June292014

How To Get A Great Vocal Take.

 

I spend a lot of time recording vocals so I thought it might be an interesting blog to discuss the methods for getting a great vocal recorded. To a lot of listeners the singer is the song so it’s of paramount importance to make this part of the recording as special as it can be.

Often when I’m co-writing with and artist, the vocal is recorded at the end of the day- almost as soon as the song is finished. It’s hot off the press so to speak. Here are a few things I’ve learned. I hope you’re going to add your own!

Firstly, a perfectly recorded vocal doesn’t necessarily equal a great vocal. Some of the most engaging vocals I’ve recorded have been when the singer has been under the impression they are recording a ‘guide’ vocal using a cheap stage mic and not even wearing headphones. So here goes rule number one.

  1. Make sure the singer is comfortable and in the right frame of mind to sing.

 

By the time you’ve tried out 6 different vocal mics and got them to stand there for an hour while you try and get a mix up (without latency) can sap the soul of the most professional singer. Here goes rule number 2

  1. Get it done quickly.

 

By this I mean have the song marked up so you know where the sections are, you have the lyrics in front of you so there aren’t any wrong words or lines and you have a recording chain that means you aren’t changing levels every line.

I generally bounce out a backing track before recording vocals so there aren’t any CPU hogging plugins or virtual instruments slowing the process down. I would generally start by getting the singer to do a couple of warm up takes. This is a sneaky way to check that the song is in the right key and tempo. I don’t want to record 10 takes of the verse to find out that the chorus is too high, or the whole song is too slow! So here’s another guideline

  1. Get a few whole safety takes down.

 

If the singer is in the mood then I’ll also record a couple of ‘fun and giggles’ takes at the end where they can try anything they feel like or just sing it through again. I find this often means you have a more ‘connected’ take because the singer knows the song and also a take where they are completely warmed up.

I am a singer myself and a lot of singing is definitely psychological. The lighting can make a difference, singing without headphones can make a difference. Having a throat coat tea or hot water can make a difference, people in the studio tweeting while you’re singing can make a difference. Basically- if you’re recording a vocal focus on that and on that only. Keep the singer’s confidence up and don’t tire them out before you’ve got the whole song down. It’s a tiring thing to keep singing for a couple of hours. I wish more engineers were aware of this. There isn’t a one approach fits all singers. We’re all different. So the final point I would make is

  1. Concentrate more on making the environment best for the singer rather than best for you technically.  Yes I know this is the same as point number 1 basically but I want to hammer it home.

 

So there you have it. It should be a positive experience. They should be enjoying the performance (if not, find out why and quickly) and you should be getting the takes you need to compile a good final vocal.

I wonder what your experiences have been?

Happy writing

Jez

March172014

Lecture

I had a really lovely time at Bath Spa uni last week talking about songwriting with the students there. They asked some great questions too and sent me some fantastic songs too.

January262014

10 Tips For Breaking Through The Block

So you’re in a co-writing session and you’ve been firing on all cylinders until suddenly you get stuck. The most popular train stations on the line to nowhere are ‘Verse 2 Parkway’ and ‘Middle 8 Central’. It’s such a frustrating feeling especially when the writing up to that moment was flowing and full of momentum. Here are some tricks and techniques that I have learned from other writers and also from my own experience.

  1. Switch a Mic on (hopefully with an omni setting), put it in the centre of the writers, put a reverb on it and have it coming through the speakers. Play the song from the beginning until the point you get stuck and enjoy that gig reverb! Often you’ll be carried forward by the feeling

 

  1. Go for a walk. Often the very rhythm of walking will set you down a different path (quite literally somehow!) and having a chat along the way helps the subconscious gears do their business.

 

  1. Don’t loop the section you’re stuck on by setting up a loop cycle on the computer. Get some context. Play from earlier in the track or ideally play it live together (see 1)
  1. Swap instruments, chairs, or capo, or try a new sound. If you make a stale song sound fresh then often your ideas are too.

 

  1. If you’re stuck on a lyrical section (especially verse 2 or middle 8) think visually. What happens now in the video? What action occurs? Is this section a flashback? a flash forward in time? a freeze-frame? Does the camera look down from far away? Does the camera look from the other person in the song’s perspective (if there is one).
  1. Put in a verb. If you’re stuck lyrically at point number 5. Try and get a verb in the second word of the verse ‘I walked, said, cryed, ran, drove…. We danced, talked, parachuted. Try to think of action words and solid objects rather than thinking words.

 

  1. Put it in a drawer. There’s no shame in saying ‘lets come back to this section tomorrow and work on another section of the song instead or call it a day. My creativity seems to work best in 3 hour sessions and after that point the raw materials are hopefully out there and the editing and refining process can take over.
  1. Sing it in and sing it with conviction. Record the vocal up to where you’re stuck and sing it passionately. If you’re all unsure about a lyrical or melodic section then sing it in with conviction. It might be absolutely right when put in context and delivered properly

 

  1. Listen to some other music for a few minutes. Get your head out of the song and listen to music which inspires you or succeeds in the areas that your song is falling short. Try and unravel what makes their version successful and see if any principles here can be applied to your song.
  1. 10.  Get the track sounding energetic and exciting. When writing we tend to write at a slower tempo than the track needs to be. Get the backing track cooking and crank it up on the monitors. Get the drums pumping and the bottom end grooving. I think that often these stumbling blocks in songs comes from a general running out of steam and energy that could be lack of caffeine or just the natural exhaustion after serious levels of concentration. Get the room energized, turn the air con up and up the lighting.

 

11. You all must have your own tricks here. Let me know what they are!

By the way, apologies for the strange numbering system. I can work Logic X Protools and restring a guitar but Microsoft Word….. Nope!

Happy writing

Jezx

December232013

Seasons Grittings

Grit Hello everyone, just taking 20 mins out of my mixing session for a quick blog. The word of the day is Grit. It’s a vital part of this industry from the grit you need to keep ploughing on when you keep getting knocked back, to the grit you need in your recordings to add excitement and glue the track together, to the grit you need in your songs to stop them becoming too sickly sweet or ‘meh’. The grit in songwriting is the drama, the visceral word, the telling detail, the raw emotion. The grit in production is distortion - a dose of Decimort here, a Camelcrusher there and a hefty slice of Decapitator there. It’s often surprising how much you can dirty up a recording and mix before it starts to denigrate the recordings rather than enhance them. A lot of the great Soul classics are hitting the meters pretty hard all the time and this brings the ‘warmth’ or the ‘authenticity’ or ‘rawness’ to the listener’s ear. If you’re a singer then get some grit into the performance too. Sing it like your life depends on it. Keep it gritty. It brings the salt to the sweet, the messy to the neat, it’s the rub to the sleek, eeek! That’s enough rhyming. Happy Gritmas

December132013

Christmas Is A Time For Giving

Hi everybody! How are things? I hope all is well in your world. Sorry my blogs have been thin on the ground lately. I’ve been working with the team that do the music on the X factor UK and It’s been pretty full on although a great learning experience. Each week I’ve been programming and playing on tracks for the shows. So many songs, so many different styles but all of them challenging in different ways. The other big programming gig I’ve had this year is working on Leona Lewis’s Christmas record ‘Christmas With Love’ which has a Phil Spector-esque Motown feel. I also programmed the single ‘One More Sleep’ which will hopefully be in the top 5 this weekend. OK though- that’s enough trumpet blowing and self-aggrandisement.

I was thinking about all the favours people have done me over the years and all the favours I’ve done them and I think this is possibly the deciding factor in becoming more successful as a songwriter or musician. The two things we need desperately as songwriters are, firstly, a circle of friends all working towards the same goals and secondly, we all need experience. Basically, doing a favour for someone is a great way to feel warm inside and get heaps of friends and experience, whether it’s lending someone a guitar, helping them produce something, drive them to a gig, sell merchandise at a show, give them honest feedback on a song, sing a vocal for them- the possibilities are endless. Don’t expect anything back except the fact that you’ve helped. One the way up the slippery slope of success, money is tight and any way to give your time to help someone will pay dividends later down the line. By this I don’t mean that this person you helped ‘owes’ you something. The reward is in getting experience, meeting new people and the fact that you’ve got involved. I know this all sounds a bit Deepak Chopra but I think it’s true.

Some of the favours I’ve done people over the years have come back to help me in the strangest of ways. When someone asks for help or you think they might need help even if they don’t ask, try to think ‘why not’ help rather than ‘why’ and always do the best job you can whether you’re doing it for nothing, or a pint, or twenty grand.

After all they say that Christmas is a time for giving. I bet we all know somebody talented out there who might need a bit of help. OK, the retch-inducing-Miss-World lesson endeth here. Go to work little elves….

Happy Christmas!

October182013
3AM

Chocolate Prawns Anyone?

 

One of the jobs I really enjoy is mentoring songwriting students. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the team at the UK Songwriting Festival for the last few years and also helped on courses including the Masters in Songwriting at Bath Spa University and the Undergraduate course at Leeds College Of Music.

I meet some students who are desperate to reach a wider audience with their songwriting and are frustrated with the songs they are writing as they don’t seem to ‘connect’ with people as much as they hoped. Their aims are often to write a hit or be famous or play Wembley. Then I often meet writers who have little fondness for what is selling at the moment and are often working in less commercially successful genres and their focus is on pushing the boundaries of what they can explore as writers. These two types of writers are often quite defined- the artist and the artisan.

What’s the process for mentoring these very different kinds of songwriters? Well I wouldn’t be lying if I said that helping the frustrated commercial songwriters is a simpler prospect. Firstly, it’s a sphere I am more familiar with and I guess there are more easily identifiable markers of what makes a successful song in the bigger selling genres of Singer/Songwriter Pop or Rock genres. Often those monumentally successful songs in these genres have a universal sentiment expressed in a fresh way, have a memorable melody and a chorus based structure (so simple really!). Troubleshooting songs in this market is often a case of finding the weakest element of the writing and working on improving that.

With the writers who are writing songs that don’t adhere to any of the above markers my job is more complicated. How do you try and ‘improve’ a song that’s 7 minutes long, has no chorus, an opaque lyric and a meandering melody. My first question to the writer would be ‘What do you think is the strength of this song’? If they think the song is great as it is then who am I to suggest it isn’t? If the aim of the song isn’t necessarily to communicate with anyone else but the songwriter then how do we define an improvement? Often these writers would see a chorus as a compromise, a universal sentiment as ‘selling out’. They are happy for their songs to challenge a listener. A listener who doesn’t want to be challenged isn’t a listener they are interested in. If they were running a restaurant it would serve chocolate prawns. Some brave souls would order it and a small percentage would think it was the best thing they had ever tasted. A lot of people would walk past the menu though. What I would hope to do is help the writer to hone a style that is unique to them. I would concentrate on them finding a consistent voice as a writer which ties these songs together and pushing the envelope of experimentation as far as they can. After all, there are a lot of McDonalds in the world but I wonder if once upon a time a ‘burger’ was a brave food experiment that a crazy chef tried. Who knows where these experiments might lead? Perhaps to a totally new genre of music- and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it is that people like new things.

It’s such a glorious puzzle. The fascinating thing about it all is that the frustrated commercial writers could do well to adopt more of the approach of the experimental writers. These frustrated hit-makers are so busy chasing the goal of ‘the HIT’ that they forget that the song they are writing should connect with themselves firstly and have a unique personality. Often those great songs make us sit up and go WTF?!  Rather than copying what’s out there in the charts they shouldn’t be afraid to find their voice and bring those personal quirks to bear fruit creatively. Originality is such a big part of the battle. I’ve noticed that in many successful songwriting teams there is someone who has one ear on what the public wants to hear and then another member of the team who is fearless in trying crazy ideas out. Someone who is happy to maybe experiment, push the boat out and possibly fail but have fun trying is a great person to write with. It’s like the comedy double act. Two straight men aren’t going to engage an audience and two comics can seem like an exhausting experience. The balance is what makes it work.

After mentoring the artists and the artisans it’s interesting to me that they have so much to learn from each other but the history of music is defined and propelled by the artist. The free thinkers and willfully different writers and performers are the engines of progress. So when I’m listening to a song from one of these students that feels too long, confusing, even sometimes frustrating I stop to think that that the writers who on first listen are the least commercial might hold the key to the ‘Hit’ after all.

September232013

Take A Load Off

 

Hello everyone, I hope all is well. This post was triggered by the fact someone I work with has an ‘Autoload’ for Logic. In fact, the more I looked into it the more I realised I was unusual for not having an autoload for Logic. For those who don’t know, an Autoload is basically a template for a song which might contain your tracks already set up with certain instruments and FX. The idea of it is to save time at the beginning of a session and therefore let you get on with being creative rather than trawling through your soundbanks for the right instrument. Logic even comes with ones already set up for ‘Singer Songwriter’,  ‘Hip Hop’ or ‘Bengali Jazz Funk’ (OK that last one I made up)

So what’s wrong with that?

Well, nothing- if it works for you then great- but most of my most interesting ideas come from serendipity and mistakes I make. While I’m looking for a piano sound I suddenly find a celeste sound…and…. I mess around with it and the song takes on a whole new (fresher!) direction. Personally I would find having an autoload about as inspiring as sitting down for dinner and staring at the same food every night. If I was a painter I don’t think I’d be as inspired by having the canvas already divided up into ‘trees’ ‘sky’ and ‘clouds’. What if I don’t want to paint a landscape?

So, if you find that your song ideas all sound the same it might be time to switch it off. Obviously there’s a lot of generic music and production around but that doesn’t mean you have to follow the pack. Load up a bagpipe or a Shamisen, that free sample of a zither you got with a magazine, that crappy chorus plugin you never use and put it through an amp simulator…. OK- it might be more miss than hit, but originality and an unusual sonic imprint can make all the difference to your song standing out and trigger some fresh melodic and lyrical ideas too.

Switch of ‘Oughta-load’ and switch on ‘Random-load’ instead. You might be inspired by the results. Perhaps go a step further and switch the computer off completely, and your phone and picture a sound in your head- then go and create it.

I hope you kick-start your creativity if you’re lacking inspiration.

Until next time!

Jez

August122013

A-List Playlist.

 

Howdy everybody, I hope all is well with you. A bit of a departure from songwriting this week as I wanted to talk about what makes a song ‘radio friendly’. Over the last 6 months I’ve been helping one of the UK’s top radio mixers as a programmer, adding production elements that hopefully make the mixes sound better over the airwaves. It’s been a fascinating insight into the whole philosophy of tailoring a song to a specific medium (in this case – mostly BBC Radio 2) and giving it the best chance of appealing to the masses.

 

I should backtrack a little first though as some of you might not even know that ‘radio mixers’ even exist! Basically, songs on an album are mixed for the record but then if one of these is chosen as a single then usually the song is tweaked ( by a mix engineer who specialises in making songs sound ‘radio-friendly’. So let’s define what we mean by ‘radio-friendly’ (it’s not the same as dolphin-friendly). In simple terms for a song to succeed on radio it must engage the listener from the outset and maintain their interest to the end. The first area to be looked at might be the structure of the song. Is it too long? Too slow to get to the chorus? Does it lack a recognizable intro? Worse still, does it lack an intro altogether (DJs like an intro to talk over)? Does it have a fade (not popular for radio either)? is it too slow? It’s certainly not uncommon to shift the tempo up a few BPM. On one mix I helped on the whole song came up 20BPM without sacrificing the groove or vocal delivery!

 

The next area to work on ( where I come in) is bringing more of the following elements to the song namely: impact, drama, momentum, energy, light and shade, modernity and hooks. Hopefully the song I’m working on has a lot of these elements in place but if it’s lacking in some areas that’s where I try to help.

 

To add momentum and energy I would be trying to add percussive elements (often 16th beat or even 32nd beat) pulsing rhythms, shakers, tambourines, acoustic guitar strums, gated synths etc. All of these things add movement and urgency and make the song feel more exciting to the listener.

 

To add drama and impact I would be looking at enhancing the mood of the song through sonic elements and to make the biggest part of the song (usually the chorus) feel bigger. This is often a combination of Low Pianos, string pads and lines, Chugging heavy guitars, guitar sprangs, FX into the chorus such as rising FX, impacts, sine bombs, big drum hits and tonal interest.

 

To add momentum to the song I try and concentrate on bringing new elements into the song in each new section to maintain the listener’s interest. The most common areas to need a boost are the start of verse 2, the middle 8 (or bridge) and the double chorus at the end of the song. These might be subtle flavours like mellotron pads, a high piano figure, Ebow, glockenspiel, mandolin, banjo, Hammond, church organ, Rhodes or Wurlitzer, treated guitars and often Backing vocals as well. If the song has a string line this might be bolstered by an orchestra playing ‘stabby’ strings in the final chorus. Another example would be if the song has double-tracked acoustic strums in the first couple of choruses I might bring a higher part double-tracked to the final chorus. My job is to think about widening the stereo field, bringing high frequency energy and low frequency weight to the proceedings. I try and keep out of the mid frequencies because that’s where the vocal usually is.

 

To add hooks to the song is probably the most challenging of all. I try and find something to go in the intro and something interesting and melodic to fit between the vocal phrases if the vocal line is quite sparse. It might be a case of trial and error trying lots of sounds and ideas until I find a simple idea that works.

 

Modernity in the song is often down to layering up the original drum sounds with some more contemporary sounds and referencing some songs that have recently charted. So, I might bring a bit of the faded glamour of Lana Del Rey by using string machines, mysterious textures etc or bring some sonic elements from Rudimental, Bruno Mars or Ed Sheeran depending what the track needs and the direction the mixer or radio plugger wants to take it. often the mixer and plugger (and sometimes the A and R) have a vision of where the song needs to go.

 

I usually get feedback from the mix engineer as I work. I will send MP3 ‘work in progress’ mixes to him and he will give feedback as to how it’s going. When I have finished and he is happy the tracks are bounced out and sent by FTP. Depending on how radical the changes are there can be anything up to 30 new tracks.

 

When I hear the finished mix on the radio I’m always surprised by how subtle these additional ideas are blended into the mix. Sometimes a lot of what I do isn’t used. It’s not unusual for the Radio Plugger to demand revisions and changes if they still don’t think the song has enough to compete for a coveted spot on the playlist. Indeed, this is what it all boils down to. There are only 28 songs added to the Radio 2 playlist each week (out of around 500 releases!) and the power of reaching 11 million listeners each week can’t be underestimated for breaking a song or advertising an album. A lot is riding on this.

 

My final thoughts are how much I’ve learned about production from working in this field and how often the elements I’ve talked about above are lacking in my own productions! It’s like a note-to-self. I now have one ear when I’m writing on whether the song has enough drama, momentum, impact, light and shade……It’s yet another thing the songwriter has to be aware of in this very challenging landscape.

 

Keep writing!

 

Jezx

 

 

June82013

Honesty

 

I’ve critiqued a lot of student’s songs as part of my occasional job lecturing about songwriting and I am constantly amazed and pleased at how accomplished a lot of these songs are. When I was in my teens my songs were appalling in comparison. I do notice something lacking sometimes though and that is a sense of truth and honesty. I think we all like to hide behind simile and metaphors and not many of us enjoy cutting ourselves open and sharing the contents of our hearts and minds with an audience. But if we’re not doing that then what are we doing it for? Even if we’re not spelling out exactly how we’re feeling I think an audience can gauge whether there is truth in what we are saying. If a singer is brokenhearted we want to know how it feels for them personally and not just a generalized view of how it must feel. I think that part of the problem when I’ve talked to students about lyrical honesty is they think that nobody would be interested in their lives. How far from the truth this is! We are all inquisitive; we all like overhearing conversations and gleaning information about how someone else sees the world. It’s fascinating.

There was one student last year who was trying to write a song about how she drunkenly ended up with the wrong person at the end of the night. She was struggling with the lyric so I simply asked her ‘what happened’ and told her to write it down just like she told it to me. The details in the story like the name of the bar, what they were drinking, the specifics of the words they said were true and the song had so much more weight because of it. It wasn’t a contrived set of rhymes and obscure metaphors. Your life is interesting. You have loved and lost, had loved ones die, had broken dreams, cried, looked at the stars and wondered big things, laughed until you felt sick, helped someone when they were in trouble and seen and thought about life in a way no one else has. Where’s the need to make things up?

 

Happy writing

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