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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Frank Zappa - "Peaches En Regalia" Song Analysis

Reader Steve Laufer requested a song analysis from Frank Zappa, and since he didn't ask for anything specific, here's my favorite - "Peaches En Regalia" from Zappa's second solo album called Hot Rats. The album was released in 1969 and was not only one of the first recorded using a 16 track tape machine, but one of the first to utilize stereo drums as well.

As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song itself, the arrangement, the sound and the performances.

The Song
How do you describe Frank Zappa's music? It's always been hard to categorize because Frank lived in so many musical worlds. In fact "Peaches En Regalia" has a lot more jazz and classical traits than it does rock, and here's why. The song form is anything but pop or rock-like in that the sections don't keep to the normal 4 or 8 bars. In fact, there's a lot of sections, most that never repeat in the song. Here's how the form looks:

Chorus, A section (8 bars), B section (10 bars), C section (8 bars), D section (9 bars), E section (13 bars), Chorus, A section over and over through fade

The fact that you hear the chorus (or what I'm choosing to call the chorus) twice and the A section repeats makes it seem like a familiar form, but it's far from it. Add to that the odd number of bars in some of the sections and you have a song that's quite unusual.

The Arrangement
Here's another place where there's more similarities for jazz and classical than anything else. First is the melody line doubling. You hear piano and double-speed guitar, flute and guitar, sax and baritone guitar, synth and guitar, and more combinations in one song than you might hear in an entire pop album. The instrumentation not only constantly varies, but also their arrangement roles as well, which keeps the song not only interesting, but continually interesting upon repeated listening.

Here are the arrangement elements:

  * The Foundation - The pulse of the song comes from the drums, mostly the snare.

  * The Pad - There's an organ  played mostly in the lower registers that glues everything together.

  * The Rhythm - The bass is very active and pushes the motion of the song.

  * The Lead - As described above, it's various combinations of doubled instruments, sometimes played in octaves.

  * The Fills - Again, various instruments from grand piano to saxes, especially in the outro of the song.

This type of arrangement is a trademark of Zappa's and well worth studying for any producer or arranger today.

The Sound
At the time this album was lauded for its high quality sound, which is mostly true except for a couple of things. The drums are very boxy and small sounding, almost like they were either listening too loud or really over-Eqing. They're also very low in the mix, with the kick being masked completely in sections.

The bass also seems like it was over-EQed on the bottom end, which was way common at the time when everyone was still learning what worked and what didn't. The horns, guitars, and piano all sound great though.

Surprisingly, everything is dry as a bone, with no reverb or effects added, which is contrary to most releases of the time period.

The Performance
Here's another place where the song is very jazz-like. The performances are a little on the loose side. The horns sound very much like a traditional jazz record, where they play the head of the song or read a chart without much rehearsal. It's not bad, but nothing like the performances of latter Zappa releases. I especially love Shuggie Otis's bass and Ian Underwood's piano playing in the song, but the real star of Frank's arrangement skill. Boy, is he missed.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

7 Prep Steps For Recording Acoustic Guitar

Many new to recording acoustic guitars only think of placing microphones and watching levels, but the savvy player, engineer and producer all know that you can do a number of things to enhance your session even before it begins. In this excerpt from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (written with Rich Tozzoli), we'll look at the 7 steps you can take when prepping for recording acoustic guitar.
It would be nice if all there was to recording was plugging your mic in and playing, but unfortunately it’s not that easy. Before you begin recording even the first note of an acoustic guitar, there are a few steps you should take first.

1. Change Your Strings
It may seem obvious, but putting on a fresh set of strings may help alleviate any potentially problematic issues such as tuning and a lackluster tone. Don’t be lazy about this because unless you’re going for a dull sound, a fresh set of string will make the instrument resonate stronger, and therefore sound better to the microphones placed around it. Recordings are snapshots of time, and you won’t want to listen back after that magic performance and wish you had a clearer, brighter sound because you didn’t change your strings. With an electric guitar, you can compensate slightly for dead strings by turning the treble up on the amp. No such luck when recording an acoustic, unless you choose to run it through an amp, of course. Also, fresh strings will hold the guitar’s tuning longer, which in turn will make for a smoother recording session. You can even put a little graphite from a pencil in the nut slots to let the strings move a bit easier.

Don’t forget to keep wiping your strings down during the session, as the dirt and oil from your fingers, as well as the simple oxidation of the air, will shorten their useful life. The type and thickness of string you use, which will also be dictated by the type of instrument you play, will also alter the tone of your guitar.

2. Tune It Up
Tune your guitar with as precise a tuner as you can get your hands on, and check to see that it’s intonated correctly. You can do this by tuning each string, then playing it’s harmonic at the 12th fret, and then by fretting each string at the 12th fret. All three should register ‘true’ on the tuner. If they don’t, you know your intonation is off a bit, so either fix it first or be prepared to work around it.

3. Listen To The Guitar
Just sit quietly with the instrument and play it for a few minutes. Listen closely for any buzzes on the neck, since they signal positions you want to avoid if it’s an issue that can’t be immediately fixed. Get a good feel for how the instrument really sounds so you can compare it to the recording when you hear it played back.

4. Listen To The Room
Listen to how the guitar resonates in the room you’re playing in. Does it enhance the instrument’s sound? A good room will definitely compliment the sound of an acoustic guitar. Consider whether the room is worth miking. Do a quick check of the room by loudly clapping your hands and listening for any unwanted echoes or reflective ‘pings’. If the room isn’t great, it will dictate the type of mic you choose because you’ll want to pick up less ambience in the recording. However, if the room does sound good but has too much reverb, your sound can end up sounding cloudy and less defined. You can sometimes overcome this by setting up on a rug instead of the hard floor to keep the reflections to a minimum.

A short, bright room sound is best for acoustic guitar recording, especially when it includes any combination of wood, tile and brick. Carpeting will deaden the sound, depending on the thickness, so use it sparingly. To get a woody room tone in a carpeted space, lay down an area of wood tiles, like the kind you find in a hardware store. The sound of the guitar will reflect upwards off the floor, depending on the type of wood and how much you’ve lain down. Having the guitarist face a heavy wooden door is another great trick to get some additional positive reflections, if needed.

In mediocre to poor sounding rooms, consider close-miking close the guitar with a tight cardioid mic to keep the sound focused only on the projection of the instrument. Avoid using omnidirectional mics in poor sounding rooms as the 360-degree recording pattern will capture unwanted room reflections that will not compliment the overall sound.

5. Stand Back From The Instrument
If possible, have someone else play the guitar, using the same technique as you do (pick or fingers), since what you hear from the players’ position is different than what the mics will hear. Close your eyes, move around, and to try to listen for that sweet spot where the guitar sounds best as it’s direct sound combines with the reflections of the room. Is the best sound on the neck, on the body, or both?

Does your instrument resonate better a few feet back or up close? The only way to know is to listen. The results may surprise you, as different acoustic guitars project in different ways. Remember that the soundhole may not always be the best choice for mic placement. All of this listening will help you make suggestions to the engineer (or yourself!).

6. Consider The Guitar’s Part In The Production
Is the part you’re about to track supposed to fit into a dense mix, a sparse mix, or is the guitar to be recorded solo? Discuss this with the engineer/producer ahead of time, as it may dictate not only the type of guitar you choose, but also the amount of mics you select to use on it. The more mics you use, the wider the sonic space you can create in the mix, but this might not be what the song calls for. Do you really need to use stereo mics? If possible, think about the guitar’s place in the mix before you begin.

7. Take Off Your Clothes
Well, at least take off any offensive items such as watches, rings, or jewelry that may bang against the instrument. Also, certain jackets and/or shirts may have buttons that can cause a problem. And no big belt buckles! Big watches are also usually a problem, so don’t forget to take it off before you begin tracking.

Many great takes have had to be redone because of extraneous noise from clothing and jewelry, so remove the problem even before it becomes one.
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rush - "Tom Sawyer" Song Analysis

Our good friend Anonymous requested an interesting song for a song analysis. It's "Tom Sawyer" from everyone's favorite prog-rock band Rush. The song is a perennial FM radio favorite and a single from their breakout Moving Pictures album from 1981 (is it really 30 years already?). The song reached as high as #8 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart, and the album was top 10 the world over.

As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song itself, the arrangement, sound and performance.

The Song
As with everything Rush, "Tom Sawyer" is complex and doesn't follow a standard form, but that's why they're so well liked, right? The form looks something like this:

Intro/Chorus, Verse, B section, C section, Chorus, Interlude, Solo, Intro, Verse, B section, C section, Chorus, Outro

You can dispute exactly where the chorus is, but I'm thinking it's where the "Tom Sawyer" lyric is mentioned. It could very well be the C section though, and you're interpretation is as good as mine. One thing's for sure, the song's form is not conventional.

That being said, there is a lot of melody in the song that millions of people today happily sing to themselves and others.

The Arrangement
Rush's songs are fairly bare-bones in that they're meant to be played live, so there's not a lot of obvious layering. The guitars are doubled and heavily effected to make them bigger, but you can hear how they effectively use only a single less effected guitar in the first turnaround of the solo, then the 2nd has the full guitar sound to change the dynamics.

Rush also uses synthesizers very creatively, from the Moogish sound in the interlude and outro, to the big bass envelopes in the intro and outro.

Also, the lead vocal is doubled in the C section, which differentiates it from the others, although that's not needed that much in this song.

The Sound
The overall sound is about as good as it gets on a album. Neil Pert's drums are way up in front and have a nice pre-delayed medium room on them that you can only hear in the beginning when they're by themselves. The drums are compressed very well so they're punchy and in your face without seeming squashed.

Geddy Lee's vocal has a timed delay with a medium reverb wash that blends seamlessly into the track. Once again, you can only hear it during the intro. It sounds just a little squashed, but I'm cutting hairs here. His bass has that Rickenbacker treble sound yet still has a lot of bottom, despite the distortion.

Alex Lifeson's guitar is doubled and slightly chorused with a medium reverb wash for the huge sound that glues everything together.

The Performance
What can you say, they're all great. You have to be to pull it off as a power trio. I think what sticks out to me though is Pert's drumming. It's absolutely rock solid, without a beat ever feeling like it drifted even a microsecond, yet still feels organic. There are not many dudes who can do that.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Your DAW Is In The Cloud

It used to be that you needed pretty close to a million dollars to own a studio, and that was mostly for the gear. "Big Iron" consoles and tape machines were the norm and they cost big dough, not to mention all the outboard gear and wiring that you needed even before you got into the acoustic treatment of the room. But soon enough, the prices started to come down. First it an inexpensive  4 track, then 8 track, then 24 track tape machines that were a fraction of the price of a pro machine, but they still weren't quite up to the quality of the gear used in "real studios."

Of course that all changed with the digital age, as the gear got less and less expensive and more and more powerful. Suddenly just about anyone can have more power in their bedroom than The Beatles ever dreamed of having at Abbey Road. But it still involves at least some nominal cost.

So how does free sound? I was just turned onto something called the Burn Studios Audiotool, a free cloud-based music production studio for your web browser. There's a library of audio samples, a host of virtual devices including drum machines and synths, and a bunch of templates and tutorials to get you started. Of course you can only make MP3s or ogg files, but that mattered mattered all that much to a lot of people lately anyway.

This isn't the way I'd like to work, and pros will always want to have the best, but Audiotool just shows you how far we've come in the musical instrument and pro audio business. Let's hope that some kid with no money gets his chance because of tools like this. Check it out at Burn Studios Audiotool. It's fun.
Help support this blog. Any purchases made through our Amazon links help support this website with no cost to you.

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, April 10, 2011

An Inside Look At A 1965 Frank Sinatra Session

This video has made the rounds with my Facebook friends today (I'm not sure exactly where it started, but thank you to whomever is responsible) and when you give it a watch you'll know why. It's a 1965 Frank Sinatra live record date, complete with a full orchestra, of his hit "It Was A Very Good Year."

There's a lot to like in this video. Check out:
  • the small size of the audio console considering how large the orchestra. The recording was done at the famed United Western studio (now called EastWest), so the console was undoubtedly one custom-designed by the legendary Bill Putnam (that might be him at the console but can't tell for sure). The console is pictured on the left.
  • there was not a headphone in sight.
  • the good humor that Frank is in. None of his legendary surliness here.
  • the fact that he's playing to a small audience of friends. When was the last time you saw that during a session?
  • Walter Cronkite doing the voice-over. That's two legends on the same tape.
  • the fact that this is a live record. No overdubs here. It's over when Frank is satisfied, which happens relatively quickly as the man was known for few takes.
  • how many people are dressed formally with jackets and ties.
Recording sure has change in the last 46 years. I'm not sure it's gotten any better though.


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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