Music Talks Education Center: Is Anybody Listening?

Failure to listen close usually causes an almost undetectable breakdown in the band’s sound.

Many musicians and singers often are lot listening. What should you be listening to you ask? Each other, notes, harmonies, timing and feel. Often I remember times when doing vocal harmonies with my band members and something felt wrong. Then there were the times when the overall song and its arrangement sounded good and everyone was playing all the right parts and notes. No one was out of tune, everything was working, but for some reason the song just did not feel right! As my band mates and I struggled for days trying to figure out what was wrong, it was later brought to our attention that we were not listening to each other. We were so caught up in our own playing, trying to make sure that our individual musicianship, parts and instrumentation was on point that we were not listening to our fellow band mates.

Failure to listen close usually causes an almost undetectable breakdown in the band’s sound. The breakdown can be heard live and on recordings. It’s so subtle to the unsuspecting ear, that for many the only way to recognize it is through feel. You just know and feel that something sounds wrong but you just can’t put your finger on it! One way to assist you in identifying the problem is to ask yourself a few questions like, “How does the song’s ‘sound’ feel? Is this song locked in the pocket, tight? Is it taking effort to sing and play this song? Does it sound like a bunch of musicians who just happen to be playing the same song at the same time?” If your answer is “yes” to one of these questions, it’s worth investigating to find out if everyone is listening.

When I was in this situation, I had no clue of what the problem was or how to correct it. It was my band’s producer at the time that made us aware of the problem. It was the very first thing he noticed about the band’s sound when he came on board. He just simply asked, “is anyone listening to each other?” You should have seen the lost puppy dog look on all five of our faces! He immediately took us out of the rehearsal studio and brought us into his home studio. This consisted of a Teac 4trk ¼” tape machine and all electronic instruments in a shoebox bedroom. This was 1981! The first thing he did was record our vocals our usual way. For approximately two to three months he worked the hell out of the three of us. The vocalists consisted of myself and two female singers. First he asked one of the vocalists to sing her part solo. Then he asked vocalist number two to listen to what vocalist number one was singing. “Listen to her voice, the texture and timbre of her voice. Listen and watch her sing. Look at how she is breathing and when she takes a breath! Feel what she is singing, feel her when she takes a breath, feel the sound of her voice. Once you hear and feel all that she is doing, then mirror her using your own voice!”, he suggested. This was all done accapella. Once he had them together, he then turned to me and said, “ok David, listen to both of them. Lock to their timing, timbre as a whole, feel how they are breathing in unison and you, using your voice, feel all they are doing and lock into them.”

This went on for days and weeks. But, he would also pair us off. He started with the two female vocalists. After about a week of doing that, he started with me, or vocalist number two and had vocalist number one follow one of us. Next he would record us using the same technique. He broke down every harmony part that was being sung. He made us look at what we were doing individually. We looked at the notes we each were singing, how we were breathing, our timing, our individual improvisation and how we pronounced the lyrics during the background vocal parts. He wanted to make sure that we each were very conscious of how and what the other two singers were doing and singing at all times. Most of all he wanted to make sure we were in sync on all aspects. Once this process was complete, he played our original tracks back to us. The difference was so clear right away we were able to hear in our vocals what he initially heard three months prior. The background vocals jumped out of the music!

This created another problem. The backing vocals were so tight and so professional sounding by this time, that it was now plain as day that the music and musicianship suffered from the same problem. No musician was listening, including two of the background singers, myself on bass and one of the vocalists who was the keyboardist. We applied the same technique in this situation as well. There was a total of four musicians in the band. Instead of doing full band rehearsals, we did small one on one practices. The drummer and myself would get together, and the guitarist and keyboardist would get together. The drummer and I would work out drum and bass parts, making sure that his kick drum and my bass were locked. We worked on timing, coming in and out of verses and making sure our dynamics were on point so when the lead singer came in we backed our volume. When the guitarist and keyboardist got together, they worked out lines, chord inversions, harmony parts and making sure that they were melodically in sync with each other. After about three or four months of these types of rehearsals, we pulled the band together for full-scale rehearsals. What was required during the initial rehearsals was joining all parts together, taking what we did during the background vocal rehearsals and what was done during each of the one on one practices and blending it all together – constantly referring back to the individual rehearsals. Our producer was there as the live set of ears and to give immediate feedback along with our tape decks so we could go home and review our work.

I’ve heard over the years that this type of technique applies to specific styles of music. At first I agreed. However, once I did some critical listening to rock, R&B, pop, country, jazz and yes even hip hop/rap among others over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that within their own genre specific standards they all found a way to make sure that everyone was listening to one another on all levels. The way I described is just one way. Once we understood the art, principles and then the practice of listening, the band’s entire sound changed dramatically, reaching another level of professionalism!

Give it a shot, and watch (or should I say listen) what happens to your sound!




David Knight

Music Talks Educational Network
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