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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year! Hello 2015

I want to wish every who reads this blog a very happy and prosperous New Year.

We're all striving for the same thing - to be part in the creation of some great music - and hopefully this blog helps you a little along the way.

As always, if you have any suggestions as to how I can improve this blog so it helps you even more, please send them to me at office @ bobbyowsinski dot com (sorry there's not a link as I'm trying to avoid the spammers).

Let's make 2015 be the best year ever!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Explaining The Sound Of Guitar Speakers

Guitar Speaker image
Most guitar players are blissfully unaware of the details of the speakers they're playing through. Sure, they may know what size the speakers are and how many are in the cabinet, but other than that, they have no idea about how much of an effect the make of the speaker can have on the sound. Here's a brief excerpt from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (written with Rich Tozzoli) that explains why they sound the way they do.

The size of a speaker has a great deal to do with the way it sounds. As you’ve probably noticed, an 8 inch sounds different than a 10 inch, which sounds different from a 12 inch, which sounds different from a 15 inch speaker. The reason is simple physics; the larger the cone, the more energy it takes to get it moving so the high end and the attack time won’t be as good as a speaker that’s smaller. Conversely, a smaller speaker has poorer low frequency response because it has less cone area to move air.

As a result, you’ll notice that an 8 inch speaker won’t have nearly as much bottom end as a 15 inch speaker, and the 15 with have quite the top end of a 10 inch speaker. That’s why 12 inch speakers are mostly used for guitar rigs; they’re a nice compromise between the two.

Number Of Speakers
That being said, the number of speakers in a cabinet can also have an affect on both the volume level and the low end. The more speakers that acoustically couple together, the more effective cone mass you have. As a result, a cabinet with two 12 inch speakers  gives you 24 inches of cone mass while a a cabinet with four 10’s (like Fender’s original Bassman) gives you 40 inches. Of course, other factors like resonant frequency are involved, but this is a simple way to look at it.

Speaker Wattage
Contrary to what you might think, lower wattage speakers usually sound better than high-wattage ones. High-wattage speakers have heavier cones and surrounds that change the response of the speaker and therefore the tone. Because the cone is heavier, it slower to move when a signal is applied so the high frequency response isn’t as good as one with a thinner cone.

Other things that change in a higher wattage speaker is the diameter of the voice coil and the type of wire used for it are usually larger, which again changes the speaker’s response. A heavier magnet is also required because the voice coil is a bit heavier to move.

As a result, what you have is a speaker that’s harder to blow up, but also one that has a different frequency response and doesn’t break up as easily, which may be an important trait of your sound.

Magnet Structure
There are three different types of materials used in speaker magnets, Alnico, Ceramic, and Neodymium, with each material having a distinctly different effect on the tonal characteristics of the speaker.
  • Alnico, an alloy of aluminum, nickel and cobalt, is the magnetic material used in the original speakers in all the vintage amps. It produces a classic tone that’s warmer and sweeter at lower volumes that many players feel reacts faster to the touch. Alnico was used for decades because of its strong magnetic field, but once the alloy became a bit pricey, many manufacturers opted for speakers with the less expensive ceramic magnets.
  • Ceramic magnets were developed as an inexpensive alternative to Alnico and have the advantage of being more versatile with a wider range of tones. Speakers with ceramic magnets tend to weigh more, but generally handle more power and sound better at high volumes. 
  • Neodymium is the latest development in speaker magnet material. It’s not as expensive as Alnico but costs a bit more than ceramic magnet speakers. It has the advantages of both weighing about 50% less than other speakers and having stronger magnetic properties. Speakers made from neodymium respond to a player's touch similar to Alnicos and have a well balanced frequency response."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Your Brain Thinks Your Smartphone Is An Instrument

Music Smartphone image
It's a scientific fact that a musician's brain is stimulated just by picking up a musical instrument. In fact, everyone knows that one of the reasons why musicians have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is that obtaining something new makes you want to play and opens up new creative gateways for inspiration.

It's hard to believe, but scientists have found that people who use smartphones stimulate those same regions of the brain, according to a paper in the Current Biology journal.

The scientists noticed that the constant finger movements were similar to what happens to a musician playing a violin. Because of the way a smartphone is operated with thumb, index and middle fingers, its substantially different from a traditional cellphone with buttons, so none of the same brain regions are activated.

There were two differences between smartphone brain stimulation and instrument playing. The length of time spent owning a smartphone did not affect neural activity, so it doesn't equate to practicing an instrument, and the more recently someone used a touchscreen phone, the more likely you are to master it.

Although there's no direct evidence, this may be why many of us continually look for music iPhone apps or new IO. It inherently feels like an instrument, so we naturally want to treat it that way. Now let's see what kind of new iOS apps NAMM brings.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: Eventide Mixing Link

If ever there was a Swiss Army Knife-like tool for the stage or studio, it's the Eventide's Mixing Link. It takes the form of a stompbox and contains a high quality mic amp with 65dB of gain and phantom power, an effects loop, headphone output and numerous signal routing and combination possibilities.

So what is it good for? How about switching a guitar between two amps, switching between two sound sources connected to one amp, or for reamping a signal. It can be used as a stand-alone preamp, a headphone amp for vocal monitoring, or silent guitar playing.

There's also an 1/8th inch 4 conductor jack that allows you to connect to a mobile device where it can act as either IO, or to access an app to mix in some different sounds.

The Mixing Link features a wide variety of IO connectors for such a small box. You'll find XLR ins and outs (the XLR is a combo jack), FX in and out on 1/4 inch jacks, instrument in, Aux in and out (1/8th inch) and an 1/8th inch headphone out jack. Couple this with an input gain, mix control and phones/output level along, with two routing switches and an in/out footswitch, and you have a powerhouse little box. Mixing Link also runs on a 9 volt battery or via a power supply, which you need if you intend to provide phantom power to the microphone input.

The Mixing Link has a street price of $299, and considering its many uses, is worth every penny. For more info, check out Eventide's Mixing Link page.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 Year End Review On My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

Bobby Owsinski's Inner Circle Podcast graphic
On the latest Inner Circle Podcast, I look back at the biggest stories in both the music industry and the world of recording and audio in the last year.

So much happened in 2014 that it almost seems like two different years, with many of the biggest stories happening in the first half. It just goes to show how much things can change during the course of 12 months.

I'll take a look at the 10 biggest stories that happened in the music business, as well as the big stories in the world of audio, then I'll tell you my Top 5 audio products for the year. It's all there in this year-end special.

Remember that you can find the podcast either on iTunes or at, and now also on Stitcher.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Van Halen "Running With The Devil" Isolated Guitar

The first 3 Van Halen albums were spectacular in many ways. Of course, Eddie's playing was a revelation, but overlooked was the sound of those records. The band managed to stay fairly bare bones in its recording style with few overdubs, yet still sound huge. Here's a look inside one of the band's early hits with the isolated guitar track from "Running With The Devil" from the very first self-titled Van Halen album.

The song doesn't begin until 0:30. Listen for the following:

1. The trademark sound on the early Van Halen albums was the reverb on the guitar. Listen to how the somewhat dry guitar is on the left while the delayed reverb is on the right. It's also a very long reverb.

2. Eddie is a very sensitive player and this song shows him at his best. Listen to how intense he plays the choruses, but then backs off during the verses. I bet if he did this song again today there would be three guitar parts instead on just the 1: the chorus guitar, a verse guitar and another playing the fills. I like this one way better, as the entire part is a performance.

3. There's only a single overdub and that's during the solo, where a new guitar enters and switches sides. It's a bit edgier and has less reverb.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Top 30 Christmas Songs Are All Old

This is the last day for Christmas songs until next year, but here's something worthing thinking about.

With all the great songwriters that are currently in the business, it's a wonder that there hasn't been any new Christmas songs of note in decades. This Washington Post chart shows that the majority of our most popular Christmas songs were penned in the 1940s and 50s, with the most recent Christmas staple coming in the 90s.

The thought is that new Xmas songs haven't been adopted because the songs that are still popular are the ones that baby boomers became familiar with in their youth, but if we keep playing the same songs over and over each year, that becomes a perpetual motion machine with each generation growing up to the same songs.

That said, enjoy the songs for one more day, have a very merry Christmas, and thank you for your continued support of this blog!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

EMI's Famous Consoles And Little Known Ambiophony Technology

Here are couple of excerpts from the Ken Scott autobiography Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust that I cowrote with him both involving some of the gear used at EMI's Abbey Road Studios back in the heyday of The Beatles. These are both sidebars from Chapter 7 entitled "Engineering Other EMI Artists," and cover the famous EMI consoles as well as a little known feature of the the large Abbey Road Studio 1 called Ambiophony.

"The EMI Consoles
EMI REDD.37 console image
The sound of The Beatles came from a number of custom consoles designed in-house by EMI; the REDD.37 and REDD.51 “Stereosonic” Four-Track Mixer Desks, and later the TG12345. Although the very first Beatles album was recorded on the REDD.37, the REDD.51 was used to record about 85% of their songs, according to Recording The Beatles. Both consoles were nearly identical and were based around valve (vacuum tube) electronics. The consoles were what we’d consider very simple by today’s standards, but were quite sophisticated for their time and very scary the first time I ever saw one as a 16 year old kid. They each had 8 input channels that fed 4 output (subgroup/buss) faders, with two aux sends and  2 stereo returns. The console also had two Auxiliary line inputs, but they were rarely used because of the lack of EQ on these channels.

EMI TG12345 console image
Since the REDD series consoles were woefully inadequate for 8 track recording, a new console was eventually brought in. In 1968, EMI installed the solid state TG12345 in Number 2 control room. It boasted 24 inputs and 8 subgroups/busses, four echo sends, two separate cue mixes, and a limiter/compressor on every channel.

I worked very little on the TG, using the one in Number 2 for a few tracks on the Mary Hopkin album Postcard and for the majority of A Salty Dog by Procol Harum, as far as I recall. I have to say that I'm a bad judge of the TGs though. The change from the old REDD desks to the more modern TG was a painful one for most of us at the studio, and I don't think any of us liked it. It had none of the warmth, both literally and physically, that the REDDs had. That being said, some great sounding records were made on it, but first impressions go a very long way.

Even though Studio 1 was one of the largest recoding rooms in the world, it only had a short reverb time; 2.4 seconds if you want to be precise. While this was plenty for most music recording, many classical producers preferred a longer reverb time like that of Kingsway Hall, a place many classical recordings were being made by both EMI and Decca at the time. In an attempt to remedy the situation, EMI employed an experimental system known as Ambiophony.

Delay Drum graphic
The system was built around a new piece of technology known as a delay drum; a rotating metal disc drum on the outside with oxide that acted just like a piece of magnetic tape. The difference was that it doesn’t take long for a tape loop to start to wear out, something the drum never did. A signal from the studio was sent to the drum, then multiple playback heads placed around the outside of it would pick off the signal and send it out to different speakers placed around the studio.

In the end, the Ambiophony system wasn’t much of a success, since even though it may have been very clever for its time, it was extremely touchy to set up and suffered from feedback in the studio. It was, apparently, used by Geoff (Emerick) on one Beatles song, the incredible orchestral overdub on “A Day In The Life” from Sgt. Pepper."

Monday, December 22, 2014

The World's 12 Richest Bass Players

Krist Novoselic image
Bass players generally get the least attention in a band, but that doesn't mean they don't profit from it just as much as singers and guitar players. The Richest took a look at the top bottom enders and it found there's quite a bit of wealth in those low notes. Here's what it found:

1. Paul McCartney – $1.2 billion (no surprise there)

2. (tie) Sting – $300 million
2. (tie) Gene Simmons (Kiss) – $300 million

4. Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) – $270 million

5. Adam Clayton (U2) – $150 million

6. Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) – $115 million

6. John Deacon (Queen) - $115 million

8. John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) – $80 million

8. Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) - $80 million

10. Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath) – $65 million

11. Tony Kanal (No Doubt) – $45 million

12. Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) – $40 million

Here's the trick. All of the above except for Wyman are songwriters as well as bass players, which proves the old music adage, "If you want to get rich, write a hit song!"

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bobby O's Top 5 Audio Products Of 2014

There are always a number of new audio products that stand out from crowd, at least for me, and I'd like to solute some of them in my first annual Top 5 Products list. I'm going to list the pieces in no particular order and tell you why I thought they were cool.

SSL XL-Desk - A new console featuring 500 series slots. How cool is that? Of course this concept was no big deal in the 60s and 70s when a number of console manufacturers operated using cartridge modules, but few modules were interchangeable between manufacturers then. Now they are, making the XL-Desk very flexible.

Sample Magic Magic AB plugin - Anyone thats mixing knows that it can be a pain to easily A/B you mix against another. Magic AB makes this easy, since it's a plugin that goes across your stereo buss and allows you to compare up to 9 different songs, as well as loop them at just the right points, and precisely match levels.

PreSonus StudioLive RM - The PreSonus StudioLive console provides a tremendous bang for the buck, but one of the cooler features is how it can be remotely controlled from a laptop or iPad. PreSonus takes this concept one step further with the StudioLIve RM by providing just the I/O and leaving the control to your laptop or a specially built touch sensitive surface. The fewer controls, the less you pay, and it's so cool to use something so futuristic as well.

UAD AMS RMX16 - You might say that the RMX16 was the sound of the 80s in that it was part of the drum sound on so many hit records, especially those coming out of England. Universal Audio released a plugin version of the reverb a few months ago (coded by the original designer of the RMX16) and it sounds so much like the hardware version that it's scary. Just dial in the Nonlinear or Ambience setting and you'll know what I mean.
Blue Mo-Fi Headphones - The world of monitor speakers changed for the better when powered monitors became the norm, and now the same thing may be on the horizon for headphones as well, thanks to the Blue Mo-Fi's. It has three selections - using the built-in amp in the headphones, bass boost, or bypassed so it works like a normal headset. This is another one under the category of, "Why didn't anyone think of this before."

Special Mention: Audionamix ADX Trax - This is the software that so many of us have wanted for so long. It allows you to precisely isolate a vocal from a finished stereo mix, then raise and lower the level as needed. I don't know how they do it, but it's very cool indeed.

These products really caught my attention this year, but there are lots of others that are worthy of inclusion as well. I'm sure you have your own top 5 and I'd love to hear them. What did I miss that was cool?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Microphone Master Dave Thomas From Advanced Audio Microphones On The Latest Inner Circle Podcast

Bobby Owsinski's Inner Circle Podcast image
If you ever wanted to get a look inside the workings of a boutique microphone manufacturer, now's your chance on my latest podcast with Dave Thomas from Advanced Audio Microphones as my guest.

I'm a big fan of his mics myself, and you'll know why after Dave explains how he went from owning one of the biggest and best studios in Canada to making some of the best mics (and best values) anywhere.

On the show intro I'll also discuss the music taste of Americans in 2014, as well as 4 ways that you can avoid any client client problems (since we all work for someone in the music business) that might arise.

Remember that you can find the podcast either on iTunes or at, and now also on Stitcher.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bruce Springsteen "Born To Run" Isolated Vocals

One of the things that we can learn from isolated tracks is what works in the context of a particular hit record. The reverb, compression, performance, and production all make a big difference in how we ultimately perceive the song. That's why this week's isolated track, the vocal on Bruce Springsteen's breakout "Born To Run," is so cool, since it readily exhibits all of those things. Here's what to listen for.

1. The vocal is very compressed, but it's not sibilant. What happens is that we can hear every breath and it just raises the passion of the performance. We might cut out those breaths today in a DAW (as is the norm), but we'd lose a lot of what really makes the performance work.

2. The reverb is delayed, long and dark. Once again, that's probably not what we'd add today since this sound is not in vogue at the moment, but it works very well here. You don't hear it in the track as reverb, and that's what reverb does many times - it just adds glue and a sheen to the mix.

3. Bruce doesn't double track his vocal until the end at 4:02, unlike so many other vocalists and songs of the time. He comes across pretty well without it though. In fact, when the doubling does occur on the outro it's rather startling. You could see how it wouldn't work in any other part of the song.

4. Listen for the not-so-obvious vocal punch at 1:21 where a breath is cut off, and the overdubbed count only on the left side at 3:05 before the last verse.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

7 Unusual But Useful Christmas Gifts For Musicians

Like it or not, most working musicians have a lot of grunt work to do when gigging. Setting up and tearing down is a thankless part of the job, so let's make it as easy as possible. Here are a number of tools that are staples of stagehands all over the world, but can really come in handy in those moments when all you want to do is get everything gig ready.

1. Gerber Flik Multitool - It's a pliers, it's a knife, it's a scissors, it's a screwdriver. Why carry a tool box when you can have it all in one tool? About $40, but it's the best there is.

2. Ultimate Focus Tool - This one tool will replace a whole kit of crescent wrenches. If you only use it once, it will be worth it. Around $30.

3. Streamlight Scorpion Flashlight or Olight M20-X Tactical Flashlight - LED flashlights are now the norm, but what you want is a really bright one for looking behind a rack or on a dark floor for that little screw or connector that you dropped. The intensity of the light stream sets these two flashlights apart from everything else. Around $40.

4. Hothands Fleece Gloves - How often have you had to play in a venue that was really cold, or even outdoors during the fall or winter? If you've done it, you know what kind of torture that can be. Now you can make it easier with these heated gloves, which warm up for up to 10 hours when you put their chemical Warmers in place. Around $25.

5. Setwear Hothands Insulated Gloves - And speaking of gloves, musicians, roadies, and engineers have to carry large heavy things constantly, so why not protect your hands while doing so? These gloves are the best, and they're insulated in case you have to handle hot lights as well. Around $40.

6. Burt's Bees Lip Balm - Everybody hates chapped lips, and they're so easy to get in bad weather riding to a gig. Burt's Bees Lip Balm beats anything from a drug store by a long shot. Around $8.

7. Sharpie 24 Pack - Sharpies are the most convenient writing tool available for a band, artist or engineer. Need to write a set list that's large enough to see on stage? You need a Sharpie. Need to mark a cable or console input strip? You need a Sharpie. Here's a multicolored 24 piece pack for around $10.

Need a more traditional gift? Check out my books.
     Social Media Promotion for Musicians
     The Mixing Engineer's Handbook
     The Recording Engineer's Handbook
     Music 4.0: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age
     The Touring Musician's Handbook
     The Studio Builder's Handbook
     How To Make Your Band Sound Great
     and many more.

You can read excepts from all my books at

Need more ideas for last minute music or studio gifts? Check out this post for 10 more.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ed Cherney On Recording The Rolling Stones

Ed Cherney imageOne of the most versatile and talented engineers of our time, Ed Cherney has recorded and mixed projects for The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Was, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, and John Mayer as well as many others. Ed has also recorded and mixed the multiple Grammy-winning Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw CD's for Bonnie Raitt as well as engineered the Grammy-winning "Tears in Heaven" track for the Eric Clapton scored film, Rush.

Here's an excerpt from the interview that appears in my Recording Engineer's Handbook where Ed talks about his time recording The Stones.

"When you’re tracking, do you go just for a good drum track or do you try to get as much as you can?
I try to get as much as I can. I think it’s musically a lot better that way. Also, I don’t isolate a lot of instruments that much any more. I did the Rolling Stones and the amps were in the room with just a little bit of baffling, but basically open so that they could hear them. Everything was leaking into everything, but that just gave it that glue, especially when it was played well.  

So leakage doesn’t bother you?
It depends on the band and what you’re trying to do. If you know that everything is going to be swinging with the drums, then you’re going to try to get it. Otherwise, you’re just laying down a template so you have to isolate things as good as you can if you know you’re going to be layering guitars and that kind of stuff.  

What are you using on guitar amps?
Like pretty much everybody else, I’ve used 57’s forever, but lately I’ve been using Royer R-121’s. I’ve been liking those and the musicians I’ve been working with have been liking them too. It’s pretty much just put the fader up and they capture what’s going on with the amp. They’ve got a very sweet character.

Do you only use one mic on the cabinet?

Usually, unless it’s in stereo. Sometimes I’ll use a 414 or a large diaphragm condenser back off the cabinet if we want the room sound, but typically I’ve been putting up a 121 in front of the cabinet.

Do you take bass direct or do you use an amp as well?
Again it depends, but I try to do both. If you don’t have a lot of space and you don’t have any isolation, I’ll go with a direct, depending on the player, but usually I’ll go with both with a FET 47, or something like that on the cabinet, and a DI  I like using the Groove Tube DI, but then again it depends. If it’s an active bass, then you might want to use a DI with transformer in front of it.  

Do you EQ when you record?
Heck yeah, but dipping more than anything. If something is a little dark, then it might be because 200 or 300 is building up, so you dip a little of that out and maybe add a little top. If you’re going to tape, then you might want to add a little top anyway. If you’re going to Pro Tools, then you might want to dip a little 2, 3, 4K to take the edge off it.

Was it any different recording the Stones from anyone else?
It’s a rock gig, but there’s five guys there that have been around and know what they want to hear. You’re really not allowed to screw up. Some younger guys might let you get away with something, but you’ve got to be on top of your game more so than with anyone else.

How did you approach Charlie’s drums?
It’s just a straight-ahead rock kit. The less you do the better off you are. You put some mics up and try to capture the drum kit like it’s one instrument rather than separate drums. You just get out in the room, have a listen and try to recreate that but there’s not a lot of work involved. The work is in the perception and not in the knob twisting.

How did you determine where to place everyone in the room?
I think I sat there for a day and half before I did it. I’d go out and sing a song, clap my hands and stomp around and try to create a space where everyone can see each other. I tried to get some things off-axis yet keep the room kind of open and live so people weren’t just relying on their headphones and could hear their amps and have that interplay. I tried to make sure that the line of sight was intimate, yet keep some separation. Also, I’ll ask the assistant where they usually set everything up (laughs).

Do you have a philosophy of recording?
I want to get the sounds to tape as quickly as possible, then play it back so you can talk about it. It’s real at that point. “That’s too bright. That’s too dull. That should be louder.  That should be a different part. That should be a different snare drum.” It’s easy to modify once you can hear it. I’ve been in places where you dick around a lot before you play any music and the session doesn’t move forward. You just can’t make music that way."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mixing Tips From Andy Wallace

Andy Wallace is one of my favorite mixing engineers. He's mixed megahits for Nirvana, Linkin Park, Sheryl Crow, Guns n' Roses, Paul McCartney, Kelly Clarkson, Coldplay, and many more, and every mix he's done is a work of art. Here are some words of wisdom from a class Andy did for Mix with the Masters that outlines a little of his mixing technique.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: Audio Technica MSR7 Headphones

Audio Technica has been making great studio-quality headphones for a long time, and its recent M50 model has become an unofficial studio standard. Now the company is trying to take sonic quality to yet a new level with its new ATH-MSR7 to take advantage of the upcoming leap into streaming hi-res audio.

The MSR7 features the company's 45mm True Motion drivers for extended dynamic and tonal range, along with 3 precisely placed air vents designed to control airflow inside the cup. The headset also features an inline mic and remote so it could be easily used with your computer or mobile device.

Comfort is a big deal when it comes to headphones, especially when wearing them for a long session or plane trip, so AT used memory foam for the ear pads to keep those ears from feeling pinched. A padded headband also helps raise the comfort level for extended use periods.

The Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 is scheduled to ship in March with a suggested retail of $249, although some import models can be found available now for Christmas delivery at higher prices.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Studio Designer Hanson Hsu On My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

On my latest Inner Circle Podcast you'll hear innovative studio designer Hanson Hsu describe how challenging some of the long-held acoustic assumptions in studio design has lead to a new way to measure room performance and the use of some new design materials as well.

I'll also discuss how and why the Billboard 200 album charts are changing after all these years, as well defend Mariah Carey's recent performance at the NBC Christmas Tree Lighting event. Here's one time I really buck the critics, but fair is fair, as you'll hear.

Remember that you can find the podcast either on iTunes or at, and now also on Stitcher.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lady Gaga "Poker Face" Song Analysis

Lady Gaga Poker Face image
I haven't posted a song analysis for a while, so here's a big hit from the recent past. It's Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" and it's an excerpt from my book Deconstructed Hits: Pop and Hip Hop. Here's what's found in the book.

"Song Facts
Album: The Fame
Writers: Stefani Germanotta, Nadir Khayat 
Producer: RedOne
Studio: Record Plant Recording Studios (Los Angeles)
Release Date: September 23, 2008
Length: 3:58
Sales: 10+ million (single), 15+ million (album)
Highest Chart Position: #1 U.S. Billboard Hot 100, #1 U.K. Singles Chart, #1 in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland

“Poker Face,” from Lady Gaga’s debut album The Fame, was the song that catapulted her to international stardom. The song was #1 virtually worldwide and became one of the biggest-selling singles of all time at over 10 million. It was nominated for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 2010 Grammy Awards, and won for Best Dance Recording. Rolling Stone ranked it #93 of the 100 Best Songs of the 2000s, while NME placed it at #103 of the 150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years.

The album was a huge hit as well, peaking at #2 but staying in the U.S. Billboard Hot 200 for an unbelievable 100 non-consecutive weeks. It was nominated for six Grammy Awards and won for Best Electronic/Dance Album. It also won Best International Album at the 2010 BRIT Awards.

The Song
“Poker Face” was a huge hit for Lady Gaga, and a close listen to the song tells you exactly why; it has everything we’ve come to expect from a mega-hit. First of all, the song form may be pretty basic, but it’s expertly put together to keep the interest high, since there’s always forward motion and dynamics. The form looks like this:

intro ➞ verse ➞ B section ➞ chorus ➞ interlude ➞ verse ➞ B section ➞ chorus ➞ interlude ➞ bridge ➞ chorus ➞ chorus ➞ chorus ➞ interlude/chorus ➞
interlude/chorus ➞ interlude/chorus

What’s especially interesting is that both the bridge and interlude/choruses at the end of the song are primarily choruses with either new parts or a combination of new and previously heard parts. It’s a great way to keep things familiar yet different.

The melody is strong and memorable, and turning “Mum mum mum mah” into a hook was genius. The lyrics are far superior to most pop songs in that they tell a story and are cleverly put together. Good examples are “Russian roulette is not the same without a gun” and rhyming “promise this” with “marvelous.”

The Arrangement
“Poker Face” begins with a single arpeggiated synth that makes up the backbone of the song, and it is followed by an additional synth layer playing the same part. Then, the song’s hook, the “Mum mum mum mah” background vocal part, enters along with a new synth line. After the line plays through once (4 bars), it plays through a second time—with kick, claps, and open hi-hat—to end the intro.
When the lead vocal enters at the verse, only the kick and basic arpeggiating synth remain for the first half. At bar 9, the synth line from the intro enters, as does a very subtle percussion sound.

A new synth enters on beat 1 of the B section to signify the beginning of the section, but other than the vocal changing (the backgrounds sing “Oh, oh, ohhhh, oh, oh”), the instruments remain the same until the downbeat of the last bar, when the music stops except for a combination of a guitar-string-scratch glissando and a synth whoosh sound behind the lyric “Show him what I got.”

On the chorus, all the instruments reenter with the addition of a string pad, claps, open hi-hat, and a new synth emphasizing the upbeats. The vocal sings the chorus hook (“Can’t read my, can’t read my poker face,”) and the background vocals answer. At the interlude, the strings, claps, and hi-hat all drop out, and a new synth plays only on the downbeat of the first measure.

Unusually, the second verse, B section, chorus, and interlude are all the same as the first with no changes. The bridge begins again with the same instrumentation as the interlude, only with a new synth line that plays by itself for 4 bars and is then joined by Gaga’s sing/talk for another 8 bars.
The last chorus then begins, but without the drums for 4 bars while you hear the guitar-string-scratch glissando. The drums enter while Gaga sings another “Can’t read my, can’t read my poker face,” and the next time the line is repeated, a lower harmony is added. The song then goes into the interlude lyric (“P-p-p-poker face…”) over the chorus instruments and chord changes, and the song ends on the last phrase of the answer (“Mum mum mum MAH”).

Arrangement Elements
The Foundation: Kick drum
The Rhythm: Synthesizer, claps
The Pad: Strings during the chorus
The Lead: Lead vocal
The Fills: Background vocals

The Sound
What strikes you most about the sonics of “Poker Face” is the use of echo to set the ambience. The prominent long delay that’s timed to the track (probably a quarter-note delay) fills up the space where there’s no vocal and at the ends of phrases on both the lead and background vocals. One place where it can be clearly heard is the male “Hey!” after the end of the first phrase of the second verse, where you can distinctly hear the echo ping back and forth between the speakers. This can also be heard on the lead vocal on the second B section.

It’s also interesting that Gaga’s verse vocals are doubled but not very closely, which produces an interesting effect. This especially sets up the bridge, when the vocal is only a single track, making it sound much different from the vocal on the rest of the song.

The panorama of the soundfield is also put to great use in “Poker Face” by having some elements strictly in mono and others in stereo. For instance, the synth line in the intro and bridge is in stereo, and that provides a lot of space for the lead vocal as a result. The background vocal answers are all in stereo, while the drum elements of kick, snare, and cymbal are all in the center.
Finally, the mix balance is interesting because there’s no real bass instrument, so the kick drum uses up much of that sonic space. The fact that there are a number of synthesizers parts more or less from the same family of sound (possibly even the same instrument) yet all are easily distinguishable is a tribute to a great mix by Robert Orton.

Listen Up
    To the synth that plays only on the upbeats of the chorus.
    To the cross echoes on the lead vocal during the second verse.
    To the guitar-string-scratch glissandos and synth sound effects at the turnarounds between verse and chorus.

The Production
“Poker Face” is evidence of the new sound of pop-hit production, which no longer depends on a bass guitar to fill out the bottom end of the frequency range. The song was produced by RedOne and is entirely programmed except for the vocals. Where once upon a time that meant the song would be stiff and robot-like, “Poker Face” is imminently danceable with a terrific feel, and it breathes as parts enter and are removed.

As with all hits, the details are what make the song. Take, for instance, the harmony answer vocals in the chorus, which are pretty subtle but really lift the song and almost sound like a harmony vocal to the lead. The low harmony part on the pre-chorus (the B section) also helps to develop the dynamics of the song. Add these subtleties to the gigantic groove and you have a massive hit."

To read additional excerpts from the Deconstructed Hits series and my other books, go to the excerpts section of


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 Great Christmas Gifts For Musicians And Engineers 2014

We could all use a little bit of shopping help when it comes to buying holiday gifts for the people around us in the music and recording business. If you're in a quandary about what to buy, you're in luck as I have a list of recommendations that covers a wide variety of items and price ranges. All of these following products (except for the last one) I use regularly.

1. Etymotic Reaserach ER 20 Hear Protection Ear Plugs
I personally never go into a loud audio situation without these little gems. They are soooo much better than foam or wax earplugs in that they cut the level down without affecting the frequency response. Since I found the Etymotic Ear Plugs I feel absolutely naked and scared when I don't have them on me. At less than $10, you just can't go wrong.

Equator D5 monitors image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
2. Equator DS5 Monitors
You want to know my secret weapon when it comes to mixing? It's these little Equator monitors. I've used them on every mix for the last 2 years and all I can say is they're the best small monitor I've ever used. You just can't find a better pair of speakers at this price point ($399) anywhere. Get the matching isolation pads too, an absolute bargain at $20!

3. Monoprice 8323 Headphones
It's shocking how good these phones are for about $23. They're pretty comfortable, have a really tight fit, and provide a surprisingly balanced sound. In fact, I would trust the low end on the 8323's more than on a couple alternatives that I have that cost 4 or 5 times more. Don't let the "DJ-style" in the description scare you, these are terrific for the price.

4. Books by Bobby Owsinski
Okay, so I'm a little biased, but if you're looking for a book for someone in the music business, you'll hopefully find one of mine that will hit the sweet spot. There's something for everyone, including books on mixingrecordingrecording drumsmastering, being a studio musician or a touring musicianimproving your bandproducing, navigating the new music business (the newly released third edition of Music 4.0), social media for musiciansstudio buildingguitar tone, and making videos. From about $16 to $30.

Blocklite LED flashlight image

5. The Blocklite 
This falls under the category of "Why didn't I think of that?" Blocklite is a simple LED add-on to any 9 volt battery that turns it into a flashlight that's perfect for checking all those dark spaces during a session or a show. Audio Mixing Bootcamp image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
6. Courses
If you don't know about then you really should. They're the #1 portal on the Internet for video learning, with over 3800 high-quality courses on just about any kind of tech you can think of. While you're there, check out the courses I've done for Lynda. Lynda is just $24.99 for a full month, which allows you to access as many courses as you can watch. Here's a free 7 day trial.

7. Advanced Audio Microphones
If you're looking for some modern versions of the vintage mics that we all know and love but can't afford, then take a look at the Advanced Audio line of microphones. These mics are used in studios around the world every day and on some of the biggest movies made in Hollywood too. And you won't believe how low the prices are. I own and use some, and I'm going to get a few more.

8. Snark SN-1 Guitar Tuner 
We've all gotten used to using software guitar tuners, but when you want to tune as fast as possible, this is the best tuner I've found. It clips right onto the guitar so you don't even have to plug it in. At $8.99, it's unbeatable.

9. Golden Age Project Pre-73
Everybody wants a Neve preamp but a lot of us can't spring for a couple of channels of 1073s. The Golden Age Project Pre-73 was built to sound a lot like the 1073 and it does a pretty good job of it. It's not the real thing, but for only $350 it's surprising how close it gets.

10. Audio Technica AT-LP60USB Turntable
If you want to get into the vinyl world but don't want to worry about a special phono preamp, this turntable by Audio Technica takes care of all that for you. It has a built in preamp, the the USB port means you can plug it directly into your computer if you want. It even comes with a phono to 1/8" adaptor cable and a copy of Audacity software.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Al Schmitt's Mic Setup

Al Schmitt image
After 18 Grammy’s for Best Engineering (more than any other engineer) and work on over 150 gold and platinum records, Al Schmitt needs no introduction to anyone even remotely familiar with the recording industry. Indeed, his credit list is way too long to print here (but Henry Mancini, Steely Dan, George Benson, Toto, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones, and Diana Krall are some of them), but suffice it to say that Al’s name is synonymous with the highest art that recording has to offer. Here's an excerpt from my Recording Engineer's Handbook that covers his usual mic setup.

Do you use the same setup every time?
I usually start out with the same microphones. For instance, I know that I’m going to immediately start with a tube U 47 about 18 inches from the F-hole on an upright bass. That’s basic for me and I’ve been doing that for years. I might move it up a little so it picks up a little of the finger noise. Now if I have a problem with a guy’s instrument where it doesn’t respond well to that mic then I’ll change it, but that happens so seldom. Every once in a while I’ll take another microphone and place it up higher on the fingerboard to pick up a little more of the fingering. 

The same with the drums. There are times where I might change a snare mic or kick mic, but normally I use a D-112 or a 47 FET on the kick and a 451 or 452 on the snare and they seem to work for me. I’ll use a Shure SM57 on the snare underneath and I’ll put that microphone out of phase. I also mic the toms with 414’s, usually with the pad in, and the hat with a Schoeps or a B&K or even a 451.

What are you using for overhead mics?
I do vary that. It depends on the drummer and the sound of the cymbals, but I’ve been using M 149’s, the Royer 121’s, or 451’s. I put them a little higher than the drummer’s head.

Do you try to capture the whole kit or just the cymbals?
I try to set it up so I’m capturing a lot of the kit, which makes it a little bigger sounding overall because you’re getting some ambience.  

What determines your mike selection?
It’s usually the sound of the kit. I’ll start out with the mics that I normally use and just go from there. If it’s a jazz date then I might use the Royers and if it’s more of a rock date then I’ll use something else.

How much experimentation do you do?
Very little now. Usually I have a drum sound in 15 minutes so I don’t have to do a lot. When you’re working with the best guys in the world, their drums are usually tuned exactly the way they want and they sound great, so all you have to do is capture that sound. It’s really pretty easy. And I work at the best studios where they have the best consoles and great microphones, so that helps.  

I don’t use any EQ when I record. I use the mics for EQ. I don’t even use any compression. The only time I might use a little bit of compression is maybe on the kick, but for most jazz dates I don’t.

How about mic preamps? Do you know what you’re going to use? Do you experiment at all?
I know pretty much what I’m going to use. I have a rack of Neves that I’ll use on the drums.

How do you handle leakage? Do you worry about it?
No, I don’t. Actually leakage is one of your best friends because that’s what makes things sometimes sound so much bigger. The only time leakage is a problem is if you’re using a lot of crap mics. If you get a lot of leakage into them, it’s going to sound like crap leakage, but if you’re using some really good microphones and you’re get some leakage, it’s usually good because it makes things sound bigger.

I try to set everybody, especially in the rhythm section, as close together as possible. I come from the school when I first started where there were no headphones. Everybody had to hear one another in the room, so I still set up everybody up that way. Even though I’ll isolate the drums, everybody will be so close that they can almost touch one another."



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