Orchestration……& How to Ruin a Song
Yesterday my wife and I were in C28. Yes, the Christian store. Christian culture is awkward……it seems sometimes like you’re either in the going-all-out-I-just-witnessed-for-Christ-all-day-by-wearing-my-’Bad-Company-Corrupts’-t-shirt-for-8-hours-in-the-mall-today group, or you’re in the yep-you-heard-right-I-just-ordered-a-beer-and-I’m-a-Christian-what-now group. The first group has never even thought about talking with anyone outside the Christian circle…even when they go to In-N-Out, they have to look under the cup and then breathe a sigh of relief once they find the Bible verse reference there……now they can actually drink their Sprite guilt-free. And then the second group just spends all their time trying to find every way possible to awkwardly stick curse words into their everyday conversations, and then gets all giddy when they do, because the Bible doesn’t say you can’t curse. And I’m thinking that there’s just gotta be a middle ground somewhere.
But we did not find it in C28. Not even a little. (Although, we of course were definitely not looking for it in C28.) We found much worse. See, orchestration is the third factor in good music. First is melody, next is how the harmonic progression supports that melody. And thirdly, is orchestration……how the instruments find their supporting lines underneath that melody, and within the harmonic structure. And it’s orchestration that decides whether a catchy melody and good chord progression turns into the great song you can’t help singing all day, or the annoying song you can’t help singing all day. Orchestration can also be referred to as layering. And that’s something that secular producers do very well. Christian producers? Or, rather, the one Christian producer whom all American Christian music has to filter through so that he can compress the daylights out of it, run the vocals through the new Pro Tools plug-in ‘Scott Wyland-ify’, cut out all keyboards, and make every band sound like Creed? Ya, not so much.
However, since Hillsong is not based in America, I guess they have been granted a reprieve from running all there music through this one producer. Granted, some of their stuff still does find a way to this guy, which is obviously where the filtered ‘I have a Ramones accent’ vocals came from on ‘Break Free’ and ‘Solution’. But a lot of their stuff has some very nice melodies, good chord progressions to support the melodies, and lots and lots of countering, simplistic lines of orchestration. Very un-Christian-music-like.
And this is obviously unacceptable to the the one Christian music producer who loves Creed. So, as my wife and I learned yesterday in C28 while listening to the soundtrack playing overhead, he has in retaliation for Hillsong not running all their music into his ‘Pro Tools: the Creed edition’ software, commissioned Seventh Day Slumber to ‘de-orchestrate’ the Hillsong music. The beauty of this, is that now we have glaring examples of the enormous difference orchestration makes.
Original, orchestrated song:
Note the layers of guitars. The way the intro actually flows into the verse. The way the dynamics of the song take you into the driving bridge, making it huge without the entrance of filtered vocals and compressed power chords. Notice that it sounds good.
And after it’s been Creeded:
Note the complete lack of any countering melodies, keyboard pads, or layers. Note the intro that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the song. Note the ‘look how cool I am’ filtered vocals, and the cookie cutter harmonies. And of course, the ultra-cool syncopation at the end of every other phrase. Oh, ya…and the ‘vocals only’ stop in the bridge, that is an absolute must in American Christian music.
Now, I’m not talking about style. Seventh Day Slumber might totally be your style. And that’s cool. It’s a bit of a heavier style…nothing wrong with that. But it’s the complete lack of orchestration that makes me just have an annoyed headache after I listen to that song. It’s this linear bleh of a song that makes completely takes the beauty out of the melody and chord progression. That song could totally be done in that style (please, with normal vocals, though! This testosterone vocal deal has got to go!), but with layers, even if they’re heavy guitar layers, to give the song more beauty, space, and interest. Not to mention that they just took a song I’d never heard before, and turned it into a song I’ve heard since I was in junior high.
And just so that we’re completely fair here, most of Hillsong’s stuff, admittedly, are U2 rip-offs. But most of what I do is too, so I’m a little more forgiving. Plus, well, I really wanted to segway into a U2 song and the way it was subsequently killed by de-orchestration.
This song is funny, because when U2 originally did this song, it wasn’t Christian enough for Christian radio. But when Sanctus Real, a Christian band, covered it…changing no lyrics whatsoever…it’s now Christian enough. Awesome. And not that I want or don’t want U2 on Christian radio…at this point, I’m totally thinking that lyrical content has nothing to do with what gets played. It only gets played if it runs through our afore-mentioned Creed-obsessed producer. And just to be fair, I’ve put the U2 one on as a live version…so it should be way less orchestrated than Sanctus Real’s studio version, right?
Original, Orchestrated Song:
Note the piano, bass, and kick drum almost playing on the same team, creating the basis. And then Edge’s guitar comes in on a totally different line, but bridging the gap between the vocal melody and the harmonic basis. Note the smooth dynamics. Note the drum layers…they’re not doing much, but they do more each time through the chorus and bridge in intensity. And sweet string pad throughout, just lying there.
And after it’s been Creeded:
Same song, same melody, same progression. But it annoys me now. The took out all the guitar lines, and just power chorded the bass line. Drums decided to syncopate, and they decided to do, of course, the obligatory little stops, filter the vocals, give them a fake accent, and give them more testosterone. And they did, try some dynamics, but they made them jerky and awkward. There’s no ebb and flow…just a really awkward drum beat that takes the song somewhere weird. And to their credit, they did layer a couple guitars…with odd sounds and feedback…but, hey…it’s the thought that counts, right? And if you made it to the ending…what in the world is up with the creepy ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’ whispers at the end? Yikes.
The weird thing is that this post is not against Christian music. There’s just so many bad Christian songs out there! But note in those songs how hugely different the carefully orchestrated versions are to the Creeded ones. And this weekend, when you play your songs, put in some countering, simplistic musical lines. Don’t syncopate a random beat every 30 seconds. Sing in your normal voice. Have keyboards. Turn down your compressor. And let the song dictate what the music does; stop letting the ‘style’ call the shots. And whatever you do, don’t send your recording to that one Christian producer who loves Creed. He’ll make it sound like this:
Who tried to sound like this:
Who ripped these guys off:
And please note…I have nothing against these bands. Especially STP, who has some good guitar tone…well, live anyway…and who are the original ones to sound like this. And I’m sure that people have been encouraged and maybe even come to know God through Sanctus Real and Seventh Day Slumber. The point is, just because it’s “working”, doesn’t always mean it’s “great”. And I think it’s important to strive for “great”. And sometimes Christian music…and Creed…can give us superb examples of what not to do. And they all make more money than I do (by a lot); therefore, it is okay to make fun of them a bit. Can I do it better? Oh, absolutely! Which is why they’re all out gigging in front of thousands of people right now, and I’m typing a blog! Eat that! Wait……
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