The past few weeks I’ve found myself listening to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Don’t Play That Song’ quite a lot. I thought I would write down some thoughts on it. Although originally recorded and released by Ben E King in 1962, Franklin cut her own version in 1970. I am a big fan of Ben E King. With his clever use of the ice-cream turnaround chord progression, King’s Stand By Me is one of those really important moments in 20th century Pop music. His version of Don’t Play That Song, however, lacks the energy and emotion of Franklin’s voice brings to her version. Further, the bass line in King’s version is just a little too much like Stand By Me.

The song starts with a piano and kick drum with a minor feel. It’s an infectious soulful riff led which, if anything, is underplayed in the song’s structure. It only occurs twice. Despite this, it’s a really important part of the song. It embodies so many of the musicological symbols of early 1960s and 1970s soul. In some contrast to the minor feel of the introduction, the verses take on a major tonality. It is built around the classic ice-cream turnaround chord progression, so inextricably linked with 1960s Pop.  The piano and bass move through this familiar progression effortlessly. The familiar symbols of pop are juxtaposed with Franklin’s unmistakable voice. Her use of dynamics and range in her voice breath new live into what was becoming an outdated chord structure. In showcasing the impressive use of vocals, the song perhaps peaks too early and, as a result, the final sections are unable to keep up with how her vocals and the ice-cream turnaround are insisting the song keep building.

The stereo version show how rooted the song is within 1960s pop music production practices. The drums and bass, for example, are exclusively panned to their own side of the stereo spread. This was common at the time as producers experimented with the possibilities of stereo mixing.

This version celebrates how far Motown had come from the early 1960s. It’s also a sobering reminder of some of the things we’ve traded in music production since the digital revolution.

 

 

 

 

This week’s song, Sent From Up Above, is from about 2005 from my album Essential. It doesn’t work acoustically in my usual live settings, due largely because its driving R&B style drum sample. However, it is one of my favourites. Its simplicity provides room for, compared to a lot of my other work, a very sensual-ISH and vocal performance. From memory, I got the drum sample, laid down the bass and piano, then the vocal melody came very quickly from that. I later added from strings, but quite a linear process. Studio-based songwriting, you might say…

Today I’m starting a weekly thing whereby each Friday I will upload a different original song of mine from 2000 to present. Most of these recordings are of demo quality, recorded in my own, at times very basic, home studio. But they are just sitting on my hard drive and I’d like to share them, and their process, with the world.

This first song, So Deep, was originally released in 2004 (but I think this particular recording is from about 2008). It is, I’ve decided after listening to it today, a tribute to Spandau Ballet. I was luckily enough to meet their producer, Richard Burgess, in Quebec and he actually complimented me on my paper.

From memory, the drum kit is a sample (a sumed stereo file) that I found in a Reason refill. I didn’t like the level of the hats, but I wasn’t able to get that groove sequenced on a drum machine. The vocals, except for pre-chorus, are all doubled. The initial idea for song was that 3 chord pattern that runs through most of the song. I tried to create, no doubt within the aesthetic parameters of pop, an ambiguous verse/chorus structure and chordal tonic. I composed the melodies over a completed accompaniment section (studio-based songwriting!). If I was to record it properly, I’d make the drums more dynamic and give more thought to the positioning of the ensemble.

 

Home recording studios are great. Commercial studios, which I would define as spaces that allow for the tracking of band ensembles where the technology facilitates for multiple workflows, are expensive, and can often leave you spending most of the time worried about the clock. They also require a high set of skills to operate the gear (i.e a trained sound engineer). Conversely, home studios are autonomous spaces where a songwriter, producer or musician can create music at their own pace – often with amazing results. Price reductions in technologies has resulted in a possibility for you to have a setup that would rival what, in terms of analogue to digital conversion, many commercial studios had 10 years ago. However, getting home studios right can be difficult. Often music store retail assistants provide little help in this. In this article I’ll provide some tips for setting up a home studio to get the best sound and creative environment without spending a fortune.

If a commercial studio allows for multiple workflows, a home studio (or project studio) is normally configured for one workflow; the person who operates it. So the advice I’ll give is general. If you’re into guitar, MIDI or whatever you’ll need to tweak things, but that’s the best thing about home studios, they are made to be configured just how you like.

 

DAW

A quick glance at Gearslutz, or anyone interested in audio gear, will provide you with a feeling that Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) are hotly debated. In my opinion they all pretty much do the same thing, and it, in many ways, comes down to how well you know your software. For example, if you are used to, and quick in, Logic and someone puts you in Cubase, you will be slow and frustrated. I think these instances inform people’s attitudes towards DAWs. For me, it’s what your used to. Pro Tools is the industry standard for DAWs. Although it’s not the most widely used DAW (FL Studio is), it is certainly the most widely used DAW in commercial studios. If you are hoping to get a job in a commercial studio, you will need to have an in-depth knowledge of Pro Tools.

 

Audio Interface

If you want close to zero latency to software monitor (meaning monitor the track you are recording through the software, with its plugins etc), Pro Tools HD is really your only choice when it comes to hardware. There are some other options but they are too complex and, I would say, unconvincing. For tracking bands, where there can be 16+ inputs, I think Pro Tools a must. However, for home setups, you will find you will mostly, if not always, record one or two inputs at a time. With this in mind, many audio interfaces have low latency monitoring features that provides you with signal for monitoring that bypasses the software. There are many consumer focused audio interfaces, and I haven’t tried them all so I won’t give specific advice other than to say I use an Apogee Ensemble and Duet. There are some musts when choosing: low latency mode, hot plug compatible (so you can plug in and out  of your computer without having to reset your computer) and good quality converters.

 

Monitors (Speakers)

There are some amazing monitors available that cost a fortune. They are accurate and they provide great mixes. However, if you are working in an untreated space (and if its just a room in a house then, it is probably untreated) there is little point in spending a lot on them. It’s important to buy monitor speakers instead of HiFi speakers, as monitors have a flatter frequency response, but unless your room is treated a consumer focused monitor will serve you well.

 

Microphones and preamps.

I’m clumping these together because I want to make a broad point. Gear present in commercial recording studios is expensive. For example, LA2As 1176s, Neve 1081s, Neumann U87s are all the sound of pop and rock since the 1960s with a lot of cultural significance (Watch Sound City). What’s more, these studios have multiple versions of these technologies. For home recording I recommend one channel of great sounding equipment. A good microphone , pre-amp and, if possible, an outboard compressor. But also keep in mind that, like monitors, if your room isn’t acoustically treated your recording may suffer. You may find that you’ve spent money on a great microphone but it often picks up car noise from the street anyway. If you are on a budget, Rode make some great and affordable sounding microphones. The NTK is a respectable all-round microphone. In terms of a pre-amp you’ll probably need to spend about $1K before you get something better than the preamp that will be present in your audio interface. And when it comes to outboard compressors you probably need to spend about $3K+. A NTK and the preamp on my Duet have, at times when needed, served me adequately.

 

Plugins

Plugins, which are software signal processing effects, have changed considerably over the past couple of years. In about 2010, UAD release a firewire DSP device called the Satellite, available in Duo or Quad, that, in my opinion, is a game changer. Waves used to only bundle plugins, where as UAD lets you pick and choose. While firewire technology is now outdated and we all eagerly await a USB 3 or thunderbolt device (I know they made an Apollo but that locks you into the audio interface which I am not overly impressed by), you can still put quite a number of plugins before you max out the device. If you want a decent sounding mix you will need to get good plugins (either UAD or Waves). Stock standard compressors, EQs and reverb are not sufficient for mixing, and will, more often than not, result in a non-professional sounding record.

 

Mixing Console

Mixing consoles in commercial studios are an important signifier that it is indeed a studio. However, in a home studio, unless you spend over about $15K, you’re not going to get a console that will improve the quality of your work. Mixing consoles colour the timbre of the sound. If you have an expensive one like a Neve, that’s great. If not, not so good. It’s also a workflow thing. If mixing consoles are part of your workflow, then you will probably miss them, however, if they aren’t $15K +, I generally only use them for monitoring and avoid using them for the recorded signal. I will explain this setup in more detail in a future post.

Hope this post has been some help.

 

On Tuesday, Neil Young is set to unveil his long-gestating high-quality digital music playerPono at SXSW. But before he introduces it to the public, details have been announced. The device, called PonoPlayer, will reportedly cost $399 and come with 128GB of memory. They’ll start taking discounted pre-orders on March 15 via Kickstarter.

 

The press release (via Computer Audiophile) notes that the PonoPlayer, developed in collaboration with Ayre Acoustics, can store “about 100-500 high-resolution digital-music albums, depending on the resolution and length of the original recording.” For those of you who speak audiophile, it’s reportedly made with zero-feedback circuitry and a digital filter that stops “unnatural pre-ringing”. Memory cards will be available for storing and playing additional collections of music.”

http://pitchfork.com/news/54284-neil-young-launching-ponomusic-via-kickstarter/

I’ve been in ABX tests with professional producers and sound engineers that, when it come down to the wire, can’t tell the difference between a high quality mp3 (i think 192kbits/s) and a wave file. In 20 years, it won’t matter, there will be enough storage on devices to have these sorts of files, but for now it’s a mater of if there is a discernible difference. I’d like to hear one of these.

As a vinyl collector, I’m acutely aware of the benefits of analogue formats. I think, however, that audio formats (vinyl, cassette, CD, digital) are signifiers of their times. I love to listen to 50’s-80s records on vinyl because that was how the music was intended to be distributed.  It was engineered and mixed for vinyl and there is a lot of cultural factors that surround it. Remastered 70s records, in my opinion, sound horrible. Since the 1990s,  CDs, and now digital formats, are how music is distributed. Thats what it was mixed and created for. If this is a means of moving forward, then great, there are certainly the means with current hardware offerings (at all levels) for everyone to make higher quality sound files. But, at this point, it may be just some audiophiles wanting to become more mobile, than the start of a significant industrial shift.

In July I went to a conference on record production in Québec. The following blog has taken a while to publish, but here it is:

Attending and presenting at my first international academic conference was somewhat of a milestone for me. The Art of Record Production association, associated journal and yearly conference has a research focus closely related to my field of study, studio-based songwriting, so it was a great pleasure to have spent a week in Quebec being part of its 8th conference, “Rewriting the Rules of Production” at the Université Laval, Québec.

Being a predominately french speaking city, and its proximity to the United States, makes Quebec City very much a fusion of European and US cultures. The architecture of Vieux-Quebec – which is a gated area by a large stone wall – takes aesthetic queues from various old cities throughout Europe. The Vieux area is quite large, but certainly a highlight for me is the lower area near the port, which features various restaurants and bistros. It rates on par with any old city I’ve seen in Europe. The US influence can be seen in the US made vehicles that fill the streets (having not been to the US, I was amazed by the size of the vans!) and the iconic US style school buses.

The locals address each other in french, however, most speak english quite well. I understand that recently legislation has been implemented to preserve the french language and unique culture of Québec. For example, all new signs around the city must be in french. Given its isolation in the region as a french speaking area, I can understand the cultural threats it faces to its unique identity, and the importance of its preservation.

One of the non-conference highlights during my time in Quebec was my impromptu attendance at a Stevie Wonder concert, who closed the Quebec Festival. Seeing Stevie Wonder in concert was certainly on my musical bucket list, so I was blown away that at last minute I discovered he was in Quebec at the same time as the conference. I’ve often felt you know you’ve been to see a big act when a long concert ends with you being able to list the hits they didn’t have time to play.  This thought was certainly on my mind when I left Wonder’s concert. For a little over 2 hours he effortlessly powered through his huge back catalogue of what has become popular music standards, including a few covers by Bob Marely, Michael Jackson and The Beatles. Stevie’s voice sounds as strong as it did on his records in the 1970s, and his band is one of the best I’ve seen (apparently, to my amazement, it was the drummer’s first gig with the band!). At 76$ it was quite a bargain to see him (a studio-based songwriter, I might add)

During the conference, I had the opportunity to speak to Phillip McIntyre and Joe Bennett (who wrote a blog entry on my paper that can be access here), both key contributors to academic discourse on songwriting. They feature in my thesis, and I have followed their work with great interest for the past few years. It was a great opportunity to meet them both. I presented my paper on the final day of the conference. My paper examined passive use of recording technologies within recording studios for songwriting, specifically the use of recording technologies to document songwriting process and the use of reverb in solo or small, non-band collaborative songwriting practices. My paper termed this practice as passive studio-based songwriting and explored its potential implications on previous notions of the role and function of recording studios and recording technologies. My paper argued the emergence and widespread availability of recording technologies have influenced the advent of this practice. It was great to get feedback from both McIntyre and Bennett but also Richard Burgess, author of the text The Art Of Music Production and producer of Spandau Ballet.

I look forward to hopefully attending the next ARP conference in 2014.

 

I will be attending the 8th Art of Record Production Conference “Rewriting The Rules Of Production” in July. The conference will be held at the Université Laval, Québec. I will be presenting research on the confluence of songwriting and recording practices, known as studio-based songwriting. The study, titled “Passive Studio-based Songwriting”, is a musicological analysis of the Bee Gees songwriting process during the 1990s and a practical-led contextualisation of their approaches with emerging recording technologies. The study forms part of my doctoral research on songwriting and recording practices.

I will post more details – including my abstract –  closer to the date.

Cheers,

Pat

A book review I wrote was recently published in electronic dance music culture journal, Dancecult. I reviewed The Art of Record Production: An Introductory Reader for a New Academic Field (eds. Simon Frith and Simon Zagorski-Thomas).

Follow this link to view my review. Note that the reviews are in a single PDF document, so you will have to scroll.

Cheers,

Pat

Dear friends,

I hope everyone is having a fantastic holiday break. I have used the time to rebuild my website with a new web host. I apologise for any bugs, but hopefully this will culminate in a much better web experience.

In November I released my latest studio album Only Begun. It is a collection of songs which employ studio-based songwriting approaches, an area I am currently undertaking post-grade research in. It is available in hard copy (available at gigs and by post) and on iTunes.