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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."


Monday, December 8, 2014

The 15 Most Expensive Guitars

#5 on the list of most expensive guitars
I have a good friend who owns a vintage guitar shop who claims that some instruments are more works of art that are worthy of visual appreciation than an actual axe to be played by a musician. Then again, some guitars are considered collectibles, with the beauty being not only in the eye of the beholder, but also in how rare the object is.

That's what makes this list of the 15 most expensive guitars compiled by VH1 especially fascinating. They revolve around scarcity and name recognition more than art or even sound. Here they are:

#15. Leo Fender's original Telecaster prototype - $375,000
#14. George Harrison's custom one-of-a-kind rosewood Telecaster - $435,000
#13. Eric Clapton's 23 carat gold leaf 50th Anniversary Stratocaster - $455,550
#12. Jimi Hendrix' 1966 red Fender Mustang - $480,000
#11. Jimi Hendrix' torched 1965 Strat - $495,000
#10. Eric Clapton's "Brownie" Strat - $497,500
#9. George Harrison's red 1964 Gibson SG - $571,000
#8. Stevie Ray Vaughn's favorite "Lenny" Strat - $623,500
#7. Eric Clapton's 1939 Martin acoustic - $791,000
#6. Eric Clapton's 1964 red Gibson 335 - $847,500
#5. Jerry Garcia custom built "Tiger" guitar - $850,000
#4. Eric Clapton's 1964 "Blackie" Start - $959,500
#3. Keith Richard's 1959 Les Paul Standard - $1,000,000
#2. Jimi Hendrix' white "Woodstock" Strat - $2,000,000
#1. Plain old Strat with lot's of star signatures - $2,700,000

Notice how Fenders dominate the list, as does Hendrix and Clapton-owned instruments? Now you know what to buy your favorite guitar player for Christmas.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: SSL XL-Desk Console

I look at a lot of gear for New Music Gear Monday, but sometimes you find a piece that falls into the "why didn't anyone think of that before" category. The Solid State Logic XL-Desk console falls into this category, since you can classify it as one of the few "mix and match" consoles now available.

The XL-Desk is in many ways just a traditional 24 into 8 console except for the fact that there are 18 500 series slots built in so that you can integrate your mic pre or processing modules right into the desk. It has 20 channel strips (16 mono and 4 stereo), with the first 8 channels having SSL's VHD mic pre's built in.

There are 4 mix busses, and the desk also has the famed SSL stereo buss compressor fitted across Mix Buss A that now has a high pass sidechain input. The XL-Desk also has a fully featured monitor section that can handle 3 sets of speakers, plus a subwoofer with bass management for surround mixes.

Although this seems like a small feature, those of us that have owned large consoles in the past know its actually a big deal that the XL has a high quality internal power supply. Consoles used to suck up a lot of power, making those electricity bills skyrocket unexpectedly, and the PSUs took up a lot of space and threw off heat too. The new generation small and more efficient PSUs are a giant plus when it comes to today's consoles, and the XL is no exception.

The SSL XL-Desk is priced well at only $19,995. It can be had without any 500 series modules or filled with those from SSL as well.

Here's a video that explains the desk in more detail.



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