On making better musicians. On making music better.

Thursday 12th March 2015.


So there's this website called Sounds Just Like, that shows you snippets from two songs that sound just like each other. Often one is well known, the other not, often one is contemporary, the other not. A few of the examples are from famous cases of copyright infringement, for example on The Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony, but many are examples of obvious similarity which, for whatever reason, didn't lead the parties into court.

Two parties that did end up in court were the writers of "Blurred Lines", and the estate of Marvin Gaye. That case closed this week with the verdict that Pharrell Williams's song improperly borrowed from the Gaye composition. The legal battle is well worth a read (Hollywood Reporter did a pretty good blow-by-blow). My sneaking suspicion is that the jurors didn't take kindly to Thicke's singing in court, admittance of drug abuse, numerous questionable remarks in previous interviews and huge paycheque for an hour's work.

Thicke's antics aside, what this case brings into perspective is the deep problems inherent in current copyright law. Created in a time of sing-songs round the pianola, it was brought in to stop the free distribution of the printed score, and the reduced freedom of the creator to profit from their work. This is why much of the Blurred Lines case rested on the details of the sheet music submitted for copyright by Marvin Gaye - indeed on the interpretation of the sheet music by a musicologist hired by the Gaye estate's lawyers.

I don't know how much you know about sheet music, but I think most people would agree that it's a reduction of information compared to a recording or performance. I would say a pretty drastic one. I also think that most people would agree that there are significant experiential differences between two recordings of the same song - even that one can be 'good', the other 'bad'. Yet legally, the two are equivalent.

I've written previously about the creative musical word we live in, how timbre has become a defining feature of modern music. I've also written about the essential requirement for music copyright, and the music industry's continuing issue with restoring value to music. For me, the three are inexorably linked: the aspects of composition that we most value have changed; we need copyright to protect that value; once we understand what aspects are most value in music, we can better communicate that value with our audience.

This latest case is concerning for a number of reasons. I had a whole morning on twitter trying to express my concerns, but they fall into three main areas:

1: Copyright should reflect current music-making. Yes words and melody are often essential parts of a successful song. So too are performance, arrangement decisions, technical tricks, album sequencing and so on. The defining aspects of a composition should be the aspects which are protected. There is no reason to solely use sheet music as the method of transcription.

2: Copyright should protect the rights owner from a loss of income. Got to Give It Up, the Gaye song in question, 100% wouldn't have made $4 million last year. Nobody accidentally listened to Blurred Lines because of that cowbell, only to demand a refund when TI popped up.

3: Sensible copyrighting allows creativity to flourish, supporting the composer, while allowing them to manipulate general musical rules into new shapes. No, you can't copyright a harmonic sequence, a rhythmic pattern, a particular group of instruments, but you are free to use them skilfully to entertain. If someone comes along later with the same arpeggio but a wildly more successful production, well sorry, maybe you can learn something from their approach.

This is a subject that I predict I will be returning to again.


Tuesday 4th August 2014.

Listen like it's Björk.

We've all been there. You've just finished dancing, perhaps even starting to sing along with a new song you've heard on the radio, thinking 'wow this is great, I wonder who this is' - only to find out that, not only do you know who the artist is, but you revile them so much that you can't believe you actually liked their song just now. Maybe it wasn't actually that good… Maybe you had a momentary lapse of taste. The next time you hear it, the same rhythms and melodies annoy rather than excite.

You might also have experienced the reverse. How many times do we describe that new album by a favourite artist as a 'grower'? Ever wonder if you are just teaching yourself to like something that at first you didn't love? … that it's not just a case of 'complex things take more time' - 'it must be really good if I don't love it until the 11th listen'? How can we know if we are not simply changing our taste to fit with those deeply trusted artists?

It is natural that our relationship with an artist should have an influence on our listening - context is everything after all - but this strong deflection of our objectivity can be dangerous for our own productions. Is the song really better today? Or are we feeling better about it? Recognising you have a problem is the first step, and we can use that knowledge to play with the perception of our own work.

Take that new song you've been working on- in fact take any song. Before you listen to it, try to convince yourself this is the new single from you absolute favourite artist. Imagine how exciting that would be: here they are, back from hiatus with an unannounced new song, and a new direction, and you're about to hear it. Put everything down, this is event listening.


The whole process might feel a bit double-think, but just like the placebo effect, it works even when you know you're tricking yourself. How did that change how you felt about the song? How would it change if you swapped your favourite artist for your most reviled? How good would your production have to be for it to break through that kind of negative predisposition? When it gets out in the wild, it might have to.

Of course, this is not just a fun way of tricking yourself into liking Robin Thicke songs; changes in perception do powerfully affect your relationship to your own work. I have worked on many sessions where an artist in need of dinner despises a take, only to love it when they return. Our careers are a constant battle for objectivity, some of us despising every note, others like the lovestruck parent, unable to see how ugly their baby is. Recognising this behaviour, and learning to exert control over it is yet another way we can improve our production.


Friday 6th June 2014.

Out on the fringe.

Hello. I've been away for a bit. For the last 6 weeks I have been working, almost without break, on the Brighton Fringe. Quite a lot happened, so I wanted to condense everything down into a bunch of facts and figures. So without further ado:

Stationed in the main house at the Warren, I worked with 1 other full-time technician and 6 part-time technical interns on 142 performances by 50 companies in 30 production days. We also worked with 25 bands over 13 late-night Fringe Clubs. The longest week was 112 hours, with the longest day at 19 hours. The shortest week was 55.5 hours, with the shortest day at 8 hours. Through malfunction, I ended up working on 3 different sound desks, and almost exclusively with SM57s and 58s.

It was 2 days until the venue had become kitchen, bathroom, front room and bedroom. It wasn't until the penultimate day that the space became a triage, as 2 people had to make a trip to the doctor's after sustaining hand injuries. 3 shows had inflatable sets, loads and loads had puppets, and 4 made me cry, although lack of sleep may have been a contributing factor.

Many props were left behind and discovered during get-out, becoming particularly surreal out of the context of their shows. 1 cardboard box full of loose t-shirts, some mayonnaise, 1 blue toy racing car, 1 pink dressing gown, a book of 500 wordsearches (half completed) and 1 cease and desist letter from Stephen Moffat.

What a strange month. A.

Friday 14th March 2014.

Sound City: The Personal Music Player.

So, Pono. Neil Young's high-def iPod has gone bananas on Kickstarter. At the time of writing, the project is nearly 400% funded with 32 days to go: people have literally bought into the idea of high definition audio in a big way. Very high definition audio, as it turns out; all the way up to 192kHz / 24bit, nearly four and a half times the frequency resolution, and one and a half times more quiet stuff before the noise floor. Sounds good right? Surely more is better?

Well no. Seriously, no. This article does a fantastic job of explaining digital audio at higher sample rates and bit depths, specifically in the context of Pono. Trust Me I'm a Scientist ran a test on its readership in 2012 in response to the original Pono announcement. Their (arguably more golden-eared than the norm) test subjects did about as well as the science suggests they should. Maybe this is why so much of the Pono pitch talks about the 'feel' and 'soul' of music: confirmation bias only works when you don't examine the evidence too closely.

To focus on the part of the audio chain that we have the most control over, and in a way that has a near-unmeasurably small effect is a waste. If Young genuinely wants to improve the listener experience, he needs to bundle his (admittedly well-specced) player with exceptional earphones (and stop the listener from walking or driving or taking the tube) or, to achieve the studio sound reported by the famous faces in the kickstarter video, perform a full acoustic diagnostic and treatment of each backer's front room. And move that room to a quieter part of town, if needs be.

Another closed music store tied to closed hardware - "the PonoMusic ecosystem" - is not going to save music. We already have a pretty successful, widely adopted ecosystem like this (FYI Apple's own lossless format has been open source since 2011). In the same TMIaS article mentioned above, Young is described as a time-traveller from 1973, stuck in 2000. The PonoMusic model is very y2k: today's faster internet speeds and raft of legal streaming sources are the present and near future of the industry's shopfront, even if they haven't yet worked out how to pay musicians.

It's no surprise to see that many of the same faces present in the Pono kickstarter video are also present in 2013's Sound City. That film haltingly stumbles towards a similar sentiment, with a similar amount of sentiment. There's an awful lot of romanticising in both over the sound of the glory days of music - tape, transformers, tubes and great rooms - but nowhere a solution to the fundamental issue: Great records cost time, expertise and materials. The stuff missing from record-making now, abundantly present in the glory days, isn't skill, soul or fidelity:

It's money.

The music industry has been hugely damaged by its failure to find a response to the internet. Restoring music's worth in the eyes of its consumers is a worthy challenge. I'm just not sure that Pono is up to it.


Tuesday 11th March 2014.

Even Pharrell Needs a Producer.

It's no surprise that the 2013 Grammy Producer of the Year, Non Classical was Pharrell Williams. In no small part thanks to the return of Daft Punk and Up All Night, Pharrell had a huge year. I'm sure you've noticed.

It's also no surprise that Pharrell has chosen to capitalise on such a successful year with the release of his second solo album: G I R L. Long story short, I like it about as much as the last one. The PMA review pretty much sums it up for me: like its predecessor, the record is missing a producer. Unfortunately, and despite a large team, it seems as if too much of the decision making was in Pharrell's hands.

Mixerman's Zen and the Art of Producing argues strongly against self-producing, and its assertion that "the process is fraught with bad decisions made due to the artist's particular set of weaknesses" is the one that hits the mark. There really isn't enough time for one person to master all of the aspects of record making (Pharrell's falsetto is only about as convincing as Timberlake's beatboxing, for example, but is deployed far more often), nor is there enough time in the world to achieve the kind of perspective that the right producer would immediately bring to the project.

G I R L has surface similarities to an album released a few months before, on which the solo artist has a writing/production credit for every track, where a strong artistic vision originates from a single person and which has a similarly large credit list, even sharing a few names. Beyoncé's Beyoncé, however, is a much more successful album; convincing, cohesive and daring.

Perhaps an artist, by necessity and through experience, has a better understanding of the importance of the producer for collaboration, for perspective and for filling in areas of weakness. Beyoncé's album is full of solo artist and collaborators bringing the best out of each other. Perhaps Pharrell underestimates the importance of the artists he works with in helping to shape his greatest works, and in exorcising them from the creative process removes all chance for danger.

Pharrell, of course, is not alone: see also Timberland's Shock Value albums, not to mention numerous records where artists took too much control (post-split Lennon & McCartney, Jackson etc.). Again, no one person has time to excel in all areas: it is only through specialisation and collaboration that we can produce the best work.


Sunday 23rd February 2014.

Music In the Timbre Age.

The recently released 2014 National Curriculum for music guidance posits eight 'dimensions' of music: "pitch, duration, dynamics, tempo, timbre, texture, structure and appropriate musical notation". Maddening as it is to see their list end without key components (answers at the end), they have managed to include the parameter I want to look at here: timbre.

This week, I was pointed in the direction of this paper, entitled "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music", or "is pop music getting dumber", as @stewsounds tweeted. The paper provides some helpfully scientific data which seems to support the common argument that pop music has gotten worse: "our perception of the new would be essentially rooted on identifying simpler pitch sequences, fashionable timbral mixtures, and louder volumes". Leaving loudness for another time, pitch simplification, and the harmonic simplification it implies, certainly makes it sound like pop is getting 'dumber'.

One could make an argument that, along with a slow timbral expansion, the development of western music is synonymous with gradual harmonic expansion: from the modalism of the middle ages, through the cadence-dominated classical period, the rapid expansion into chromaticism offered by romanticism and serialism, and final steps away from equal temperament into microtonalism. Given no other information, it should be possible to date a piece based only on what its composer considered a dissonance. It was not only in the concert hall that old dissonances were challenged: during its short development through the 20th century, jazz took the dissonances of blues, the forms of broadway, and created a new structure for harmonic theory, a vast extension of the classical model, expertly formalised by George Russell.

Take a formal music theory test in 2014 (ABRSM and Trinity are the largest accrediting bodies) and, aside from identifying common instruments (a question on timbre equivalent to the harmonic simplicity of "is this note higher or lower"), questions cover only two musical parameters: pitch and harmony. It is not surprising that, in assessing the current state of pop music, academics, critics and audience alike focus on pop's diminishing harmonic complexity.

However, in addition to the 20th century's widespread exhaustion of chromatic harmony came a sudden, huge increase in timbral control offered by electric, then electronic technologies, and through Futurism and Experimentalism a complete dismissal of the constrictions on permissible timbre in music. Where the early 20th century composer typically sat with piano and manuscript paper (and naturally gave precedence to the parameters most under their control), the early 21st century composer has available immediate access to a vast palette of traditional, contemporary and yet-unimagined timbre, and the means to control every aspect of their presentation.

Is it any wonder that they are more likely to choose timbre over harmony?


Congratulations to those that correctly spotted that the missing dimensions were physical and cultural position: reverb and context have effects on a piece as large any of those other parameters. Those given the responsibility of creating this guidance for schools are redeemed only by their giving teachers the option to ignore it entirely.

Saturday 8th February 2014.

Bringing Order to Copyright.

Meanwhile, in videogames, my twitter was full of responses to this article on copyright, with people on both sides of the debate arguing with some vitriol. It's a big article, and I'm not going to challenge all of the arguments it makes, but in making its arguments strongly, it has been helpful in giving the motivation to form (or firm up) my own take on copyright.

The biggest philosophical argument in it is that creative works are largely ideas rather than objects, and furthermore that ideas are cultural phenomena and therefore do not belong to the individuals that happens to be the first to get to them. Essentially that while you can own (and therefore sell) a particular table, an individual should not be able to own the idea of tables, of tableness.

I agree that generating creative work does not constitutes the same kind of singular ideological leap as that of inventing the table. But I also reject the suggestion that any form of table is essentially just a table and therefore cannot be owned - as the article argues is the case with art. As a firm supporter of that broadest definition of music - any form of organised sound - the act of music composition is therefore, for me, the organisational decisions taken. Equally, the way in which the table-maker reorganises the functional and stylistic information of tableness in making their table is the creative process that generates worth.

I don't see a philosophical distinction between the organisation of information and the organisation of materials. Indeed to suggest that ideas are somehow less worthy of protection misunderstands the very nature of the universe. To get all sciencey for a minute, the universe tends towards disorder, towards a grey soupy mess of average temperature and mass, the process and state we call entropy. At the other end of the entropy spectrum are those hugely complex objects that take large and continuing investments of energy and time; the brain for example. Whenever we create order - through the ordering of materials or information - we are generating worth by pushing against this natural tendency of the universe.

Once an equivalence of creative acts is in place, and given that we began by talking about copyright, the question becomes whether or not we should protect an artistic idea in the same way that we protect an owned object, or an engineering idea. Patent law makes sense to me - that unprotected ideas snapped immediately up by bigger fish reduce the inventive individual's power to make a living from their creativity, disincentivising invention. It seems that the same disincentive is there for the artist that cannot support themselves from their work.

And the oft-heard argument that composers can just make money from masterclasses and performances is just bullshit. Composition is not advertising.


Monday 3rd February 2014.


William's few words at Midem about music selling hardware got me thinking again about how the value of music changes depending on its presentation. The emergence of readily copyable and shareable audio, with almost zero cost to the user, has presented those trying to earn money selling music with a bunch of related problems, chief among which is the devaluation of recorded audio.

Live sales have, to varying degrees remained a reliable source of income for many musicians (although not all), party due to increasing ticket prices, especially for the biggest acts. But while many hold on to ticket stubs as mementos of the concert, that object is generally not what audiences pay for: the experience of the music is just as ephemeral as with recorded music. So why do we seem to retain a value in live music?

There are a number of reasons, of course. Sharing a room not only with the artist themselves (even if that 'room' is so large that you spend more times looking at the screens than the stage), but with tens to thousands of fellow fans is a particularly powerful ritualistic experience. Also, the scale of live performance, whether at the large or small scale, offers an experience still unmatchable in the living room. Thirdly, there is a sense that to some extent the performance is 'for me' - that there is a transience and personalness to the performance that is valuable (and how often do you hear concert-goes complain about backing tracks, miming or even that the performance was too similar to the recording).

There are many other reasons, and it is not my intention to enumerate them all here. What I'm wondering is if there might be something in introducing some of these valuable aspects of the live experience into recorded music. A personal 20-minute skype/ustream/hangouts gig for every album sold? Visuals for every track? An album personalised for each fan (with choice of setlist or mastering level, a personal message, or generative material).

What kind of cool things could be done if you could sell your album at £10 / £15 / £20?


Sunday 2nd February 2014.

An Introduction.

In addition to the act of producing musical things of many forms (and I use 'producing' in the literal sense, not the musical one - lots and lots more to come on that thorny subject), I occasionally have the odd thought about making music that won't fit neatly into 140 characters.

I will therefore be wrangling those complicated (and quite possibly conflicted) musings into vaguely publishable forms here until further notice.


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