Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Last Song

The latest song. The newest song. It's amazing to get to hear a new song for the first be the first person besides the writer to hear it. If it's a good one, you know right away, and if it's a great one, you know soon after. The best songs start out great and keep getting better, as if they are being self-encouraged by each line, one after the other. They steamroll into a solo or a chorus, then explode, then build up again to a slightly less frenzied level than the peak.

My wife just played me one of those songs. I actually heard the finished record in my head as she was running it down. I now have a page of notes about how to cut it.

I can't wait.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Beatles

I guess you can tell what the depth of an influence is if it continues to inspire and instruct over the decades of your life. I first heard Beatle records on a phonograph, scratchy copies of the Capitol LPs that my older brother had bought. I was around 8 or 10 years old, somewhere around 1969 0r 1970 when I first listened to albums front to back. We always had a box of singles to play, but putting on the LP was a bigger deal, and the Beatles catalog was so interesting that even a pre-teen could actually get through both sides without running outside to build a fort.

The songs work on their most basic level: they entertain as short, catchy pieces of Pop music. That's the magic that created and sustained Beatlemania and still grabs the ear of younger listeners. The tracks are exciting, they are logical and inventive, they are positive and eager, they sound like a bunch of friends having fun. There are not too many contenders in the Perfect Pop Single contest, and "She Loves You" is certainly the front runner. As noted Rock music critic Dave Marsh once said, "It never really got much better than didn't have to".

As I got older, I understood more of the lyrics from the mid-period albums, when the Beatles were morphing from moptops to more introspective young men. Beatles For Sale, A Hard Day's Night, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver. I could hear the difference in the approach. Now they were writing Pop with a conscience, or at least from points-of-view that were not the norm. Bob Dylan's influence helped, but only for musicians that were still searching to find the limits of their talents. Dylan did not seem to influence Freddie and the Dreamers or Gerry and the Pacemakers too much.

When I started learning to play guitar at age 13, I started trying to play Beatle songs, because I "knew" them internally and only had to find the right notes on the fretboard to play them. I had already absorbed the arrangement, vocals, groove and vibe of the tracks, so getting the mechanics down was easier. The first few albums are easy to play on guitar, for the most part, and I had a passable version of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" after a short time. That's another thing: the Beatles re-introduced pure Rock and Roll back into American ears when it had been given up for a fad and the Bobby Vees and Bobby Shermans of the world were getting airplay. I first heard Chuck Berry from the Beatles. And Arthur Alexander and Little Richard and Carl Perkins. There was no Oldies radio in the early '70's where I lived. I never heard "Rock and Roll Music" or "Honey Don't" on the radio by the original artists. Bob Seeger commented that "All Chuck's children are out there, playing his licks". I got to Chuck through George. And Rock guitar playing begins with Chuck Berry.

Now that I'm all grown up (hah!), I still get amazed at the Beatles recorded legacy. Someone has finally put the individual tracks from the mixes of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" on the internet. You can Google "Beatle multitrack mixes" or something similar and find them for yourself without too much trouble. The separate four-track "stems" (consolidated multitrack mixes) are fun to listen to individually - Ringo singing "With A Little Help From My Friends" acapella, the string and harp arrangement for "She's Leaving Home" - are all amazing.

The real revelation comes when you put these tracks into a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Pro Tools or Cubase. Now you can "mix" the songs yourself, and see what the components were to make the track so appealing. The revelation to me was that by themselves, the tracks are a bit noisy, sloppy in parts and the vocals get a little pitchy. Mixed together by masters like Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick, under guidance from George Martin, and you have the classic Beatle album. Simple and undeniable audio proof that the sum was easily greater than its parts.

I'm quite sure that it is not "legal" to offer these tracks online, but I'm equally sure that having them available to us musicians and fans is not hurting the Beatles in any way. No one will want to re-mix the Beatles and sell the results. There can't be a market for that. In this day and age of "a studio on every desktop..and laptop", what's needed is an unsubtle reminder that having unlimited tracks at your disposal, endless levels of "undo", the ability to align every beat, vowel and note onto a perfect grid and the various "tools" to make "artists" out of posers is not going to help you be a better musician, songwriter and singer.

There's a new book out called "Can't Buy Me Love" that has a nice career retrospective on the music and times of the Beatles. Check it out, along with 'Tell Me Why" and the Hunter Davies and Bob Spitz biographies.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Endless Summer

Busy, busy, busy. Well, it looks like my Summer is pretty much mapped out this year. I'm going to be teching the LeAnn Rimes band for her tour with Kenny Chesney. We'll be opening all of the shows, and on 14 or so stadium shows, we'll be joined by some combination of Keith Urban, Brooks and Dunn, Sammy Hagar, Luke Bryan and Gary Allan.

The tour starts in April, so I have the rest of February and March to finish the Tim Carroll record and hopefully get the Cole Slivka project done, too.

Of course, I'll be working on the next Donna Beasley record all year long. I picked up a few new toys from M-Audio to help me make better tracks.

A matched pair of their new Pulsar II small-diaphragm condenser mics should improve my drum overheads and acoustic instruments in general.

The highly-rated Sputnik all tube large diaphragm mic is my new go-to vocal mic.

The Music Production Toolkit
for Pro Tools M-Powered gives me more track count and more plug-ins, as well as an MP3 export option.

The new Studiophile Q40 headphones are amazing...sounds like studio monitors: plenty of bass, great imaging, un-hyped highs.