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Non-Jamaican Reggae?

Billboard recently reported that today’s top selling reggae tracks are by non-Jamaicans, in fact most of the top charters are from the US. I watched a short video of some news reporters discussing this and they thought this strange. I remember years ago in university one of my professors brought up the same subject but in a different light, “Why do so many young people have a strong connection to music 250 years old from Germany?” I never thought about that. After that conversation I always thought it strange to see so many young adults strive to become effective interpreters of the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

I think the operative term here is ‘culture’. Music and culture can be so incredibly enmeshed that it sometimes creates a difficult barrier through which people can navigate. One of my friends commented on the non-Jamaican reggae video saying, “Reggae isn't about the color of your skin... it's about the feeling in your soul,” yet in Billboard’s articles some mention an exploitation and misappropriation of the Jamaican culture. I’m sure that both are right; there are always artists that are purely genuine and those that are merely copycats. As the saying goes, “Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” What do you think?

The Loudness Wars

Even though I’ve been recording, mixing, and mastering music for about 10 years now I was not aware of the “loudness wars” until a few years ago and it wasn’t until last year that I committed myself to researching the issue in depth. I must admit that when someone first introduced me to the concept (a writer mind you, not a musician) my first response was, “What’s wrong with that?” Recordings have come a long way in the last 60 or so years especially in regard to clarity. Almost all of humankind’s endeavors progress over time, we’re always trying to improve (hopefully). I like most of today’s recordings in comparison to older ones: the noise floor is virtually non-existent, elements have much more clarity, and the music hits my car stereo’s 12” subwoofers hard!

Now that I’ve been doing a lot of mixing & mastering work in the past few years I’ve come to appreciate the opposition to the loudness wars. I think that the first problem comes from the label “loudness” itself, it’s a bit of a misnomer; the appropriate term should be “dynamics wars”. Today’s recordings have an extremely narrow window of dynamics—or the difference between the loudest and quietest parts—which makes the music ‘seem’ loud or louder (I frequently see EDM tracks with barely 3 dB dynamic range, shit, that’s loud!). As a musician I can appreciate the negative reactions to this practice. One of the marks of a great musician is their control over dynamics. Why? Because dynamics have direct affects on other musical phenomena such as phrasing, articulation, and blending with other musicians to name a few.

People against the practice of making music increasingly louder and louder claim that it’s destroying the music. In a way it is, it’s destroying the dynamics which are part of the components that make something ‘musical’. It would be like altering the melodies or chords of a song. But here’s where I have to jump off the train: you’ve already altered the music by the mere act of recording it. You know how much crazy stuff we have to do to record a sound so that it sounds as if we were there listening to it? Then there’s all the mixing & mastering that goes along to ‘correct’ the sound. In fact that’s where the term ‘EQ’ comes from, it means equalization because recorded sounds didn’t sound like proper representations of the real-world sound so they needed to be ‘equal’-led out.

Another thing to consider is the genre of music. Yes, Metallica’s Death Magnetic is loud. Way too loud. But the loudness here, to me, comes from the waveforms being pushed too hard rather than the dynamic range between the musicians being squished. Look, it’s metal, it’s supposed to be loud! Every single player is playing balls-to-the-wall loud without much regard to the volume of the other perfumers. This isn’t an orchestra here where the 2nd violins need to listen to the cello section playing the main theme so they have to play underneath them. No, it’s a metal band being as loud as they all can. Same goes for EDM, where do you think the tracks were meant to be performed? At a club with hundreds of people dancing, not a concert hall where the nosebleed seats need to hear the shading and nuances between flutes and clarinets.

Which leads me to yet another concept: not all genres of music rely on the interplay of dynamics. To force every recorded track to have a large dynamic range would be like forcing everyone to write songs using only a C# Hungarian minor scale. This is what makes the world of music so beautiful and interesting, every style and genre focuses on a set of musical phenomena (scale, key, rhythm, groove, harmony, et al.). Could you imagine if every musician consciously wrote music that utilized every single musical parameter? It would merely be a mental exercise. Dynamics are just one of many parameters than can be manipulated and organized in music.

In summation I think both sides have valid points, there exists a happy compromise somewhere in the middle. Most pop/rock music is generally loud to begin with. Rarely have I seen a live pop performance where the performers were using dynamic manipulation as a main musical element (as opposed to a jazz ensemble or symphony orchestra) so why mix and master an album with that in mind? Then again there is a point where a limited dynamic range is just fatiguing on the ear. This gray area between soft and loud is subjective hence all the fighting over loudness.

I hate hip-hop

Actually I love hip-hop. Here’s what I hate about it though: I frequently get hip-hop artists in my studio who want to record or master some tracks. They show me their demos where they’re talking about spending and making money and they’ve got a girl in their video who’s splashing money around like it’s raining from the sky.

Then they ask me how much does my services costs and that’s when the record stops.

I get the CraigsList treatment, “How low will you go?” Really? Do you do that when you shop at WalMart? I don’t mind looking for a deal or trying to save money, in fact I offer discounts for sizable projects, but how you gonna rap about a lifestyle that you obviously don’t live? FOH.

Black Dog

I've very recently found out that Black Dog was recorded with the guitar running straight through the board then through a pair of 1176 compressors in series.


I remember first hearing that riff when I was about 12 years old. At that time mostly all music I had been exposed to was rap or R&B. There was NO ONE around to introduce me to this stuff. Luckily my cousin had a portable CD player in his closet that had, guess what, Led Zeppelin IV in it. I have no idea why because all he listened to was rap. I listened to that CD over and over.

That was about 20 years ago and I’ve gone on to explore some of the deepest corners and darkest alleyways of music but I’ll never forget that legendary riff. And to think that it was recorded DI! Only goes to show that it’s not just the gear you have but your knowledge of how to use it.

Where were the "naturally gifted pianists" before the piano?

This article has been stewing in the back of my mind for a while and now that Google’s doodle today showcases the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori, I thought it would be a perfect time to finally put pen to paper, or finger to keystroke.

I’ve heard this many times, “Don’t you have to be born with an innate talent to be a pianist/musician/mixing engineer/artist.” While I certainly believe that there are those who are seemingly gifted with divine talent I think that for the rest of us it takes hard work, practice, and focused effort. Yes, some potential has to be there from the beginning. In some letters to his father (May 14, 1778), Mozart wrote about one of his composition students who just could not write any music to save her life. She most certainly had musical talent as she was masterful at her instrument and could play about 200 pieces from memory yet this did not transfer whatsoever to the field of composing music.

I feel as if talent is like soil, it has to be ready to give life yet needs to be worked. Seed needs to be planted, water needs to rain, the sun needs to shine, and hands need to harvest the fruit. Of course some soil is extremely fertile whereas some just won’t grow anything. Most musicians or artists put in an incredible amount of time to master their craft and even continue to refine their technique even though they’ve reached mythic levels of craftsmanship.

Another thing to consider is this: when people throw out a statement such as, “They’re a naturally born pianist” I instantly think, “Where were the naturally born pianists before the 18th century (the first appearance of the piano)?” This leads me to believe in something even bigger than music: there must be certain ways of thinking at which people are adept. These processes of thought probably cause people to become skillful at certain tasks or behavior. I consider myself an extremely musical person but I can’t throw or catch a ball to save my life. I am very uncoordinated with coarse motor skills, I can’t even dance Sad But put a piano or guitar in front of me and I can perform as if the instrument was an extension of my body. Before the advent of the piano people who are born with a “natural gift for piano” probably excelled at some other parallel processes of thought and motor skill.

The bottom line? Maybe 2% of us artists are “divinely gifted” but for the other 98% of us we work our asses off.