Archive for July, 2012

Desktop Mastering: A few moments with Steve Turnidge

Each semester, the number of students in my recording classes who are interested in mastering increases. Yet few, if any, understand what a mastering engineer does. Many are under the misconception that mixing and mastering are done at the same time, and that the latter simply involves the use of a compressor that maxes out the levels on the output bus. Consequently, they are very surprised to discover how the two aspects of the recording process differ, and that they can learn to do both.

Desktop Mastering (2012, Hal Leonard) was written for aspiring engineers who want to develop the skills required to enhance a recording after it is mixed. Author Steve Turnidge walks the reader through the various stages of mastering, explaining the terms, technology, and working methods involved. He even offers tips on creating a mix that won’t make the mastering process a nightmare.

In addition to running a studio, Turnidge has worked in nearly every facet of the music business, and he currently designs audio products that combine analog and digital circuitry. So it’s no surprise that Desktop Mastering includes sections on business as well as the fundamentals of audio and electronics. The following Q&A was conducted via email.

What made you decide to write this book?
Initially I was hoping to write a different book about Social Networking—my working title was “The Social-Digital Ecosystem.” I was talking to Bill Gibson, author and editor with Hal Leonard Books, about the idea. At one point he visited my studio and evidently I shared a few novel techniques about mastering with him, and that stayed with him.

A few months later, it turned out that Desktop Mastering, already in progress, had an AWOL author. A memo went out to the editors asking if anyone knew a likely candidate and Bill thought of me right away. One quick phone call—”Can you write a 50,000 word book on Desktop Mastering by July?”— and I said yes.

The universe makes the set list, and this was appropriate for me to do. It has been a great learning experience: for example, what actually matters when you are writing a book?, and what can you rely on others for? Evidently, it worked out OK because I’ve been asked to write an 80,000-word follow-up called Beyond Mastering: A Conceptual Guide, which is slated for release in March 2013.

What advice about mastering would you give to students that they can put to use immediately?
First, make a distinction between hearing and listening. We hear all the time, but listening is a conscious event. Bring attention to your listening.

Second, work to get an accurate listening environment. Investigate speaker placement, especially, and work toward accurate frequency response from your system. Tuning your listening position sweet spot with a Real Time Analyzer and room EQ is a great start. You wouldn’t operate on someone without an X-Ray to see where the internal organs are, and you shouldn’t make critical changes to audio without knowing that what you are hearing out of your system is closely equivalent to what went in to it.

Third, work at a consistent level. You can check things softer or louder, but find a position for your volume control and only work there. Train your ear for a given output, and your decision making process will receive a consistent input.

Lastly, I’d make sure that the students have a clear view of the stage of music production they are working on at any given moment. There are generally four stages of production: Tracking, Mixing, Mastering and Distribution. These stages closely reflect the stages of baking a pie.

Tracking is like getting the ingredients together: the fresher and cleaner the source material is, the better the pie will be.

Mixing is like, well, mixing. This is where all the components are blended together and placed in the pan. It is important to realize that the freshly mixed and prepared pie is not yet ready to eat: it still needs baking.

Mastering is the baking phase. Among the most common errors mastering engineers see are half-baked pies. This is when compression, limiting, and high levels make the mastering job more about restoration than enhancement. If the mixed file sounds like it is ready to go on the radio, it is probably not in an appropriate pre-mastered state.

The last stage, distribution, is like the hot pie on the windowsill, drawing the audience and fans from far and wide.

It is important to know and work appropriately on the stage you are in.

What do you tell aspiring mixing engineers about avoiding over-compressing their work? Is there a particular way they can keep dynamics in the work, yet make it as loud as possible?
There is a very counter-intuitive aspect to the modern relationship between a mixing engineer and mastering engineer. The softer the tracks I get, the louder I can make them. Assuming they are 24-bit, there is plenty of resolution even with the peaks -10dB down.

When I get tracks that are half-baked and crispy right out to the edges, we start the mastering process as one of restoration. We only have the opportunity to work half of our craft: we can only turn things down.

On the other hand, when a track comes in that is emotionally balanced, and gentle and delicate—even if it is a hardcore track—I can not only turn parts down, but I can turn them up! This allows for the greatest dynamic range from my processes.

One way to think about this is to let the mastering engineer fight the loudness wars for you. You stay in the studio and get the artistic process right. Make the greatest song you can, the best you’ve ever done, and keep those master faders nice and soft. I can make that rock.

You have to get small to get big. I have a client that ran his master fader bus full on, all the time. He had no headroom to vary the mix: he always hit the limits and had to turn down the individual elements. I finally convinced him to turn the master faders down. When he learned to mix softly, he could vary the elements of the composition easily, without the constant compromises his overdriven system was demanding from him.

He could still turn up his monitoring amp, so the levels he mixed at could remain comfortable for him. Mix softly, and monitor with a big stick.

This was a conversion experience for this client. Every track that came out of his studio after that was a pleasure to master and peeled the paint off the walls (compared to starting with a screeching, sibilant mess from a maxed-out system).

That is the nature of the conversation. As a mixing engineer, once you hear the true, final outcome when you respect the larger world of gain structure, you don’t have to be convinced. You become good.

–Gino Robair

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A click track for ETHEL

Digital audio workstations have been around for so long now that we tend to forget how much easier they’ve made the music production process-at least I do. Do any of you remember how hideously difficult it was to create click tracks that allowed for precise scoring to picture? I forget the author’s name, but in my early years in the business there was a bible of sorts that every film score composer had to have. It laid out all the various tempos and how they relate to sprocketed film measurements-geez, I can’t even remember what the relationship was between beats and this unit of film.

Some would argue that the ability to import film into a DAW, locate hit points quickly, and create cues that match picture with ease comes at a cost; at times the creation of grand themes designed to gird a film’s underlying construct is sacrificed to a sonic commentary that matches picture on a moment by moment basis.

Whatever, it’s still cool to have precise control over the tempo of a piece of music. Over the last two days I’ve been working with the tempo function in my sequencer, Cubase 5, in a way that’s new for me. ETHEL (www.ethelcentral.org) is a ferocious machine. Highly respected in New York City, its home base, and far beyond, this 15 year old string quartet champions new music. Composers whose influences include rock, pop and soul stand a fair chance of getting their work read by the group. I was fortunate enough to have them run through a quartet of mine, “The Amazing X-Ray Machine,” and I’m happy to report that we’ll be recording this piece in just a few days.

Ralph Farris, the group’s violist and Artistic Director, initially heard a midi mock up of this piece. Roughly eight minutes in length, “The Amazing X-Ray Machine” has a base tempo of 144 beats per minute, but a number of sections are to be played either more slowly, or faster, and there are several accelerandos. After playing the parts in my sequencer I spent a fair amount of time adjusting the tempi to get the feel right.

Of course, real players differ from their midi counterparts; when I had my one (and only) rehearsal with the group on Monday we changed some of the tempi, which I marked on my score. I didn’t realize this, but ETHEL often records to a click track, and they asked me to build a midi map for the session.

Interesting. I went back to my sequence, reset the tempi, played around with the ramps from one tempo to another, and then added three additional midi tracks. This is a fast piece with many changes of time signature, so a simple, steady quarter note click was not in the cards. I placed a side stick on all downbeats and a closed hi hat on the strong pulses within the measures (one and four, for example, in a measure of 3+2/8). Ralph asked me to mark the downbeats of each section with a separate sound, and so I added triangle hits where needed.

The group will be rehearsing the piece again before our session, so I dropped these three tracks and e mailed an mp3 to Ralph. To insure maximal flexibility, I then exported the sequence containing only the percussion parts as a standard midi file and sent it to Daryl Bornstein, the remarkably talented musician/engineer who will be running this session, to make sure that it opens correctly in Pro Tools. It does, which means that he’ll be able to replace the sounds I used with appropriate substitutes. If we feel that a section needs to be played faster or slower it will be easy to adjust tempo on the fly.

Poor Max Steiner! Sad Dimitri Tiomkin! Imagine how these giants of the past would have enjoyed using these tools!

NOTE: Tom Lynn, of Audio Pro Berlin (www.audioproberlin.de) pointed out that I erroneously changed the gender of Christa Wolfe in my last blog. Ms. Wolfe wrote the libretto to “Cassandra,” the wonderful piece written by Michael Jarrell. Thanks for the correction, Tom.

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Simple Headphone System

My friend wants to connect multiple headphones to a power amp in the easiest and safest way possible. There are many ways to create a headphone system, depending on needs, budget and reliability. This is ONE of many ways.

My friend is using Sennheiser HD-280 cans, which are rated @ 1/2 watt and 64 ohms. I am not sure if 500 milliwatts (mW) is the max power or the nominal (expected safe) power. I did my calculations based on a 100 watt per channel amplifier, which is overkill but what is available (translation: laying around).

The power formula is: WATTS = VOLTS (squared) / OHMS

0.5 = volts (squared) / 64 (we’re solving for volts)

64 * 0.5 = 32, the square root of which = 5.65-volts RMS (Vrms), the amount of voltage required to drive the cans at their rated wattage.

If the power amp is rated for 100 watts into 8-ohms, then 100w = voltage (squared) / 8-ohms = 100 * 8 = volts squared = 800, the square root of which is 28-volts RMS. We now know the amp’s voltage output at rated power and load along with the voltage required for the headphones to dissipate 500mW. The ratio of these two can be converted into the amount of attenuation (in dB) as well as helps us ballpark the series resistor required to safely drive the headphones.

The formula to convert a voltage ratio to the more familiar decibels is…

dB = 20 log (new volts / reference volts)

The resistive ratio will be 5.6 / 28 = .2 (the log of which is -0.69897000433601880478626110527551) times 20 = -13.9 dB (it’s good to know the attenuation in a familiar quantity).

That same 0.2 ratio, in resistive terms = 64 / 64 + ‘X’ (‘X’ is the series resistor we want to find).

We need to isolate and solve for X. To do so we need to get it out of the denominator by swapping 0.2 with ’64 + x’ so that 64 + ‘x’ = 64 / 0.2 = 320 -64 = ‘x’ = 256-ohms.

We then need to calculate the current through the resistor in series with the headphones, which is the same current through the headphone voice coil. 28-volts from the amp will be across 256-ohms + 64-ohms, that’s 28-Vrms / 320 = .0875-amps. Power dissipated by the 256-ohm resistor that’s in series with the headphones = current (squared) * ohms = .0875Amps (squared) * 256-ohms = 1.96 watts. This resistor needs ‘headroom’ so it will provide reliable service and have an adequate safety margin (a.k.a. no fire). (You may not find these exact values but anything close will work, for example 250 ohms @ 5 watts.

Just to confirm that I made no mistakes, let’s calculate the power dissipated by the headphones = .0875amp (squared) * 64 = .49 watts, which is close enough to 1/2 watt.

My resistor values should get us in the ballpark, tho you could figure out your amp’s power and work backwards as I did to know the range (and for the sheer enjoyment of doing the exercise). To test using the amplifier in this example, have your DAW generate 1kHz @ 0dB full scale, send that to your power amp and adjust the gain so that a clean 28-volts appears at the speaker terminals.

My friend was also concerned about whether the amp’s outputs were balanced or ‘bridging,’ reading on a message board that a bridging amp would not like each channel’s ‘low side’ tied to the sleeve of a quarter inch jack. To test, connect a speaker to the amp, play some music at a low-to-moderate level, lift the PLUS wire from its terminal and connect it to a screw on the chassis. If no signal, you’re good to go. When doing the same to the black wire, the signal level should not change – this assumes the MINUS or ‘low’ side of the amp’s output terminals is (indirectly) connected to chassis ground.

Last point is to buy some 256-ohm 3 to 5 watt resistors – whatever is common – then prototype, test and adjust to taste. I would also get some 64-ohm 1/2 watt resistors wired to the 1/4-inch jack normals so that, when no phones are plugged in, the amp sees the same load. This way, plugging and unplugging cans doesn’t change anyone’s level.

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A Package Arrived Today

The new world order-who would leave it and return to the past? Or, as Smokey Robinson once said, “Love’s a hallway with so many doors. Which one did I go through that made me yours? I want to close it up and never again leave from within to go back where I been.” (“Point It Out”).

A few months ago the New York Times reviewed a concert that included a piece by a French composer I’d never heard of named Michael Jarrell. The only piece of his on Spotify is a one hour plus work for narrator and orchestra called “Cassandra.” I was mesmerized by this music-you will be too, I bet. Author Christa Wolf recasts the story of the Trojan princess. He twists the past, future and present, and Jarrell goes all the way down the well with him.

I was mesmerized by the recording (Kairos, KA10012912). The actress, Astrid Bas, is spectacular. The coolest thing about this music, for me, is the way Jarrell integrates a couple of samplers with the traditional orchestra. They add a prog rock touch to the work that makes it completely unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.

Thanks to the good old internet I was easily able to find Jarrell’s publisher, (Edtions Henry Lemoine) and order the score. It came today… fabulous!

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Arrangment is Mixing in the Musical Domain

I’m sitting in my control room, listening to Beck’s SEA CHANGE in surround while working on graphics for a SIGNAL FLOW class…

SEA CHANGE creates wonderfully interesting textures by mashing up traditional rock instruments – guitars and synths, dynamic and organic drums – plus really cool orchestrations, some with the Indian tinge. No matter whether listening closely or casually, surround or stereo, Beck takes me on a sonic journey. I’ve even created a ‘Beck channel’ on Pandora so I can listen while cooking.

The August issue of MIX is about Mixing and to me that starts with the arrangement. All technical stuff aside, the most interesting mixes are deceptively simple and in that simplicity is space – the sonic real estate that allows the effects and the processing to be subtle and enveloping. I love when the musician / arranger carefully chooses the instrumentation and the frequency range of the notes – it’s so much more efficient than ‘engineering the space’ with EQ. Instruments shouldn’t fight each other!

Recordings that have depth draw the listener in – and especially for engineers, it’s like listening with fresh ears. It’s somewhere between ‘how did they get THAT sound, OR, how can I get THAT SOUND. Back in the day, The Beatles, Steve Miller, The Moody Blues, The Beach Boys and Sopwith Camel are just a few of the bands that come to mind. Their records were experiments on multiple levels.

The idea of the ‘concept album’ while not new, emerged, flourished and was shared back when FM radio was in its brief free-form (underground) period. This was before ‘corporate’ came up with Album Oriented Rock (AOR) and other niche formats that ultimately destroyed personality-driven radio and created the narrow genres that in some way have hurt music by not expanding the listener’s boundaries.

Truth be told, I do miss the DJs that wove the oddest things together – from spoken word to early blues, topical comedy and off-the-beaten path modern. Social media has replaced the creative radio DJ in that people can easily share their playlists.

Of course, Audio is not just about music. At one time we could be myopic about our respective crafts, but these days there’s a lot of multimedia cross-pollination, and that’s a good thing. Music that is created for films and games is like FM and AM, Classical and Pop.

I’ll be back to update this after classes…

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Vocal Smoothing: Part 1

One thing that brings a high level of professionalism to any mix is making your vocal sound smooth, understandable and natural. A compressor goes a long way to make this happen but it also brings the blemishes to the surface. As you limit dynamic range, you start to hear bad edits, hard syllables, sibilance and the difference in takes if you made a comp. Each one of these pimples takes a special skillset to make right.

Before I get into individual skills, let’s talk about the vocal chain. I’m going speak from my own perspective as a mixer so my gear may differ from yours, but the concepts remain the same. I have a hybrid setup with various analog tube gear and plugins from UAD, SoundToys, VSL, Slate, EastWest, Avid, Steinberg and more. My vocal chain plugins vary greatly depending on the singer, but I always end the chain by leaving my converters and going through a Millennia STT-1 and then into a Dangerous 2-Bus and BAX EQ before it splits back to a Dangerous Monitor ST and back to my Lynx converters for burning a 2 mix.

The STT-1 has tube or solid-state sections for the EQ and compressor and input section. I will choose more tube over SS if the vocal needs some taming down from any digital harshness and I generally use the four EQ bands as a way to balance the tone in the 100Hz range, at the fundamental (depends on the vocalist), 4k to 5kHz and 8Khz and up. The compressor is working between 5 to 8 dB of gain reduction depending on how dynamic the part is.

I’m also giving the vocal a lot of plugin and automation love before it gets out of the box. I’ll always tune before I process so that plugin is first in line. Lately I’ve been using Slate VCC plugins on all my channels and VCC bus plugins on various groups, or I’ll sometimes hit the track with a UAD ATR-102 plugin for some tape simulation – or both. Next comes a utility compressor such as the UAD Fairchild or if the track is especially dynamic, I’ll go deep with a FET/VCA style compressor like an 1176, DBX 160 or Fatso Jr. plugin. These can sound “pumpy” (with hard-knee and apparent gain changes) so you have to be wary of hitting the track too hard here. But with just the right setting, you can tame the peaks with a good amount of transparency. I’m often barely moving the needle here, just getting the peaks.

Next, I use at least one, and often two or three de-essers depending on what the track sounds like. I prefer the UAD Precision De-esser and UAD bx_digital V2 which lets you dial in the frequency to cut over the full range of audible frequencies. With the V2, you can use the Listen mode to find an offending tone by grabbing a frequency knob which solos just the frequency you set it to, boosting it at a very narrow bandwidth. You can then tune in on the harsh tone to get the frequency you need to plug in to the de-esser. I’ll then shut off that band so I’m not using the EQ, and plug the number into the de-esser (see V2 pic above with de-esser outlined in white.) Then you just dial out the amount to cut which is measured in -dB steps and is reflected by the GR meter. There is also a handy solo button so you can hear what’s going on when the GR meter kicks in. It’s very easy to use and sounds great.

We’re not done yet! Click here to see Part 2

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Them From “A Summer Place”

Max Steiner… what a talented little dude he was. A whiz kid, Steiner was accepted as a pupil by-check this out-none other than Johannes Brahms. During his teens he also studied under Gustav Mahler. It’s safe to assume that Steiner had his counterpoint and orchestration chops together before he left Vienna and arrived in the USA while still in his early 20’s.

Along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Dmitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman, Max Steiner created the blueprint for a Hollywood scoring style whose influence continues to be felt to this day. Highly dramatic in tone, marked by orchestral forces that feature large string sections, many of these early scores showed the influence of the late 19th century masters, Brahms in particular. Steiner’s most memorable contribution may be “Tara’s Theme,” the nearly over ripe, string-centric piece that nailed the weepy longing for the good old days (let’s leave slavery aside for the moment) sentiment at the core of “Gone With The Wind.”

In 1959 Steiner was tapped to score “A Summer Place.” Starring Richard Egan (a man’s man!), Constance Ford (what a prude) as the parents of a (nearly) chaste Sandra Dee…forget the plot; just say that this flick introduced the viewing public to the hunky Troy Donahue and was quite successful.

The composition that came to be known as the “Theme From a Summer Place” was a leitmotif called the “Molly and Johnny Theme,” used in the film to amplify the excitement, danger, and melancholy surrounding the characters played by Dee and Donahue. How perfectly Steiner captured this nexus of emotions… and so economically. Did anyone ever squeeze more drama into the plebian I,VI,II,V harmonic structure that girds the A section of this piece?

There are about two zillion versions of this beautiful theme, but the two most popular were recorded by Percy Faith in 1960, and The Letterman (with lyrics contributed by Mack Discant) five years later. Percy Faith is an interesting player in the history of the recording business. Dismissed by many as a lightweight, the Godfather of Easy Listening music managed to capture the collective imagination for over a decade.

Faith’s recording of the “Summer Place” theme, which won the Record of the Year Grammy Award in 1961, was the first movie theme and first instrumental to achieve this distinction. By the way, Faith, Elvis and The Beatles are the only artists to have the best selling single in two different years-this record and his arrangement of The Song From Moulin Rouge were hugely popular.

Percy Faith kept the core of the film arrangement intact, but made several important changes. For starters, he transposed the piece up a fourth. This transposition replaces the darker tone with a breezier sound. Faith also chucked out the lame backbeats on two and four that define the original as a composition in 4/4 featuring triplets, a rhythm that weighs down the forward motion somewhat. His arrangement has a true 6/8 feel that helps move the track along. Finally-I’ll wait while you instantiate Spotify and call up both versions-take a listen to the bridge. In Steiner’s version the second half has a melodic line that awkwardly outlines the tri-tone; Faith smooths the line out in a way that’s much more natural. The Lettermen and all other versions that I’ve heard use this construction.

What an era, defined in part by stories like the one detailed in “A Summer Place.” Sex, it’s bad, it’s fun, kids think about it once in a while but know that it’s wrong, wrong, wrong!

Ah, the good old days.

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What a Rockumentary Can Really Teach Us.

(This was originally posted at emusician.com on June 24, 2010.)

Black Sabbath is one of the most influential bands for young, aspiring rock musicians for two simple reasons: their riffs are heavy and they are easy to play. Like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, but unlike Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” “N.I.B.”, and “Paranoid” take moments to learn, but provide the gateway drug to a lifetime of rock guitar playing. Or drumming. Or bass playing.

I’ll let others debate whether that’s a good thing.

I had a reawakening to the charm of these riffs after hearing “Fairies Wear Boots” on satellite radio a few months ago. It wasn’t difficult convincing my bandmates in Pink Mountain that it would be the perfect cover song (we only play one) for our West Coast tour last year. “Fairies Wear Boots” has it all—a driving rhythm, awkward tempo and feel changes, and impenetrable lyrics.

Watch Sabbath play the song live in 1970. Merely a year or two before this performance, they were still a boogie band. See what a bad influence the blues can be?

Black Sabbath’s most influential album, Paranoid, is the subject of the latest installment in the Classic Albums series (distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment). If you are unfamiliar with the Classic Album documentaries, queue a couple of them up on Redbox or Netflix. The albums covered so far include Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon, Steely Dan Aja, Queen A Night at the Opera, Bob Marley and the Wailers Catch A Fire, and Frank Zappa Apostrophe (‘). Metallica, Elton John, Steve Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Lou Reed, Nirvana, Meat Loaf—the list of artists covered in the series is long and varied.

The documentaries are based around interviews with the main players of each album—musicians, engineers, management, label execs—with some critics and younger rock stars thrown in for whatever reason. But unlike the MTV or VH-1 take, which fixates on the sordid details behind depraved lifestyle choices, the DVDs in this series focus on the music itself—how it was created, what the band was trying to do, and who did what, when. Okay, there are some juicy bits, too, but they’re tastefully downplayed.

Often the individual musicians demonstrate their parts from a hit song or two, talking you through what went into creating it. This may sound like a “for musicians only” affair, but the pacing and editing keeps things moving nicely.

For me, the highlight of each DVD is when the engineer, sitting at the mixer, solos tracks from the multitrack master tapes. You’ll hear parts that didn’t make it into the final mix, or the individual components of a difficult-to-discern submix. Anyone can dig up grainy photos of a band when they were slogging it out in the clubs. But to locate and playback each of the basic tracks for the first time in four decades? Priceless!

In this case, engineer Tom Allom walks us through a handful of tunes that were originally recorded to 1-inch, 4-track tape at Regent Sound Studio, but were later filled out with guitar doublings and final vocals at Island studios. Thanks to Allom we get to hear Ozzy improvising lyrics as the band does the basics. It was Ozzie’s penchant for singing along with the guitar riff in Sabbath that nearly killed the concept of melody for a generation of rock musicians. Yet Osbourne’s delivery is outstanding: He may have become a rock-and-roll clown through media overexposure, but the man can deliver hard-rock lyrics like few others.

Overall, these documentaries are very well shot and have excellent sound—particularly when the musicians are demonstrating their music. Watching Tony Iommi play his riffs close up is a revelation. And you’d never know by hearing him play that he has prosthetic caps on two of the fingers of his fretting hand—the fingers he severely injured in an industrial accident. It was after he heard Django Reinhardt, and learned of the jazz player’s own hand injury, that Iommi realized that he could play guitar again.

At one point, he walks us through the various riffs in “War Pigs.” If I was 12 years old and into music, that section alone would inspire me to take up the guitar. Unfortunately, it’s not included in the documentary itself: Some of the most interesting playing is saved for the extras part of the DVD. I realize this series is intended for general broadcast and not meant to be instructional videos, but come on—who doesn’t want to hear their favorite guitar player play a killer lick!

For that matter, who really cares what Henry Rollins has to say about Black Sabbath? Let the people who were there tell the story. (Rollins would be just as pissed off as I was to have to sit through a gratuitous rock-star cameo before hearing more from the band members themselves.)

And listening to Chris Phipps, “Music Historian,” state the importance of the band so emphatically that his jowls shake reminds me of how easily critics and historians can suck the enjoyment out of music with their exaggeration. Do we really need someone to tell us how important a band like Black Sabbath is to rock history? Why else would there be a documentary about only one of their records?

(Beatles + jazz) x tritone = proto-metal
Although I’m a bit tired of hearing Ozzy Osbourne go on about things in general, his take on the early days of Sabbath is pretty entertaining. But the tales from the other band members are far more enlightening, such as learning that the lyric contributions were often from bassist “Geezer” Butler.

After Ozzie and the gang tell how the Beatles inspired each of them as young players, drummer Bill Ward and guitarist Tony Iommi relate their jazz influences—something you definitely hear (at least in retrospect) on Paranoid. “It really is like Swing, with power.” Ward says, describing the rhythm section. In fact, it was Ward’s jazz-inspired feel and his triplet-based fills that knocked me out as a young drummer. It’s those subtle swing and shuffle feels in the drumming of many of the early British rockers such as Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr that makes it difficult for modern bands to convincingly cover the music of that era.

As a drummer, my reaction to Ward’s technical abilities reflects what I’ve written earlier about the playing of Starr and Watts: the music is most compelling when these guys are playing at the edge of their ability. And Paranoid has some of the roughest drum parts of nearly any hit record. (The album was number one on the charts, shoving aside Simon and Garfunkel and the Rolling Stones to get there.)

Not only is Ward’s time all over the map, the band can’t quite agree on where the downbeat is after a few of the drum fills. (Granted, they disagree by only a few milliseconds.) Where John Bonham’s playing of the same era was solid, often behind the beat, but with a clockwork feeling of the Big Ben variety, Bill Ward—raised on the same music as Bonzo—pushed and pulled, stretching the time like a wad of gum. His fills might tumble around like tennis shoes in a dryer, or he might race to cram as many hits into a roll as he could, sometimes cheating them into the down beat. (There’s a bit of that in the video clip above.) But it’s the feel, musicality, raw energy, and risk taking that makes Ward’s drumming so exciting. I can’t think of another drummer who has taken as many chances on a hit record since then. Keith Moon comes closest.

Sabbath at the Star Club
All of that is a reminder that there were no magazines that covered the techniques of rock drumming, or that focused solely on the latest guitar and bass technologies. Musicians at the time fumbled through things as they developed their sound. Those were naïve times when it comes to the music and its tools. It’s interesting to hear the band explain that, after flying their PA over for their first U.S. tour, they learned the hard way that our power mains are at a different voltage level than the UK’s.

Like most of the major acts coming out of Britain at the time, Black Sabbath cut its teeth playing live, including a stint at the Star Club in Hamburg doing eight 45-minute sets per day. It’s the classic regimen that worked for the Beatles and many other bands, who not only honed their act but used it as a way to develop new songs. At the beginning of their booking in Hamburg, Sabbath’s repertoire was so meager that Ward would be given an entire set to work out on the drums, just so the band could save up enough tunes for later sets (as well as renew their buzz at the bar in the meantime).

It’s a reminder that the bands of that era had places to play on a regular basis. Where can bands go these days to play three sets of originals in front of a crowd, several nights in a row, in the same venue?

“Nobody but the public digs Black Sabbath.”
I can’t recommend the Classic Album series enough. The episodes will be far more interesting to gigging and recording musicians because of the layers and nuance in every scene, whether it’s about how the band wrote a song, hearing the engineer talk about the psychology of doing multiple takes, a record exec explaining the importance of sell-through, or the manager describing how the band name and the sound need to be aligned for a group to have serious commercial potential.

That’s the hidden value of the Classic Albums, but the rockumentaries in this series merely hint at what’s possible. I wish that somebody would take the genre a little further. Imagine a DVD about [your favorite record] where every person involved—musicians, engineers (mixing and mastering), manager, booker, publicist, label, etc.—gave you the details on what really happened to help make a certain album take over the world. No doubt there would be juicy tidbits, too. Just ask the roadies.

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Jump or Die!

(This was originally posted at emusician.com on November 25th, 2009.)


“Jump or Die!” — a phrase composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton uses when he talks about going onstage and sight-reading his highly complex charts. Like a paratrooper dropping behind enemy lines, you have no choice but to play in a take-no-prisoners way. The band and the audience experience the music for the very first time together. There are no second chances in that environment.

Artists of the caliber of Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Tom Waits know that exciting music is made when you take musicians out of their comfort zone. For example, it’s common for Waits to roll tape while his players are figuring out their parts, and then keep the sound check rather than have them do a “real” performance. It’s the first-take rule, where the energy and vibe that comes from not quite knowing what you’re doing lends the performance a vitality that you can’t get through comping or multiple takes. It can be messy, but it’s musical.

I bring this up in light of Douglas Wolk’s commentary “The Death Of Mistakes Means The Death Of Rock” on NPR.org. The article is about a topic that many of us have thought about for years: that technology can be used to suck the life out of music if it’s overused. It’s a complaint that is as old as technology itself, and there is some validity to it. However, it’s not something that we can suddenly blame on Pro Tools or Auto-Tune.

But does a tool such as Beat Detective lead to the death of rock?

Decades ago, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was chastised by the classical-music community for editing together perfect renditions of his performances of Bach. These days, of course, comping (short for “compositing”) an instrumental or vocal part (essentially, creating a perfect take out of bits and pieces of previous takes by editing the good sections together) is a regular part of the recording process, even in the classical world. Gould used the technology of his time the right way and for the right reasons: he was a virtuoso who had a vision of perfection. That’s quite a bit different than some multi-national corporation’s vision of pulling the wool over our eyes by making a pop band out of supermodels (another trend that goes back decades).

But Wolk is definitely onto something about the big-league rock productions of today: anything that’s off-the-grid—whether it be pitch or timing—is going to be fixed or removed. You won’t hear an accidental 6/4 bar (like the one in The Beatles’ “Rain”) happen these days by a major band, because the producers and managers, not to mention the musicians themselves, won’t let it fly. It’s embarrassing. Today’s listeners can hear “mistakes,” because they’re used to hearing pitch- and time-perfect performances. Flub a drum fill today, and you’ll be pulling espressos at Starbucks tomorrow.

Consequently, that sense of danger that happens when musicians play at the edge of their abilities—like nearly all the bands of the ’60s and early ’70s did when recording—is missing in today’s overly quantized productions. (I highly recommend Geoff Emerick’s tell-all autobiography Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, where he notes that, at times, the Fab Four were playing well beyond their capabilities.)

If you want to hear an egregious example of bad playing by a major recording artist, check out Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts on “Sway” from Sticky Fingers. In particular, listen to the drum fills. As the song progresses, they get more and more tortured, the triplets scrambling to find the downbeat. When I first heard the song, I was convinced that a non-drummer in the band (Mick, for example) was playing the kit. It’s probably the first take, but the drumming is as awkward as a first date. And yet … it is just as exciting. Thankfully, one of the biggest bands in rock history released that performance. They wouldn’t do that now. Does that mean rock is dead?

Cheaters never prosper?
If by cheating you mean that big-name acts are playing live to a click (and with dozens of pre-recorded backing tracks) while having their vocals automatically tuned, yeah, the cheaters are prospering. So what? Why should we be angered or feel let down when we find out that a singer we love is using pitch correction? Even a parody artist like “Weird Al” Yankovic, who himself has made fun of Auto-Tune, admits to using it on his own records.

When we watch Jurassic Park, we don’t honestly believe that those are real dinosaurs, do we? We don’t really believe that a star cruiser makes a low hum in the soundless vacuum of space? So why do we feel duped when we find out that that the pop star doing cartwheels on stage while singing uses a backing track? Big deal, the vocals are canned. That’s show biz.

When Wolk suggests that rock is dead, and Bob Lefsetz bemoans a world that takes Taylor Swift seriously, I suggest they follow the lead of the rest of us and look elsewhere for our entertainment. The people complaining that “no one makes music like that, anymore” are as clueless as the major labels. There are thousands of bands out there, with real musicians and honest lyrics, who perform without trickery.

And get this: they sometimes make mistakes and keep them. Because they’re going for it—pushing the boundaries and playing without a safety net. If you judge rock by its mistakes, the genre is alive and kicking once you look beyond the mass media.

Mind you, these are the bands that the Gate Keepers would completely miss, because they’re not writing songs that everyone will like. Does a band have to sell 100,000 units before you’ll take them seriously? If so, you’re missing out.

The most vital music being made these days is not going to be found on an arena stage or on Saturday Night Live. It’ll be found almost every night of the week in a club, bar, pub, or warehouse near you. It’s a gig you might only learn about from an alternative music site, because the local music rags don’t cover local scenes anymore. But the bands and the shows are out there, in every major city.

So to the curmudgeons I say: Get off your lazy asses and find the lesser known bands in your area. Support them. Go to the dives where they play. Buy their merch. Give them the attention they deserve. Take advantage of the Internet to find up-and-coming artists.

Put plainly: stop whining about how technology has supposedly killed music, and support the music that is really out there. If you can’t find it, ask a college student…

This week’s assignment
No, you don’t get to stay home because it’s a holiday. Take that $250 you’d spend to sit a mile away from Bono’s image on a giant screen and use it to see 10 local shows, where you can meet the bands (and maybe go home with a cool t-shirt). Jump or die! That’s an order, soldier.

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Me and The Pearl

If you’re a basketball fan of a certain age you have no difficulty conjuring up images of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. His signature style, characterized by fluid jukes and shots that would be awkward coming out of the hand of almost any other player but were always under his command helped turn Monroe into a legendary guard, voted one of the 50 best players of all time in 1996.

Earl’s professional career began in Baltimore, but he was a member of the New York Knicks when I ran into him at the McBurney YMCA in the summer of 1974. Pearl looked slight on television next to the burly men who clogged the paint, but when he walked into the gym that day dressed in gray sweats he cut quite the figure. Shooting alone at a corner basket, like the other five or six guys in the gym I turned and stared. I approached him. The next several minutes changed my life.

“Excuse me, can I rebound for you?” Without looking in my direction Monroe responded, “Ain’t my basket,” which I interpreted as a warm invitation to share some on court time. Pearl drained a mid range jumper, I threw a bounce pass which arrived at his mid section. Another shot, another pass delivered correctly. Now he’s holding up his right hand, letting me know where he wants to receive the ball. Now he’s going farther away from the basket, faking out an imaginary defender, turning quickly and driving to the hoop. He’s so fast!

How fascinating to be that close to greatness, to study it under the microscope! With his back to the basket you could sense that Earl knew if he was 28 feet four inches from it, a bit closer, or slightly farther away. He had radar, a complete understanding of where his body stood in relation to the other objects on the floor. When he missed a shot Monroe would come in for a lay up and I’d push the ball back to him. Then it happened. An outside shot glanced off the rim. Earl trotted in, took a lay up… and tossed the ball to me.

Would you be nervous, getting ready to shoot before Earl Monroe? I wasn’t. I had a pretty fair jumper from 15 to 18 feet or so, but I went slightly beyond my range and swished the first shot, and then another… and another, and three more before I missed my seventh shot. I completed the ritual by running in for a lay up. Pearl fed me the ball and put his hand up for me to drive around. After it dropped in the bucket I looked around and the few people who’d been in the gym just a few minutes earlier had grown into an enormous crowd, all shouting at Earl, wanting a piece of him. Startled, I slipped out of the gym without saying a word. I looked around and saw Monroe heading towards another door.

A lesson was available to me that day, and I took it. I wasn’t nervous because I wasn’t trying to impress Earl Monroe, myself, or anyone else. I was simply drinking in the experience of being close to greatness, and from that moment on I’ve never known writer’s block or had a fear of failure. It doesn’t matter who’s holding the ball, or the talent… if it’s not you, or me, someone’s going to be bringing it; the gift is always there.

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