Saturday, September 30, 2006

Recording Drums: Tuning

I tried to submit a comment on drum recording to Mix Magazine's website, and for some reason they wouldn't post it. Who needs them anyway, I have my own blog!! This is geared toward those who have home-based project studios that they rent out, but I think it could also be helpful to songwriters who do their own demos. I have a few friends who are drummers who read my blog, and I invite their comments!

Possibly one of the biggest challenges to project studio owner/engineers is drum recording! This can be especially true if the engineer is not a drummer! You need to have good microphones, and a good-sounding room to start with. Of course, it also helps to have a good drummer!

Even the best microphones coupled with the best room sound won't help a poorly-tuned drum kit. Often, drummers who only play live gigs do not even think about tuning. In a live situation, especially for rock players, these subtleties are usually lost on the listener anyway. It's more important that the audience can hear the drums above the guitarist. Thus, some drummers never even learn to tune their kit, because they don't need to.

However, when you get into the studio, the sound of the drum kit is suddenly under a microscope, and tuning becomes essential! Old drum heads, old, cracked cymbals, and other hardware defects can also adversely affect the sound. As an engineer, there are several things you can do:

1. Learn how to tune a drum kit yourself. This includes having the hardware on hand! You may need to keep several drum heads, as well as a few cymbals, around as well.

2. Buy a fairly decent drum kit for your studio, keep it well in tune, and insist that all drummers use your kit. If you have the money, this is a great option. You can even keep them set up and miked, which will save you loads of time. If you can't afford an entire drum kit, you might even think about buying a high-quality snare. Believe me, this is worth it. If you consistently have great-sounding drum tracks, you may get quite a bit of work because of it!

I might also add that it is equally possible that a guitarist might walk into your studio with a terrible-sounding rig, so it wouldn't hurt to purchase at least one decent guitar amp as well. The bottom line: A good studio often requires more than just the recording equipment.
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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Meet Bob Dorough

I first learned about Bob Dorough almost 20 years ago, when my friend Ben played a Miles Davis song called “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern.)” Bob was the singer on this record, as well as the lyricist. I was intrigued by his quirky lyrics and his unique singing voice. I said to myself “if Miles recruited this guy to sing with him, he must have done some incredible stuff on his own.” In the ensuing years, I realized how true that was. Eventually, I got the chance to meet him, and even got to perform with him once in the late 90’s.

Bob Dorough was born in Arkansas, and grew up in Arkansas and Texas. After attending North Texas State, he moved to New York City, and the adventure began. He began to make waves as a jazz singer/pianist/composer, first playing with Blossom Dearie then releasing his first solo album, “Devil May Care,” in 1956. Miles Davis heard the album, and asked Bob to write and sing with him.

After a few more solo albums, he began working as a producer, and also did some commercial jingle writing and production. Through this work, he came to the attention of George Newall and Tom Yohe, who were putting together a project called “Schoolhouse Rock.” Over the 13 years the original episodes were produced, Bob produced all the recordings, and he wrote and sang many of the songs as well.

Even while he was producing the “Schoolhouse” sessions, Dorough never gave up his first love, singing and playing jazz, and he returned to it with gusto after the series ended. He did a series of albums for Blue Note in the late 1990’s, and released a live album earlier this year after performing a series of dates in England. What is truly amazing about this is the fact that he is now 82 years old! I looked at his website ( and was amazed to see that he still performs regularly, having just completed a couple of dates in New York City.

Bob Dorough is truly a renaissance man, and has worn many musical hats over the years. He has a unique, expressive singing voice, and is a talented pianist. He is an especially gifted songwriter, both lyrically and musically, and I have always felt that is where his true genius lies. Even if you can’t find his recordings, other artists have covered some of his best songs. Here are a few choice song titles:

Devil May Care
I’ve Got Just About Everything (There are many great covers of this one)
Love Came On Stealthy Fingers
Small Day Tomorrow
Conjunction Junction (from “Schoolhouse Rock”)
He also wrote a great vocalese treatment of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite”

Check out the discography on his website. Many of his albums are still available.

(I interviewed Bob in the late ‘90’s, and I hope to post that interview at some point in the near future.)
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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Happy Birthday John Coltrane

Today (Sept. 23) is John Coltrane’s birthday. Born in 1926, he would have been 80 years old. I think everyone would agree that Coltrane was one of the greatest and most influential artist/composers of the 20th Century. Even if you are not a jazz musician and have never heard his music, Coltrane most likely influenced somebody who influenced you!

So take a moment today, put on one of his records if you have any, and reflect on the impact John Coltrane has had on the world. Happy birthday, ‘Trane. We miss you!
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Friday, September 22, 2006

Gig Stories, Part 1

Here are some quotes I’ve heard over the years when playing gigs:

•“You guys are too loud; Could you turn it down an octave or two?”
•“Is this one of those ‘My-dee’ setups?” (he meant MIDI. A similar one a friend at Guitar Center shared with me recently: “Could I get an M-one-D-one cable?”)
•“Do you guys know _____________?” (insert one of the following: Freebird, Stairway to Heaven, Macarena, Electric Boogie, Achy Breaky Heart, Old Time Rock And Roll, Brown-Eyed Girl, Misty, etc.
•“Do you take requests? What songs do you play?” (This is a weird one. They basically want me to tell them our entire song list, so they can pick which song they want us to play next)
•“Play something else!”

The following usually start with the line “I’m a musician,” which usually prompts me to think “then why aren’t you working on a Saturday night?”:
•“Can I sit in with you? Do you know ‘Freebird’?” (This one often ends in disaster)
•“Can I play your guitar?”
•“I think there are some problems with your mix. The ________ isn’t loud enough.” (insert vocals, guitar, bass, or keyboards. They never say this about drums.)

Many of the above quotes are shouted at me while I’m in the middle of playing a guitar solo! More to come…..
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Great news for independent artists and songwriters!

CustomFlix, a subsidiary of, is now providing a CD on Demand service. This is a boon for artists or songwriters who wish to have a professional product available on the internet, but cannot afford to buy large quantities of inventory up front.

CustomFlix will "manufacture and ship CDs only when customers place orders." Artists can sell their CDs through, arguably the largest online CD distributor, without paying any upfront costs. Couple this with online distribution through iTunes and similar services, and you have effectively eliminated the "middleman." Another victory for the independent musician!
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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Where can you find new music?

I am always on the lookout for ways to discover new music. In fact, I have always felt it imperative as a musician, engineer, producer, and educator that I always challenge my listening habits. Years ago, I discovered Pitchfork Media and Epitonic, both excellent sites for discovering new music.

Recently, my brother turned me on to Pandora, a different kind of internet radio service. With Pandora, users can create radio stations based on their own musical preferences, such as a certain artist or song, for instance. The station then plays music for you according to a predetermined set of criteria developed over a period of six years by a group of musicians and music lovers, called "The Music Genome Project."

However, it doesn't stop there. Since the site utilizes Artificial Intelligence technology, it "learns" from user input, in order to make better selections. The user can give a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to selections, and even bookmark songs or artists they like. This allows the AI to tailor your station to your liking. Of course, this requires users to be active, rather than passive, listeners, at least initially.

You will undoubtedly find that the service will introduce you to new artists you have never heard before, all within the genres you habitually listen to. However, there is always a danger that listeners will never break out of their stylistic "boxes" with this sort of service. If you really want to challenge your listening habits, you should occasionally listen to one of the many freeform radio stations that can be found on the internet. If you keep notes of your findings, you can then go back to Pandora and create more stations based on the new musical styles you have heard!

Go into the world and discover new music!
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Friday, September 15, 2006

Songwriting is a craft

When I first started trying to write songs, I often approached it from the following perspective: “I’ll just wait until the inspiration hits me, then I’ll know what to write.” Another mantra that I often found myself repeating was: “I can only write songs when I am in a certain mood.” This sort of thinking hampered me as a songwriter, and it took many years of “dry spells” and “writer’s block” before I realized I was doing something wrong.

So, I began researching the methods used by some of the world’s best songwriters, and I found that very few of them simply sat around waiting to be inspired. In fact, the most successful realized that songwriting was something one must work at, like any craft. Thus began one of the most fertile creative periods of my life.

My new approach was to schedule time each day for songwriting. I’ve always been a night owl, so I scheduled two hours every night, usually 10 pm-12. I decided to take Friday and Saturday nights off, since I was usually gigging anyway. I treated this time as sacred, allowing nothing else to interfere with it. In fact, you might say I treated it like a job.

I learned from this experience that songwriting takes discipline, effort, and time. Here are a few more tips to make your songwriting sessions more productive:

• Treat your songwriting time like it’s a job you have to go to every day. It should not be interrupted or cancelled for any reason.
• Don’t expect to come out of every session with one or more full songs. Most of the time, you will end up with several song fragments. Don’t think of it as a waste of time, though. You will find opportunities to use those fragments down the road.
• Don’t get in a rut! If you have been writing on guitar for days and weeks at a time, switch to another instrument, such as the piano, for a while. If you’ve only been writing music, put down your guitar, pick up a pen and paper, and spend the entire session writing lyrics.
• Keep everything you come up with, even if it’s unfinished. You will find a use for them. It’s also good to keep a file of all your lyrics.
• Keep a small notepad or a miniature recorder with you during the day, so you can record song ideas when you think of them.
• Try to connect with a community of songwriters. There’s nothing like objective feedback to sharpen your songwriting skills. There are many chapters of NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) all around the country. This is a good resource.
• Even if you are going through a legitimate dry spell, keep trying! It’s the only way to break out of it.

Good luck, and happy songwriting!
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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

CD Review: The Tubes "Now"

The Tubes
A&M Records, 1977
CD Reissue: Acadia, 2004

The Tubes third album Now is their most obscure release, having peaked at number 122 on the Billboard Charts. This perhaps explains why it was never released on CD until 2004, and languished out of print on vinyl for many years. However, for the die-hard Tubes fan, the album offers an interesting mid-point between the operatic prog-rock explorations of their debut and the more commercial rock of later albums such as The Completion Backward Principle. The songs are shorter, and the edges a bit smoother than on previous efforts, with acoustic guitar and piano taking a more prominent role.

Allegedly a concept album, it is difficult for the listener to figure out what the concept is. Typical of a Tubes album, Now is so stylistically schizophrenic that it never achieves the cohesiveness one would expect from a concept album. Genres range from the disco of “Smoke (La Vie En Fumer)” to the jazz fusion of “God-Bird-Change” to the proto-new wave of “Cathy’s Clone.” They even cover a Captain Beefheart song (“My Head is My Only House Unless It Rains”), and the entire affair is infused with a Latin Jazz flavor with the contribution of new member and Santana/Return to Forever alumnus Mingo Lewis.

All of the standard Tubes elements are here, however: Fee Waybill’s trademark yodel, Vince Welnick’s fluid piano, Michael Cotton’s quirky synthesizer lines, and Prairie Prince’s complex and in-the-pocket drum fills.

While there is no indication that Acadia undertook an extensive remastering effort with this reissue, the sound quality is superior to the original vinyl version.

This would not be the best place to start for a listener unfamiliar with the Tubes; Their eponymous debut album or The Completion Backward Principle is preferable. However, for the die-hard fan, as well as anyone interested in eclectic 1970’s rock, it will be a welcome addition to the collection.
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A Brief Explanation of Bit Rate and Dither

A friend of mine who uses Pro Tools recently asked me about bit rate. This subject, and especially the related concept of dither, is often difficult for my students to comprehend. The following is adapted from my email reply to my friend. I specifically discuss Pro Tools, but it applies to any DAW program.

Of course, you cannot discuss bit rate without mentioning something about sample rate. When you record to analog tape, you are recording a continuous representation of a waveform. That's the nature of analog. However, it is not the nature of PCM digital audio. At a sample rate of 44.1k, you are taking 44,100 individual snapshots of the waveform every second (44,100 samples per second.) This is why higher sample rates are better, because you get a better representation of the waveform. Your sample rate also limits the range of frequencies you can reproduce, but that is another discussion entirely.

Now, when you talk about bit rate, you are talking about the size of each sample. Digital audio is encoded in binary code, which is a series of one's and zero's. So, the bit rate determines how many ones or zeros each sample will have. At 16 bits, each sample is represented by 16 ones or zeros. At 24 bits, then, you have 8 more ones or zeros per sample. As you can probably imagine, the amount of combinations of ones and zeros is greatly increased at 24 bits. Thus, you get a more accurate representation of the sample. You have increased resolution, which ultimately means greater fidelity.

This increased resolution is often more noticeable when it comes to changes in dynamics. For instance, at 16 bits, a fadeout might at some point seem to just fall off a cliff! In other words, you might hear a nice, smooth fade for a while, but then suddenly the signal is gone. At 24 bits, however, the fade might sound infinitely better. In fact, many engineers feel there is a drastic difference in audio quality between 24 bits and 16 bits. You may have correctly inferred from what I said earlier that higher sample rates mean larger frequency range. Similarly, higher bit rates mean larger dynamic range. Therefore, musical styles with greater dynamic range, such as jazz and classical, benefit from higher bit rates. With Rock music, on the other hand, which is often heavily compressed anyway, it may not matter as much.

Now, back to dither. Even though dither does add a small amount of noise to the signal, there is a second algorithm called noise shaping, in which the dither noise is re-EQ'd out of the audible range. However, it is more important to understand the true purpose of dither. When you reduce the bit rate from 24 to 16, you are reducing the resolution of each sample by 1/3, basically truncating the last 8 bits off of each sample. This can reduce the dynamic range, and generally degrade the sound quality. When you add dither, it does something akin to rounding off the last few bits to make up for the 8 bits you are losing. In other words, it is designed to allow you to preserve at least some of the dynamic range and overall sound quality when you reduce the bit rate.

The best way to A/B between a dithered and undithered mix would be to listen to a fade-out. The dithered version should sound smoother.

Of course, these differences are, admittedly, rather subtle, and I do know a few engineers who think it's all hogwash. The ideal solution to this problem is a 24-bit digital audio standard, hopefully at a higher sample rate as well. I believe this will happen very soon.

A few years ago, I had a friend who would do all of his sessions at 16 bits, reasoning that it would keep him from having to worry about bit-rate reduction and dither. I actually bought into this for a while, and was doing the same thing. Then one day I read that Pro Tools does all of it's processing in 24 bits. This means that whenever I was using a plug-in or doing a bounce, even a gain change with a fader, it would increase the bit rate to 24, then go back down to 16. So, obviously, there was absolutely no advantage (and, actually, a big disadvantage) to doing things that way.

Then, as I studied digital audio even more I found out that every audio calculation you do, even in the 24 bit range, briefly adds bits to the end of each sample, then cuts them back off to return to your session bit rate. (I had taken recording classes back in the analog days, so I never learned this until I started teaching it.) That's why, for instance, you can set Pro Tools to use dither for audiosuite plug-ins. The consensus among audio engineers, thankfully, is that, even though there is a big difference in sound quality between 16 and 24 bits, once you get above 24 bits, the differences are much less severe, so these recalculations do not adversely affect the sound quality.

One other thing to remember about dither: Since it does add some noise to the signal, you usually don't want to do it more than once. That's why it should be the very last thing you do while you are performing a bit-rate reduction (such as a bounce to disk operation.)

When mixing an album, it’s best to stay in the 24-bit realm, even when you bounce down to stereo mixes. Then, you should take your 24 bit stereo bounces back into your DAW or mastering program, and apply EQ, multiband compression, limiting, etc. in order to get consistent levels and EQ between each song. Finally, insert dither on the master fader and bounce each song to a 16-bit file. In other words, if you are working on an album or EP project that will be mixed and mastered, you should stay at 24 bits all the way through to the end of the mastering phase.
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Monday, September 11, 2006

Sauerkraut and Rock and Roll

What do indie rock, experimental rock, post-rock, punk, post-punk, techno, and industrial music have in common? The German experimental/progressive rock movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s influenced all of these disparate genres. Sometimes affectionately known as “Krautrock,” the movement bore little resemblance to the U.S. and U.K. progressive rock movements of the same period. While Mozart, Beethoven, and Miles Davis influenced the U.S./U.K. progressive bands, the German bands derived their inspiration from John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and the Velvet Underground. Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, founding members of Can, one of the first, and arguably the most influential, German bands, both studied with Stockhausen.

Although the term krautrock was originally intended as a derogatory term, the bands themselves embraced the label. Indeed, the band Faust included a song called “Krautrock” on their album Faust IV.

While each of the krautrock bands possessed a distinctive sound, they had much in common as well. German producer Conrad Plank worked with many of the bands, for instance, and his production work with Neu! on their three seminal 1970’s releases cemented his reputation as a producer for many years. Much of the music produced by the ensembles was instrumental, yet improvised solos were rare. The guitar solo, a staple of American progressive rock, was nowhere to be found. Most of the bands utilized a mix of traditional rock instruments and electronic synthesizers, incorporating elements from 20th century art music movements such as Musique Concrete and Minimalism.

Some of the distinctive elements separating the bands included space music (Cluster, Tangerine Dream), free improvisation (Amon Düül), Eastern instruments and sounds (Popul Vuh), hypnotic rhythms (Can, Neu!), and sound collage (Faust).
Can and Neu! were both anchored by powerful rhythm sections, while groups like Tangerine Dream and Cluster often dispensed with the rhythmic aspects in favor of ambient soundscapes. Kraftwerk developed an entirely electronic style of proto-techno, eventually incorporating dance rhythms from funk and disco, and adopting robotic, futuristic stage personas in the process.

Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were the most commercially successful of the krautrock bands. Tangerine Dream, in particular, went on to forge a highly lucrative career scoring film soundtracks, and most of the “New Age” electronic music artists of the 1980’s owe them a debt. Kraftwerk influenced the techno and hiphop artists that sprang up in the 1980’s. Can, Neu!, and Faust did not enjoy similar commercial success, but they exerted a profound influence on the post-punk and industrial bands of the 1980’s, as well as the post-rock bands of the 1990’s.
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