Ben Arthur is a singer songwriter, and one of the team behind the popular Dubways Days projects as well as the stunning new video-tutorial series for macProVideo.com: SongCraft: Producing Lauren Balthrop. The tutorial focuses on capturing and documenting the entire creative and technical process of creating a real song. In these tutorials, Ben collaborates with a talented artist to write a song from scratch. Once written, studio owner and producer, Al Houghton, captures it. Then Mike Creore, studio owner and engineer, polishes it into a finished product. It's a novel concept and one that I'd highly recommend checking out. A genuinely unmissable tutorial for anyone interested in audio production!
During the early production stages of this title, I caught up with the multi-talented Ben Arthur to find out how this whole idea was conceived, how it works and more...
RS: Tell us about your background and your current musical projects.
BA: I’ve been doing the professional musician thing for 20 years now. My newest record, ‘If you look for my heart,’ is coming out in Spring 2012. It’s an interesting concept album and novel combination. So, it’s my 6th album and 2nd book!
RS: Concept album and novel in one. How does that work?
BA: Arguably I’m not sure it does! But the idea is that each piece should be able to stand on its own as a separate work of art. So you could read the book and you’d be able to get it all. Similarly you could listen to the album and it would sound like an album. But if you put them together it sort of unfolds in different ways.
There are songs I’ve been terming ‘artifact songs’. These are songs that appear in the narrative of the book and usually they are sung by other artists, like Aesop Rock - a well respected Indie/Hip Hop MC and Rachel Yamagata who is a really extraordinary singer/songwriter. They both take lead vocals on different songs. One of the songs that Rachel sings actually shows up in the book as one of the characters while other songs are like background noise as the characters go through their day, but of course what they’re singing about is thematically tied into the narrative of both pieces.
RS: Sounds excellent. When I was younger I loved to listen to an album while reading a book and that album became the accompaniment to the book. It sounds like you’ve nailed that concept!
BA: Yes! When I was in college people would play Dark Side of the Moon with the Wizard of Oz in the background and they tie in in weird and unexpected ways. That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. And particularly these days people are reading on iPads and Kindles that are able to do a multimedia kind of thing. I was excited by the possibility of people listening to the song while they’re reading the song, and getting this richer experience with the two pieces supporting each other and shining lights from different sides of things.
RS: Sounds like this must have been a huge task to compose, perform and produce an album and write a complete book!
BA: When I talk about the things I’m interested in and that I’m working on people often ask how I find the time. You know I do this full time so it’s not a problem. I actually wish I could work harder and do more things. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious it’s just that none of this is separate in my head. It all locks in beautifully and it’s all comfortable and it took me three years to do this album and book. So, if anything I’m really slack!!
Al Houghton & Ben Aurthur @ Dubway Studios
RS: I hear you’ve performed with many household names, like Tori Amos, Toots and the Maytals and Dave Matthews too!
BA: Yeah. Dave was just coming up in the world when I was in college. So, his band was the group that everyone would go see on Tuesday nights at the local club. We ran into each other a fair bit before he became a huge rock star. He actually ended up playing an open mic night I was running. And Tori Amos I opened for and Toots and the Maytals we actually played at a conference. So it’s been a pleasure to see people doing this on a grander scale than what is available to the likes of me.
RS: Somehow between writing your 6th album and 2nd novel you’ve also been instrumental in the Dubway Days project. Can you tell us more about what it is and the philosophy behind it?
BA: The guys who own Dubway, Al Houghton and Mike Crehore, have been creative partners of mine for a long time. In fact they’ve helped produce the last 3 albums that I’ve made. At a certain point BreakThru Radio, an internet content production platform, approached them saying they were looking for video content. They then approached me and asked it I had any ideas. I pitched them an idea which was interestingly similar to what we’ve been doing for macProVideo: about the musical and creative interior process. BreakThru Radio liked it but wanted to focus more on the interpersonal process of actually making a song and less about the technical side of things. We thought it was a really exciting idea and began shooting it with our first guest, Vienna Teng. We really didn’t know whether it was possible to write, not just a song but a great song in one day.
To our surprise the material really came together. It seems to us, from our experience so far, that when you have really talented, genuine musicians who know their craft, when they are put on the spot they just create. They simply do it. It is shocking how quick and capable all these people are. They’re all people I admire, so I didn’t have any doubts about their abilities at all, but their ability to create under the gun like that is really thrilling for all of us to watch. It has been a surprise from the get-go.
RS: So, basically Dubway Days is documenting the birth of a song?
BA: Absolutely. We get to see the front end of the work. You know, I’ve been a fan of Vienna and John Wesley Harding for years. I know these guys from way back and love their work, as do Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson. But seeing the back-end, how they get to where they finally do is really an education for me and very interesting to be a part of.
RS: In your new series, SongCraft Dubway Sessions, for macProVideo your take on the process has changed somewhat. Tell us more.
BA: This is actually more what we imagined the show would be like. So for macProVideo we still write a song from scratch but it goes less into the back and forth interpersonal stuff and more into the technical aspect of how we do what we do. The stuff we gloss over in Dubway Days we really get into here. For example, how you get the kick and bass to sit nicely next to each other. It’s a real pleasure for me as I find it fascinating and the Dubway Days show tends to gloss over the art behind what Mike and Al, the producers do, while there’s a lot of time devoted to me and the artists batting around ideas and trying to get the performance out of them. But the nuts and bolts, hands-on production of making these songs work the way they do tends not to get much time in the show. So it’s been a really fun thing to bring these elements out more and spotlight their production skills and talents in the macProVideo series.
RS: Without meaning to offend anyone, the concept sounds like reality TV meets a music production tutorial-video.
BA: I know exactly what you mean. But it’s not exactly X-Factor, as although those guys are talented and have the technical ability to sing - which is cool - it’s not as creative as what we set out to do. We actually think about it more like a cooking show in some ways. It’s showing someone not just the beautiful cake at the end of it, but what you have to do to make that cake with eggs and butter and sugar and how you meld these things together in a way that’s really compelling. So, what’s exciting (and frightening) is that you get to see what we make at the end of it. And we always release the song at the end.
For the new macProVideo series, we’re going to release the stems to the MPV community. So it’s not only ‘here’s what we did with this’ but it’s also ‘why don’t you see what you can do with it.’ There’s a contest with McDSP involved too! That’s the thing about all of this. It’s art. The way we approach this may not be the best way for the song to live. So the best remix will be judged by the artist herself and there’ll be prizes by McDSP (which we use in the production process).
I think the MPV audience is just as intensely excited about this stuff as we are. I hope this gives them a chance to, you know, show us up and to create a whole new vision for this song. They can teach us a lesson or two about different approaches!
Lauren Balthrop @ Dubway Studios recording the first song for the new macProVideo.com Songcraft series.
RS: Returning to the cooking analogy, have you ever had any songs that come out of the oven burnt?
BA: No. We came close with one. Jonathan Spottiswoode, an extraordinary artist, who I’m a big fan of. You see we tend to set challenges as a starting place and I think I went too far and I scared him a little bit. We were having coffee and talking about family, as I have two young girls and him and his girlfriend are talking about getting serious, having kids and all that. He asked me how I do what I do while still being a Dad... So I asked him to write a song for his unborn child and I think it threw him for a curve and got us off to an anxious start.
We then got into a long 2 hour battle over what the time signature would be. He wanted to do it in 5/6 - which is not something I’d ever worked in and was innately scared of. And I was writing more in 6/8, sort of a waltz thing. But then his band wanted to do it in 6/8 too. Basically we spent a lot of time bickering about doing it in different ways. So I was pretty convinced we weren’t going to come out with a good song.
But the reality was, when we put it together, that emotional tentativeness and the sort of fraught sense comes across in the song, and because the song is talking about a man speaking to his daughter, for me, it’s one of the more magical songs we’ve put together. It has an upsetting and strangely ethereal quality to it. I love it! It’s absolutely one of my favorite songs that we’ve done for the show. I assume one day we’ll crash into a cliff, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
RS: I guess, if that did happen, that would be part and parcel of the creative process? Sometimes it just happens...
BA: Well, right. If you had asked me before we did our first show when it would happen I’d have said the 2nd or 3rd show. But, having done this for a while now, we’re not just bringing in pretty, reality star style fodder, we’re bringing in people who we’re really big fans of and truly believe in. They’ve just got it. And when you put them on the spot they do just produce. So far it’s all worked out!
RS: In terms of the macProVideo series where you explore the song creation process, do you focus on setting up to record, tracking, or also the mixing in a DAW, etc. What are the primary focus areas?
BA: Well, we want to attack a lot of different song styles and make sure the tutorial doesn’t just repeat the same old stuff. So we did focus in on the mics we used, e.g. a M149 Neumann for the vocals and the guitars, as well as the front end compression and EQ going in. Then once it’s in the DAW we also focus on the post-processing and mixing, which include the general principles we’ve found matter the most.
As we move through the series, we’ll be opening up to other genres. So, for example, a Hip Hop song where we’ll focus on loops, sub-sonic bass and rhythmic angles as well as locking that into melodic elements. I hope in every episode that we’ll have elements that teach the fundamentals but also go deeper and deeper into technical aspects which the macProVideo audience will get a real charge out of in a hands-on sort of way. Then when we release the song they’ll be able to download the stems and the song and they’ll be able to apply our perspectives and their own perspectives to re-create the mix and make the song great.
RS: From a personal point of view, what equipment do you use when recording and mixing? Do you have a preferred DAW or suite of plugins?
BA: Being a pro studio, I guess it doesn’t surprise anyone that Dubway tends to work in Pro Tools. We have used Logic and Reason when working with other artists, e.g. Aesop Rock and DJ Big Wiz. While we’re most comfortable in Pro Tools, all (DAWs) do what they’re supposed to do, so we can get a good sound out of whatever we’re working on.
On the front end, Mike and I, in our home studios both use Metric Halo ULN-2’s. On the software side we have a ton of plug-ins from McDSP, Waves and many other folks. It really depends what we have at our disposal on that particular day. The other day we were using Shure KSM27 mics for vocals.
Ben Arthur recording guitar @ Dubway Studios.
RS: Do you have any tips for artists going through a mental block - both in terms of composition and production?
BA: Sure. On the production side one of the ideas which has been most helpful to me in thinking about a song is to think of EQ bandwidth as a garden hose. This is to say when you have a huge thumping 808 it sounds awesome, but if you were taking up x amount of the room due to the width of the hose, then you’ll be taking away some of the mid and high range frequencies. Mixing is about balancing and the more I work in production the more I find it’s about taking away and not adding to the mix. When you’re mixing in the digital world, working with 0s and 1s, you really have to be conscious about how much bandwidth you have. By bringing up frequencies of a bass or kick you need to make sure you’re not taking away from something else.
On the creative side, it’s all about regularity. Creativity is like training for a marathon: you have to get out there and work everyday. That’s not because today is the day you’re going to break a world record, but because if you keep doing it you’ll get to the point one day you’ll write something extraordinary because you’re conditioned, you’re ready and have put in the day in, day out grunt work. By that time, your creative muscles are ready to go when needed.
And these artists we are bringing in for the video tutorials are toned, fit...
RS: Musical athletes..?
BA: Yes! Musical athletes. Even though they don’t necessarily know this when we ask them to perform on the show, when you put them in a spot to perform, they do!
RS: Thank you so much Ben for your time. We’re really excited about what you’re doing and hope that your new series with us at macProVideo will keep growing and growing!
BA: Thanks! It’s been a lot of fun.
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Rounik is the Editor and Lead-Writer on the MPV Hub. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic (and a self-confessed Mac fanatic) he's taught teachers, professional musicians and hobbyists how to get the best out of Apple's creative software. He is a Visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University's Teacher training program, facilitating workshops on using iLife and digital media tools in the classroom. If you're looking for Rounik, you'll most likely find him (and his articles) on the macProVideo.com Hub & Forums.