Composer Davey Walker creates his atmospheric music using vocal samples, ethnic sounds and synthesizer textures. It's an approach particularly suited to the Logic Pro setup, where everything can be accomplished in one place using the tools provided. And in singer Jenn Muir, he has found a voice sympathetic to his compositions.
She doesn't feature on the opening track, but I particularly liked its use of vocal samples with a dub theme. The disparity between these samples in both level and tone could easily be rectified using Logic's automation system, which is fairly simple and intuitive to use — don't be put off by the busy graphics! The all-important bass sample is excellent and provides the right low-frequency content for dub bass without getting totally lost on smaller speaker systems, although it could have been a touch louder. I was a bit perturbed by the clicking at the start of the mix which, I think, is part of a sample. It could probably do with cleaning up to avoid distracting the listener. Otherwise the track sounded very well mixed with some particularly good Japanese flute samples, skillfully treated with echo.
The second track builds nicely, showing skill in the arrangement and choice of sounds. For instance, the use of a mellow organ sound with a simple chord structure is an effective counter to the busy percussion and effects. It's also the perfect backing for Jenn Muir, whose distinctively English voice adds a certain vulnerability to the song. Even so, I don't think harmony vocals, if used sparingly, would weaken the intimate atmosphere created by the song, and, in combination with the existing lead vocal, they might help create a more polished and commercial production sound. Incidentally, I liked the use of EQ on the echo applied to the vocal, deliberately thinning out the repeats and giving them an ethereal quality.
'Something Special' is the title of the third piece and once again it's the percussion that tends to dominate. The introduction features some nice Gamelan-style tuned percussion, cabasa, kick drum and claves. It's a combination that works well and builds subtly, with the pattern changing and extra percussion being added towards the end of the arrangement. This gives the track a hypnotic quality and it wouldn't be out of place on the shelves of 'New Age' shops or in chill-out tents at festivals.
Doctor's Advice: Marketing and Music
Some of the CDs this month are very well presented, with effective artwork and excellent publicity materials backed up, in some cases, by on-line resources, but then they don't quite deliver in the recording department. Others are the exact opposite — nicely recorded but with no real effort made to get a decent sleeve together, let alone set up a web site! The musicians who send in demos to SOS all have one thing in common though — they are looking for some recognition for their talents. In these competitive times, both the quality of the recordings and way they are presented need to be up to scratch if you want to make real progress as an independent artist.
I'm not quite sure why the band chose to put the least finished track first on this demo but then they do say they are looking for useful suggestions about the song. It starts with a nicely recorded bass solo that might be good as a short track in itself on a longer album, but here it's out of context. What follows has a chorus but no verses as such, just an instrumental groove. Without some singing or an obvious melodic hook, there isn't quite enough going on here to sustain interest. As for the sounds, the drums come off the best, although the toms aren't mixed high enough. The natural-sounding kit has too much of the overhead microphones in the mix and a relatively small room acoustic is thereby exposed. A touch of longer reverb on the overhead mics can sometimes give the illusion that the whole kit is being played in a bigger room. However, looking at the equipment list, the reverb options are limited, so it might be worth investing in a good plug-in or outboard unit some time in the future to rectify this. Generally speaking, closer overhead miking in a small room will give you more control when adding reverb later on.
There is a general lack of continuity about the three mixes on this CD and it's most obvious in the bass end of the frequency range. It's not helped by the bass guitar sound, which has the kind of lower mid-range content fairly typical of this budget equipment. DI'ing the bass and applying a conventional bass player's mid-range cut between 150 and 500Hz using the graphic EQ in Cubase will improve it enormously. As it stands, the overdriven guitar and bass are fighting for space in the same lower mid-range area (around 300 to 400Hz) on the first song, so this EQ will also help separate the sounds in the mix.
Listening to the guitar on the second and third tracks, I was impressed with the way that guitarist Tom Clements uses echo, tremolo and volume swells to create sound textures. He also manages to combine acoustic and electric guitar sounds very nicely indeed, especially on the second song where, despite some buzz from the acoustic, he's layered the two parts really well. I also liked the use of high notes on the guitar with a tremolo effect applied. Yet it's the third song that features the best acoustic guitar sounds, cleverly coaxing a classy sound from budget instruments.
This German band have sent in a demo of classic rock cover versions designed to get them more gigs. It's more or less recorded live with no attempt to add production sparkle, but at least the promoters will know that what they hear is what they're going to get. The playing is tight with some good sounds in the right vein for the genre. The Mesa Boogie-style amp simulations produced by the Line 6 Pod are especially convincing, and the drum sounds are good, but could benefit from a tighter, more punchy reverb sound, like a gated or short room program on the group's Lexicon MPX100. For synth fans, there are also some classic keyboard sounds with more than a nod to Jan Hammer. The arrangements have been interpreted pretty well, with Whitesnake's 'Ain't No Love In The Heart Of The City' sounding particularly good.
Michael has produced a demo CD of jingles and stings designed for commercial use. These include orchestral hits, groovy 16th-note synthesizer loops with a touch of filter modulation and shorter and longer versions of various themes. The mixes are good enough but the production is all a bit lightweight, and some more work on the basic sounds to make them bigger and more powerful wouldn't do any harm. For example, the orchestral hits lack low-frequency energy — a dose of EQ boost in that area wouldn't go amiss. 'House Heaven' is a tad polite, the kick drum needing more edge and the mix lacking energy and attack. Conversely, a mellow piano-based composition entitled 'Quiet Expectation' is the best thing on the CD. I also really liked Michael's funky wah-wah style synthesizer loops even though they are in danger of being over-used on this sampler. With a view to selling this music, it used to be easier to get into this market but now personal recommendations and a decent agent are essential, so get networking.
While reminiscent of American punk and new-wave bands like the Ramones and Television, this band also have a sense of humour. Songs like 'Getting Married For All The Wrong Reasons' are sure to hit the mark with a large percentage of the CD-buying public. The recording itself is a bit rough and ready and the playing isn't always the tightest, to the point where at times it sounds like they're only just holding it all together. I was particularly impressed with the way they manage to get their Roland V-Drums to sound punky yet tight. However, the erratic signal levels from the bass player's spirited performance don't aid the timing, and are a candidate for compression at the mixing stage. With such a dynamic performance, it may be that two compressors will need to be used in series — there's a chance that the bass sound would be ruined by the extreme settings that would be required if using only one compressor. The CD cover is fun, so it was a surprise to discover that Rioja have a rather tame web site which sadly only features one song for download. This means you won't be able to hear the highly recommended and amusing 'Jenny's Got A Big Mouth'. So come on, guys — let's have some more mp3 tasters!
The copious reverb and harsh EQ on these mixes emphasise a deliberately aggressive style with more than a touch of goth and industrial about it. Against this backdrop, the electric piano and atmospheric storm sounds which introduce the second song come as a pleasant surprise. The bass line and piano improvisation provoke comparisons with 'Riders on the Storm' by the Doors, but that's not a bad thing. The aforementioned large amount of reverb worked on everything but the vocals in this song — they should be more intimate and upfront. I thoroughly approved of use of textured synthesizer and sound effects using backwards and heavily vibrato'd chords. This really helped the song's dynamics and, with a bit more work on the vocal sound, could turn the song into a moody classic for the band.
Stuart's songs bear the hallmarks of the Welsh working men's clubs where country music is still in favour. His backings are unfussy and would benefit from some classy melodic instrumentation in the form of electric-guitar or pedal-steel fills, which he could obtain from sample CDs. He should also try miking up the acoustic guitar with his Rode NT1 mic instead of DI'ing the signal from the pickup. This will give a more classy sound, even if it takes a bit longer to set up. The vocals sound good, and I'm so glad he avoided the temptation to add too much reverb, which people who've played the clubs for years invariably seem to do on their demos. He also sings decent harmony vocals and arranges these well. Some real percussion like tambourine or cabasa might spice up the basic drum tracks on these generally well-mixed songs.