Tag Archives: Music

A Matter of Distance – Why Rehearsing Online Can’t Work

Like all other musicians on the planet, I really miss rehearsing and, of course gigging. So, like many of us, I went online to see if it was at all possible to rehearse using internet technologies like JamKazam and Jamulus. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Everyone’s assumption is that because we can all use Skype, Zoom and all the other video conference technologies to chat in real time, then we should be able to play music together. But the issue is one of latency.

When you talk with other people over Zoom, the minuscule delay that that happens between the time you say something and they hear it, is is just that – very minuscule and fits perfectly in with the brain’s natural interpretation of spoken sound. But music depends entirely on sticking to a beat, and as soon as you have more than one person involved, everything depends on matching that beat. The internet just cannot simulcast in absolute real time.

When a band rehearses in a studio or plays on a stage, everyone plays within mere feet of each other. Sound waves travel through air at roughly 1,000 feet per second. So you would have to be standing 500 feet apart from each other to start to notice troublesome delays. An audience at a large outdoor show might have people standing more than 500 feet from the speaker stacks, but the music from all the band members is mixed together and sent out at the same time, so even if it arrives half a second after the musicians played it, it will all arrive to those people at the same time.

“Can you hear me now?” The Stones in Rio 2006 – note the repeater towers all the way down the beach. Image courtesy Medium.com

For mega concerts like the Rolling Stones in Rio (1 million people), or any outdoor mega concert, speaker towers are set up both at stage level and also much further away and they are synchronized to ensure the sound going to the further towers is delayed slightly so that all sound waves from all speakers stay in line with each other without creating a cacophonous echo. That, by the way is also why we use floor monitors or in-ear monitors – to block out potential problems that come from too many speakers at different distances.

As a side note, it has always intrigued me how big acts do the whole audience participation thing, getting them to clap along or call and answer, without the musicians getting thrown off the original beat. For my money, Freddie Mercury was still the best at understanding this.

Freddie Mercury from Queen working the crowd – Wembley 1986 – Click the photo to see it on YouTube.

Live music is about connecting to that beat, and the speed of sound makes synchronization a non-issue. The internet, however, was not built to work at the speed of sound. It has always been about sending packets of data through a network of hubs, and anyone who is old enough to remember 14.4 modems knows how agonizingly slow that was. The very fact of being able to have a video conference with family members during this time of lockdown is still a fascinating concept to all of us who grew in the pre-internet era.

But for rehearsing music, it’s still not good enough. The problem is latency – a delay of 30 microseconds or more, and that’s too much for musicians to handle. My experience using Jamulus – but which could be applied to any of the online jamming brands – is that a delay of even 10 microseconds makes it feel like someone is playing just behind the beat.

Let’s take an inexperienced drummer for a moment. Why am I picking on drummers? Because a drummer’s job is to keep time, and to keep the flaky front people in line. Adrenaline and excitement make it very easy for a guitarist or lead singer to start a tune off too fast, or to waver the tempo as the tune goes along. We rely on drummers to be the metronome for the tune, and to deliver timing in an artful way. Inexperienced drummers, who have not yet recognized the true value of what they bring to the music, will sometimes fall behind the beat, just by a little bit. They enjoy themselves a little too much and start “playing along” to the tune instead of leading it. Just like anyone would do when tapping their foot or their steering wheel to a favorite tune.

The problem with a drummer who slips slightly out of the pocket is that the other musicians will then try to slow down in order to match the drummer’s reduced tempo, and chaos can ensue. Obviously, overcoming such slippage is the goal of any serious performing band.

But that’s what happens, in my experience at least, with online jamming solutions at their best. It’s certainly nice to hear your bandmates, especially after weeks of isolation, but playing inevitably starts to drag as everyone’s brain struggles to compensate for this minor lag.

Many online jamming solutions put the word “jam” in their name, and that’s because jamming is different from rehearsing. We can noodle around, playing tunes loosely and working on chords an harmonies, and yes, there may be great value in that. Think of all the precious rehearsal time you have spent trying to agree on the ending of a tune, or which harmony to take in a chorus. Those types of things – working on bits and pieces of a tune – would work well with a jam software, although I would suggest that Zoom, Skype or similar might be easier to use, because of the visual component.

This is a USB Audio interface. It sends an XLR and a line input (mic and guitar/keyboard) into your PC via USB. Price is roughly $100-$150.

In all of these situations, it really helps to have good audio equipment – that means sending your microphone and guitar signals through a USB Audio Interface device into your computer. Relying on the computer’s own teeny mic will not really cut it. Again, drummers need to decide whether to mic their kit, or maybe dust off the e-drums and plug them in. And of course, everyone needs headphones. You will also need an ethernet cable to connect your computer to your home router, because WiFi generally adds to the latency.

But to repeat, jamming, is not rehearsing. Rehearsing focuses on getting a tune (that everyone has already practiced thoroughly at home, amirite?) and putting it together as a multi-person product. It relies not only on the latency-free delivery of sound waves, but also on the eye contact and body language that all performers rely on to guide each other through the tunes. This, sadly, cannot be done online.

My summary, then, is that you will not be able to rehearse properly online until it’s safe to be physically in the same room again. But here are three things you can do in the mean time:

  • Use Zoom, Skype, Google Meet or some other video conferencing technology to meet up once per week to talk. Have a band meeting. Discuss tunes, family, whatever. If you used to rehearse on Wednesday nights, then schedule an online band meeting for Wednesday nights. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, band chemistry is vital to its ongoing success, and this actually might allow for more “together time” than you have had in the past. I know that even after this lockdown passes, I will ask my band to have a meeting once per week, outside of rehearsal time.
  • You can discuss starts and ends, and practice them online. That’s not the same as rehearsing the entire set, but it will make sure that once you are together, you will all have complete agreement of how the tunes should play. That will win back some lost time at least.
  • Use karaoke tunes to practice your parts with a virtual band. I’m a devotee of karaoke-version, which provides high quality versions of tunes with or without lead and backing vocals, and for couple of dollars more, you can create a custom track that strips out or lowers the volume on any of the instruments on the recording. Forcing yourself to play tunes without the existing singer/musician leading you on helps you step over that crucial barrier between recognition and recall.
  • Follow Steve Mac on Twitter (@The_WaveWatcher). He delivers a steady stream of highly valuable tips for gigging musicians that are an education unto themselves.

Soon, hopefully, we will be able to return to our rehearsal spaces and venues. It will be a different world for a while, which much greater focus placed on physical spacing and hygiene.

Until then, stay safe, keep practicing, and don’t let your instruments get dusty!

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To Be a Fly on the Wall in Genesis’ Studio

Mike Rutherford experimenting.

Some of the most fascinating gems to emerge from the YouTube mines, in my opinion, anyway, are videos of recording and rehearsal sessions from the bands I love. In the era before ubiquitous video cameras and cellphones, the act of filming was less frequent and more specialized. A band might bring in a film crew or journalist to film them rehearsing, which meant lights, cameras, and lots of strangers milling around, destroying the intimacy of the session. Much of the video we see of our musical heroes are either professionally produced concert or music-video footage, or cellphone video of a concert.

But when you love the intricacies of the production and rehearsal process, nothing beats amateur home-made video, usually shot by one of the band members, or someone very close to them, like a family member. This is when you get to see what it’s like to work as a rock star – and I mean work. It may seem wonderful to be able to spend hundreds of hours in a studio, but this, to some degree, is still work under pressure. It may be the pressure of a looming tour, or the pressure of having to come up with a new album that the record company will accept.

One of my favorites is a video shot by Phil Collins in 1982 or so, featuring the members of Genesis, holed up in a farmhouse studio in Surrey, experimenting with sounds and riffs that would one day become Home By the Sea, for the eponymous 1983 album. Released as a DVD bonus video, it’s wonderfully informal. Phil himself walks around showing off his new VHS video camera (he emphasizes it’s not BetaMax). He captures Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and producer Hugh Padgham – who is the splitting image of David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap, as they experiment with sounds and licks.

It’s remarkable to observe simultaneously the abundance of toys – keyboards stacked almost overlapping, guitars, amps and pedals, but all strewn around the room in an almost makeshift fashion. It’s equally fascinating to observe the lack of any trappings of stardom. Their cars, their clothes, even the food – just very basic. Phil himself seems as proud of the clunky 8-bit titles that he’s adding to the videos as he is of his drumming and his scratch vocals.

Genesis producer Hugh Padgham prepares to perform surgery on the tape.

It’s so neat to be able to look back across time, to identify a sound or a riff just being experimented with, knowing that this will soon become part of another gigantic hit for the band.

Perhaps my favorite scene of all, though, is Hugh Padgham making an edit to one of the tunes. This was in the pre-digital world. Bands recorded on 2-inch tape. It was all linear. The more successful you were, the more tape you got to play with. There was no ProTools, Garage Band or DAWs back then. You had tape and you had razor blades. With the precision of a surgeon, he rolls the tape back and forth across the play heads, to find the exact moment – the exact fraction of a second, where the cut must be made. There’s no Undo button to fall back on. He makes the cuts with smooth draws of the razor blade, removes a section and sticks the tapes back together.

“At Abbey Road, they tape both sides,” someone mentions. “Oh,” says Padgham.

There are quite a few of these rehearsal/recording videos available on YouTube. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones often had hangers on as well as artists like Andy Warhol eager to capture this other side of the glamorous business of making music. But the Genesis tapes really make you feel like you are there, like a fly on the wall, watching great talent at work in the most unpretentious of ways.

Here’s the link to the full video.

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The Curious World of In-Ear Monitors

Stevie Wonder was one of the very first developers/users of IEMs. Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

My band is taking the plunge into using in-ear monitors (IEMs) and without a doubt, the plunge metaphor is apt. It’s like teaching kids to swim. IEMs are both loved and less-than-loved by performing musicians. On the plus side, they can deliver a perfectly balanced sound mix, tailored to each player, while removing floor wedges and the ever-present threat of feedback. They also provide excellent hearing protection. On the minus side, they remove the three-dimensional feel that you get from walking around the amps on stage. Some performers say they lose the direct connection to the audience. Hence the swimming metaphor. For many musicians, the experience is like trying to hear underwater. It’s alien and isolating.

I Can’t Hear You

This is one of the most common complaints I hear from musicians not wearing IEMs in a rehearsal or live situation. It can be extremely difficult to focus in on different soundstreams from different amps and speakers, since sound tends to travel in straight lines. It can be doubly difficult when rehearsing or playing in a small space with hard walls, since sound also tends to reflect off those walls creating intersecting straight lines.

It’s a wonder anything gets done at all. And the reason why it does, more often than not, is everyone inches their volume outputs up, progressively over time, resulting in a huge wash of sound leading to temporary or even permanent hearing loss.

IEMs put an end to this by delivering a mix directly into your ears. With a decent mixer/soundboard, and all  instruments mic’d or DI’d, there is no longer a need to play amps loud. Singers do not have to strain to make themselves heard. Lead guitarists do not have to boost their volume for the solo and then…er….forget to turn back down again.

Don’t Forget the Ambience

To remove that feeling of isolation from the physical space around you, simply include a couple of ambient mics in the mix. These will pick up some of the room sound, including audience comments, and will add that sense of three dimensional space. This is just like adding reverb to a guitar signal. The human ear is accustomed to processing secondary audio signals such as room echo. It’s the normal way of hearing. So of course it’s vital to mix that in.

Make Sure They’re Comfortable and Correct

Me rehearsing with IEMs in.

IEMs are specially shaped to fit in the average person’s ear, and should also include a soft rubber cap that seals off the ear canal from external noise. You cannot – or should not – use earbud style headphones, because they do not seal out the external sound.

They should also be physically easy to wear and should stay in place. The wires should go around the back of your head and down the back of your shirt to avoid getting snagged on guitar straps or clothing. If you generally stand still to play, then the wire should basically run all the way back to the mixing board. If you like to move like Jagger, then you’ll definitely need a wireless pack. These can be expensive ($600-$1000), but if you’re not gigging every second night, consider renting one from your local music store.

The App: The Magic Touch

Another complaint musicians have about IEMs is the time it takes to get a personal mix from the sound tech. The tech has lots to do, and setting up individual balances for every musician, along with the house sound, recording and everything else can be time consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Double so each time you want to tweak your personal mix because it’s not quite right.

This is the QSC Touchmix app. This stock photo does not show it, but each can can be labeled.

But hey, there’s an app for that. Many newer boards now come with a phone/iPad app that allows each musician the freedom to adjust her/his IEM balance as much and as often as needed. This to me is the magic sauce that makes it all so worth it. All the faders are labeled, and the settings will stay in place even when you turn off, pack up, and then set up for the next gig.

If You’re Pushing Back an Ear, Your Mix is Off

IEMs still take some getting used to. They are a different experience. But you can say the same thing about a lot of things. Multi-effects pedals in place of stompboxes, voice sweeteners and harmonizers, loopers, MIDI, shooting your performance with Periscope. These are all new things that once didn’t exist, and now they do. Once upon a time Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric. The Beatles got weirdy-beardy. Lady Gaga stopped showing up in an egg. Things change and most often for the better.

When I see someone who is new to the IEM experience playing with one earpiece hanging out so they can hear their own amp or voice better, I have to tell them, “Your mix isn’t right. You shouldn’t need to do that.” That’s like getting a car, putting it in gear, and then getting out and walking alongside it, because it’s the only way you can really feel the road. If you can’t hear yourself in your mix, then fix your mix. Don’t forget also that using IEMs in only one ear risks hearing damage as your brain starts sending its own confused signals as it tries to balance out a very uneven sound pattern.

The Proof is in Who Uses Them

My band is still getting used to them. Half the band (myself included) love them and want to stick with them. The other half still needs convincing. Ultimately I will ask any hesitant musician to take a look at their musical heroes. The odds are they are using them. Why? They have access to anything they need, yet they still choose to perform with IEMs. Though most of us don’t travel with a 6-person sound crew, the wireless, digital sophistication of soundboards and apps make IEMs accessible to all of us, which, I believe, benefits performers and audiences alike.

More Info

This is a YouTube video put out by Darren Mullan of the amazing Australian band Hindley Street County Club, that not only explains IEMs, but shows you how they sound. If you want to read a more detailed summary about IEMs, check out this article from Sound On Sound.

 

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Downloadable Music and the Flipped Listener Relationship

Mr. Thoughty2

I was watching a YouTube video the other day which talked about “everything that is wrong with modern music.” The host of the video, who goes by the name of Thoughty2, wasn’t even old. Probably around 23. He wasn’t one of those 70-something prog rock old-timers spouting on about today’s music, but instead, he presented some interesting facts about how music is produced and marketed in this era.

Thoughty2 describes how modern hits by people like Taylor Swift are mostly written by a very small group of people, primarily two people in the US and two in Europe who compose using a computer. He also mentions a recurring musical note sequence called the Millennial Whoop that echoes through dozens of modern hits, as this compilation video shows.

I’m not seeking to knock Thoughty2 here. He makes a great argument, and says great things about the Beatles. But every generation deserves its own musical heroes, after all, if only to distance themselves from their parents or older siblings.

I can agree with much of what Thoughty2 is saying, but it’s also possible to think this is a standard “kids today…get off my lawn” type rant. I recall similar arguments put forward in 1963, slagging the long haired, gyrating freakishness of the Beatles or Elvis, and lamenting the disappearance of quality music from Sinatra or the Big Band era. You could go back even further and imagine Thoughty2’s great-great grandfather complaining about how George Gershwin is tearing the classics apart. Even Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for changing music too radically.

But here’s the part of Thoughty2’s presentation that really resonated with me. He pointed out the effect that free downloadable music has had on its creation and quality. Back in the days of vinyl LPs and packaged CDs, you, as a music consumer, had to head on down to the music store and plonk out some hard-earned money to purchase a collection of songs by your favorite artist. There’s a lot of effort involved in that, and it wasn’t cheap. In 1975 an LP would have cost between $4.99 and $7.99. I remember wishing I could get the compilation triple album by KISS, which was retailing for an astounding $10.99 at the time. That might not seem like a lot now, but back in 1975, minimum wage in the U.S. was around $2.00 per hour. The first album I actually bought was Equinox by Styx, for $4.99. It was gorgeous yellow vinyl.

People would listen to the album side from start to end, poring over the artwork and liner notes as they listened. If the album was good enough, they would commit to getting up, crossing the room, flipping the record over and placing the needle down onto track 1 of side B. There was a lot of physical engagement in listening to an album.

But while recorded music was expensive, concerts, were cheap. That’s because they were the loss-leaders designed to get you to buy the merchandise and albums. But as David Bowie so accurately predicted back in 1980, the moment music becomes free (as it now has), artists and their employers – the record companies – will have to recoup their costs through live performances at hundreds of dollars per seat.

Because modern music is free or mere pennies, and because it is available for instant download, no time is needed to think through the purchase decision, to debate whether the tunes are worth buying, or to spend time afterwards listening over and over to the tunes if only to justify the cost of the purchase. There is always more on its way, coming to you with almost no effort on your part. And that has profound impact on how the tunes are crafted.

Instant access means that tunes must offer a combination of universal appeal, familiarity, and instant appeal. To be too different entails too much risk and instant abandonment. Tunes must have an immediate  instant hook – no long-extended introductions allowed – and in many cases the tunes play out as a backdrop to the artist’s video, both on YouTube as well as on the live concert Jumbotrons.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that. Art must always strike a balance between innovation and comfort if it is to make money.

Blue Swede: The hair! The collars! The Oogachakkas!

The early hook rule applied back in the 1970’s too. A tune had to have something compelling within the first four seconds to get the attention of a record company, and later, the listening public. Perhaps the best and most compelling song opening is the “Oogachakka-ooga-ooga” opening to “Hooked On a Feeling,” by Blue Swede available on YouTube here.

So I’m not sure I an agree with Thoughty2 that there is anything wrong with modern music. It’s what people want to hear, and is a direct product of instant and always-on media that modern consumers have grown up with. It’s just a very different approach – one that has flipped everything around.

I will always stick to the old-school, vinyl-oriented music of my 70’s youth. But music is to be enjoyed, so whatever kind floats your personal boat is never wrong. If it brings you joy, if it makes you feel good, if it adds to your life, it has done its job.

But just for the fun of it, and in case you have a couple of hours to spare, here’s a list of tunes with long introductions that I think are worth the effort. If you want more, here’s the list from Songfacts.com.

Baba O’Riley – The Who
Bat Out of Hell – Meatloaf
Bloody Well Right – Supertramp
Funeral For a Freind – Elton John
I Need a Lover – John Mellencamp
Sound and Vision – David Bowie
Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

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The Physical Aspect of Rehearsal: Recognition versus Recall

This is my pedalboard. It’s not that complicated, but it’s complicated enough for me.

Fellow band members often ask me why I lug my pedal board and guitars to each band rehearsal. After all we’re just going through the tunes – we’re not playing a show. My answer is that rehearsal is not just about knowing a tune. It is also about knowing how to play it, and playing it demands full body muscle memory. More than once when playing live I have hit the wrong pedal and ended up with a fuzz tone when I meant for clean. Or I have mistimed my return to the mic for that next harmony.

Musicians of any age and stage must remember there are levels to the practice regimen. First, there’s practicing at home. Next, there’s rehearsing with a band. Then there’s actually playing a show. Then there’s playing a bigger show. Then there’s playing a big show with many other acts.

Every one of these demands something more and teaches you as much as it pulls from you. Here are just a few examples:

The Difference Between Recognition and Recall

If you have ever studied a second language, have you noticed it is easier to understand someone speak it than it is to speak it yourself, even if you’ve taken years of language classes? That’s because when you hear someone, your brain recognizes the sounds it has heard before and can deduce meaning from them. But when you try to speak it, you have to reach back into the vaults and pull words out manually. That’s an act of recall and it’s much harder.

The same thing applies when learning a tune. You play along with a song on Spotify no problem. It seems easy to learn because your mind is being cued along, even in microseconds. “Here’s where verse 2 starts.” “Here are the words to verse 3.” “Here’s the bridge.” It’s all there. Even a tune you haven’t heard in 20 years, you will likely be able to sing along with because the playback cues your memory and you recognize the pattern of words and notes in something just approaching real time.

You take that song to your rehearsal space and start practicing it with your people, and it’s easy to forget everything. I call it bandnesia. The total lostness of the song. “Wait,” you say, “is the solo after the second verse or the third one?” “How many times do we repeat that line?” You get frustrated, knowing you’ve practiced this tunes dozens of times with your headphones on. But the problem is, you’ve practiced recognizing it all those times. Now, with your bandmates, you now have to recall that tune, and so do your fellow musicians. And you must all recall it the same way. That’s what rehearsal is.

Then you get onstage. This is a different world. There’s the excitement of the crowd. There’s adrenalin rushing through your system. There are the distractions of lights, bigger sound, and the sheer awareness of being looked at. That’s a wonderful sensation, but it can really mess with your memory. I have seen musicians completely forget what note or fret to start a tune on when they’re up there under the lights. Total blank. It happens, and it’s nothing to be afraid of, but it is something to be aware of. Maybe write out the starting chord on your floor sheet, for example.

Each of these levels – practicing at home, practicing with the band, playing on stage, is 10 or even a 100 times more challenging than its predecessor. There are things that rehearsals just cannot prepare you for.

Muscle Memory is Different Than Mental Memory

That’s why I bring my full gear to rehearsal. Every single action, like hitting the right pedal, tuning up between songs, knowing that mysterious place in the universe that picks vanish into and most importantly, being fully aware of your physical self – how you move, how you smile, how you connect with your bandmates and your audience, how to smoothly switch guitars or change up settings – how to look up at the audience even during the difficult solos – all of these need to be memorized just as much as the words and the notes.

It’s a hassle bringing all that gear to rehearsal and spending valuable time setting it up and taking it down. But you watch a great live show and you can see just how well planned and practices every move, every line of banter, every spontaneous huddle and chat between the guitarist and the bass player in the middle of a song. And most importantly, the sharp start and impressive end to each tune.

If You Want to Be Spontaneous in Life, Plan to Be Spontaneous

Keith spits out his cig under a perfect keylight in Scorcese’s shine a light. He always knows what he looks like. See it on YouTube here.

Yes it’s a joke, but it’s not. Even Keith Richards, the loosest, shaggiest guitarist of all time, knows exactly where the best camera angles are, he knows how to coordinate his layered clothing style and how to sling that guitar really low. Spontaneous does not mean unrehearsed. It means it appears spontaneous to the audience, and that requires practice. It’s theater. Even Kurt Cobain did it. It just didn’t look like he did. Which is the whole point.

One can never over-rehearse, in my opinion, because the wild unpredictability of live performance will always deliver new challenges. But I have worked with many musicians who say, “We got this tune, let’s move on,” to which I always reply, “No you don’t.” Let’s do it again.

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Forming a Band? – Read a Business Book

This is a post about becoming successful as a band. It’s about music, so don’t let this next paragraph turn you off. In fact if it does turn you off, that’s likely part of your problem. So here goes.

There is a great book that you can find in the business section of any bookseller, online or otherwise. It’s called the E-Myth Revisited, and it’s by Michael Gerber. I recommend it constantly to clients and to my professional speaking audiences because of its simple premise: just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’ll make a good entrepreneur. That’s the myth. That’s what the letter “E” stands for in the title: Entrepreneur.  To succeed in business, you have to have a triangle of talents: 1.) your subject matter expertise; 2.) your marketing ability; and 3.) your management ability.

In terms of being a musical act, your subject matter expertise means your ability to perform live, which is very different from simply being able to play your instrument. Marketing ability helps you locate new business, and management ability helps the business run. Most businesses fail because the entrepreneur only wants to focus on what he/she does best, leaving the other two sides of triangle unattended, at which point the business collapses.

It’s the same with bands. Many people form bands with the idea of jamming once per week and then hopefully getting a gig somewhere. There are a lot of talented, passionate musicians out there. But for the band to make it out of the basement, they must fit themselves inside the place where talent, chemistry and schedules overlaps. People have to be able to play, but they also have to get along in some form – be on the same mental page. And they need to be able to get together no less than once per week, in order to keep up the  momentum.

  • If you have talent and chemistry, you will likely have a great time jamming and experimenting in the basement, and for many that is certainly enough. It’s the sheer joy of playing music with kindred spirits. Nothing wrong with that, but it won’t get you many gigs.
  • If you have talent and a schedule for regular rehearsal, you will likely have a band for a while, but once new members pass through the honeymoon stage of “Wow! this is cool,” their true personalities will emerge. Just as with any team that is formed in the corporate world, the danger of things falling apart is high if the chemistry and sense of team is not omnipresent.
  • If you have interpersonal chemistry and an schedule that allows regular rehearsals, but the talent is not quite there, well, lots of practice is in order. Playing live onstage is a lot harder than jamming in the basement. Some musicians are indeed lucky to learn this by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the road, hardening up their skills under the lights. But for basement bands, it’s vital to use that valuable rehearsal time to rehearse as a band, rather than noodle around.

Once a band finds itself in the perfect center of this Venn diagram, it must then have a read of – or listen to – Mr. Gerber’s book to understand fully that industry they are operating in is called show-business, not show-play. A band is a business. It needs management and marketing just like any other entrepreneurial undertaking. That means boring stuff like budgets, contracts, bank accounts, insurance, punctuality, advertising, competitive analysis, pricing strategies and a business plan. That’s not so much fun, but there’s the rub. Without all of these items backing you up, the band will just fall back in on itself.

Have a look at these guys. Read up on them. From their earliest days back in NYC as Wicked Lester, Gene and Paul had a business plan to create a product. Not just play music, but create a product filled with marketing and branding excellence. Remember the KISS Army? This was a major step up from the fan clubs created for the Beatles and people like that.

You might not want to look and sound like KISS, but have a look at how they put on a show. It’s an experience. There are many other acts you could choose to study in place of KISS if you want. Alice Cooper and Meatloaf were part of the first rockers to put choreography into their acts, paving the way for people like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks, the Foo Fighters, and Taylor Swift are role models of a hugely satisfying, yet largely unadorned spectacle. They don’t wear kabuki makeup, but their energy and sheer strength of performance surpasses the songs’ own impact. Of course Mariah Cary, J-Lo and a host of others now fully understand the importance of visual amazingness in their concerts.

The point is, regardless of the ultimate goals of a band, whether it’s to play professional festivals like SXSW or simply a local pub, the odds of getting there increase when a business approach is used. Although most musicians say they play music in part to get away from the trappings of the business world, it cannot be denied that music is a business and performing it is a product. So alongside the biographies of your favorite music heroes, it might be a good idea to also have a copy of the E-Myth Revisited.

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Discovering the Amazing Portable Universe of the iRig and Amplitube

This image belongs to the Men In Black people. I’m just borrowing it to make a point.

There is a scene at the very end of Men In Black II where J and K open an exit door to reveal an entire universe that earthlings know nothing about. It’s more than just a door. It’s a portal. And I know it’s just a movie and this might sound like a stretch, but that’s kind of how I felt when I brought home an iRig and its Amplitube iPhone app.

When my last teeny tiny mini practice amp (a VOX headphone amp) got broken, I wandered down to the local music store to get a new one. Before shelling out the required $60 Canadian for a replacement, I had a quick look around to see what else was there, and that’s how I came across the iRig. It was on sale for $49.95 so it became immediately more attractive. I assumed it was an Apple product because of its name, but it isn’t. I also assumed it would be just another pocket amplifier, handy for practicing and playing along to my Spotify playlist. But it wasn’t that either. I soon discovered it was a lot more than that.

The iRig is part of a family of products made by IK Multimedia in Modena, Italy. The company is staffed by sound engineering geniuses who accurately and faithfully replicate the sounds of world famous amps, cabinets, microphones and pedals. They make it all available as a virtual studio that lives on your phone, computer or tablet. (They make more than just the iRig and Amplitube, but I’m just going to focus on them for the moment.)

Part of the Amplitube pedalboard.

Discovering the Amplitube app was an eye-opening moment. As a teaser it provides you with a couple of amps and a few free pedals. The amps are brand name – Fender, Marshall, Mesa Boogie. The pedals are thinly disguised and very identifiable replicas of famous brands like MXR.

The people at IKMultimedia are obviously passionate about detail. Nothing escapes their notice. On the sound side they seem to be able to bend heaven and earth to replicate the sound of, say, an 1967 Fender Twin with a slight nick on the speaker cone and some wear and tear on the casing. If you don’t like how that sounds, you can move your virtual Sennheiser mic a few inches back, or maybe swap out one of the speakers for another brand. They are that focused. The detail can also be seen in the casings of the products. Whether it’s the virtual pedals or the virtual rack mounted effects, they have captured the brushed aluminum, the yellow bulbs inside the VU meter windows, the sheen of light on the plastic knobs, even the texture of masking tape hastily placed across a scuffed and beaten Fuzz.

It’s truly amazing to experience the sheer variety of the products, not to mention the quality of the sounds they produce. This is why the Men In Black II scene comes to mind. My purchase of this simple iRig was like opening a dor onto the world’s largest music store.

I am nowhere famous enough to be paid to write this, by the way. This is not some sort of thinly disguised ad. I am writing it because as a musician grew up with stomp boxes (mainly BOSS), and analog tape recorders, to be let loose in the freemium world of Amplitube, especially with its painstakingly produced vintage retro packaging, is quite mind-boggling.

How Does it Fare in a Live Setting?

Naturally, because my personal passion is live performance, as compared to studio recording or composing, I want to know how all this cool stuff would stand up to the stage. First, I had to get my head around the idea of going direct through the board. There’s no need for an amp or pedals when you have it all on your iPad. Second I had to get used to the idea of playing through an iPad. This, too, seems crazy at first glance, but when you think that most pedals and amps now have circuit boards and software inside them, it’s kind of a fait accompli.

But is it cool to have an iPad or PC sitting onstage with you? Keyboard players get to do it after all.

So maybe an all-virtual backline is the way to go.

I learned that I wouldn’t need to have to whip out my phone between songs to change settings. Not when there’s one of these available!  This is the iRig StompIO, a floor mounted control panel for your Amplitube presets. As you can see it comfortably cradles your iPad and even recharges it while you play.

Does it work? Is it safe to go onstage with the same iPad that has my TurboTax files and my family photos on it? I expect so. Truth is, I haven’t tried it in a live setting yet, because I am still discovering the parallel world of onboard amp modelling software on my BOSS Katana. But hey! Who’s to say I can’t do both?

So for now I use the iRig and a selection of pedals for practicing when I am on the road on business without my music gear. Maybe within the year I will be able to post a follow-up blog with my experiences playing a gig through the StompIO.

In the meantime, if anyone actually reads this and has had some experience with it, I would love to read your comments.

 

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The Passionate Black-and-White World of July Talk

Leah and Peter from July Talk. Photo credit: Jaime Espinoza / Aesthetic Magazine

Updated April 29, 2019

Once in a while you come across a band that has something really special: a passion that goes beyond the music itself and that shapes the entire live performance. I find this in the band called July Talk. To be honest, I had not heard of them until my 17-year-old daughter asked me to go and watch them at the CBC Music Festival, held on May 26, 2018 at Echo Beach in Toronto. Lots has been written about them elsewhere including their successful and demanding tour schedule and their taking of LA by storm, but what captivated me was the passion of the delivery. Lead singers Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis carry a sensuality in their choreography and singing that is both gentle and furious. Combined with their vastly different but oddly complementary vocal styles, it speaks to the entire bizarre energy of human attraction, lust and love – something that hopefully everyone, at some point gets to feel in their own lives.

The dusk performance was the headliner of the festival. Leah got quickly to the point of acknowledging that the land upon which the festival (and the host city of Toronto) sits is land belonging to the people of the Indigenous First Nations including Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa. This is something that I am personally very happy to see and hear.

The show itself was a tight and road-hardened delivery of all their best tunes. It didn’t matter that I had not heard any of them before. Although many people go to a concert to hear their favourite songs played by their musical heroes, the quality and texture of the material made them all immediately compelling and enjoyable even upon first hearing.

My perspective of the July Talk show.

Leah and Peter dominate the stage with their seductive delivery, singing as much to each other as they do to the capacity crowd. Of course the rest of the band members, including some very lithe back-up singers, deliver powerhouse support with flawless playing and visual appeal to make the entire stage something wondrous to look at without the need for overpowering light shows and pyrotechnics. The colour palette is black and white, which I have since learned, is also part of their film/video production brand and style.

The moon added to the magic of the evening. It was not-quite full but was very prominent in the early summer sky, and Leah took time to point it out.

Sometimes, with a band you’ve never heard before, things can get a little tedious. Listening to one unfamiliar tune after another, with nothing recognizable such as a cover tune from a more famous act thrown in as a foothold, can become distracting. Not so with July Talk. They held my interest throughout. They not only performed happily to their hometown audience, they got involved with them, with Leah climbing down across the security barriers to sit on the sand of Echo Beach surrounded by fans. That takes guts. And heart.

– – – – – –

Update. This year my daughter once again invited me to go with her to see July Talk on their joint tour with Metric and Murray Lightburn at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, on April 26.

July Talk

Up close and personal with July Talk. Photo credit: @AngelMarchini for @SoundCheckBlg. Click the photo to visit Angel’s website.

Again, the atmosphere was intimate while remaining musically tight. They even brought the moon with them this time, in the form of an inflatable replica that Leah guided around the stage on a long leash.

From our perspective across the cavernous space, it was still possible to take in Leah’s exquisite and masterful dancing, and Peter’s dramatic lurching over the keyboards. Also perceptible from our vantage point was the love and the passion that July Talk fans have for their band, which seems to go beyond traditional rock star worship and instead reflects the shared concerns and love for the issues that the band stand so solidly behind, including acknowledging the First Nations whose land the City of Toronto is built on, and the rights of all people to coexist in an accepting and supportive culture.

To me, as an old(er) guy, July Talk reminds me of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Talking Heads, combining artistry and sensuality with sophisticated musical writing that stands apart from the contemporary norm.

Looking forward to the next show.

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Celebrating The Contemporary Youth Orchestra

YES frontman Jon Anderson and drummer Alan White, and in the background, some of the kids from CYO.

The first time I encountered the Contemporary Youth Orchestra was watching a YouTube video of Yes performing I’ve Seen All Good People [see it here]. Yes is a formidable live band unto themselves, but the performance was made simply magical by the kids from the CYO.

Everyone looked like they were having such fun, in fact everyone, even the ever-focused Steve Howe. But is was the kids that made it all so wonderful. Whether they were hard at work playing their brass, woodwinds or strings, or hand-jiving together in the background, they epitomized the joy of live music.

I had to search around to find out who they were, but once I found their website I discovered an amazing collection of young musicians, learning the business from teaching and conducting legend Liza Grossman.

Based in Cleveland, Ohio, the CYO has worked with an impressive group of artists and performers, who obviously recognize the members’ talent and energy. It is evident in the way they work together that everyone benefits, and that these kids have great futures in the entertainment business. Some of the big names who have rehearsed and performed with the CYO include Graham Nash, Ben Folds, Styx, Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, Jason Mraz, Jon Anderson, and Yes.

Styx, backed up by CYO – I Am the Walrus

For me, one of the most memorable of their many notable performances, is The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus, with Styx. That’s not an easy tune! It’s like taking on Bohemian Rhapsody. It has time signature changes and chords you just don’t see every day.

Themed Performances

When you visit the Explore page of the CYO website, you find out that there is much more to the orchestra than doing live concerts with rock stars. Some of their recent performances have featured Disney/Pixar movie tunes, West African concertos, Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, and many others.

The orchestra its members are truly inspirational. I am not affiliated with them in any way. I simply have a passion for live performance and seeing people become completely in the magic of the music, whether they are musicians or audience members. The CYO delivers on both counts.

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Bob Culbertson and the Chapman Stick

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco very recently, I heard the most beautiful music floating across the late afternoon breeze. It sounded like a trio, playing a gorgeous flowing piece of easy-listening jazz; there was no percussion, but something that sounded like a marimba, accompanying a harp or two – an actual sit down harp, not a harmonica.

I approached Pier 39 in search of the trio, but what I found was something and someone far more amazing. I had discovered Bob Culbertson, master of the Chapman Stick. He was playing a tune I did not recognize, but I stood enthralled for a full ten minutes, listening, for it sounded like he carried an entire band in his two hands.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

I had never seen a Chapman Stick in person before. It is a remarkable instrument that resembles the neck of a guitar, but longer, and with no actual body. It is worn vertically, from belt buckle to shoulder and is played with both hands primarily pressing the strings down onto the frets. There are different models, having either 8, 10 or 12 strings, with the heavier bass notes in the centre, and lighter melodic notes toward the outside.

The result of this complex playing arrangement, at least in the hands of a master, is remarkable, and Bob Culbertson is indeed a master. His slender fingers walked up and down the Stick’s fretboard, threading their way constantly and carefully to new footfalls. The was no dramatic strumming, as guitarists are prone to do, no rocking of the body as pianists do, and of course no sharp intakes of breath as horn players most do. Instead the music just came from this delicate dancing caress, and it was remarkable.

Dubbed “The Segovia of the Stick,” Bob’s playing delivers everything that a jazz trio can do. Sensitive, captivating melodies backed by a walking bass line, with counterpoints weaving seemingly effortlessly between. That one person can keep track of so much and deliver so much is truly amazing.

Many years ago when Stanley Jordan was still relatively unknown, people marvelled at the idea that music could be drawn from a fretted string instrument by hammering rather than plucking. I remember hearing a jazz station DJ introducing a Jordan track one time by daring the listeners to believe him when he said there was only one musician playing.

The hammering technique for guitar has a number of masters and devotees. In Toronto we are lucky enough to have an amazing player by the name of Andrew Lopatin who actually plays in the subways. He too, is worth stopping and listening to, even if you are late for work.

But the Chapman Stick goes far beyond what a six or seven string guitar can do. It has a soft, flowing musicality that truly benefits from sensitive pickups doing the work of amplification. It is not well known in popular music circles; perhaps the most well-known player is Tony Levin, an alumnus of King Crimson, and acts as diverse as Mike Oldfield, the Blue Man Group and the Dave Mathews Band have also experimented with it.

Listening to Bob Culbertson play is simply awe inspiring. There are moments when it seems he is not actually playing at all, but merely holding the Stick upright, while it does the work. But that’s an unfair description. Bob is a master – one of those extraordinary musicians who becomes part of the music. It flows through him, to the instrument. Glenn Gould, the pianist, was like that. So was Vladimir Horowitz. Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard share this talent in storytelling and comedy. There is something that seems to go beyond mere practice and delivery, beyond merely working an instrument to make art. With artists like Bob, there doesn’t seem to be any force required. He simply lets the music descend into him and play itself on the strings.

But it would be unfair too to dismiss all the years of hard work and practice that Bob must have put into his craft. His face is placid as he plays, but his eyes are sharp. He scans the crowd, singling out those who truly enjoy the music and he makes a true connection.

Thankfully, for those who cannot get to San Francisco to see him, his music is available online, and this is obviously the easiest way to experience his true genius. His website is www.stickmusic.com.

For me, a musician who has always struggled to make a guitar do what it is supposed to do, it is a rare privilege to look over the fence and observe a true virtuoso – someone who is a conduit of melody – and to partake in its all encompassing beauty.

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