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Friday, January 15, 2016

Frank Sinatra "Fly Me To The Moon" Instrumental Track

Sinatra "Fly Me To The Moon" imageOne of the great things about listening to isolated tracks is that you get a better sense of what's actually driving the song. While we tend to think that it's always the rhythm section (especially the drums), that's not always the case, as evidenced from the James Brown "Sex Machine" post of last week.

This week we find another great example in Frank Sinatra's classic 1964 "Fly Me To The Moon." You'll hear just the instrumental track without Frank's voice in the first video, then the final mix on the second. Here's what to listen for.

1. The music track is great - it's the Count Basie Orchestra and a Quincy Jones arrangement.

2. That said, this is a case where the music is elevated tremendously by the vocal. In fact, it almost sounds like a different song and doesn't seem to swing as hard without it.

3. Once again, the guitar establishes the groove laying down a steady quarter-note rhythm throughout the song.

4. The drums (especially the kick) are way up front when they play loudly (the playing is very dynamic), which is quite unusual for a big band recording of that era.

5. Listen to the beautiful long reverb on the flutes and horns.

Here it is with Frank's vocal. Check out the stereo spread.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why Do Concerts Sound So Bad?

Bad concert sound imageMost every time I go to a concert I come with the same feeling - why did it sound so bad?

I've posted the following a few years ago, but it's still holds true things never seems to get much better. Concert sound reinforcement equipment is better than ever, yet we're frequently burdened with a mess of auditory goo that just sucks the enjoyment from a live event.

Unfortunately this happens much more than it should, and I think it's a big reason for many people not wanting to attend as many concerts as they once did. It's tough enough with the high ticket prices, the "convenience charges," and the high cost of parking and concessions, but if you add to that a less than perfect concert experience, it doesn't give one much incentive to return again any time soon.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of concerts really sound bad these days and it's not because of the venue acoustics. It's the mix.

I believe that an entire generation of soundmen grew up learning the wrong way - that the kick drum and snare are the most important part of a mix. While that may be true in some small way when mixing a record (it's really important, but not the most important), it's an entirely different thing mixing live sound, where the vocal should be king.

Common sense says that the softest thing on the stage (the vocals) should get the most amplification and attention. After all, that's really what people pay to hear (and who they come to see the majority of the time), not the kick drum. And the overuse of subwoofers just makes a boomy venue all the more boomy.

So here are five reasons why I think concerts don't sound as good as they could:

1.  The vocal isn't featured. The vocalist is usually the main reason why we're there. Mix it so we can hear and understand it, please.

2.  Over-reliance on subwoofers. In real life, the only time you hear 20-30Hz is during a thunderstorm, earthquake or other natural phenomena, and adding in too much (as is sometimes the norm) can be a big distraction. Sure, you want to make the music sound bigger than life by adding in all that bottom end, but it shouldn't be at the expense of intelligibility.  

3.  Too much kick. A function of the above two items, many soundmen seem to have a myopic vision of the kick drum, spending way more time trying to get a sound at the expense of everything else on the stage. Believe me, most drummers at the concert level are using drums that sound great already. It doesn't take that much effort to make them sound good.

4.  Low intelligibility. Again a function of the above items, many concert soundmen seem happy if you can just hear the vocal. But what the concert goer wants is to understand every word. Let's spend some time on that instead of the kick.

5.  Bad mixing habits. It seems like many soundmen never listened to the CD of the band they're mixing. Sure it's different mixing live. Sure you have some wacky venues to contend with. But 1, 2, 3, and 4 on this list leads to #5.  Now's the time to break the cycle.

I'm sure this list won't change the mind of a current concert soundman. But if just one kid starting out decides that it might not be the best thing to emulate that guy, we'll all be the better for it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Engineer Ed Seay's Approach To EQ

Nashville engineer Ed Seay imageI was looking back at some of the interviews included in the latest edition of The Mixing Engineer's Handbook and found this from the great Nashville engineer/producer Ed Seay, who explained his approach to EQ in such a great way that I thought I'd post the excerpt.

Getting his start in Atlanta in the 70's engineering and producing hits for Paul Davis, Peabo Byson and Melissa Manchester, Ed has become one of the most respected engineers in Nashville, with hit making clients such as Blake Shelton, Lee Brice, Martina McBride, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Pam Tillis, Highway 101, Collin Raye and a host of others. He's also a great teacher, as you'll see in this excerpt.

What’s your approach to EQ?
Ed Seay: "I just try to get stuff to sound natural, but at the same time be very vivid. I break it down into roughly three areas: mids, the top and the bottom; then there’s low mids and high mids.

Generally, except for a very few instruments or a few microphones, cutting flat doesn’t sound good to most people’s ears, so I’ll say, "Well, if this is a state of the art preamp and a great mic and it doesn’t sound that great to me, why?" Well, the mid range is not quite vivid enough. Okay, we'll look at the 3k, 4k range, maybe 2500. Why don’t we make it kind of come to life like a shot of cappuccino and open it up a little bit? Then maybe I’m not hearing the air around things, so let’s go up to 10k or 15k and just bump it up a little bit and see if we can kind of perk it up.

Now all that sounds good but our bottom is kind of undefined. We don’t have any meat down there. Well let’s sweep through and see what helps the low end. Sometimes, depending on different instruments, a hundred cycles can do wonders for some instruments. Sometimes you need to dip out at 400 cycles, because that’s the area that sometimes just clouds up and takes the clarity away, but a lot of times adding a little 400 can fatten things up.

On a vocal sometimes I think, "Does this vocal need a diet plan? Does he need to lose some flab down there?” Sometimes we need some weight on this guy so let’s add some 300 cycles and make him sound a little more important. It’s kind of contouring.

Also frequency juggling is important. One of the biggest compliments people give me is that they say, “You know, Ed, on your mixes, I can hear everything.” There are two reasons for that. One is, I’ve pushed things up at the right time when they want to hear it, but the other thing is I don’t EQ everything in the same place. You don’t EQ 3k on the vocal and the guitar and the bass and the synth and the piano, because then you have such a buildup there that you have a frequency war going on.

Sometimes you can say, "Well, the piano doesn’t need 3k, so let’s go lower, or let’s go higher." Or, "This vocal will pop through if we shine the light not in his nose, but maybe towards his forehead." In so doing, you can make things audible and everybody can get some camera time.

Also frequency juggling is important. One of the biggest compliments people give me is that they say, “You know, Ed, on your mixes, I can hear everything.”

There are two reasons for that. One is, I’ve pushed things up at the right time when they want to hear it, but the other thing is I don’t EQ everything in the same place. You don’t EQ 3k on the vocal and the guitar and the bass and the synth and the piano, because then you have such a buildup there that you have a frequency war going on. Sometimes you can say, "Well, the piano doesn’t need 3k, so let’s go lower, or let’s go higher." Or, "This vocal will pop through if we shine the light not in his nose, but maybe towards his forehead." In so doing, you can make things audible and everybody can get some camera time."

You can hear Ed's interview on episode #24 of my Inner Circle Podcast.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Making Of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust Album

David Bowie imageMajor Tom has left the planet, and I can think of no better tribute to music legend David Bowie than an excerpt from producer Ken Scott’s memoir Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust (which I had the pleasure of co-writing) about the making of what may be Bowie’s most enduring work - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Ken co-produced three other Bowie albums from that time period (Hunky DoryAladdin Sane and Pinups) and knew the Thin White Duke well. This is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of the book.

“David had a few demos prepared for the album, but interestingly two of the songs that he decided to record were actually from that first day I reconnected with him (the day of the possible wardrobe malfunction nightmare) when he produced Freddi Burretti - “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On To Yourself.” Even though David had originally written these songs for Burretti and not for himself (they had been eventually released under the name of Arnold Corns), David thought they might fit nicely in this record, and they did. One song that eventually made the record, “It Ain’t Easy,” had initially been considered for another album. It was a leftover from the Hunky Dory sessions and so was the only track on Ziggy that Rick Wakeman played on.

As with Hunky Dory, what was to become Ziggy was recorded at Trident [Recording Studios in London] in about two weeks, with another two weeks for mixing, but this time we had moved from 8 track up to the relative luxury of 16 track, thanks to the addition of a brand new 3M M56 tape machine. The sessions themselves weren't much different to any of the other Bowie sessions. The basics took about 4 or 5 days and were virtually the same for every track. It was only the nuances in each song that would vary. What’s more, nothing was recorded 100% live. There were overdubs on every track, and as is usually the case, some more than others. 

There were a lot of tracks recorded for Ziggy that didn’t make the album ( most of them I had forgotten about until I began mixing Ziggy for 5.1 release recently) - “Velvet Goldmine,” “Bombers” “Holy Holy” and Jaque Brel’s “Port of Amsterdam”. If I remember correctly, for “Velvet Goldmine” we put a lot of work into it and so it was fairly finished, “Bombers” was only somewhat finished, “Port of Amsterdam” was David with just an acoustic guitar, and “Holy Holy” was only a basic track and I don’t think we even got a good one. Originally one of the tracks intended for Ziggy was “Round and Round,” the old Chuck Berry rock n’ roll classic. Now that one had the least number of overdubs of all the songs that weren’t strictly acoustic and was completely finished.  It was actually supposed to be on the album until RCA decided they needed a single and that was the track that got kicked.

As I said before, David is an amazing singer, and 95% of his vocals on Ziggy and every other album I recorded with him were done in a single take. There was one completely calculated exception however. In the first part of the song “Rock And Roll Suicide” David sings very quietly, and so in order to optimize the sound quality, I had to crank the level of the mic preamp. He eventually becomes a power house and his vocal range was quite different for the latter part of the song, so I had to readjust the levels to compensate for that, hence the vocal for that song was recorded in two parts - each part a first take of course. I learned not to expect anything different.

As with everything Bowie, there are lots of myths and misconceptions and the so-called “sax section” on “Suffragette City” is certainly one of them. The fact of the matter is that it’s not a sax section at all, but a synthesizer. We thought we had finished the song but, as these things often go, it was lacking something. I'd been spending a lot of time messing with the ARP 2500 synthesizer that Trident had recently purchased and suggested we give it a try. I got the sound, and Ronno played the part that David came up with. We were not specifically going for a sax sound and to me it sounds nothing like saxes so it always surprises me when people tell me they thought it was a sax section. Then of course came the really big surprise when David told American DJ Redbeard during an interview that he played all the saxes in the song, but then again, lest we forget, we’re talking about Mr Bowie. One can never tell if he really didn’t remember or he was just telling the interviewer what he wanted to hear.

Of course there’s always a favourite track and on Ziggy it’s “Moonage Daydream”. All the songs work for me but that one just works a couple of percent more for some reason. David has said in interviews that he’s always been like a chef. He takes ingredients from all of the music that he’s heard, mixes it all together, and it comes out being his own. In this case, he took an idea from the B side of the 1960 Hollywood Argyle’s #1 hit “Alley Oop” called “Sho Know A Lot About Love,” where a baritone and flute play the same line together (well, a couple of octaves apart, but I think you know what I mean), and used that same concept for the solo of the song. The only difference on “Moonage” being that it was a recorder not a flute playing with the bari, both of which David played.
He was incredible in that he’d see a trumpet or an accordion or some other instrument in the studio and say, “Let’s find a way to put this on there.” We were so into rock and roll and wanted to remain true and pure, and we’d think,”Oh, God (covers his eyes and hangs his head), he’s not going to put that on it?” He’d do it and place it somewhere back in the mix and it would work. That amazed me. 
The same with takes. We’d do the second take and feel, “Now I know the song,” and he’d go, “That’s the one.” We’d all argue that we could do a better one but he’d say, “No, that’s the one.” After a while we’d begin to think, “We’d better get it by the second take.”Woody Woodmansey [Spiders from Mars drummer] 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Studio Bass Player Paul ILL On My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

Studio bass player Paul ILL imageThe studio business has changed drastically in recent years and it's been especially hard on studio musicians.

My guest this week is Los Angeles studio bass player Paul ILL (Pink, Tina Turner, Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love and many more) who gives us a sense of being a studio musician in today's new music world.

In the intro I'll discuss the significance of dipping into Virtual Reality for concerts and videos, the surprising year-end Nielsen music sales and streaming data, and why a major defense agency is going back to vacuum tube technology.

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

New Music Gear Monday: The Marshall Smartphone

The Marshall London Smartphone imageIf you're a hard-core Marshall guitar amp fan, then you're going to love this one.

Marshall is expanding their product line to include a smartphone, and it concentrates more on music than most other smartphones on the market.

The Marshall "London" is an Android phone that's styled after its famous classic amplifiers, right down to the texture and feel. It has a 4.7 inch 720P display, 2GB of RAM, a removable 2500 mAh battery and a Snapdragon 410 processor like some of the best phones already on the market.

Unlike other phones, there are two headphone jacks at the top and two front-facing speakers, plus a dedicated M button on the top of the handset for instant access to your music, which it takes seriously enough to the point where there's also a separate processor just for audio. The London also supports the Bluetooth APTX connection, so wireless audio transfer will stay hi-quality. The phone also comes with a set of Marshall Mode in-ear headphones.

Oh, and the phone works on 3G, 4G and LTE as well.

The Marshall London smartphone is available for pre-order for $499 in the United States. You can find out more about the Marshall London here.


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