Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Why White People Clap on One and Three

The times being what they are, and my emotional state being what it is, I'm engaged in a process of catharsis. In that spirit, I've taken on the ineffably pleasant chore of recording a version of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City"; could there be a more perfect song for Life Under Bush? "This old earthquake's a-gonna leave me in the poorhouse/It seems like this whole town's insane..."

Now, I thought I knew country music pretty well. I've owned a banjo since 1984, and nearly everything I know about guitar playing ultimately has its roots in country. When I pick up a guitar and idly play it, what usually comes out is at least traceable to country, if not the thing itself.

So when I listened to my efforts with "Sin City," I was rather taken aback to find that I just wasn't feeling it. Something was, well, just wrong about it. It was too waltz-y, it didn't swing the way it should.

So I did what I should have done in the first place, which was to listen to the Burrito Brothers' version; I'd been operating from memory, and not from the magnificent template set down by Gram and the Boys. And what I heard was an absolute revelation.

The song's pedestrian beat is a waltz, no question about it, but you wouldn't know it from the rhythm section; they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge waltz-time. The rhythm guitar plays a ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta eighth-note figure, and the bass walks on the waltz beat, without accenting the one. I'd been playing the rhythm guitar in waltz time -- boom-chuck-a-chuck, boom-chuck-chuck -- and the bass as your standard country one-five, one-five on the first beat of each measure. That was why my recording was so weak.

It's a ubiquitous country beat, but I've been beating my brains out around the Internets to try to figure out what it's actually called. Here's a snip from Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces," which, while not a waltz, is a good illustration of what I'm talking about:

I Fall to Pieces (pops)

Now, there are thousands of country-songs that use that loping beat, especially from the Fifties and Sixties, and it's also the core beat of lots of New Orleans music as well, Fats Domino and that ilk. It's also the essence of ska as well -- that music came about as a result of Jamaicans doing their own take on country and R&B. You can sing "My Boy Lollipop" right over "I Fall to Pieces" and it fits perfectly.

But here's what blew the top of my tiny little head off. Not long ago I raved about Paul McCartney's walking bass in "All My Loving," saying I couldn't think of a pop song from before it that used the bass that way. Well, go ahead, give it a try: Launch that Patsy clip again, ignore the harmony and just hear the beat. "Close your eyes and I'll kiss you..."

You just never stop learning, man.

(I'll post up "Sin City" when it's done, but one other tragic flaw has revealed itself to me: I am not now, nor have I ever been, Sneaky Pete Kleinow.)


Christopher said...

I'm sure somebody has asked you this before, but I was wondering whether or not you use software like GarageBand or even ProTools to record? If so, what kind, and why do you prefer that particular software? I merely dabble in playing music myself, so I have been perfectly content with GarageBand when I get the urge to record something. I just wonder if I'm missing out on something cool.

Neddie said...

I use GarageBand too, Christopher. I started out with four-track cassette in the early Nineties, and, when computing power and disk space got to the point where home digital recording was financially feasible, I switched to Cubase for Mac.

I hated that program -- it was just way too overfeatured for poor little me, and it was a constant struggle to route busses and effects sends, and there were all these countless thousands of tiny little windows that did mysterious things. I'd find clicking the "mute" button would somehow cause a track to be lost and never found again, and far too many sessions ended with me pawing through a 500-page manual to find out why the fuck I couldn't get reverb on my vocal track.

GarageBand was an absolutely amazing bit of user-interface simplification. One of these days I'm going to write a white paper on what they accomplished. For the first time ever in the digital world, sitting down to jot down an idea was exactly as easy as sitting down in front of my four-track. Set levels, push "record" and you're off.

Only one thing about GB is slightly annoying; it's a 16-bit application rather than a 24-bit one, so your audio is only of so-so quality. I've just read, though, that the new version is 24-bit. Huzzah!

When I'm done tracking in GarageBand, I send the whole thing up to Apple Logic Express for mixing. Then I'm back in the world of routing and bussing and all that confusing stuff, but I've actually gotten to be a fairly dab hand at it. Like Cubase, Logic replicates the working environment of a professional studio, so I really don't know what I'm doing, but I do know that when I compress the drum track in Logic, it goes WHOOMP instead of thump.

Pro Tools? Jesus. You thought Cubase was daunting!

Neddie said...

Wow -- I just went to the Apple site to read up on GarageBand, to verify that it is indeed now a 24-bit app -- it is -- and the new features had me drooling. Tempo mapping -- a feature I really missed -- is in, visual editing of EQ just like the Big Boys, multiple takes, automatable effects changes....

I ordered it up. I may never have to use Logic again.

Check it out.

Steve said...


I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your musicological efforts.

Myself, I'm a hack musician (guitar for 35+ years and just starting with a bit of mandolin), and I find that I actually understand what you're saying, which doesn't always happen when people start going all musicological.

BTW, I remember the arrival of the Beatles like it was yesterday - I was 9 years old in '64. "Meet the Beatles" was just out, and we pooled our meager allowances to get it for a friend as a birthday gift. All I can say is we played the crap out of that poor slab of vinyl (and slabs they were, back in the day!).

Long story short... to this day, I can replay in my mind any Beatles song pretty much to perfection. At least it feels that way. Name a song, and I can just play it in my mind. Talk about imprinting!

Anyway, thanks, and a tip of the hat for your good stuff.

Neddie said...

Thanks, Steve, that's very kind of you to say.

All right, I'll bite: "What's the New Mary Jane." Go!

Simon said...

I've honestly used everything *but* Garageband by now, having tried demos of them all. I specifically try and judge things on how intuitive they are by NOT reading instruction manuals unless I have too.

Cakewalk is slightly easier to use than Cubase, but neither are as versatile as you'd like them to be, and both are awkward.

FLStudio (formerly Fruityloops) and Sony's Acid seemed to be more about dance music and didn't appeal to me at all, the former particularly clunky.

I can honestly say the best thing I've stumbled across is Ableton Live, if you can afford it and have a fast enough computer. The effects are real time. I keep meaning to read the instructions but have never gotten around to it but have been able to throw together mashups with apparant ease. If you want volume or tempo changes, you just draw them in. I can't recommend it highly enough because it's a very 'professional' product.

Strangely enough, for years I've used this programme called Cool Edit Pro for editing mp3 files and use it to tidy up albums all the time - perfect for removing the silence between final tracks and 'hidden tracks' and splitting them into two mp3 files for example. I also use it for cutting loops when doing mashups and other audio gruntwork.

Today i noticed for the first time it has a multi-track recorder built into it, so decided to see what it could do.

I'm in the middle of the writing process of a song and was wondering how certain elements would work together and possible problems, specifically, there's three competing melody lines in the chorus - a repetitive 2 bar descending figure, the melody of the piano line, and the melody of the vocals. Would they clash, especially if i'm about to complicate matters with a futher melody of the bassline and a possible vocal countermelody on the later choruses.

The other thing I wanted to quickly work out: would the constantly descending line of the bass through the pre-chorus and chorus section give it the sad, reflective quality i was after?

Now if i set down to do this in any of the other programmes, it would be a lengthy process, but Cool Edit Pro is fantastic as a basic 'sketchpad', for throwing down ideas. It's the 'scribbling rough ideas with a pen' alternative to all the other programmes.

A Quick Scribble

I grabbed a quick drum loop from a Cyndi Lauper song to use as a guide beat, then knocked this out in 10 minutes with a quick scratch vocal, and quickly answered my questions - the melodies don't compete or clash, and the basic descending progression of the bass is satisfying. (I'll further ornament the line later, but the main pulses work). I also want another 4 beats before the chorus for some more complex harmony parts.

The beauty is I could find this out quickly due to the ease of the programme rather than having to rewrite and rerehearse when i go to properly record it, thereby breaking concentration, because an amateur like me needs all the focus he can get.

(There sounds are all dry - there's no effects on anything but the options are there to be explored).

The best part is, it looks like it's now considered outdated tech, so you can get it here for free:

Cool Edit Pro

(You want Version 2.0.)

Theoretically Neddie, between this programme and Ableton Live, you could send me guitar parts as an mp3 and i could cut, retime and layer in over a backing track. Ain't technology a wonderful thing? Kids today don't know how lucky they are not having to fartarse around with 4-tracks and head cleaners. Maybe you could supply the Ringing Rickenbacker to 'Such Sinful Things' that I keep hearing in my head.