Take Your Mixes To The Next Level

Thursday, February 13, 2014

David Bowie "Moonage Daydream" Isolated Vocal

One of the most influential albums in the US in the early 70s was David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The album didn't sell a lot, but every musician had a copy and marveled at how innovative Bowie was. A few years ago I was lucky enough to co-write Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, producer/engineer Ken Scott's memoir, which outlined his time working with Bowie. It was great fun listening to the stories and learning about how they recorded and mixed the album.

Have a listen to the isolated vocal track to a song off that album - "Moonage Daydream." Here are some things to listen for:

1. Bowie's vocals aren't perfect by today's standards, with a few notes here and there that he doesn't quite hit cleanly. That said, 99% of his vocals were only one take, according to Ken, who recorded and produced 4 Bowie albums. Also remember that we listened differently in those days, and tended not to concentrate on the details like we do today.

2. The vocal has a nice sounding medium decay EMT plate on it.

3. The choruses ("Keep your electric eye on me, babe.") are doubled the first two times. The third time there's only the lead vocal, and the fourth time a ping-pong delay is added, which was pretty innovative for the time, since all delay was accomplished through tape machines (in this case two of them with different delay times).

4. Listen through to the end for something not heard on the record.

You can read some excerpts from Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust about Bowie on the excerpts section at bobbyowsinski.com


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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Playing With The Click Advice From Session Drummer Brian MacLeod

Brian MacLeod image
Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows how much I love, admire and respect great drummers. My good buddy Brian MacLeod certainly falls into this category, having been the pulse behind recordings of Sheryl Crowe, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Seal, Ziggy Marley and many more.

I remember the first time I heard Crow's "All I Wanna Do" at a party as it was climbing the charts, and the only thing I could think about was "Wow, does the drummer ever groove on this." And that's exactly what Brian does - make the song groove and feel good in a way that few can. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Brian from The Drum Recording Handbook (which was written with the great engineer Dennis Moody) where he talks about playing to a click and gives some great advice to young drummers.

"There’s a defining moment for every player when they finally “get it.” What was yours?
Brian McLeod: That’s an interesting moment for me. I think it was on my first trip to LA on my first kind of big session. It was with Patrick Leonard (producer for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Jewel, Bon Jovi, Elton John and Pink Floyd among others). He flew me down from San Francisco, where I was teaching drums and playing live. I had toured a bit and done a few albums in England at that point.  Pat was starting a band and was auditioning me to be the drummer.  

Now this is back in the days of tape. He played me a track, which was already finished, that had a click. I played that song and then another and he said, “Hey Brian, can you come in here for a minute” [to join him in the control room]. I thought to myself, “That’s my audition. I guess I’m outa here,” so I actually grabbed my stick bag and zipped it up so I wouldn’t have the embarrassment of having to walk back out into the studio to get it. I figured that the door out of the studio was in the control room and if he was firing me, I just wanted to be able to leave as fast as I can.

I zipped up my stick bag and walked into the control room and he looked at it with a confused look on his face, like “What are you doing?”. So I go, “What’s up?” and he says, “I love the way you play to the click. You know how to lock in without making it sound mechanical. I want to hire you to do this record.” Then he says, “Oh, by the way, listen to a track I just finished,” and he cranks up Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” at full volume. That was the moment I felt like, “Wow, I think I get this.” I realized at that moment that I really could play to a click and make it breath at the same time, and that really is an important thing for drummers to learn. If you play to a click, don’t be so focused on it that you lose sight of the fact that your actually playing a song.

What are you looking for in the phones when you record?
That’s a great question. Generally it depends on how we’re tracking. If I’m tracking with a bass player and we’re doing overdubs to an existing track, I’ll try to get a nice even level so it sounds like a record with the vocals and the bass player just above the music. I want to hear the bass player so I can be sure to lock my kick drum with him. Then if I’m tracking live I want whoever is the leader of the song to be above the track. Like if the guitar player has written the song, he might be doing some important inflections that I need to hear. If it’s a vocalist who has written the song and they’re evoking some emotion that they really want, I’ll make sure that is above everything else. So I latch on to whatever the main instrument of the tracking date is, or what is the biggest concern seems to be when laying down the basics.

I’ll also have the click at an ungodly level, which can drive producers and engineer’s crazy, so I like to use closed headphones for that. I’m still looking for the perfect set of headphones because you don’t want the click track leaking into the song. On Christina Aguilara’s "Beautiful," you can hear a bit of the drum machine on her vocal track, but the vocal was so amazing that they just went with it.  You have to be careful especially on endings of songs. I try to get the engineer to cut the click off so that the cymbal sustain doesn’t have any click bleed. I’ll even punch in the ending of a song if they can’t catch it at the right time.

What kind of a click sound do you like?
In the old days I used to be very specific about it. I used to like a cowbell or some sort of side-stick sound with a shaker doing 16ths or 8ths depending on the feel of the song. I have to say that’s still my favorite click track, but I’m getting used to just the Protools click. I’ve adjusted over the years, but my preference still is the cowbell and shaker.

Do you any mic preferences on your drums?
Depending on the engineer and the producer, if they have a preference I’ll go with what they want, but I gotta say I really love a [Neumann] FET-47 on the outside of the kick drum. That’s one of my favorite mics. I like ribbon mics a lot for room and overheads. I like the Beyer M-160 ribbon on the hat. That warmed it up a lot. I did a session the other day where we used Sony C-37s on the toms (which haven’t been made since the late 60’s) and they sounded amazing. The producer said, “If you weren’t the drummer, I wouldn’t put them up,” because they’re so fragile that you have to be afraid of hitting them. That was really quite a compliment. Then again, some people get great results from Sennheiser 421’s.  

I don’t generally do top and bottom mics on the toms. I don’t like too many mics on the drum kit unless the producer and engineer are really paying attention to the phase cancellation, but I have had good results with people who have done it that way. I walked into a session with a metal producer who shall remain nameless, and he had the kit miked up with what looked like 40 microphones. I thought, “This is ridiculous,” but I played the track and it sounded amazing. Then sometimes I’ll work with just three mics on the kit and it will sound great too. Everybody has their own technique and I try to be flexible because most of the people that I work with are so high end that I trust them to get my drums sounding the way they want them to sound.

You mentioned before about Patrick Leonard inviting you to LA to record. Would you consider that your big break?
I think so because after we finished that I record I was pretty much planning on moving back to the Bay area, but Patrick said, “Hey Brian, if you lived in LA I would use you on the records I work on.” Ironically the engineer/co-producer on that record was Bill Bottrell (who eventually went on to produce Sheryl Crow, Michael Jackson and Shelby Lynn) and he said the same thing to me. So I had two top-of-the-line producers tell me that if I lived in LA they’d use me on their records. It became a no-brainer for me to run up to the Bay area, pack my things in a U-Haul, and get my butt to LA. Then it kind of expanded from there.

I had no delusions of moving to LA before those sessions. I was too content up in the Bay area where I had a nice life teaching drums and playing live almost every night. It was wonderful, so I really didn’t want to move to LA unless there was a good reason because I didn’t just want to try to break in the way everyone seems to do it. It would have been too frustrating for me.

Do you have any other advice for a young drummer just starting out?
Yeah, I’d say try to play to a click as much as you can so you can learn to play with it yet lose sight of it at the same time. You want the feel of the click track to become like intuition, so it doesn’t make you feel shackled to it.

Also, when you work with a producer, be as flexible as you can be. Don’t be stubborn and trust the people you work with. If the engineer or producer has a suggestion, trust their advice. I was talking to a producer the other day about he’ll sometimes have a drummer come in that will insist on playing his own kit. If I work with a producer that wants me to play his old vintage kit, of course I’ll play it because I think it’s important to be flexible. Even if you show up with your gear, if he has his kit miked up and he knows what it sounds like, I’ll generally do that. If they’re not satisfied after that, then I’ll use my drums.

Another thing, if you have any ideas, make the suggestion if the time is right because it’s all about teamwork and you’re on the team."

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

10 More Must-See Studios Before You Die

Quite a number of readers liked my "10 Must-See Studios Before You Die" post, of which I had to leave a good many great studios off the list. It's true that a list of 10 is way too short, so here are 10 more studios that every musician, artist, engineer and producer might want to put on that bucket list.

Woodshed Recording image
The Woodshed
The Woodshed - Malibu, CA
The Woodshed is a private studio built by my buddy composer Richard Gibbs for his private use, but later opened up to the elite artists of the world like U2, Sting, Barbra Streisand, Lenny Kravits and many more. It's located overlooking Zuma Beach in Malibu, but it's probably the most intelligently designed recording facility that I've ever seen. The room is large enough for a 30 piece string orchestra, but can be split in halves or thirds with custom built moveable walls (a wonder in themselves) that provide the same isolation as regular built walls. The console bay/listening area can also be moved to multiple places around the room. And both the studio and setting are drop-dead gorgeous.

Motown Hitsville - Detroit
There's nothing like going to see where so many of the great hits that made up the soundtracks of our lives were made in the 60s and 70s. Now a museum, the home of the former Motown records will shock you with how small it is, and how many people managed to sound so good at the same time.

The Elvis Cabinet at RCA Studio B image
The Elvis Cabinet at RCA Studio B
RCA Studio B - Nashville
Now also a museum, there's nothing better than seeing the old gear, instruments, setup and studio where an amazing number of country classics were born in the 50s through the 70s. I especially liked the cabinet that Elvis kicked and broke. The studio said they wouldn't fix it until he paid for it. It's still broken.

Fame Sound - Muscle Shoals, Alabama
So much great music came out of this studio, from Wilson Picket to Aretha Franklin to even "Brown Sugar" by the The Rolling Stones. Of course, the great rhythm Muscle Shoals rhythm section had a lot to do with it.

Oceanway Nashville image
Ocean Way Nashville
Ocean Way Nashville
Formerly a church, few large studios can compare with Ocean Way Nashville. It's a big complex, but the main large room is one of a kind. Now owned by Belmont College but still available for hire.

Ardent Studios - Memphis
Sam & Dave, Booker T and the MGs, ZZ Top, Freddie King and about a thousand other major and influential artists have called Ardent their home over time. The studio continues to book sessions, with two of the three studios still in their original form.

Sun Studios - Memphis
The home of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, and arguably the true birthplace of rock n' roll. Sun is now a museum and available for tours, so all you have to do is get yourself to Memphis. I once met owner Sam Phillips and he was so gracious it was unbelievable. No wonder he was such a success.

Real World Studios - Box, Wiltshire, England
Peter Gabriel's UK laboratory is much admired around the world (like its owner). This studio might have set the standard for the new wave of open, natural sunlight studios that have taken over from the closed rooms we were used to for so long.

Criteria Studios image
Criteria Studios (Hit Factory)
Criteria (Hit Factory) - Miami
In the 70s, Criteria was the place to be for making hits. Home to The Bee Gees, great records were made there by Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Bob Marley and hundreds more. It's still open for business, but now owned by The Hit Factory.




Air Studios image
Air Studios
Air Studios - Hampstead, England
Producer George Martin's studio after he went independent from EMI, this facility is still a major force in the UK, with a huge live room in Lyndhurst Hall as well as a number of smaller studios.

Once again, I'm sure I've left many worthy facilities out, but if you get to see the ones listed above (as well as the first 10 from the previous article), you'll find at least a little slice of studio nirvana.
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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beatles "White Album": The Untold Story

Beatles Playback image
In this, the 50th anniversary year of The Beatles conquering America, interest in the band is the highest it’s been in years, partially thanks to the CBS event commemorating the Fab Four’s break into the States on the Ed Sullivan show. You’ll read many stories about the group and those times in the next few days, but likely won’t see such a rare inside look at what it was like to work with the band recording the songs that today are considered modern standards. Here’s an excerpt from Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, the memoir of engineer/producer Ken Scott (which I was lucky enough to co-write), one of only five engineers ever to work with the band. Here’s a rare look at what it took to finish the band’s biggest selling album ever - The White Album.

The White Album was very different from what The Beatles had done before, and that led to it being much disliked when it came out. People were expecting Sgt. Pepper Number Two, but that was not The Beatles way, as in their world, everything needed to constantly change. People seemed shocked by this album. It was stark and much more basic rock n’ roll compared to Pepper, but thankfully over time it’s grown to become one of the most loved Beatle albums, even climbing to number 10 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.”

The White Album was also different from other Beatle albums in that it was specifically mixed for stereo, and The Beatles were actually there to approve the stereo mixes. They’d never been interested in stereo before as their working process had been to mix a song in mono as soon as it was finished, and then leave the stereo to be mixed a while later, almost as an afterthought. Stereo still hadn’t really caught on in England at the time so no-one, not even the Fab Four, particularly cared about it. 

As in the past, the stereo mixes for The White Album tended to be put off until the last minute again even though they were now deemed to be important. The reason for the importance was not what one might expect though. Paul explained to me whilst mixing the stereo version of “Helter Skelter” that it had to sound different from the mono version. Apparently fans started to buy both the mono and stereo albums and wrote to them asking if they knew there were differences between the versions, so Paul and/or the band saw this as a great way to boost sales." Read more on Forbes.

To read additional excerpts from Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust and my other books. go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.
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You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Gibson Celebrates The Government Raid The Best Way It Knows How

In 2011 government officials from Homeland Security and the US Fish and Wildlife Service raided the Gibson Guitar factory and confiscated approximately $500,000 worth of wood for violating the Lacy Act (watch the video below for more details and read my other posts on the subject). No charges were ever filed and eventually Gibson saw the wood returned.

Now in a brilliant piece of marketing, the company is releasing a "Government Raid" model Les Paul commemorating the event. Each guitar's fretboard is guaranteed to include a piece of the rosewood that was confiscated in the raid. The model is painted in a new drab tan color to capture the colors of the commandos involved in the raid, and retails for only $1,099, which includes a hard case and a certificate signed by Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. Such a deal!

From the beginning this seemed like it was a case of some overzealous government officials splitting hairs in the wording of a law meant to be applied in another area. It's probably a good thing that it happened to Gibson instead of some small boutique manufacturer though. Gibson had the resources and the friends in high places (including at least 2 US senators) to put pressure on the Feds to think a bit more clearly on the subject, and it apparently worked.

Thanks to reader Rob Carty for the heads up!


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You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

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