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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Come With Me To China

I'm going on a trip to China and I'd love for you to come along.
  • 14 days
  • 4 cities: Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Suzhou
  • Performances and talks by myself and my good friend Gene Wall Cole.
  • 3 meals a day included
  • Deluxe accommodations
  • English speaking guides
  • Shows and special restaurants included
  • All transportation within China included
  • Only $2995 (excluding airfare to and from China)
  • October 8 to 21, 2012
Questions? Send me an email.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Joe Walsh "Rocky Mountain Way" Song Analysis

Here's a song that I've been getting requests to do a song analysis on for a while, and I have to admit that it's long been one of my favorites - Joe Walsh and Barnstorm's "Rocky Mountain Way" from the album The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get.

Although Joe had achieved some measure of success with The James Gang, "Rocky Mountain Way" was the song that broke him as a solo artist, getting as far as #23 on the Billboard charts. In a round-about way, it also led to his eventual place as guitarist in The Eagles, since both were produced by Bill Szymscyk, although Szymscyk also produced the James Gang as well. The song was written by Walsh as a tribute to his new home in Colorada, having just moved from Cleveland, and is one of the first songs to use a talkbox on the guitar. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Rocky Mountain Way" is really a pretty simple song in that it consists of only 3 parts - an intro/interlude/outro, a verse and a chorus. Like all hit songs, it's how it's put together that makes the difference. The song form looks like this:

Intro (guitar), Intro (guitar, bass and piano), Intro (full band with slide guitar), Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Solo (over an extended verse), Chorus, Outro

RMW is really just a blues shuffle, but regardless who's playing the shuffle or how it's played, it's a feel that we as listeners really like and always seems to be a winner.

The Arrangement
As stated above, RMW is a pretty simple song, but as always, the arrangement makes the difference. Take notice how things build in the intro, with the song beginning with a single guitar on the left, then adding a double on the right, then adding the bass and piano, and finally adding the drums.

There are a lot of dynamics at work in the verse as the piano drops out, the guitar play only the E-A blues riff, and the bass and drums alter their playing so it's more open. Then comes the chorus when the slide guitar and piano re-enter and the bass and drums change their patterns again to push both the feel and the level of the band, which continues into the Interlude.

The solo is interesting because the song strips down again. The clavinet enters (or "Funky C" as we used to call it) on the left and the talkbox solo guitar on the right as the rhythm section basically plays the verse feel. On the last 8 bars another rhythm guitar enters on the left to build up the tension as Joe continues his solo over the chorus and outro (which is basically the same as the interlude).

It's all tension and release. Start quiet with a few instruments, add more and build the level and tension up, then mute them and the tension turns into a release. Level up, level down, level up again by instruments and vocals entering and exiting.

  * The Foundation: Bass and drums

  * The Pad: None

  * The Rhythm: Piano trills on the chorus and interludes, high hat on the verse, clavinet on the solo

  * The Lead: Vocal and slide guitar

  * The Fills: Slide guitar on the choruses

The Sound
Like almost everything from the 70's, "Rocky Mountain Way" is really big and natural sounding, and although it's compressed, it never sounds like there's too much. The most interesting thing to me about the song is the use of reverb. You hear a little of one reverb that's panned to the right on the Rhythm guitars, then another darker reverb just on the snare drum of the verse. This dark one is delayed and pretty deep and long, giving you the sort of a "grand canyon" feel.

There's also something happening to the vocal during the verses that I believe is an early analog delay. If you listen on headphones, the live vocal is on the left side, but it's also on the right side as well, only with a lot less high end. It's definitely a stereo effect but I can't say for sure what they were using since there weren't a lot of things that did that around in 1973 (it's too short to be a tape delay). When the song gets to the chorus, the vocal is doubled with a second voice which is panned up the center.

One interesting thing to listen for is what sounds like a bass overdub at 2:03 where the sound of the bass changes for a couple of beats. Sounds like it could have been a bass fix that happened later after the tracking session was over.

The Production
The art of production is making a song interesting, so you can say that Joe Walsh and Bill Szymscyk did their job well. This is basically a four piece band (Joe Vitale on drums, Kenny Passerelli on bass, Rocke Grace on keys and Walsh on guitars) with a few overdubs, but it's the overdubs and the change of feel that make the song.

The rhythm guitar is doubled with a lead guitar overdubbed, and how those guitars enter and exit the song makes it build. Same with the piano, then later the clavinet in the solo. Of course, a lot of credit has to be given to the rhythm section, which push the song along with a solid performance.

Once last thing - listen to how far behind the beat Joe Vitale's snare drum is. That's the perfect feel for this type of song (or any shuffle for that matter).

Send me your song analysis requests.


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

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Drum Compression Primer

Snare Drum Image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
It would be great if every drummer hit every beat on the kick and snare with the same intensity, but unfortunately that doesn’t even happen with the best drummers on the planet. When the intensity changes from beat to beat, the pulse of the song feels erratic, since even a slight change in level can make the drums feel a lot less solid than they should be. Compression works wonders to even out those erratic hits and helps to push the kick and snare forward in the track to make them feel more punchy. Let’s take a look at how to do that with the drums.

The Compression Technique
Before we get into specifics, here’s the technique for setting up a compressor. Regardless of the instrument, vocal or audio source, the set up is basically the same.
1. Start with the attack time set as slow as possible, and release time set as fast as possible on the compressor. 
2. Turn the attack faster until the instrument begins to sound dull (this happens because you’re compressing the attack portion of the sound envelope). Stop increasing the attack time at this point and even back it off a little so the sound stays crisp.
3. Adjust the release time so that after the initial attack, the volume goes back to at least 90 percent of the normal level by the next beat. If in doubt, it’s better to have a shorter release than a longer one.
4. The more wild the peaks, the higher the ratio control must be set, so increase it until the sound of the instrument or vocal is pretty much the same level throughout.
5. Bypass the compressor to see if there’s a level difference. If there is, increase the Gain or Output control until the volume is the same as when it’s bypassed.
Tracking Versus Mixing
Generally speaking, most engineers won’t compress much, if at all, during tracking, since anything you do while recording can’t be undone later. That said, some engineers like to limit the instruments a little (only by a dB or two) just to control the transients a bit. A compressor becomes a limiter when the ratio is set to 10:1 or more. If you choose to do this, make sure that the limiter kicks in on only the highest peaks. If it’s limiting constantly, it’s probably too much and you might regret it later since it can't be undone. Decrease the threshold control so it only limits on the occasional transient.

Compressing The Kick And Snare
The biggest question most engineers have when compressing either the kick or snare is “How much is enough?” This depends first and foremost on the sound of the drum itself and the skill of the drummer. A well-tuned drum kit that sounds great in the room should record well, and a reasonably good drummer with some studio experience usually means that less compression is needed because the hits are fairly even. Even a great drummer with a great sounding kit can benefit from a bit of compression though, and as little as a dB or two can work wonders for the sound. With only that amount, the setup of the compressor is a lot less crucial, especially the attack and release.

Sometimes you need the kick or snare to cut through the mix and seem as if it’s in your face, and that’s when 3 to 6dB or so does the job. It’s here that the setup of the compressor is critical because you’re imparting its sound on the drum. Make sure you tweak the attack and release controls as above, and even try a number of different compressors. You’ll find they all react differently, even with the same settings, so it’s worth the time to experiment. Remember: if the attack is set too fast, the drum will sound less punchy, regardless of how much compression you use.

Compressing The Room Mics
The room ambient mics are meant to add the “glue” to the sound of a kit, and can really benefit from a fair amount of compression, which means anywhere from 6 to 10dB. In fact, many mixers prefer the room sound to be extremely compressed, with way more than 10dB being the norm.

The problem is that the more compression you use, the more the ambience of the room is emphasized. That’s okay if you’re recording in a great sounding room, but if it has a lot of reflections and the ceiling is low, you may be emphasizing something that just doesn’t add much to the track. One trick is to actually set the attack time so it’s much shorter than usual to cut off the sound of the initial drum transient, then tuck the room tracks in just under the other drum tracks.

Note that regardless of how good the room mics sound, the more of them you use, the less space there will be for the other instruments in the track. The more instruments there are, the more you’ll have to back them off. Sad but true, but unfortunately, there’s only so much sonic space to any mix.


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 social media and the new music business.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

3 Useful Audio Utilities

Here's a great video on how to use 3 simple Mac utilities to convert, reference and transfer audio files. I found it interesting because these utilities (XLD, Vox and Cloudapp) can really save you some time, especially when it comes to making MP3s, testing them, then sharing them with others.

What I like about using the Vox utility is that it bypasses iTunes, an app that I personally dislike. XLD is cool because it's a great little conversion tool that handles just about any format. It's a lot easier than exporting multiple versions from your DAW. Best of all, they're all free.

Check out the video.


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 social media and the new music business.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Myth Of Ziggy Stardust

Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust book cover from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
It's now less than a month away from the release of Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, the memoir of the amazing life of the legendary producer/engineer Ken Scott published by Alfred Music Publishing that I was lucky enough to co-write.

The book will come out on June 6th, which happens to be the 40th anniversary of the release of David Bowie's seminal album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. In Ken's book, he dispels a number of myths surrounding some of the biggest acts he worked with, from The Beatles to Bowie to Elton John to Duran Duran (and many many more). In this excerpt, Ken speaks to the myth that Ziggy Stardust was a preconceived concept album.

"There’s always been this whole thing about Ziggy being a concept album, but it really wasn’t. There are only two rock albums that I would 100% consider concept albums; Tommy and Quadrophenia by The Who, and that’s because they were written as a complete piece, whereas Ziggy was just a patchwork of songs. Yes, they fit together very well and one can weave a story from some of them, but when you consider that “Round and Round” was originally there in place of “Starman,” it doesn’t make much sense as a concept. How does “Round and Round” ever fit into the Ziggy story? It’s a classic Chuck Berry song. How does “It Ain’t Easy” fit in with the Ziggy concept? That was taken from the Hunky Dory sessions. All this about Ziggy being Starman is bullshit. It was a song that was just put in as a single at the last minute at the record label’s insistence. So while it’s true that there were a few songs that fitted the ”concept”, the rest were just songs that all worked well together as they would in any good album.

Even David didn’t take the Ziggy concept too seriously at first (that would come later). He has told various stories of how the character came into existence. Supposedly, in one tale, the name Ziggy came from a London tailor shop (“Ziggy’s") that David had seen from the train, and in a later version he told Rolling Stone that Ziggy “was one of the few Christian names I could find beginning with the letter Z.” David has also been quoted in many interviews stating that the character Ziggy Stardust was based upon the Elvis impersonator Vince Taylor, an eccentric leather-clad Brit who achieved a level of stardom in England in the late 50’s before having a very public mental breakdown and winding up in a psychiatric institution. And just as an aside, many, like the Clash’s illustrious Joe Strummer, even considered the bizarre Mr. Taylor to be the beginning of British rock and roll. 
"I met (Vince Taylor) a few times in the mid-Sixties and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all. He used to carry maps of Europe around with him, and I remember him opening a map outside Charing Cross tube station, putting it on the pavement and kneeling down with a magnifying glass. He pointed out all the sites where UFOs were going to land."
Bowie, from Golden Years; the David Bowie Story on BBC Radio 2, 18 March 2000
But as David and the band hit the stage after the album was complete, David began to become the Ziggy character and the the public ate it up."

You can find out more about the book and even preorder it at


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 social media and the new music business.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How to Write A Real Tear Jerker

Adele 21 Album Cover graphic from The Big Picture production blog
I once had a movie director tell me, "If you can get the viewer to laugh just once and cry just once in a movie, you'll have a hit." It seems like there's an analog to that in the music business as well, as indicated 20 years ago by British psychologist John Sloboda and verified in 2007 by John Guhn of the University of British Columbia.

Sloboda conducted an experiment where he asked listeners to identify passages in a song that register a strong emotion like tears or goose bumps. The listeners found 20 such passages which Sloboda then analyzed and found that 18 contained a writing device known as "appoggiatura."

An appoggiatura can be a passing note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a temporary dissonance, an entrance of a new voice, or song dynamics, all of which creates tension for the listener. As I mention on this blog and in all of my books, all art is based around tension and release. In art, it's black against white. In photography, its light against the shadows. In music, it's dissonance against harmony or quiet to loud. Tension and release makes things interesting. You can't have any kind of art without it.

When several appoggiaturas happen close to one another in a melody, it develops a constant state of tension and release, which makes the melody of a song more powerful and provokes an even stronger reaction from the listener.

One of the reasons why psychologists think that Adele was so successful with her album 21, was because of the strong use of appoggiaturas in songs like "Rolling In The Deep" and "Someone Like You." In "Someone Like You," the song starts with a soft repetitive pattern, then jumps an octave to a loud chorus (listen to the examples below, which came from a Wall Street Journal article on the subject).

It turns out that there actually is a formula for appoggiatura that's comprised of 4 elements:

  • Passages that go from quiet to loud
  • An entrance of a new instrument or harmony
  • A melody that suddenly expands its range
  • Unexpected deviations of melody or harmony.
All of these are great arrangement devices which we talk about here often, especially in song analysis, so none are new to us. The fact that there have actually been studies that verify what we've already known for ages is, however. One fact remains - surprises in volume level, melody, and harmony are what makes a listener's spine tingle. Remember to use them. 


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 social media and the new music business.


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