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Working With Singers: Cthulhu

4. Do not slack off attention

When you’re the music producer, it’s up to you to have the bird’s eye view on the recording session. The singer’s job is to sing and emote and become one with the music. Now a great singer certainly knows what’s going on and how it’s all turning out, but even so, it’s not her job to worry about it and the fact that she’s wrapped up in the exhilaration of singing means she does need someone to have her back.

What you do not want to happen is to find out a week later that there is some little problem. Maybe you forgot to record something, but more likely it’s something small, something easy to miss. A flat note, a hiccup on the recording, the volume went too loud and now there’s that distortion and most importantly, the performance which seemed fine at the time, didn’t actually nail what it was supposed to.

If the session is an hour, if it’s 4 hours, if it’s 8 hours, your job is to NEVER LOSE FOCUS. It’s your job to catch all this stuff.

The producer’s best friend is the engineer. They not only run the boards but they catch most of the little technical details, like if the volume was too hot, or there’s a hum coming from somewhere or any number of tiny little details. I cannot recommend an extra set of ears highly enough. Even those of us who do most of our recording in our home studios have a few trusty people we send stuff to whose ears we know are good at catching stuff we might have missed.

I had the Cthulhu:The Funksical album and needed vocals for the one song that Cthulhu sings. The Cthulhu Funksical is a 20 minute song cycle that tells a humorous story based on some famous H.P. Lovecraft monsters. Lovecraft is the greatest horror writer of all time, but i wanted this to be fun and humorous, so the actual song the dread Cthulhu sings is a sweet heartsick soul ballad. Just… trust me, it works.

A vocalist who sang for the band my friend and fellow producer Minja Boskivic (from the 17 post) runs is Zoe Kidah and she had the PERFECT voice for such a song. One thing i incorporated into the song however, was a melody that required a great deal of improvised vocals riffs in between phrases. While Zoe had the voice to do it, she had never been asked to do such a thing before and certainly not to the degree the song required.

Zoe Kidah

We gave it a try and it became clear that she most certainly could do it, she just needed time to go through the number measure by measure, phrase by phrase and build an entire pallette of vocal riffs to sng while recording.

It was an extremely long session. That’s how it goes sometimes. Long is not a problem when it’s clear that it’s all working.

During this, it was VITAL my attention never waver. She needed me to weigh in on whether a riff was cutting it or not, whether we were building the right riffs, whether she was going in the right direction, losing focus, nailing it… not to mention that in what she was expecting and counting on me to keep eyes on the overall song. It was my job to keep perspective and listen to each tiny thing without forgetting the emotion of the overall song arch.

The singer needs to fly. You need to attend the details.

Sessions are fun because they’re very intense and focused, at least they should be. Well… that’s how i like them. I come to work. This sounds all type A uptight, but the thing is, i really really really LOVE to work. I’d rather be in the midst of a session than relaxing, having coffee and shooting the shit while the microphone and mixing board sit there untouched. But i digress, the point is, keeping focus is what keeps you from having bad takes and sub standard results. Trust me, i STILL don’t catch things or think about a better solution too late. The point is to stack the deck as much possible and that requires unbroken focus.

All right, enough rambling. Here is the Cthulhu song. While as i said the song cycle is humorous and the idea of the song is supposed to be funny, it only really works if the song itself is in fact serious and emotionally impacting.

Performed by the stunning Zoe Kidah, who sings with  Zemlja Gruva and hit this song out of the park:

To listen to the full Cthulhu song cycle click here.

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Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Working With Singers: Subduction

2. Work with what you’ve got and Adapt As Necessary

I made Subduction while still in New York. A woman and a guy had won the green card lottery and thus arrived in the states with nowhere to stay. They stayed with us for a month.

The woman, Milena Jelic sang. She preferred a house style of music, not my usual thing to listen to.

During their stay it was suggested one night that i write some songs for her to sing. A style was suggested: jazzy latin downtempo . BOOM. I had never attempted such a style before. I was intrigued. I like to work different genres. A lot. This was… new. Fresh. Tasty. I was in.

MIlena has a GORgeous voice. Drop dead gorgeous. However the melodies i was writing were not in her comfortable range zone. Her range was very precise. I had all these great melodies i was coming up with… that just… went a liiiiiiiiittle out of range….but they were SUUUCH good melodies….. What do you do?


If you’re writing stuff they can’t sing but you DO like their singing… it’s YOUR FAULT and YOUR PROBLEM. Get your melodies and your keys to fit the singer. Don’t make them sound crappy to fit you. When a singer is pushing past their range to sing something, guess what? You can tell. And it’s not pretty.

If you’re unhappy because the singer has just around an octave range and you REALLY prefer to write for a 2 octave range… get over it. Limitations are a wonderful challenge that will stretch your creativity. Embrace it. Work with what you’ve got and adapt as necessary.

As a composer and producer you will find yourself constantly in situations where what you wrote doesn’t actually quite fit the way you thought they would. My advice: change stuff on the spot. The singers need to sound good above all else. Personally, i might be much more proud of the musical arrangement behind them but the fact is your listeners will be listening to the singing first and foremost. That’s what listeners do. The vocals are of primary importance and the singer must sound good. If she’s not sounding good because the melody isn’t in her comfort zone, change it. Change it on the spot.

I once had someone say they were going to pick up a guitar, become a musician and write songs for a band and did i have any advice?

I did. Spend a month writing songs. Write constantly. Write a song a day, or maybe at least several a week. Sweat over them. Obsess over them. At the end of the month, take every song you’ve worked so hard to make and THROW THEM ALL AWAY. Start again from scratch.

That is some of the best advice i can give. You have GOT to be able to throw away something you have sweated blood and tears over. Got to. Otherwise you will suck. You will hang onto stuff because you worked hard to make it instead of because it is actually good. The amount of time you spent working on something should not effect your decision to keep or destroy it in any way. Only whether it works or not.

Okay, i think i rambled enough for one day. Without further ado, a song from the album we made together, Subduction. if you want to check out how the rest of it sounds you can listen to it here. Featuring the lovely voice of Milena Jelic:

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Posted by on September 4, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Working With Singers: 17

So for the next couple days i’m going to talk a bit about working with singers and play you an example a day of how a particular track, method or relationship worked out.

You’re a composer. You need vocals. How do you get the performance you need? Do you even know what you need? Do you even have access to capable people?

If you are starting out, poor and don’t have a network of excellent people, just, you know, other people your age who are trying to learn and hone their skills too, then not getting a super excellent performance is not your fault. You work with what you can.

If you are NOT starting out, have money (maybe it’s a paying gig like a commercial) and have a network to draw from, then it IS your fault if the vocals suck, even though you’re not the one singing.

My advice in a nutshell:

1. Get a voice you really like as best you can

2. Work with what you’ve got and Adapt As Necessary

3. Give clear direction

4.  Do not slack off attention

5. If it sucks at the end it’s probably your fault because you messed up one of the preceeding steps.

There. It’s almost like any other relationship in the arts, this could be the same for getting other musicians to help with your project, working with dancers, you name it. I would also point out that i screw up any of these advice points at some time or another.

Let me just cover these one by one, but we’re only going to cover one a day.

1. Get a voice you really like as best you can

Maybe you make beats and work with MCs you know. Maybe you are really into making a certain genre and need the right voice(s) to bring the songs to life. Maybe you make ridiculously ambitious theater shows about utterly assinine things like steampunk and dead people (in which case you are an idiot). If you don’t hire the right voice, whose fault is that? If you have people to choose from and the person who’s chosen sucks, guess what, it’s your fault. You had the choice and you blew it so you better figure out what went wrong in your head so you don’t do it next time.

I make this mistake still. The only way one can be sure is through live auditions. For heaven’s sake, do live auditions. I often hire people who live in COMPLETELY DIFFERENT COUNTRIES based on a smidgeon of a sample and it sometimes goes very wrong.

This track i’m gonna play is from this commercial campaign for a bank. I was hired to make a 30 second song in a reggae genre (very upbeat, catchy, and like a very pop version of 1960s ska to be specific). I had just arrived in eastern europe where there are NO BLACK PEOPLE AT ALL. I had moved here from not only Manhattan, but HARLEM. So i went from lots of black people to a total white wash instantly. This wouldn’t be worth discussing except who are you going to hire to sing on a reggae track? NOT A WHITE GUY.

Now this is a paying gig, and i got a deadline and it’s with a new company i’ve never worked with so i want to look GOOD. I call my contacts in New York, i call this person, i call that person… Someone here says they know a guy here who sings in a serbian reggae band but i say no way. Come on, white serbian guy with accent? Nonononononono.

However it all goes wrong. The search is a disaster on every front. Every lead ends up not panning out for one reason or another. I got nothing. I’m also down to 48 hours before the submission is due for approval so i call this serbian dude and we agree to meet at his studio at 11PM to see if it’ll work.

The guy’s name is Minja and i could have married him and bore his baby. He was AWEsome. And yet, you know what? He did NOT sound authentic. He didn’t even TRY to sound authentic. He had developed a style of his own that worked and he owned it.

The commercial worked out so well the company hired me to make a full length version of the song to play on the radio. THAT was tricky because the commercial had revolved around loving the number 17, which was the low (high?) interest rate payment option thing that the bank was offering. Yes, it was a commercial for a bank showcasing some 17% deal on.. interest rates? Which they felt was best exemplified by an catchy upbeat reggae song saying “17 is the number we love”. Now explain to me how you write a full length song around that? What exactly IS your lyrical approach?

Well, that’s what they paid me to figure out. The whole thing ended up working out very well and the work i did on occasion for this company is how i paid for my wife’s pregnancy and birth. (But alas the company’s gone now…)

The singer Minja and i became good friends. He’s a music producer like me and we can talk shop for hours.

Here is the track in question, vocals by Minja Boskovic:

You can check out Minja’s band Zemlja Gruva here.

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Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Chatterlaine Trilogy

Today we shall feature a little music. Moody and mellow for your melancholy Monday.

Back when i lived in NY i was working on a project and ended up with an extra track that i was unable to use at that particular time, but which i adored. It was Lady Chatterlaine written in conjunction with Matthew Broyles.

I had met musician Matthew Broyles while we were both struggling musicians in NYC. He showed up at a restaurant i was bartending at, having arranged to meet the pianist who played there every week. (I don’t remember the pianists’ name but i loved that guy. He was a walking encyclopedia of 70s jazz fusion, a particular fetish of mine at one time, and would play some really insane and obscure things for me which no one possibly had any idea of. He would blast through Return To Forever’s Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant on solo piano for heaven’s sakes and demolish it. I could have murdered everyone else associated with that damn restaurant, one of the worst jobs i ever had, but that guy shines as the bright spot. Alas, i digress)

Anyway, the pianist didn’t show up so Matthew had a few drinks at the bar and we got to talking. I, of course, am a pianist also (although what poor Matthew did not know at the time is i couldn’t hold candle to that other guy. Even if he was drugged and unconscious he could still wipe the walls with me playing wise). More so than just piano playing though, we had a great many of the same influences and were both dedicated primarily to song construction above all else. So we became friends and would help each other out on numerous projects in various ways. (10 years later, still do actually. We also made an album together just last year, The Silver Key, but for some reason i am in the mood to chat and wander into long digressions today and need to reign this in a bit.)

Long story short. Long story short. Long story short. Wanting to actually collaborate instead of simply asking each other for specific tasks as we were doing (i.e. need some guitar/keyboards/extra ears on this track) i sent him a music bed and asked him to write and put vocals on it.

The result was Lady Chatterlaine, which i adored and is STILL one of my favorite tracks. I eventually put it on the Cthulhu: The Funksical album.

I also decided that over the course of time i would make 3 Chatterlaine songs. Is it 8 years later? Well, i made a Sister Chatterlaine for the album Subduction a couple years later and just last month i finally wrote and released Madam Chatterlaine for the FairyTales for the Lost and Wandering album. Thus the trilogy i swore i’d get around to one day has been gotten around to. Thus i seek to amuse you this fine day with all 3 songs brought together in one spot. Lady Chatterlaine and Madam Chatterlaine are story oriented and relate very much, with Sister Chatterlaine being…. it’s up to you how you want to connect it.

So here 3 nice, lilting songs for you. The Chatterlaine trilogy.

(Vocals and Lyrics written and sung by Matthew Brolyes)

(Vocals sung by Milena Jelic)

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Posted by on July 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Agnus Dei

Here is another song i wrote a little while ago that exists in the same vein as the falsetto song will. I’m not saying the 2 will sound similar or that the new track will be in any way derived from this one; it won’t. But the feel… this is the closest i’ve come to the feel i want.

Both songs speak of… a sort of spiritual plane. In the Jasper song case i mean to be vague, dark and impenetrable, with a hair of children’s far away, impossible dreamland thrown in. With this older track i was speaking as concretely as i feel possible about these matters.

The entire Amnesis album is a reflection on spirituality and religion and this track comes near the end. Rather pompous subject material i realize, but it tried REALLY hard to keep it defracted and fresh. In other words, i had no intention of hitting anyone over the head with the subject material. It’s subtle, avoids as many cliches as i could, and is carefully planted throughout for the discerning.

Hmm…. i’m not helping dispel the pomposity am i?

Okay, never mind. Today we have a a track i made a few years ago that has the same ballpark feel i want this new one to have and since i gotta fill posts day in and day out (with a week off here and there. yes, i’m back) i’m a’playin’ it. How bout that?



Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Uncategorized


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The Little Mermaid: Waiting For The Sunrise

Today we are going to feature a story telling track from a very early album of mine, the 2nd one done under Mocha Lab. I wrote an album which tells the story of the original Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson because the girl i was pining away for madly… it was her favorite story. So i wrote her an album.

Love song? Sure, if you wanna get laid write a girl a love song. Totally works. But if you’re in LOVE… and oh i was, you write an entire album.

No reason why you shouldn’t hear some early examples of me working out my storytelling and music tricks, so here’s a track from very late in the album, the climax of the story.

Oh, and the chick? She’s currently in the bedroom putting our 3 year old to sleep, so, you know, album must not have sucked too hard.

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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Cthulhu: The Funksical

Today we’re going to listen to an immensely fun album i did rather recently which tells a completely ridiculous story featuring some classic H.P. Lovecraft monsters. It pretty much speaks for itself.

The story arch occurs over the first 8 tracks (it’s not that long though) and since i’m just linking to the entire album on Bandcamp there’s the extra album tracks on here too. Have fun. I busted my ass digging half meter holes in rock then hand mixing and pouring cement into them (outdoor plaything for the toddler) so there is no way i can be expected to string together actual thoughts or find anything of remote interest today. So enjoy.

I should also mention that track 6. Cthulhu is sung by the amazing Zoe Kidah and and Lady Chatterlaine was co written (and sung) by my good friend The Matthew Show.


Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Today we’re going to listen to some songs from a dreamy, downtempo album i made (as Mocha Lab of course) called Subduction.

(this first one is My Dream Of You, but some awesome person i don’t know took the song and put it to their video of fractals, which, naturally, i adore.)

It features the wonderfully sultry vocals of Milena Jelic.

It was made while i was still living in New York, dreaming of being on an endless train to south america. It is by far my most successful album as i consistently sell more albums and tracks off of this than any other single album (although Cthulhu: The Funksical isn’t that far behind). It was, however, an experiment. Every album i do has a specific theme or style and this chillout, jazzy, latin thing was one i had never attempted before. It came easily. The writing of this flowed incredibly smoothly. Despite this and the success it has had, however, i doubt i will ever write another like this, since there are simply too many other things i want to try and i’m pleased enough with how it turned it out.

Subduction can be purchased here at iTunes or Amazon if you’re so inclined.

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Posted by on April 20, 2011 in Uncategorized


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The Subculture Song

I’m actually done musically with Act 3 and now working on vocal melodies and lyrics. I, of course, am not actually signing any of the material, but i sing all the lines on the scratch tracks so the vocalists will know what to sing (they also have the option of sheet music).

So i thought since i discussed it earlier i’d post that subculture song i was talking about last week so you can see how it came out.  It’s mean to be sung by a female (who likes to dress up like a dead, mechanical doll), so keep that in mind.

I must mention that there are scratch vocals on it, BUT there are no lyrics. I am literally improvising complete nonsense syllables. Until the lyrics are written they’re there to demonstrate the melody. You must picture it NOT being my voice, and instead a girl’s, with, you know, ideally really cool lyrics.

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Posted by on March 8, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Mocha Lab: Stories in Music

show and tell records

My first big record obsession was when i was a toddler. I had a series of “Show And Tell” records. You put them on a special little record player and they tell you stories which i listened to in rapt wonder. By the time i was a boy i was catapulting around the room to The Story Of Star Wars, or a Superman Stories record. In middle school i found a book in the library that had old Shadow radio show scripts and after school i’d sit down in front of a tape recorder and do all the voices. I eventually would set up a bunch of props to use as sound effects and play a certain song at the beginning for the theme music, as well as improvise commercials.

In high school i discovered the concept album, but even before that i would fall asleep to a cassette playing random songs i’d recorded off the radio (which at the time meant h0lding my cheap cassette player up next to my clock radio) and imagine stories linking the otherwise unrelated songs.

I like telling stories and i like doing it through sound.

As a young man i made a bunch of conceptual theater works. They were stories and somewhere between theatrical and kind of progish music (yes, i know, i am a total dork). They were definitely interesting and different for what they were, if not overreaching, overdone and a bit rough around the edges technique wise, although some served me quite well. And then, one day, i stopped. I had run into a brick wall creatively, these projects were becoming a bit ridiculous and not actually being pulled off well enough. I started making entirely different albums. I changed my name to Mocha Lab. Each album still had a theme, but the theme was more in the genre, style or approach. This turning point was one of the best things i ever did artistically, as my skill in my craft began to take leaps.

But i still wanted to tell stories and could not shake that.

I had no desire to make some kind of archaic concept album, all proggy and vague which takes the listener 20 listens to figure out what’s going on. That was great for adolescence, but it’s interest had waned. With some maturity had come the notion of not beating around the bush. What do you want to do? Then do it and don’t shmuck about at it. If you want to tell a story, then simply tell a story.

So i began the use of narration for these particular tracks. Instead of sung vocals, you can just plain tell a damn story.

Here, for example, is a ghost story of sorts:

Now, after over 12 years, i’ve started telling longer, multi track stories again. (see Cthulhu: The Funksical and A Melancholy Tale From The Icy Lands, as well as the upcoming album The Silver Key and the multi media theater show The Fallen) It works much better now as i have vastly more mature, sophisticated and interesting approaches and sensibilities then i once did.  However, it’s become clear that stories through music is a particular and defining trait my music will carry and the exploration of different ways to go about it will continue to fascinate me.

A retelling of the story of Cain and Abel:

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Posted by on February 23, 2011 in Uncategorized


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