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Anatomy of a Musical: Take 2

by Brian Dunning, Apr 08 2011

Two weeks ago I gave my perspective on the production of Skeptoid #250, The History of Knowledge; which wasn’t perhaps the most insightful because I’m not a musician. I was just the dude standing behind the microphone trying to do what he was told. Some of the comments on the web transcript of the episode were asking for more information about some of the dozen tracks specifically, and so Peter Zachos, who composed and produced the piece, answered. Here are Peter’s remarks, which should interest the musically inclined among you, with [my comments]:

Some people have expressed interest in the behind-the-scenes production of “The History Of Knowledge”.  I’m happy to shed some light on how it was done.  I work primarily in Pro Tools, using an extensive library of sounds and plug-ins to produce each genre of music.  I work out of my studio, ClickClack, in Culver City.  This is where we recorded Brian’s vocals, as well as all the guitars and backup vocals.

I’ll go through each track and briefly describe the process:

1. Caveman – This I just made up. Needed to give two feelings here: 1) tribal, and 2) dumb. So I tracked maybe 20 overdubbed takes of me grunting as different characters (I even went so far as to choose certain voices that sounded like more “leaders” of the tribe and others that were the sheepish “followers”.)  Native Instruments “Battery” provided the one or two drums. Then it was just a matter of tracking Brian.  When Liz came in to record her vocals for the opera and swing, she heard the Caveman track and started laughing, and we put her in the tracking room just for fun; the result is the naive virgin going “yeah!” Total spontaneous addition.

2. Gregorian Chant: I wrote this around an aeolian mode with a sharp-VI scale degree. The half-step really gives it an ancient quality. Brian did all his vocals live with NO AUTOTUNING…  I only needed to track his lines with my voice first.  He had a much easier time singing to an already existing track than going it alone.  I loaded a nice cathedral impulse response into Altiverb 6 to give us a nice sounding hall.

3. Renaissance – I dug into my Norton Anthology of Early Music, listened to a ton of this stuff, and settled on these chords. Very standard for the era. Native Instruments Kontakt has a nice harpsichord, though I eq’ed it a bit to make it sound just right. Also used a soprano and alto recorder.

4. Opera – Most of these orchestral sounds come from The Vienna Symphony Library; Brian provided some great lyrics for this, and I just read them over and over to myself until I began to hear them musically.  It starts as Queen Of The Night, from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflot”, and ends with Wagner’s Overture to “Tannhauser”. The recitatives in between is just me messing around with some classical western tonality. [It's cool that this actually includes a perfectly serviceable little libretto, even in its brevity - BD]

5. It is O, Susanna! the original by Stephen Foster, and our first track to feature the amazing and multi-talented Kenton Youngstrom on guitars. I always underestimate Kenton; I ask him to bring three guitars to the session; two acoustic and one electric… and I don’t even think about a banjo. Meanwhile, we get to this track, and he says “Aw, man, I should have brought my banjo!”  And I feel like an idiot for not asking him to just go ahead and bring all eight hundred of his guitars.  Kenton improvised all the acoustic on this track and lent it a wonderfully authentic flavor.

6. This is an Al Bowlly-type ditty that was most influenced by “You Took Advantage Of Me.”  There are dozens of lo-fi, gritty audio emulators, but in the end, the freeware Izotope Vinyl was just what I needed to get that crackling sound of an early 78 platter, though I did need some liberal EQing.  Listening to Al Bowlly recordings, it’s amazing how much low frequency remains in spite of the age of the original masters. I used Waves Renaissance EQ to emulate the curve.  Brian had the style down from the beginning, and tracked his vocals in just two takes. I found a beautiful celeste in the Vienna Symphony library that fit well into the track. [The "Mammy" tacked onto the end is an homage to a character created by the great Al Jolson, to which Al Bowlly sometimes gave such a nod. I liked it so threw it in there, even though it doesn't mean anything in this context - BD]

7. You can’t do WWII Swing without a nod to the Andrews Sisters, but believe it or not, the inspiration came from this incredible and disturbing video of the Ross Sisters: There’s a great misdirection in this production: strip away Elizabeth from the track and it sounds cheap and amateur. Her work is what makes it sound like the real thing.  I worked with her to get the unique intonation, note-sliding and bending inherent in this style of singing, and we did each harmony overdub one by one. Izotope Vinyl once again provided the lo-fi sound, though I let more mid-high frequencies in since it’s from a later decade. Brian did his lines in one take. [The part was named "Bing" in the score, but I won't make that claim. This piece poked fun at the martini-swizzling chauvinism of the day, as well as a quick shot at segregation - BD]

8. So…  James Taylor?  J/K….  This is probably my personal favorite from a production standpoint. Elvis recordings have a really difficult snare drum sound to emulate.  This was the best I could do.  Abbey Road 60’s drum kit, and the Waves API EQ.  I tried every compressor known to man, and in the end realized that it just sounded better without one, but it still wasn’t quite right.  Finally and quite by random accident, I placed the digidesign Lo-Fi plug on there and added just a tiny bit of distortion, and it worked.  The rest is all Kenton who really shines here and got that classic 50’s guitar tone just right. Brian did a fantastic Elvis as I knew he would. As before, I tracked my own version of the vocal for him to sing to, and erased it later when mixing.  But I’d left my “thankyouverymuch” at the end and it sounded more natural.  Brian kept querying me about his own “thankyouverymuch”; I think at some point I’ll need to mixdown another mix with his intact. [What some interpreted as "America bashing" in this piece was actually McCarthyism bashing - BD]

9. I can hear some Boston in there; also the four-part harmonies I did are from my love for Crosby, Stills and Nash (as well as America.) This was the only part of the whole episode that I had no initial idea of where to start musically.  I love prog rock and I would have liked to explore that territory, but hey, each of these segments had to be around a minute long.  Brevity is not one of prog rock’s strong suits.  Kenton did a great job with the guitars, though again I wished I’d asked him to bring a sitar. In the end I played a sampled sitar, as well as the Native Instruments B4 organ plug w/Leslie speaker. Brian came up with these great lyrics that mean absolutely nothing, and I muddled through something of a melody and tracked it for him.  Then he replaced my vocal with his and I overdubbed all the harmonies.

10. Since I grew up in the 80’s, this came easy to me. This resembles any corporate-80s AOR rock, but I liked the idea of combining Giorgio Morodor’s score to Top Gun with Sisters-of-Mercy-sounding vocals. (think the casino scene from Rain Man.) I found this great drum loop from Zennheiser samples; it sounded like a Phil Collins drum track, all compressed and gated and corporate. Then I layered it with Korg synth stabs and Kenton did a fantastic “Starship” corporate guitar solo.  In order to make it as slick and overproduced and annoying as possible, I chorused the guitar and then applied a doubler and then a stereo-spreader. Some of the drum beats come from classic drum machines that were in great use at the time, like the Oberheim DMX and the LinnDrum.

11. I confess. It’s Green Day, though the last couplet line is more Ramones than Green Day.  Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig has a built-in preset that’s a dead ringer for Billie Armstrong, so Kenton patched into that and overdubbed two identical guitar tracks, which I panned left and right.  The drums are a drum program called BFD, compressed with the Kramer PIE plug.  Brian tries hard to sound young, naive and stupid, and as he is none of these things, fails spectacularly. [I dispute that, I think the smell of hemp is palpable in my performance - BD]

12. Energy – I don’t know what I can say, really. This is the easiest music in the world to make. It’s the musical equivalent of making toast or a PB&J sandwich; hard to screw up. I just listened to a few Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga songs and followed suit, which is what those acts are doing anyway.  Brian wrote some great lyrics and I kept hearing the word “Energy” in my head and tried to feel its natural rhythm.  That’s how I came up with the chorus. From early one when we were brainstorming about the episode, I told him I had to include a part in this song where we list an assortment of woo.  So when it came down to it I wrote and performed the mini-rap in the bridge. But Brian jumps back in for the “Baby you balance my CHI”.  The delight on Brian’s face when he heard himself autotuned for the first time should have been videotaped.

It was a splendid time all around, and I can only hope to work on some great music with Brian again in the future. I hope this has been an interesting read; if you have even more detailed questions, I love tech talk, so feel free to email me.

Peter Zachos

The art at the top of this post will soon appear as the cover art for a full single of Energy which will be available on iTunes very soon. We hope you have as much fun listening to it as we had making it.

38 Responses to “Anatomy of a Musical: Take 2”

  1. 5secular4umanist says:

    The cover art reminds me of a Fleetwood Mac album, Rumours.

  2. ed says:

    New Skeptoid Energy, with Taurine, Caffeine and Ginseng!

    Feel the buzz!


  3. Jacob V says:

    I’m sure the women who read your blog will appreciate this cover art. Because you know, the skeptic community never has any problems communicating its message with women; especially the naked ones bowing in pre-fellatio supplication before nattily attired gents.

  4. Pam Ellis says:

    When do we find out the origin of the album cover idea?
    Right now, I see a naked chick at crotch level with a dressed dude in a power stance above her.

    And a glowing orb.

  5. Ed Graham says:

    Maybe a Buckingham Nicks / Rumors album compliation.

    Why did singers in the 40s yell, “HOY HOY” in every swing song?

    • Peter Zachos says:

      Maybe they’re saying ‘ahoy’ for the Navy boys, but it’s abbreviated, like ‘hoy, ‘hoy… But likely it’s just a fun vocalization that was germane to the genre and isn’t heard at all today. We should start a task force to bring “Hoy! Hoy!” into emo/screamcore.

  6. Jacob V says:

    Way to screen the comments boys. Wink, wink, nod nod.

  7. Robo Sapien says:

    The cover art at the top was clearly inspired by a bottle of Captain Morgan.

    When can I expect that .05 to hit my paypal account?

  8. Michael5MacKay says:

    The woman is posted a la one of the Cottingly (sp?) fairies photos. Otherwise Fleetwood Mac.

  9. IrisZ says:

    I generally enjoy your podcasts very much. However, I don’t like the musical ones. As soon as I realize it’s one of them, I’m hitting the button on the Ipod. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. I’m also appalled by this “cover art.” How could you possibly think such a sexist picture is okay? I’ve heard women are scarce in skeptical organizations. Is it any wonder if this is the way they are portrayed in skeptical “art”?

    • Alan says:

      Had the characters been reversed, please share your probable comment.

      • IrisZ says:

        I would still think it was ugly and demeaning. That would be my definite, not probable, comment. Suppose it was a person of color (of either gender) in the kneeling, submissive position. Please share your probable comment.

      • delphi_ote says:

        Centuries of sexism should not be factored into how the roles are viewed, of course.

      • Lynet says:

        Well, I, for one, would find that less demeaning, on grounds that, culturally speaking, we tend to view a sexually portrayed woman as having been demeaned much more readily than we do a sexually portrayed man.

        It’s possible for a women to be portrayed sexually in a way that challenges the “sexuality is demeaning to women” idea, but this is not that image.

  10. Alan says:

    A fascinating insight into the process.

  11. delphi_ote says:

    A horrible mistake. Do I get a nickel?

  12. Peter Zachos says:

    The Skeptoid Energy cover was influenced by an album which featured these lyrics sung by a man and woman together:

    “When times go bad, when times go rough, won’t you lay me down in the tall grass and let me do my stuff?”

    The free-love tone of the 60’s & 70’s rorschachs as misogyny when it’s out of context. Sung by a man alone, it’s misogynist. Sung by a woman alone, she’s portrayed as a slut. But together… ah, sweet love.

  13. Peter Zachos says:

    IrisZ says:
    >>>I’ve heard women are scarce in skeptical organizations. Is it any wonder if this is the way they are portrayed in skeptical “art”?>>>

    If this were valid, then women would be scarce in just about every arena of commerce, entertainment, and social setting. The portrayal of women in images or media and the subsequent effect is in no way limited to merely the skeptical community. Yet women are not scarce from most other industries of art/entertainment.

    Further, this is a parody of a depiction, not a depiction. Satire is satire even when an audience doesn’t recognize the satire.


    • IrisZ says:

      Your first paragraph is just rambling nonsense and makes no point. Regarding your second assertion: it’s piss poor satire, in my opinion.

  14. Peter Zachos says:

    Max says:
    >>>But your cover has a naked lady on her knees.>>>

    If Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumors in an era where the record label knew they could mass-market and sell a record with a naked lady on the cover, believe me they would have. But they were more interested in subtext; hence Stevie Nicks has her stockinged leg draped over MIck Fleetwood who has a pair of brass balls dangling surreptitiously between his legs. Is this a positive portrayal of women in album cover art? Are the two lovers? Is she just a whore? Again, it’s Rorshach. whatever the viewer brings to the table.

    • IrisZ says:

      Again, non-sequitur. Bottom line: many men are blind to the fact that this type of portrayal is offensive to many women, and their response is to tell us our reaction isn’t valid. The fact that your mind goes to “Is she just a whore?” tells me all I need to know about what you “bring to the table”.

  15. Jeff says:

    Certainly glad to see it’s *all about the packaging* of the message and not the message. Typical unfortunately. Attach a meaning when there is no proof oh intent, sprinkle in some ad hominem attacks… sigh… all very passe’. Really shows a lack of understanding of scientific skepticism. I hear women are scarce as well in the movement. Could it be they immediately alienate everyone around them by pointing out all the wrong and none of the rights?? Maybe it’s because they are the first to point out meaningless and flawed arguments about what is and is not misogyny (which is the hated, dislike, or mistrust, of women)? Apparently misogyny the hatred of women as define by women and therefore is anything any particular women does not like… excellent and really science oriented thinking there.

    • IrisZ says:

      Jeff says: “Could it be they immediately alienate everyone around them by pointing out all the wrong and none of the rights??”

      Well, of course! It’s all the women’s fault for standing up for themselves and picking on the poor men! Oh, and thanks for defining mysogyny. Your syntax could use a little work though, just FYI.

    • Catherine says:

      Hi Peter,

      Did you make the choices in what went on the album cover? If so, can you explain what you meant by having a naked woman on her knees? I’m interested.

      Are you trying to defend your cover by comparing it to hair metal band covers of ages past? Because those albums are marketing towards a young male audience. The women who are fans of those bands either don’t care or like the band enough to put up with sexism on their album cover.

      Whereas when you’re making media for a skeptical audience, I think you’ll find things are a bit different. Most women who are skeptics are also feminists due to being freethinkers, and view media through a different lens, one which believes that the way women are portrayed in the media affects women’s rights, the way women behave, and the way men behave towards women. Regardless of whether you believe in the science of this statement (if you don’t, I can point you to some peer-reviewed studies), you have offended your female audience.

      Don’t believe me? Just read what they’re saying on Skepchick.

      • Peter Zachos says:


        >>>Did you make the choices in what went on the album cover?>>>


        >>>Are you trying to defend your cover by comparing it to hair metal band covers of ages past?>>> No. Fleetwood Mac is, I feel confident saying, all-the-way-across-town from Hair Metal, both in their material and their subsequent fan base. In fact Fleetwood Mac were renowned for having a bountiful female fan base.

        >>>Whereas when you’re making media for a skeptical audience, I think you’ll find things are a bit different.>>>

        I find the biggest difference is that freethinkers will more readily enter into debates about album cover content.

        >>>Regardless of whether you believe in the science of this statement (if you don’t, I can point you to some peer-reviewed studies), you have offended your female audience.
        Don’t believe me? Just read what they’re saying on Skepchick.>>>

        I read you loud and clear, and have no disputes with you abou either the studies or the portrayal of women historically in media. I suggest that I haven’t offended the “female audience” in toto, since I personally know female fans of Skeptoid who are delighted with the artwork and recognize the parody.

        Few people like to admit it, but art is not, nor can ever be, degrading, no matter how abhorrent it may appear to some. Only people can be degrading; thus, it’s incumbent on us to ask the artist of his/her intentions so we can gain proper context.

        – peter z

  16. cheglabratjoe says:

    How on earth is this a ‘satire’ of Rumours? Even as merely a reference to Rumours, it’s vague at best (no balls, no dancing, different background). What exactly do you folks think is being “satirized” about the Fleetwood Mac album art?

  17. Pam Ellis says:

    If the cover was chosen without knowing that the cover itself would be an issue people were interested in….then someone has been in a closet for a few decades.

    I kind of feel this cover was created to get attention…ANY kind of attention. I could actually see other people using almost the same cover and it being funny. But Dunning has a bit of a history in this area. So he is less likely to get leeway.

    So again, why is the chick naked in a supplicating pose to Brian Dunning? Or did he just want that on a cover for some reason?

  18. Ed Graham says:

    Everyone seems to have the wrong impression of the cover. The woman being naked proves that the man has already satisfied the woman orally.

    She is waiting to return the favor.

    You all have such dirty minds.

  19. Daniel says:

    Am I the only one reminded of Spinal Tap right now? They had this exact same argument about the cover of their album, “Smell the Glove.”