Thursday, 19 December 2013

Doing For Others

Occasionally, I am asked to play on someone else's recording, and I quite enjoy the session/sideman gigs when they come along. The pieces are usually completely written when I get to play on them, so all I have to do is play my parts under the direction of the producer and/or composer, get it how they want it, and not take too long to do it - in the studio, time is money in a very real sense, and it definitely works in your favour if you can get a part down in a couple of takes.

These days, the people who hire me know what they're getting, so it is rarely that I find myself on unfamiliar ground, music-wise. If a project requires a guitarist with a deep knowledge of Jazz, chances are my name won't come up. Rock, Blues and Pop have been the main gigs that I get the call for, and I approach each session based on its requirements - not every song needs a screaming guitar solo, and some songs require none at all. Working with the producer/composer to find the best thing for the song is always an interesting task, and no two sessions are the same. I can see why full-time session players love their gig.

The first thing I do after hearing the tracks I'm to play on is to find out how much of 'me' I'm supposed/allowed to put in to the track. Sometimes the guitar parts are quite definite, and I play what's written, but just as often I am asked to "just go for it" in solo sections, or to add my own feel to a part - one of the upsides of being known for a particular style of playing. Once I have my parameters set, I get to work and get all my parts under my fingers and committed to memory, keeping in mind that on-the-spot changes may happen as circumstances or inspiration may dictate. If I know I have the parts together as best I can, I can approach the session in a relaxed manner, which is always much more fun than stressing over whether or not I can remember everything. Preparation, like pre-production, is the key to a good session, and will make the callbacks for other jobs more likely if taken seriously.

I also enjoy the freedom of not having my name on the work, aside from recording credits. While I always give my best, I am not in the firing line of opinion and response to the product, so I can relax after the job is done without sweating on releases and sales. I can enjoy the music for what it is, not having to worry about what other people think about it. Having said that, it's always good to see something you've played on perform well, and (for me, anyway) hearing a piece can invoke memories of the session and what happened on the day the tracks went down. Some sessions are in-and-out affairs, but others are exercises in sharing a unique experience with talented and beautiful people who care about what's happening in the room. Those times are the ones that stick in the memory for years, if not life. I guess that's a big part of why I still do this music thing, and still love it.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Do You Have To Write Your Own Stuff? Pt.2

The concept of the singer-songwriter is not a new one, with musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger being popular figures in the 40s and 50s. In fact, if you take a historical perspective, wandering bards and minstrels probably were a large part of oral traditions that were passed around and handed down from generation to generation centuries ago. The writer/performer really started to come to prominence in the mid-to-late 60s in the USA, when there was a huge wave of 'protest singers' that sprung up to comment on the Vietnam war and other social issues through their music. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were two among many who set their views to music and performed the result.

As Rock and Roll struck, there was still a lot of separation between writers and performers, although some of the bands were starting to write their own songs, either within the band or with outside collaborators. Lennon and McCartney wrote some massive hits for The Beatles, but so too did Leiber and Stoller. Jagger and Richards wrote many great Rolling Stones songs, but they also covered some classic American blues standards in their repertoire - songs written by black singer/songwriters half a world away. A band would still take a song that had a chance of being a hit and record it, and nobody would bother that much about who wrote the song. If the Stones released it, it was a Stones song.

As the music industry grew and more acts hit the airwaves, singer/songwriters found themselves as members of bands. This was driven by musical styles and public taste. Bands became the thing to listen to, and so the industry followed. Most of these bands wrote their own stuff, with the occasional exception - Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath all wrote their own songs, and were very good at it. There were still songwriters, composers and non-writing performers, but they were a rarity in Rock music. "Write your own songs and play 'em" became the expected norm for bands, to the point where performers who didn't write their own material were looked down on or frowned upon as 'not the whole package'.

That was in the recording industry, the charts and with the touring stars. While this was going on, in every major city of the Western Word and beyond, there were countless cover bands playing the hits and making a reasonable living at it. That's when I entered music, and that's what I did. There were plenty of my peers that were burning with the ambition to play their own songs, and some of them went on to have considerable success on the world stage. While I wrote my own stuff and enjoyed doing so, I didn't have the same need to have my music stand alone. Not at that point in my career, anyway. I was playing a heap of gigs, copping the licks and styles of some of the best guitarists on the planet, and making money. I was happy. Play 'Beat It'? Sure! That's Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen right there!

Today, I am now at a stage where I am working primarily on music that I write, either by myself (as is the case with my instrumentals), with my wife Donna (Resonance Project) or with Jac Dalton and Darren Mullan for Jac's releases. Until recently, Donna and I did regular gigs with Lady Zeppelin doing the Led Zep repertoire, and we had a blast doing it. We've recorded a couple of covers with the Jac Dalton Band. I'd dig to play a Jeff Beck piece in my solo set sometime. I still feel the same way about songs and music. If it's good and it's fun to play, I'll play it. It doesn't have to be mine. Having said that, I also respect the right of any artist to only play their own compositions. I do, however, object to them being assholes about it when it comes to criticising a person who is perfectly happy to play ABBA medleys at a yacht club. If you don't like to see musicians playing ABBA medleys, don't go to yacht clubs. Simple. Don't like covers bands? Tell that to the Berlin Philharmonic. To judge someone else's musical values and ambitions is to tread dangerously close to the path of the political or religious zealot. In music, that's just not cool, man.

In reality, not every person who plays an instrument or sings is a composer or songwriter. Not every gifted lyricist can sing or play an instrument, and not every wunderkind of music composition can string two words together, and maybe neither of them have the nerve to get on a stage. Some people just love to play music because it feels so good. If they can do that without having to write the stuff, then that just means that they'll achieve their goal a bit sooner than those who are still learning to write a good tune. Either way, if we all reach our goals, we all win. Especially those people who just love to listen to music and have been winning since the first composition was written. Whenever that was.

Bottom line? It's music. Love it, share it, write it, play it. Did I mention share it? That's important.


Sunday, 28 July 2013

Do You Have To Write Your Own Stuff? Really?

Around the time I was deciding to "turn pro" and make music my life's work. There was a huge Pub Rock scene in Perth, where thousands of people would go out on the weekend and see live bands in the cavernous beer barns around the city. The most successful of these bands were the cover bands, who would churn out classic songs and the latest hits in various measure. There were sixties bands who played songs from that era, Top 40 bands who limited their repertoire to what was in the charts, Rock bands, Pop bands - all playing songs that they didn't write, and doing pretty well at it. The band I was in - Flash Harry - played a variety of classic rock and current hits, and after a couple of years gigging around the traps, we started to introduce our own songs to the live show. It was fun to perform our own stuff, and some of them actually went over well with audiences. I had always written songs and music, and Flash Harry gave me the chance to see how people would react to my work. Throughout the life of the band, though, we new what put backsides on seats and paid the bills, and never really deviated from the classics/latest hits formula.

While the covers bands were plying their trade in the big rooms, there was an original scene that flourished in some of the smaller rooms populated by folks who were after something different, something quirky and non-mainstream, something that they couldn't get from the radio or television. Some of these original bands went on to make something of themselves, but whether or not they made it, they (like us) were learning their craft and gaining invaluable experience as a live musician. The big differences between the scenes were obvious - the covers bands played the big rooms to big crowds for good money, and the original bands played small rooms for small money. In a lot of cases (most, actually), the musicians in the covers bands were better players, since they were professionals and went where the income was. There were some amazing original players, of course, but most of the full-timers worked in covers bands, and had side projects to air their own compositions. There was, however, a gulf between the two scenes that sometimes was less than cordial. Basically, the original musos felt resentful of people that made a decent living from playing someone else's songs. Even the people who patronised the bands had something to say about the matter, and as I made my way around the music industry in Western Australia, I grew quite aware of this "Covers vs. Originals" mentality.

My own reaction to all this was primarily disinterest. I wanted to play my guitar and play music, and wasn't terribly interested in whether or not the songs were mine. In the eighties, there were some great songs on the radio, and I was happy to learn and play them - Springsteen and Mellencamp were releasing career-defining albums, Van Halen were hitting their straps, and Australian music was enjoying unprecedented popularity in the mainstream. Playing covers was fun, profitable, and gave me the chance to learn stuff from some of the best players of the day. Even if you were playing a Michael Jackson song, chances were that you were learning the chops of one of the best session players in the world. It was a good time to be listening to and playing music. While all this was happening, there were still the writers who wanted a slice of that pie, and were doing it hard by sticking to their own values and only performing their own (or band's) compositions.
I could understand where the original bands were coming from, but saw it as cutting off their noses to spite their faces that they refused to do something that would make them money while they were getting their own stuff together - something like play some covers on the weekend. Nonetheless, attitudes prevailed, and there remained the increasingly antagonistic schism within the music scene in Perth. The deciding factor, of course, was the public, and what they wanted. What the average pub-goer of the eighties wanted was to go to a hotel and be entertained by songs they knew and heard on the radio played by a live band, while they were getting drunk and maybe finding some companionship with members of the opposite sex. That was the pub scene, and that's how it was.

While I wasn't too concerned with my own music getting airing and taking precedence over making money, I could see that a lot of musicians were of this mindset, and occasionally, I would hear covers bands get the blame for the failure of original music to take over the scene - "they get all the big gigs, and we miss out" was the gist of it. I found this laughable, but it didn't change the fact that a lot of people were laying blame on others for their own shortcomings. The reason I thought this was that I had seen and heard some of the original bands that were doing the accusing, and they were, almost to a one, terrible. I was once confronted by one of these players, telling me that covers bands were the reason nobody came to his gigs. My reply was to suggest politely that perhaps the main reason for his lack of patronage was that maybe he sucked. Needless to say, the object of my observation was less than happy with my suggestion, but my point was a valid one - you cannot expect success in any given field unless you are good at it, and know how to present your product. Being "original" is no guarantee of a passionate following. You have to earn it, whether you are playing your own music or Born In The USA.

There are always going to be conflicting attitudes about music and its performance, and it is not my place to say specifically what is a right or wrong way to go about writing, performing or enjoying music. However, a little insight and musical history can go a way towards clarifying how the present situation came to be - the "you have to write your own music" school of thought so dominant in today's music scene. Or parts of it, anyway. I will discuss some of this and also my own take on things in my next entry.

Stay safe, and be happy.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Digital vs Analogue – Finding the Balance

From Firebrand Magazine Issue #3, December 2012

Some interesting and valid points have been raised over the years regarding the somewhat 'sterile' sound of a lot of today's modern recordings. The advent of digital equipment has removed a lot of the bugbears of the recording process, while introducing a few unique problems of its own.

First of all, we should consider the human ear, which is far from perfect in its design and function - I mean, if Darwin is right, they may have been gills at one stage. Our perception of sound is quite limited in comparison to that of some creatures further down the food chain. However, they're all we've got to hear with, so I shan't go on about it. The loudspeaker is another relatively inefficient mode of conducting sound which has yet to be improved upon.

The first thing we noticed about compact discs, upon the advent of the technology, was the absence of extraneous noise on our recordings, such as tape hiss and the crackling of a stylus scraping around on a piece of vinyl. This was hailed as a great breakthrough in music technology, and indeed it was... there was, however, a down side to this new 'clean' sound, namely a lack of warmth that could be easily be translated as sounding 'sterile' or mechanical.

There is a certain personality to older analogue recordings that is sadly missing from a lot of today's music, although it is not all because of the digital recording age. When the techno dance craze hit, the majority of this style of music (using the term loosely) was created using sequencers and computers, thus eliminating the human factor. To the trained ear, there is a vast difference between a musician playing a part and the same part being generated by a piece of electronic equipment. In musical parlance, this indefinable human 'something' is called feel. There are drummers out there who can play as perfectly in time as any drum machine (Steve Gadd comes to mind), but can alter the beat imperceptibly so as to create feel and mood within a rhythm. The same applies to other instrumentalists who can create a mood or a feeling with subtle inflections of melody or groove.

The same technological overkill that affected the creation of sounds also affected the way that those sounds were recorded. There is a very important factor that is removed when you plug a box straight into a mixing console and hit 'record' - the movement of air. Sound waves create pressure on our eardrums, which then send information to our brain. The brain makes sense of this data, and tells us what it is we are hearing, and at what volume. Loud noise or music puts more pressure on the eardrum, hence the term Sound Pressure Level (SPL), which is a fancy way of saying 'volume'.

Normally, when we listen to something, we are not only hearing the sound from the source itself, but the sound reflecting off objects in our immediate surroundings and eventually finding its way to our ears. This, of course, is what happens when we hear an echo. Another factor involved in our normal perception of sound is that we very seldom hear just one thing - there is always background noise, be it obvious or subliminal. This background noise creates 'colour' in our perception of sound, and it is this subtle absence of background colour that can create the sterile sound mentioned earlier. Sir George Martin, one of the greatest record producers of our time, is reputed to have included tracks of random noise (people talking, doors closing, street noise) on some of his later recordings, placed way back in the mix, just to add warmth and colour. You couldn't hear it, but the effect was to retain a human, organic element in what had become an almost impersonal recording procedure.

While this latter day obsession with 'clean' has wound up sacrificing some soul in the process, recording digitally does not necessarily mean that the result is going to sound soulless and sterile. Now that the craze for all things new and overly clinical has settled down somewhat, a lot of studios and producers are returning to some of the old equipment, such as valve amplifiers, equalizers and compressors. These pieces of gear have a little more warmth than their solid-state counterparts, and help to retain a bit of personality in a recorded sound. The beauty of recording in the digital domain is that 'non-musical' noise is no longer a problem. The art of recording now is to create 'air' and 'movement' in the sound of a recording, so as to retain a little humanity in the music. This can be achieved with all our new toys and gadgets, but having said that, it is easier said than done. That is why the top producers and engineers get paid so much money!

There is a factor in recording that continues to be a point of contention amongst the audio community – compression. Compression is used in audio recording to limit the transient peaks in a piece of music so as not to damage precious equipment or hearing. It also boosts lower levels in the same recording to achieve a more even response and add perceived loudness to a track. A problem arises when a track is compressed too much, making it sound loud, but without any dynamics. Television and radio stations compress their audio signals to keep all their broadcasts within a specific dynamic range. A trick they often use is to compress their advertisements more heavily, making the sound of the ads jump out and catch the attention of the listener/viewer. This why the volume of TV commercials seems to jump up (sometimes annoyingly) from the level of the actual program we are watching. This marketing ploy has enraged many viewers who have to turn down the volume on their TV when the ads come on because the volume becomes uncomfortable, especially if they are watching a show with the sound up fairly high. It is only recently that legislation has been introduced in some countries to address this discrepancy.

In music recordings, many bands will have their material mastered with a high rate of compression, believing that it will make their music ‘jump out’ from the other offerings on the same program or channel. This practice has led to what has become known as ‘compression wars’, where entire albums are produced at a compression level that seems always on the verge of ‘clipping’, or passing the threshold of distortion. This threshold is a little bit different between digital and analogue recordings – pushing an analogue sound can result in added warmth, whereas with digital, once you cross the line, you’re in digital distortion land, where the high frequencies become harsh and unpleasant. The thing that most of these audio ‘rev heads’ seem to forget is that when a piece of music is broadcast, it is compressed by the people doing the broadcasting, so too much compression at the recording stage is only going to make a track sound squashed and small when broadcast – not the optimum result if you want your band to sound bigger than Ben Hur in the marketplace. 

One of the worst results of all this over compression is that a piece of music will become devoid of dynamics – the areas of low versus high intensity – and lacking in that all-important ‘feel’ that gives a song personality. This is particularly true of rock and metal acts that want to have everything louder than everything else. Volume does not always equal power and impact, and there are some very wimpy sounding metal recordings out there as a result of uninformed musicians turning everything up too far. While there are thousands of pieces of gear that will enhance and effect sounds, the best rule of thumb is still “does it sound good?” This applies to digital and analogue recordings, and always will. There are also thousands of digital plug ins and add ons that can emulate analogue equipment. If the new digital sound was so much better, I doubt if there would be so much emulation going on. When it comes down to it, beauty is in the ear of the beholder – a good sound will still be a good sound, and a good song will still be a good song. If you have a good enough command of digital technology, you will be able to produce a clear, warm and dynamic recording on ProTools or Logic. When it comes to making memorable music, it still – and always will – come down to the Artisan, not his tools.

Graham Greene

Read the rest of Issue #3 here.