Barnes and Noble, Making Your Instrument Fit the Sound, & and the Lustrous Ambience of Michael Brook

My wife and I were at Barnes and Noble the other night looking for cd’s. (As a quick side note, when was the last time you were at Barnes and Noble and someone didn’t explain to you how to demo the cd’s there? Seriously, every time I go, someone tells me how to scan the barcode, put the headphones on–first the left ear, now the right–no matter how much I protest that my intellect is capable of the task. But, on with the story….) I had this gift card there, and we could get books or films, but I like music. Probably obsessively, but then that’s completely the point of this blog site. I already decided on the new one by The Editors because sweet mercy The Editors are good. Jamianne and I went with our friends Tim and Kristen to their show down in San Diego last month and it was spectacular. (Louis XIV also played at that show….which wasn’t quite as spectacular….at all…..but, I’ll save that for another blog.) So now we need one more cd because Barnes and Noble specifically makes their gift cards so that they will never break up evenly. Ever. If you buy one thing, you have like $6.36 on the gift card that now you can never use because nothing but Techno remix of Top Gun’s Award-winning score costs $6.36. But if you buy two items, then you have to pay some of your own money above and beyond the gift card. It’s really quite genius. So we’re looking through all the cd’s so we don’t have wasted money left on the gift card, and I’m listening to: 

–Interpol…good, but I don’t think the melodies are good enough to interest me after a couple days; 
–High Kings…I love it, but Jamianne says it sounds a bit too polished; 
–Muse…fantastic, but I’ve already bought most of the album on itunes; 
–Radiohead…quite possibly the best band ever, but they can never seem to get over the bridge of their own wierdness in my opinion; 
–Drive by Truckers…seems like the only good song is the one I already ituned; 
–VHS or Beta…Jamianne loves them, and I do, too, but I saw some live clips of them online and they weren’t that impressive…I’m a big buyer-into-er (?) of how a band sounds live. It makes a big difference to me for some reason. 

So we end up with The Editors and either VHS or Beta or Tori Amos. Tori Amos is great. Nothing about her songs ever jumps out at you, but they just sound awesome in a very understated way. Soundscapey. 

And then on a whim, I catch the new Michael Brook album sitting all by itself. Now, I’m a big Michael Brook fan…he did some of the score to Heat, and he invented the guitar sound that Edge uses on With or Without You. Ya, I know, it always comes back to U2 for me somehow. But he doesn’t put out many albums on his own. So anyway, I scan the little barcode deal and put the headphones on, just as the Barnes and Noble employee instructed me how to do. And my ears are served with such delight. Jamianne calls his style ‘urban-ambient’. Like, picture driving through downtown LA at night, with the fog cover rolling in, blurring all the city lights reflecting off your windshield. That’s the new Michael Brook album. And there was no contest after that. Editors and Michael Brook.


Michael Brook is a guitarist by trade, but it’s his musical instincts when it comes to composition that really draws me to his music. He and the keyboardist (James Hood) think in terms of the song as a whole and exactly what is reaching the audience’s ear. And I appreciate that. I’m not sure we do it in church enough or in any of our musical projects. Interesting experiment: take your worship team and have everyone sit in a group and listen to a recording of the previous week’s service. Nine if not your full ten musicians will be hearing their own part. It’s just simply human (and musician) nature. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it; it’s just how it is. You’ll notice because of comments like: 

“The piano needs to be louder.” 
“What mic are we using on the kick?” 
“Is that me singing that harmony or you?” 

And the really humble ones will say wonderfully humble things. (I’m unfortunately not one of these people.) But it’s still about their instrument nonetheless:

“I think my bass needs to be lower in the house.”
“Or, yikes I hit a wrong voicing on that string pad.”

And notice that I haven’t even hit us guitarists yet. We’re usually not even concerned with how we’re playing, or how many people heard us, or if we’re even in the mix at all. We say things like:

“Wow, that new chip in my overdrive pedal really makes it suck tone when bypassed.”
“My preamp gain has a mid-hump; I should try changing out the V2 position tube.”
“Does anyone else think I lost some clean headroom when I changed out my grill cloth?”

Meanwhile everyone’s looking at us, like, it’s no wonder he hits the wrong chords all the time, he’s not even paying attention to what song we’re playing.

But it’s amazing because we all hear our own instrument, not the music as a whole. And I do it probably more than most….and I am pretty positive that that new grill cloth did change my tone. :-) But I can gaurantee you that 95% (if not more) of the congregation or audience or whatever you want to call them, can’t pick out your instrument. Most of them can’t even differentiate between the kick drum and the bass guitar. And this is our audience…in church, in popular music, whatever. So, the point is not how our individual instruments sound. The point is how our individual instruments sound as they add to the sound as a whole. That one guitar note might help people worship……but it’s the keyboard pad in the background that sets the bed for that guitar note…..and it’s the drums that set the backbeat for that pad to work….and it’s the bass that keeps the harmonies anchored so that the vocal melody can sit just above all the instruments in the proper tonality. And then the congregation can be helped into worshiping the Savior by one cohesive sound, rather than ten individual sounds that see mixing together as an after-thought. 

So…if you have a chance, take a quick listen to Micheal Brook’s new “Bellcurve.” Or anything else where you find yourself just enjoying the music without really listening to the instruments. Moby is a great example. For me, it’s a huge help with leading worship and with humility in general. Because to create sound as a whole with other musicians, many times we’ve got to be humble enough to play the same 3 note riff very slowly for 4 straight minutes. And that’s hard to do when you have the other 5 guitarists on the worship team sitting in the congregation on your one day of the month to play. But it helps people worship, in my humble (hopefully!) opinion.

11 thoughts on “Barnes and Noble, Making Your Instrument Fit the Sound, & and the Lustrous Ambience of Michael Brook

  1. Well said!The hardest thing for me to learn as a worship leader is to peel my attention away from my own guitar and vocals for a moment to listen to how the ensemble and arrangements are blending together to communicate the “theme” of the song. Still working on it…. I’ll call you when I have it mastered :)

  2. Hey Travis,

    Totally in agreement with you. It’s like, if I have a set where I’m on pitch and my guitar sounded good, I tend to think the whole set went awesome. Then I listen to the recording, and it’s like, whoa; I was a bit focused on myself. haha I’m completely glad to hear that I’m not the only one.


  3. Great post!

    I try…and I’m sure I fail more than I’d like to admit….to play what the song, and the situation needs…

    I think one of the best things to learn as an electric guitarist is…when not to play.

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