Dedicated to helping others learn, play, compose and record music. Updated Mondays.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth

Thanks to Jade from OffBeatLove for the article idea

I recently went to see a great funk band perform at a big event. I've been into funk music lately and I really liked their sound; enough that I decided to buy their CD after the show. I was pleased to learn that the album contained pretty much the same set that the band played at the show, and since their set was fantastic I was excited when I put it in the CD player in my car a few days later.

Well... It was clear that it was the same band. The talent showed through, but... it was just so dull! I kept skipping tracks, ready for the next one to blow me away with some badass funkiness. Instead I got that disappointing feeling of being underwhelmed. (Now you know why I don't name the band itself!)

Why does this happen? How does a great band make such a stunningly mediocre album? The answer, good reader, is what I call conservative recording.

Let's say you're just learning how to record. You've learned all the rules of proper recording, like avoiding overloading and conventional EQ techniques. For example, you are supposed to record with a loudness threshold at just below the point of overloading (overloading causes distortion) and you are expected to keep the entire mix that way. When using EQ you are told to dampen tracks instead of boosting them whenever possible. Reverb is only for room ambiance. These and many other techniques make up what is considered 'correct' recording: methods for making music that is pleasing to listen to.

It is vitally important that you learn these rules and implement them. Understanding why these guidelines and practices have been established will make you a better recording artist. What I'm getting at though may involve a fundamental rethinking of the recording and mixing act itself.

In both the visual and musical arts, the great, respected masters have spent years learning the rules of their craft. A master painter has learned perspective, light and shadow, and anatomy techniques. A master musician and composer has a deep understanding of music theory, like chord progressions, rhythm and melody. Their status of 'master' however, was not achieved by their technical skill alone, but also from the skillful way that they bent and broke conventions in ways that surprise and move us and allow us to see the world from a new perspective. Yet they could not have achieved any of that without first learning the rules. One who has no technical skill and who simply breaks conventions will likely end up producing ugly art, and one who has great technical skill but doesn't surprise us will end up boring us to tears. Both trained skill and the creative violation of expectations are necessary to make great art.

How does this all apply to recording? Instead of viewing recording as a means of getting your live performance on tape, you should instead be looking at your recorded music as a separate kind of performance, in a way unrelated to your live one. The recording act should be seen as an integral part of the performance, rather than a means to an end. How you mix your music will affect how people enjoy it, so it should be given just as much care and attention as your playing.

Let your drums overload a bit. Crank the midrange equalizer on your guitar track in a way you've never heard before. Use effects in unconventional ways. Never be afraid to break the rules of recording to see how it sounds. The beauty of digital recording is that you can simply change it back if you don't like it.

Give your recordings some life! Do everything you can to make the recording as breathtaking as the live performance. You and I both know that this is possible, but as long as you keep viewing recording as an obstacle in the way of your music, then you'll never be able to achieve true studio greatness. The problem with the funk band was that they recorded and mixed their music very well, with great technical proficiency, but they didn't take advantage of the opportunities available to them with producing an album.

The sound made by musical instruments and human voices are fundamentally altered and weakened when recorded and played back
. You can easily tell the difference between a real guitar playing and one playing through a speaker. This is why we have studios in the first place; you can't just put a microphone in front of a band and expect the recording to sound great. You need to use the recording and mixing tools at your disposal to make that band sound incredible.

So do it. Learn the essentials of good recording, and then add the same level of passion and creativity to your studio work as you would anything else that you love do. Don't play it conservatively. Do it like you mean it, and your album will be something you're proud about.

Monday, September 22, 2008

5 Reasons Why You Should be a Musician Instead of Working in IT

Whenever some bloated media company makes a list of the best jobs available, 'Information Technology' or 'Software Engineer' is invariably on it. Popping up like some wretched leprechaun, it promises you good pay, exciting challenges and opportunities for long-term growth. This must be a lie, as someone clearly tripped, fell on a keyboard and accidentally published jobs like 'Product Brand Manager' and 'Paralegal' on the same list. Don't fall for it. You should become a musician and make people pay you for your music instead. You don't have to worry about 'job stability' when you're unemployed. Here are five reasons why you should give up the corporate hamster-wheel and start making noise:

1. Women
- There's no question: rock stars attract the opposite sex. Look at Keith Richards (or better yet, don't), a man who could probably frighten babies just by thinking about them. If women can somehow overlook his terrifying fossilized-magma-face, then they can certainly find the strength to ignore your pasty complexion and never-lifted-anything-heavier-than-a-paycheck body, just as long as you're holding a guitar. Some anthropologists believe music performance evolved as a method to attract potential mates. If this is true, then ghouls like Steven Tyler and dorks like John Mayer so far represent the pinnacle of human evolution. Be afraid.

And if you happen to be a member of the fairer sex, well, if you're not yet tired of having every guy you meet slobber all over you, how about meeting a few more of them by becoming a musician?

2. No Money Problems - Really, how can you have money problems when you have no money? Only the most successful rock gods have to think about nerve-wracking stuff like 'which dollar-bill denomination should I roll up and smoke tonight?' All you'll have to worry about is gas money, Taco Bell and where you can crash after a gig. You get to have the Zen-like existence of a traveling monk, except with burritos and more hair.

3. Better Self-Image - Actually, you don't have to change much here. Instead of being a muscled barbarian warrior with a sweet ax on your D&D character sheet, you get to be a muscled barbarian warrior with a sweet ax on your album cover. What could be better?

4. No More Corporate Butt-Monkey - Corporate life is rough. If people don't like you at your job, you pretty much have to just bend over and take it like a champ. For instance:

Your code for the donkey level is messed up. The QA testers couldn't even get 3 donkeys in the bed before the whole game crashed. And I know you logged 150 hours of overtime last week to make it, but we decided to put those fu
nds towards gold-plating the inside of the CEO's pockets, so now they're always full of money. Oh yeah, and you're fired."

Oh no, who will crush my spirits and make me want to dig my eyes out with pistols now?

No one can really say 'You're fired' to a musician.

5. Fulfill Your Childhood Dream
- When you were a kid, did you say, "When I grow up, I want to work hard at my job so that each day I can be propelled a little bit further up the corporate anus"? You probably said something more like "When I'm older, I'm going to play a song so ridiculously awesome that John Lennon himself will have no choice but to crawl his fetid corpse out of the grave and throw up the horns."

Maybe not in so many words.

Though children crying have to be one of the funniest things on this green Earth (see Fig.3), if you think that your child-self would have cried at the sight of your current-self, then you need to snatch up a guitar right now faster than Fat-Elvis would grab a peanut-butter-&-'nana sammich.

After you read this, you'll probably go back to pretending to write an SSH script and when you get home you'll strap on that ever-dignified plastic Guitar Hero toy for your nightly session and think to yourself "I can't make music. I have no talent!" This will be your excuse. Well, I've beaten that argument to death with a bloody wrench already, and I'm still not done talking about it. I challenge you to take up an instrument, quit your job, and start looking for gigs. Give Lennon's corpse an awkward, grimy high-five for me when you get to the top.

Monday, September 15, 2008

You Don't Need Musical Talent to Make Music

You know why I believe in this so much? I'll tell you why.

I joined the school band when I was in fifth grade. I played trumpet. I didn't particularly like playing the trumpet and I only mildly enjoyed class. When, in high school, we had to learn music theory, I was almost completely mystified by things like the Circle of Fifths, chords and other musical concepts. I never did particularly well and and mostly languished in the beginner level classes while my classmates moved on to the advanced ones.

I never showed any real musical talent; indeed, folks around me probably thought I didn't enjoy music at all. I didn't listen to popular bands like other kids my age listened to and I was very vocal about my disappointment in the music on the radio. I appeared to be a pretty un-musical young person.

You know what though? Now I play piano and the banjo. I've learned and understand a great deal about music theory. I've made several hours worth of music. I went to school for Audio Engineering and got an A- on my final independent study (writing and producing a six-song album.) Someone thought my music was good enough to ask me to write music for their game. I write about music, for a site you may have heard of, and actually have people writing to me, me for answers about making music. This is the guy who could barely stay afloat in band class! If those poor folks only knew!

Am I writing just to praise myself? Well, after putting all that together I have to admit it does sound pretty awesome, but that wasn't my point. My point is that if I could do all that without any 'inborn' musical ability, then anyone else can do it too. I don't see myself as a particularly self-motivated guy either, so I'm sure anyone out there can probably do better than me.

I've heard many people say that they won't pick up an instrument simply because they think it is too late for them to learn. There are a lot of scientific studies that say people can't learn as effectively past their teenage years and after age 17 your neural pathways are pretty much do-blah blah blah. Forget that crap. Maybe my neural pathways aren't as flexible as they once were, but I have many other skills and traits that come with age that make up for that problem, like self-discipline, good time management, big-picture thinking, and the prospect of getting paid for what I do. I had none of these things when I was a kid, and my learning was probably much slower because of it.

The only reason you might think that you are aren't a musical person is because society tells you that you aren't. But the fact that you can enjoy music scientifically proves that you can also make it, since you use much of the same parts of your brain for both listening and performing. In many hunter-gatherer cultures, the concept of musical talent doesn't even exist. Everyone is taught how to make music and dance from a young age. This is how our own cultures were until relatively recent times. Why the change? Different values? Elitism? Who knows? You shouldn't let it hold you back.

So what are you waiting for? Angels to come fluttering down, bestowing upon you a golden guitar? You definitely have no excuse now. If you do still have an excuse of some sort, you can bet that the Makeshift Musician will do it's best to unceremoniously blast that one out of the water too. Go pick up an instrument and start playing!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Electronic Musicians: Use Some Acoustic Stuff!

I have a challenge for all you purely electronic musicians out there: incorporate some sort of acoustic instrumentation into your songs. Here are some ideas to get you started:

You've got a voice, and even if you don't, you probably have a friend who does. Throw in some lyrics. If you're no poet, just write some stuff that doesn't make sense. It wouldn't be the first time an artist did that.

A decent pair of bongos or some other percussion instrument only costs around fifty bucks or more. Go ahead an add some fun drumming. Record multiple takes of the same part for a cool, dense multi-layered effect.

Grab your guitar or steal a friend's
. Learn a couple of basic chords or simply learn the exact chords that you're already using and then strum along with your own music. Something as basic as strumming can be very effective. For an example, see Pink Floyd's 'Welcome to the Machine'.

If you are absolutely clumsy with real-world instruments, find a friend who can play something and record them. Recording with other folks is really fun anyway, and it could lead to fantastic collaborations in the future.

Why am I challenging you to do this? There are three interrelated reasons. One is that acoustic instruments not only sound great by themselves, they will also add real gravity to the electronic ones. Synthesizers just sound more legitimate when performing next to physical instruments, and having them mixed together makes for a profoundly rich sound pallete.

The second reason is that by being purely electronic, you are limiting yourself. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a mostly electronic musician myself, but I've still found the time to recorded banjo, guitar, bongos, random percussion, sound effects, my own voice and the voices of others. I see these as challenges. I'm always looking for ways to record real stuff in with my electronics. By getting a microphone and adding some acoustic elements, you are expanding your own potential as a musician, and that can't be a bad thing, right?

The third reason comes from the motto of the old LucasArts Audio Stooges (Michael Land, Clint Bajakian and Pete McConnel), the geniuses behind some of the best music in the game industry: "Music travels through air. If it's not going through air, there's a problem somewhere." Just as it is good to get out of the house and play sometimes, it's good to step out of the computer occasionally and just make some noise. It will enrich your life.