One More Thing……..

After sending out the October Grapevine last week, I was listening to other music showing up in my internet feed. I came across this video of Tommy Emmanuel. I had heard of him before – he’s pretty well known as a virtuoso guitar player. He’s mostly known as an acoustic guitar finger picker. This video is of him playing Classical Gas, a song that was big when I was younger. My guitar teacher had me learn the basics of it. I watched this video, probably with my mouth open in awe the whole time. Our series Messin’ With The Music was based on trying to redo songs acoustically and pretty much ‘live’ by recording the tracks straight through, showing the sounds you can create using just that format. Tommy Emmanuel takes the acoustic guitar and pushes it to the limit. The speed, accuracy and timing is other worldly. This video shows how much sound and style you can produce with one acoustic instrument. There’s even a guitar bend he does that sounds like a whammy bar on an electric guitar. And the timing in and out of it is perfect. Enjoy.

October 2020 Grapevine

October arrives. We’re in the last quarter of the endless bizzaro year 2020. Fall is coming in to full bloom. By now Halloween fun is usually ramping up, but this year has been Halloween all year. Trick or trick. Anyway, let’s take a listen to some more new music to pass the time. Stylistically, I don’t know that there is a real specific theme here. Although, despite differences in style, there sounds like a bit of darkness lurking in each of theses tunes. I think I usually feel some internal darkness around this time of year. Days are shorter, weather in our area tends to become a bit more dismal and overcast. But no matter the weather or date, 2020 has been a year that darkness rules. Let’s let the music save us!

First Up: Iress – ‘Shallow’

Let’s begin with some dark drone. The song builds slowly. It starts out with feedback and reverb heavy guitar to create atmosphere. This original background atmosphere continues through out the song, allowing different elements to be built on top. First to come in is a simple guitar arpeggio. The next addition is a pounding drum. Sort of like someone whacking you in the head with a mallet (sometimes a good shot to the head is useful). Vocals finally enter the fray after the first minute. One of the things I like best in this song is the use and treatment of the vocals. There are multiple vocal tracks, effects and harmonies blended together so the vocals do double duty as a background instrument. The song continues to build with guitar chord distortion, crashes added to the drum sound and wordless vocals to blend in with the background sounds in what would probably be considered the chorus. This theme repeats through the song. They open up the guitar and drum parts for the song outro. Put on your headphones, turn off the lights, fire up a candle and incense and breathe in the mood.

Next Up: Death Valley Girls – ‘Under The Spell Of Joy’

We start out with a great vocal chorus. The mix of voices, including a children’s choir, was a great choice. The vocals establish the melody line that is reflected by the guitar when it comes in. When the drums come in they also reflect the cadence that has been established by the vocals and guitar. The final piece to come in is saxophone. The sax work here takes me back to the early days of post punk. Two of my favorite bands from that era, The Psychedelic Furs and Medium Medium made great use of this style of sax playing in their songs. It takes the place of where you would usually put a lead guitar. The sonic textures you can add using sax puts you somewhere between a guitar sound and a vocal. The drums and guitar continue to hold down the original riff while the top alters between vocals and sax. A moment of scratchy silence hits before the slamming freak out at the end. An interesting thing to listen to is the difference between this ending buzz and the rest of the song. You can make the song sound as if it speeds up without changing the beats per minute by doubling the drum and/or guitar notes from, say, quarter notes to eighth notes. Always nice to end with a good old feedback burst.

Finally: Osees – ‘Dreary Nonsense’

I thought we’d end with an all out assault on your ears. Short, fast and brutal would be a good description of this Osees song. And I mean that in the most complimentary way. I guess you could classify this as ‘punk’ although that term has been so overused in our current musical era as to be almost meaningless. Some interesting things to listen to here. First, let’s talk about the recording and mix of the drums. Using drum tuning and EQ, there isn’t much difference between the sound of the kick drum and the snare. That’s intentional (just guessing – I wasn’t actually there). Using this as the drum mix propels the beat along at a constant frenetic pace. The EQ on the guitar keeps this top end sonic assault. When the guitar is playing the siren like two note riff I can feel it in the fillings in my teeth (better than a sonic toothbrush). The vocals fall somewhere between speaking and singing. The cadence of the vocal adds to the song’s beat propulsion. Even the bass guitar has a lot of top end to it. In a minute and a half, it’s over. Did anyone get the licence number of that car that ran me over?

Retro: Frank Zappa – ‘Montana’

You could right an entire book trying to describe the music of Frank Zappa. There are certainly a few books out there that try. He used a wide variety of instruments to create an orchestral, sometimes jazz version of rock music along with more ‘standard’ rock style songs. I was first introduced to Zappa’s music by my guitar teacher when I was in 5th or 6th grade. Talk about a WTF moment. But once you get past the overall strangeness, you can listen to how deliberately the instruments are placed and arranged in the composition. Some works read more like a symphony than a rock song. Besides your usual rock instruments you’ll hear horns, woodwinds, strings, xylophone and a wide variety of percussion instruments. I also got to see Zappa live in a small college venue when I was in high school. Another WTF moment – strange little skits happened between songs and Zappa spent most of his playing time sitting in a chair. I chose ‘Montana’ because it is probably one of Zappa’s more ‘rock’ songs and one some people might have actually heard. I also chose it because it has one of Zappa’s amazing, blazing guitar solos in it. If you didn’t know that he was probably one of rock’s best guitar players, feast your ears on this.

In The Studio Ep 13 – Recording Electric Bass Guitar

Episode 13 of our In The Studio series discusses how to record electric bass guitar. When you’re listening to the video, there are a few places where we give sonic examples of the different methods. All of this video was recorded directly to the GoPro camera, including the sound. The ‘amp sound’ is a live amp in the room. The ‘direct sound’ is being heard live in the room through the studio monitors. As a result, the differences in sound you hear on the video aren’t as great as they would be if you heard them after were tracked in the recording system and played back. Keep this in mind if you’re listening and trying to decide what type of sound you might want. Also remember you can do more processing on the sound after it is captured – either before or after mixing. As always, questions and comments are welcome.

September 2020 Grapevine

We are officially in Fall of 2020 and things are still so ______ __ (fill in the blanks). My wife and I took ten days to hike in the White Mountains in New Hampshire to clear our heads. There’s hundreds of miles of trails so you can pick trails where you can pretty much avoid all people. Which we did. Great weather and a great vacation. Nothing like crawling up a mountain with a beautiful summit view to give you some positive perspective. Unfortunately, you have to come back. So let’s listen to some music that might help take our minds off being back in the unreal world.

First Up: Brendan Benson – ‘Richest Man’

If you don’t know Benson as a solo artist you might recognize him for his work with The Raconteurs. This song is from his newest album ‘Dear Life’. Some times a song can just make you feel better. This song did that for me. Musically it’s a great little guitar driven pop/rock tune. All the instruments are clear and well placed in the mix. In a song like this it’s good to keep everything crisp. A few well placed horns fit the mood. What you really want to do is highlight the vocals and lyrics. They’re the bread and butter for this type of song. There’s some lead guitar work mixed in towards the end part of the song, but it’s placed where it should be – supporting the vocal, not overpowering it. Sending this out to my wonderful wife who keeps me sane during the insanity. It was also great to get home to see our two four legged furry kids, who are always ecstatic when we return. Can’t ask for much more.

Next Up: Skylar Gudasz – ‘Femme Fatale’

Creating mood is what music is about. Our first song was upbeat and happy. This tune takes us in the opposite direction. Again, the music sets the mood to highlight the vocals and lyrics. Slower tempo, simple drums that rise and falls in the mix to keep time. Synths fill in as strings beneath the vocals. The instrumentation starts out very spare and grows as the song advances. That technique draws you in to the song’s feel and lyrics. There’s a perfectly set up guitar solo in the middle of the song. Just enough fuzz and dirt on the guitar sound to sustain the notes, it’s simple and melodic to match the mood of the rest of the song. It’s the little things like the guitar arrangement that can make or break a song. A lot of times people judge a song on the complexity of the individual instruments but in the long run it’s the arrangement that makes everything work. It all supports her vocals. Wonderful phrasing and very expressive, it pushes forward the story in the lyrics and makes you feel all the sadness or pain.

Finally: Parsonsfield – ‘Paper Floor’

Parsonsfield has been known as more of a folk/Americana band on their earlier albums. Here they throw in electronic drums and a fluctuating, buzzy synth and build the rest of the song on top of that. Really keep it simple with a clock like bass and some acoustic guitar mixed in. This is another song where the simplicity of the arrangement allows the vocals to be highlighted. It has enough beat to keep your toes tapping, but overkill on the beat would be more in line with head banging and that wouldn’t fit the mood of the song. I think the theme for this month could be ‘keep it simple stupid’. Less is more. Mood makes the song.

Retro: Cheap Trick – ‘Downed’

I’ve been a fan of Cheap Trick from their earliest days. This song is from their second album, ‘In Color’ which was released in 1977. One of the greatest ‘power pop’ albums of all time (my opinion anyway). I can’t count how many times I’ve plugged in my electric guitar and played along to this album at high volume from start to finish. Still do on occasion. I picked this song because of the lyrics. The feeling of wanting to escape the craziness has been life long for me. Maybe now more than ever. Some of the lyric lines always resonated with me, the idea of escaping the grind.

I’m gonna live on a mountain
Way down under in Australia
It’s either that or suicide
It’s such a strange strain on you
Oh, i got a mind
Over you it’s not the first time
Oh, i got a mind

Too many people want to save the world
Another problem is it a boy or girl
Some say the weekend is the only world
It’s such a strange strain on you

Some days when the 9 to 5 crawl got the best of me I used to swear that ‘the weekend is the only world’. Stay sane out there.

Messin With The Music Part 12 – Shout

For today’s post we’re Messin with another song for you. This time we’re taking on ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears. The song first came out in 1984 on Tears For Fears second album, Songs From The Big Chair. It became one of the most popular and recognizable songs of that era of music. One of the best fist in the air, sing along choruses you’ll find. As I’ve said before we always pick songs we like to cover. I don’t think you can do an interesting cover unless you have some type of love for the song you’re working with. But you also have to be able to do something different and interesting with the tune. For ERP I don’t see the point of trying to do a note for note copy of a song. Who wants to do a ‘not as good’ exact copy of a song you love.

For ‘Shout’ it was easy to do something different. The song has a pretty ‘electronic’ sound to it, along with the drive from a full drum kit. So turning it acoustic gave it us a lot of choices. The basic foundation of the song was built on twelve string acoustic guitar. We did two tracks of that and panned them to opposite stereo channels. The other thing that gives these guitars some push and pull is that they are not completely identical throughout the song. If you’re wondering about how song arrangements are created, this technique is something to keep in mind. Before there were large multi track studios, you had to really think about how to place tracks in the song. If you listen to some Hendrix songs you’ll hear drums in one channel only and guitar or bass only in the opposite channel.

So for ‘Shout’ we used the two takes of twelve string guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass. There’s also some acoustic slide guitar and a second mandolin in the instrumental parts. For rhythm we used tambourine, washboard, wood block (the wood version of ‘More Cowbell’), egg shaker and a rattler that sounds a bit rain stick. We did four tracks of vocals, two for the verse and two for the chorus. The point is to highlight the vocals and lyrics. This was a one mic recording. We used the new ribbon mic for everything (see In The Studio – Microphone Basics). I’m pretty happy with the results.

Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs cover ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears:

Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs cover ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears


Follow The Chain

When we did our last video for In The Studio we discussed the basics of microphones. Part of that discussion was that microphones were one of the entry points for inputting and capturing sound in your system. Today I thought we’d do a post discussing two of the next steps of ‘the chain’ (really two possible options for the next step of sound capture). My usual next step for capturing sound from a microphone would be to run them in to an outboard microphone pre-amp and then in to an outboard compressor. This is my personal choice as my mixing boards have inboard mic-pre-amps and compressors that could also be used. Again, we’re going to discuss this in relatively non-technical terms so anyone can have a basic idea of what the equipment does. I’m also not recommending specific brands or models. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and that’s a whole separate discussion.

Let’s start with the mic pre-amps. The simple explanation of a mic pre-amp is that it increases the signal from the microphone so that you have enough signal volume to get a good sounding recording. Let’s look at the pre-amp below:

This is a two channel unit so we’re only looking at one side. First, it has a button to activate phantom power. As we discussed with microphones, condenser mics put out less voltage than dynamic mics, so we need to use phantom power to add that voltage. If you use a separate phantom power unit in line before the pre-amp, you won’t need to activate this. The pre-amp has a dial where you will determine the volume added to the signal going in to the unit (Input) and a dial for adding volume to the signal leaving the unit (Output). The amount of power added to the input is measured by the LED lights at the bottom right and the output power is measured by the needle display in the upper right. You also have a button labeled ‘Gain’ where you can boost the input signal by another 20 decibels. You have a button to reverse the signal phase (if you want to know about signal phase, dig in our archives for the video on recording a snare and phase cancellation). The ‘HPF’ button is a high pass filter. You can use this to ‘roll off’ at a certain frequency – we’ll save a deeper explanation for another time.

This mic pre-amp is a little more high end and allows you to be a bit more specific in adding signal to certain frequencies. These are the toggle switches and dials to the right in the photo. Other than that, the mic-pre works in the same fashion.

After the mic pre-amp, the signal is sent to a compressor. The basic function of a compressor is to regulate the volume peaks of the signal before it moves to the next step. This can keep the signal from ‘clipping’ and adding audible ‘pops’ to the track if a volume peak is too loud. Let’s take a look at one and go through it’s options.

Going left to right. ‘Threshold’ determines at what volume the compressor takes hold of the signal. The ‘Ratio’ determines what the unit does with the volume once it reaches the Threshold. If you select a Ratio of 4:1 it means that once the volume level hits the Threshold, the compressor will allow the output to increase by 1 decibel for every 4 decibels of actual volume. The ‘Attack’ determines how quickly the compressor applies the Ratio and ‘Release’ determines how quickly it stops applying the Ratio when the signal drops below the Threshold. When you apply compression to a signal, you will reduce the overall top volume. The Output dial allows you to make up for this by increasing the overall output from the unit. Finally, this unit also has a ‘Gate’. The Gate allows you to select how much volume is needed to allow the signal to pass through. For instance, when you are recording a vocal, you don’t want anything from the mic to pass through when the vocalist is not singing. You would be picking up unwanted background noise. The Gate shuts off the signal when there is not enough volume going in to the mic. The ‘Rate’ dial allows you to adjust how quickly the gate takes effect.

The compressor in this photo also has a limiter (far right), which means that beyond applying the Ratio, you can set the compressor to cut off the output signal totally at a certain level.

Above and beyond controlling the signal level, mic pre-amps and compressors are used to add color, depth and tone to the signal you are putting through them. Mic pre-amps can use tubes or solid state circuits to accomplish their goal. They can run from affordable to incredibly expensive. Each type will add their own flavor to the sound you are recording. Compressors have been used as an effect to give certain sonic qualities to an instrument – you can find lots of info about using heavy compression on snare and kick drums to achieve a specific sound. Compression can be added at many stages of the recording process. You can add compression to tracks already recorded in the software. You will usually add compression to the final mix to even out the overall volume of the music.

We’ll continue to move through the recording chain in future posts. As always, let us know if you have questions or comments.

August 2020 Grapevine

Summer is in full swing. Consoling myself for having to cancel our September National Parks trip (very depressing; once again, thanks Covid) by trying to delve deeper in to some different music. We’re re-watching Ken Burns great country music documentary. If you’re in to music and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. You may not think you’re in to ‘country’ music, but if you watch the doc you’ll find so many influences for every type of music that has followed. It also shows the progression of how music recording developed. Early recording was live, raw, and, to me, the most emotional and ‘real’. Like all other genres, the recording lost me a little when all the edges were smoothed out and became more ‘corporate product’. But the ‘good stuff’ was always lurking in the background and all you have to do to find it is look a little deeper. This concept can really be applied to most genres of music. Let’s look a little deeper in to our lineup for this month.

First Up: Tall Tall Trees – ‘A Wave Of Golden Things’

As discussed in previous Grapevines, there’s many ways a song can touch you. The first thing that hits me in this song is the mood. The song strikes me emotionally before I even start to listen to the various instruments and production. I’m a sucker for melancholy. And melancholy does not necessarily mean ‘sad’. It’s a combination of lyrics, melody, music and delivery. If you’re a song writer, you find that’s not easy to do. Some beautiful lyric lines – “cuz you could warm the darkest hue the sun it came and knelt for you”. Then you have to hit the right melody notes. The music perfectly compliments the vocals. Sparse percussion topped with piano and keyboard. The bass line (sometimes played on the piano) anchors the song and provides a deep bottom end. Some nice background effects and vocals add mood. The cherry on top is a beautiful video which plays perfectly with the song. Watching the video helps you travel the path the song lays out, starting dark and lonely and ending up with a feeling of hope, even happiness.

Next Up: Lettuce – ‘House Of Lett’

So let’s take a listen to something completely different from our first tune. Lettuce is a funk band that originally formed in 1992. They started playing together after meeting while at the Berklee College of Music. Musically you can really hear their influences – 60’s, 70’s and 80’s funk/jazz bands. I’ve always had a love for this genre of music and it lead to me taking up bass guitar in the 80’s. There’s nothing better than finding the pocket playing bass on a good funk groove. If you break the song down and listen to all the separate instruments you can tell how technically accomplished all the members of this band are. To start try to hone in on just the drums and bass. This is the foundation of the song and allows the other musicians to break out individually on top of their groove. Great bass tone – very easy to pick out but not too ‘poppy’ or overpowering. The horns carry most of the melodic feel of the song. As with most good funk tunes, the song will break down to it’s simplest parts and build back up again. As with most good funk bands, Lettuce knows the importance of changes in dynamics during a song. I may be adding this album to my ‘bass play along’ collection.

Finally: The Heavy Eyes – ‘Late Night’

Let’s make one more hard turn for our final song. A little bit of sludge/stoner rock to complete our trio. There’s a number of things I like about ‘Late Night’. The mix is really well done to accentuate the different instruments. It starts with simple background percussion and a fuzzy, fuzzy guitar part. The interesting part of the mix is that they place this first fuzz guitar strictly in the left channel. Crisp drums are placed in the center with a second fuzz guitar coming in and out of the mix at different parts in the right channel. Another part of the mix I like is that the vocals are clear and out front where many bands recording this style of music will bury the vocals in the mix and drown them in reverb. Something that separates this song from others in the genre is the amount of open space they allow in the mix. I think the feel of open space makes each part more powerful when it enters the mix. This concept of dynamics is something they have in common with the funk of Lettuce. It shows how important some open space in both the writing of a song and in the recording.

Retro: R.E.M. – ‘Pilgrimage’

This song is from R.E.M.’s first album ‘Murmur’. I’ve listened to this album a few times recently and I’m always amazed at the depth of song writing for a band’s first album. There’s not a bad cut on it and there are a number of songs that are absolutely stunning. The album had the great first single ‘Radio Free Europe’. ‘Pilgrimage’ was the second cut and just blew me away. The song structure and mix are remarkable, especially for a band just starting out. It starts with the quiet background intro in to a kick drum driven guitar and bass riff. The build to the chorus and the vocal harmonies in the chorus are amazing. The chorus contains background ‘ahhhs’ as well the call and response harmonies. Dynamics play a big part in this song too. Change in dynamics may well be the theme for this month. The build to the chorus brings chills. Not many bands pull this off. R.E.M. is one of the few bands that lived up to the promise of their first album and maintained this quality of song writing throughout their career.

Messin With The Music – Retro – Isolation

Our love of doing covers of our favorite songs isn’t new. We were messin’ with songs long before we started the current ‘Messin’ With The Music’ series. I thought I’d dust off one of my favorites for people who may not have seen it when we first put it out. Joy Division was a band that always had special meaning for me from the first time I heard them in the ‘punk’ era. Everything about them was different, from playing style, song structure, vocals and the way the instruments were used. Lyrics that had more depth and feeling than most. We went with ‘Isolation’ because of it’s great rhythm and bass line. Joy Division’s version used synths. We decided to do ours with guitar. The instrumental break sounds like a keyboard but is actually a fretless bass played through a bunch of guitar pedals. The mix and mastering worked out the way we wanted. We also were really happy with how the video turned out. I’m still happy every time I watch it.

So, from the vaults, Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs cover Joy Division’s ‘Isolation’:

In The Studio Ep 12 – Microphone Basics

This episode of In The Studio describes the basics of microphone functions and the different types of microphones. As with most episodes of In The Studio, I’ve tried to keep this from being overly technical. Since there are literally thousands of YouTube videos and blogs that are made for tech heads, I wanted to put out content for people who may not be deep in to the subject, but are interested in how recording studios work. So this video is set up like a conversation between me and you. This video is straight from the camera without editing software. As always, please feel free to comment or ask questions – discussion is always welcome.

July 2020 Grapevine

So we’re rolling in to the second half of the year. Other than being hotter, hard to tell one month from the other this year. Same shit different month. After this could you imagine the idea of surviving in your basement for years if ‘the bomb’ dropped (Pretty bad when you reminisce fondly about the Cold War – the good old days when we were all in it together). So what does this have to do with this month’s selections? Nothing. Except that ‘quarantining’ gives me a lot of time to listen to new music. Yes, yes, I’m straining to find a silver lining……

First Up: Stephen Malkmus – ‘Xian Man’

Stephen Malkmus has been around a while. Originally known for the band Pavement (if you haven’t heard their ‘Slanted And Enchanted’ album, you should give it a listen) then for solo work and Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks. He’s covered a lot of ground. I always liked the ‘garage’ looseness of many of the songs. This song has that type of feel. Most of the foundation is acoustic and that part of the arrangement holds down the flow and feel of the song. There’s a great psychedelic guitar rambling through the whole song as well as slide guitar. The guitar solo in the middle of the song uses these multiple guitars to good effect for a loose jam feel. Even the vocals carry the psychedelic, loose feel. Also hits my favorite mixing style – everything is audible but has it’s own place in the overall mix. Great ‘creates a mood’ song.

Next Up: Public Practice – ‘Cities’

A lot of things connected with me as I listened to this song. Let’s start with the recording. Great snare sound: crisp, snappy and it really cuts through the mix. You can pick out the actual snares in the sound. The hi hat also has a big presence. The bass sound has plenty of top end – if you listen to it in the beginning of the song you can hear the great tone they get. The guitars then drop in. If you listen through headphones you can hear the different guitar parts split in to the right and left side of the stereo field. The tight, top end capture of the recording provides a lot of separation for all of the instruments including the vocals. Definitely captures the post punk funk feel. I’ve been listening to a lot of Talking Heads recently and this tune has that type of feel. There’s several ways you can go with vocals in a song. You can bury them a bit in the mix to use them more as an instrument and make them more ‘mysterious’. Or you can make them tight and out front so you can really understand the lyrics. This song uses the latter. Finally, the little synth and vocal background additions add variety to keep the interest up.

Finally: Mayflower Madame – ‘Vultures’

So let’s go a little darker for the finale this month. If you wanted to categorize, could be under ‘Goth’ (a term I might use to describe a wide variety of styles) maybe an off-shoot of ‘Industrial Dance’. Could fit under ‘Post Punk’ eighties style. I like the dynamics of this recording. The instruments in the song don’t sound computer generated. If you listen and pull it apart you can listen to the guitar line, hear the bass line as a separate piece etc. And for me, they sound like people actually playing instruments. A real clear place to hear this is at 1:59 where the song breaks down and is built up piece by piece. You’ll hear each instrument come in. In a style that’s usually deep in programming, that’s a nice change. And it all gets dunked in a deep vat of reverb and delay. I admittedly like that sound, but it could turn a song in to mush if not handled correctly. An example here is the kick drum. They got the tuning, mics and EQ set up to really capture the top end ‘slap’ so the kick cuts through all the reverb and drives the song along. The video continues that feel. And……….would it go on the dance CD for ‘Blacklight Nite’? Absolutely.

Retro: Blind Faith – ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’

No need to over analyze this song. I imagine most people have heard it. In certain emotional moods I go back to classics that have always touched me. There are a lot of great songs out there and they’re great for different reasons. This song has so much emotion and it’s created by the vocal melody. That’s one of the rarest feats to pull off in song writing. And it gets multiplied by Steve Winwood’s amazing vocals and lyrics. There’s many ways to interpret the lyrics, literal and spiritual. For me it touches the despair and sadness I feel about what’s happening now. Life is too short for anger, hatred and the people who promote it. The older you get, the more you realize it.

But I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home
.