Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Anatomy of a Song – Writing “Sabi Sabi”

Over the past few months I’ve been writing lots of songs. This isn’t really uncommon, as music is (and will always be) my first love, and writing is just part of the territory.

And with each song I’ve written over the years, while the format that the ideas are captured on may have changed (ie, back in the 90s, I used to carry around a little mini-cassette recorder, followed by a ‘micro cassette recorder’ for melody/lyric ideas; prior to that, it was just a pad and paper) the overall way that the tunes come together hasn’t changed at all. In fact, all of my ‘best’ ones (the ones that finally make it to the proper recording stage) have all been composed almost exactly the same way. This typically involves either ‘dreaming up’ the entire melody or lyric (just as McCartney did with ‘Scrambled Eggs’ which became ‘Yesterday’) or simply coming to me whilst doing something else.

SO…I thought it might be cool to share the work-in-progress recordings of my latest track entitled, Sabi Sabi. In true fashion, the tune came to me while sleeping, en route to New York from South Africa. Unlike Pirate Teeth (where I actually began singing the lyric on the plane into my iPhone so I wouldn’t forget it) this time I had just arrived at my hotel, opened my ‘voice recorder’ app, and let loose. Again, formerly micro-cassette, now iPhone; it’s what 17 years later in technology will do for you.

Now, before I begin detailing the process, I must say that the song was without a doubt inspired by one of my long-time favorite artists from Africa, Nigeria specifically…Fela Kuti. My first exposure to Fela came in 1988, when a friend of mine and I stumbled upon a recording by Ginger Baker (of Cream fame) where the vocals and additional instruments (minus drums, played by Ginger) were all performed by Fela and his group, the Africa ’70. The album was called Stratavarious (1972), and it’s still in my collection today (and remains a favourite). Following this initial taste of the magic and power of the original ‘Afro-beat’ creator, I went on a quest to find (and purchase) every Fela album I could find…and he made many. (note: if you search the blog for some of my ‘FAME’ posts, an old record store in Amsterdam, you’ll see pictures of where I purchased remastered Fela CDs over the years).

Here’s another classic from 1971, purchased shortly after I found Stratavarious

In any case, Fela’s music continues to be in an almost daily rotation for me, and he truly inspired this song (and many others I’ve written).

Here’s the very first ‘idea’ of the song, recorded 26 June 2012:

Sabi Sabi 01-The Idea

As is often the case, what follows the original idea (which in this case was more rhythmic, with a minimal amount of words and melody) is a series of ‘pieces’ of the tune. Days later, I was envisioning a ‘bridge’ (also known as the ‘Middle Eight’) and without having any words at all (save for ‘Africa’) I thought of three separate harmonies that I wanted to sing. Here are those harmonies, recorded while grilling outside in 43c heat:

Sabi Sabi 02 – The Harmony

As I continued to hear the harmony in my head, the words (once again) came to me while sleeping. This time, I basically had the whole middle-eight written (note: it’s called the middle eight because it’s effectively an 8-bar phrase, which in this case, is repeated twice…and it naturally falls in ‘the middle’ of the song). I scribbled it on some note paper and began, acapella, singing into my echoey hallway:

Sabi Sabi 03 – The Middle 8

Immediately following that, and still without a defined ‘key’ for the song, I sat down at the piano and literally worked out what would be the accompaniment for the lyric I had just sung. Note that I took the key I sang it (which happened to be Eb) and this became the key of the tune. With piano and vocal:

Sabi Sabi 04 – The Middle 8 with Music

Over the next few weeks, I continually worked on the lyric for the verses, but I needed to ‘feel’ the groove to really get inspired. I was making my way up to San Francisco (to record some videos for AdobeTV) and had a chance to visit my friend and fellow collaborator Fred Fung at his studio. Fred is an accomplished percussionist, drummer, dulcimer player and literally has just about every type of drum you could think of. He also had a bass.

Having just recorded the middle eight at home and essentially establish the key, Fred was able to tune all of his drums (basically in fifths, creating a kind of ‘sol do’ resolution) so that all the percussion would resonate in the same key. We mic’ed up, plugged in, and without separation I began to sing to him what the groove should be. He laid down some amazing percussion parts while I played live bass and sang (again, largely mumbling words, as I still didn’t have them completed yet)

Here’s a shot taken last year, better look at the drums:
Percussion variations
We would eventually overdub a few different parts on several different drums (against my bass/vocal track) and all of Fred’s percussion was kept. In the end, I wound up replacing the original bass part (with my Rickenbacker Bass) and re-sang the vocals, keeping a few ‘snippets’ here and there…but they were there as a guide until the end of mixing. Here’s the original first take where you hear me telling Fred how the groove should feel:

Sabi Sabi 05 – Tracking Session

And here’s the ‘final groove’ with replaced bass part, an added shaker (coffee can with dried pinto beans and rice) and the addition of Dunbek and Djembe:

Sabi Sabi 06 – The Final Groove

Following the groove assembly, I spent two days over a weekend (prior to leaving for IBC in Amsterdam) recording all of the additional parts which included Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes Suitcase ’73 (Fela often used electric piano and electric organ, so it seemed fitting for this piece), several lead vocal tracks and about ten backing vocals. Here’s what the final middle-eight sounds like with new leads and mixed BGVs:

Sabi Sabi 07 – Final Middle Eight, Lead & Background Vocals

Something else you might find interesting about the rhythm track is that it DOESN’T contain any ‘western’ Drum Kit. None. All of the percussion instruments are African/Indian hand drums (played either by hand, with mallets, and in one case an actual pedal)…but no hi-hats, no cymbals, no toms…all percussion.

The journey of creating this track (as a tribute to one of my favourite places on Earth) was truly a memorable one. The single (with some recently created artwork) is NOW AVAILABLE on iTunes, Amazon, and everywhere else.

Lastly, here’s a look at the final assembled session in Adobe Audition CS6

It’s nearly impossible to see at 500 pixels wide, so here’s a larger version from Flickr.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this inside-look at my creative songwriting (and recording) process. I’m actually thinking about making the master tracks available for a remix, possibly hosting a remix contest. The winner would have their remix released under my label (BoodahJooMusic) and it would be featured in my upcoming music show, Just Play Music. But until then…

Blog on.

Adobe Webinar with the creators of “A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman”

If you’re a fan of Monty Python, you DO NOT want to miss this exciting, informative webinar with the creators of the upcoming film, A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.

I had the esteemed pleasure to meet Justin Weyers, the animation producer of this project, during IBC in Amsterdam earlier this month. Having seen his live presentation (filled with lots of great insights into how the project came about, funny stories about ‘the gang’, along with some really dramatic footage & comps of the animations themselves) I was again reminded why I fell in love with The Pythons (and specifically, Graham Chapman) nearly 30 years ago. The content is brilliant, the main subject a true comic genius, and it’s an all-Adobe workflow. What more could you ask for?

Please join Justin and the creative team on September 27 at 10am PST to see how this phenomenal upcoming feature film used Adobe tools to bring the animated Graham Chapman memoir to life. Register Here to hold your spot!

Want a little preview? Check out this video featuring Justin and the team:

You can also follow the team on twiiter (@Chapman3D) & visit their site for even more info.

Blog on.

The Magical Sabi Sabi – An Adventure with Nikon DSLRs

This year has truly been one of inspiration. Over the past 9 months or so, I’ve circled the globe several times, and despite the inevitable (though surprisingly infrequent) moments of exhaustion, this period has been met with a plethora of indelible experiences and an usually high amount of original musical and video content creation…not always an easy task when one is sans-instruments, with minimal amounts of kit and typicaly at 36,000 feet.

At the close of our CS6 Launch Tour, I was fortunate to have a little time off to attend and photograph an African safari at Sabi Sabi in South Africa. As part of my recent move to Nikon cameras, I captured the entire trip on video, sourced from the Nikon D800 and D4 DSLRs. With a combination of 36 megapixel stills (from the D800) and incredible low-light performance (from both the D4 and D800) along with a (borrowed) set of amazing lenses, I collected some incredible video of the infamous ‘Big Five’ (for the uninitiated, the big five refers to the lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard and elephant) as well as a host of other native inhabitants of these mystical lands.

Sabi Sabi Land of Beauty – African Safari with Nikon D800 and D4 from Jason Levine on Vimeo.

As Vimeo doesn’t always play well in different regions of the world, here’s a YOU TUBE link to the same video.

What you see above is a very brief edit from that collection of video, captured over 2 days (nearly 70GB of 1080p video, I might add). Armed only with the cameras, lenses and a Zacuto Z-finder, I experienced the sheer joy and terror of filming live animals in a completely open jeep (something I’ve NEVER done before…I’m more of a landscape/documentary-style photographer/videographer, ie, things that don’t move and are typically studio lit!). Manual focus was the name of the game, and admittedly, pulling said focus was at times challenging, especially in the dark. A longer edit is forthcoming, but as you can see even in these brief clips above, the capabilities of these new DSLRs are really quite impressive. Any needed stabilization was taken care of via Premiere Pro CS6 and the Warp Stabilizer, and all the colour grading was performed in Premiere Pro and several shots were finished in SpeedGrade.

What was even more impressive were the stills I was able to extract from the 1080p source material. Despite the fact that there’s all kinds of downsizing/downsampling going on inside the camera, the stills (which you’ll see below) really impressed me. These were exported (often, post-grade) directly from Premiere and only minimal processing (if any) was done in Lightroom 4. The one leopard night shot, however, was a proper D4 raw image, captured at ISO4000.
Baby Elephant Clearing Out The Trunk
Another Sabi Sunrise
Mother and Child
Rhino and the Sun
Night Leopard
Sabi Sunrise

You can check out my Flickr stream for some additional images from the shoot.

Lastly, as video and audio tend to go hand-in-hand for me, what followed soon after the trip (actually, on the flight back to the US) was the creation of a new song in honour of Sabi Sabi, but really, a song for South Africa. Every time I’ve gone there, I feel like I’m fundamentally changed. People greet each other, randomly; there’s a sense of life, joy and wonder—and an appreciation of all things that you just don’t see everywhere. It’s truly one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited, and this was just a little ‘love note’ for a place I’d happily call home…

CLICK HERE to checkout my latest iTunes single, Sabi Sabi.

Stay tuned for the next blog post as I take you through the journey of creating the track. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while (and it actually plays directly into my still-in-development children’s music show, Just Play Music)

Blog on.