Guest Blogger, Victor Rice: So You’re Going to Make a Ska Record…

Posted on February 5th, 2009 by Victor Rice

For my second contribution here, I wanted to talk about the recording process and get into more of the technical aspect of record production. It quickly became clear to me that a prior installment will be necessary: we really must talk next about Pre-Production and what that entails. This is the stage where, with planning, you will keep your record from going over budget and past due.

I am known as a producer of the practical type – My first production basically fell to me because I was the only member of the Scofflaws with studio experience. When it came time for us to make our first CD, I was the one who found the engineer (Bob Stander) who in turn helped me to find a studio, choose the tape, schedule the sessions – all because no one else had ever gone about it. And the main objective was to get from start to finish with our budget of about $5000. In that sense I was a producer in the old use of the term, the liaison between the technical and musical teams. I took charge of scheduling and rehearsing the band in sections, made sure the engineer knew what was wanted, made sure the musicians knew what was possible.

Rob “Bucket” Hingley was satisfied with the result, and hired me to produce “Ooolooloo” for the Pietasters. Up to this point, Moon Ska NYC had only accepted finished projects for release, but was ready to invest directly in this record. Again, the main objective was to keep the production within budget, I was not hired to impart some kind of artistic vision. To this day, my main contribution to record-making is more practical than anything else. It’s in that spirit that I hope people find this chapter useful!

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Comments (5) Feb 05 2009

Guest Blogger, Marco Werman: Notes From a Sound System

Posted on December 8th, 2008 by Marco Werman

I just came back from ten days in Kingston, Jamaica where I was collecting program material on the Alpha Boys School, an orphanage that was founded in the 19th century by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy (to be aired on Frontline/WORLD later this Spring). Hard to believe for me, but it was my first time on the island. I got an amazing overview of where Jamaican music is at in 2008.

But I write to share a sublime musical experience I had in the Kingston working-class neighborhood of Rae Town. As you may know, Sound System-style street parties (with massive banks of loudspeakers that are more comfortingly bassy than ear-splittingly treble) happen pretty much every night of the week around Kingston, starting with Uptown Mondays at a shopping plaza in New Kingston with current dancehall hits, and going right through the week.

The neighborhood of Rae Town has, for the past 20 plus years there, thrown a Sunday night dance and party. The local paper the Gleaner describes it as an oldies night, and the people reflect that, sort of. There are 70 year-olds, all the way down to much younger people. Classes mix: doctors and lawyers from uptown mingle with an array of characters out of Fellini. The crowd shows up around midnight. The people slowly line up along both sides of the main street running through Rae Town, almost like a dance showdown, and everyone begins a slow groove to the music. Grillers with jerk chicken, fish and pork are common, as are sellers of ganja who wander around with small bouquets of the herb still on the stem. As the crowd builds, so does the music.

It’s the music that really drew me in that night: mostly old school reggae and dub and anything ska: “Fiddler on the Roof” ska by the Soul Brothers, “Norwegian Wood” ska by Jackie Mittoo, you name it. There was also a seductive selection of oldies like Dionne Warwick’s “Wishin and Hopin,” Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” (a kind of plea to the hood that crime and poverty can be licked), Dionne Warwick’s et al “That’s What Friends Are For” (a neighborhood anthem, in which the DJ dropped the sound right before the chorus, leaving the entire block singing out loud), Maxine Brown’s “Oh No Not My Baby.” And the walls of speakers sent all this great music vibrating through my bones and making me feel inspired and happy, and isn’t that what music’s supposed to do? It was the best party I’ve ever been to. I find dancehall monotonous with a capital M. And maybe Rae Town put me in a time warp, a flashback to the great old days of this music that is disconnected in many ways to the fast and furious business of dancehall. But what a great scene and sound that was last Sunday in Rae Town. It’s wonderful to be reminded that the Loudest Island in the World isn’t just about the size of the sound system. It’s also about some of the coolest music ever made and the whole world of sound that boomeranged into it.

-Marco Werman, Music Editor, PRI’s The World

Editor’s note:  I’m a big fan of all things NPR- and for world news from your NPR affiliate, there’s none better than PRI’s The World.  It is an honor to include Marco’s piece (written a few months back) in our new Guest Blogger series.  Here’s an older post I did, linking you to several of the stories Marco did from the above mentioned trip to Jamaica. Ska Online: The World Loves JA Music


Comments (1) Dec 08 2008

Ska Blah Blah Introduces Guest Blogging

Posted on December 8th, 2008 by JJ Loy

Hey kids-  In an attempt to include more voices and more opinions on this site, I’ve invited some of the most opinionated and knowledgeable folks in the scene to contribute to Ska Blah Blah.

The first of these is Victor Rice.  He was my first phone interview for the Conversations on a Revivalist Movement (even though Chris Murray got the first episode), and now he’s the first to submit for the Guest Blogging series.

Rice is going to be lending his sage-like wisdom to all the new bands that want to play ska- and they want to do it right, in a series he calls, So You’re Starting a Ska Band.  The first installment can be found in the post immediately preceding this one or by clicking here.

Keep coming back for more advice from the one, Victor Rice- and look forward to more Guest Bloggers in the very near future.  And, as always, your comments are more than welcome.

Comments (1) Dec 08 2008

Guest Blogger, Victor Rice: So You’re Starting a Ska Band…

Posted on December 8th, 2008 by Victor Rice

Firstly, Congratulations on your venture to continue and hopefully further a musical tradition that finds favor with listeners and dancers all over the world! Ska is not only a style, it is a rare phenomenon in the history of music – I call it so because it is possibly the only music form in existence where we can not only name the time and place of it’s inception, we can point to the originators – and some of them are still walking the planet as I write this! Think of that: can you name the creators of the Waltz? the Samba? Royal Cambodian Court Music?
The reason such rare information is available is because the form was created after the advent of recording technology – and the reason we can site people such as Lloyd Knibb among the creators is because the name Ska was coined as a means to define, and sell, the beat and the dance. This was done certainly for commercial reasons, as well as for the obvious purpose of identifying the music/dance itself. It’s also important to mention that in most African languages and culture, there is no distinction made between music and dance; they are one and the same.

This may sound as if I believe that the only way to make Ska music is to sound like the Skatalites. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that – however, there are a number of guidelines that should be considered.

For one thing, tempo is all-important. Ska as a dance is very reminiscent of a popular soul dance from the same era, sometimes called the Monkey or Climb. Names and other words don’t suffice to describe the dance, so I urge anyone interested in this music to find a clip online with Jamaicans dancing the Ska in the early ’60s. It’s not essential to learn the dance, but if you’re interested in playing Ska music you’ll do well to perform at a tempo that would allow this dance to be possible. There is nothing quite like playing the Ska, in front of people dancing the Ska. For me personally, it is an invigorating feedback loop, physically and otherwise!

I realize I’m opening up a popular argument here: Is the British interpretation from the ’70s and ’80s not Ska? I prefer to make the distinction one song at a time. If the tempo is too fast to actually dance the Ska, I call it ‘Ska-influenced’ at most. The drum beat is of course important, as is the presence of upbeats in the guitar and keyboard instruments. All of these elements conspire to get the body moving in a particular way. One thing is certain, the Ska cannot be danced very quickly with any of the swing and grace originally intended.

The bass lines of Lloyd Brevett draw from two different sources, namely syncopation typical to Cuban Salsa and ‘walking’ bass lines typical to American Jazz. The bassist may be listening to the kick drum or the hi hat when making the decision where to drop the note.

Pianists should be playing the upbeat in at least one hand. Remember, if one is not contributing to the rhythm of the dance, one might be detracting from it. As with any musical situation, the actual range and voicing of chords are dependent largely on what is happening in the rest of the band. A good rule of thumb is to leave some space in the spectrum for the other players and to compliment the range and voicing of the guitar and organ – that is, go where they are not.

The organist can follow the same idea, though there are other options available. A half-time ‘bubble’ between the left and right hands- commonly heard in slower Rocksteady, ‘Skinhead Reggae’ and One Drop beats – can be just the thing to glue the piano and guitar to the drums.
The organist can reach most easily into the areas normally occupied by the horn section – melodically and supportively. However, leaving one’s hand down on the keyboard to sustain notes and chords can easily clutter the arrangement and get into the singer’s space. Proceed with care.

Guitarists should bear in mind: the most important function for the guitarist is to support the upbeat. And the most common misinterpretation is to play the upbeat with an upstroke, the result being the chord sounds from the top down. Jah Jerry, Ernest Ranglin and Lyn Taitt all played the upbeats from the lowest note to the highest – and the result is an upward motion in the chord. I believe this is crucial to keeping the beat light and uplifting.

The three things that make this a challenge for the guitarist are:

1- It’s less comfortable to play upbeats with a downstroke.
It’s a matter of physical sense. But if you have a chance to watch Devon James play with the Skatalites, for example, you will notice that he marks the downbeat with a ‘ghost downstroke’ between each upbeat, making the task twice as active and incredibly solid.

2- The top of the chord, at the end of the downstroke, is the part of the chord that cuts through the overall sound to the listener’s ear. To arrive at that part of the chord on time, the guitarist must begin the downstroke earlier than if played upstroke. Getting used to this  can be daunting but is possible with practice.

3- It is difficult to play this way at fast tempos. Therefore, if the guitarist finds it near impossible to play the Ska this way, the beat is probably too fast to dance the Ska as well. Using this technique, the guitarist will most likely be the first musician in the band to know when the tempo is too fast.

There’s another function for a second guitarist, what I call the Stick Bass. Stick Bass refers to a function, not an instrument. It refers simply to a second guitar doubling the bass line to create a transient attack that combines with the roundness of the bass. The combined sound is large but defined. The guitar can also pick a different line, contrapuntal to the bass for an added layer of percussive and melodic action.

To speak of the horn section is to speak to the arrangement of the song. The horns are literally the life breath of the beat as well as the most potentially expressive part of the band, overridden only by the singer. The function of the horns in relation to the vocal melody can be broken into two different styles- I call them the Continental and the African American Styles:

In the Continental Style(I exclude the UK since they are something of an anomaly when it comes to horns in general), the horn section uses polyphony, playing melodic arrangements in tandem with the singer, playing with or against the vocal line with supportive and counter-melodies respectively.

In the African American Style, horns exchange melodic function with the singer in a call-and-response fashion. When the singer has the tune, the horn section folds into the rhythm section by playing upbeats to support the beat.

In either case, there are two interesting areas available to the horn section – Voicing and Tuning:

The Voicing refers to the choice and spacing of notes to each player from the chord in the song.

The objective, ideally, is to get two horns to sound like three, three horns to sound like four and so on. A knowledge of the overtone series is crucial to an effective horn arrangement. A surprisingly full sound can be achieved, for example, from two horns if
(1) a reed instrument is combined with a brass instrument,
(2) an upper-range instrument is combined with a lower-range instrument i.e:
Alto Sax/Trombone, Trumpet/Tenor Sax and
(3) one horn plays the 3rd of the chord while the other plays the 7th of the chord. Interval distances of a 6th or 10th are helpful in getting a full, balanced sound with overtones that can allude to a third part.

Congratulations, you have just been given a formula to the Stax and Studio One horn sound.

Four situations should be generally avoided in horn arrangements:

1- Doubling of notes, especially in the same octave. The result is diminishing at best, three horns may sound like two, four horns like three and so on. At worst, it is not pleasing to hear because the two horns rarely if ever play exactly the same pitch. Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard would be one example of an exception. An arrangement with all horns playing the melody in unison is another exception, but that one can easily be overused.

2- Playing in the extremes of the instrument’s range. Trumpets do not need to live at the top of their range, nor trombones at the bottom of theirs. Horn instruments should be played inside their comfortable ranges. They sound better there because they were built to sound better there. Why fight it? Do not feel the need to make extra work for yourself or display technical prowess at the expense of a pleasing section sound.

3 – Playing songs in ‘natural’ key signatures. If the song was written by the guitarist or keyboardist, it may often be written in a natural key for those instruments such as C,G,D,A or E. Experiment with moving the key to Db, Ab, Eb or Bb. A general compromise will have to be found in the set between songs that favor the rhythm section or the horn section.

4 – Parallel motion. Horn instruments should avoid moving in the same direction from one chord to another, and even at the same beat. Instruments also don’t need to play the same function of each chord, the combined sound will be much more interesting if the instruments are written in the path of least resistance, providing a variety of color to each chord as the 3rd, for example, travels between horns.

For all of these reasons, horns arrangements should be created at the piano as opposed to the guitar.

The Tuning refers specifically to the horn’s ability to play truly in tune. The rhythm section is made up of tempered instruments(string bass an exception here), but the horn can make subtle adjustments in pitch at the mouthpiece – and as is done with ‘fretless’ instruments like the violin or voice, one can play the 5th of a chord slightly sharper, the major 3rd slightly flatter as actually occurs in the natural world of acoustics. This gives the horn section the chance to make a harmony sweeter and more resonant than is possible on the guitar or keyboard. When rehearsing the band, some time should be set aside – preferably separate rehearsals – for the horn section to explore the fine tuning of an arrangement. It can be helpful to have the bass player around for this.

As for vocals – the main concern should be that the key of the song is comfortable for the singer. This concern completely overrides any consideration to the horn or rhythm section, as the band must support the singer in every way possible. All musicians(including the singer) should be listening to the drummer for the rhythm and time – but at the same time, all instrumentalists should be listening to the singer for the song. As with horn arrangements, songs written on the guitar or piano should be transposed to the singer’s range in order to get the most of it.

To conclude with my first installment: these are general guidelines – rules if you will – based on historical practices. Some are decades-old, particular to the original style. Some are centuries-old. And all are artistic rules, meant to be broken!

But if one doesn’t first understand that there are always rules, there can be no conviction or pleasure in breaking them. One who breaks the rules without knowing is not doing themselves any favors.

I hope you found this interesting if not useful! Please look for my next installment, covering  technical aspects of recording…


Comments (9) Dec 08 2008