The Adventures of Don Chapman

I lead an exciting life.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Orchestrating Chris Sligh's CD

American Idol contestant Chris Sligh's former band, Half Past Forever, has just released their new recording Take a Chance on Something Beautiful. Chris and I were both raised on classical music and we both like orchestra stuff, so Chris asked me to add some of my trademarked fake orchestra to his tracks. If this bores you, just scroll down to my previous posts about my visit to the American Idol show : )

When I was a little boy I saw my first synthesizer at the Knoxville World's Fair. It was a Synclavier, one of the first super [and super expensive] synths, and I was absolutely enthralled by it. Since then I've always been obsessed with synthesizers and have especially loved re-creating symphonic textures.

What's wonderful about being alive today is that you can literally have an entire orchestra at your fingertips. A typical software orchestra library will cost far less than a synth module would have a few years ago. I can remember pining away for a $2000 Roland module about 10 years ago, and the Garritan Personal Orchestra today costs $199. The technology is amazing - wouldn't Bach have flipped!

Here's how I orchestrated Chris's music. Chris gave me a CD of the songs which I ripped and loaded into Sonar. Then I improvised around with the Garritan Personal Orchestra until I came up with something I liked. If my noodling flowers into complexity I'll shift into composer mode and actually write it out.

Once the part is composed to my satisfaction I'll play it into Sonar, performing the part right along with the song, playing in violin, viola, cello and bass parts separately.

The nice thing about the Garritan library is that I can control volume with my keyboard's expression wheel. The part isn't just a static sample but a living, breathing, musical part. This is very important for realism. If I have a soaring string line I may double or triple it with different string samples to thicken the sound.

Once mixed, strings are sometimes felt and not heard, except for choruses where you hear the soaring string lines. Strings really add a professional, epic, big-production feel.

I added strings to:

Know: This is Chris's big pop hit. My favorite part is the jumpy string part on the intro and midtros - I can envision an orchestra bowing away one day behind Chris at the Grammys! Listen to an MP3 excerpt from the 2nd verse.

In a Moment: Chris calls this his "Edwin McCain" song. My friend Cliff predicts it will end up in a movie soundtrack.

Need: I made great use of the Garritan tremolo patch on this song. On the intro, Chris asked me to double the guitar lick with strings. I love the sound of electric guitar and strings. Hear a clip.

Sometimes it helps to visually picture a mini-movie in your head. In this case, I envisioned someone reaching out, stretching their arms, and tried to mimic that in the string line that struggles upward. The lyrics tell the story: "Don't let go, don't let go of love, don't let go, it's everything that you need." Hear a clip.

Cry Tonight: We thought we were done, and Chris played the final mixes for me as we drove around town in my new Tribeca. When Cry Tonight came on, I said "Oh no, I hear strings!" Chris had wanted strings on this one but time was running out so we skipped it. I went home and whipped some up, and they turned out to be my favorite arrangements on the recording.

You might hear artists say things like "I'm hearing such and such..." and you might wonder what that means. For me it's kinda weird. When Chris played the stringless track for Cry Tonight I actually heard strings - my mind fills in what it wants to hear.

Chris also wanted a little orchestral intro so I created one based on the chord progression of the intro. The beautiful french horn sound is from the EastWest Symphonic Orchestra library. If you turn it up and listen closely you can hear a slight "gurgle" in the french horn when it reaches the top of the melodic line and takes a "breath." French horns are not the easiest instruments to play and you would hear a little gurgle like this on a difficult high note. The realism of this sample is amazing. Hear a clip.

We were finally done. Unfortunately I was just starting to get on this synth orchestration kick and felt the strange urge to create an orchestral interlude based on Cry Tonight. I orchestrated part of the second verse of the song, going into the chorus. This lyric is the title of the CD: "Is this just romance, or will we take a chance on something beautiful..."

I turned this part of the song into a movie score. To add even more realism to the string I blended the Garritan strings with a violin patch from the EastWest library - if you close your eyes you can hear the violinists playing with vibrato on some notes - very realistic. Chris and Adam loved it. Since it was in the same key as How Long, they used it as an instrumental intro, making a perfect ending to the perfect album.

Here's a clip from the 2nd verse of the recording.

Here's my orchestration of that clip. I really like the string line in the chorus and use it in the orchestrated version.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What's It Like To Be On American Idol Part 2

The guy's performance night was a blast to attend. I love hearing good singers and I enjoyed every minute of the show. It's quite intimate - there are only about 100 seats [this will grow larger when it gets down to the top 12.]

I wasn't too thrilled with Chris's MuteMath song choice the previous week. Nothing against MuteMath, but the judges want to hear you sing, not jump around, be kewl and yelp out a rock song [Simon said of Chris's performance that he felt like he "was at some weird student gig" which then launched the whole Teletubby bru-ha-ha.] Chris dropped in the polls.

Chris brought it this week, not only with a heartwarming tribute to Sarah which brought tears to housewife eyes across the country, but with a song that showed off his voice. Simon loved it and Chris jumped back up in the polls. So Chris, please sing. You can be kewl later.

People have asked me why they sometimes see me and Sarah in the front and sometimes don't. During commercial time they switch people around. They want the friends & fam of the person singing to be visible on the front row for reaction shots.

What's hilarious is my 15 minutes of fame from my 20 seconds of face time on the show:

You wouldn't believe the people I've heard from... people from college days... high school days... you name it. The typical story is "I was watching the show and saw some guy sitting next to Chris's wife... was that Don Chapman???!?? Then they showed you again and I fell out of my chair!!"

It's fun being in a celebrity entourage. Everywhere we go Chris is recognized... mobbed even. He tried to disguise himself, but you just can't hide that head of hair. We went to Saddleback Church Sunday and Chris was swarmed for autographs and pictures. We get free food at restaurants. Now I know how Paris Hilton feels!

Me, Chris and Sarah at Saddleback Church

Here's me and Chris at a restaurant called "Hof's Hut" in Garden Grove. No, it's not David Hasselfhoff's restaurant!

Here's Blake, Chris, and me at the Hollywood Cheesecake Factory after the show. See the necklace Chris is wearing? Paula evidently has a jewelry line and gave each contestant a necklace inscribed with their initials.

What's It Like To Be On American Idol

Last week, Sarah Sligh and I were in Hollywood to watch Chris perform.

Thursday, Feb. 22 was the results show. You have to get to CBS Studios in Hollywood by 3:30pm for the live 5 o'clock show. It's a bunch of waiting. After checking through security, you wait with the other friends and family. I recognized Blake's [the beatboxer guy] dad from seeing him on the show the previous week, and said "you're famous!" He cracked up, and Sarah and I talked with him and his wife. Really nice people.

Then you're ushered into what they call "the peanut gallery" - a bunch of chairs in the back of the studio. When the guys are lined up on stage for eliminations, they rush all of the guy's friends & family up to the couch room - what they call "the red room." That's the place where you often see Ryan interviewing the contestants before they perform.

We're encouraged to be reactionary - happy, sad, etc. Here's me and Sarah being sad after Paul Kim got booted. Blake's parents are on the left.

Yay! We're happy here. Sundance's mother is happy here.

Then when the girls are lined up for elimination, the girl's friends & family are rushed up to the couch room. And back and forth. Sarah and I actually missed the entire show - I didn't see it until I got home!

Sadly, Chris's good buddy Rudy was voted off. Rudy's a sharp, cool guy and a very talented vocalist. Unfortunately he was stuck with "Free Ride" - he wanted to do a Marc Anthony song with a Latin vibe that would have fitted him wonderfully, but the go-ahead from Marc's people came too late. Morons.

If you've read my newsletter for any length of time you've probably heard me rant about the perils of the music industry, specifically the Christian music industry. I lived through it. My advice for any Christian artist who just signed a record deal would be to put a gun to your head - you're probably better off in heaven. Chris himself was spared a record deal a few years ago with a major Christian label... it fell through at the last minute. Could this, perhaps, be the greatest Christian music blunder of all time? We shall see.

However, I was quite surprised at what a good vibe I got from the American Idol people. They all seem like a very happy, nice, professional bunch. In Nashville Christian music circles you often get that snob attitude... when they look at you, you can just see them calculating in their minds "hmmmm, is this person good enough for me to be talking to?" Anyone who's ever been to GMA week knows what I'm talking about!

I didn't get a whiff of attitude from anyone... even Paula, Randy and Simon seemed down-to-earth, approachable, and... nice! The production manager is a scream - whenever Ryan would goof up an intro and they'd have to re-tape it, she'd make some hilarious comment and the audience would cackle. You would think they'd be stressed out - after all, it's the most popular show in the history of TV. But no, they all just seemed to be having a ball. In the press you might hear that Ryan is said to be a diva but I really didn't see any of that - he appears genuine, affable. The guy probably has the greatest work ethic in LA. How many shows does he do now?

Get this - after the show, the bass player walked up to us. I was almost a little startled - but he just said something like "hi, thanks for coming!" Huh?? Unheard-of friendliness. This guy is probably the top bass player in LA and he walks up to you just to say "hi." That would never happen in Nashvega$, I'm tellin ya!

And isn't that band smoking... and those backup singers... talent just oozing everywhere.

So what about a record deal with American Idol? Even the Idol contestants who are booted often get a record deal with the American Idol machine. And what a machine it is - I heard that American Idol recordings sold more last year than all the other labels combined! If Chris gets voted off [I have a feeling he'll win it, though!] and was offered a deal, I'd feel really good about him working with the Idol folks.