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Archive for the ‘TrendWatch’ Category

Use Bandcamp To Release Dynamic Versions Of Your Mixes

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 20 - 20103 COMMENTS

For a thorough explanation of dynamic range and the “loudness war,” read: An Explanation of The Loudness War That Even Your Dad Will Understand. But here’s the gist: in order to make a mix louder, mastering engineers have to increase the volume of the softest points in the music to be closer to the loudest points. This is called decreasing the dynamic range.

Today, March 20th, has been declared “Dynamic Range Day” by Ian Shepherd, the guy who broke the Death Magnetic / Loudness War story. His proposal? EVERYONE SHOULD TYPE IN ALL CAPS ON TWITTER AND SCREAM EVERYTHING ALL DAY IN ORDER TO SHOW NORMAL PEOPLE HOW ANNOYED THEY SHOULD (THEORETICALLY) BE WITH OVERCOMPRESSED/OVERLIMITED MUSIC… BECAUSE BY YELLING ALL DAY YOU ARE DECREASING THE DYNAMIC RANGE OF YOUR OWN SELF EXPRESSION AND THEREBY PISSING PEOPLE OFF.

From what I understand, the idea is to protest the loudness war, raise awareness, and ultimately persuade others to join the effort to preserve dynamics in future recordings, without the fear of being quieter than everyone else’s record.

Sad_Waves_L2

As musicians and audio engineers, we bitch and moan about a lot of things that 98% of the population really doesn’t care about. But we got them to hate Auto-Tune, didn’t we? While it may be a tougher sell, the “Loudness War” could be next, even if on a smaller scale.

Personally, I’m not as averse to extreme mix compression as some engineers are, but I certainly appreciate big dynamics when it makes sense. The problem is that a bigger dynamic range means lower average loudness (RMS). And loudness is one of the few things non-musicians notice about our line of work. (They only notice it when it’s too quiet, which apparently makes the song sound “amateur” to them.)

TurnMeUp.org is proposing that artists release more dynamic recordings and display their “Turn Me Up!” logo in the packaging.

Turn_Me_Up_Logo_Small

But I’d like to suggest an alternative to experiment with:

Let your fans decide what they want using Bandcamp’s “hidden tracks” feature.

Bandcamp is by far the coolest and most artist-friendly online music retailer out there. It’s free to sign up, they take no percentage of your sales (except PayPal’s standard transaction fee), and it doesn’t require your fans to create an account in order to purchase your music. (More on Bandcamp at the bottom of this post.)

One of their coolest features is the “hidden tracks” option. This allows you to include songs that your fans won’t be able to preview or purchase individually.

So I’m proposing that you have your mixing or mastering engineer give you two passes for each song. One squashed to living hell and one that is on average about 3 dB less squashed to hell.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “But Keith, Stephanie Status Quo doesn’t know about dynamic range, won’t she just pick the louder versions and get confused about the other ones?” She may. But many of your fans will get curious and do some research. Perhaps you’ll explain it briefly in your liner notes. And if a bunch of artists do this, hardcore music fans will appreciate it, people will start talking about it, and eventually insist that their favorite artists include masters with some dynamic range. That is, if the masses come to a consensus that they don’t like the lack of dynamics in today’s recordings.

It also ties into this power shift in the music industry we’ve been experiencing–away from the major labels and towards the artists. The ‘suits’ mainly cared about whether you got hooked enough in the first few seconds to buy it, so A&R would push mastering engineers to their limits (although artists do this too now). Repeat listens didn’t matter much except for selling the next record. Artists, on the other hand, stand to gain much more if their record is your favorite, not something you forget a week later, because it brings you to their shows, gets you to buy merch–pots that labels don’t have their hands in. If people become more informed on this issue, certain types of artists may rethink how loud they want their record to be, in terms of longevity vs immediate attention grabs.

A Philosophical Counterargument

Another, more subjective counterargument, could be the philosophical one–that artists must be (or at least seem) decisive in how they intend their music to be. This may be valid, but perhaps my proposal would still work as a transitional step. The more awareness that is spread, the less necessary it will be to include louder versions. Plus, blogs will totally blog you for being so innovative, so that’ll make up for it.

I hope some of you will try this out and let us know what the response is. And send links! – blog@fixyourmix.com

The Soundcheck Solution

My solution comes from the artist’s end, Ian’s comes from the artist+listener+engineer end, but there is actually another type of entity that can effect change in this arena: the companies who control the manner in which people listen to music. Audio software developers and hardware manufacturers.

Apple has already helped in the fight against overcompressed records by enabling their Soundcheck functionality by default in iTunes. Soundcheck calculates the average (RMS) loudness of every song in your library and adjusts them accordingly so that all songs will be the same average volume. This means Death Magnetic gets turned down and your record stays the same–but with more punch and dynamics.

More About Bandcamp.com

Here’s why Bandcamp is the only existing online music store that can compete against iTunes and Amazon MP3:

  • Fans don’t have to create an account to purchase music.
  • Flexible sales options:
    • Free
    • Free if the fan provides their email address
    • Artist sets the price
    • Fans name their own price
    • Artist sets a minimum price, but fans can pay more if they choose (Bandcamp says that on average, fans pay 50% more than the minimum price unless you give them a free option)
  • No approval or wait time–songs can be purchased immediately after they have been uploaded.
  • Fans can choose from a number of file formats (MP3, AAC/M4A, FLAC, etc.)
  • No signup fees
  • No percentage taken (except PayPal transaction fees, approx 5%)
  • No ads
  • Embeddable streaming player with advanced song stats (including full vs partial song plays)
  • Allows you to include multimedia content
  • Can optionally embed your lyrics and artwork into the files themselves, which
  • Clean layout. No Myspace-esque clutter or distractions (see Miss Geo’s Bandcamp page)
  • Allows you to create “download codes” for promotional offers and digital sales in person
  • Hidden. Freaking. Tracks.

*One of my first audio-related memories was when I first bought The Cure’s Disintegration. I bought the CD, sat down on my living room couch, popped it into my CD player, put on headphones, and got lost in a swirl of effects and extended instrumental intros as I listened to the album in its entirety (okay technically I fell asleep but it was a great nap). As I listened, I stumbled upon something peculiar in the liner notes:

“This album was mastered to be played loud, so TURN IT UP!”

Now in those days I didn’t know anything about engineering, so I grew curious about what it meant to master an album to be played loud. In the end I decided it was just some BS their audio engineer told them that they decided to run with. And who doesn’t want their fans to blast their album at full volume?

Of course I now know that the reason is because the album had a very large dynamic range and therefore had a lower average loudness (RMS) than other releases at the time.

The Rise & Fall of the Southern Rap Empire

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 28 - 20094 COMMENTS

atlanta-skyline-3From crunk to snap music, Southern rap has reigned supreme over the charts for the last half decade. When ATL stole the crown from NYC as the Mecca of hip hop, aspiring rappers and producers made the pilgrimage from all over to find a better, more trill existence. (Most would fail upon realizing it’s not enough to simply rhyme ‘grind’ with ‘shine’ as many times as possible.) After everything Lil Jon and TI did for Atlanta’s growth, the Georgia Department of Tourism should write them monthly checks.


For my fellow Atlanta natives, I should point out that what old school ATLiens may think of as Southern rap is not really what I’m talking about in this article. The OutKasts and Goodie Mobs of yore are not what made the Atlanta Braves hat the new Yankees cap. What I’m talking about here is a little more, well… basic. Let’s have a look:


Characteristics of (Mid-2000s Era) Southern Rap

  • Party-oriented lyrical themes including sex, alcohol, dancing, strippers, and nightclub activity (a shift away from violent or macho ‘street’ lyrics of 90s rap)
  • 808 kicks
  • Claps & snaps on the backbeat (more on this: Claps & Snaps: The Death of the Snare Drum)
  • Single note or nonexistent basslines
  • Slower tempos (70-78 BPM)
  • Synth-based instrumentation (versus sample-based)

Pop music is often scoffed at and generally regarded as simple by music buffs, but obviously these music buffs have never gotten their swerve on at The Cheetah. Simplicity works especially well in club settings. The reason behind this can be explained using a maxim that (FYM blog cowriter) Phil first posited to me many years ago, which is that in order for something to be big, something else must also be small. Put another way:

The less stuff you have in a mix, the bigger each individual thing can be.

And of course in rap music the quest is always for tighter and deeper low end, whether that be a kick drum or bassline. An 808 kick sound is special because it’s somewhere in between the two in terms of its role. The drawback is that an 808 is so deep that it usually cannot be heard on smaller speakers and headphones that do not produce sub-bass frequencies. The benefit is you don’t have two instruments competing for that all-important frequency range where a mix can easily get cluttered. When the only other stuff you’ve got going on is a snap, vocal, and single-note synth line, huge low end is in the cards. The result is a hypnotic (post-apocalyptic?) dance sound that can be baffling to the uninitiated but works like magic in clubs because of their better low end reproduction capabilities.


Key Songs


“It’s Goin Down” – Yung Joc


Get Low” – Lil Jon feat. Ying Yang Twins

Yeah” – Usher feat. Lil Jon

Crank That” – Souja Boy Tell Em

Laffy Taffy“* – D4L


Today, it’s hard to say that Atlanta is still the international capital of rap. Over the years, rap has traveled back and forth from East Coast (actually the Northeast) to West Coast, and eventually to the South. With collaborations between people like Kanye and Young Jeezy, you could say we’re overdue for a shift back towards the East Coast sound. But history rarely repeats itself so directly.** No, I believe Top 40 rap is taking a step in a macro direction: away from regional sounds and towards pop crossover.


The Decline of the Southern Rap Empire


atlanta-capRight now, we are in the middle of a shift. The South isn’t dead yet–many of its calling cards and idiosyncrasies are still in effect. But hip-hop is shifting away not just from the South but regional sounds altogether, with even the hardest, street-est rappers going in a homogeneous pop direction (blame it on the Goose economy). Contrary to what Jay-Z wants you to believe, things are not going back to the New York sound. Here is the current state of affairs:

  • There’s no doubt the snare drum is making a comeback, particularly syncopated patterns and rimshots (see: Drake’s latest “Forever” feat. Lil Wayne, Kanye, & Eminem).
  • Basslines are now back in full force but are often used in conjunction with 808s. This was one of my main qualms with crunk and snap music; a bassline is what gives a song its soul.
  • Arrangements are becoming more dense and musical.
  • Auto-Tuned, sung choruses are taking the place of repetitive chant hooks.
  • Examples: “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston and “Blame It” by Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain


Am I missing anything? I want your input on what typifies the Southern rap genre and where music is headed.*** With a new president and the turn of the decade steadily approaching, music almost certainly has more surprises in store for us and I’ll be reporting live from the trenches every step of the way.


*This song is bewildering even to me.


**I believe I’m paraphrasing Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond but I’m not entirely sure.


***Many of the changes listed in this article also reflect the return of R&B, but that’s a story for another day.

tiFrom “ill” to “trill,” buzz words have been a mainstay in hip hop culture since its inception, used to associate one’s self with a particular scene or movement. A few years ago, using the word “crunk” in a lyric served as an automatic association with the South while “hyphey” was code for California (specifically the Bay Area). As a rapper, buzzwords can either earn you street cred or date your work and career.


Snoop Dogg is the perfect case study on the benefits of buzz words. Like T-Pain with his Auto-Tune, “izzle” became Snoop’s brand, one which was so heavily copied and referenced that it elevated his status above and beyond his “Gin N’ Juice” days (via imitation being the highest form of flattery).*


While the term “swagger” is not technnically new to hip hop, it has only recently become a movement, turning the game on its head and defining what it means to be cool in 2009. “Swagga Like Us,” a hit collaboration between the four hottest** rappers in the game: Kanye West, TI, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne. It’s the closest thing to a “super group” rap music has seen thus far. Because of this, everything in the song becomes significant automatically.


There are a number of notable musical devices used in this song***, but what struck me most was the word swagger itself. Dope, fire, fly,… Those terms have all been more or less meaningless, merely synonyms for “cool.” But swagger calls to mind a very specific brand of cool. Swagger is classy. Sophisticated. Timeless. Those who possess swagger stay in control no matter the situation.

Sinatra: the original king of swagg.

Sinatra: The original Sultan of Swag.


I’ve heard some rappers imply that people can have all different ‘types of swag,’ but this article refers to classic Swag, the real deal, of which TI is the archetype. It’s not hard to imagine that TI had Sinatra in mind when crafting his his image.

“A person with swagger is classy, stylish, confident, above the fray, perhaps a bit aloof.”

-TI

Keri Hilson desires a man who has his “swagger right.” Mike Jones isn’t afraid to go pop for a woman with “Swag Through The Roof.” But as with anything that blows up quickly, its popularity could be its downfall…


The Death of Swag?


Several weeks ago, there was an internet uproar when CNN did a segment on Obama’s “swagga” (thank you, CNN for the ‘authentic’ spelling). Ehow.com now has instructions on how to “turn [one’s] swag on” (see: “Turn My Swag On” by Soulja Boy). But swag started going down hill long before CNN caught wind of it.


I consider myself a connoisseur of pop music. Give me the dirtiest, most superficial, mindless morsels of sugary pop goodnesss and I’ll devour them in one bite. But every now and then a song comes along that is just so utterly baffling that I have to stop myself. I’m going to go against popular opinion here and put myself out there: “Swagg Surfin”? Really? Is this serious? “I SWAGG WHEN I SURF NOW WATCH ME SURF N SWAGG”? I practically had a heart attack when I heard this song for the first time. Swagg Surfin is beyond me. Maybe it’s the fake horns, maybe it’s the laughable dance, but I will not allow myself to like this song. Swagg Surfin is the new Laffy Taffy. Take a look:



The funny thing is, I’ve listened to Swagg Surfin so many times now (in an attempt to wrap my head around it) that I actually enjoy the song now. While it’s been all over Atlanta radio for a while now, a lack of a Wikipedia page leads to me to believe F.L.Y. and their Song-Dance has yet to make it out of the South.


So what does it all mean? Is swagger signaling a more mature direction for rap, a response to increasing social awareness from the 2008 presidential election? Has the younger generation decided to “turn (their collective swag) on and tune in?” Can you think of more rap buzz words? Comment with your favorites.


Download Swagga Like Us on Amazon MP3.


*Of course, today all but the dorkiest of middle-class white kids are tired and unamused by izzle references, including Snoop himself I’m sure.


**Young Jeezy is certainly up there, but his latest album didn’t do so well (though I’m a huge fan of “Put On” and “Vacation”) and he is branded as a cocaine dealer (“the snowman”), which is problematic for him because rap has turned away from gangster rap in favor of party/club music. At this time two years ago, every rap client put down Young Jeezy as a reference on our Fix Your Mix Submission Form but now it’s all Swagg Surf or TI.


***This song also struck me because it was on the iTunes Top 10 at the same time as the song its beat was sampled from, which demonstrates another trend, Sampling Stuff That Isn’t Old. Other songwriting devices used in “Swagga Like Us” include Phrygian mode and a driving kick drum pattern



Claps & Snaps: The Death of the Snare Drum (TrendWatch)

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 27 - 20092 COMMENTS

Not exactly breaking news, but humor me: scan the Billboard Hip Hop chart and you’ll see that it is hard to find a rap song with a snare drum on the back beat. Why?


tombstoneLet’s go back to the late 90s for a moment. From groups like OutKast, No Limit Soldiers (Master P, Mystikal), and Cash Money Millionaires (Juvenile, Birdman) sprung a new era of southern music which began to seep into America’s collective consciousness. Still, with artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent (and production teams like Neptunes and Timbaland), it would be another half a decade or so before the South virtually became Top 40 rap.


Growing up in Atlanta, I had a somewhat distorted view of the influence of southern rap. In fact, just the other day I was discussing this very topic with a well-known East Coast rap mixer and discovered that songs like “Back That Azz Up” didn’t have the nearly the impact on the national level that they did in Georgia. In fact, he said that Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” was the song that, for him, signaled the entrance of southern music into the mainstream.


Crunk JuiceThe south officially became mainstream with the Crunk movement, which is when all the clapping and snapping started. For me, the turning point was when “Get Low” came out and Lil Jon became The Face of Crunk on the national and international levels.


Which brings us back to the initial question: Why? While the actual reason probably has something to do with tools available, the whims of producers, and the butterfly effect…

A clap or snap provides two distinct advantages over a snare drum (1) It leaves room for other elements in the mix (does not compete with the vocal) and (2) provides a human element.


As Phil pointed out in a previous post, when it comes to a mix, in order for something to be big, something else has to be small. While it may seem that layers upon layers of sounds would lead to a bigger mix, it also leads to a smaller vocal, smaller drums, smaller bass. When you’ve only got a clap, an 808, and a vocal, each of those elements can be huge. Unlike the epic snare drums that typify the rock idiom, claps are humble, unassuming, and fun.


Many people simply do not enjoy instrumental music because there is nothing human to connect with. They need a lead vocal to connect with the song. To a lesser extent, claps and snaps serve as this same kind of human element. (If I really wanted to get academic about this, I could relate this to the call-and-response aesthetic seen in traditional African music… but I’ll abstain.)


Slowly but surely, Crunk has split off into two genres which are in effect today:


“Snap Music”


The first branch is known as snap music. In my mind, snap music is the only authentically southern rap around because it is still exclusively being made in the South (in other words Kanye isn’t stealing it). Here are its signature characteristics, in order of importance:

  • A single-note bassline (no chord progression)
  • Sparse arrangements
  • 808 kick sound
  • Monophonic, short, riff-based melodic elements
  • Snaps on beats 2 and 4
  • Fruity Loops-esque synth patches
  • Syncopated snare-fills

Snap music is a little less produced than everything else on the radio. I’m talking Yung Joc, I’m talking Soulja Boy, hell, I’m talking “Laffy Taffy”:



Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a lot more convenient to snap while dancing than to clap (not to mention cooler-looking).


Mainstream Rap


The other branch is what I would simply call mainstream rap: your Lil Waynes, your T-Pains, your TIs. This style is characterized by the following:

  • Auto-Tune/choruses with singing
  • Claps on beats 2 and 4
  • 808s, either supplementing or serving as the kick sound
  • A melodic bassline (in other words, there is an actual chord progression)
  • Futuristic, techno-like synth patches

This form of southern rap is so far-reaching that virtually every Top 40 artist uses claps, from New York to New Orleans.


Next time you’re composing a track, remember that the samples you use play an enormous role in defining that song’s style and determines the demographic to which your music appeals.


*Note: There are several notable exceptions to this rule right now:


One is Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It,” which utilizes a combination of both a clap and a snare on beats 2 and 4. The tune has reached #6 on iTunes and #1 on the Billboard Hip-Hop chart.


TI’s “Live Your Life” feat. Rihanna uses a snare on the backbeat, but it has a syncopated snare pattern too, which gives the song a kind of majestic, almost military band sound.


Perhaps the most complete exception is “Swagga Like Us,” with only a snare on beats 2 and 4. This choice was undoubtedly very conscious–because of the gravity of this collaboration, they were able to use an unusual instrumental and be perceived as innovative rather than out of touch. I think that it was inspired by the movie Drumline based on the feel established by the kick drum pattern.

5 Pop Songs With No Music (TrendWatch)

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 20 - 20097 COMMENTS

Pop minimalism is one of the most interesting and distinct music trends of this decade. Particularly over the last four years, much of rap and Top 40 dance music has had no chord progression at all, only a repeating riff (“ostinato”) and/or a single note bass line.


The following club anthems are extreme examples of pop minimalism. They all are comprised almost entirely of rhythmic components, but all of them have at least some melodic content somewhere, including tuned 808s which usually will not be audible except in a night club or car stereo.


5) “Wait (Whisper Song)” by Ying Yang Twins (NSFW video)



When top producers make music today, they are imagining how a crowd will react to it in a night club environment, but even more specifically they’re thinking about strip clubs. Getting your single in rotation at strip clubs is a right of passage in the rap world and “Wait” is a perfect example of a song written explicitly for that purpose.


Aside from lyrical content, there is something raw (and therefore sexual) about sparse rap arrangements. The deep drum sounds in “Wait” are a mix between kicks, 808s, and toms. They are tuned, but each hit slides downward in pitch (sometimes erroneously referred to by drum techs as “the doppler effect”), so it would be futile to try to establish a key signature for this song. The only other element which is not entirely percussive is an “oooo” yell.


The deep drums likely inspired the tuned kicks in the next song, which uses an identical rhythm figure.


Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #3
Billboard Hot 100: #15


4) “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg (feat. Pharrell)


Snoop Dogg


Click here to watch the video.


While Snoop’s chorus vocals have pitch to them, they are not discernible notes per se. It is more reminiscent of a tonal language (such as Chinese) than a scale. Other non-melodic elements include tuned kicks, an “ooo” vocal line and a synth progression which plays intermittently.


Just a hunch, but I have a feeling the snare pattern which ends each verse phrase inspired the producer of my #3 pick.



Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #1
Billboard Hot 100 Ranking: #1


3) “A Milli” by Lil Wayne



One of the most astounding things about this song is that in spite of all the fuss we make over choruses in this industry, “A Milli” simply doesn’t have a chorus. In fact, I would argue that the real “hook” of this song is the dotted-8th note snare pattern. Highly unusual. You can hear this snare pattern in what seems like every hip-hop song released since Tha Carter III, perhaps most notably Beyonce’s “Diva.”


“A Milli” outlines the trend exactly as I described it: a single note 808 bassline and a (very, very repetitive) ostinato pattern. The effect is almost trance-like, casting a hypnotic spell which translates well on the dance floor.


Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #1
Billboard Hot 100 Ranking: #6


2) “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani


Gwen Stefani
Click here to watch the video.


This mega-hit is a a prime example of hip-hop influencing Top 40. It is also one of the few songs in recent memory to crossover into hip-hop rather than from it.


Co-written by Pharrell, “Hollaback Girl” became an instant sensation. The verse and refrain have no melodic content at all except for Stefani’s vocal melody. While the chorus (“that’s my shit”) does have some harmonic content, it’s certainly nothing to write home about aside from being a reprieve from the musiclessness of the rest of the tune.


Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” the most viewed Youtube video of all time, echoes this pop song’s music-free sentiment during its introduction.


Billboard Top 40: #1
Billboard Pop 100: #1
Billboard Hot 100: #1
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #8


1) “Lip Gloss” by Lil Mama

Lil Mama


Click here to view the video.


Above all the other songs on this list, the sparseness of this song blows me away. As if she had this blog post in mind, in the video version of “Lip Gloss,” Lil Mama raps a verse where she chants “no music!”


It makes perfect sense when you’re in a club, but hearing “Lip Gloss” for the first time on Youtube was nothing short of surreal. It seemed like some kind of post-apocalyptic anthem, the kind of thing you’d imagine kids listening to in a George Orwell novel. The youthful energy with which Lil Mama raps is contrasted by the stark, cold isolation of the drums. For me, though, she officially goes over the top when she raps the slogan “L’Oreal, yep, cause I’m worth it”.


All this being said, I love the song. This debut single from the only mainstream female rapper out right now says a lot about the limitations (or lack thereof) of pop music. Not even the kicks are tuned. All we get is a (rather weak) melodic bridge thrown in near the end for good measure.


(Also, call me crazy, but I think the movie Drumline paved the way for this song more than any of the other songs on this list.)


Billboard Hot 100: #10
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #16


Pop minimalism seems to be on its way out with the emergence of Auto-Tune vocal hooks and rap moving in a more pop direction in general, but its influence will likely remain for decades to come and eventually reemerge in another form.


Submit your own examples and thoughts in the comments section.

Is Beat Detective Killing The Magic?

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 13 - 20092 COMMENTS

Note: Though this article refers to live drum performances, all information below can be applied to MIDI sequencing and quantization.

The music blogosphere is abuzz this month with talk of an informal survey which compares tempo deviations on drum performances of popular rock groups. The following graph shows tempo deviations in the drum performance by John Bonham* on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”:

stairway

The tempo graphs show little deviation for pop acts like Nickelback, Britney Spears, and late-era Green Day. Some say this exactness contributes to a rigid or lifeless quality of radio rock. On the other end of the spectrum, the tempos of iconic rock bands like the Beatles, Metallica, and Weezer deviate considerably within songs.


The above plays into the notion that the 60s and 70s were the golden age of music—the “what ever happened to all the great rock n’ roll bands???” mentality—the idea that musicianship has been replaced by convenience, the increasingly poor work ethic of each new generation and especially all that new fangled technology.


The article’s author must not be an engineer because he attributes this phenomenon to click tracks which is, to put it bluntly, just plain wrong. Nickelback couldn’t play this closely to a metronome if they wanted to; these tempo deviation graphs cannot tell us whether the band played to a click track or not. The real culprit is editing to The Grid a.k.a. a tempo map, either by hand or using a software add-on like Beat Detective or Elastic Audio. To take it one step further, you could attribute this sound to the advent of the computer. After all, editing work at this level of precision was simply not possible before Protools and other computer-based DAWs in the early 90s.

And yet the argument against technology still standsit is often the human imperfections that make a record great.

One of my favorite examples of desirable “feel” is the performance by legendary bassist Pino Pallidino on D’Angelo’s Voodoo. He drags behind the rest of the band, almost as if the bass itself is hesitating, holding back great emotion or desire until just the right moment, much like people sometimes do in the throes of passion.


On the other hand, going completely au naturale can be dangerous. There are two factors working in favor of editing to a tempo map:


1) You’re not killing the magic if there was no magic there to begin with. Sometimes “feel” is just an optimistic way of saying poor chops.


2) As Phil once posited to me, our ears are so accustomed to music that is perfectly in tune and aligned that to leave out this step could make one’s music sound dated or unprofessional, even to the untrained ear.


As a mix engineer, these are the sorts of nuanced philosophical choices I must concern myself with when it comes time to take a project from good to great. Ethical implications aside, it is possible to quantize or edit live drum tracks in a way which does not kill all of the feel. Phil and I call this Musical Editing (on our Services page).


beatdetective


If the performer has a unique style or feel that I think is worth holding on to, I simply align each downbeat and leave breathing room for all the notes in between (as opposed to editing to every 8th or 16th note). I also depend on references: mention late-era Green Day in your Project Info Submission Form and you can expect your drums to be perfectly on the grid down to the sixteenth note. Mention the Pixies, on the other hand, and your drums may be left untouched.


Call it rigid, call it lifeless, I actually sometimes prefer the sound of aligned and sample-replaced drums. It is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the human element for the clarity and power of perfect drums. On the other hand I do think some bands could benefit from more organic, natural-sounding drum performances (Snow Patrol comes to mind).


What do you think? Are tempo grids killing music?


Source: http://musicmachinery.com/2009/03/02/in-search-of-the-click-track/


*From the look of things, I think we may have to make it a requirement to mention John Bonham in every single post from now on.

The Loudness War & Metallica’s “Death Magnetic”

Posted by Keith Freund On December - 17 - 20081 COMMENT

When Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, it was touted as one of the loudest albums ever released. Today, if that album came onto your iTunes playlist after Death Magnetic, you’d have to turn your speakers up considerably to hear it.*


Death Magnetic album coverPsychological studies have shown that a recording’s loudness dramatically affects how much people like a song and how likely it is that a person will stop on a certain radio station. The solution? Limiting: a process which effectively turns up the quietest parts of a recording, automatically raising its overall loudness. A limiter is one of the last pieces in the mastering signal chain and arguably the most important.


Done properly, limiting can add energy to a song. Taking it too far a la Death Magnetic, however, may cause ear fatigue, a subconscious phenomenon akin to reading under dim light, straining the listener’s ears and making him or her want to turn off the music after extended listening periods.


Metallica‘s latest has received a flood of criticism and media attention regarding the presence of over-limiting and digital clipping, an unpleasant-sounding Guitar Hero for Wiidistortion that occurs when a sound medium is overloaded beyond its volume limit.


The audio community has been debating the so-called “loudness war” for years but never before have consumers been able to hear the difference for themselves. Enter Guitar Hero: World Tour, which allows users to access an unmastered version of Death Magnetic – and it sounds a lot better.


Mastering engineer Ted Jensen defends himself:

“In this case the mixes were already [over-limited] before they arrived at my place […] I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here. Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume [being seen as the most important thing].”


It is hard to say who is responsible. The engineers who worked on the album have otherwise stellar track records. In any case, Death Magnetic may represent a new kind of revolution: one that gets quieter.


Personally, I find that clipping can benefit some recordings, but this new Metallica record took it too far. Add to this the fake-sounding drums and we’re left with one of the worst sound major recordings in recent years. What do you think? And to those of you who aren’t audio engineers: did you notice?


Also note: Another result of the loudness war is that many record labels have released “digitally remastered” versions of classic albums in order to compete with today’s recordings. If you want to compare Nevermind to Death Magnetic, use the original release for full effect.


*Soundcheck notwithstanding.


Sources: Tape Op (Nov/Dec ’08), AllMusic.com

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