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Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Born This Way" - Lady Gaga Song Analysis

Whether you love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is #1 this week on the Ultimate Chart with "Born This Way," so let's do a song analysis. As with all analysis, we'll break the song down into four parts - the song itself, the arrangement, the sound and performance.

The Song - "Born This Way" is a straight down the middle pop dance song that follows a familiar form with a 124bpm tempo. The form goes like this:

Spoken intro, music intro, verse, chorus, spoken interlude, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, spoken outro

About the only thing that's different about the song form itself is the spoken intro, interlude and outro. That said, the song does have a good melody and a strong chorus, once again in the tradition of all great pop songs.

The Arrangement - When you have a song that's built on a traditional form you have to play some tricks to keep the song interesting and "Born This Way" does just that. One thing that always works in any genre of music is dynamics and that's what the song employs to keep the interest high. Listen to the following places:

     The first half of the verse with just the vocal, pad and rhythm.
     The first 4 bars of the 2nd verse with just the vocal and kick drum.
     The first half of the bridge with spoken word, synth bed and sound effects.
     The first half of the first outro chorus with just vocals and kick drum.
     The last outchorus vocal where it breaks down to just the lead and harmony vocals.

The 5 elements of the mix (check out this post for an explanation) look like this:
  • The Foundation - Like most songs, it's the bass and drums.
  • The Pad - Like most dance songs, it's a synth pad that you can hear predominantly in the first verse, but it's there for the whole song adding the glue to the tracks as well.
  • The Rhythm - This element utilizes an aggressive synth with a saw-tooth wave shape that you can hear predominantly in the 2nd half of the first verse.
  • The Fills - Like most hit pop songs, there's something in almost every space where there's not a vocal. Usually it's some sort of synth but there are lots of sound effects as well.
The Sound - Once again, like most dance-oriented songs, "Born This Way" is compressed pretty hard, but the kick and snare are really squeezed to the point where they don't sound natural at all. Maybe that was the point, but I think they would've sounded better with more dynamics and better sounds.

The Performance - I think my favorite part is the breakdown to the vocals in the outro chorus. There's some nice ad libbing by Gaga, and the vocal harmony twists at the end is something that's small, yet attention grabbing.

As always, feel free to send me your suggestions of songs to analyze. I'll get to them in the first part of the week.


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 the music business.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The 50 Worst Band Pictures

It's time to laugh a little, unfortunately at the expense of others. Today's post is centered around a something I found called "The 50 worst band pictures." The problems with most of the photos is that the bands just don't know any better. They think a picture is a picture and a photographer is a photographer, but just like a great musician, engineer or producer, you get what you pay for. As the saying goes, a pro is expensive; an amateur costs a fortune. Let's look at a few.

These guys are from Finland, so maybe things are different over there, but:
1) Do these costumes have anything to do with the band, or do they just think they're cool?
2) The post growing out of the head of the 2nd guy from the left is a bit of a distraction, as is the house on top of the head of Thor on the right.
3) Are these guys actors or musicians?
4) Cellphone cameras are nice and all, but it sure would be nice to see some depth of field.
5) There's this really nice grassy knoll in the background. Think they could've used that instead?

Here's a good example of a photo that's just plain bad. Let's count the number of things wrong with this.
1) Band doesn't care enough about the photo to dress for it
2) No matter what anyone tells you, it's never cool to give the finger in a photo.
3) Bad picture of the band that's not very clear
4) Even worse Photoshop job.
5) If the little guy on the left was raised up a bit, they could've used the natural cut toff point at the waist to frame it better.
6) Would you hire this band? Yeah, me neither.

I can't believe that anyone would even consider this as a band photo.
1) Fat and out of shape guys should never take a picture with their shirts off. It's even weird for a guy who's really cut to do it.
2) Once again, "Let's take a really bad picture from your girlfriends iPhone and Photoshop the background out. Yeah, that will do it."
3) "While we're at it, let's Photoshop some lighting bolts in there." That has exactly what to do with shirtless fat guys? Shirtless fat guys have exactly what to do with music?

Here we go again. Just the kind of photo to NOT get you the gig.
1) "Let's rub fake blood all over us to make us look like crazy killers." This has exactly what to do with their music?
2) "Hey buddy, take a picture of our band with this little pocket camera. Make sure the flash is on."
3) Doesn't the fact that the guy on the left is in the dark bother anyone?
4) How does the setting and background relate to crazy killers who think they're a band?

This one's a little better on execution, but does it make you want to hire the band? Does it make you think that they're even a band at all. As the caption on the original website said, "They'll get you a good deal on cell phone accessories."

To see all fifty of these gems, go here.

Here's an excerpt from the Electronic Press Kit chapter of The Musician's Video Handbook that covers band pictures.
Make sure that the still photos are professionally done. Nothing screams out “amateur” than pictures that are blurry, aren’t framed well, and worst of all, aren’t suitable for use in an article. This is one of your key assets and will be used more than anything else except your bio. They don’t have to be studio portraits - they can be crazy and creative if it fits your image. 

If you don’t have any pictures, avoid the temptation to have a friend take some unless he’s a really good photographer. An amateur-looking photograph is almost as bad as none at all. That being said, almost all the techniques used for lighting and framing video also apply to taking photographs, so you can check those chapters for some help.
If you decide to use a pro photographer, stay away from one that does family-style portraits because you’ll get one that makes you look like a family. They don’t do music and most don’t have that kind of mindset. If there’s a local modeling agency, ask them for some suggestions. That way you’ll get someone who’s a lot more inventive and that will result in some photos that are more interesting. If you go this route, make sure that you get an agreement up front that you own the copyrights on the photos, if you can.

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 the music business.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

6 Mic Placement Tips For Electric Guitars

Time for another excerpt from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook, this time regarding 6 mic placement tips for electric guitars. Actually, most of these tips can be used for any instrument, not just guitar amps.

You can read some other excerpts from the book on the Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook page on my website.

A common recording process has an engineer EQing, compressing, and adding multiple mics in trying to capture a sound, yet never taking into account what the sound in the room at the source is like. That’s why it’s imperative that every engineer use the following steps in any serious microphone placement:
1. Go out into the room, stand in front of the amp or acoustic guitar player, and listen to them play the part from the song you’re about to record. Playing the song is important because you might be deceived if it’s another song or just random playing. Listen for the tonal balance from the amp or instrument as well as the way the room responds. Listening to the amp or acoustic guitar in the room will give you a reference point to the way it really sounds so you have a better idea of what you’re trying to capture. 
2. Find the sweet spot. There are several ways to find the sweet spot.
  • To place an omnidirectional mic, cover one ear and listen with the other. Move around the mic or player until you find the spot that sounds best. That’s where to place the mic to begin.
  • To place a cardioid mic, cup your hand behind your ear (instead of covering it) and move around the player or amp until you find the place that sounds best.
  • To place a stereo mic or stereo pair, cup both ears and move around the player or amp until you find the place that sounds best.
  • As an alternate method, crank the amp until it’s noisy, then put on headphones and listen to the mic as you move it around until the noise has the best combination of highs and lows.
3. You can’t place the mic by sight. The best mic position must always be found, not predicted. It’s okay to have a starting place, but it’s usually never what ends up being the best spot.
4. Change the mic position instead of reaching for the EQ. Chances are that you can adjust the quality of the sound enough by simply moving the mic in order to avoid using any equalization. The EQ will add a least a small amount of phase shift at some frequency and can’t be undone later. Moving the mic (which amounts to an acoustic EQ) will usually sound smoother and more pleasing to the ear.
5. Give the mic some distance. Remember, distance creates depth. The guitar and amp will sound a lot more natural than using artificial ambience. If possible, leave just enough distance between the mic and the source to get a bit of room reflection to it.
6. Be careful miking multi-speaker cabinets. 4x12 cabinets like the typical Marshall 1960 pose a special challenge in that at a certain distance you have phase anomalies from the multiple speakers that you really don’t want to capture. The cabinet will sound fine when close miked from right against the grill cloth to approximately three inches away from the best sounding speaker in the cabinet, but until you get to a distance of 18 inches where the sound of all the speakers converge, you may be capturing some speaker interaction that’s not all that pleasant sounding. That distance varies with the make and model of speaker cabinet.

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 the music business.

Monday, February 28, 2011

"Everybody Loves A Happy Ending" - Tears For Fears Song Analysis

Our friend David Das asked for an analysis of Tears For Fears "Everybody Loves A Happy Ending" so here it is. This is the title song from the 2000 reunion album of the band, which features Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith.

TFF is known for their Beatlesqe songs and images and this song is no exception. As with all analysis, we'll break the song down into four parts - the song itself, the arrangement, the sound and performance.

The Song - The song is very interesting in that it doesn't really follow the standard pop format of verse, chorus, repeat, add bridge, etc. It goes like this:

Intro, intro with additional instruments and vocals, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, outro

The outro is not a verse and it's not quite a chorus, it's another section entirely, and that's what makes the song unique. It ends essentially with a bridge and a D section.

The Arrangement - Like most great music productions, this song has a lot of development and tension and release. As far as development is concerned, listen to how each section that repeats (like the intro and the verses) changes thanks to new sonic textures, and even mix elements, being introduced. In terms of tension and release, Happy Ending is opposite of most songs, since the verse is very large and tense sounding, and the release comes from the sparser chorus with a different rhythmic feel. The bridge then breaks down to just a guitar, drums played with brushes, and vocal that gets augmented with vocal harmonies as it repeats. Then the outro gets loud and mean and becomes the peak of the song until the tension is released at the very end with a very John Lennon-esqe vocal part.

Since the song has so many completely different sections, lets just look at the intro as an example of the mix elements.

The 5 elements of the mix (check out this post for an explanation) look like this:
  • The Foundation - As is the norm, the Foundation element is the intro is held down by the bass and drums.
  • The Pad - There's a synth/organ that's framing the chord changes by just playing footballs (whole note chords).
  • The Rhythm - There really isn't a rhythm element in this case, but there doesn't have to be either. As long as there's no more than 5 elements, the listener will not be overloaded with information.
  • The Lead - A synth plays the line, then is augmented with both a clean baritone guitar and a sitar (a TFF trademark) at the very end of the intro.
  • The Fills - The second pass of the intro has a high distorted guitar line enter playing counterpoint to the lead. The vocals also sing an answer line in the spaces that become a fill.
The Sound - A mix that's this dense in places sometimes has instruments that are buried, but more often than not in this song, they're intended to blend into on another to create a new sonic element. That's what happens throughout the song. For the most part, everything is pretty in your face, with short ambiences, or double-tracks to add a sense of space and environment. The exceptions is the high guitar line in the second half of the intro with the repeated eighth note delay that's intentionally pushed back in the mix.

The Performance - Happy Ending is extremely well made and performed, but there are flashes a greatness in sections of the song. I love the fast bass fill that appears at 1;10 and the harmony vocals on the second verse and the bridge. The sparseness of the  bridge is also a nice change.

It would take a lot more to cover everything in this song, so just enjoy the great production as you listen.

Also, feel free to send me your suggestions of songs to analyze.


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 the music business.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Ins And Outs Of Road Cases

Today is the last day to enter to win a copy of The Touring Musician's Handbook, so click here to enter if you're interested. I thought that now would be a good for an excerpt from the book, so here's a bit from Chapter 7 all about a highly misunderstood piece of a touring player's arsenal - their road cases.
For many musicians, buying road cases for their gear is sort of a right of passage. As soon as you stencil your name on the cases, it suddenly means that your stock as a musician has risen and you’ve made the jump to becoming your own brand.
While some players choose not to case up their gear in order to save money in the beginning of their touring career, they soon see the shortsightedness the first time a favorite instrument is damaged from a fall off of a ramp or loading dock. Road cases are not only worth it, but almost mandatory in that your gear always has to work, and the only way to assure that happens is to keep it protected from the frequent and many knocks of the road.
The ATA Standard

Although many cases may look similar, the sturdiest (and consequently most expensive) ones are what’s known as ATA cases. This is a design based on an airplane parts packaging specification (known as ATA 300 Category 1), developed by airline packaging engineers and certified by the Airline Transport Association. ATA 300 compliant cases are designed to withstand the rigors of being shipped a minimum of 100 times, and specifies that the case will have recessed handles that will not break during transit. The standard also details the level of quality of every piece of construction material that goes into the case, including locks, hinges, and fastening systems, and also states that all rivets and screws must be non-corrosive and all edges must be rounded and have certain level of construction quality. Because of this ATA standard, the typical road case has also come to be known by the name “flight case,” since it’s made principally to survive multiple flights.
Tip: If the road case is too heavy for a single person to carry it, it needs casters.
Types Of Road Cases
Road cases come in a lot of different styles and a lot of different materials. As a result, all road cases are not created equal. Some are great for keeping the weather off your gear, while others are built to withstand the constant battle of the road. Let’s take a look at the different types.
Fiber Cases - Fiber cases are the typical drum cases that most drummers have used some time during their life (see Figure 7.2). They’re made out of fiberglass reinforced polyester and are very strong and rugged. While they work great for the club musician or weekend warrior because they keep the scuffs and incidental scratches off of the instrument, they’re deficient for road work in several ways; there’s little or no shock mounting for the instrument, the case is closed with a nylon strap that can be cut or lost, and their irregular shape make them difficult to pack efficiently. This means they usually get tossed on the top of the evenly packed square cases in the truck where they bounce around a lot as a result. Guess what that does for the instrument? They’re also prone to caving should something very heavy be placed upon them.

Aluminum - Aluminum cases have a major advantage in being extremely light weight, and usually have a fair amount of shock absorption (see Figure 7.3) inside. That being said, they’re very easy to pierce, and should generally not be used for shipping purposes as a result. It’s possible to have an ATA standard aluminum case, but you have to use so much aluminum that you lose the weight advantage that aluminum has over other types of cases.

Carpet Cases - These are simple plywood cases with an outer fuzzy carpet material (see Figure 7.4). This type of construction once again offers little in the way of impact relief and protection. They’re heavy because the internal frame may be constructed of steel, and even though the carpet finish makes them very tough, there’s not much in the way of shock mounting. Carpet cases are great for things like cables and mic stands, but not for anything expensive that must be protected.

Molded Plastic - Some cases are made out of molded plastic (see Figure 7.5) which might be good for keeping the rain off an instrument but not much help under the repeated impacts of being loaded onto a truck. Their weakness frequently is in the latches, which can break or come loose over time, and you don’t see plastic cases in very large sizes. Once again, molded plastic cases may come in an odd enough shape that it won’t easily pack in the truck. There are ATA molded cases made, which are also mil spec for military electronic gear, but they’re really expensive and generally custom made.

Sandwiched Material - The strongest and most common road cases are the ones with sandwiched material and reinforced edges and corners (see Figure 7.6), and these can be made of different materials for different types of transit. Most sandwich-type road cases are constructed in three main layers:
  • an outer layer of a plastic-based laminate called ABS
  • a middle layer of 3/16 to ½ inch cabinet-grade plywood such as birch, poplar or maple
  • an internal shock-absorbing foam layer that corresponds to the exact shape of the instrument or piece of gear.
  • The edges of the case are reinforced with aluminum extrusion, and have steel or zinc corner pieces and recessed handles and fasteners. 

The good thing about ATA type road cases is that they can be repaired. Just about anything can be replaced and the case will come back as good as new. In fact, there are companies that specialize in repairing road cases like Mobil Flight Case Repair, although just about any road case manufacturer can do it.


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 the music business.


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