“So Close” (cont.)

I posted a piece yesterday on “So Close,” a song written by Alan Mencken and Stephen Schwartz that was featured in the 2007 Disney film, “Enchanted.” Kevin Kliesch, one of the arrangers who worked on this film, contacted me via e-mail shortly after it went up.

“In the case of this song, the original arranger (his name was Robbie Buchanan) was asked by Alan to do the pop arrangement, but when the camera pans out and starts circling the dancers they asked me to add a big orchestral section to beef up what was on screen; the original arrangement wasn’t achieving the desired effect. Since I was already working on most of the orchestration for the score, they asked me to come in for just this one song-I wasn’t involved with any of the other song orchestrations or arrangements.

“Alan wanted a grand, lush sound to this section and I had to rework it about four times before they were happy. Alan was working from New York and would send score cues for me to orchestrate here in LA, but for the song he just sent me the track as arranged by Robbie. I would send each version of my mockup to Alan, and he was the one who ultimately approved the final version. When we got to the scoring stage, I think I even
added a few more touches as it was being recorded.”

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“So Close”

Walt Disney Pictures released “Enchanted” in 2007. Built on a clever idea-classically modeled Disney cartoon characters, including a beautiful princess, handsome prince, and evil step-mom/mother-in-law/fantasy bitch, slide down a chute and enter the real world-”Enchanted” starred Amy Adams, James Marsden, Patrick Dempsey, and in a role she obviously relished playing, Susan Sarandon as Queen Narissa, the hideous, self-absorbed (right, narcissistic) mother figure.

Songs for the picture were written by Alan Mencken and Stephen Schwartz. The latter, whose career as a composer took off while he was still in his early 20’s with the Broadway hits “Godspell” and “Pippin,” supplied lyrics for this score, firmly in the Mencken mold that fans of his work have loved for the last couple of decades.

The stand out track in this production, for me, is “So Close.” Delivered on camera by Jon McLaughlin, as the front man for a band performing at a ball, “So Close” allows the characters played by Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey to reveal their feelings in dance.

Jon McLaughlin is an interesting artist. In his 30’s, he is, in my judgment, still more potential than achievement. His own material suffers from a stylistic confusion, coupling a powerful yet sensitive vocal phrasing with harmonic progressions that rely on root position chords almost exclusively. This combination leaves the impression of a ballad singer whose been hoisted on top of a power pop band. The productions are primitive, and McLaughlin’s lyrics do not rise to a high level.

But this guy can sing, and his vocal talent is on full display in “So Close.” The song, which shifts between the keys of E and F# major, is a ballad in 2/4 with a soft but ever present triplet feel that carries the pulse forward. Three excellent arrangers (Kevin Kliesch, Danny Troob and Blake Neely) worked on this picture, and one of them provided the gorgeous orchestration for this song, which was recorded by an A list of LA players under the baton of Michael Kosarin. Built around a pair of pianos-a grand and a post-Rhodes sampled piano of some kind-the arrangement breathes nicely before the full orchestra is introduced. This arrangement cleverly parallels the film itself, pairing the large orchestral forces that have characterized Disney scores since the company’s earliest days with a modern pop sound. In a final bow of the hat, the song ends with what is perhaps the classic aural signature in the Disney play book-a solo violin gliding up towards the top of its range with a portamento attack.

“So Close” was recorded on the Todd AO Scoring Stage. I don’t know who tracked or mixed this project, but I’d love to interview the person responsible for this gorgeous sounding record!

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MOTU Releases Digital Performer 8 Windows Version

It’s been a long time coming-MOTU put out a release announcement over a year ago-but Digital Performer 8 for Windows is now a reality. By the early years of this century Windows had established itself as a reliable and cost effective alternative to the Mac, and many DAW users found themselves torn between Digital Performer, wed to the Mac, and other sequencers that worked on the Windows side.

I was one of them. After careful consideration I had a Windows machine built by ADK Pro Audio, bid a tearful goodbye to DP, and began working with Cubase. Every DAW has its advantages, and Cubase has been good to me. Several Digital Performer features-the way it creates detailed tempo maps, for example-were missed, however, particularly by composers who work to picture on a regular basis.

If you’ve wanted to have your cake and eat it simultaneously, head on over to the MOTU site (www.motu.com) and download the fully functionally Windows version of DP 8. You can take it for a spin for 30 days before deciding whether to buy an activation code.

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Bamblong

Bamblong
$39 (direct download)
www.soundiron.com

I’m a huge SOUNDIRON fan. They know how to sample, record ambiences and allow the user to manipulate them in ways that result in interesting and unusual spaces, and generally are whacked out guys who seem to have fun turning out highly musical sounding instruments. All of this has, in my judgment, made them a unique company in the software marketplace.

A Bamblong is, essentially, a Southeast Asian marimba. SOUNDIRON-or, more precisely, Tonehammer, a company that Mike Peaslee, a SOUNDIRON principal, used to be a partner in-sampled this instrument in a dry space and then dragged it into a large glass and stone recording hall and resampled it. The result is a library that weighs in at just over 1.5 gigabytes. Bamblong has gotten a facelift and been re-released as version 2.0.

If you’d like to check out the full feature set, take a look at the manual: http://s3.amazonaws.com/soundiron_docs/soundiron_bamblong_user_manual_v2.pdf. SOUNDIRON incorporated their Uberarpeggiator into Bamblong 2.0. A crafty little thing, this arpeggiator gives you several modes (hold +, for example, which lets you add notes to a pattern while retaining the first note, and Hits, which lets you set the number of repeats each note receives before moving on to the next note in the arp sequence) that spice things up.

SOUNDIRON provides raw wave forms which you can import into the sampler of your choice, but most users will use Kontakt, the de facto king of the hill soft sample playback engine. Note that you’ll need the full version (not the free player) of either Kontakt 4 or 5.

And yes, the price tag listed above is accurate!

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NUAGE

It’s hard to believe, but Sound Designer, the forebear of Pro Tools, was released in 1984-almost 30 years ago. Many contenders have stepped into the ring with the heavyweight champ since Charles Dye and Desmond Child produced Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in Pro Tools in 1999, but none has been able to dethrone the champ.

Many of us have been waiting for a native platform to present Avid with a genuine challenge. I’m wondering if the newly announced Yamaha NUAGE system will be the one. Yamaha, of course, owns Steinberg, so the idea of packaging the former’s hardware with Nuendo and aiming the product at the post production and venue recording markets is logical. Audinate’s DANTE networking system is also integrated into the system.

I’m interested to know how you folks out in the field will respond to this product. Yamaha has placed a series of tutorial videos on their website. Here’s the link: http://www.yamahaproaudio.com/global/en/products/daw_systems/nuage/index.jsp

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Managing Risk

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?

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Sgt. Pepper’s… huh?!

Remember 1967? Of course not, you’re only 32 years old; I’m talking to the guy standing next to you, the one who waited breathlessly each time the release of a new Beatles album was announced. Folks like him know that in June of that year the highly anticipated and much mythologized “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” album descended from the sky.

Flipping through recent entries in the “Old Suffern High” Facebook group I belong to I just came across a number of entries referencing that era. Ah, Suffern, NY. Now a bedroom community like many others within striking distance of Manhattan, Suffern in the 60’s was a mixture of cultures and income levels. We moved there in 1963, when my father became president of Rockland Community College.

One June night that year the Suffern High School concert band put on its last stage performance of the year. Let me dispense with false modesty and declare that I was, if not the absolute worst baritone horn player ever to play under the baton of Maestro John Conners, certainly a contender for that title. I never practiced and often declined to play during rehearsals. That’s me in the middle of the top row sitting next to first ‘bone player Charles Osborne, looking around with my horn on my lap while everyone else jams away. See what I mean?

Anyway, on this night I walked the three miles or so from our home, just off Route 202, to the high school, stopping off at my friend Tipper Smith’s house on the way. Tip lived with his divorced mother and Cholly, a smart beagle who took out his ire when the lady of the house spent too much time on the telephone by relieving his bladder on the receiver when no one was looking.

Back in 1967 marijuana was wending its way through the corridors of Suffern High School. Having tried it a few times without experiencing any effects I figured this night would be no different. Tipper lit up a joint and we listened to a number of cuts off of the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album. Leaving the Smith abode I made it to the band room in plenty of time to take the stage with my comrades.

Given that I could barely coax sounds out of the instrument I was, understandably, the last player in the section. For some reason, though, I was placed in the first chair of a row. Sitting there on the riser it hit me: I was zonked. All I could do was pretend to force air into my mouthpiece-my failure to perform immediately improving the quality of the ensemble’s sound-and hope that I didn’t fall into the audience, which I was certain was about to happen.

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Hugh McCracken and Phil Ramone

We lost a pair of legends this week. Hugh McCracken was one of the least pretentious people I’ve ever interviewed. His style, a combination of elegance and sting, was a factor throughout the last quarter of the 20th century. Someone isolated the part Hugh played on “Hey Nineteen” and threw it up on the ‘net. Check it out: http://www.nme.com/nme-video/youtube/id/gw411Iqyzrk. Amazing, right?

What can you say about Phil Ramone, other than he was an icon in the industry and no one knew he was nearly 80! Many of you had a personal relationship with Phil, and the pages of Mix will be filled with personal stories very soon.

Maybe one of you will share, if you ever spoke about it with him, whether Phil felt the role of the producer had changed over the decades, and if so, what factors contributed to the evolution. Of course, the shift from analog to digital made it unnecessary for engineers to wield razor blades with the Zorro-like precision Phil and his ilk possessed. As far as the analog/digital debate, that issue was settled for me once the long lamented PARIS hard disk recording system hit the market.

This past week I had the opportunity to produce a session at LBrown Recording in Manhattan. Louis Brown owns a 19th century Steinway, which we used. Quan Gi, the violinist, is a member of the NY Philharmonic and has a sponsor who’s provided her with a Stradivarius violin. Hearing that instrument in that environment…what a thrill! Would you have recorded at 196kHz, knowing you’d end up with nearly two hours of recorded material? For me, 44.1kHz was sufficient.

The more I think about it, other than the lack of hope that hovers over our culture which forces young song writers to mine their own limited experiences endlessly with a near fatal drop in lyrical quality (does anyone still read Rimbaud?), the factor that may limit sonic variety in pop recordings most just might be better tuning. After normalisation, of course.

Take a listen to the first two bars of the classic recording of “If This World Were Mine” (penned by Marvin Gaye), tracked in 1967 featuring the author and Tammi Terrell. Do you think that upright piano was tuned and voiced before the session? Probably not! Electric guitars were notoriously difficult to tune back then, and in those days many amplifiers (and the settings guitarists favored) tended to exaggerate harmonics. Bells, piano, guitar; everything’s clashing in the upper range on this recording, but the result is a spare orchestration that adds to the beauty of the recording. Notice the minimal use of cymbals, for example, which would have contributed to cacophony.

Look, I’m just riffing here, and if I’m out of line I’d love to be set straight by you golden eared engineers, but let me submit two more examples for your approval. Classic solos by Carlos Santana can be heard on “Black Magic Woman” (1970) and “Smooth” (1999). The parts are, to my ear, equally soulful and melodic. In the earlier recording, though, Carlos is working his Gibson SG, adjusting intonation with his fingers as goes along in a way that is not required in the later track. I think this gives him the opportunity to impart an even more personal signature.

Most importantly, peace, love and best wishes to the families of Hugh McCracken and Phil Ramone. They gave pleasure to many.

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Gov. McGreevey

Jim McGreevey hit the talk show circuit last week to promote the HBO special, “Fall To Grace.” Since resigning as governor of New Jersey in 2004, Mr. McGreevey has spent a great deal of time working with inmates at the Hudson County Correctional Center and, more recently, at the Integrity House drug treatment centers in Newark and Secaucus. The documentary, shot under the direction of Alexandra Pelosi, explores his post political journey.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time working with inmates as well. A program I developed, “A Deeper Groove,” uses music to bridge the gap that separates inmates-often poor and with little formal education-from the world that exists beyond the mean streets where many of them were raised. We search for themes that bind together the work of artists who at first glance seem to have little in common. Beethoven to Beyonce, Stravinsky to Shakur; the emotions these folks explore vary little once you dig beneath the veneer. If an inmate yields to the unbridled enthusiasm that defines the first movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony” his life may change. A cultural traveler, he might be ready to move outside his community, to look for a good job, perhaps, wherever it may be.

Gratifying though it is, the work is lonely. I go into a halfway house, spend some time with the inmates, and leave. I’ve tried reaching out to people, including some high profile television commentators who wax on and on about the need for ordinary citizens to get involved with the process of change. However, the package of materials I send out, which includes a course syllabus, has met with little response.

Until today. I called the Hudson County Correctional Center yesterday and asked if I could e-mail a package to the institution to be forwarded to Governor McGreevey and got a positive response. I fired up the computer this morning and the following communication was waiting for me:

THANK YOU

Gary,

Thank you for reaching out. May we meet in Newark on a convenient day?

Pax,
Jim

3.26.13

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50 Bucks

I’ve mentioned Nimbit in the past. There are several other online stores where you can market your music, including Bandcamp and Topspin Media, and I can’t make any comparative analyses between them. After receiving a press release from Presonus a few months ago indicating they’d purchased Nimbit I signed up for a free account, moved all of my music from my website to the store front I created on Nimbit, and being letting people know that my work was available there. I love it!

All of my work is set to stream at no cost; if anyone wants to throw a few shekels in the pot they’re free to do so, but it’s not required. I do set a nominal price for those who may want to download tracks to their hard drive.

As I mentioned in a blog last Friday, I just finished work on “1234,” a nearly 18 minute long symphonic work that I produced inside the box. I hoisted this piece onto my Nimbit site and began letting people on Facebook know that it had been posted over the weekend.

When I checked my e mail this morning (Monday) a message from Nimbit was sitting in my inbox that shocked me. Someone I did not know, and had had no contact with, went to my store, listened to “1234,” bought it for $1.99-and tipped me fifty dollars!

Wow, what a great compliment!

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