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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Buddy Holly's Label Problem

As long as musician have been signed to record labels there's been misunderstandings about what's in the contract, almost always by the artist. What's unusual is when you actually have an audio recording of the disagreement. What's even more unusual is when this recording is from way back in 1956 and it involves the legendary Buddy Holly.

Here's the setup. Buddy and his band were spotted by a talent scout opening for Elvis and signed to the Decca label out of Nashville. Decca had them record 5 tracks with famed producer Owen Bradley, but no one liked the result, so Decca declined the option on Buddy's contract when it came up for renewal. Buddy was OK about being released, but wanted to be able to use the songs that he recorded, so he called the president of Decca to get permission. He also secretly recorded the call, which is what you're about to hear.

Decca refused to let him use the songs (which included what became his huge hit, "That'll Be The Day"), which is understandable since they wanted to recoup the money they spent. Holly eventually got around the deal by recording the songs for a subsidiary of Decca under the name of the band "The Crickets," which is probably why Decca never took him to court, which they probably had the right to do.

I spotted this video on the great Musicianscooler blog. Dave Jackson of Musicians Cooler recently did a couple of interviews with me regarding my Music 3.0 and How To Make Your Band Sound Great books. Thanks, Dave! I'll post the links when the interviews go live.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

To Click (Track) Or Not To Click

One of the perpetual questions for a producer is whether to have a band use a click track when  recording basic tracks. Over the years, the decision to do so has become easier as a whole generation of players has grown up playing along with a click or loops, so it's a lot easier to find drummers who are more comfortable, and therefore better able to perform, with a click.

Here are the benefits to cutting a track to a click:

1) The tempo is more even so the song can feel better as a result (more on this later).

2) Because of the even tempo, it's easier to cut between different takes to obtain a superior performance.

3) During mixing, it's easier for the engineer to time delays and reverbs to the track so they blend better.

The major downside of cutting to a click with a drummer who's not comfortable with it is that the track can sound stiff and machine like. If the song doesn't feel good, none of the above benefits matter much.

While it's easy to believe that every hit song has an even tempo, that's not the case at all. I found the following graphs on a post called "In Search of the Click Track" that had some plots showing the tempo deviations from the average tempo for a number of songs. It's pretty easy to see where machines set the tempo and where it was all human clock.

The first example is a comparison between a Police song ("So Lonely') and a Britney Spears song ("I Love Rock n' Roll"). There's a huge deviation between Stewart Copland's playing (he's always been ahead of the beat and it sure is in evidence here) and virtually none in the Britney song, which is obviously a machine.

If we look at "Ya Ya" by jazz great Art Blakey, we see that the guy is as solid as a rock and as close to perfect as a human can get without playing to a click.

Charlie Watt's playing on "Sympathy For The Devil" is all over the place, but it's always felt pretty good to me and I never would have thought you'd find a deviation like this. It's a 17 bpm difference between the beginning and ending of the song!

But Nickelback, on the other hand, is obviously playing to a click, and the time hardly budges.

The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" proves that Keith Moon was playing along with a sequenced synth (you can see him wearing headphones during live concert videos of the song). The thing is, he could really do it well as he still made the song feel good, even despite his unorthodox style.

So what can we learn from these charts? If the feel is good, so is the song. Tempo variations are mentally overlooked by the listener under the right circumstances, and a solid steady tempo doesn't necessarily sound boring. Each song is unique, and therefore the question of "To click or not to click" remains unanswered because there is no answer.

I believe that the difference between a good drummer and a bad one is how good his internal clock is. That is, if the drummer can play steady and even within himself (where the snare and hat always hit in the same place relative to the kick drum, despite the tempo), the drummer will be considered "solid." I think these charts prove that what makes a song is not a tempo thing, it's a feel thing. A good drummer equals a good feel, but a good drummer may not always equal a good tempo.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

7 Tips For A Better Rehearsal

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.

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.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Abbey Road Studios For Sale - A Video Tour

EMI Records has had a tough go of it since the investment fund Terra Firma purchased it right before the world economic collapse a couple of years ago. What made it particularly difficult for Terra Firma is the fact that they borrowed most of the money for the sale from Citibank. Now TF needs gads of money to pay off Citi, which means they have none to invest in just the thing that drives the record business - new artists.

So EMI has been in a death spiral. It can't pay it's bills and artists with half a brain won't touch them with a ten foot pole. What can they do? Sell off parts of the company, of course.

Now comes word that the revered Abbey Road Studios are now on market, according to an article in the Financial Times. The studio, which was purchased in 1929 for about $160,000, reportedly will bring in tens of millions of dollars, since the brand name is worth far more than either the studio or real estate. That will hardly put a dent in the more than 5.5 billion dollars still owed to Citi, but the studio is bound to prosper more away from EMI than within it. If you're not much into music history, Abbey Road is where some of the biggest selling records of all time were made, including most of The Beatles recorded output, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and many many more.

So if you're thinking of buying a studio, let's take a look inside Abbey Road.

Notice a few things in the video (you never see the entire complex - only the entrance and studio 2).

1) All the equipment in the hall. This is something that you just don't see much any more, but it was a pretty common sight in the days of the multi-studio complexes.

2) The analog tape machines, both in the hall and in the studio. The studio also had an old Sony 3348 digital tape machine as well.

3) The console is at right angles to the window viewing the studio. This was also common in studios of the time, but practical too, since you'd never be able to see in the studio if the console was placed traditionally in front of the window.

4) The control room is high up on the second floor. It sure was easy to see just what was going on in large studio like Abbey Road #2, but I imagine the assistants must get pretty tired having to climb those steps all day.

Whatever happens, let's hope that Abbey Road lives on and on. It's a special place.

If you read my Music 3.0 blog, sorry for the cross-post, but I thought the topic fit for both.


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