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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Future Of Musical Instruments?

I'm not sure where I came across this video, but it made me laugh, and not in a good way. It's shot at the recent San Francisco MusicTech Summit,  poorly edited and doesn't identify any of the principles, who are heavyweights in music technology. But technology people just don't get it sometimes. About the only ones who think this is the future of music are non-musicians.

With the exception of Roger Linn, who actually has a device that might actually make it as a musical instrument, I'm sort of left speechless when I watch this. Roger is inventor of the first drum machine and a hit songwriter. Max Mathews, the older gentleman in this video, is one of the legends of computer music. To me, I've heard it all before a long, long time ago and the song is still the same.

See what you think, then watch Roger's own demo video below.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

6 Questions For Mediaman Seth Shapiro

You never really know someone until you interview them. This is true whether you know someone for 2 years or 20, because there are things they assume you know about them that you don't. Such is the case with my friend Seth Shapiro. I learned a lot about his previous life in this week's "6 Questions."

Seth is a principal in New Amsterdam Media LLC, a two-time Emmy winner, and he's managed digital media initiatives with the Walt Disney Company, DIRECTV, Comcast, TiVo, Time Warner Cable, Showtime, HBO, STARZ, Sun Microsystems, Universal, Goldman Sachs and a variety startups, venture and private equity partners. That's what his resume says. What it doesn't say is that he's a real music man with a rich background in the business. Oh, and he's also a principle in the The A&R Channel, an on-demand music network on Comcast.
1) How did you break into the business?
I guess there were three things:
   One - I got to work on one of the first Synclaviers in college... would up pulling all-nighters learning how sampling and additive synthesis worked. At 18 that was mind-blowing.

   Two - I went to NYU behind Rick Rubin and watched him and Russell Simmons build Def Jam in my dorm. That changed my life.

   Three - My life job out of college, insane as this is, was for a startup doing something called "Interactive Television" in Port Washington NY. This is years before the browser or even AOL - at least five years before email as a consumer thing. So that was just an astounding window into the future, and opened my eyes to something that I would up moving into full-time about 13 years later.

2) What makes you unique?
I guess I have a pretty wide range of experiences – have lived way outside the system, and in the belly of the system. So I probably see things in a lot of layers: creativity, innovation, finance, politics etc. There are multiple sides to every story.

3) Who was your biggest influence?
Maybe Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto or David Bowie - the way they can take on different genres or media and bring who are they are to it- be true to the style- but somehow you always know it's them. Some writers like David Mamet or David Milch have that too - people who create from themselves. I really admire that.

4) What's the best thing about your job?
Being able to create something new.

5) When and where were you the happiest?

6) What's the best piece of advice you ever received?
When I was 15 - "Do not become a guitar player for a living" - from my teacher Dom Minasi, still the greatest guitarist I've ever met.
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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Bernadette" - James Jamerson's Isolated Bass

Today we're going to listen to the great James Jamerson, the bass player for Motown's Funk Brothers. Widely regarded as one of the best bass players to ever play, he's loved not so much for his technique (which was formidable) but for his choice of notes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Four Tops hit "Bernadette", which shows Jamerson at his best. This song is also available on the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown Deluxe box set.

Here's what to listen for:

1) Listen not only to Jamerson's choice of notes, but his unusual timing as well. He plays with a freedom rarely seen in todays recordings. It's amazing that he can stay as funky as he does. Also listen to how he pushes the groove, even as he plays around the set part.

2) At :37 the rest of the rhythm section is gradually brought in. Once again, notice how prominent the tambourine is to the groove of the song.

3) Also listen to how well the 3 guitars work together. In the chorus, one plays straight quarter note chords, while the other plays a high string mandolin-like part and the third plays a high pedal note. Along with the tambourine, this 3 guitar array is the heart of the Motown sound.

4) The only vocal of this mix comes at 2:38 with the single word plea of Tops singer Levi Stubbs. It hits really hard and is perfect for this mix.

5) After 2:38, all of the instruments re-enter, this time including strings and horns to complete the mix.

This is a really great example of the signature Motown sound, and James Jamerson at the peak of his personal powers. Enjoy.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

"You Keep Me Hangin" On Isolated Tracks

Staying with our Motown theme for the week, here are two versions of the Supreme's classic, "You Keep Me Hangin' On."

The first version is from the superb Standing In The Shadow's Of Motown deluxe box, which is a must for every musician's video collection. Here's what to listen for:

1) This is a pretty stripped down arrangement compared to most Motown songs in that it only uses the rhythm section, with no strings or horns.

2) The tambourine, played by Jack Ashford, is a Motown signature and is used on just about every single Motown song. In this case, listen to how seamlessly it works against the snare drum on 2 and 4.

3) The interplay of the guitars is also classic Motown and a textbook on how to make 3 guitars work in a song. In the intro and verses we hear the octave high E pedal and the second guitar outlining the chord changes. In the bridge with hear all 3 guitars, with the third one entering with the funky double-time muted line.

4) The same goes for the interplay with the keyboards. An organ plays through the entire song and the piano enters only on the bridges.

5) The timing of the different guitar parts is off in a few places. It would make a producer crazy today, but didn't seem to matter much to anyone back then. The song was a huge hit and I don't think anyone who bought the record noticed that the strummed guitar was off in bars 46 and 91.

6) Check out how the mix breaks down to just the bass and drums at about 1;13, then opens back up to the entire band at 1;38.

In this second version, we have a brief introduction by Diana Ross describing how they worked out the song, then you hear the track with only the background vocals. It's really interesting to finally hear exactly what they were doing.

Tomorrow, more Motown.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Rare Look At A Motown Session

It's Motown week here on the Big Picture and we're going to start with an extremely rare look into a session by the legendary Temptations backed by the legendary Funk Brothers and recorded at the legendary Motown Studios in Detroit (the "Snakepit" as they used to call it).

This video was shot back in 1967 for a CBS News piece called appropriately "The Motown Story." It featured the classic Temptations lineup including David Ruffin (the lead singer) and Eddie Ruffin, both of which would leave the band soon after this video was made. The song is called "Sorry Is A Sorry Word" and was produced by Motown writers Ivy Jo Hunter and Brian Holland (who stops the song mid-way through).

Some things to observe when watching:

1) As we'll see in upcoming posts, no one at Motown cared much about isolation between instruments since they were never going to replace anything anyway. Either the band got the track or it didn't, and no one ever came back to "fix" a part. Most of the songs cut in Detroit were cut on an 8 track recorder, so a lot of overdubs weren't much of an option anyway. They were only used for a bit of control over the final balance.

2) The usual Funk Brothers band consisted of a rhythm section of 2 drummers, tambourine, congas or bongos, bass, 3 guitars, and 2 keyboards which were all recorded at the same time in the same room! Horns and strings might also be cut at the same time as the rhythm section as well. Motown was only a house in the residential area of town and the studio was in the basement. Imagine doing that in your basement!

3) Only the arranger (the very talented William Witherspoon, who I believe was actually responsible for the early sound of Motown) used headphones. No one else needed them because they were all playing in the same room so they could hear themselves as if it were a rehearsal or gig.

Enjoy. Tomorrow, more Motown.

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Goodbye Ronnie.

Ronnie James Dio died today, which is a blow to everyone that loved hard rock music. Ronnie was a fabulous singer, but he was an even better person, a real gentleman who was truly concerned about everyone he came in contact with.

Most everyone knew Ronnie from either his days as singer for Rainbow, Black Sabbath or his own band, Dio, but I met Ronnie way before that when he was a bass player for The Electric Elves (eventually changed to Elf). I was in a band that opened for the Elves at a small festival in Pennsylvania back in the early 70's when I first got to know him. We met again when another band I was in opened for them at the long gone Electric Circus in New York City.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I'd run in to Ronnie again and again at parties and in various studios and we'd always fondly reminisce about the old days back East. I even did a surround mix for one of his albums along the way that unfortunately was never released.

Ronnie was always a kind and gentle soul, which absolutely no airs about him. He was your buddy from next door and he really cared about everyone he touched. Happy Journey, Ronnie. And thanks for the great memories and music you leave behind.


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