Thursday, April 12, 2012

Phil Collins "In The Air Tonite" Song Analysis

Here's a song analysis of one of the few songs that really changed the sound of music for a while. It's "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins from his 1981 album Face Value, which was the first single of his solo career. The song is interesting in so many ways, not the least is the fact that 99% of the lyrics were spontaneous and improvised. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"In The Air Tonight" doesn't have a traditional song form by any means, but the form is understandable after you realize that it was more or less improvised. The form looks like this:

Intro, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Chorus, Chorus, Chorus, 

The intro is interesting in that it's 20 bars long, with the first set up part at 12 bars, then 8 bars of the keyboard pad. Then it begins with a chorus instead of a verse. There's no bridge and the outchorus repeats against a very long fade.

The Arrangement
As unusual as the song form is, so is the arrangement. Many of the instruments used don't play the role that you're use to them playing, like the guitar, which is used mainly for sound effect fills. Here's what the arrangement elements look like:

  * The Foundation: Drum machine throughout, drums (with no cymbals) on the last chorus.

  * The Pad: Synthesizer

  * The Rhythm: Pedal bass synth drone until the last chorus, when it changes to a reggae bass line that's doubled with a synth string line (very unusual), as well as a high synth pedal sound during the first and second chorus.

  * The Lead: The lead vocal

  * The Fills: Guitar effects, vocoder vocal at the beginning of the 2nd verse.

The Sound
"In The Air Tonight" was extremely influential for the sound of the ambience on the drums that was the result of the Listen Mic circuit on the SSL 4000 console, which is a sort of reverse talkback so the people in the control room can hear the musicians in the studio. The Listen Mic circuit has some heavy compression built into it so the level between musicians close or far away from the mic can be heard evenly, and this is what gave the drums the distinctive sound after the console was modified so you could record it. Producer/engineer Hugh Padgham later recreated the sound with heavily compressed and gated room mics, and that sound was eventually incorporated into most digital reverbs in what we know today as "Gated Reverb." This was the sound that engineers tried to emulate for a decade or so thereafter, as the gated reverb drum sound became very popular.

The song was built around a then new Roland CR-78 drum machine pattern (called "Disco 2"), which is bone dry and in your face, which represented the base layer of the ambience layers.

The synth pad, which is the most prominent instrument throughout the song, has a short delay (less than 100 milliseconds) that's panned to the right to give it a stereo soundfield, while the dry synth sound is panned to the left.

The lead vocal has a very distinctive sound also thanks to a short (less than 100 ms) delay and a touch of small room reverb. It's possible that it's the same delay that's on the synth pad. In the second chorus, a second longer 1/4 note delay is introduced at the end of each phrase. It also features an interesting use of a vocoder on the vocals during the second verse.

The Production
So many of the sounds are distinctive in this song, but the production really makes it a hit. While one might think that the synth carries the song on a passing listen, it's really the repeating synth bass drone and the high synth drone in the chorus that add motion. These two are down in the mix so it's easy not to be aware of them.

The other thing to notice is the fact of how the song develops, as most hits normally do. The second chorus introduces a harmony vocal with a long delay at the end of the phrases, the second verse introduces the vocal vocoder, and the last chorus and outro introduces the drums and bass line, which is doubled with a synth string sound. Collins then ad libs the lead vocal over the fade of the song. There's constantly something new happening throughout, even though it may be subtle, to keep your attention.

One last thing - although the sound of the real drums on this record would change drum sounds for a long while afterwards, the most interesting thing about them to me is that there are no cymbals ever played.



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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Tribute To Jim Marshall

Jim Marshall image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
When it comes to the giants of the musical instrument business with a huge influence on the music of today, only two come to mind - Leo Fender (who passed away in 1991) and Jim Marshall. Jim Marshall passed away last week at the ripe old age of 88, and left behind a rich legacy as the creator of the amplifier that was the sound of the rock - a sound just as loved and pertinent today as it was back in the early-60's when Marshall Amplifiers began.

As a tribute to Jim Marshall, I thought it fitting to present a short list of facts about the man and his creation:
  • Jim Marshall was actually a drummer, not a guitar player. 
  • He was a very successful drum teacher, with as many as 65 students at a time.
  • One of Jim's students was Mitch Mitchell from The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
  • Marshall Amplifiers actually started in the back of his drum shop in 1962, with the inspiration to design his own amps coming from players like Pete Townshend of The Who and Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore, mostly because Fender amps were so expensive in Britain.
  • The original Marshall amps were based on the Fender Bassman. Since many of the parts used in the design of the Bassman weren't readily available in Britain, Marshall used parts that were more common to the country, which helped to change the sound from the relatively clean Fender to the much ballsier rock sound that we're familiar with.
  • It took 6 prototypes before Marshall came up with an amp that they felt they could sell, the JTM 45.
  • The first model received 23 orders the first day. Within 2 years the company had 16 employees and were making 20 amps a week.
  • The first international order came from Roy Orbison (who you don't usually think of as having a Marshall sound).
  • Marshall twice won the Queen's Award For Export Achievement, and was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire (which is just below knighthood) in 2004.
  • He was regarded as one of the wealthiest individuals in Britain, but donated millions of pounds to various charities over the decades.
  • Marshall suffered from hearing loss, but not from listening to loud amps. He attributed the problem to playing with loud brass in orchestras during the 50s.
  • He preferred a single-malt scotch which was bottled just for him.
  • He refused to sell the company many times over the years because his name was on the product, and he was afraid what might happen should someone else gain control (as was the case with Leo Fender).
Rest in peace, Jim, and good luck on your new journey.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Some Interview Excerpts

On Air Sign image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
One of the things that people seem to enjoy about my books is the interview sections. I'm lucky that I live in Los Angeles and have some great friends that are experts in so many different fields, so Im able to interview so many people that are a lot smarter than I am. Plus, when I interview them for a book, they usually provide far more information than I ever expected. That's why I've always included the entire interview.

For those of you who haven't had a chance to read all of my books but like the interviews that I've excerpted here, I've posted numerous chapter and interview excerpts as well as a Table of Contents to all my books on the Bobby Owsinski website.

Here's a list of what's currently available from each book.

The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook 
        Table of Contents

The Recording Engineer’s Handbook 
        Table of Contents

The Audio Mastering Handbook 
        Table of Contents

The Drum Recording Handbook 
        Table of Contents

How To Make Your Band Sound Great 
        Table of Contents

The Studio Musician’s Handbook 
        Table of Contents

Music 3.0: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age
        Table of Contents

The Music Producer's Handbook
       Table of Contents
        Chapter 6 Excerpt - Music Mechanics       

The Touring Musician's Handbook
        Table of Contents

The Musician's Video Handbook
        Table of Contents

The Studio Builder's Handbook
        Table of Contents
        Carl Tatz Interview

The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook
        Table of Contents

Mixing And Mastering With T-RackS: The Official Guide

The Audio Mixing Bootcamp
        Table of Contents

Enjoy! And let me know what you think!

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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 social media and the new music business.

8 Indicators That Your Mix Is Finished

Console Fader image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
One of the tougher things to decide when your doing a project is when the mix is finished. If you have a deadline, the decision is quickly made for you, but if you have a deep pocket budget or unlimited time, a mix can drag on forever.

So when is a mix considered finished? Here are some guidelines, courtesy of The Mixing Engineer's Handbook:

1) The groove of the song is solid. The groove usually comes from the rhythm section, but it might be from an element like a rhythm guitar (like on the Police’s Every Breath You Take) or just the bass by itself, like anything from the Detroit Motown that James Jamerson played on (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On or The Four Tops Reach Out, I’ll Be There and Bernadette for instance). Whatever element supplies the groove, it has to be emphasized so that the listener can feel it.

2) You can distinctly hear every instrument. Every instrument must have its own frequency range to be heard. Depending upon the arrangement, this is what usually takes the most time during mixing.

3) Every lyric, and every note of every line or solo can be heard. You don’t want a single note buried. It all has to be crystal clear. Use your automation. That’s what it was made for.

4) The mix has punch. The relationship between the bass and drums is in the right proportion and work together well to give the song a solid foundation.

5) The mix has a focal point. What’s the most important element of the song? Make sure it’s obvious to the listener.

6) The mix has contrast. If you have the same amount of the same effect on everything (a trait I hear from so many neophyte mixers), the mix will sound washed out. You have to have contrast between different elements, from dry to wet, to give the mix depth.

7) All noises and glitches are eliminated. This means any count-offs, singer’s breaths that seem out of place or predominate because of vocal compression, amp noise on guitar tracks before and after the guitar is playing, bad sounding edits, and anything else that might take the listener’s attention away from the track.

8) You can play your mix against songs that you love, and it holds up. Perhaps the ultimate test. If you can get your mix in the same ball park as many of your favorites (either things you’ve mixed or from other artists) after you’ve passed the previous seven items, then you’re probably home free.


In the end, it’s best to figure at least a full day per song regardless of whether you’re mixing in the box or on an analog console, although it’s still best to figure a day and a half per mix if you’re mixing in a studio with an analog-style console. Of course, if you’re mixing every session as you go along recording, then you might be finished before you know it as you just tweak your mix a little.

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Quietest Room In The World

If you've never been in an anechoic chamber, it's literally an unreal experience. Things are quiet; too quiet. So quiet that it's disconcerting, since even in the quietest place you can think of, you can still at least hear reflections from your own movement.

I've always assumed that the quietest anechoic room belonged to either JBL (I was told that they have 3 of them) or the Institute for Research and Coordination In Audio and Music (IRCAM) in France, but according to the Guinness World Records, it's actually at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis. Supposedly the Orfield chamber absorbes 99.9% of all sound generated within, which results in a measurement of -9dB SPL. As a comparison, a typical quiet room at night where most people sleep is at 30dB SPL, while a typical conversation is at about 60dB SPL.

The Orfield chamber is so quiet that no one has been able to stay inside for more than 45 minutes due to the fact that you begin to hear your heart beating, you lungs working, and even the blood coursing through your veins. Some people even begin to hallucinate during the experience. In fact, you can't even stand after a half-hour since you no longer hear the audio cues that you're used to when you stand as the reflections bounce off the floor, ceiling and walls of the environment.

While it's easy to figure out what JBL does with their anechoic chamber, what goes on in an independent one like at Orfield? It seems that the chamber is used by companies like Harley Davidson and Maytag to test how loud their products are. NASA also uses it for astronaut training.

Here's a short video that describes the Orfield anechoic chamber.



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

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