Category Archives: Music Recordings

deals with the studio, audio fidelity, modern recording techniques, state of recording

In love with Vinyl LPs? You’re not alone

Frank Zappa’ s Freak Out

Don Was co-founded the eclectic ’80s band Was (not Was) (hit single – Spy in the House of Love) before becoming a highly regarded record producer having produced Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones.  Mr. Was has been writing a blog for MetroTimes in Detroit amongst other things.

Was’s blog post celebrates records.  Vinyl LPs. He celebrates not only the fidelity of LPs but also their artwork and the space they allowed for the artist to give credit to those involved in the making of the record.  He uses Frank Zappa’s 1966 release of the Freak Out! LP as an example.

It was a double album with an amazing gatefold jacket that retailed for $4.99. Inside there were extensive liner notes written by Frank Zappa that changed my life. In a subsequent interview, Frank said that the Freak Out! album package was designed to be “as accessible as possible to the people who wanted to take the time to make it accessible. That list of names in there, if anybody were to research it, would probably help them a great deal.” He was right: The first time I heard of Charles Ives, Willie Dixon, Captain Beefheart, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Eric Dolphy was when I read that list of 150 random notables.

The article underlines what recording used to be at its best – what records used to be at their best. How an album could be its own art form, not just a loss leader or a promo to get you to go to the live show and buy t-shirts. The album – the music, the artwork/design and packaging – could be its own artistic experience.

Was celebrates how albums of the past listed all the people that worked to create the project. Much like a movie that lists its credits at the story’s end, the LP had the room to print not only song lyrics but also the recording studio and engineer, the mastering studio engineer.  I can remember reading the names, Hit Factory, Record Plant, Power Station, as a kid.  They seemed like far-away temples to me.

The digitization of audio was originally lauded and welcomed by musicians and audio engineers alike. It seemed to make the work of recording so much easier.  But today, 25 years into digital audio, there is a different perspective amongst many musicians and audio engineers.  There is an on-going argument about the fidelity of digital recording and the use or over-use of digital audio techniques (i.e. brick wall mastering). Most devastating to the actual commerce of the recording industry, digitization has allowed exact copies of recordings to be freely copied and the Internet has made those copies available to millions.

Downloading music has also affected the album as an artistic entity. Here’s Dan Was again.

If Zappa released that same music today, we’d browse the 30-second samples on the iTunes store without the benefit of reading those mind-blowing liner notes. There’d be no context or depth to the whole experience. It’s no wonder that kids don’t wanna pay for music anymore – downloading a file of zeroes and ones for 99 cents has the same cultural allure as ordering a Ronco Veg-O-Matic from an 800 number.

It’s tough to find out who produced and engineered the music and you can forget about finding out who did the cover art (that cover art having now been reduced to 2 inches square at a resolution of 72 dpi)

Digital audio and electronic delivery have transformed how we consume music.  There are great benefits to digital.  Ease of storage is one.  But we have traded a lot for that.  Sound fidelity has been cheapened along with the whole experience of what an album is.

I had a talk with a young man recently and he was telling me about the 1000s of songs and albums he had downloaded mostly through file-sharing sites.  These included several modern classical albums like performances of Steve Reich’s “Music for Eighteen Musicians” and some Philip Glass instrumental works.  I thought to myself, yes, but how well do you know this music. How many times have you listened to it?

In fact, it takes time to really listen to music.  Especially challenging music.  It’s an investment of time.  Really digesting 1000 recordings should take years.  We seem to have become very good aggregators of music but we have forgotten or we simply don’t have the time to be good listeners.  For me, it’s more important that someone really know the music on 25 albums than to sport a library of thousands of recordings.

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” – Hebert Simon – Recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics and the A.M. Turing Award, the “Nobel Prize of Computer Science”

(I took a cognitive psychology class with Prof. Simon while at Carnegie Mellon in 1978)

I have a slight connection to Mr. Was in that I am originally from Windsor, Ontario (Canada) just across the river from Detroit. It was a cool place to live in the early-1970s. That area of the country now gets a lot of bad press, even from its own local media, but it has a great history and, to me, is one of the hidden gems in North America (the Detroit River!) – but that’s another story.

Best Drum and Bass break – Say Amen Brother

When I first heard Drum and Bass music (and Jungle) around 1995, I thought I had heard the next great musical movement. The concepts were fresh and startling. It was a new way to think about rhythm and, to me, most major musical innovations, whether in jazz or hip hop, center around new musical thinking regarding rhythm. Back then it seemed like I could not hear a bad or inferior drum and bass track. They all seemed to point in new directions.

As time passed, the breakbeat revolution I thought would happen never really did (at least not in America) and eventually, D’n’B music became watered down as more and more people started making it. It’s probably true for any musical movement that catches fire and finds a greater audience. The pioneers that create the form produce the strongest music and set the benchmarks. This is not to say drum and bass as a form of music is dead, far from it, but the early years were truly remarkable.

This video by Nate Harrison is an exceptional discussion about a drum break that almost single-handedly launched the D&B form. It is called the “Amen” break because it is a 6-second sample or break from a song recorded in 1969 by a group named the Winstons. The song is called “Amen Brother”.

The video is long at 18 minutes and, though it is not overly interesting visually, it’s very well written with plenty of musical examples as well as many insightful cultural comments. If you have an interest in drum and bass or are making electronic music, you owe it to yourself to watch this video.

Towards the end of the video, the author also talks about how the drum and bass music which was powered by the Amen break has never been challenged by the copyright owners of the song Amen Brother. He goes on to point out how this act, essentially putting the sample in the public domain, led to the creation of a new art form.