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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bruno Mars "Grenade" Song Analysis

I'm a big fan of Bruno Mars and believe he embodies what's best about the music of today. While I don't usually care much about who is performing during halftime at the Superbowl (I find it a distraction from the game), I must admit that I'm looking forward to Bruno this year. Here's an excerpt from my new Deconstructed Hits: Modern Pop & Hip Hop book, that breaks down Bruno's big hit "Grenade" into it's essential elements.

"“Grenade” was the breakout single from Bruno Mars from his debut album Do-Wops & Hooligans, which went on to become a huge worldwide hit. Not only did the song hit #1 in 15 countries, but it also charted Top 10 in eleven others while selling seven million units. The album also went on to sell over 4 million copies, going #1 in six countries and Top 10 in thirteen others. “Grenade” was nominated for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and the Pop Solo Performance Grammys, losing all of them to British singer Adele.

The song took several months to write, then was recorded with a different, more guitar-based arrangement that was 15 bpm faster. After hearing Mars perform the song live at the slower speed, the record label asked for a recording of the slowed-down version, which became the hit we’re familiar with. 

The Song
If you were going to write a straight down the middle pop song, this is the way to do it. The song is unusual in that it begins right with the verse with no intro, but other than that it's formula all the way, not that there's anything wrong with that if it works (it does here). Basically the song looks like this:

      verse | chorus | 2 bar interlude | verse | chorus | bridge | 2 bar interlude | verse (outro)

The good thing about "Grenade" is that it has a great melody, which is something that's sometimes sorely lacking in much of popular music. The lyrics are finely crafted and tell the age-old tale of unrequited love. They sing better than they read, but they’re still put together well.

The BPM of the song is 108.

The Arrangement
Just as the form of the song follows a formula, so does the arrangement. It develops from the sparse first verse to the big chorus, then drops to a less sparse second verse, and finally peaks at the bridge. The tension is released by the stripped-down last outro verse, which is very unusual since most outros retain the big sound, and the tension, to the end.

There's an organ that plays just underneath everything that acts as the Pad and glues the track together, which is a pretty common use for the instrument. What’s interesting is that the arpeggiated electric piano line in the verse acts as the Rhythm element, but during the chorus the rhythm switches to the double time feel of the drums.

The song starts with a synth build and the goes right into a verse with the lead vocal in the center, arpeggiated electric piano sound on the right channel and the organ on the left. Half-way through the verse the three part background harmonies enter along with bass drum, plus a very low in the mix tom and percussion, which propels the track forward. 

In the chorus the piano is lowered in the mix and a new synth pad enters, as the drums now play a tom figure, but no snare drum. The three part background vocals behind the lead vocal act as both a fill element in the beginning of the chorus and as an additional pad element in the second half.

In the second verse, the drums continue to play the tom feel but a snare also enters. There’s also a higher piano that plays effects fills, and percussion that plays fills as well. Three part harmony is added to the lead vocal to emphasize the lyrics. 

In the bridge a new higher synth pad enters, then goes to the beginning of the intro without the vocal, which resolves to the V chord and back to the chorus. The outchorus has the lead vocal adding ad libs to add tension. The outro is similar to the intro, only with the verse drum feel and added percussion. The song then ends on a vocal ad lib with a repeated echo effect.

Arrangement Elements   The Foundation - Bass and drums.
   The Pad - Organ
   The Rhythm - Arpeggiated electric piano line in the verse, the double time feel of the drums in the chorus and outro, percussion
   The Lead - Lead vocal
   The Fills - Background vocals and the occasional percussion sound effect.

The Sound
This is a very well made record in that it's not too compressed and the ambience is layered in a pleasing, ear-candy kind of way. The vocal has a medium-long reverb decay on it in the beginning, but then a timed and repeated quarter note delay is added during various times during the song. The other instruments have their own short ambiences that make them seem more in-your-face, except for the percussion effect that has a long reverb with a very long, timed pre-delay.

The Performance
Make no mistake about it, Bruno Mars is a star. He's got the chops and his vocal shows considerable passion that effectively sells the song. That said, this is a very well produced song from a number of standpoints. 

First of all the song has effective dynamics, breathing in the right spaces, from the less intense verses to the big sounding choruses, then the drums play a tom pattern to add motion to the song rather than the snare, although a small sounding snare (which actually fits the song perfectly) enters in the second verse. Using the drums in this way is not only unusual, but really interesting as well.

The add to all this the use of fills to keep the listener engaged on a subliminal level. You’ll find percussion, vocals, piano and synthesizers all sharing that duty. Finally, the background vocals, which are now becoming a Bruno Mars trademark, are also well-executed and add to both the motion and the tension of the song as well. This song was a huge international hit and the the production is a big reason why."

You can read more from the Deconstructed Hits book series as well as my other books on the excerpt section of


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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Top 10 Mic Preamps

Mic preamps are an essential part of recording and many of us tailor our tracking and overdubs around what's available. I've been asked a lot lately what my favorite mic preamps are, so I thought that todays post was a good time to do that.

John Hardy M-1 image
Hardy M-1
1. Hardy M-1 - My all-time favorite, you can't beat the clarity and transparency with just a hint of color. When I think of the Hardy, the word "power" comes to mind in that everything recorded with it sounds powerful.

2. API 212/3/12/512 - In my mind, API is the sound of rock. It can be gritty and aggressive sounding in a good way. A big favorite on drums and guitars.

3. GML 8302/04 - When I want clean, deep and round, this is the one I'd reach for. I was lucky enough to do several albums on a GML console. The sounds were almost instantly great without working too hard.

4. Shadow Hills GAMA - A very versatile amp with lots of different sounds, it can almost be a combination of the above 3.

5. Great River MP-2NV - To me the MP-2NV is like a better sounding Neve 1073. When you want that sound, this is a good way to go.

AMEK Angela 2 image
AMEK Angela 2
6. AMEK Angela/2500 - Very underrated audio gear in general, AMEK preamps sound like a more modern English console (which they are), but better than the typical SSL. Big and round with a touch of aggressiveness. The EQs were great too.

Universal Audio 8110 image
Universal Audio 8110
7. Universal Audio 8110 - It's a shame this one isn't made any more. It's 8 channels of versatility in that you could make it sound a number of different ways, but it always sounds great.

Presonus M80 image
Presonus M80
8. Presonus M80 - Here's another one that's no longer made. The M80 is 8 channels of very high quality sound that's more on the level of the previous preamps than you'd normally expect. Presonus says there are parts in it that they can't get anymore. What a shame.

9. Trident A-Range - The "Trident" sound to me is sort of like a British version of the API. Very rock and roll and aggressive. Other Trident consoles like the TSM and Series 80 had good sounding preamps with the same general sound, but the A-Range is the best of the bunch. I've had the pleasure of working on several of them over the years.

10. Golden Age Project Pre-73 - Talk about bang for the buck, the Pre-73 gives you a reasonable facsimile of a Neve 1073 for a lot less money (about $350). I bought one as a gift for an assistant and was so impressed that I bought one for myself.

There are plenty of others that I've tried and liked, and lots more that I haven't tried yet. I'm still of the mind that there are other factors that are more important when getting sounds (like the player, the instrument and mic placement), but having a great preamp can certainly make your job easier.

What are your favorite mic preamps?

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Interview With "The Drum Doctor"

Drum Doctor Ross Garfield image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
We all know that the drums are the heartbeat of a song, and a wimpy drum sound will make the engineer work so much harder during the mix. That's why it's so important to get the drums to sound great acoustically before the mics are even placed. That said, it's surprising how little many engineers actually know about making a drum kit sound great acoustically.

Here's an excerpt from The Recording Engineer's Handbook 3rd edition that features an interview with the famous "Drum Doctor" Ross Garfield, who's been responsible for the actual drum sound on a multitude of huge records by some giant artists. Ross give some hints on how to take almost any kit and make it ready to record.

"Anyone recording in Los Angeles certainly knows about The Drum Doctors, the place in town to either rent a great sounding kit or have your kit fine-tuned. Ross Garfield is the “Drum Doctor” and his knowledge of what it takes to make drums sound great under the microphones may be unlike any other on the planet. Having made the drums sound great on platinum selling recordings for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Mettalica, Marilyn Manson, Dwight Yokum, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitiz, Michael Jackson, Sheryl Crow, and many more than what can comfortably fit on this page, Ross agreed to share his insights on drum tuning.  

What’s the one thing that you find wrong with most drum kits that you run into to?
I think most guys don’t know how to tune their drums, to be blunt. I can usually take even a cheap starter set and get it sounding good under the microphones if I have the time. It’s really a matter of people getting in there and changing their heads a lot. Not for the fact of putting fresh heads on as much as the fact that they’re taking their drums apart and putting them back together and tuning them each time. The repetition is a big part of it. Most people are afraid to take the heads off their drums.  

When I get called into a session that can’t afford to use my drums and they just want me to tune theirs, the first thing I’ll do is put a fresh set of heads on.  

How long does it take you to tune a set that needs some help?
Usually well under an hour. If I have to change all the heads and tune them up it’ll take about an hour before we can start listening through the mics. I try to tune them to what I think they should be, then when we open up the mics and hear all the little things magnified, I’ll modify it. Once the drummer starts playing, I like to go into the control room and listen to how they sound when he plays, then once the band starts I’ll see how the drum sound fits with the other instruments.

What makes a drum kit sound great?
I always look for a richness in tone. Even when a snare drum is tuned high, I look for that richness. For example, on a snare drum I like the ring of the drum to last and decay with the snares. I don’t like the ring to go past the snares. And I like the toms to have a nice even decay. Usually I’ll tune the drums so that the smallest drums have a shorter decay and the decay gets longer as the drums get bigger. I think that’s pleasing.

What’s the next step to making drums sound good after you change the heads?
I tune the drums on the high side for starters. For tuning, you’ve got to keep all of the tension rods even so they have the same tension at each lug. You hit the head an inch in front of the lug, and if you do it enough times you’ll hear which ones are higher and which are lower. The pitch should be the same at each lug, then when you hit it in the center you should have a nice even decay. I do that at the top and the bottom head.

Are they both tuned to the same pitch?
I start it that way, and then take the bottom head down a third to a fifth below the top head.

I’ve been in awe of the way you can get each drum to sound so separate without any sympathetic vibrations from the other drums. Even when the other drums do vibrate, it’s still pleasing. How do you do that?
Part of that is having good drums and that’s the reason why I have so many; so I can cherry-pick the ones that sound really good together. The other thing is to have the edges of the shells cut properly. If you take the heads off, the edges should be flat. I check it with a piece of granite that I had cut that’s perfectly flat and about two inches thick. I’ll put the shell on the granite and have a light over the top of the shell. Then I’ll get down at where the edge of the drum hits the granite. If you see light at any point then you have a low spot. So that’s the first thing; to make sure that your drums are “true.”  

The edges should be looked at anyway because you don’t want to have a flat drum with a square edge; you want it to have a bevel to it. If you have a problem with a drum, you should just send it in to the manufacturer. I don’t recommend anyone trying to cut the edges of their drums themselves. It doesn’t cost that much and it’s something that should be looked at by someone who knows what to look for.  

Once you get those factors in play, then tuning is a lot easier. I tend to tune each drum as far apart as the song will permit. It’s easy to get the right spread between a 13 and a 16 inch tom, but it’s more difficult to get it between a 12 and a 13. What I try to do is to take the 12 up to a higher register and the 13 down a little. The trick to all that is the snare drum because the biggest problem that people have is when they hit the snare drum there’s a sympathetic vibration with the toms. 

The way I look at that is to get the snare drum where you want it first because it’s way more important than the way the toms are tuned. You hear that snare on at least every two and four. The kick and snare are the two most important drums and I tune the toms around that and make sure that the rack toms aren’t being set off by the snare. The snare is probably the most important drum in the set because for me it’s the voice of the song. I try to pick the right snare drum for the song because that’s where you get the character.  

Do you tune to the key of a song?
Not intentionally. I have people who ask me to do that, and I will if that’s what they want, but usually I just tune it so it sounds good with the key of the song. If there’s a ring in the snare, I try to get it to ring in the key of the song, but sometimes I want the kit just to stand on its own because if it is tuned in the key of the song and one of the players hit the note that the snare or kick is tuned to, then the drum kind of gets covered up, so I tend to make it sound good with the song rather than in-pitch with the song.

Would you tune things differently if you have a heavy hitter as opposed to someone with a light touch?
Yeah, a heavy hitter will get more low end out of a drum that’s tuned higher just because of the way he hits, so I usually tune a drum a little tighter. I might move into different heads as well, like an Emperor or something thicker.  

How about the kick drum? It’s the drum that engineers spend the most time on. 
It’s weird for me because I always find them to be pretty easy because you muffle the kick drum on almost every session and when you do, it makes tuning easier. On the other hand, a tom has as much life as possible with no muffling.  

What I would recommend is to take a down pillow and set it up so that it’s sitting inside the drum touching both heads. From there you can experiment, so if you want a deader, drier sound then you push more pillow against the batter head, and if you want it livelier, then you push it against the front head. That’s one way to go.

Another way to go is to take 3 or 4 bath towels and fold one of them so it’s touching both heads. If that’s not enough then put another one in against both heads on top of the first one. If that’s not enough then put another one in. Just fold it neatly so that they’re touching both heads. That’s a good place to start, then experiment from there.

Do you prefer a hole in the front head?
It makes it easier. I do some things without holes in the front head, but having it really makes it easy to adjust anything on the inside. No front head is good too. It’s usually a drier sound and you’re usually just packing the towels against the batter head. Just put a sandbag in front to hold the towels against the head.  

How about cymbals?
One thing for recording is that you probably want a heavier ride but you don’t want that heavy of a cymbal for the crashes. You also have to be careful when you mix weights. For example, if you’re using Zildjian A Custom crashes you don’t want to use a medium.  You want to stay with the thins rather than try to mix in a Rock Crash with that because the thicker cymbals are made for more of a live situation. They’re made to be loud and made to cut and sometimes they can sound a little gong-like to the mics. On the other side of the coin, if you playing all Rock Crashes and the engineer can deal with the level, that’s not so bad either because the volume is even, but a thinner cymbal mixed in with those would probably disappear.  

What records better; big drums or smaller ones?
I depends what you want your track to sound like. When I started my company, people would always say to me “Why would someone want to rent your drums when they have their own set?” For one simple reason; most drummers have a single set of drums. If they’re going for a John Bonham drum sound, they’re not going to get it with say a “Ringo” set. A lot of times when they go into the studio, the producer says, “You know, I really heard a 24” kick drum for this song. I hear that extra low end,” but the drummer’s playing a 22, so it’s important to have the right size drums for the song. If you’re going for that big double headed Bonham sound, you really should have a 26. If you’re going for a Jeff Porcaro punchy track like “Rosanna,” then you should probably have a 22. That’s my whole approach; you bring in the right instrument for the sound you’re going for. You don’t try to push a square peg into a round hole.

How much does the type of music determine your approach?
The drums that I bring for a hip-hop session are actually very close to what I bring for a jazz session. Usually the hip-hop guys want a little bass drum like an 18 and that’s what’s common for a jazz session, to have an 18 or a 20. Then maybe a 12 or a 14 inch rack tom, which is also similar to the jazz setup. The big difference is in the snare and hi-hats and the tuning of the kick drum and the snare.

On a jazz session I would keep the kick drum tuned high and probably not muffled. On a hip-hop record I would tune the kick probably as low as it would go and definitely not have any muffling so it has that big “boom” as much as possible. I would also have a selection of snares from like a 4 by 12 inch snare, 3 by 13 and maybe a 3 by 14. On a jazz record, I’d probably send them a 5 by 14 and a 6 1/2 by 14. The hi-hats on a jazz record would almost definitely be 14’s where a hip-hop record you’d want a pair of 10’s or 12’s, or maybe 13’s.

Obviously it’s open to interpretation because I’m sure a lot of hip-hop records have been made with bigger sets, but when I’ve delivered what I just said, it usually rocks their boat.

For more on The Drum Doctors, go to"


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Monday, January 13, 2014

7 Health Benefits Of Music

Doctor and Guitar image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
We musicians, engineers, songwriters and producers actually have a larger responsibility on our shoulders than just creating or helping to create music. It's been proven that music has great health benefits, which makes us all health practitioners in a way. Here are 7 proven health benefits of music.

Music can:
1. Ease your pain. It's been found that music can meaningfully reduce the perceived intensity of pain in numerous areas of healthcare.

2. Improve your exercise performance. Music can motivate people to work out harder. People listening to music have been shown to run faster, have more endurance, and speed up their post-workout recovery. Plus, they even enjoy the music more.

3. Improve your sleep quality. Listening to soft music (classical music seems to work best) has been shown to help insomnia.

4. Help you eat less. Playing soft music and dimming the lights during a meal can make people slow down while eating and consume less food.

5. Reduce your stress. Music can relieve stress, help induce a meditative state, and help people perform better in high-pressure situations.

6. Elevate your mood. Listening to music can positively impact your mood, especially when driving. After all, who doesn't have their favorite road music?

7. Improve your cognitive performance. A byproduct of reduced stress and elevated mood is that we can also think more clearly.

Music is important on many more levels than sheer enjoyment and can be a factor in the listener's health. Remember that the next time you're in the studio.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

The $2 Million Speaker System

We all have our favorite speaker systems. Somewhere along the line you've heard something that's totally knocked you out where you thought, "This is absolutely the best sound I've ever heard." Then we look at the price tag and gag a bit.

That's probably nothing like the Transmission Audio ULTIMATE though, the custom $2 million system that has a totally staggering price to go along its sound.

This system consists of 40 15 inch speakers for the subwoofer, 24 8 inch mid-range drivers, two dipole ribbon tweeter and a custom hi-frequency ribbon tweeter PER SIDE. The whole system is powered by 31,000 watts which can reach 146dB SPL. It's so loud that it almost cracked the foundation of a home it was installed in.

Yeah, that's right. It's a home system.

If $2 million is out of your price range, you can buy a smaller version in one of Transmission Audio's Megatrend System instead for only $60,000.


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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.


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