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,
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.
Client Slide Show Launched
We are always being asked who we have worked with over the years. We have finally put together a slide show which feature a selection of projects we’ve been involved with.
Offbeat news from our Edinburgh Recording Studio.
THE PRODUCERS BLOG
Well since our last Offbeat blog but we have been very busy here at our Edinburgh recording studio. These last two years have been far and away our busiest in our 23 year history with a great combination of original music production and voice commentaries. As usual the range of styles is mind boggling and has made for a very interesting period for the studio for both Kirsty Anderson (the studio manager) and myself. We hope you enjoy the blog and snippets of music we have been granted permission to post too.
GAVIN BLACKIE – LAID BARE (album)
In the past couple of months we’ve picked up the pace with Gavin Blackie’s debut album LaId Bare and I am is now mixing six of the tracks he co-wrote with Gavin for the album.The album was started back in 2013 but was on hold for most of last year as Gavin was busy gigging and writing new material for the project.
Gavin comes up with great lyrics. melodies and ideas for music and I interpret this into music and songs that are really sounding great. Gav’s unique vocal abilities really shine on these songs. Kirsty Anderson also features on vocals and violin.
We first got together after he won Edinburgh’s Got Talent back in 2010 and have been writing together ever since.
KIRSTY LOGAN – THE GRACEKEEPERS (audio book)
We recently completed an audio book for Australian company Bolinda.com with author Kirsty Logan who narrated her amazing award winning novel The Gracekeepers here at our Edinburgh recording studio.
The recording lasts just over nine hours and amazingly we sent it over to the company for final edits without a single mistake in the recording- by either Kirsty Logan, who did an amazing job of the narration, or myself who recorded and compiled all the audio over an intensive session lasting three days.
The book is about a circus boat in a flooded world. North and her bear live on the Circus Excalibur, floating between the scattered archipelagoes that are all that remains of the land. (read this review)
DAVID ELL – WELCOME TO THE BALL (album)
The David Ell album Welcome To The Ball is now completed and mastered. David recorded and produced it in his home studio in Linlithgow using Cubase and I mixed and mastered the album here in Edinburgh on Logic Pro X at Offbeat.
It’s a great album of Alternative Rock songs with all the music played by David apart from a little Bass here and there by myself. The release date for the album has been set for……….. and will be released on Davids own label….., some of the songs will be accompanied by videos which are currently in production.
David and I first worked together this way on a selection of his songs a few years back. This current album will soon be released.
ROSS MUNRO – TWISTED TRADITION (album)
Former Royal Scot’s Dragoon Pipe Major Ross Munro’s album Twisted Tradition is also completed and mastered. It features a selection of fantastic tunes, some of which were written by Ross, and some traditional tunes. As the title suggests it’s pipe music with a twist.
On this album Ross also plays most of the instruments and also showcases his amazing arrangement skills. I played Bass on a few tracks, Drums on one and guitar on another.
We are currently negotiating a licensing deal for the album and hope to be able to announce a label and release date very soon. Iain & Ross worked together on the Spirit Of The Glen trilogy of album from 2007-2010. Ross will be promoting the album with live performances both here in the UK and the US when the album is released.
SIR CHRIS EVANS – LEST WE FORGET (album)
This album is based on poignant and emotional letters written back home from soldiers in World War 1 who never returned. Sir Chris Evans is an accomplished songwriter and guitarist who has put this album of songs together, produced by me and featuring some great musicians and singers.
Including Steve Balsamo (vocals) , Brian Rice (vocals) Seonaid Aitken (vocals & violin) Jon Cohen (Strings) Ted McKenna (Drums) Ruth Notman (vocals), Ross Munro (pipes and whistle), Kirsty Anderson(vocals), Aubrey Parsons (vocals). I play Bass, Acoustic Guitar and Keyboards.
More musicians and singers are still to contribute to the album which is scheduled for completion in early Autumn 2015. What makes this album very challenging is that we require many different vocalists for the album as almost every song requires a different singing style. Sometimes we have to try out several singers for a song before deciding which works best.
IMAGINARY CREATURES – DANSE MACABRE (album)
This is the second album I’ve co-written with lyricist David Scott. It has a 70s rock feel and features performances by Ted McKenna (drums), Keith More (guitar), Rich Anderson on keyboards, Joe Bouchard (guitar) Kirsty Anderson and Alexis Anderson (backing vocals), Luis Albornoz-Parra on Synths, John Burgess (soprano sax and clarinet), Kenny Tomlinson (tenor and baritone sax) and me on Bass, Keys and Guitar. David sings backing vocals on a few tracks too.
The first album The Butterfly’s Dream was an extensive collection of songs which worked well to varying degrees but this project feels much more like a album and we are both very pleased and excited about how it’s turning out. The recording of the album is now complete and mixing is about to begin. David comes up with the musical ideas for each song and I interpret them musically for him, something I’m doing more and more these days for both lyricists and singers.
MARK AG – LIGHTING THE WAY HOME (album)
Brighton based Mark AG wrote most of this album using an iPad and then came into Offbeat where I produced it last year. It has now been mastered but Mark decided to release two singles from the album prior to releasing the whole album.
Mark and I have been working together now for a few years when Mark initially came to our Edinburgh recording studio from Brighton to master songs from his first album entitled 3am Sleepwalkers.
The latest single “A Beautiful Flower…what if?”. is available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Youtube, Soundcloud and more. It features Kenny Tomlinson on Sax. Offbeat’s Kirsty Anderson also shows her versatility on this album, providing backing vocals on a couple of tracks and electric violin on one. Mark plays Piano and I contribute, Bass, Drums and Electric Guitar throughout.
JABJAB – (album)
Back in the 70s gigging band Huddersfield based band JabJab recorded many songs and gigs which for reasons of timing didn’t actually ever get released. The recordings were subsequently lost and were just recently found by their Hammond organist Rob Whittington. I took the master tapes into Pierhouse studio in Edinburgh where expert audio engineer Pete Haigh had to actually physically bake the tapes as a precautionary measure to avoid shedding of them having been stored for so long. The baking method makes sure the oxide on the tapes sticks to the plastic backing long enough for the tapes to be played back and transferred.
The recovered recordings were then transferred to digital and mastered by me here at Offbeat. The story of Jabjab is currently being made into a documentary which will tell the whole story of the baked tapes etc so I don’t want to elaborate too much on things just yet. As soon as the film is released we will feature it in a future blog. The band are performing a reunion gig in July in Huddersfield. For more details visit the website
As well as all the above we have recorded several audio commentaries for the Royal London website, Mastered a song called She by Renaud Cmela, and produced a song by songwriter Stewart Morrison entitled Time I Wasn’t Here.