No Pop: A Call To Action

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No Popcorn

For the same reason I don’t eat at Jack Astors, I didn’t watch the Grammy’s this year. I have a lack of interest in things that are generic. That is, things that are politely produced and packaged to have the widest possible appeal. When interviewing the nominees on the Grammy red carpet, they talk about recording artistry, song writing and inspiration. But what they really should be discussing is marketing techniques, winning song formulas, how to get the attention of the media, and image (the last one they usually do discuss at length).

A number of scientific studies prove that popular music has steadily been becoming more and more simplified. Here are two studies for your reference. The Million Song Dataset, and the Plos One Study. Melodies are getting simpler. Chords and progressions (the harmonic motion that carries the melody) are getting simpler. Rhythms are so safe and simple its like they are designed to teach rhythm-deaf people where the 2 and 4 is. Its pretty dire. Studies have shown that it is no longer the attitude of “snobby” or “elitist” musician types. Studies show this is the reality. They also show the correlation between greater sales and more watered down, simplified music.

An inspired notion, originating from a mysterious and elusive figure from the underground of Toronto’s vibrant music scenic, has surfaced. Lonely Vagabond first wrote his post “A Declaration of a New Alternative” on Music Think Tank. His idea is a term (a concept really) called “No Pop.” In LV’s words its “short for Not Popular. Meaning anti-commercial, non-chart-friendly, also inferring there is no expiration date on music nor is it limited by geographic or regional boundaries.”

This movement has been underway for some time. But having a term like “No Pop” may help to spread this ideology of making great, artistic, personal music (free of contrivances aimed at aligning a sound with the existing watered down pop music paradigm), to a larger public. It probably won’t spread very quickly to the mainstream music consuming public, but a larger subset than currently exists would be a nice change.

For years I have been working with artists who have expressed this idea in one way or another. But if a term like “No Pop” were to become a well known, understood and embraced concept I think it would serve to bolster the wills of the truly independent minded artists who create timeless music that originates in their hearts.

Artists and musicians in Toronto are leaders in more ways than one. Here is our opportunity to demonstrate this to the world. I propose to the artists of Toronto, who are already deeply engaged in a “No Pop” approach to music, to adopt the term. To talk about “No Pop” as a movement, and to describe their music and MO as “No Pop”.

Instead of us all complaining so much about the shinny and shallow homogenous drivel that wins Grammy’s. Lets declare this new alternative (that really is new only as a term), and live by an ideology where independent artists are proud to be creators of truly unique and personal non-commercial expression.

Please take a moment to listen to a small collection of some truly unique Toronto based artists that I have produced. You can hear them on my Sound Cloud.

What do you all think? Is this something where Toronto artists can take a leadership role?

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Pre-production – Self Compression

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Music Production Specifics – Pre-Production – Don’t Self Compress!

By James Pew

There are two key components regarding the pathway out of self compressing (checkout yesterdays post for more details on self compressing). The first is breath control (this needs its own post). The second is enunciation.

At Euphonic Sound we use what is referred to as a “soft knee” hardware compressor when we record vocals. Its a custom made (Origin Audio Electronics) hi-fi Opto-tube compressor. Its called soft knee because it has a relatively slow attack time. Unlike most compressors it does not have attack and release controls. The attack and release curve is built in. Soft knee means it has a soft (slow) attack. This means that fast transients (the initial attack of any musical note, including sung notes from vocalists) are much less effected (distorted) than the remainder of the musical note (referred to as the on-set phase of the note, or everything past the transient phase).

What does self compression sound like?

When you emulate the sound of your favorite vocalists on recordings you emulate not only their vocal stylings but you may also be incorporating the sound of the audio processing that is included on the record. As mentioned in yesterdays post singers get the audio compression treatment in popular forms, pretty much without exception. Compression helps to keep the vocal on top of the mix by reducing dynamic range and increasing average loudness. But it also smears the detail of the sound, especially transients (the initial attack of a note). Self compression means you are incorporating the sound of audio effects (mostly compression) into the sound that comes out of your voice acoustically. This sounds much less tone-full and less articulate. Muddy is a good word that comes to mind.

Why do transients matter?
First of all transients are extremely fast. Its the onset phase of a note (the phase past the transient phase) that sticks around for a longer period of time in most cases. So doesn’t that mean the on-set phase is more important? Short answer is no. I read about a study where sound engineers recorded long notes played by both an oboe and a pipe organ. They sliced the transient phase of the oboe note and pasted it onto the on-set phase of the pipe organ note and vice versa. When the notes where played back to groups of musicians and producers, they identified the instrument by whatever the transient phase was. So even though the oboe transient was only a few milliseconds pasted onto the on-set phase of a pipe organ note that lasted several seconds, people with trained ears heard an oboe.

It is the transient that appears to hold most of the key sonic information that tells a listener what they are listening too. Even though I use a soft knee hardware compressor on vocalists (which effects transients less), it is still necessary for the singer to have solid vocal technique (no self compressing) in order to sound best.

Self Compressing in a nutshell.
When a singers voice is trapped or locked in their head, instead of open and resonant in the body (chest voice). Also, when a singer doesn’t open their mouth and enunciate the words clearly. These two issues regarding voice resonance and enunciation are the typical issues I see in vocalists who are emulating or mimicking the sound of other vocalists on recordings. This is self compressing. When you do it you sound more like a voice that has been processed by audio effects and less like a human singing un-effected in a room. You need to sound natural and un-effected, not only so that you sound your best, but so that the compressors and other effects used in the studio environment can best do what they are designed to do.

If you ever get the chance to watch/hear a pro vocalist in the studio you many be surprised at how they sound in the room, compared to how it plays back over the audio system after the voice has passed through a compressor or two. The first time I heard this phenomenon I actually thought the singer sounded ridiculous in the room. He sounded a little like a choir or theatre singer to me. He sounded like he over enunciated. But on playback after all the compression was added it sounded fantastic. I didn’t quite put it all together at that point (it actually took years of exposure to similar musical situations) before I had an epiphany that helped me better understand what self compression vs. proper vocal technique actually is.

Most of the artists I produce get ushered into vocal training as part of their package. Even singers with great technique and chops are not immune to self compression. Like I said in yesterdays post, the sound of the vocal is of extreme importance and I feel its totally worth it to spend the extra time and energy to do more than just a recording session to capture a vocal performance. Many times the singer goes through what looks a lot more like a process that includes work shopping, rehearsing, recording, analysis, more work shopping & rehearsing, then final recording. Singers always see the benefit of the process we put them through and we always have a laugh at early versions of their vocal performance before we had the chance to workshop it and iron out the issues.

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Pre-Production – Vocal Performance

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By James Pew

Music Production Specifics – Pre-Production – Vocal Performance

After the artist and I feel like the writing is solid and we have some good ideas regarding vocal arrangement, the next step is to start preparing/rehearsing the vocal performance for recording. A key thing to consider with popular forms like rap, rock, folk, singer-songwriter, etc., the vocal is the primary focus of the song and of the overall sound. I often frame it as a figure and ground relationship. In popular music the vocal (sung verses, choruses and bridges) are the figure, and everything in the arrangement (rhythmic section, strings, horns, harmony vocals, etc) are the ground (back ground). Seems obvious but clarity on this is essential.

Its important to note that specifically with popular forms of vocal music, the vocal is of supreme importance. An artist dealing in these forms is hinging their entire career prospects on the sound of their voice and the quality of their vocal performance. It matters very little how well written, arranged, mixed/mastered the tune is. People have to love the sound of your voice. Only after they love the sound of your voice will they bother to check-out what you are actually saying and pay closer attention to the rest of the arrangement.

This is usually the time we get Nicole Faye (Euphonic Sound vocal coach) involved. The artist, myself and Nicole “workshop” the vocal performance for a few sessions until we feel like the artist is connecting with the performance on both a technical and stylistic level. When it comes to the technical aspects the emphasis is breath control, pitch, timing and timbre. When it comes to the stylistic what we are looking for is a natural and personal sounding performance (usually in the vocal workshops we try to identify and bring out unique qualities of the singers voice). The problem with a lot of singers who sound good and pretty much have it together technically, is that they often don’t sound unique or original. We attempt to provide a pathway to help a singer find their unique voice.

One key thing that a lot of singers don’t understand is how the use of hardware and software compression changes the sound of their voice. Its a little bit technical to explain fully, but in a nutshell compression, among other things, causes a distortion in the sound. Not an obvious over driven distortion like on a guitar amp, but a more subtle distortion. I’ve heard technical explanations about compression where it was said that compression equals distortion. Compression is the most used signal processing effect in modern music. It is the one effect that has shaped the sound of modern music more than any other. The discussion on compression should have its own series of posts to really dive into all of the intricacies.

Why do producers use compression on vocals?

The quick explanation is because a compressor reduces the difference between the loud and quiet passages of what is being recorded. This is called dynamic range (the range of dynamics that exist between the quietest and loudest moments across the whole tune). You can measure the dynamic range of an isolated vocal track, or you can measure the dynamic range of a multi-track mix, pretty much everything has a dynamic range. As you apply greater amounts of audio compression the dynamic range gets smaller and smaller. As the dynamic range decreases, the average loudness increases. In the context of most popular forms of vocal music it is necessary for us to decrease the dynamic range (thereby increasing the average loudness) of a vocal performance so that it blends better with the other instruments in the arrangement.

We want the vocal to stick out (its the figure, or focus). When a vocal (or any other musical instrument) has too great of a dynamic range, there can be moments that feel like drop outs (when it disappears for an instance somewhere in the mix). So to keep it clear and on top of the mix the compression process is employed. This practice is not always done artfully. Often compression becomes this automatic go to sort of crutch. So much so across our culture that it inspired Quincy Jones audio engineer, Bruce Swedien, to proclaim “compression is for kids.”

I bring up compression because I find that many singers spend so much time listening to and studying singers on recordings (where those singers already have been fully compressed). After years of doing this the tendency is to mimic the sound of vocals after they have been processed (including in most cases…with tons of compression). Most people growing up in this culture do the self compression thing. It can take a while to break a singer of the self-compressing habit. But once you do the singer gives a much better and clearer performance.

When a singer does the self compression thing and the engineer/producer does the usual hardware compression thing, in a weird way its like they are getting compressed twice. The result is a sound that approximates a mainstream professional pop vocal, but lacks in overall clarity and comparatively sounds muddy.

Ok this post is already too long. I’m going to stop this one here and in the next day or two I’ll post up the Two Keys Components Regarding The Pathway Out Of Self Compressing.

Again I include the track “Woes” I produced for Asher Jacob. Asher was a pretty serious self compressor when we first started working with him. We put him through the “pathway” and now I really love how his vocals came out. Checkout the clarity behind every word!

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Pre-production – Lyrics

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By James Pew

Music Production Specifics – Pre-production – Lyrics

A great singer/songwriter I worked with once told me that their music teacher suggested that they revise their songs a minimum of seven more times at the point they feel the song is finished. Have you ever tried this? It can seem really difficult at first. You have these lyrics that you feel are perfect, but you need to find imperfections and, um… perfect them. We all know that nothing is ever really perfect, and if you keep in mind that there is always room for improvement, then it seems a little less daunting to under go further re-writes. Trust me once you start revising your “perfect” lyrics, and you keep in mind some of the things I talk about in this post, I’m sure you will find that it is actually not that hard to find little (sometimes big things) to improve the sound and/or message of the lyrics.

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of the lyrics. I always ask the artist to describe to me in as much detail as possible what the song is about and what is the message they are trying to get across. Once I know what the intention of the tune is, I constantly refer back to that as I’m analyzing each word and line. This is the central theme of the song and every line and word should re-enforce that somehow. That is one of the main goals.

Woes has a hook and two verses. Asher wrote the hook first I believe and we felt the lyrics were strong so we spent a bit of time developing the melody. The chorus came together pretty quick. But both verses were subject to 7 or 8 revisions each (we worked on the verses for weeks). My process for revising lyrics goes something like this:

I ask for a copy of the lyrics. The artist (usually a singer or rapper), performs the song for me in the control room (no microphones yet, we are no where near recording). What I’m listening for mostly is the sound of the verses. This means both the rhythmic (flow) aspects and the phonetic content. Those are most important to me. But the substance of the lyrics is also important (what is the song about? Does every line and word help paint the picture?). This process of lyric revision is kind of intense and requires a lot of concentration. As I hear the lyrics being performed (sung or rapped) I circle words or lines on the lyric sheet that I think could be stronger, or I circle words that I think should be eliminated all together. Sometimes words in a verse are kind of gratuitous. Words like “very,” “and,” “but,” “I,” “If,” “then,” – just a few examples. I consider weather the elimination of a word alters the meaning of the line. If it doesn’t, then I consider if it improves the sound of the line (flow and phonetics). Its difficult to always be double checking the sonic qualities of each line, while at the same time making sure the substance of the lyrics (the story) is together.

A note on phonetics. Remember its not poetry or prose. This medium is meant to be heard, not read. It has to sound good. Hard consents often sound more aggressive (like they have more conviction) than words with softer sounding letters (like pretty much any word that starts with an “H.” I challenge you to try and sing or rap an “H” word and sound tough doing it…not easy).

When it comes to the substance of the lyrics. I look out for a number of typical problems. One really common issue is saying the same thing, in a different way, more than once (either in different verses or sometimes even in the same verse). I go through the verses line by line asking does each line (and word) add a new fragment to the story (I really feel it should). If you only have two or three verses to tell a story the goal should be to get as much detail across in those verses as possible. The goal is to paint the clearest picture you can.

I will also look out for patterns and themes in the lyrics (like metaphors that recur for example). I love that kind of stuff and want to make sure that these types of devices are fully developed. Sometimes we fix things on the spot (come up with new words, lines, rhymes), but most of this work is done by the artist on their time (in their personal writing environment where they feel the most inspired).

Rhyme schemes are key too. Sometimes I hear a line or two and I think of two or more strong rhyme words that make sense to what is being said, so I’ll suggest to the artist that they try and work them in (hopefully creating a more sophisticated rhyme pattern). Sometimes it just won’t work though, so I don’t force it. Ideas come pretty quick when you are working on music, the goal is to work each idea a little and see how it feels – if it feels to contrived or forced we move on to the next idea.

Asher was so great to work with because he is a refinement junky (like me). Our first pre-production lyric session was brutal. More than half of the words and lines were circled (this is typical of most of my projects). Asher took all my criticism and direction to heart. He would go home (and back to the drawing board) and come back a few days later with a re-write. With each new version we would start the process over, but less and less would get circled. Until finally I can find nothing left to circle. It is not a straight line to get there. It takes a lot of discipline to fully commit to a such a rigorous process of revisions and iterations. The tendency of artists is to want to get the song finished (and “get it out there”). Its a cathartic thing for an artist, which can lead to them rushing it out the door before its the best it can be.

So what methods of writing and revising lyrics do you use when producing music?

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Unpopular Music Biz Truth – Technology Makes Us Assholes but Love is the Solution so it might be ok…I think.

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Unpopular Opinion

Unpopular Music Biz Truth – Technology Makes Us Assholes but Love is the Solution so it might be ok…I think.

Louis CK has it right in his assessment of the “meh” generation. We live in the most amazing, technologically advanced and privileged time in human history, but everyone is bored. We all know we are the benefactors of ages of human struggle and advancement. We all know how lucky we are to have been born in this time, over any other time. So what is with us?

Life is a gift and the real world, the one outside of our laptop’s, iphone’s, netflix, tablet, twitter feed blah blah blah is this amazing place full of beauty, knowledge, creativity, experiences. etc. Its relatively safe here. All of the essentials to our survival are in abundance. Nonessential things created by people to improve the quality of our time here, also in masses of abundance. How much more awesome do things need to get before people notice.

Technology brings positive things obviously, but the negative things are often invisible. The culture of “meh” is an effect of the media environment. With all of the amazing things that technology has given us (Euphonic Sound for one LOL) it has also changed us into creatures our grand parents would barely recognize as fellow humans (lucky for them they don’t have to see this).

In my life instead of worrying about being eaten by lizards or gathering food during regular outbreaks of starvation, I exist in a world that allowed me to play music, build audio gear and a recording studio, study music and production, etc. I’m able to dedicate my life to a non-essential thing. Don’t get me wrong music is extremely essential at making the world a better place to live, but its not a basic like food, shelter, air , water, fire. Most of human existence before us (and still the reality of billions today in other parts of the world) didn’t have the luxury to make such “frivolous’ life choices. So why are we such un-impressed narcissistic assholes? And what can be done about it?

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, to paraphrase; Study the media to gain an understanding of it’s effects. Once you do that, program a response or counter measure. In the current case we are not doing that (we’ve never done that in a meaningful way). Instead we just say “meh.” We are given “meh” and we feel “meh.”

But not artists and creative types right? I don’t know about that, as much as I love musicians (especially the ones in Toronto) I see a lot of bored looking cats going through the motions. I don’t think any of us are immune to the effects of the media environment. Its when I see “meh” culture invading the personalities of the people I’ve always loved most, musicians, that I feel the need to talk about this.

This notion of, everyones an asshole now, is best introduced through humour (from Louis CK, a comedian, who is an artist, who by definition is ahead of the curve). It is the purpose of art to guide human existence safely through its development. McLuhan said that art is like a Noah’s Arc and that artists were like the antennae of the human species. There is a message in Louis bit that we need to get.

With a new awareness we have to try to not let our gadgets and media access turn us into narcissists. At the heart of it love is the counter measure. And we all have to design our own unique application of the love solution. You will know you are onto something when you start becoming less narcissistic and more giving and involved with other people doing things you and they love. We can’t be assholes, the future of humanity is depending on us not to be now. If you are already not an asshole, still try to be even less of one, but pretty much continue on in your efforts :)

A true study of the world we live in involves things McLuhan discussed (Today known as Media Theory or Media Ecology. Or just, study of environment). Media literacy and awareness of its effects points out solutions fairly obviously. What is not obvious is what the real effects of the media environment are. This has had people misunderstanding the problem and chasing after the wrong solutions since McLuhan pointed it out in the 1950s. Go down a rabbit hole of amazing environmental knowledge and study some Media Ecology (start with Marshall McLuhan’s book, “Understanding Media”). Or if you don’t have time for that just know this,

It’s all love or we stop being human.

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