare beat.  
4) Add the rest of the mix back in and listen. Make any slight adjustments to the attack and release times as needed.
The Idea Is To Make The Compressor “Breath” In Time With The Song.

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You should follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating the music business.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"What Hurts The Most" - Rascal Flatts Song Analysis

Firefly sent me an email asking why I didn't analyze any country music. For the life of me, I thought I remembered analyzing "What Hurts The Most" by Rascal Flatts, but couldn't find it after a search of the blog. Then it hit me - I had done an analysis of the song in one of my books - How To Make Your Band Sound Great. So here it is, only a little more fleshed out that what's in the book.

"What Hurts The Most" is a song written by Jeffrey Steele and Steve Robson that was cut three times before the Rascal Flatts version made it to #1 on the Billboard country charts and #6 on their Hot 100 chart. The song came from the band's 2006 Me And My Gang album, and was nominated for two Grammys. Let's take a look at it.

The Song - "What Hurts The Most" follows the traditional hit single form almost perfectly. It looks something like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Verse, Chorus, Solo/Bridge, Chorus, Outro.

The song has a great melody and a very catchy chorus that's well delivered performance-wise.

The Arrangement - The song is a glowing example of the "new" country music in that it closely resembles layered pop music except with the addition of traditional country instruments like fiddle, steel  guitar and banjo. As you would expect from a big budget act, this song has absolutely state-of-the-art arranging, which is needed for a song with a simple form.

What's especially cool is all the sections of the song that repeat but are slightly different the second or third time through. A good example is the line in the last bar of the first half of the intro, which is first played on acoustic guitar, then doubled with the fiddle the second time through. On the third pass there's a steel fill.

Another great example is the last chorus where the song stops and the melody changes, then the background vocals enter right afterwards.

Also listen to how the 2nd verse develops with the entrance of fiddle and electric guitar. Then in the 2nd chorus the steel and banjo enter.

Let's look at the elements:

   * The Foundation - Bass and drums

   * The Pad - Steel and big electric guitar chords during the chorus

   * The Rhythm - The acoustic guitar in the verses and the banjo and shaker in the choruses

   * The Lead - Fiddle in the intro and interlude, lead vocal in the verses and choruses, and lead guitar in the solo

   *  Fills - There's a steel guitar answer in the interlude and background vocal answers in the last chorus.

The Sound - The sound of this record is great. It's very clean and not over-compressed. There's very little ambience that sticks out anywhere so everything is very in your face. The one thing that is a bit unusual is that the bass is mixed very loud and takes up a lot of space in the mix.

The Performance - Everything on this recording is so well executed, but I love Gary LeVox's lead vocal, especially on the last chorus where the melody changes over the stop time. Gives me chills! The other thing that stood out is the drum groove, especially the snare, which is very behind the beat. It's played almost like a blues record.

As always, send me your requests for songs to analyze.




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You should follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating the music business.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How To Make Acoustic Panels

Yesterday's post on how to improve the sound of your room received such a great response that I thought we'd continue on the subject today. In that post, I wrote about how you could substantially improve the sound of any room by building a reflection free zone (RFZ) around your listening position. This is most easily done by using acoustic panels, and today we'll show you just how to build one.

This is an excerpt from the DVD that accompanies The Studio Builder's Handbook (co-written with my buddy, engineer Dennis Moody). There are actually a few variations on how to build these panels, but you'll just see the basic one here.

To read excerpts from the book, go to the The Studio Builder's Handbook page on my website.



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You should follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating the music business.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How To Improve The Sound Of Any Room

My new book The Studio Builder's Handbook (written with Dennis Moody) has just been released and I want to share an important excerpt from it. Most of the time when people are setting up a home studio they tend to throw a computer and some gear into a corner and that's it. The last thing they think about is the room itself, and it make a huge difference in your final product. If you can't hear it, you can't record or mix it.

But contrary to popular believe, it doesn't take a rocket scientist or a lot of money to improve you sound in a big way. All it takes is a way to control the reflections in the listening area. The nice thing about The Studio Builder's Handbook is it shows you how to do that for less than $150. It won't be the Record Plant but it will be far better than you could ever have imagined. There's more to it than what you see below, but here's how to start.

By the way, if it seems like I have a lot of new books out all of a sudden, two different publishers seemed to have released books at a the same time.
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To improve the sound of your room you must first control the reflections in the room. It’s not too difficult to do this in the sweet spot of the playback position, but it starts to get expensive as that position is expanded to include more of the room. Regardless of the amount of money that you spend, many designers feel that you’re never going to widen the sweet spot all that much anyway, but in the world of small spaces and limited budgets, a small but much improved listening area works out fine.

Creating A Reflection Free Zone
The key to improving the sound of just about any room is the Reflection Free Zone, or RFZ (see Figure 6.4). As we outlined in Chapter 3, the RFZ absorbs the first reflections from the speakers so that all you hear is their direct sound.
Chapter 6.4 - The Reflection Free Zone

In order to determine the RFZ, sit in the listening position and have a friend move a mirror along the right wall. Anywhere that you can see the reflection of either speaker requires either wall treatment or a sound panel as we outlined in previous chapters. Do the same for the left wall. It’s advisable to treat a larger area than you can see with the mirror so you’ll have the freedom to move around in a larger area without being outside of the RFZ.
Although the ceiling might be more difficult to spot with a mirror, you can 
either hang panels directly over you just at your listening position, or in approximately the same area as the treatment on your side walls.
The floor of the RFZ can stay reflective with hardwood (which everyone likes because it’s easy to roll your chair around) as long as the ceiling is absorbent. Even if you have rug on the floor, you’re still better off to have the ceiling absorbent in the RFZ to eliminate any chance of early reflections from the speakers reflecting back onto the listening position.

You can read some additional excerpts on the Studio Builder's Handbook page on my website.
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You should follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating the music business.

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