Category Archives: The Music Scene

The Judging Process for AIM (Malaysian Music Industry Awards)

Just thought I’d share with you guys how the AIM judging system works, and also the role that the Head Judge (Ketua Juri) plays.

AIM LogoFor every category there are about 6 to 8 ‘judges’ who sit in a room to listen to all the submissions. These judges are experts in that given field. For example, the ‘Best Pop Song’ category might have people who are composers, lyricists, producers, artistes and Radio DJs; while the ‘Best Engineered’ award will basically be judged by sound engineers and possibly a few music producers too.

As you can imagine there are a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds, level of experience, and way of thinking… all sitting in the various rooms judging different AIM Award categories.

To add to the complexity of AIM judging, every Award has a different set of judging criteria that the judges have to give marks to.

So before the judging starts in every room the Head Judge will briefly explain every criteria to all the judges in that room. The Head Judge then leaves the room and stays out until or unless there is a problem or a point that needs clarification. For example, there was a query from the ‘Best Hip Hop Song’ room that a certain song was in the ‘wrong’ criteria because it was a Nasyid song. The Head Judge will then have to check if that was a mistake, and if not, to deliberate whether or not the Nasyid song qualified to be in the Hip Hop category.

Sometimes the Head Judge would also have to clarify and elaborate the various criteria used in some Awards. Example, what would ‘Effectiveness’ mean in the ‘Best Music Arrangement’ context. Or whether or not the suspected use of Autotune should affect the judging on ‘Best Vocal Performance’?!

I hope this clears up some misconceptions some may have about the AIM system and the role of the Head Judge. Do realize that AIM judging is different from other awards like AJL. It is a lot more tedious, technical and thorough.

Hence the very different role of the Head Judge which I personally think should be called ‘Keeper of the Rules’ , or something like that.

One of us didn't really do any judging. Guess who?
With the judges for one of the ‘Rooms’. One of us didn’t really do any judging. Guess who?

And no, the Head Judge aka ‘Keeper of the Rules’ does not give any marks for any AIM award. The role is a purely technical one.

If you took the time to read till the very end, thank you. In moving forward, I believe whoever is picked to be the AIM Head Judge aka ‘Keeper of the Rules’ should be someone who is still actively involved in the music industry (if you’re active you would probably have some nominated work, wouldn’t you?) and have the respect of all the judges involved.

Let’s continue to Make Music Real.

Yeah, Watch Your Tone!

Many years ago I found myself doing back-to-back ‘Reality Talent Search’ shows. The schedule then was grueling, I often found myself working on ten to twelve arrangements in a week… aside from the long studio sessions with the contestants and the countless emails from the producers of the shows.

Back then, the one thing that perplexed me was always that comment about ‘tone’ being the first prerequisite to being a great artist. I mean, I recognized ‘tone’ being important but being a musician myself, I often held ‘feel’ & ‘pitch’ on equally high regard.

Before I go any further let me roughly clarify what these 3 words mean in the music world. Vocal tone is the color, the character and timbre of your singing voice. Feel is the natural ability to inject some form of expression to the music. Pitch, on the other hand, is the ability to sing in tune.

Over the years working more and more in the studio and seeing how my productions have fared on the market, it has become quite apparent that tone is indeed a ‘make or break’ factor in how well the artiste does eventually.

Here’s why.

Tone is instant recognisability! Fans of Celine Dion, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza & Dayang Nurfaizah will immediately recognize the artiste even if they hear a new song for the first time. This alone is probably the best reason for all budding singers to start working on your unique tone. Wouldn’t it be sad if you had your first single released and everybody thought it was someone else? Someone more established?

Your tone is URGH!
Your tone is URGH!

A great tone is like a passport into people’s hearts. It’s almost like a great smile on a new acquaintance’s face that immediately puts you at ease when meeting for the first time. A horrible tone, well, will get people turning off even before they hear the rest of your vocal attributes. Now before you say “my tone, my prerogative”, please bear in mind that you sing to an audience. Unless of course, you’re totally ok singing to a crowd of one or two!

With the current advancement of technology it gets easier to fix pitch problems whether it be ‘live’ or in the studio. Even my 9-yr-old has heard of Autotune. No great mystery there!

Additionally, put in some hours into pre-production and a great producer can add a whole lot of expressiveness into an otherwise dead vocal performance. Sure, this is a little tougher to do, but doable nonetheless.

Tone, on the other hand, is all the artiste! You can’t fake a great tone. Worse still, with all the great microphones we have at our disposal, the flaws of a ‘less-than-desirable’ tone will be even more pronounced… more now than ever before.

whitneyhouston__120927161425Good news is… tone, once achieved, becomes a part of you. Granted, a great tone doesn’t come naturally to most singers. Not even to the great ones! I recently heard a very early recording of the late Whitney Houston and at first I didn’t recognize the voice at all. Sure, when I listened to it properly you could almost hear some of the now famous Whitney characteristics, but it was underdeveloped and kind of ‘raw’ at best. Point is, she must have worked on it a whole lot to become one of the world’s favorite voices. Consequently, that vocal recording of “I Will Always Love You” will be a part of music memory.

So to all budding singers, (actually this pertains to ALL instrumentalists too!) do take time to work on your tone. Build on your vocal strength with correct exercises, take care of your vocal cords, listen to your tone constructively, take up some lessons with a vocal coach, stop smoking of you have to, do whatever it takes… cos at the end of it all it’s your tone that will make people remember you, follow your career and be part of your fan base.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

If not for anything else, do it to keep your music REAL!

 

 

Can You Play?!

I remember the first day I set my eyes on the Berklee College Of Music in Boston. It had been a dream of mine for some time already and to finally be walking towards the music college of my dreams was certainly a surreal experience.
The picture above kind of depicts the first ‘scene’ that greeted me when I walked up to the college entrance.

It was towards the early part of Fall, so the weather outside was nice and cool. Students were ‘hangin’ along the corridors, presumably between classes. Some of them looked like genuine rock stars and some others looked like real jazz fraternity, complete with all the right swagger, attitude and lingo. Being a typical Malaysian I was quickly rather intimidated by all these ‘musicians’. I was thinking, “Man, they must be really good!” despite myself having raked up about 5 years as a working musician already.

The one thing I learnt from that experience? Turns out most of the characters I saw on that day were never the cream of the Berklee crop. Na, the good ones were inside, quietly practicing and honing their craft. They didn’t even wear the ‘correct’ clothes. ☺ But some of them were already amazing musicians.

Here’s another story that happened later on in my Berklee years.

I was selected to be part of the annual Singers’ Showcase concert. During that time, this was a showcase of the best singers and musicians that Berklee had to offer. And I was hand-picked to be the piano player! So on the first day of rehearsal I excitedly walked into the rehearsal studio only to find I was a little early, and there was only an African-American guy already sitting by the piano. As I walk towards the piano and start putting my things down, this was how the conversation went:

Singers' Showcase. Not your ordinary 'college' production!
Singers’ Showcase. Not your ordinary ‘college’ production!

Me: “Hey, Wassup?!”
Other dude: “All good. (Pause, and then in a condescending tone) YOU the piano player?”
Me: “Yeah”
Other dude: “Can you play??”

Now, how many of you know how to answer that calmly without getting intimidated? BTW, turns out he was one of the better singers that year! Rude as hell, but good nonetheless!

My point is this. As polite Malaysians we are often bowled over by ‘foreign acts’. Yes I’ll be first to admit there are amazing, more talented artistes and musicians from abroad; and we should really grab the chance to learn from them and get better ourselves. I myself am so thankful that I got a chance to learn from the best over the last one year. However, I have also seen the ugly side of Malaysians who have put some of the ‘less talented’ foreigners on a pedestal only because they come from the ‘other side’ of the world without even checking out the work these people have (or rather, have not) done. Sadly, from what I understand, this is not confined to only the music industry. What does that say about us?

Anyway, lest anybody start the ‘sour grapes’ chant, let me be clear. This is NOT about protecting the ‘rice bowl’. This is NOT about protecting local rights. If you suck, you suck! Too bad! Strive to get better. This is certainly NOT about jealousy or ‘dengki*’. I write this only to remind ourselves, to always try to look at one’s talent & ability first and not be too easily swayed by skin color, or even the charismatic jargon that some use to hide their inabilities. The ones who have put in their dues and are good at what they do, and they are the ones who deserve respect.

So why not hire the ones that CAN, because only then would you be getting your money’s worth.

Here’s to keeping the music REAL!

 

* dengki: envy, jealousy, spiteful

Learning From The Best

Writing this in my Jakarta hotel room, just after my first rehearsal for our 2nd leg of the David Foster & Friends (DFF) Asia Tour. It was quite a long rehearsal (6 hours), but we covered almost everything in one session. That’s a tough feat for anyone but here’s what I observed about the way things get done with a top international act like this.

IMG_2279
The band (L-R): Boh Cooper, Andy Peterson, John ‘JR’ Robinson, me & Jamie Wilson.

The first thing that struck me when I first played with these guys last year (for the 1st leg) was their attention to detail. Everything is performed in the right place, with the correct tempo, with the exact note-lengths (nothing held too long or too short), with the proper insinuations, and at the required dynamic volume. So although it was a relatively small band, it sounded big and tight!

Your ‘sound’ plays such an important part in a gig like this. No keyboard ‘factory’ patches, please! You make sure your sound is accurate, fat and impressive. I guess that’s the secret ingredient that makes a small band sound big.

Another key was preparation, right from the person who prepared all the charts to the musicians who all did their homework BEFORE coming in to rehearsal. With everyone knowing (roughly) what they were supposed to play, rehearsal became a ‘sharpening tool’ rather than a time to ‘learn stuff’.

Common courtesy is also very apparent in the way everyone always has a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ before and after every request made. There’s never a show of egos or tempers flaring although some of the band are certified music legends. Believe me, the number of local upstarts I’ve seen ‘losing it’ only prove that empty vessels DO make the most noise!

I talked about dynamics earlier but let me share something that happened during rehearsal. We were rehearsing a famous ballad right in the midst of a long grueling session, right about the time where it’s not closer to the beginning then it is to the end. Kind of like when you’re in the middle of a marathon where the adrenalin has worn off, and the finish line is nowhere in sight. Autopilot takes over and you’d be forgiven for going thru the motions, and this is a song that ‘everybody knew’. All of a sudden Mr. Hitman himself stops the music, and coolly says, “play with some dynamics, you m#&$*$!*”. Now, this had his Canadian dry humor dripping all over it, but the message was clear, and we never went into autopilot again. Not even during rehearsal!

Time! Now there’s another commodity that’s so treasured with these international acts. A 1pm rehearsal means we start playing at 1pm. I often wonder how come they can do this and yet most Malaysians just can’t? Is it really in our culture to be late for everything? Plus, there is hardly any time wasting. I found this next phrase quite amusing,

IMG_8057
Mr. Foster displaying his Bill Evans chops during one of our ‘long’ breaks.

“OK guys, let’s take a long 10 minute break”.

10 minutes? Long??!

Here’s another interesting story. Before one of our shows in Genting last year, we were talking & joking about mistakes that happen during shows and how some bandleaders impose a fine on mistakes. So I casually mention how some of our local musicians offer to pay ‘up front’ for their ‘mistakes’ even before the show started. The buoyant mood quickly shifted into annoyance, as these 3 phrases quickly followed:

  • “Obviously they didn’t prepare hard enough!”
  • “How can anyone do a show with an attitude like that?”
  • “I hate musicians like that, cos it makes us ALL look bad!”.

Talk about a change of perspective!

So that was a little glimpse of what happens behind the scenes at a DFF show. The funny thing is, it’s not just your playing skills that determines if you did a good job. Of course it helps that you have some skill on you, but it’s the other stuff I write about above that possibly earns you that second call. I guess that’s what differentiates the ‘1st call’ guys from all the others.

Maybe that’s what they call ‘professionalism’?!

Someone in the band commented, “If musicians came to the show, they would probably think this was an easy gig; but I think there are only a handful who would be able to pull it off.”

I’d certainly like to think so. 🙂

 

* Pic on top of page is me with keyboardist Boh Cooper, who is also MD to Peter Cetera. Top man, top musician!

 

David Foster & Friends has 2 shows in the Java Jazz Festival and another 2 days in the Motion Blue Club in Jakarta. We then move on to do shows in Bangkok & Tokyo.

Ready To Play?

Over the last few years, we have consciously made an effort to include new, young talented musicians and singers into the projects we do here at Cranky Music. Some have done extremely well while there have been a few who, shall I say, failed to impress.

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) a lot of the projects we do, whether they be studio or ‘live’ productions, are often rather ‘high profile’ with very little room for errors. For example, two of the live concerts we did last year were recorded for album release and another two were for international Heads of States. So as you would imagine the pressure can be a little intimidating even if you’ve been in the industry for some time. But since one of our goals here at Cranky Music is to develop and introduce new blood into the music scene, we go ahead and do it anyway albeit with a dose of caution thrown in. In this industry you are only as good as your last project.

Here’s what I’ve observed about the ones who thrive and do well.

They Come Prepared

3 of the 4 ladies of Crinkle Cut.
3 of the 4 ladies of Crinkle Cut. Came well prepared for their recording

Without exception, this is probably the one quality that all who did well possessed. They all did their homework prior to the very first recording/rehearsal. All of them already worked out their parts, prepared to the best of their ability and performed what was expected of them. When people do their homework, all that was needed was to tweak it here and there to make the music a little better. I even know of a few musicians who called their older friends who had worked with us to find out what rehearsal was like; so they knew beforehand what to expect in terms of pace, communication and our customary style of work.

They Learn the Material

This one’s almost the same as the point above except that it pertains more to the music at hand. As much as most of these young musicians are skilled, some of them might not be too familiar with a particular artiste’s repertoire or music genre. You would then really need to know the songs and the melodies beforehand. Contrary to what many might think, rehearsal is NOT the place where you learn the music. It’s where we polish what we already know. You learn your parts at home! Nuff said!!

They Mark Their Music

Another good practice of competent young musicians is the habit of marking whatever changes we work out during rehearsals. Stuff like changed chords, transpositions, added repeats, deleted bars and ‘where not to play’ are better noted on the music. With all the things that go on during a live concert, one would be hard-pressed to recall every single change that was made at rehearsal. Plus the fact that often we have up to thirty songs to do in a span of 3 days, so unless you have an elephant’s memory…

18-yr-old Marcus Leong (2nd from left), playing with the 'big boys'.
18-yr-old Marcus Leong (2nd from left), playing with the ‘big boys’.

Personality Matters. Get Along or Learn How to Play Nice

When a band works on a project, we spend quite a bit of time together… more so if we’re rehearsing for TV shows or going on tour. A typical TV shoot would involve more offstage waiting time than actually playing music. So everyone has really got to get along with each other. I recall an instance when we had a 2-week TV recording stint and by the 2nd or 3rd day, this ‘new guy’ was already getting on the nerves of the rest of the band. Certainly not a nice situation to be in!

 

 

I suppose all these ‘tips’ would come to naught if you never got ‘the call’ in the first place, right? Well the best way to get noticed is to work on your craft. Period! I’ll say one thing about all the young musicians and singers who have walked through the doors of our studio… they have ALL paid (and still paying) their dues. They have been practicing a lot, and it shows. I don’t think we’ve hired anyone based on anything but hearing them play. So to all you young musicians, get out there and PLAY.

One last thing! Forget what people say about it being a monopoly among the ‘established musicians’. If you’re good enough, you will be heard soon enough. However, the opposite also applies! So if you haven’t got ‘the call’, just work harder!

 

 

[Pic at the top (from left to right): Jae Sern, Fly, Joel, Aubrey, Derrick & Steve. This was Derrick & Joel’s first gig with the Cranky Music band]