Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Appendix to Part 6

This section addresses Arta's comment on Part Six:

"Be careful of formulas, dude. The best art tends to violate, rather than adhere to, any kind of rigid formula -- that's why the exceptions you note (like '1979') are some of the best songs."

I think he is right. But let me try to reconcile his comment with the seemingly contradictory formula of wall-of-sound.

Yes, the wall-of-sound is more or less a formula, but it is a formula against the establishment method of producing music. It is not meant to constrain; it is meant to open up new possibilities for music production. For instance, to allow for the idea that maybe muddiness is not a bad thing, that clarity is not always the right thing.

Part Six makes some recommendations for songwriters but it would be a mistake for songwriters to follow them blindly. In making the points above, I am only trying to remind producers about the little details that matter. Maybe you will disagree with them, but I will feel better that you disagree with me than if you had never considered those points, one way or another.

So many pop producers take for granted that their artists know what they are doing. They do not ask questions. They do not think about what they are doing, beyond making phone calls and getting the right engineers at the session. I want producers to take more responsibility in the art that they are producing. Before they put electronic beats into a song, I want them to ask themselves, why am I using electronic beats? Is there no better way? Am I being considerate to my listeners?

Wall-of-sound is a Dogme 95 for music. Follow it or not, but recognize it as a statement against the idea that popular music can only come from the modern ways of production, from the big labels' studios. It is to realize that people do not always care for stereo trickery, that people don't just want to dance to synthesized beats. That people miss the vintage sounds.

I have a friend who has heard both versions of Smile, and she says that the remake is lacking something from the original. Is it the voice, I ask? No, she replies. There is something wrong with the mix. It is not as warm, or something. She can't put her finger on it.

I think I know why she didn't like the new Smile. It is too clean. Everything sounds so deliberate. The stereo mixing overwhelms you with sound. But it seems like I am only describing the way most, if not all, records are produced today. I tell you, people (young people!) are still listening to Pet Sounds, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Beatles... why? I don't think it's just because of the songwriting. There is something about the production that is missing in contemporary records.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 6

As a producer, maybe you don't plan to write songs. But you still need songwriting skills. When do you bring in certain instruments? What if you need to write a tiny melody to link two sections, or to fill unused space? These are all artistic decisions every bit as important as the composition of words and melodies. Both Phil Spector and Brian Wilson were songwriters and multi-instrumentalists.

What makes a good song? Lots of self-help books for songwriters have tried to answer that question. They talk about following A-B-A structures and keeping scrapbooks of ideas. Some even draw the notes out on a musical staff. My opinion is, those books waste your money.

The best way to improve your songwriting is to expand your musical vocabulary by listening to a lot of good music, and listening to them over and over again. There is no getting around this. It is the same as learning a language. You have to get to a point where you are so comfortable with melodies and chords that you can pull them out of the air. A snippet of melody from this song, a verse resolution inspired by another song... that's what the best songwriters have on their musical palettes.

I can't tell you what specific records to buy, but I will advise you to pay more attention to the music of the past. Don't take them for granted just because you heard them during your childhood in your parent's car radio. Listen to the records again, take them off your parents shelves if you have to, and I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

As for modern music, do not be too influenced by what's happening today, because you don't want to participate in a fad or a trend. Don't worry about getting on the radio. Renoir didn't try to make his paintings look good next to Monet's and Cezanne's. Making it in the music industry is a concern only for people whose music is borderline acceptable to the masses, and then they make a lot of noise about why the mainstream music industry ignores real musicians. The truth is, if you make a good, big song worthy of the world, people will hear it.

Now we have talked about some general ideas about songwriting. What about some specifics? Let's begin with some characteristics of good and bad pop songs.

The good pop song is fun for the listener. Unlike a bad pop song, it is never boring. It is not obnoxious. It does not waste the listener's time. Melodies are not slow and drawn out, like some Radiohead songs. A pop recording is not supposed to showcase a singer's voice. It is supposed to make people dance, make people sing along.

For instance, "Help Me Rhonda" is a great song to sing along to, because there are so many vocal parts. If you don't want to sing the lead vocals, there's a great harmony line with the equally-fun-to-sing "bow-wow-wow" part during the chorus. In contrast, "Exit Music (For A Film)" is not fun to sing along to. Too many whole notes. Too many empty spaces. Too slow. That's why it's not a hit single, despite being an otherwise well-written and melodic song.

At this point, I would like to say that I am not accusing bands like Radiohead of being bad musicians. Remember, this is an essay about pop music. There are many other styles of music out there, and I generally have nothing against them, even experimental music, as long as the artist is making a serious and sincere effort to be creative, considerate and meaningful. We should realize, too, that listeners do not always want to hear pop music. If you are in a bad mood, you might rather listen to Kid A than "Da Doo Ron Ron."

I am however against music that is unexciting either because it is formulaic or because it is overindulgent by the artist. A lot of classic rock and 70s pop falls into this category. Here is a list of things that waste a listener's time:
  • A line of melody repeated more than 3 times. This can take the form of a very repetitive chorus, or a verse that keeps using the same melody, such as the Raconteurs' "Steady As She Goes."
  • A melody of only one or two pitches that lasts more than one measure.
  • A guitar solo that lasts for more than 20 seconds, unless there are vocal harmonies during the interval, or if the guitar is playing a singable melody
  • Chords being played by a distorted guitar with nothing else happening except bass and drums. Contrary to popular belief, a distorted guitar does not necessarily project strength. The best way to project strength at any volume is to have multiple instruments playing the same thing. A hundred violins playing in unison is more powerful than Jimi Hendrix. Keep in mind that most people listen to music at a quiet volume, and the distorted guitar sounds pathetic when quiet.
  • The instrumental arrangement does not change throughout the song (a common flaw on Smiths songs)
  • Anything that could be described as "jamming," unless you are Bob Marley
  • Anything that could be described by the words "ethereal," "atmospheric," "hypnotic," or "deep." The point is to make people dance, not to make them contemplate life and fall asleep.
  • You plan to impress your audience by a "shock and awe" technique of producing chaos and cacophony, even if it's melodic.
  • The rhythm section is repetitive (e.g. the Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie, Broken Social Scene). However, in certain rare occasions it is okay to have a repetitive backing track (Smashing Pumpkins' "1979").
  • Song length is more than 3 min 30 seconds. (but really, you should aim for 2 min 30 seconds.)
Regarding the last point, it is usually okay to create an epic song if it is under six minutes and contains more than three very distinct movements. A good example is "Bohemian Rhapsody." It is not okay to create an epic song of the same length that follows a predictable buildup to a climax. This is why it is a truth universally known and accepted that "Stairway To Heaven" sucks.

Does your song suck? A good way to find out is to listen to your song with a (sober) friend who's never heard it before. You will immediately be much more self-conscious about your work, and it will be easy for you to sense where the boring, even embarrassing, sections are. Of course, there is also the benefit of receiving much valuable feedback from your friend.

A good sign that you have a hit song is if your friend can remember the hook a few minutes after listening to it. Always strive to make an impression the first time. Here is a list of more things that make a song exciting for the listener:
  • The song changes about 3/4 of the way through (something to look forward to)
  • A single, unrepeated hook (for example, the link segments on Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows"). It makes people go back to the beginning of the song when they are disappointed not to hear the hook again.
  • Drums that drop out and come back in
  • An exotic instrument (such as the theremin on "Good Vibrations" and the synthesizer on Del Shannon's "Runaway", but be careful about using faddish ethnic instruments such as the sitar)
  • A melody that spans more than one octave
Over the course of your career, you will discover more things that are exciting to people.

So now you have a good idea of what makes a good song. How do you put it all together? In the next section, we will talk about the best instrumental arrangements for the wall-of-sound.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

An exclusive interview with Mark Williams


MW: hello


MW: yeah, thanks


MW: probably neither, since we'll be in different counties and countries. a few songs may slip through, though


MW: i hope not, but it's not running around like a bandit these days


MW: no way. they're still around?


MW: yeah, i did use to like them. i'd rather see al green these days, though. any idea what these guys new album sounds like? robots shitting into tin cans or something?


MW: you mean nigel?


MW: that's rough. why'd they do that?


MW: hmm, that's pretty admirable


MW: that guy's doing solo albums? man, did he not have enough leeway with the band?


MW: steven chow


MW: probably spector. though i've been guiltily enjoying "telstar," so maybe joe meek


MW: i like to think so. there're facts to back that up, but who knows these days

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 5

The first and most important rule: wall-of-sound is what you would hear if all the instruments and voices were playing unamplified.

Imagine being in a large room the size of a gym. Now imagine a typical rock band: electric bass, electric guitar, drums, acoustic guitar, tambourine, singer. In this hypothetical case, each person makes only one sound, i.e. the singer does not play an instrument, and the tambourine player, guitarists and drummer do not sing. No one is amplified, including the singer. (For our purposes, the electric guitar is "unamplified" when it is playing at the lowest possible volume to attain the right sound.)

If the whole band were standing 10 feet away from you, you would hear nothing but drums and electric guitar. Even if the singer is screaming, it is doubtful that you would make out what she is saying. The same with the acoustic guitar; without amplification, it is nearly inaudible at this point.

Now, without moving anyone else, move the drums 100 feet away, the electric guitar about 60 feet away, and the bass guitar about 30 feet away. When the band plays again, the drums and guitars would be much quieter. But since they are farther away, you hear much reverb, the sound that bounces all over the room until it gets to your ears. If the room is large enough, you might even hear a tiny bit of echo from the sound bouncing off the wall farthest from you.

The acoustic guitar is still too quiet at 10 feet away, so you ask the guitarist to move about 5 feet closer. Your singer has a quiet voice, so you must ask her to stand right next to you in order to be heard. The acoustic guitar's sound needs to travel only 5 feet, so you hear only a tiny bit of reverb. The singer's voice comes to you even more directly, since it only needs to travel about a foot to reach your ear. There is absolutely no reverb or echo from her.

Where do we place the tambourine player? Anyone who's played live knows just how loud that small percussion instrument can get, because it is way above the frequency range of everything else. A comfortable distance would be about halfway between the listener and the drums. So, in exchange for less volume, we hear more reverb.

Do you get the idea? That is the most fundamental rule of wall-of-sound: getting the echo and reverb just right. A rule of thumb is that the louder the instrument, the more echo and reverb to apply. Theoretically, you could even record the musicians in the manner I described, if you replace the listener with a microphone. That would give you the most authentic wall-of-sound mix. But who has access to a huge room like that? Thanks to computers, we can artificially apply reverb to make a wall-of-sound recording, even if all the recording was done in a tiny studio. (The echo effect, however, is always minimal and should only be applied to the loudest percussive instruments. Reverb is usually enough.)

"But why should we mix this way?" you ask. "Aren't we just making the track sound muddy?"

Yes, we are making the track "muddy." But only for certain sound sources. Remember, the vocals are quite clean in the mix, since the singer is practically next to your ear. Acoustic guitar is similarly clean. Only the loudest instruments contribute to the rumbling noise characteristic of wall-of-sound. Rumbling noise does not deaden the track, as you might expect. In fact, it evokes the physical vibrations you feel when you are in a big room with loud music. It is a two-dimensional representation of the multi-sensory live music experience. Simply turning up the volume on a "clean" track does not necessarily give you that mightly roar.

Wall-of-sound represents the most natural rock sound possible. It stands for the least electronic amplification, the least amount of intrusion by microphonic tubes and whatnot. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, it is important to realize that a wall-of-sound record does not have to reflect one take of an actual live performance---it can be entirely simulated in the studio with high-tech equipment---the important thing is what it evokes in the listener, its ability to transport the listener to that large room with all the musicians.

Having said that, the wall-of-sound, taken superficially, is a strange sound to most listeners. Unless you assemble yourself and the musicians as described above, there isn't a rock concert in the world where you can experience this kind of sound. In a way, it is a most fantastic of all noises, the most natural and yet the most unreal. But it works because of what it suggests for the listener.

Another way to think about it is to consider a photograph in which the subject is sharp but the background is out of focus. We would never literally see the world like this, but it is very easy, even natural for us to comprehend such a picture, because it represents the way our eyes only pay attention to the object in the very center of the field of vision. If you don't believe me, focus your eyes on one particular word on this paragraph and see how far you can read left and right without moving your eyes.

Wall-of-sound is like such a photograph because it makes the singer sound closer to the listener than anything else. The closeness, of course, is indicated by the near-total lack of reverb or echo. It may even be further emphasized by the mixing of the vocals with a richer equalization compared to the rest of the instruments.

"This is really interesting. But did Phil Spector and Brian Wilson really use this technique?"

We will never know exactly what they were thinking in the 1960s, but I believe my description of the wall-of-sound is the one that best combines what I have observed in their recordings and what I can formulate into a consistent, interesting and compelling aesthetic theory. Spector and Wilson would sometimes deviate, even contradict, the wall-of-sound technique described here. For example, Brian Wilson would sometimes mix the drums closely, and Phil Spector would mix the vocals with very noticeable echo. But there are many recordings available which clearly demonstrate this essay's version of the wall-of-sound, most notably Pet Sounds and the earlier Spector recordings. And as we will discover in an upcoming chapter, there are many bands since the 1960s that have come close to the wall-of-sound, whether accidentally or otherwise.

But first, we should have a discussion about what makes a good song for the wall-of-sound. After all, a poorly written song (and poorly arranged) won't get anywhere in the charts (or in the hearts of mankind) even if you followed every wall-of-sound rule.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Fun stuff

At Arta's request, we interrupt the wall-of-sound program with something more "fun." Neon Phosphor will answer some questions today.

"Are you concerned by the lack of transparency regarding our government's spying on its own citizens?"----Indeed I am. Transparencies are so 20th century. Let's move into the PowerPoint millennium, people.

"Geez, I was just trying to show the political side of the band. Seriously, where would you place yourself on the spectrum?"----That's an easy question. We're on the infrared side, at about 100m to 1 km wavelength. That's the range of an AM radio. You know, how it comes out in mono.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 4

There is an excellent biography called Wall of Pain: The Biography of Phil Spector by Dave Thompson, currently out in bookstores on Sanctuary Publishing. People who want to learn more about an eccentric man carving his way through his chosen industry should pick it up. Sadly, there is very little discussion in the book about the actual wall-of-sound that is of more interest to us. That is why I am writing this essay.

The wall-of-sound was born somewhere between "To Know Him Is To Love Him," Phil Spector's first hit with his own band, The Teddy Bears, and "He's A Rebel" by the Crystals. The former came out in August 1958 and the latter in October 1962. "He's A Rebel" is the earliest example of the full-blown wall-of-sound still playing on oldies radio today: with a prominent lead vocal backed up by piano, saxophones, tambourines, drums, and lots of echo and reverb.

The next song we know is "Da Doo Ron Ron" (April 1963), also by the Crystals, also clocking in at around 2:20. This song has the same instrumentation as "He's A Rebel," but includes a saxophone solo and handclaps. One innovation of this song is the blending of the Crystals' "oohs" with the saxophone section.

During the second half of the year, Spector produced "Then He Kissed Me" by the Crystals, and two big hits for the Ronettes: "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You." "Be My Baby" was almost the same formula as "Da Doo Ron Ron" but uses castanets and has a string solo, although you can still hear the saxophone section in the background. "Baby I Love You" is another variation but with the piano louder in the mix. At 1:24, Spector has his greatest moment yet, when he has the Ronettes harmonies switch triumphantly, mid-verse, from "oohs" to "ahhs" before the harmonies actually take center stage for the chorus.

Now at the height of his powers at age 22, Spector produced the LP A Christmas Gift For You, featuring the wall-of-sound in all its glory. Unfortunately, its November 1963 release coincided with the assassination of President Kennedy. The nation mourned, the entertainment industry shut down, and Spector withdrew the album from stores. And just a few months later, the Beatles arrived in America and Spector decided not to compete with them and took a break, but not before attracting the attention of another child prodigy, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

In a 1999 interview with Index magazine, Wilson said, "I think of God as Phil Spector... I believe in him and his records. And I learned a lot from him too. Everybody knows I believe in Phil Spector... Pet Sounds was P.S. — that's Phil Spector's initials! It was like a way to express his music through me, my interpretation of his music. So it really was a great album."

(When asked if there was another god, Wilson replied, "Yeah, there is another God that I can't put into words. I call it feelings, or intuitions. I think of music as God too. Not only just Phil Spector, but music itself I think of as God too.")

Many of you probably think that Brian Wilson's comments show him to be insane or unhealthily obsessed with Spector. But I forgive him because I know that the moment you understand the wall-of-sound is the moment that you open up a whole new way of thinking about music. It is quite an epiphany. You start hearing your records differently, you listen to Spector's records and you realize exactly why he made his records sound the way they do. You may have merely enjoyed the music before, but now you get it. And there is nothing more exciting.

We will examine some of these recordings in detail, but first let us continue with young Brian Wilson's career.

Early in 1964, the Beach Boys released "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Don't Worry Baby," two songs that faced tremendous competition from the Beatles, who were about to tour the United States to promote their hit single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand." The Beatles, we should mention, were hardly wall-of-sound artists, and promoted a different kind of music: rock-and-roll music made by a self-contained unit of four personalities. Their image led them to success as much as their music did. Wall-of-sound, on the other hand, tends to diminish the role of the recording artists by drawing the listeners' attention to the production.

It is to our great inconvenience that the current reissue of the Beach Boys' Surfer Girl and Shut Down Vol. 2 contains only stereo mixes of classics like "Don't Worry Baby," "In My Room," "Fun Fun Fun," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Surfer Girl." I believe this is unfaithful to the intent of the artist. Brian Wilson always mixed in mono because he believed that the producer would have more control over the listening experience. Anyone who has an unbalanced set of speakers, or one broken speaker, knows how frustrating it is not to hear everything in the mix. Fortunately, Wilson's next two albums, Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) are presented in the original mono in the CD reissues.

By December 1964, Brian Wilson was spending all his time in the studio, having given up touring following a nervous breakdown. Today!, released in March 1965, is often regarded as the best Beach Boys album after Pet Sounds, and shows Wilson already in full command of the wall-of-sound: massive instrumentation, unconventional drumming patterns plus handclaps and tambourine on both uptempo and slower songs. His modifications to the Phil Spector formula include double-tracking the lead vocals and giving the harmonies a more interactive role with the lead vocal. The next album, Summer Days, is a step backwards, but includes several great songs like "California Girls," "Help Me Rhonda," and "Let Him Run Wild."

Pet Sounds was not so much a further development of wall-of-sound as it was the result of Wilson's desire to create an entire LP of the wall-of-sound. Remember, aside from the lost Christmas record, the wall-of-sound has only been issued on singles and singles compilations. Also, EPs were still the preferred format for pop music in the mid-1960s, so trying to compose and record an entire album was quite a radical idea. Wilson's recording technique was similar to the one he employed on the last two albums: get a good instrumental mix, bounce the mix onto one channel of the four-track, and use the remaining three tracks for vocals. (This is an important difference between Wilson and Spector: Spector preferred recording his singers and instruments together, live.)

Books have been written about Pet Sounds, so I will not dwell on it too much. The only thing I will add is the sad footnote that, with the exception of "Good Vibrations" (recorded in the summer of 1966), Brian Wilson never finished another wall-of-sound record again.

Phil Spector's career, too, would come to a halt in 1966, too. After spending a quiet year in 1965 sending several Righteous Brothers songs to the top the charts, Spector co-wrote "River Deep - Mountain High" for Ike and Tina Turner. This song was designed to be his greatest production to date, and featured the most massive wall-of-sound he ever committed to tape. Unfortunately, the song flopped in the United States, and Spector retired, not to re-emerge except for a few projects here and there throughout the 1970s.

From there, improvements in recording technology and the studio engineers' collective drive towards perfect sound quality all but buried the idea of the wall-of-sound. The term is sometimes thrown around to describe overproduced and noisy music, but that was never what Spector and Wilson had in mind.

Where are they now? Phil Spector is awaiting trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson. Brian Wilson recently finished Smile with his backup band and conquered his fear of performing, but it's too little too late, his voice having lost much of what made it great in the 1960s.

The history of wall-of-sound will hopefully continue with a new generation of artists like you and me. In the next section, we will start covering the technical aspects of the wall-of-sound.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 3

During the late 1960s, the hip crowd hated pop music because it represented their parent's generation. Today, the hip crowd hates pop music because it simply sucks. But it has not always been that way. As mentioned, some of the most influential artists of the 1960s enjoyed chart-topping pop. For instance, John Lennon's adoration of Motown girl groups would be the equivalent of Radiohead's Thom Yorke singing praise for the Spice Girls.

When the Beatles stopped touring, Phil Spector retired and the Beach Boys failed to show up at the Monterey Pop Festival, that was the beginning of a downward trend in pop music. First of all, the great wall-of-sound would all but disappear, except for isolated gems like Lennon's "Imagine." Pop eventually settled into a quasi-rock style featuring more guitars and beats. Some pop songs of this era were truly great, such as Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running." But most were just extended band jams, or sounded like one, as vocals became less prominent and had fewer hooks. Also around this time, Elton John introduced the world to a new kind of adult-oriented pop featuring 5-minute ballads of less than 80 bpm. Elton John is a brilliant artist, but he opened the doors for lesser artists to produce melodramatic music. Within twenty years, pop vocal hits would be torturously slow, expansive songs like Whitney Houston's "I WIll Always Love You" and Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." The world of Del Shannon's 2:20, 150 bpm "Runaway" seems like a million miles away.

I know this is a very simplified history of rock and I apologize if I am leaving some big holes in the narrative. If you want the canonical history, please read the RollingStone guide, available from any good bookseller. Many of my examples and assertions are designed only to inspire you to reflect on your own experience with music throughout the decades.

Here I will share a personal anecdote. I have a friend who, when shown music from the 1960s, would comment, "I don't like this song because it sounds dated. It sounds like music our parents listened to."

I do not blame my friend for holding this opinion. I blame it on a needlessly fast-moving consumer society that encourages us to trade in our broken appliances after five years of use, a society of fads and trends, where you are constantly comparing yourself to your neighbor, a society where glossy magazines published by the elite will tell you what colors to wear and what electronic toys to buy. The spectacle around us has conditioned us to think that new is good, old is bad.

And as I suggested in the last chapter, young people do not only get their opinions from the spectacle. They will emulate it. And when you have a situation where increasingly bad music is put on display, it only gives the young people permission to do it. When young people don't see barbershop quartets under spotlights and on television, how can we expect them to make that kind of music anymore?

Our radio stations play only new music, as though music is supposed to get better and better. Yes, there are college radio stations, but they, too, play mostly new music from independent labels. And much of this independent music is made by young people who are influenced by the easiest styles they can emulate, such as electronica and garage guitar rock.

My friend, new is not necessarily better. The thesis of this essay is that new recording techniques is not any better than old ones, and, when improperly used, can actually damage a good song.

A good example is Boyz II Men's 1992 hit "End Of The Road." Yes, they are sort of a boy band, but I ask you to set aside your feelings as I dissect the song. "End Of The Road" has more melody and a more aethestically-pleasing chord progression than most songs written since the mid-1960s. Boyz II Men's singers are some of the strongest since the Four Tops, and their harmonies are as tight as the Beach Boys'. And they were on Motown, the record label that came closest to the wall-of-sound in the few years after Spector and Wilson.

But times, they were soon a-changing. The younger producers and engineers, perhaps eager to prove themselves with new ideas, came up with ways to make every instrument and voice stand out on a recording. By the early 1990s, a well-trained engineer could isolate the different channels so well that you could swear the song was recorded in a vacuum.

"End Of The Road" is one of the most clinically clean song ever recorded, and so I am using it as an example of the aesthetic problems that can happen when you achieve technical perfection. Drums are mixed way in the front, and sound too crisp to be believable, and worst, they are nearly the same volume as the vocals. And there is no reason for drums to be so clear---"End Of The Road" is a slow waltz, not a danceable song. Just as annoyingly, the bell is mixed so close to the front that it sounds like a click track that has not been taken out. Furthermore, the keyboard sounds like a Radio Shack keyboard. The backup singers are so well-mixed, their voices so compressed, that they sound flat (in the spatial sense, not pitch-wise) against the equally flat accompaniment. It sounds like it's being performed from a single point inside your speakers instead of in a large room. In addition to failing to sound big and important, the song's lack of depth tells the listener: this song has no depth; it is not authentic. Furthermore, the sparse, indifferent instrumentation suggests karaoke music. The listener may not realize it consciously, but that's what they hear. No doubt much of the cool kids' distaste for pop music comes from the artificiality and hollowness of its sound. "Waterfalls," the Grammy-winning song by TLC, also suffers from drums that sound fake (because they obviously are).

"But why do people continue to buy modern pop CDs?" you ask. "I know plenty of people who love the music and I myself enjoy today's pop music."

Imagine you are, like most people in the world, a casual listener of pop. You've never heard anything from the 50s and 60s, because you don't listen to oldies radio (and besides, oldies radio don't play anything from the 50s). You've spent most of your life hearing pop on the radio. You go to dance clubs and you dig the beats. Why wouldn't you enjoy the latest Christina Aguilera single? It probably has a reasonably good melody and it gives you a certain amount of pleasure, as much pleasure as you will ever know from music. But what if you didn't live in a world of manufactured electronic dance pop? Would you still like it?

You protest, "Well, this is the world in which we live in. If a bad pop song gives us pleasure, what's the difference?"

The difference is that we are losing a recording technique and philosophy which, because of the tragic circumstances surrounding its inventors, is still in its infancy. It is a philosophy that I think can bring together the casual fans of pop and fans of "serious" music. Sure, the mainstream recording industry can continue cranking out its pop, and the alternative and indie recording industry can do its own thing indefinitely. But why not combine the best in both camps? Rock artists can learn from pop artists about what it takes to be accessible, and pop can learn about what it takes to achieve a more "honest" sound. I believe the wall-of-sound is a powerful effect that can give a song a timeless sound.

"Sure, I'll buy that. But why did we have to spent all this time on music history? Why not just give me the formula for the wall-of-sound?"

First of all, wall-of-sound demands that the producer know why he or she is employing the wall-of-sound. You need to be independent and thoughtful in choosing your methods. Following a strict formula without understanding it is as bad as the blind pursuit of a perfectly clean sound. Another reason for my lecturing is that if you are going to study wall-of-sound, you will discover that 90% of the best examples are found in old music. And finally, because a good wall-of-sound producer is also an artist; you have to think outside the box given to you by today's music industry.

Phil Spector's wall-of-sound had little to do with rock-and-roll of the time. Instead, it was influenced by the sounds of Richard Wagner. A good wall-of-sound producer should have more to do with a scholar of classical literature than a graduate of a recording school. Yes, you need to know how to use the equipment, but it is more important to know what you want to get out of the mix, what you mean by the mix. Again, it is important to know that a completely clean, clear sound is not necessarily the best sound for a song. That may sound illogical, but it is the essence of wall-of-sound.

I think we are now ready to talk about the specifics of the wall-of-sound. In the next section, we will begin with a history of the sound.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 2

At the risk of sounding like a PBS nostalgia-thon, there was a time when great music was pop music, and vice versa. And the time was the 1950s, when vocals and vocal-harmony based music ruled the charts. Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and other vocalists gave the world some of the most melodic, accessible songs ever. Groups like the Chordettes, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers ("Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"), The Diamonds and The Four Freshmen produced music with intricate harmonies that would thrill the masses and influence aspiring musicians like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Girl groups and Motown continued the tradition of producing records based on the thing people care about the most: the vocalist.

The Beatles, certainly the most significant band of the 1960s, sought inspiration from these acts. John Lennon, who covered Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" and the Marvelettes' "Please Mister Postman" on the Beatles' second album, was also a big fan of Elvis and Mary Wells ("My Guy"). George Harrison was a fan of rockability artists such as Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues"). Paul McCartney and John Lennon's two-part harmonies were imitations of the Everly Brothers. Above all, they saw themselves as songwriters, as the "next Goffin and King," referring to the duo who wrote "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Up on the Roof," "The Loco-Motion," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and lots more timeless classics.

During the rise of indie pop in the mid- to late-nineties, many bands tried to bring back the Beatles by doing whimsical things to sound like psychedelic Beatles circa 1967, but many people don't realize that the Beatles' greatest contribution to music was before Revolver, when they would consistently throw around aug, dim, and maj7 chords while masterfully spinning singable melodies and lyrics around them. I don't want to say that no one realized what the Beatles were really about, though. Indie rockers Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith understood the true legacy of the Beatles, and that's why they became two of the greatest artists of our generation. Too bad they died young and spawned many lesser imitators.

Anyway, so now we're in 1966, and pop music is in relatively good shape. The Beatles are more popular than ever, Motown is enjoying success with the Supremes and the young Stevie Wonder, and somewhere along the way, independent record producer Phil Spector made a bunch of weird sounding hits. Burt Bacharach is cranking out hit after hit. The Beach Boys have just made a landmark album, Pet Sounds, and composer Leonard Bernstein went on television to hail the 23-year-old Brian Wilson as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. So what went wrong?

Around 1966, Jimi Hendrix picked up his guitar, turned up the distortion and stepped into the limelight. Instantly, he gave license to thousands of guitarists to step out of their role as accompanist and become the stars themselves. Never mind that most people cannot really hum along to power chords and ear-piercing guitar solos. But the raw power of the guitar, the rebel's instrument, fit in nicely with the anti-establishment movement of the time. As the Beach Boys soon found out, the young people rebelled against everything that had to do with the "old," established ways of thinking, including well-written songs and well-disciplined harmonies. Yes, the music industry still produced pop music, but most of the "hip" crowd (which inevitably included most of the burgeoning musical talents) turned their attention to the new, raw rock sound. Up-and-coming composers like Pete Townshend, whose early work consisted of short, blues-influenced, and tuneful songs (often with 3-part vocal harmonies), switched over to hard rock and seldom looked back. Led Zeppelin came on the scene and further consolidated the dominance of the distorted guitar. Then came proto-metal groups like Black Sabbath and heavy metal proper. Of course, there were also progressive bands like Pink Floyd, which was formed from the ashes of a promising pop band, and retained their pop sensibility throughout the 1970s. Unfortunately, they, too, gave plenty of lesser bands permission to create atmospheric space rock, which has limited appeal to the masses.

Songs were now written on the guitar. But worse, songs are now written by guitarists, vocals are wrapped around guitar-friendly chord progressions (instead of the other way around), and harmonies have become a thing of the past. Lengthy guitar solos are commonplace. Garage bands consist of young guitarists trying to learn the Hendrix licks instead of the three-part vocal harmonies by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The punk rock movement of the late 70s brought back the short-form song, but barbershop harmonies were never on their anti-establishment agenda, and guitars remained as loud as ever. The Smiths produced fine music in the 1980s, but even they were guilty of jam-like instrumentals and a singer who had to cope with wrapping his melodies around a preset chord progression.

At the end of the 1990s, Pixies and Nirvana made some worthwhile contributions to music, most notably, finding a balance between the distorted instrumentation and the singer by having the singer scream. Not surprisingly, both bands were fans of the Beatles, and they kept the Beatles spirit by writing songs that were hook-filled and melodically interesting. Unfortunately, their legacy was once again misinterpreted by garage band artists who decided that it was now okay to crank up the guitar as far as it will go, and scream or groan as their mood takes them.

Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, rock music stagnated. With a few exceptions (but almost none that airs on broadcast radio) rock and roll was guided by guitars, not voices. Belle and Sebastian are one of the exceptions, but are too obscure, and too cute. Elliott Smith wrote great music, but died young. Stereolab stayed almost completely unknown even to the hip. Coldplay are doomed by their unacceptably poor lyrics and conservative instrumentation, despite occasionally having great melodies. But no one is writing the vocally dominant songs like "I Get Around" or "I Want To Hold Your Hand anymore, with the possible exception of college a capella groups.

In the next installment of this essay, I will talk about the other half of the split that happened to the music industry in the mid-1960s: Top 40 pop music, also known as music for accountants, squares and old people. Or, as today's hipsters would call it, music for people who don't really care about music.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 1

I want to tell you about wall-of-sound.

I want to tell you what wall-of-sound is, because I think art and music is better for it, and because I believe it is the best production philosophy to get the most out of a song. I want to tell you about wall-of-sound, because I think music has suffered for the last forty years since inferior production ideas have dominated the music industry. And the original practitioners of the wall-of-sound style, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, are no longer able to produce this type of music with the same energy and spirit they had in their youth. It is up to this generation to rediscover the timeless sounds of well-produced music.

But why should I tell anyone about wall-of-sound? Why don't I just keep it my trade secret and make money producing my own music in this style?

There is no reason for me to keep the wall-of-sound to myself, except to let the music industry continue to crank out their hit parade of uninspiring songs destined to be forgotten by next year. This is no time for egos, profits and pointless competition. I want the wall-of-sound philosophy to usher in a new era of great music accessible to everyone. By writing this essay, I have little to lose and a golden age of music to gain.

Music does not suck and rock is not dead. I look around and I see great songwriters everywhere, men and women, young and old, of all ethnicities, creating music that could inspire the masses and steer our society in a positive direction. Music is one of the most powerful art forms, a sensory experience so profound that, in addition to its obvious soothing and inspiring effects on the general listener, it has been known to have positive effects on people with brain disorders even when other treatments have failed.

Currently, our pop radio stations have 40 songs in rotation at any given moment. It is a sorry state of affairs, but made sorrier when you consider the fact that, of the 40, we would be lucky if one of the songs is still remembered by anybody ten years from now. Why not fill the radio with instant classics? There is room on contemporary radio, at any moment, for hundreds of well-produced songs that could withstand the test of time.

Can you imagine? Radio would be heaven, or at least the sign of a flourishing culture. I believe that wall-of-sound production is a step in that direction.

But before I tell you what wall of sound is, I will tell you what wall-of-sound is not.

Wall-of-sound is not an outdated, obsolete way to make music. Songs like "Chapel Of Love," "Unchained Melody," "Good Vibrations," "God Only Knows," "Imagine," and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" have attained immortal status, not just because they are examples of great songwriting, but because their wall-of-sound production have pushed it into the public imagination. Even if you don't recognize these titles, I know you will recognize the song when you hear it. Wall-of-sound continues to work to this day, everytime someone remembers one of those great songs.

Wall-of-sound is not the piling up of as many instruments on a pop record as possible. This technique is certainly one way of getting to one kind of wall-of-sound, but the technique is not the sound. Without an understanding of what wall-of-sound is, what it means, any fool can overdub endlessly and never come close to the true wall-of-sound.

Wall-of-sound is not an exercise in which the producer puts as many people in a room as possible, saturates the room with sound using amplifiers and tape echo machines, and records a live take of the result. Again, this is only a technique, admittedly a very effective one, of getting to something close to wall-of-sound. Technological advances since the 1960s have made this expensive technique unnecessary. In particular, software such as Cubase and Pro Tools can create a wall-of-sound just as well, if not better, than anything Phil Spector and Brian Wilson achieved in the 1960s.

"But what exactly is wrong with today's music?" you ask. "Especially if have good taste in music and listen to indie rock."

A good question. In the next installment, we will take a closer look at today's music and how our expectations of music have gradually shifted over the century.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"How many Tonics does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"

----Five, but you'll have to wait ten years while they complete their M.S. and Ph.D. degrees.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Arta and Steven recorded the instrumental for "Radio." It's looking more and more like an epic under 3 1/2 minutes.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Band to record band wrecker's song about band-wrecking

Tomorrow, Arta and a sell-out will begin recording "Radio," a song written by the man who disgustingly wants to work in some skyscraper in some financial district, which is good for nothing except to be shut down during important days of labor protest. Anyway, the mobile recording center is to be moved to Arta's house, perhaps symbolizing the upward-mobility sham, also known as the American Dream, that a certain member of the once proud band is keen to partake in. Why are we even recording this song if it's not going to be performed when Steven's ass is grass and the band is the lawnmower? Incidentally, tomorrow's recording session will take place where that ridiculous metaphor was first thrown at Steven and former Sculpted Static member Robert, during an incident with an angry neighbor. Another incident with an angry neighbor is record producer Joe Meek's murder-suicide, when he fatally shot his landlady and then himself on the 8th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death. Meek is the British version of Phil Spector, an eccentric genius ultimately brought down by tragedy. He is best known in the United States for the hit instrumental "Telstar" by the Tornados. Speaking of instrumentals, the Tonics may have to convert the "Lucy" songs to instrumentals when Steven is silenced from being 250 miles away. Anyway, that was quite a digression... tomorrow we will also be working on Mark's "Our House," which, despite being almost finished, deserves more attention because of the fact that its composer is one of the several Tonics who have not yet disgraced themselves. The current mix of "Our House" sounds pretty good, but there is room for improvement, especially in the area of harmonies.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Is one degree not enough?

According to reliable sources, Steven is leaving town for another one of his eccentric summers. This time, he wants to append the letters MS and CPA to the end of his name. Is he selling his soul for rock and roll, or just selling his soul?

"Think of it as performance art," says the idiot who is certainly walking into a lifetime of unhappiness doing the most boring work known to man. "I want my certification printed onto our future liner notes and press materials, to distinguish me from the Hong Kong pop star."

That is, of course, if the band has a future. Maybe the writing was already on the wall at Sculpted Static's first gig at the No Future Cafe. Without our resident bean counter's trademark keyboards and harmonies, how will the band survive? And even if it does, will Steven's spirit-crushing job as a certified public accountant destroy his ability to write music?

"That's a good question, Neon. But as we all know, my greatest hits have been written during situations that really highlighted the meaninglessness of life," says the sorry excuse for an artist. "For instance, I have been quite prolific since I took a job as a bookkeeper. But don't get me wrong---it's a great job. As long as I do my work and know my shit, no one cares about my socially awkward and misanthropic behavior. The same cannot be said about the more glamorous industries, such as the media, just the thought of which makes me uncomfortable."

Well, Steven doesn't have to worry about people talking to him, since he has now marked himself with the brand of a bona-fide lunatic, to be avoided at all costs.

"It's a phase," says Arta. "He'll snap out of it, just like that publishing thing. Now where's my pick?"