Posts Tagged ‘recording music’

A year in the life

January 4, 2010

This month marks the one-year anniversary for this odd little blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed stopping by half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and linking.

If you’re new around here, MusicForMedia exists to explore the creation and use of music, especially in multimedia platforms like video and interactive web applications. And because I’m a Beatles freak, I find time to work in some Fab Four content pretty regularly. (And last year’s developments in Beatledom made that quite easy!).

We started small last January, with a bare handful of readers those first few days. But I’m happy to say that a few more people started dropping by. By year’s end more we had more than 75,000 visits.

The most popular post, by far, was my piece on the anniversary of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, which itself attracted more than 35,000 views. The post included the memories of Beatles’ Grammy-winning sound engineer, Geoff Emerick. I used the piece to argue that Abbey Road was the finest pop/rock album ever made.

Drawing a combined 10,000 views were two posts about the release of the remastered versions of the Beatles catalog.

Also popular was my initial post about my song, “Copy Editor’s Lament (The Layoff Song).” The power-pop ditty laments the state of print journalism today through the eyes of a laid-off copy editor. (You can see the recent video here.) Also, my reviews of music products by Cakewalk, IK Multimedia and other companies drew significant traffic.

So what lies ahead in the new year?

Well I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the latest news on music and its uses. I’ll continue to review products that can help you create or manipulate music and audio. I’ll share occasional tales about my own music-making adventures. And, of course, I will continue to write about the Beatles, as there’s no shame in revisiting the world’s best popular music now and again.

What would you like to read about in 2010?


Tech tip: Fighting noise in your recordings

March 19, 2009

You’ve got it – that perfect track of audio. Perhaps the interview went exceedingly well; the source waxed poetic. Or maybe you captured the tightest take of a rock band. Or you recorded just the ambient sound you needed for your multimedia project.

But when you listen to the track, your heart sinks. Noise clouds the sonic picture.

What now?

A commercial website that sells musical instruments called Musician’s Friend has posted a really good tutorial by Craig Anderton on minimizing unwanted noise on your audio tracks. Check it out — but I’ll leave you with a warning. Once distortion or other noise is embedded on a track, it’s impossible to remove completely. So take care during recording, using my previously offered tips among others – don’t count on “fixing it in the mix”!

My favorite Beatle song moments

March 5, 2009

You’ve heard it – that transcendent moment in a treasured song, when the guitar solo screams, the chorus wails or the unexpected  chord puts everything in a new light.

What are your favorite moments in your favorite songs?

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Beatles fanatic. So I’ve decided to share my five favorite moments in Beatle songs. If you know the band, I bet you have yours, too.

So here, without further ado, are my favorite moments in the Beatles’ body of work (in reverse order, Letterman style):

5. The opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night.” The sudden, ambiguous rush of 12- and 6-string guitar, bass, percussion and possibly piano that opens the song heralded a new era for pop music. The iconic chord hits my gut, promising adventure ahead. Is it a major or a minor? In the key of the song, or out?  The precise combination of notes in that chord is STILL being debated. (I hear it as a G7sus4 with a D bass; you may hear D7sus, F9 or any number of other chords). Whatever you call that chord, it provides a bright moment that anticipates joy.

4. The key change leading to the guitar solo in “And I Love Her”/the final  chord of the song. Okay, I’m cheating – these are two moments in the same song. It’s my blog, right? The key change is unexpected, adding interest and propelling the listener to that faux-Spanish solo by the ever-improving George. And that final chord, known by music heads as a “Picardy third,” makes the contemplative key of D-minor resolve in a major-D smile. Beautiful moment, every time I hear it.

3. “Now shake it up baby, now!” John Lennon ripped into that opening lyric from “Twist and Shout” at the end of an historically productive recording session Feb. 11, 1963. In just over nine hours, the group had already recorded nearly the entirety of its first album, “Please Please Me,” including the title cut as well as Paul’s incredible “I Saw Her Standing There.” (His “One two three FAAAH!” count-in is also one of my favorite Beatle moments).

But there was one more song to record. Physically exhausted, stripped to his waste and fighting a head cold that was quickly eroding his voice, Lennon agreed to run through the group’s typical end-of-set potboiler, a cover of “Twist and Shout,” by Phil Medley and Bert Russell.  What happened next might have been the most exciting two minutes 33 seconds ever commited to tape. Lennon delivered a raucous, explosive performance matched by his three bandmates. Yes, they tried a second take, but Lennon couldn’t do it – because he had given everything he had in that one incredible take.

2. The first time Paul sings “And anytime you feel the pain” in “Hey Jude.” This monster composition of Paul’s, at the time of its release the longest single in pop history, is a masterpiece of melodic interest, vocal tone and lyrical encouragement. The moment that does it for me is the line I cite above, which comes just after the home-key F chord become an F7. Meanwhile, Ringo is pounding out one of his signature drum fills. On the word “pain,” the track really takes off – the chord changes, to Bb; the bass comes alive and those glorious background vocals really lift the song to new heights.

And, ladies and gentlement, Christopher Ave’s No. 1 Beatle song moment is:

1. “And in the end…” Side Two of Abbey Road is a masterpiece, in my mind the Beatles’ crowning achievement. As in the cases above, it’s important to know the context in which Abbey Road was recorded, 40 years ago this year.

The Beatles had all but disintegrated during the contentious Get Back/Let it Be sessions in early 1969. Lennon was focused on his new music – and life – with Yoko Ono; George Harrison was seething at his second-tier status as a writer in the band — his blossoming talent would soon explode onto a triple album, All Things Must Pass, to be released the next year; Ringo Starr was tired of endless takes and becoming more interested in a film career; and Paul McCartney, who had taken the reins of the group after manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1966, was increasingly frustrated with his bandmates’ loss of interest in the group and the business differences that would ultimately tear the group apart.

Still, somehow, the group came together at EMI’s Abbey Road studios one more time. Paul had persuaded producer George Martin — who had all but abandoned the group during much of the White Album and Let it Be sessions — to produce an album “like we used to.” Balance Engineer Geoff Emerick, a critical component of the band’s mature sound who quit the group during the White Album sessions, was also persuaded to come back.

That the band, riven with such strife, was able to produce much of anything is surprising. That they produced such an enduring, and endearing, work as Abbey Road is simply astonishing.

That brings us back to Side Two of the album. Its culmination is the Long Medley, starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money,” a mini-tour of the Beatles’ musical history that briefly recounts their business differences before hurling back in time, to the early rush of the group’s fame (“One sweet dream, pick up the bags, get in the limousine”). The nostalgia can also be heard in the “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s of John’s charming fragment, “Polythene Pam” as well as the yearning in Paul’s beautiful “Golden Slumbers (“Once there was a way to get back home”). Then comes Ringo’s only recorded drum solo, followed by those battling lead guitars,which were played live in one take by the three guitar-playing Beatles.

Then, finally, gloriously, there is Paul’s final couplet, neatly summarizing both the Beatles’ chosen theme and the impact the group had on so many:

And in the end

The love you take

Is equal to the love

You make

There – I’ve given you mine. What are your favorite moments in the Beatles’ recorded history? And if you know any Beatle fanatics, please point them here – I’d love to hear everybody’s top fab song fragments.

Constructing a piece of music

February 5, 2009

Where does a song come from?

Paul McCartney has famously said that he woke up one morning with the melody to “Yesterday” almost fully formed, playing in his head. He went to a piano and worked out the chords that surround the melody — but he was convinced it was a song that was already written by somebody else. So he went around asking friends if they’d heard the song before.  (After realizing it was original, McCartney had no words; in fact, the song lived for a while with the lyrics: “Scrambled eggs, oooh baby how I love your legs…”)

Most of the rest of us aren’t quite so fortunate – or, to be sure, so supremely talented as Sir Paul. We have to work at making music.

I thought it would be fun to document the creation of a piece of music, to describe where it came from and how it was built. Before we begin, though, let me be clear: I ain’t no McCartney, and my very best song is infinitely more pedestrian and less creative than the absolute worst thing that man has ever written.

Got that? Good. Now let’s begin.

I set out to compose a piece of music (sans lyrics) to accompany a stunningly beautiful photo slideshow by my friend and colleague Tim Barker. Tim is a reporter and blogger for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He’s also a very talented photographer – in fact, he took the photos for my website. Given what little he had to work with in terms of subject, they are pretty amazing.

So here are his photos. As you can see if you clicked the link, they are from some of his travels. In this case, Tim wanted to create the actual slideshow; he wanted the music first, so he could marry the images and the sound together himself.

As I looked at his photos, I was immediately struck by the presence of moving water in many of the frames. The rhythm of murmuring water was what I was hearing. So I sat down and composed what I hoped would be a somewhat hypnotic riff representing the rhythm in my head  (NOTE: Hover over the sample with your cursor, and a new window should appear. Just click on the arrow in the new window to listen):


As you can hear, it’s a very simple pattern – arpeggiations of a D-minor chord played with the right hand, with descending and then ascending bass notes played with the left hand. I played it on my midi keyboard; the sounds are from a software synthesizer called Rapture, by Cakewalk.

While to me, that sound does suggest flowing water, I decided to add something more literal. I used a Roland soft-synth to reproduce a straightforward water sound, which I intended to use at the beginning and ending of the piece:


Note: If this were a straight journalism project, I don’t think I would use this emulation. It violates one of my guidelines for use of audio in journalism projects in that it could make viewers think it was the actual sound of the water pictured in some of the photos. If this were a journalism project, I would go record the actual sound of the water.

Although I had decided that the main riff would be the song’s backbone, I also knew that I needed some variety – some more sounds. The first thing I did is to find a good, dark strings patch:


I decided that the piece would start with the sound of water, then move to the strings and then the main riff.

My thoughts then turned to percussion. Because I wanted the song to build, I decided to initially use a thin, artificial -sounding percussion pattern which would then give way to fuller, more realistic samples of a full drum kit. To make the transition less jarring, I faded out the first, artificial percussion track just as I was introducing the “real-sounding” drums. And finally, I used equalization on the “real” drums to cut the extreme highs and extreme lows – to make them sound a little closer to the obviously fake drums. Here’s how that transition sounded:


And at the song’s dramatic high point, I wanted to add some rock guitar. I set out to play something a bit dirty and sloppy, to counter all the precision of the  other tracks. In fact I might have been too sloppy — I rush some of the notes, which I could go back and fix but haven’t.  I used my Line 6 Variax guitar set to emulate a Les Paul Special, with P-90 pickups, through my Line 6 Toneport interface into a Line 6 software model of a Marshall amp. I added a good bit of delay to the recording afterward:


Finally, after the crescendo of the guitar solo, I wanted everything to drop down quite dramatically, to almost nothing. How to make that transition? I decided to get a sample of a drum “crash” and reverse it, creating the sound of a fast buildup and a sudden silence:


Ok, you’ve heard the major parts of the piece – and if you’ve read this far, you’re probably more than ready to hear the final composition, which I built with Cakewalk’s Sonar Producer Edition multitrack software:


So if you’ve actually made it this far, what do you think? How would you have done it differently?