Saturday, March 30, 2013

Listening in on the Words and Music Demo Panel at Canadian Music Week

Canadian Music Week wrapped up last Saturday with a special Words and Music Demo Listening Session at the Toronto Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre. I have attended a few Date With A Demo sessions before under the auspices of the Songwriters Association of Canada, but this was by far and away the best yet, for a couple of reasons.

First, the 23 songs auditioned by the panel during the two-hour session were, as a group, of much higher quality than I had seen at any SAC session before; and second, because the panelists themselves, drawn from different sectors of the industry that are all relevant to aspiring songwriters, gave such precise prescriptions for making good songs great.

Moderated by SAC’s Ania Ziemirska, the panel included Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Melanie Doane; radio promotion and music director Andrea Morris; Juno Award-winning producer Gavin Brown; and internationally acclaimed producer-songwriter Brett Rosenberg. As Brown said, their job was to provide analysis, not criticism. For those who were unable to attend, here’s a distillation of their advice, in no particular order.

General production advice
  1. Keep intros short. This was hammered home many times during the session. Listeners will give an unknown song about 40 seconds, at most a minute, before moving on to something else. This is particularly true for radio programmers, who need to be grabbed immediately. No one will get to hear a great bridge if they’re not hooked by the first verse and chorus.
  2. A demo produced for other people to sing should sound like a finished hit. Try not to allow the production to sound dated. However, a very simple demo, such as piano and voice, may allow a creative producer to imagine the song as it might be produced for different genres
  3. Leave room at the beginning to build up excitement as the song progresses. A song that doesn’t change much from beginning to end will tend to sound boring. Make it quieter and louder, not just loud the whole time.
  4. Ensure that the low end isn’t muddy. Roll off the low frequencies in the mix and see if that improves the song.
  5. If singing from a first person singular point-of-view, maybe it’s best not to have multiple voices harmonizing on the word “I” when it comes around.
  6. Make sure the lyrics are always clear. Don’t bury the vocal in the mix.
  1. Ensure that the singer’s point-of-view is clear and unambiguous. Be careful not to slip from a first person (“I”) to a second person (“you”) or a third person (“she”) point of view as the lyrics unfold, unless the story demands it.
  2. Above all, make sure the message is clear. A song is a vehicle for communicating. If a line isn’t communicating anything or isn’t amazing, it shouldn’t be in the song. The re-writing process is tremendously important. As the panel pointed out, prose writers rewrite constantly and have editors who help them revisit the text many times.
  3. Look at the building blocks of the song and ask what emotion is in each part. Make sure the different blocks don’t contradict each other.
  4. Avoid clichés. Don’t sing what you wouldn’t say. Extend the lyric to its logical conclusion and make sure you haven’t left anything important unsaid.
  5. Always avoid awkward lyrics. If a line sounds weird or stilted when spoken out loud, then consider recasting it for the song.
  6. Lyrically, something has to happen more than once, or else you’re writing a poem. If working with an extended metaphor, try to milk every association out of it, and make the whole song relate to that one thing.
Verse and chorus
  1. Work on the melody. Then work some more. Don’t just sing over the chords. Try singing different notes of the triads or scale. Make the melody memorable.
  2. Work on different melodic elements in the music track and the vocal so that they are different but complementary, rather than parallel and similar. For example, the guitar or piano should not be playing the melody in unison with the voice.
  3. The title should be the hook. Make sure the song title is clearly stated, perhaps as the last line of the chorus. If you can’t fit it in naturally, then add a beat or two to let it fit. Or if that doesn’t work and it doesn’t fit in the lead vocal more than once, then try to have it sung in the backing vocals.
  4. Don’t take too long to get to the chorus. The lift or pre-chorus should be followed immediately by the chorus without being repeated.
  5. The chorus should be set up convincingly—most often it is set up on the fifth or dominant chord. A chorus should be awesome. Make it soaring, triumphant. If a chorus doesn’t sound triumphant, then keep trying. Experiment with big interval jumps. Big intervals are exciting.
  6. Differentiate between the chords in the verse and the chorus.
  7. Take care not to go to half-time or drop beats in the chorus.
  8. Don’t let the drummer play over the payoff or the song’s title line in the chorus.
  9. Scream it and mean it.
Writing for radio
  1. If you’re going to write songs for radio, make sure the song fits the conventions of radio. Listen to the radio, and figure out what stations and formats you’re targeting—even if not every song you write is intended for radio. If you’re new, you can’t start out by doing your own thing—you need to have already established your identity as an artist to pull that off.
  2. If sound effects are absolutely essential to the song, then keep them for the album version and provide a stripped down remix for radio play, especially if the effects are at the beginning of the song.
  3. Beware of using sexually-tinged lyrics; even a word as innocuous as “virgin” may limit a song’s potential for radio play.
  4. Jump into the lyric right out of the gate and make the intro short. A radio programmers’ music meeting is not likely to listen past the first minute of your song, if that.
The quality of the songs was truly impressive. Due to time constraints, only the first verse and chorus of each song was played, but on several occasions, the panelists expressed a desire to hear more of a song. A few songs even elicited spontaneous applause from the audience: Kat Leonard’s witty, off-the-wall I’m My Own Asshole; David Keeble’s liberating, stripped down demo Maybe Freedom; Steve Onotera’s The Field of White with melodic acoustic guitar accompaniment; and—illustrating a soaring, triumphant chorus—Catherine Bacque’s Stand.

Moderator Ania Ziemirska laboured valiantly through a lingering cold to keep panelists on track and play as many songs as possible, skipping songs if the writer was not present. Noting that some of the other CMW sessions were running late, she graciously returned to songs that were skipped, after the writers were able to join the session.

Speaking with the participants after the wrap-up, I can say that most were deeply appreciative of the depth and originality of the advice offered by the panelists, and the gentle candour with which they analyzed each song. There were no bruised egos in evidence, but more than once I heard a writer say, “That was great—now where do we go from here with our songs?”

From that, it’s clear that most found this version of Date With A Demo to be both motivating and inspiring. Given the other sessions that were on offer at the CMW Songwriters Summit, like How Artists Are Being Discovered and Publishing 101, SAC’s Demo Listening Session provided an excellent springboard for writers to move forward with their songs.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

To Mix or Not to Mix? That is the Question

In the Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life, there is an unforgettable scene in an upscale French restaurant featuring this exchange between John Cleese’s fawning waiter and Terry Jones’ more-than-morbidly obese patron, Mr. Creosote:

“Today we have for appetizers moules mariniers, pâté de fois gras, beluga caviar, eggs benedict, tarte de poivre—that’s leek tart—frogs’ legs amandine, or oeufs de cailles—little quails’ eggs on a bed of pureéd mushrooms. It’s very delicate, very subtle.”

“I’ll have the lot,” replies Mr. Creosote.

“A wise choice, monsieur. And now, how would you like it served—all mixed up together in a bucket?”

“Yeah . . . with the eggs on top.”

While the humour in the scene is partly visual, the Pythons’ unique stamp of taking things to the brink of the ridiculous, and then vaulting over it, contrasts the list of the individual, highly refined dishes on the menu—representing the pinnacle of classic French cuisine—and the way these “very delicate, very subtle” elements are offered to the patron in a gross, vulgar, and repulsive manner, “all mixed up together in a bucket.”

Of course, no-one would willingly order a meal this way, much less be served in this fashion by a trained professional. Yet, that is much the way sound is often presented to theatre patrons: all mixed up together, with the eggs—or rather, the voices—on top. Occasionally delicate, not often subtle.

What is at issue here is the very notion of mixing, of combining disparate elements into a single channel (center cluster), two channels (L, R), a combination of these (L, C, R) or perhaps even on very rare occasions, a surround mix of four or five channels.

While mixing a large number of individual audio signals together into a few channels may be a very real requirement for the limited channel count of broadcast radio and television, as well as channel-restricted media such as consumer audio playback systems, this is certainly not the case for theatre and other staged entertainment. Until recently, however, theatrical and similar live events have largely been mixed in much the same way as broadcasts and recorded music.

This may be attributed in part to the large overlap in the designs of traditional recording, broadcast and live consoles; schools teaching audio (i.e., “recording schools”) continue to focus on the art and techniques of the mixdown; even one of the audio industry’s leading magazines proudly heralds the practice in its name, Mix. Originating in broadcast and recording sessions involving multiple microphones, and refined in multitrack recording studios producing mono or stereo masters, mixing has become entrenched in the industry and in the minds of many who dream of working in it, to the point where it’s almost as if no other way of working with sound is even remotely conceivable.

A great many shows are presented as if the audience were listening to a gargantuan stereo system, with massive line arrays hung to the left and right of the stage. Now this might not be inappropriate for a touring band well known from its recordings or for a big, dynamic rock musical where the design calls for a larger-than-life aspect.

Even so, many of the blockbuster musicals from the past quarter century benefited greatly from the creativity of such esteemed sound designers as Olivier Award winner Mick Potter, who, in the quest for more natural sound, have opted for separate vocal and orchestra mixes, striving simultaneously for clarity in the voices and power in the orchestra. Moreover, two voice mixes are sometimes derived, with one going to a duplicate set of loudspeakers in an A-B configuration pioneered in 1988 by Martin Levan for Aspects of Love, to eliminate electrical summing of mic signals and the ensuing phase problems that arise when performers are in close proximity to each other’s microphones.

For other production styles, however, an approach based on mixing may not be the most appropriate technique for conveying the nuances of theatre—including musical theatre, where sound systems have become ubiquitous—if the purpose of sound reinforcement is to allow every performer’s voice to be heard as it would unamplified in an optimum seat.