CHAMBON, PHILIP J. (Kingston University, London)
Q: Where’s the song? A: It’s the track stupid!
[abstract] Many contemporary and indeed historical popular music songs have been created as a result of collaboration and improvisation between individuals in a studio environment (larger controlled spaces, multi-track tape, ProTools), or in a home recording environment (smaller unpredictable spaces, portable reel-to-reel recorders, multi-track cassette recorders, laptops) or a combination of these.
Popular music tracks are referred to as songs, sometimes even if there are no vocals. What is the song? Is it the basic top line – tune and lyrics and the piano chords? Probably not since Brill Building days, or music theatre has a song existed as a score. Paul Simon, one of the most successful songwriters of his generation, is quoted in Levetin (2008, p.2) as saying ‘The way that I listen to my own records is for the sound of them; not the chords or the lyrics – my first impression is of the overall sound’. Read more…
This is an academic paper on the subject of collaborative songwriting in the studio. It was presented at the 6th Art of Record Production conference in Dec 2010 and appears in the Journal of the Art of Record Production Conference Proceedings – ISSN 1754-9892. Please feel free to download/cite it as you think fit. The correct citation is;
Bennett, J., 2011. Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. In Journal of the Art of Record Production 2010. Leeds, UK: Art of Record Production.
In keeping with my view that academics should make their research as freely available as possible, you can download the whole paper here.
Yes, I know the blog’s been a bit quiet lately. The studio has actually been quite busy with the Widcombe project and a couple of small freelance things, but mainly I’ve been preparing for a lot of commitments and events outside Bath in November. I’ve started the songwriting PhD (at Surrey) and had an initial meeting with my supervisor, Prof Allan Moore. The working title of the PhD is ‘investigating creative interactions in collaborative songwriting’ and I’ve been reading background materials for my initial literature review. I’ll probably post some more detail soon about the PhD for any interested songwriters or other musicians & academics – I’m hoping that the blog will be useful in this respect, because I want to (continue to) amass a comprehensive list of songwriting-related contacts, publications and interviews etc. So it’s always great to hear any recommendations that people may have for songwriting books or analyses – or, for that matter, any experienced collaborators who want to find out more about the study. There seems to be only one book that deals specifically with collaborative songwriting – Walter Carter’s The Songwriter’s Guide To Collaboration. Not that the PhD is going to be exclusive academic – it will involve interviews with songwriters and a lot of actual co-writing (it combines musicology and composition).
Part of the work involves investigating the psychology of creativity, in musicians and others, so it’s fortuitous that there’s a conference next week at Surrey about this very subject.
And I’m gearing up for a week in Scotland at the end of November working on the Burnsong project. Burnsong is a Scottish (Arts Council) organisation that promotes songwriting – not the songs of Burns himself, but of the values and beliefs he expressed in his work. They run an international songwriting competition, and the ten winning songwriters spend a week writing and recording at a remote farmhouse in Dumfries. We’re then going to perform the songs at a one-off gig (on 30th Nov) at the Scottish Parliament building, which will be broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland. Apparently we’re setting up the whole band on the staircase pictured – I’m intrigued!
Producer Chris Blanden and I worked on the Burnsong project back in 2007 (the songwriting venue was the same, but the 2007 gig was at BBC Glasgow). For 2009, the whole Burnsong event promises to be larger in scale, due partly to the fact that 2009 is the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. We’ve already heard the winning songs, and there’s some good stuff there, from traditional Scottish folk music to acoustic singer-songwriters, and (I kid you not) a plate-smashing song. I’m planning to blog the project every day anyway (as we did in 2007), and as before will try to get as many MP3s and lyrics online as possible; it’s possible that the project will generate 50+ songs (10 writers, 7 days) and Chris is pretty adept at producing good-quality acoustic demos from the first playback sessions.
And now some bad news. I’m locked out of the studio! Rainwater found its way into the wood of the exterior door, which has now swelled so much that I can’t get it open. Hoping for some dry weather, and that it will shrink a little, so I can book a Man With A Plane. And a guitar recording project came in this week with a 7-day turnaround. So I’m going to do this using Chris’ help and a mobile recording setup. Which, as he says, kinda proves the point that we, er, don’t need studios any more…
And that’s it! Phase 3 of the build is now completed, so the studio is now ready for the wiring to be installed, which will be happening early next week. Howard and Jeff sorted out a few details on the phone. The original large panel tabletop had too much mass, risking creating sympathetic resonance, and also making the space under it into a resonant cavity. So Artis chopped even more off the back of it, and added a vertical support underneath to take the weight – the M1F being the heaviest item. I also learn that all-valve desks have a slight acoustic resonance (being made partly of very thin glass valves) which has to be taken into account in studio design – it’s important to ensure that no sympathetic vibrations make it through to the body of the mixer.
On seeing the photos and videos, Howard still wasn’t convinced that the desktop would be acoustically neutral in the room. So he phoned through some more info & suggestions to Jeff, who got Artis to cut the desk down even more.
The holes in the tabletop were cut to the size of Howard’s speaker stand design. There are various ways of making studio speaker stands (including buying them commercially) but the rule seems to be simply to stand your cabs on something as dense as possible. Artis was telling me that sometimes they just stack concrete blocks then paint them or cover them with hessian. In this case, he’s made tall rectangular vertical wooden ‘boxes’ out of chipboard, which are then filled with sand to provide the density (ensuring no transmission of vibration to the floor or desk).
So my tabletop is a completely unique shape that no other studio has – it’s been cut to shape to take account of the M1F, Digi002, over/under rack, and all of course at the right knee height for a short bloke in a swivel chair. They even cut it to ensure the smoothest ergonomic travel for the mouse (so I can’t work with any left handed co-producers!).
Now that everything’s in, I can get back to sofa purchasing. The consensus seems to be that ‘wipe-clean’ surfaces are best for studio sofas (euwwww) so I’m on the look out for antique leather ideally – second-hand of course. So if you see anything, send me those ebay links!
I was expecting to write a post this weekend to the effect of “all the walls are now covered with hessian”. This is great news sonically, but doesn’t necessarily make a very interesting blog entry, considering that you probably now know (more than) everything you ever wanted to know about frames, fabric and sound absorption etc. I’ve just been away at a camping weekend with the family (also playing bass for a blues scratch-band – kinda DIY music festival for a couple of hundred people). Before we left I had a quick look at the studio in progress and asked Artis if there was anything he needed while we were away overnight. He asked if it would be OK for him to cover the air ducts in the live room with ‘interesting shapes’. He suggested that the room was starting to feel a bit austere (when someone says the words “like a dark prison” very slowly in a Latvian accent, it is difficult not to think of Count Dracula). Given that Artis has a real craftsman’s eye, I figured that whatever he had in mind would be tasteful, and way cooler than any suggestion I would make – so I left him to it.
When we returned it was blisteringly hot day so I went straight down to the studio, partly to see what Artis had done, and partly because it’s really cool in there: the sound isolation is so heavy that the building’s interior temperature is pretty much unaffected by the weather.
He’d completed all the hessian frames in both rooms, plus all the window frame pieces, and had made the MDF/hessian panels to covered the air inlets as planned. And… he’d made them all in the shape of guitars!
I’m speechless with delight. Here are some pictures while I calm down.
And in the live room, here are the works of art…
On the opposite side of the live room is the warm air outlet, and this time Artis has gotten really creative…
I can’t say how delighted I am with this development – it’s not only beautiful in its own right but it’s made the studio really personal, referencing some instruments that have been with me most of my musical life.
So, to sound recording issues. I had a long chat with Howard (the ‘Studiowizard‘) over the weekend (all our chats are long – when two geeks collide it’s always the way). Obviously the whole of the live room is ‘dry’ rather than ‘live’ due to the small dimensions involved – it’s too small to get a useful room reverb going, and anyway, it’s always easier to add reverb to a dry signal than to try to dampen a lively room. But wooden floors can still be great for acoustic guitars and drums, even in an otherwise damped room (a while ago I took a recording tip from Davey at the University, which is to record acoustic guitarists on wooden boards for extra reflections). So for the best of both worlds, the plan is to lay high-quality wooden laminate on a bed of fabric (to prevent squeaking floorboards), and then to buy a large IKEA rug on which to put the drum kit; the laminate is pretty tough, but I don’t want nasty bass drum spikes spoiling my nice wooden floor.
So, the important question. Which rug? Here’s an IKEA search to get you started. This isn’t a poll, it’s a free choice for readers of this blog, so you can suggest styles and colours. Please add comments on this post, or via my Facebook page. You will of course be asked for your opinion on matching drum shells when the time comes…
The Mac void has a miniature door now (double-thickness MDF), meaning the computer can be isolated behind the control room wall, so no fan noise can escape into the room. This means I’ll be able to use the control room as well as the live room for tracking. Today we agreed to add another hole, between the lobby and live room, so we could at a pinch use the lobby for tracking too, giving us three fully isolated recording spaces – not bad for a garage!
Artis has added a slab of MDF to the inner doors for extra density to improve isolation, meaning each door now weights 50KG or so. And today, for the first time, we sealed the building – the exterior glass went in. It’s currently double-glazed (albeit with 10mm thick panes) but each interior floating room will also be double-glazed. It’s almost completely silent in each room with the doors closed – even with HGVs going past on the main road outside.
Today’s Latvian import is Linda Leen – Beyoncé-style pop/R&B. Which is nice, but unremarkable.
But I know what you want – you want more ‘cellists playing hits of the 80s, don’t you? Here’s Melo-M with guest artist Intars Busulis performing ‘Ghostbusters’. What’s the best adjective for this cover version? I’m favouring ‘unnecessary’. Great video effects though…
Thanks to everyone who voted in the polls. I’ve also collated some views from the ‘analogue’ world – studio users and muso mates etc (plus a few Facebook comments) – and the verdicts are as follows.
- Sofa – second-hand leather. It will age gracefully and be, er, wipe-clean. Many a studio sofa smells of old ganja and stale sweat after a year or two. Or maybe I’m too used to working with students.
- Colours – light green walls (restful), light blue ceiling (sky-like) and deep red ‘claret’ for the monitor/baffle wall area. As some have pointed out, this will make the control area look worryingly like I’m an Aston Villa fan. I’m still not sure about the claret at the monitor end – this, after all, is the wall I’ll be staring at for hours at a time. On the other hand, it’s a beautiful colour. Grey is also an option. Comments welcome…
The newest addition to the structure is a hole for a soon-to-constructed Mac box, made to measure, which will serve two functions – extracting hot air from the Mac into the void behind the baffle, and isolating the control room from the Mac’s fan noise (the Mac Pro fans are pretty quiet anyway, but it will be great to have the option of perfect silence in the control room for vocal/guitar takes etc). The guys are going to build a mini-door at the front of the Mac box ‘cupboard door’ so visiting musos can plug hard drives straight into the Firewire socket on the front of the Mac. So now that we’ve got a custom-designed computer area built into the architecture, I’m hoping Apple don’t change the design of the Mac Pro any time soon!
Jeff’s away for a couple of days, checking on other jobs and doing some family stuff. Artis is pushing on with more rockwool, the power sockets and the green hessian wall coverings. It’s a blistering hot day in Bath, but the wall/ceiling insulation is so extensive that the studio interior is a good 10 degrees colder than the summer’s day outside. The Mac hole is currently working as an improvised fridge – it has preserved a tub of Co-op coleslaw for two days now…
The air ducts are nearly completed. The system will work like this;
- Refrigeration unit will cool the entire lobby area
- Fans will blow the cooled air down the silver ‘sandworm’ pipes
- Cool air will come out at the front of each room (through the ceiling baffles)
- Warm air will escape into the lobby via ventilation holes at the back of each work room…
- …and be cooled by the refrigeration unit
- There will be a fan switch and speed control in each workspace, so the occupant can just switch it on whenever cooling is needed
The air path is broken up into zigzags to prevent bass frequencies from travelling; the ducts are lined with rockwool & fabric. My 8-year-old has pointed out that in the event of anyone, er, ‘trumping’, this air will be circulated round and round the building at slightly different temperatures. So we will need to open the lobby door occasionally.
The cunning part is concealing all the ducts necessary to achieve all this. As mentioned before, the cool air enters via the ceiling baffles, having made its way through the soft pipes that run alongside the ceiling. In the lobby area there are two more ducts. This is the one for the live room, in its pre-covered state – you can just see the silver pipe emerging from the back and carrying the cooled air off to the right.
The second foyer duct – the one supplying the control room – is practically invisible now because it’s built into the door frame, so here are a few photos of it under construction.
The basic construction of the control room bass traps is now complete. The principle of a bass trap is that it stops particular bass frequencies from being accentuated by the construction of the room – here’s an article about the physics of listening spaces. This is to ensure that the monitor speakers are giving an accurate sonic ‘picture’ of the instruments/sounds in the mix.
Because low frequencies have a longer wavelength, they can only be broken up by large objects. Howard’s design of bass trap, from what I can tell, combines a ‘membrane’ and ‘broadband’ method of construction – plywood panels, with air gap, rockwool and fabric covering. All this means that we need some very large bass traps in the control room. So I may end up with a slightly smaller sofa than I originally thought!
On other news, Artis has been getting me and Jeff into Latvian folk-metal. Here’s Skyforger – chanting a 500-year-old folk song on the beach, then straight into some driving speed-metal riffery. Check out the bagpipe solo!
The phrase ‘studio tan’ will be familiar to many musicians. It refers to the pasty, underfed, hollow look that engineers, producers and players have after a long studio session. And it’s based on the idea that, being sound-sealed boxes containing lots of nickable kit, many studios don’t have exterior windows. The need for daylight for us humans (and most animals) is pretty basic, evolved over millions of years out of the basic logic that there’s a survival advantage for our metabolisms to know the time of day. The pineal gland apparently secretes the sleep hormone melatonin (more about this here) when it’s dark, making us feel drowsy. Put simply, dark studios don’t make you feel good!
This balance between soundproofing and musicians’ sanity has long been acknowledged by studio designers. Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box has a huge glass-walled control/live room called the Big Room, which all those who’ve worked in it (including my colleague and occasional collaborator Chris) have described as inspirational. So it’s always desirable to get natural light in there if you can get round the technical hurdles of soundproofing, security and air handling.
And I’m pleased to say that the garage studio will have natural light in both rooms. Jeff, Howard and I have been chewing over this problem since the project began. We’ve discussed sunpipes, skylights and daylight light bulbs. But once Jeff saw the angles created by raising the roof, the solution was clear – a strip window running the length of the east side of the building, letting in daylight above the old garage doors’ location. It’ll be behind and above the mixing/Mac area, creating lots of light without screen reflection (Apple are doing some very nice LCD monitors at the moment but many of them include highly reflective glass screens). There are two walls at the back of the control room (interior and exterior) creating a natural air gap of around 5cm, and meaning that the two window panes will be around 25cm apart, giving ample opportunity for angled triple-glazed panes (the angles serve to avoid sympathetic low-frequency resonance between panes from traffic noise).
Artis has now drilled a cable hole through from the control room to the live room. This is easier typed than done; it involved making a 4cm wide hole through several layers of plasterboard, rockwool, OSB chipboard, an air gap (this bit was quite easy actually), a 10cm thick concrete wall, another air gap, and then the rest of the plasterboard/rockwool/OSB layers on the other side. Why didn’t they make these holes when they were building the walls (I hear you ask)? The answer is that the two floating rooms need to settle on their bed of rockwool/membrane/screed etc – and the concrete wall itself will settle very slightly because of its weight. So the only way for the cable holes to line up is to drill them after the structure is complete. This, as with all parts of the construction, preserves the all-important principle that there is no physical contact between the two floating rooms – even the plastic pipes (see picture) that line the holes don’t go all the way through – they are three separate sections which are split across each air gap. We’re still working out what do do with cabling – we could have a standard XLR wall plate in each room, or just chuck loose cables through the hole to the live room as needed, and then fill the hole with a rag to seal it sonically. This might seem like a bit of a bodged working method considering all the detail that’s gone in to the planning and build, but actually it might be the most practical solution because it will allow really simple re-amping, and will reduce the length and number of required cables. Still pondering this.
And.. we have a door! It’ll have interior plasterboard and chipboard lining, plus sound-sealed hinges, which has the added bonus of making it more secure. It was fitted this morning, and will eventually be disguised as one-third of the mock garage door that Jeff intends to create out of MDF, white paint and deviousness.
Firstly, a quick thank you to everyone who’s made suggestions about bringing the studio and phone box projects together (see ‘categories’ on the right hand side). The best suggested studio-related uses for the phone box include shower for sweaty musicians, vocal booth for agrophobic session singers, and banjo booth (need not contain an XLR socket).
The aircon tubes have gone in (the silver snakes that look to a man of my vintage like David Lynch’s sandworms from Dune). These will carry cooled air in from the refrigerated lobby area along the side walls, inside the baffles, and into the live and control rooms respectively. Today also (day 2 of phase 2) Jeff and Artis have constructed the front wall that will eventually have the fake garage doors stuck to them. The original plan was for this exterior wall to be made of concrete, but we learned that the asphalt driveway outside the original garage doors has no foundations under it – so eventually a concrete wall would, er, sink!
Jeff told me a story about a client to whom this had happened a few years back – the guy had assured him that the foundations were sound, so Jeff dutifully constructed a heavy exterior wall. After a few weeks, it sank ever so slightly during one of the client’s studio sessions, preventing the heavy acoustic door from opening and locking the client and his musicians inside. Jeff was called from another site to come and let them out – he had to cut through the door to get in; they were stuck in there for around 7 hours, and apparently got really bored (lightweights – I can spend that long editing a vocal!).
So, if I’m to be potentially imprisoned, what colour should my cell walls be? Now that we’re well on the way to choosing a sofa, here’s another chance for you, dear reader, to influence the design of the studio. Essentially, we have two colour decisions to make (walls and ceiling) and four colours of hessian to choose from (these are rough photos of the fabric rolls, and the colours don’t come up great, but you get the idea – for info the green is slightly deeper than this). The walls and ceiling have to be different colours – a single block of colour will look ‘orrible. Scroll down, and vote now!
The live room wall is now up – this is the wall (with window and door) that faces you when you walk into the building, with the control room entrance on the right hand side of the lobby area. The lobby will also contain the aircon colling unit (and may even double as an occasional makeshift booth for guitar amp micing or re-amping).
The live room is now a complete 6-sided box, which ‘floats’ inside the building. This means that it rests on its base of rockwool (which sits on the floor of damp-proof, chipboard, screed etc) isolating it completely from the floor and walls – the whole room is unconnected to the main building structure. There are not even any screws fixing the room to the structural timbers, as these risk transmitting vibrations in from the outside and between live/control room. Jeff and Artis demonstrated how unconnected the live room is from the building’s exterior, by pushing on one wall while I leaned against the opposite wall; the room moves slightly from side to side. We haven’t recorded anything yet, and the studio already, er, rocks…
Update – it’s now Sunday, and Jeff and Artis leave on Tuesday morning. The project will then be on hold for a couple of weeks – Jeff has other jobs, and Artis has to return to Latvia. So we’re a couple of posts away from taking a break (and I’ll get back to blogging other things, finishing the current guitar book, and preparing for SWF).
If you haven’t done so already, please vote for the sofa.
The ceiling now has two layers of plasterboard – one widthways and another lengthways. Right now there’s noticeable isolation in the room, even with thin garage doors forming one of the walls.
Jeff pointed out that the raised floor in the lobby gives us a bit of a dilemma. If we raise the floor level, we won’t have an interior step up. This means the cosmetic/fake garage doors on the outside would have to be some two or three inches off the floor – creating a ‘lip’ at ground level that wouldn’t suggest to an observer that this was a garage for anyone but the owner of the most rugged of 4x4s – who liked a bumpy offeoad experience when putting the car away at night.
So in order to make the studio look suitably garage-like from the outside (to avoid advertising the nickable guitars therein) we may need to rethink the interior step.
In order to create the ceiling height specified in Howard’s drawings, Jeff has decided to raise the roof one more time. Not by a whole block’s worth, but just by a couple of inches. In the picture above you can see where the roof has been screwed to the wooden batons, and the batons fixed to the concrete with metal strips.
According to Jeff, the guys haven’t really started work yet; “All this is just basic construction – we haven’t made the boxes for the actual rooms yet. We’ll have this finished in a day or two – THAT’S when we’ll start building you a studio!”.
I moved house this year, and the new place has a double garage. Not being a car lover, and having no garage-mechanic skills whatsoever, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to build a ‘proper’ home studio to replace the family-unfriendly spare rooms and attic hideouts I’ve used so far. So here, for posterity, and for fellow studio nerds who take an interest, I’m going to blog the building of the studio as it progresses.
I’m using the StudioWizard organisation, who designed the MusicLab at Bath Spa, which has proved to be the most tutor-friendly teaching studio I’ve ever used. The design is taken care of by Howard Turner. These are the initial CAD pictures – live room and studio.
Working methods and tech
I tend to work purely at the Mac with the minimum of outboard apart from mic pre-amps. The studio is based around a Digi002 and an Intel Mac running Pro Tools and Logic Pro. The most important consideration was not tech (I already have most of the kit) but ergonomics – how would I move around the working environment. Typically I’ll be working on my own for most of the time, with one other person (session player, collaborator or co-writer). After much discussion, Howard and I decided we would try to squeeze in a tiny live room – just enough for a minimal drum kit. Live drums is the one thing I’ve always had to farm out, and although I don’t actually play kit, it’s going to be great to have the option of real drums for projects; once you factor in the time it takes to program (and produce) sampled drums properly, it can often work out cheaper simply to hire a kit player – and most of the time it sounds a whole lot better. BFD is great, but it’s like any other virtual instrument – it sounds amazing right up the moment when you compare it to the real thing! All of my projects (guitar teaching books and songwriting stuff) are based on creating a ‘live band’ sound in some form, and I don’t expect to get inspired by Techno any time soon, so having a live room (albeit an acoustically dry one) is going to be a real plus for future recordings.