Category Archives: The Arts

Tradeoffs Are Everywhere, Even in Recording Studios

Early in his career as a mixing engineer, Dave Pensado discovered a version of Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem. As he puts it in his co-authored book with his Pensado’s Place co-host Herb Trawick, The Pensado Papers: The Rise of the Visionary Sensation:

“I learned very early on, even before I came to L.A., that no one ever hired me again because I did something cheap or fast. That doesn’t happen in my profession. The triangle has cheap at the top, fast on one corner, and good on the other. pick two. That’s pretty much what you have to do.”

Yet another example that good economic thinking doesn’t always come from economists.


Book Review: Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Scribner, 2019)

A dual biography of Leo Fender and Les Paul, as well as a history of the instruments that bear their names. Fender, whose full name was Clarence Leonidas Fender, got his start in radio repair. He founded his own company in 1946 and began building his own PA systems and amplifiers for local musicians. By the 1950s, he was building the first mass-produced electric guitars. He was heavily influenced by his love of Hawaiian music, an dsome of Fender’s first electric instruments were Hawaiian-style lap steel guitars with pickups that wrapped around the strings in a circle. Today’s guitar pickups are typically flat slabs underneath the string. Fender’s customers were mainly working musicians who need instruments that were loud, reliable, and easy to repair.

Before Fender, most electric guitars were hollowbodies. They were built similarly to traditional acoustic guitars, but with pickups. Fender’s solidbody designs were almost impossible to destroy. They are also easy to mass produce, since they are essentiallu flat planks of wood carved into a standardized Telecaster or Stratocaster shape. The necks were a bolt-on design, which meant they were interchangeable and easy to replace if they broke—or if the player preferred the feel of a neck from one instrument, but preferred the body of another.

A pre-Fender guitar’s glued-in neck was permanent. One stage mishap could mean the end of the instrument—and a hefty expense for a musician who might not be able to afford it. Fender’s guitars also had a thinner, brighter, treble-heavy sound that belied his Hawaiian influences. In this way, 1930s Hawaiian music had an underappreciated influence on everything from country music to Jimi Hendrix’s searing guitar solos.

Fender also created the first mass-produced electric bass, the Precision Bass. As with Teles and Strats, these were designed for gigging musicians. Electric basses are far, far smaller than a traditional stand-up bass. They were also far louder, which meant they could keep up with modern rock bands—especially when played through a Fender Bassman amp. They had frets, which inspired the “Precision” name. A few years later Fender introduced the Jazz Bass, which has a slightly offset body shape and a brighter, more articulate sound. The two designs remain the standard choices for genres ranging from Motown blues to metal.

While Fender’s company had a rough going in its early days, the success of the Telecaster, introduced in 1952, and the Stratocaster, introduced in 1954, and its basses, allowed Fender to sell his company to CBS in 1965 for $13 million, or about $100 million in today’s dollars.

CBS was a negligent owner and allowed the quality of Fender’s guitars to decline, to the point where the company was at risk of going by the 1980s. Once the company regained its independence, it upped its quality control and embraced overseas manufacturing, established a custom shop, and began a renaissance that continues to this day. Fender is now the largest instrument maker in the world, and is a studious caretaker for other famous guitar brands such as Jackson and Gretsch that had also fallen on hard times.

Les Paul, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was one of the first people to make a solidbody guitar. Though he was not the first, as he liked to claim. He built his famous “log” guitar similar to Fender’s. he was the tinkering type, and after moving to New York he convinced the Epiphone guitar to give him the run of their workshop after-hours. He gave his log guitar a more conventional appearance by attaching the sides of an Epiphone hollowbody guitar to the log’s center block. Today’s semi-hollowbody designs, such as Gretsches and the Gibson ES-335, use this center-block approach to reduce feedback and give a different tone.

By 1952, the Gibson guitar company saw Fender’s success, and approached Les Paul about being the endorsee for its first entry into the solidbody market. That guitar, the Gibson Les Paul, remains in production today and has been favored by guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Slash, and Carcass’ Bill Steer.

Les Paul was also one of the first people to use overdubs and multi-tracking, which are now staples of modern recording. When he and his then-wife Mary Ford were at the peak of their popularity, Paul’s production techniques made their sound instantly recognizable.

Paul and Fender knew each other, though their careers were centered on opposite coasts, with Fender in California and Paul usually in New York when he wasn’t on the road. They were usually on good terms, although Fender and Gibson remain the two largest competitors in the instrument business.

Port is a gifted storyteller. While he usually treats Fender and Paul separately, he deftly points out common themes in their careers and their instruments. It helps that both men were a bit quirky. Fender was a bit of the nutty professor type, happier in his shop than working on the business side of his business. Paul was not the best husband to Ford, and he didn’t handle his decline in popularity very well. In his later years he became a gregarious elder statesman, and his talent for spinning a yarn made him particularly endearing, even when he was clearly exaggerating. While musicians will obviously get the most out of this book, it also makes a good case study in invention. As with most other ideas, including calculus and the steam engine, the modern electric guitar had multiple near-simultaneous inventors. There was trial, plenty of error, and the whole process was messy and unplanned. As befits the rock music Fender and Paul helped to make possible—even though neither of them even liked it.

Book Review: Al Schmitt with Maureen Droney – Al Schmitt on the Record: The Magic Behind the Music

Al Schmitt with Maureen Droney – Al Schmitt on the Record: The Magic Behind the Music (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).

Schmitt is a legendary recording engineer and producer. He has worked with Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Diana Krall, and more, and is still active today. He even got Paul McCartney to write the foreword to this book. He is a longtime house producer at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, which is one of the world’s finest. This book is more about his professional life than his personal life. Fortunately, Schmitt is the type of person whose work life is more eventful, anyway.

Music nerds and equipment nerds will enjoy his discussions of what it was like working with different artists, his equipment choices and recording techniques, and how he works with artists to get their best performances. He also gives career advice on the importance of being easy to work with and respectful of colleagues–which also applies to pretty much any line of work. Schmitt comes across as someone who sets high standards, but is also an amiable type who takes joy in what he does and appreciates his good fortune.

Book Review: Joe Gross – Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker (33 1/3 Series)

Joe Gross – Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker (33 1/3 Series), (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2018)

The 33 1/3 book series contains over a hundred monograph-length treatments of classic music albums. It takes its name from an LP’s rotation speed, 33 1/3 RPMs. My friend Shawn Macomber sent me this one on one of my favorites, Fugazi’s 1993 In on the Kill Taker album. Gross interviews and quotes all four band members at length, and explores every facet of their careers.

It’s roughly organized as an introductory overview of the band followed by a chapter for each song on the album, plus occasional interludes. But within that framework Gross tends to wander quite a bit.

Fugazi actually recorded Kill Taker twice. The first attempt was in Chicago with Steve Albini, and did not turn out well. Albini is the singer/guitarist in Shellac, a well-known producer whose credits include Nirvana’s In Utero, and has an outspoken DIY ethos that meshes well with Fugazi’s. They worked well together and became good friends, but for some reason something was missing from from what they put on tape.

The band decided to try again at their hometown Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, VA with their longtime producer Don Zientara, and this time they captured the spark that was missing from the Albini sessions.

Gross, without being intrusive, goes into the band’s upbringing and personal lives to explain what made the band tick, and what was going on behind the scenes in the Kill Taker era. As a straightedge band— guitarist/vocalist Ian MacKaye (pronounced Mc-Eye) coined the term—Fugazi never had the substance abuse troubles and related drama that felled so many other bands. For the most part they have positive family lives, including the MacKaye’s parents’ famous Sunday dinner tradition, which the band, their significant others, and their friends scrupulously attended whenever they weren’t on tour.

But the album-tour-repeat grind was getting to the band a bit, and there is an undercurrent of weariness on the album. Of all Fugazi’s releases, Kill Taker is also the angriest. It marks a dissonant evolution from their earlier fusion of punk rock with dub reggae-style rhythms. The band members were only about 30 years old at this point, but they were already grizzled veterans of the music business. MacKaye had been in high-profile bands since he was a teenager, playing in the Teen Idles and then Minor Threat. Guy Picciotto, Fugazi’s other guitarist and co-lead vocalist, along with drummer Brendan Canty, was previously in the influential but short-lived Rites of Spring.

MacKaye’s co-founded record label, Dischord, was its own full-time business, and another source of stress. It started as a way to self-release MacKaye’s bands and document other local DC acts. But DC was home to so many top-notch bands that Dischord ended up becoming one of the country’s top indie labels. As of 2020, MacKaye still owns and runs the label, and is still putting out new releases.

Two other Dischord bands, Shudder to Think and Jawbox, signed to major labels around this time. The controversy this caused seems a bit silly in hindsight, but it was a big deal in the indie scene. Both MacKaye and the bands handled it with grace, but the experience was a headache, not least because of the fan outcry.

MacKaye, Fugazi, Dischord, and the DC punk scene have been covered in countless books and documentaries. MacKaye takes his role as a documentarian of DC’s punk scene seriously, and he has always been generous with granting interviews. But Gross still unearths a lot of fresh information here, about both Kill Taker and Fugazi’s career.

There are an unusual number of typos and misspellings for a book published by an academic press. But that didn’t take away from the joy I got from, for the first time in years, listening to Kill Taker again a few times through over the summer while reading this book, armed with new knowledge about what abstruse song titles like “Facet Squared” mean, and the stories behind lyrics I’ve wondered about or misheard for years.

Thomas Edison, Music Critic

Thomas Edison not only invented the phonograph, he was one of the first to mass-market recorded music, along with his competitor Victor’s Victrola player. Edison also curated the music his company, Thomas Alva Edison, Inc. (TAE), released. His notebooks contain some surprisingly funny negative reviews, such as this gem from during World War I, shared on p. 39 of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sounds Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music:

“If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches it is this…”

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Fender is the largest musical instrument company in the world. It was founded in the 1940s by Leo Fender, who got his start repairing radios and building PA systems and amplifiers. Despite not knowing how to play or even tune a guitar, he also invented the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitars. Both are still popular today. Fender also invented the electric fretted bass.

The author, Forrest White, was Leo Fender’s right-hand man, running the business while Fender and his team designed the products. White writes a blue-collar everyman prose, admiring Fender while acknowledging some of his faults—he had his quirks and was a bit of a nutty professor type. White also shares some fun stories and little-known facts, and shares tidbit about how some well-known quirks and features in Fender instruments came about.

The Jazzmaster guitar’s two-channel electronics, for example, were inspired by a design White himself tried in a home-built lap steel guitar he made before joining Fender. White also shares in-house patent applications, advertising copy, blueprints, and wiring diagrams for several Fender instruments, which readers can use for their own repairs, modifications, or even to build their own instruments.

John Seabright – The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

John Seabright – The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

Pop music is a very different world than the DIY rock band environment I grew up in. Where I come from, bands are expected to write, record, and perform their own material, book their own shows, and sometimes even run their own record labels. Can-do idealism and youthful romance are integral to the indie scene. The pop world is downright cynical in comparison. Some of the world’s most successful hitmakers hold in active contempt the view of music as art and self-expression.

But there are also some economics lessons here, particularly in division of labor.

Some pop specialists write only beats and backing tracks. Others write only vocal melodies, or instrumental hooks. Still others only write lyrics. The performers for the most part are only performers, though that is its own specialized skill set. Other specialists focus on choreography, stage shows, publicity, and so on.

The pop music industry also provides a lesson in globalization. Many of the top pop songwriters come from Sweden, the business side is focused in LA and New York, and the performers come from around the world. Orlando, of all places, is becoming a hotspot for talent scouts, due in part to Disney’s large presence there. This book is an enjoyable read, and for this hobbyist musician, a look into an alien world.

Axl Rosenberg and Christopher Kovatin – Hellraisers: A Complete Visual History of Heavy Metal Mayhem

Axl Rosenberg and Christopher Kovatin – Hellraisers: A Complete Visual History of Heavy Metal Mayhem

A smart, opinionated, and sharply funny history of metal. It runs from metal’s roots in blues and classic rock all the way up to newer bands that are still making their names today. Rosenberg co-edits, one of the leading news sites in the metal community.

Motley Crue – The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

Motley Crue – The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

This collective autobiography unintentionally provides powerful arguments for staying in school and not doing drugs. That said, it is quite entertaining. I read the whole thing despite not being a big fan of their music.

Fun Facts about Chopin

Chopin has long been one of my favorite composers. From Alan Walker’s Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, I learned that Chopin’s father Nicolas was a fan of Voltaire, a personal favorite of mine. One of Nicolas’ students, who later became Chopin’s godfather, was Fryderyk Skarbek, an economics professor at Warsaw University.

Later in life, Chopin would live in Paris’ Hotel Lambert, where Voltaire once lived. Designed by the same architect who remodeled Versailles under Louis XIV, the building was partially destroyed by fire in 2013.