Making Music Fun – the Jabberwock is on the Run!

Making Music Fun“‘Twas gearig, and the racks of pre-s were wired and winding through I/Os. All sizzley were the high 10Ks, and the transients dithered in the ‘phones…”

Yes, mutating one of your favorite poems is one way of making music fun – but there are so many others!! In this article, we doff the jester’s cap to our screaming concert-goers, dance and prance with glee to the beat of our own drummers, and fold anechoic space into a reverberating “YES!!” of merriment! Come with!!

Do What You Like!

Much of what I’m sharing here today comes from my years of teaching music students in my studio. After a while you begin to see what inspires and what does not. The biggest thing that keeps students coming back is working on music that they are interested in, and trying to get them in the habit of doing the same during their practice times at home.

Imagine this scenario: you’re a 10-year-old girl who likes Taylor Swift (I have taught quite a few of you in recent years!). You start to take guitar lessons but the teacher starts you off in a book learning how to play “Home on the Range”, “London Bridges” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Now, you try this for a few weeks but, honestly, it’s kind of embarrassing. Even if you can play these perfectly you wouldn’t play them for any of your friends. You’re not three, for heaven’s sake! So you quit lessons.

Making Music FunHappens too often. As a teacher, my first question, after their contact info, is “what music do you really like??” The answers are as divergent as there are people in the world (tho’ I’ve noticed Classic Rock crops up all the time. YES!!!). We then work on the songs and artist that the student likes, and try to sneak theory in when they’re in the middle of euphoric riffing and strumming. Tends to stick with them that way.

So the first secret of having a blast with music is practice what really makes you smile. The songs that get your blood pumping. The tunes that emotionally pull and twist and rock you like nobody’s business. When you can play those…you’re in the ZONE, baby!

Play What You Don’t Know!

The next thing I encourage all students to do is to put on some good music, and play to it without any thought of playing it perfectly. Simple improvising around the melodies and chords. Will mistakes occur? Ohhhhh, yea. But who cares? This exercise does many things:

  • develops music intervals recognition
  • builds endurance
  • introduces comfort with different styles/genres
  • strengthens hand and/or embouchure
  • creates a ‘listening’ ear habit
  • teaches the importance of silences among notes
  • hones the technique of playing in different keys
  • helps the student find or strengthen their own unique, musical ‘voice’

Making Music FunI still do this whenever possible. It’s so much fun!! I tend to play different music for different instruments: for drums, I LOVE playing ‘The Cars’! For sax: Steely Dan. Electric guitar? Classic rock (especially Van Halen!). Bass? Peter Gabriel. Violin? Irish fiddle tunes!! And the list goes on….

I also HIGHLY recommend for every student to pick up “backing tracks”. These are CDs, thumb drives or online streams of full-band instrumental songs that have no singer or lead melody line. This allows the student to sound like the soloist, and, honestly, you can play to these tracks for hours and still not be bored. Here are options that I personally jam to all the time:

  1. the Big Book of Backing Tracks
  2. Standalone Tracks – “Funk”
  3. Standalone Tracks – “70’s Rock”
  4. Standalone Tracks – “Basic Guitar”
  5. Standalone Tracks – “90’s Rock”
  6. Jam Track – Blues, Volume 1

My favorite of the bunch would have to be the Big Book of Backing Tracks. It has every concievable genre of music I could want to jam to and then some. If none of those pops your weasel, Google “Backing tracks book” and you’ll see many others to choose from. Definitely check them out though. It’s soooo rewarding to see a student’s face when you put on a backing track that sounds killer, with a full band, and they get to be the out-front solo gal or guy, no matter what the instrument. A star is born!!

Play What You Do Know!

Of course, if we never learned songs that other masters of the craft have written, we would be poor in spirit, and skill, for sure. Thus, it’s important to spend time practicing an existing, challenging song until we can perform it, beginning to end, with ease and mastery.

Making Music FunThe important thing is to pick something that the student LIKES. Often it’s a song they’re familiar with, but it doesn’t have to be. They just have to be obviously inspired and appreciative of a song to practice it week after week. This is a must for long-term enjoyment and discipline. It all goes back to the old adage, which I definitely can vouch for as a performing songwriter: “you’ve got to give the people, ….give the people what they want!”

(The O’Jays will now be in my head all day, I’m sure. But that’s okay by me – classic song!)

“Plays Well With Others”

Making Music FunI can’t stress this one enough. If you only play alone, you are missing out on an incredibly fun and educational method. Call some musical friends and play together! Or, if someone else in your family plays an instrument, get together and try something with both of you. Or maybe you’re lucky and have two or three or more people in your family that play something. Wonderful! Get all your instruments out and just JAM!!!

Here’s a way to put two great things together (like Oreos!): put on one of those backing tracks albums and take turns being the soloist! This is so much fun, and pretty unforgettable, especially for kids. You can even make it a weekly occurrence at your house, inviting any musical friends, family neighbors: “the Smith Weekly Jam! Bring your instrument and get DOWN with us!!”

“This is a Song About a Squid….”

One of my favorite things to do for students that really helps them learn music from the inside out is to show them how to write a song. We go over how to do the chords. Then we talk about the melody and carve that out. We usually then turn to the words, and, let me tell you, the stories you will get from kids writing their first songs are…well, they’re inspirational, but they’re also usually just….totally bizarre! And I love it! I always tell them to have FUN, and write about anything as long as it’s truly “you”. Most of the time there’s an animal or two in there somewhere, and most of the time they’re doing things that you’ve never seen any animal do, at anytime…..ever!

My absolute favorite task in the world to tackle is songwriting, and I continue to pass along this exhilarating mode of creativity to students, as a means to free them into the enjoyment and exploration of their inner worlds. Those worlds might be, indeed, as crazy as a Jabberwock, but they are just as legitimate, dynamic and powerfully insightful as anyone else’s.

It’s All Fun & Games Until…

Making Music Fun…until someone demands something that’s boring, monotonous and uninteresting, that’s what! Life too short to be pressed into bad song slavery. Escape the Monsters of Dullville! Demand your own voice be heard! Raise your banners and fly them proudly, be they squid, amoeba or kangaroo-filled! Even if you’re doing someone else’s song…do it your way! Music belongs to you, so fill your practice times with things you enjoy.

Once you express the smiling, childlike inner you through your instrument, I guarantee you….you’ll never be the same.

Now: go…make…sounds!





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Which Studio Recording Microphone is best?? A Wizard’s Convention Decides….

Which Studio Recording Microphone is best

It’s been quite a few years since I was a cooing babe in my mother’s arms, but I’m told that even then I was one to sing out on occasion.


Whether that was life’s endless, flowing inspiration or just the earliest iteration of gas…who can say?


But one thing is certain: I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. And that, my friends, is why I am so adamant about choosing the right studio recording microphone for each specific instrument we decide to use in the studio or on the stage.


The Alchemy of Sound…Shall Astound Thee!

So we don’t get lost in the boondocks of electronic transmogrification, let’s simply say that microphones are little, magic wizards (“Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter” or “Le Morte D’Arthur” version? I leave that to your preference) that turn our voice, or the sound of our instrument, into signals that can travel along cables like murmuring snakes, only to be reborn and held in the recording device at the other end, as the sound of our voice or instrument. Magic!


Which Studio Recording Microphone is bestAhh, but not all wizards are as trained as ol’ Merlin or Harry….or Saruman; some barely passed their first transfiguration exam.


And so, dear magicians, that is why we find such differences in the quality and sound of all the mics in the world. Some rise up in mastery! Others sink to noisy depths….and make our tracks, in a word….suck.


But who do we trust? How do we know which witch is which in the dark lairs of the mics?? I light my torch for you, inquisitive initiates, and whisper as we embark, “Stay cwose to the candles. The stairs….can be tweacherous….”


Battle of the Three Mic Armies

First, we shall gather here under the shadow of Mt. Doom and let the different types of mics duke it out. They never stop fighting, and they endlessly whine about which of them is ‘the obvious choice’ for all voices and instruments, each one believing they’re superlative to the task. No wonder there’ll never be world peace!


Here are the banners flying across the trampled plain:


  1. Dynamic mics
  2. Condenser mics
  3. Ribbon mics


These are the basic types. Each differ in the spell they use to transmogrify sound (ok, it’s really not a spell, but, just stay with me here….).


In each of them, there’s always a square or round diaphragm of various construction composites that is the ignition point for all the magic. But, unless you’re a tweaky engineer or something, I know you don’t care. What you do want to know is how that affects what you do. Here, then, in a nutshell, is what we’ve learned from our spies who have reconnoitered the three dueling camps:


  • Which Studio Recording Microphone is bestDynamic mics:

They’re strong. They are durable. They’re ripped. They’re like “the Mountain” on Game of Thrones. Take these mics on tour with you and they’ll take the beating and still say, “Thank you, sir. May I have another!”, which is why they’re a ubiquitous presence in live sound.


They also can typically withstand loud sounds, withstanding, like a rock (nod to Bob!), what we call high SPL, or Sound Pressure Levels. You’ll find ’em on kick drums, snares, bass & guitar amps – basically anything that can WHAP you across the face and send you cryin’ for mommy.


These are your Warrior Wizards. They don’t mess around. They take names. You have been warned.



  • Condenser mics:


These are more sensitive than dynamic mics and can thus be damaged easier. Ya don’t wanna be throwing these across the stage into a mic box after every show!


These mics know every trick in the books tho’, which is why you’ll find them everywhere. Almost every amazing studio vocal recording is done with a condensor mic, tho’ there are exceptions.


They are also often the mic of choice for acoustic instruments and percussion, since they can really pick up transient (the very beginning of a sound) details if you want them to. Because of their acute sensitivities, they pick up nuances that may be lost to the Warrior Wizards.


They do not, however, like extremely loud treatment in most cases.


Oh, and they are the only one of the three that needs “phantom power”, which means you must plug this mic into some mixer or recording device that supplies p.p. or the mic will not work. It’s finicky. It’s entitled. It would demand the ‘King’ role on the chess board.


So treat these guys with respect. Or, ya know; they may turn you into a newt.


But…you’ll get better.


  • Ribbon mics: Which Studio Recording Microphone is best

These are the most sensitive mics of all. Look at them askance and they might pull an Ozzy and bite your head off, you insensitive bat!


The transducer in a ribbon mic is “wafer thin”, but don’t get them anywhere near Mr. Creosote – they’re fragile!


Typically used for guitar amps, strings and drum overheads and room mics, they do produce a very pleasing, warm sound if set up correctly. But they’ll be fighting from behind walls, mountains, caves, boulders…anything to keep their frangible hearts safe.


Just remember, tho’…frail on the outside does not mean there’s not power on the inside. These exotic wizards from the nether worlds are rarely understood, but possess the ability to make your sound as beautiful as a Siren calling from the rocks.


It’s calling you…..calling you….calling y….


Let the War Drums Commence!

So that’s how the three camps differ. But, essentially, they’re all the same: they transduce the sound of your voice or instrument into electric current and reproduce it at the other end. So…which should we choose for any given sound?


Well, this is where you show if you’re serious about surviving the Battle of the Three Armies or not. You will either spend the time it takes to really know your options, or be trampled by their mass in ignorance and confusion. I suggest the former. It’s not that hard and will open your eyes and ears to new realms of possibility. It’s like this….


Which Studio Recording Microphone is bestFirst, plug in all the mics you have. If you don’t have many, this’ll be reallly easy. If you have more, not so. But, trust me; it’ll be well worth it. It’s best if you can have all the mics plugged in simultaneously, but if you only have one or few inputs, this can be done in serial fashion and still provide insightful data.


Next, you or a musical compatriot must play a specific instrument, or sing, into all the mics. Have them arranged in a semi-circle around the sound source (i.e. your mouth or the best sound point of your instrument) so that none are farther or closer than any other.


Then, using a recording device, either software or hardware, push that red button and capture the spell being sung or played through all the mics, again, preferably at the same time.


Which Studio Recording Microphone is bestNOW you’re in for a treat. Sit back in front of good studio monitors, or headphones, and listen, reeeeeally listen to each mic, one at a time. If you never knew just how different your mics sound, this experiment will definitely draw back the curtain and show you just how divergent and distinctive each mic can be on the same sound source.


I have done this on almost every instrument I play. Why? So when it comes time to record a specific instrument, i can remember back to this “mic shootout”, as we call it, and know which one made my instrument of voice sound the most….awesome! You can do the same.



Which Studio Recording Microphone is bestHere’s something to keep in mind: just because a mic is expensive, that doesn’t necessarily equate to the best sound for any given instrument. You must still test all the mics in your arsenal on varying instruments to know where they shine, and where they…get crushed dead beneath the foot of a rampaging mûmak.


The most memorable time I did this was when I was getting ready to record the vocals for my first album. I wanted to make sure I was using the very best mic possible for my voice. That’s the key phrase. It had to make my voice sound amazing, regardless of the specs, the price…or size of staff (go, Gandalf!).


So, I managed to not only set up my own mics, but four other expensive mics that I borrowed from a professional just for this test. Here were my mic shootout wizards, in descending order of cost:


  1. Neumann U-87 condensor mic, currently selling for $3,599
  2. AKG C414 XLII condensor mic, currently selling for $949
  3. Audio-Technica 4050 condensor mic, currently selling for $699
  4. The RØDE NTK tube condensor mic, currently selling for $529
  5. Audio-Technica 4033 condensor mic, currently selling for $399
  6. Shure SM58 dynamic mic, currently selling for $99
  7. Roland DR-20 dynamic mic, currently not selling new, but used for $60


Now, as you can see, there were some serious contenders there. The U87 alone is considered a ‘holy grail’ of a mic for any studio, and the rest were no slouches either.


I set up the mics, plugged ’em into my recorder (the VS880 at the time it had just premiered), recorded my voice singing one of my new tunes….and then I stopped. To listen.


Which Studio Recording Microphone is bestHeadphones really brought it home. There were some really great choices hear. I could have used any of them, for different songs and different approaches. But one clearly made my voice shimmer with a magic that the others only tried to imitate. Can you guess which one it was??


Probably not, because everyone’s voice is different, consisting of varying frequencies that each mic will process in its own way. Amazingly, the one that I ended up recording the album with, the clear winner, was…


Which Studio Recording Microphone is best…the AT4050, which I posted an article on HERE!


I remember at the time the ads for this mic featured the prominent, esteemed producer and band leader Alan Parsons recommending it, and, being a long-time fan of Alan’s music, felt that he would be proud of the shoot-out results and I was happy to work under the advice of one of my heroes.  Check out the AT4050 price HERE.


Moral of the story? Don’t fall under the illusion spells of expensive mics. Until you’ve heard it on your voice or your instrument, there’s no way to be sure it’s going to compliment your delivery. You must face the wizards….alone!


Throwing Your Sword to the Lady of the Lake

So, which mic is best? The one you have compared to as many others as possible and sound best to your ears on the given instrument.


Take the time to do that and you will not regret it. There are no rules. If it sounds great, it is great. Let your ears be your guide.


After your own personal Battle of the Three Mic Armies, you can take your sword back gently to King Arthur’s underwater girlfriend knowing that the war has ended, and your have the greatest treasure of the spoils of war: the skill of wielding those mics like a master!


Just remember as you create your musical masterpieces, however, the wise words of a modern,muddy sage: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”


Now, go….make….sounds!







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