the “Syncopated Backbeat” – 311, Dave Matthew’s Band & Pantera

November 4, 2010 at 9:27 pm (musical composition)

“Syncopation” is a fancy way of saying that an instrument’s rhythm is “off-beat”. It’s used constantly and is found a lot in jazz music in particular, keeping us a little off and things a little more exciting. Take for example the horn hits in Count Bassie’s “Lady Be Good”:

Count Bassie’s “Lady Be Good” on Youtube

It’s simple and effective, allowing a steady rhythm but the thrill of the off-beat accents.

One technique I noticed in three particular songs was not the syncopation of just a few notes or a few hits, but the WHOLE BEAT being off-beat. That sounds like a mouthful, but what I mean is that the drums – which usually supply the steady rhythm – decided to be the one to screw everything up.

Take for instance Pantera’s “5 Minutes Alone”:

Pantera’s “5 Minutes Alone” clip

Note that at 10 seconds – at the 5th-bar – the drums, which at first play the standard kick on 1 & 3, snare on 2 & 4 backbeat (boom-chick-boom-chick):


switch quickly by one eighth-note to play on the upbeat of the backbeat rhythm, making up the “syncopated backbeat”:

syncopated backbeat

Though this only happens for a short while, it makes a rather uncomplicated rhythm turn on its end to become a lot more appealing.

The same thing happens in 311’s “Loco”:

311’s “Loco” clip

This time (again at 0:10 in this clip) the syncopated backbeat happens for four bars instead of just the one like “5 Minutes Alone”. When it’s introduced after 4 bars of steady rhythm, it’s almost as if the drummer added an extra beat – which HE has, but not the rest of the band – and at the end of the 4-bar “syncopated backbeat” the drummer has taken away a beat, thus evening everything out at least mathematically.

Finally, a song that devotes almost the entire song to the syncopated backbeat is Dave Matthew’s Band “One Sweet World”:

Dave Matthew’s Band “One Sweet World” clip

After a short intro, we’re introduced to the syncopated backbeat. Now, it may seem like the small sections that are not the syncopated backbeat would be the syncopated backbeat – stay with me – but it’s the song’s intro that defined which would be the beat and which would be the off-beat.

To me, this relatively simple technique can take even the most mundane rhythm and throw it all in the whirlwind when the drums – usually a grounding force of any beat – decide to throw us off. It could even be a rather cheap solution to an otherwise boring song (most of the album “Far Beyond Driven” isn’t anything to write home about), but it always seems to catch my attention.


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reviewing and analyzing the James Bond themes one by one (part 3)

October 15, 2010 at 6:07 pm (Music In Film)

Don’t forget to read part 1 AND part 2

Tina Turner brings back Bond themes in a big, big way. Right away: mystrifying and edgy. Right away: seductive. One thing that strikes me about Turner’s throaty voice is that we know we’re dealing with a powerful woman, like a lion waiting to growl.

0:58 hints at a common Bond theme that occurs in the movie scores themselves: a simple, root/wholestep-up/halfstep-up/halfstep-down, 4-bar theme. And it works because it ties into the film score.

1:36 brings us an eeriness that we haven’t really heard yet: its chromatic tunings are almost haunting, building to the power that’s to come. The CD version actually has this chromatic section an additional time that builds up even more, but instead of hitting a vocal peak, we’re hit with the Bond-common orchestra hit. Turner’s vocal release doesn’t reach its full potential until the finale and climax of the song that occurs at 2:14 making us wait for a big payoff – magnificent song writing and arranging.

What we’re left with is inarguably the best Bond movie theme to date. Oh, and it was also written by Bono and the Edge. Go those guys.

“Goldeneye” opening sequence

“Tomorrow Never Dies”
When I first heard this song, I thought “wow, this woman from Garbage can’t really sing.” Turns out I mistook it for the theme of the next film. This one’s Sheryl Crow and she is TERRIBLE. Sure, I love the devilish intro musically and I can also tolerate Crow’s low, sexy-ish voice. But it’s a mistake. They simply could have gotten someone better to sing this because she cannot. It’s that simple.

I love the dense string arrangements, especially towards the end , but they’re not enough to drown out Crow’s weak voice.

“Tomorrow Never Dies” opening sequence

It turns out the original choice for this theme song was actually “Surrender” By KD Lang. Turns out, it’s infinitely better.

Here’s why: most of the production to these theme songs have a very “safe” sound: low drum volume, compressed horns to the point where they have lost all but their entire dynamic range. But this one starts out with a ballsy up-front drum set sound with growling trumpets. Lang’s voice starts out a little weak and – cringing when I say this – maybe they could have used Crow’s voice for the seductive verses. But that thought is immediately dismissed once Lang’s voice belts “Tomorrow Never Dies”. The vocals come out big time. Soulful, strong, and she hits the notes! (That should be expected, not necessarily deserving of an exclamation point)

The call-and-response between Lang and the horns at 2:31 accentuates an already powerful song. To add to that, under Lang’s continuation of singing the chorus melody, the background actually switches to the intro theme. This not only adds a bit of edge to Lang’s voice, but also leads us into an oddly-acceptable fade-out. Normally I’d be against those since they usually signify a lack of a conclusive idea, but since we’re brought back into the intro melody it makes it an acceptable outro.

“The World Is Not Enough”
Maybe the production of this song speaks louder than the song itself, because like I mentioned in the previous, the productions are generally a “safe”, not “in-your-face” feel. This one begins with strong synthesized instrumentation mixed with organic string elements, all with a nice decaying transition into the verse. Shirley Manson’s low verse-voice works pretty well, but during the par-for-the-course chorus style, it shines a lot better. Her voice isn’t necessarily strong, but it has an interesting swell to it. The breaths at 2:41 works very well for the seductive tones we expect from the Bond themes. I won’t say that this theme breaks any real barriers, but it works.

Oddly enough, no Youtube link for this one!

“Die Another Day”
The only word I can think of is “appreciated”: I appreciate the route this was trying to go, but the smooth and flowing characteristics of the previous themes – separate from the production of the song – are kind of a cornerstone of the Bond themes. It begins with a cool little riff, a classic-organic feel that is quickly chopped up into a stuttered mess. The highlights of the song are definitely the string arrangements like at 1:32, quickly overpowered by the interrupting synth drum beats.

Maybe I just wanted to hear Madonna do something different than she’s done before, take a chance like Evita and do something not on par with what her current music was. And I don’t want to insult the song, because its sound does bode well with the visual effects, but I guess for a Bond theme, it’s forgettable.

“Die Another Day” opening sequence

One thing to note about this intro is that it is the only opening sequence that shows the present story-line. In this case, it’s the torture plot of Bond himself carried over from the previous film.

“You Know My Name” (from “Casino Royale”)
I think there’s a risk in taking a band like Ah-Hah, a flavor of the month group (well, at least in the US) and having them do a Bond theme (look out for Lady Gaga Bond theme for the next movie!). So, I’m glad that they don’t seem to be doing that with the modern Bond themes. Chris Cornell is well-respected and certainly has a voice worthy enough.

Admittedly, watching the film’s intro changed my mind a bit about how I felt about the song originally, highlighted by that bitch’n knife fight visual at 1:04. The song’s beginning itself is just straight-rock, and it works because we then quickly warp into the sultry sound we hope for in a Bond theme. That, and it’s quite possibly the 60’s slight-vibrato clean guitar tone that makes it sound “classic”. I also love the dense orchestration at 1:38 with its very intricate chord progressions.

Note that the graphics have a direct translation to the lyrics themselves at 1:34 with “blood through my veins”. I can’t remember the visuals and music referencing themselves as specific as that.

Usually, with western music – and rock music in general – things are in sets of 2, 4, and 8’s. But the chord progression at the beginning of the verse at 0:19 is 3 bars of B, 2 of G and only 1 of D, combining to a total of 6. Even though 6 bars may not seem far off from a set of 4 or 8 (possibly a set of 4 and an additional 2) this varying sequence with the 3 bars of B throw us off into something we don’t expect, or at least don’t normally follow as easily as a set of 4 or 8. It’s almost as if the riff repeats before it ends, like a song in a round. This is a great way to keep a song moving by throwing a less-frequently used chord progression timing smoothed over with the melody.

My only criticism of this song is that, although he manages to sneak in a few last-minute high notes in the back-up vocals, Cornell never quite reaches his full potential in the upper-register notes. Maybe it’s a sign of trying to be appropriate, but when most of these themes convey such talent (see anything Bassey), I think a little showing off is completely appropriate.

“Casino Royale” opening sequence

“Another Way To Die” (from “Quantum Of Solace”)
You see, Jack White gets it. Instead of vibraphone or xylophone to accent the melodies, we get a piano used in the same respect. He gets the brass swells. And though the beginning comes to a halt at 0:43, it works quite well in conjunction with the visuals. He gets the peculiar and on-the-border-of-haunting string orchestrations. And at 2:16. and at 2:43, he definitely gets the calm and seducing vocal lines.

Another nice tie-in to the former Bond themes are two significant guitar tones:
1. the bassy – even possibly bass itself – guitar tone at the immediate onset. If you listen back to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, it’s almost a direct match to that of the synthesizer tone of that theme.
2. the gritty, distorted guitar tone similar to the medley on “You Only Live Twice”

“Quantum Of Solace” opening sequence

Notably, this is also the first Bond-theme duet. I think it’s a very appropriate – and yet still a different take – on the Bond theme.

And the winner is… “Goldeneye”! Great song, classic sound with a great song structure and a very deserving vocalist.

Don’t forget to read part 1 AND part 2

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Jane’s Addiction’s “Ritual De Lo Habitual” – side B

September 30, 2010 at 12:19 pm (Band and Genre Info)

Along with my bi-monthly posts, I decided that I’ll also do spur-of-the-moment, “what I’m listening to right now” entries. They probably won’t be as well versed as I would normally like, but that’s not always the point of music.

Jane’s Addiction’s “Ritual De Lo Habitual”

Sure, “Stop” starts the album off strong, but the album itself is really separated into two clear sides. And for a prog-rock fan like me, side B is where it’s at. Back in the cassette tape days there were two actual sides, but the tape itself was so unbalanced that I would often skip the first song on side B because when side A was done, I would just flip it and “Then She Did” would start.

Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Day” on Youtube

I think the greatest surprise about this album side is that Jane’s Addiction – at least what was apparent to me – was either all-out rock, or “Jane Says”, an annoying song with two boring chords. But “Three Days” does a fantastic job of linking that all-out rock to the more ethnic and world-music based themes of the latter songs. This song is a ten-minute epic that takes its time to build, even after it completely shifts gears at 3:00.

“The She Did” almost has the same build-up feel, but with two actual peaks that tastefully don’t rise to the same height as “Three Days”. Instead of the constant peaks and valleys of the 3 songs surrounding it, “Of Course” is a rather nice personal tale with a middle eastern feel, a kind of consistent carry-over to the finale “Classic Girl”.

“Classic Girl” is one of those album endings that I really admire: it’s a sweet, kind of touching song that only breaks out at 4:14 because it has to. And it doesn’t peak too heavy, nor too long, but just enough to bring us out on a dreamy guitar fade-out ending that makes you wonder how Dave Navarro could quite possibly contained himself.

Jane’s Addiction’s “Classic Girl” on Youtube

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heavy, part ii

September 13, 2010 at 6:00 am (Uncategorized)

Welcome back to a continuing discussion on creating a “heavy” sound:

To speak about the harmony and tonality side of a heavy sound, we need to talk about intervals and which intervals sound heavier in the first place. Of course, it is commonly agreed that major and minor keys generally sound happy/upbeat and sad/dark, respectively, but it’s the intervals that shape those keys in the first place.

Intervals can either address the heaviness of either a riff – or phrase – of music, or the sound of the combination of notes and harmonies involved in a chord. I could go on for pages about which chords themselves sound heavier, so I’m only going to focus on riffs and notes played in sequence.

You can say that there are 3 standard intervals that sound not just heavy, but dark and evil, based purely on sound. It is usually the dissonance of these chords that helps shape that sound. There are: minor thirds (listen), diminished 5ths (listen), and half steps (in general, but further explanation will come)(listen) for riffs. Chances are if two notes a half step apart are played simultaneously, it doesn’t really sound heavy, but just plain bad. So, the half-step chord can usually be dismissed. However, the half step interval has a possibility of making a harmony sound heavy, but it is really more-so in the shaping of a riff as a whole.

For instance, the half-step interval in…
Slaphshot’s “What’s At Stake”clip

This is the original song that the Bosstone’s covered from the last entry. The sound itself might sound immediately heavy because the music is the genre of hardcore, an off-shoot of metal (this band is also part of the Straightedge movement, from a previous entry) and it uses distortion, and that harder-edged voice. But the riff alone sounds dark, leaning it even more towards the heavy sound. That sound comes from the half-step (E-to-F) interval involved in the riff.

I further need to mention that half-steps occur in many songs while sounding happy and delightful, but it is the half-step’s relationship to the root of the key that’s important. The key of “What’s At Stake” is E-minor (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E), and the half-step interval involved is one half-step above the root (E) of the key, F natural, which given its immediate proximity to that root, provides a sound that’s off to us, but more specifically dark and heavy.

Listen to this comparison between a half step interval with two different relationships to the root: the first being a half step away from the root of the chord (the E-to-F natural), like “What’s At Stake” and the second half-step interval being the major third to the 4th of the scale (the G#-to-A). Half step intervals and how dark they sound are all relative to the key or chord involved.

the minor 3rd:

The minor 3rd is a very powerful and strong interval. Not necessarily always evil sounding as it is a major driving force between blues and the blue’s scale, but given the melancholy tone of that music, it makes sense to add a heavy sound. This interval is the driving force behind…

Faith No More’s “Last Cup Of Sorrow” clip

It’s a very simple riff, but the interval adds its impact to the overall heaviness of the song’s sound.

Given that the 5th of the key has a very comparable tone to the root, the note a half-step under the 5th gives us a similar dark sound because of its dissonance: the diminished 5th.

the diminished 5th interval:
This is also known as the “devil’s interval”, thank you Middle Ages. I can’t think of a better example than Type O Negative’s cover of Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” to exemplify the diminished 5th:

Type O Negative’s “Black Sabbath”clip

The three notes involved in this simple riff are the I (root), the V (5th) and the -V (diminished 5th). From note 1 to note 2, we don’t feel any real flavor because that 5th of the scale has that comparable tone, so it’s not until note 3 where they strike the diminished 5th that the flavor sounds dark and, combined with the overall sound of the song, disturbing.

The augmented 5th interval is rather interesting and has the potential for a dark sound. But I didn’t want to mention it in the main three because if you check out the comparison with the interval alone (listen) and in context…

Alice In Chains’ “Angry Chair”

…there is a much different feel. Although we don’t have to look much further past the title of the song to figure whether or not it’s going to be a heavy song or not, the main riff – similar to Type O Negative – first hits the I, then the V, then instead of the -V, we hit the +V. Even though alone it sounds one way, in context with the root of the scale the same desire is achieved – dark and heavy.

I’d say that the Type O Negative song, although it doesn’t use distortion or horns, is probably one of the heaviest songs I’ve heard. His voice sounds low and devilish, the drums are deep and powerful, and that bass mixed with the piano sound is absolutely fierce. Add some distorted guitars and a lower-register horn arrangement and you could really create something vicious.

Though there are probably countless other elements to create a heavy sound: like lyrics, feel, where and when it was recorded, as well as what time period it was released and why it was released at that time; the essentials, always come down to sound and tonality.

Those other factors may be what your personal relationship adds and that impact is up to you.

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Playing the heavy…what the term “heavy” means in music…

September 7, 2010 at 6:00 am (Audio Production, musical composition)

I once heard a quick bit on the radio about how Blink 182 was trying to figure out how they could make their sound heavier. Well, what makes a piece of music heavy in the first place? Because Blink 182 isn’t really considered a metal band, we can’t think of the term “heavy” as being only exclusive to heavy metal and it’s various branches.

First off, “heavy” is a relative term: there are several elements and no “right” one to choose. But it has to do with three things: harmony, tonality, and the production of the recording itself. And it’s an equal combination of all three. You could even argue “feel” or “attitude”, but I’ll leave the more abstract terms for another time.

First I want to focus on sounds, and how to make a heavy sound; the production of the recording itself, which deals with not only the shaping of the sound, but instrument choice.

1. the drums
Power is the driving force in having a heavy drum sound. Besides simply hitting harder, another technique involves using bigger drum sizes. Listen to the difference between a piccolo snare and a standard 5-inch (deep) snare. The 5-inch just sounds fatter and richer.

It also depends on how the producer decides to mix in the drums with the other instruments. Often times, I prefer the drums being louder in the mix, but that doesn’t always seem to add to a heavier sound. Take, for instance, the song “Blackened” off of Metallica’s “…And Justice For All”:

Metallica’s “Blackened” clip

Back in the day, drummer Lars Ulrich would use very large tom-tom drums, starting with a 12″ (head size in diameter) instead of the usual 10″, and I believe he uses at least a 5-inch snare drum with the standard 14″ diameter. But the way the drums were mixed on this album doesn’t let the crunch of the guitars through, allowing a richness to the sound. And I think that richness is a major key (no pun intended) to the overall heaviness of a sound.

2. the guitar
Distortion is an effect applied to the guitar to make it sound, well, distorted. Usually (all based on personal choice) the more distortion applied, the richer and fuller the sound seems, adding to the heavy effect. On top of that, the guitarist or the album producer often EQs the sound (cutting or boosting the bass, treble, and mid-range frequencies). A simple way to make a heavier guitar sound is to scoop out the mids and raise the bass frequencies. Compare these two sounds:

Pantera’s “Regular People” clip
Anthrax’s “Invisible” clip

It’s pretty clear that the Pantera clip has a heavier sound than the Anthrax example. I’ve always thought the sound of this Anthrax album, “The Sound Of White Noise” as just not having as heavy a feel as it could. The main reason being that guitar sound.

3. the bass
Bass in the older days tended to have a muted, dull sound similar to the upright bass. It added a “thump”, but not in a heavy way. But these days, you can often find what is called an “active” tone – the different way electric bass electronics are now often made. It’s a lot clearer and it gives it an almost piano-like sound; and it sounds a lot heavier.

Boston’s “Foreplay” clip

“Foreplay”, which always precedes “Long Time”, has the dull bass sound playing the melody at first, but then later it plays the exact same melody with a piano-like sound added to it. Though this isn’t a “metal” song, this is a very heavy section and the piano-like bass tone adds to that.

More specifically – without a layered synthesized tone – take Incubus’ “Vitamin”.

Incubus’ “Vitamin”clip

You can really hear the bass right before the guitars fully kick in, and even though the bass is pushed back into the mix once they do, the heavy feel is already established by that striking, piano-like bass.

4. vocals
A vocal growl certainly adds to the heaviness. If you look at singers like Pantera’s Phil Anselmo and Cannibal Corpse’s George Fisher, their voices almost share the same distorted sound as the guitar, providing a similar overloaded effect.

I don’t personally like the growl all the time, but vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt from the band Opeth blends the two perfectly. A perfect example is the back-and-forth, clean-vocals-to-growl on:

Opeth’s “Lotus Eater” clip

This shows a clean-to-growl feel or a parallel assessment: a graceful-to-heavy feel.

5. other elements and instruments
There are two instruments that I’d like to mention: the B3 organ and horns.

The Hammond B3 organ is used on countless recordings: any Beach Boys or Doors song, Boston’s “Foreplay” or in this clip from Dream Theater’s “Raise The Knife” (starting at 0:13):

Dream Theater’s “Raise The Knife” clip

The B3 has such a wide range of uses, and in this clip it adds a fantastic growl to the guitars. Now, the organ doesn’t always have that growl. That distorted sound is created by the combination with a Leslie speaker, which is its own combination of two speakers literally rotating in a large wooden box. You can speed up and slow down the speed of the rotating speakers too. The numerous available settings on that box and the organ are the difference between the Beach Boys clean sound and the bluesy/distorted sound in the Dream Theater song.

And finally, I can reveal what I thought of immediately when I heard that short radio blurb on Blink 182: horns. The richness of horns, arranged in the right way, can add such a richness to a sound and produce a much heavier feel. Take The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ – occasionally considered Ska-core (a branch of hardcore, which is a branch of metal) – cover of Slapshot’s “What’s At Stake”.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “What’s At Stake” clip

The arrangement, while played in unison with the guitar, adds so many layers and makes such a rich sound. I think the album could be mixed even heavier by adding more distortion crunch to the guitars and bringing up their volume, but it has such potential with all those layers.

I’ll even mention a 7th instrumental choice: strings. Though I could take years explaining the orchestration (and maybe some day I will) of Beethoven’s 5th, just listen how the full orchestral arrangement has its own heavy sound:

Beethoven’s 5th on Youtube

The unifying force: in terms of instrumental arrangement it’s heaviness by having rich, well-chosen layers; and in terms of sound, it’s heaviness by adding either distortion or power or both. There are several varieties of distortion: the guitar effect, a vocal growl, or an overloaded Leslie speaker. And there are a few ways to create power: larger drums or hitting them with more force, an active bass with a piano-like tone, or even a piano doubling a bass line, or a kick-ass horn or string arrangement. All these things can create a sound that is heavy, impacting sound.

But there’s another element to this all: though the sound of the piece is heavy, the overall feel won’t necessarily be. All these elements described above can add heaviness to a polka, for example, but the overall result may not sound heavy. That’s because heaviness is a combination of both sound AND harmony/tonality.

In the second part, reserved for next week, I’ll explore the composition of the original version of “What’s At Stake” by Slapshot, Type O Negative, and Alice in Chains and what part intervals play in a heavy sound: the diminished 5ths, the half-steps and their relation to the phrasing of the piece, and more.

Until then…

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Breakdown of a breakdown

August 16, 2010 at 6:00 am (musical composition)

The term “breakdown” has a few meanings. What I’m interested in is the more powerful rhythmic breakdown section that usually occurs within metal and hardcore. Not finding the term within any musical dictionary (one of the main reasons I refer to this blog as “modern music composition”), I’m going to define it as such:

breakdown: a section of a song in which the tempo of the beat or rhythm is temporarily reduced from the original tempo of the song

With that definition, I am going to focus on what makes a “good” breakdown VS. a “bad” breakdown: why I like one and not another. Seemingly, the quality of a breakdown may be measured only by it’s ability to get the audience unexpectedly nodding their heads to the rhythm. I am therefore going to judge a “good” breakdown by how much it makes me nod my head and then see if there is an actual mathematical conclusion (something other that “it’s awesome”).

For starters, I am going to lay down a few rules about breakdowns that I have noticed so far:

rule #1 – a breakdown must be transitioned into and, therefore, can never occur at the beginning of a song
rule #2 – a breakdown must be preceded by a faster rhythm and then transition back to that faster rhythm when completed
rule #3 – a breakdown can occur more than once in a song, and even be a specific, repeating section of the song. i.e. chorus or verse

Notice the transition of the faster rhythm into the slower rhythm in this first example of a breakdown:

Faith No More’s “Surprise You’re Dead” clip

Here, the original tempo of the song clocked in at 126bpm (beats per minute) and when the breakdown hit, we immediately switch to 95bpm. The tempo was reduced by 25%, then quickly conforms to the original tempo. “Surprise You’re Dead” uses the breakdown in the general composition of the song, and not just a music interlude.

In Anthrax’s “Among The Living”, the entire chorus is a breakdown (and in my opinion, one of the best examples):

Anthrax’s “Among The Living” clip

One of the reasons I began writing this entry was because I heard randomly on the radio what I thought was a bad breakdown. Because the reduction in tempo in “Among The Living” was again 25%, when I heard Rise Against’s “The Good Left Undone” I had to see mathematically why I didn’t like it. I hate to use this band as a “bad” example, as I think their stuff is pretty good: they like to change tempos, have good, complicated rhythms. But this song just really struck me as having a terrible breakdown rhythm:

Rise Against’s “The Good Left Undone” clip

So why doesn’t it work? The tempo changes from 198bpm to 120bpm, a 40% reduction. Why I think this is odd is that we often expect the common rhythmic change known as “halftime” (like this example from Weezer’s “El Scorcho”) and, as shown above, a 25% reduction sounds rhythmically interesting; but a 40% reduction just falls flat.

As an experiment I took the same song and adjusted the tempo so that the breakdown section tempo is reduced by only 25%:

Rise Against’s “The Good Left Undone” clip with adjusted tempo

I think it works a lot better. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly an improvement. And with that improvement example, I will add one additional rule (whether or not it’s strictly opinion):

rule #4 – a breakdown must not fall between a 51% reduction and 30% in tempo

addendum: Given these percentages (and a comment from username rfreed), it can be concluded in simpler terms that the 25% tempo reduction would be a three-quarter breakdown, similar in terms – and impact – with the halftime breakdown.

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reviewing and analyzing the James Bond themes one by one (part 2)

July 5, 2010 at 9:35 pm (Music In Film)

Don’t forget to read part 1 and part 3.

In this installment, there are a majority of soft love songs. There’s a slight break during the 80s that links to the more modern Bond themes, but mostly there are also a lot of duds.

At least we start of strong with…

“The Man With The Golden Gun”
No doubt we’re entrenched in the 1970’s with the psychodelic, wah-powered guitar grooves. The xylophone (or possibly marimba with hard mallets) adds a nice texture to the accent rhythms at 0:56, which highlights the main-title lyrics that vocalist Lulu sings. There’s a great groove at 1:14 with a nice vocal growl that repeats later on in the song.

This is a very high-energey song that shows a great understanding of the characteristics that a good Bond theme: the best example for this song is the very sexy vocal short-but-sweet vocal interlude at 1:45. At the end, we’re actually quite excitingly taken out with some xylophone-accentuated orchestra hits. A very simple musical trick to add an element of either danger or evil to a sound is to play around

“The Man With The Golden Gun” opening sequence

“Nobody Does It Better” (from “The Spy Who Loved Me”)
Another love song theme. This one, however, might take things a step too far in the cheesy-and-not-really-a-bond-theme category. There’s no real bite. That, and the lyrics seem overly complimentary toward the character, even for a Bond theme. I was hoping the finale of the song would add that edge: something – anything – to let us know that there’s some danger to come. At least the visuals of this opening are interesting enough and seem to be a cut above the previous openings, quality-wise. But the music falls flat on its face. Boring. Next!

“The Spy Who Loved Me” opening sequence

Though this is also sung by Shirley Bassey. It begins in that flat fashion as the “Nobody Does It Better”. Though I can’t pinpoint it for the life of me, the theme at 2:00 seems to be a very familiar theme in the actual score for the movies post-Moonraker.

Though this song never really picks up, I’ll forgive Bassey for this mild rendition, for at least it’s not her only theme song attempt. Even if it fades into the next scene no better than a cheesy family sitcom.

“Moonraker” opening sequence

“For Your Eyes Only”
Clearly a trio of soft, love-song Bond themes going on here. This one’s rather typical of 80’s soft-rock, but it holds a special place in my heart as the first Bond theme I ever remembered as a child. Nice melody (and clearly memorable – see “me”) and a nice variation between the soft-spoken, breathy vocals of the verse and the smooth portamento (slides) vocals of the chorus. And at least this theme – comparatively to the other love-song Bond themes – begins with that sort of mystifying, tantalizing sound. One other credit that I have to give this song is that the sustained synthesizer note at the finale does add a little bit of mystery as a segue to the film, something the previous two films failed to do.

This is also the only Bond opening to feature the vocalist actually singing the song on camera.

“For Your Eyes Only” opening sequence

“All Time High” (from “Octopussy”)
Ugh. Get us out of these love themes. Clearly “All Time High” shows a transition to the sensitive soft-rock/adult contemporary love song. I thought that we might get to something sexy, but instead are cut off at the chorus that assures us: “nope, another flat love song.” I don’t want to say ‘terrible’ as this is Homer Simpsons favorite Bond film, but even he can’t save this opening.

“Octopussy” opening sequence

“A View To A Kill”
Duran, Duran’s theme is at least something different! It starts off with a big synth-orchestra hit and brings us in immediately. This song is not far off from what you’d expect from the band itself – the 80’s orchestra hit sounds, same sullen vocals – but it works. And at first I was surprised, but then realized it’s inevitability: the use of the word “Dance” (followed by an orchestra hit, of course) as the vocal accent of the song. Just find it funny that the pinnacle (more than the practically hundreds of orchestra hits) is something that is to seemingly un-Bond.

I’m not sure if it’s the minor-chord verses, or the fact that this is the first animated-sounding song in 4 films, but Duran-Duran started to bring the sexy back (ugh, I said it). That being said, the ending leaves much to be desired as a mild fade-out.

“A View To A Kill” opening sequence

“The Living Daylights”
By none other than one-hit wonder Ah-Hah, “The Living Daylights” closes the 80’s as it introduces new Bond Timothy Dalton (not Roger Daltry, as I oddly make the mistake of saying sometimes). But there’s an edge here, introduced by the sudden shot at 0:31, jolting us into the opening sequence.

One thing I really enjoy is the contrasting vocal style of the verse and the chorus. The differences also highlighted by a pounding rhythm of the verses and even though the synth sounds are very percussion-sounding, which make it sound otherwise, there is a lot of space and flow for the chorus.

Sadly, the film all but cuts the song in half, because it’s one of the longest Bond themes in its entirety, and so we don’t get to hear the first instrumental interlude

“The Living Daylights” opening sequence

“License To Kill”
Oddly, it begins with the same two-chord progression interval and rhythm as “Goldfinger”. But we are brought right back into the sexy female-vocalist seductive song. Sure, the “license to kill anyone who tries to tear us apart” is a bit cheesy, but I think we’re allowed a little poetic license (yep, I went there) in a Bond theme.

There’s no real edgy emotion at the beginning, save the chord progression borrowed from a previous bond theme that continues throughout. But there is an energy about the song, and there’s a nice build-up to the key-change: the first for in a Bond theme) at 1:54, overly emphasized by orchestra hits.

We’re brought back to the theme at 2:28, which ends bigs and end with a super-sexy “kill” whisper. I’ll take it, because at the very least it’s a little risque.

“License To Kill” opening sequence

A lot of these 8 film themes fall flat. We are introduced to at least a little different feel with the 80’s synth-drum sound, but all-in-all there was nothing that exciting or dangerous about the Roger Moore/Timothy Dalton era. Luckily, a few of my favorite Bond themes are coming up next round – including my possibly all-time favorite.

Don’t forget to read part 1 and part 3.

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reviewing and analyzing the James Bond themes one by one (part 1)

June 28, 2010 at 6:00 am (Music In Film)

I’ve always wanted to hear all the James Bond themes one right after another, but never bothered to actually do it. So when a $.90 CD “The Best Of…James Bond” was practically thrown in my face, it was clearly time. I haven’t seen all the films, and I’ve probably seen the Timothy Dalton ones more than any other (I know, just what I was exposed to as a kid), but I have seen all the intros and can now safely review…

“Dr. No”
The Original Bond theme by Monty Norman is perfectly fitting for the spy genre with its very smooth and sly sound. The beauty of this piece is the subtle elements that add a dangerous feeling to it all. The vibraphone line accentuates the brass section by playing the melody line in unison, but the added, flowing layer of the vibraphone’s sound stops it from being too strong. This contrast seems to give it more depth. This is just one example that even when the rest of the band has kicked into gear, we can still hear the small things going on.

This dangerous and risky sound is also symbolized by the intervals of the underlying melody. The song’s beginning is based on a simple 4-note chromatic movement that’s nothing fancy, but moves like a wave, ebbing and flowing. Sure, we always hear chromatic steps, but the three chromatic notes in succession are what ties us into that feeling that something’s just hiding around the corner.

The theme in the actual movie is arranged differently than the recorded theme, which begins with that slow chromatic line. So, throughout the song, we actually have a build over a minute and a half that will eventually lead to the climax: the 7th-chord orchestra hits (orchestra hits which are emphasized notes played by – you guessed it – the entire orchestra). To make a final statement, there is no final bang for the ending, just a call-and-response from the brass with a gentle A7 chord from the guitar.

Dr. No opening sequence

“From Russia With Love”
This theme fits the kind of classiness of the bond themes that come later, but there’s nothing really sexy or edgy about this one: it’s more of a lounge act rather than anything that we can relate to the Bond character. And although the ending builds to a somewhat dramatic climax, it’s still soft in its sound and doesn’t set up any real exciting expectations of the film to come.

“From Russia With Love” opening sequence

“Goldfinger” stars Shirley Bassey, who also sings two other Bond themes. The lyrics are a bit hokey, but the music none-the-less exemplifies the Bond character to a “t”. I think there’s something menacing and mysterious about this. And Bassey’s piercing voice cries that sexiness that we were missing in “From Russia With Love”. The vibrato on her voice in its high notes are so spot-on and hit in such a good way, which is something to remember down the line when Sheryl Crow steps in for the job.

Check out this youtube clip of Bassey’s live performance for the great theatrics she also provides when performing.

The ending of the song at 2:09 shows a variation of the Bond theme, relating it right back to Monty Norman’s original work. Bassey’s last note brings us to a stunning climax, which seems to really ramp us up and get excited for the film.

“Goldfinger” opening sequence

Tom Jones mans this theme. The swells of the brass from the get-go (along with a nice gong accent) keep us charged for what’s to come. And the subtle response of the orchestra strings at 0:37 hint to the original bond theme: all to build us up to the way Jones sings “strikes!”. That’s a great example of how Jones seems to really understand his job building up the character and the movie as you can really sense the excitement and passion in his voice.

“Thunderball” opening sequence

“You Only Live Twice”
…begins with the sexiness inherent in most of the Bond themes followed by a romantic string melody, slowing into a calypso rhythm to welcome Nancy Sinatra’s voice. This theme is where the slower Bond themes start to make their mark with that more mysterious sound, but this one is mostly a simple love song. The string swells at 1:23 just like the past songs, but then quickly move back into the love-song feel.

The recording I have (unlike this youtube clip from the original film) doesn’t have the choral vocals, which add a lot to the overall feel and give it a more lush and dramatic sound. This is most exemplified by the ending at 2:31.

“You Only Live Twice” opening sequence

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”
Not only is this the only Bond film to star George Lazenby, but it’s also the first (and ultimately last) theme song instrumental – besides the original film “Dr. No”, which although is that film’s main theme, it’s really a general theme for the character.

Our now signature orchestra hits start off the piece. This whole song really seems like a way for composer John Barry – who composed for the film itself – to get his chance to write his own Bond theme song. But he does so in such a way where it keeps the spy theme sound, but in no way treads on the original. It’s also the first to incorporate a synth keyboard sound, adding a deep, distorted texture to the center rhythm, offsetting the string and brass melodies.

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” opening sequence

“Diamonds Are Forever”
Another Shirley Bassey song. But this time, we aren’t constricted by poor recording technology and we can hear the full range of her voice. This song starts with a cheap diamond commercial song knock-off with it’s almost onomatopoeia ‘sheen’ or ‘twinkle’. That cheapness is also shown with the “touch it, stroke it” lyrics.

For me, the song really starts after that initial seductive build, ended by a long vibrato high-note, synonymous with Bassey’s last theme song. After that, we get to 1:54, which introduces a nice funk-ish groove. We then descend back into that flowing vocal section, which now seems more highlighted because of that book-end funk groove, all which builds to a nice ending climax with that signature vibrato.

“Diamonds Are Forever” opening sequence

“Live And Let Die”
I hadn’t seen this opening for the first 15 years of me listening to the song, so it’s hard to imagine this as an actual Bond theme. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. And I’m constantly impressed with how Paul McCartney was able to cram so much into a 3-minute piece. From the very Beatle-ish, almost atonal orchestral arrangements (like 1:19) to the unsuspecting and unpredictable reggae (again, -ish) middle section.

One of my favorite aspects of this song is the call-and-response of the guitar/xylophone melody with the piccolo-flute sweeps, which occurs in both the middle and end of the song. Their build is complemented a bit more at the end with a slightly inaudible conga beat and pizzicato (plucked with fingers) violins playing the melody.

“Live And Let Die” opening sequence

For the record, there are 22 Bond films and 23 opening title songs (one being unofficial, but I’ll get to that), and I have reviewed them all. Still polishing the other entries and I’ll post this in 3 installments. Maybe that’ll give me enough time to actually watch the movies from start to finish.

Read part 2 and part 3 here.

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Drum mixing…

March 29, 2010 at 6:00 am (Audio Production)

With most instruments, you mic single sources: (1) guitar amp, (1) violin. But with drums you can mix upwards of how many individual drums the player decides to have. Neil Peart of Rush has at least a 23-count drum kit – but with the average drummer, you tend to have a kick drum, snare, rack tom, floor tom, hi-hat, one ride cymbal and maybe two crash cymbals.

We’ll work with a standard 5-piece drum kit, which does not include the crash or ride cymbals when naming the drum count. I’m going to be using the tracks from my latest project “One Day…Will Subside” because it’s one of my better drum mixing examples.

Drummer Jason Wallack has obviously spent time tuning his drums, which makes the recording process a lot easier. I use a pretty basic mic set-up when recording drums. Why? Because it works. I don’t concentrate on putting a mic on every cymbal, but instead use what we call an overhead mic array, which captures not only the cymbals, but a different perspective on the other drums.

Isolation is the key when recording: I would like the kick drum mic to record only the kick drum, the tom mic only the tom, etc. But with drums, it’s hard to completely prevent bleed-through and some microphones will just naturally pick up the other drum sounds. There’s a lot you can do later on in the mixing process, but I’ll get to that later.

kick drum mic – AKG D112 – stuck right in the bass drum through a hole in the front, leave it about 4-5 inches from the drum head that the kick pedal hits against
snare drum mic – Shure SM57 – placed at a 45º angle, pointed towards the center of the drum head, but close to the rim to pick up a little of the snare head naturally occuring ring
floor tom mic – Sennheiser 421 – same placement as snare drum head
rack tom mic – Shure 98 – sometimes trying to fit in another mic stand in the already crowded drum set becomes a pain, so this little clip-on mic works perfectly.
overheads – Rode NT5 – a great stereo matched pair

In a large studio circumstance, which I did not have available, you’d use an additional stereo pair as “room mics”, which do just that: record the entire sound of the drums in the room. Unfortunately, the room I was recording in did not sound that great, so I had to concentrate on the individual drums themselves.

Drummer Danny Carey has a massive set himself, but each drum comes through clean and clear, with a great open-sounding kit on The Tool album “Aenima”.

Tool’s “Eulogy” clip

For Jason and I, a few hours later, came this…

full set, no effects

Great, I’ve got my drum kit all recorded, now I’ll begin mixing. I actually begin the whole mixing process with the drum set, and I begin that with the kick drum.

Kick Drum –

The mic was actually IN the drum itself, but I can still hear the bleed-through of the cymbals.

unprocessed kick drum

I use an equalizer to take off a bit of the high frequencies. Not too much, though as I don’t want to kill the “snap” of the drum. And I boost the lows slightly to give it a “kick”. In the end, I actually ended up doubling the kick drum sound with a much lower sub-bass, synthesized kick. This allow a much deeper “thump” in the end.

processed kick drum

Finally, I’ll throw a limiter on the kick. This way, I can make sure the drum is as loud as possible without distorting. If there are inconsistencies in volume that the drummer made, this will smooth them all out by pushing their volume to the limit without going over a certain volume. A compressor will do much the same, make the softer hits louder and the louder hits softer, but I found a limiter – which is a much harsher effect – to be far more useful on drums.

Snare –

By far the most important drum for me. I like it loud and I like it hard and I want it to cut through.

Though this is a very 80’s sound for a snare, I’ve always loved the drums from Living Colour’s “Time’s Up” album:

Living Colour “Fight The Fight” clip

The snare is such a loud drum and given the mic’s close proximity, the bleed-through isn’t so bad. Plus, you don’t wanna kill ALL the bleed-through so that the snare can sound a little more open. One trick I learned is to boost the frequency of the snare around 400Hz, which gives it a nice snap. Other than that, I slightly accentuate the highs and kill any low frequencies below 120Hz. I also throw a limiter on it, just as I did with the kick.

processed snare drum

Toms –

Toms – the rack and floor tom – are used quite sparingly in a drum beat, so when I get a good sound, I generally put on a noise-gate that completely kills their volume when they’re not being hit. As you can hear, that also means some of the bleed-through from the other drums tends to rise as well when the noise gate “opens”.

unprocessed tom track

You want a general balance between tone and boominess, so I have to pay special attention to EQing the toms. Each tom, with each drummer, is completely different.

processed tom track

Overheads –

processed overhead track

As you can hear, all the drums are picked up by these mics. However, I make sure to take out most of the low-frequencies so that it only adds flavor of the other drums and concentrates on highlighting the cymbals. There tends to not be too much difference between the processed and unprocessed sound, so I’m only playing the processed sound.

Mixing The Drums –

Like I said, I start the entire mixing process with the drums and I start the drum mixing with the kick. I make sure the kick and snare are tight, almost so that they have the same “snap” sound at the same volume. Then, I add in the overheads. The toms, because I consider them more of a “flavor”, I mix in last.

The mixing process includes the effects I threw on the drums themselves, which is why this last paragraph may have seemed so easy.

A couple things to watch out for are the boominess of the toms in the mix. Because they have a tone to them, as opposed to just an attack, they have a tendency to sound a bit intrusive, As you will notice by the following clip from Anthrax’s “Black Lodge”, it might be slight, but they seem to overtake the whole sound and when they go away, it feels like something is missing.

Anthrax’s “Black Lodge” clip

I wanted to make sure that this didn’t happen and made sure their level was conservative.

I’ll alter the mix over time, but ultimately, the mixed drum sounds like:

full drum mix

And then finally, to give the drums a little more space, almost as if mimicking recording them in a larger room, I add a little reverb. It makes the snare come ALIVE, which is what I like about it. It may sound like a lot of reverberation with the drums alone, but when I get to the final mix, it makes a little more sense.

same section, with reverb
tom-highlighted section, with reverb

And, ultimately – final mix with everything

Now, on to explaining how I got to that final mix with everything…:

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the “next project thought process”…

March 16, 2010 at 12:45 pm (musical composition)

I am going to start my next big project. For the moment, I have to dismiss all the things I still want (and NEED) to do with “One Day..Will Subside” and just start on a new project just for the sake of my own well being.

How do I (personally) begin a new project?

Easy. I have probably 3 possible projects going on in my head at all times and have had two of them for about AT LEAST seven years. I have already chosen which one I will pursue, for multitude reasons, but I will list all four possibilities:

1. untitled funk project – I love prog-rock, but I have at least 4 funk songs already written in my head since Freshman year of high school. I just haven’t put them on paper. And they’ll of course include lots of odd-time signatures.

why not?
This will be a lot of fun, but for now I have to release one more, more-serious project. There will be time to funk-out, but I want to try an establish myself a little more (I haven’t even played my stuff LIVE in 7 years) before I come up with anything straying from the other projects I’ve done.

2. secondary verses – This will be the follow up to “Escaping Familiar Verses”, which was a dance/music project combination. I felt like the ideas presented in the first installment can be expanded.

why not?
I laid the groundwork for this almost immediately following the dance performance, but the timing just doesn’t seem right. Plus, the themes so far have been jazz elements, which can then join the same reasons for the project above.

3. untitled acoustic prog project – Just makes the most logical sense given that I just released a prog-rock project that was essentially intended for me and me only. I’m not going to attempt to write a prog-pop project, but I know that I want to show a more sensitive/softer side.

4. untitled prog-rap album – Just an idea. For this, I would definitely need to collaborate because I will not even pretend to know the first thing about writing rap lyrics.

why not?
This one’s WAY off in the distance.

Okay, I’ve picked one – now what? (oh, I picked #3)

My projects are developed from big ideas. I’m not tooting my own horn by saying I have these grandoise ideas that can’t be topped – when I say “big ideas”, I really mean “cool things that I want to do on this project”.

I once heard Johnny Rzeznik, vocalist for the Goo Goo Dolls, describe how song writing isn’t about (and I’m paraphrasing) making songs in a lab, it’s about picking up your guitar and writing something with feeling.

This is the opposite for me. I want to do “cool things”. I don’t care how that may sound, I want comments like “well, that was cool” – something that someone thought was just a neat idea. Of course there’s room for feeling, of course I want it to sound musical. And for the sections I have written already, they were written on an acoustic with feeling, but then molded and shaped in a lab.

“Big Ideas”:

a) I want strings and bassoon. Why basson? Because I know a great bassoonist and I want to use him. I think strings are fantastic and useful, especially because I know a few players anyway, but to add a very easily-integrated element like the bassoon will add a new texture. And I have the resources.

b) I want this project to have TWO completely mixed versions and here they are:
– acoustic guitars as the only guitars, maybe a little electric for accents, but no main electric guitar parts
– drums played with stick bundles, as opposed to regular sticks. these types of sticks are essentially small dowels taped together in a bundle, allowing the drums to sound a lot softer, but not to the extent of brushes
– acoustic guitars on one side of the stereo spectrum (some centered) and electric guitars on the other side. this will allow me to make what is essentially a “heavy” version of the song. sorry, I still like metal and may want to make a heavy-sounding section (even on the acoustic) even heavier. the reason for the electric on only one side of the stereo spectrum is so that a listener can almost have two experiences on the same track if they only listen to one channel. can I pull this off? who knows? (see “big ideas”)
– drums played with regular sticks. this will add to that heaviness.

c) influences. I already wrote the main riff back in 2003 and I know where it can go. And when I hear another song and think “my project can go there, too”, then I contemplate: CAN it and SHOULD it?

Soundgarden has this great 15/8 song called “Limo Wreck”, which essentially is a blues song in 5s. Will I copy the riff? No. But can I see this piece having a blues section, and can I HEAR a blues section? Yes, definitiely. And since it’s odd-signature already…

These are all samplings of the “next project thought process”, on which I may expand later and only where I am able to just begin a new project. The next step is to just start recording the ideas I already have and piecing them together, adding and adding. Sound like a lab? Sure, and that’s the way I like to write music.

Whatever, Johnny Rzeznik.

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