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Nope, you’re not a genius.

Mic Placement

I just know that sooner or later someone is going to say “hey, Tom, give us some tips on mic placement,” so I won’t keep you in suspense; let’s talk mic placement!

When it comes to placing mics, I’m pretty much a hack. I just try things, listen, and go with whatever sounds good. Now, before you all sigh in disappointment, let me say that there’s a method to this lack of method, and maybe somewhere in that method (meta-method?) there’s some wisdom.

  • Experiment. Don’t limit yourself to what seems to make sense. I mean, if it turns out that the sound of the kick drum coming through the hi hat mic is what you’re really looking for, then who am I to argue with that?
  • Try, listen, repeat. How are you going to know what sounds best without trying multiple options and comparing the results? It’s funny how often someone will call me and ask something like “how close should I put the mic to the piano?” and I just answer “I don’t know. Try recording it five times, with five different distances, then see which one sounds best.”
  • When trying different mics and mic positions, always have the musician play the actual part that’s going to be recorded.
  • Go into the room with the instrument, while it’s playing (the actual part that’s going to be recorded), cover one ear, and put your uncovered ear into possible mic locations. Which one sounds best? (Remember to have someone taking pictures of you doing this, because some of them are going to be pretty funny.)
  • If there’s a sound that you like on a record, try to find out how that instrument was mic’d. Of course, it might be a closely guarded secret, but there are lots of YouTube videos that explain exactly how some of the great recordings were made.
  • Lastly, keep a notebook. I call this my bag of tricks. Keep track of what has worked for you and what hasn’t. Also keep track of ideas that you’ve read about or heard about in magazines, videos, and seminars. Just because a famous producer does something doesn’t mean you have to do it too, but it’s probably a good trick to have in your bag.

So go have fun, and place some mics!

You don’t need to record in order

This is going to be an extremely random first post in my blog’s new era, and, yes, I know that has nothing to do with the actual definition of the word “random.”

There’s a lot to be said for recording a song in the actual order of the song. It’s probably the best way to capture a valid emotional performance. If a song structure is intro + verse + chorus + verse + chorus + bridge + chorus + chorus + outro, then recording it in that order gives the best chances that verse/chorus 2 will differ a little from verse/chorus 1 in some meaningful way. I wouldn’t normally recommend deviating from that linear recording process.

But you don’t have to record that way. There are times when it’s better to record all the verses, then all the choruses, then the bridge, etc. This has worked out well for me in the following situations:

  • The song is hard to play, so the performers prefer to focus first on playing the verses, then, having successfully recorded the verses, move on to the choruses, etc.
  • The song arrangement is being developed while recording, so you literally don’t know how the choruses should sound until you’ve heard the verses.
  • Some sort of logistical problem. For example, the chorus is a duet with another singer who’s not currently available, in which case you can go ahead and record the verses without that singer.
  • The verse and chorus instrumentation are different, requiring different mic setups.

This is probably a really obvious observation, but it was something that kind of snuck up on me. I guess I’m just used to living in a world where Tuesday always follows Monday, and Wednesday always follows Tuesday. Of course, this idea of recording out of order is probably second nature to filmmakers.

Now if could only schedule all my weekends for the next year back-to-back over the next 52 days…

The 40 Most Important Albums In My Life

As the year draws to a close, it’s time to get all nostalgic and sentimental. I was reflecting on the music that I’ve listened to over the years, so what better way to wrap up my blog for 2013 than listing, in Casey Kasem style, the most important 40 albums of my life.

I was very careful to say “most important” and not “best” or “favorite.” Each of the albums on this list is important because it changed the way I think about music.  In some way, subtle or obvious, my music was never the same again after hearing it. My list of “favorite” albums would be different.  For one thing, it would have a lot more recent albums, but I was reluctant to call recent albums “important,” because, honestly, I don’t know yet whether they are.  Maybe 20 years from now I’ll make this list again, and some of the albums I’m listening to right now will be on it.  It just takes time to judge the importance of music.

That is not to say that I didn’t suspect that many of these albums were important the first time I heard them. For example, I remember the first time I heard Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball.”  I was driving at the time, and I literally had to pull the car off to the side of the road, because I was so overwhelmed.

There are perhaps some surprising omissions.  For example, you won’t see “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Tubular Bells” on my list.  That’s not to say that I don’t think they’re important albums, or that I don’t like them; it’s just that, for whatever reason, they didn’t have a you-will-never-be-the-same-again effect on me.

Lastly, I should mention that I decided not to include any classical music, movie soundtracks, or musical theater.  For me, these are a different kind of musical experience. I find that a live concert is by far the preferred way to experience classical music.  A recording of classical music strives to replicate that experience as faithfully as possible.  There are of course many exquisite recordings; in fact, it’s almost not fair to put pop music records up against the best classical records.  My list is a list of important “albums,” not important “music.”  Classical albums are all about the music.  Yes, that music is extremely important to me, but the following albums are works of audio art unto themselves, and in many cases musicians strive to reproduce live the experience of listening to the album, not the other way around.  Similarly, for me a movie soundtrack is meant to be heard while watching a movie, and stage musical songs are meant to be heard while watching a live stage show.  Movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Amadeus” did truly change my life.  Likewise with musicals like “The Sound of Music” and “Les Miserables.”  However, I wouldn’t say that those albums changed me.

OK, so I’ve explained the rules.  Now, for the results.  Keep in mind that these are in no particular order.  (Well, actually they’re alphabetized by artist.)  There’s just no way I could rank them.  Each of them changed me in a different way, and I can’t measure how much each of them changed me.

Tori Amos“Little Earthquakes”
The BeatlesIt’s hard to pick just one album, but I’m going to have to go with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  I first heard this when I was just a little kid, but even then I would listen to each of the songs over and over again, trying to figure out how they were making these sounds.
Kate Bushprobably any of her early albums, so I’ll just go with her greatest hits, “The Whole Story”
Cocteau Twins“Blue Bell Knoll”.  (“Heaven or Las Vegas” is almost as important.)
Shawn Colvin“A Few Small Repairs”
Kemper Crabb“The Vigil”.  This one is pretty obscure, but definitely worth checking out if you can find it.
Thomas Dolby“The Golden Age of Wireless”
Emerson, Lake & PalmerReally all their albums, but if I had to pick one to be stranded on a desert island with, assuming that that island had electricity, a CD player, and headphones:  “Brain Salad Surgery”
Brian Eno“Ambient 1 (Music for Airports)”
Peter Gabriel“Security”
GenesisAny of their albums with Peter Gabriel, but I’ll pick “Foxtrot” simply because it includes “Watcher of the Skies” and “Supper’s Ready”
Peter Hammill“A Black Box”
Emmylou Harris“Wrecking  Ball”
Icehouse“Icehouse”  This kicked off the 80s for me.  For the next 10 years, my life was sucked into a vortex of synthesizers and drum machines.
Jethro Tull“Songs from the Wood”
Jon & Vangelis“The Friends of Mr. Cairo”
Kansas“Leftoverture”  I should explain here that I’m from Pittsburgh, a city where Kansas is still so popular that they actually have Kansas tribute bands.  Also, when I was in high school, I could pretty much play every keyboard part from every Kansas album note-for-note perfectly.  Yeah, I know; I didn’t have a life.
King Crimson“Discipline”
King Crimson“In the Court of the Crimson King”
Mazzy Star“She Hangs Brightly”
Loreena McKennitt“The Visit”
Sarah McLachlan“Surfacing”
Pink Floyd“The Wall”
Jean-Luc Ponty“Civilized Evil”
Queen“A Night At The Opera”
Renaissance“Sheherazade and other Stories”
Kate Rusby“Sleepless”
RushI can’t pick just one album.  Really it’s a series of 4 albums, starting with A Farewell to Kings.
Shriekback“Oil and Gold”
Softcell“Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret”  (I’m so embarrassed to have to include this, but it is a seriously important album.)
Spock’s Beard“The Kindness of Strangers”, “Day for Night”, or “Beware of Darkness”.  Yes, I know that’s three, but I listened to all three of these as though they were one triple album.  This opened the door to the whole neo-progressive movement for me.
Tangerine Dream“Stratosfear”  Honestly, I never cared for this album that much, but it definitely changed me.
U2Sorry, I can’t pick just one.  OK, maybe “War.”  No, make that “The Unforgettable Fire.”  No, “Joshua Tree.”  No, …
Van Der Graaf Generator“Pawn Hearts”
Värtinnä“Kokko”  (Bet you didn’t see that one coming!)
Rick Wakeman“The Six Wives of Henry VIII”
Rick Wakeman“Journey to the Center of the Earth”
Yes“Close to the Edge”

It’s Not What You Love; It’s Why You Love It

“I love Mozart.” “I hate rap.” “I love the Metallica guitar sound.” “I hate the music they play at NBA games.” “I love the Beatles.” Opinions about music (songs, artists, or even whole musical genres) are often expressed with extreme words like “love” and “hate.” My friends are pretty diverse, and we don’t always agree on what music is lovable (but we can still be friends). I’ve come to realize that it’s not as interesting to talk about what music you love as it is to talk about why you love it. In fact, you don’t even need someone to talk to about it; next time you hear a song that you love, you can just ask yourself why you love it, and honestly try to answer the question. (Or do the same thing when you hear a song that you hate.)

You might hear the powerful repetitive bass and drum groove at a club and say “I love how it makes me feel; the earthy tribal pounding of the kick drum, the smack of the snare, the bass line going up my spine.” Another person, hearing the same song, might say “I hate the repetitiveness of the chord progression, the mindlessness of the lyrics, the murkiness of the mix.” As they say, to each his own.

By learning why you respond as you do to certain kinds of music or to particular songs, you learn more about yourself. I’m a firm believer that knowing yourself better makes you a better musician. Or at least a better music appreciator.

I suppose you could apply the same question to almost anything in life. “It’s not what food you love; it’s why you love it,” etc. Or movies, clothes, sports, … who knows, maybe even blogs.

House Concerts

Last Friday, something truly remarkable happened in my living room: A group of about 30 people came together; some musicians played;we all hung out together, listened to great music, and had great conversations. It’s called a “house concert.”

What is a house concert?


It’s pretty simple really: It’s a concert at a house. Note that I didn’t say “a party with music.” At a house concert, the music is the main priority. Sure, there’s probably food and drink, and there’s probably time before and after the concert to mingle, but during the concert itself, people sit, stop talking, and give their attention to the music.


How do you have a house concert?

First, you’ll need a house. It helps if the house has a piano (but maybe that’s just my bias as a pianist coming through). You’ll need a space in the house where people can sit comfortably and listen to music. The space needs to be large enough for the musicians too, of course. Not all houses are suitable for all kinds of music. I recommend having a space for 20-30 people. But there are no rules; that’s one of the things that’s so great about house concerts. You can have one with only 10 people, but I think with more than 30 people it starts feeling impersonal. You want musicians to be able to connect with the audience and for the audience members to connect with each other.

Next, find some musicians! Maybe you yourself are one. The concert could be one musician. Or it could be more than one. I suggest 30-60 minutes of music. It’s probably best to stick to minimal and acoustic genres. Your neighbors might not appreciate heavy metal or heavy bass and drum techno. Some ideas: a solo songwriter with acoustic guitar or piano, small classical ensembles (such as piano and/or a few string instruments), maybe a jazz trio (if you have the space for it).


And, lastly, invite people. Use all the same techniques you would if you were throwing a party: word of mouth, email, Facebook, web-based invitations, etc. When you invite people, make it clear that it’s a concert, not a party. Make it clear what time the music starts and discourage people from coming in late. (Tell people arriving late to come in the back door, so that they won’t disrupt the concert.)

The person hosting the concert can provide the snacks and refreshments, or you can go with a potluck approach, but I find that can lead to problems if not properly coordinated (for example, 20 people all bring desserts). You might ask for a voluntary donation (or just charge admission) to cover the cost of the food and drink. As a general rule, the host of a house concert isn’t going to make a profit; you’re just in it for the love of music.


Why have a house concert?

I think the biggest reason to have a house concert is to connect musicians and audiences. In a typical concert at a larger venue, a bunch of people sit in an auditorium, watching musicians on a stage, then after the concert everyone goes home. There’s no communication between musicians and audiences except for music in one direction and applause in the other direction. With a house concert, musicians can share more in depth and more personally about themselves and their songs, especially during the time after the concert when musicians and audience members are mingling.

A house concert is also a great way for music lovers to connect with other music lovers. If the right audience has been invited, there will be people there who don’t know each other yet, but they’ll have something immediately in common to talk about: the music that they’ve just heard. Chances are, people will meet other people who share similar music interests. (By the way, I met my wife at a house concert!)

The listening and viewing experience in someone’s living room can be far better than the back row (or even the front row!) in a club or auditorium. For classical music, it’s pretty amazing to watch virtuoso instrumentalists from just ten feet away.


It’s also a great way for musicians to promote their music. They can sell CDs, sign up people for their newsletter, and network with other musicians.

It’s a non-threatening environment for a musician to try new things. A songwriter can get feedback on new songs. Or a musician can try out a whole different musical style than what they normally do. Or a classical musician can run through material that they are preparing for a recital or a competition.

Lastly, as someone pointed out last Friday at my house concert: “An evening of great music in a great setting, shared with great people… do we really need any other reason to be doing this?”