Keeping Score: The Rapidly Expanding Video Game Music Industry

GRAMMY.COM

Game Music Video

October 16, 2013

 

Keeping Score: The Rapidly Expanding Video Game Music Industry

 

Nick Krewen

 

Game on.

With 2013’s fourth-quarter rollout of XBOX One and Playstation 4, the release of over 300 titles for a variety of platforms, including consoles, mobile and online play, and the record-setting pace of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V breaking the $1 billion sales barrier in just 72 hours, the current $66 billion global video-game industry shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon.

In fact, such trusted sources as DFC Intelligence and Forbes are forecasting video-game markets to substantially increase to $78 billion and $82 billion by 2017, leaving one to argue that music’s role in contributing to the bottom line of this visual medium is extremely vital, whether it’s been through soundtracks that have been assembled via song placements for titles like EA Sports’ perennially popular Madden or FIFA franchises, or scores delivered by respected composers like Martin O’Donnell for Bungie’s Halo and Russell Brower for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Diablo.

Jordan Mechner

“Music is a lot of things to gaming,” explains Jordan Mechner, the legendary game designer responsible for creating Karateka – which was recently modernized — and the successful Prince Of Persia video game franchise.

It’s absolutely critical, and often unjustly overlooked in favor of graphics, because people tend to talk about graphics first, sound second, but they’re both equal partners and critical parts of the players’ experience.”

Mechner says there are several hallmarks of good game music.

“As a player, the music is often the key part of the atmosphere,” he notes. “It can set a mood, and if it’s well done, eventually becomes inseparable from our memories of the game.

“From a game design point of view, music can also be a cue to the player, warning them that something’s about to happen, or subtly clue them as to whether they’re on the right or wrong track.

“And of course, music in games does all the things that music does in film: it reinforces the action; creates a feeling of tension and tells the story as well. Game music can have a kind of light motif approach where music represents particular characters and themes, so the story is actually being told through music.”

With USA Today reporting a 178 percent growth spurt in the composer and music director professions over the past decade, and the U.S. Bureau Of Labor and Statistics projecting a minimum of “32,000 new music or composer job openings due to growth and replacement needs will need to be filled over the next decade,” opportunities for video game music scorers are looking so rosy that even Sir Paul McCartney is trying his hand at scoring some of Bungie’s Destiny.

However, breaking into this lucrative field is easier said than done, and usually requires a mix of luck and fortuitous timing to accompany a composer’s dazzling skill set.

“I went to my five-year college reunion and ran into my old roommate,” recalls Christopher Tin, who won the first video-game related GRAMMY Award in 2010 for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for “Baba Yetu,” a song he composed for the 2k Games and Aspyr partnership Civilization IV.

“He told me he had become a very prominent video game designer and asked me if I wanted to work on the game he was developing, which turned out to be Civilization IV. That’s the game I wrote ‘Baba Yetu’ for.”

Christopher Tin with someone not in the video game scoring industry

 

For Austin Wintory, who received a precedent-setting Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media nomination last year for Thatgamecompany’s Journey, it was meeting and working with game designer Jenova Chen at the University Of Southern California.

Jenova Chen

“We were doing student games much likes student filmmakers, and one of those – flOw — ended up being one that exploded and set all the wheels in motion. Sony was just getting ready to launch Playstation 3 and were looking for ways to be different from Microsoft, their chief competitor, and asked us to remake flOw as a Playstation 3 game.”

Russell Brower, senior audio director at Blizzard who presides over a department of 42 employees, including three staff composers, says he just keeps his ears open.

“There was a composer (Edo Guidotti) on (World Of Warcraft’s) Mists Of Pandaria whose work I heard in an IMAX film while I was on vacation,” he remembers.  “The film was great, but I walked out of there going, ‘Who did this music?’ I found out and two years later, he was working on Mists Of Pandaria with us. That’s the best way.”

Russell Brower

Brower, a three-time Emmy Award winning sound designer who also keeps his hand in scoring, says he has a particular goal in mind when recruiting musical freelancers.

“It’s a very competitive market but what it really comes down to, is, can you tell a story with music?”

Prince of Persia’s Mechner says he starts his process by making a project wish list.

“We look at films and games we’ve admired, as a lot of composers now work in film, TV and game,” he explains. “We look at the demands of the project and try to find someone not only whose sensibility and style are privy to the project, but who also has the experience that’s needed for what we’re trying to do.

“For some projects, a composer whose experience is predominantly in film and linear media might be fine. For another project, we might need a composer like Christopher who has a deeper understanding of how music works in games and be able to create music that can be taken apart and recombined on the fly according to algorithms, something that traditional composers don’t have to deal with if they’re composing a single piece.”

Once the gig is secured, the role and scope of the music is determined by the project. If it’s a video game where the music is crucial as a storyline catalyst, usually the composer is brought in early, unlike film, where the music is often started and completed after the film has been locked.

“Scoring a film, you’re obviously working with a director, producer and the creative talent involved and you’re able to see the film when you’re scoring it,” notes Tin, who composes mainly from his home studio. “At times, when you’re working on a game, you don’t have much more than an Excel spreadsheet to tell you what you need to write. Basically, it’s almost like you’re relying on the audio lead and the in-house people to be your eyes and tell you what you need to do.

“When I score a game with an interactive score, I’m not the person plugging it into the audio engine and programming it. So I rely very heavily on the audio lead, usually from a staff member of the game developer. They sort of take my hand and walk me through what it is they need for the game and how it needs to work. In a lot of cases, I’ve basically put my trust in them, and I execute, musically, their technical needs.”

Another chief difference between film and game is the time factor, as video games often have more complex scoring demands, seeming as though they offer an infinite soundtrack.

“The solution that we’ve employed for decades is that we take a piece of music and make it loop eternally,” says Wintory, who took three years to write the music for Journey. “You can play Tetris for hours, and there’s 10 minutes of music that you hear tens of thousands of times. That’s a very clunky system, but it was a necessary step in the development of interactive audio.

“To be honest, I don’t know how much music I wrote for Journey. I’ll write a piece of music that could last 45 seconds, but it could also last three minutes depending on how it unfolds, because it’s not linear, traditional music. It’s written in a non-linear way, which is difficult for your brain to wrap around.”

Tin agrees.

“Everything that you write has to be modular, and it’s so piecemeal. It’s akin to actors acting in front of a green screen. That’s personally where the big challenge is for me. It’s like trying to paint a painting on jigsaw puzzle tiles, assembling the tiles later on and then hoping that what you’ve painted bears some resemblance to what you had in your mind when you started it.”

It’s also a medium where deadlines are tight, but loose enough for Russell Brower’s in-house Blizzard team to provide opportune feedback.

“I look at schedules and deadlines as a very constructive way to say, ‘hey, let’s set down our pencils for a few minutes, and look at each other’s work, or listen to each other’s work, and share it around the company,’” Brower explains. “We all spend some time every day, playing the games. And we’ll get comments about the music from character artists on the Diablo team, for a random instance. One of our maxims here at Blizzard is, “Every voice matters,” and we do listen.”

As far as the future of video game scoring is concerned, projects like Journey and Karateka that place music in the driver’s seat are opening a whole new world of interactivity.

“The music I composed for the recent update of Karateka was actually rhythm-based combat mechanic, so you had to listen to the music for cues on how to fight your enemy, and musically, it would give you hints and you’d have to tap in rhythms,” says Christopher Tin.

“I think that level of interactivity is not found on that wide of a scale, but I think we’re heading that way. There should be exciting developments in the way that music and sound can be implemented as audio engines get more sophisticated.”

 

GRAMMY.COM

Sidebar:  Behind The Scenes of The Banner Saga

Austin Wintory’s Play-By-Play Rundown

 

 Released February 25, 2013, The Banner Saga is a Viking-themed tactical video game developed by Stoic after raising Kickstarter funding of almost $725,000. GRAMMY-nominated composer Austin Wintory spent 18 months on the project and breaks down his involvement with the score.

The beginning:

“I was brought in essentially from day one, which meant we were having conversations over how it should feel and play long before anyone even saw it. It’s a Viking mythology-inspired, turn-based strategy game with hand-drawn animation in an Eyvind Earle Sleeping Beauty style from the ‘60s. It’s exceptionally beautiful.”

The process:

“I’m writing music, in some cases, inspired by an e-mail description of what that part of the game is going to be like, before they’ve even designed the most fundamental architecture. Because I write the music first, they end up designing the game around the music. It’s not really step-by-step: I write music and then we put it in the game and we see if it’s working. The game is very rudimentary: missing graphics bugs, and you click on something that makes the game crash and you have to reboot your computer. It’s a work in progress.”

The lock-in:

“With The Banner Saga, at some point you have to start committing to recording, and this being an orchestral score, I recorded The Dallas Winds — this big ensemble of winds, brass and percussion — in a Dallas concert hall. Later I added Lisbeth Scott on vocal and a solo violinist from Detroit named Taylor Davis. Usually I record at the last possible second, so if I want to keep revising the music, I can. Once it’s recorded, you can’t change it. “

The finish line:

“The developers of the game have heard everything that I’ve written. I make MIDI mock-ups on my computer that sound approximately like the final music, and we code them into the game. By the time I reach the finish line — when I have these finished, produced, fully-recorded, mixed and mastered recordings –we’re essentially switching them out with the original placeholder mock-ups.

“Once that’s done, we do our final mixing and then you spend another few months ensuring that it’s working how you want it to in the game. You really are just fine-tuning – making things a little louder or softer, play testing, and having strangers come and play the game. If problems arise, I can solve them by adding a little music here, or make it stop sooner, to clear the way for X, Y, Z. You feel it out as you go.”

Nick Krewen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emm Gryner – musical multi-tasker

 

Between her new solo album, her bands Trent Severn and Trapper, and her family, singer stays busy but focused.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Oct 12 2015

 

Emm Gryner has become quite the proficient juggler.

A couple of weeks ago, the Juno-nominated, Sarnia-born singer and songwriter released her 16th studio album, 21st Century Ballads.

On Oct. 9, Trillium — the sophomore effort from Trent Severn, Gryner’s hoser folk collaboration with fellow songwriters Dayna Manning and Laura C. Bates — hit the streets.

Gryner’s hosting a songwriting workshop at Sheridan College in Oakville during the Oct. 17 weekend and concurrently hops over to the annual Folk Music Ontario Conference in Toronto.

Throw in the occasional appearance with astronaut Chris Hadfield (Gryner guested on his space station-recorded cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”); the writing and recording of an album with Trapper, the hard-rock quartet Gryner formed with guitarist Sean Kelly, her brother Frank, bass player Jordan Kern and drummer Tim Timleck; the running of her boutique label Dead Daisy Records and last, but certainly not least, family life (she’s the married mother of two). It makes you wonder: where does Gryner find the time?
“I just started a spreadsheet calendar,” she replied over the phone from Calgary, the day after a Trent Severn show.

“It’s been about the only way I can keep track of stuff. I have a really hard time organizing my time.”

Finding and maintaining a life/art balance has been foremost on Gryner’s mind lately, a theme that permeates “The Race,” the opening track of 21st Century Ballads, and refers to the late 1999-2000 period she spent on the road playing keyboards with Bowie.

But the tune is actually about Lawrence Gowan, the Toronto-based artist whose solo career spawned hits like “A Criminal Mind” and “Moonlight Desires” before he replaced Dennis DeYoung in Styx as lead singer and keyboardist.

“It was the first song I wrote for the album because I joined his (Gowan’s) band for a week last year,” recalls Gryner, a multi-instrumentalist. “It was the most life-changing event for me.

“But what really inspired me is that I’m at a place in my life where I’m just amazed at anyone who’s a successful musician and who has kept their family together. Gowan is a total family man. It was really interesting to see the choices he’s made in his career to keep music and family. That’s what that song is really about.”

At 40, Gryner has been doing quite a bit of reflection herself and the voice-and-piano driven 21st Century Ballads is partially the result.

“Trying to find a balance as a woman in this stage of my life has been a challenge for me,” she admits. “So there are a lot of songs that I wrote to heal myself.

“I really wanted to write lyrics that are not watered down and you water things down when you start censoring yourself. I just tried to make sure that I put on the record what was happening in my life at the time the songs were written. I feel really good about it.”

Not all of the songs are personal.

“‘The Wild Weight of Earth’ was inspired by some of the stories of female teenagers committing suicide, which I think is so heartbreaking,” she explains.

“‘Duped’ is learning about someone you know being accused of criminal activity. The last one, ‘Visiting Hours’ is sort of a tribute to a fan of mine who passed away from cancer.

“They sound like a lot of depressing themes, but I think there’s a beautiful outcome from some of the sadness that we endure. I’m aware that this stuff goes on and I’m trying to focus on the light in the world.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the plaid-adorned Trent Severn, which — with harmony-honed, fiddle-laced folk tunes “Stealin’ Syrup,” “Haliburton High” and “King of the Background,” a tribute to late Band keyboardist Richard Manuel — sound more Canadian than back bacon, a toque and hockey put together.

“We want to highlight our shared experiences,” Gryner says on behalf of the band, booked for a Dec. 3 date at Hugh’s Room for a Trillium CD release party.
“It’s about the things that we all share: we all shovel our driveway . . . we all go to Tim Hortons once in awhile. Without going into novelty territory, which would be easy to do, we just try to think of the things that we love about Canada.”

Again, getting organized — especially after having kids — forced Gryner to sort out her priorities and to start compartmentalizing her sound to a degree.
“Having more projects keeps me focused on each one of them,” Gryner explains.

“With my solo stuff there was always a touch of country in them and a little bit of rock. I considered my previous albums to be stylistically schizophrenic.

“Once I got to put all the roots, country and folk style into Trent Severn, I was really able to focus on the classical element of my pop solo career. And then the Trapper thing, which is more of a fun thing, came along, but I’ve always loved rock music.

“It may seem that I’m really busy, and I guess that I am, but I take fewer gigs now and they seem to be more meaningful. I’m not getting on a plane to go play some little place that’s far, far away . . . I’m keeping it close to home.”

Emm Gryner, musical multi-tasker | Toronto Star

Siblings Jill and Matthew Barber play Massey Hall Nov. 15

Jill will showcase material from Fool’s Gold, while Matthew has new album Big Romance

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Nov 14 2014

 

Jill Barber has been waiting for this.

When the 34-year-old singer and songwriter takes to the Massey Hall stage on Saturday night as headliner, it will be the crowning achievement thus far of a career that has taken the Port Credit native through numerous styles, seven albums and three continents.

“It’s huge,” said Barber of her appearance at the 120-year-old venue.

“On Saturday night, there will be three big events in my life that are standouts: getting married, having my baby and performing my own show at Massey Hall. It is beyond my wildest dreams, which is an incredible feeling. I really think, when I was a teenager growing up in Port Credit, of being a musician, that playing the Rivoli felt like that would be the pinnacle, so to be invited to play onstage of Massey Hall is a great honour and I really feel it. I feel it a lot.”

Making the occasion even more special will be her warm-up act, her older brother Matthew Barber, a potent singer and songwriter in his own right who has eight albums to his credit, and the one who inspired her to follow her musical dreams.

“It’s totally a dream come true,” says Jill, who will perform material from her latest collection, Fool’s Gold. “My parents, who will be in the audience, what a big night it is for them. It’s a family celebration, obviously with my family, my parents, my brother and I, also with my musical family: my band, the label and all of the people that I work with on a daily basis. It’s a celebration for everybody. It’s not the size of the room, it’s the prestige and the fact that we all got here together is something that we’re all celebrating.”

Matthew, who’s pushing his own new album, Big Romance, has previously experienced the awe factor of the Massey stage.

“I’ve played there as a drummer with Doug Paisley when we opened for Jim Cuddy once and I know that when you’re up there the time flies rather quickly. You’ve got to take a minute to stop and savour the moment, so I’ll do that.”

Produced by the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Big Romance offers more of Matthew’s predilection for strong, pop-hooked melodies that are both personal and potent; something he felt was strengthened by Louris’s presence.

“I was aiming for a classic sounding album,” says Matthew. “I’m a huge fan of Gary’s songwriting and the Jayhawks, and I wanted to bring him in to help us craft an album that’s interesting from beginning to end but has classic sensibilities and also some hooks. There’s really no more of a conceptual angle than that.”

Aside from “On the 505,” which is a song concerning the Sammy Yatim streetcar shooting last summer, and “Magic Greg,” an ode to one of Matthew’s late friends, Barber says the remaining eight songs on Big Romance are deal with “existential issues that I’m always interested in, or issues of science and nature and making sense of the world, or just issues of the heart and the emotions that go along with love and relationship. That’s my usual terrain for songwriting.”

But not his only terrain: Barber will also provide the music for the new John Patrick Shanley play A Woman Is a Secret, premiering at Toronto’s Theatre Centre on March 20.

It’s not the first time Barber’s dabbled in theatre; he finds scoring for plays refreshes him when it comes to penning material for his records.

“It’s a nice diversion. I think it’s kind of a breath of fresh air to keep the songwriting wheels turning, but having these set parameters to contend with where you’re writing for a particular show or writing for particular characters is a nice, different way to work. So when I come back to writing my own material for my next record, it’s fresh.”

He also revealed he’ll be cutting a duets album next year with Jill, whom he calls “amazing.”

“I’m very proud of and inspired by her,” says Matthew. “She’s really crafted her own sound and her own esthetic package, for sure. She experimented with some sounds and has found a style that really works for her.”

Central to that sound is Jill’s plush, torchy voice, described by the authoritative All Music Guide website as a “mid-century blend of little-girl timbre and orotund vowels,” and suited to the jazz-influenced songs that she’s written for Fool’s Gold, some of which sound like a throwback to yesteryear.

It’s been a journey of stylistic twists and turns for Vancouver-based Jill, who began her career with more of a folk esthetic on her first two EPs and 2006’s For All Time before switching directions and being embraced by the jazz community for 2008’s Chances.

Barber said her writing style evolved accordingly once she left her guitar out of the process.

“The way I write songs most of the time these days is a cappella,” says the bilingual Jill, who also released a collection of French-language covers last year called Chansons.

“So it’s really just my voice. I’ll take a little demo recording of me singing a cappella to one of my band mates and they will help me create the music underneath it, so my vocal melody is always the first thing that is written, along with the lyric.

“Back in the day I wrote with my guitar at the same time. But because I’m not the world’s greatest guitar player, I started to find as I started to explore jazzier vocal stylings it became harder for me to accompany myself. So when I put down my guitar, I could sing any melody and was free to let my voice lead the way.”

Jill says she’s always felt a deeper connection to older music.

“Back in university, I would go to the local record shop and thumb through the old dusty records. I would essentially pick out the records that I thought had cool record covers, and I’d take them home and I’d listen to them. There was something about this old jazz, these old standards, and the way these men and women delivered these songs that, to me, instantly felt like a soundtrack: this beautiful, whimsical, romantic experience.

“So I think that when I’m writing, it doesn’t matter what style I’m writing in, I’m trying to write music that is timeless, that might be old but hasn’t aged.”

Massey Hall concertgoers will receive a generous taste of these contemporary “vintage” originals, as Jill says she’s employed a three-piece string section, a three-piece horn section, backing singers and hired a special lightning designer for the show.

“We’re gonna go to town!” she declares. “My two Fool’s Gold producers — Drew Jurecka and Les Cooper — have been working tirelessly on arrangements just to put this show over the top. We’re pulling out all the stops that we know how to pull out and it’s going to be really special.”

Siblings Jill and Matthew Barber play Massey Hall Nov. 15 | Toronto Star

Homegrown acts Moist, Tea Party return after long absences

New touring circuits, more cash and ego spark musical reunion craze.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Nov 20 2014

With the imminent return to Toronto of acts like Moist and The Tea Party after lengthy hiatuses, reunion fever is running high.

While it isn’t necessarily a new trend, many domestic and international acts are mending fences in 2014 and flaunting new leases on life.

Whether it’s the recent return of Christine McVie to the Fleetwood Mac fold, Queen resurfacing with Adam Lambert or the Spandau Ballet reunion that hits Toronto in February, there are common denominators explaining a band’s decision to get back together, including new touring circuits and better cash for bookings, says veteran music industry observer Larry LeBlanc.

“Nowadays the casino business is a huge business and it loves the heritage acts,” says LeBlanc, a senior CelebrityAccess writer. “In some cases, those groups end up making more money today than they made back then. At the same time, the money being paid today is astronomical from what it was.”

But LeBlanc says the motivating factor to reunite may be a simpler one: ego.

“It all goes back to nobody wants to go work in a hardware store,” he laughs. “I’m serious. Once you’ve been in the spotlight, and the spotlight may get smaller and smaller, but to be removed from it is very unnerving.”

Homegrown acts Moist and The Tea Party are returning after absences of 13 and seven years, respectively, and with new albums.

MOIST

For Moist, which performs at the Danforth Music Hall Saturday night on the heels of its new Glory Under Dangerous Skies, the reconsolidation came following a get-together for drinks in 2013.

“I started do to solo projects and I got drawn away by all sorts of different things,” singer David Usher, who has released seven solo albums, said Tuesday. “Everyone else did too, which in my mind is a very natural thing. You want to try new things as an artist at a certain point.

“But we’ve remained friends. Kevin (Young, Moist’s original keyboardist) plays in my band, and then every year we’re having a drink and it always comes up that we should play a show. Last summer was the first time when everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s play a show.’ Then that turned into six shows over Christmas.”

Those six shows featured original members Usher, Young, guitarist Mark Makoway and bassist Jeff Pearce, along with newer members Francis Fillion on drums and second guitarist Jonathan Gallivan. Pearce has since dropped out and been replaced by bassist Louis Lalancette.

According to Usher, whose band burst onto the Canadian scene with the driving hit “Push” and the bestselling album Silver, the concerts and favourable fan reaction sparked the desire to reconvene for recording and touring, which demanded more of a commitment than Pearce was willing to give.

“It was kind of an unspoken thing that we just naturally wanted to get back into the studio and write together again,” says Usher. “After the Christmas show, we did four days of writing in Montreal and the songs were coming so quickly that we really felt that we were coming into a record cycle. When we started talking about going back on the road, that was more than Jeff was really up for. He’s got a young family. He still remembers that this band tends to take over your life.”

TEA PARTY

Windsor’s Tea Party, performing at the Kool Haus on Nov. 27, reunited in 2012 with original members Jeff Martin, Jeff Burrows and Stuart Chatman, and has already issued a live album of its Australian tour

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They spent the better part of 2014 in Australia — nowadays singer, guitarist and songwriter Martin calls Perth home — and Toronto’s Revolution Studios recording The Ocean at the End, their first studio album since 2004’s Seven Circles.

Speaking on the phone en route to a Halifax gig, Martin said the band members entered their hiatus acrimoniously, but missing friendships and the urge to create paved the way for their reunion.

Their motivation to reconnect was “the fact that we couldn’t stand to be away from each other anymore or the music that we’ve made or the music that we could make once again,” says Martin.

“I think that the three of us as individuals did a lot of maturing and soul-searching during our seven-year hiatus. At the end, we really couldn’t have been further apart. It just didn’t feel like the band anymore. It was too many cooks in the kitchen and I wanted that Tea Party back that was of the era of Edges of Twilight/Transmission where we were just firing on all cylinders, when I was the captain of the ship and that was it.

“It took awhile for us to come back to something like that, but we certainly have it now. It’s great.”

Martin says that unlike many bands, economics weren’t a factor in the Tea Party reunion.

“It’s the work ethic, the love of making the type of music we can make,” Martin explains. “The Tea Party is a pretty successful band; we don’t need the money. We’re not doing this for anything else except for art. We did the record on our own terms, made the record we wanted to make and now the three of us are just having a blast.”

Homegrown acts Moist, Tea Party return after long absences | Toronto Star

Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes resurface at last

Toronto duo largely responsible for lifting the veil off “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Nov 05 2014

 

Sitting at Johnny Rockets, a ’50s-style burger joint in Yonge-Dundas Square, my dining companion pulls out a cardboard envelope and hands it over.

“Open it up and have a look. Have a little whiff,” he insists.

Inside is a box containing a reel of recording tape, inscribed in marker with the following song titles in order: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Any Day Now — I Shall Be Released,” “If Your Memory Serves You Well,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (Take 2 is written beside it in pencil), “I Shall Be Released” and two separate takes of “Too Much of Nothing.”

It takes a moment to sink in and realize what I’m actually holding: an original Basement Tape, one of the more than 20 reels recorded by Bob Dylan and the majority of Toronto legends The Band when Dylan was convalescing in Woodstock, N.Y., following a 1966 motorcycle accident.

How do I know it’s an original?

Because my dining companion is Toronto’s Jan Haust, Canadian music archivist, current curator of the Dylan-driven collection, and primarily responsible for the release earlier this week of The Basement Tapes Complete, a lavish six-CD set issued by Sony’s Legacy that finally lifts the veil off what Haust calls “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”

He’s not kidding. Music fans have been waiting nearly half a century to hear these recordings: 138 takes of 115 songs, all of them recorded informally throughout 1967 by The Band’s Garth Hudson, mostly in the cramped Woodstock-area basement of the abode known as Big Pink.

Jan Haust with Garth Hudson

Every note of such future Dylan-penned classics as “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “The Mighty Quinn;” covers of well known and obscure songs like Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” and Johnny Cash’s “Belshazzar” has been lovingly restored and digitally remastered in Toronto by Haust and renowned Cowboy Junkies engineer and producer Peter J. Moore.

Prior to this week’s releases (there’s also a two-disc Sony edition of highlights called The Basement Tapes Raw), fans had received a limited taste of the Big Pink sessions, including the official 24-song The Basement Tapes and a few tracks that have surfaced since, mostly notably “I’m Not There” from the 2007 Todd Haynes film of the same name.

The Basement Tapes sessions were significant for a number of reasons.

First, the relaxed atmosphere of everyone crammed into an intimate space allowed Dylan (who performs at the Sony Centre on Nov. 17 and 18) to explore another songwriting direction, which was a little more laidback and humorous.

“What was going on for the most part, pretty basic,” recalls Hudson, who set up the basement with microphones, a recorder and a mixer, in a separate phone interview.

“He (Bob) would write the song upstairs, couch and coffee table, then take it down and we would play it, and usually, not even run through it once. We’d do the introduction and then a bit of the song and then I would put the machine on record.”

Some argue it may have been the birth of alt-country, but a bigger significance is that it completed a musical coming of age.

“It’s where it all ended up coming together,” notes Haust. “And that’s the fascinating component here. The basement is the incubator of what became The Band.”

The Band

For Haust, the release of The Basement Tapes Complete marks the end of a 12-year journey for him and Moore, the engineer. The duo first heard the tapes, through an arrangement via Haust’s friendship with Hudson, when Robbie Robertson was assembling 2005’s The Band box set A Musical History.

“Some of the tapes were in rough shape, through no fault of Garth Hudson’s and through no fault of anyone’s,” Haust recalls.

Several reels were mouldy and Moore had to delicately unwind and re-spool some 1,800 feet of “very, very thin” reel-to-reel tape by hand on a few others to “flatten them out.”

There was also a bigger challenge: all the songs were recorded on a rare quarter-track machine with such poor quality tape that Moore didn’t have the equipment for proper playback, let alone restoration.

“These tapes were never meant to be heard by the public,” said Moore in a separate interview. “These were sketches — the jotting down of ideas. So the tape’s speed was 7½ inches per second, where most of your quality pro recordings are at 30 or 15 inches per second. I told Jan, there’s no such thing as a professional quarter-track machine.”

So Moore had to get a playback tape head custom made for his own equipment and found a New Jersey manufacturer who had the expertise to make it. The request was so rare that the manufacturer, Jim French, had only built one prior to Moore’s request.

The buyer? Neil Young, known for being quite persnickety when it comes to technical recording tools.

“Once I heard that, I knew I was following the right logic,” Moore says.

When Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen and Sony Music finally commissioned Haust and Moore to assemble The Basement Tapes Complete, the duo huddled in Moore’s studio from March through September, deciding to follow Garth Hudson’s original lead and sonically restore what was going on in the basement.

“We kept the integrity of what Garth envisioned,” says Moore. “I didn’t add reverb or anything to these tapes. I’m phase correcting — not changing the picture, just realigning the lens.

“But when you realign the lens, all of a sudden you have that much more depth of field. I phase corrected a lot of the tapes and suddenly the bass appears. You’re actually hearing the bass for the first time — Rick (Danko) and his lovely melodic glissandos and everything he’s doing on that bass.

“Whereas on the bootlegs, there’s no top end, no bottom end, just more of a whiny mid-range. I’m bringing it into focus.”

The sound is immaculate, even impressing the man who commandeered the original tape recorder, Garth Hudson.

“I remember the sounds very well, the background sounds and the instruments,” Hudson says. “What we have now is clarity. It was a lot of work on Jan’s part and Peter Moore with his incredible talent. The voice is more alive. It’s clearer. And Peter has also assembled and revived tape that has been crinkled, stretched. So it’s been a big process.”

Now that The Basement Tapes Complete has finally seen the light of day, Haust and Moore have one more ambitious project in mind: an eight-CD, DVD and book box set chronicling Levon and The Hawks, dating back to their individual pre-Ronnie Hawkins musical pursuits in the late ’50s.

In the meantime, Haust will savour the arrival of The Basement Tapes Complete.

“I’m pleased as punch that we were able to put it together,” says Haust.
“This is the first time ever that a Bob Dylan project was produced in Toronto. That’s very significant. It’s four Canadian rock ’n’ rollers and an American folksinger. Now we’ve set the record straight. . . .

“We have cleaned up these recordings. We have repaired the damaged tape. We have treated these 47-year-old recordings like the archaeological gems that they are.

“This isn’t the Mona Lisa. These are the sketches.”

Sony executive Steve Berkowitz, Jan Haust and Peter J. Moore receiving a Grammy for their compilation and restoration work on Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes Complete

 

Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes resurface at last | Toronto Star

John Southworth finds inspiration on both sides of Niagara

Southworth’s latest theme album is a double disc, with an “American” and “Canadian” side. He plays Toronto’s Music Gallery on Sunday.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Oct 11 2014

For his latest album Niagara, technically constructed as a double album with a nine-song “Canadian” disc and an 11-song “American” disc, John Southworth has specific instructions as to how it should be heard.

“It’s not meant to be listened to all at once,” explained the Sussex, England-born Southworth one afternoon last weekend over a pint at the Rhino, near his current Parkdale home.

“It’s two records, so I’d be happy if someone ignored one side for a period of time before hearing it. In that sense, it’s almost a book disguised as an album.”

It’s also not surprising that the 42-year-old eclectic songwriter, troubadour, filmmaker and children’s book author prefers people to allot the proper amount of time for his music to sink in. Songs like “Niagara Falls is Not Niagara Falls” and “The Horse that Swam Across the Sea” on the Canadian side, and “Poor Boy from Buffalo” and “Womb of Time” on the American side are generally gentle reveries with slight jazzy overtones, songs that require a deeper listen before the bigger picture is revealed.

Generally, it’s a largely mellow project that dwells on the concept of home, and an attempt to explore its definition.

“I consider Toronto part of Niagara, since it’s just across the lake,” Southworth says. “I thought it would be the great, necessary and moral thing to make a record about where I’ve spent most of my life.”

 

Southworth will perform plenty of Niagara songs and also dive into his 13-album catalogue when he appears with his longtime band The South Seas at the Music Gallery on Sunday (7 p.m., $15, no opening act.)

“I feel, more as I get older, a desire to connect in terms of what is home. What feels like home? And I struggle with that, no matter how long I’ve lived here, and I want to know why.
“These are the songs about it, although not every song covers the topic. But I think I knew I was always going to make a record called Niagara.”

Southworth allows that one prominent Niagara location — those famous falls — has been referenced consistently in his music over the years.

“Niagara Falls, as a place, has appeared in a lyric on almost half of my records,” says Southworth. “Not out of any preconceived plan, but it’s lived in my consciousness for awhile.

“And I see Niagara Falls as a symbol and a metaphor for many things in our world now, especially North America. I envision it 1,000 years ago before anything and I reflect on this natural creation and the way it’s been ignored. It’s a symbol for me on where we’re heading on a spiritual level, or where we’re at as a culture and a civilization.

“And these two little towns (Niagara Falls, Ont. and N.Y.) that have sprung up on either side, divided by a natural wonder, dividing two countries, there’s so much to explore and write about it.”

The topic of separation within such a close proximity fascinates him, one that he translated into the story of two lovers in “Poor Boy from Buffalo.”

“The woman lives in St. Catharines and the man lives in Buffalo, and they have to continue their relationship with this border between them, and usually do so by night,” explains Southworth, who co-wrote two songs with Buck 65 on the Toronto rhymer’s just-released Neverlove.

“I like the idea that there are people living lives very close to each other, but are divided by a natural border. For all of us, we are living very close to our American counterparts, but we have no idea what they’re like, and they have no idea what we’re like.”

It’s also a return of sorts to an earlier Southworth tendency of naming his albums after locations: one that began with his debut, 1998’s Mars, Pennsylvania, and continued on with 1999’s Sedona, Arizona, 2000’s Banff Springs, Transylvania, 2001’s Rose Milk Appalachia EP and 2005’s Yosemite before he felt the practice “was becoming a little too precious.”

Although Southworth views Niagara as “tying my first record and this record together as a whole,” his means of recording and arranging has definitely changed over the years.

“When I started out and I made that first record, I was 23. At that time, I would write and control all the arrangements. But as I’ve grown, I do the opposite now. There’s very little on here that’s pre-arranged. For the last 10 years, I’ve worked with Toronto musicians who have an improv jazz background.

“Now we play music where anything can happen. When we record studio takes, what you’re hearing is very immediate — they’re learning the songs. If things aren’t happening in three takes, I abandon them.

“In essence, I’ve become more of a jazz musician, although I still have pop sensibilities as a songwriter.”

Southworth’s first children’s book, Daydreams for Night, is out this month through Simply Read.

John Southworth finds inspiration on both sides of Niagara | Toronto Star