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Archive for September, 2009

The Strummer Cannon

I always wanted to be in a band. I love the gang mentality of a group of people creating their own path through adolescence and into adulthood. I loved it so much that I spent the first half of my career insisting that I was in a band. I would gather friends and for the most part with each record, that gang I put together would define the spirit and sonic identity of the album I was making. As I went forward in this mode, I felt further from what I intended or thought my work would feel and sound like.

Now none of this is to say that the work we created wasn’t good. But I think most of us can agree that there’s a very unsettling dissatisfaction that comes with anything that we project or internalize that starts to feel like artifice. It’s not unlike growing out of a marriage, or laughing at younger pictures of yourself in some now antiquated trendy clothes that time has proven silly. We grow and some of the things we thought when we started out prove to be true, while others prove to be false. Maturity in my opinion is defined by our ability to identify our weaknesses, then to maximize them into strengths.

For me, the making of Dear Lover has been as much a personal journey as it’s been a musical one. When I started making this record I was inspired and haunted by something Joe Strummer said. I can’t recall it exactly, but I have internalized it this way, that “as long as there are others to blame, you’ll never learn nothing.”

An idea like that is a bit like a cannon. It spits you out over every memory where you failed, just missed or fell short. And once you’re offered that kind of objectivity, you get the opportunity to see what that means in your own life and/or ambitions. It doesn’t necessarily encourage you to be a one man show or tyrant. To me it means that we are complicit whether we like it or not in the outcomes of all of our endeavors. That we have to define not only ourselves, but try and allow for others to define them selves as well. Allow your compatriots to play to their strengths. The trick is understanding their strengths as well as your own.

Finally, 11 records into my career, I have completely embraced the beauty and versatility in being a solo artist. You see, by letting go of the band albatross, I have finally allowed myself to go completely towards the music I hear in my singular imagination. I still bring friends in to enhance my efforts, but I don’t saddle them with reading my mind or even worse dwelling in some car chase of artifice. By defining myself completely, it helps others to know exactly who they are in it.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Matthew Ryan |

Waiting for Ricketts on Groundhog’s Day

I remember working on my first album for A&M Records back in 1997 with David Ricketts. For those who aren’t aware, David was half of the great David & David. What sealed the deal were my love of “Welcome to the Boomtown? (released in 1986); “Smart in a Stupid Way,? an unreleased, Ricketts-produced D & D song; and an eventual meeting with David Ricketts in Hollywood during the late autumn of 1996. Things moved pretty quick once David and I talked. Travel was set up, Bearsville Studio was booked, songs were tightened up and pre-production was barely even entertained. Everything moved real quick, that is, until we got in the studio.

Working with David was one of the great educations of my career. But at the time, I didn’t know it. He drove me absolutely crazy. So much consideration. So much quiet. So much listening. I was in my 20s, and thought frenzies alone made for creativity. I looked at making records as an extension of the fever process of writing that I knew at the time. But David would more often than not just sit there listening, barely talking to me or Jim Ebert, our engineer. He wasn’t cold, or aloof, or acting as he was directing some earnest, unironic version of Waiting for Guffman. In fact, he was very warm, funny and present. He just didn’t seem to be “producing.? And as I recall, he didn’t play a single instrument for the first two weeks. I didn’t understand, and it scared the hell out of me. But the further into the making of the record we went, the more clarity, spirit and precision developed.

Over the years David and I became friends, and our adventures in the studio became even more sublime. Because what I’ve come to understand by working with him is that there’s an undeniable clarity with music that comes when you know the subject matter so intimately. Those initial days and hours at Bearsville were not exercises in quiet criticism, or an attempt to deconstruct me like some rock ‘n’ roll marine. All that listening was David’s process to distill and define the strengths of what we—myself and the band—were doing in the tracking room. Once it was understood, he felt that he could contribute and possibly further enunciate the language I was trying to communicate.

So today, if you were standing outside the door of my studio while I’m self-producing, it would probably sound more like Bill Murray’s Groundhog’s Day than a record was being made. Stop, listen, rewind. Over and over again. Eventually, you would hear me play. But only after I’ve heard what’s already there. If you listen close enough to what you’re doing, you can hear what your gut has been trying to tell you. There are melodies and rhythms to be defined and exposed just listening to an acoustic guitar or piano. Generally, the instrument used to write a song has all the information you need. Listen to how you’re hitting the strings. What’s the feel? Listen to the harmonics as they develop over the progression. Is there a melody? I bet there is.

Thanks for teaching me to listen, David.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Matthew Ryan |

At Every Stage

This week’s essay is a fairly short and simple but potent observation, that has steered my recordings in more profound ways than probably any technical skills or mathematical trickery, no doubt. I believe, that the goal of any recorded song is to imbue the world and those willing to listen with a more cinematic relationship with their lives and their environment. Your living room looks different at dusk, and even more different in the middle of the night. Traffic at rush hour sets a different tone than headlights at 4 am on a Sunday morning. The view from your window at Christmas in contrast with the view in June. Time and change is a constant. Music is the great enhancer.

At every stage of recording I burn rough mixes and listen in my car while driving around doing errands, circling the city on the 440 loop or cutting through the countryside that surrounds my home. It begins with the source of what I’m creating, the bare bones of an idea. Sometimes it’s just a guitar part or an acoustic and vocal take. Other times it’s a keyboard and drum machine bit. It doesn’t matter how far along the recording is or how cryptic the music is, I just want to try and find what it’s gonna bring to the world outside. And above all, I want it to multiply, heighten the experience of living. By listening to what I’m creating outside of the studio, it helps me to understand and define more clearly what I’m offering to listeners.

Recently a friend of mine and I were driving to an afternoon BBQ. She asked if I could play anything I was working on. I’m really not good at these situations. I tend to over analyze the air while some one’s listening to one of my songs with me sitting their. But she’s a good friend and artist herself, I trust her opinion. So I put on Your Museum, an Irish influenced ballad with a lot of ambiance and violins, almost a waltz, perfect for early dawn in my opinion. So we drove through neighborhoods and traffic, people moving and living. All and all a thoroughly mundane scene that we all know very well. So the song ended a mile or two before our destination. I turned off the stereo. She was quiet for a second then she said, ” did you see that guy mowing the lawn back there?” I said, no. She then says, ” well, with that song playing, it looked like the most heroic and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen a man do.” And then she laughed. I did too, because I knew exactly what she meant. And for a minute I felt like I really accomplished something.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Matthew Ryan |

MOTU Digital Performer 7 Revealed!

Without fanfare (and before we even got a press release), this morning MOTU posted on its Web site details of Digital Performer 7. We at EM assumed that a new version would be announced by January’s NAMM show, and this news caught us completely by surprise.

For guitarists, the addition of modeled guitar amps and stompboxes will be particularly exciting. The Custom ’59 plug-in emulates three classic guitar amps and isn’t afraid to name names: the Fender Bassman, Marshall JTM45 and Marshall JCM800. You can even mix and match tone stacks and preamp tubes and circuitry to customize your own amp model. Modeled speaker cabinets are the domain of Live Room | G, which emulates five cabs and up to four simultaneous microphones. You also get a nice variety of virtual effects pedals, including a modeled Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer (with user-definable mods), MXR Distortion+, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff ?, Boss Chorus Ensemble, and Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive.
DP7

In the Consolidated Window, DP7’s resizable Channel Strip displays all the mixer settings for whatever track you’re working on, and you can place inline EQ and dynamics right in the mixer channels. Other new functions include consolidated V-Racks, AU instrument sidechains, support for Pro Tools|HD hardware and the ability to print lead sheets. There’s much more to DP7 than I have space to cover here. For additional details, visit MOTU’s DP7 Web pages, where you can read more, watch video clips and listen to audio examples.

DP7 is available now for the retail price of $795, and upgrades from previous versions are $195. You can also crossgrade from other DAWs for $395. Of special note is that for an additional $99, upgrades include MX4 2.2, one of my all-time favorite soft synths, which normally sells for $295. If you don’t have MX4 already, I highly recommend it, especially at this bargain price.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Geary Yelton |

SM58: The Method Actor

For years I stood in front of a mic like a newscaster: controlled emoting, measured delivery and precise mumbled enunciation. And even if that’s not necessarily true, that’s more often than not how it felt. In my head in contrast, or at war with the lyrics, were a litany of short thoughts—don’t wanna distort, don’t wanna sound like an ass, don’t wanna go flat, don’t wanna over emote, don’t wanna go sharp.

Discomfort and self-consciousness are the enemies of freedom. A song should break beyond the circumstance it ruminates on; it doesn’t need resolution, or perfect mechanics or even a chorus. It needs conviction, and with that a song becomes free. No mic in the world can disguise, or make a singer sound committed or relaxed. All this isn’t to say that I haven’t gotten good vocal performances on my previous records. It’s just that it was always so hard to get to that spot where it just fell out. The list of mics I’ve sang through over the years is as long as my arm. And every engineer I’ve worked with had their reasons, legitimate reasons for the mics they used. For this record though, as I mentioned in last week’s piece, my goal was different.

Comfort equals confidence. So after trying a handful of expensive mics through a borrowed LA610, I reached for a Shure SM58. There’s something about the physicality of a 58, as well as the familiarity. Iconic really; Sinatra is black and white, Bono at Red Rocks, Iggy Pop propelling from a chord like a helicopter. The 58 is a workhorse of a method actor. It forces you to push through it, to clarify, to enunciate. 58s despise laziness. One sure way to sound crappy through a 58 is to go through the motions.

The first song I used a 58 for vocals on this record was The End Of A Ghost Story. This is a warts and all love song, late night resignations and hope on rainy streets. The other mics I used brought a prettiness. A rather annoying treatment because my voice isn’t particularly pretty. But the best art embraces duality. And for this song I wanted the words to rattle your cup and whisper in your ear. The 58 brought it and I never looked back. With some smart and generous EQ and sensible compression the throat, chest and language come alive. Sound is more than just mathematics. Sound is feeling, and when you consider the recordings of Smokey Robinson, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison you realize that feeling should be the goal with a voice.

All of this is not to say that a 58 will work for you. I hope that you explore what brings you that sense of intimate and real possibility. Don’t assume the latest technology or the latest cardioid condenser mic or simulator is the way to go. It’s not always the latest and greatest or the oldest or coolest. The 58 worked for me. You should look for what works for you, just be sure to find that balance between feeling and sound. And above all, make sure you feel like Mount Rushmore while you’re leaning into it.

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Mackie Takes on Avid

About a month ago, editors at music publications began receiving packages from Mackie containing Mackie Onyx-i mixers, a boxed version of Pro Tools M-Powered software, and not a lot of explanation. It was a teaser campaign to get the press’s attention, and get us talking about the fact that Mackie had managed to reverse engineer a mixer/interface to make it work with Pro Tools. Why is that a big deal? Up until now, Pro Tools could only run on hardware made by Digidesign or, in the case of Pro Tools M-Powered, by its sister company M-Audio. Both Digidesign and M-Audio are owned by Avid.

At that time, I contacted Avid to get that company’s reaction, and, not surprisingly, it wasn’t particularly positive. Here’s Avid’s official statement, as of August 10th:

“Avid (Digidesign) has not approved or tested Mackie equipment to be interoperable with any of its solutions. Pro Tools M-Powered is only licensed for use with our M-Audio peripheral products.?

Why is Avid not happy? Because, its business is based on selling hardware. Up until now, Pro Tools or Pro Tools M-Powered could only run on a Digidesign or M-Audio interface (respectively). Pro Tools software, is, for the most part, the carrot that attracts people to the company’s hardware. Avid’s control of its market hinges on the fact that nobody, at least up until now, can run Pro Tools without buying its hardware. Suddenly, here comes Mackie, a company with a distinguished reputation for building mixers, with a challenge to Avid’s entire paradigm. Today’s Mackie press release about the Onyx-i mixers, which are due to ship this month, had this to say in a subtly placed footnote:

“The Onyx-i Series Mixers are qualified by Mackie for use with Pro Tools® M-Powered™ 8. Mackie will release a driver (via www.mackie.com) together with full details of how to use the Onyx-i Series with Pro Tools® M-Powered™ 8 in the coming weeks.”

I don’t know enough about intellectual property law to predict whether Avid will launch a legal challenge to this, but it certainly bears watching. Without question, this is a story that could have a big impact on the personal-studio market, and I will offer updates as they become available.

In other Avid news, the company has announced a new entry-level version of Pro Tools, called Pro Tools Essentials. It will offer very low priced, track-limited Pro Tools bundles, replete with M-Audio hardware, and a price of $129. More details on this soon.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Mike Levine |

The Source

Last summer I read Outliers (The Story Of Success) by Malcolm Gladwell. Don’t get nervous, Outliers isn’t a self-help book nor is this a self-help essay. Gladwell’s book is an engaging dissertation on success outcomes and the mechanics of ambition vs. the notion of destiny. You see, in anything we do, there are different failures and successes in the designs and eventual outcome of our intent. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about music, painting, construction, love or investment banking.

What stuck out to me the most from Outliers was the concept of “good enough.” Yeah, that concept is often viewed as the harbinger of mediocrity in the studio or during the creative process. Our heroes inspire us to not only shoot for the moon. So much of music is the cinematic impression that the whole gives – all the parts purring like an engine, creating that hum of power and movement. Simple or complex, happy or sad; what we aim for is emotional weather. But sometimes we get caught up in details that have nothing to do with the overall feel of a song or track. We start twiddling knobs and messing with effects and inserting reverbs and on and on and on. These travels into the unknown can be useful adventures leading to discovery. Or, they can be diversions because somewhere in there you know that at some point you lost or obscured The Source. But the concept of “good enough” offers a freedom that I’ve found indespensible in the studio. It’s not a cop-out but an important sensory philosophy when recording because is there really a difference between a “good guitar track” and a “great one” when the performance is directly informed by the source?

What’s the source? The source is that thing, the lightening strike or sudden inspiration that leads you from an idea to something as real as a song or hook or chorus or beat or sonic emotionalism. We live in a time where technology affords most of us the ability to capture the source on “tape” the moment it arrives. Once the source is captured, more often than not it can be tweaked to be sonically “good enough.” How amazing then that our music can be infused with and by the initial excitement. It’s something we should be protective of, and it’s important to understand that that initial excitement is fundamental to the character of what we create and how listeners experience it.

Last May I hunkered down to record a fully realized record at home alone. What inspired me to do this wasn’t an ego trip or final push for absolute control. This is my 12th record, and I was motivated by the notion of the source. I can’t even begin to express how rewarding it’s been to work this way. Personally, I love the work of Brian Eno and the mixes of Tchad Blake and Flood (and so many musicians, producers and engineers). It can be daunting to be inspired by such experts and icons. But it’s been this philosophy of honoring The Source and presenting it to the best of my abilities that’s allowed me a real freedom to create.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Matthew Ryan |

About

The Bus, EM's editorial blog, features posts from all the EM editors on topics related to gear, recording techniques and much more. It's also home to posts from a selected group of guest bloggers.

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