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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Michael Jackson's Vocal Lessons

One of the things that distinguishes a superstar from a star is the amount of work they put in. A star may be able to get by on superior talent alone, but a superstar strives to be the best, which takes constant, incessant work.

Below is a video of the late, great Michael Jackson having a voice lesson with celebrity voice teacher Seth Riggs via phone. Supposedly Michael warmed up for several hours and had a voice lesson before almost every vocal recording session. Of course, we all know the results.

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bruce Swedien - Mixing In Colors

When I wrote The Mixing Engineer's Handbook in 1998, I was lucky enough to get to interview the Godfather of recording engineers, Bruce Swedien. During our interview, Bruce talked more about the philosophy of mixing rather than the nuts and bolts. Here's an excerpt from that interview, where he talks about hearing in "colors."

Is your approach to mixing each song generally the same?
I’ll take that a step further and I’ll say it’s never the same. And I think I have a very unique imagination. I also have another problem in that, I don’t know what the hell it is, somebody told me once, I hear sounds in color, with colors in my mind.  And I can frequently do EQing and so on and check the spectrum of a mix or a piece of music, if I don’t see the right colors I it, I know the balance is not there.
What do you mean?
Well, low frequencies, low sounds appear to my mind’s eye as dark colors.  Black or brown. Bass can usually be black or brown or dark purple. And then high frequencies are brighter colors. Extremely high frequencies gold and silver. And so, it’s funny, but that’s, that can be very distracting. Drives me crazy sometimes.
There is a term for it, I don’t know what it is. [It's called "synaesthesia"]
What are you trying to do then, build a rainbow?
No, it’s just that if I don’t experience and see those colors when I listen to a mix that I’m working on, I know that there’s either an element missing, or that the mix values aren’t satisfying.
How do you know what proportion of what color?
That’s instinctive. Quincy [Jones] has the same problem. It’s terrible! Drives me nuts! But, it’s not a quantitative thing. It’s just that if I focus on a part of the spectrum in a mix, and don’t see the right colors, it bothers me.  
I have a feeling it’s a disease, but people have told me it isn’t.  
How do you go about getting a balance? Do you have a method.
No, purely instinctive. Another thing that I’ve learned from Quincy, I think, that started with my work with Duke Ellington, is to do my mixing reactively, not cerebrally.  
How do you mean?
This is when automated mixing came along, I got really excited because I thought, “At last, here’s a way for me to preserve my first instinctive reaction to the music.”  And the mix values that are there, rather than, you know how frequently we’ll work on a piece of music, and work on it, work on it, and we think, “Oh boy, this is great! Wouldn’t it be great if it had a little more of this, or a little more of that.”  And then you listen to that in the cold gray light of dawn and it sounds like shit. Well, that's when the cerebral part of our mind takes over, pushing the reactive part to the background, so the music suffers.  
Do you start to do your mix from the very first day of tracking?
Yes. But, again, I don’t think that you can say any of these thoughts are across the board.  here is certain types of music that grow in the studio that don’t, you go in and you start a rhythm track and you think you’re gonna have one think, and all of a sudden it does a sharp left and it ends up being something lese. While again, there are other types of music where I start the mix before the musicians come to the studio. I’ll give you a good example of something. On Michael’s History album, “Smile, Charlie Chaplin.”  I knew what the mix would be like two weeks before the musicians hit the studio.  
From listening to the demo?
No. It had nothing to do with anything except what was going on in my mind because the orchestra, the arranger and conductor, Jeremy Lubbock and I had talked about that piece of music. And the orchestra that we were gonna use, it’s a big orchestra, and I came up with a studio setup that I had used with the strings of the Chicago Symphony many years before at Universal.  Where the first violins are set up to the left of the conductor and the second violins to the right, the violas behind the first fiddles and the celli behind the second fiddles, which is a little unusual.  So, I had that whole mix firmly in mind long before we did it.  

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The "Thriller" Intro - Bruce Swedien

Here's another Bruce Swedien video, this time from his keynote speech during Sweetwater's GearFest in 2008. In it Bruce discusses the intro to Michael Jackson's seminal single "Thriller."

Of even more importance is the beginning of Bruce's address where he talks about producer Quincy Jones saying before they began the Thriller recording sessions, "We've got to find a way to get people back into the record stores." What everyone seems to forget is that from 1979 to almost 1982, the record business was in a very bad recession. Disco had just burned out, there was no new trends on the horizon, and record sales were declining fast as a result. It seemed almost as bad as it is now, except for the fact that several things came to the record labels aid - the CD, MTV and Michael Jackson and Thriller.

When the CD format hit, suddenly everyone wanted to buy all of their records all over again, so the label's catalog sales became hot (which was a huge money maker), MTV pushed sales of new acts to greater heights, and of course MJ eventually sold over 100 million copies of Thriller, which certainly helped to bring people back into the record stores.

By the way, the historical perspective mentioned above is covered from two different angles in both The Music Producer's Handbook and Music 3.0: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age.

Tomorrow, we'll take a last look at some words of wisdom from the great Bruce Swedien.

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Bruce Swedien On "Thriller"

This week we'll look at "the Godfather" of modern recording, Bruce Swedien. If you don't know who Bruce is, then that's an especially good reason to watch this video. Besides engineering Michael Jackson's biggest sellers, Bruce has engineered projects for such legends and best sellers like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Roberta Flack, Mick Jagger, Jennifer Lopez, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Rufus, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, and Sarah Vaughan. His sense of instrument balance and ambient/effects balance is second to none, as you'll hear if you listen to any of the records that he's done.

Here's an interview he did with Dutch television station NPS about a year ago.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

8 Ways To Get The Best Out Of Singers In The Studio

One of the hardest things in making a record is trying to record a vocalist who is uncomfortable. Even a seasoned pro sometimes can’t do his best unless the conditions are just right. Consider some of these suggestions from The Music Producer's Handbook before and during a vocal session.
  • Make sure the lighting is correct. Most vocalists prefer the lights lower in the studio and control room when singing.
  • A touch of reverb or delay in the headphones can help the singer’s comfort level with the headphones mix.
  • If you need to have the singer sing harder, louder or more aggressively, turn down the vocal track in the phones or turn the backing tracks up.
  • If you need to have the singer sing softer or more intimately, turn the singer's track up in the phones or turn down the backing tracks.
  • Keep talking with the artist between takes. Leave the talkback on if possible. Long periods of silence from the control room are a mood killer.
  • Try lowering the lights in the control room so they can't see you. Some people think that you're in there judging them when you might be talking about something completely different.
  • If the take wasn’t good for whatever reason, explain what was wrong in a kind and gentle way. Something like "That was really good, but I think you can do it even better. The pitch was a little sharp at the end of the phrase," lets the singer know what needs to be improved and makes her feel that you’re on her side.
  • Keep smiling.
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 the music business.


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