Friday, September 14, 2012

Vicci Martinez ala Steve Vai

Acoustic Vision

Every once in a while I’ll stumble upon an artist that really speaks to me. Such was the case last weekend. My brother had given me a pair of 4th row tickets for my birthday to see Steve Vai at the Morristown PAC. And while I can spend all night talking about how awesomely awesome Steve Vai is, and yes, my bro for getting me the sweet seats- (you rock Keith!), as a music connoisseur I am obliged to tell you about the opening act. But first an admission of guilt.

I pride myself on finding those little known bands and musicians that always seem to find their way into the “Obscuria” bin at the local music boutique. But in this case I may be a bit late to the proverbial party. Some of you may have already heard about Vicci Martinez and will undoubtedly roll your eyes in disdain for my late entry. Go ahead… Give me your best “Really? That’s so last year.” But for the rest of you, I offer the following.

Setting the Seen

Before I took my seat I glanced around the theater to see how many people were interested in hearing the opening act. As I scanned the audience, I noticed that New Jersey’s own Eddie Trunk was standing directly behind me talking with someone. I gave him a nod acceding to his local and now-national (thanks to “That Metal Show”) notoriety. And he was kind enough to wave back and smile unwittingly acknowledging my severe lack of notoriety. But it was good to see him at such a small venue and even better to see that he stayed to watch the opener.

OK- So the common thinking is that the major label bands will choose an opening act that is musically similar to their own style and therefore should get the audience warmed up for the “real deal”. Right? Not so fast Sammy. We’re talking about Steve Vai here. It’s a well known fact that he is an alien. No…he is an Alien Guitar God. And therefore you can not expect him to adhere to normal standards. Enter Vicci Martinez.

Vicci took the stage and as she picked up her acoustic guitar she announced that she was filling in for someone that night. Who it was I couldn't say. I don’t remember and I don’t care. Because as soon as she started to play I instantly became fixated on her style and musicianship. As a guitarist, I tend to focus on chord selection and progression (among other things) while a musician is playing. And Vicci was hitting all the right chords. She opened with a song called “Come Along” which was a subtle invitation for the audience to follow Vicci on her short opening act journey. (FYI…We’re going to revisit this song in a bit)

If you’re into the whole acoustic singer-song writer thang, there’s no doubt you can relate to the intimate setting that can only be offered by a small venue. You’re not just listening to music. You are feeling it. It’s that soft reverb that is rendered by the natural acoustics of the theater. It’s that focus that helps amplify the resonance or dissonance in each chord. Having said that, nearly thirty seconds into Vicci’s set I leaned into my brother and said, “Ga-damn. She’s good!” OK. She’s got my attention now. And I have to say that she just got better with each song that followed. Her set included: Come Along, Jolene, Touch That Fire, In Dreams and she finished with a song called Enjoy the Ride. So Vicci had a total of 5 songs to reel me in and that’s exactly what she did. Each song showed a passion for her music and a love for her need to perform. And what can I say? The girl can sing. There is no doubt about it.

Here's a link to "Touch That Fire" as she performed it that night....

After the show I had a chance to meet with Vicci and talk about her young career and passion for music. We talked about how she got her start in music and then quickly moved into philosophy, her deep seated need to “…get out what I feel inside” and performing. She said, “I love writing about things that really move me. I have a burning desire to share these things and I hope that I can connect with my audience on some level”.  And connect she did. Her love of music came shinning through helping her to deliver on her invitation to “Come Along”.

What Is and What Should Never Be

Vicci turned down an invitation to appear on American Idle after winning the regional tryouts. She then moved on with an appearance on Star Search in 2003 and finished 3rd overall in 2005 for her efforts on “The Voice”. Which if you ask me, although I did not see her on The Voice, I could state with 100% accuracy that the judges got it wrong. I am sure that whoever may have won that year is off to a great start in music making cookie cutter crap that the record executives just adore. My contempt for these shows is well known. I am not suggesting that are not talented people on these shows. They are in my opinion, incredibly talented people who are merely fodder for the big record companies.

Rock n Roll Baby

I picked up a copy of Vicci’s latest CD simply called Vicci (which she was nice to sign for me) and promised I would do a review. Vicci Martinez is an extremely talented musician whose lyrics are deeply rooted in emotion and conviction. She has a strong musical background that, on first glance, would tie her directly into a singer/song writer lineage. But Vicci shows that there are a few more layers to her in this new CD.  

After hearing her perform the very powerful “Touch That Fire” in an acoustic setting on stage, I was very impressed with a broader version that included her full band with an R&B slant. With this release, Vicci Martinez is making great strides into both the pop and R&B arenas. With a voice that reaches down into your soul, there is no doubt that she will go far. Give one listen to “Let Go” and you will see what I mean.

There is an edge to this CD that is hard to define. Vicci makes use of great guitar licks and some infectious grooves that command you to move. Listing to “I Want Your Kiss” actually forces you out of your seat. And that’s a difficult task for me!

If you are into more of the Singer/Song Writer aspects of her music, I would suggest you pick up Vicci’s 2005 effort called “On My Way”. You'll get a good idea of Vicci's musicianship and guitar playing. It’s a great CD that has taken over my iPod. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Signal to Noise

Do you hear what I hear?
Do you hear what I hear?

A few tips people who don't want to spend a bundle on music gear but still  want great sound.

Recently I shared a few laughs with fellow Google Pus user Mari Thomas who created a post about a $300 pair of headphones. She joked about wishing she cared that much about sound. Which got me thinking..."What are most people using to listen to their music?" While I've always considered myself an audiophile, I never really understood the technical details of the components I purchased or how/why they made my music sound so good. I just knew I wanted the best sound I could get for my price range.

A few days later I found myself in the store with my daughter who desperately needed a new set of ear buds. This is right up my ally. I can advise her on which buds would be best for her. And after all, there is some audiophile gene that gets past down in the DNA right? Wrong. She chose as set of low cost, hot pick ear buds that from a no name manufacturer. After giving my best shot of explaining why that set would not be a good choice she simply looked at me and said, "Oh daddy, you just don't get it." I could not overcome the power of pink.

So I'm going to make an assumption that you're looking for a few tips on buying a decent  pair of ear buds, become a  pseudo-audiophile and that you'd want to bypass of of the technical mumbo jumbo (that's actually a technical term. No really. It is.) and get to the good stuff. That cool with you? Great.

Looking for a good set of ear headphones eh? Well, I've got some bad news for you all. Those ear buds that your friend just bought at the convenience store for $4.99 really suck. I mean they suck so bad that it breaks several  international trade laws just describing how bad they suck. So I actually can't tell you anymore. But here's the good news. With a few small upgrades you can be as cool as Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys jammin at the Catalpa Festival. Well, maybe not that cool. But first let's discuss why some of those low cost ear buds do not produce the best sound.

(A quick DISCLAIMER- I realize that  the term "good" is subjective one. What might sound good to me may sound like crap to you. But for the sake of this article we need to agree that there are ways to measure the quality of sound reproduction and there's good  reason why certain components cost more than others.)

Let's assume that the average person uses the ever popular Skullcandy ear buds at an average price of $19.99. They are marketed well, have killer packaging and are priced at under twenty bucks for a good reason. Without bringing up technical specs let's try to explain why a set of ear buds at this price range may not be the best choice.

Say you and I are going on a long drive in your car. We both enjoy the same music and we're looking forward to some good jams along the way. But we have the windows open the entire time. What's that? You can hear the bass but not the can't hear the rest of the music over the noise from the windows? Most ear buds in this price range work in the same way. They do not filter out the noise (same as the noise from the windows) they generate simply by trying to recreate the music. As a result the music is  muddled and the quality is definitely less than optimal. Now I ask you, How are you going to listen to Brooklyn Funk Essentials with all that funky bass on a set of ear buds like that?

Now let's say we have rolled up the windows. We've just removed the source of the noise and we can hear the music much better, right? Check out that kick drum....nice huh? Upgrading your current set will help you in a similar way. They are engineered to remove the signal noise, do a better job of reproducing the music and provide deep bass while delivering a nice tonal balance.

I've tested some mid-priced ear buds and most of them do a fairly good job of music reproduction, have decent sound quality and bass response. There is a very wide range of mid-priced ear buds costing between $40-$60 on the market today and as you would expect, manufacturers offer models at all different price ranges. So the best approach is to go out and test some for yourself.

Here are some brands that you may consider on your search for the perfect fit.

  1. Klipsch- You really can't go wrong with Klipsch. (Sets ranging from $40-$300) 
  2. Bose - Good sound quality, excellent bass. (Sets ranging from $100-$400)
  3. Monster - New to the market but places well in tests.  (Sets ranging from $70-$150)
  4. V-Moda - Not one of my favs but included a call answer button (about $130)
  5. Sony - Basic stuff. You can find them in a variety of models. (Sets ranging from $20-$450)
  6. Sennheiser - A very good set for the money. (about $45-$60)
  7. Shure - You absolutely won't be disappointed. (Sets ranging from $50-$650)
  8. Paradigm - Very, very good sound quality.  (Sets ranging from $50- $99- $130)

(OK. A quick aside: I use Bose IE ear buds. They are not what you would call "best on the market" but they do perform very well for the money and provide some kick ass range. As anyone will tell you, I do love my music. I listen to my iPod whenever I go food shopping and one day I happened to be listening to a live version of Peter Gabriel's Blood of Eden while I was standing in line at the check out counter. So around the 4:40 mark in the song, in case you listen to it, Peter sings about "a perfect moment, a moment of forgetting, a moment of bliss." And then...lets out this deep seated lamentation. I have to admit, a single tear made its down my cheek. I'm not sure I would have been so move had I been wearing a low end set of buds. And maybe I could have bypassed the inevitable awkward "Hey mister...are you OK moment with the 16 yr old check out girl.

The payoff? By spending an a few extra bucks you will open yourself to a whole new level of sound and get a better groove on to your favorite tunes.

Hear's the Bad News

At this point of the game, MP3 files are used by almost every person on the planet. What you may not know is that this is what's known as a compressed lossy file format. These music files are great for reducing the amount of data needed to produce your music which allows you to store more music on your favorite MP3 device. MP3s provide a fairly good reproduction of the original uncompressed file and is largely based on what's known as "Perceptual Coding". Which means this file format attempts to provide the best sound quality by removing certain points of fidelity within the music which are considered to be beyond the auditory perception of the average person.

Bottom line: You're not hearing all of the music you are intended to hear. Think of it like watching a movie on your neighbor's old television set and then coming home and watching another movie on your brand new HD TV. You see?

If you are so inclined, you may look into other digital music formats that are called "Lossless". Some of the more popular file extensions are:

- FLAC ( Fee Lossless Audio Codec)
- WAV (The Windows Standard)
- AIFF ( Audio Interchange File Format)

As mentioned these file formats require much larger disc space but do provide higher quality sound reproduction. Your iPod will not be able to play FLAC or AIFF files. So if you want to improve the quality of your music you will need to look for another portable music player.

So tell me: What are you using and why?

Signal to Noise - the ratio of the power or volume (amplitude) of a signal to the amount of disturbance (the noise) mixed in with it. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

2 Reasons Why Social Media is a Bitch

It’s dark. You find yourself sitting in a cave comforted only by the fire that illuminates the walls that bear primitive drawings of the latest hunt. Off in the distance you hear the faint sounds of drums beating and cutting through the darkness giving witness the birth of the highest form of social media ever created - Music.

It’s kind of funny to think of it that way but social media does have deep seated roots dating back to the days of the Neanderthal. We’ve obviously come a long way since then. Radio and television have had a huge impact on society at large. And new technologies, coupled with the internet, are dredging deeper trenches into our lives making sure we stay dependent on the newest trends.

Like all other art forms, music has played a vital role in shaping our culture, the way we think and often times, the way we remember things. And if you’re like me, music is a pretty big part of life. 

But I have to ask; What affect is social media, yet another element that has a huge impact in shaping our culture, having on musicians and music today?

When MTV first aired in 1981, the very first music video it played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Bungles. (Yes, at one point MTV did play music videos.) I’m not sure if this was an extremely clever prediction of what was to come but there is a certain irony in that title when you consider the profound impact the station had on music and its unrelenting effects on culture. This came at a time when there was absolutely nothing new on the social media radar and it seemed like the only way to connect with your favorite band/musician was to listen to the radio, buy some cassettes and pray that they made it into the next issue of your favorite music magazine. (BTW, from my perspective listening to mainstream radio is a crime worthy of cruel and unusual punishment.)

The bottom line? Musicians were forced to make major changes to the way they interacted with fans. If you didn’t have a video that was being played on MTV, you had no chance of getting noticed. Period. While this proved to be a positive thing for musicians, it set the stage for what would ultimately become the biggest failure of large scale social media outlets.

Today we have the privilege of watching shows like American Idol or The X Factor. While there is no doubt that there are a few really talented people that have performed on these shows, those watching certainly seem to be inflicted with musical vacuity. Let’s face it. The only reason people watch reality shows like this is because it provides them with an opportunity to feel better about their own existence and superior to the poor schmuck that thinks he can sing and does not mind making a fool of himself on national television. Shows like this have nothing to offer us in true musical talent. They are simply breading grounds to anesthetize the masses into following what the record labels and large companies like Disney or Viacom (Teen Nic) want us to listen to. They inundate us with over rated, quasi talented and hyper marketed drivel that lulls the minds of pre-teens and teenagers into thinking that there is no other musical outlet other than what they see/hear on these shows. The “music” performed on these shows are cookie cutter templates that are written and produced by the same 4 studio musicians in some gawd awful place like Lodi, NJ and pawned off as the latest hit by these so-called music stars.

This is a crime. This is not what the most powerful social media outlet on the planet should be offering us.  Where is the real talent? Where are the real musicians? Where is the kid sitting in his bedroom learning his chops on the guitar or piano while all of his friends are playing XBox?

If you spend a few days in a large city like New York, you’re likely to have an opportunity to meet these gifted musicians. Some using nothing more than plastic pails as a drum set and others with an acoustic guitar using an open case to collect the small donations for their talents. These buskers are some of the best musicians around. And man, can they kill it.

I can remember walking through the subway one night after seeing a band perform in a small club. It was late and there were no other people around. As I sat on the bench waiting for the train, a few feet away from me a string quartet began to play. I melted into my seat. I’m not sure if it was the natural reverb afforded to the music by the subway tunnel or the simple experience of hearing Brahms String Quartet in C minor being played in darkly lit, desolate area with no one else to share it with. What I do know is that it brought me to fucking tears. These are the people we should be hearing on national television. These are the real musicians.

(I should note that Guitar Center does have a series that highlights some of today’s top musical talent with in depth interviews and live performances where the musicians play in a very small studio with a handful of lucky fans in the audience. I highly recommend it. Providing, of course, that your local TV provider offers it.)

Anyone that knows me well enough will tell you that I was a pain in the ass when I was younger. I loathe listening to the radio and if I got in your car, there was no doubt we were listing to one of the several cassette tapes I had in my coat pocket. (Today I just whip out my iPod.) Even as a young kid I knew that listening to the radio would severely limit my options and pigeon-hole me into the musical mold in which they wanted me to fit. Back then I was involved in a huge underground movement that traded new music the old fashioned way. It was not uncommon to receive a cassette tape that was originally created on the opposite coast. I was listening to bands like Metallica, Motley Crue and even Nirvana long before they were on anyone’s radar. Yes Lars, you have to admit that you guys were handing out demo tapes at every show and giving your music away to anyone that would take it from you.

So what does all of this have to do with social media? A lot actually…

Exhibit A
Back in the “Good ol’ days” musicians only needed two things. - An original sound and a great look. A band’s popularity was based solely on the merits of their music. Fans would hear a song, buy the CD and go see the band when they came to their area. That’s the natural progression of things. Bands were not dependent on hit counts and links. Today’s artists need to have at a minimum, accounts on close to 15 websites and have the ability to maintain those accounts. While Myspace had the best chance of offering a great outlet for musicians, it is outdated and largely quiescent within the social media arena. Facebook, is the largest social media outlet by far but let’s face it, its crap and it offers little in the way of new technologies that can help an upcoming band other than a way for people to “like” them. Facebook may be great for the average Joe to follow his favorite musician and feel connected but this is really more of a tool for those bands that have an established following. Ever find yourself on the page of a local band or a musician that
Is looking for an audience? Not much going on there.

Sites like,,, and offer an artist a wide variety of tools to connect with would be fans and allow the general public plenty of bandwidth to preview new music. But how many more sites like this are out there? How often do you find yourself logging onto ReverbNation to look for new music? And if the music is not accompanied by a video, how likely are you to spend your valuable time online listening to a song you’ve never heard before? My bet is not often.

Exhibit B
Given the current economic climate and having to deal with the always evolving music business, artists are in constant need to find new ways to reach out and connect with people. It’s not about the money. It never has been. If you forget about the money making music machine that was the 80s, a time when non talented plastic bands were being stamped out on a daily basis like cheap toys you find at the dollar store, you’ll find that musicians are all about making a deep connection. (BTW, a large portion of today’s music fits the model created 80’s. ) They’re putting it all out there for you. Raw and unashamed. They put their talents on the line for you to be the ultimate judge and to decide if their music is worthy of your time. Maybe it’s a band with a new groove or a singer-songwriter who is painting new landscapes with a few simple chords but an artist’s main concern is making that connection with you.

To show you how badly musicians wish to make that connection, several artists have gone as far as to give free online concerts. While I’m sure that this will soon become the standard for today’s new musicians, I’m not sure I agree with the precedent it sets. Why should I bother going out to see an artist if I can sit in my home and watch him/her perform right there on my monitor? Why should I bother purchasing an artist’s music when there’s a good chance that it will be made available to me on a music sharing site at some point? (By no means am I suggesting that you should download music illegally but it IS a fact of life if you are an artist.)

Yes kiddies, social media is a bitch. It can be an artist’s best friend or provide an avenue for his ultimate demise. My advice? Go out and see a new band or artist. Get up off your ass and away from your computer and get into a club that supports the music scene.
Make that connection. I await your comments. Let the beating of the drums begin.