Thursday, November 24, 2011

Led Zeppelin "Stairway To Heaven" Song Analysis

I thought I'd analyze Led Zeppelin's iconic "Stairway To Heaven" in honor of the anniversary of the band's Led Zeppelin 4 album, which was released 40 years ago this week. The song was voted #3 in 2000 by VH1 on their list of the "100 Greatest Rock Songs." It was the most requested song on FM radio stations in the United States in the 1970s, despite never having been released as a single. This apparently was a decision made by the band's manager, Peter Grant, so fans would buy the album instead of the single. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Stairway To Heaven" is one of the most interesting songs ever in terms of song form. Everything about it breaks the rules of what we consider "pop song" form, but that's what makes it so cool. Here's what the form looks like:

Intro (8 bars of guitar), Intro (16 bars with Mellotron), Verse (20 bars), Interlude (8 bars), B section (8 bars), Verse (8 bars), Interlude (1 bar), B section (16 bars), Verse (16 bars), Interlude (1 bar), B section (16 bars), Verse (16 bars), Interlude (1 bar)

That's just the first part of the song! As you can see, every section is somewhat different length-wise. Now comes the C section up-tempo outro:

Intro (2 bars of 7/8), Guitar Solo (36 bars), Vocal (36 bars), Outro (16 bars), Ending

There are a couple of interesting things here. First of all the C section intro is in 7, which is highly unusual for a rock song, then both the solo and vocal are 36 bars each, or 9 times through the pattern instead of 8. Once again, this is so much different than what you'd expect, yet it works.

The Arrangement
The arrangement for "Stairway" is brilliant in that there are only 7 instruments, yet it sounds much bigger.

The beginning of the song is mostly acoustic guitar and mellotron flutes, and a Fender Rhodes electric piano holds down the bass from the 1st B section onwards to the C section. On the 4rth verse, the drums and bass enter, along with a 12 string electric. A Telecaster then doubles the riff during the interludes. Take notice that the electric piano continues to play even after the bass enters, with the bass mostly (but not always) doubling it.

The C section outro is built around the 12 string electric, bass and drums, and the solo Telecaster (in one of Pagey's best solos). On the 7th time through the pattern, a slide guitar enters with a line that answers the solo electric guitar. When the vocal enters it's back to the bass, drums and 12 string, with the Telecaster playing an answer line on the 3rd time through the pattern. On the 8th time through, the chords are accented, but continue through for a 9th time (really unusual!). The song then ends with a solo vocal, which is, once again, unusual.

The Sound
"Stairway" was recorded on 16 track at Island Studios in London as well as on location at Headley Grange using the Rolling Stones mobile studio. The acoustic guitar on the intro is interesting in that it's panned to the left with a somewhat long plate reverb that you hear more on the right side. Later in the song, the 12 string is pretty much bathed in this reverb.

The drums are heavily compressed, and are actually recorded in stereo. This, in fact, might have been one of the earliest examples of stereo drums, but it's a pretty mild version, with just a little of the crash cymbal and floor tom slightly panned to the left.

The vocal has a very short delayed plate reverb to put it in an environment, but it's still pretty much in the forefront of the band.

The Production
Jimmy Page considers this his masterpiece and I think so to, although you have to give props to bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones for his arrangement skills for the keyboards. The mellotron parts could have been boring if they were repeated with every section, but each section is different, which keeps it interesting.

The song starts quietly, builds to a crescendo, and ends almost in silence, in an excellent example of tension and release. Listen how the instruments weave in and out of the track, even though the instrumentation and tracks are limited. Remember that the song is 8:03 and you want to listen to the whole thing all the way through. That truly is the sign of a masterpiece.

Send me your song requests.



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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mixing Tips From Andy Wallace

Andy Wallace is one of my favorite mixing engineers. He's mixed megahits for Nirvana, Linkin Park, Sheryl Crow, Guns n' Roses, Paul McCartney, Kelly Clarkson, Coldplay, and many more, and every mix he's done is a work of art. Here are some words of wisdom from a class Andy did for Mix with the Masters that outlines a little of his mixing technique.

For those of you in the US, please enjoy a Happy Thanksgiving!



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

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Audio Powered LEDs - Stage Lighting's Future?

Here's an interesting development that could signal a major advance in stage and concert lighting - audio powered LEDs. Yes, researchers at Hirose-Tanikawa Group at the University of Tokyo have developed an LED that can actually be powered by nothing but audio.

An experimental setup of the new system uses an off-the-shelf speaker to deliver an ultrasonic sound wave which is converted into power by a circuit board covered in microphones. The power yield is only about 10mW at a distance of about 20 inches, and that drops to just 1 mW at 16 feet, but it's enough to power low-energy electronics like LEDs. Don't forget, this is still experimental, so there's lots of room for the eventual improvement in the technology.

This technology can eventually be used as a new way to deliver wireless power to all sorts of devices, not just LEDs, from greater distances. But getting back to stage and concert lighting, imagine your whole lighting rig being powered by nothing but music!


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

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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Importance Of The Speaker Baffle

It's time for another book excerpt, this one from "The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook." It's about one of the more important and overlooked parts of a speaker cabinet, the baffle.
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A Typical Speaker Baffle
"One of the most overlooked parts of a cabinet is the baffle (seen on the left), which is the board that the speaker is directly mounted on. Perhaps more than any one piece of the cabinet, this has the most influence on the sound. The type of material (pine, birch, MDF), the thickness, and the way it’s mounted all contribute to the sound.

Thin plywood tends to be louder and have better low end than pine of the same thickness. 3/4 inch birch has more projection and gives you more of the speaker sound and less of the cabinet itself. Closed-back cabinets will be tighter and have a slight edge with birch baffles.

The thickness of the baffle has a great deal to do with the sound. Most tweed amps from the 50’s used either ¼ inch or 5/16 inch pine, which sounds open and loose. Amps made in the 60’s generally have a thicker baffle and have a tighter, cleaner sound as a result.

The way the baffle is connected to the cabinet makes a big difference. Fender used what’s known as a “floating baffle” for a long time, which provided a bigger, more “organic” tone. 
  • A floating baffle is attached at 2 points either top and bottom or side and side. The 1959 Fender Bassman is a good example of a top and bottom floating baffle while the Super Reverb is a good example of a side to side floating baffle. 

  • The Bandmaster 2×12″ speaker cabinet does not have a floating baffle. It is attached on all 4 sides to be very rigid and tight.
  • A thinner baffle works best for a floating baffle because it vibrates more and those vibrations blend with those of the speakers.
Center Stabilizer Piece
If you ever open up a closed-back cabinet, you’ll notice that there’s a piece of wood in the center of the cabinet that connects the baffle to the back panel (seen on the left). That’s designed to allow the baffle and back panel resonate in phase, and without it you’d have a lot of phase cancellation, and a cabinet with a lot of frequency response peaks and dips as a result."
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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Scratching The Blackboard Sound

There are certain sounds in life that are pretty much universally hated. Chalk on slate, styrofoam squeaks, a plate being scraped by a fork, and the good old fingernails on blackboard all cause a small amount of personal agony, regardless of culture or location on the planet. Not surprisingly, this reaction can be measured with increased heart rate, blood pressure and electrical conductivity of the skin.

Believe it or not, a lot of time over the last century has actually been spent trying to determine why this happens. Now a new study conducted by musicologists at the Macromedia University for Media and Communication in Cologne, Germany, and the University of Vienna seems to have found the answer.

What they found is that the frequencies involved with unpleasant sounds also lie firmly within the range of human speech — between 2,000 and 4,000 Hz. Removing those frequencies from the sound made them much easier to listen to, but interestingly, removing the noisy, scraping part of the sound made little difference.

This meant that there is actually a powerful psychological component at work as well. If the listeners knew that the sound was fingernails on the chalkboard, they rated it more unpleasant than if they were told it was from a musical composition. Even when they thought it was from music, however, their skin conductivity still changed consistently, suggesting that the physical part of the response remained.

Still, the real question is, why do we have such a reaction to the noise? It turns out that the physical response is likely generated by the shape of the human ear canal, which amplifies frequencies in the range of 2,000 to 4,000 Hz. The researchers determined that when a screech on a chalkboard is generated, the structure of our ear takes that narrow band of frequencies that are already loud and amplifies them even further, making us want to jump out of our chair. Seems so simple now, doesn't it?

So while that mystery seems to have to unveiled, there are a still lot more unpleasant sounds to be explored. Why bother, you might ask? Because the eventual goal is to try to mask those frequencies within factory machinery, vacuum cleaners or construction equipment to minimize any hearing damage. For the time being, though, it’s probably best to steer clear of blackboards, and be careful when you boost at 2k to 4k!
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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.

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