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Thursday, December 12, 2013

AC/DC "Back In Black" Song Analysis

Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock Vol. 1 cover image
As you may have noticed, I haven't been posting any song analysis for a while. That's because I've been compiling them into what's become a series of books called Deconstructed Hits. The first 3 books in the series are now available and include Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock Vol. 1, Deconstructed Hits: Modern Rock & Country, and Deconstructed Hits: Modern Pop & Hip Hop.

Each book contains the stories and techniques behind 20 iconic songs from a particular music genre, covering everything from basic song facts to song form, arrangement, production and sound. Here's an example from Classic Rock Vol 1 - AC/DC's "Back In Black."

Album: Back In Black
Writers: Malcolm Young, Angus Young, Brian Johnson
Producers: Robert John “Mutt” Lange
Studios: Compass Point (Nassau, Bahamas), Electric Lady (New York City)
Release Date: 1981
Length: 4:14
Sales: 2+ million (single), 50+ million worldwide (album)
Highest Chart Position: #37 US Billboard Hot 100

"Back In Black" is by many accounts one of the greatest hard rock songs of all time, and it’s the title track from AC/DC's seminal Back In Black album, an album that’s one of the best sellers of all time. This was actually the 6th album by the band, but the first without singer Bon Scott, who had died suddenly, causing the band to briefly consider disbanding. With the newly hired Brian Johnson as their new lead singer and lyricist, and Mutt Lange (who had previously on their Highway to Hell album) set to produce, the band was soon to reach heights that no one could have anticipated. What most people don't know is that Back In Black is the 2nd biggest selling album of all time, with 49 million copies sold world-wide (22 million in the US alone). 

"Back In Black" is a very typical rock song form-wise. It uses mostly arrangement techniques to develop the song rather than varying too much from the normal rock song form. It looks like this:

intro ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ verse (solo) ➞ chorus ➞ bridge ➞ chorus ➞ verse (solo)

As you can see, there’s basically only two sections - a verse and chorus. The solo happens over a verse, and a different guitar line with a variation on the chord changes of a verse is used to change it into a bridge.

The lyrics never feel forced in the song and they feel good as their sung thanks to their natural rhythm. They’re in many ways a tribute to previous singer Bon Scott dying as not so much the tragedy of his death, but a celebration to carrying on while honoring him.


In their typical style, AC/DC keeps this song as pure as possible with almost no overdubs except the lead guitar. First of all, listen to the turn around between 8 bar phrases during the solos. It's still a verse, but it sounds different thanks to this slight change of bass and rhythm guitar. There's nothing added to the 2nd verse to develop it, which is unusual, but it still works great, as do the background answer vocals added to the last chorus.

Arrangement Elements
  • The Foundation: bass, drums and rhythm guitars
  • The Pad: none 
  • The Rhythm: unusual for a rock song, the vocal is in double time to the pulse of the song in the verse so it adds motion 
  • The Lead: lead vocal and solo guitar
  • The Fills: lead guitar between the vocal lines in the verse, background vocal answers in the last chorus
The other thing that's interesting is the dual count off, first with a guitar and then the high-hat. Countoffs are almost always cut off from a song (they're the sure sign of a demo), but here it just adds to the live feel.

The sound of this record is great - big, pristine, very real and in your face, but there's a lot more going on beneath the surface than it seems. Although the record seems bone dry, the rhythm guitar has a long reverb tail that only appears on the same side (the right channel) and the lead guitar has a short double that's panned to about 1 o'clock of the rhythm guitar side. 

Brian Johnson's vocal is doubled, but the second voice is not at the same level and instead just there for a bit of support. The snare has a nice room ambiance, but also has an ever so slight bit of delayed reverb added to it as well. Angus Young's solo guitar is overdubbed and placed up the middle.
Listen Up:To the vocal countoff way in the background before the song begins.
To how far behind the beat the snare drum is played.
The the vocal double being slightly different on the last “Back in black’s” in the choruses.
To how the guitars are actually more clean than they are distorted.
"Back In Black" is such a band oriented song that except for a few extra parts for support, what you hear on the record is exactly what you hear live. In order to pull this off, the band has to be exceptionally tight during the recording, which AC/DC certainly is.

The thing to listen for is how disciplined the band is. They play only what's necessary, with no extra ghost notes, slides or other things that you'll hear most copy bands play when doing this song. Also note the way the attacks and releases are played by the bass and two guitars. They're perfectly in sync. 

Finally, listen how far behind the beat drummer Phil Rudd is, giving it that tension that the song needs to really work well at that tempo.

You can read additional excerpts from Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock Vol. 1 and my other books on the excerpt section at bobbyowsinski.

You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook 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.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is Guitar Center Broke?

Guitar Center Wall image
Is Guitar Center, the music store we all love to hate, going broke? It looks that way, according to a number of news stories in The Nation, Reuters, Huffington Post, and a wonderful post by Eric Garland. As many of you already know, GC was purchased by Bain Capital (formerly owned by Mitt Romney) six years ago, and it's been downhill ever since.

GC has a number of problems, not all of its making. One is that it carries a huge amount of debt as a result of the Bain deal, currently owing over $1.18 billion (yes, that's with a b). That's a lot of interest it's paying on the debt service (just think of what you pay on your credit card every month), plus it seems to have a $953 million(!!) balloon payment coming up in 2017 that's really going to stretch the company's finances to its limits.

Then there's the fact that the employees in some cities have tried to unionize, which has not only sent chills through company management, but has caused (along with other factors) the company's bonds to fall to junk status. GC tried to counter by giving its employees an extra $1.25 an hour, but that hardly seems enough to appease its poor abused workers.

Then there's the fact that GC's earnings have been essentially flat despite the upturn in the economy. Much of that has to do with the fact that GC's biggest competitor is the Internet, with musicians purchasing from Amazon, Sweetwater or even GC's own Musician's Friend. Anyone who's tried to buy something at GC knows that the process can be long and painful regardless of the size of the order, compared to the quick and easy online experience.

The big box store concept that we used to love so much has fallen on our collective disfavor lately, so we no longer look at GC as that mecca where we can see and try things not found in our local mom and pop store. Like in all parts of tech, when all things are equal, convenience always wins. With the relative commodity nature of music and audio gear these days (even with cheaper guitars and stringed instruments), we no longer have to try before we buy in many cases. We're winners when that happens, but Guitar Center may end up being the big loser.

You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook 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, December 10, 2013

Pitch, Passion And Pocket

vocalist on mic image
My good buddy and fantastic engineer/producer Ed Seay has a saying that I've used in a number of books about the 3 P's or "Pitch, Passion and Pocket." That refers to the 3 things that every great vocal must have, although you can apply it to other musical performances as well. Ed is not only one of the greatest mixers anywhere, but he's a great teacher and mentor too, having brought along production luminaries such as Dave Pensado and Brendon O'Brian, not to mentioned having worked on tons of hits by Alabama, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, and many more, so he knows what he's talking about.

Here's an excerpt that explain Ed's Pitch, Passion and Pocket concept from How To Make Your Band Sound Great, although you'll find similar sections in The Mixing Engineer's Handbook (Ed's interviewed in it) and The Music Producer's Handbook as well.

"In the studio, the three P’s are what a producer lives by. You’ve got to have all three to have a dynamite vocal. And while Pitch and Pocket problems can be fixed by studio trickery, if you don’t have Passion, you don’t have a vocal. On stage, the three P’s apply maybe even more so, since you don’t have any of the advantages of the studio.  Let’s take a look inside the three P’s.

Staying in pitch means singing in tune. And not just some of the notes - every single note! They’re all equally important!! Pitch also means following the melody reliably. There’s a trend these days to skat sing around a melody, and while that might be desirable in some genres, it doesn’t work in any genre if you do it all the time. Skating might show off your technique and ability but a song has a melody for a reason. That’s what people know, that’s what they can sing to themselves, and usually that’s what they want to hear.

The Pocket means singing in time and in the “groove” (the rhythm) of the song. You can be in pitch, but if you’re wavering ahead or behind the beat it won’t feel right. All of the things that help instrumentalists that are advocated elsewhere in the book apply to vocals as well. Concentrate on the downbeat (on beat 1) to get your entrances. Concentrate on the snare drum (on 2 and 4) to stay in the pocket.
Quincy (producer Quincy Jones) used to say that some singers have it in the pocket of their voice. Supposedly Michael Jackson has such an amazing pocket that he could sing a line and you could build a groove around it.Frank Fitzpatrick
Passion is not necessarily something that can be taught. To some degree, you either have it or you don’t. What is Passion? It’s the ability to sell the lyrical content of the song through performance.  It’s the ability to make me believe in what you’re singing, that you’re talking directly to me and not anyone else. And passion can sometimes trump pitch and pocket. A not-all-that-great singer who can convey the emotion in his voice is way more interesting to listen to than a polished singer who hits every note perfectly but with little emotion.  In fact, just about any vocalist you’d consider a “star” has passion, and that’s why he or she is a star.

On-stage, Passion can sometimes take a back seat to stamina, since you have to save yourself for a whole show and you can’t blow it all out in one song. That’s why many singers have only one or two big “production numbers” where they totally whip it out. This means that you have to learn the limits of your voice, learn how much of you goes into just cruising and when you can do it, and how much you need left in the tank to do your biggest, most effective show stoppers. 

In the studio, there’s never any cruising - you’ve got to give all the passion you can give for every song. A few paragraphs ago I said that you either have passion or you don’t, but sometimes you really have it and you don’t know it, and it’s the job of the producer to pull it out of you. That could mean getting the singer angry to stir some emotion, building him up by telling him how good he is, or making him laugh to loosen him up. Anything to sell the song! But once you know how to summon it up from inside you, you can do it again and again.
You’re telling a story that’s real to you. Do you believe in what you’re singing about?  You have to convey it from a place other than your memory of bunch of words and chord changes.Frank Fitzpatrick"
Thanks for the tip, Ed!!

You can read additional excerpts from How To Make Your Band Sound Great and my other books at

You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook 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, December 9, 2013

Is The World Ready For A New Codec?

Opus Codec image
Anyone trying to export a song from their DAW knows that there are quite a number of audio data compression formats available today, even though only two of them are normally used in the vast majority of cases. Of course I'm talking about MP3 and AAC when it comes to downloads, although we're seeing an upswing in the use of FLAC files these days. Then when it comes to streaming, Ogg Vorbis is often used (especially by Spotify). This just goes to show that there's quite a bit of diversity in the online music files that we listen to, even if we don't realize it.

That said, a new codec (compressor-decompressor) with better features than what's normally found might be desirable, and that's where the Opus Interactive Audio Codec comes in.

Opus was designed for high-quality audio right from the start, supporting bit rates as high as 510kbs, sampling rates to 48kHz, with the number of channels as high as 255, among other technical features. It can handle a wide range of audio applications, including Voice over IP, videoconferencing, in-game chat, and even remote live music performances, and it can scale from low bit-rate narrowband speech to very high quality stereo music.

It's also totally open, royalty-free, and is standardized by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), incorporating technology from Skype's SILK codec and Xiph.Org's CELT codec.

Getting support for a new standard can be difficult and time consuming, so any new codec, not just Opus, has an uphill battle to begin with. Then again, all is takes is adoption by one service and the rest may follow. Watch the next year to see how Opus does. We may all soon have it as part of the output preferences of our DAWs. Go here to see more info about Opus.

You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook 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, December 8, 2013

New Music Gear Monday: Unit Audio Summing Mixer

Unit Audio 16x2 Summing Mixer image
Let's face it, most everyone with a home studio mixes in the box these days. In fact, the smaller the studio, the more likely it's going to happen. But for those of us in the box, we still want that big analog sound that only a console or an analog summing mixer can bring. The problem is the cost, which was substantial - until now. Now there's the Unit Audio New Unit 16x2 analog summing mixer, a device that brings analog summing within reach of the masses at only $299.

The New Unit has no frills and no controls, just analog summing. It features 16 balanced line inputs accessed via 2 D-Sub connectors plus a choice of either 1/4 inch TRS or XLR mic level output connectors. The New Unit is point-to-point wired and takes up a really small footprint on your desktop. It's hard to beat at $299 for the TRS outs and $335 for XRL outs. If you don't need 16 inputs, Unit Audio also makes an 8x2 model as low as $149. At that price, real analog summing is now within reach of every studio.

You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook 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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