Thursday, 31 October 2013

What is good?

I went and saw a band the other night (who will remain nameless).

They were ok.

The thing that struck me was the drummer.
He was both awesome and terrible at the same time and here is why.

As a standalone drummer he was great, technically highly proficient, perfect timing and he knew all the tricks. The problem was that he used all the tricks all the time. It was a constant barrage of flicks, drops and rolls which during a drum solo would be cool but all the time through the whole song was totally distracting.

It was almost as bad as this guy:

I've always thought that the mark of a really great musician is that you only notice how awesome they are when they stop playing. Overplaying is a bad habit to get into and is usually the mark of someone trying to prove how awesome they are.

I personally love it when a great musician does really simple things exceedingly well and then every now and then when you least expect it pulls something out of the hat that is just pure genius. Its like toying with the audience, holding it all back and then letting it all go for just long enough for you to be blown away and then pulling it right back again to simple.

The empty space in music is just as important as the notes that are played. The odd trick here and there is cool but if the entire extent of your musical repertoire is a constant stream of trick after trick it soon becomes tiring. Not only that, it detracts from what the other musicians in your band are doing. In the video above, the bass player is actually really good but nobody will remember him for his performance because the drummer stole the show. If your playing constantly steals the show, then you are unlikely to be called upon to play with other musicians very often and your career as a session musician is unlikely to grow.

The most successful session musicians make it their priority to make the rest of the band look and sound amazing but every now and then do something that blows you away. More often than not this involves the absence of things as opposed to filling up the mix with notes.

Probably one of the best examples of this is the bass player Pino Palladino. Pino is one of the most highly regarded bass players in the world. He is the most famous bass player you never knew because his name is rarely in lights. He plays with everyone who is anyone, in the bands of some of the greatest, yet you will hardly seem him in the live videos and you will rarely see him do a fancy solo with a million notes in it.

Are there more technically competent bass players in the world - undoubtedly.
But Pino is an absolute master in simplicity. He is amazing because you know that if he wanted to he could bust out the most technically complex bass lines you have ever heard, but instead has the self control to not play where others would go nuts. It is this self control that see's him get call after call from the very best of the best musicians in the world asking him to play session bass in their bands.

Rather than filling up the page with more words, I'll let Pino do the talking with his amazingly bass playing.

Here he is showing how empty space and simplicity make a great bass line.

Now for something completely different, here is playing session bass with "The Who" and check out the bass solo.

A total style flip again playing some R&B with D'Angelo.

You might struggle to see him in this one, but he is there playing bass with David Gilmour / Pink Floyd.

Hiding out again, this time with Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Phil Collins.

Here is one of the few occasions where he totally lets loose and shows how stunningly good he really is.

So next time you are tempted to do some blisteringly complex technical riff all over your band mates, ask yourself. What would Pino do here?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A small rant

Its time for another rant, this time aimed at Guitarists.

Quad guitar stacks suck (I'm talking about the classic 'Marshall Stack')!
The level at which they suck cannot be adequately expressed in words on this page.
They are more sucky than a very sucky thing.

They seem like such a good idea when you are standing in a music shop being egged on by an eager salesman keen to pocket the extra commission and who name drops a list of artists who use that particular amplifier on stage with an 80's rock video playing on the screen behind you.

Here is the thing, those artists might actually have those amps sitting on stage but I'd put money on it that they aren't plugged in. They are paid product placement and the real amp the artist is using is more than likely out the back in a noise booth and is considerably smaller. No 'A list' guitarist anywhere in the world worth their salt actually uses a quad stack that is plugged in.

The thing with quad stacks is that they are all show and very little about them is good for producing great guitar tone. In fact if you were going to set out to design something to do a poor job at being a guitar speaker cabinet you would struggle to design something worse than a quad.

Firstly, the arrangement of the 4 speakers basically creates highly directional narrow beam of sound that goes everywhere you don't want it to go and nowhere you do. Most guitarists point their amps out into the crowd. A quad amp has a focal point nearly 20 meters in front of it so that means while you are stuggling to hear and are constantly turning it up, the poor people in the 10th row are being blasted while your sound engineer sits out the front cursing the bajeezus out of you. Quads would be the ideal cabinet if your ears grew on your knees.

Quad cabinets are incredibly efficient at converting electrical energy into sound pressure. If you were building a PA system this would be a good thing, but in a guitar cabinet this is actually a really bad thing. Guitars sound best when the amplifier is working really hard and generating lots of harmonic distortion. This only happens when the tubes are really working hard. The problem with a quad is that it is so efficient that you can never turn the amp up loud enough to get to that great harmonic generating level because it blows your eardrums out. If you do, the rest of the band turns up creating a wave of noise, blowing any siblance of seperation out the window and basically destroying your sound.

Here are some traits of the ideal guitar amplifier, you will notice they are almost the polar opposite of a Quad:

  • it has a single small speaker (5" to 12" max).
  • the speaker is particularly inefficient.
  • the amplifier section itself is not that powerful (10w to 15w is ample)
  • it can be tilted easily so that it points at your ears, not at your ankles.
  • it can be turned up to full volume without exploding or being insanely loud.
  • it has as few knobs as possible and doesn't have 'digital' anything.

I blame the 80s for the tendancy for modern guitarists to still buy quad stacks.
80's bands used to try outdoing each other by having rows of quad stacks across the back of the stage.
The reality was that none of them were actually plugged in and often they were just an empty shell stage prop.
The real guitar amps were hidden under the stage and mic'd up.
This caused every teenage boy in the world to want to own a quad stack despite the fact they made the worst guitar amps in the world. The manufacturers lept onto this trend and saw it as an opportunity to sell over-priced equipment to the masses.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Technical Talk - Riders

As a Sound Engineer, I get to see a lot of technical riders.
Some are good, most are astonishingly bad.

For those that don't know, a technical rider is a short document that explains all the technical aspects of your band. A basic tech rider has the following information.
  • A simple diagram showing where you stand on stage.
  • A list of your instruments and vocalists as well as how many 'channels' each uses.
  • A list of any specific or unusual requirements.
Most bands severely underestimate the importance of having a good (and up to date) technical rider.
It is a bit like a CV, it tells the sound engineer and tech team a lot about the band and what to expect before you even show up. If you do a poor job with your tech rider, the sound engineer is likely to write you off in advance and not put in the care and effort required to achieve a great sound. It also may mean when you show up at a venue or event you don't have everything you need to put on the best show possible. This causes stress. Stress if not your friend.

Being up to date is also important, I have lost track of the number of times I have received what looks like a great tech rider and then spent hours setting up a system to the exact technical specs that have been sent only to have the band turn up with several different instruments, 2 extra singers or a comment such as "where did you get that rider from, its really old, we all go on opposite sides of the stage now".

This makes your sound engineer mad.
Making your sound engineer mad is never a good idea because they can make or break your performance.
An competent and engaged sound engineer can be the difference between a ho hum performance and a standing ovation so never under estimate the importance of making your sound engineer happy.

Sending through a poorly written or just plain wrong tech rider will not only make your sound engineer mad but it will also likely cause them to stop caring about your best interests. If your band doesn't care about the technical side of your performance, then why should they?

Here are some tips to creating a standout tech rider that makes your tech crew happy and will ensure you have a great gig.

  • Put a date on it, right up the top there and put an expiry date on it stating that if the rider is older than a certain date they should contact you to get an updated version.
  • Put the phone number and email address on it for someone who understands tech stuff. Don't put your booking agents number or your promoter or the number of a flat you used to live at 3 years ago. Promoters and agents don't give a toss about technical things other than how much they cost and when a tech rings these people they are more likely to get the wrong answer to a question.
  • Draw an accurate stage layout and mark on it where vocalists stand, how many monitors you need, what instruments go where. This is important as your tech team will spend a considerable amount of time preparing the stage to ensure you are not tripping over cables and that the stage looks good. Changing things around after its all set up increases the chances of something going wrong and usually ends up being messy.
  • List your instruments and how many channels each use. If you only use two tom drums then state it on the rider. There is nothing worse than having "Drum Kit" written on a rider and then have the drummer turn up with 7 tom drums. This will be a major headache for your tech crew as they will likely have to re-patch the entire mixing console or may not have brought enough microphones.
  • Don't be too demanding, unless you are Iggy Pop you probably shouldn't go too overboard with your requests.
  • If your singer is a douche-bag, then drop a subtle hint that this is the case so that the tech team can be prepared. For example.. "Our lead singer has been known to drink too many bourbons and spill drinks into monitor wedges so we recommend taking precautions". This kind of stuff is highly appreciated as steps can be taken to avoid issues during the show.
  • Clearly state what equipment you are bringing and what equipment you need to be provided. Ambiguity is not good in this section and will result in last minute panic.

Finally, when you advance the show, tell the tech team what time you expect to arrive and when you will be available for a sound check. On the day, if you are running late or early, call the tech team to advise this is the case. Techs do not like surprises and they especially don't like getting a call 40 minutes after you were supposed to arrive to tell them that you are running 4 hours later.

Here is an example of an international quality rider, obviously yours does not need to be this detailed but it gives a good indication of the level of clarity required in a good rider.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The game is about to change

Spotify is a game changer. Its a disruptive technology that has massive implications for the music industry and unless musicians realise that and change their approach, we are going to struggle in this new world. Spotify is also the best thing for 'real' musicians since the invention of the CD.

In the old days, people used to buy music before they had heard it. There was a buzz before an album came out. Reviewers often got it in advance and added or detracted from that buzz.

Then, the album hit the stores and thousands of people went out and bought it before they had even heard it.
How many products to you buy these days without knowing what they are going to be like?

Precisely none, you don't go to the supermarket and buy a carton of milk and get it home hoping its going to be a really great carton of milk only to open it and find that it wasn't as tasty as the last one you bought. Every carton of milk you buy is the same and you know what you are getting in advance.

The old industry model was great for the record labels because to be quite frank, they could sell complete shite music and make a bundle of money out of it. Then when everyone realised it was shite music, the label would move onto the "next big thing" and pedal that shite. This is how the "One hit wonder" was born.

Those days are gone.

In the future, people will not buy music, they will rent it and artists will get paid for the number of times that consumers play their tracks instead of buying it upfront.

Now consider your own CD collection. How many albums do you have that you played a few times and then relegated to a dusty CD rack never to be played again. But, I bet you have a few albums that are absolutey brilliant that you play again and again and never get tired of.

This is why the rise of Spotify is so good for the art of music.
The new model incentivises the creation of really great music instead of mediocre throw away crap.

Artists and Labels will have to start thinking long term instead of just aiming for a place on next months chart then dropping off and moving onto the next big thing.
A good quality song or album could continue to generate income on Spotify for decades while a crap throw away song might generate a few bucks for a week.

This is good news for good musicians and also good recording studios and producers who have all suffered under the iTunes model where it is possible to pedal sub standard music recorded in your own garage. Those days are about to be over and songs and albums that take months or even years to develop into masterpeices will rise once again.

The new target will become "Long Term Popularity" instead of "Chart Success".

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Whats your backup plan?

I recently caught an episode of "The Voice" and was somewhat astounded to hear both Seal and Joel Madden tell a poor young Med Student with great vocal talent that if she wanted to be successful in the Music Industry, she can't have a backup plan (referring to her Medical studies).

I have a problem with this.

You see, for both Seal and Joel, this approach worked fine. They had no backup plan and this caused them to work hard and keep going until they succeeded. Their thinking was that because it worked for them, the only way to be successful is to cast yourself out into the world, with no other consideration of ever being anything other than a huge international hit. They had no consideration for the possibility that they could just as easily have not made it.

My problem with this is that not having a backup plan does not automatically guarantee that you will  be successful. In fact I'm a far greater proponent of the possibility that luck has more to do with anything in the music industry than hard work.

History is littered with thousands of chart topping hits from people and bands that could barely string 3 chords together and you only have to take a stroll through the pubs and clubs of any major city on a Friday and Saturday night to see thousands of incredibly talented musicians churning out April Sun in Cuba to hoards of barely interested drunken louts.

How many times have you heard someone say "That person has so much talent, they should be huge".

Sometimes it takes an entire lifetime of disappointment for musicians to realise that commercial success has little to do with talent and mostly to do with luck.

Think of it this way, the most talented sperm does not make it to fertilise the egg.
Sure, it has to be pretty quick and strong, but there are thousands of others just as good there at roughly the same time. Its just the luck of the draw as to the one that makes it through.

So what does this mean for you as a musician?

It means ALWAYS have a backup plan.
A good education will ensure that IF you don't succeed as a musician, you have something to fall back on. A good education might also increase your chances of being successful in the first place.

Set yourself some clear musical goals and give yourself a time limit to achieve them.
Don't make them impossible but each should be slightly more aspirational.
Set a time limit on each goal.

For example, after recording an album you might set some goals such as:
  • 3 months - Solid local radio play
  • 6 months - Opening for local concert.
  • 12 months - Regular National Radio Play
  • 18 months - Support act for National Tour or opening for regional concerts outside your local area.
  • 24 months - NZ on air funding or signed to label
  • 36 months - 10,000 units sold per annum, National Tour booked.

Quite often what seems to happen is that you will experience some initial success and then things stagnate or go backwards. You might get to the National Radio Play stage and then 12 months later find its not there anymore and you are back to trying to 'get your name out there'. This is where you need to give yourself a fixed time limit to get to the next stage or 'call it a day'. If you are more than 6 to 12 months behind on a specific goal, the chances are, that you are probably unlikely to go much further.

Its at this point you pull out your 'Backup Plan' and relegate music to your hobby with the realisation that you are probably not going to be an International (or even national for that matter) Superstar.

There is nothing to be ashamed about by being a hobby musician, its loads of fun and can be extremely fulfilling. By removing the disappointment of 'not making it' you can enjoy your hobby much more.

Don't forget that even if you aren't going to make it as a Superstar, there are loads of well paying jobs in the music industry that can be just as fun. You can teach music, work for a radio station, work in the production / technical side of the industry, work for a label or in promotion / advertising. Even jingle and backing track production can be lucrative business.