Tag Archives: Rolling Stones

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!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Steven Tyler and the power of networking

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once...

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once…

Today (March 26) is Steven Tyler’s birthday. As the flamboyant front man of Aerosmith he has made a great living playing in and leading one of the world’s most famous rock bands, while not taking himself too seriously. The staccato vocal rhythm prevalent in a lot of his tunes comes from the fact he was a drummer first, playing drums in his upstate New York hometown. He also learned a great deal about composition by sitting under the piano in his home while his father, a classical musician, played. He would write tunes with “two hands” in mind and would go back the studio and say “bass, you play what my left hand is doing on the piano – yes, he can play piano too — and guitar, you play what my right hand is doing. So as weird and strung-out as he may still appear, he is a wise man of rock – very smart in both the ochestration of tunes and of course the choreography of a great live show.

But as with many immortal partnerships (Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Elton & Bernie) the soul-mate connection between Tyler and his amazing guitar player Joe Perry leaves us with the intriguing thought of what might have happened if they never hooked up. According to Tyler’s excellent autobiography, Do The Noises In My Head Bother You (which is even better as an audiobook, read by Tyler sound-alike Jeremy Davidson), Perry was playing around in other bands, and it was only the connection they had to a summer camp that got them together. Perry, as a teenager, was the fry-cook there.

Now this may not be networking in the truest sense of the word, but it goes to show just how much fate pays a major part in our lives. If Tyler had not gone back to that summer camp, would we have Aerosmith? If Jagger and Richards had not bumped into each other and started talking about blues records, would the Stones ever have existed? If Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin had not seen and answered the same newspaper ad, well, who knows?

One of the greatest stepping-stones to personal success and satisfaction comes from the people you know. They provide opportunities, for business, for gigs, for advancement in all areas of life. When we reflect on all of the great might-have-beens and all of the great victories, they are usually due to being in the right place at the right time – with someone else.

Your personal network is your best tool for getting ahead, and should really be nurtured every day.

Tagged , , , , ,

The Ancient Art of Weaving and Band Telepathy

Keith and Ron and the "Ancient Art of Weaving."

Keith and Ron and the “Ancient Art of Weaving.”

Whether you are a fan of the Rolling Stones or not, one of the most fascinating things about them is their guitar musicianship. When people talk about great guitarists in the worlds of rock, blues and R&B they often highlight virtuosos like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan, who admittedly can play clean and fast like no-one else; but Rolling Stones, as staffed by Keith Richards and Ron Wood (not the Mick Taylor or Brian Jones chapters), draws attention to another sort of expertise, that they themselves call the “fine art of weaving.” These two long-in-the-tooth players roll around the necks of their guitars like two figure skaters on a rink, each doing their own thing, but somehow fitting perfectly. If Keith goes up the neck, Ronnie goes to the far end, and the licks intertwine, as can be heard so well in tunes such as “Beast of Burden.”

It might seem relatively straightforward to do this, with blues-based rock lending itself so easily to lazy lengths of twelve-bars, but most bands do not do this. There is the rhythm guy and there is the lead guy.

The fine art of weaving is a craft that comes from years and years of endless live performance – something most musicians can only dream of, but it highlights the essential element of any successful live band, which is a form of telepathy, in which every member of the band knows what each other will do, and can, as a result, perform confidently. This confidence reflects in everyone’s performance, and then projects out into the audience.

Many bands perform in a woefully under-rehearsed state, having practiced the tunes a few times, but not having perfected the show. Each member is still just a musician, and the five or six of them have not yet fused as a group, and this shows.

On-stage telepathy comes from hours of rehearsal and live play. It comes from an attitude that a performance is more than just knowing the set list. Mick can hand off to Keith and Ron. Phil Collins handed off to Mike Rutherford. Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson both had absolute faith in their musician and dancers to never have to look over their shoulders once to know if all was unfolding as it should.

For the 99.9% of us musicians who aren’t in the full-time professional league, rehearsal time is scarce, and gig opportunities usually hard to come by. But it is essential to recognize that the ability to play one’s own piece of the tune is only a small fraction of the end product. If you are in a five-piece band, ten you are not one-fifth of that band. You are more like one-tenth. Because no matter how hard you practice at home, it is the “act” that counts equally if not more than the actual tune.

In my humble opinion, a rehearsal should run through at least one set from start to end exactly as it would be played on stage, including the prepared announcements and banter (if any). Only then will true telepathy start to develop.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,