Production 212: It Ain’t Quadratic Equations

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

Remember when you were in school, studying some odious subject that is really difficult? Inevitably, you end up thinking, “I’m never gonna use this in real life!” I had several of those episodes. And while I was sometimes correct (I’ve yet to use a quadratic equation in real life), I was a lot more often wrong. I strongly suspect that many radio producers had that little moment when they were in band or chorus, because so many just don’t understand how music works, from a technical standpoint.

On the ‘science’ side of production, there are a number of things to learn for the beginning producer. My assumption in this column is that all of you reading this on a somewhat regular basis are beyond that point. You already understand mixing, editing, compression, EQ and all the other various tools we use on a daily basis. However perfect or imperfect that knowledge is for you, we are about to delve into one of the most difficult technical aspects of production there is, especially if you are not a musician. When I listen to someone’s work, I can always tell whether the producer has had some musical training. The piece will have its own rhythm and flow that is easy for the listener to follow, thus making it easy for the producer to effectively get the message delivered, which is the point of this entire exercise.

To accomplish this, I need to explain some of the fundamentals of music to you, assuming that you know little or nothing about the construction of music. You need to understand the basic building blocks of music before you tear the music apart and then rebuild it to your specific task. If you are a musician or at least have some training, this will seem very basic, but follow along so we all end up in the same place. Keep in mind, these are some BIG generalizations, and you won’t be able to sit down and perform after reading them, but they will keep you on point almost all of the time in today’s music.

This entire article will actually span two months. After you’ve digested this month’s installment, you will be able to edit music flawlessly every time. Next month, you’ll be able to bend music to your will so that it helps you deliver your message with clarity.

Because this month’s CD is filled with your best work of 2007, my audio is being relegated to the web. If you want to hear it you should log onto www.rapmag.com and you will see MP3 files you can listen to for each term, followed by some editing examples. I’ll be using several different pieces of music for the examples, but to cover the terms, I’m using Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. (It’s just very easy.)

Here are the terms you need to learn: Tempo, Time Signature, Measure, Downbeat, Bar and Rhythm. To make a smooth edit of any piece of music, you need to know what each of these is for that song. (OMG this is really complicated…NOT.)

Let’s start with Tempo. For a lot of you who have dabbled in spinning at nightclubs, this is roughly equivalent to Beats Per Minute (BPM.) You already know that most of the music we deal with runs somewhere between 80 and 130BPM. The higher the BPM, the faster the music is. The easiest way to determine BPM is to count the thumps for 10 seconds and multiply by six. (Go to cut 1-Tempo) However, knowing the tempo doesn’t give nearly enough information to make a good, smooth edit. You need to know the phrasing of the music.

As a general rule of thumb, you can hear the basic phrasing of the music in the bass line. (This is not always true, but it is a lot more often than not.) It’s a repeating series of notes that almost always, will be contained in one measure. (Go to cut 2-Measure) Once you have a feel for what the measure is, you learn a couple of things. The Time Signature and the Rhythm. You also learn where the downbeat is.

Almost every song you hear on any radio station today, regardless of format is in a 4/4 time signature or a multiple of it. 8/8 is typical of dance while 16/16 is typical of very sophisticated Latin and Jazz rhythms. The reason for this is really simple: the average guy or gal can dance to it. The numbers tell you a number of things about the song. The bottom number is how the measures are divided. A 4 tells you that the basic building block for that song is a quarter note. The duration of a quarter note is one-fourth of a whole note. In just about every song being produced today, a whole note is the duration of one measure. The top number tells you how many of the bottom number go into one measure. Just know that the two numbers are NOT always the same, but for our purposes, they usually are.

Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean has a 4/4 Time Signature, but the Rhythm makes you count it differently, placing an “and” between each number. It could be designated as 8/8, but the drum track tells us that it’s a syncopated 4/4. (Go to cut 3-Rhythm) For what we are doing, it really doesn’t matter how you count it. The main thing is, you need to be able to find the Measure and the Downbeat. Once you have this down you are 90% ready to make an edit.

On a side note, there is no rule of which time signature a musician must use, in fact, some musicians take great pride in bending the so-called “rules” of convention. John Coltrane, who I’m sure very few of you know, is a very difficult artist and composer to listen to for that very reason. On his album My Favorite Things, he would use time signatures like 17/16 and 5/4 at the same time on different instruments within the same piece. This is why he is really regarded as a “Musician’s Musician.” Of course, his genre is strictly Jazz, so it’s not terribly important to what we’re doing. (That’s not a slam against any Jazz producers. Most of what you are dealing with today is not traditional Jazz anyway. Today’s Jazz format is not traditional Jazz, but rather Chill or R&B, which is just one form of modern Jazz and most definitely fits what we’re talking about here.)

For the final 10% of being ready to make your edit, you need to know what the size of the Bar is. It’s very simple to figure out in today’s music. The bar is a measurement of how many Measures it takes to complete a verse OR chorus of the song. It will always be a multiple of 8; i.e. 16, 32 or even 64. (Go to cut 4-Bar) By the way, the size of the Bar can be, and often is, different for the verse and chorus. If you’re making a cut in a verse, make sure you have the size of the verse Bar. If it’s in the chorus, the size of the chorus Bar.

Now, you have the information you need to make the cut. The key is to make sure the downbeats match. You don’t have to make the actual cut ON the downbeat, in fact, that almost never works, but if you’re in the same place of the musical phrase, it will work perfectly, every time.

Anyone who has studied the music of Johann Sebastian Bach knows that music IS math. The numbers have to add up. If they don’t add up, it will not satisfy the listener. If you edit a song for content, the best edit will always take that into account. Simply cutting out the offending words will sound AWFUL and it is obvious to any listener that an edit (a very BAD edit) was made. Some producers will simply reverse the bad words so the musical phrasing is not messed up, but that is a very unsatisfactory, and again obvious, edit to my ear. A better method is to repeat another line from exactly the same place in the Bar from another verse. If it’s a single word that offends, the BEST edit is to get an instrumental of the song and match it to the vocal, dropping out the one word while the instrumental carries the musical phrase.

The bottom line on make flawless edits is you have to make sure that if there were 16 measures in the Bar when you started, there are 16 measures in the Bar when you finish. It MUST add up the same way or it turns into a butcher job. Don’t be a meat cutter… be a diamond cutter. It’s just so much more satisfying to the listener that way.

The next track online (cut 5-Examples) takes several songs and demonstrates the “edit for content” tips above, ranging from bad edits to best edits. The final cut (cut 6-Examples) demonstrates how you can take an instrumental version of a song and replace or add an intro to it OR, add a longer ending to a song to make it so your jocks don’t ever need to use a generic music bed coming out of music.

Once you’ve identified the Time Signature, Measure and size of the Bar, you can do all of these things, perfectly, every time. Here’s the bonus: your audience and even the performers will be satisfied musically when they hear your work. You won’t ever violate the performer’s musical intent, even when your company policy dictates that you cannot play certain words or phrases during Safe Harbor hours. I’ve had several artists exclaim, “That’s awesome!” when they hear edits I’ve done on their work. There’s no reason you shouldn’t start hearing the same.

Next month, we’ll take this new-found skill and turn it to our own uses as we learn to bend the music we play to suit our commercial and imaging needs, making it “fit” the message, thus pounding it into the listener’s mind with a jack-hammer. Be sure you bring along you hard-hats and safety-goggles.

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