Ok, so here we go. Hopefully you’ll like this and see what a producer can do to a song.
The artist’s name is Sal Tommassello and the band is Red Figure Head. You can check him out on Spotify, iTunes, Pandora etc. He’s a very talented musician and 1-man band. He’s got a modern rock/metal/punky sort of sound with a hint of an older soul going on, which I think makes for a really cool combination. He’s been on Philly Rock Radio and has quite an extensive following in the Tri State area.
In this clip, this is the original version that Sal was pretty stoked about, which he recorded in Garage Band while having limited recording abilities at the time other than getting his ideas out. He has since upgraded to a killer recording system with Logic Pro, a killer interface and smoking monitors with a sub. But this is what he brought to me along with another mix that we’ll just forget exists as the idea here is to show what a producer on the same page as the artist can do.
By this time, Sal and I had become pretty good friends and his trust in me as an engineer and a producer was pretty insurmountable. I knew what he wanted and what he needed to make this right. This got me thinking as we recorded his core tracks and I offered him some changes I thought would be for the better. From there, we collaborated and this “thing” just came out for every song we did. It’s really quite amazing in my opinion, especially when you listen to the draft idea. So after some trial and error as well as experimentation sessions, we came up with this. Sal wrote the song, played drums, sang lead vocals and backups on this. I played guitars and I believe the cello intro, he did the harp parts and he had a friend of his play bass. Hope you enjoy it.
Yeah, I’m using an old plugin called Clone Ensemble which clones tracks from 2 to 32 clones and can also give you a slight modulation sound. It’s been one of my secret weapons for a long time. I used it all over my new album which I hope to release soon.
Yep that’s it! See my little testimonial there? I actually went on to beta test this plug for Trevor all the way up to the latest version where we added the sex machine.
Was never crazy about that part although, if you use it in moderation it can sound cool. I never had much luck with it though as it just had too many artifacts for me when you used the deep voice or the woman/child voice.
I actually mailed Trevor about 6 months ago asking if he’d be willing to work on a newer 64 bit version. He said he hadn’t worked on this stuff in years and wasn’t interested. Just J bridge it for 64 bit and it will work fine. Shhh…don’t tell anyone I told you about it. Lol!
That’s a pretty comprehensive re-write - especially the verses.
The artist definitely had a really solid vision - you can hear that in his demo - especially the chorus part with the call and response vocal arrangement… but you seem to have really help him refine the melodies for those parts so that they come across so much better.
As a song, it’s much more accessible now. Did you have much input into the writing part?
Also, did you actually play the cello, or is that a VI? It sounds very cool.
My wife actually just said "It sounds a bit like The Living End - a really cool Australian 3 piece rock/punk/rockabilly band that have been around since the late 90s. She’s right, there is a bit of a resemblance to their latter era stuff, which is more straight ahead pop/punk/rock leaning.
Oh wow, it does sort of have the elements of that band! Very cool, thanks for sharing that!
As for writing, no, it was pretty etched in stone when he got it here. I just heard things along the way, offered suggestions and we made changes as we saw fit. The chorus chords are actually different than the original also.
Thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated. The call and answer in the original was literally a copy and paste if I’m not mistaken. At that time, Sal didn’t know much about processing and anything to do manipulating audio other than logging ideas.
By the time I got done with him over a year later, he now has his own production company business and does recording, mixing, little m mastering and song placement services to put people’s music in all the digital stores for them if they don’t want to do it on their own. He always had great ears but at 22 or 23, he hasn’t been around many recording situations. He asked me so many questions while we were doing this and soaked it up like a sponge.
I suggested a delay with a filter and ping pong effect instead of the call and answer. This way it wouldn’t be so dominant and the call and answer wouldn’t both have the same impact. The delay dulls it and fades it nicely without being as blatantly in your face as the original.
On the chorus, I just kept hearing the descending part behind the “in my head” part to where it brought me to a different place using the same chorus. I grabbed a guitar and played and sang it for him and he lit up like a Christmas tree.
I also worked extensively on his vocal executions and deliveries. He was basically singing back up vocals in his bands with a few cameo lead vocals. But I wanted to really try and sell the voice on it, so that meant really making sure we had each part thr way we wanted. There were times (like the end) where I made him soar up high and hold some notes with vibrato. The last “up all night” where he holds it and goes high was an idea of mine. We worked really hard on the vocal lines and I pushed him as hard as I could which in my opinion made a pretty big difference.
What was also great about working with Sal was, after I’d show him something or make him aware of something, he’d fix an issue permanently or be aware of something to the point of being as observant or more observant than me. His newer stuff was recorded even faster with better vocals since he has been through all this before with me and had also grown leaps and bounds as a musician, a writer and an engineer.
Now he comes in with things half baked and I have even more control over how things will turn out. We just love working together and luckily, this “thing” happens whenever we do. But, I always make it a point not to inject too much of myself into the material as it would change things a bit too much. He’s reeled me in as often as I’ve reeled him in when we go a bit too far astray. Lol! He’s the type of client/great friend every studio owner should be lucky enough to have. I really love the guy and am so proud of where he is at such a young age.
No, the cello was a VI played on a keyboard but I can play a little cello and would have been able to play that particular part verbatim. It’s the crazy Paganini and Vivaldi arrangements I’d have a problem with. I can play guitar like a lunatic but change the way my hand is and I feel like a child that’s never played before. Lol! I’m like that with piano too. My right hand can’t do a thing on a left handed guitar but I can riff on piano and my left hand sucks. Hahaha!
Same with the harp being a VI also. Never tried to play one of those lol! Anyway, so glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for the awesome interaction and conversation. By the way, I picked up the new slate drums as an upgrade for $49. It was worth the upgrade price for sure. Some good stuff in there. Thanks for the recommendation in that other thread.
Great transformation; I hear the bones of the original piece, but it definitely grabs you more now.
The original is good, but it does drone somewhat. You fixed that elegantly by changing the focus in the verses; the guitar is precise and focused, and the vocal stands out front. Very nice use of space to let all the elements stand out without conflicting.
The melodic changes in the chorus are well done too, they add interest and movement.
All in all, you took a good initial idea and polished it into a radio friendly gem. That’s what good producers do when you can find one that shapes the artist’s ideas without completely obliterating them to match their own formula.
Great job, and a perfect example for the topic.
Thanks so much, really appreciate the listen and the comment. I actually have quite a few of these kinds of situations. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get the artist to share the draft. I’m thankful Sal was a good sport about it. I’ve asked a few others and they replied with “are you kidding me, Danny?! That would be like you going out in public without doing your hair!” LOL!
I think it’s a really interesting thing to see how a song changes and morphs over the course of writing and production. Songwriting is such a fascinating subject to me, and it’s always cool to see how other people approach it.
I totally get that many artist wouldn’t want the public to see their “before” demos. Once or twice I’ve wanted to share some examples of the genesis of one of my songs but then thought better of it because they are so rough and ready
… It was funny though… When I did share the demo of the last song I posted here, some thought it was better than the “proper” production I’d worked super-hard on! Lol
In my case that would be the exception rather than the rule though, because many of my other songwriting demos are definitely not listen-worthy!.. There is sometimes definitely merit in “keeping the mystery” and not providing “too much information”!
I’m with you, I enjoy it also. You know, you mentioned demo stuff sometimes turning out better than the hard work or people liking it better…I’ve had it happen too. So much so, it’s made me rethink a lot of the things I used to do. The biggest processing I use these days is on my drums and lead vocal tracks.
I honestly believe in “the less is more” way of doing things these days. You know it’s all in how good your source recording is. There’s no dark art there. You get the right sound, a little high pass, a little low pass, mids to taste, a little compression, and I’m usually in a good place.
So don’t ever be too hard on yourself. We have so many cool tools and things to mess with, it’s easy to get lost in them and sometimes we work so hard, we lose a little of that “dirt under the fingernails” thing. Other times we’re too perfect and work to the point where we can sometimes lose a little something too. What sucks is, we’ll love it but others will like the demo better probably because it wasn’t so perfect.
I can vouch there as the majority of my life has been all about me exhausting myself trying to be as perfect as possible. Huge flaw that I’m glad I one day changed. I was never perfect at all. I just wanted to make sure I was happy with what I’d done. That’s what matters most…your happiness. But if you let it consume you, it can really be a curse. So if you have to be anal, go for it. If you don’t have to be and get good results with minimal processing, that’s a winner too. As long as you get your art and creativity out the way you hear it in your head, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else says.
I think this is where all this discussion kind of originated. I mentioned that a 3rd party producer is often a great thing to have, because they can bring outside objectivity to an artist… Either helping them to know what imperfections to leave in for the sake of the “vibe”, and on the other hand - what stuff needs more polish to make it listenable. Having someone whose taste you trust in that way can be a really valuable thing.
So true. When I’m taking comments on my music on board, a big question I ask myself is: “If I take this person’s advice on board, will I be happy with what I have produced in 10, 15, 20 years time?”
I think the other deciding factor is, whether or not the person giving the advice is credible or along the lines of what you consider someone you would like to learn from.
It’s like, I can sit here and give advice until the cows come home. If someone doesn’t like my sound or mixing tactics, even if I’m credible, I don’t apply to them. There are lots of people that give great advice. But like the right producer, it has to apply to your situation.
So I think for me, as much as I love to learn and hear how someone else may handle a situation I’m involved with, it has to apply to what I’m doing.
The other aspect is, we all go into most of our projects with a vision. I think this is important because we get to create and innovate. You can sometimes have others benchmark from you. So take reviews with a grain of salt. Ever hear something from a pro band with pro producers and engineers that you hated? And the next thing you know, everyone is praising this guy?
I’ve never been a fan of numerous producers and engineers who I felt got credit for simply recording and producing the right band. How do fail with a band like Dream Theater, Metallica or Led Zeppelin? Right, you could have allowed those bands to record and release on their own and they still wouldn’t disappoint…even with demo recordings. Guys like Andy Johns never impressed me. When you are given top notch bands, the band does all the heavy lifting. He’s not had a snare drum that hasn’t sounded like punching a cardboard box in years in his sample libraries as well as the real bands he’s done.
That other guy, Kevin Shirley, I thought he made Dream Theater sound terrible and the other bands he’s worked with…how can you fail doing Rush? I mean, you only tank if the songs suck. You know Peart, Lee and Lifeson would never record crappy tones. They may not have great songs all the time and are sometimes an acquired taste, but they don’t tank from a producer. What are your thoughts?
So true. I think you can tell pretty quickly whether someone “gets” what you are doing. They generally give clues by what they say; who they reference etc.
Haha, yeah it’s funny - everyone hates innovation until it is considered “cool” by those considered “cool” and influential.
Very much so… often in fact!
I’ve get the feeling that sometimes, these guys get a name more because of the people skills, their connections within the industry, or maybe even their force of personality more than their production chops. They kind of entrench themselves in in the band’s psyche perhaps, and the band feel comfortable having them on board, more because of the their track record of success than the actual raw musical value they bring to the project… again, total supposition based on observation.
Ah, Kev the Cave!.. yes, I have an interesting insight into his work…
I’m not familiar with his work on the stuff you mentioned, but I was really shocked by how bad “Black Country Communion 2” sounded. I mean, like you said above - with Glen Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian, how could you go wrong?.. but it does - it sounds bad…
On the other hand, Kevin has actually engineered one of the albums I still use to this day as a reference. The Baby Animals’ self-titled debut album. Admittedly, that was very very early in his career, and it was under the production guidance of the famous Mike Chapman, but that album sounds superb to my ears.
(Just to give some US context to this Aus band, they supported Van Halen’s 1992 US tour. Suze DeMarchi, the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist later married Nuno Bettencourt, who produced their second album).
Kevin has also been the go-to producer for the latter day albums of my all-time favourite band “Cold Chisel”. He has recorded 3 of their 4 studio albums since they re-formed in 1997. I would describe his production work with them as “workman-like” - not brilliant, but quite good. They are a live-oriented band anyway, so big production doesn’t really suit their style. That said, in 2012 there was a song written and sung by drummer Steve Prestwich which has the most amazing compressed, roomy drum sound on it.
On another occasion, Cold Chisel were asked to play for the Grand Final of the NRL (National Rugby League). This is the Australian equivalent of being booked to play the Superbowl in the US. They used the occasion to kick off a national tour. The concert was going out to an international TV audience and being being broadcast on the national FM Rock network… So they flew Kevin Shirley over from the US to mix the sound for the show. It sounded pretty amazing - a very canny move on their part.
Interesting story… I follow Cold Chisel on Intagram. Recently Chris Lorde-Alge was in Australia and he showed up in a photo they posted, socialising with them. The connection is, CLA was responsible for recording, producing and mixing the debut album of Cold Chisel’s guitarist and second vocalist, Ian Moss, in 1989, which he recorded following the first breakup of the band in 1984. It was a HUGE hit - won 7 Aria awards (the Australian equivalent of a Grammy). 2019 was the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, so I guess Chris was celebrating that with them…
…anyway, I made a comment on the post - just a throwaway joke about CLA “stealing” Cold Chisel from Kevin Shirley… Kevin actually replied to it! By his reply, it was obvious he didn’t realise it was a joke, because his reply seemed quite serious and defensive in tone…something about bands being free to work with who they want to… I replied that it was just a joke referencing both producer’s histories with artists and that I genuinely admired some of his work.
…So… interesting guy!.. he obviously has the capability to produce fantastic sounding stuff…but his work is a little patchy.
As I said above, it’s interesting that he has the trust of all these major artists and has become their go-to producer… From our perspective as listeners with an ear to production values, I think we’re only focusing on half the story of what is actually happening in the upper echelons of the music biz. As you know a BIG part of working with artists is the ability to get along with people and make them feel at ease and confident about the art they are making… maybe that is more of a factor than we realise.
Getting along with the artist is a huge part of being a successful producer. Joe B is a perfect example, both as a solo artist and with BCC. I think Shirley does a serviceable job in both cases, which to me implicates he made the egos work together with Joe B and Glenn Hughes. In BCC the job was probably more people skills than production.
Joe B is an enigma; he has amazing chops, but is completely derivative. He admits to it, which I admire. He is an astounding player, but his influences outweigh his personal voice on the guitar,. That is problematic for a producer, in that Joe is going to be Joe no matter how much you polish it. His fans don’t want to hear anything different. I am a big fan by the way.
Sometimes the producer’s role is to, in the words of Ray Charles, “Let it do what it do” and get out of the way. You need a name, a track record, and a lot of people skills in those cases. Nice living if you can get it.
Yes, I think a producer takes on different roles depending on the personality makeup of the band. I would imagine a superstar band like BCC being a bit of a mind-field to navigate. Could that possibly be that may be the reason why BCC2 suffered sonically? The people stuff got more attention than the sound? I guess it is possible - nevertheless, it was very successful, so who am I to criticise?
Yeah, Joe is like a guitar-actor-historian. An amazing player with the absolute perfect tone for every different circumstance. I was really excited to see him live when he toured down here a while ago, because his live videos always seemed so great. I must admit, I was disappointed. I don’t know if I saw him on an off night, but he just seemed to be going through the motions. Mind you, that same weekend I had just seen Jeff Beck play, (so good I saw him twice!) so perhaps he suffered by comparison.
As far as his relationship with Kevin Shirley: It’s a pretty deep an abiding one that seems pretty intrinsic to Joe’s career. This documentary I came across a while ago really delves into the synergy they have:
Seeing Jeff Beck live (twice, no less) would make anything pale in comparison.
I have had the privilege of seeing Page (twice in the early 70’s with Zep of course) Clapton (about 10 years ago) Hendrix (probably 1970) and Jeff Beck at the House of Blues six or seven years ago.
Without getting too dramatic, Jimi was the most explosive, but Beck live and up close was astounding.
That group of four is the Mt. Rushmore of electric guitar.
Jeff Beck is better now than he was 40 years ago.
I saw Joe B live a few years ago too. Very precise and accurate blues and hard rock player.
Jeff Beck just goofing around on the guitar is like seeing the source of guitar music. Lots of great players wouldn’t have even picked up a guitar without his inspiration.