With the exceptions of George Martin, Quincy Jones and Glyn Johns, arguably no other recording producer is as quite a household name as Alan Parsons. (And only Parsons has been namechecked by Austin Powers’ nemesis, Dr. Evil!) Starting at age 18, Parsons began working in EMI’s legendary Abbey Road Studios in 1967 before going on to engineer the Beatles’ classic album of the same name and numerous other projects. His career as a staff engineer at EMI culminated in his engineering Pink Floyd’s epochal 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, which remained on the Billboard charts for an astonishing 741 weeks, a phenomenal achievement for what had been prior to its release a band that defined the phrase “cult hit.” In terms of its variety and musical craftsmanship, the album was arguably the high point of Pink Floyd, but its success was in no small part due to the crystalline three dimensional sound that Parsons’ engineering brought to the product.
Only in the 1970s could a recording engineer launch a successful career as a rock frontman, but give Parsons credit for perfect timing – he parleyed his industry connections and his key role in Dark Side of the Moon’s smash success into a lengthy record deal with Arista Records, fronting and producing his own Alan Parsons Project band. The Alan Parsons Project itself enjoyed several best-selling albums and arena tours. But Parsons never stopped producing other artists, working in the years since Dark Side with Al Stewart, The Hollies, and other artists.
In 2010 Parsons released his three-DVD box set titled The Art & Science of Sound Recording and narrated by actor-director-musician Billy Bob Thornton. Recently an accompanying book version of that DVD, co-authored by Parsons and Julian Colbeck (also an old hand in the music industry), was issued by veteran music publishing house Hal Leonard.
The How-To Guide for Recording a Complete Rock Band
For anyone interested in recording a rock or pop group, in conditions ranging from their garage or basement to a professional music studio, this is a must-read book, filled with useful tips on how to record all of the primary components of a popular group including the drum kit, bass, electric guitar, keyboard, and vocalists. In both group form playing all together, and then afterwards in the form of solo overdubs to bring a song closer to perfection.
While Parsons is the primary voice in the book, he’s joined by such veteran studio luminaries as drummer Simon Phillips, bassists Carole Kaye and Nathan East, and former Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald, and fellow producer Jack Douglas, who bring their own recording tips and anecdotes to the book. The book concludes with an excellent chapter on recovering from studio disasters, ranging from tape machines unspooling to a comparable 21st-century terror, hard drive crashes.
“…the stage where Johnny Rotten unveiled his baleful stare has given way to a Harry Potter section.”
The venerable St. Martins School of Art having moved to a new campus, another esteemed institution took over its old building this year:
Traditionalists grumbled that this new Foyles was altogether too slick, nowhere near as dusty and quaint as the original store.
But when discussing this doubly-historic move, the one talking point almost everyone settled on was revealing.
St. Martins School has, over the course of 150 years, produced a number of distinguished graduates.
Its sculpture department was once called “the most famous in the world.”
Yet headlines trumpeting the famous building’s transformation from respected art school to glossy media megashop were almost all variations on a single theme:
“Foyles to open new flagship bookstore on site of Sex Pistols’ first gig”
When the Boston-based Izotope audio software company released the first iteration of their RX program in the fall of 2007, it was a revelation in digital audio cleaning applications. It allowed hum, hiss, and background noises to be removed with much fewer artifacts than before, and it allowed the user to drill down to a seemingly granular level to remove tiny imperfections in WAV, QuickTime, MP3 and other commonly used digital audio formats.
I used it extensively when I was producing PJ Media’s Sirius-XM radio show, which coincidentally debuted nearly simultaneously with RX, and ran until the end of 2010. Both on the XM show and podcasts in the years since, I’ve found RX particularly useful for removing hum and hiss from telephone recordings, making it an extremely useful tool on prerecorded radio shows and podcasts.
From the start, what made RX unique was its ability to zoom into a particular region of audio. The ability to splice a small portion of audio has been possible since the earliest days of analog audio tape in the 1940s. And digital audio workstations have allowed for tight digital editing since their initial launch in the 1980s. But however tight the edit, these have almost always involved the entire audio spectrum. (Picture a piece of audio tape being spliced by a razorblade; the process is replicated digitally on a DAW.) But RX allows for focusing on tiny portions of the audio spectrum, in much the same way that Photoshop and numerous other photo editing software allows for the user to zoom tightly into just a few pixels.
This makes RX particularly versatile. Because the program can zero in on specific frequency regions, it’s easy to remove plosives such as popped-Ps from recordings and reduce or mute breath sounds, making RX an excellent post-production tool for both spoken and sung vocals. RX’s ability to both copy and paste and sample small portions of surrounding audio makes it very easy replace digital dropouts. I also found it extremely useful to clean up less than pristine music tracks I made in my digital audio workstation, such as background noise in lead vocals, or the grit, dirt and hum that accompany many distorted electric guitar recordings. (Not the grit and dirt from the actual solo, which we like, the stuff lurking in-between the notes when the guitarist isn’t playing.)
In May of this year, when I returned to California after videotaping the Duranty Awards for PJM and the New Criterion, and listened to the audio, I noticed most of the journalists speaking had unconsciously tapped the heavy framed award certificates they were holding against the note-stand of the podium, producing many repeated loud audible thumps on the audio track. Using RX, I was able to go in and either eliminate or minimize many of these these thumps, making it a much smoother experience for the viewers, particularly for those watching the video while wearing headphones.
One of the hallmarks of great pop songs, recorded or live, are great harmony vocals. While non-melodic rap and death metal are often largely exempt from this artistry, just about all classic pop music is known for its harmonies, from Motown, country music and folk, to the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Even in hard rock, plenty of numbers by The Who and The Rolling Stones have great backing vocals behind the gruff bluesy belting of Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger, respectively. Harmony vocals add polish to a recording or performance, and they add a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) ingratiating element to them as well: Hey, multiple people are singing along with the lead singer. Maybe I should join in and sing along as well, while listening at home, in the car, or in the audience!
In the past though, the solo performer who plays out in bars and coffeehouses armed with only his or her guitar, or the songwriter recording demos for his band in a spare room have historically been at a distinct disadvantage to a full ensemble until recent years. In 2007, the Canadian firm of TC-Helicon debuted their VoiceLive unit; currently, it’s on its third iteration. As one of those aforementioned persons recording demos on a digital audio workstation (DAW) in his den, I’ve been frustrated by the limitations of only having my (not so great) voice to work with, and have looked for ways to augment it electronically. So when I saw the demo of the VoiceLive 3 unit at Sweetwater, I knew I had to add it to my sonic arsenal:
Of course, what goes into the VoiceLive 3 will determine what comes out of it; it won’t turn you into Kate Bush or Steve Winwood overnight. But as the many demos of the VoiceLive 3 and previous VoiceLive units uploaded to YouTube by TC-Helicon attest, with a little practice, the units do a very good job of turning decent singers into one person choirs, and decent singers with lush harmonies behind them sound that much better.
Inside the VoiceLive3 is massive amount of sophisticated electronics to generate its harmonies, which it cues off of a guitar plugged into it, a MIDI-equipped keyboard, or a backing track from an iPod or other miniplug-equipped music player. Or the song’s key can be set manually, and the VoiceLive 3 will do its best to guess the harmonies. On the outside of the unit, the VoiceLive3 has a metal case and multiple footswitch buttons to trigger harmonies on and off, along with other functions such as delay, reverb, and doubling, plus a built-in guitar tuner. And there’s a rotating dial to sift through the units many presets. The rear of the unit contains multiple inputs and outputs including a combined XLR and ¼” mono input for the lead vocal, stereo XLR outputs, MIDI in- and outputs, guitar inputs and outputs, and a miniplug input designed to allow backing tracks to be played from an iPod. So it’s possible to use the VoiceLive 3 even if you don’t play an instrument.
These days, most pop music consists of style over substance. Regardless of talent, today’s top stars like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber are largely more concerned with dance moves and video poses than songwriting chops – which makes the appearance of a delicate ballad like “Oh Sweet Lorraine” by Green Shoe Studio featuring Jacob Colgan and Fred Stobaugh in the iTunes Top Ten (#10 as of this writing) a pleasant surprise.
What’s even more astounding is the story behind the song. Stobaugh, the songwriter, is a 96-year old Illinois man who wrote “Oh Sweet Lorraine” in memory of his wife of nearly 73 years who passed away in April.
On a whim, the widower entered a songwriting contest that he saw advertised in a local paper with a love song he’d written for his bride.
Green Shoe Studio, the company running the contest, couldn’t accept his handwritten entry (the competition was digital-only), but they were so touched by his story that they decided to produce his song — and a short documentary about it — anyway. That video, which was posted in July, recently went viral, and the exposure has sent “Oh Sweet Lorraine” soaring up the charts.
What sounds like a cute little consolation prize of a story turns out to be a touching tribute to lifelong love.
“After she passed away, I was just sitting in the front room one evening by myself, and it just came right to me,” he says of his song. “I just kept humming it and singing it. That’s how I came to write it. It just fit her.”
The resulting song is simple, but that’s the beauty of it. “Oh sweet Lorraine,” the chorus begins, “I wish we could do all the good times over again.” The song continues, “Life only goes around once, but never again.”
The resulting song is one of the sweetest, most beautiful songs you’ll ever hear. The folks at Green Shoe Studio deserve kudos for taking a chance on a lovely and deeply personal lyric, and Mr. Fred Stobaugh has every right to be proud of his song. No doubt Sweet Lorraine is smiling down from heaven at the tribute.
Here’s the documentary. (Warning: you’ll need a tissue or two.)
For years, Walter Carter was the in-house historian at Gibson Guitars, before serving a similar function for well-known vintage guitar dealer George Gruhn. He has a new book out this month published by Backbeat Books, called The Epiphone Guitar Book: A Complete History of Epiphone Guitars. Its slick, glossy, 160-pages are heavily illustrated, with many photos in color.
With a legacy dating back to the 1870s and Greek luthier Anastasios Stathopoulos, the Epiphone brand name takes its name from two components — the nickname of Anastasios’ son, Epaminondas, and the word “phone,” which, in the 1920s when the brand Epiphone was launched, competed with the word “radio” to symbolize high-tech and modernity. (See also: Gramophone, the Radio Flyer, etc.)
Epiphone has had several twists and turns in its history. Until the mid-1950s, it competed neck and neck (pardon the pun) with Gibson for sales of arch-top jazz guitars. Ted McCarty, who built up Gibson as a music instrument powerhouse in the mid-2oth century, said that “when I came to Gibson, the biggest competition we had was Epiphone.” But the death of Epi in 1943, followed by squabbles among the surviving Stathopoulos family during the following decade, caused the value of their business to plummet. McCarty acquired Epiphone for Gibson’s parent company at a bargain rate, and production of Epiphone guitars switched in-house to Gibson’s Kalamazoo, MI plant, during the 1960s. The new brand name gave Gibson certain advantages: they could protect the exclusive arrangements their dealers had with Gibson, but sell Epiphone to nearby music dealers, positioning it as a slightly lower brand — the Buick or Oldsmobile to Gibson’s Cadillac.
In the mid-1960s, Epiphone models were played by a little-known cult act called the Beatles — “Everybody but Ringo,” as Carter told me. McCartney played an Epiphone Texan acoustic on “Yesterday,” George Harrison played his Epiphone Casino on Sgt. Pepper, and John Lennon played his own Casino on the rooftop of Apple Records during their legendary last concert at the conclusion of Let It Be.
In the early 1970s, Gibson sent production of Epiphone guitars overseas. Today, it exists, in part, as an entry-level brand for new guitarists (and as such, there are likely more Epiphones in circulation than Gibsons) and there’s some controversy between those who own traditional made-in-America Gibson guitars such as the Les Paul, and those who own Les Pauls and other models also sold under the Epiphone name.
Carter discusses all that and much more in our 21-minute interview. Click here to listen:
If the above Flash audio player is not compatible with your browser, click below on the YouTube player below, or click here to be taken directly to YouTube, for an audio-only YouTube clip. Between one of those versions, you should find a format that plays on your system.
For those who enjoy recording their own music or podcasts at home, mastering is one of the more little known aspects of the process. Most people are aware of overdubbing, editing and mixing, but comparatively few understand how critical mastering can be to add the final sparkle to a mix, how it can transform a pretty good mix into something amazing, or (sometimes, with a little luck) a poor mix into something tolerable.
In the professional world, mastering is usually done using lots of very expensive outboard gear, as the final step before a master copy of a CD is sent to be duplicated into millions of consumer discs, or an album of MP3s is uploaded to iTunes and Amazon.
In the not necessarily professional world of home recording, mastering can be done with a plug-in effect.
For over ten years, Boston-area iZotope Inc., located near Boston has been producing a high-end plug-in for recording programs called Ozone. Now in its fifth iteration, iZotope produces versions of it for most PC and Mac-based recording programs, as well for Pro Tools, the most popular professional recording system.
When I interviewed him for a Blogcritics article on an earlier iteration of Ozone back in 2004, Jeremy Todd, the company’s chief technology officer (and a musician himself — he was trained as a classical pianist) told me:
Mastering in general is tough to put your finger on; I guess it depends on who you’re talking to. But for the purposes of Ozone, we talk about everything that you do once you’ve got a stereo mixdown, to when you when you actually have a master and you say, “OK, this is the audio, this is it, we’re not touching it anymore.”
With Ozone, we try to include everything that someone would need, so that, while it’s not always the case, but in theory they could not use another plug-in; they could do it all in one.
How was mastering done before the days of computers and hard disk recording? Todd says:
There were trends established way back when, that are still present today. We’re still seeing examples of these standalone hardware devices. Things were much more isolated, you wouldn’t see as much all-in-one gear, and you’d have these big, honking pieces of equipment that were just an equalizer — and a two or three band equalizer at that, usually just a finalizer, a loudness maximizer.
Obviously, if you go back far enough, mastering was dominated by analog equipment. So with Ozone, we’re trying to capture some of the flavor that people liked, which was a big challenge when it came to designing the DSP. It’s very difficult for people to explain why they like their two-band analog equipment. So it boiled down to a lot of listening tests, and asking people a lot of questions.
We tried to keep a little of the analog flavor in the sound, in our previous versions of Ozone. [Beginning] in Ozone 3, the analog modeling was firmly established, but people have been saying that in some cases, they want something cleaner; they don’t want any flavor, they want to be more surgical with the tool. So we added a digital component to the equalizer and the multi-band crossover.
With Home Recording, Mastering More Important Than Ever
Let’s take a moment to discuss how the mixing and mastering process has changed over the past 30 years for the average home recordist.
Back in the 1980s, when I first began to record demos of songs for my local rock group on a four track, mixing was relatively easy…because there were only four tracks (that’s actually a bit of a simplification — I used a fair amount of virtual tracks and outboard gear). But I did all the mixes in real time and hoped for the best. For their time, they weren’t terrible demos — but certainly nobody would confuse them for properly mixed and mastered track on a CD.
By the late 1990s, it was possible to replicate the process on a personal computer — and with infinitely more control over the individual tracks and the overall sound.
A decade ago, in one of my earliest reviews of a software-based recording program, I dubbed it “Abbey Road in a Box.” That may seem slightly hyperbolic at first, but today’s digital audio workstations (or DAWs for short) are incredibly sophisticated programs, combining the ability to record music digitally, then add built-in and aftermarket effects, and layer in a variety of software synthesizers and prerecorded loops as well. In short, they leave the stone knives and bearskins-level technology the Beatles had available to them in the 1960s in the dust.
But a DAW can seem as overwhelming at first as walking into a physical recording studio. As producer Brian Eno said of an actual mixing board 35 years ago:
Most people see a large mixer, and they’re completely bewildered because there are something like 800 or 900 knobs on it. Actually it’s not so complex as it looks – it’s the same thing repeated many times. Since you’re dealing with 24 tracks, everything has to be multiplied by 24; it’s not a very complex system. Each track from the tape recorder plays back on one channel of the mixer. Each individual channel has a whole set of controls that duplicate the other channels; that’s all.
But what do those knobs do — and more importantly — what can you do with them?
In other words, Abbey Road is just a series of acoustically-treated rooms and electronic gear without the skill of the engineers and producers who know how to make it work. Paul White’s The Producer’s Manual, published by British electronic music house Sample Magic and written by the editor of Britain’s long-running Sound on Sound magazine won’t turn you into the second coming of George Martin alone. But at over 350 full-color, heavily illustrated pages, with a glossary defining of all of its jargon, it’s an excellent guide to unlocking the power of the recording software and equipment you may already own. And what to look for when shopping for your next piece of kit.
If you already own a DAW, it may well have many of the digital tools that White describes in The Producer’s Manual. But how to make the most of them? What physical equipment do you need? What sort of sound card do you need? How do you choose which microphone for which application? Which speakers to ensure your mixes still sound the same beyond your basement? Are the acoustics in your recording room up to snuff?
And then there actual recording techniques — which is what you’ve assembled all this gear for, in the first place. What if you need to record an acoustic guitar? A chorus of background singers? How do you mic up a drum kit? Or heck, what if Christina Hendricks drops by and wants you to record her accordion playing?
OK, White doesn’t specifically mention Christina Hendricks — but he does go into how to record an accordion, along with all sorts of other instruments. And then how to edit, assemble, and master their parts — and how to salvage things afterwards if a session goes haywire. These are but a few of the topics that White explores. Beginners will learn much — I sure wish this book had been around a decade ago when I first made the leap to digital music recording after a decade toiling with cassette four-tracks. But those with plenty of experience in the brave new world of DAWs will find much to learn in this highly recommended book as well.
Debuting in the mid-1970s, largely thanks to Japan’s Roland Corporation, guitar synthesizers have long had their share of headaches, until Roland launched their VG-system in the mid-1990s. Instead of concentrating on synthesizing strings and trumpets, suddenly here was a unit armed with loads of great guitar-oriented sounds and effects, which tracked flawlessly. The original VG-8 debuted in 1995. Roland’s VG-88 lasted from 2000 until 2007, and used versions of the VG-88 can be found on eBay these days for $150 to $500. Its successor, still in production, was released in 2007, and dubbed the VG-99. It replaced the black stealth bomber doorstop floor box shape of the VG-88 and original VG-8 with a sleek silver table-top unit, which could also be rack mounted, or placed on an optional music stand, for manipulation during performance.
Roland’s VG-99 (which streets for about $1600 with the required pickup for your electric guitar, $100 less without the additional pickup) builds on their long-running line of VG-8 and VG-88 guitar modeling systems, but now in the form of a tabletop, not floor design and inside, three internal processors for some high-powered computing technology.
I wrote up one of the earliest reviews of the VG-99 for Blogcritics in 2007. I’m cribbing from that text, though with revisions to bring that material up to date.
The VG-99 requires a guitar equipped with an aftermarket Roland hexaphonic pickup (pictured at left mounted on a Gibson Les Paul) and 13-pin cable to connect the pickup to the VG-99, or a guitar equipped with a compatible factory-installed hexaphonic pickup, such as those made by Godin, or Fender’s Roland-Ready Stratocaster, which I used to test the unit. Some sources claim that Roland’s hexaphonic pickup sounds better on many of these patches than the piezo pickups used on the Godin units; check out the archives at the VGuitar Forum to see the pros and cons of this argument.
Like the predecessor VG-88, it’s also possible to plug an electric guitar with a conventional quarter-inch jack into the VG-99. Most of the more extreme modeling elements won’t trigger, but it’s a great way to make use of a trusty old Les Paul, Tele or any other non-hex-equipped instrument and drive basic amp sounds.
Speaking of amps, expect to find all sorts of simulated Marshalls, Fenders, Voxes, Mesas, Hi-Gains and Roland’s own JC-120. There are also a variety of modeled guitars, including Les Pauls, ES-335s, Fender Strats and Teles, steel and nylon-strung guitars, 12-strings, Jazz and P-Basses, and more exotic instruments such as Dobros, mandolins, and even violins. The two control buttons on my Roland-Ready Strat correspond with the treble/center/lead pickup switch on the Les Paul and the five-way switch on a (traditional) Fender Stratocaster; a nice touch.
It’s also possible to model a guitar completely from scratch, even with physical parameters impossible on a real instrument. While the parameters on the screen of the VG-99 are reasonably easy to tweak, A much more intuitive computer GUI allows tweaking the parameters via a PC and USB connection.
And there are all sorts of effects as well, plus the ability to manipulate wah-wah, volume and pitch (from dive bombs to B-Bender-style licks) via either Roland’s long-running EV-5 foot pedal, or more complex (and more expensive) FC-300 pedal board, and the controllers on the top of the VG-99 itself.
Taken from Roland’s keyboard synthesizers, these include a finger-sliding “ribbon” controller, which can be switched to control the pitch and filter settings of most patches. Perhaps more intriguingly, there’s also Roland’s “D-Beam”, which can also control many patches by waving a hand over the VG-99, or even a guitar neck. The D-Beam could provide the opportunity for some flashy stage gestures, vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Page and his Theremin.
Also, it’s possible to manipulate many of the effects in the patches via the knobs on the unit, and in many of the preset patches, go from open to standard tuning and back again at the press of a button. For those who like to play rhythm guitar in Open-G tuning ala Keith Richards, but drop back to standard tuning for the solo, that’s easily accomplished with the VG-99.
I first began playing guitar around November of 1982; I remember vividly driving back from the Moorestown Mall having purchased (in the now defunct B. Dalton bookstore chain) The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer. Covering everything from the author’s favorite guitar heroes, to what to look for when buying a guitar, to an extensive and well-written main core of the book devoted to music theory, Denyer’s book certainly lives up to its name. I remember instantly thinking as I thumbed through it, “This is it! It’s all here!” Of course, what wasn’t there was much of an insight into rock guitar licks, but still, it was a book I referred to endlessly when I first began playing, to the point where I basically wore my copy out, using black electrical tape to keep its binding together. While Denyer released an updated version of the book in 1992, a few years ago, I bought a used copy of the original 1982 edition, just to remind myself of where things started.
And they really did start from there. Shortly afterward, I bought my first electric guitar, a Hondo (Korean- or Japanese-made) clone of a 1959 Les Paul. In March of this year, after my mom had passed away and we cleaned out her house in preparation of putting it on the market, I found the old Hondo in the basement and picked it up — as was typical of Les Pauls of the early 1980s, both by Gibson and those selling knock-offs, it weighed a ton!
While I counted Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix as my early guitar heroes, at the time, my biggest musical inspiration was Pete Townshend. And as journalist J.R Taylor wrote a few years ago, with both The Who’s popularity and his own as a solo artist at their apogee, the early 1980s “was a good time to be a Pete Townshend fan.” Certainly in my case that was true.
In 1983, Townshend released the first of his Scoop series of albums. These were the demo recordings of songs that would be recorded by The Who or professionally re-recorded by Townshend for his solo albums. In the liner notes, Townshend explained that he didn’t write his songs on staff paper; he recorded them on tape recorders, overdubbing a drum track — either real drums or a drum machine — then guitar, then bass, then vocals.
Concurrent with the release of Scoop, the first cassette four-track recorders began to appear in music stores, building on punk rock’s DIY ethos, and I was quickly off and running. A cassette four-track isn’t one of those old eight-track machines that Homer Simpson had in his car as a teenager. They use ordinary cassettes, but instead of having flipping the tape over to play the other side, the four-track recorder only plays in one direction, to allow for overdubbing up to four tracks of music; perfect for cutting a demo, as mentioned above, with a drum machine (which was also a new development in the early 1980s), bass, guitar and vocals; one instrument per track.
While I was not very artistic as a teenager prior to picking up an instrument, once I realized I could write and produce my own music, I thought, what else can I do? Which lead to studying radio production, video production, and eventually, a certificate in filmmaking from NYU.
But it all began with guitar playing. And one of the elements that ties together so many early bloggers is DIY music. As Glenn Reynolds (who was producing his own MP3s before launching Instapundit) told C-Span’s Brian Lamb in 2006, paraphrasing the 2003 Dave Clarke song “Disgraceland” along the way, to him blogging was “like the old punk rock ethos. You know, ‘they were terrible; I wanted to be terrible too!’ But it wasn’t terrible. And that was actually what was really striking about [Mickey Kaus’s Kausfiles in 2001.] There were lots of sort of amateurish, not very good Web sites out there in 1996, or whenever this was, but this looked good and it read well and it was really interesting, and I just thought it was really cool.”
More or less concurrent with my own nascent blogging efforts beginning in early 2002, I returned to my eighties-era hobby of recording my own music. Only this time around, using a personal computer, Cakewalk’s Sonar multitrack recording program, and eventually, a couple of incarnations of the Roland Corporation’s guitar modeling rigs, which allow a guitarist to dial through an enormous variety of preset sounds in much the same way a keyboard synthesizer player is able to. (You can scroll through my articles at Blogcritics over the years; I’ve written all sorts of posts there on the topic of home recording.)
When I started producing PJM’s Sirius-XM radio show, which lasted from September of 2007 through the end of 2010, and my ongoing Silicon Graffiti video series, which began in earnest in January of 2008, my guitar playing went by the wayside a bit. I still picked it up almost every day to noodle, but rarely plugged it into an amplifier. And cranking out a weekly 55-minute MP3 filled with interviews and music — occasionally my own — and uploading it to the Sirius-XM server filled my home recording jones in spades.
But this past weekend, I dusted off my “Roland-Ready Strat,” a Fender Stratocaster electric equipped with a special pickup designed to plug into Roland’s guitar synthesizers and plugged it in my Roland VG-99 guitar modeling box. Just dialing through the presets, and playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric sitar, and guitar synthesizer was a reminder of all of the possibilities inherent in the seemingly simple instrument that is the guitar.
And also a reminder of how comparatively easy it now is to both learn how to play guitar, and to get a decent sound out of it. Once you’ve learned a few basic chord shapes and the bare bones rudiments of musical theory and you’d like to learn to play a hit song, there’s likely tablature available for free on the Internet to learn its riffs and chord changes. With the fundamentals now so easy to learn, we should be hearing hours of fantastic new music on the radio every week, right?
No, of course not. Which brings us to the second part of this essay, starting on the next page.
Lana Del Rey has been built up over the last few months as the great white hope for music in 2012, a songwriter with the creativity to push herself in a unique direction while crafting music with hooks that are timeless and unforgettable. She’s “the gangster Nancy Sinatra,” a sultry musical minx who pouts her lips and controls the world.
Two weeks before her album Born To Die was set to release, she became the second artist to appear as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live who had not yet actually issued an album. She was a YouTube sensation, a modern example of where internet marketing can get you.
Hours after her performance, however, the ground was shaking beneath her career as a backlash mounted and the internet which built her up began rabidly tearing her down.
To get a better idea of what happened, it’s worth taking a look at a sketch which had aired earlier in the episode of SNL called “You Can Do Anything.” Vanessa Bayer and Bill Hader are hosts of a talk show touting the modern generation of YouTube sensations. “Now, thanks to technology, and everyone being huge pussies about everything, it doesn’t matter if you have skills or training or … experience, you can do it!” Hader says, describing a trio of inept performers who all feel they’re more famous than they truly are.
The rise of Lana Del Rey mirrors that sketch in a way which makes it seem oddly prescient in regard to what was coming when the singer would soon take the stage to perform her biggest hit to date, “Video Games.” She’d worked under her birth name, Lizzie Grant, for years and even got a recording deal with an independent label, but when “Video Games” became a hit on YouTube, she soon found herself signed to Interscope Records, which gave her the ability to fully eliminate the Lizzie Grant background details and fully become Lana Del Rey. Then the press run began, building her up relentlessly as the next big thing in music, when really her only experience had been in the studio.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re good at making videos, in an arena where you can tweak things until they’re exactly the version of your inner thoughts you want to release to the world, that’s perfectly reasonable. So is recording music in a studio, where a good singer can sound confident and assured, never having to step outside her comfort zone.
But on a live stage – particularly SNL’s live stage, appearing before millions on an iconic television show where image and sound don’t always blissfully mix – there’s not always a guarantee that you’ll get it right. One take, in front of a live audience, can make or break your carefully crafted public image. In the space of ninety minutes, a carefully built world where Lana Del Rey could be considered one of 2012′s surest things becomes one where the two-week wait to actually hear her debut album becomes a gauntlet she’ll have to run, hoping that she can survive the backlash and emerge at the other end unscathed.
Last month, when I was putting the finishing touches on my post on the classic British Cinesound sound effects library from the 1960s and 1970s, I did a quick Amazon search to include a link to the sound effects from the original 1966 iteration of Star Trek, which you can download as an MP3 collection for use in your own DIY video productions. That was when I came across this:
The Sounds of Star Wars? I had to have it.
Written by J.W. Rinzler, Lucasfilm’s in-house historian, who has previously crafted well-readable guides to the making of each of the Star Wars movies, as the title implies, this edition focuses solely on their sound effects.
While Star Wars quickly became legendary upon its initial 1977 release for revolutionizing visual effects, and phrases such as “Industrial Light & Magic” and “the Dykstraflex” became household words, Star Wars also revolutionized movie audio as well. Building on the pioneering efforts of Walter Murch, who has worked on a number of Francis Ford Coppola’s productions and Lucas’s first two movies to bring the world of the recording studio to movie sound and sound effects, Ben Burtt created a distinct sonic palette for the Star Wars universe. Largely eschewing the sounds that Star Trek and other previous science fiction productions made famous, Burtt armed himself with Nagra recorder and a series of high quality microphones, and ultimately crisscrossed the country to build his own library of organic sound effects. While many of the sounds he captured were ultimately sped-up, slowed-down, and electronically-processed, the Star Wars sonic universe sounded remarkably believable, because it was built on an astonishing variety of real-life sounds.
In his interviews with Rinzler, Burtt recounts the story of how those sounds were captured: how Chewbacca’s voice was based upon growls recorded from a series of bears. How the lightsabers’ hum derives from an old film projector, and how the TIE fighter’s Stuka-like banshee wail was a combination of a slowed down elephant roar and car driving on wet pavement.
You’ll also learn how Burtt created R2D2’s unique voice from a mixture of an ARP 2600 synthesizer and by electronically processing his own voice while making child-like sound effects. As Burtt said, “Artoo had to act with Alec Guinness. So there had to be a certain amount of credibility and performance in order to sustain a conservation with such a terrific actor, who is talking to what looks like a drinking fountain or a wastepaper basket.” And since R2’s physical movements basically consist of turning his head from right to left, the audio has to carry the rest of the load.
Creating the sound of R2 in motion dovetails into a brief mention of Star Wars’ other sound effects man. Just as the James Bond series made John Barry a star while leaving fellow composer Monty Norman in the lurch, in The Sounds of Star Wars, you’ll also learn a bit about Sam Shaw, the first Star Wars movie’s lesser-known other sound man, who, while coming from a more traditional movie industry background than Burtt, used an equally radical approach for one of Star Wars’ signature sound effects. Shaw recorded the motors driving the power windows and power antenna on a Cadillac Eldorado as the basis for the servo motors whenever R2 and C3PO turn their heads or walk.
Pardon the freakout screen capture of Gabriel in the above clip of “Shock the Monkey” from his fourth album, but by the early 1980s, he somehow managed to combine just about all of the elements that would drive rock and pop music for the next decade: African polyrhythms, drum machines, gated drums, the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, sampling, it was all there on Gabriel’s third and fourth albums, at about the same time as MTV was concurrently launching.
It was around that time that England’s South Bank Show began shooting an episode which documented Gabriel’s lengthy efforts to first plan and then record his fourth album, Security. For anyone interested in home music recording, watching these early attempts at what Gabriel calls “electronic skiffle” is certainly fun, especially when you realize how far technology has advanced since then: the Fairlight that Gabriel demonstrates in the video below cost something like $35,000 back then; today the PC by your desk has much more computing power, and with the right software and soundcard, can do anything it could. (including replicating all of its preset sounds.)
The whole episode of the South Bank Show is online at YouTube, and in case it gets disappeared down the memory hole, there’s also a version online here in AVI format. But to whet your appetite, here’s a clip of Gabriel demonstrating the Fairlight, from a French rebroadcast of the show that’s been online at YouTube for ages, so hopefully it won’t vanish by tomorrow. It’s all in English once you get past the brief intro:
Glenn Reynolds should need little introduction to PJ Media’s readers, but just in case you’re beaming in from another temporal plane or quantum singularity, he’s a pioneering blogger, whose Instapundit.com is PJM’s flagship blog, and he hosts the long-running Instavision show on PJTV.com. He’s also the author of An Army of Davids, which explores do it yourself culture in everything from making your beer to making your own recorded music and video.
It’s the latter two subjects we’ll be discussing here (perhaps we’ll explore DIY PBR in a later podcast). We’ll also discuss:
- Why Old Media has regressed in style and content even as the quality of DIY media improves.
- The state of the Blogosphere.
- What the demise of the Borders bookstore chain says about the future of books, electronic media, and the physical retail store.
- What’s happening with overturning the ban on incandescent bulbs.
- Would Hollywood environmentalists give up their TV shows and private planes to protect Gaia?
- The British phone hacking scandal (and its American equivalents) and battlefield prep for the 2012 election.
- The state of the presidential race.
- And more.
Click here to listen:
(16 minutes and 30 seconds long; 15.2MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this week’s show to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 5.75 MB lo-fi edition. And for our earlier Lifestyle podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)