SONGWRITING: Learn from the greats.

Seriously. We are all bombarded by new/current/hot music. In the indie world, people are all about Half Moon Run, Daughter, Grimes, and First Aid Kit. They’re all great. But you know what you need to listen to more of?

Everly Brothers
Beach Boys / Brian Wilson
Buddy Holly
Loretta Lynn
Hank Williams
George Gershwin
any 50s balladry (Gene Vincent, Flamingos, anything doo-wop)
Chuck Berry
Ritchie Valens
Eddie Cochran
Leonard Cohen
Bob Dylan
Joan Baez
Joni Mitchell
Carole King
James Taylor
Billy Joel
Elton John

Ya know? Man, is that music good. I’ve been listening to a lot of it this past weekend. At the end of February, it’s 61 outside in the Philly suburbs. Holy shit, man. This music’s perfect for it.

Listen to this absolute mastery… vocal harmonies… the writing…


And listen to a modern girl (Lauren O’Connell, half of My Terrible Friend, with Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose)… and her perfect spin on it:

So much to learn from all of this classic music. Man….. ya know? And I LOVE new shit… believe me… I’m always on the up and up when it comes to discovering new bands and introducing people to new, great shit… but please do not forget about where all the great songwriting started (in the 50s and 60s).

Listen to THIS, with headphones…. and FEEL this:

 

And feel THIS, too:

RECORDING: Technology, Sound Quality, and bad marketing

I suppose you could call this another rant….

Lately I’ve been researching a lot online (well, when don’t I… I’m a music teacher by day, so I gotta know my shit 24/7)….. and I’ve found out some truly disappointing things.

Let’s talk about 88-key digital pianos, for instance. For decades, the sound was improving, as was the feature set. Something that manufacturers NEVER cared about until recently though was having actual, usable sounds. What do I mean by usable?

Fender Rhodes
Wurlitzer 200
Grand piano
Upright piano

Good emulations of all of these instruments can be included in all of these digital pianos, even the ones for $600 (Yamahas). Yamaha recently made a tiny little toy called the Reface CP, which has great-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, CP80, Clavinet…. and some GREAT built-in, USEFUL effects, for $500. The catch? The things are tiny, with 37 mini-keys. But… the sounds are there, and quite convincing.


Now, the major gripe I have with the major digital piano manufacturers (Yamaha, specifically) is that as of a couple years ago, they removed their standard MIDI in/out ports for their pianos less than $700. Standard MIDI in-out ports are common for a reason. MIDI lets you connect one device to another. For instance, you can get a nice 88 weighted-key digital piano with standard MIDI in/out, and have it control the Reface CP, so you have superb-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet sounds at your disposal (without having to use the mini-keys). A blessing, live (you ever try to pick up a Rhodes piano by yourself?)

So again, Yamaha removed their standard MIDI in/out ports on all digital pianos (under $700) since 2013. Casio did, too, on their Privia line (PX-130, etc, etc). Now all they both have is “USB to HOST”, which means, they can connect to other keyboards, but only if there’s a laptop, in between.

What if you want to avoid the laptop use, especially in a live setting?

Yamaha’s P-45 is less than $400, new. Great key feel, great piano sound. No MIDI I/O. Just USB to HOST port (side note– USB is often flaky and sometimes unreliable, and never securely attaches to anything on the device-side.)

Why not put the USB to HOST port on their unmovable pianos? Happily connect your ipad to it, or your laptop, as you’ll never move those gigantic beasts, anyway (the ones with the built-in stands, like the Clavinova series). Standard MIDI I/O should definitely be on the more portable pianos and keyboards.

It always baffles me that no one has tried to make a true all-in-one product, that actually sounds damn good. The only people who have done this ar Clavia, with their Nord Stage and Electro series (specially the weighted-key versions), and then Korg, with their much-loved SV-1.

Why hasn’t Yamaha or Casio done this yet? The Casio Privia PX-5S is definitely a NICE board for the money, and the sounds are tremendous, but it’s a bit ugly, and too much button-pushing through menus.

If Yamaha merged their P45 digital piano with their Reface CP…. and put a price tag of $800-1000 on it, I’m sure thousands of (non-rich) performing musicians would pick it up.. A Nord Electro with weighted keys is nearly $3000. That’s just insane. I know the pros swear by them, but they have the money to do so. What about the rest of us?

 

In short, find the need and fill it. Ya know?

 

 

RECORDING: Trim the fat

What do I mean by this?

Stuff everyone knows, but what no one does: stop buying shit. Stop assuming the next piece of gear will make your recordings more professional and completely make your songwriting a thousand times better.

I think back to 2002-2004. I bought SO much shit.

I got a steal on a Novation Nova IIx synthesizer in late 2002. It was $999 from Sam Ash. Retailed at the time about $2500. I have no idea why it was so cheap… maybe a closeout or something. But I bought it. I loved it. I used it for a cool pad sound in the Beauty’s Confusion song “Blue Deluge”, in the chorus. And that’s all I used it for.

2524t2ec16jhjgie9nnwphdbbqvqpski252b2521257e257e60_57

A thousand dollars for a cool patch sound, and an arpeggiator that was extremely fun to fool around with. The patches were all insanely fun. It was a great analog-modeling synth.

Luckily, I was able to sell it for about $1250 after getting bored with it, a few months later.

I also remember, a few months before picking up the Nova IIx, I bought an E-Mu Proteus 2000 rackmount for $800 from Sam Ash. I even bought a $200 “super-realistic strings” chip upgrade, that allowed the rackmount to add a bunch of sounds to it. $1000 for sounds that ultimately sounded pretty damn dated, a few years later.

proteus_2000
The rackmount soon grew to be a pain in the butt, so I sold it at a loss, and instead, bought the E-Mu Proteus Keys, which was the “keyboard” version of the Proteus 2000:

This keyboard moved with me to the Philadelphia area, in 2004. I sold it about a year later, for around $300 (with the $200 string chip).

You want to hear the best part? Several years ago, E-Mu released the Proteux VX virtual instrument for free, with all the sounds from the Proteus 2000. A mere 65MB download. And it sounds exactly like the hardware.

facepalm

In late 2002, I also bought a used Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 (had to drive three hours to pick it up). It cost only $450. I sold it about a year later for exactly the same price (someone drove two hours to pick it up). I loved that thing. They now sell for $1500 used. Should have hung onto that one. But I’ve found that cheap or free virtual rhodes instrument VSTs/plugins sound as good as the real thing.

I bought a Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer five separate times in my life, and sold it five separate times. First one I got for only $300 (broken joystick/pitch bend). Sold for $400. The others, I bought for slightly more and sold for slightly more about 6 months to a year later. Last one I bought in 2011 cost me only $650 (locally through craigslist). Turned around and sold it for $900 five months later (also through craigslist). I’ve found the TAL U-No62 virtual synth, and its big brother, TAL U-NO-LX sound EXACTLY like the real thing. The first thing is free. The big brother’s only $40 or so. Get a cool midi keyboard that has assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, and you can control every parameter of the virtual version, and hot damn, it almost feels like and plays like the real thing.

I have a habit of doing this a lot. Oftentimes it’s just to make ends meet and pay bills. Sometimes it’s all about checking out gear and messing with it, and then parting ways with it with someone more excited and/or experienced.

Since I play everything, I’m prone to buying a wider variety of gear. But…

These days, my studio is so damn stripped-down, it’s ridiculous. I own a handful of gear, but only the shit I truly, truly need.

In the early 2000s, I collected synths, almost… Juno-60, Casio CZ-1000, Roland Juno-1 and Juno-2, Proteus Keys PK-6, Kawai K4, Roland D-50…. what the hell was the point? None of that shit was helping me finish songs.

I owned one microphone (one) from early 2003 to 2009. An AKG C2000B. I still use it. Past few years, I’ve bought more and more mics. They’re always useful.

Keyboard-wise? An M-Audio Oxygen 61, to control ALL of my virtual synths (most of which are freeware/great-sounding). The other keyboard I own is a Yamaha P-60 digital piano (weighted keys). I teach on it and love the feel of it. I’ve owned the same one since 2005.

Drums? I have a Pacific CX kit I play out with (white marine pearl). Got it on trade. I record all my acoustic drum stuff with a Sonor Safari bop kit. My cymbals are cheap, but awesome-sounding Paiste 404 crashes and a ride, and New Beat hi-hats by Zildjian. I own a second Sonor Safari, that I converted into an electronic/triggered kit on the cheap.

Guitars? Not many. A couple acoustics (Martin and Yamaha). I have an Agile Les Paul clone ($300 with custom Seymor Duncan pickups), and a Gibson SG Special. I used to own a Fender strat, which I miss. I have a Fender jazz bass for all my bass needs. I have a modest pedalboard with relatively cheap pedals. I have a Vox practice amp, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’68 reissue, for live use.

I have your typical “must-haves” for any home studio in 2015/2016– a good USB audio interface, studio monitors, dual flat-panel widescreen  displays, mic stands, different mics, a harmonizer, cheap mic preamp, and a midi drum pad (Maschine MK2)… and that M-Audio Oxygen 61.

That’s it.

Anything else is just not necessary.

Trim the fat. Utilize negative space in your home studio. Basically everything you need to record good music can be found “in the box” (on your computer). All of my effects (reverb, delay, compression, etc)… all “in the box” (mostly the stock plugins included with Reaper 4 and Reaper 5). The less options, the better.

It took me like 15 years to realize I didn’t need most of the shit I bought. Don’t be stupid like me. Research, and buy only what you need. Even if you’re a multi-instrumentalist…. you don’t need much.

 

 

 

 

 

RECORDING: Vocal Recording Masterclass

via SoundOnSound magazine…. this is without a doubt, the best article I’ve ever read on vocal recording in a home studio, from start to finish. Seriously, this is it:

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun06/articles/voxrecording.htm

SONGWRITING: Try not to fall for those songwriting sites

Recently, I purchased the $30 (one-time fee) for Speedsongwriting.com, by Graham English. His site promises an easy, fast way to write good songs. I know how to write songs (and occasionally good ones), but I wanted to sign up for this, to try and get better habits… and songs written faster… I mean, this is what his “course” promises.

speedsong

I enjoy some parts of it, but I think a lot of is upselling scam crap. His most recent email to me is asking me to join his “Songwriting Bootcamp”, at about $200. “With this, you’ll get… blah blah blah ($197 value).. blah blah blah ($197 value)… blah blah blah”….

I didn’t sign up for that. Mainly because I’m not entirely impressed with the “value” of the stuff I’ve watched/listened to, and read, since signing up.

I’m seeing a lot of repeating things in every new thing he adds, weekly… a lot of repeated powerpoint presentations (made into streaming videos), just a lot of repeating.

I’m wondering if, at the end of this course, that I will be more pleased with my purchase.

He offers a full refund, no questions asked… if you’re not fully satisfied. I won’t do that, but…. I think a post like this might be more helpful, in not losing your money. I’m more interested in trying to help people in a legit way, than offering some “too good to be true” thing.

I’m not a stupid person….. I didn’t “fall” for his course… I decided “ya know… I’ll give it a try. I might learn something new.” But I don’t know… lots of blah blah blah, and lots of repeated stuff…. and upselling. Nothing I hate more than someone trying to upsell me, when they haven’t offered much substance, with their main thing.

I’m sure eventually Graham will find this entry. If he does, cool! Maybe it will inspire him to make a better, more helpful offering, songwriting-wise. Again, as of this moment (two weeks into the course), I’m not very impressed.

Just a heads-up, peeps…

RECORDING: 25 things Pro Tools DOESN’T do

As of January 2015—

http://www.pro-tools-expert.com/home-page/2015/1/23/how-many-of-the-top-25-pro-tools-ideascale-ideas-appear-in-p.html

SONGWRITING: “Telescoping” a chord progression

Can’t remember if I wrote about this or not, but this is one of the most simple ways to extend the life of a progression, and help you finish a song faster. It’s called “telescoping.”

All it means is this— if you have a chord progression that’s one chord per bar for your verse, you can use this same chord progression for the chorus, but play each chord every two bars. Or four.

example:

Am / / / – F / / / – C / / / – G / / /  for the verse

becomes

Am / / / – / / / / – F / / / – / / / / – C / / / – / / / / – G / / / – / / / /

It’s easy, and it works. As long as the chorus vocals are entirely different from the verse, most people won’t know you recycled the same progression. It’s been done a million times, from top 40 music to the most obscure, lo-fi indie. How do I know? I study songs all the time, and I can learn chord progressions in seconds (oftentimes without even picking up an instrument).

The term “telescoping” comes from Rikky Rooksby, author of a handful of great songwriting books (I’ve mentioned them in this blog before).

Keep writing, and STAY CREATIVE AS ALWAYS.

RECORDING: Acoustic Panel Assembly (again)

This is a FANTASTIC, easy-to-follow video, on how to make high-quality acoustic panels for your home studio, on the cheap. One of the best videos I’ve found, to date.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqZPhfxSaTk&w=400]

RECORDING: Engineer Spotlight– Jesse Gimbel

Jesse and I are friends on facebook, and he lives about 30 minutes from me. I discovered his YouTube channel ages ago, called Jesse Gimbel’s Basement, where he records videos of bands in-studio, doing their thing. He also does some covers, amplifier demos, and original music videos. I haven’t yet met him in person, but that day is coming soon, and I look forward to it.

Six years ago, Jesse started advertising his home studio, which is his parent’s basement, in Upper Darby, PA. He started a studio “because he was broke” (according to his intro video at his site). Six years later, I have seen the quality of his engineering and mastering just shoot through the roof (not that it was that bad before– it wasn’t… everything at his YouTube channel is great). Proof positive that passion, hard work, experimentation, and knowledge get the job done, and cheaply.

I’d like all of you to check out a few of my favorite videos of his. You can learn a lot about home recording just by listening (with headphones) to what people have done in theirs. And paying close attention to any mics you see (for instance, I know that Jesse favors the Sennheiser MD421’s for toms on bands he records).. and also paying attention to any gear you might recognize, such as a Shure SM57 in front of an amp, or a Telefunken, Neumann, or Shure SM7, in front of a lead vocalist.

Great sounds, great performances. Completely DIY. Awesome.

RECORDING: Miking drums

There’s tooooooo much info out there, about drum-miking. All you have to do is search youtube for “drum mic test” or “how to mike drums”, “recording acoustic drums” or anything like that. TOOOO much info.

Here are a few videos I think explain things the best, starting with tuning drums.

That guy explains stuff perfectly, and I tried it. It works. AMAZINGLY. And fast. God, I wish I knew this years ago. Thanks, Rob.

Now onto miking:

The video above seems to REALLY favor Audix mics, which are great…. but, the info in here is quite good.

Another really good video, and straight to the point. The investment’s higher with the mics in this video, but you can get great results with similar mic types. Such as V67gs for overheads, and room mics. Or MCA SP-1s for overheads, and/or room mics.

An engineer friend of mine prefers the following mics, if you have a low budget (under $1000) for drum mics:

Shure SM57s for all the toms, and snare (4 total if you play a 5-piece- $400 new or cheaper used)
Shure Beta 52 for the kick drum ($150-ish)
Cascade Fatheads (pair) for overheads ($350/pair)
(or a couple MXL V67Gs for overheads ($200/pair)

I also love Sennheiser’s 421 for the toms (especially the floor— these mics aren’t that cheap) or the e604s (these mics are quite reasonably-priced) for the toms…. and, I actually quite like an SM57 on the kick drum (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” album was recorded like this… and my god, the sound of Chad Smith’s kick… is HEAVENLY on that record.

You can also go the route of those cheap mic packs, like CADs or whatever. I’ve used the CAD and Samson packs and I think the snare mic in the CAD pack is quite decent, and the tom mics (from the CAD) are ok only on smaller toms, but the kick mic is garbage, and the overheads… don’t even bother. These packs will run you about $200 or less, but I say go with the good shit. It’s a big investment, but if you want good-sounding drums, you gotta get the good shit.

Miking drums isn’t easy by any means, but if you spend a little time choosing the right mics, and especially tuning your kit, you’re in good shape. Good luck!