Listening With New Ears

Many musicians don't like music theory and as a result avoid trying to learn about it.  We've all heard this rationalized in various ways with statements about rules and breaking them, or about losing the magic...  so I'm not going to talk about that.

I will say, though, that working on music in the studio on the production or mastering end has changed the way I hear and listen to music.  Of course, right?

For me, though, it's not about losing the magic.  Rather, it's totally cool to hear things in a new way and wonder about how they were done.

So here's a blast from my teens in the 80s.  Pretty sure it was Steve Lillywhite on production duties... it certainly has his signature big drum sound.

It starts big and loud and around three minutes in, all the musical sections have happened and there's really no way to build it up anymore.  Or is there?  At around 3:30, there's a drum fill and somebody hits the knob to widen the stereo field (at least I think that's the main thing happening) for the big final chorus/outro.

Techniques like this occur elsewhere.  Radiohead's Let Down being an obvious example and I'm thinking it speaks to a tiny part of the real craft among professional producers and mixers.

Something to think about for my future work.


Unhappy Coincidence

I learned this past weekend that a friend had taken his own life.  That's not what this post is about, it simply serves as context.

Obviously, I'm sad and I find myself listening to music in the usual way (full collection on shuffle). What's different is that I'm skipping everything but the sad and moody stuff.

Moments ago, an African piece came on. I knew nothing about it. It came to my collection from a friend that lent me a world music compilation CD. This one track has been haunting me for years but never did I look it up. The non-English lyrics meant nothing to me and I was ...  afraid of learning that the song might be about something trite.

How wrong I was.

So now I still know nothing about the song other than that it is about Death.

I wonder if I knew that all along.


LCR Mixing

I, like many home recordists, track a pile of music and audio recording sites, blogs, podcasts, etc. And now, having done this for a few years, I am starting to notice that there are some subjects that keep coming up in peoples questions of the experts. Recently, on The Home Recording Show, somebody asked about LCR mixing. Now for those that don't know, LCR mixing is a technique where the mixer will pan things either hard Left, Center, or hard Right. No half measures here! Now my personal opinion is that anything applied that dogmatically is retarded. But people keep asking if that's what they should be doing.

To me, to LCR or not to LCR is not the question.

 To whit, here are a couple of tracks that have (by today's standards) weird panning:

Now, the intro seems relatively normal.  But then the left side just kind of drops out, rhythm section on the right, then Nancy starts singing (in the centre).  Eventually, the horns come back in the left.

Clearly, some extreme LCR but some interesting choices about where each element is placed in the stereo field (as though you're sitting somewhere in the middle of the band, rather than in the audience facing the band).

Here's another:

Here you have rhythm section occupying the left.  Guitar solo on the right.  But some twists.  The reverb and delay returns are sent to the opposite channel (at the two minute mark, it's pretty obvious).
As the track progresses, there are other games played but this was the first time I heard a dry signal in one speaker and a full wet signal in the other.

To sum up, your pan knobs are creative tools.  Use them.


Did I do that?

Today, @TaraBusch tweeted a link to video of Jefferson Airplane performing White Rabbit at Woodstock. In the typical meandering that seems to be an essential part of the YouTube experience, I soon ended up on the video below.

At 1:30 she talks about her varying reactions to her own work. The surprised, "did I do that?" And, of course, the inevitable judgment.

I have that reaction all the time. I certainly don't think it's a unique feeling but I have to admit that I am surprised that a lifelong career artist would still feel that way about her own work.

Which I guess is really cool. That the joy and surprise of creating doesn't have to dim with age.


Odd Path

When I was younger, I used to get a little frustrated that those older than me weren't up on new music. Even if they were a musician or claimed to be very into music. Now I am that older person and while I track much I accept that I cannot track it all. Even if I'm a "big fan" of a particular artist. Case in point.

I love the music of Jose Gonzalez. You may know him from his solo work, you may know him from his appearance on Zero 7's "The Garden" or you may remember this:
I have been listening to his two solo albums for a bunch of years and I almost drove three hours to a show of his but was stopped by a snowstorm. But I hadn't heard anything lately until...

One Saturday morning before anybody else was up, I was flaked on the couch catching up on an episode of Elementary. At the end of the episode, a song is playing and it doesn't quite get through until the fade to black and the credits roll. Huh, I know that voice. Rewind. Shit, yeah, that's Jose. So now I Google Jose along with some of the lyrics that I can interpret and I'm led to discover that he's got a new act called Junip. And this song has been on soundcloud. And reviewed by Pitchfork. All of which didn't get through until I stumbled on it at the back end of a TV show.

There's probably no big message here. Except perhaps, that the ways in which new music is discovered are myriad, changing and highly personal. How does it work for you?

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't share my "discovery".


Little Magic Box

Sometime last year, Geoff Thorn (guitar player and teacher extraordinaire) showed me a new toy. He described it as the preamp circuit from an echoplex (one of those mythical hardware things I had heard about but never seen or used). He was unable to explain exactly what it did but summarized with a vague, "it just makes everything better." This seems to be a common theme with this device, everybody that I know that has one raves about it (and in most cases, end up never switching it off).

Not wanting to feel left out, I recently got one of my own. It's difficult for a geek like myself to admit but I have no clue what this thing does. But it is good. And since getting it, I have recorded no guitar part without it engaged.


Started On A Path, Got Lost, Found A New Place

Sometime last year, the owner of a certain netlabel (who I'll happily name if he gives permission) asked me if I would have material ready for a near future release. After I got over the, "Holy shit! I'd be honoured!" I asked a few questions, pushed back a bit, asked some more questions.

Since I've been making interesting noises for a few years now, the feeling was that I would simply draw from my "catalogue" and put together a collection for release. Of course, this involves actually listening again to all that stuff and with an ear to the proposed new context. It also means,or just offers up the opportunity, to revisit/cleanup mixes. So far so reasonable. Until you actually start doing it...

It didn't take long for me to hate it. To quote my new favourite show, Californication, "the self loathing is strong."

So I decided the best course of action was to make entirely new material. And around that time, I developed a renewed interest/appreciation for more drone-y material. Of course, in my mind, that better fit this net-label's sound anyway so why not make some drone tracks and see what happens.

Things started pretty well and I posted early rough mixes on Soundcloud. This apparently simple act had an unexpected ripple. I was contacted by a rather prolific drone/ambient/post-rock artist, 6LA8. They are a duo from Karachi, Pakistan. Now getting comments from far afield is nothing new in these halcyon Internet days but in this case it was a little weird to be asked if I was still in Mississauga (where I live) because one of them was in Waterloo (which is only one hour away by car). Weird or not, I jumped at the opportunity to meet and play with a like minded artist...

And thus, I had my first internet musical blind date.

Two guys from very different places with laptops and guitars got together, improvised for hours, recording everything onto a pocket digital recorder... ending up with Minimal Wanderings

We are both deeply indebted to Al Gore for inventing the Internet and making this magic possible.

To be continued...