I’ve read quite a few music related books. Some books were for school (i.e. the history of a particular period in time or on orchestration) and some books were more for enjoyment. “Listen Up!” by producer/engineer Mark Howard and his brother Chris is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. The writers found a nice balance between the industry/gear talk and the social/personal aspects described in the book. And wow, there sure is a ton of stuff discussed. “Listen Up!” is like a freight train of activity — one project directly following another project following a tour and then followed by yet another project.
Besides Mark’s own production/engineering projects, he has worked extensively with producer/guitarist/singer/songwriter Daniel Lanois. Lanois’s approach to recording was often installation based — in other words he would set up a studio in a nontraditional setting such as a house. In many cases, it was one of Mark’s roles to “build” the studio. He would scout out a location, get the gear and assemble everything. He also spent a fair amount of time considering the decor of the studio. The feel/vibe of a space can absolutely affect how musicians perform, so it makes sense he thought about things like lighting, rugs and accessories.
A few things jumped out at me while I was reading the book. First was the incredible level of detail. Mark either has a fantastic memory or he kept a journal, but regardless the details help paint a very clear picture of his various interactions. And that was the second thing that caught my attention — all the interactions. It’s no secret that much of the music industry is at least partially based around personal, social interactions. If you work well with one artist then other related artists may want to work with you. The best networking and marketing is good work, which Mark obviously has, but he also has the ability to connect with artists on a personal level.
The third thing I found interesting was the importance of money. Obviously, recording with good gear, an engineer or two and a producer is going to cost at least a few bucks. While I’m aware of albums, like Chinese Democracy, Tusk and Random Access Memories that pushed their related budgets into the extreme, Mark’s recounting of Neil Young’s Le Noise was eye opening. Produced by Lanois and engineered by Mark, they spent six months making the record and when Lanois had the bill for $250,000 handed to Neil Young’s manager, there clearly was a problem. The record label had given Young a budget of $25,000 for the album. Without a doubt, there was a massive disconnect and I’m sure it was a painful lesson for both Lanois and Mark.
If you’re like me and you like to read about artists, the industry and have a look behind the curtain, then Mark and Chris’s writing will absolutely pull you in. “Listen Up!” is a good book and well worth picking up.
I like to try to keep my musical world in the financial black and as a mostly obscure indie musician, that’s never easy. Exactly like just about any other small business, I have to figure out costs versus income. The tricky part is that some spending is more a guessing game than science.
The production side of things is one area where it can get tough for me. Does a new guitar or plugin mean I’m going to make “better” music? Will listeners notice the sonic upgrade of a new audio interface? Is spending more money on gear going to hurt or help me? If a new tool speeds up my ability to make records that’s a good thing, but not if I slide into the financial red.
Just like many things in life, it’s the art of balancing. Part of finding the sweet spot is knowing who you are and how you like to work. I’m someone who likes to figure out minute details. That means, for me, overly complex systems slow me down. Massively slow me down. A plugin with a million moving parts is an absolute black hole of time suck. Same thing with too much of anything production or performance related. Combinations and permutations are not my friend.
What’s the answer? Truthfully, I really don’t know, but there are some broad, overarching things that make sense for me and for my career. I can’t go out and buy a $200,000 ’58 Les Paul. Or hire an orchestra to play my string parts. Or spend huge bucks on ads à la Bloomberg — not that I have, or ever will have, billionaire level resources. But the flip side is also true. Buying less than pro gear and ignoring marketing are not sharp things to do. So here I am right back at the start with more questions than answers and keeping my fingers crossed that I keep finding that elusive sweet spot.
Just released a new single called Little Bit. Clocking in at just over two minutes (hence the title!), this is one of the few pieces I’ve written where the guitar part came to me pretty much complete. The incomparable Henrik Bridger added his first rate bass playing to the track and he truly lifted up the energy of the piece. Little Bit is available now digitally everywhere and, as always, I hope you like the music!
I’d like to think that music and art can exist perfectly on their own. A crazy, impractical dream, I know. Just like everyone else, my relationship with art, both as viewer/listener and as a creator, is tempered by, among many other things, where and when I live, my cultural background and my own tastes.
One thing that’s struck me over the last little while is how much my own reaction to art is affected by technical matters. For instance, every time I see a show or movie shot in one frame rate and then played back at another frame rate (i.e. the “soap opera effect“) I can’t help but think of an amateur level production. The bizarre look instantly pulls me out of the story. It’s the same deal for me with audio that is out of sync with the picture. Even a little drives me nuts. I end up trying to figure out whether the audio is ahead or behind the picture and not being engaged with the story.
A somewhat less obvious affect of context is the power of an audience. Many performers say they feed off the energy of an audience. I think that is clearly true even when watching talk shows, that normally have an audience, try to do their show in an empty theatre. Sometimes they fall down. In music, there are lots of examples of bands bringing at least a few people into the studio to try to create a live music atmosphere. It’s just a different energy.
I’ve played quite a few live gigs over the years, but the thing I’ve done most in my career is record in my own studio. Other than when I’m lucky enough to have other musicians on my records, I write, perform and engineer most of the music. So I never have an audience (or even a producer or engineer) there for what I do most. How has that changed my own music? I really don’t know specifically, but I’m guessing it must have generally. The reality is I’m primarily alone in a room, which makes a large part of my artistic life similar to a painter or a writer. The other reality is, that at this point, the context of how and where I make music is engrained in my artistic make up.
Some things in life are just not clear or, probably more accurately, don’t make sense when you’re in the midst of them. Singing is one of those things for me. I sang as a kid and even had the lucky opportunity to sing leads in a couple musicals. While singing was something I enjoyed, it wasn’t the focus of my musical life and so, right around my early teens, I simply stopped singing. Maybe it was my increased focus on the guitar. Or that I added composition and recording to the list of things I was trying to learn. I guess having dropped singing makes some sense — there was, and is, only so much time in a day. For the next three or four decades, I just kept going along that path. Until one day a few years ago when, for some reason, singing became important again.
I think part of what happened came from my guitar teaching. I could see some students, particularly younger ones, responded incredibly well to my humming or singing a phrase they were trying to learn on the guitar. Singing seemed to remove the filter that the guitar was applying to the learning process. After hearing me sing a phrase, the student had an easier time internalizing the music. Another part of it was that I started writing more songs and it was simply easier to sing a vocal line or melody than to play it on an instrument. It just translated better.
So it started with teaching and songwriting, but I think there’s more to it than just that. I played in bands for most of my musical life with my focus always on the instrumental parts of the songs. How the guitar fit in texturally with the rest of the band. How I could play a better solo. Most of the tracks on my records have been instrumentals too, although I do have vocal tunes sung by some of my vocalist friends. The real change over the last while has been a shifting in how I respond to songs, with words seeming to have so much more importance to me. I can’t explain the change or rationalize it. I absolutely haven’t given up on instrumental music (in fact, I have a new guitar-based instrumental single coming out very soon!), but I am going to be adding more vocal tunes to my records and when I play live.
I have to admit, until maybe a few years ago, I had never played around with any kind of partial capo. I didn’t have a specific reason for not looking into how useful it would be for my own music, I just never felt drawn to it. In some ways, I was also not pulled towards alternate tunings, albeit for a different set of reasons. Two sides of the same coin? Maybe. Both a partial capo and alternate tunings change your relationship to the guitar and, until relatively recently, that wasn’t something I was super interested in. Probably that has a lot to do with my training on the guitar (read classical and jazz) and how I vastly prefer to know the fretboard as well as I can.
Now before I go on, if you’re reading this and new to the world of guitars and guitar accessories, what the heck is a partial capo anyways? Partial capos are a subset of capos. See, cleared that right up, eh? Now seriously, partial capos work just like any other kind of capo in that they clamp onto the neck of the guitar and raise the pitch of a string or strings. Where a partial capo differs from a standard capo is that a partial capo allows certain strings to not be clamped down. A partial capo allows some strings to have their pitch raised and others to perform and sound in their “normal” unaltered state. I use a SpiderCapo for the times I want to use a partial capo and it allows me to capo each of the six strings individually.
So why did I get interested in partial capos? For a lot of things artistic for me, I can’t truly point to a single reason. I’ve been moving towards incorporating folks elements in my music for quite some time and open tunings play a role in some of that music. And then a friend online suggested trying out a partial capo. Seemed like a good match — I could get some of the open tuning sound I wanted and still retain my knowledge of the fretboard.
The partial capo certainly has opened up new sounds and colours for me. It’s pushed me to think differently about the guitar and challenged some of my preconceptions. But it hasn’t become an all or nothing type of thing. I still play in standard tuning without any kind of capo most of the time. I still use an old “regular” capo as well. The partial capo has just increased the number of possibilities for me as a player and as a writer and I sure am happy I found it.
Thanks to the City of Port Moody for including me in their Virtual Canada Day Celebration Concerts! Truly had a great time playing my seven song set. Hope everyone is having a safe and happy Canada Day!!
I love the meeting point between music, technology and business. And I also have a soft spot for people and companies that pursue quality. So “To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker brilliantly checks off many of my reading interests. The book takes you on a somewhat out of control odyssey primarily detailing the creation and eventual demise of the high resolution audio player Pono. But the genesis of the device and the core of the book is what matters most.
For Neil Young, Phil Baker and the Pono team sound quality was the philosophical and business driver. It’s what informed the entire project and it’s also what ultimately drove the company out of business. The challenge for Pono was three fold. First there was educating the consumer as to what high resolution audio is and why they would want it. Second, the technical hurdle of building not only a physical player but also a distribution system in the form of a dedicated website. And third, convincing record companies that the pricing of high resolution audio should be similar or equal to the cost of compressed audio formats. None of these elements are what one would call a breeze to achieve.
I probably should add another massive mountain that Pono had to climb. Money. As the book details, product development is not cheap and at pretty much every step Pono was hunting for capital. To say it was an uphill battle would be an understatement. Just about every setback you could think of, they encountered — from personnel to engineering to finally losing their dedicated distribution website. All of these setbacks were costly and in the end lead to the demise of Pono.
Was it a worthwhile effort? On the business side, Pono burned through a whole bunch of cash and are no longer in business, which obviously isn’t a good thing. But from a purely audio quality and art perspective, I would say absolutely Pono did what they set out to do. Recordings should sound the best they possibly can and compressed audio doesn’t do that. There’s the argument that the consumer simply wants more songs and not better sounding songs, but why can’t they have both? Computing horsepower and bandwidth are not the limiting factor they were even in the recent past. If you can stream high definition video you certainly can stream high resolution audio. And that’s exactly what the Neil Young Archives are doing right now. My hope is that the large labels and streaming companies will follow in Pono and Neil Young’s footsteps and give listeners a chance “To Feel the Music”.
Happy to be playing at the Art Focus Artists’ Association 2019 Fall Art Show & Sale reception this Friday night from 7-9 PM. Always have fun playing in amongst all the paintings and getting to hang out with the great artists!