Saturday, 26 November 2011

Breaking MYTH #1: Sound off like you've got a pear!

Sound isn't THAT important... (?)

This time, I have decided to deal with a common myth (or belief) I have run into a few times here in Cyprus. This is the idea that it doesn't matter what the sound level or quality is for your gig as long as you performed well...

Yes, a great performance is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL, ALWAYS! However, the quality of the sound you are presenting to the audience is JUST AS IMPORTANT!

A sure fire way to lose an audience or prevent them from wanting to see your band again (any time soon, at least) is to assault them with either painfully loud, unbalanced, harsh, clipping, or muddy sound at your gig. Or EVEN WORSE, multiples of these things.

Hopefully, you and your band have put a lot of effort into crafting great songs (originals and/or covers) and then practicing for a brilliant performance of them. After all of that hard work, don't you think your music deserves to come across in the best possible way... AND HEARD PROPERLY?

Now, there are MANY various elements that go into good sound for a gig, but the VERY FIRST STEP is the band getting the right tones and sounds to start with. THIS IS NOT AN EASY TASK! Mostly because the tone you think sounds best from your instrument as you are standing with your head next to its means of amplification (behind the kit, in front of your amp, etc.) may NOT be what is best for the overall sound of the band.

Okay, some folks who know me are going to try to call me out on this. I do often say, and maintain, that a band MUST be happy with what they sound like on stage in order to give their best performance. However, it is (again) NOT that simple.

One of the reasons I feel this way is the result of having had to deal with 'live sound engineers' that have absolutely NO F**KING IDEA WHAT THEY ARE DOING! As a result they are not worried about making the band happy and sounding good as much as they are (usually) fluffing their own delusions and trying to impose on a band what they learned from a manual, YouTube tutorial, and even a dedicated music engineering program. (More about that particular issue in another entry)

Well, the first and most important step to dealing with that situation is knowing and having your sound as a band dialled inn before even heading to a gig. The fact is, even the best live sound person is not going to be able to FIX your band's horrible sound.

So, what to do?

1. And I can't stress this enough... TUNE UP! This
    includes the drums. Okay, tuning the drums in a gig is not
    very practicle, but there is NO EXCUSE for not tuning
    them frequently; before gigs and at practices. Any
    instrument that depends on strings or skins being plucked,
    strummed, or thumped is going to go out of tune. Some
    more quickly than others, granted, but don't let 
    something as simple as keeping things in tune make
    you look and sound like a beginner.

2. Once everyone and everything is in tune, it is time to start
    working on tones (for now we're going to use an example
    of drums, bass guitar, and guitars typical of a rock band):

     A. For the drums, tuning is pretty much the only way
         to affect the tone, so start by getting a drum
         sound/tuning that works.

     B. I suggest then getting the bass guitar sound going. The
         drums and the bass share lots of similar
         frequencies, so getting them to blend a bit before
         moving on is a good idea.

     C. Next, gets the guitar (only, first, or rhythm) sound
         going. At this point it is HIGHLY SUGGESTED that you
         start paying particular attention to the bottom end of
         the overall sound. I don't know how many times I have
         felt the only thing letting down a band (I was either
         working with or watching as a fan) was that the sound
         was just to bottom heavy and, hence, muddy. My
         theory as to why this happens is; guitarists get used to
         the sound of their amps when they are playing alone
         where they need to push the low frequencies of their
         amp to feel the 'power' they want. The problem with
         that is when you take that kind of setting and add bass
         guitar and drums, low frequency build up becomes a
         SERIOUS issue. It may still sound and feel good to the
         person standing on front of the amp, but when those
         tones mix in with the rest of the band, it just sounds

     D. Now, start working on the second/lead guitar tone. Even
         less low end might be a good choice here as leads tend
         to need to 'cut through' everything else. You will also,
         more likely than not, want it to sound different from the
         1st guitar so they can be told apart! However, you need
         to be careful that there is still enough 'body' to keep it
         from sounding weak and brittle, while also keeping the
         highs from getting too shrill or 'harsh'.

Remember, I said this was NOT easy. If your band is a bit diverse and uses lots of different sounds and textures (different types of sticks, mallets, percussions, distortions, effects, styles of song, et. al.) then each of these situations and the different combinations needs to be addressed in a similar manner. Above is just the STARTING POINT. In other words, you will need to use your or a trusted friend's ears to dial in the sound of the ENTIRE band for all of your sound combinations. This will likely involve revisiting the above steps quite a few times.

There will also quite likely be some resistance by members of the band to changing the tone/sound they are USED TO HEARING from their instrument. However, the human brain wants what it hears to be good, so after a short time, the new sound will become not only acceptable to the players but preferred! (If you are interested in how humans process sound look up psychoacoustics. There are plenty of books and sites about it.)

Okay, so once you get a good, working combination of tones/sounds to make your entire band sound amazing, you are going to have to then deal with recreating that as best you can when you gig. The odds of being able to just leave all of your settings, ESPECIALLY VOLUME, exactly as they are in your practice room are NOT GOOD. In fact, if that ever happens, let me know!

Things get a bit more complicated for gigging as the size, acoustics, and Sound Reinforcement Systems (P.A.s) of different venues will NEED TO BE CONSIDERED AND ADJUSTED FOR. Not to mention that if you don't have your own regular sound engineer, you will have to find a way to work with the house sound person.

 I'm not going to get into the whole dealing with a bad Sound Engineer thing right now, but I will say that it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY as the band to do EVERYTHING you can to make sure your sound is as good as it can be. Here are some pointers:

1. Your monitor or stage sound needs to be good enough for
    each member of the and to hear themselves and other
    NEEDED elements of the band. This DOES NOT MEAN
    you should expect the sound engineer to give each of
    you an individual monitor mix that sounds like a
    major label CD!!! Just make sure you hear enough of
    everything you need to keep you going. It also means that
    you should have a 'reasonable' volume level from your
    own gear on stage, unless of course there is a damned good
    reason not to. Definitely strive for PERFECT
    monitoring/stage sound, but realistically GOOD ENOUGH
    will often have to do.

2. If you are lucky enough to actually get a sound check, get
    someone in the band (or a trusted friend) to stand in the
    audience area to listen for problems and for the 'right'
    sound. If you don't get a sound check, ask that friend to
    give you feedback during the set.

3. Try NOT to change your settings once your set starts just
    because it sounds different to you than it did at sound
    check. Wait for your friend's or the sound person's feedback
    first. If you have a monitor, you can always ask for more
    or less of yourself or someone else in it. Fact is, an empty
    venue and a (if you are lucky) full venue are going to sound
    different as human bodies absorb quite a lot of the higher
    frequencies and will prevent you on stage from hearing the
    room reflections you heard at the sound check.

4. Watch your volume! There is a fine line between a nice
    EXCITING, LOUD band and an ANNOYING, LOUD band.
    Hopefully, your sound engineer knows this too.

The thing is, the more experience you have, the easier this becomes, even when starting a completely new band. Some people are also very natural tone finders, just like those freaks you meet who can play the crap out of any instrument they lay hands on, even the FIRST TIME! If you are not one of these people or don't happen to have one in your band, hopefully, the pointers above will set you off in the right direction.

Not only is taking the time to get yourselves sounding great what your fans deserve, but it will also set you WAY apart and above those bands that don't!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Breaking Rule #2 - Covers

The 'COVERS' rule(s)...

This is probably the second biggest annoyance I had with trying to form/join a band here in Cyprus. It seemed as if every single musician I ran into insisted that it was absolutely imperative that a minimum of 50% of a band's repertoire be covers, and that those covers needed to be of the EXTREMELY POPULAR ilk. 

I was told, "If we don't do at least 50% covers, then the promoters won't let us play." My first reaction was, "Okay, well... there are loads of great obscure songs we could do with a twist that might be fun." Which was then squashed by the, "no, they have to be songs people know, and we need to do them JUST like the originals."

I started to get upset by the idea that a promoter or venue could dictate to an artist what they are "allowed" to perform. THIS is EXACTLY why this blog is titled 'I call it MUSIC Business'! I had run into this kind of promoter bully in my past and, in my experience, these folks are much more bark than bite.

Here is what I suggest for dealing with this particular situation:

1. If they don't talk to you about the percentage of covers you need to play, you don't talk about it either. If you only do originals, great! Even if it is 'known' that they want 50% covers, if you have not discussed it with them then they don't have a leg to stand on. Even better if you have a contract for the gig that does not stipulate the percentage of covers. This is definitely one of the cases where it is easier to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

2. If they do bring it up, say WITH CONFIDENCE AND CONVICTION, "Our original stuff kills. Guaranteed to have the entire crowd on their feet! Let us do one show our way. If the crowd complains, we'll do a second gig for you of all covers... For free!" Or something to that effect. The point is to stand your ground and sell yourself. Of course, you'd better make sure you can back up your boasts for this one to work.

3. If they bring it up, LIE! This one is a slightly bigger risk than #2. Saying you'll do a certain amount of covers and then not delivering will almost certainly piss off the promoter/venue, BUT if you kick major ass and have the crowd going nuts and buying lots of drinks, then the promoter/venue might be more than willing to forgive you.

4. Bring a crowd in on the night! This applies to EVERYTHING about gigging, really. Don't just think your 5 friends that you put on the guest list coming to watch you stand on a stage is good enough... IT IS NOT! And if you think that just posting an event on facebook is going to do the job, I have a nice bridge out in San Francisco I can sell you. Get old school and make fliers, posters, and use ALL the social networking angles you can. Make an event, post it on your wall every day, same with all the groups in your area, make your presence and your gig so in people's faces that they want to go just to see what all the fuss is about. And when you get them in the door, keep them there by being GREAT! Remember that little word behind MUSIC above? It is still important. AND if you have a reputation for bringing a crowd, you can make your own demands.

5. If none of the above works and the promoter/venue refuses to budge and won't give you a gig or blackballs you after you try the other options... Forget them. Even here in Cyprus there are many venues and promoters you can try to work with. Remember, without you - the bands, the promoters are out of work and the venues have nothing special to bring people into their places. Don't be rude though, as they might come back to you with a different view once you have established yourself as a drawing act regardless of % of covers. Always be a professional when dealing with the business end of things too. It WILL pay off.

6. There is an outside chance that everything above will backfire right in your face and you will find no promoter or venue willing to touch you with a 10 foot pole. This is especially possible for bands that are just starting out. This is a cruel business, but that doesn't mean you should give in to the pressures. It may not be as glamorous and may be a lot more work, but if you can't get gigs at established venues, go old school D.I.Y. and play some house parties, or warehouses, or WHATEVER YOU CAN! If you get a gang of people loving what you do (by any means necessary) then the venues and promoters will eventually see you as a profit maker and give you the gigs (see #4 above). The key, I think, is being true to yourself no matter who says what to you. Including me!


Don't misunderstand me. I am NOT anti-covers. In fact, I have the distinct honour of working with one of, if not THE BEST cover bands in Cyprus. I have also played more than my fair share of covers over the years. Also, some of my favourite songs are covers, and sometimes I like the covers better than the originals. I am ALL for doing covers, but for the right reasons. Here are (for me) some of the right and wrong reasons:

     RIGHT-      (in the context of gigging/recording)

1. There is a song you love that most people may not have ever heard, and you want to turn people on to the original and the band that did it.

2. There is a song you either love or even hate, but you are inspired to take that song and put your own killer twist on it (I'm sorry, but I do not count just playing it WAY faster) to make it your own.

3. You are making/in a function/cover band to go out and gig to make money. Seriously, there is NOTHING wrong with this. In fact, it is a great idea and if you can make it work, more power to you!

4. FOR FUN! If everyone in the band is into doing a cover song because it is fun and everyone enjoys it, great! The audience will pick up on the joy you as a band are giving off from the stage/recording. *** This aspect is actually a requisite for doing any covers. Apply it to ALL of the RIGHTS!

5. If it is a way out of a bad recording contract. Okay, this sounds bad. Let me explain. If you are having big issues with a label and owe them an album, but you know they aren't going to do right by you (won't advertise or push distro) and your contract does not state that you owe them originals, do a covers album. You still want to make it great as your fans that do manage to get it deserve your best, but save the original work for the next label that is there to promote you properly.

     (in the context of rehearsing)

6. As a young musician just starting out on your instrument, I STRONGLY support learning covers. Obviously of the music you love, but also of stuff you might not even know. Get out there and check out other kinds of music and learn how to play it. By doing this you might just develop your own style and bring together some differing influences that make you stand out in your own playing and song writing.

7. As a band of young, inexperienced musicians starting a new band, there is a huge advantage to jamming covers. The biggest advantage is that it will help you all learn to play together and off of each other without having to worry about the writing process. If you are smart and play a bunch of different covers of a bunch of different styles, it can also help you find the voice of the band, as it were. In other words, help you find the natural sound/style of the band. I say this because it is VERY rare when a BAND ends up being what any one member plans or is stylistically. A BAND IS A COLLABORATION OF THE PLAYERS!

     WRONG!-      (in the context of gigging/recording them)

1. To impress people, especially other musicians, that you can play a cover JUST LIKE THE ORIGINAL. Unless you are in a tribute or cover band, keep that kind of musical masturbation in your bedroom where it belongs. You are not showing YOUR virtuosity by doing this. You are showing that you can copy someone else's virtuosity. And that, I am afraid, is sad and lame.

2. Because you want to show your audience that you really ARE a fan of the bands/style you sound just like. EXAMPLE: If your band sounds just like the Doors, please, DO NOT attempt covering 'Light My Fire', especially just like the original. I don't care how good you and your band are, you are NOT as good as the people who did the original. By attempting it and (inevitably) failing you make yourself look lame and sad. Instead, try taking a Lady Gaga song and doing it in your style. THAT is way more impressive if you can pull it off. Not to mention, the best way of letting your audience know you kick ass at your style of music is by kicking ass at your style of music, not by trying to prove that you listen to the same records they do. Are you there to show your audience that you have a good taste in music or that your music is good?
3. Because someone is telling you to. Okay, it happened to work for RUN DMC when Rick Ruben strong armed them into doing 'Walk This Way' by Aerosmith, (with their own twist, mind you), but unless it is someone of Rick Ruben's prowess, be wary.

4. To fill up time either on a set or an album. FILLER! It sucks. In my experience, it is better to have a shorter set or an E.P. instead of a Full Length rather than 'filling' with something no one wants to listen to or doesn't hold their attention. It is also my experience that it takes as much if not less time to write another good original as it does to make a cover good enough to be worth it.

     (in the context of rehearsing)

5. Spending all of your time learning one band/artists stuff, style, and technique! Okay, learn ALL of several bands of several styles, but beware of mimicking any one artist or style too heavily as that is just boring. Even if, and I do mean IF, everyone agreed that Yngwie is the world's greatest AX MAN, what is the point of being a copy of him? He already exists! Be your own person and player. A good way of doing that is stealing the best parts of all of the greats and combining them into your own style.

6. If when starting a new band it is because that is what you have always done. (See #7 of RIGHT above). If you are forming a band with a bunch of experienced, mature players, your time might be better spent doing a little open jamming to see if you click before automatically spending loads of time all learning a bunch of covers to 'get to know each other'. It also has the potential to put a lot more work onto some of the players as the covers people tend to suggest are ones they already know. If the others don't then they need to learn them. Also, if everyone does know them and has played them a thousand times, there may be no fire in them to make a difference anyway. "PLEASE! ANYTHING BUT 'SMOKE ON THE WATER' AGAIN!!!!!"


If you really want to do covers, do them. But please, if you are a band writing your own stuff and not a function band, use them sparingly and to set yourself apart from the pack, not to make you blend into the muck of the boring band bog!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Breaking rule #1 - Come out and play!

The 'GIGS' rule...

When I permanently relocated to Cyprus a couple of years ago, I was keen to hook up with some fellow music addicts and get down to the business of rockin’. From all of my many months spent on the island over the years it was obvious to me that Cyprus ROCKS! So, this seemed like it would be an easy task. Re, was I in for a SERIOUS reality check!

I had already made a few Musical friends here on my previous visits. So, when I hit Nicosia I met up with some of them to get the old ball rolling. When I started talking about what I wanted to do, one of the first things a Cypriot musician friend of mine told me was, “This is a small island, man. You can only really do 2 or 3 shows here a year or you won’t draw. If you don’t have new material at each show, people will get bored and won’t come out to see you.”

This statement seemed a bit extreme, but it didn’t really hit me just how serious the statement was and what it implied about the Cyprus scene/community until I heard similar views from a multitude of other musicians I met over the following months.

Telling me that my band can only play 2 or 3 times a year is the same as telling me I can only make love to my wife 2 or 3 times a year! Okay, let’s follow this idea through a bit…

If your lover only wants you to make love to them a few times a year, then there just MIGHT be some issues with how you are making love, right? And if the only way you can get your significant other to hop in the sack with you is by introducing something completely new each time, perhaps you should re-evaluate what it is you have been doing in the first place.

Yes, variety is the spice of life, but being a responsive, engaging, and fun lover who uses variations of a few “moves” will probably make for a longer more enjoyable relationship with more frequent“liaisons” than if you simply read up on new “techniques” that you are going to try to do “to” your partner each time you convince them to jump in bed.

For me, one of the greatest feelings in the world is being on stage when the audience and I are locked in a big, nasty, sweaty, coital embrace… musically speaking, of course. My band is getting the audience off, and in return they are getting us off. It is a mutually reciprocating act. Yes, the music needs to be played well, but I am not up there in the hopes of people walking away and saying, “goodness me, that chap is very adept at his instrument.” That’s the job of the music critics. I want people to leave my show screaming into the night, “that was AWESOME! When can we see them again?”Or at least singing one of our songs as they euphorically stumble their way home still high from the experience.

And as an audience member, I want the same thing! And I want it OFTEN.

Although I do expect a high level of musicianship when I go to see a band perform live, I also expect a good to great PERFORMANCE. I want to be energized by the band. Watching a bunch of people standing on a stage playing technically “perfect” music while looking like they are having a rectal probe, or worse, looking like they are methodically checking off the list of “required genre-specific cliché moves” is what makes the 2 to 3 shows a year horror seem reasonable. How can a band expect their audience to be moved by the music if they themselves look unmoved or the performance looks forced in a live show?

I have become a HUGE fan of a bunch of bands here doing a bunch of different styles in the last 2 plus years. With very rare exceptions they are all extremely good musicians technically, and the original material they write stands up to, and often surpasses, what is on offer from the rest of the planet.

Now, we want to take the relationship to the ‘next level’. You don’t need to keep trying to impress us with you have learned. We have already been wooed. It’s time to open up, drop your guard, allow us in, and let see how you have made what you have learned YOURS. If you can do that we (your audience) will *come again, and again, and again, and again! *NOTE: All puns, always intended.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I can already hear some musicians mumbling about how the venues and promoters won’t allowing them to play more than a of couple times a year. That is a completely different issue which I am all too happy to address. And I will. But before I do, there are a couple other BAND ISSUES we should address first. Let’s try to get all the musicians/bands singing from the same sheet, and then we’ll see how to deal with the OUTSIDE FACTORS.

Next time, I want to address one of the other ‘RULES’ that a lot of bands/musicians have tried to convince me has to be adhered to in Cyprus… the ‘Covers’ rule…