What Does Your Music Say?

Photo of woman pretending to listen to giant ship horn. Berlin, 1929.What does your music “say”?

I find it interesting to allow the music to tell me what it needs. Here are a couple ways that I do that.

I let the producer or artist describe their thoughts about their record to me. Who was it written for? How was it recorded? What are the ideals, goals and purpose in producing this music? I find that not everyone has thought this stuff through. Sometimes the purpose of making the record IS the making of the record. How the producer describes their goals will give me a lot of foundation to base my decisions on. This is really the art of the craft of mastering. Listening with an imagination. Not as often about achieving specific ideals of loud or bright, but finding out what can and should be done to help the music communicate those goals.

Instead of asking “who do you want your music to sound like,” ask “Who is your music composed for?” And “how would you like them to react to it?”

Initially, everyone wants their music to be everything, for everyone. But if the artist is experienced they can tell you why they made the music, where the emotional references come from and how the listener should relate to these emotions. Deep stuff right? But the answers to these questions lead you to a starting point that preserves the musicality of the record, and makes it stronger emotionally and justifies all of the hard work getting the recordings to this point.

There really is no shortcut for experience, but if you ask good questions you can hope to get good answers. I find that these answers put me in a state of mind — ready to listen. Turning the knobs is the easy part. Determining where to aim, where the “target” is takes a lot of thought, an open mind and careful listening. It is very easy to substitute my goals for the goals of the music. Listening carefully and asking the right questions is step one.

If you haven’t thought much about what your music is saying, try to answer these simple questions. I bet it will help you make decisions along the path of making your music.

  • Who is your ideal fan / audience?
  • How will they listen to this music? Engaged and absorbed? Or while working out? On a dancefloor? While driving?
  • Is your audience tied closely to your live performances?
  • What would your ideal fan expect you recording to sound like?
  • Do you want to surprise your audience, either with variety of subject or sound?

And on the technical side:

  • Do you really understand what happens to your music when you compete for level (loudness wars)?

If your project needs to be loud and “shout” then you really must address that issue in the composition, and in the recording and mixing stages. Mastering alone can not achieve all of that despite what the ads and equipment designers claim. Any project that was recorded with the goals clearly in mind, will almost master itself and have a much improved chance at success in the long run.

Listen to what your music is trying to “say.”

Fill out my online form.

Meet Engineer-Producer Jamie Siegel of JRock Studios

In today’s music business, many of us take on multiple roles to stay afloat. Roles that, in the music business of old, were often quite separate. This is the age of the hyphen and the slash, the age of the musician-engineer-producer-composer-booking manager-promotions guy-blogger-etc-etc…

Some have entered the age of the hyphen grudgingly, some have adapted more-or-less-easily, and some blessed souls have dived in joyfully. Meet Jamie Siegel of JRock Studios, a self-professed “Swiss Army knife” of the recording studio.

Photo of Jamie Siegel

Q: So you’re basically a composer, musician, guitarist, producer, recording engineer, mix engineer, and studio owner, right? That’s a lot of stuff, and I’m probably leaving something out. How do you primarily think of what you do, and how does all that get organized in your life?

A: That’s a great question!! It’s not really a conscious choice on my part and finding balance outside of the studio has always been a tricky thing. I LOVE making records and working with artists, so finding the energy to work and be creative usually isn’t difficult. I think the most important factor is the emotional tie I have to music and the ability to communicate and understand the artists I work with. There is a ton of psychology involved in working with talented people (so maybe add psychologist to that list!). I consider myself an “all around” music guy. If the music is great, I’ll be happy to work on it with you and contribute in any way I can. Additionally, I’ve always had a good business sense and JRock Studios is the culmination of that.

When I started my career at Chung King studios, I really wanted to learn how to engineer and mix records properly. Composing/producing was always something I’d done growing up but I considered it to be more something I did for fun. I never tried to “push” those skills at the studio. Next thing you know, I’m being asked to play guitar on a Whitney Houston record or programming drums, etc for some other platinum-selling artists… I always asked myself “Why me?? Aren’t there much better musicians out there??!!” Apparently, I was capable and just needed some pushing.

It’s really dull for me to be tied down doing the same thing every day and I pride myself on having the ability to be a “Swiss Army knife” in the studio, so even though I didn’t set out to be all the things you mentioned, that’s how my career evolved. As far as how all that gets organized in my life. I have no idea. 🙂

Q: I like the metaphor of the Swiss Army knife. A lot of us in the music industry have jobs that require that kind of flexibility, and you clearly embrace it! When you’re producing do you bring in someone else to engineer or will you do both? Or does it depend on the circumstance?

A: I’d say that 99% of the time I’m engineering everything myself – unless of course I’m playing acoustic guitar — then I’ll have my assistant Tony engineer for me. Considering I’m mixing most of these projects, it’s a lot easier for me to get the sounds correct during tracking. It’s way more difficult trying to “fix” something after the fact — especially when recording digitally. Spend a few extra minutes listening and make sure the sound you’re capturing is going to work well in a mix context.

Q: Tell me a little about your studio. What is it about your space that makes it a good place to record and be creative?

A: JRock Studios is a warm, unintimidating space with some really great gear. I think of it mostly as an overdub/mix room but have actually cut tons of drums in the vocal booth! I spent lots of years freelancing in the big studios and I really enjoy having a smaller space to work in. I think the artists feel less pressure and it affords us more time to dig in.

Photo of the console during a Jamie Siegel recording session

Q: What do you look for in a mastering engineer and from the mastering process?

A: The main thing I look for in a mastering engineer is someone who isn’t going to be too heavy handed. I’ve spent a lot of time making sure the mix is as good as I can get it and I’d like the mastering engineer to enhance what I’ve done and not alter it too drastically. Scott Hull is my absolute favorite mastering engineer. He’s a true artist. Every time I get a master back from Scott, I am happy.

Q: Can you mention a couple things you’ve worked on recently or have coming up that you’re excited about?

A: I just had the pleasure of mixing Rob Mathes‘ solo album. That was an incredibly challenging and fulfilling experience. We’ve worked on a ton of projects including Sting’s birthday concert (which was released via iPad app), Jennifer Hudson, etc. I’ve also recently musical directed a variety/circus show called Absinthe which is running at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. This week I’m co-producing a song on the new Blondie album. In between all that, I’m always working with some great independent artists.


Contact Jamie Siegel at www.jrockstudios.com or at (646) 484-9240.

Daniel Freedman: Percussionist, Composer & World Traveler

Percussionist, drummer and composer Daniel Freedman’s latest album, Bamako by Bus, on Anzik Records, was recently mastered at Masterdisk. I wanted to find out Daniel’s tricks of the trade, but it turns out there are no tricks. Hard work plus talent got him where he is today. We chatted on the phone the other day, here’s what he had to say about making music, New York, and travel.

Q:What’s it like to be a working musician?

A:It’s a challenge of course! I have always done a variety of things to get by, but as long as I am doing music….  I used to play for afro cuban dance classes, modern dance sometimes Alvin Ailey or Martha Graham as well as playing a lot of gigs.  At the time I wanted to learn more percussion, so dance classes were perfect.  Things come organically… in 2000 I got in to the home studio thing and I started recording more and more things, and some people asked me to write for picture and produce tracks for them.  The past several years I’ve been on the road a lot and I try to balance playing and producing. My advice is to stay open, because you may have to do many different things.  Very few musicians only play the music that they want to play in order to make a living. That said, I still try to put my head in the sand and do music that I want to do.  

Q:Easier said than done.

A:Setting up the environment so that you can stick your head in the sand and work is so helpful.  Same goes for practicing. Time is so limited I have to get right to it. Also I guess I rely less and less on inspiration these days and just get to work until something sticks.

Deep Brooklyn by Daniel Freedman

Q:How did Bamako by Bus evolve as a project?

A:The song “Darfur” was created years before and then we finished it live. I thought about which musicians I really loved and I wrote with their voices in mind.  It’s different from other records I have done, it started off as a project with Avishai Cohen: I would create bass lines and grooves and then he would improvise over them and we would edit the pieces into songs.  I could never seem to finish, and I asked Meshell Ndegeocello if she would be into playing on some of our sketches and she was enthusiastic about it.  So two tracks were done at my house, and then we finished the rest in the studio. Jason Lindner helped a great deal, he’s a master of harmony and form, but everyone was really helpful. There was direction, but with that level of musicians it’s great to leave things open.

Q:And production-wise, how did that go?

A:Jean-Luc Sinclair mixed the record at my house.  We then took it to Michael Perez Cisneros‘ studio and he helped give it a more analogue feeling. Matt Agoglia mastered it and is a real pro; he had a musical quality to his approach and was generous with his time.

Q:Do you think growing up in NYC gave you good opportunities as a musician?

A:Growing up in New York seems to have chosen my musical direction for me in a way.   My father Joel played on a bunch of free jazz records in the ’60s and my uncle Alan is a great guitar player. He’s on a ton of records. My uncle is the rocker so he got me Marley and Prince records. Also hiphop and breakdancing was such a huge thing in New York and I was into that. I discovered my father’s record collection when I was about 12 and fell in love with Art Blakey and Coltrane records. Going to Laguardia High School was a really pivotal time for me. Many of the students there were already working musicians around town and I knew that’s what I wanted to do as well.

Q:How do you like writing music for pictures?

A:Its almost always fun for me and certainly takes a different sensibility.  My mother is a painter and my grandparents were as well.  I wanted to be a painter myself before I found the drums. Writing for pictures requires that the music serve the picture first of all; that brings the emotion of what you’re viewing to life.  But you’re limited, especially with commercial work, you have a very short turn around time and it has to sound great right away.   

Q:Listening to this album it’s clear you’ve done some traveling; where have you been so far?

A:I always felt a connection to all different music from around the world, and New York is such a great place to be if you are into hearing and experiencing so many different cultures. I also felt that hearing/experiencing music at its source would be incredibly helpful. I had maybe a dozen “study” trips: Mali, Egypt, Cuba, Brazil, Morocco, and Senegal come to mind. Jazz of course lends itself to using almost anything that you can find and with groups like Third World Love, we have been doing this for a while, bringing these influences into jazz or whatever you want to call it.  This isn’t new. Duke Ellington was doing that kind of thing way before I was born! But all those sounds and experiences influence my writing and playing. I try not to make it too deliberate but have it inform my general language and vocabulary.

Q:Did you pick up any traditional forms in your travels?

A:There are so many sounds that I heard around the world and loved. Sabar is one, senegalese percussion…mostly really fierce stick and hand.  Jeff Ballard showed me some of that way back.  Recently, I’ve been playing with Angelique Kidjio’s band and the percussionist is Senegalese, so it’s been great to hear that sound consistently on the road and learn more about it.  I always was moved by music when it was in front of me and loud! And I always wanted to experience music by being next to it and feeling it. You know, to play jazz you eventually have to come to New York, so I felt that it would help me in a similar way to go to Africa, Cuba etc…To sit next to the real thing and hear how loud and powerful it really is. In New York I used to hear Elvin Jones, Art Taylor and Billy Higgins all the time and there is nothing that can replace sitting next to the person making the music and soaking it in. Those trips charge my battery and I need to recharge every so often. I’m looking forward to going to West Africa again this winter.

LAMC: Music Industry Tips #3

Tip #3: The best idea is going to come from a 15-year old.

Toy Hernandez, producer for the latest hit machine out of Monterrey, Mexico 3BallMTY (Tribal Monterrey), and Sebastian Krys, producer for La Santa Cecilia, Kinky, Shakira and various other Grammy winning artists, talked about being a producer of a certain age and experience at LAMC in NYC in July.

Krys said, as a producer, “you have to stay on top of the game, and the way that you do that is by accepting that the best idea is going to come from a 15-year old, it’s not going to come from you and your experience.” 

This may be hard to accept, but it’s true.  You should recognize that new ideas drive the industry and that your contribution is to refine them and get the most out of them.  “Those days are gone, my friend,” he said, and then roused the audience by calling for artists to make up their own formats, song lengths and album lengths, which earned him a few minutes of applause and approving heckles.  If you are moved to create something, he urged, don’t let the form hem you in.  

Masterdisk Presents: First You Get the Sugar

Masterdisk Presents First You Get the Sugar Graphic

First You Get the Sugar is an exciting young band from Montreal who are building an impressive career through sheer hard work, talent and positive energy. Their first, self-titled album was mastered here at Masterdisk by Andy VanDette last year, and it’s a powerful, polished statement of power-pop and classic rock intent. Not “classic rock” so much in terms of the genre, but “classic” in terms of offering those key elements we all look for in great rock: excitement, hooks, and maybe a touch of danger. The band made a big impression on us here at the studio not only through their music, but by their friendliness and positive attitude. Since that first album, First You Get the Sugar recorded three songs at the Converse Rubber Tracks studio in Brooklyn and brought them to Andy for mastering — all in a whirlwind three-day period. One of those songs is attached below. I hooked up with the band’s drummer, Daniel Moscovitch, on Facebook to discuss the band’s career so far. If you’re in Toronto for NXNE you can catch the band tonight at the Wrongbar.

Dan, thanks for taking some time for the Masterdisk blog. OK, let’s go through some basic dates… when did the band form & how did you meet?

Photo of First You Get the SugarAdam [Kagan] and Mick [Mendelsohn] formed the band in 2007. I answered a Craigslist ad, and it turned out that it was posted by their temporary lead guitarist at the time who I was actually good friends with, so I went to see them play at a club here in Montreal. By the end of the next week, I still had some of the hooks stuck in my head, so I went in for a meeting and right away we all knew it was a great fit. We spent the next year or so honing our sound and looking for a permanent lead guitarist, and that is where Alex [Silver] came in. He was actually a fan of ours, who we hung out with. We brought him in for an audition in January ’09, and we’ve been family ever since.

When did you make your first recordings?

Right after Alex joined us we knew it was time to make an album. One of my closest friends and long-time musical colleague of mine, Adam Stotland, came on as co-producer. He had just finished building a studio in his house, so the timing was perfect, and in April 09 we settled into his studio and hit the ground running.

What was the studio setup?

It was very simple. Good mics, through a very transparent Allen & Heath board into Samplitude. Most of the guitars were amped with a Fender Concert 4×10 cranked for natural breakup, and we also experimented a lot with a sweet vintage Leslie cab. We did a lot of layering, and luckily had all the time we needed to develop parts and build the songs from the ground up.

How long did you take to record?

Recording went through until about January 2010. At that point, we spent a lot of time making sure every second of every song was arranged the way we wanted it, and were looking for someone to do the mix. We finally decided on Glen Robinson, who splits his time between Montreal and NYC. He’s a truly amazing engineer with a custom gear list that is basically staggering. Fully customized old-school Neve comps and EQ’s, UA limiters, basically a dream setup. We had done zero mixing on our own before Glen got his hands on our work, so when we got the first ‘balances,’ our minds were blown by how much life Glen was able to breathe into the recording with his skill and gear.

With the mix in hand, I consulted a heavyweight producer in L.A. who I had become friends with over the internet. He was the one who recommended Andy VanDette for the mastering of the album. This was a no-brainer, and in August 2010 our debut album entered Masterdisk for 5 hours, and left ready for the world.

What kind of pre-production did you do, if any?

For our first album, pre-production was really centered around arrangement. We worked at our rehearsal space to get everything tightened up so we could be super-efficient when we were recording later. We did that for the Rubber Tracks recording as well, and it was even more important because of the way we recorded there compared to our first album. I have a nice little project setup at home with an M-Audio Profire 2626 and we laid down the tunes with a drum machine and recorded all the parts one by one into Ableton Live on my computer. It was very bare-bones. From a personal standpoint, it was that pre-production process at my house in 2009 that really gave me the bug to want to learn all I can about mixing, mastering and production in general.

How did you guys hook up with Converse?

When we released our album, we did all we could to publicize it. Converse Music Blog heard our album and decided to do a writeup on it and an interview with Mick from the band. When it was published, and I went to read it, I noticed on their site all the ads for their brand new recording program at Rubber Tracks in Brooklyn. I clicked the links and ended up signing us up an a whim. I specifically remember saying to the guys that I signed us up for this thing that would be amazing, but it’s probably a massive long-shot. Which it was, because a TON of artists signed up for it. When the email came in saying we were accepted, we just could not believe it. We’re always working on new stuff, so we had great material ready to go, And not only that, they were bringing in CNN and MTV to follow us through our 2-day session at the studio. [Check out the Converse video story at CNN/Money.]

What was the recording experience like there?

As far as approaches to recording goes, this experience at Rubber Tracks was a complete 180 degree turn from how we recorded our debut album. Our album took about a year-and-a-half to track, mix and master. At rubber tracks we had 2 days to record and mix 3 full songs. An ambitious endeavor to say the least! We put most of the music down live off the floor on the first day, and got all the vocals, guitar solos, and mixing finished on day two. This studio that Converse has is as world-class as it gets. Brand new API console, Fairchilds, Neves and all the goodies anyone could ever dream of. Tons of incredible instruments to choose from thanks to Guitar Center. Our engineer was Grammy-winning Geoff Sanoff, a real heavy hitter, and he is someone we would want to work with again any day. He really understood what we were going for and has the coolest and calmest demeanor, absolutely necessary for the pressure cooker we had been thrown into. Aaron Bastinelli is Rubber Tracks’ in-house engineer and a genius in his own right, and he acted as Mr. Sanoff’s right hand the entire time. Between him and Mr. Sanoff, we were in insanely capable hands, and we could really just focus on performance and leave the production to the masters. We left Rubber Tracks and came straight across town the next day to have Andy VanDette perform the mastering duties. Recording, mixing and mastering in the span of 3 days was a thrill of a lifetime. Definitely unforgettable.

Back to your first album — did you do the promotion yourselves or did you have help?

PR is a tough game. We hired the best publicist available for the budget we had at the time, and she turned out to do an amazing job. I’d recommend this approach to anyone. The press contacts that I have made over the years are great, but we’d have never come close to the same reach without some professional 3rd party help. The expense paid for itself and then some, to say the least. Of course, there’s never a guarantee of success when a publicist is brought in, so we were lucky that we had great songs that were recorded mixed and of course mastered to a level of world-class sound. All of this can be daunting to a band doing this for the first time, but if you dig really hard then affordable solutions are always waiting. My mantra for finding the right people to work with was this: irrespective of budget, start at the top and work your way down until you find someone that fits your budget. That way you’l get the best people to work with possible without selling yourself short. You’ll always be surprised by the amazing people that will come to your aid if you have the balls to ask.

Have all of the Converse tunes been released now?

So far, we’ve released two out of the three songs we recorded at Rubber Tracks as digital singles (on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc). We released “Pearson” in January and “Hannah” in March. The third single is called “No Surprise” and we’re going to put it out sometime soon. We have very cool ideas for the third release, which will most likely include a physical manifestation but the plans are still under wraps. I definitely know that when the time comes, you guys will be the first to know.

Excellent! Well, my final question is about the future of First You Get the Sugar. What are your plans?

The part of this job that I love the most is that in the spaces between our deliberate plans, amazing surprises pop up. All along with this band, I’ve found that if we keep pushing forward with baby steps, we keep growing. Especially looking back on the last year, we have made amazing strides, so many great things have happened that I could have never predicted. It’s really exciting to think about the year ahead and all that it might bring with it.

Tell me about your upcoming gigs.

We’re playing this Friday, June 15 at the NXNE festival in Toronto. Our set is at 8pm as part of the Converse City Carnage Showcase series at The Wrongbar. It’s going to be an insane night, we’re sharing the bill with Uncle Bad Touch, DZ Deathrays, the Death Set and Bass Drum Of Death.

In the Fall, we’ll be back in Toronto for Indie Week, and we are really hoping to be a part of CMJ in New York this fall too. Somewhere along the way this year, it would also be great to get back into a studio and record all the new material we’ve been working on.


Visit First You Get the Sugar online: http://www.firstyougetthesugar.com/

First You Get the Sugar on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/FirstYouGetTheSugar

Fill out my online form.