Monthly Archives: December 2013

RECORDING: Things you probably don’t need to use

Happy holidays, gang.

As I record music, I find that sometimes, certain pieces of gear hinder my progress, more than help it. You might be using the same pieces of gear, with worse results than without.

Here’s a short list:

1. A hardware compressor. Despite me having a great, USA-made hardware compressor, I find that it makes vocal tracking sound worse (and sound clipped, even without the waveform visually clipping) than without. Don’t worry, I’ve set everything totally right and it’s in the correct order in my effects chain. But, for some damn reason, it sounds like crap when I am tracking vocals live, whether it’s my vocals, or tracking other people. Do you NEED one? Probably not.

2. An expensive mic. Neumann makes a mic called the TLM-103 (it’s about $1200). A lot of the “pro” YouTube musicians out there tend to use it. I’ve tried it for a solid week (borrowed from friend) and did a lot of A/B comparison recording, and I think it sounds like a tinny piece of garbage. I honestly prefer the sound of my MXL v67g (sub-$100 Chinese condenser mic). I’ve said it to countless people… you don’t need an expensive mic. Order of importance: quality of performer, quality of song, quality of audio interface, quality of mic.

3. Expensive cymbals (for the drummers). The other day I received a demo recording from a student who attends the school I teach at, who’s been experimenting with his own music for many months. He’s recorded his (admittedly) crappy drumkit, with the 2-mic method that I demonstrated on my YouTube channel (modified Glyn Johns technique). He doesn’t have great cymbals, and complains the kit sounds like crap. As I listened the demo in my car, I was like “Whoa. This sounds really good.” I’ve recorded stuff with my kit and $250-300 cymbals, and hated the sound. Whatever he has… whatever he’s using… he should stick with it. #1 it saves money, and #2, it sounds great and gets the job done.

4. An expensive acoustic guitar. I know a few people who own $2000 Taylor acoustics, two of which I’ve recorded at my studio. And then, I know some students who own those HPL Martins (made from recycled materials). Those Martins sound like a million bucks to my ears, truly (and I’m probably going to pick one up soon). I have an $800 Yamaha acoustic that I basically hate the sound of, even though it’s almost 20 years old (and acoustic guitars usually sound better with age). I also have a $300 2012 Takamine that in my opinion, is one of the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever played (I recorded quite a few songs with it, in recent months). Do you need an $8000 Taylor, or a $6000 Martin? No. Oh, and another example– my roommate/friend received an Alvarez acoustic for free years ago, as it had a crack in it, and his neighbor couldn’t sell it even for $50. Now, about 15 years later, he plays the Alvarez all the time, and man, that guitar sounds lovely. He put a Fishman-style pickup in it and it records beautifully and stays in tune wonderfully. The crack has never gotten bigger or anything. Perfect-sounding guitar… old as hell, cracked, and sounds gorgeous recorded. Here’s a video of a dude doing a demo of the Martin 000x1AE (the most affordable full-sized Martin acoustic). Tell me this doesn’t sound damn amazing:

5. A real grand or upright piano. I’ve used countless sampled pianos throughout the years, from Steinberg’s “The Grand”, to Synthology’s “Ivory”, to ArtVista Virtual Grand, and most recently– EZ Keys “Upright” and “Grand” pianos, by Toontrack. In my opinion, they’re all perfect, and deliver the sound/vibe you need. My favorite these days is the Upright Piano by EZKeys. You don’t need to mic a real grand piano (plus it’s a pain in the ass), and chances are, the sampled pianos are going to sound better. Check the video out (by the way, you DON’T have to use the pre-made parts/loops. You can just play the piano live, via MIDI.)

6. “Real” drums. I’ve gotten a complaint recently, from a songwriter who didn’t like that I was using Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 2.0 for drum arrangements of her songs. She said they weren’t “real.” They are more real and better-sounding than miking a real kit. I explained to her that these companies go to pro studios (legendary studios), and pro engineers and drum techs tune the drums, and painstakingly mic them, just as if a real band was to record an album there. Then, a pro drummer hits each piece of the kit over 1,000 times, from extremely light, to extremely hard. They hit various parts of the head, or the cymbal, and each hit is meticulously recorded and mixed by the engineer. What you get is professionally-recorded drum performances than can be played with a midi controller or keyboard, or, you can use thousands of loops. So nothing is more “real”, than using these drum samples. Who has the money to go to a million-dollar studio, pay $150/hr to record their drumset, and be stuck with recordings, and not being able to change the beats/performances after the fact? Superior 2.0 gives you complete creative flexibility, and it’s especially useful for people who may not be able to play drums at all. It costs around $300 (or less), and expansion kits can be bought from $40-80 each (and they always have sales, from major online retailers, etc). That’s a hell of a deal, considering the quality and flexibility you get. Yes, I do mic my acoustic kit sometimes (depending on my needs), but 98% of the drums in my recording are from Toontrack’s Superior 2.0. Watch videos and learn about it at www.toontrack.com. And check out this video to show the process:

7. Real vintage synths. Over the last 10 years, I’ve owned a Roland Juno-60 five separate times (yes, five times). The first time I bought it, it was $350, and had a broken pitch bend/mod stick. Sold that, bought it again 3 years later for about $500 (mint condition). Repeat the process a few times, upping the price each time. Last one I bought for about $650 in 2011. Turned around and sold it for $850 in 2012. Why did I keep buying and selling it? Because I kept finding virtual instrument versions which rivaled it, for either free, or a fraction of the cost. Bonus- the virtual instrument has complete midi flexibility (quantizing, arpeggio sync, etc). The real Juno-60 does not have this, and needs a $300 retrofit kit, on top of the cost of the synth (which averages at $1000 used, these days). At first, I was using the Togu Audio Line “Uno-62”, which is a freeware emulation of the Roland Juno-60. Then, I discovered his commercial synth, the “Uno-LX” version 1, and now version 2. Once I routed my M-Audio Oxygen 49 midi controller to control most of the most-used parameters on the Uno-LX (sliders and buttons controlling the synth/arpeggiator stuff, and the 8 knobs controlling the ADSR envelope, and other functions), it is the exact same sound as a real Juno-60, with so much more midi capability and functionality. Cost? Around $50. You do not need a real vintage synth. They’re cool, aesthetically, but if you’re on a budget, these emulations are exactly the same. Listen to hardware/software comparisons here: http://kunz.corrupt.ch/products/tal-u-no-lx

Happy holidays!

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SONGWRITING: The Gambler (fun.) Case Study

This is probably my favorite piano-pop/drumless song of all-time. I did a substitute bass lesson for a 10-year old three years ago and he introduced me to the song (two years before anyone gave a damn about the band, who are now pop superstars). He’s like “Show me the bassline of the Gambler by Fun!” I was like “who?”

So let’s point out the things that immediately stand out:

1. There are no drums or percussion at all.

2. The song is either in 12/8 time, or (more likely) 6/8 time.

3. It begins with basic triad arpeggios (most in root position, some as inversions).

4. There are places in the song which leave “space” (verse 2), where there’s no piano arpeggio… just strings added to held piano chords (strings which remain through the rest of the song, and become the busiest when the piano chills out.

5. The song is extremely well-written, lyrically. It tells the story (at least from my understanding) of a lifelong love/marriage/family… and a man’s wife who is either very sick, or terminally ill. It moves along at the absolute perfect pace…

6. The melody phrases (vocal) are consistent throughout each verse, but with just enough “lift” to keep the song from becoming stagnant. Nate R. of fun. sure knows how to write melodies. I mean, this guy is seriously fucking top-notch. Every male singer should strive for vocal melodies this interesting. But I honestly think they just come to him…. in the same way very interesting vocal melodies often come to pop/indie female singer/songwriters (some that come to mind including A Fine Frenzy, Gregory and the Hawk, Ingrid Michaelson, etc). The melody is ALWAYS the thing that makes someone love a song FIRST (and forever). Always remember that.

7. In the 2nd verse, we hear a quarter-note triplet on the “collective hearts” line.

8. The lyrics have a lot of internal rhyme– rhymes in the MIDDLE of lines, not just at the end.

lyrics:

Slow down, we’ve got time left to be lazy
All the kids have bloomed from babies into flowers in our eyes
We’ve got fifty good years left to spend out in the garden
I don’t care to beg your pardon, we should live until we die

We were barely eighteen when we crossed collective hearts
It was cold, but it got warm when you barely crossed my eye
And then you turned, put out your hand, and you asked me to dance
I knew nothing of romance, but it was love at second sight

I swear when I grow up I won’t just buy you a rose
I will buy the flower shop, and you will never be lonely
For even if the sun stops waking up over the fields
I will not leave, I will not leave ’til it’s our time
So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side

It was the winter of ’86, all the fields had frozen over
So we moved to Arizona to save our only son
And now he’s turned into a man, though he thinks just like his mother
He believes we’re all just lovers, he sees hope in everyone

And even though she moved away, we always get calls from our daughter
She has eyes just like her father’s, they are blue when skies are gray
And just like him she never stops, never takes the day for granted
Works for everything that’s handed to her, never once complains

You think that I nearly lost you when the doctors tried to take you away
Like the night you took my hand beside the fire thirty years ago to this day,
You swore you’d be here ’til we decide that it’s our time
But it’s not time, you never quit in all your life
So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side
You’re the love of my life, you know that I will never leave your side

You come home from work, and you kiss me on the eye
You curse the dog, you say that I should never feed them what is ours
So we move out to the garden, look at everything we’ve grown
And the kids are coming home so I’ll set the table…. you can make the fire.

This is how timeless songs are written, ladies and gentlemen. Play this song for your loved one on Christmas Day, or whatever holiday you may celebrate (and of course, play it for them on their birthday).

Happy holidays!

P.S. I dedicate this lovely song to Hanna from Hungary (even though she never reads this blog as she is an incredible artist, but not a musician, she means the world to me, and makes me think of this song).

RECORDING: Tips for making hip-hop

As some people know, I’m a huge fan of good hip-hop. I’ve made instrumental hip-hop for over a decade, and I guess my biggest “claim to fame” is my trip-hop duo Beauty’s Confusion (active from 2001-2006), which had a huge hip-hop influence, beat-wise.

Just wanted to share some tips I’ve picked up along the way. This is for people who want to make some good stuff, like Premier, Q-Tip (Tribe Called Quest), Dilla, Pete Rock, Stoupe The Enemy of Mankind, and all that good stuff (the first four, which many call the “golden-era” of hip-hop… and all five who many consider as the top 5 hip-hop producers of the last 25 years… it’s tough to argue that).

1. Collect vinyl and/or jazz/soul/ambient/prog/funk music from the 50s to the early 80s! Whether it be actual vinyl from thrift stores or bargain bins of good record shops (50 cents to $1 per record), or if you like to “e-dig” (believe me, you can find vinyl rip blogs if you do no more than 30 minutes of searching)… it’s worth looking into. The art of sampling is exactly that: the art. Sure, many people might say “well, you didn’t write it, and that’s stupid.” For those people, maybe you can simply skim this post… or ignore it entirely. Sampling and “sample chopping” is what makes for the best hip-hop, in my (and MANY others’) opinion.

2. Collect hip-hop-related royalty-free sample libraries! These are great sources for sampling and chopping, and you never have¬† to worry about legal trouble (well, most of the time. Some libraries contain uncleared samples, which you have to watch out for)… some great sites include http://www.bigfishaudio.com (look for their sales), http://www.soundsonline.com, and http://www.timespace.com. Another KILLER resource is http://www.rawcutz.com (Loopmasters / E-Lab/Equipped Music partnership). You can never, ever have too many samples.

3. Listen to GOOD hip-hop. the producers mentioned above, plus artists like Eric B and Rakim, Tribe Called Quest, Molemen, Buck 65, Boogie Down Productions / KRS-One, Geto Boys, Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, J-Live, Blueprint, Bluebird, Sole (and most of Anticon’s earlier output), Jedi Mind Tricks (could be the most underrated hip-hop group of all-time). You’ll be amazed at what you can learn, by simply listening.

4. Get a 4×4 drum pad controller (MIDI interface) — On the cheaper (but VERY useful) side: Akai MPD18, Akai MPD26, Akai MPD32, M-Audio Trigger Finger (get all of these used to save a good amount of dough), Korg Padkontrol (same– they average $100 used)…. or on the more expensive side– Native Instruments Maschine MK2 (Mikro or regular), or Maschine Studio. Stay away from the new Akai stuff– don’t believe the hype. It’s buggy and you can’t produce beats as fast as with Maschine, or with one of those controllers + a VST sampler such as Poise, Shortcircuit, or Motu BPM. A computer, plus a midi pad controller (and maybe a 49-key midi keyboard) is pretty much all you need to make good hip-hop (a little research goes a very long way).

5. Watch beat production videos on YouTube (especially beat production tutorials). Man, I love how people are so damn HELPFUL these days…. some of the tutorials might be on the boring side, but others are incredibly awesome. One of my favorites is Andrew Schellman’s tutorials with Maschine Mikro:¬† http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7ODfLapPcJt1Hjvbm_w0XD9u2mDKWKLF

This is just a simple tips list…. eventually I might do a “basics of hip-hop production” tutorial on YouTube… there are so many already, but I like to give people really affordable (CHEAP) options. When I was in highschool, none of this was possible for me financially…. 2013 offers a lot to the aspiring beatmaker/producer and all musicians/home recordists in general. You guys don’t know how lucky you have it. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog. Information is everywhere…. it’s a shame if talented people don’t put all the good info to use.