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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" Song Analysis

Rolling Stones "Let It Bleed" image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Here's a song that we've visited before but never as a full song analysis. It's The Rolling Stones seminal "Gimme Shelter," the opening track from the 1969 release "Let It Bleed" which was a huge world-wide hit at the time.

The song was originally recorded at Olympic Studio in London with drummer Charlie Watts, bassist Bill Wyman, producer Jimmy Miller on guiro (a hand-held Latin percussion instrument), pianist Nicky Hopkins, and guitarist Keith Richards on the basic track where Richards sang a scratch vocal track. The song was later finished at Sunset Sound in Hollywood with the addition of Mick Jagger's lead vocals and harmonica and Merry Clayton's soaring harmony vocals. Stone's guitarist Brian Jones, who was still in the band at this point, was absent from the sessions.

The addition of Clayton was a spur-of-the-moment idea from producer Miller, who called in Clayton, who was still in curlers in the middle of the night. Upon returning home, she suffered a miscarriage due to her strenuous vocal performance.

"Gimme Shelter" was never released as a single, but it's been a big part of the Stones set in concert and has been used in dozens of movies and television shows, as well as covered by a host of artists.

The movie at the end has most of the parts isolated so that you can hear what they're playing and what they sound like, followed by the album mix version.

The Song
"Gimme Shelter" is interesting from a songwriting standpoint in that it mostly revolves around a single 3 chord pattern that repeats over and over, except for the verse, which stays on the first chord of the pattern. The form looks like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Verse Chorus, Solo (Verse and Chorus), Bridge (Chorus), Verse, Chorus, Chorus, Outro

The solo is over a verse and chorus, with the harmonica taking the verse and the lead guitar taking the chorus. The bridge is actually just a change in the energy thanks to the solo vocal by Clayton, which is also over a chorus.

The Arrangement
The arrangement of "Gimme Shelter" seems like there wasn't much thought given to it except for the intro in terms of song dynamics, but it still works out well.

The intro begins with a tremolo rhythm guitar followed by two tom hits (boy, do they sound good), after which Watts plays the hat against the guiro on the 2nd time through the patter. That's where the doubled "Ooo's" enter, as does the lead guitar playing fills. The 3rd time the pattern plays, the kick and bass enter very softly, then the bass enters playing the pedal of the key of the song (C#) at full volume over the 4rth repeat of the pattern. On the 5th time around, the piano enters, also playing a pedal note on both the left and right hands, while the bass alters it's pattern just a bit, sliding up from the flat 7th. The 6th time is when Watts enters with the beat and the bass begins to follow the chord pattern.

On the verse, a second rhythm guitar enters, but without the tremolo, and the piano drops out or is decreased in level so it's barely perceptible. The first and second verses and choruses are basically the same, with Clayton's harmony and Richard's lead guitar fills entering in the choruses.

Maracas enter at the harmonica part of the solo at about 2:00, while a guitar solo plays underneath. It's then featured during the chorus part of the solo. The chorus continues with Clayton's solo vocal part entering. Later in the song, a 3rd vocal harmony (presumably sung by Richards) also enters on the chorus.

At the end of the solo, the harmonica comes back for brief interlude, then the piano enters for the last verse and Clayton adds harmony to the end of Jagger's vocal phrases. The outro after the vocals features dueling solos between harmonica and lead guitar.

  * The Foundation: bass, drums

  * The Rhythm: guiro, maracas, rhythm guitar, piano

  * The Pad: none

  * The Lead: lead vocals, lead guitar

  * The Fills: lead guitar

The Sound
As you'd expect, the sound of the drums is very 60's, as it's surrounded by a lot of room ambience as the kit was probably miked with only a couple of mics. If you listen to the isolated drum track, you can hear the rhythm guitar leakage, which leads you to believe that the basic tracks might have been only drums, rhythm guitar, percussion and vocals.

One thing that jumps out is how thick and long the reverb on the vocal track is. The verb is delayed so it stays out of way of the lead vocal a bit, but there's a lot more of it than there seems to be on the final mix. Also, notice how low the vocals sit in the mix.

Another thing that's interesting to hear is how distorted everything is, especially Merry Clayton's solo when she begins to belt it out.

The Production
You always hear stories about what a light hitter drummer Charlie Watts is (he's been known to go years between snare drum heads), but that's not true in this song and he leans into it with some muscle. His performance is very solid with great tempo, especially during the fills. Many drummers have great time except when it comes to fills, but that's not the case here.

The percussion provides movement to the arrangement that's subtle but very real and really pushes the song along. This is a Jimmy Miller trademark and it's used a lot by the Stones during this period.

There are a number of "mistakes" that probably wouldn't have been kept had the song been made today, like the last note of the lead guitar fill right as the vocal enters in the first verse (it's a bit late), or Merry Clayton's voice cracking during her vocal solo in the bridge. Actually, the crack really makes it seem a lot more human and paints the emotion better, but I bet most producer's today would never let it go by and have it fixed.

Another thing to listen for is how loose the bass and drums are. Back in the days when the song was made, bands never concentrated on being tight the way we do today, going instead for feel. "Tightness" as we know it today is a concept that's been refined over time since then. As you listen to the isolated tracks, notice that the bass and drums don't always line up, but they never loose the feel.

Clayton's vocal solo in the bridge is a great example of natural dynamics in a song where the performance itself is the dynamic factor. Her vocal is set up to stand out following the guitar solo, and it probably wouldn't have seemed as intense had it been after a vocal chorus, which illustrates perfectly how important the arrangement is in the production of a song.

Be sure to listen to the isolated tracks below!

Send me your song requests.



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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

7 Tips For A Better Rehearsal


Rehearsal image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Regardless of where you're at in the musical food chain, rehearsals are an essential part of your life. One of the major differences between a pro and an amateur is in rehearsal technique. Here's a quick checklist to make those rehearsals go a little smoother so you can get a lot more accomplished (excerpted from the How To Make Your Band Sound Great band improvement book).


1) Have an agenda. Know what youʼll be working on before rehearsal even begins. It saps so much energy out of a band to argue about what you're going to do when you have to decide at the rehearsal. Learn something new, work out something that doesn't sound right yet, but keep moving forward. And plan the next rehearsal at the end of the last one.

2) Know your parts before you get there. You canʼt concentrate on playing with the band if you donʼt know your parts. This applies more to cover bands, but can also apply to bands that play their own music as well. Usually the songwriter will record at least a rough demo before the band gets together to work it out. If you work out the changes and get an idea of where the song is going beforehand, there'll be a lot more time to experiment so you can perfect playing with the other musicians during rehearsal.

3) Concentrated on the details. It's not just the changes that make the song, it's all the other things that take it to the next level. Learning to play dynamically and concentrating on the turnarounds, builds, attacks and releases make all the difference in the world in how the song finally sounds.

4) Stop immediately when thereʼs a trainwreck. Address the problem while itʼs fresh. Don't let a mistake go by, especially if the player or players making it aren't aware of what they're doing. Remember the golden words, "How are your playing it?"

5) Work on the most difficult part first. Start as close to the part that's giving you trouble as you can and donʼt stop playing it until it works. Repeat until you get it, even if you have to play it slower at first, or softly so you can hear yourselves better.

6) Donʼt rehearse a song to death. Give it a break and come back later. One of the worst things that a band with their own music does is play the same songs every rehearsal. Give them a rest, especially if you've been playing them for a long time or out on gigs. Don't worry, you won't forget how to play them.

7) Rehearse your show. Before you play a gig, rehearse the entire show, including what youʼll say in- between songs, sound and light cues, etc. This is what a major touring band does and that's why they can nail it from the first night of the tour onwards. The less you leave to chance, the better your show will be.

Just by following these simple techniques, you'll find that not only will your rehearsals be more productive, but your shows as well.

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When Frank Zappa Discovered A New Talent


Frank Zappa image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blogHere's a repost of something that I posted in 2009 about Frank Zappa. That was in the beginning of my blog and I didn't have too many readers, so I thought you'd might be interested.

Sometime during the 80's when the AES (Audio Engineering Society) conference was still being held at the Waldorf Hotel in New York city, I happened to meet Frank in the one of the hallways between hotel rooms (a lot of the manufacturers showed their gear in hotel rooms rather than in the relatively small banquet hall). He asked me to tag along with him up to the Synclavier room (Frank was a power user), and of course I did.

As we were about to enter the hotel room, a teenaged kid comes up to Frank and asks him to come over into the alcove at the end of the corridor to listen to him play. Frank, being ever so polite as he always was with anyone he did not consider a fool, told him he would be back to listen to him in a few minutes after he finished his business with Synclavier.

Of course it was never just a few minutes with Frank, since everyone there (probably about a hundred people) wanted a chance to talk with him. So after about an hour, the kid came in the Synclavier room and taps Frank on the shoulder. Frank sees the kid and says, "I promise I'll be out in a few minutes."

About 45 more minutes go by and the kid comes back again, taps Frank on the shoulder again, and looks at him with these big doe eyes and says, "Frank, pleeese?" It's hard for anyone to resist a kid pleading like that, so Frank said his goodbyes and headed out into the hallway with the kid, who took him to a quiet corner near the elevators.

The kid had a little battery powered Pignose amp and a Travis Bean guitar (the one with the aluminum neck and long out of business), and began to play for Frank. To everyone's amazement, he wasn't playing with a pick or anything like the usual guitar style that millions of players use - he was cradling the guitar so it's perpendicular to his body and tapping on the frets with both hands.

The kid was scared though, and pretty much fumbled through the song. Frank sensed this, and at the end of the song said, "Hey, that was great! Can you play me something else?"

The kids confidence instantly rose through the ceiling and he proceeded to rip off a song with his unique style that bordered on virtuosity. We were all amazed. Frank gave him his card and told him to call him if he ever got to LA (don't know if he ever did).

The kids name? Stanley Jordan, who eventually went on to a pretty nice career as a jazz guitarist using his unique style.

Frank could be totally brutal with players (or anyone for that matter) with an attitude, and was especially good at cutting them down to size (some good stories there too). But he was also sensitive to players who valued heart above technique and was always open to people showing him what they could do. I'm not sure how much Frank helped Stanley in his career, but at least for one moment on a cold Saturday afternoon in New York, he lifted him towards the sun.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

5 Reasons Why Concerts Sound So Bad

Concert image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blogI've posted this before a long time ago (in 2008, I believe), but it's still relevant and a particular pet peeve of mine. Concert sound reinforcement equipment is better than ever, yet we're frequently burdened with a mess of auditory goo that just sucks the enjoyment from a live event.

Unfortunately this happens much more than it should, and I think it's a big reason for many people not wanting to attend as many concerts as they once did. It's tough enough with the high ticket prices, the "convenience charges," and the high cost of parking and concessions, but if you add to that a less than perfect concert experience, it doesn't give one much incentive to return again any time soon.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of concerts really sound bad these days and it's not because of the venue acoustics. It's the mix.

I believe that an entire generation of soundmen grew up learning the wrong way - that the kick drum and snare are the most important part of a mix. While that may be true in some small way when mixing a record (it's really important, but not the most important), it's an entirely different thing mixing live sound, where the vocal should be king.

Common sense says that the softest thing on the stage (the vocals) should get the most amplification and attention. After all, that's really what people pay to hear (and who they come to see the majority of the time), not the kick drum. And the overuse of subwoofers just makes a boomy venue all the more boomy.

So here are five reasons why I think concerts don't sound as good as they could:

1.  The vocal isn't featured. The vocalist is usually the main reason why we're there. Mix it so we can hear and understand it, please.

2.  Over-reliance on subwoofers. In real life, the only time you hear 20-30Hz is during a thunderstorm, earthquake or other natural phenomena, and adding in too much (as is sometimes the norm) can be a big distraction. Sure, you want to make the music sound bigger than life by adding in all that bottom end, but it shouldn't be at the expense of intelligibility.  

3.  Too much kick. A function of the above two items, many soundmen seem to have a myopic vision of the kick drum, spending way more time trying to get a sound at the expense of everything else on the stage. Believe me, most drummers at the concert level are using drums that sound great already. It doesn't take that much effort to make them sound good.

4.  Low intelligibility. Again a function of the above items, many concert soundmen seem happy if you can just hear the vocal. But what the concert goer wants is to understand every word. Let's spend some time on that instead of the kick.

5.  Bad mixing habits. It seems like many soundmen never listened to the CD of the band they're mixing. Sure it's different mixing live. Sure you have some wacky venues to contend with. But 1, 2, 3, and 4 on this list leads to #5.  Now's the time to break the cycle.

I'm sure this list won't change the mind of a current concert soundman. But if just one kid starting out decides that it might not be the best thing to emulate that guy, we'll all be the better for it.

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

How To Sort Out Band Writing Credits

Reader Damian Graham sent me a request last week asking a comment on how to split up songwriting credits between band members. This is a loaded question in that there are multiple ways to do it, and most of the time someone feels shortchanged. That said, let's give it a go.

Unfortunately songwriting credits with a young band are usually left until after a number of songs are written and recorded and the possibility of publishing money appears. Then the weeping and gnashing of teeth begin. Usually it's pretty hard to unravel who wrote exactly what in retrospect, thanks to everyone's selective memory on the subject. That's when some really intense band discussions start to take place; sometimes intense enough to break up the band. So what are the ways it's done? Here are the two ways I've seen.

The Percentage Deal. This is where a certain percentage of a song is assigned depending upon the player's involvement. This usually results in lopsided percentages ("I get 75%, you get 20% and you get 5,") that leaves everyone unhappy except the one with the largest percentage. There is a way to handle this though. To most publishers, the music is worth 50% and the lyrics are worth 50%. That at least gives you a basis from where to start to assign credits. If someone contributed a single lyric line, they'd get a smaller percentage than someone who contributed a whole verse or chorus. I hate it when someone is sitting there with a calculator figure out percentages, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

The downside of this method is that the drummer, and to a lesser extent, the bass player, usually gets left out in the cold. But what if the drummer's beat was just the thing that caused the idea to spring forth in the first place? What if the bass riff drives the song (Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" comes to mind)? Or what if the song was written by the singer, but the guitar player comes up with the riff that sells the song (Would "Satisfaction" be the same song without the guitar riff?). I'm told that it would be difficult to argue any of these and court and expect to win . The judge is going to rule for the one who wrote the melody and lyrics, because that's how the law currently assigned songwriting credit.

The "We're all in this together" Method. This method can work two ways. First, everyone in the band gets an equal share, regardless of who's idea it was. We've seen this in the past with bands like The Doors (guitarist Robbie Krieger wrote all of their huge hit "Light My Fire" except for one line, yet only gets a quarter of the publishing), Guns n' Roses, and most recently Foo Fighters. This also works for songwriting teams as well, most famously Lennon and McCartney (they wrote separately after the early albums) and Mick Jagger/Keith Richards. This way has the least amount of hassles, even though it may not be the fairest contribution-wise.

A modification on this is that whoever is in the room when the song was created gets an equal share. If you're not there, you get no credit. Another is that whoever has the original idea gets a larger percentage and the rest is split. Another way is to make sure that at least one song on the album includes everyone in the band so there's at least some publishing money going to everyone, although this method leaves a lot to be desired in these days of singles being the primary source of royalties.

As you can see, it's messy regardless of which way you do it, so the best thing is to avoid any of these problems in the first place. Make sure that you hash this out with your bandmates as soon as possible, because it only gets messier as time goes on.

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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.

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