Making their mark on the world map
By Vince Degiorgio
The day and age of the Canadian songwriter being a stay-at-home troubadour going from coast-to-coast has changed over the years. Far from the strictly self-contained writer atmosphere that once dominated domestic releases, tunesmiths here in Canada are writing more and more for artists outside our shores.
Here are three inspiring examples:
Andy Stochansky: Los Angeles
Some have followed the global exodus to Los Angeles or elsewhere to pursue their dreams of becoming fulltime writers. Such is the case with Andy Stochansky. The Toronto-born Stochansky was originally signed to RCA Victor Records in Los Angeles as an artist.
“Signing direct with a U.S. label was the farthest thing from my mind,” says Stochansky from his Los Angeles area home. “I’d done so many shows in Canada – so many people were interested. But nobody bit. I wasn’t making any dents where the major labels in Canada were concerned.” So, he signed with RCA Victor Records in Los Angeles as an artist. And then landed with Chrysalis Music Publishing as a full time writer.
His move to LA was imminent: “I quickly realized that it would be great if I moved here. This way they would think of me and send me artists and other writers to work with. Being in the same place would help cement that relationship.”
When the follow up to his critically acclaimed debut Five Star Motel album 100 was set to be released, he suddenly found himself without a label. But his undeniable knack for a great song did not desert him. Two of the songs from 100 ended up connecting with Australian Idol winner Shannon Noll. “Shine”, culled from that ill-fated sophomore effort, ended up striking gold and beyond for Andy — when the song rocketed to No.1 on their airplay chart. It stayed there for 11 weeks. How it got there was a classic case of “they had finished the record and they were looking for THE single”
Andy recalls: “Ross Fraser from Sony Music Australia was in town looking for songs. Matthew Gerrard, my Canadian co-writer on “Shine”, pitched the song to Ross. And that’s how it happened! It overlapped into a cut with Aussie belter, Vanessa Amarosi.
With his artist career now part of his creative tenure and not the dominating force, Andy parlayed his writing efforts into songs for feature films such as The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, TV shows such as Hawaii 5-0, and cuts with America’s Lee Dewyze, boy band icon Ronan Keating of Boyzone and an ongoing collaboration with the Goo Goo Dolls.
Amalia Townsend: Sweden
While some transition into writing, the electric Amalia Townsend combined and chased her writing and performing dreams instead.
Her first domestic steps were with the jazzy fusionistas, Sekoya.
“We just networked ourselves,” recalled Amalia on her B.C. beginnings. “Our debut album scored a Juno nomination in contemporary jazz category in 2004. We didn’t win, but it got us a lot of attention.”
But fate wouldn’t twist her and her bandmates in the right direction. “We had everyone knocking on our doors but instead of opening them up for us, they told us we didn’t fit into a box they knew how to market.”
So international markets beckoned instead. And so did Townsend’s solo career. “The band moved to different places around the world after two albums. We didn’t split up — everybody just moved. So I did too,” she says laughing.
Her next move was to bolt from her native Vancouver for an equally hockey mad locale: Stockholm. And she connected with DJ/house producer, Opolopo, working with him on his second album, blitzing through a South East Asian tour and staying in the Swedish capital for five years. Described as the love child of Parliament Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell and legendary superstar Chaka Khan, her artistic, fusion-dripping videos are not just songs, but four-minute events. Munich based Tokyo Dawn Records has released two albums for her.
And then Canada called her home.
“When I came back, I felt like I had to start from scratch again. I almost turned my back on music. But I reconnected with so many organizations and foundations that supported me from the beginning. It’s been mind blowing that I finally have come home to a different Canada. It’s far more of a global industry because the Internet has made the music world truly, a world.”
James Bryan: London
Cementing his love for British music, James Bryan ended up in London.
“It was one of those random things that I ended up here. It was always in my mind that I had to get to London and make some music,” says James. “When the retro soul came up with Amy Winehouse and Duffy it seemed the right thing to do.”
He met with music impresario Michael Dixon at a party at the Feldman Agency. And then he got on a plane and an initial visit to London followed.
“Within an hour, it felt like home. Mike had signed Rita Ora to a production deal at the time. We wrote a song with her. It worked out great, and because of that, Michael kept inviting me back.”
After a number of visits, the inevitable happened. He also retained the support of Sony ATV Music Publishing Canada who have supported and published him, in his words “for half of my life.”
Known first and foremost as a member of the Philosopher Kings and Prozzak, along with collaborator of Nelly Furtado, Bryan landed in London and had to be ready to work. “I was definitely starting from scratch. I was a newbie. But the fact that I walked into the community at Kensal Town Studios helped me make that giant leap. There are 10 studios here. I’m now based in Paul Epworth’s old room. And if you recognize the name, it’s because he’s the collaborator of Adele’s blockbuster hits.”
Bryan’s most recent cuts with Lisa-Marie Presley, Japanese superstar Bonnie Pink and Yuna have added even more visibility to his career as one of Canada’s key writing exports. James has also written for Syco’s global pop darling Olly Murs, co-penning “Sophie” for him and also landing two cuts on the latest album by the come-backing Backstreet Boys, with fellow Canadians Justin Nozuka and Kyle Riabko collaborating on the songs “Try” and “Trust Me”, respectively
Like L.A., many Canadians see London as a possible destination.
A little free advice from Bryan will surprise you. “Do your homework first,” he says with a laugh. “I came here five or six times before I moved here and it’s easy enough to do that these days — you can meet people online.” One other rule for Canadians? “Hold on to that accent! It’s exotic here, and it works! We’ve been here four years and it feels great.”
Vince Degiorgio is a hit songwriter and owns both Chapter 2 Music Productions Inc., and The Cymba Music Publishing Company.
I’m no expert on the matter but, after having playing over 200 shows in the last four years, there are a number of things I have learned:
1. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
My voice is a most precious and delicate instrument; it took nearly losing it to come to that realization. Investing in vocal lessons literally saved my voice. Now, before any show, I take the time to warm up and stretch my vocal muscles with the guidance of one of my mentors and industry go-to-girls, Cari Cole. I also learned to practice finger exercises that minimize the repetitive strain brought on by guitar playing for hours on end each day. Of course, exercising your whole body, keeping hydrated and taking time to rest are super important too!
2. MATCH YOUR VENUES WITH YOUR VALUES
In the beginning, I played just about anywhere I could get a gig. That said, as great as bars are for well paying cover gigs, they are not well suited for sharing intimate moments with the audience, which is very important to me. I now veer toward cafes, galleries, and private homes, venues that better facilitate one-on-one connections with my listeners.
3. CONNECT WITH COMMUNITY
Getting people to want to come out to your shows requires more than just putting up posters and having an online presence. Connecting one-on-one with people in a genuine and meaning full way is the most effective advertising in the world; it takes time and boundless energy but is priceless. Whether it is in person or online, it is important to build sustainable relationships and engage community. As a single mother of one, with a full time day job, in addition to managing a music career, I have found the use of social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Reverbnation to be invaluable assets. They have allowed me to establish and cultivate relationships with a diverse range of people in both my local and global communities.
4. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE WORTH (AND ASK FOR IT)
As much as I love sharing music, and would continue to create it whether or not I was paid, I have come to realize that my time and skills are valuable and gear costs money! All of the peripheral things required to make my music accessible – rentals, gas, guitar strings, rehearsal time, business cards, posters, website costs, membership fees, etc. – really add up. I quickly learned that it was necessary and warranted to ask for payment. Be mindful of what you ask for, though; if you ask for change, you’ll most likely get just that. I always make a point, now, to ask for listeners’ gratitude in the form of attention AND dollar bills.
5. BEFORE YOU TOUR – DO YOUR RESEARCH
As an independent artist, touring can be a really expensive and overwhelming venture. I wish I had done more research and planning before hitting the road! I made sure to registered all my songs with SOCAN and submitted for all my live performances but I wish I had read these two articles first: How to make the best of a Canadian Tour & Booking Your Canadian Tour – Tips by Ann Vriend. Did you know that there’s even funding available for touring through FACTOR!? Like I said, do your research.
Honestly, of everything I’ve learned, success really isn’t about money, it’s about people. For me, taking things to the next level has always been more about achieving greater depth with my audience rather than higher ranks on the charts. Music has always been a way to centre myself, allowing me to become aware and fully grounded in the moment. It has been a way for me to communicate my experiences, build relationships, and engage like-minded individuals in my community. If I were to measure success by the quality of my relationships, well then, I think I’m one of the most successful people I know!
I can list several reasons why the S.A.C. has been so important in my personal journey as a songwriter, but would like to say that the fellow writers I have met and the connections I have made have had the greatest impact.
Several months ago, through a network of songwriters on Facebook, I came across a song that was posted called “Half A World Away”. I immediately connected to the song and was eager to see who had written it. John Pippus and Lucy LeBlanc of Vancouver were the creators, and they had developed something really magical. I re-posted the song and complimented the writers on how much I liked it.
Early this past June I had the opportunity to go to Vancouver for a couple of days and wanted to see if I could do a co-write while I was there. I emailed the SAC Regional Writers Group in Vancouver and was quickly connected to Lucy LeBlanc, who was so warm and kind. She suggested a three-way co-write with her writing partner, John Pippus, and I was delighted.
We figured out a central meeting spot that was convenient for everyone. I was staying at UBC, and Lucy was coming from White Rock. Lucy and I met at the station closest to John’s place and we headed over there together.
I spent a little time observing their co-writing style and identifying the best way for me to fit in. I quickly learned that Lucy was a wonderful lyricist and John was a great melody man. We bounced some ideas around, and I loved some of the riffs John was playing. I was slowly developing a chorus in my head. It was a little country, and I thought it might be something we could work with. Lucy immediately began to piece together a story, and John nailed down the verse melody with a catchy guitar riff that I immediately fell in love with. Within a matter of hours the song was coming together.
Lucy LeBlanc adds, “Dayna came prepared. She had a chorus for a country song that seemed to crackle with energy. So, we started working with it, throwing out ideas and crafting the verses. It’s a good feeling when it all comes together, and you end up with a song that resonates among each of us.”
It was my first time writing away from home–with the exception of Nashville…and it made me feel so grounded to be writing while I was in a place that was completely new to me.
After our first session we were tremendously excited about how the song was developing and made arrangements to meet the next day to finish it. With the exception of getting stuck on a musical bridge, we did almost finish it, and sorted out the bridge and fine-tuned the details over skype once I got home.
Lucy was able to do some sightseeing with me, and graciously helped me find my way back to where I was staying. As I sat on the bus and replayed our song through my iphone voice notes, I felt even more confident about what the three of us had created.
I was happy to have connected with Lucy and John in Vancouver, and would certainly access the S.A.C. to set up co-writing opportunities when travelling to other cities. The song we wrote is called “ I Still Want You”. We are hoping to have it demoed in Nashville and hope to have it pitched to an artist.
Visit the Songwriters’ Profiles for this trio:
By Larry LeBlanc
Canadian Vincent Degiorgio is a neighborhood type of guy with an expansive range of musical influences that have served him well over an impressive four decade career as a DJ, producer, and music publisher.
Today, Degiorgio is the president & CEO of Toronto-based Chapter 2 Productions, which houses the Cymba Music Publishing Company with its roster of songwriters including Davor Vulama, AIleen de la Cruz, Ava Kay, Shawn Zhang, Young Feng, and Hakan Lundberg.
Degiorgio himself has had songs recorded by such formidable international acts as Caro Emerald, Atomic Kitten, Kristine W, Alcazar, Tomomi Kahala, Shakaya, Human Nature, Room 2012, LEAD, Aloha From Hell and others in 11 languages with overall sales surpassing 30 million units.
Chapter 2 Productions has provided music for over 150 television shows including “America’s Next Top Model,” “Degrassi” and “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
Degiorgio began his music career as an import buyer for a Sam the Record Man retail outlet in his hometown of Brampton, Ontario. This led to working at the prestigious Toronto music retailer Disco Sound, and spinning records at the Toronto hot spot, Le Tube.
After a stint at overseeing promotion in Southern, Ontario for Montreal-based Unidisc Records in the mid 80′s, Degiorgio formed Power Records, which released over 250 12-inch singles over 8 years.
While helming Power, Degiorgio began producing and composing music, including Tapps’ “My Forbidden Lover,” and Eria Fachin’s “Savin’ Myself.”
After winding down Power Records, Degiorgio was hired as a dance music and marketing consultant at BMG Music Canada, where he developed a handful of best-selling dance compilation brands.
While International A&R VP at RCA, Degiorgio signed N Sync for North America.
In 2001, Degiorgio parted ways with RCA to focus on the production and the writing careers of his growing roster at Chapter 2 Productions, as well as his own bustling career as a songwriter and producer.
What is it about pop music that appeals to you?
I just think that it’s in the blood. When my father came to Canada from Malta in ’59, he was crazy about Frankie Laine, Dean Martin, and Nat “King” Cole. I just grew into it (pop music). You could almost say that I became obsessive about pop when my father took me to see Johnny Mathis at the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto. It was my first concert. I was 6 or 7. I may have remembered one of two songs. Fast forward to now, and I have seen Johnny Mathis perform eight times. As I was always the kid on the outside. I was just obsessed with pop music.
When did you begin writing songs?
I started to write in the early ‘80s. I wish, in hindsight, that I had written more, and that there was a base for a kid like me (in the Canadian music industry). It wasn’t exactly conventional. I just wish that back when I started in dance music that I had gotten into a studio with one of the rock guys who were published so I could have contributed to a hit song.
Why didn’t that happen?
Back in those days, they (major labels in Canada) never went to the dance people to say, “Can you write a song for Chantal Candor because she had left (the Canadian female disco duo) Voggue? You’re the idiot who played the hell out of ‘”Dancin’ the Night Away.” She was on Columbia Records, and they went to Sony/ATV, picked a rock song, and gave (American producer) John Luongo a lot of money to remix it to make it sound like it was presentable (for the clubs).
Did you play an instrument as a kid?
My father had me to take piano lessons when I was 6 years old. I took three lessons, and I decided I was bored. I didn’t take music in high school. Later on, I found that could write a lyric with lightning speed. My melodic base has such a point of reference that it’s easy (to write).
What is your strength as a songwriter?
I think that I come in with a complete opposite idea from most lyricists. There’s the memory bank of what I have in that I can hear and reflect on the past five decades when I step into a room. I don’t want to write something generic. I want to twist a person’s brain when they listen to my music. I want them to feel what they are hearing.
What are the biggest misconceptions faced by new songwriters these days?
Probably that they think success is automatic. The other thing is just because they have a song on their local radio station that they are a star. At the same time, it’s wonderful seeing people from different genres collaborating today. I didn’t grow up in that society, but I’m doing everything I can to foster that change.
What mistakes in songwriting do newer writers tend to make?
The normal thing is that they are trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. They shouldn’t be writing against their type. I grew up, and I stayed true to who I am as a musician, and as a writer. I don’t think you have to change anymore to make somebody happy. I’ve heard so many people say, “I want to do the dance thing.” The next day they are doing (performing in) a country coffee house. Songwriters trying to change their point of view because someone told they should is the biggest mistake that they can make.
Music-related talent shows on TV sell stardom. Not the idea that an artist still needs a support system around them.
Those shows have ruined the A&R process in one regard because people are walking in saying, “Yeah, I’m a singer/songwriter.” They do the show, and they get signed to a label. Suddenly, they are cutting 10 songs of someone else’s. So they aren’t really being true to themselves like I said.
I also think that the A&R world got really lousy when “Pop Idol” in the UK hit, and then “American Idol” came along. Suddenly record companies were hesitant to put records out because they didn’t want to compete (with TV-based artists) on the same release day. People were also signing all of the cast-offs from the shows. If people wonder why we don’t have a qualitative approach to the artists that we are signing, that’s a big reason. Do you really want to sign a cast-off from a show because that kid did all of the work for you, and you don’t have to do anything but some plug in? To me, that’s heartbreaking.
A few years ago, producer/engineer Al Schmitt and I talked about how many singers of the ‘50s and ‘60s were performers who worked in nightclubs; and they learned their craft there. As a result, singers like Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald had unbelievable microphone technique. I don’t think we have that today.
It’s so true. I was recently listening to “The Nancy Wilson Show!” (a 1965 live album recorded at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles). I heard the greatest singer I have ever heard, and there ain’t nobody who’s going to be able to do what she does today because she went through the university and college for a Masters degree in the musical way that you just mentioned.
Sam Cooke’s “Shake” (1965) was the first album that I was given by my father. It’s still one of my all-time favorite records by one of my all-time favorite singers. R. Kelly has wanted to be Sam Cooke on every record he’s done, but Sam Cooke wrote way better songs.
As the say goes, it all starts with a song.
Having a singular intention for your mission as your writer is possibly the best thing that you can have. You’ve got to wake up. If you want to be a writer then you have to be a writer. If you decide to be an artist down the road it’s because your writing was good enough that your songs almost sang themselves.
What project are you currently involved with?
I’m writing songs for Laura Fygi (former member of member of the popular Dutch girl band, Centerfold). She is one of my favorite jazz crooners who was on Verve/Universal Netherlands for 20 years. I’m also going to be working with a couple of Canadian artists which I haven’t done in many years.
Funny to be so busy after so many years.
Who would think that I would have the biggest hit of my life at 50? “You’re A Superstar” the Love Inc. song that I wrote eclipsed and ended selling 7 million copies and it became an evergreen in England four years after it was a hit in Canada, South Africa, and Spain. I just looked at myself, and went, “You know what? It’s not luck. If you put in the work, someone is just going to give you a hug one day.” And they have been hugging me for about four years.
[Vince Degiorgio’s career escalated internationally in 2002 with re-interest in Canadian dance trio Love Inc.( DJ/remixer/producers Chris Sheppard and Brad Daymond, with Simone Denny on vocals) Top 40/dance crossover 1998 hit of his song “You’re A Superstar.” Four years later, with support of BMG UK's associated label NuLife, "Superstar" became a smash hit single in Ireland and England, spending 4 weeks at #7 on the UK Singles Chart in 2002.]
You went on to successfully collaborate with a slew of international songwriters.
Of course, but I had already had quite a few of international records. Tapps really traveled. They have sold millions of records in Mexico, and were a big hit in the Netherlands and other places. When I was doing Inner City (with Kevin Saunderson) I had a #2 record (on the Billboard Dance chart) with “Follow Your Heart” for this great techno act.
I just bounced around an awful lot but I always made friends along the way.
Peter Swartling (SRVP A&R) at BMG Sweden at the time said, “I’m doing a record with the Swedish Eurodance group Alcazar.” I played him “Baby Come Back” and they ended up cutting it (for the group’s debut “Casino” album). Peter played it for (Swedish producer) Alexander Bard, and then he reframed it (re-arranged it) a little bit. Suddenly, I was on a really important record. I also ended up A&Ring (the TV soundtrack) “Queer As Folk,” and I put them on the record as well..
Is it true that the smash Caro Emerald hit “Back It Up” was originally written to be pitched to an artist in Japan? And after Caro recorded it, the song was pitched to labels without any takers
Robin Veldman and Jan van Wieringen did a track, and (songwriter) David Schreurs and I worked on the top line. Wrote it about 1 A.M. in the morning. We had written it for a demo. Namie Amuro was looking for songs. She’s a huge pop artist in Japan. She had done some kind of retro EP, and I thought the song would be perfect for her. So I drank two beers, and I imitated Billy Holiday (on the demo). The next thing you know the first demo singer doesn’t show up. This other girl shows up and it’s Jan’s friend Caroline. We heard her, and Just looked at David and said, “Oh my God, this is something.”
["Back It Up” became the debut single for Dutch jazz singer Caro Emerald. It was released in July, 2009, and listed in the Dutch Top 40 for 12 weeks, peaking at #12. The follow-up single, “A Night Like This,” also reached #1 in The Netherlands.
It wasn’t obvious that "Back It Up” was a potential hit?
It sat on the shelf for two months. David kept mixing and remixing it. For two months, we were talking to each other, “What are we going to do with this?” He’d say, “We really have to work on the chorus.” We debated the chorus for two months. I argued that no one knows the second line of a hit at a wedding. He finally gave in. That’s the (original demo) version of the song. That's me doing background vocals on the chorus.
A year later, after Caro got the chance to perform "Back It Up" on TV station AT5 in Amsterdam, viewers called and e-mailed about her performance.
Yeah, she did the TV show, and the phones blew up. I’m a distance away from all this. I’m back in Canada.
In the Fall 2008, David flew to Toronto to write 7 songs for Caro’s album with you. A regime of eat, watch YouTube, write, eat, watch TV, and laugh a lot?
Mike Myers and “Austin Powers” have become folklore in our friendship. We never had a writer’s block. We were too busy laughing. This was really first time I heard my own voice. If you do three-way co-writes, and you do it with people who play instruments, and there three people are in the room, your original intention ends up taking a different route.
With David, he just looks at me, and if he feels it, he just goes with what I come up with. He doesn’t correct a lyric. He doesn’t say anything. We’ll nitpick if something is really bothering us. It was just hysterical the people I was imitating on that record. I wish Eartha Kitt was still I alive I could write an entire album for her in about 20 minutes. A couple of songs were written with her in mind.
[Caro Emerald’s debut album "Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor" was released in The Netherlands Jan, 2010, entering the Dutch chart at #1. It went on to chart throughout Europe. In 2012, Emerald won two prestigious German awards: a Goldene Kamera for Best Musik International, and an Echo Award for Best Newcomer International. In 2013, Emerald’s follow-up album, “The Shocking Miss Emerald,” reached #1 on the UK album chart.
A career surprise having your songs with Caro reach #1 in so many territories?
It humbled the hell out of me. I was wondering if it was at all possible after hanging around like I did for so many years, and having had successes for so many other people. I always knew that one day (mega-success might happen) because of ‘N Sync. But seeing them move to Jive (Jive Entertainment in 1999) really broke my heart. I lost working with them. For me, it wasn’t a monetary thing, but it changed the course of my career. Now I can look back and say that it was part of the journey.
I don’t know if I would have been as confident (with success) then. I think what we did with Caro was that we stuck to our beliefs as a team. A lot of what I learned at BMG got infused into that. Making sure that Caro could be a star first at home so she would always have a base to fall back. That was the BMG International philosophy.
Another triumph for you was "Lovin' You" by Kristine W released as the second single from her second RCA album “Stronger” in 2000. The single reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.
If you ever want drama, that’s Kristine. You know (the book and film) “The Devil Wears Prada?” If you ever did it with a 6-foot tall towering inferno disco diva, and you surrounded her with 50 A&R people--meaning real close connections of fans in the dance community--and then you have a really outside-the-box fire wagon type management team, then you get me sitting at the end of this going, “This is a firestorm. She’s not going to like everything I suggest, but I think that her fans will in the end.”
“Lovin’ You” was one of the last songs written for the record (“Stronger”). Johnny Jam or (aka) Johnny Mosegaard Pedersen, part of the production team Jam & Delgado (with Karsten Dahlgaard), and I wrote the lyrics and melody with Maria Christensen in my apartment. We held Kristine’s hand during the session. Kristine is a wild live performer. Sometimes it’s very hard to contain those kind of people in the studio.
How were you able to capture her performance in the studio?
(Laughing) I warned people, “If you don’t get the first two takes, I’m not going to pay you.” I told that to everybody. So everybody got it down. She ended up cutting the best vocal of her life (on the album) with (writer/producer) Jud Friedman on a song called “Stand In Love” But “Lovin’ You” became a big dance hit, a #1 for her, and for the writers and producers.
"Lovin' You" was covered by British girl group Atomic Kitten for their third studio album, “Ladies Night” in 2003. How did that come about?
Susan Henderson Tyler, who was working for Ric Wake at W&R Music, published Maria Christensen, and she took the song over to England. The next thing I know Atomic Kitten is cutting it. We ended up selling a million units on it.
Tell me about Cymba Music Publishing Company.
Our writers are Davor Vulama, AIleen de la Cruz, Ava Kay, Shawn Zhang, Young Feng, and Hakan Lundberg. Davor has been with me for 13 years. He was in a group called Starfly. I met Davor after we put an ad in the Georgia Straight (in Vancouver) looking for songwriters. Russell James, who is now the PD at The Bounce (Rogers Radio station 91.7) in Edmonton, opened the office for me in Vancouver. I moved there in 2003 from Los Angeles. I was there for four years and three months.
What was behind your move to Vancouver?
The trials and tribulations of trying to make it as a writer in L.A. and being a publisher with an independent Canadian company, everybody was looking at me like I should be doing A&R again. I had made a bunch of millionaires. I thought, “My luck is horrible here in L.A. It’s never going to get any better unless I refocus. So let’s go home.” So I moved to Vancouver. I moved from a 2,200 foot three-story apartment into a 317 square foot studio, and I was never happier. I left Vancouver in 2008, and returned home to Toronto.
With Cymba you wear your publisher’s hat.
I started Cymba in 2000 because BMG Canada’s mandate was very different than what I thought a music publisher’s mandate should be. You can’t potentially change the rules when you have Americans controlling your (Canadian) office. Basically, the reporting structure there was that it was American-based so they were America led.
But Vincent Degiorgio has been an international music junkie since he’s been 6-year-old old.
So what I did was I bought a around a world (airline) ticket in 1999 when I was still living in New York. I ended up going 13 times around the world. Doing the Star Alliance Round The World thing, 24,000 miles in one direction.
Before I did that I had started separating my writers from the C2 It Music Publishing company, and I called it Cymba. Cymba is an acronym for Crushing Your Music Business Apathy.
The reason that I called it that was because of anything you can do I can do better. My job is to try and find every possible opportunity for myself, or anyone I am associated with. I even ended up getting a couple of dozen Canadian songwriters that weren’t signed to me their first cuts internationally. I don’t like to just publish writers, I like to change their lives and to change their luck.
By 13, you apparently knew you wanted to be in the music business. You were that crazy about music?
I was. I saw being a DJ as one of the ways of moving ahead. Let’s face it, I was living in rocker land (in Brampton, Ontario), and it was killing me.
One of your first jobs at 15 was working at a Sam the Record Man store in Bramalea just outside TorontoI did. I worked for Larry Friendly. He owned the Sam the Record Man franchises in Bramalea, and Bayview Village. He used to call everyone on the staff "schmucksy." A great guy. He ended up losing the stores back to Roblan's (Roblan Distributors) . I worked at Sam’s for about 10 months. I was sent to work usually on Friday with a list of things that my father might like to have, which is a tradition that continues to today. I just bought him a Brook Benton double CD from the UK.
You then worked at Disco Sound in Toronto for about four years.
The first time I went in there was in 1978. I bought Patrick Juvet’s “Got a Feeling” album, which you couldn’t get anywhere else. I walked into that store the first time and I almost had a nervous breakdown. I could have spent $400 the first day. I was the kid who watched “Soul Train” and “Ebony Affair” and all of these black music shows (on TV). I opened up the door, and it was like, “Oh my God. They have got everything here.” The funny thing too is that as I stood there—no word of a lie—I also encountered the first two gay people in my life. You realize not only how far it was between Brampton and Toronto, but also how socially and culturally different the cities were.
Disco Sound had all of the imports other stores in town didn’t have.
They had listening stations in the black music stores--that’s what was they were called before they were re-merchandised--and at the disco music stores. They took a page out from the disco stores in Montreal like Downstairs, and Pierre Musique and so many others. It was amazing for me.
When you worked at Disco Sound dance music was starting to take off in Canada, especially in Montreal and Toronto.
There were a couple of stores that I went into including Melvina Records in Malton near the (Toronto) airport which used to get (disco) singles in. Before I went to work at Disco Sound I would occasionally go to Monica’s. My disco history sort of goes from orchestral pop of the ‘50s and ‘60s that my father listened to into soul of the ‘70s. then as it got more soulful and more rhythmic, and the splinter was going to happen toward the end of the ‘70s into the ‘80s with the electronic (music).
Disco was a natural extension to the music that I had always listened to. Because I worked at Disco Sound I knew all of the DJs.
Of course, many of the early disco artists, like Gloria Gaynor and KC and the Sunshine Band, came out of soul music of the ‘60s.
Sure, Gypsy Lane, the backing band for the Ritchie Family and all of those Henri Belolo and Jacques Morali productions, were killer. Not to mention producers like (Arthur) Baker, and (Norman) Harris. Norman Harris is like a God to me. Thom Bell is my musical hero.
[Gypsy Lane worked with Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo on Ritchie Family and Village People projects.]
One of the early dance clubs in Toronto was Koutoubia.
Koutoubia was the first disco in Toronto that I ever went to. It was at the Roehampton Hotel. When I went on the dance floor for the first time with this incredibly pretty blond girl, and I heard “From East To West” by Voyage, she says, “I’m Candy.” She was Candy Berthuiame who ended up being the lead singer of Tapps who I worked years later on.
You started at Stars as a backup DJ, and then worked at Le Tube?
Yeah I did. I did the apprenticeship. I wasn’t like today’s modern contemporary DJ who walks in with two hours under his belt and say, “I’m a star.” I started by playing Wednesday nights that were dead. It (Le Tube) was such a hot spot that people would automatically think that I was this great DJ when I was basically the schmo from Brampton who almost finished high school. I got to grade 12. I needed one credit to get my high school diploma.
Le Tube was the premiere dance club in Toronto.
Le Tube was owned by three Portuguese businessmen. I got to Le Tube because I got asked to DJ a birthday party. Apparently, I did such a great job that the next day two of my DJ friends there ended up getting fired, and I got a job. You can imagine the next day at Disco Sound. I’m going to work and two of my best friends show up. They knew it wasn’t me (who got them fired) so I kinda got off the hook a little bit.
At first I apprenticed there. I played a number of different nights on off-peak hours to learn the trade. Later, I would go in at 10 P.M. and I would play music for myself for an hour. At 11 PM when the doors opened, I knew exactly what I wanted to do until I got to leave, whether it would be 3 A.M. or 5 A.M. or 7 A.M. In those days, you couldn’t take a day off from a club. You’d get fired. DJs never took vacations in those days. Today’s 4-hour exclusive sets are laughable to me when I would play 7 hours a night.
[In late the ’70s there were plenty of places to dance in Toronto including Le Tube, Katrina’s, Stages, Peaches on Pears, Koutoubia, Heaven, and Sparkles at the CN Tower.]
There were some great DJs in Toronto in that period including Greg Howlett and Wally MacDonald.
People like Wally MacDonald, Greg Howlett, Gord McMillan and Don Bell were legendary DJs. Wally ended up being my alternate at Le Tube. Wally was one of the most legendary DJ/ remixers. He was an absolute magician with an editing block. When Gary Salter from Inter Global Music came to him and said, “Look we’ve got this record from Germany, what do you want to do with it?” Well, he did 94 edits on “La Bamba” by which turned out to be the Antonia Rodriguez hit. His edit is a masterpiece. It went to #2 on the Billboard dance chart. He did other great things for Plastic Bertrand and Amanda Lear.
[Wally MacDonald also DJed at such Toronto venues as Stages, Sugars, 18 East, The Albany, and Wonder Bar. He passed away from HIV-related complications in the 1990s.]
While the major labels in Canada then generally didn’t work closely with the disco and dance community, A&M Canada’s senior VP Doug Chappell often hired DJs to re-mix records for the dance community.
Doug knew that any level of acceptance within the disco community was a path to success with some artists. We felt like we were important on those days. One of the greatest days for revenge for me personally was having someone from CHUM (Toronto Top 40 station CHUM-AM) come to Disco Sound to buy a Village People record that they couldn’t buy anywhere else. Those bastards wouldn’t play anything with a beat. That is why Nevin Grant (PD) at CKOC (in Hamilton) will go down in my personal history as the greatest radio guy in the world. He played what was relevant rather than what was programmed.
In 1980, you briefly became a promoter for Denny O’Conor’s 120 Dance Promotions.
I was doing some independent dance promotion for 120 Dance Promotion based in San Francisco and New York. I used to trade records with these people. After that I did some independent promotion for Larry Macrae (National Promo and A&R head) at Quality Records who was working for the legendary John Driscoll.
Then you went to work for Unidisc Records in Montreal, which was a real major jump.
I repped the company in Southern Ontario. That was because (owner) George Cucuzzella had known me since 1975. I ran Unidisc from my apartment. The big cultural difference was that if the record was on Unidisc, (label manager) Nat Merenda always said that the boss had paid big money for it, and I had to break those records first. We had a bit of a difference, Larry. What happens in Montreal because of the support of radio is one thing but they (radio programmers) didn’t give a flying whahoozit about “Native Love” by Divine in Toronto. But I helped that record as well as “Living On Video” by Trans-X become national anthems.
When the A&R difference of what happens in Montreal versus what happens in Toronto reached an impasse in 1982, I basically told Nat and George that I was going to start my own record label. They gave me their distribution deal and I didn’t really like it. Then, Nat fired me.
The first release on Power Records was “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by Ambience. They were members of the Montreal fusion funk band Something Extra that recorded for Tony Green’s TGO Records label. It was a cover of the 1969 Steam #1 hit.
Why start a label?
Oh, I was 23-year-old I had a really big mouth and I thought I could do better than everybody else. It’s funny how quickly it humbles you because calls came through from Holland from companies wanting to license the Tapps record for all of Europe I broke down in tears and dropped the phone. It was kind of a validation. I had co-written the record (“My Forbidden Lover”). It was probably the first global hit I had. It still sells today.
You eventually lost Tapps.
After Power’s 15th release, which was “Runaway,” the third Tapps’ single, (Canadian distributor) Dominique Zgarka decided to start his own label called Boulevard. Basically, he stole my biggest act. At the point, we were doing single by single deals (with Tapps), and they ended up doing the “Turn It On” album for Boulevard.
So Boulevard wasn’t your label?
No. Not until 1986 when (Toronto entertainment lawyer) Ed Glinert decided that we should merge forces. Then I had both labels until 1989.
You also had the Chateau imprint.
For years, I had three labels of my own. What would house Power was Chateau, a second label. If there was no Power you should have a Blackout. So we had the Blackout label. It distributed all of the Jam Packed Records from (Miami) Florida like Trinere, Pretty Tony and Debbie Deb and Freestyle.
You had some great local talent on Power including Karen Silver, Kim Esty, and Eria Fachin. As well, there were releases by the Pet Shop Boys and Claudja Barry, which you licensed.
We made a ton of international deals. I got a lot of inspiration for that by being in the Unidisc office. George had all of these gold and platinum records from Musart in Mexico, and various international labels. George was a legendary DJ at Limelight, and started the Downstairs store, and he’s a great entrepreneur. He really knew his shit. I figured people that I admired or idolized or befriended or worked for, they went through their lousy records to get to their good ones. So I figured I would do it anyway.
Basically, I was I trying to go into the individual markets where music was being misrepresented or not presented at all. (Canadian) radio stations were playing American records that were potentially rhythmic. You mentioned the Pet Shop Boys. I licensed that from Unidisc because they didn’t care that “West End Girls,” the Bobby Orlando version, was the first big hit that they could have had in Eastern Canada. They didn’t care about it. Then I released Fonda Rae’s “Tuch Me (All Night Long)” which ended up being reframed (re-recorded) by Cathy Dennis, like (Canadian singer) Alyssa Reid had happen with “Alone Now” (A different version with Jump Smokers became a major hit in parts of Europe, peaking at #2 in the UK).
Cathy Dennis had a #2 (Billboard pop hit) record with it. I had sold 14,000 Fonda Rae 12-inch singles with no radio play. Then they (Canadian radio) played the Cathy Dennis record like ours didn’t exist.
People have to understand how modern rhythmic creators are these days. They (Canadian radio programmers) wouldn’t play anything of ours unless we had a machine gun in our hand.
What I was trying to do with Power Records was to try and represent disenfranchised communities. Gray matters that’s me. My family is from Malta. Everybody looks at my name and thinks I’m Italian. You have a pink triangle. The gay community was a huge backbone globally for our records. Either we would release records for them and all of the DJs and the gay clubs would break them first before or they would crossover. It was like (Toronto radio station) CFNY to clubs. Gay clubs to straight clubs to mobile.
At the same time, Canada was more receptive to international hits than America.
Canadians live in a very multicultural society. We weren’t dictated to growing up. I think when a lot of labels came into Canada, they were using our mentality that they had to get a record out in the United States. I think that’s when the business changed in Canada.
Canada’s openness to international hits was certainly true in the ‘70s when European recordings like “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention first gained traction in Canada prior to breaking in America.
Supertramp, and Crowded House had the same fate in Canada as well. I think what it was because our doors were opened in different ways. There was a real relationship with the global world because of the multicultural diasporas of Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. Anything was possible because we were a true melting pot.
Backstreet Boys broke out of Quebec.
Donna Summers’ “Love to Love You Baby” broke in Montreal during the Olympics there.
After disco crashed in 1979, dance music fragmented over the next decade. People were confused as to where club music was going. It led to the beginning of a new era, and new attitudes.
In 1989, you ceased the creative A&R operations of Power Records, launched Chapter 2 Productions, and you were hired as a dance music and marketing Consultant at BMG Music Canada in 1991.
I could finally look at a mirror and say, “This is the best thing that ever happened to me because I don’t have to spend my own money anymore.”
I had had my kick at the can as a producer with Eria Fachin, god rest her soul, with “Savin Myself,” which peaked at #54 in the Billboard Hot 100. We also had a really big hit with Holiday Rap by M C Miker “G” and DJ Sven.
However, with (Dominique Zgarka’s) Rhythms Distribution (later renamed Electric Distribution) handling Power, it was much more a distributor than a marketer. Even though they tried, I just figured that there was nothing more to do. I went to New York to work with Andrew (“Komix”) Komis for 6 months..
Meanwhile, (BMG Canada A&R head) David Bendeth was calling Andrew about remixing this act which eventually became Love & Sas. I went home to Toronto in March 1991. Then my friend Danielle Tremblay from CITY-TV helped me put a resume together. I was going to do something I was never going to do, which was work for the majors. I didn’t get them, and they didn’t get me. But time had passed and David Bendeth was there. I knew (national promotion head) Larry Macrae. I met Larry and (VP of marketing) Carol Wright. I was shaking like a leaf. Carol held my hand, and I went into a meeting with (BMG Canada President) Bob Jamieson. The next thing I was in the office making $100 a week. My first desk was a filing cabinet.
You had considerable clout at the company.
I had a singular responsibility for the first time in my life. I had this amazing team of people around me who thought that I was completely out of my mind. I was never a BMG employee. I was a consultant. Bertelsmann gave head counts to everybody in those days. So they (BMG Canada) couldn’t hire everybody that they wanted to (as an employee)
You stayed there for over a decade.
For 11 years. I was suddenly being called into marketing meetings. “We’ve got this record coming out by these two girls, Lovena (Fox) and Saskia (Garel), what should we do? I asked “What is the song called. It was “I don’t Need Yo Kiss.” “Okay, put it on red vinyl, get a pair of lips and put a circle around it and put a strike through it. That’s exactly what they did.” It was euphoria for me (working with Canadian R&B-funk and rap-influenced pop duo). For a decade, you weren’t allowed to be rhythmic in Canada. You weren’t allowed to be colored. Anything like that in Canada.
Being with a major international company, you now had a big canvas to work on.
It was a fantastic puddle jump from being a 6 year old kid getting shiny PolyGram Germany imports for my father to going to be an independent to suddenly bouncing over to a major company and people saying, “You can do anything that you want here. As long as your team, the seniors above you, see progress, they are going to let you run with this.”
That’s when I invented the Club Cutz (compilation) franchise and (BMG Canada marketing executive) Val Lapp came up with the name for Groove Station (compilation series), and I ran with that.
(At BMG) I had a chance to correct every mistake that I made as an independent. That really meant a lot to me. Any person in this business who doesn’t think that they have succeeded due to a potential number of second chances, they are insane. I had a chance to engage like minded people. They would give me things here and there, like remixing Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around.” When I started to connect with our German company, suddenly I realized that these were records for us in Canada, meaning Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton — the core cities that I would look at (for dance records).
BMG Canada broke records by Real McCoy, Haddaway, Snap for North America.
We ended up breaking every one of those records.
(Eurodance group) La Bouche was a massive hit in Canada beforehand. God bless Melanie (Thornton) what a tragedy that was (American singer Melanie Thornton, who fronted La Bouche, died in a plane crash near Bassersdorf, Switzerland in 2001).
There was the Captain Hollywood Project that came out on Imago. We had 7 #1 records on that album.
There was (British producer/songwriter) Herbie Crichlow who did the best live to track show I’d ever seen.
The big one was Snap. The “Rhythm is Dancer” lyric just makes no sense. When we got that record, and I put it on once in a club in Montreal, and I went “This is not just a hit it’s a revolution.” People were just not losing it, but within three months everybody was sounding like it, including “What Is Love” by Haddaway, which we also broke.
A lot of these records had to start in Canada (rather than in the U.S.). We were far smaller. We were far more multicultural.
You saw ‘N Sync in Budapest and signed them to RCA.
I really wanted to do something that I could make my mark with. Still with the dance pop legacy I had built, when I went to the States there were quite a few people that I worked with at RCA that didn’t think I knew anything. I was just one of Bob’s people from Canada.
Many Americans didn’t get Eurodance, Euro-NRG or Euro-House.
The problem is that there are a lot of people who think that rhythmic music and boy and girl bands are cyclical. It is only cyclical in the U.S. because they kill the genre. I was recently in L.A. I couldn’t listen to KISS for more than an hour. Dance music culture, for the most part, got ghettoized to stay in the gay community. Then you also had the dub culture. The Billboard dance chart in the ‘90s was such an unmitigated disaster. It had nothing to do with anything. We’re not talking about the ‘70s here. We are talking about the ‘90s, right?
Both Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync broke first in Europe. Arista’s Clive Davis released Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album in Europe, and then in Canada before its release in the U.S.
Europe was almost like a breeding ground in a lot of ways. When I went to Budapest to see ’N Sync, who was the third act on the bill, I swear it was like a night out of “Twin Peaks.” I remember calling Dave Novik (Sr. VP, International A&R, RCA Records) saying, “Dave we have to put this record out.” He said, “Let’s go for it.” That night I said “If they let me put this record out, I’m not only going to have a hit with it, we’re also going to do a Christmas record.”
The Backstreet Boys hadn’t done one (a Christmas album) at that point. I did the first Backstreet Club show in Montreal for the Quebec (BMG) branch at a club called Fuzzy in Laval. They were great but I really wanted to see what I could do with my boys.
[In 1998, ‘N Sync released the holiday album, “Home for Christmas” The album peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and sold over 4 million copies worldwide.]
You signed as a writer with BMG Music Publishing in 1993.
Bob Jamieson gave me a publishing deal. I had sold about 8 million records as a writer by that point. The problem was that I didn’t play guitar, and I wasn’t in a band. The fantastic thing about Terry O’Brien was that he liked playing the fringes a little bit. I had “Tell Me You Love Me” with Carol Medina on one of the dance mix compilations. It’s something that I had hacked out chords for because, as I told you, I don’t play an instrument. It ended up selling a million compilation albums for Quality Music.
Your family is from Malta, but you weren’t born there?
No. I recently was in Malta, and I saw the apartment my parents were living in before they came to Canada. They arrived on January, 30th, 1959. When my parents came here, I was a surprise.
What work did your father do?
My father worked on the docks in Malta. He was a machinist. When he came to Canada, he worked at Brampton Brick and then Canadian Monorail until he went to work for Chubb, where he finished his career.
As a kid, you went to record stores with your father?
We started going when I was 6. We’d go to a Sayvette (discount) department store. I always went with my father when he went record shopping. He would go to (local) radio stations. My dad still has all of the black and whites (promo copies) of Nat “King” Cole, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Diana Washington and all of the people. He has them all in frames.
For me, music was a connection. At the time, I had three sisters. So it was a way for me to be a bit different. I was as statistical as my father was. I started reading Billboard when I was 8. My dad was a subscriber. When he bought an album he would get the Billboard magazines and he would cut the color print of the cover out of Billboard, put in on a piece of paper, and type it out in these small binders so he knew what he had. I can remember going to G &S Television in Georgetown where my father bought one of the first Phillips cassette recorders ever made. So his influence was enormous. I fell in love with imports because I found him a copy of “Instrumentals Forever” (1966) by James Last.
Your father had a substantial record collection?
Yeah, and it grew into the thousands. The funny thing was I was not allowed to touch them. My father has the most pristine record collection you have ever seen. The funny thing is now I am buying all of the things that he didn’t. Like, my dad never liked Nancy Wilson. Nancy Wilson is probably my all-time favorite singer.
Did you have your own record collection growing up?
I was starting. Until 1970, my dad didn’t let me buy my own records. He was always buying things for me. It was almost like he wanted to protect my taste.
Did you collect 45s?
I did. The first 45 I ever bought was “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain in 1970. God bless Leslie West, and Felix Pappalardi.
One of your long-terms goals is to record a big orchestral record.
Oh yeah. I would like to find (American jazz trombonist, keyboardist and arranger) Don Sebesky, and make a huge pop record. I want to work with someone who will share with me the reasons why they are so good at what they do. I want to work with him or someone from the golden era of arrangers. People like Glenn Osser and Claus Ogerman and others. I have always been amazed at what such talented people hear in their heads. People like Tony Hatch, Nelson Riddle and Billy May just amaze me.
[Don Sebesky has worked with Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Michael Bublé, Liza Minnelli, Seal, Prince, and others.]
-Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
One of Vince’s international hits…
Can you think of any process, artistic or otherwise, that hasn’t yet been digitized? Desktop publishing, graphics, website creation, photo editing. Some of these you can even do online – for free! The temptation can be overwhelming for some people. Especially when you consider the quality you can get. It’s almost as if you were missing out for not coming onboard the DIY route.
Digital democratization has brought high level professional tools into more hands than ever before. The Mastering process is no exception. But this blog is not about analog vs. digital or hardware vs. software. And it’s not about whether you may or may not have the qualifications to use those tools. This is about why you should hire a mastering engineer to master your music instead of going the DIY route. And I’ll spare you the quips about it like ‘doing your own dentistry’, or ‘being your own lawyer’!
Ever play a mix for friends or colleagues you did yourself and thought was ‘finished’, then suddenly hear glaringly obvious mistakes?! Were you suddenly providing a running commentary of excuses? It’s similar to writing an article. You double and triple-check, only to have someone point out a spelling mistake, or ask what this sentence means? Why do we miss those things one time that suddenly seem blatantly obvious later?
The reason is because we get so close focusing on a project at different levels in different degrees that we start to lose sight of that overall important big picture. Hiring a mastering engineer gives you a professional, experienced, objective point of view. Think of it like having a proofreader for your work.
A mastering engineer is your insurance that you only put your best foot forward, and are spared embarrassing mistakes. You’re not paying the mastering engineer for their tools or software collection, either. You’re paying for their experience in using those tools.
Mastering engineers give an experienced listen on a system they know intimately in terms of translating to other systems. They balance your artistic desires and preferences with what’s commercially acceptable for your particular work in the marketplace. They will listen, consult, advise, revise if necessary, anything that needs to be done to ensure you can share your music confidently with the world! They do so passionately – but objectively.
No tools – software or hardware – can give you that kind of involved human input. Hiring a mastering engineer gives you a professional, experienced, objective viewpoint for your music. It can protect you from awkward, embarrassing mistakes. That is why it is a necessary and worthwhile investment.
-Karl Machat is an S.A.C. member and a mastering engineer at Mister’s Mastering House. He has been putting the final touches on artist music projects for more than ten years.
So recently, I had the amazing experience of launching my new album The Covers & The Sheets. I remember the warm June evening (or as i like to refer to it, a Diana Ross hair day). People were arriving at the venue, grabbing seats and drinks, while I, backstage, tapped my feet and went over my setlist to keep calm. I could see the flicker of candles that were scattered around the edges of the room. I was floating between nerves and excitement. Could this all be real? Could the room full of people be here for me? I closed my eyes, took a moment to collect my thoughts and realized that I shouldn’t even be here.
You see, one morning when I was nine, I woke up having trouble to breathe. Every time I took in air, I would squeak like one of those really annoying dog toys. Scared, and very confused, my mom rushed me to the emergency. You know, there are some moments when being mysterious is a good thing; but not so much at the doctor’s office. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and when, after a couple hours I didn’t collapse, they shrugged their shoulders and sent me home. Well, the squeaking kept happening and as school playgrounds would have it, it was not long before I earned the nickname “Mickey Mouse”.
So eventually, after deciding to look down my throat with a teeny camera, the doc did figure out what was going on. To his surprise, my vocal cords were working backwards - I didn’t even know that was possible! Basically, instead of my vocal cords opening when I inhaled, they would closed. The doctor said that with therapy, I could get the squeaking under control – thanks doc – but with every diagnosis, comes bad news. And for me, it meant that I would never be able to sing. My heart sank.
Zoom forward four years, and I’m strumming around on the guitar my parents got for me; I had decided to teach myself how to play as a way to express myself musically, using a different kind of cord—guitar chords. Secretly, when I was home alone, I began to sing and write songs, even though I wasn’t supposed to. Then, one summer, my mom caught me! I don’t know which of us was more surprised. Soon after, I decided to find a way to record one of my first original songs called “Breathe”. After a six hour recording session at a studio that I found on Craigslist, all of my friends begged for a copy. I found e-mailing an mp3 file to each person extremely tedious, I probably have mild A.D.D, so I decided to just post it on YouTube instead. That my friends, was the best decision I’ve ever made.
“Breathe” rallied in over 40,000 views in the first few weeks, and soon hit 100,000. I couldn’t believe it! When CBC National News and Canada AM took notice, I was honored. So, I continued to write and record songs. At sixteen, I completed my first album, I Don’t Know Me. Then, I signed a contract with Montreal’s Justin Time Records. The label helped distribute the album and I began performing for audiences in places I had only heard about in vague mystical reference. France, California, and cities all across Canada. It all happened so fast.
Now, at nineteen, I have launched my second album, The Covers & The Sheets, as an independent release. You know, looking at where I am at today, I can’t help but smile when I think to those years of therapy and squeaking, and to the doctor who was certain that something like this could never happen.
But truly, I’m very grateful for learning this lesson early on. Never, ever give up on your dream. Now, I only want to spread that message and hope to inspire others, too, through my music.
Oh and to that doctor, I say HA.
One of an occasional blog series on home recording.
There are very few things you need to make a decent recording of a song at home. Here they are.
A COMPUTER… OR A TABLET DEVICE
Of course, a computer is the heart of the modern set-up. It’s so powerful.
Obviously, a computer is the most important thing to get, because it will run your DAW software, and you need a way to get sound in and out of it. To handle all these signals coming and going from the computer, you need an audio interface (or an installed PCI-e soundcard, such as an Avid ProTools card).
If you can afford a computer, a PC will do very nicely for the lowest cost, whereas Apple are perhaps friendlier in use, but will cost you more money – quite a bit more, usually.
Whichever you choose, you want the fastest processors you can find, and plenty of RAM installed.
The RAM strongly impacts how well your software performs, so you want at least 4GB on older systems and the more the merrier on the most modern 64-bit systems.
If you cannot afford a desktop or laptop, you can get an iPad to work quite well for you, and refurbished first-generation iPads can cope with simple recording sessions. There are multitrack recording apps (scaled-down DAW programs) for iPad so it’s quite possible to make a decent recording of several instruments and a vocal on them. Garageband software comes free for this purpose.
When you upgrade later on to a computer-based DAW, the iPad can be repurposed as a remote control surface for the computer’s DAW software, for example allowing remote control of the main DAW’s transport controls (STOP/PLAY etc) by a drummer from behind drums, or letting a singer tweak the amount of reverb in their headphones by using the iPad at the microphone stand. I use an iPad for this all the time. Mine controls ProTools wirelessly from another room. They can also double as useful lyric tele-prompters.
AN AUDIO INTERFACE AND/OR SOUNDCARD
Get sounds into your computer by plugging your instruments and microphones into it via an audio interface. This may be in the form of a soundcard already installed in the computer, or it may be standalone. Yours will feature MIC, LINE and HIGH-Z inputs. The MIC is for microphones, the HIGH-Z is for guitar signals and the like, and the LINE level is for signals that have already been through a preamp or are otherwise boosted.
High-Z is a way of describing an instrument signal, and just means “high impedance” – which is the type of signal most instruments that use pickups will supply to you at their output(s). This interface input is specifically for this type of signal, and may be called Instr. Input, Instrument Input, DI Input, or High-Z input. These are all exactly the same thing, going by different names.
Here’s something critical to quality. The interface exists to convert the audio from analog to digital format. The quality of the converters in the interface determine how good it sounds. Bad conversion gives bad results, as you’d expect.
The more you pay for an interface, the better the converters will be, and the better your results from a technical point of view.
The conversion is done at both input and output. On the way in it’s an A/D conversion, and, even if it leaves the interface or sound-card as a digital signal, the sound gets converted to analog again in order to hear it through speakers.
The converters may be at various points in the chain here on the output side, but typically in a home studio you find D/A conversion done at the interface too. If you take analog signals out of the back of your interface and connect them to an amp and speakers, you have already done the D/A conversion at the interface by using the analog outputs. If you use the digital output of the interface, you will convert elsewhere, most likely in the device you connected to the digital output.
The LINE level is the loudest incoming signal, and the HIGH-Z is the quietest. The idea is that all the signals are brought up to the loudest level, LINE level, when they get mixed in the mixer, and then they stay that way.
Signals you hear played over your speakers are fed to your stereo amp and speakers (from the DAW) at LINE level, which is what the powered speaker or standalone amp expects to receive.
A MICROPHONE (IDEALLY, TWO)
If you have a USB microphone, you can simply plug it into the USB port of your tablet or computer. It will then be available to the software.
If you have a traditional microphone, it will have a MIC level output that you connect to the MIC iN socket on the interface or soundcard. It may be a mono 1/4″ jack input or it may be a mono XLR-type input. XLR is best and most common.
You will ideally get two microphones. You will need a small-diaphragm condenser mic, and a large-diaphragm condenser mic.
The large one is for vocals, and the small one is for acoustic instrument recordings. If you can only get one, I think the vocal mic is the more important one as it can also record acoustic instruments very well.
A small-diaphragm condenser is often called a “pencil” mic because of it’s size and shape. You can get both small and large condenser microphones at music stores or online, in all sorts of price ranges.
Small condensers also sound reasonable when you are off-axis to the mic capsule (making sounds NOT directed straight at the capsule), whereas large mics are more sensitive to directionality and start sounding a bit hollow or “roomy” as the source gets further off-axis to the capsule (the input end of a microphone you would expect to sing into).
This is one reason why small mics often work better than large mics in front of an acoustic guitar - the player moves around relative to the mic positioning, and sounds a bit hollow at times on a large mic because of it, but the small mic can cope better with the player’s motion around the mic, delivering a more even sound.
You can also use both mics at once to capture the sound of something close up and far away at the same time, and then you can blend the signals together in your mixer to taste. For instance, you might put the small mic in front of an electric guitar amp at about two inches away from a speaker cone, while putting the big mic six feet away. maybe up in the air six feet or so, facing towards the amp but gathering mostly room reflections due to distance to the source sound. This lets you capture some of the room sound as well as the close-up amp sound and gives many varied tonal colours to pick from by just changing the relative levels of the two sounds. This method allows excellent tonal options in the mix for guitar recordings, without requiring an EQ (equalizer).
In a more sophisticated set-up, you would plug the mics into a box called a pre-amp. This will amplify the MIC level signal up to LINE level, which an amp expects at it’s input. This is why it’s called a PRE-amplifier. It goes before an amp, boosting levels as needed to match the required input levels. People rave about certain preamps and dislike others.
You really don’t need to waste money on fancy preamps unless you are getting serious about recording subtleties. The preamps in any interface will do fine. These days the quality is very impressive in even the cheapest boxes.
There are countless varieties of preamp, but when you plug a mic into your interface, you’re using it’s internal preamp circuit to boost the signal to LINE level for sending to the DAW or your powered speakers. You won’t need to buy a preamp (the interface can do it) but probably you will want to add one at some point for more variety. Every mic signal requires a preamp, so the number of preamps you have available will affect how many mics you can record at the same time.
Standalone mixer input channels that can be set to MIC all feature preamps too, for obvious reasons. Almost all signals leaving such a mixer are at LINE level.
Vacuum tubes (or valves, if you’re European) are very popular in preamp designs, because they colour the sound in a flattering way, but also add noise. Solid-state preamps are cleaner, but less flattering and they sound colder.
Always pick XLR cables if there is a choice, as XLR is typically a balanced signal and the 1/4″ jack may well not be. If the jack is balanced, it will have two black rings around the tip of the jack. If it has one, it is unbalanced.
Balanced is quieter, with better rejection of hum or spurious radio interference. That makes for cleaner recordings.
PEN AND PAPER
Take notes! It really helps. If anyone else is involved, it will help them. It may be old-school, but it works.
If you return to a project later, a set of notes kept around will be a valuable aide-memoire. I open a paper file in my filing cabinet for each new project. It may even have legal benefits in a copyright dispute to have written records on file.
Use the comments field in your individual tracks onscreen (check your DAW for note-taking and commenting possibilities) because you won’t remember later what you are currently well aware of as you record your song, and by note-taking you can be reminded at any time.
That’s it for today! Tomorrow’s blogpost is called “Tools of the Trade: some cool things to consider adding”.
See you then and happy recording!
ADDENDUM: I assume here you already have an amp and speakers to listen through, or a powered speaker pair. I also assume you have a pair of headphones. For vocal recording, make sure your headphones are the closed type, so that the sound doesn’t spill from them into your microphone while you sing wearing them.