Thursday, October 6, 2011

In The Control Room With Mark And Chuck

Here's a great movie with my friend engineer Chuck Ainlay and former Dire Strait's frontman and guitarist Mark Knopfler in the control room of Mark's fabulous personal studio. The cool thing about this studio is the vintage gear, and Mark has not one but two of the old EMI consoles; a REDD (originally used at Abbey Road) and a TG-1.

If you can gear lust, best not to look at his movie. But if you love old gear and love the the fact that it's actually being put to good use in Mark's studio, you'll love it.

By the way, Chuck was one of the featured engineer's in the second edition of The Recording Engineer's Handbook.  I'll post an excerpt from his interview soon.


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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Studio Placebo

Here's a great movie on the "placebo effect," which is the fact that if we are told a pill will affect us and we believe it will, that effect will occur even if the pill is a mere sugar pill with no active ingredients.

This can happen with our hearing as well. Case in point, I worked in a studio in the 70's that had a three-way toggle switch on the master panel that was not only unlabeled, but was no longer connected to anything. One day I decided to label the up position "Aphex" and the down postion "B-phex," with the middle position labeled as off.

The Aphex aural exciter was really hot at the time and there was a lot of press about it, although most people had never heard it, and there was never such a thing as B-phex. I would have clients every day that would argue over which sounded better - Aphex or B-phex. The truth was that the switch wasn't connected to either, but the clients truly believed that they heard something different.

Sometimes I'd even use it to my advantage with a particularly difficult client. "Turn on the B-phex and that will take care of your problem," was all I would have to say. Unbelievably, most of the time it really did.

Enjoy this short video. It has nothing to do with audio, but you can use some of the techniques to your advantage in the studio.



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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Feds Want More of Gibson's Wood

It seems that the Feds have it in for Gibson Guitars. Not satisfied with their recent raid and confiscation of tone woods, the Fish And Wildlife Service has asked Gibson to hand over an additional 25 bundles of Indian wood that the company planned to use in guitars.

The June shipment of 1,250 sawn logs from India was classified as "finished parts of musical instruments," which is allowed under Indian law. In reality, according to the sworn affidavit of Fish and Wildlife Service agent Kevin Seiler, the wood was unfinished, which is a violation of the Lacey Act.

The Lacey Act, originally passed by Congress in 1900, was amended in 2008 to include protection for certain wood and endangered animal species, which totally makes sense, but it also makes it illegal to import plants or wildlife into the U.S. if those goods are harvested in a way that violates the laws of another country.

That's the whole crux of the matter. Because Indian workers didn’t create the final product, the wood is not legally eligible to be exported, which means that we may be seeing more and more guitars made from inferior tone woods in the future. This just about eliminates the use of any tone woods not harvested in the United States, and most of the good forests are protected already.

Let's see - protect our forests or get good tone? A tough choice for some, but simple for others. Which side are you on?
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Monday, October 3, 2011

Stevie Wonder "Living For The City" Song Analysis

Reader Christian Hendl asked for a song analysis of Stevie Wonder's masterpiece "Living For The City." I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed at just how great this song is after not hearing it for many years. The tune is off Stevie's 1973 number 1 album Innervisions and was groundbreaking in many ways, from it's story from a black man's perspective (something rare in the 70's), to the synthesizer use, the the time of the song (7:21). As in all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
The interesting thing about "Living For The City" is that it's really just 12 bar blues, but the addition of an instrumental interlude and 2 additional sections make you think you're listening to a different song form. This is the genius of the song. The form looks like this:

Verse, Verse, Interlude, Verse, Verse, Interlude, Chorus, Interlude, Bridge, Verse, Verse, Interlude, Interlude, Interlude, Ending

Two additional interesting points about the song form is that there only a single "chorus," and the bridge has virtually no instruments; it's all dialog.

The Arrangement
Like all hit songs, this one develops and builds as it goes along. The first verse is fairly sparse with only the vocal, stereo Rhodes electric piano, and synth bass. The drums enter in the second verse and the lead line synth during the first interlude, which is doubled with a vocal. On the next verse, the bass begins to vary from it's original line, then the synth fills enter on the next verse. On the second interlude, the synth lines are doubled.

On the verse after the bridge, the drums are much more active with fills, the vocal varies from the original melody and harmonies enter at the end of the line, as well as anticipations and accents from the rhythm section (which are all played by Stevie). This continues on the next verse, followed by an extended drum fill. The outro interludes have a lot more movement from all the instruments as well as vocal harmonies.

  * The Foundation: The drums and bass

  * The Pad: Electric piano double in the interludes

  * The Rhythm: The electric piano in the verses

  * The Lead: The Vocal, synthesizers in the interlude

  * The Fills: Synths, drums, vocals

The Sound
This is a good example of almost a bone-dry song, with only a slight bit of delayed reverb on the vocal. It's so slight that the only time you can hear it is in the beginning of the song when there's only the bass and electric piano playing. The vocal is a little sibilant, and the snare drum is pretty top-end heavy, but neither detracts from the song.

This is also one of the first examples of a song using a synthesizer for the bass line instead of a bass guitar. Stevie proved that it could work, and many, many songs followed his lead thereafter.

The Production
While the concept of the song is brilliant and groundbreaking, the production point that really strikes me is how the arrangement develops, as previously stated. It's one of the best examples of how to do this ever.

The other thing worth mentioning is the two verses after the bridge where Stevie is singing in a much more aggressive tone. According to co-engineer Malcolm Cecil (along with my friend Bob Margouleff), "We had to get find a way to get the vocal rougher and harder, sound like someone who'd been through some real shit, so we decided the only thing to do was try and get Steve real angry and get his voice hoarse, so when we were recording that vocal for the last verse again we kept on doing stuff that would get him angry and one of the things he hates is stopping the tape, you know if he doesn't say stop the tape in the middle of a vocal then... well, we broke that rule! We kept on stopping the tape, "Come on Steve, you can do better than that, this is shit" and I was really shitty with him, and we got him hoarse, we wouldn't give him tea, he likes this tea with no milk in it, with the lemon to clear the throat, We didn't give him the tea. (Laughs) He was getting real upset; I think he's still upset with me about that, but we got a great track!"



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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Elton John Band Backing Vocals

As many of you already know, I'm co-writing engineer/producer Ken Scott's memoirs entitled From Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, which should be out early next year.

Ken worked with Elton John on three albums (Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, and Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player), and one of the things that he remembers is just how good the background vocals were from Elton's backing band, consisting of guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson. Here's an excellent video where you can listen for yourself.

Ken's not in the video because it's about the making of Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road (which Ken started, sort of, but you'll have to read the book for the story), but it illustrates the point perfectly well.



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Help support this blog. Any purchases made through our Amazon links help support this website with no cost to you.

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 social media and the new music business.

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