Everybody’s path is a little bit different. When pursuing a dream, it’s best to look inward rather than compare one’s achievements to those of others. However, as an individual who has gone through his teen years and early twenties pursuing dreams of a music career, I understand the value of hearing stories of success and of failure.
My objective with this post is to provide an honest account of my personal development as an artist. From my early days working out of my bedroom on a four-track tape recorder to working in big-name recording studios, I’ll try to leave no stone unturned.
I first became infatuated with creating music in kind of a funny way. A long time ago, in the early 2000s, there existed a website called cokemusic.com. It was a sort of Club-Penguin-style Internet chat room/community where users could create songs using pre-made loops and then show those songs off to be voted on by the masses. The looping interface was incredibly limited and the samples were a little cheesy, but I fell in love with beat making and couldn’t wait to expand my toolkit.
A year later I fell in love with guitar and realized I could give myself more control over my music if I was actively writing and performing it at its most basic level.
I asked for a 4-track tape recorder for my next birthday and immediately started trying to create mash-ups by plugging the headphone jack of a CD player into the recorder’s input. I didn’t have much success with this workflow, considering my limited knowledge of tempo and key, but it was a great way to get my feet wet.
A year later I fell in love with guitar and realized I could give myself more control over my music if I was actively writing and performing it at its most basic level. At 12 years old, I got my first guitar and have been playing ever since. I started writing and recording my own songs, out-of-time and out-of-key monstrosities that will never again see the light of day. But I was always looking to improve my skills.
The Move to Digital
Eventually, I met some friends who were just as passionate about recording. They introduced me to the world of digitally recorded music. Again my perspective broadened and I suddenly realized how much more I could accomplish by using my computer as part of my music production process.
I discovered FL Studio and began learning it by creating covers of songs from video games that I liked. I started out by making note-for-note copies of songs from Chrono Cross. This process taught me the ins and outs of the software and gave me a strong foundation to begin making my own music.
Music became my favorite thing to work on. I’d think about melodies and lyrics all day while at school and then come home and either practice guitar or start composing new songs on the computer. I was obsessed! No part of the process felt tedious to me. I loved practicing, writing, recording and mixing. To this day I feel the same. Every part of the songwriting process allows you to put a little more of yourself into the finished product.
Between middle school and the end of high school I’d written more than a hundred songs. I single this chapter of my life out as being one of the most pivotal. I wasn’t trying to please anyone with my output and, as a result, I learned to write for myself and self-edit. I worked at and acknowledged my deficiencies without judgment and without getting frustrated, laying a strong foundation going forward.
There’s still time to learn music production this summer at DMA!
In college I decided that I didn’t want to be a music major. I’d considered the possibility, but ultimately decided that turning my passion into an obligation would be a bad move for me. I’d already developed a creative workflow that fit in with my personality and goals and I didn’t want to jeopardize that by allowing myself to be externally pressured to create my art. Instead, I decided to pursue a major in digital arts.
Meanwhile, I was always creating new music. In high school I’d discovered a balance which allowed me to pursue my obligations as well as my passion for creating music and I implemented a similar schedule to continue to do so. I wasn’t always able to commit to music as much as I might have liked, but by keeping it on my mind and making effective use of the time I was given, I was able to continue to develop my skills.
Your goal should not be to get in with a huge manager or get your new mixtape tweeted by Kanye. Your goal should be to create the best version of your art.
During summer breaks, I would go on tour with my band The Speed of Sound in Seawater. We’d tour for a few weeks at a time through the Pacific Northwest or out to Texas and back. This was a formative time for me to discover what it meant to be a performer. I could write a whole other blog post about that process, but the biggest take-away I got from touring was discovering how much other peoples’ interactions with my music meant to me. I came away from these tours encouraged to write songs that would allow me to connect with people.
I, like many millennials, went through a major slump after graduating. I didn’t know what I could do to make money. I knew I wanted to keep making music, but I knew that it would be a long time before I could rely on that income to feed and house myself.
I bounced around different jobs, creating music all the while. Eventually, I put together a demo that I felt happy with and sent it off to a number of record labels. This is the part of the story where a little luck comes into play. Somehow, my demo ended up on the desk of the label manager at ANTI- Records, one of my favorite labels growing up. The manager loved what he heard and several months later I was signed to the label’s roster.
If you like this blog, check out Damien’s fantastic DMA How-To videos!
Very quickly, my whole perspective of what I’d been doing changed. Suddenly a whole team of people were just as excited about my songs as I had been my whole life. What’s more, they were willing to spend real money on ensuring I was able to record those songs in big glamorous studios that I’d only seen in recording magazines. The entire process was, and still is, very surreal.
What Really Matters
The biggest take-away I can offer from my experience in music production is that, when it comes down to it, the only thing that really matters is your art. Your goal should not be to get in with a huge manager or get your new mixtape tweeted by Kanye. Your goal should be to create the best version of your art. The more you grow as a person, the more that fact will be reflected in your music.
I’d also like to convey that I in no way consider myself to be done on my own path. I hear music all the time that inspires me and that I hope to be able to match one day. The process never stops! As long as you’re enjoying the process, you’re doing it right.
The current state of tech has made all of us artists. From your little brother to your grandma, that smart phone in their pocket has made a photographer out of anyone with a telephone.
A similar trend is happening with music production. It used to be that records cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. Now, with just a few hundred dollars, aspiring musicians can make records at home that sound good.
The lowering of these barriers to entry into mediums which were once dependent upon heavy financial support is both scary as well as exciting. On the one hand, the field is much wider, which makes “standing out” more difficult than it once was.
However, the ability for an artist to see a project through every phase of music production single-handedly is a phenomenon that makes up for the sheer volume of content being put out in this new age of recorded music. With the right skills and outlook, you can stand out from other artists and have more control over your product than was ever possible before.
I like to use the artist Grimes as an example of a contemporary recording artist who is doing an amazing job of navigating the changes the industry has experienced in the last couple of decades. Grimes’ albums sound like huge expensive pop albums, despite the fact that they are recorded almost single-handedly by the project’s creator, Claire Boucher.
By developing the recording skills necessary to put out a quality product, Boucher armed herself with tools which allowed her to exist independent of the courtships between record label and artist, which often result in dead ends for artists who do not have access to recording equipment.
Add to this the fact that Boucher directs and produces much of her own music videos and you have a completely self-sustaining project that expresses one individual’s creative goals from start to finish.
GAMES OF CHANCE
Another great example of a recording artist who embodies the qualities of our “Artist of the Future” is Chance the Rapper. Chance has collaborated with Madonna and Kanye West and, despite being associated with these heavy-hitting acts, has accomplished a great deal without the help of a record label.
By honing his production and rapping skills, Chance was able to successfully release two full-length albums without having access to the huge platform enjoyed by many rappers who are signed to major labels.
The release of Chance’s free-to-download Acid Rap is a perfect example of an artist understanding the times. By producing a product of such high quality and then releasing it widely and for free, Chance became an overnight success.
His latest mixtape, Coloring Book, was released as an exclusive stream on Apple Music. Clearly, without the acclaim following Acid Rap, Chance the Rapper would not have become such a household name.
Even without a record label, Chance the Rapper’s mixtapes have been downloaded more than a million times! (Photo: Chanceraps.com)
A MOVE TOWARD GREATER QUALITY
I’ve heard people make reference to a “cult of the amateur,” or a trend in culture where the barriers to entry into the arts are so low that the quality of the product is reduced. While it is true that there have never been more artists alive in human history, I think this fact alone promises a bright future for our culture.
By producing art, we grow to understand the process more intimately, which makes us crave the consumption of truly great art. The examples above demonstrate an emphasis that has shifted toward quality and away from financial backing.
By doing away with the monetary filters that once existed in the recording industry, we are presented with a purer product. The music should come straight from the artists’ minds and into ours and, now that the means of production are so much more accessible, we’re getting closer to that goal all the time.
In the first part of this series, I provided a few ideas to help aspiring music producers kick writer’s block by doing some unconventional processing in their digital audio workstations. This time around, I’d like to discuss some less tech-oriented methods to help you songwriters out there defeat writer’s block.
Change Up Those Chords
Sometimes all we need to get inspired is a change of scenery. The same is true of songwriting and often the real issue with writer’s block is that we’re working within chord structures that we’ve grown tired of. It’s easy to get comfortable with the same chord shapes on your instrument. Once this happens, it’s difficult to go outside of that comfort zone because it can feel like starting over.
However, once you’ve armed yourself with a deeper knowledge of chord theory, the whole process of songwriting becomes more fluid. Chords are to colors as musicians are to painters. Arming yourself with a broader palette will make picking the right chord for the mood you’re trying to convey an easier and more enjoyable process.
Here are a couple of resources for pianists and guitarists that you can use to help you learn new chord shapes:
The next time you hear a song you like, take a moment to look up the chords. A quick Google search of the song title + “chords” will give you what you’re looking for. If you come across any chords in the song that you can’t play off hand, look them up using the resources above.
It’s good to keep in mind that there’s no such thing as copywriting a chord progression. If you hear a progression you like, take it! Write a new melody and lyrics over it and you’ve got yourself a new song! This happens in the music industry more often than you might think. If you don’t like that idea, try reversing the chords in your favorite song and writing a song over that.
One last idea for guitarists: Try out some alternate tunings! E-A-D-G-B-E is the standard tuning for a guitar, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play around with some variations! Try D-A-D-G-A-D and F-A-C-G-C-E for some open-tuning fun! Just be careful with tunings that bring strings up in pitch (TIP: Go slow or you’ll snap a string).
Change Up the Interface
If those chords don’t get your creative juices flowing, maybe it’s less about the colors you’re working with and more about the tools. If you’ve been playing your instrument a long time, the experience of playing it can grow a little stale. When this happens, it’s good to step away and try something new.
Remember that clarinet your older brother used to wail on? Maybe it’s stuffed away in the closet somewhere! What about grandpa’s old banjo? Or mom’s violin? Even if you don’t feel experienced with the instrument you have access to, it can be a lot of fun to spend a day figuring out how to interface with a new tool. Presenting yourself with a different framework to write within will help you create ideas you would never have thought of when you’re playing an instrument that you do feel proficient with.
Thanks to electronic music production, there are dozens of ways to get a cool result out of an instrument that you have no experience playing. Even if all you can get out of your brother’s clarinet is a single blaring note, you can do all kinds of cool things with the sound. Chop it up, stutter it, pitch it or use the waveform it creates as the basis for a new synth patch.
If you don’t have access to any neat instruments in the house, you can scan Craigslist looking for cheap solutions. People are getting rid of old woodwinds and horns all the time for cheap prices. Try scanning the shelves at Goodwill for old keyboards. Sometimes old Casio keyboards with cool retro sounds will turn up in the electronics section. That’s 100 new patches right there!
If you don’t feel like leaving the house, start sampling pots and pans! Click some spoons together. Fill up some wine glasses, wet your finger and drag it around the rim to make it sing. You can build an awesome sample library out of just about any household item if you get a little creative.
I hope these ideas help you think of others! The next time writer’s block hits, don’t despair! Just look at the songwriting process with an open mind and you’ll be recording hits again in no time.
And make sure to check out Part 1!
DMA music production instructor and professional electronic musician Damien Verrett is back to share more wisdom on the business and art of making music. His latest topic: What to do when musical inspiration doesn’t strike…and you need to help it along.
Anybody who spends a significant amount of time writing music will go through phases of creative drought. It can be especially frustrating when these bouts of writer’s block strike when you have a deadline looming. When artists seek creative inspiration, we typically look inward. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the frustration that stems from a spell of writer’s block is not a positive foundation for any kind of creative output.
Fortunately, we’re living in the 21st century and have amazing tools that we can leverage when we’re in need of a creative boost. It doesn’t take much to get the gears turning again if you have a strategy in mind. Here are two techniques I’ve used in the past to get the ball rolling again mentally while producing music.
TECHNIQUE #1: SIDECHAINING CREATIVELY
Chances are if you’re making electronic music, you already know how to sidechain in your respective digital audio workstation (DAW). For the purposes of this post, we’re going to assume you know these techniques well enough to follow along. If not, there are tons of resources on YouTube that can teach you how to sidechain in whatever DAW you’re working with.
After trying pattern after pattern with no success, I decided to roll the dice a little…
A while back, I was having a hard time beginning a new song. I had picked a pad sound and a chord progression that I liked, but I was feeling uninspired about the rhythm of the part. After trying pattern after pattern with no success, I decided to roll the dice a little. I ripped out a piece of paper from my notebook, set up a condenser mic with my interface’s preamp cranked and started crinkling the paper in front of the microphone.
I took the recording of the paper and slowed it down a bit. Then, I scanned through the recording listening for any portion that seemed like it could make a solid loop. I grabbed a loop, sidechained the volume of the paper sample to control the volume of my chord progression and then muted the paper sample. Ta-daa! Like magic, I had a creative rhythmic pattern to go along with my chord progression and all it took was looking at the creative process from a different angle.
TECHNIQUE #2: ROLLING THE DICE WITH AUTOTUNE
AutoTune is a polarizing subject in the music business. But no matter how you feel about using it on vocals, the popular plug-in can be used to great effect as a tool for writing melodies and lead lines. This technique is similar to the last one we covered. If you’re having a hard time thinking of a melody for a song, or the beat you’re working on is missing that certain SOMETHING producers are always chasing, try using AutoTune.
I like to grab a handheld mic, load up a channel with AutoTune set to the key of the song I’m working on, followed by a distortion effect and maybe some delay. Loop a section of the song and hit Record. Now, make whatever kind of nonsense sounds you want into the mic. Try screaming, gargling, buzzing your lips, whatever! With AutoTune set to the key of the song, everything you do will be in tune, no matter how nonsensical.
Listen back to the recording, pick out a melodic line that sounds cool and go from there. You can re-record the part you’ve just been gifted with another instrument, sing real words over it, or you can keep your AutoTuned vocal and use it as a sample.
Come learn music production with Ableton Live 9 at DMA tech camps this summer!
No Rules, Just Right
Deferring to chance in favor of using your freewill isn’t always the best life advice. Fortunately, there are no rules in music or music production! Roll the dice and just see what happens.
Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge in the right direction and before you know it, you’ll be writing your next big hit!
DMA instructor and working musician Damien Verrett returns with more super-practical advice for young musicians who want to make music their profession. This time he tackles the ultra-important topic of carefully planning how to release your music.)
The 21st century is the Age of the Single. Playlists and streaming culture have brought singles to the forefront over full-length albums. “Going platinum” has never been more difficult in a music industry that is dense with quality hits that top the charts for just days before being overtaken by The Next Big Thing.
Damien Verrett (aka So Much Light) is a multi-talented performer and composer. Check him out!
Sound scary? It doesn’t have to be! Even as a DIY artist, solid planning can help you get your single noticed. Here are a few key points to keep in mind before putting out your next jam.
Don’t Do it Alone!
I know that feeling; your song is finished. It’s mixed, mastered and it sounds awesome! You’ve shown the video to your friends and family and they all love it! So what’s next?
Is it time to throw the track up on Soundcloud and wait for the plays to start rolling in? You could roll the dice and hope the right people hear your music, but the Internet is a big place and it’s unlikely. A better strategy would be to put out some tunes, buckle up and start sending some emails.
Putting out a single as an exclusive feature with a blog or website will help you reach a wider audience than you’d be able to attract on your own. Plus, it will help you build relationships with writers and bloggers that you can utilize the next time you want to release your music.
You’re trying to build a relationship with your listeners and the best way to do that is to stay on their minds.
I like to start by searching for blogs that have released reviews of records that I’m into. For instance, I might Google “FKA Twigs, LP1 Review” to find publications that operate within a similar genre of music. There’s no point sending a Country single to a Metal blog, so save yourself some work by narrowing those sights.
Before beginning this process, make sure you have reasonable expectations. Popular bloggers get hundreds (if not thousands) of emails just like the one you’re sending. Hopefully, somebody will pick up your single and then the next time you want to put something out, you’ll have somewhere to turn.
Sometimes we musicians have to do mundane tasks that feel like the furthest thing from the music. But remember, nobody is going to work harder for your music than you!
Keep the Ball Rolling
Okay, so you’ve gotten an awesome blog to release your first single. Or, maybe you decided to release it on your own. Now you need to keep the ball rolling. Putting out a single or two a year isn’t the best way to captivate potential fans.
You’re trying to build a relationship with your listeners and the best way to do that is to stay on their minds. If people loved your first single then they’ll be even more tuned in when the second one comes out, which means they’ll be much more likely to mention it to their friends, who will keep passing it on and so on and so forth.
It’s also good practice to have a release schedule. Rather than putting out one song at a time with no specific amount of down time in between, it’s better to have a handful of songs already finished that you can put out a few months apart. You want to keep your momentum going. If one of your singles does well, you want to have another one ready to launch so that you can keep people talking about you. Don’t be hasty!
Make Music You Believe In
The best planning means nothing if you aren’t putting out a product that you believe in. The last thing we want as musicians is to release art that we aren’t happy with. Before you get caught up in the rabble of blogs and social media, remember why you got into music production in the first place and never stop improving your product!
No number of emails or singles can improve the quality of your music. That being said, the best strategy of all is to work hard on your art, never stop growing and have fun.
Good luck out there!
Damien Verrett is a singer/songwriter/producer from Sacramento, Calif. He performs under the stage name So Much Light.
Calling out ACROSS THE UNIVERSE!
Time to COME TOGETHER and celebrate the amazing musical legacy of John Lennon. And what better way to honor one of the greatest songwriters of all time than through an amazingly cool songwriting contest!
The John Lennon Songwriting Contest represents $300,000 in cash and prizes…and you can participate, whether you’re a musician who’s ready to blow the world away with your greatest song, or just a fan of one of the musical performers or groups who enter.
Our good friends at the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus tell us that the competition is already heating up:
- We’re currently in the first round of competition (Session I), with entries being accepted through June 16, 2016. Then those submissions will be evaluated, with twelve Grand Prize winners announced on September 1, 2016.
- Then Session II begins, with entries accepted from June 16, 2016 until December 15, 2016, with those finalists announced on March 1, 2017.
- After that, each Grand Prize winner from Session I goes up against the winners of Session II in an online voting battle. It all leads to one composition being crowned Song of the Year on July 17, 2017.
The Song of the Year winner will receive $20,000 in cash and various other prizes.
Those prizes will include a $1,000 gift certificate from DMA for the Song of the Year winner, as well as twelve $500 gift certificates for the final Grand Prize winners.
To submit a song for consideration, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE and a $30 entry fee for each song (lasting 5 minutes or less), along with a lyric sheet and completed application.
You can apply online or by mail. All entry fees go to help support the non-profit John Lennon Educational Tour Bus.
Remember, entries are only accepted until December 15, 2016, so IT WON’T BE LONG before this contest is over.
HELP YOUR FAVORITES WIN “THE” BEATLE GUITAR!
And there are also plenty of other prizes, including one of the great famed musical instruments of Rock ‘n’ Roll history, as Matthew Reich, VP of U.S. Tours & Promotions for JLETB, told us.
“We encourage them to get their families, friends and fans to vote at least once a day and they can win an Epiphone Casino guitar,” Reich said.
The Epiphone Casino became famous during the 1960s as “the” Beatle guitar of choice, being favored by John Lennon as well as bandmates Paul McCartney and George Harrison. A classic hollowbody guitar of unmatched tone, the Epiphone Casino is an amazing prize.
For more information, visit the John Lennon Songwriting Contest page.
Digital Media Academy is proud to be partnered with The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus.
We share its mission of showing young people how to express themselves through music production, and how to do it professionally.
Just IMAGINE the possibilities!
It’s one thing to experiment with music production as a fun and enriching hobby. It’s another thing when making music is your job, and you depend on your gear – including complex computerized electronics – to help you earn your paycheck. Here’s one from the road, by working musician and DMA music production instructor Damien Verrett.
I’ve been touring the country in bands since I was 19. There’s nothing quite like loading up a van with expensive music equipment, piling your friends on top of it and hitting the road to play the music you love.
But, as fun as it may sound, touring brings with it a host of uncertainties: “Where is this venue?” or “Is this even a real venue?” and “Where are we going to sleep tonight?”
Add to these nagging questions the growing trend of incorporating computers into live music performance and you’ve created the perfect breeding ground for Murphy’s Law to wreck your day (or, more importantly, your set).
Like all of us, I’m still learning things about my craft all the time. I don’t consider myself immune to on stage disasters, but I’m a little closer to understanding why they happen and how to avoid them.
Here are three disaster stories to help future electronic musicians navigate the ins and outs of using a computer as an instrument on tour:
DISASTER STORY #1: ALWAYS CARRY A BACKUP
A few years ago I was touring with a computer for the first time and, needless to say, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I had planned ahead, I thought I’d envisioned all possible worst-case scenarios, but of course that wasn’t the case.
I had forgotten to account for one simple variable on this tour during a particularly grueling summer: heat.
We all know computers generate heat when they are on and that they generally use fans to regulate their internal temperature. Something I had not thought about was how hot an inert computer could get while sitting in a backpack inside a van on an Arizona day. When we arrived at the venue, my computer was so hot that it wouldn’t even turn on.
This sort of thing wouldn’t happen with a proper computer from 2016, but I was using a beater of a laptop from 2010. The main reason I’m telling this story is to illustrate the importance of having a backup computer on tour. It sounds crazy (and expensive), but it’s no crazier than packing a second guitar in the van for any mishaps you might have on stage.
Nowadays, I bring two laptops loaded with the same Ableton set and I load all of my sets and samples onto an external hard drive (we’ll come back to this later) so that even if BOTH computers give out on me I can load the files onto a NEW computer.
This is where PCs outshine Macs in the touring department. Replacing a PC at a Wal-Mart sounds almost pleasant compared to finding an Apple store and/or buying a new Macbook while on the road.
DISASTER STORY #2: KEEP IT SIMPLE, ROCK STAR
It’s good to be ambitious, but when it comes to computer music, it’s important to be realistic about the rigors that you and your equipment will be put under while touring. There is an endless number of ways to incorporate electronics into a live set. I find myself routinely daunted by the potential for expanding my set. But I usually find that returning to a “less-is-more” aesthetic is the way to go.
This guiding principle is useful for a number of reasons: First off, the potential for error increases exponentially with each piece of added equipment. A couple of years ago, I was thrilled to incorporate a wireless MIDI controller mounted to my guitar into my live set. It gave me more buttons, more control and it looked cool.
However, now I shudder to think how dependent I became on this little piece of equipment that sent MIDI notes wirelessly over Bluetooth. One night, just before my set and without warning, the thing just wouldn’t work.
Practicality aside, I’ve learned over time that keeping my setup simple actually improves the quality of my performance rather than diminishing it. When I don’t have to worry about my equipment functioning properly, I can just enjoy playing the songs. The last thing you want to be on stage is stressed, so put together a setup you can trust and keep it simple.
DISASTER STORY #3: PREVENT COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWNS
About a month ago, I was playing an important set in front of some important people and, in accordance with Murphy’s Law, everything went wrong. My computer started dropping out audio partway through songs and my MIDI controllers lost connection with my computer.
It was hard to conceal my horror at being stranded midway through a song by my own computer. Guitars and amps are predictable. Barring a broken string or a broken switch, there’s little mischief they can get up to. But computers are another beast entirely and, deep down, I think mine might actually hate me.
It was a bad experience, but I didn’t dismay. I came away asking “Why?” What actually happened to cause those audio dropouts? Why had my controllers lost connection?
I came to find that the way I’d been setting up my Ableton sets all this time was essentially wrong (at least for my purposes).
I’d been running stereo tracks instead of mono ones. I had thought about it before and rationalized, “I have 16 gigs of RAM. What’s the point of cutting the stereo files in half?” WRONG! Not only is it pointless to use stereo files in most venues (the PA in most venues is running in MONO because otherwise the stereo image would be completely different based on where you’re standing in the room), but it’s also significantly more likely to create hard disk crashes in Ableton.
I bounced out mono versions of all of my stems in 16 bit instead of 24 bit (because who is honestly going to be able to tell?) and now I run all of my tracks off an external USB 3.0 hard drive instead of from the internal hard drive that is running Ableton.
My other problem, the issue with MIDI controllers disconnecting, was much simpler. I realized that when my computer’s display went to sleep it broke the connection with my controllers. When I had been rehearsing I was interacting with my computer frequently enough that the display never had a chance to sleep. But, between sound checking and performing at the venue, my computer had more than enough time to sleep and thus break all of the connections.
It’s important to keep learning about your system as you’re developing it and to not give up on it. Chances are there’s a quick fix out there somewhere.
I hope this leaves you optimistic about your ability to wrestle with unruly equipment. It’s important to remain patient and actively seek out new information about your gear. If you can remember that it’s about the music first and not the equipment, you’ll be set up for success.
(If you’d like to hear some of my music, you can download my new Idiot Soul EP for free.)
Damien Verrett is a singer/songwriter/producer from Sacramento, Calif.
TURN YOUR MUSE INTO MUSIC
If Damien looks familiar to you, maybe you saw him lead our recent How-To blog post on live looping with Ableton Live.
This summer is your chance to elevate your approach to making music, by attending one of Digital Media Academy’s music production tech camps.
At DMA, you’ll master music and beat production with Ableton Live, the reigning software when it comes to sound.
Plus, we even offer two week music academies, where you can double the fun of our usual single week camp experience, and immerse yourself even more deeply in music production. DMA can show you how to find your particular sound – and then blow it up.
DMA Spring Savings are still in effect. Our camp season is less than three months away…register now!
The Beatles were many things simultaneously: the most famous celebrities of their day, the most successful songwriters of their age and, ultimately, the most beloved band of all time.
And one more thing: The Beatles were also the most creative single force to ever hit popular music.
The band has influenced generations, and still continues to have a profound impact. The Beatles not only changed music; they also forever altered the way music is made.
Through ceaseless inventiveness, The Beatles set musical trends that are still being followed. They never rested on their achievements, constantly stretching the boundaries of pop music. There is a chartable creative progression that begins with the first Beatle album and ends with the last.
It should also be noted that The Beatles were assisted greatly by studio wizard George Martin, who produced every Beatle album (except Let it Be) and helped the band with its various sonic experiments.
Trying to list The Beatles’ various creative achievements would take nearly forever, but we can zero in on five songs that demonstrate the band’s technical mastery and explosive creativity.
I Feel Fine
Album: Beatles ’65 (1964)
How It Changed Music: The first intentional use of feedback in a pop music recording.
Backstory: In 1964, the idea of musicians actually trying to get their instruments to produce distortion was radically new. And although The Beatles certainly didn’t invent feedback and weren’t the first to incorporate it into their live act (The Who or The Kinks probably have that distinction), The Beatles were the first to release a single that featured feedback.
How It Happened: It was all due to a happy accident in the studio, when John propped his Gibson acoustic/electric against a switched-on amplifier. The guitar erupted with feedback, which stopped Lennon and McCartney in their tracks. The uniqueness of the sound impressed Lennon so much, he instantly asked producer George Martin if they could somehow use feedback in the recording.
The producer suggested tacking it onto the front of the song and the rest is Rock ‘n’ Roll history. On the final master, John plucks the A string on his guitar. The note at first stings, then buzzes and finally dissolves into an ear-piercing wail. A million bands may have incorporated feedback into their sound, but The Beatles were the first to put it on record.
Album: Revolver (1966)
How It Changed Music: Rock songs don’t always need to have happy endings – or traditional drums and guitars – to become hits.
Backstory: Each song on Revolver has a unique, fully formed sound, but none more distinctive than Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.” A grim song about alienation (“Ah…look at all the lonely people!”), “Eleanor Rigby” tells the story of a lonely woman (who eventually dies) and a lonely minister (who presides over her burial).
The song was a shock to Beatle fans that were used to upbeat love songs from the Fab Four. This was a song with no happy endings. Nonetheless, despite the somber subject matter, the song spent four weeks topping the British pop charts. More than 60 pop artists have covered the song since then.
Revolver marks the point when The Beatles stopped being a live performing act and became a full-time studio band. Aside from the general exhaustion of touring, The Beatles were becoming more ambitious about their music and had already mastered conventional multi-track recording techniques. Individual songs were being crafted with more time and creative techniques.
In recording “Eleanor Rigby,” McCartney’s genius was to suggest the use of an eight-piece string section. In fact, none of The Beatles actually play instruments on the recording. Instead, the song is driven by its churning cello, mournful violas and stabbing violins.
How It Happened: There was a real Eleanor Rigby, who worked as a scullery maid in a Liverpool hospital and died in 1939. As teenagers, Lennon and McCartney hung around near a cemetery bearing her tombstone. It’s been suggested that McCartney absorbed the name subconsciously and used it years later when penning the song.
By the way, “Father MacKenzie” started out as “Father McCartney,” until Paul feared that people would think he was describing his own father.
Tomorrow Never Knows
Album: Revolver (1966)
How It Changed Music: Experimentation is good, part one.
The Beatles used a Leslie spinning speaker for John’s spacey vocals on “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Backstory: The Beatles were still a unified force in 1966, but Revolver demonstrated the individual gifts of each Beatle. Paul scored high marks with “Eleanor Rigby,” while George Harrison contributed one of his best songs (“Taxman”) and drummer Ringo Starr sang lead on the innocent anthem, “Yellow Submarine.”
As for John Lennon, he added the album’s closing track – a stunning piece of early psychedelic music called “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The lyrics, inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, were strange enough (“Listen to the color of your dreams”) but the song itself sounded like virtually nothing the band had recorded up to that point.
How It Happened: To give Lennon’s chanting vocal the desired “sound of a guru on a mountaintop,” producer Martin ran the vocal track through a Leslie spinning speaker, a type of rotating speaker that produced an odd, wobbly sound by replicating the Doppler effect. John’s vocals were also doubled by using an Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) system.
Meanwhile, Ringo used a unique drum pattern for his rhythm tracks and his drums and cymbals were recorded and played in reverse, as was Harrison’s sitar.
The Beatles also gave the song an added layer of weirdness by adding 16 six-second-long tape loops of various sounds (most of which were played in reverse), which producer Martin interspersed through the song. The resulting final track was an amazing, riveting piece of music that predicted the band’s next stage: psychedelia.
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
How It Changed Music: Experimentation is good, part two.
Backstory: Things were getting pretty crazy in groovy 1967, and that influence colors the album that many critics regard as not only The Beatles’ best album, but the best Rock album of all time. Sgt. Pepper is loaded throughout with one innovation after another, but “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” capably demonstrates the band’s daring musical experimentation.
The song’s lyrics, which tell of an upcoming old-style circus event, were inspired by an antique music-hall poster that Lennon had acquired. Much of Lennon’s lyric was taken word-for-word from the original handbill.
How It Happened: For one musical passage within the song’s middle eight bars, a collection of different pieces of audio was gathered. Each tape contained a different type of carnival music.
Producer George Martin, unhappy with their attempts to find one signature carnival sound, had all of the tapes cut into small pieces, which were then thrown into the air and onto the studio floor. The studio engineer then randomly picked up the pieces of tape, which were re-assembled in precisely that order to create a flowing montage of circus sounds.
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
Album: Abbey Road (1969)
How It Changed Music: Simplicity can be a lot deeper than you think.
Backstory: After the dense, multi-layered psychedelic rumble that The Beatles pioneered during the Pepper era, most of Abbey Road (which was the last Beatle album recorded, although Let it Be would be released after it) was marked by a simpler sound that didn’t seem to rely quite so much on audio “tricks.”
But even at their simplest, The Beatles’ music contains multiple levels. And that was certainly the case for “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which took a simple blues-type song and stretched it out to nearly eight minutes
How It Happened: Songwriter Lennon answered criticisms of the primitive lyric (“I want you…I want you so bad…I want you…I want you so bad it’s driving me mad”) by saying that it was an urgent love song that required a simple lyric. (Lennon used the example of a drowning man, who doesn’t scream, “Excuse me, but could you please possibly throw me that float and save me?” when “Help! I’m drowning!” is more to the point.)
Then there are the song’s special effects, which were tacked onto the building instrumental that dominates the back half of the song. The bizarre sound of an increasing, howling wind (created by Lennon playing a Moog synthesizer) was grafted onto the song, with the white noise becoming louder as the song’s thundering chords repeat over and over.
The end of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is also technically interesting, because there really is no ending, per Lennon’s idea. The instruments keep hitting the main theme over and over (with the wind SFX now up to hurricane force) and then the song just unexpectedly goes silent.
No final chord or drumbeat: just pure silence. An amazing and unexpected finish to a song that was more complex than originally judged…and one of the very last Beatle songs to be mixed by the group itself.
Creativity on Tap
The Beatles’ music still shines decades later, thanks to the careful craft that went into every Beatle recording. Each member of the band quickly became a master of the audio studio arts. Their early music shows The Beatles’ progression as audio producers who were determined to give the world a new kind of sound.
The Beatles’ legacy lives on. Digital Media Academy is a proud partner of The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, and shares its mission.
Like the Lennon Bus, Digital Media Academy can help teach you how to become a music producer.
The Beatles constantly upped the creative ante throughout their history. Thanks in large part to that magnificently recorded legacy, music production tech camps continue to attract creative and musical young people.
Introduced in 1971, the original ARP Odyssey synthesizer defined the 70s sound. From dynamic wooshes to vibrant funk cords, the all-analog ARP was used by such artists as Elton John, Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock. ARP closed in 1981 but thanks to KORG, ARP’s most-praised keyboard is now back in production.
Elton John’s “Rocket Man” was just one of the classic songs to feature the original ARP Odyssey. The synth was also used to create soundtracks for horror films. And even though it was widely praised by musicians, when ARP went out of business, working units were hard to find.
KORG secured the rights to the name and technology and has introduced the KORG ARP Odyssey, which accurately and faithfully reproduces the sounds of the original.
While the original ARP Odyssey came in three versions, each with a unique tone-coloring filter, the new KORG model incorporates the original three versions of the synth into one awesome keyboard. The KORG ARP Odyssey sells for $999.99 and is more compact (for today’s desktop music production) than the original – and features MIDI capabilities.
Making Money For Nothing
Making music in the digital age is easier (and cheaper) than you might think. In addition to the countless music apps out there, there’s also some great software like Logic Pro that can help you produce music for a fraction of what it would have cost just a few decades ago.
By attending a music camp like Digital Media Academy, you can learn from experts how to use powerful tools like MIDI keyboards, synthesizers and more.
B.B. King is gone. The universally proclaimed “King of the Blues” is dead at age 89 after spending more than six decades teaching the world about his chosen art form.
King was a titan of American entertainment, who played the Blues on street corners as a youth before thrilling generations of coliseum audiences with his trademark ringing guitar sound, after becoming acknowledged as the music’s main ambassador.
A transitional figure in American music, he popularized the Blues for mainstream America, which is part of why Blues giant Eric Clapton in 2008 called B.B. King “without a doubt the most important artist the Blues has ever produced.”
More evidence: His 15 Grammy awards and his 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. King’s influence is everywhere: The Beatles’ John Lennon even name-checked him on Let It Be‘s “Dig It.”
He was named as the sixth-greatest guitarist of all time on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2011 list. In 2003, Time ranked him the third-best electric guitarist of all time.
Here are our reasons why B.B. King was king of the blues:
King came from the bustling Memphis of the 1950s, a “melting pot” city where music of all types and color came together. This is where Country music and Rhythm & Blues first joined forces to create Rock ‘n’ Roll.
As a young man, his love of music helped him become friends with another hungry young local musician: Elvis Presley.
The Ultimate Blues Fan
King got his start as a Memphis disc jockey, playing Blues records as “Blues Boy” King (his real name was “Riley”). Like many great musicians (such as Willie Nelson), King’s work as a disc jockey paved the way for him playing music professionally.
As a music fan, his own tastes ran to the smooth: Frank Sinatra was King’s favorite singer.
He Owned His Style
King was fairly unique among Blues artists in his style of delivery, which used an old-school “call-and-response” singing style that mixed smooth crooning with the kind of hoarse, bluesy “field” shouting he had experienced firsthand as a boy picking cotton for a penny a pound.
He had a huge vocal range which allowed him to growl and howl with equal ease, before pegging the end of a line with some spectacularly high octave notes.
It typically sounded like this: King would belt out a line, then follow it with a guitar phrase that mimicked the line he had just sung. Then again and again, until King would hit some high vocal notes and let loose in a ringing electric guitar solo that was usually played on only one of his six strings.
This trademark sound sustained him for more than six decades.
His Guitar Was Alive and It Talked
King owned perhaps the most famous guitar in all pop culture…a midnight black Gibson electric with a semi-hollow body, which he famously named “Lucille.” The instrument was beyond precious to King; he once braved racing back into a burning building to get it.
(The fire broke out a club where two men were fighting over a woman. Her name? Lucille, of course.)
Although the entertainer, who maintained a 300-night-per-year schedule well into his 80s was married to two women during his life, one constant was his deep and abiding bond with the axe he cherished. In fact, he had numerous models of the Gibson, which is similar to an ES-355.
The guitar was so famous that in 1980, Gibson created the B.B. King Lucille model in tribute.
An Inventive Innovator
King helped advance Blues as an American art form, over the years seeking to constantly learn music production techniques and invest his work with a creative approach. For example, his landmark 1971 album “Live in Cook County Jail” rivaled Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison” as one of the first recordings made in a prison.
He was technically proficient, too. An early tech adapter, King cut TV commercials during the 1990s on behalf of the Amiga personal computer.
Although lacking in formal education, he was known to be into various scientific subjects and remained interested in math well into his later decades. He was also a licensed pilot.
He Played There
Wherever it was, you can bet B.B. King played there. He toured with the Rolling Stones for a period of several years with barely a day off. He flew to Africa as one of the entertainers who played before Muhammad Ali’s famous championship fight with George Foremen (1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”).
He would go anywhere to play the Blues, and everywhere.
King regularly showed up on TV’s “Tonight Show,” no matter which host happened to be behind the desk. As the most universally known figure in Blues, he played in virtually every type of venue, from small, intimate performances to huge arena audiences.
But no matter where he was or who he jammed with, he was always unmistakably B.B. King.
Before playing live with U2, the band was running through the song backstage, trying to show the chord sequence to the Blues legend. “Gentlemen,” King reportedly stopped Bono and the boys, “I don’t do chords.”
A Royal Presence
Beyond his personal successes, many in show business will miss the warm gentleman within B.B. King’s public personality. He may have been the king of the Blues, but he never acted like royalty.
He regularly made himself available to fans of all ages, particularly delighting in meeting rising young guitarists and hearing them play. And often playing with them.
There appeared to be little gap between the public persona and the actual man. Little wonder that Clapton (who cut a Grammy-winning album with King) called him “the most genuine and humble man” you could possibly meet.
It’s hard to tell which would have meant more to B.B. King…being known as a genuinely nice person or as the King of the Blues. He wore both crowns with equal grace.