Music Production – Keeping Creativity Alive.
Music Production – How To Skin A Cat
There are as many ways to approach music production than there are styles of music and because so many people are recording their own tracks these days a music producer has to have a very flexible approach to working. At least that’s what I’m finding here at Offbeat Music Productions.
A case in point was a record I made with singer Mark A.G. who came to the studio from Brighton with ideas and musical parts he had created on an app on his iPad which only cost around a fiver. The piano parts Mark wrote turned out to be good enough to stick with right through to the the final mix, like on the excellent track featured on the audio player here entitled Louder.
His parts survived as midi exports which were then re-triggered with a Native Instruments piano that I had installed as a third party plug in on my Logic Pro-X DAW.
Working on his ideas on his iPad was perfect for Mark who didn’t want to get bogged down with gear just to be able to get his musical ideas across in the studio. In fact, I often warn musicians and songwriters not to get unnecessarily involved in recording equipment unless there is a real calling for them to become recording engineers and producers. The danger is that they stop writing songs and start becoming technicians.
The Tyranny Of (Too Much) Choice
The ridiculous choices of soft synths and samples available in digital workstations now can actually paralyse the creative process in some cases. Back in the days of 8 track studios and 16 or even 24 track recording you really had to limit what went into the recordings and in some ways this was useful. It’s fun being able to chuck everything into a recording and recently I did a track with a songwriter that had 74 guitars in it, and somehow it worked! But it can be problematic and things have gone too far if there are so many elements in a song the listener can’t actually focus on anything.
Back in the days of 4 track Portastudios, like the Tascam and Fostex machines that made multi tracking affordable for the first time for songwriters, it was pointless to try and create finished recordings on these hissy, noisy cassette based machines which were best used as storyboards for songs. I should know, I tried!
My wife Kirsty & I spent four months in a cottage in the Isle Of Skye in the early 80’s trying to make an album on a Fostex machine. Recording a sync track on one track to run a drum machine and keyboard, recording audio on two channels, bouncing to another track while adding something ‘live’ on the go and then freeing up the original tracks and recording over them again. Further down the line it became obvious that the levels in the original bounce were not correct and of course we couldn’t go back as the bounces were destructive. After several attempts to recreate the tracks from scratch the project was abandoned.
This approach was a mistake, it would have been wiser to just keep bashing ideas out demos and focusing on songwriting at that stage. I should have just used the portastudio demos as storyboards for the songs and recorded them properly at a later stage but OCD had kicked in big time. Some of these tracks actually sounded pretty good as demos though and when we started our own studio in Edinburgh we reproduced some of the tracks using analogue and midi multi tracking technology to much better effect.
Another great example of doing a demo of ideas prior to getting involved in music production was with a vocalist and talented songwriter I worked with last year called Tawanda Muchemwa who works under there name Big Tee for his Firebrand Movement album which I had the great pleasure of producing.
He arrived on day one of the session with all of the musical parts sung straight into his mobile phone. The drums, the bass line, the backing vocals, the lead vocals were all there. Within two hours we had established the first song for the most part. I heard the drum parts he had sung in (boom-cha style) and recreated them using 808 drum samples. His voice hummed bass line was reinterpreted and virtually copied by me as a real bass guitar part.
He then listened one by one to his own multiple backing vocal ideas on his phone and sung them straight into the recording using a AKG Solid Tube mic which suited his voice perfectly. This proved something that I had known intuitively for a long time as a songwriter. If you hear a part first in your head then 9 times out of 10 it works! You can hear how this worked out in track two of the player on this page with the song Stuck In A Rut .
A few years back I worked with excellent singer Eddie Elliott who was on tour playing at Edinburgh’s Playhouse on the We Will Rock You tour. Tired of playing exactly the same show night after night the only way to keep his creative juices flowing was to come into the studio and write a song from scratch there and then. He had no idea what he was going to do before he arrived and he didn’t want to know either.
I put a Shure SM58 into his hands and he started singing melodies which formulated into words during the time it took for me to work out musical parts for the ideas he had in his head. The resulting track entitled Oh, which took a few sessions to achieve, can be heard on track 3 on the audio player. Unless you have the courage of your own convictions this can be a risky and potentially expensive way to work.
Of course this way of working doesn’t work for everyone and there are many so many ways to approach writing a song and giving vent to creative urges. As long as you achieve results there are no right and wrong ways of working.
Kirsty and I are working on a new album of songs now under our name Harmonic Overdrive and are employing a range of music production approaches to achieve a fresh but consistent result for each track which will be discussed in my next music production blog.
Music To Lyrics – A Unique Production Service
For several years now we have been providing a music production service for lyricists and singer/songwriters who require musical arrangements for their lyrics and song ideas. Every song is different so a fresh approach has to be taken every time. Below are four excerpts from a wide range of songs produced over the past year with notes on how each arrangement was created.
Evamore is a project by Sir Chris Evans who created an album of songs based on letters sent back from soldiers from WW1. The album was a huge undertaking which involved many session singers and musicians. On this particular song I worked out the arrangement based on a rough demo sent over my Chris. This production was done remotely as Chris is an extremely busy globetrotter and couldn’t attend the studio.
I played Acoustic Guitar, Bass and Percussion. Sir Chris played Electric Guitar. Lead vocals were by Steve Balsamo, Backing vocals by Brian Rice & Kirsty McKinna. The strings were orchestrated by Jon Cohen with Violin by Seonaid Aitken. The Harmonica was by Fraser Speirs.
Once the song was established Chris recorded his Guitar parts at home and drop-boxed them to me to slot into the recording,
Tony B is an amazing Nigerian gospel singer with a great ear for music. Tony has done a great job of tracking up his vocals and creating a huge choral effect for this song.
On the track he sang the melody line to me and from that we worked out the tempo and a beat. Then I added drums and a bass line. Tony has lots of ideas in his head and would occasionally hum parts to me, like the bass line, and even ideas for guitar parts although not being an instrumentalist I had to come up with the chords for the arrangement. We worked through lots of beats together for the production. On this track all instruments are played by me.
Imaginary Creatures is the brainchild of Scottish born lyricist David Scott. We are currently working on the third album.
David comes into the studio with music references which are a great way of establishing a song. We don’t directly copy the music but he will typically suggest ideas from records which are a good starting point. David has strong musical ideas and even the instruments arrangements are close to what he has in his head.
On this example the rhythm track and tempo was referenced from a record and the general guitar sound also. The track was then developed by bringing in session musicians Rich Anderson on keyboards and Keith More on the guitar solo. Drums were eventually replaced by Alex Harvey and Michael Shenker drummer Ted McKenna.
Norine Mindeyes is also from Nigeria but has lived in Scotland for quite some time. We have done three songs together. In this example she came into the studio with all the vocal melody parts sang into her mobile phone. I then recorded all the instrumental parts into our music software starting with the Clavinet and a rough rhythm guide. Over a period of time the song evolved into this fully fledged production.
Gavin Blackie is a talented singer and songwriter who recorded his debut album Laid Bare with me here at Offbeat. Gavin comes into the studio with a strong vocal melody and firm ideas of how he wants the track to go. He will suggest references for drum sounds and records that have inspired him. Although these are good starting points we are careful not to directly lift anything from an existing composition. These ideas are just the spark for musical parts that have to be unique for the composition we are creating. On this track all instruments are played by me with backing vocals by Kirsty McKinna.
I’ve have done many tracks and albums with lyricists and songwriters and have found a niche that not many studios or producers seem to specialise in. Understandable as initially it can be a bit nerve wracking sitting with a writer with lyrics and a blank page with no music. You will hear from the diverse range of styles above that there’s not many types of music we can’t undertake here at Offbeat,
Skyler Jett – Grammy award winning singer ‘at Offbeat’.
This extremely talented singer is full of energy and charisma and you can easily while away your afternoon listening to his many stories about his career in the music business.
Skyler not only grew up in a musical family but was surrounded by and sung with so many well known superstars over the years.
Skyler is now currently working on a new single called Heal The World in which the music was brilliantly composed in Switzerland by Andreas Svarc (pictured left) a very talented musician and songwriter in his own right who produced and wrote the track with Styler. The vocals were recorded and produced at Offbeat Studios Edinburgh with Iain McKinna. The drums were played and recorded in Munich by Tobias Haas. (pictured below) Watch this space for more details including the release date.
There were some great moments in Skyler’s session as he was putting down his vocals, and being the perfectionist that he is, enhancing the track big style as he effortlessly sang his vocals. At one point the fantastic resonance of his voice started to chime with a cymbal from the drum kit – stopping the session until it was removed!
It was pure magic watching him work. He microscopically went through each line and note to get the result he wanted which paid off, achieving a fantastic result.
Heal The World is a track that really showcases the brilliance of Skyler’s effortless vocal talent and his awesome sweet vocal harmony’s which were layered up with the most amazing perfection. In addition his lyrical content is thought provoking – there are very few artist these days writing songs about global issues. There’s a wellspring of tracks bursting to come out from this extremely prolific artist and we can hardly wait to hear what his next tracks will be. His extraordinary talent is right up there with the big boys and he deserves all the success coming to him, he is a very talented and true star who will be making a big noise this year. Over the Summer he will be touring with Sly And The Family Stone in America which he loves to do, singing backing vocals, also offering a great platform as publicity for his own music.
Having toured with The Commodores replacing Lionel Ritchie as Lead Vocalist for their live shows in 31 different countries, as well as touring with Sly Stone, he also played a really important role in encouraging Sly back to the world stage between 2003 – 2007.
He sang with Celine Dion on the title track from Titanic on the album version which earned him the Grammy award with the song My Heart Will Go On. as well as working with Whitney Houston on the song I’m Every Woman for the block buster hit movie The Body Guard which was movie of the year in (1992).
He also worked with Gregory Hines and Sammy Davies Jr on the film “Tap” with a song A Smile Like Yours with Greg Kinnear and Disneyland Hercules. Not forgetting the James Bond 007 Licence To Kill, Big Bully with Rick Moranis and Tom Arnold, and Ghostdad. The list of stars are endless Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Sting, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Kenny G, he is very much in demand as his credits with famous celebrity singers are too many to mention here.
Skyler’s love of music stems from his childhood as his Mum, Aunt and GrandMa were Gospel singers in the Baptist Churches of Oakland, so he grew up singing from the age of 7 as well as meeting hosts of great stars as a child. His aunt, Elsie Davis, was the first black woman to hire entertainment for San Francisco’s Presidio Army base and she performed with such greats as Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra.
In his teens Skyler benefitted from the mentorship of two uncles, Capus Hope, who managed Jazz Band, Donald Byrd & The Blackbirds and Arif Khaitib (right) who promoted Ike & Tina Turner. They instilled a valuable understanding of business acumen, professionalism and timeliness in the young man which stood him in good stead along his journey through the woefully unpredictable and fickle world of the Music Industry. His Mum and his two aunties were both in the music business so he grew up singing from the age of 7 as well as meeting a host of great stars as a child.
Skyler learned the ins and outs of the entertainment industry due to his very great talent of observation, and while he hung around all these great artists back stage at their live shows he realised that actually there was more to the music business than just having a great voice and so learned how to organise everything to do with putting on a live show, and then started offering his services to all the talented singers and musicians around at the time in the San Francisco Bay Area. His unique education in life has added depth and colour to his harmonies, making the tracks sound unique and special, which has given him the edge to really stand out vocally.
He also started Solutions Now Radio with S. Denise Newton a weekly internet radio show in America highlighting and discussing solutions of the most pressing issues of today, especially addressing issues of social consciousness, which encouraged him to bring out his song I Survived, reaching out to all the woman fighting breast cancer.
The most impressive and wonderful talent of Skyler apart from his effortless singing are his inspiring lyrics. He chooses topics close to his heart bringing the attention of current global and environmental problems. He inspires the positive and is a breath of fresh air as his lyrics uplift you to a higher place, reminding us that we can rise above the negative issues of today by listening to humanitarian heart felt music.
You really must check out his single This Is A Calling which gave me goose bumps when I first heard it. What a track. The ease of his vocal performance had me spellbound it was so great to watch, such a natural performer.
Skyler has just recently sang on one of Iain’s songs Something’s Wrong, which will be completed in the not too distant future.
Read another great article about Styler Jett!
2016 Gets Off To A Great Start
2015 was another amazing year at Offbeat. 2016 is lining up to be outstanding as it gets off to a great start with Ross Munro’s single Gravel Path (from his ground breaking album Twisted Traditions -Greentrax Records) reaching no1 in the Celtic Radio Charts. The album was produced here at the Offbeat Studio.
The BBC/Swedish movie Stockholm My Love starring Neneh Cherry will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival before being aired on BBC TV. All the commentary for Neneh’s voice in the film was recorded here in Edinburgh for the film which is directed by Mark Cousins.
In 2014 and 15 Offbeat produced an album for Sir Chris Evans entitled Lest We Forget. The album is based on letters written back from the front line by soldiers who never returned. The songs were put together by Sir Chris who also plays Lead Guitar on thew album. It feature vocals by Brian Rice, Steve Balsamo, Aubrey Parsons, Darren Wharton, Ruth Notman & Seonaid Aitken.
The album has been passed on legendary music producer Youth who has the task of inviting well known artists on to the album to make sure it achieves maximum publicity.
Imaginary Creatures second album Danse Macabre was released in 2015 and this year we start work on the third album working with the projects brainchild and lyricist.
Offbeat are about to embark on a debut album for African singer Anthony Obi. He has a inspired voice and we very much look forward to working with him.
Singer and songwriter Norine Mindeyes is about to release her uplifting and truly majestic debut single United. Offbeat producer Iain McKinna and Norine have been working for a couple of years now on songs which will be reeled over the year. Notably Tell Me & Living On A Bridge.
Who knows what else will come our way over the year. On Wednesday we work with Skyler Jett, completing vocals which were recorded in Switzerland. Skylar famously accompanied Celine Dion on the movie’s title track Titanic. He then replaced Lionel Ritchie as Lead Singer with The Commodores.
Gavin Blackie Wins Prestigious Music Award
Gavin and Offbeat Producer Iain McKinna co-wrote the track and it features on his recently released album Laid Bare which is available on iTunes.
Gavin performed the track ‘live’ at his launch gig at Edinburgh’s Church Hill Theatre to a packed audience in November 2015.
The track will be released as a single in early 2016 but meanwhile you can hear the entire track here
Gavin Blackie – Laid Bare
About 5 years ago, after winning Edinburgh’s Got Talent, singer Gavin Blackie approached Offbeat needing help getting music together for his self penned songs. Between then and now Gavin and Offbeat producer Iain McKinna have explored various writing styles before coming up with a great blend of Electro Pop, Rock and R&B flavours that make up his fantastic new debut album Laid Bare.
Iain says ” When I first started working with Gav we got immediate results but we have had to go through a process of experimentation to find out what did and didn’t work. Once we hit on the formula some of the songs that initially didn’t suit his style translated really well to the electro format that finally made it onto the album
Gav and Iain then applied the formula to the rest of the album which came together really well once they had worked out what suited his voice and style best. Offbeat’s Kirsty McKinna played Electric Violin and sang Backing Vocals on the album.
On November 7th Gavin performed the album and some of his favourite songs by other artists at a sold out launch gig at Edinburgh’s Church Hill Theatre. It was an assured and confident performance which established him as a serious artist. He will be performing on STV Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge show on Monday 23rd November.
The album Laid Bare by Gavin Blackie is available on iTunes. Spotify and all main online stores. Buy it now on iTunes. Listen to Like A Blackbird to get a flavour of what’s on this amazing album.
Imaginary Creatures album release ‘Danse Macabre’
We started off 2015 with the continuation of the production of Imaginary Creatures rock album entitled Danse Macabre. The album is now finally complete after 18 months and is available for sale and download.
David started off many years ago originally writing fiction and by using his creative writing skills he discovered that he could write lyrics which started seriously from 1995 to 2000 where he had a fertile period writing many lyrics for his own amusement. This culminated several years later and gave him the inspiration to write his first album under the name Imaginary Creatures entitled The Butterfly’s Dream.
The first album was a fantastic learning curve, it fired David up which gave him the ambition and confidence to start writing the follow up Danse Macabre. These albums would never have come to fruit if Offbeat producer Iain McKinna had not been involved, he worked David’s ideas into an end product and contributes his own musical ideas and influences to the music.
David says, “Well, I really enjoy my time working at Offbeat. Iain and Kirsty are great to work with, and we usually manage to have a good laugh as well as getting quality work done. What could be better?”
David adds. “When I came into Offbeat I had no idea how to make an album, so that was very much a learning experience for me. So now with that experience under my belt (and with Iain also having the experience of what it is I am trying to do) we have been able to make this one a bit more cohesive. The first one had some good stuff on it but it was a bit uneven, it seemed like a random collection of tracks. This is more like a proper album!”
David has a unique style of writing about topics which he feels very strongly about that evoke a response from the profound to the trivial,”It tends to be story’s or abstract ideas, as there are plenty of issues in the world so there is no shortage of material”
And not being a musician doesn’t stop him expressing own musical ideas. He spends time listening to all his favourite albums giving him the many ideas to add into his tracks with an array of influences. This album is so exciting as Iain and David have managed to get some amazingly talented players on it. Like Drummer Ted McKenna of SAHB whos spectacular drumming throughout has given the whole album the right energy and weight to really showcase David’s very talented writing skills, with the addition of Iain’s production skills and who happens to also be playing Bass, Guitars & Lead Vocals on this 70s influenced Rock album. Guitarist Keith More and Blue Oyster Cult’s Joe Bouchard both have contributed spectacular guitar parts, and sax players John Burgess & Kenny Tomlinson have added performances to two tracks a piece.
David says “I started seriously writing lyrics in the mid 90s. That’s not counting the stuff I did as a teenager, which thankfully no-one will ever see! I had also written a fair amount of fiction, so I came to it with experience in creative writing when I started. Then from 1995 to about 2000 I had a very fertile period where I wrote tons and tons of lyrics. I just wrote for my own amusement, at that time I had no idea of actually doing anything with them. Then when I decided I wanted to start recording some of this stuff, I had a ready-made back catalogue that was fairly substantial, and it seemed to me that a good proportion of them still stood up with little or no re-working. So about half of the first album and all of the second come from that slush pile.
Not being a musician myself, I don’t have any musical ideas of my own, everything I do comes from stuff I have listened to. When I was a teenager, all these great albums were coming out by people like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin that are now great classics, but then they were brand new, and it was a very exciting time. So I have loads of influences that come through. On the new album, one track has a sort of cool jazzy vibe, one is a heavy slow blues, there is a jumping little rock’n’roll number, I’ve even attempted a Supertramp-style prog opus led by classical piano and strings”.
I asked David how he managed to get Joe Bouchard on this record, “I just asked him! About three years ago, when I was looking for a way to make something happen, I emailed him and sent him some lyrics. He was quite encouraging about the material and in fact ended up using one of them as the basis of a track entitled “Everybody Goes Insane” on the last Blue Coupe album, ‘Million Miles More’. So I got a writing credit on that album, which was nice. So we kept in touch, and when I was preparing this album there was a rocky track that I wanted a slide guitar lead for. So I asked Joe if he would do it and he said yes. I’ve always been a huge Blue Oyster Cult fan, so having Joe play on one of my songs is amazing to me”.
Producer Iain also enjoys working on David’s albums. “It’s fairly specialised working with a lyricist and interpreting ideas which are in peoples head, which I’m doing more and more of these days”, says Iain.”When things work out it’s a real buzz. David is always very clear on his brief which makes things easier. Of course, I add my own influences to the tracks, like on the excellent song Babylon on which things really came together early on in the project. At that point I felt this album was going to be great”.
Danse Macabre by Imaginary Creatures is available on Itunes – Amazon mp3. Spotify, Birnam Online CDShop
Catalogue No IMAGC002CD