Monthly Archives: March 2014

SONGWRITING/RECORDING: The lo-fi thing

With the ever-emerging popularity of sites like Bandcamp and Tumblr, more and more indie artists are releasing stuff at a rapid rate. Most of these recordings I come across are of the lo-fi variety.

What’s lo-fi, you ask?

Well, it’s a recording style (or hell, maybe even a genre of music, if you want to get analytically snobby about it) where you just record whatever you want, with whatever resources or equipment is around/available (yes, cheap equipment, and friends who might not be able to play instruments proficiently, but enough to get the job done). You might go “into the red” while tracking a song, and you might have the absolute worst guitar tone ever, but you do it all in one take, and make it the best you can.

Now, I’m not going to be snobby about the lo-fi thing, at all. No fucking way. If anything, songwriters and bedroom recordists who put stuff out there with cheap, crappy-sounding equipment is some of the most inspiring music I’ve ever heard (from the time I was in high school, to today).

I have grown insanely tired of over-produced, sparkly, extremely-well-performed music… even though I was into it for a bit, when I started teaching music. Nowadays, I just don’t care. I want good lyrics, good melodies, and music that comes from the heart, or obviously wears its heart on its sleeve. Nothing sounds better to me.

Here’s a great post by someone at Gearslutz.com, defending lo-fi… and someone who responded right after him…. notice the two polar opposites of opinion. I completely am on the first guy’s side, not the second.

The original lo-fi artists were lo-fi for pragmatic reasons and they preferred the freedom and spontaneity of using, say a 4-track in their bedrooms to having to spend loads of money and work in a really restricted way in order to get hi-fi studio recordings. Lo-fi sound is really about freedom and spontaneity more than it is about sound quality. When people speak nostalgically about lo-fi records, theyre nostalgic about the spontaneous, wildness of those records more than they are about the crappy sound. Although the fact that these records avoided the lamer side of modern hi-fi (over-compression etc.) may also be a factor.

Lo-fi sound is all about the front end of recording. It’s a situation that enabled artists to experiment themselves with sound by messing about with gtrs and mics. It seldom had anything to do with big mixing desks and expensive monitor systems. If they wanted a certain sound they would have gotten that during the recording stage. Also it seems unlikely anyone would hand you a record for you to make sound crappier than it already is. I say assume that they already have the sound they want (lo-fi is about front-end, not mixing) and just try to do a good job of what theyve given you without polishing it too much. Pan, balance, ride levels, maybe a little corrective eq-ing is probably all they want.

Finally if someone comes to you talking about lo-fi and you don’t know what theyre on about it goes without saying that you should check some source recordings out. The earlier recordings of sebadoh, the mountain goats, daniel johnston, pavement and elliott smith are all great records and defining sources of that lo-fi sound.

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and the other guy……

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Personally, and obviously in art it’s all subjective, but I think that bands who WANT a “lo fi” sound lack either material or chops or both. They are using the production style to make interesting what is inherently musically not.

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Wrong. To me, it’s about passion, immediacy, inspiration, and simply “getting it down.” The songwriting quality always matters more than the production. Always. Take Hank Williams’ earliest recordings, and Elliott Smith’s first record… and compare them to the over-produced/over-engineered Nickelback and Taylor Swift stuff. The new shit doesn’t even compare.

Food for thought.

 

SONGWRITING/RECORDING: Harmonizers

I like harmonizers (harmonizer pedals), A LOT. I use them as songwriting tools, and for playing my favorite songs, and having them sound as legit as possible (if the harmonies are simple, like most are).

It’s my belief that if a song melody is catchy enough, harmonizing that melody will make it ten times catchier.

It is also my belief that if a melody is well-written, harmonizing said melody works for all of the notes in the phrase, and really pushes it into the stratosphere.

Why some people hate harmonizers

They don’t like that a machine is being used as a tool for a solo singer-songwriter, for extra vocals. Most people assume that everyone should have a backup singer. But what if you don’t have access to a good one? What if you have a major personality clash with someone helping you harmonize? What if they look stupid up there, all alone, holding a tambourine, and simply singing, and doing nothing else? I mean, ultimately… what difference does it make, how the job (the song/performance/recording) gets done, as long as the end result is good?

The main reason I use harmonizers

As many people know, as I’ve been quite “vocal” about it (no pun intended), I’ve had vocal cord/singing problems since summer 2008, when I had a major vocal cord surgery. I was ok after, until early 2011, when some weird flu/swelling of my throat happened, and since then, I lost basically all of my falsetto and higher range, as it’s too damn “breathy”, often. I’ve done warmups, and vocal therapy, dietary changes, lifestyle changes, you name it… ultimately, most days, I can’t sing with my full range. So I use a harmonizer pedal as a tool, in recording situations, and performance situations. I consider my voice issues more a hardship, than a handicap… but whatever it’s called… I think this is an important tool in my arsenal. I never would ever say I’m an amazing singer… at best I’d say I’m competent and I can hold pitch. And often, when I hear people demonstrate these vocal harmonizers on YouTube, they are completely amazing and have high, powerful voices to begin with. It, of course, makes me feel like crap, but I see what they’re doing. Vocal harmony makes everything better and it’s extremely useful when you mainly write and perform completely alone (as I do). It’s nice to have background singers who don’t give me any drama or make me sing a song I’d rather not (or cannot physically attempt). As long as I stay in pitch, my harmony singers (my pedal) are happy.

So don’t fear ’em…. try them out. They’re extremely fun. I own the TC Helicon Voicelive 2, and also the Voicelive Play GTX (with the “Switch 3” pedal) in a small pedalboard setup, for live and songwriting use. Pro tip– common vocal harmony is a 3rd above, so try a preset in the pedal that is exactly that (most harmonizer pedals default to that, as preset 01).

Some of my favorite harmonizer pedal demonstrations: