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Thursday, December 16, 2010

6 Reasons Why The Album Format Died

I don't normally cross-post with my Music 3.0 blog, but I feel strongly about his topic and wanted to get it out to the widest audience.

I think it's safe to say that we're at the end of the "album age," and although the format will hold on for a while, it's clearly waning in popularity. I've given this a lot of thought and have come up with what I think are the reasons, but be aware, they're not all exactly what the popular wisdom assumes. So let's begin with the 6 reasons why the album format has, for all intents and purposes, died.

1) It was a visual experience. The album format in the vinyl record age had the advantage of that wonderful piece of cardboard known as the album jacket. The album jacket contained the cover art (still found on CDs), and most importantly, the liner notes on the back, which we'll get to in a second. But one thing that everyone either forgets or has never experienced is the fact that millions of albums were purchased completely on impulse because of the album artwork alone! 

It may be hard to believe, but it was quite common to come across an album cover that was so cool that you'd buy it without knowing a thing about the artist. Sometimes it would be a total loser, but you still had the liner notes to read, and occasionally that would still make it a worthwhile purchase.

2) It was an informational experience too. Those of you too young to have experienced this don't know how much the liner notes meant to nearly everyone who bought an album (the picture on the left gives you an idea how extensive they could be). You could spend hours reading a well-written gatefold jacket, checking out every credit, wondering just where these exotic studios were (Smoketree Ranch in Malibu was the one that always intrigued me the most as a kid), and generally just soaking up any info you could about the artist. Of course, this was way, way before the Internet, so the liner notes were sometimes the only place to find any of info on the artist at all.

To say the least, the visuals and information along with the music made buying an album a total experience that today's album doesn't some close to.

3) The demise of the record stores. Once again, this may seem hard to believe but nearly every community had someplace that sold records, even if it didn't have a record store. There was an entire network set up to supply records to department stores, supermarkets, even diners. You couldn't help but to run into someplace selling records during the course of a day.

But the record store was the place to not only buy music, but to spend hours browsing. Why? Because of the cover art and liner notes. You'd peel through a bin of records, stopping every so often to look at an intriguing cover, which made you want to read the liner notes, and maybe even buy the album as a result. 

But the record store was also the best place for word of mouth. The people that worked the record stores always knew what was hot, what was underground but about to pop, and what was overhyped. You could go into a store and ask a clerk, "What's really good?" and he'd give you 10 choices, most of which were pretty high quality. This is something that the music industry is still looking for today online. Now we call it "music discovery" and VC's still throw big money at anyone who claims to have an app.

4) The price. Albums used to be a bargain. A 45 RPM single used to cost anywhere from $.99 to $1.29 (ironically what a download costs today, except you got two songs then), but an album started at only $3.98, before prices gradually began to increase. Either way, in the beginning the album was a no brainer even for a kid on a tight allowance. For the longest time, the album was priced at $8.98, before it was discounted, which was still a bargain. 

The greed started in the early 80's as the major record labels were taken over by multi-national companies, the attorneys and accountants ruled, and the prices of the album began to rise - first with what they called "superstar pricing," which tacked on an extra dollar for a superstar act (Tom Petty sued his label keep the price at $8.98, a gesture that would be very unlikely today by a big music act).

5) The CD. Then came the CD, and the business went to hell in hand basket. The packaging was different, so the jacket was no longer needed, and as a result, the cover art became less important, and you couldn't really do extensive liner notes because the print would be too small to read. Then the record labels really got greedy, charging outlandish prices (called "technology charges") on a product that eventually cost them less than the vinyl records they previously were making. In fact, prices soared to $19.95 for a front line artist's CD. If you bought one of these and weren't completely and totally satisfied, you were pissed, since dropping a deuce on anything was a real commitment.

And of course, there were no more impulse buys anymore because the artwork behind a 5 inch piece of plastic just doesn't have the same impact as on a 12 inch piece of cardboard.

6) Too much filler. Most vinyl albums are between 35 and 45 minutes long. This was out of necessity because of the physics of a record. Make it any longer and it starts to get noisy, the frequency response suffers, and it won't be as loud. But 40 minutes or so turns out to be the perfect amount of time for listening. There's a time commitment you have to make, but it's well within reason, especially if you like the music. 

A CD is capable of containing a bit more than 73 minutes of music. Unfortunately, artists began to think that it was a really good idea to put all the garbage that they normally would've tossed from a vinyl record, and put it all on their CD. Now instead of having 40 minutes of great music, we had 55 minutes of mediocrity. Even if the artist had some great songs, it was frequently buried under another 50 minutes of crap. Now not only was the fan paying more money, but she was paying more money for less quality. Something had to give.

Which is just about the time MP3's and Napster came on the scene, which eventually helped push the music business from an album business into the singles business that it has now become. Ironically, popular music started with as a singles business, to whence it now returns.

It's easy to say that online music slayed the album, but it was only the final dagger after 6 long swords.
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Carry On Wayward Son" - Kansas Isolated Parts

Here are the vocal tracks and a little more from the 1977 Kansas hit "Carry On Wayward Son." This particular video seems like it was an extraction of the center channel, since a lot of instruments besides the vocals appear. That's OK because we get to hear inside the track in a way that few have heard before. Here are some of the things that I picked up on.

1) In the intro line, I never heard the left hand organ of the organ doubling the guitar before.

2) The 2nd half of the verse speeds up enough that it starts to feel uncomfortable. It seems a little more so when you hear the vocal mostly by itself. It also speeds up a bit in the 2nd verse, but not as badly.

3) The 3 part harmony on the chorus is very tight, even during the turnaround and ends of the phrase. It wasn't uncommon in those days to have the harmony vocals follow along pretty closely only to break into unison at some point, mostly because the vocalists were harmonizing by ear. You can tell this vocal arrangement was worked out very well before hand.

4) The lead vocal sound is pretty good but gets a little gritty during the bridge and the end of last chorus during the loudest parts. I think it's Steve Walsh singing, and he really has a set of pipes! The reverb is pretty long and thick with what sounds like a very short 15ips tape delay in front of it.

5) My favorite part (being an old Hammond player myself) is the very end of the song where Walsh pushes in the lower drawbars leaving only the higher harmonics, and then turns the Leslie to high speed. Classic!

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gifts For Your Sound Guy

Clive Young recently wrote this great article in the Pro Sound News newsletter about some ideas for the perfect gift for the live sound person in your family. You can sign up for the PSN newsletter here.


What do live sound guys want? We ask this question every year and of course, the best answers are intangible: More sleep, a little respect, and a living wage. None of those fit in a stocking, however, so here’s our fourth annual gift guide on what to get your favorite live sound pro for the holidays.

To compile this list, we looked for items that would be good for audio pros working local gigs or cranking it out on a 22-bus national tour. Everything had to be small enough to fit in a road case without using a sledge hammer to make it fit, and most importantly, it had to be useful—except for the goofball stuff that was too good to resist.

• Personalized Sharpies: Everyone steals the sound guy’s markers, so short of gluing them to his hand (which would make it hard to mix), this is the best way to make sure they don’t walk. Put any text you want on them, there’s eight colors to choose from, and prices start at $12 for a half-dozen.mysharpie.com2010-12-03-ety

ETY•Plugs: These earplugs use a tuned resonator and acoustic resistor to reduce levels, not sound quality. PSN editor-in-chief Frank Wells had them at Japan’s Summer Sonic festival: “I was really glad to have a 'full fidelity,' -20 dB plug. You could still hear the music, unlike with conventional plugs.” $12.95

Leatherman Wave: The top-selling multi-tool of all-time, it features 18 goodies, including wire cutters, pliers and knives that can be set out with one hand. FOH engineer Chris Barclift told us on Facebook, “I can't count the times that having one has saved my [gig].” $62.

• Universal Bier Remote Control: It may not be a Leatherman, but it’s an equally crucial tool for the well-equipped tour bus—a TV remote control with built-in bottle opener. $15.

Kaltman Cable Coiler: This motorized handheld unit wraps up a cable in about as long as it takes to read this listing, and its sister product, Cable Slap Ties, clips the resulting coil in no time flat. On Twitter, engineer@SlauBeSharp told us it’s a “brilliant device.” $120.

iOS Guitar Effect Simulators: Know a roadie with a travel guitar? Put a Peavey AmpKit Link  or IK Multimedia iRig in his stocking; these devices turn an iPhone or iPad into a virtual pedalboard to help get one’s shred on. Check out the Pro Sound News blog for in-depth reviews of each. $39.

2010-12-03-rug• The Duddha Rug: Amazingly, there’s no Spinal Tap 2011 calendar—a shame since it’s gonna be the year that goes to eleven. In lieu of that, abide by this choice item for your favorite cult movie fan/audio Dude—a Big Lebowski-inspired 3x5-foot rug that really ties the mix position together. $

• Mosh Potatoes: Just because they’re called Road Dogs doesn’t mean the crew likes table scraps, so give ‘em this cookbook, featuring fare from famed foodies Megadeth, Type O Negative, Queensr├┐che, Dream Theater and more. $10.

Grado Pro Series SR60i Headphones: A favorite of the audiophile crowd, Grado headphones can run anywhere up to $1,700, but these, sporting an upgraded driver design and improved mass distribution in the plastic housing, will set you back less than a C-note. $79.

Etch-A-Sketch iPad Case: Your giftee has been blowing people’s minds by using Yamaha’s new StageMix iPad app to remotely run an M7CL console. Make it even more surreal by giving him a case that makes his Apple toy look like the classic plaything. Added bonus: The crowd won’t ask “Do you really know what all the knobs do?” $39.

Ion Audio Tape Express Plus: Another year has gone by and your pal still hasn’t converted that old box of board tapes because he’s always on the go. Get him this Walkman-style tape player with USB outputs and software for MP3 conversion, and he can copy tapes anywhere he takes his laptop. $49.

2010-12-03-mikeyBlue Mics Mikey 2G: If that guitar-toting pal is strictly an acoustic player, give him this second-generation mic with two custom-tuned Blue capsules, which plugs into an iPod, iPod Touch or iPhone to work with any recording app. $69.

• SensoGlove: If there’s two things tour engineers love, it’s analytic data and golf. Combining them both is this digital golf glove, whose sensors read the user’s grip pressure to analyze and hopefully improve one’s golf swing. $

• Healing Back Pain: At PSN, our pains manifest themselves as something we call “Deadlines,” so we can’t attest to the effectiveness of Dr. John Sarno’s book, but the folks at Oradell, NJ-based audio vendor Boulevard Pro ( told us they swear by it. $7

• Laptop Defender SE-0210: Gigs can take audio pros into pretty dodgy areas sometimes—and then they have to pull out expensive, high-tech gear! Help your pal protect his laptop with this credit card-sized gizmo sporting a motion sensor and skull-splitting 100 dB alarm. $29.

• Zadro Nano UV Disinfection Scanner: Just for fun, guess how many people have used that microphone? Ewwww. Zap 99.99 percent of the germs on it--and any other surface--with this cell phone-sized unit. Not for use on humans or animals (not even the drummer). $69

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Elliot Scheiner Interview Excerpt

Here's an excerpt of an interview with Elliot Scheiner from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook. Ells has long been recognized as one of the finest engineers working today and has a shelf full of industry awards (5 Grammy’s, 4 Surround Music Awards, Surround Pioneer Award, Tech Awards Hall Of Fame and too many total award nominations to count) from his work with The Eagles, Beck, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Sting, John Fogerty, Van Morrison, Toto, Queen, Faith Hill, Lenny Kravitz, Natalie Cole, Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith, Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and many, many others to prove it. He's also one of the nicest guys in the business.

In this interview, Elliot talks not only about his approach to mixing but about some of his projects as well.

Do you have a philosophy about mixing?
Elliot Scheiner:  I’ve always believed that if someone has recorded all this information, then they want it to be heard, so my philosophy is to be able to hear everything that was recorded.  It's not about burying everything in there and getting a wall of sound.  I've never been into that whole concept.  It was more about whatever part was played, if it was the subtleties of a drummer playing off beats on the snare drum next to the backbeat, obviously he wants that heard.  So I always want to make sure that everything that's in that record gets heard.
If you were able to accomplish hearing every single instrument in the mix, that was a huge achievement.  Granted, maybe there wasn't as much information when I started as there is now.  I myself have come across files that have been a hundred and some odd tracks, so it's not as easy to do that today.  
I have to admit that the way some people record things today is a bit peculiar.  All of a sudden you'll be dealing with 7 or 8 different mics on the same instrument. Like, for example, an acoustic guitar will all of a sudden have 7 different viewpoints of where this guitar's being recorded.  It's mind boggling that you have to go and make a determination and listen to every single channel to decide which one you want to use.  And if you pick the wrong ones they come back at you and say, "Oh, we had a different combination" or "It doesn't sound quite right to us", but they don't tell you what they did!  So granted, it is a little more difficult to deal with those issues today, but I still take the same approach with every mix.
If you have a hundred tracks, will you try to have them all heard?  Or do you go in and do some subtractive mixing?
Elliot Scheiner:  Well, it depends if that's necessary.  I don't usually get those kind of calls where they say "Here's a hundred tracks.  Delete what you want."  It's usually not about that.  And I have to say that I'll usually get between 24 and 48 tracks in most cases and hardly ever am I given the liberty to take some of them out.  I mean if something is glaringly bad I'll do that, but to make a judgment call as to whether background vocals should be in here or there, I generally don't do that.  I just assume that whatever an artist and producer sends me is kind of written in stone.  They've recorded it, and unless they tell me otherwise, I usually don't do subtractive mixing. 

How long does it take you to do a mix on average?
Elliot Scheiner:  Depending on how complicated it is, it usually takes anywhere from 3 hours to a day.
3 hours is really fast!
Elliot Scheiner:  Yeah, well a lot of time you just get a vibe and a feel for something and it just comes together.  Then you look at it and say "How much am I actually going to improve this mix."  I mean if it feels great and sounds great I'm a little reluctant to beat it into the ground.
For me it's still about a vibe and if I can get things to sound good and have a vibe, that's all I really care about.  I still put Al Schmitt on a pedestal.  Look at how quickly he gets things done.  He can do three songs in a day and they'll be perfect and amazing sounding and have the right vibe.  So it's not like it can't be done.  Some people say that you can't get a mix in a short time and that's just not true and Al's my proof.
Where do you usually start your mix from?
Elliot Scheiner:  Out of force of habit, if there's a rhythm section I'll usually start with the drums and then move to the bass and just work it up.  Once the rhythm section is set I'll move on to everything else and end with vocals.
How much EQ do you use?
Elliot Scheiner:  I can't say that there are any rules for that.  I can't say that I've ever mixed anything that Al has recorded, but if I did I probably wouldn't have any on it.  With some of the stuff done by some of the younger kids, I get it and go, "What were they listening to when they recorded this."  So in some cases I use drastic amounts where I'll be double compressing and double EQing; all kinds of stuff in order to get something to sound good. I never did that until maybe the last 5 years.  Obviously those mixes are the ones that take a day or more.
When you're setting up a mix, do you always have a certain set of outboard gear, like a couple of reverbs and delays, ready to use or do you patch it as you go?
Elliot Scheiner:  Usually I don't start out with any reverbs.  I'm not one for processing.  I'd like to believe that music can survive without reverbs and without delays and without effects.  Obviously when it's called for I'll use it, but the stuff I do is pretty dry.  The 70's were a pretty dry time and then the 80's effects became overused.  There was just tons of reverb on everything.
Most of your Steely Dan stuff is pretty dry, isn't it?
Elliot Scheiner:  It's pretty much dry.  What we used were plates usually.
Real short ones?
Elliot Scheiner:  Not necessarily. In the days when I was working at A&R [studios in New York city] we had no remotes on any of our plates there.  Phil [Ramone - producer and owner of A&R] wanted to make changing them difficult because he tuned them himself and he really didn't want anybody to screw with them. There would be at least 4 plates in every room. Some of them might be a little shorter than another but generally they were in the 2 to 2 1/2 second area. There was always an analog tape pre-delay, usually at 15 ips, going into the plates. The plates were tuned so brilliantly that it didn't become a noticeable effect. It was just a part of the instrument or part of the music. You could actually have a fair amount on an instrument and you just wouldn't notice it.
Is the sound of the A&R plates something that you try to get today?
Elliot Scheiner:  Oh, I'm always trying to get that reverb sound. If I'm using plates either at Right Track or Capital, I'll still use an analog tape delay going into it.

For more of this interview, check out The Mixing Engineer's Handbook.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

"The Boys Are Back In Town" Thin Lizzy Isolated Vocals

Here's a song that everyone has heard, since it's been a radio and commercial staple for years - Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town," which was a hit from the Irish band's 1976 breakout album Jailbreak. Today we'll take a listen to Phil Lynott's isolated lead vocals.

1) Considering that this was recorded in 1976, the sound of the vocal is very modern, without a lot of compression nor some of the tuning problems heard frequently from that era.

2) The reverb sounds great. It's both delayed and band limited so it doesn't get in the way.

3) There's an obvious punch at about 2:29 that I never heard until I listened to the isolated vocal.

4) The background vocals are interesting in that they're just a doubled Lynott but drenched in some non-delayed reverb that's a little bright.

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


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