From October 31 to November 2, PSNEurope headed down to East London’s Tobacco Dock where BBC Introducing was hosting a three-day music extravaganza geared towards professional and aspiring musicians, audio engineers and those in the music business or looking to make a start.
There were many exciting sessions featuring big names in the industry, with live music permeating every corner of the expansive Tobacco Dock warehouse. Attendees could also test out industry-leading gear at the Shure and Yamaha booths. The event embraced the future of music, showcasing the exciting technological advancements in VR and AI that are starting to shape the way we make music, as well as providing insider knowledge on how to get the most out of songwriting and recording sessions or a live FOH mix. Here, we take a look at some of the most significant information we gathered for those who are either looking to get their foot in the door, expand on the skills and knowledge they already have, or try their hand at another part of the audio industry…
On the first day, artists/producers and songwriters Novelist, Maverick Sabre and Rachel Furner participated in a songwriting masterclass hosted by Abbey Road Studios. They all agreed that it’s important to “always record”, no matter what it is, whether you’re just “talking gibberish to yourself ”, as Novelist remarked, jamming by yourself as home, or in the studio – you could be capturing something really special. Furner stated that in every professional songwriting session she does, she’ll hit record as soon as they walk into the room. Although she said she can find her own voice annoying, Sabre chimed in that “it can be quite interesting to pick up all the conversations” on the recording.
They also highlighted the importance of writing everything down – thoughts, conversations, anything that you find inspiring – and taking in what’s around you, like what you see and hear on public transport. Sabre said: “I write down every idea, so nothing’s ever wasted, even if I’m sat on a train or I wake up in the middle of the night. You might be out one day and a friend might say something to you that’s beautiful. I’m sure we all have conversations with family or friends or hear something on TV or a movie, something that stands out as a poignant moment.”
Ultimately, a songwriting session is most successful when you “get a great chorus”, so Furner said that she only starts with choruses now. Everyone was unanimous on that point.
In terms of songwriting methods or techniques, Novelist has some interesting approaches. “Sometimes it’s just getting into the groove,” he said, “you say things, say things, say things, you might even come up with some sentences that, grammatically, make sense, but they’re just in the wrong order. Just throw it out there, Picasso kind of vibes. Sometimes I just say a sentence, then I write in the syncopation of that sentence. Then I’ve got the flow and I’ll switch it up. Or I might just say random words that rhyme and formulate the sentences backwards based on those random words. Sometimes it’s so smooth that it can go over people’s heads. Things can mean more than one thing, but the art in it is you’re not telling them exactly what it means.”
Furner has two separate processes, one for writing on her own, which is “very mood-driven” and based on what makes her feel something. “I don’t usually go in with a full concept, I just feel the music,” she reflected. In her professional songwriting work, the approach is much more structured. “I cater for the artist and what the sound is. I’m not so set in what I have to do, but I do like to get clear in a session on ‘what is being said’ in the song and I will have a title and concept. The best thing ever is if you type in on Google ‘beautiful phrases’ or ‘phrases from 1942′ – I’ll copy and paste those and have it in my notes. If I’m writing for pitch and there’s no artist in the room, we just go a bit crazy with quite out-there songs. But, the success rate of pitch songs is much lower than if I’m writing with the artist.”
The musicians also touched on the issue of writer’s block. Sabre posed the self- reflective question: “When I get writer’s block, is it because I’m too happy in life, that things are going too well? When I do have writer’s block,” he continued, “it’s normally summer. How much of a rut do you end up getting in if you need pain to always be inspired by?” Novelist tries to avoid writer’s block himself. “I’m 22″ he stated, “so I convince myself I’ve got 22 years worth of things to talk about. So if I ever get in a place that I can’t talk about what I want to, I might just stop and do something else, and when I come back I always have something else I wanna talk about. Explore different sides of yourself; bring up whatever wants to come up.’
We also heard from professional musician and songwriter Johnny Lloyd, who used to play in the band Tribes. Lloyd recalled: “I don’t know anyone that writes everyday successfully […] apart from Blaine from Mystery Jets”. In terms of trying to emulate current trends, he affirmed that “as soon as you focus on what’s current and what’s happening, you lose yourself […] it’s a dead end.” Lloyd also advised the young musicians in the room to look into songwriting professionally for music libraries as an extra way to make money.
WHERE IS MUSIC TAKING TECH?
After that, we sat down to listen to a chat about where music is taking tech hosted by DJ and radio presenter Bobby Friction, with Nicki Lambert, chief marketing officer of Melody VR, and Karim Fanous, innovation manager at Abbey Road Red.
Melody VR is a VR experience that enables users to witness a concert live in the comfort of their own home, giving those that perhaps don’t like being in a large crowd or can’t make it to the gig the chance to be a part of a great live show. There is a MelodyVR app that can be downloaded on the App store or you can use a VR headset. Lambert gave us some more insight: “The experience takes a few different forms – on our app you’ll see a wide range of artists’ gigs that are happening anyway,” she said.
“We put our VR cameras at various positions around the venue where we think you’d get an interesting view. And if you have a VR headset, you can look around and experience it as if you’re standing right there.
“We’ve also created some unique made-for-VR experiences. We’ve just done some stuff with Lewis Capaldi where we followed him around LA to various places that are meaningful to him. We got him to tell the story behind his music and journey in an intimate and personal way. The magic of VR is that generally after 15 seconds you forget that you look like a bit of a wallie and you’re just in that moment and it feels really personal.”
Ultimately, technology is benefitting the music industry, according to Fanous, who said “the industry is on a rebound, revenues are growing”. He elaborated on what Abbey Road Red does, the name of which is drawn from Abbey Road Studios’ old ‘red department’, which created the blueprint for the modern mixing console – the Red 17 – used by The Beatles and many others. It is this innovation in technology that Abbey Road Red encapsulates, pioneering in the field of music technology.
Abbey Road Red’s Incubation programme “helps people create and launch technological products into the music business. One of our start-ups called Broomx Technologies has made this amazing immersive projection device, taking VR out of the headset and projecting it on walls and ceilings. They had just one active speaker in the device, so we thought we’d help them develop their sound imaging. We partnered with MelodyVR, we mixed some Imagine Dragons content in fully spatialised audio, and teamed up with Sennheiser to use their AMBEO soundbar, creating this experience where you’re projecting into a room, turning the viewpoint with your phone, seeing the stage circle around and hearing the music change.
“Another one of our current startups, Audoo, is making a smart meter that listens to music being played at bars and small to large establishments, records it and reports it to the collection society so they can pay the artist accurately.”
Talking the use of AI, Fanous continued: “A lot of people are scared about what AI might mean for music and creativity, but we’re exploring the positive way it’ll help us make music. Think of it as just another layer. We have a great intelligent microphone called Vochlea, which hears what you’re doing and translates it in real-time to an output. That frees up your creativity; Novelist used it and loved it. Another example is LifeScore – an adaptive music platform. Imagine a piece of music that evolves with your journey through your day. As you’re walking around, it can track your movements and give you different sounds. You’re turning right, it changes, you’re turning left, it changes.”
FRONT OF HOUSE
We then got a chance to hear from The Prodigy’s ex-FOH engineer and current University of Derby professor, Jon Burton, who gave us a rundown of his top tips as a live sound engineer. He worked with The Prodigy for 15 years, pointing out that “it’s unusual to work for an artist for that amount of time”.
First off, he said to “always say ‘yes, probably’” to a gig, because “you never know what’s going to be a good fun tour”. Then, when on the job at FOH, “you always need to be able to hear the words, it’s the only complaint you’ll ever get” and because of that, he always starts a sound check with the vocals. “It’s the most important thing,” he explained. “No one comes up to you and says ‘Couldn’t hear any of the words, but the bass was amazing!’” Not only does he recommend to start with the vocals, but to leave them on the whole time, as “there’s always going to be spill in your lead vocal microphone. You can’t get away from that.” Indeed, he points out that you should remember the “stupidity of microphones” and place them where they sound good, definitely not directly in front of the drums.
Next up, Burton will soundcheck the drums, getting the drummer to play as they would during the actual gig. “When it comes to the gig, they hit it really quietly, never as loud as they did in the soundcheck.” He also emphasised that you should always go up on stage to hear the sound for yourself. “I hate engineers who just stand right at the back, it sounds completely different there,” he said. Ultimately, Burton stressed the importance of “keep[ing] sound checks focused” as “the worst thing is when it turns into a rehearsal”.
As for the gig itself, Burton hammered home that “loud is easy, loud is not interesting. The most important thing is to have the dynamic. Don’t use all the 60,000 watts until the last song. Then everyone walks out saying ‘That was the loudest and most impressive gig I’ve seen’, hopefully. It’s like with musicians, you’ve got to have the light and shade because that’s why live music is so exciting.”
On day two, Abbey Road Studios again hosted a jam-packed session on recording and mixing with Abbey Road’s senior recordist, Paul Pritchard, who took us through his methods in making the most out of a recording session. Pritchard took the standpoint that recording and mixing methods all depend on what you’re recording, what you’re recording on, and what your skill level is. “Make sure you’re serving the music in whatever way that is,” he advised. “For me, there’s too much talk about sample rates and convergers. There are differences, but I’m not worried. I’ve done sessions with engineers who bring their own clock or spend ages testing the microphones and ends up not making things better because the artist has to wait around.”
He continued: “No two sessions are ever the same, you have to approach them differently.” He emphasised that it’s important not to get too bogged down with the little details, for example, he “isn’t bothered about mic pres” or specific types of gear – obviously he can’t find many faults with the treasure trove of equipment he has access to at Abbey Road – and just to focus on recording your music. Ultimately, he said, “people always say ‘that microphone sounds good’, but if a microphone is making a sound it’s broken, singers should be making the sound”. However, he did have some pointers for artists and producers doing it themselves.
He advised, when recording, to “go until you’ve reached your peak – compare it to the previous recording and if it’s still better, keep going. If it’s worse, you’ve reached your peak”. He also said to tune vocals yourself and that he avoids autotune, although he does use Melodyne. “I’d rather something to be slightly out of tune than sound like it’s been tuned,” he remarked.
And why would he say it is still relevant to record at a recording studio as opposed to at home? “Well if you’re recording an orchestra you can’t do it at home. If you’re recording drums, maybe you can’t. I think it’s good if you are an artist to have someone else there. You can record the vocals yourself, that’s great if you’re into that, but if you just want to focus on singing, you can get someone else to do it and it takes all of that away. That self-doubt that sometimes singers have about whether it sounds good or not, you have someone to bounce opinions off and to do all the legwork and the editing.
“The main reason I’d say to go to a big studio is if you’re recording something big,” he concluded. In some respects, he welcomes the democratisation of music for solo artists and acknowledges Abbey Road has nothing to worry about as the world’s most famous studio in a Grade II listed building.