songwriting

Recession Guitar

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In these trying times, some have found new ways of rocking out in style on a budget. After introducing the initial Ikea Guitar, rogue luthier Zachary has discovered that a wooden chopping block could make a great budget Telecaster.  I’m not sure about the symbolic meaning of slicing onions on a guitar, but it sure looks cool.

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songwriting

Tarja Turunen – Songwriting Transition

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Here’s an interesting scenario: you’ve just been fired as lead singer for popular operatic metal band Nightwish. You are signed to Warner Gernany who sees your undeniable crossover potential. I mean Celine Dion/Sarah Brightman kind of potential. Which stylistic direction do you take on your next album? Metal, opera or pop?

If you’re Finland’s Tarja Turunen, you slowly move your fan base from the niche metal to something more mainstream and hope for the best. Her latest album, My Winter Storm is clearly a transition album and the songwriting reflects that.

In a Vacuum
Most of the songs were written by Swedish A-Ha-esque songwriting team Vacuum (Mattias Lindblom and Anders Wollbeck). Their style is more understated and laid back. To my ears, the Vacuum songs are missing the big choruses necessary for a worldwide pop hit. Gone are the wild guitar solos and progressive rhythmic mayhem of Nightwish. The songs were conceived to focus on Turunen’s immense vocal abilities. Like Kate Bush, she uses her voice for both lead vocals and background atmospheric pads.

Compare the pop opera Metal of Nighwish’s “Nemo” against Turunen’s more serene “I Walk Alone“:

Go West Girl
I hope that Warner give her the same worldwide promotion they gave to Celine Dion in the early 90’s. I also hope she gains access to a wider pool of songwriting talent. Scandinavia has a great songwriting pedigree, but I’d like to see what she can do with some west coast Dianne Warren-esque pop pieces.

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songwriting

Guitars As Art

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I’ve always admired the work of master luthier Ken Parker. However, like many guitarists, I’ve always found his guitars to be too “out there” for me. Unlike bass players who are happy to indulge in all sorts of instrument shape, finish and electronics, most guitarists find comfort in 50-year old designs such as the Gibson Les Paul (1951) and the Fender Stratocaster (1950). Even relative newcomers such as Paul Reed Smith (1985) are in fact Gibson design derivatives.

Parker Guitars were sold in 2003 to US Music Corporation (makers of Washburns guitars and Randall amps) who quickly set out to broaden the brand user base by introducing cheaper Korean-made alternatives and more conventional instrument shapes.

The fruit of their latest effort can be found in the Dragon Fly, a morph between a Parker Fly and a standard Fender Stratocaster. I like the result and I wish they could get rid of those silly Piezo-acoustic pickups and put a real Floyd Rose tremolo in there. According to their web site, they have done just that with a Vernon Reid custom model, but there’s no indication about when these new models may be hitting the stores.

Parker guitars have always been expensive pieces of art, but they were the vision of a single man with no compromise to accommodate the various tastes of guitarists. The Dragon Fly is the first step in changing all that.

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songwriting

Naturally 7: No Instrument Required

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Naturally 7 is a vocal “band” from New-York where every member plays an instrument with their mouth: mouth beat box, vocal bass, even an aural electric guitar. The amazing thing is that after a while, you forget that they have no instruments and you start getting into the songs.

Take a look at this impromptu performance of Phil Collins’ “In the air tonight” in the Paris subway:

For some reason, they have yet to make it big in the states, but they already have a couple of hits in Europe and are signed to a German record company.

Songwriting-wise, all they need is a multi-track recorder and something to write the lyrics. Right? Well, technically, they are playing vocal harmonies, which require some planning to work well. Basically, every band member plays one note in a chord, thereby producing the same effect as a keyboard or guitar.

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songwriting

Versailles’ Songwriting Aesthetic

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My favorite band these days is Japan’s Versailles. They have yet to gain any traction in the US or Europe, but they are in many ways, a sign of things to come. Just like Finland’s Nightwish was the prototype for multi-platinum Evanescence, I believe that western bands will soon start raiding Tokyo for song ideas and looks.

Sound-wise, Versailles plays Visual Kei, a brand of symphonic metal that has been perfected since the mid-80’s by bands like X-Japan. Others would describe them as Dream Theater in drag (yeah, they’re all guys), but they are far more melodic than most progressive bands. For example, there is no unusual timing or chord structure. The level of musicianship is astronomical. Interestingly, they have no official keyboard player despite every song relying on synths and/or strings.

Melody-wise, they use a lot of traditional European top lines. Some melodies remind me of old Joe Dassin or Mireille Mathieu (60’s and 70’s French pop music). Makes sense, since French artists have always done well in Japan. I remember entering a Tokyo shop in 2001 to be greeted with some France Galles.

For all these reasons, I think Versailles is the most concentrated form or international influences I have ever heard. Melodies are back baby!

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songwriting

Before The Music Dies

Not sure how long this will last, but Google Video is now playing the entire 2006 documentary Before The Music Dies. This film takes a look at today’s music business and provides some answers to the following burning questions:

  • Why radio sucks.
  • Why there’s more teen acts than before.
  • What artist should do to have a solid career.

Probably the most chilling moment comes when the film’s producers take a 18-year-old female model who can’t sing and give her a trashy teen song written in 5 minutes. They then proceed to correct her vocals to give the impression that she has talent and film a polished music video that shows her…hum…assets. The results are painfully similar to what Ashley Simpson, Britney Spears or Miley Cirrus have been producing in the past five years. Scary stuff.

The film does end on a positive note and artists are encouraged to do it on their own or band together to form artist-friendly record companies such as ATO Records and Tunecore.

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songwriting

Butch Vig’s Recording Secrets

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Super-producer Butch Vig is currently fielding technical and artistic questions over at Gearslutz. Vig is the acclaimed songwriter, drummer and producer behind seminal albums such as Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream” and all the Garbage studio albums.

Vig is was one of the first producers to use the ProTools “sound” to his advantage. One characteristic of his sound is the inventive use of rhythm based mixing . This is where several types of drums (live drums, programmed beats & mastered rhythm sections) are playing back in parallel, all occupying their own pocket in the frequency range.

Vig on recording Garbage:

A lot of the Garbage songs had multiple drum sounds…live drums (usually looped and mixed down to stereo, sometimes mono), programmed beats (usually run through an amp or stomp box) and sometimes we would make our own “record”…which means taking a beat, maybe with a bass line, guitar line, or some sound effect, and running all of them through the same stereo effect to give it a “mastered” feel…almost like we were sampling off an old album.

Also, he gave some information on recording the first Garbage album:

In fact, the 1st Garbage album was done in a sort of lofi chain:
We recorded into a 24 track Otari MX80 (I think!) and almost all the tracks except for vocals were run through either an Akai S1000 sampler or Kurzweil K2500…then we mixed the whole thing through the Harrison w Flying Faders.
It wasn’t until Garbage’s V 2.0 that we jumped into Pro Tools!

This explains the constant pulsating rhythm in the first album. These days, the same sound could be achieved by running all my guitar tracks trough a sampling synthesizer like the Korg M3. The M3 has rocking compressor that makes everything sound “pre-mastered” and of course an incredibly rich palette of BPM-synched filters and modulators.

Try it, this may inspire a brand new batch of songs.

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