Archive by Gino Robair
The old saw that “routine is the enemy of art,” seems to be at odds with modern recording technology. Musicians work hard to find the right balance of predictability and surprise, yet the tools we use to capture inspiration require a high level of inflexibility. While those of us who work both sides of the studio glass try to balance the logical with the creative, it can be challenging to keep the tools from determining the finished product rather than the other way around.
We set things up to work a certain way and, without realizing it, we’ve boxed ourselves in, creatively speaking. Typically, what comes easy is what gets done.
Of course, routines simplify our workflow. They remove barriers to productivity in order to allow things to go smoothly. For example, we use session templates in a DAW so that we don’t have to reconfigure our recording setup from scratch each time we want to work. Ostensibly, that leaves us with more creative time.
But sometimes barriers produce richer results. If I may appeal to the cynical readers of this magazine: doesn’t it seem like better music was produced when it was more difficult to make records? Didn’t limited track counts, expensive studio time, and the necessity to hone ones craft onstage before hitting the Record button add up to a higher level of artistic achievement? You had to be committed on every level.
Now we have an unlimited track count in a non-destructive recording environment that we have 24/7 access to. Everything we need is close at hand and available at an affordable cost. Theoretically that should allow us to write a song at breakfast, record it at lunch, and upload it by dinner (to paraphrase John Lennon about creating the song “Instant Karma”).
Instead, we fuss over minutiae and remain non-committal about nearly everything. Why shouldn’t we? The technology allows us to wait until the very last moment before choosing the amplifier sound we want or the exact reverb setting for a string pad. We can see when the waveforms of the rhythm instruments are not perfectly aligned, so we fix them—because we can. And it’s good to know that we can easily replace every drum sound should the need arise. It’s both a blessing and a curse that we can view the edges of our work so clearly.
Therein lies the rub: we work towards perfection by practicing and running routines in order to increase our productivity, yet we need the ability to dash our expectations at a moment’s notice in order to create something fresh.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in sessions where mics have been carefully placed on every part of the drum set, only to have them jettisoned during the mix in favor of a single omni sitting far off in the corner. Typically, the engineer wants things to sound as realistic as possible, while the artist is concerned with his or her vision of the song. That’s easy to work out when the jobs of artist and technician are divided between two people. But what if you’re wearing both hats?
Many of us like to think that lateral thinking comes naturally when we need it. We are, after all, in an artistic field. Books such as The Six Hats or The Art of Innovation are written for people who are unaccustomed to the creative process and out-of-the-box thinking. Or so we like to believe.
We expect that the years of work perfecting our craft will be the thing that saves us in tough situations. Often, it’s our ability to do the “wrong” thing that gets us over hurdles.
During one of the tracking sessions for the Tom Waits release Bad As Me, the rhythm section was trying to find its way through an arrangement, and one of the guitar parts just wasn’t working. It needed to be simple and naïve, but the guitarist just couldn’t capture the right feel. It wasn’t a matter of talent: this was as studio veteran who could, usually, play anything you asked for. Finally, after changing instruments and stripping down the part to no avail, Waits suggested he play the guitar upside down, as if he was a lefty. As the guitarist tried to navigate the fretboard with the hand that was normally used for picking, he nailed his part on the first take.
Most importantly, he didn’t just try it. He went after this unusual request with full conviction and made it work. Ultimately, it didn’t matter who made the suggestion because the goal was to find the right part. The guitarist could’ve tried it himself without saying so, but the pressure of the situation had the surprising effect of corralling his lateral thinking.
We’ve all had that dream where we show up for an important gig and we’re either naked or have forgotten our instrument—some variation on this theme. Now imagine that it’s no dream. Rather, you’re working for the client of your dreams but you have become creatively naked. Would you sort it out in a tried-and-true fashion, or would you attempt something absurd? Would you do so with full commitment? How much would you be willing to risk?
When people think of the Recording Academy, usually the Grammy ceremony comes to mind. However, the organization has an important philanthropic mission: MusiCares is dedicated to helping music industry professionals through natural disasters and personal crises—from victims of hurricane Sandy to battlers of substance abuse.
MusiCares spends millions of dollars a year helping people, and it does so quickly and confidentially. I recently spoke with the organization’s Senior Director, Erica Krusen, and asked her about the program and who is eligible for aid.
When was MusiCares created?
MusiCares was set up by the Recording Academy in 1989, and its mission is to help struggling artists or music industry professionals who have fallen on hard times. We help with medical bills, dental bills, psychotherapy, addiction recovery, and funeral expenses. Some people say it’s the Red Cross of the music industry. We are there to step in as a safety net for those who are really struggling.
Tell me about the preventative health clinics that MusiCares hosts.
About five or six years ago, we noticed a trend in medical illnesses and dental bills that were coming our way. The research showed that the bills were extremely high and that most of the music community who were coming to us did not have health insurance, let alone dental insurance. So we started an initiative aimed towards preventative health care. We thought that, if the music community had a place to go that was their medical home, maybe they’d utilize that more often, especially if it was a low-cost or free health care clinic, such as a community clinic in their area.
We started partnering with clinics and private physicians that would allow us to come in and set up a one-day clinic where music professionals could come in and get free attention. If it was dental, they’d get free screenings, cleanings, and x-rays, and they’d go home with a treatment plan that would say what their follow-up would be. And then they could apply through MusiCares for additional follow-up—fillings, extractions, crowns, or whatever it may be.
But the clinics extend beyond that. We began going into communities and asking What is the need here? We began offering free mammograms all over the country—in New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, and Fort Collins, Colorado. And we’ve given educational panels on Hepatitis C. We’ve done testing, and we’ve done general health workshops where people have their blood glucose levels checked for diabetes prevention—general health assessments for the clients.
One thing we’ve started in the last few years are vocal and hearing clinics. These involve vocal scopes, where health professionals look down clients’ throats to see if they need follow-up care. We’ve also done hearing clinics all over the country and in quite a few festivals, including Warped Tour, Sasquatch! Music Festival, Uproar, and SXSW. These are free hearing screenings, and for those who fall at or below the level of hearing loss, we have them fitted for molded musician’s earplugs. MusiCares pays for that.
Does MusiCares have a substance abuse program?
The MAP fund is our addiction recovery program. There used to be an organization called the Musicians’ Assistance Program, MAP, which we acquired in, I believe, 2005. We now call it the MAP Fund, and all the money raised in this program goes towards addiction recovery services.
When someone calls us who qualifies for our program, we will assess the situation to see what they need and get them into treatment, which could include detox, 30 days of residential, and possibly a month or two of sober living.
Another thing that is part of that program is our Sober Touring Network. Bands can call us and say “We’re traveling on a tour right now and we have somebody that’s in the program, and we would like some help with meetings.” Or perhaps they just want someone they can call and talk to.
We have a database of people that have offered their services, so that when a band is traveling and they’re in, say Detroit, we can connect them with someone in Detroit to either pick up the phone, take them to a meeting, bring a meeting to them, or try and figure out what their need is at that point.
We have also established weekly process meetings throughout the country for people in recovery and they’re open to anyone in any 12-step program. We have these in New York, Nashville, New Orleans, Fort Collins, Austin, Seattle, and Los Angeles.
How many people a year are treated through the MAP Fund?
We treat about 3,000 people per year with about $3 million right now. Our addiction recovery program represents about a quarter of the total clients served by MusiCares.
How music has it grown in terms of the number of people served each year?
When I started full-time here in 2007, we served about 1,400 clients. Last year we served 3,000. You can see how it has doubled in a very short amount of time. And we don’t see that trend going down. With the state of the economy and the music industry in somewhat of a state of a flux, we continue to see that the help is needed all around.
Do they have to be a member of the musicians union or of NARAS in order to qualify for help from MusiCares?
No. An artist or music professional does not need to be a union member nor does he need to be a member of the Recording Academy. The qualifications are such that he would provide documentation that he’s been a working music professional for the last five years, or has credited contributions to six commercially released recordings and/or videos. It’s not just for artists. It’s for anyone who is a working music professional. It could be a stagehand, a producer, an engineer, a lighting guy, or a label executive.
Where do people find out about the clinics and addiction recovery services?
The information is on our Website (musicares.org). In addition, we typically send news through the local musicians unions of the city where we’re holding a clinic, and we will also go through the NARAS membership. We’ll send it to [healthcare] providers or partners we work with in that area. A lot of it is spread by word-of-mouth.
Where does MusiCares get the money to do this?
We have individual donors and we host a lot of events. We have a MAP Fund event every May, and all the money raised from that goes directly towards our addiction recovery program. We’re fortunate that the Recording Academy covers quite a bit of our operating costs.
Our largest fundraising event happens two days before the Grammy telecast every year. It’s called our Person of the Year, where we honor someone who is a legend in music and has had a lifetime of philanthropic giving and who had given to the community at large. This year it was Bruce Springsteen. We honor the person, and then a host of talented musicians and artists come out and perform songs from the honoree’s catalog. It combines a dinner, an auction, and a concert, and it’s really fabulous.
In addition, we have house-concerts, which are typically held at boardmember’s homes. These are nice, intimate experiences where people come to a concert in a living room or on a lawn. We feature an artist that you normally wouldn’t get to see in that kind of a setting.
We also have online memorabilia auctions, which are held five times a year. These are great meet-and-greet, VIP experiences that help raise a lot of money for our client services.
If you visit MusiCares.org, you will find more information about our events as well as a list of our upcoming clinics.
Whether you’re a recording artist or label owner, it’s easy to feel apprehensive about the seemingly chaotic state of digital music distribution. While there’s plenty to debate when it comes to proposals for the future, there’s one thing we can all agree on: things will never be the same in terms of how musicians and rights holders get paid when their work is served over satellite, cable, and the Internet.
Besides direct downloads, listeners currently access music through one of two types of services: interactive streaming services such as Spotify and Rhapsody, where users can choose what they hear; and non-interactive streaming services, such as SiriusXM Satellite Radio and Pandora, which are more radio-like because the listener can select a station (based on an artist or genre) but not the exact song that he or she hears.
The radio-like paradigm of non-interactive services yields a radio-like royalty stream, but with a major difference. Just like with terrestrial radio, non-interactive services get a blanket license with the performance rights organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC—in this case for a non-interactive stream—that is used to compensate the composer and publisher of a musical work that is played by the service. These rates are made public.
However, unlike terrestrial radio, the non-interactive streaming services also pay a royalty that is divided among featured recording artists, non-featured recording artists, and owners of the master recording (typically a label). A federal organization called the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB), which is appointed by the U.S. Library of Congress, sets these rates based on public negotiations with interested parties that participate in a public rate-setting process every 4 to 5 years.
The Library of Congress put SoundExchange, a non-profit performance rights organization, in charge of collecting and distributing these statutory rates. Musicians and master-recording owners that have music that is being streamed online can register with SoundExchange for free, even if they already belong to ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. That’s because SoundExchange collects a different type of royalty from digital streaming services than the traditional PROs do. In fact, if you write, publish, perform and release your own material, you’ll reap the maximum benefits by belonging to both types of performance rights organizations.
In December 2012, I had a chance to speak with Michael J. Huppe, the President of SoundExchange, about the current state of digital music delivery and how his organization fits into the puzzle.
Can you give me a quick overview of how SoundExchange works?
In a nutshell, we help enable the entire digital radio space. What we do is pay musicians and performers directly—the 50 percent that goes to performers.
Many of the most popular digital radio services—Pandora, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, iHeartRadio, and even the digital radio services on your cable and satellite systems such as Music Choice—use a statutory license from the federal government so they don’t have to go to 20,000 record labels and sign deals. They get the right to stream their music by utilizing a part of federal law that gives them that right. That’s a much more efficient way for them to set up their business and get access to all the masters so they can run their business.
If they use the statutory license, as most of them do, then SoundExchange is the entity that basically helps administer it. They send us the royalties and the data of what they’ve played, and then we take it, and we clean up the data. We make sure they’re paying what they’re supposed to. We work with them to streamline all the operational aspects related to that. And then every quarter, we send out checks to 25,000 musicians and rights owners.
This is, obviously, a growing and important revenue stream. In 2005, we distributed $25 million: half to artists, half to the owners of the masters. Typically this goes to a record label, but not always. That $25 million in 2005 is well over $400 million in 2012—so, significant growth along the way.
Are there different rates of pay in the digital radio category?
There are 12 or more different types of licenses—different categories of service, and even different categories within the same genre. For instance, let’s take webcasting. There are lots of webcasters, but within webcasters we have one rate category for non-commercial webcasters, another one for college radio, and another one for folks that simulcast. Basically there are different rates for different services depending on the unique aspects of their business.
We have over 2,000 services that send us information every month, and it’s our job to know who they are, what category of license they’re using, and then we take it from there and make sure they’re paying under the right rubric.
How long does it take for the process to complete, from when you get a payment from a webcaster to when the artist and label gets money?
It depends. A lot of times a service may send all the materials, but they’ll have a problem in their logs. There will be some stray data problems that mess up the log that we have to work with them to fix. Sometimes they won’t send the proper payment, or it doesn’t match up with the invoice. When things like that happen, it sort of delays the issue. But assuming everything is submitted properly, the vast majority of our royalties go out the door in five to six months. I don’t have an exact number, but it’s north of 80 percent, I would imagine.
How does terrestrial radio fit into what SoundExchange does?
If you mean for the over-the-air signal, terrestrial radio doesn’t pay us anything, which is a battle the recording industry has been fighting for eight decades. SoundExchange has been actively involved in that over the past 4 to 5 years.
When an FM station broadcasts over the air, they still pay the songwriter [and publisher], as they should, through ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. But they don’t pay anything to the performer or the record company.
However, when they take that very same signal and simulcast it online and turn it into a digital broadcast on the Internet, then they do pay the performer and the record label, as well as the songwriter [and publisher] again. We don’t dispute that the songwriter [and publisher] deserves their fair share, as well.
So the fact is that over-the-air radio pays nothing to the performer. The problem, as I’m sure you know, is that the U.S. stands alone as the sole industrialized country that does not pay the performer for that right. FM radio makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 billion (with a B) dollars a year on revenue, and the revenue is because people come to the radio to listen to the music. The fact that they don’t share a penny of that $15 billion with the performer, who brought the song to life, is very unfair in our view.
How are the payments to the different parties involved in a recording sorted out by SoundExchange?
The musical work, itself — the notes and the lyrics — we have nothing to do with that. A streaming service has to work that out with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Most [listeners], when they say “song,” they really mean “recording.”
So, let’s take Pandora. When Pandora publicly performs the recording, the statute tells us how to split that money. And it splits it as follows: 50 percent goes to the copyright owner of the master; 5 percent goes to background vocalists and background musicians; and the remaining 45 percent goes to the “featured artist,” whichever artist is featured as the primary performer in that recording. And that’s how we split up the money. It’s set by statute [to be divided] between the featured performer, the non-featured performer, and the owner of the masters.
Is it the record label that makes sure that these streams go to the right people, or are they sent directly to the featured artist, the background musicians, and so forth?
We have direct relationships with the featured performer and they will get a check from SoundExchange, with the SoundExchange logo on it. In fact, we will not send it through the record label. If we get a Letter of Direction from a performer telling us to direct their royalties to their record label, we won’t honor that because it is a core policy and a fundamental tenet of SoundExchange that we believe in artist-direct pay. So we pay the featured performers the 45 percent directly.
That 5 percent reserved for non-featured musicians — background vocalists, background musicians — goes to a fund that the two unions, AFM and AFTRA, run. And that fund (AFM & AFTRA Intellectual Property Rights Distribution Fund) takes care of distributing that money. And the reason it goes to them is that the fund is set up to do a whole bunch of other things. They get payment for other collective bargaining monies and such. So they’re the ones who handle payment of the non-featured performers.
What if the non-featured performers are non-union members?
You do not have to be a union member. It’s operated by the union, but you do not have to be a union member to sign up for those royalties. You sign up through the fund.
For the 45 percent at SoundExchange, they should sign up with SoundExchange. And so should the record labels. We’re talking about musicians right now, but we have 25,000 rights owners who get the master-owner half of the money, and most of them are record labels. But even if it’s an individual artist, if they also own their masters, they should definitely sign up for that half of the money too.
Do the digital radio payments include play on interactive services such as Spotify?
The statutory license only covers radio-like services. It has to be “non-interactive,” which is a not a totally clear term. Spotify, until recently, didn’t have a radio product. They were doing on-demand streams. SoundExchange doesn’t have anything to do with that, because that isn’t covered by the statutory license. Spotify had to go to the record labels and get the rights directly for all of that stuff. However, a few months back, Spotify actually started a radio service, and for that non-interactive digital-radio product they can use the statutory license. They have filed with us, and for that they have started to pay us.
Considering how little each digital radio performance yields for independent artists, is it worth it for them to sign up with SoundExchange?
The payments have grown over time. The beauty of what we do is that it doesn’t all go to the big acts or the big record labels. We all know that terrestrial radio has heavy spins of the bigger acts and the bigger labels. We all know that when you want to sell something at WalMart and you’re fighting over limited shelf space, obviously the larger entities have a bit more leverage. The beauty of the Internet is that there’s no limited shelf space, there’s no limited bandwidth, and there aren’t a limited number of FM stations in a market: It’s unlimited. And because of that, the money that we pay out is much more dispersed than the other revenue streams. For instance in 2011, 90 percent of the payments were $5,000 or less in annual payments. But in terms of it being small or big, I can tell you that with most of the record labels, we are the number two digital-music revenue source behind iTunes.
I don’t know if all the payments are that small. For instance, take Pandora: Their typical subscriber does the free service and they listen for 20 hours a month. And they pay us, basically, a little more than a tenth of a penny per stream per person. For someone listening 20 hours a month, every month all year long, the royalties that Pandora pays us are a little less than $4 for that user. And remember, that $4 gets divided half-and-half between the record label [the master owner] and the performers.
So from that perspective, yes, it’s a small payment. But when you add all these micropayments up, we’re expecting to pay out more than $400 million this year . So all of those little tenths of a penny add up. And I do think that people are starting to notice this is a more substantial source of revenue.
Is the revenue is going up because you’re getting better at collecting?
It’s going up for lots of reasons. Usage is trending this way; there’s more people getting their music digitally. As people are getting it on their mobile devices, they can listen to it in more places, through more platforms.
The consumption of it is more and more a listen instead of a purchase. A lot of people like just having the access to the music and having it stream to them, as opposed to going and buying downloads. And the more that happens, the more it’s going to fall under that statutory license. So, I think it’s a factor of usage, and it’s a factor of the rates going up every so often. I think those are the two big reasons. Increase in rates and increase in usage.
For more information and to sign up for SoundExchange, visit soundexchange.com.
And while you’re there, check out the rates paid for the various types of non-interactive streams.
(This blog was originally posted February 10, 2011.)
I’m always curious to hear about a person’s studio when I meet them, and in last month’s blog, I talked a bit about the creative spaces that Alessandro Cortini and Carmen Rizzo have. Their studios are in humble settings, yet both men are doing pro-level work. After all, what it comes down to is knowing your gear to such a degree that it doesn’t matter if you’re working in a state-of-the-art studio or in the only spare room of the house.
Since participating with Cortini and Rizzo in the NAMM panel “Maximum Output from your Home Studio,” I’ve had a number of conversations with pros about the topics of personal-studio workflow and design. Common issues that come up include finding the right tool for the job, even if it means investing in a high-ticket item, and avoiding distraction. With so many inexpensive products available, it has become easy to amass a veritable warehouse of gadgetry, much of which can distract us from our work. So it’s always wonderful when I talk to artists or engineers who have refined their kit to the absolute essentials: If it doesn’t help them get the job done, they don’t keep it.
I got just such a response from Grammy winning producer/engineer Jacquire King, who uses his basement studio for mixing. We found ourselves seated next to each other at a NAMM event and spent part of the time talking about all the cool stuff we’d seen at the show. At some point I asked him about his mic collection, imagining that he’d have quite a collection of rarities by now. “I don’t have that many,” he replied. “Microphones are only useful for the first part of a project. I’d rather spend my money on something I can use for recording and mixing, such as a compressor.” Whoa. Laser focus.
For many of his projects, King brings home high-resolution digital multitrack sessions and bounces each track off of tape to give it a bit of coloration before sending it back into Pro Tools. When we spoke, he had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he tracked Tim Finn’s new project.
With the NAMM panel discussion still fresh in my mind, I was eager to hear what studio treatments, if any, King added to his basement studio. He noted that, other than a couple of well-placed panels, there wasn’t much needed. He did mention, however, that the window behind him opens to the outside and acts as a giant bass trap. Convenient! It was, however, very important for him to find a way to isolate his work area from unwanted equipment noise, which he accomplished by placing all of the noisy bits in the storage closet next to the studio, leaving him a quiet space to work.
A week later, I had the opportunity to visit the personal studio of LA-based producer/mixer/songwriter Troy Johnson, aka RADIO, who has built a name for himself working with the likes of Will Smith, Chris Brown, the Backstreet Boys, and, most recently, Jennifer Lopez. Immersed in recording technology at an early age—his father is guitarist George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson—he honed his skills at the legendary Boom Boom Room before setting up his own workspace at home, which he not only uses for songwriting and demo recording but also for mixing (including a recent J-Lo track).
What I found fascinating is how spare Johnson’s setup is: a computer, a keyboard controller, a PreSonus FaderPort, a pair of Yamaha NS-10 monitors, and an analog summing station that includes an SSL X-Desk, an SSL X-Rack with eight EQ modules, and an SSL XLogic G Series compressor. It’s the summing gear that Johnson expertly uses to get the tough mixes he’s becoming known for. After spending a couple of years exploring all of the technological options available, he settled on this high-end solution for his personal studio because it gives him the sound he wants in a small, and surprisingly portable package.
Most importantly, Johnson’s tightly integrated studio allows him to move between songwriting, recording, and mixing quickly and efficiently. And because it’s in his home, he can work whenever inspiration strikes. Taking a cue from the NAMM panel, I decided to run a few of the same questions by him to get an insight into his workflow.
How do you keep your home and work life separate?
Keeping them separate is not too difficult: I just close the door! [Laughs] Most of the time I work late at night into the early morning because its really quiet and peaceful. I feel really good energy when I work at home during those hours, but if I’m at a real studio, I prefer to work bankers’ hours.
Do you start a new project with a session template or do you begin each new project or song from scratch?
If I’m using Logic, I start with a template of my MPC 60 swings, but that’s all. I try to keep it very simple because I believe each song has its own personality, so I try to make each one from scratch. It’s comparable to making something by hand verses making something in a factory. Each product is going to be one of a kind. I find more excitement in the moment doing things from scratch.
You don’t have much gear, but you’re getting solid sounds. Is it all about the analog processing, or are there other things you’re doing to add oomph to your tracks?
The analog processing is a big part of getting the “Big” sound, but combining it with some of the amazing plug-ins like the SPL Transient Designer, or Izotope Stutter Edit, gives me infinite possibilities.
Have you had any issues with doing mixes at home?
Yes, depending on the song. My room is not tuned. In fact it’s not a “studio” room at all. It’s more like a setup on the go. But to fix that I just use a pair of headphones that I really know or a pair of mini speakers and I usually get pretty close. But I always pay close attention to my music when I play it in different listening environments and take notes. The one advantage to working from home is that I can always change something at the last minute without a problem if I need to.
(This column originally appeared January 13, 2011.)
Today is the first day of the 2011 Winter NAMM show, where hundreds of my colleagues are gathering to share information about the latest products for music making. Many of us get a bit of gear lust as we walk the aisles of the Anaheim Convention Center, geeking out over the new toys and then scrambling to get the info into our newsletters, blogs, and tweets. It’s a fun show, especially when there are surprises.
At the same time, the NAMM show has this odd way of reminding me of how little time I spend with the gear I already have and, more importantly, on my own music. As a freelancer, the clock is always running as I cycle through numerous projects for waiting clients. Consequently, it’s difficult to find quality time for myself and my music. Like many of my friends in the biz, I’ve been seduced into various behind-the-scenes jobs so I could work in the music industry while continuing to do the music I love. But over the years the balance has begun to tilt to the point where work often keeps me away from my real passion for long stretches of time.
This isn’t just a problem for so-called weekend warriors. I’ve talked to numerous engineers, producers, and even recording artists who are so caught up in work that they don’t get the amount of personal creative time they need to recharge themselves.
In one of my First Take columns for EM, I approached this topic in two ways: first, from the point of view of creating a sacred space—a physical and mental zone of creativity where you can go and get started on a project immediately, avoiding the distractions of set up—and second, by making (and keeping) appointments with yourself. I’ve always loved composer Lou Harrison’s metaphor of “making a date with the muse,” and when I’ve been good about following his advice, indeed, the muse frequently showed up.
Resolution Number 9
I’m not great at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so I’ve gotten out of the habit of making them. But now that my studio is 99.9% done and I’ve finally begun moving in, I have resolved to hold firm on at least one thing this year—date night.
Parents will know what I mean: it’s the alone time that we must set aside for ourselves, away from the kids, so that we can reconnect. I realized over the holidays that, once again, I need to set aside the same kind of quality time with my creative side— away from work, family, and household obligations.
What I also learned from Harrison was the trick to keeping my dates with the muse: Schedule them. Most of us already do this with bands or other social obligations. But just like you don’t want to let your friends and family down by missing their events, you have to do the same for yourself. It could be a specific day and time of the week that you know you can set aside on a regular basis without disruption, or perhaps something that’s a bit more flexible, but that you can still rely on (such as every other Monday night).
As it turned out, the choices were made for me through the holidays. Last fall I taught two recording classes at my local city college—Monday nights and Saturday mornings/afternoons—rather than just the one I normally do. So when the semester finished, I kept those appointments and substituted my own projects for the class lectures. Voila!
So far so good.
However, the Spring semester starts shortly after NAMM, so my Saturdays will go back to school, so to speak. But I plan to swap it with Sunday nights, as well as cling to my Monday evenings in the studio: I rarely gig on those nights, so it’s very likely I can keep to my resolution.
And that’s the secret: scheduling a regular appointment that you know you can keep (at least the majority of the time). Of course, during crunch periods, the best laid plans can go out the window. But my hope is that you’ll be able to find that moment each week or so where you can allow inspiration to strike and be able to take advantage of it.
For me, crunch time is here, and I’ll spend the weekend running around the Anaheim Convention Center, catching up on all the new items I hope to get ahold of over the next few months. Stay tuned, because I already know there’s a few surprises in store for us this week!
While the Grammy Awards might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Recording Academy, the organization supports the professional musical community in a variety of ways. For example, its Advocacy and Government Relations office in Washington, D.C. represents the rights of music industry professionals in Congress, while the Producers and Engineers Wing develops and promotes technical standards and guidelines. Meanwhile, humanitarian issues are handled by MusiCares, which provides assistance to people in the industry who are struggling through medical, financial, or personal troubles (such as an event like Hurricane Sandy).
As a music educator, I am continually impressed by the organization’s student outreach through Grammy U. This important level of membership in the Recording Academy creates educational, networking and performance opportunities that are designed to help prepare college students for careers in the industry. To find out more about Grammy U, I spoke with Nancy Shapiro, Vice President of Member Services at the Recording Academy.
How long has Grammy U been active?
About six years. The Recording Academy felt that the next generation of music makers and music business professionals could really benefit from a program such as this. And we, in turn, felt that music professionals could benefit from listening and interacting with this demographic of young people.
It’s an interactive process where students gain access to professionals in the music business and we’re able to hear their voice and their thoughts, which helps guide us into the future.
Does each regional chapter run its own program?
We have student reps and campus reps all over the country that work out of their chapters, but it is coordinated nationally.
Grammy U is not a separate organization. It’s a classification of membership of the Recording Academy. The Recording Academy has voting members— the professionals that make the recordings. We have associate members, which are those professionals that don’t necessarily have enough credits to be voting members. For example, managers, publishers, and label executives are associate members. Then we have student members. And that’s Grammy U.
It costs $25 a year for Grammy U membership. Or, a student can pay $50, which will cover them until they graduate. Most of them do that.
How has the feedback been for Grammy U?
It’s been great. We’ve just had a Grammy U Soundcheck in Memphis with Justin Bieber. Not only did the students learn a lot because he is their contemporary, but the feedback we got was that Justin loved interacting on a professional level with people his own age. It was a great session.
That’s just one example. We have Grammy U Soundchecks with artists in every genre. When they come to a city, we make sure that our Grammy U students have an opportunity to go to the soundcheck and have a Q&A with the artist, the road manager, and the team behind the artist. And those have proven to be very valuable to the students as well as the artists. That’s what’s so great about Grammy U: it’s valuable on both sides of the fence.
What other events does Grammy U run?
We have high-profile advisory boards in every chapter city, and we do a lot of board interaction. In other words, “Up Close and Personal with an A-List producer,” or “Up Close and Personal with an A-List Engineer.” Or we may have a networking event such as the Grammy Block Party, where Grammy U students get to interact with professionals. So these events can include anything from a professional development event where you sit down and have a panel, or you might just have an “Up Close and Personal” with one key person, or it might be a networking event where you get to meet and interact with many industry professionals.
What sort of plans do you have for future development?
We will be announcing soon that we are hiring an executive director for Grammy U, because it has grown exponentially and continues to grow at a rapid rate. So we are building our staff to accommodate this. It’s a very important segment of our membership, and we will be announcing expansion plans shortly.
After six years, we’re starting to see our Grammy U members come into our voting and associate membership classes after they graduate. And we’re starting to see some of those people enter into our elected leadership on our boards across the country. So what started out as a theory, that these students would find value in the program, turned into not only the students finding value, but the recording academy finding value in the next generation of music makers entering into the different categories of membership and even voting on the Grammys. They’re among the brightest stars in our membership. We connect to them at 18 and they’re continuing their membership after graduation, which is a great thing. These students who initially showed an interest in pursuing music as a career are in fact coming into the music business.
A view of Steve Roach behind his live-performance setup.
For over three decades and with nearly 100 releases to his name, composer Steve Roach
has been an influential voice in the world of ambient electronic music. Whether you listen to his solo projects or his numerous collaborations (with Dirk Serries/Vidna Obmana
, Erik Wollo
, and Brian Parnham
, among others), it’s easy to recognize Roach’s signature sound—slow moving textures breathing deeply behind sensuously evolving grooves.
His Arizona-based Timeroom studio was designed to provide the type of environment needed for creating music with long form development. It’s a place where complex and evolving synth patches have the opportunity to gestate over days or weeks.
As an artist/producer, Steve Roach is disciplined and uncompromising in his approach to sound quality and his craft and he eschews flavor-of-the-month gadgetry. Rather, he has spent the last 30 years developing virtuosic control over his instruments, exploring and exploiting their idiosyncrasies to create a sound world that is uniquely his own.
It’s been a few years since I last spoke with Roach about his work, and I was curious to hear if his methods had changed as the industry transitions from physical releases to downloads, and from hardware to virtual instruments.
Do you mix and master your own projects? How do you keep a perspective on something you’ve been working on for a long time?
Since all my music is centered on tone and hand-shaping the pieces into form, the analog console remains the center piece of my creative process—the easel through which all my hardware synths, drum machines, modular analog and rack processors live. Mixing is part of the performance that occurs as I am carving on a piece. This can be an overdub process or a live performance direct to 2-track.
By the time the mastering stage is reached, the piece will be very close to what you would a call final mix. At this point the mastering begins with the sequence of “mixed” pieces, EQ, levels and crossfades, maybe final brush strokes with some extra tracks are applied.
The perspective at mastering is keeping the big picture of where the project has evolved to in the forefront. Also, the freedom of working in my home studio at this stage supports experimenting with different mastered versions of the project.
With the current direction that music distribution is going, has it changed how you mix and master your work?
This has no impact or influence for me. I always keep striving for the best sounding, emotional, expansive space to bask in. The creation of the work—creating the sounds and living with it all in the studio—is where it begins and ends for me.
Do you share the project with friends, label, or musical associates for feedback before making final decisions?
In all my solo work the path to the final master is shaped by trusting my own instincts: I don’t look for outside opinions. I do listen to the music in progress in many different settings, especially on my frequent long drives across the deserts between Arizona and California. In collaborations the exchange is constant.
What’s the most important part of your signal chain?
A great sounding analog board with lots of sends and input channels—40 plus—and equally, a selection of historic hardware processing—Eventide H3000, H4000, and Eclipse, and various older Lexicon reverbs. I still use a Lexicon 200, PCM 70, PCM 80 and PCM 91. Also hands-on, real-time loopers with dedicated sends for on-the-fly loop creation. It’s all centered on the sound and feel I need to be immersed in.
Are you working with hardware and software synths?
All hardware, all the time. While I have worked with soft synths over the years, no matter what, I just keep finding myself back on the boards carving with the hardware, time after time. At this point, it’s only hardware.
I love sitting at a dedicated instrument, say the Oberheim Matrix 12, and just focusing on sound exploration for hours. Out of this process, the music I create naturally evolves from the inside out with composition–improvisation and constant sound shaping all ebbing and flowing. In this mode, I will have no other instruments fired up, no computer screen on and calling out, just this one instrument and some nicely hand crafted hardware reverb (of course). After all the years of working with analog knobs, and the velvet touch and response of analog sliders, I just know this is where I want to live.
The main-room board is a 40-channel Soundcraft GB4. While this is a basic live board, it fits my way of working in real-time very well. It has a great sound and EQ with eight sends. Since the ‘80s, I have centered the studio around Soundcraft boards with just a short diversion for a few years. I started with the 200B, then the Delta 8, then a series-6000, and now the GB series.
The synths in my collection go back to the days when I knew the guys at Oberheim in Santa Monica. The essentials are two Oberheim Xpanders and a Matrix 12; Waldorf Q and Blofeld; E-mu E-Synth, E4X, and Emax II; a Nord Lead 2 (the original); Korg Wavstation, Z1, and various Electribes; and Roland JD-800 and JX3P.
In a smaller room—the analog cave—I have a Soundcraft Ghost and ProAc Studio 100 monitors that are dedicated to the analog modular obsession—a single Doepfer Monster Case, which equals four A-100 G6 racks, filled with Deopfer and other Eurorack modules. In this room I will typically build an ongoing patch that develops for months: I keep evolving the patch and recording it at various stages of its life span.
I also have several Doepfer MAQ16/3 MIDI analog sequencers in the different rooms and live set up. This is another essential hardware tool I have worked with for years. For me, the years of creating with the Oberheims and the hardware gear is where my focus and passion live.
Steve Roach's Eurorack modular system.
What do Prince, Lady Gaga, Herbie Hancock, Justin Timberlake, and Babyface have in common (besides Grammy awards, of course)? Each of them has leaned on the expertise of tech-guru Dave Hampton. Known for the broad range of skills he brings to the table, Hampton has helped these and numerous other high-profile clients with services ranging from engineering and production to studio design and live-rig support (including real-time 5.1 surround-sound engineering for Herbie Hancock’s Future2Future tour).
Hampton honed his production chops in the ‘80s LA music scene, while spending his formative electrical engineering years at Oberheim Electronics. Eventually, his breadth of knowledge about audio helped him become an in-demand studio designer, whose work spans large-scale facilities (Babyface, Marcus Miller, and Creflo Dollar Ministries) to highly personalized recording spaces (Herbie Hancock, Rafael Saadiq, Maxwell, Marcus Miller, and Organized Noyze). Hampton was even tapped to complete the restoration of Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis. In addition, he has served as Technical Director at both Paisley Park and Hancock Music in Los Angeles.
Hampton is equally adept at designing touring rigs, including systems for Whitney Houston, Chicago, and Maxwell. His client list also includes Eddie Murphy, Teddy Riley, RZA, Bill Withers, Sinbad and M.I.A. He regularly does lectures and workshops on production and recording, and his book The Business of Audio Engineering (Hal Leonard) has become a standard text for programs throughout the world.
And if that wasn’t enough, Hampton has launched Reftone, a line of small monitors that are “designed to promote basic near-field monitoring principles,” he told me in a recent interview. “The goal is that the user, at any level of audio experience, can hear full-range signals clearly at low volume for placement and accuracy.“
Dave Hampton recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me on the phone.
What do you tell aspiring engineers about studio etiquette, when it comes time for them to deal with clients?
First, it’s a service-oriented business.
Second, it’s never about you.
Third, meet people with equal energy. Don’t be too up; don’t be too laid back and comfortable.
Also, dress for the occasion. If you’re working as an assistant, dress as an assistant. Don’t go dressed as the aspiring rock-and-roll star. We don’t need anything else. You just need you to play the role, and by playing the role it’ll put you in the right environment. And if you’re focused on being service oriented, you will focus only on the immediate needs of those people in the room. As soon as they know that they are the focus of your attention, they will respect you for being professional and then you will start to see other things happen, where they’ll start to talk to you on breaks, and so on.
When you get that first thank you from people who don’t normally give thank you’s, it’s a pretty powerful thing.
How should they conduct themselves?
Try to say as little as possible. It’s not about being passive. You have to be observant. Be smart enough to recognize how creative people get to their creativity.
And you’ve got to write things down. The biggest sign of respect that you can give is to go into a meeting with a pad and a pencil because if you’re willing to write it down, it means you’re focusing on what’s being said and you’re paying attention. So there’s a lot of those things we do overtly and covertly as signs of acknowledgement that we’re paying attention—that we are invested in the situation. And I think that’s the best thing for young, upcoming folks who realize that opportunity can look like anything today.
I’ve seen really good people have some tremendous opportunities; I’ve seen some really talented people miss opportunities because at some point in time they weren’t focused on remembering that it’s a service-oriented business—especially if you’re trying to be a recording engineer. If you’re trying to be a producer and you’re learning recording engineering, then it’s a time to be humble, because the lessons are going to come at you. And they’re just for you.
This is true in every aspect of the business, isn’t it?
It’s not just music, these days. It’s now expanded to transmedia, which is actually stronger than music. We are in the age where music is a component of content. Today you need to deal with creatives of every type. So you’ve got to have a game for all of those. As production professionals, we have to expand our conversation to deal with how content is developed today.
When you don’t know the answer to something in these situations, how do you deal with that?
For example, if somebody at the level of Herbie Hancock asks you to do something, you say that you don’t know! I have a very funny story about a lesson I learned from Herbie. When I first came to work with him, Mix magazine had done an article on a studio I had done, I think for Babyface. Herbie had read it, so he hired me to come in and do some changes to the studio, and I came and made the changes. Over the course of doing that, he found out that I had a history of working for Oberheim and that I knew about working with analog synthesizers. So, consequently, it led to the next 12 years of my life handling all the technical responsibilities for Herbie Hancock.
So at some point we were doing the electric band and preparing to go out on the road. And as we’re going into rehearsal, I said “Okay Herbie, I’ve got it worked out.” We were working with new software and a bunch of other stuff and I told him “Here’s the plan. We’ll work on this, and if this gives us any problems, we’re going to go over here, and this unit is already running. And we’re going to work on this one, and we’ll just switch over.”
And he looked at me and said “Dave, let’s just plan on it working. Never mind a back-up plan.” [laughs.] “Plan on the main thing working.”
He knew I was very strategic that way. I always wanted a back-up solution in place because he liked to perform on a wire; he liked to try something new when it was, like, prototype phase and could possibly start smoking as you played it. And I didn’t really like that because as a technical person you want to see machines work smoothly.
So I learned a valuable lesson. From that day forward, I never, ever did the back-up-plan thing again. I put all my energy and all my focus into making it work, into the intention. And he was trying to speak to intent—that’s what he was trying to tell me with his comment: Why don’t you intend on things working. Don’t intend on things breaking. If it breaks, we’ll deal with that as it comes. Don’t work with the intention of an accident.
That’s an interesting concept.
It was very profound for me because as a technical person, I felt proud that I had a back-up plan. But after I thought about [Hancock’s comments], I said “Wow, I’ve wasted a lot of time over the years with this back-up-plan scenario. [laughs.] So it was a real good moment for me., I learned a lot.
Intention—you’ve got to put your all into it and intend on things working exactly how you wanted.
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.
(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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