I was listening to one of those radio stations on which they loosely format their programming around Big Band era music, but will play almost any contemporary vocalist whose tune has, over the years, achieved ‘standard’ status. There was a Barry Manilow song being played, and I was paying attention to the arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment.
Barry came up in music the working man’s way, through jingle writing. He was responsible for the old MacDonald’s commercial tune, you deserve a break today, so get up and get away to MacDonald’s. His own break came in the way of getting discovered by Bette Midler.
It occurred to me that, since his accomplishments in earlier recordings, that as his carreer progressed, his arrangements had become somewhat formulaic, and as a result, all his tunes had taken on the same shading. In other words, Barry had begun to sound like himself.
I soon began to wonder if this wasn’t actually true in everyone’s case to a great degree, even my own, and what could be done to thwart the development of this, what I considered to be, a terrible hinderance to creativity.
I recalled a thread on Facebook of which I’d been a participant, where scalar practice was being discussed, during which time another individual, who was not only a formidable guitarist, but instructor as well, repeated the mantra “practice, practice, and then forget it all”.
Practice, practice, and then forget it all.
This is a rock of advice which will always contain more secrets than it will reveal. The problem is that barnacles of habit will begin to form, and the rock itself is forgotten. More often than not, one may come to repeat the phrase like a parrot, for the dissemination of such advice is generally much easier than heeding it.
Those who discover the true purpose of practice understand the value in ‘forgetting it all’.
Many individuals fail to take the same advice regarding production work, however. These habits may begin innocently enough via ‘favorite settings’. After having recorded for over twenty-five years, I cannot for the life of me understand the logic behind these favorite settings, be it on an guitar amp or a stereo compressor. The fact of the matter is that, for every new recorded tune, the dynamics will change considerably. Unless you are recording all of the songs at one time (unlikely) or the style is identical for every tune (Boston), you are going to want to change the settings of one or both in order to convey the difference in feel of that respective song.
Albeit I have a ‘basic’ setting for my vocal mic compressor, I still have to torque down the attack or release time depending on whether I’m recording an alpha screamer or a beta boy tune. Sometimes I may crank up the compression for the effect itself. Fact is, you simply can’t ‘set it and ‘forget it’.
The constant redialing of settings assures that at least every tune won’t suck, just in case one may.
And turning the knobs also keeps potentiometers from oxidising.
Another habit that may creep in is the order of processing units. It’s too easy to lay out all of the stomp boxes based on how they look coolest, but in what order will they achieve the best sound? This is a point of contention among guitarists and shouldn’t be discounted.
Then there’s the subject of which instruments to include in the composition. We might be tempted to follow Barry’s lead and involve the entire symphony orchestra on every number. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every tune that I write to emulate the sound of God emerging from the clouds.
For instance, during one session, I was working on an elusive sound bed. The finished product was destined for a tense underwater scene in a big movie production with a colossal budget and a cranky client. I was so desperate to capture an ambiant sound I was hearing, that I groaned down into an empty coffee can and… good Lord, that was it! But dare I take such a low-tech risk with Mr. Cranky himself? Well, if my procedures were drawn into question, what he didn’t know would be referred to as a trade secret, and therefore could do him no physical nor emotional harm.
I socked on the headphones and held the closed end of the can to my guitar mic and groaned hard and loud. I laughed as I reached over and turned the reverb onto ‘cathedral’ or ‘oil tanker’ or whichever, and blended a wee bit in. Presto. I hit the record button. It took a few dry runs to get the breathing breaks right and then it required double tracking both groaning and humming so that the proper ‘ethereal feel’ was achieved, but after a little work and a bit of oxygen deficit, I had the sound bed that I needed. The rest was just guitar swells using false harmonics, a slide, a volume pedal, and delay.
How did my ‘trade secret’ end up sounding? http://www.reverbnation.com/johnnynowhere/song/3137441-trouble-brewing
The point here being, if we don’t continue to try new ideas, devices, and/or settings, we risk falling instead into the same predictable habits, thereby becoming boring, and we’ll never know what we may be missing.
Playing it safe and falling back on a proven technique only sounds fresh for so long, kinda like Tom Morello using that ‘wild & crazy’ string stretching effect in every single freaking lead that he plays, and that becomes pretty tiresome rather quickly, according to reliable sources.
One might do well to ask oneself, ‘What does the song call for here?’ rather than pouring over banks of presets and asking ‘What sounds are available for me to use?’ The first question is open ended, it allows our mind to ponder different possibilities. The second question limits our imaginations to some other goofball’s ideas.
In another scenario, I was tapping on everything I could find, using a drumstick, a mallet, even my fingertips. I was hearing something between congas and tabla, but not bongos. Nothing I had was giving me the sound that I required and soon I was in my milk crate, throwing boxes around. With nothing to be found, I went to my repair bench and picked up a coconut shell half that I used primarily to create wood dust. I clattered it on the bench ala Monty Python horse hoofs. Ah! An idea. I picked up the other half and re-mated the two halves with hide glue. After it dried, I bored out two of the three ‘eyes’ of the shell and alternately slapped on the openings using my fingers. Knowing that I was almost there, and realising that one more larger hole would give me more variance in tone I needed, I used a paddle bit to make a one inch hole in the side of the shell over which I could cup my palm while slapping the first two holes with my fingertips.
Many of you may be thinking, ‘Dude, that’s too much damn work,’ but in the end I got exactly the sound that I was looking for, and all it cost was a little time. Granted, it wasn’t very loud, but that’s what clever use of proximity effect and reverb is for.
Just in case I’ve piqued your curiosity, here is how the resulting ‘percussion’ turned out:
Remember, the hard part is the fun part, so if you don’t enjoy being uncomfortable by constantly having to break old habits to make room for new ones, you’re probably in the wrong business.