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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: Carnival

The Angel, The Fallen

A still from the film for the beginning of Carnival depicting the Angel. Film by Laurie Greene.

3. Give clear direction

The Fallen is a multi media theater show i wrote a few years ago which is currently in a long but ultimately fruitful pre-production stage for another run. The filming and film editing should wrap up by the end of the year and then i’ll go back and give the music another mix since a few things drive me crazy, but let’s not bore you.

The stunning Jen Folden is the star of today’s tale. The album/show is about a fallen angel and on the album Jen is that angel. Her voice is perfect for it, she sound like the voice of an angel. There are so many tidbits from the album i could play, but few songs where she is the sole singer so i’m ultimately choosing today’s song, a long one i admit,  but after the 4 minute intro it’s Jen’s song.

This was a tricky album because i had to hire and record a singer 6,000 miles away. Several tries were fruitless. How do you record a vocalist sing your material if you aren’t going to be at the recordings? My suggestion? Don’t do it. What if you have no choice? Well…. you’re buggered, but is you HAVE to, go with someone you know.

My partner, director and choreographer Shaun Rolly was on the east coast and able to run the recording sessions so we were looking to hire there. But it wasn’t working. So what do you do when a stupid idea is turning out stupid? Whatever you have to! Double down! Get even stupider! Eventually you’ll go round the bend to smart.

I already knew Jen Folden but she lives in California. However it seemed to me that hiring someone whose instincts i know and trust would be the best option even if she’ll have to set up and run the sessions by herself.

It was a good move. She was the right voice for the part, but more so was able to make the right choices. Thank goodness, but this is a situation you NEVER want to be in.

Singers sometimes need direction in order to know what exactly it is that you want. That direction is your job. If you like the voice but aren’t getting the performance, you need to be giving clear direction. I myself like to see what singers come up with on their own in case it’s something great i wouldn’t have thought of. But you need to be ready to guide the performance to what you need. When running a recording session this is especially important because the singer is putting themselves in an emotional state doing all those takes. You need to be the clear, cold ears that hear what it’s actually sounding like, the objective observer who makes sure in 2 weeks when everyone listens back to the recording,  there wasn’t something stupid you missed.

Giving clear direction is an art in itself and one i still try to work on. I’m much better than i used to be. Communicating intent in art is not always easy, but learn how to do it. When you see someone else doing it well take notes. NEVER let some minor thing slide. It will end up bothering you forever. But we’ll get into that more tomorrow.

So here is one damn long song. The Angel has been lured into and trapped in Raven’s carnival. The demon responsible for her fall is working on getting her out (turns out he’s kind of a nice guy), but this show is not as clear to follow from the audio as the steampunk opera so don’t worry about that part. The intro is so long because there’s an AWEsome film sequence depicting the carnival. You can hear at the 4:25 mark where the film fades out and the stage lights fade up as we switch to the stage to tell the story from then on.

Another still from the beginning of Carnival. Film by Laurie Greene.

Jed Folden as The Angel:

 
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Posted by on September 5, 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?

THROW THEM AWAY AND WRITE MELODIES IN THE SINGER’S RANGE.

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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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?

 

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Voodoopunk

After all this talk about that new subculture song for Act 3- the Steampunk Voodoo song, the song that showcases this new subculture in New Albion which has appropriated Voudon much like British youth appropriated the blues in the 60s- wouldn’t you like to actually hear it?

Of course you would. So here it is, a demo version anyway. As with all the excerpts, the vocals are only temporary scratch vocals, sung by me to demonstrate to the real singers what they’ll be singing.

Regardless of all other factors, the 2 things this song absolutely had to be is uptempo and catchy. All my other grand plans for it- west african drumming done through steampunky metallic clanging, the youth of New Albion wildly building a new subculture inspired by Voudon and using their own Sidhe heritage- all this accomplishes nothing if the piece doesn’t solve the original problem it needed to solve, which is musically, the opera absolutely needs a catchy, uptempo number right in this spot. So hopefully i’ve juggled all these concerns decently. Time will tell.

Here it is, Voodoopunk:

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Opera Update (and Another Preview Track!)

So, you know, i figure every now and then i should actually get around to discussing the actual SHOW, heaven forbid.

During the composition process there just isn’t much to discuss. However, i did complete the entire piece. The show runs exactly 1 minute short of the 90 minute mark i was asked to stay under. I can’t really go into the story too much other than each of the 4 Acts follows a character from each of 4 generations of the McAlistair family line who live in the fictional city of New Albion. That and there’s a bunch of shenanigans with dead people and mannequins.

There is a female Narrator or MC or whatever you wish to call it ( we’ll come up with her official title down the line), a male performer who plays one particular character the entire show (a dead guy trapped in the body of a full sized Doll) and then a female and male performer who each switch characters each act as we follow the next generation.

So for instance, the woman will be Annabel McAlistair in Act 1, then Fay, the fiancée of Edgar McAlistair in Act 2, then a teenage girl in the city in Act 3, then Priscilla McAlistair in Act 4.

The current working title for the show is The Dolls Of New Albion, with A Steampunk Opera probably somewhere under it.

I am including a song from the show. I was torn between two tracks, but i’ll post the other one in the next few days. I’m going to start with the first song after the Overture. Sung by the Narrator it introduces us to the city of New Albion. Indeed, at the beginning of each act the Narrator sings a variation of this song, filling us up on what the city is like after a generation. This is a demo version, meaning especially that the vocals you hear are not the correct ones. They are currently being sung by me, but they will NOT be so in the show or on the album. It will be a female voice. Mine are only here as a scratch track, so you just have to look past it.

I’ve sent the piece off to both the Director and a couple other folks to get some feedback because if there are holes in it or ways to make it better i no longer know. After months of intense work, concentration and obsessive immersion in the piece, now that i have it, i am far, far too close to be able to discern whether it stands (although feedback is stating it does quite nicely) and where to improve it.

For this the Director’s impressions will be particularly helpful. Since after this point he will take over the process of envisioning the piece on the next level, that is a staged show, his impressions are the most important. While i theoretically have final say over the story and music at this stage, once he gets rolling his will be final say on every and all matters afterwards and my job will be to help and support him in all ways he may ask. I will watch my composition be taken in incredible and strange new directions i could never myself forsee and become something far, far more than i could make on my own. This will also include decisions that will not every single time be my personal preferences but at that point it will be my job to support, not to conflict.

Advice to young talent: never, NEVER be that writer who goes on the set of the series or movie and has a hissy fit over how it’s been changed from your book. Seriously. Nothing good comes of it. If you want to direct a series or movie, then do so. If you can’t, then let those who can do it. If it ends up sucking, well shit. Be more careful next time. But who knows, it might turn into the AMAZING Game Of Thrones, a series i am in awe of, especially since i love the books, and it’s fascinating to see the changes the show makes to the original book, each and every change an excellent choice which makes for a better viewing experience.

As far as my next move, aside from possible fidgeting with the music and story post feedback, is for the Director and i to begin assembling some vocal talent and record a 5 song demo. As it stands now, on the copy of the show these folks are listening to, i am doing all the singing, my voice serving simply as scratch vocals so they can hear what’s actually going on. I need to record a 5 song demo with singer who are closer to what the actual performers will sound like, and obviously the singers chosen will be the potential stage performers themselves.

This all has to do with funding.

What will happen is likely thus: The Director and another musician in London will assemble a pool of vocal candidates. They will send me audition tapes, that is examples of the performers singing, and i will then travel to London to hear and choose the most likely vocalists myself in person. (you cannot audition from far away. in this day and age i do a whole number of tasks from other places and countries then where other people i work with live, including farming out various instrument parts but vocalists are WAY too complicated to do anyway but in person.)

That’s the next step for me. I’ll post another track from the show in a few days. In general, as always intended since the start of this blog, consistent news of the show will not really become a factor until the audition and rehearsal process, which is still a little ways away.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 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.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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