Personal musical standards and the perception/expectations of listeners. Discuss. You may consult the course text: "Seething Resentment: A Practical Guide"

November 13, 2010 2:35 AM

Prompted by a response I just made to a comment by Karlos on a recent upload of mine, I thought that this might be an area of wider interest - it's certainly something that intrigues me. Here's my response to Karlos: What I'm trying to do with stuff like this is to test some of my own perceptions, standards and boundaries. I get quite a lot of comments about my stuff being "smooth" or "well produced/mixed" and gentle criticism about it being "too musicianly" or "complicated". These are nice things to hear and MeFites are generally kindly and well-meaning souls, but I guess I want to experiment with what listeners actually perceive as important and unimportant, critical and uncritical. What do people really hear in a track?? What do they filter out?? Why?? Hence I deliberately left things in this mix of a fairly average track (so I'm not fucking up something I think is really good) that normally I wouldn't allow to be "released" just to see if anyone says "Christ, those backing vocals suck the big one and totally ruin the track". Naturally the "experiment" depends upon people actually listening to a track! But that's beside the point in terms of a wider discussion on this topic. How much, for instance, do you care if parts of a vocal or guitar solo are out of tune?
posted by MajorDundee (19 comments total)

Erm, do I get wafers with it?
posted by Zenabi at 4:01 AM on November 13, 2010

I've been known to use a bit of autotune to help out on instruments, but mainly because I use a lot of instruments that aren't necessarily in tune with everything else. It really depends on how well the out of tune thing works with the rest of the track, for me. There are numerous instances where it doesn't detract, or even contributes to the atmosphere of the track, so (at least for me) it's really a judgment call made on a case-by-case basis.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 5:04 AM on November 13, 2010

I think everyone's mileage varies, Major? I've never been a lo-fi kind of guy in my own stuff although I can enjoy it in other people's.

There's different kinds of lo-fi. On the one hand there's the kind where someone did the absolute best job they could with the equipment they had at hand (eg early Soweto pop music, lots of early indie/punk recordings). We've all been there and I would put some of my demos posted here in this category.

On the other there's the 'deliberately trying to sound incompetent' approach which bothers me no end, as it seems like a fake attempt to sound 'authentic'.

For my own stuff, if I can make something sound better, I do, for certain values of 'better'. I'm a geek at heart so I'm always fiddling with instruments, plugins, techniques etc. The basic question I ask myself is whether there is something in the mix which is going to bug me every time I listen to it (eg is that bass too quiet? do I want a drum fill there? is that too much reverb on the lead guitar?).

On the other hand I'm at best a competent musician on guitar and pretty much incompetent at bass, drums and keys, so my tracks are always going to be rough around the edges in terms of the playing. I wish they weren't but there it is.

The one thing I am really dogmatic about (for myself) is songwriting. I worry away at structures and arrangements until every beat and word is nailed down, again simply because if I don't I know it will bug me every time I hear it. If often throw away all the audio tracks and start again -- in fact that's my working method.

In the case of your powerpop song (which I've been meaning to comment on as it's one of the best things of yours I've heard) what shines through is the songwriting. I can hear that the production isn't 'there' yet, and I think you should keep working away at it until you're happy with it.

I think people worry way too much about 'production' and way too little about melody, harmony, lyrics and above all keeping the listener's interest. I always think of the listener as someone with their finger poised above the 'NEXT!' button. So you have to keep serving them up stuff, bar by bar, which keeps the finger from pressing the button. That means hooks, builds, surprises, dynamics, something groovy in the rhythm section, the odd bit of earcandy and so on. I guess that's the definition of 'pop' really.

I think I may be one of the ones who made a comment about your stuff sometimes being complicated. It wasn't meant as a dig -- I can't remember what it was apropos of -- but I personally think it's good to give the audience something very legible in a pop song even if the other elements are outré. Like a sweet vocal melody, or a satisfying progression, or a stonking groove. Once you have that, you have the listener by the balls and you can do almost anything you like on top of it.

I think in particular you are a much better songwriter than you give yourself credit for, but you are very confident in your musicianship. So naturally you tend to emphasise that latter because you are more confident about it. All (I think) I was saying was that you shouldn't be afraid of giving hte song itself more emphasis, and making sure that the instrumental curlicues don't get in the way of that.

I think you did exactly that on the latest opus. What I wanted to hear a bit more of was the 'power' in power pop. Like the guitars wanted to be louder, and some more of your curlicues supporting the idea of the song Have you heard that Albini remix of Cheap Trick? That's *exactly* what I wanted it to sound like. Of course that may not be what you had in mind at all!
posted by unSane at 5:55 AM on November 13, 2010

(If you haven't heard it, I used the Albini re-recording/re-mix of 'I want you to want me' as the soundtrack for an MTB video or I think you can find a link to a zip of the whole album, plus the background story here.)
posted by unSane at 6:41 AM on November 13, 2010

Interesting stuff. I should point out for the avoidance of doubt that this post wasn't a fishing expedition or PR for my latest opus. It is, to me, a genuinely interesting question about how other people hear and respond to music, or what they respond to in a piece of music.

One obvious answer to my question is, of course: that's why you need a record producer. It's probably not a great idea on the whole to produce your own records. An independent pair of ears - perhaps ears that aren't so nit-pickingly critical as those of the musician creating or performing the material - may result in something that has wider appeal.

Actually.....there's a future challenge idea lurking in that. Get someone else to "produce" or mix a track - e.g. unSane produced by Dundee, LOOM produced by unSane etc etc. I'd bet the results of that would be interesting. With things like YouSendIt we have the technology to swap multitracks, so it's do-able.
posted by MajorDundee at 6:49 AM on November 13, 2010

Yeah, I agree about the producer, or at least an independent pair of ears.

The 'produced' by challenge is a really good one. In fact I'd be happy to do that as my collaboration, either or both directions.
posted by unSane at 7:08 AM on November 13, 2010

It's a very good questions (or a very good set of questions, rather). I personally don't think I could answer it with one fixed, unmovable answer, mostly because I tend to go through phases. These days, for instance, I find myself not paying attention to what the lyrics are saying, but rather listening to the voice as another melody line, as if it was a keyboard.

One thing I've realized is always important for my mind to be engaged by a song is rhythmic elements. If songs don't have anything rhythmic at all -even a shaker- it's harder for me to not get distracted. So, I personally consider always having rhythmic elements -however subtle- to be a crucial part.

As for things that I can't stand: I can't for the life of me put up with the sound of electro-acoustic guitars. The sort of guitars almost always used in Mtv unplugged sessions, for example. To me those guitars are criminal and hideous.

I don't mind at all if things are out of tune. A lot of the stuff I listen to is of campesino origin -sorry for the Spanish word, but saying "country music" might be misleading- and not necessarily in tune all the time. With solos I kinda even prefer it if they are out tune. Solos have become such a boring and predictable part of songs that I'd rather have them playing something wildly unexpected, but interesting, than something perfectly thought and mathematical.

But more than anything, I guess the standard would be how well things blend together. Many great Latin American songs I love are "tainted" because musicians were rushed by producers into recording and not given enough time or chance to select the right instrument for the songs. Many of this songs I'm thinking of would have been better served by having an acoustic bass instead of an electric one. This song is a good example of it.
posted by micayetoca at 8:02 AM on November 13, 2010

Funny isn't it mica - tuning is, for me, the main bugbear. I can't abide anything out of tune - produces exactly the same reaction in me as someone scratching fingernails down a blackboard, or biting on tinfoil. So deliberately leaving stuff in a track that's out of tune is really daring for me! But the responses so far are confirming my suspicion that my preoccupations - the things I will tend to get anal about in my recordings - are not universally shared. So how the hell do any of us produce music that hits the spot?

While I'm at it. Other pet hates include: mindless, cliche-ridden guitar solos. Pitch-correction. Grandstanding, incontinent and undisciplined vocal pyrotechnics (seems to be mandatory for most young R&B singers nowadays - it's not clever or impressive, it's immature, insensitive and boring). I don't like cynical, deliberately mawkish, turgid rock "ballads" - particularly impassioned duets by people who've never actually been in the same room together. I don't like conscious and flagrant plagiarism passed off as "tribute" (yes Noel, I mean you). And I don't like predictable or recycled melodies, chord progressions and what I term "music for people who don't like music" (Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance). Other than that, I'm cool with everything! Yeah!!
posted by MajorDundee at 10:55 AM on November 13, 2010

As for things that I can't stand: I can't for the life of me put up with the sound of electro-acoustic guitars.

Oh, God, yes. This. I suppose sometimes they are a necessary evil live in a band setting but there is no excuse for them on a recording or an unplugged session, ever.
posted by unSane at 10:59 AM on November 13, 2010

Lazy lyrics are a huge turn off for me (SLOWLY GOING DOWN THE HALL FASTER THAN A CANNONBALL MY ARSE). Also, by and large, jam bands up to and including the Dead and anything sample based which just goes on for ever with the same samples coming in and out on a 4-bar basis (Ableton live should die in a fire). I get massively annoyed by long atonal endings (PAGING WILCO) that go on for six or seven minutes after the song has finished. The Nickelback/Pearl Jam nose-singing is a deal breaker, as is almost anything celtic that isn't actually played by Celts or their immediate descendants. In fact the list of stuff that annoys me is almost infinitely long and my typical ipod-on-shuffle experience consists of me repeatedly skipping track after track waiting for one I can stand all the way through (Aimee Mann, take a bow).
posted by unSane at 11:09 AM on November 13, 2010

Aimee Mann. Wahey!!! At last, another Aimee Mann fan! I got into her years ago, but she never really took off here. Too good for cloth-eared Brits.

My list of hates is endless too. I think some of it is just the fact that when you've been around as long as I have, you've heard it all. At least twice. And it's easy to forget that for kids it's all new and they don't give a fuck that the bridge in song X is nicked from "All The Yound Dudes" or the vocal has been varispeeded. And they're quite right. So long as people are still getting excited about music - that thrilling, headrushing, sheer excitement of falling on love with a record or a band - well, things are ok. I can still remember, for instance, seeing Queen on Top Of The Pops in 1973 or 74 when they were up-and-coming and pushing "Seven Seas Of Rhye" and just being fucking stunned. I mean literally jaw-dropping "what the fuck is this??!!". Fantastic.
posted by MajorDundee at 11:22 AM on November 13, 2010

I never really notice out-of-tune-ness. I can listen to Neutral Milk Hotel all day but it completely drives my wife up the wall because he veers out of tune so often.

As for things that I can't stand: I can't for the life of me put up with the sound of electro-acoustic guitars.

Oh, God, yes. This. I suppose sometimes they are a necessary evil live in a band setting but there is no excuse for them on a recording or an unplugged session, ever.

Amusingly for this thread, the 33 1/3 book for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea discusses Jeff Magnum's use of electro-acoustic guitars; Magnum loves them, the producer, Robert Schneider, very much did not, and he spent a lot of time coming up with a way to record it and make it palatable. And, you know, it sounds good to me.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 1:51 PM on November 13, 2010

So, Major, what kind of comments do you think are helpful? It seems like some folks here cut right to the chase and easily nail down little malfunctions and whatnot. Others though, simply enjoy something or not. Unless someone is asking for thoughts on a particular element or elements in a song, I usually just give a more general response as to how the thing strikes me viscerally or emotionally. I actually go right into "Ok, I'll just shut up and listen" mode when folks get really technical. At that point it's a learning experience for me.

As far as peeves and things that trigger me to click "stop", I don't have many, especially here. I can barely listen to the radio though. Stuff that's supposed to be "alternative" is such rehashed gimmickly garbage it drives me insane. Really it's 2010 you're in a big label hipster rock band and the driving hook for your new single is a Jimmy Page riff? Nooooooooo!!!!!
posted by snsranch at 3:33 PM on November 13, 2010

I was going to post a separate thread about this but since we have veered over into it --

I think that 'what kind of criticism do you want?' is a very important question and obviously has different answers for different people. People seem to be very kind and encouraging in their comments on MeFiMusic. Sometimes I have not criticized something because I didn't want to sound discouraging and because it wasn't clear that it was what the poster wanted.

The same thing is true on Flickr. I got a bit sick of the 'nice shot' school of commenting and started a group called Criticism Welcome and an associated tag criticismwelcome. It was pretty active for a while there although I let it wither on the vine eventually when I stopped using Flickr so heavily.

So anyway, my constructive suggestion is that folks use a tag like 'criticismwelcome' to signal that we should not be shy about making constructive suggestions about how the piece could be improved.
posted by unSane at 4:22 PM on November 13, 2010

(Incidentally, I once did a snowboard instructor's course and the guy who taught it gave me a terrific piece of advice which I have followed ever since. He said that criticism should take the form "[something postiive] [suggested specific improvement]". For example:

"Your stance was great on that run. To carve even better, try flexing at the knees more".

As opposed to:

"You're not flexing at the knees enough".

Some smart ass (me) asked what you were supposed to say if there was literally nothing good about what you just observed.

Answer: "You say, 'nice hat'".

Ever since then 'nice hat' has become a catchphrase for anything so unspeakably awful that you literally can't find anything good to say about it at all.

He also observed that criticism which has a 'but' in the middle is much less effective than criticism which has an 'and' in the middle. "That was pretty good but..." versus "That was pretty good and to make it even better..."
posted by unSane at 5:25 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

So anyway, my constructive suggestion is that folks use a tag like 'criticismwelcome'

That's a nice idea uSane. But I think there's been a bit of misunderstanding about what I was getting at with this thread. My fault for being too Brit-ironic-jokey about it I expect.

What I was getting at was really something with no answer. It's akin to the holy grail. How do people percieve music? Do they hear it differently from the people creating it? What is it in a piece of music that grabs people? How can something that the creator thinks is a hook, just fall flat and fail to connect?

What I'm beginning to learn is that if you have a certain facility as an instrumentalist, that can actually be a real handicap when you're trying to write songs. And having a picky ear can also hamper things because you focus on stuff that other people don't give a shit about. Wood for the trees etc. mission going forward is simplicity and directness. Just how basic can I get with something? You know - that's actually far more challenging than being all flash/clever and twiddly.....
posted by MajorDundee at 3:47 AM on November 14, 2010

I see what you mean, Major!

Personally speaking... and I'm just blurting this out because I've thought a lot about it and not because it is aimed at you or anyone else here...

I think the old cliché that a song should still sound good played solo on an acoustic guitar is very true. It really brings you down to the irreducible nub of the song. Basic melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics, structure, dynamics. Nuts and bolts stuff. Completely independent of instrumentation and arrangement!

Secondly the hook. The song has to have a payoff of some kind... the moment you keep listening for... the emotional climax in the chorus, the aural equivalent of ;a money shot. The whole song needs to be structured to service this hook and you need to get to it fast so the first-time listener realizes this song is worth sticking around to hear in full.

Third, and I think this really sorts a great pop song from a good one (I'm only talking pop here, I don't know about anything else) is the bridge, which somehow turns the song around, or propels it to a new level. Willie Nelson is the absolute lord high emperor king monkey chop chop banana of the bridge and Aimee Mann is a close second. A good bridge is like an injection of heroin 2/3 of the way through the song, and allows you to come back in for the last chorus or verse and chorus with way more energy.

Fourth, and I mentioned this before, is editing. When I write a song it's like a big jenga tower of intros, verses, prechoruses, choruses, postchoruses, bridges, outros, solos and so on, a huge baggy monster... and what I try to do (I should be way stricter about this, actually) is remove pieces until all that is left is what is absolutely essential to the song, in the sense that it just falls flat if you remove that solo or that verse or that repeat.

Fifth, dynamics. I don't mean loud/soft, I mean emotional intensity. So much music you hear starts out all 'baby I love you' and ends 'baby I love you' and meanders between the two at the same emotional level. Whereas the really great songs build and build. Think about Shipbuilding or Alison or Crazy or Common People or... well you get it.

So in my view instrumentation and arrangement and production are there to support and execute all this stuff, as opposed to an end in themselves. Sometimes, and in the best of all possible worlds, they become completely intrinsic to the song -- like There She Goes or Layla -- if you take the riff out, the song collapses into a boring heap. But we're lucky to write one of those songs a year I think.

I often think when I'm arranging or mixing something 'How can I make this song more like itself', by which I mean, what's at the absolute core of it, what's the song 'about' musically (the melody? the hook? the harmony? the overall sound?) and try to foreground that.

Sorry for the rambling, first cup of coffee etc.
posted by unSane at 6:49 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

thanks for clarifying your idea, Major. I think unSane has just written an excellent outline of important elements. (I don't think I've ever written a bridge on purpose!) So thanks, man!

And yea, the Holy Grail! The one thing that I've found to be a common denominator among really great artists (not just musicians) is their ability to distill all of their influences and melt them together with fresh ideas and make them wholly new and unique. I've been working on that for about 10 years since I'm not playing with bands anymore and don't have to cater to peoples whims.

To continue from where unSane left off, fuck with your audience. As with any art the idea is to fuck with your audience somehow. Whether it's kicking them in the balls or gently kissing their earlobes. Make 'em feel something.

I don't know how useful or interesting that is but it's my pretty simple take on the Holy Grail.

unSane, while we may have been a bit off topic, I think your "criticismwelcome" tag idea is spot on. Some of us might/should use a "pleasebegentle" tag!
posted by snsranch at 2:31 PM on November 14, 2010

You know what? Sometimes a song can be polished to the point of perfection, and lose all its' spirit and fun in the process. And sometimes you get a song by Kimya Dawson stuck in your head, and you don't mind one bit.

Ultimately, a song can succeed or fail on the production values, but bad production values don't need to sink a wonderful song. Having said that, I think being in tune and in time counts, unless you're going out of time or tune intentionally and skillfully. But your guitar can still sound like you made it out of a kleenex box and inner tubes, yet be compelling.
posted by davejay at 11:13 PM on November 15, 2010

« Older Early sign up thread for January challenge.   |   Metafilter Complaints Choir Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments