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Monthly Archives: June 2016

New Music Gear Monday: Microphone Parts DIY Microphone Kit

Microphone Parts S-12 kitThere are so many great boutique microphone manufacturers these days, that’s it’s pretty easy to buy a pretty good mic for a reasonable amount of money. The quality of the classic microphone clones continues to get better while the price seems to keep coming down. That said, if you’re willing to put in a little work yourself and you’re not afraid of a soldering iron, you can build your own classic clone with a DIY microphone kit from a company called Microphone Parts for even less.

Microphone Parts sells the parts to upgrade about 40 inexpensive condenser mics from companies like AKG (the Perception series), CAD, MXL, Carvin, Nady, Rode and Studio Projects, and the suggested mods generally include a new capsule and various circuit components ranging from capacitors to transformers. These are do-it-yourself mods that require an hour or two of work by the mic owner, but most conclude that it’s well worth the effort and the relatively modest cost.

Selling mod kits is just one step removed from providing a full microphone kit though, and Microphone Parts offers their take based on proven designs by Schoeps, Neumann, AKG and Telefunken to give you a kit for just about every style of classic large diaphragm condenser mic you can think of, including the C12/ElaM 251, 414, U87, U47 and M49.

The prices of the kits range anywhere from $329 to $569, and for around $200 more the company will even build it for you. Many of the kits also provide some interesting options that range from the color of the body to different harmonic variations depending on the components you select to use.

There are lots of great reviews online, but be aware that these kits require some intermediate-level electronic skills and tools, as it’s up to you to identify the parts correctly and solder them as required. A few hours of your time is a small price to pay for a good mic at a reasonable cost though, and the Microphone Parts DIY microphone kit seem like a winner. I’m so pleased that electronics kits are back in vogue!

Jimi Hendrix “All Along The Watchtower” Production Analysis

Jimi Hendrix WatchtowerJimi Hendrix still gets plenty of love from guitar players and producers alike, so here’s an excerpt from my Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock book. Maybe the definitive Hendrix song is one he didn’t write himself. “All Along The Watchtower” was written by Bob Dylan and released in 1967 on his John Wesley Harding album, which was given to Jimi by the publicist for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. The song was released as part of The  Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third and final album called Electric Ladyland.

Recording began at Olympic Studios in London on a 4 track tape recorder with Experience members Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, along with Traffic guitarist Dave Mason on acoustic 12 string. On take 7, Redding, dissatisfied with how long it was taking, left for the pub and Mason took over on bass. On takes 11 and 12 Stones guitarist Brian Jones arrived at the studio drunk and insisted on playing piano. After playing poorly, he was asked to leave and Mason returned to 12 string.

Take 27 became the keeper, after which Hendrix himself added the bass. All subsequent overdubs and mixing took place at the Record Plant in New York City, first on a 12 track tape deck, then eventually on a 16 track. Rolling Stone Magazine has named “All Along The Watchtower” #47 of their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, while Britain’s Total Guitar has it as the #1 greatest cover song of all time.

The Song

“All Along The Watchtower” is interesting in that the song is made up of a single set of chord changes that repeat over and over. There are no other sections other than three verses, and solos that occur over the same verse chord changes. On that alone you would think that this would be a boring song, but that’s not the case, thanks to a constantly changing palette of sounds. The form looks like this:

intro 1, intro 2, verse, solo, verse, solo, solo, solo, verse, outro

The lyrics are more poetry set to music than anything, which of course, is the strength of Bob Dylan. The hook “All Along The Watchtower” is stated only once at the beginning of the last verse, yet it’s such a strong image that it supersedes the other lyrics by far.

The Arrangement

The arrangement of “All Along The Watchtower” doesn’t change all that much in terms of instruments building as much as different sounding guitars entering and exiting.

The song begins with the bass, drums, and the acoustic 12 string playing the intro, which is punctuated with a vibraslap on beat 4 of every bar. Then a little twist that makes it totally interesting, and uncountable if you’re playing along, where there’s a half-beat guitar pickup going into the instrumental intro with the famous lead guitar solo line where the rest of the band enters with more intensity.

On the first verse you can feel the band pull back dynamically as the music gets less intense to make room for the vocal. A new dark sounding strumming electric guitar enters on the left channel that acts like a glue for the track, and the tambourine adds the high frequencies as it pushes it along. Also, at the end of bar 16 (half-way through the verse), the bass and rhythm guitar play the last chord as a IV chord, while the 12 string guitar plays it as a flat VII. Throughout the verse a lead guitar fills in between each vocal phrase.

During the first solo, the intensity once again builds with the drums and tambourine switching again to double time, then slightly lowering the intensity for the second verse but still staying with the double time feel. Once again, the lead guitar fills in the holes between the vocal phrases.

In the solo section, the first one is similar to the previous lead sections in intensity and clean tone of lead guitar, but the second changes to the verse feel. In that solo, the bass also changes from a loose, ad-libbed part to one that’s structured on octaves, while the slide lead guitar pans from side to side. The next solo keeps the same feel but the lead guitar changes to a wah, which again pans left to right. The last part of solo increases in intensity while the guitar changes back to a slightly overdriven Strat sound.

The last verse is identical in structure to the previous two. The outro solo section differs in that the 12 string guitar is replaced with a 6 string acoustic strumming a different, more aggressive pattern than was previously used, while the guitar and vocal ad-libs pan back and forth from left to right over the ending fade.

The arrangement elements look like this:

  • The Foundation: bass and drums
  • The Rhythm: 12 string acoustic guitar, 6 string acoustic at the end, tambourine
  • The Pad: strummed low register electric guitar low in the mix
  • The Lead: lead vocal, lead guitars
  • The Fills: lead guitar

The Sound

“All Along The Watchtower” provides an interesting glimpse into the old recording world of 4 track as well as the then new world of multitrack all within the same song. You can hear the old world primarily on the drums and percussion, which were mixed in mono onto a single track. In order to make them sound stereo, they’re panned hard to the left and slightly delayed to hard right, which sounds somewhat odd as there’s a big hole in the middle as a result. This actually works to the song’s advantage as the center is filled up nicely with a number of guitars and the vocal. The tambourine, which subtly plays a big part in the song, gets the same stereo treatment as the drums. The bass is panned slightly to the left while the 12 string is panned slightly to the right.

Where the new multitrack world enters is all of the different guitars layered on the song. Virtually every solo has a different guitar sound, and there’s a very low and dark but important strummed electric guitar on the left that works as the glue to the song. On the outro the 12 string turns into 6 string acoustic.

There are a lot of effects layers in the song made up of several delays and delayed reverb. Except for the delay used to double them, the drums and tambouring are dry, but all of the other guitars have a slight delayed reverb that blends the track together well. The vocals and many of the guitars receive what sounds to be about a 350 millisecond tape delay with about three or four repeats.  Since it’s tape, the frequency response is limited to begin with (most tapes used for tape delay wear out during the session from oxide shed, so the high frequencies suffer) so the delays decay seamlessly into the track.

Be sure to listen for the long reverb tail on the 12 string guitar in the intro before the vibraslap enters, and how the solos in the middle of song pan left to right and back again, but the echo still remains on the right.

The Production

“All Along The Watchtower” began as a co-production between Jimi Hendrix and his manager Chas Chandler (who produced his previous two albums), but Chandler quit early in the process over Jimi’s irregular studio habits and the fact that it was taking so long to accomplish anything. Without hearing the previous takes of the song, it’s difficult to say if a better one was played before the keeper at 27, but you have to like Jimi’s instincts on keeping that one, as well as the many guitar overdubs that it took to complete the song, which was the total opposite from the quick recording of his previous records. The song has stood the test of time, and considering it’s simple form, a big reason for that can be attributed to it’s production.

Fender Mod Shop Now Lets You Build Your Perfect Guitar Online

Fender Mod ShopIt used to be that if you wanted a custom neck, color or pickguard on your new guitar, you either started with a stock model and fitted it with aftermarket pieces, or it had to be ordered through a dealer and you had to wait a few months until it was delivered. It was a clunky process to get exactly what you wanted, and didn’t always work as planned. Fender has now tried to streamline the process with the launch of  its new Mod Shop online custom ordering. The store allows consumers to design a fully customized guitar with multiple options and features available.

Mod Shop allows you to customize a Tele, Strat, Precision bass or Jazz bass to your exact specs. There are a number of standard starting places, but if you begin from scratch you can select the orientation (right or left handed), body material and color, fingerboard, pickguard material, pickups, tuning machines, bridge, hardware color and strings.

The instruments have a base price starting at $1649, but some add-ons like color may add to the cost. The entire process from order to delivery takes about 30 days, and the instrument is manufactured in Fender’s Corona, California factory.

While this seems to keep dealers out of the loop, that’s not the case, as you can order through Mod Shop via a dealer as well (presumably to get a discount on the instrument).

What’s more, Fender isn’t stopping with just guitars. It will open an amplifier version of Mod Shop by next year, and may even expand beyond that to foot pedals and accessories if the idea catches on.

The Fender Mod Shop is a direct result of the success of Nike’s customization program called ID. If that idea could be so successful for shoes, then something as personal as a guitar should be a snap.

Check out the Fender Mod Shop and try building the guitar of your dreams just for fun. Beware though, it makes want to get your credit card out (and that’s the idea, after all).

7 Self-Mastering Tips For When You Can’t Hire A Mastering Engineer

7 Tips For Self-masteringLet’s face it, recording budgets are tight these days and we can’t always send our final mixes to a true mastering engineer. With so many of the same tools that mastering engineers use now available to every mixer, it’s now possible to do a pretty good self-mastering job. If that’s your situation, it’s best to follow these following 7 steps excerpted from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook.

1. Don’t master on the same speakers you mix on. If you do, you won’t be able to make up for the deficiencies of the speaker.

2. Listen to other songs that you like before you even touch an EQ parameter. The more songs you listen to, the better. You need a reference point to compare your work with, and listening to other songs will prevent you from over-EQ’ing. EQ’ing is usually the stage when engineers who are mastering their own mixes get in trouble. There’s a tendency to overcompensate with the EQ, adding huge amounts (usually of bottom end) that wreck the frequency balance of the song completely.

3. A little goes a long way. If you feel that you need to add more than 2 or 3 dB, you’re better off remixing! That’s what the pros do. It’s not uncommon at all for a pro mastering engineer to call up a mixer, tell him where he’s off, and ask him to do it again.

4. Be careful not to over-compress or over-limit your song. This can lead to hypercompression. Instead of making a song louder, hypercompression sucks all the dynamics out of it, making it lifeless and fatiguing to listen to.

5. Constantly compare your mastering job to other songs that you like the sound of. Doing this is one of the best ways to help you hear whether and how you’re getting off track.

6. Concentrate on making all the songs sound the same in relative level and tone. This is one of the key operations in mastering a collection of songs like an album. The idea is to get them to all sound as though they’re at the same volume. It’s pretty common for mixes to sound different from song to song even if they’re done by the same engineer with the same gear. It’s your job to make the listener think that the songs were all done on the same day in the same way. They’ve got to sound as close to each other in volume as you can get them, or at least close enough so as not to stand out.

7. Finish the songs. Edit out count-offs and glitches, fix fades, and create spreads for CDs and vinyl records.

If you see a self-mastering job on the horizon, you’ll find that your results will be far closer to that of a mastering engineer if you follow these tips.

You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

June 14, 2016

Songwriter Martin Page On My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

Martin PageThis week I’m lucky to have my compadre from the AudioNowcast on my Inner Circle Podcast, songwriter Martin Page.

Martin’s had much success over the years writing with everyone from Earth, Wind and Fire, to Bernie Taupin, to Hal David, to Robbie Robertson, to Robbie Williams, and he’s also co-written a couple of world-wide #1 hits – “We Built This City” for Jefferson Starship and “These Dreams” for Heart.

Martin will talk about what he’s learned working with some of the world’s greatest writers, and tell a few very cool inside stories as well.

In the intro I’ll look at some numbers about the typical indie label that I found totally unexpected, as well as a quick overview at what I saw at the High End Audio Show in Newport Beach, CA.

You can listen to it at bobbyoinnercircle.com, or via iTunesStitcher, Mixcloud or Google Play.

Jukedeck Lets You Create Soundtrack Music With Artificial Intelligence

JukedeckEvery so often I need a cue for a video that I’m working on and inevitably I’ll say to myself, “It’s faster if I just compose something myself.” That’s never the case in the end since it always takes longer than you’d think, especially if you want something that’s really a custom-fit for the situation. That said, the thought of having music created for me via artificial intelligence goes against my nature as a musician.

I must admit that I have to rethink that position somewhat after taking a look at Jukedeck,  a website that uses AI to compose custom pieces designed as background music for videos.

Jukedeck let’s you select the time of the piece, then provides a number of choices in terms of the instrumentation (piano, folk, electronic, ambient, among others), and the mood (uplifting, melancholic, among others), and then in 30 seconds or so, spits out a piece of music that you can then download after you’ve registered.

The company is the brainchild of CEO Ed Rex and his team of 15 out of Cambridge in the UK, where they’ve raised almost $4 million in venture capital in two rounds of funding.

This isn’t exactly a free service, nor should it be, though. If you’re an individual or a business with fewer than 10 employees that just wants something for a video you’ve made, it’s free if you give Jukedeck credit, and $0.99 if you don’t in exchange for a royalty-free commercial or non-commercial license. If you’re part of a company with 10 or more employees, then the cost is $21.99 per download, which is very reasonable. In both cases, Jukedeck owns the copyright and grants you the license to use the music, which you can’t resell or make it available for others to use, which is fair enough. You can buy the copyright to the music if it’s an awesome fit, and the cost is $199.

I tried Jukedeck a number of times and I have to say that the results were pretty good in a generic sort of way. Let’s face it, for most of the things that Jukedeck is intended for, it doesn’t require a film composer, and the results were a lot faster than even sifting through a library trying to find the ideal track.

I hate to say it, but this might be one time when the robots are actually on the right track.

 

New Music Gear Monday: Standard Audio Stretch Effects Processor

Standard Audio StretchBack in the old days of multitrack tape, we used to have a trick that would add a little bit of air and sparkle to vocals. It was an unorthodox technique and for a long time no one talked about it, but it was used on many of the classic records that you know and love today that eventually the secret was revealed. The technique involved using only the encode portion of a Dolby A noise reduction system, and was called “Stretch.”

It was a totally unique sound that couldn’t be duplicated with EQ or compression. In a nutshell, Dolby compressed different frequency bands at different amounts and emphasized others during recording, then did the opposite during playback to reduce the inherent tape hiss. If you just did the encode and didn’t decode it, then disabled the lower frequency bands, what you were left with was “Stretch.”

Now Standard Audio has introduced a 500 series module that replicates the sound of “Stretch,” and they’ called it – surprise – STRETCH. STRETCH can be used to add sparkle and air to lead and background vocals, add some bite to drums, or add some air to acoustic guitar or strings.

According to the Standard Audio specs, STRETCH works by splitting the signal into 4 frequency bands and then compressing each band individually with preset ratio, attack, and release settings tailored to the band. The 4 frequency bands consist of the LF Band (20Hz – 110Hz), MF Band (110Hz – 3kHz), HF3 Band (3kHz – 20kHz), and the HF9 Band (9kHz – 20kHz).

There aren’t many controls, but it doesn’t need many. An Engage pushbutton enables or disables a true hard-wired relay bypass circuit, and a Filter/Compression pushbutton LED indicates when any of the active filter stages has reached 2dB of compression. The Filter/Compression pushbutton lets the user cycle continuously through 7 different filter combinations, and orange HPF and LPF front panel LEDs indicate the different combinations.

An Input Control allows the user to set the gain structure through the unit so that the desired amount of compression is occurring, and an Output Control allows the engineer to set the output level to DAW/Tape without altering the mix blend. There’s also a Mix Control, which blends the STRETCH signal with the un-processed input signal to vary the amount of effect desired.

The Standard Audio STRETCH retails at $695, according to the company website. That said, if it works the way that the old Dolby A Stretch did, it’s worth having around the studio for sure.

Britney Versus Ariana Isolated Live Vocals

Britney Isolated Live VocalI must admit that whenever I watch the huge stage show of dancers that accompany many popular female singers today, I have mixed feelings. First of all, I’m in awe of the sheer athletic ability now required to be considered a “singer” today. Those moves aren’t easy to remember or execute, but it’s especially difficult when you’re trying to sing at the same time, as some isolated live vocals have shown us.

A big part of me (okay, let’s be honest – all of me) would rather see the performer just stand there and try to carry the audience on vocal ability alone.

That’s not going to happen, and I’m the audience that they’re trying to reach anyway, so it’s a moot point. That said, most, if not all, of these vocalists have real chops, and that’s why it really hurts when you hear less than a great effort from anyone regardless of the circumstances.

That’s just what you’ll hear in this isolated vocal during Britney Spears portion of an HBO special. It’s from 2009, but it’s still no excuse.

It’s hard to call her a “singer” after a performance like that. The said part is that she really did have chops at one point in here career, as this clip of a very young Britney shows.

Contrast that to a Ariana Grande, who is the real deal. She does the moves yet not only stays in tune, but belts it out of the park.

Let’s see – which one has their priorities in the right order between singing, dancing and looking good? These isolated live vocals usually won’t sound as good as from the studio, but we really shouldn’t be surprised when they’re either way below, or exceed our expectations.

A Look At The Sound City Drum Sound

Sound City Drum SoundThere are some studios that have that magic sound for tracking drums, and the famed Sound City in Van Nuys, California was one. Every great sounding tracking room that I’ve ever been in has been a product of luck rather than design, and Sound City (which ha since closed) was no exception. The combination of a smooth reverb decay, a tailored frequency response, and finding just the right spot in the room makes all the difference.

Here’s an excerpt from Dave Grohl’s excellent Sound City film that talks specifically about the drum sound of the room. It features luminaries like Lindsay BuckinghamMick Fleetwood, Rick Rubin, Jim Keltner, and Keith Ohlsson, among others.

We can talk about microphone placement, mics and preamps all day, but in the end, it still all starts with the basics – a great drummer, good sounding drums, and a great room.

If you haven’t seen the Sound City movie, you’re really missing out. It’s one of the best music films going.

5 Ways To Get Paid For Your Production Work

Production WorkIf you’re a producer, engineer or musician, chances are that you’ve been asked to work on someone’s recording. That’s all well and good, but how do you get compensated for your efforts? This excerpt from the just released 2nd edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook gives you 5 ways that you can get paid for your production work.

“What if the members of a local band ask you to produce them? What do you charge if they’re not attached to a label? There are a number of approaches you can take, although none will have you retiring to the Bahamas anytime soon. You can do the following:

1. Charge a flat project fee. How much should that be? So much depends on the type of project, how many overdubs you’ll need, the artist’s or band’s competency, the artist’s or band’s income level, and the number of songs they want to record. A jazz or blues band that has 20 songs will usually take a lot less time to produce than a pop band of eight will, because of the layering that’s normally required with pop music. And if the band has a marginal player or two, that can almost double the time spent just in trying to get their parts to match the skill level of other players (unless you can persuade the rest of the band to use a session player, instead).

A flat fee is the least desirable way to get paid, because projects have a tendency to go a lot longer than anticipated and will drag on and on when the artist realizes that you get paid the same, regardless of the time spent. If the flat fee is the easiest or only way to get the gig, then that’s what you’ll have to do. Otherwise, avoid it if you can, unless you’re very well compensated.

2. Charge a per-song fee. This approach is better than the flat project fee, but not by much. The per-song rate has all the same problem areas as the flat-fee approach, with the exception that it can sometimes cause the artist to scale back from recording 15 songs to 10 (even though it’s a hit in your pocketbook). You won’t have to worry about the artist wanting to record an extra song at the last minute or suddenly wanting to complete a track originally deemed too weak after basic tracking. With a per-song rate, if any additional songs are recorded, then you have to get paid.

3. Get paid on spec. This approach is the one that most fledgling producers use when starting their careers. The deal is that if the artist or band “makes it” (meaning they get signed by a major label and get an advance), then you’ll get paid your project fee, points on the project (a percentage of the royalties), or both. The chances of that happening are always long no matter how much you believe in the act, so be prepared to spend your time working for free. The one good thing here is that you’ll be gaining experience.

4. Charge an hourly rate. As long as you know you’ll get paid, this arrangement is the safest way to go. When, for example, you inevitably spend that extra week on overdubs or mixing, you’ll get paid for the time you put in. The hourly rate keeps people focused and stops them from adding those extra five overdubs “just to see what they sound like,” or from trying ten more takes when you all agreed that the third take was great.

5. A combination of the above. Many times payment can consist of a little bit of money or a little bit of spec, some items at a flat rate and some at hourly, or some combination. Try not to get too complicated. A simple deal works best for everyone, especially when it comes to getting paid. Just realize that there are a lot of options available.

There are a lot of good books on the subject of how to structure a deal for yourself that are more comprehensive then what was just laid out above. Even if you decide not to read them, get an attorney if you will be earning any money more than what the attorney will cost. At the very least, always get it in writing.”

We’re all pretty good at lending a hand when asked, but most of us aren’t that good at getting paid for it. At least one of the above ways will make sure that you’re compensated for your production work in some fashion.

You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.