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Archive for October, 2009

The Robair Report: Today’s Studio: It’s in the bag!

Gino RobairThe following is the third installment of a brand-new blog in which former EM editor Gino Robair speaks out on issues relating to music technology. Read the first installment and the second installment.

robair-report-200.jpgMy job keeps me traveling, but I like to get a bit of work done while I’m sitting in an airport or train station. In the past few months, I have assembled a portable, yet highly flexible workstation that let’s me listen, edit, and mix recordings with high-quality effects, as if I was at home.

In this video, I unpack my portable studio to show you which components I bring with me (and how many things end up hanging off of my laptop).

Watch the video.

This week’s assignment:
Create a checklist of the things you would need to do your work while on the road. Mentally walk yourself through the various types of projects you do, and make note of each cable, dongle, power supply, and accessory you use. When an item is somewhat large—such as a USB keyboard controller—consider whether the one you use is small enough to travel with easily, or if there is some sort of workaround (such as using your ASCII keys to enter MIDI notes or trigger samples).

Cool Links:
Musicians hear better? Duh!

Ever wonder what happens when you digitally compress a song multiple times?

Can you imagine a sound?

The Dear Future

It’s a perfect autumn gloom today. It has that moodiness and color that makes autumn so cinematic. I’m driving to meet some friends and for the first time in a long time I hear myself on the radio. Just that quick, the first track from Dear Lover, “City Life,? is playing on the radio. It’s a rush of proud achievement. A labor of love, it was often a persistent game of pin-the-tail on the elusive weather of music.

Everything we do is about casting. From recording records to marriage, chemistry is everything. Good casting allows people to flourish as naturally as possible in situations. I can be proud of what I’ve done with Dear Lover. It was an act of will, but I didn’t do it alone. I’ve operated under the radar for years, I’ve scratched my head and hovered so close to the ground that crashing seemed inevitable. I’ve even had record company executives (who will remain unnamed) tell me my career was over. It’s still not clear where my career is ultimately headed. But it’s never over until you yourself decide it’s over. No matter what you do for a living, living is an act of faith and brotherhood. The new world has leveled the playing field and opened the gates for all to rush in to create and listen. We live in amazing times.

On Tuesday, October 27th, I released Dear Lover digitally. The speed at which things move today is amazing, and it may be the greatest challenge we’ve ever known. Every part of our communities are being challenged by a deluge of news, politics, entertainment, loneliness, hype and hope. Is it even possible to digest it all? What suffers in this storm of culture and zeitgeist, what flourishes? Frankly, I don’t know. But I believe that connectivity means more than it ever did.

No matter what happens with Dear Lover, at it’s core is a gang that has rallied together to offer something meaningful to friends, listeners and strangers. It’s an amazing cast of people I find myself surrounded by, so much heart and talent. When I heard “City Life? on the radio I was reminded of all the things that create the entire story of Dear Lover: Molly playing the violin in one take on “Your Museum.? Laughing at 6ft 4 Brian Bequette playing that goofy lime green accordion all clumsy and great on “The World Is.? Rod singing all low and rumbling with sunglasses on because the southern July sun was burning through the room. Scott and I gathered around a mic, bluegrass style, for “City Life? (him on mando, me on accordion). Monica Hopman, my friend and publicist for years, deciding that she’d hunker down and start a company with me and go on this new adventure releasing my records. Clay and I drinking until 4am trading bass solos on “PS.? And maybe the most miraculous moment, hearing for the first time the transformative mastering job that Hans Dekline did to my very earnest mixes for Dear Lover.

All of this is between the notes of Dear Lover. That’s what I would wish for you as well, because it’s getting harder to get people to slow down enough to really listen. We don’t know what the outcome for our work and dreams will be. The very least we can do is have a great time doing it.

Listen to “City Life.?

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Related Topics: Emusician, Matthew Ryan |

Building Boats

With my commitment to EM nearly over, I wonder if I offered anything useful to you readers out there. I hope that I have. Next week’s blog will be my last. My assumption going in was that many of you probably understand the technical aspects of recording, sequencing and mixing about as much as I do; many of you probably understand it even more than I do. So I decided in the beginning that I would try and encourage you to try and distill your truth as best you can.

I finished making my latest record, Dear Lover, a few weeks ago. And with the speed of things now, it will be coming out shortly. The process of making Dear Lover was like none I’ve experienced before. Mostly made by myself, it was a marathon of hope, work, beauty, frustration, elation and even some despair. The final result has made me an impossibly proud father of sorts. I followed my gut until my gut was completely at peace with what I created. And now has begun that process of allowing the record to be received by listeners, friends, critics, advocates and strangers. The process of releasing a record is far more nerve-racking than the process of making a record.

All I can tell you is that when you record a song, you’re building a boat. The first person that’s gotta be able to board that boat is you. Once you’re satisfied with what you created, you gotta let it float away. I know how this may read, but let me try and be clear, the thing about songs is that you never know how many people are gonna come along and travel along with you for a while. Could be one, none or a million, and it’s amazing you know? Because regardless of the circumstances or the room you built that boat in, if you built it sturdy enough, it will welcome as many people as are willing to come along.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Matthew Ryan |

The Robair Report: Running on Empty? Never!

Gino RobairThe following is the second installment of a brand-new blog in which former EM editor Gino Robair speaks out on issues relating to music technology. Read the first installment.

runningonempty.jpgDespite his incredible talent as a singer/songwriter, I don’t like Jackson Browne’s music. I’ve tried many times, even sitting through an 8-encore concert with his top-notch band. Not to get all Lefsetz on ya, but Jackson Browne just doesn’t do anything for me. When his music comes on the radio, my hand is on the dial in a nanosecond. That is, until yesterday, when, for some reason, I listened to Running on Empty in its entirety. And I liked it! What the hell happened?

In my July 2008 editors note “Listen and Learn,? I talked about turning off your iPod, removing your earbuds, and listening to whatever environment you happen to be, just to see if there was something you could learn from the experience. Whether you’re stuck in a noisy airport terminal, pinned between snoring campers, or trapped in an elevator with Muzak, there is usually some kind of auditory lesson you can take away from an initially uncomfortable or irritating situation.

Similarly, I often ask my students to listen to the music that they don’t like. Not just put it on in the background, but really hear it—analyze the foreground and background, scrutinize the production values, and visualize the overall gestalt of it. Many of my students, fresh out of high school, are acutely focused on some ultra-niche style of rap or metal and have little-to-no knowledge of other musical styles, despite the fact that they are bombarded by them on radio, TV, and the Internet.

Why waste your time listening to the music you hate? What does it teach you?

First, if you plan on making money with the craft of recording, it behooves you to understand how different musical genres sound because, at some point, you may get a chance to make a bit of money off of them. (An ex-student of mine who writes and records guitar-based rock has done well for himself tracking vocals for rappers in his garage with only a single condenser mic and a Pro Tools Mbox. And he’s not even out of high school yet!)

Second, even if you don’t plan to record anyone else, there is plenty to learn from nearly every form of recorded sound. Now’s your chance to borrow or steal the good parts and put them to work in your own music.

Third, being able to focus on the production values in a session is a great way to keep your sanity when you’re client is driving you nuts. Sometimes scrutinizing the mic placement on an acoustic guitar is enough to keep you from ripping the instrument out of their hands and chasing them around the room with it.

Which is exactly what I wanted to do back in the ‘80s when I was midway through the seventh encore of a Jackson Browne concert. But yesterday I didn’t have the urge to punch my car radio when Running on Empty came on. For some reason, I was captivated by the sound around his voice. Considering it’s a concert recording, it has an incredible three-dimensionality to it, blending nicely with the highly orchestrated rhythm track underneath. Even while driving 55, I could clearly hear his voice floating in the room. That was enough to set my imagination going, as I visualized the different ways to make such a thing work. Suddenly, I didn’t want the song to end!

This week’s assignment:
What’s the most intolerable song you can think of? Give it a listen and pay close attention to the production values, such as the overall mix, the drum sound, the room sound, or where the various instruments fit within the frequency spectrum. Consider how the lyrics (if any) and the production link up: does the mix take any cues from the words in the song?

Can you find three things in the song that surprised you or that you would want to use in your own music? Can you find three things that you would fix or change if you could? (Besides killing the band.)

After you’ve done the assignment, visit Mix magazine’s Web site and see if they’ve covered your most-hated song in one of their Classic Tracks columns. Even if they haven’t, you might find a song on the list that really pisses you off. (I did.) Give it a listen, analyze the recording qualities, then check out the column and see if the things you discovered are covered in the text.

Avoid doing the assignment by listening to MP3s (or worse, to satellite radio). You’ll have a much better experience analyzing the mix of a song when it hasn’t been through some form of data compression. Better yet, if the song was originally released on vinyl, track it down on that format. If it was a big enough hit, you should be able to find it in the dollar bin somewhere.

Cool Link
In Mammals, a Complex Journey to the Middle Ear


When I was recording “PS (Protest Song)? for Dear Lover I was thinking about John Lennon. I’m not a Beatles fanatic, but Lennon is top ten for me. He’s one of the bravest artists we’ve had. “Mother,? “Beautiful Boy,? “Imagine,? “Help? and “How? are all very painful yet liberating mainlines to the human condition. It’s my belief that the more personal a song is, the more universal it gets. Honest music is not for everyone. But Lennon was one of the best at turning vulnerability into heroism. And in his songs, people found a community almost like no other. That’s how I see it, and I wanted “PS? to try and drag that flag as well.

We live in a time of constant movement. Subtlety is often over-looked in our snappy compressed culture. I’ve made it a point not to succumb to the crackle and hyperbole of so much of the deluge. At times it’s made for hard sailing. But I believe that it is more important than ever to stand by the convictions of our imaginations.

“PS? is a protest song against hopelessness. I know, it sounds maudlin. But listen, watch the adverts between shows or the banners on your favorite web pages. It’s every where. This essay is too short to dissect it all. But a quick glance around and it seems there’s an epidemic of sadness and anxiety out there.

So my thinking was that every song should be infused with an immediacy inspired by it’s theme. On every level, a song should circle it’s mood and cause. It’s cumulative effect is defined by all the parts working in concert with each other. From the guitar, to the words, to the drums, bass and the organ; music has to feel above all else. “PS? had to be a grinding hope, a determined line in the sand. I played the guitar part for two days straight. I refused to lean on editing, I wanted to get it so that it dealt in beginning to end absolutes; love it or hate it. Admittedly, a more skilled guitar player probably could have gotten there sooner. I swear my fingers were left with burning dents on the tips for at least three days afterwards.

All of this is not to turn my own efforts into a monument. But to encourage anyone reading this to consider using your tools to not only record, but to feel as well.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Matthew Ryan |

The 14-Track Rule and the Call For Immediacy

When I first sat down to begin recording Dear Lover I set one simple definitive rule:

Every song will be fully realized with 14 tracks or less.

So many times in the past I’ve felt that the reason we were knocking up against 32 tracks or more in a session was because we hadn’t found the parts that spoke clearly enough. If you’ve been there, you know what a frustrating sensation that is. Studio costs and schedules often only allow for short window for creativity. To work so hard only to find there’s nothing quite musically unique and/or sturdy enough to hang your song on often begins a litany of acts of compensation. Since I was already determined to capture the source for the root of each recording at home alone (as I mentioned in an earlier essay for EM), it seemed reasonable to set a track limit.

The track limit was one of the most important decisions I made because it forced me to delete and record over performances or ideas that didn’t feel like they were raising the bar. It was tempting to bend the rule from time to time. It’s takes a brave faith to delete problematic parts before you’ve found their solution. But so much of this record was intended to be a proverbial jump off the cliff for me. And it became a bold provocation to my own imagination to out due myself whenever I hesitated for fear I wouldn’t eventually invent or discover the perfect part. So I’d follow my gut and take a deep breath, press delete and go back to the drawing board.

Another reason I leaned on the 14 track rule was that I really don’t consider myself an engineer so I had to think ahead to mixing. I have a great respect for what engineers do. At their best, engineers are a perfect blend between heart and science. They make what could be impressionistic into definitive sonic weather. To be honest, I get nervous trying to EQ and mix 4 tracks, let alone 14. But since Dear Lover was intended to be as singular an expression as possible, I wanted to enjoy every level of responsibility that making an album offers. Luckily I found that forcing myself to make clear and sturdy statements with ensemble-minded performances made for tracks that immediately felt like they wanted mix themselves. So many of my favorite songs on my previous records were rough mixes, so my mode here spoke directly to encouraging a vigilant call for immediacy with my ears and gut as the only measuring stick.

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Musician or Not?

I seem to have struck a bit of a nerve with my recent First Take column, in which I postulated that people who make music primarily by putting together loops rather than playing traditional instruments should still be considered “musicians.” The responses I’ve gotten so far have been spilt between the positive and the negative. I will say, that the people who have emailed me to disagree have been quite passionate in their feelings about it.

For instance, a reader named Richard said:

“Ordering, and re-arranging of digital synthesis does not a musician make! While I, like your musical associate mentioned in your First Take article, respect the abilities of said persons, this, “Borrowed or Licensed programming” is insufficient Data to constitute comparison to lets say”’ Beethoven, I know the Magazine is Electronic Musician, but Mike, please!!!”

On the other side of the argument, Alan had this to say:

“Just wanted to write you and say thanks for your piece on whether or not mixers/producers can be considered musicians. I have to agree with you. In my opinion a believe that the tools used in creating music doesn’t determine whether or not you can be considered a musician.”

More support for my position came in from Tim:

“I am a high school music teacher of a course titled Digital Music Composition. We use GarageBand, M-Audio USB keyboards, a Korg M50, and four Kaossilators. While most people can come up with creative ways of using the technology devices, one will always have to have some knowledge of music theory–how the elements of music go together (melody, harmony, and rhythm.) Just come to day two of my course where, after I’ve taught the features of GarageBand, I simply tell the kids, ‘Take five minutes to develop a one-minute song.’ The loops are splashed all over the screen in a cacophony of fits, starts, and musicl zigs and zags. Inspiration is one thing, know-how is another and more important thing. So while GarageBand, Kaossilators, and Apple Apps for iPhone/Touch bring powerul expression tools to the masses, one still needs to know how to put the ideas together in a musically cohesive manner. That’s why we will always need music teachers: to take that inspiration, hone it, sculpt it, enable it, and let it go.”

And then, there was Drew…

“In my opinion, this kind of editorial is first and foremost cynical and disingenuous and second, divisive and wrong-headed. Mike unwittingly (I’m guessing) is driving a wedge even further between musicians and “sound knob twisters? by equating the two and suggesting that what untrained dilettantes do is music.”

If you want to read their complete responses, go to the article link. Keep those emails coming. You can respond there or here on the blog, if you’d like.

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The Robair Report: How Pitch Correction Has Helped Our Ears Evolve

Gino RobairThe following is the first installment of a brand-new blog in which former EM editor Gino Robair speaks out on issues relating to music technology.

For reasons that you can probably figure out, Antares Auto-Tune is one of the few pro-audio tools that nearly everyone knows about. As if to hammer home the fact, there’s even a version of it available for the iPhone.

Kids can hardly wait to add the much-maligned effect to their own voices! Although Auto-Tune is not the only pitch-correction product on the market, the name has already become synonymous with the technology, just as the name Xerox has come to mean photo-copying.

Antares Auto-TuneAs Nathaniel Kunkel noted in his March ’09 InSession column, Auto-Tune greatly simplified a chore that required at least two tape decks, a tuner, an Eventide H3000, and many hours to complete. Vocal tuning was already being done by the pros long before Cher’s production team used it so blatantly on “Believe?: Antares simply made the process more convenient, and as a result, more pervasive.

Musicians and listeners alike still treat this technology as the recording industry’s “dirty little secret,? primarily because it can turn someone who is musically challenged into a convincing singer with a mere press of a button. The only talent we need is behind the glass, rather than in front of it, right?

But as Kunkel and other engineers who use it suggest, pitch-correction technology is changing how we listen to music. For example, he notes that, after working with pitch correction for a while, it takes time for his ears to readjust to the idiosyncrasies in songs recorded before tuning technology existed.

I think the decidedly modern sound of quantized melodies has changed our perception for the better. First, pitch-correction technology reminds us how aesthetically satisfying subtle differences in intonation can be in a performance. That may seem like a no-brainer, but try to pitch correct an otherwise musical take without removing the essence of the performance. You’ll see right away how a vocal part has more going for it than a array of discrete pitches.

T-Pain AppSecond, the technology gives us an opportunity to hear what “perfectly in tune? actually sounds like, and the results are not always desirable. Done incorrectly, pitch correction can make the voice sound mechanical. Artists such as T-Pain and Akon take advantage of that aspect of the technology, figuring out exciting ways to misuse it for artistic purposes. But there’s no excuse when the tuning is unintentionally obvious on a pop-song vocal, and you can hear the algorithm working in the background.

And that’s why I think the far-reaching impact of pitch correction is ultimately good: These artifacts teach listeners to pay closer attention to the subtle intonation cues in music. And the greater an awareness they have of musical details, the more likely they’re going to see through the BS that is often being passed off as art. There is a whole lot more to a song than perfect intonation.

This week’s assignment:
Put yourself in the role of a producer who has access to all of today’s software tools. Pick a classic song from the ‘50s, ‘60s, or ‘70s, and listen carefully for any pitch discrepancies in the vocal part. Identify those places where the singer misses the mark, ever so slightly. Think about how you would fix these problems if you were handed this track to mix. What artifacts might you encounter? Work hard to imagine how you’d clean them up.

Once you have finished, step back for a moment and consider whether your pitch corrections would have increased the musicality and aesthetic value of the song? Would it have robbed anything from the artist or presentation? These are not meant to be rhetorical questions: I want to know what you think and discover.

(Note that, with a product such as Celemony Melodyne Editor, which lets you tune individual notes within a polyphonic recording, it is not inconceivable that content owners will go through their back catalogs and fix the pitch errors on their classic masters. What better way to get you to buy those records yet again?)

For those of you who were horrified by stereo versions of Beatles albums that were originally mono, imagine what will happen if they decide to correct the slightly out of tune vocal parts in the next repackaged release. (You didn’t think the Beatles Industrial Complex was going to stop with the latest box set, did you? I guarantee that you will buy these recordings again, on whatever format wins out in the next decade, when the high-res versions they have in the vault hits the streets.)

Cool Link
Ignore the fact that this track has a corrected-vocal sound: Imagine the rehearsal that went into this excellent one-shot/no-edit video to Lipdub’s “I Gotta Feeling.?

Alfred Hitchcock and Alexander Sokurov would be proud.


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.


October 2009
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