Eminem’s Got Something On You

July 12th, 2010 at 8:00 am (Music Commentary)

Rapper B.o.B’s much anticipated release B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray has put two singles on the Billboard Hot 100 — “Nothin’ On You”, which dropped in February, and “Airplanes”, which I’m pleased to note is currently hanging at number 4 on the Hot 100.  B.o.B did a smart thing on this album, inviting guest singers to sing catchy, pop-styled choruses to complement his rapped verses.  When I first heard “Nothin’ On You” on the radio back in February, I mistakenly guessed that the boyish tenor on the choruses was actually the main artist — and the rapper the featured guest.  You won’t be surprised, then, that I consider the pop choruses the main draw of these singles (I wonder — did B.o.B write the choruses, or did the singers?).  Both “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes” sport sick beats, too; I’m a sucker for snare dancing, especially with that lo-fi sound.  B.o.B defintely deserves credit there.

An extended version of “Airplanes” features Eminem rapping a chorus.  Props to the young B.o.B for attracting the attention of such a renowned and influential rapper.  But unfortunately, Eminem’s verse really contrasts with B.o.B’s: B.o.B, it turns out, just isn’t that great of a rapper.  Having heard B.o.B rap uneventfully for a few verses on the extended “Airplanes,” Eminem enters, and his energy and ingenuity — and his smooth, solid control of rhythm — jump out of the speakers, and we wonder what we’ve been listening to for 3 minutes.  (I’m not even a huge fan of Eminem; more on that later).  Eminem, of course, has just released a much-talked-of studio album, and his single featuring Rihanna (it would seem this featured pop singer thing is a succesful formula) leaped handily to the top of the charts.

Not to knock B.o.B.  I think he’s put together a great package in “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes”: Cool beat, catchy and meaningful pop chorus, and some unnoffensive — if undistinguished — rapping for flavor.  Hook line and sinker; I bought both singles from iTunes without reservation.  But calling B.o.B a rapper doesn’t exactly pay tribute to his best talents.


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Break Your Heart Cover

July 11th, 2010 at 6:26 am (Notable Music)

I find this song so much more meaningful when Laura Brehm does it.  Alice 105.9 added the Taio Cruz version (the original version, currently #12 on the Billboard Hot 100) to its playlist of like 10 songs, so I guess I’m going to be hearing a lot more of it when I tune in to get my Slacker & Steve fix.

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Making of City Dreams Part 2: The Gear List

July 8th, 2010 at 8:00 am (Making of City Dreams Series)

Part 2 in an ongoing series about the making of City Dreams.

This entry is primarily for you a/v nerds out there, or those thinking about buying equipment for a home studio.  Admittedly, I’m always interested in what equipment was used in the making of particular records, especially if made in a home or “project” studio.  Please be sure to read the introduction in the previous post, especially before spending any money on audio gear.  Descriptions here are kept pretty simple, so feel free to ask me questions for clarification or about my experience with different pieces.  Click on titles for more info:

MacBook Pro: The center of the studio.  Never regretted this purchase for a second.  They’re expensive but worth it.  4 gig of RAM, and for audio stuff, you really want as much as possible.

Logic Studio: Apple’s own digital-audio-workstation (DAW) software upon which the simplified, less-powerful Garage Band is modeled.  All sequencing, tracking, and mixing was done with Logic Pro, and I used a number of software instruments, plug-ins, synths, and other tools that came with Logic Studio as well.  Logic Studio is really a great, powerful package (particularly for the price!).

Dynaudio BM5A (2): My nearfield monitors.  The Dynaudios were a great purchase; I was lucky that an outspoken audio enthusiast who happened to be hanging out at Guitar Center steered me toward them before I nearly bought a pair of heavily advertised, overhyped Mackies.

M-Audio Project Mix I/O: This seemed like a great purchase for a home setup, and in theory it was.  It’s a firewire interface for getting audio in and out of your computer, with 8 simultaneous inputs (so: you can record to your hard drive eight tracks at once, and they’re recorded separately and lined up as separate tracks in Logic), 8 outputs, and eight faders and loads of programmable buttons to bring that “tactile” experience to computer mixing.  Problem was — and I don’t like complaining about products, but — it was a terrible piece of equipment.  It broke several times in the first year, while still under warranty, and calls to tech support almost always involved an hour or two on hold.  I could go on at length, but I’ll just say the last straw occurred when I had shipped it to M-Audio for repairs for the second or third time, having reported that the connection with the computer was intermittent and the second channel was not working.  After 5 weeks, I got it back, to discover that they had fixed the broken channel, but hadn’t fixed the intermittent connection (which was the more critical problem, as it rendered the thing useless).  I was finished.  I’ve since learned M-Audio has a pretty bad reputation for the quality of its stuff.  Craig took the Projectmix to see if it worked better with his PC, and I stand ready to dispose of it if it doesn’t.

Apogee Ensemble: This was my replacement solution after getting rid of the ProjectMix.  I spent a lot of time researching interfaces, and bought the Ensemble both because the Apogee A/D converters are so highly regarded, and because it runs natively (and exclusively) with Apple (so: no driver problems, and I had had plenty with the ProjectMix).  I also learned it was better to get something that excelled as a quality interface, rather than a mediocre all-in-one solution (i.e., interface, control surface, eight mix preamps).  Have not been disappointed.  Some of City Dreams was recorded with the ProjectMix, and some with the Apogee, and I’ll point out what along the way.  Everything was mixed using the Apogee, however (i.e., the D/A conversion for monitoring while mixing).

Audio Technica 4033: Large diaphragm condenser microphone I used to record some of the vocals.  A good mic for the price.

Audio Technica 4060: An upgrade mic (also a large diaphragm condenser), which I researched and bought after I was dissatisfied with the quality I was getting recording vocals of singer-songwriter Joslyn Sarshad as a side-project with the 4033.  Some of City Dreams recordings used this mic, and I’ll point out which along the way.  I selected this mic after doing a blind “taste test” of about 40 mics using a CD that provided audio samples of each mic.  I know that’s not a perfect way to evaluate microphones, but it’s interesting to see what mics your ears like, and what mics they don’t — some famous, expensive mics didn’t rank.  The 4060 ranked for me, was in my price range, and I’ve long been a fan of Audio Technica mics.

7 panels of acoustic treatment from RealTraps (specifically, the “small room kit”), used to reduce the impact of the acoustic qualities of the room, both during recording and in mixing.  This is very important, and one of my best purchases.  The acoustics of the room in which you’re mixing can really affect what you’re hearing — and not hearing — and thus adversely affect your mix decisions.  Acoustic treatment goes a long way toward solving that problem, and RealTraps is a great small company and its owner, Ethan Winer, is very knowledgeable and passionate about acoustics.  I’ll refer you to Ethan Winer for everything you want and need to know about room acoustics.

Yamaha CP300 — The keyboard I use for practicing and gigging, and was used as a midi controller for sequencing in Logic.

Plugins (i.e., software instruments and processors used in Logic):

Logic Studio: As mentioned, I used many of the processors provided, as well as many of the drum kits, synths, and string patches.

Vienna Symphonic Library: Along the way, I realized the string patches in Logic (as good as they are) weren’t going to cut it sonically for the big orchestral sound I was going for.  I bought the “Special Edition Strings” package, which contains samples of violin, viola, cello, bass, with different quantities of players and different articulations.

Vienna Bosendorfer Piano: Sampled from a Bosendorfer.

Garritan Steinway: The only piano sample library authorized by Steinway.  I bought this fairly late in the project because I thought the demos sounded great (its creation was a labor of love), and to get a warmer, darker piano sound than the Bosendorfer offered for certain places on the album.

Scarbee Electric Piano: An amazing sampling of a fender rhodes.  Also bought the dedicated processor plugin for this instrument.  Bought this before all Scarbee products were sold by Native Instruments.  Used mainly on “Silent Hour.”

Sonic Specialists Urban Fire: Some R&B drum samples to add to the Logic Studio library.

UAD Solo 2 Laptop: The external card for UAD software plugins.  Takes a load off the computer’s processor.  Bought this two months into the mixing process (everything had been sequenced and tracked) as I struggled with the mixes, and realized that not all processors and plugins are created equal, and some sound better, and function better, than others (mainly: that I could use more than the handful of excellent processor plugins that came with Logic Studio).

UAD Plugins (the specific plugins I purchased):

UAD 4k Buss Compressor: Magic for drum busses.

UAD Precision Enhancer kHz: I’m not a big fan of enhancers, but this is pretty good.  Came in handy on my own dull vocals.

UAD Precision De-Esser: Vocals recorded with the AT4060 had strong sibilance in particular.

UAD LA3A: A fantastic compressor for bass-guitar.

UAD Neve 88RS: Not sure I really needed this, but it’s a nice channel strip for string busses.

UAD Neve 1073: Famous EQ sound which I bought to try to solve some issues, but haven’t actually used much.  It does help make dull software-pianos sound better.

UAD 1176: A really famous, standard, cool compressor.  Used much for piano.

UAD DreamVerb: Really nice sounding digital reverb.  Still not totally sure how to program it.

UAD Cambridge: My favorite precision EQ (i.e., not modeled after a specific piece of hardware).  Lots of parameters, a graphic display, and it sounds great.

UAD RealVerb-Pro, Pultec EQ, CS-1 (all-purpose channel strip): These came with the UAD card, and were useful at times.

Waves Renaissance EQ: I went back and forth on Waves stuff — they’re truly used by the pros on a lot of famous records.  I demo’d several Renaissance processors (Joslyn’s vocals on “Calico” were compressed with the Renaissance Compressor), thought they sounded great, but not necessarily a must-have over other options.  I got the EQ just to have a quality EQ that ran off the computer’s processor for when I ran out of space on the UAD card.  Kind of wish I had gone for the Sonnox Oxford EQ instead, though.

Sonnox Oxford Compressor: A really great all-purpose compressor.  You get the precision control that software compressors offer, and don’t get with the vintage software models in the UAD plugs.  And you can dial in a “warmth” setting to get some analog character if you want it.

PSP Vintage Warmer: A compressor that adds that “vintage” analog sound.  Used especially on “Childhood.”

That’s what I had and used by the end of the 2.5 year project.  At the beginning though I just had my laptop, Logic Studio, the ProjectMix, and some headphones, and I only made additional purchases when I felt something was lacking sonically, and had researched a new tool I thought would help.  Interestingly, looking back at the TweakHeadz website, I’ve pretty much built what Rich calls the “Dream Mac Studio” without realizing it.  It’s a great set up, and worth remembering that I have tools, particularly software, that engineers in some of the top studios in the world 40 years ago would have killed for.

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Rihanna’s Rude Song

July 8th, 2010 at 5:51 am (Music Commentary)

Rihanna’s latest singleRude Boy” has slipped to 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, and in my humble opinion, that’s not far enough.  Fortunately, the track seems to have fallen out of regular rotation on 95.7 The Party, the local R&B-hits station.  Featuring a recurrent pre-chorus that goes “Boy, I want, want, want whatchu want, want, want/Give it to me, baby like boom, boom, boom” and a chorus that leads off  “Come here, rude boy, boy, can you get it up?”, “Rude Boy” first came to my attention in March when my sister mentioned how shocked she was that such an explicit song was getting heavy radio play.  “Rude Boy” joins the other hit single “Hard” (I’ll let you make your own judgments) on the album titled Rated R, Rihanna’s fourth studio release.  The title and cover apparently hope to draw us in with the allure of uncensored material.  What I would say to Rihanna is this: Sex holds an old and hallowed place in pop music; but talking about sex in absurdly blunt terms is not the same as being sexy.  We want you to be sexy, Rihanna.  We want your pop songs to feel sexy.  “Rude Boy” is not sexy.

“Rude Boy” and “Hard” both succeed, like many of today’s hits containing painfully self-aware awful lyrics, because of their downright catchy beats and hooks (I find myself, in utter frustration, humming the choruses to “Rude Boy” and “Hard” on occasion).  The vocal performances are decent, and the production is flawless.  And so I find myself forced to swallow the tasteless lyric with the hip production.  The iTunes review praises Rated R for venturing successfully into darker territory than previous Rihanna releases — apparently on the tracks that didn’t make the Billboard Top 10 — so perhaps the complete album bears a listen.

Lest you think I’m grumbling generally about the decline of music, let me assure you Top-40 pop holds a special place in my heart.  But could we maybe strive for lyrics with a pinch more integrity?

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Making of City Dreams Part 1: Introduction to the Equipment

July 7th, 2010 at 5:07 am (Making of City Dreams Series)

Part 1 in an ongoing series about the making of City Dreams.

To begin with, some words are necessary regarding equipment.  Recording is technical, so it requires equipment of some sort, whether that be one of the world’s renowned, pimped-out, multi-million dollar studios, or simply a tape recorder with a built in microphone (or anywhere on the wide spectrum between).  Plenty of lousy, forgettable records have been made with the former, and a number of very meaningful, very good musical ideas have been recorded with the latter.

When I started on City Dreams, I knew very little about recording or about what equipment to use.  I approached buying and learning equipment with the philosophy that the creative aspects of the music were far more important than the gear, and I was really only interested in getting the simplest and least amount of equipment necessary to get the job done.  Rich the TweakMeister, who has written a website full of great beginner’s recording instruction (http://www.tweakheadz.com/ — if you’re new to home recording, you absolutely must read everything on this site), articulates this philosophy well: “Great music recorded on a crappy cassette deck will win more hearts than a turd polished at 24/192.  Your talent is more important than anything else, and you can’t buy that.”

So sorry for the lecture.  Which brings me to the flip side: So long as we never forget (and I have to remind myself often) that of first and foremost importance is the songwriting, the creative production ideas, and the performances, then — finally — equipment does matter, provided we have the skills to use it.  Good equipment, when combined with good recording technique and skill, is necessary to create a high quality product, and if we have worked hard to produce good creative material, then we want it presented in as high quality as possible, and audiences will find it most accessible in high quality (but audio quality is only a means of getting the audience to the emotional content of the song!).

Referring back to my recent post about the Alanis Morrisette record that was made in a home studio and was so successful.  Sure, it was made with producer Glen Ballard’s home equipment, but it was still good equipment.  Ballard says the album was made in a “professional situation” but not “a commercial studio.”  Which, to me, reads: he had a limited rig at home comprised of workhorse equipment, and he really knew how to use it to capture that raw, emotional quality we associate with those famous Jagged Pill tracks.  It didn’t take a commercial studio to put Morrisette’s writing and performances in 15 million CD players, but it did take some decent equipment in the hands of a master producer.  But given an ADAT multi-track and some good mics, the most important elements in that project’s creation were the musical material and the skills of Morrisette and Ballard.

Fortunately, computers have made high-quality, lowish-budget home recording realistic.  With that massive caveat, I had intended to provide a gear list, but I fear this post will get way too long, so the list will wait till the next edition in the series.  Those contemplating putting together a home studio, please keep this grand caveat in mind and don’t fall victim to (and we’re all tempted from time to time), what a gearslutz.com contributer labeled, “gear acquisition syndrome.”  Skill and experience always take precedent.

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On The Anniversary

July 6th, 2010 at 7:47 pm (Random Stuff)

Had an extended dream last night about aliens, and then got on my computer this morning and read that today is the 63rd anniversary of the Roswell UFO incident.  My dream involved investigating a crashed UFO in the desert.  Weird.

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Notable Christian Singer-Songwriter

July 6th, 2010 at 6:01 pm (Notable Artists)

Wanted to be sure to include space in this blog to sing the praises of a New Zealand singer-songwriter I’ve been listening to lately.  Brooke Fraser has earned  some fame for a number of songs she wrote and performed with the Australian Christian group Hillsong — notably “Hosanna”, “Desert Song”, “Soon,” — all of which distinctive and haunting.  Her solo work was subsequently a treat of a discovery.  Here, she doesn’t so much write toward the Christian-pop-worship or K-Love formats, but rather as a talented songwriter who is a woman of genuine faith, working to discern her place in the world.  If you’re confused what the difference is, then I encourage you to check out Albertine, her second and most recent album — and best.  It means at times struggling with her faith and how to live it out meaningfully — “My comfort would prefer for me to be numb/And avoid the impending birth/Of who I was born to become” (from “C.S. Lewis Song”) — or the emotional struggle of an encounter with strife in Rwanda and an irrepressible feeling of call-to-service, while being too-easily removed from it (the title track).  Or just hoping and waiting for romantic love (“Love Is Waiting”).  Refreshing to encounter an artist so honest and insightful about faith.  Her skill for writing thoughtful and distinctive lyric gives us what is so satisfying in an artist: The feeling that we’re seeing the world from a singular and special perspective.

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Home Studio Success

July 4th, 2010 at 12:58 am (Home Recording)

A ray of light for home recording producers — I just learned that Alanis Morissette’s 1995 debut Jagged Little Pill, which generated 3 hit singles and sold 15 million copies, was 75% created in producer Glen Ballard’s home studio on 16-bit ADAT’s.  You’ll probably recognize the jaded, emotional lead-single “You Oughta Know” and Morissette’s unmistakable raw vocals and writing.  (I remember listening to that track on a cassette tape release of ’95 radio hits).  I’m a little scared to learn that she was only 19 when she made the album (listen to “You Oughta Know” again with that in mind).  Ballard, talking about making the project in his home studio: “The entire genesis of every track was done there, so everything was created in that environment, just with the two of us.”  Looking forward to reading more when Howard Massey’s Behind the Glass arrives from Amazon next week.

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Rodgers and Hammerstein on Writing Music

July 2nd, 2010 at 11:17 pm (Songwriting)

Playing Carousel in two weeks at the Dairy Center with Centerstage.  Watched the movie last night; slightly crushing on Shirley Jones, not gonna lie.  Special features included a segment with some audio from interviews with Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Hammerstein talks about having spent weeks and weeks writing the lyric to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” before handing it over to Rodgers, and then in the two hours it took Rodgers’ wife to take the kids to the movies, Rodgers wrote the entire song.  Hammerstein: “It took me several weeks and then I gave it to him, and two hours later he called me and said ‘I got it!’ And I could have thrown a brick through the phone.”  Rodgers, of course, had been thinking about the title, and discussing it with Hammerstein, for “weeks and months” before the 2-hour rush of inspiration.  Rodgers: “I have to do an awful lot of thinking for an awful lot of time before I even dream of doing actual notes.  I think that the moment of creation should be a spontaneous one, I think possibly the results are better if it comes in a rush.  But you can’t get that rush going without doing something about it.  It isn’t just there, you have to think.”

Love that — many people seem to think that writing music or a story or anything creative involves sitting around and waiting for a flash moment of inspiration.  In my experience, sitting around never achieved anything, and loads of time and work must be spent writing the stuff that you end up throwing out (you have to write the bad stuff before you can get out the good stuff) and otherwise thinking and “feeding” the mind and spirit, and then occasionally, if you’re lucky, you will stumble on a rush of inspiration (but not all great songs are written in a rush).  And let’s not forget that Hammerstein spent weeks and weeks writing and re-writing the lyric before it was right — not all of the song was done in a rush.

On a side note, some of the interview clips seemed to imply that Hammerstein often wrote out the entire lyric before giving it to Rodgers to set to music (he said “Soliloquy” was written this way) — which surprises me.  I find that pre-written lyrics can too often lead to stodgy, square melodies (rhythmically uninteresting in particular), and I would have thought the lyricist/composer collaboration would have been more of a back-and-forth.  Pretty sure it works the other direction with Andrew Lloyd Webber and his many lyricists (the song is written first — just listen to the forced lyric for the chorus of the title song in Superstar — not that I’m knocking Tim Rice, he just had an impossible job with that melody).  Would love to learn more about how that lyricist/composer collaboration works with others, but I certainly consider Rodgers and Hammerstein masters.

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An Introduction

July 1st, 2010 at 11:47 pm (Making of City Dreams Series)

Starting a blog might seem strange for a kid who still gets a newspaper delivered everyday and has no television connection.  Strange, too, for someone who gripes ad-nauseum about the self-absored internet culture of blogging and social networking.  No matter.  We’re a decade and 6 months into the new millennium, and maybe it’s time to give in a little.  Might be fun.  Ali Harrold is wondering what the heck happened to me.

This blog came out of discussions about how to promote and grow the presence of my recent CD release City Dreams.  In that spirit, and to ease my entry into blogging, I’m going to use this blog at first to present a series of entries discussing the creation of City Dreams.  I’ll strive for at least one entry in the series a week, but maybe more if I’m up for it.  I plan on including audio-clips of early versions of songs, alternate mixes, extra material and stuff like that.

Hopefully such details will find an interested audience.  City Dreams was a 2.5 year-in-the-making home “project studio” project — “project studio” pretty much meaning I did most all the grunt-work myself with limited gear I personally own and have set up at home.  Experienced, attentive listeners might be able to hear that, but I’m flattered when I get questions like: “So did you go to a studio to do the recording and mixing?”; “So did you hire a bunch of studio musicians for this?”; “Trying to decide if all the string parts were by real musicians — I think they are, right?”  The answer to all these questions is no.  I did all of it myself.  Which is hard, and time consuming, and has some drawbacks, and ultimately just isn’t quite as good as great musicians working in a 3-million-dollar studio.  The advantage, of course, is greater freedom and less expense.  I reckon there’s a story there, and that’s what this series is about.  Bon voyage.

If you haven’t…

Read a general description of City Dreams, go here: http://www.citydreamsthealbum.com/City_Dreams/About_the_Album.html

If you don’t have a copy of City Dreams

Buy a CD copy here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/DanielGraeber

Buy it digitally on iTunes here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/city-dreams/id368302416

Or stream it for free from MySpace here: www.myspace.com/citydreamsthealbum

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