Scholz R&D Rockman, Shanya Twain, song arrangement, songwriter, songwriting, SSL

Mutt Lange – Hi-Tech Songwriting

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Mutt Lange is a prolific songwriter and producer originally known for his work with hard rock band AC/DC in the late 70’s. In the 80’s, he achieved his biggest success co-writing and producing Def Leppard’s Pyromania and Hysteria albums. In the 90’s, he went on to do the same for Bryan Adams and his wife Shanya Twain.

Production Techniques
For Lange, production and songwriting are often done in parallel. He is known for having developed a very distinct polished rock sound.

  • SSL Mix Consoles — Lange was one of the first adopter of the Solid State Logic (SSL) mix console. SSLs were initially known for being fully “automated”, meaning that one could playback the mix settings over and over until everything sounded perfect. In other words, they were made for perfectionists like Mutt Lange. They also had a famous “buss” compressor, which gave a huge radio-ready sound to everything that went trough it. Eventually, SSL’s were so widely used that they became the “sound” of the 80’s.
  • Layered vocals – Lange would often perform the backing vocals himself and layered the parts until he achieved what he wanted. Not as easy as it sound.
  • Big guitars – Economical guitar lines often multi-tracked to perfection. Every note is optimized for maximum impact. A little known fact is that most guitars on Hysteria were recorded with a
    Scholz R&D Rockman, a pocket sized guitar processor designed as a practice tool.
  • Big Drums – The drums on Def Leppard ‘s Pyromania and Hysteria were recorded at half-speed on a 8-bit Fairlight CMI sampler. This technique allowed him to experiment with different song structures during recording. Nowadays, MIDI-triggered “drum hit replacement” is a common technique but Mutt was the first.
  • Synth Bass — For many of his hits in the 80’s, he used synth basses, even when having world-class bass players.

High Output
Lange is listed as writer and/or co-writer of over 200 songs. These are recorded songs folks. This means that he has probably written (and rejected) thousands.

Stylistic Range
For me, the most impressive part is the wide range of musical style on which he applied his talent: hard rock, soft rock, country and R&B.

Beside the AC/DC, Def Leppard and Shania songs, here are a few that may surprise you:

  • Huey Lewis & The News (Picture This) “Do You Believe in Love” – This song provided Lewis and the boys with their first hit. They learned from it and wrote their own hits after that.
  • The Cars’ (Heartbeat City) “You Might Think”, “Magic”, “Hello Again” and “Drive” – I didn’t realized he produced that ones.
  • Foreigner (Foreigner 4) “Urgent”, “Juke Box Hero” and “Waiting For A Girl Like You” — These songs were such classics. Air guitar central.
  • Billy Ocean (Suddenly) “Loverboy” – Listening carefully, this could have been done by either Loverboy or Foreigner.
  • Bryan Adams (Waking Up The Neighbours) “Everything I do” — Although I prefer the stuff he did on his Reckless album, this was by far Adam’s biggest chart success.

As they say, “A good song is a good song is…”.

Captain Hook
Apparently, Mutt Lange is a practitioner of the Hooks & Spare Parts school of songwriting. No surprise there: every one of his songs is a collection of hooks precisely recorded and designed for maximum impact.

Light Sabers & Guitars
What really makes me a fan of this guy is the fact that he always made sure to create the most universally accessible songs possible. To me, he is to music what George Lucas is to movies: a purveyor of accessible popular entertainment. In fact, his vision for the Def Leppard record was to bring Star Wars’ to popular music using the latest technology available. I say mission accomplished.

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Musak, songwriter, songwriting, technique

The Muzak Test

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In product (software and hardware) development, most systems are created with build-in testing facilities. This way, at every step of the development, it’s possible to launch a test version and see that everything is still working fine. Without this, you may be adding embellishments on top of a shaky foundation and end up with something that looks great but cannot stand real-world conditions.

Muzak Test
In songwriting, muzak can be used to fill the same role. A memorable song will translate very well as muzak. In fact, if the hooks are good, the muzak version can become almost as appealing than the full vocal version. You can convert your song to muzak by replacing all the vocal parts by monophonic instrumental parts. Personally, I always write the most important parts as MIDI with a simple acoustic piano sound. Then, once the muzak version is done, I start overdubbing the real vocal and instrumental parts over it.

Not Naked
Note that muzak is different from “naked” version, where someone will sing with a simple piano or guitar accompaniment. These are not as good as a test because they rely too much on the technical abilities of the performer. In other words, Ella Fitzerald and Oscar Peterson could make anything sound great.

Cheeze Stress
A stress test is when a system is run with the most extreme settings to see if it still holds under pressure. You can stress test your song by using cheesy instruments to play the lead melodic and harmonic parts. How cheesy? What about an accordion for the lead vocals and a church organ for the harmonies. If you still like your song after that, you’ve got a winner. One note of advice: don’t bother having anyone else listen to a cheesy version. Very few people can separate cheesy instruments from cheesy songs.

A Great Song
A great song is a memorable song: One that anyone will remember and like the first time he/she ears it. If a song takes 10 listens to differentiate from others, you know it’s pretty lame. You may find that your song depends too much on a particular effect, guitar or keyboard sound. In such case, it may help to rewrite that part until it becomes as memorable as the rest of the song.

Keep on writin’

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Dan Hartman, song arrangement, songwriter, songwriting

I Can Dream About You – Most Well-Proportioned Song?

(note that this video is very confusing, Dan Hartman who wrote this song is the blond guy at the bar, not the one on the TV)

When I was a kid, I used to read the French edition of the Guiness Book Of Records. In it Arnold Schwarzenegger was listed as “Most well proportioned Man”, which always puzzled me. Who the hell got to vote on that? Did they just looked at him or actually measured him and crunched equations? Apparently, it was just that he was universally popular among fans and other bodybuilders.

Based on that logic, one of the most admired pop song of all time was Dan Hartman’s 1985 hit “I Can Dream About You”. This is the song I use as comparison to figure out if my own songs are up to scratch. It’s a catchy, fairly neutral pop song with R&B vocals, rock guitars on top of a dynamic “keyboard + bass line” foundation. Harman specialized in this type of soulful tunes. He also penned, produced and sang back vocals on James Brown’s comeback hit “Living In America”.

Unique Intro
The bassline in the intro establishes the song’s signature riff. This ensures that the song can be recognized with the first 8 seconds. An intro like this is like an establishing shot at the beginning of a movie: it establishes the mood of the whole piece.

Quick Chorus Resolution
Notice how after the intro, the verse is really short to allow to go directly to the chorus. Going quickly to the most exciting part of the song keep things interesting.

Call+Response
The verse, chorus and bridge all have a call+response structure. During the verse, he even use a different singing style between dueling lines.

Mixed Bridge
Then he does something very peculiar during the bridge: he reintroduces individual verses and chorus lines. Maybe it’s a common technique, but I can’t think of another song that did this. What is more common is to create a bridge that repeats the verse or chorus melody with an instrumental solo. Very inventive.

Tasty One-Man Production
The most amazing fact about the production of this song is that Hartmann played everything. It’s still hard for me to believe that someone can play all these parts so tastefully. Even the guitar solo is very restrained and measured (quite rare at the time). He also avoided the dreaded mid-80’s sax solo, and for that he should have been decorated.

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