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Musical Musings

Kick the click - Death To The Metronome!

Article featured on Music Think Tank.

Every nook and cranny; every twist and turn of our recordings these days are nipped and tucked like a Rodeo Drive trophy wife. The beats we use - whether funk, bossa nova or reggae - are corralled and rigidly locked to a consistent tempo. Vocal takes are given a similar treatment, tuned and smoothed over to eliminate discrepancies.

Perhaps the culprit is the emergence of sequencers and synthesizers in the late 70s and early 80s, but ultimately the reason is likely expediency and convenience. These days it’s not necessary to record an entire take, because the grid allows us to cut and paste at will. Those who work in music supervision and the like; studio gigs which require a high volume of output, rely heavily on this standard because the alternative would make such a level of productivity impossible.

Some have theorized that technology has risen to meet the ideal of the human ear; that is to say our natural preference is for a song that maintains the same tempo throughout and features vocals and instrumentation which are perfectly in tune. However, technology itself has come to tell us otherwise, with plugins mimicking human feel by moving automated beats a notch here and there. Perfection, it turns out, sounds odd to us, because as human beings we inherently expect the ebbs and flows that typify the human condition.

As a 20-year industry veteran who’s seen my share of studios, I’ve become adept at working with clicks and matching phrasing as an exact science. The tighter I could make my recorded performances, the more seasoned and professional my work would be perceived. While I achieved a level of satisfaction mastering this method of recording, priding myself on vocal takes requiring no tuning and doubles requiring no shifting, the end result left me somewhat cold. I wanted the feeling I got when I listened to my favourite classics from bands like The Stones and The Kinks, where the drums would speed up and slow down and the tambourines were often out of time.

With that in mind, I’ve begun recording with no metronome and it’s been a humbling journey. For one thing, There’s no possibility of moving things around the session; backing vocals need to be sung anew with each chorus, and percussion can’t be sampled and pasted elsewhere in the track. My chops as a vocalist have been tested, as I’ve come to realize how much the tightness of my performances has relied on recording to a particular BPM count (beats per minute). Consequently, matching vocal phrasing has become an intuitive process, as I now need to “feel out” when the take I’m trying to match is finishing a line, hitting a consonant, or changing tone or pitch.

I’ve also been struck with the natural tendency songs can have towards increasing or decreasing in tempo, depending on mood or intensity. Tempo as an artistic device has become a casualty of the digital age, and we’ve thusly lost a powerful tool in our endeavours to uniquely interpret a musical piece. Surely tempo can have as close a relationship with a song as melody or rhythm; indeed rhythm and tempo have historically been intrinsically related.

If you haven’t already attempted to record without a metronome, I highly recommend it. If you’re using midi, try playing the parts freeform on your keyboard.  Even if you’re not sold on it as something to officially release, you’ll learn valuable lessons about yourself and the studio process in general.

Happy Tracking!

Musical Musings

Good vibrations

What is the anatomy of a song? Often, of course, lyrics are a factor, but words are not an integral building block. Rather, it is the rhythm driving those words that lands the vowels and consonants wherever that rhythm may dictate.

In my previous article, I wrote about the re-conceptualization of rhythm as an ever-unfolding pulse which allows the song in question to breathe naturally, as opposed to one that locks to a digital grid. Today, I’d like to explore the nuance of tuning in relation to melody - the second fundamental building block in a song’s creation.

Melody is comprised of two or more sequential notes delivered in relation to one another, with their root or tonic note being the nucleus around which such notes are arranged. One might make the analogy of a galaxy, with the sun assuming the role of the tonic and the planets its relative notes. The distance, or interval, between these notes is dictated by their place within the frequency band we call A440. Also known as Stuttgart pitch, A440 corresponds to an audio frequency of 440 Hz, which serves as what amounts to a global tuning standard. In a vast panorama of resonance, A440 somehow became the frequency upon which our modern musical landscape is built.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge in the field of studio recording knows that A440 is the predominant metric against which a musical performance is measured. The reason for this is the subject of controversy; nevertheless, in 1936 the American Standards Association recommended a standardization of tuning to 440 Hz, from the previously adopted 435 Hz.

Our modern day has borne witness to a dogged adherence to what I dub The 440 Doctrine - The idea that any musical performance committed to record must conform to the rigid standard set by this seemingly arbitrarily decided-upon frequency metric. This school of thought is relatively new, not reaching the zeitgeist in any overbearing sense until the 80s. Along with the material excess of the day came a striving for sonic sophistication, a tendency towards the prioritization of veneer over raw emotional delivery. This new frame of mind emerged in stark contrast to the relatively laissez-faire mentality of the 60s and 70s, when one could argue tuning was at times itself used as an artistic device.

The Bob Dylan song “Queen Jane Approximately” comes to mind. Released in 1965 on the heels of Dylan’s divisive move from acoustic to electric-themed music, the 5:27 minute clanger of a composition is, on its face, an assault on the auditory senses. Not only is the band well off the 440 mark, the guitar is obnoxiously out of tune with itself against the all-too-prominently featured B3 organ wailing atonally overtop. As a finishing touch, Dylan recorded a harmonica performance that, in orthodox terms, could only be described as horrendous. The resulting cacophony appears to be deliberate on Dylan’s part; a punk rock rebuking of the condemnation he had recently endured from an opinionated and artistically myopic public. Whatever Dylan’s motivation, “Queen Jane” illustrates how frequency might be conceptually reimagined as a statement in and of itself - one more arrow in the artist’s quiver, rather than a discrepancy to be rectified.

I could go on. From The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” (listen to the bass and guitar together) to every song on The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street”, the dissonance and frequency variation, at times blatant, only serves to enhance the authenticity of those classic recordings; indeed, a ragtime piano only sounds stylistically appropriate when it is out of tune.

My thirty-year background in music has given me keen insights regarding the relationship between resonance and songcraft; however, it was my wife Danka who led me to a deeper understanding a decade ago, when she introduced me to disciplines such as Bio Energetics, the Yogic chakra system, energy & sound healing, ecstatic dance etc. As I engaged with this phenomena, I became all the more aware of the profound impact frequency and resonance holds over one's existential experience.

The ancient philosopher Pythagoras (570-495 BC), widely known as the "father of music" was, officially speaking,  the first to discover the concept of intervals. Pythagoras made significant strides in the arena of resonance as medicine for healing,  both physically and psychologically. In the centuries since, the effects these various levels of frequency demonstrate have revealed themselves to us in myriad ways. 174 Hz, for example,  is associated with stress reduction; 285 Hz has been shown to aid in the healing of cuts and bruises; 396 Hz positively influences mood; 417 Hz alleviates trauma; 432 Hz promotes mental clarity and 528 Hz - also known as the love frequency - is associated with blessings and goodwill.

Why, then, have we become so tightly tethered societally to the 440 Hz paradigm? The emergence of digital technology has likely driven this mindset, with synthesizers calibrated to a 440 Hz standard superseding the traditional piano, thereby dictating all other musical elements follow suit.

Although a foray into alternate frequency tuning requires one to step out of the orthodoxy and into a more complex and esoteric musical universe, operating within a new resonant space can result in a more intimate, dynamic and well-rounded approach to the music-making process. Let’s reimagine what makes a melody by drawing from this considerably untapped frequency goldmine, forging ever forward in the name of artistic and musical exploration!

Musical Musings

Covers uncovered

Since I appeared as an Idol contestant in 2008, I've had a special interest in the Art of the Cover Song.

History has upheld above the rest those classic works of timeless wisdom whose impartations universally resonate, beckoning us to discover their composite parts, break them down to their most fundamental elements and build them back up. As a singer I'm particularly drawn to lyrically driven, ageless songs whose messaging I'm blessed with the opportunity to interpret according to my muse. An altered phrase here or note there can significantly shift a lyric's import so these areas of musical reinvention are of particular interest to me.

The Broadway, Nashville mindset regarding covers - endeavoring to produce a reasonable musical facsimile - is a logical and prevalent one. Its central tenet -  Thou Shalt Not Innovate - satisfies a commonplace human tendency towards familiar cultural phenomena. Its ubiquity in the paradigm of live music is therefore easily explained: Familiarity begets monetary gain. However, though more financially uncertain, an irreverent approach to cover song performance yields a more spiritually edifying result.

Listening to well-crafted, well-known songs with a receptive mind, I've had the pleasure of numerous revelatory experiences. Often, these come in the form of a cosmically-inspired epiphany regarding embedded truth within the wider lyrical narrative; truth the progenitor of the lyric might never have even intended. For example, The Who song "My Generation" contains the lines "Things they do look awful cold/I hope I die before I get old", superficially pertaining to a youth's desire to live permanently within a state of empathetic optimism, free from the psychopathy-inducing encumbrances of an elderly existence. One may nonetheless derive another, less obvious theme from these words: One of a soul's need to transcend the materialistic or "old" human consciousness and embrace the mystical or "new" perspective, accepting that death may be necessary to achieve such a state. Another example that comes to mind is the Huey Lewis song "I Want A New Drug", which includes the lines "I want a new drug/One that does what it should/One that won't make me feel too bad/One that won't make me feel too good/One that makes me feel like I feel when I'm with you". On its face, Huey is singing about the intoxicating love of a romantic partner besting the unpredictable vicissitudes of drug imbibement, but a deeper meaning becomes clear upon reflection: The journey of the prodigal son from the world of duality; the realm of the good and bad, to the world of the transcended consciousness which is to be found in godly union.

As a vocalist I analyze a lyric as an actor might a script, peeling away layers of meaning to arrive at a more panoramic understanding. The more nuanced a conceptual grasp by an artist of a given musical piece, the more dynamic that artist's rendition of that piece. Johnny Cash's take on the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt", Sid Vicious's "My Way" and Annie Lennox's version of Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" are all great examples of famous songs reworked creatively.

Commit to listening to your favorite songs anew and you'll be pleasantly surprised at the fresh perspective that will result. Elements heretofore unrecognized, lyrical and musical alike, will make themselves known to you. If you're a singer like me, let these new insights inspire your vocal delivery, lifting your performance technique to uncharted, exciting new heights.

Thou Shalt Innovate!