We Are Young – fun. Compositional Analysis Part 2

Something we always talk about in my production classes is where the climax of the song is, how we get to the climax, and what happens after the climax. Some songs hit you like a Mack truck from beat one. “We Are Young” does not. One of the things that are so great about this song is the buildup. The song starts out with – say what?? – toms playing the same single-bar pattern over & over?? Imagine a scale from one to ten, with one being the least climactic thing you could do in a song and 10 being over-the-top meters-in-the-red guitars-to-eleven in-your-face production. The beginning of “We Are Young” starts at what, 1.5, maybe?

The introduction of the vocals is followed by the most simplistic piano performance possible – two-measure chords. The song builds with a more complicated drum pattern by using the snare and more piano.

The interesting thing with the piano is that, while the drums are playing a VERY straight 4|4 time, the piano is playing triplet patterns. These are all things that a first-year music student can do the middle of their first year playing, but there’s already a tension being set up in the music, between the eighth-note percussion and triplet piano. All that tension’s got to go somewhere…

Almost a minute into the song, and all we hear is drums, piano, and vocals. And to make it worse, the pre-chorus is in a much slower tempo. This is about the time people go mad wanting SOMETHING to HAPPEN!!!

Well, at 0:48 in the track, it does. The chorus relieves all the previously built-up tension in a wonderful way. It’s almost the song actually STARTS at the chorus. Drums, bass, piano and a whole bunch of vocals, but we’re not at the climax yet.

All instrumentation follows a strict eighth-note feel from here on out. And if you haven’t consciously heard the snare drum, your subconscious sure has. The snare drum drives the song from here until the outro. The snare drum is HUGE. Monstorous.

This is a production technique that serves the purpose of making the song something you can lock on to and keep the beat with. Your subconscious picks up on this and you find yourself waving your arms in the air like you’re the love child of Travis Barker & John Bonham. The snare plays such a large part of the song from here on out, the end of the snare sound contributes to the rhythm too. The snare is way more than just a snare for the remainder of the song.

Even more interestingly, the snare (as a percussion instrument) is in almost complete contrast to the bass synth in the chorus. The snare is hard, with sharp edges, the bass is soft & fuzzy. Contrast builds a song.

The many vocals in the chorus also contrast to the first verse. Another subconscious element of this song is that when one person sings, you listen. When many people sing, you sing along too. The vocals in the last line of the chorus “than the sun” from 1:25 to about 1:30 beg the listener to scream along with them. And they do. Background vocals tell listeners what to sing along with, and people remember what they sing along with.
However, we’re not finished yet. Through the second verse and chorus, we’re still reaching the climax of the entire song. The climax of the song happens at 2:32, when Janelle Monáe’s vocal comes in. Not only is the listener singing along with the chorus (and screaming out the last line like it’s their lifeline), but the bridge invited the listener participation with an entire chorus of “na na na na” vocals to sing along with! You can even go falsetto and sing in the same register the children that make up this chorus sing.

The climax happens at the middle of the song, and then proceeds to decline back to the original intensity.

The song ends very similar to how it starts, with a simple piano and vocal.

Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls

Technology in the studio is a tool, not the endgame, although some people think collecting technology is the essence of studio work (but that’s another topic).

A good craftsman knows how his tools work and works to maintain those tools, especially if those tools are expensive and hard to replace. No, you don’t need to necessarily know how to program in C+ or repair the anti-alias filter on your converters, but EVERY TOOL REQUIRES MAINTENANCE. It’s like being a guitar player and not knowing how to change the strings.

This brings us to today’s lesson:

Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls. If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.

We, as recording studio owners, engineers, producers, or whoever, use technology to get everything done, from recording the drums to mastering the finished product. Used to be, all engineers were able to clean & align their tape machine, remove channel strips and troubleshoot problems, and disassemble a microphone to find the problem, even if they couldn’t fix it themselves, they’d know where the problem was.

Things are drastically different today. Seems like many engineers don’t even know how their own gear is connected in their own studio. Now, this is interesting because now there’s a whole new side business of individuals who troubleshoot, fix, and un-screw-up what the last guy messed up. Not a bad gig, but it’s kind of like diet & weight-loss products today. We didn’t need those products 50 years ago. We see a need for them today.

There’s a whole offshoot of musicians and studio-types that like to tinker with their gear. I’m one of them. I’m not taking my Mbox apart and re-engineering the inputs or anything, but I like to take things apart. I like to take things apart so much I have a subscription to Make Magazine. Highly recommended for those of you who like to void warranties.

I encourage anybody to start prodding around your gear. It doesn’t take that much to get started. Wanna start with something small? Open your computer up and poke around. If you get lost, Google something like “computer insides” or “basic computer repair”. Find a video. There’s videos on how to fix ANYTHING you want to fix or poke around in. Seriously. Once you get comfortable with that, maybe you wanna try your microphone or amplifier.

We’re in a world where it’s becoming impossible for anyone to work on their own gear (as an auto mechanic). I think that’s bad news, because so many of the greatest inventions we use in the studio today came from guys tinkering around their own gear (Les Paul, The Beatles, George Massenburg). There’s always been this tendency to take something and find you own uses for it, instead of just using it for its intended purpose, and we’re losing it.


You will always be a beginner.

No, this is not the last fortune cookie I received, it’s the next lesson in our series “Achieving Techno-Literacy in the Studio” series. 

The complete lesson is this:

Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it. 

Guess what? Avid (B.T.W., how many people still call it “Digidesign”?) just released Pro Tools HD Native. Whut, you might say? I never even knew that was an option, you declare? Well, here it is!

It’s still a PCI-e card that you need to operate the software, but it runs off of your computer’s own processing power instead of the HD cards of old. My guess is we’ve reached that point in time where computer power has topped and surpassed the capabilities of what the HD cards can do. And why not? Pro Tools HD has been around since what, 2002? Computers are MANY times more powerful now than they were ten years ago. 12-Core Mac Pros were only a dream then.

And what about the software itself? You know, Avid doesn’t certify its users in their official program for a single version just to make more money. They do it because EVERY new version has new capabilities.

Real-time elastic audio, quick looping capabilities and decent-sounding bundled plug-ins were only a Pro Tooler’s dream a few years ago. Now they’re standard, and you can buy it for what $99 including the hardware?

New features are being added to existing software all the time, not to mention the fact that totally new software is being developed that will supersede what we know today. Another fact that I ALWAYS tell my students is:

One day Pro Tools will be superseded by some other software. Just because Pro Tools was one of the first software programs to achieve wide acceptance doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the king forever. 

Is it possible to master a software program? Sure. You can learn every keyboard shortcut & quick tip available, but next month, there’s a new version out, and you’ll need to forget all those shortcuts they don’t use and learn new shortcuts they added.

AND, if it isn’t obvious already, knowing shortcuts does NOT an engineer make. You know why some of the best-sounding mixes and most innovative music is coming out of 17-year old kid’s bedrooms? Because they sit there day after day pointing, clicking, dragging, and experimenting. Experimentation is they key to learning, because you fail so many more times than you succeed, and failing is one of the best ways to learn. They’re not just going through motions or knowing just enough to get by on the project, but really mastering the tools they use to get the exact sound they want. 

So, what’s a body to do? Spend 12 hours a day playing with software to learn every nook & cranny? No. All that’s going to get you is a continual hamster wheel of learning. What you need to do to survive the recording studio technology crunch is learn technique & theory, and combine it with an understanding of what you want the end result to be. Yes, shortcuts are helpful, but focus on

  • Process
  • Theory
  • Understanding

And I guarantee that you’ll be successful in the recording studio. The process for producing a good sound in the studio, the theory behind what should happen in the studio, and having an understanding of how to achieve what you want will never be superseded.

Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete

Continuing with the series of Techno-Literacy, today’s lesson is:

• Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete. 

This is, I believe, a change that has taken place in the recording studio in the past 10 to 15 years or so.

Whereas, yes, recording technology has always progressed – 2-track to 4-track to 8-, 16-, & 24-track analog recording, for example. However, this progression from 2 tracks to 24 tracks took from the mid-1950s to what, the mid-1970’s? And all that work got us was an apex of 24 tracks for recording. In 20 years?

We know each new technology proliferates at a quicker rate as time goes on – from telegraph to telephone to fax machines to e-mail to internet to cell phone usage (and all the steps I missed in there). We’re now at a point in time where the software used to create new studio technology is literally given away (in the form of development kits and the like), and it’s up to the creators (see the previous post) to use their imagination and create. That makes for a situation where anyone whom wants (again see my previous post) to can become a studio technology creator and publish it for free (or pay) on the Internet for anyone to download and use.

Today’s lesson is part godsend and part curse for those of us (like me) whom are very cost-conscious. I’m the kind of guy that hates to buy new technology. I AM the kind of person to wait until the very last minute to buy a new piece of technology, because I know that something better is always around the corner. I remember buying my first computer in the late 1990’s. When I tell younger people about this time period, I think that they have a hard time believing me (or just think that I’m an idiot). The late 1990’s was almost a wild west show in the computer hardware world. I would pick up the Best Buy sales flyer every Sunday and sweep through the computer hardware section to see what new processor speed and memory storage their computers had. There was a time period of several years’ where, literally, almost every other week, I’d see faster speeds & more memory on their computers. Why would anyone want to purchase a computer one week at 733 megahertz and two weeks later see a computer for the same price at 867 megahertz? Or buy a computer with a 10 GB hard drive then see the same computer two weeks later with a 16 GB hard drive?

The technology you buy today is already outdated. You may not be able to buy the newest technology tomorrow, but it won’t be long.

You have two choices: you can either continually chase the technology and buy a new computer every six months, in which case a LOT of your overhead is being taken up with computer hardware and software. I’d say that’s a mistake. 

One thing I ALWAYS tell people I consult with is this: When you start attracting clients to your studio business, do NOT advertise based on your equipment. If you start that trend, you’ll ALWAYS be behind. Someone else will ALWAYS have better equipment, more equipment, more updated software, etc. If you win the equipment chase game, the only ones who really win are the equipment manufacturers. DO NOT PLAY THE EQUIPMENT CHASE GAME.

A better idea is this: Get comfortable with the hardware and software you already have, and learn to use every single feature of that software effectively. Squeeze the blood form that turnip, son! There’s still some juice left in it!

Probably, you have equipment in your studio that has functions you don’t even know about. You learned how the basic functions work for that piece of software, but when you have a need for some other function, you turn to buying another piece of software.

Pro Tools has an entire notation feature built into the software. Did you know that? That fact may mean there’s no real need to buy Finale, Sibelius, or some stand-alone music notation software program. 

When you buy a Pro Tools LE system, you get Melodyne for free. Free! No, it’s not the full-featured Melodyne Studio, but you know what, the vast majority of projects I’m working on don’t necessarily need all of those features. If i can correct some pitches, I’m good!

Learn your software. Learn your hardware. Squeeze every last feature out of your equipment you can. It will save you money in the future. If what I say here saves you some money, let’s go out for coffee later.

New Technology Bites Back

A few days ago I read an article in the New York Times by Kevin Kelly about achieving techno-literacy and lessons he’s passed on to his home-schooled child regarding uses of technology. I want to look at each of these lessons in regards to the use of studio technology and how we can maybe use these lessons to our advantage.

The first lesson is this:

Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

There is a lot of powerful technology used in the modern recording studio, and always has been one of the hallmarks of the recording industry. Back in the bleeding-edge days of studio technology, Les Paul added another record head to his Apex tape machine and gave us sound-on-sound technology. Those were the days when the same people that worked on nuclear weapons also worked on advancements in audio recording (see Tom Dowd’s documentary, The Language of Music).

However, over time, the producers of technological advancements and the users of those advancements began to separate. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because there became many more users of the technology than creators. Maybe it’s because the technology grew to be more complicated than most users could wrap their brain around. Either way we’re at a point now where there seem to be very few creators of technology but many, many users, and most of those users don’t seem to understand what’s going on that actually makes the technology work (which is a strong point of contention for many seasoned veterans out there).

Which brings me to the lesson: Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs. 

The bite comes in many forms: bad music that can be recorded and propagated to the masses, giving a glimmer of hope to an untalented and unmusical by begin able to pitch-correct, time stretch, or otherwise fix bad notes, or relying on that technology in a performance and the technology not coming through for you (see Kanye West’s Saturday Night Live performance form December 2008 – he actually got booed while on stage). 

Now I’m not saying we need to forgo the technology, or shun its use in our studios, but know that technology bites back. Even beyond the musical and creative bites that technology will take, music technology makers have figured out that one way to create a sustainable business is to come out with a product that either breaks after a few years’ usage or needs to be updated (at $75 per .X update) to stay “current”. Reminds me of a great article written by a friend and former co-worker of mine, Tom Day, for TapeOp Magaizne a year or so ago (if you subscribe to TapeOp, look for it and read/re-read it). So, there’s an added bite of continual costs that keep biting us over and over as well.

Does Kanye  abuse Auto-Tune? I don’t know. What I DO know is that I saw his performance from SNL when he sang “Love Lockdown” with no Auto-Tune. He’s a good musician and not an idiot. He should be able to hear that the technology was biting him squarely in the butt by not actually doing what it was supposed to do. He could have fixed it by actually singing the correct notes, but he didn’t.

We now have the power to do more with less in the recording studio than ever before, and that paradigm isn’t going to change anytime soon. What technology we choose to use and how we use that technology is up to us. You know this technology will come back to bite you. You have been warned. Choose and use wisely.

Powerful gifts get abused powerfully, like a super-villain in a comic book. Choose to be a hero and save our music and our future!

Control – Now I’m All Grown Up

The decentralization of the recording studio industry is in full force now, and musicians are able to do more for themselves than ever before (so we’re told). This mindset trickles down to the studio industry as well. So many studio owners are concerned about the well-being of their studio but also don’t seem to want to do anything to change their business practices.

I was reading this article from The Independent (a U.K. newspaper) about Arcade Fire and the article mentioned the fact the band was a pretty cost-conscious operation:

“they controlled their own rights from day one…[t]hey very cost-effectively made their first album, and then made some strategic deals that would bring in some money for them to buy their own recording studio and be able to be self-sufficient and make their own recordings. They pay for everything themselves and deliver it to their licensees. No label will ever commission anything that they do. Their videos, their artwork, their photographs – they pay for everything. They have complete control.”

I remember the first time I head about a band buying their own equipment with record label money. It was Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and it was in the mid 90’s. I’m sure that’s not the first time a band has bought recording equipment, but I do remember that was the first time I thought about the fact that there doesn’t have to be a separation between musician and engineer.

If we want to keep this studio business thriving and want our own studio to stay afloat, don’t forget that the power is in the musicians’ hands. Can they take the equipment that’s available today and make a great-sounding record by themselves? Yes. If we as studio owners understand that fact and work with artists to achieve their musical visions instead of feeling like we have to fend off attacks from the digital home recording world, we may do a lot better than we’ve done in the past.

What are you doing to stay afloat in the studio business?

There are a lot if indicators that point to the fact that the studio business is a tough place to stay alive.

If you read Billboard, Mix, or some of the other professional trades that deal with the studio business, they’ll tell you that studios are closing up shop left and right and those spaces are being turned into condos. Yeowch! Priorities, eh?

Anyway, the recording studio business has never been easy, and it’s being made a lot tougher on studio owners that aren’t very business savvy and those that try to cling on to the way they did business ten or fifteen years ago.

My research shows that at least SOME studio owners are charging less for their services as a way to stay competitive in the marketplace. How bad of an idea is that? With the increased cost of doing business (employee salary/wages, rent) there’s no way you’re going to stay in business if you continually charge LESS money over time. May work in the short term, but that’s not an effective long-term strategy for success. And, once you DO start to charge less money, when you try to increase your rates, all your clients are gonna grumble and complain about how much it costs to record at your facility.

So, my challenge to you is this:

What can we do as an industry to keep ourselves alive (a la Queen)? I think it’s going to take some pretty innovative thinking. It looks like the people that are out there making a real go of it are doing something creative and unique. I’m not sure of the right answer(s), but I have my thoughts… How about you?


NARAS Producers & Enigneers Wing – DAW Guidelines for Music Production

As some of you may know, the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) created their Producers & Engineers Wing several years ago and charged them with the task of establishing a set of guidelines that would offer solutions to some of the traditional problems we face in the recording studio.

To that end, they have developed a set of guidelines to follow when using DAWs. The guidelines are meant to simplify the file management process and keep your sessions orgainized for future use.

There are two versions of the guidelines, a short version and a longer, more complete version.

The short version of the guidelines can be found here.

The longer version can be found here. Wow, 40 pages worth of guidelines.

2008 Recording Studio Survey Quick Facts

Highlights from the 2007 Nashville Recording Studio Survey
Most studios are commercial and for-profit. Most studio owners and managers stated that their studio was commercially available to the public (89%) rather than a private facility or one that was closed to the general public.
Studios are used primarily for tracking. Almost half of the studio owners and managers surveyed said that their studio was primarily used for tracking (46%), with mixing being the most popular secondary purpose of the facility owned/managed (40%). Editing (21%) was also a popular secondary function of the studios owned and managed by respondents.
Out of those studios that owned at least one tracking room, most owned more than one (average of 1.92 per facility that owned at least one). Less frequently, respondents owned rooms for editing (average of 1.69 editing rooms for studios that owned at least one), and mixing (average of 1.63 mixing rooms per facility that owned at least one).
The average age of the facilities owned or managed by the respondents is 17.33 years. Additionally, the reported average gross revenue for the previous tax year was $161,772.73.
Country music is still the primary style of music produced at Nashville facilities. Contemporary Christian, Rock, and Gospel music were also popular styles produced at the respondents’ facilities.
Most respondents operate their business as Sole Proprietorships (36%). Respondents also reported operating their businesses as Corporations (25%), Limited Liability Companies (18%), and General Partnerships (14%) as well.
Studios that use interns on a full-time basis use more interns (an average of 2 interns per studio that used full-time interns) than studios that use full-time engineers (average of 1.5 engineers per studio that hired full-time engineers at all).
The primary use of studios in the Nashville area is for music production. Mastering and Sound for Picture work followed in popularity.
Most studio owners and managers (89%) say they offer DAW mutitrack formats at their facility. 57% of studio owners and managers that responded say they offer digital muitltracking, while only a little more than one-third (36%) say they offer 24-track analog multitracking at their facilities.
Overall, most studio owners/managers say that worldwide, conditions for being successful in the recording studio business are getting worse (67%) and not better (11%) this year compared to last year. 18% of owners and managers feel conditions for being successful in Nashville getting better.
The PDF with all of these results can also be found here. More information regarding the Nashville Recording Studio Survey can be found here.

2007 Nashville Recording Studio Survey Quick Facts

Highlights from the 2007 Nashville Recording Studio Survey

Most studios are commercial and for profit. Most owners and managers said their studios were
commercial and open to the public (87%) rather than project studios closed to the public (7%) or
private and not-for-profit (7%).

The recent increase in independent record labels in Nashville is seen in clientele. Independent
record labels were the primary client for studio owners and managers in the past year (29%), while
business that aren’t record labels as well as independent artists with no manager account for 21%
each of studios’ primary clients.

Nashville is still home to country music. The most common style of music produced in studios by
owners and managers that responded is country (16%), with rock (13%), contemporary Christian
( 12%), gospel music (11%), and demos (11%) all following close behind.

Studio owners and managers that responded said their studios grossed an average of $125,205 last
tax year.
Additionally, most studio owners and managers either saw an increase in gross revenue or
stayed the same (73%) compared to the previous tax year. 91% of studio owners and managers say
they are experiencing growth or the same amount of gross revenue this tax year compared to last
year. Also, the average length of time studios have been in business in Nashville is 15.55 years.

Engineers are the most common type of employee in a Nashville Studio. Every studio owner and
manager (100%) that responded to the survey that have any full-time employees have at least one
Engineer on their full-time staff. More than half (55%) of studios also hire a full-time Studio
Manager as well.

Studio owners and managers are looking for help from interns more and more. While there were
increases in the number of Engineers (9%) and Studio Managers (11%) hired, Interns saw the
biggest hiring increase (27%). Assistant Engineers and Engineers saw the greatest increases in
independent contractor work (30% and 18% respectively).

Primary use of studios is to track audio. Almost half (47%) of studio owners and managers
surveyed say they use their studio primarily for tracking, while only 13% use their studio primarily
for mixing. Mixing, however, is the largest (57%) secondary use for studios.

6 out of every 7 studios have at least one mixing room. 86% of studios have at least one room
used for mixing, while less (71%) studios have at least one room for tracking.

While 70% of studio owners and managers feel the studio business is getting worse in the
Nashville area
compared to last year, 45% say that their own business is performing better than the
rest of the Nashville
recording studio businesses. Also, while 18% of studio owners and managers
feel optimistic about the future of the studio business in Nashville, over three times as many
(64%) feel optimistic about their own studio’s performance.

The PDF with all of these results can also be found here. More information regarding the Nashville Recording Studio Survey can be found here.