Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Milwaukee's 1980's Music Scene Revisited

The Crusites

Someone from the 1980's Milwaukee Music Scene had died recently. His death prompted another 80's musical icon to set up a Facebook page that honored his passing, and the passing of many other great Milwaukee musicians. Our guitar player died just six weeks ago and as expected, his name was added to the page. I lost another great musical friend two years ago, and his name was posted as well. As the list of names kept growing, I received notices with every addition. I left the group. It was too hard to take.

Milwaukee's Musical Pioneers of the 1980's
Those Milwaukee musical pioneers certainly died too young, as most of them were in their 40's and 50's when they passed. I suppose that the ones who "lived fast" did die young, as the Circle Jerks song dictates. I rejoined the group when I noticed that the page had morphed into something so much more than a very depressing tally of the dearly departed. The Lest We Forget - Deceased Milwaukee Scene page is now a meeting spot for those who realize how important, powerful, amazing, and special it was to be part of that artistic moment.
Whether you were a spectator or participant, I truly feel that the 1980's punk scene in Milwaukee was a "happening" that doesn't come together too often. Perhaps everyone has their time, but I just can't bring myself to think that watching someone DJ, while lounging in a private area of a club will bring back amazing memories thirty years from now. The ingredients for something much more special has to include artistic and musical mavericks, something to rebel against, empty buildings in decrepit neighborhoods, and club owners willing to take a risk. I was too young to get into The Starship, but when the gates opened for me, I jumped at the chance to be part of that artistic family.

Thirty years have passed, and perhaps that is enough time to weather the rough edges, bury the grudges in silt, and allow us to come together to remember some of the amazing things that happened in Milwaukee. I'll never forget watching Sacred Order at Niko's, just days before my 18th birthday. I slid in under the radar only to get the once over from the bartender. The crowd was thin, but I was a paying customer. They let me stay.

Jay Tiller was my local drumming idol, and Sacred Order was tighter than tight. I probably had just enough money for a couple of beers, and no more. Second and National was not the best place to be at 2am, but punk clubs rarely opened in neighborhoods that were clean and well lit. For me, it's fitting that the face of Sacred Order would be the person who set up the online meeting place for what has now become a repository of amazing photos, stories, and memories that have come back to life.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Eight Tips for Mixing Your Band | Studio Etiquette for the Musician

Mixing Your Band

I'm heading into the studio tonight to mix a live recording from 2010. The venue where our band played was a medium sized theater with high ceilings. What tips for mixing can I bring to this session? I'm not a studio engineer, but I do know a few things that might help you help the person turning the dials. So the following advice is for those of you who want to get involved in mixing, but don't actually know the terms and such. This is not a "how-to-mix" your band post. It's about how to get the most from the engineer, yourself, and the session.
Before starting a mixing session, I suggest that you eat a good meal and try to prepare yourself for something that could easily put you to sleep. During the last session that I sat in on, we looped the same three minute song over and over for three hours. If you shave off 20 minutes off that session for actual down time, it means we heard the same song replayed over 53 times. Bring something that will keep you alert, or just keep in mind that you might be focusing on some of the most minute musical details, for hours. Depending on the situation, you may just be there to represent the band, and have nothing to do with the actual work. It's wise to be ready for anything.

As for studio etiquette, be sure to ask if it's okay to bring liquids in the room. A well equipped studio has tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear in it. Do you want to replace a $10,000 mixing board because you spilled your latte all over it? I don't think so. When I go to a mixing session, I ask if it's okay to bring water, I leave that bottle capped at all times, and I set it as far away from from anything electric as I possibly can.
Pro Tip: If you can, call ahead and ask the engineer if they need anything. They might have spent the previous night running the house PA for a five band gig, and would love you for bringing them a cup of coffee.
Studio Speakers versus Headphones

Bring a few pair of headphones. When we mix, I bring three pairs of headphones. It's one thing to listen to the mix through pro speakers, and quite another to plug your favorite headphones into the board. Relying on the studio for a pair of headphones is not the best advice. They will most likely have them, but I rarely find a pair of studio headphones that haven't been beaten up thoroughly. Besides, you know your own headphones, how they sound, and what highs and lows to expect from them. You might never pull them out, but to have them handy is a plus.

If you can, sit directly behind the engineer. The couch behind the mixing board is there for a reason. Be first to the speakers sweet spot and you will almost hear what the engineer hears. It's more than likely that the speakers are placed in an optimal position for the chair in front of the mixing board, but you can still get a great feel for the music if you are directly behind the person at the dials. Don't hog that seat though. If your band is in the room, give everyone a chance to sit in the sweet spot. If the drummer is worried about the drum parts in a specific song, let that person sit where the sound is best. Pro tip: Never sit in the engineer's chair if they get up to do something. Ask first. Do you like it when someone sits at your office desk when you get up to get a cup of coffee? Respect the throne of the person who is making you sound like a star.

Studio Do's and Dont's During Mixing Session

Don't be a distraction in the studio. If you have a phone, turn it to vibrate. If you must take a call, leave the room. Don't talk about things that have nothing to do with the task at hand. I'm not saying that you shouldn't speak up if you hear something that needs work. If you have to bring something up, wait until the moment is right. The more you distract the engineer the more likely they are to miss something important, or forget to go back and fix something else. Keep in mind that you might know every nuance of the song you wrote, but the engineer might be hearing you for only the second time (the first being when they recorded you.) Try to strike a good balance between being helpful, and staying out of the way.

Give your ears a break. If you have time to get away from the session, take a few minutes to clear your head. I made an album with an engineer that insisted on taking breaks every couple of hours. Sometimes it can be frustrating to break away, but if the engineer is tired, you aren't going to do yourself any favors by pushing him to stay in the chair. Bring earplugs and use them during your break. Clear your mind for a few minutes.
Finally, keep in mind that you will always think that your parts are not loud enough. I have seen it so many times. The singer will think that the vocals are loud enough, the bass player comes to the mixing session late, and the first thing she says is "where's my bass track?" The drummer says "you can't hear my kick" while it's punching everyone else in the chest. If you can, understand that a good engineer knows a bit about levels. If you are in serious doubt, present a neutral party with a copy of the mix, and ask them what they think is the loudest and softest thing in the mix. At the end of the night, clean up after yourself and thank everyone involved.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Which Pop Stars Write Their Own Songs | Who Fits The Suit like Johnny Bravo

I was listening to an interview of Ryan Tedder today. Tedder has his own band, and writes songs for many of the current pop stars like Beyonce Knowles. I respect him for the fact that he actually plays in a band and worked his way up to being a producer, writer, and star. When I did a bit of research on Beyonce Knowles, I found that I can’t say the same thing. I can’t seem to find a single Knowles song that she wrote on her own.

When Knowles is credited for being a writer on any of her songs, there is at least one other person also credited. Most times there are four or five “writers” listed for her songs. The more I read into this, the less that I feel she actually writes anything. She is wise to take songwriting credit, as that’s the best way to get paid. As for the hit songs she’s credited for, not a single one is actually written exclusively by her. Still, I'm not there when the sausage is being made, so I can't say that she doesn't contribute to the melody, lyrics, arrangement, etc. She often says that she's "inspired" by others when it comes to creating music. In fact, there was a bit of controversy related to her video “All the Single Ladies.” Some say it was a Bob Fosse rip off. She eventually claimed that it was a tribute to the late choreographer. Chalk that up to "inspiration."

I’m not saying that you have to be a singer songwriter in order to be respected. She can certainly sing, and she can certainly dance. Can she actually write, and arrange a song on her own? The world may never know.

As for Kelly Clarkson, I found one site that claims that she wrote the lyrics and melody for the song Because of You. After a bit more research, I see that she had help with that song. In fact, all of the songs that charted for Clarkson were co-written by a number of other people. I feel the need to find at least one current pop start that writes their own songs.

Lady Gaga Writes Her Own Songs

Lady Gaga writes her own songs. It was a relief to find that she actually did the hard work of creating her own songs, rather than work the talent show angles and hope that someone would write for her. In her early days, she fronted a group called the SGBand. She wrote her own songs while in that group. In fact, she was also a contracted writer for Sony/ATV.
You don’t have to like her music, but at the very least you have to respect an artist that can actually write, compose, and perform their own music. The pop music world is full of casting call "you fit the Johnny Bravo suit" artists. Give credit where credit is due.