Producer’s Spotlight: James Cannon

This may come as a surprise to some readers of this blog, but there are producers in our community who also work on music with [gasp!] instruments.  James Cannon, who is about as candid, unfiltered, and often provocative as possible on Twitter, is one of the most acclaimed producers in the a cappella community in recent years.  He is known for his big soundscapes and even bigger drums.  Cannon also produces hip hop, rap, and “bombass” music with instruments and synths.  

He was featured on a “Names You Should Know” segment of the February 28, 2010, episode of Mouth Off! and his work has been nominated for and won numerous CARAs, and been featured on BOCA, Voices Only, and SING compilations.

Please take some time to check out his various websites here, here, and here.

TOPIC: STUDIO

James, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your work both inside and outside of the a cappella community. I’m gonna start out with an opportunity for you to, as you clearly enjoy on Twitter, speak freely. What kinds of things really bother you in the a cappella production scene today?

I’m gonna try and keep this short . . . so probably only like 17 paragraphs.    :-)

1) I really dislike when groups or individuals rely on technology [especially on the back-end] as a substitute for recording and arranging well in the first place.

– Technology, like all things, is merely a tool which we should use to “enhance” good performances. Fixing some shoddy notes, cleaning up some timing errors, and whatever else is fine, but I’ve seen many instances of groups just going into the booth and literally not giving a shit and saying “You can fix it in the mix, right?”  That attitude leaves me livid, and those records always sound bad since that attitude permeates through every facet of the project.  Non-energetic backgrounds, shitty arranging that doesn’t go anywhere and barely, if at all, resembles the instrumentation of the song . . . I could start rambling, but I’ll go on.

– To be fair, I am not discussing groups that are using the technology in a purposeful and planned way. If you want to stack shit up like the [Tufts] Bubs, or really let the mixer have some fun with stutter-y shit, etc. . . . be my guest! In fact, pay me to do it! But generally, groups in this echelon have put their all into the project beforehand and you, as a mixer, aren’t trying to hide . . . crap.

2) I’m also not the biggest fan of how non-creative groups are with raising funds for albums these days.  Every group ever has a Kickstarter campaign.

– I understand that producing an album is expensive, but . . . back in my day, we had to find other means to finance our albums. It was hard work, but worth it. The tendency for groups now to sit about on their ass is annoying because it just doesn’t lend itself to the production side of the album . . . it bleeds over into the recording sessions . . . you can hear the apathy in the music. But I’m rambling again, so yeah, I’m just going to move on to the next question.

* To be fair, I’m not including groups like SONOS, etc., but . . . others. *

[Editor’s note: James subsequently sent me this link to a post on the terrific A Cappella 101 blog devoted to fundraising tips for a cappella groups]

What techniques, opportunities, and groups do you find promising in a cappella production right now?

The women and the high school groups are really bringing it these days. There is a lot better stuff coming out of the high school market than a lot of college groups I’m working with, which bodes well for the future of the scene and college groups, as a whole, over the next few years. 

Also, the female groups are really starting to go for it in their own right. You have female groups like The Boxettes that are rockin’ it or groups like Duke Out of the Blue, Elon Sweet Sigs, Divisi (though they have been at it for years) . . . and many more I’m not naming or may not know about. For me, these tend to be the biggest areas of growth recently. Creative and driven high school directors and powerful vagappella. I fux wid it.

Also, it’s great to start seeing more professional groups out there with a youthful energy that actually read well and read as *cool* to younger, more pop-friendly audiences. I’m probably the odd man out, but until recent years, aside from groups like Duwende, and the House Jacks, most pro aca was fairly. . . lame, at least with respect to reaching that sort of crossover mainstream success.  There were obviously more fringe groups out there like Ball in the House doing some cool stuff . . . and don’t get me wrong, I love the Swingle Singers and whatnot, but it’s great that now you’re starting to see groups that have more true *rockstar* or *popstar* images.  So, I think the Sing Off and such has afforded more opportunities for groups that are more in-tune to the pulse of modern music and things that are quote-unquote “hip.”

In particular, I would be on the lookout for some cool stuff coming from Threadbare and The Exchange pretty soon.  Both groups have all-star lineups and I mean . . . with [Christopher] Diaz and Fredo [Austin] involved, it’s definitely a talented bunch.  Also, rumor has it that some group called The Boxettes will be releasing an EP this fall, but that’s all just hearsay for now.

Shifting gears, I understand you were heavily involved in the album “Arrival” when you were a member of the Cornell Chordials. Was that your first serious experience with sound production? If not, when did you get started and with what type of gear?

“Arrival” was not my first “serious” experience with sound production.  I started playing around with sound recording and beatmaking when I was about 11 or 12 years old.  I played around with the HammerHead Rhythm Station WAY back in the day . . . you can probably still find it online. Hahaha, but when I “started” . . . it was with a 4-track cassette recorder, a couple Radio Shack microphones, and Cakewalk Home Studio like . . . 1 maybe? It was around ’98 that I started and really picked up in high school a bit when I recorded my boy band’s stuff that I wrote . . . which was awful . . . and some work with my high school jazz band that wasn’t too bad.

The Chordials record was pretty low-tech too, actually. Laptop, Rode NTK, Rode NT1a, Rode NT3, couple Auralex foam kits, and an M-Audio Fast Track.  It’s really about what you put into the gear, and not so much specifically about what that gear is. The performances we went for on that record were daring and I’m sure many of the group members at that time have a horror story or two about how demanding I was . . . I worked everyone pretty hard, but I think we put together something vaguely okay, maybe.

You’ve been called “clearly the best in the collegiate business with vocal percussion” by RARB reviewers. How do you go about finding the right sound for vocal percussion on a particular song or album, and is that the part of the mixing process upon which you spend the most time (sound versus sequencing/editing)?

I definitely spend more time  on the sonics of the percussion than the sequencing.  At this point, I’ve been sequencing drums professionally for like . . . 8 years, so it’s not all that difficult to break apart what’s happening. So, most of my time on drums, after ensuring I like the groove, is focused on making sure it comes out like what I hear in my head. 

The “right” sound is so variable. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to go after the sounds and sequences that are almost identical to the original tune . . . sometimes it’s more appropriate to go with something a little more weird or vocalized. 

The stuff I’ve done has varied from being very vocal, but out there stuff like spits and coughing and chewing cereal and gurgling saliva to stuff that’s literally sequenced out on a drum machine like the original songs often are.  It really just depends on the group, the song, and the project. The *right* sound for me lies somewhere between the original song and the group’s interpretation of same . . . where that line falls is highly variable.

I’m pretty quick in terms of sequencing.  Most songs have pretty repetitive patterns and I pick them up fairly quickly. Many times I’ll also put my own spin on stuff too. Gotta keep it fresh.

But yeah . . . most of my percussion time is spent designing the sounds and not so much on the actual sequencing. 

At the Boston Sings [BOSS] festival, you were on a panel where you mentioned the occasional need to replace or substitute for vocal percussion on a project with your own VP or digital drums. Have you had to do that often?

At least 75% of the time. Drum sampling, enhancement, and replacement is fairly common in the a cappella industry and even more so in the mainstream industry. Most drums are replaced on most commercial rock records these days and the same is true of a very large percentage of your favorite a cappella records as well.

I NEVER use “digital drums,” though . . . whatever that means. I do layout my percussion samples over a keyboard or drumpads for sequencing purposes, but everything . . . at least on a cappella records . . . is entirely vocal.

My goal is generally just to enhance the sounds that are recorded and sent.  Since a lot of the kids track themselves, the quality can vary wildly in terms of what is actually sent to create the percussion tracks as well as the techniques used to record them, etc. 

The kick may have a lot of air on it ’cause they recorded it without a pop filter or something, or the snare literally sounds like a fart . . . so you kinda beef up their VP with bits and pieces. 

Again, most other engineers will tell you the same thing here.

I know that a lot of your work comes in the form of either mixing for hire, or working on a full project from start to finish. Which do you prefer, and does it depend on the group?

That’s dependant on the group. I have a fairly specific hand when it comes to producing a record. There are things that I like in tracking, dynamics and energy being high on the list.  Some groups do not necessarily aspire to my “energy is everything” philosophy of producing a cappella records, but may benefit from the sonic stamps of my mixing work. 

If I can, I like to be involved from the start. . . helping to choose repertoire, offering guidance on direction and thematic elements, offering critiques on existing arrangements, etc..  I like to have control over the final product like that because then I can ensure that it’s musically “good” . . . though that’s fairly objective.

I can work in any capacity and it really depends on the group and their needs as well as their level of “comfort” with being produced by an outsider.

You’ve tweeted that you work with SONAR instead of Pro Tools. Why is that? Do you find any inherent benefit with SONAR for recording or mixing a cappella music?

I just dislike the workflow of Pro Tools. When I was trying out different DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) early on, I gravitated towards the work flow in Cakewalk and it just works well for me. Since everyone can exchange .wav files fairly easily, it’s not really a problem. I used to keep an MBox around with Pro Tools just to *maintain compatibility*, but I’ve recently sold off all of my Pro Tools stuff. Good riddance.

On that BOSS panel I mentioned previously, you sat surrounded by a deep team of aca-producers including Bill Hare, Dave Sperandio, the guys from Plaid Productions, Ed Boyer, and others. You all seemed very comfortable with each other, and I know that you are a member of the Vocal Source network. Do you find yourself getting competitive at all with these other a cappella producers?

HELL  YEAH WE GET COMPETITIVE.  It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys out here! Gun-slingin’ and all. THERE WILL BE BLOOD! PREPARE THYNSELF FOR THE ACAPOCALYPSE!!!! I AM THE REAPER. I drop bombs on ’em!

. . . except, not really that at all.

Really, it’s competitive in the way that brothers are competitive, ya know? At the end of the day, there is  a general respect among the producer community. We regularly share our *secrets* with one another and whenever we hear something that we think is disgusting . . . we go out of our way to let them know how much of a dirty, filthy slut they are.

*cough* Tat Tong *cough cough* John Clark *cough cough wheeze cackle snort vurp* Ed Boyer

but yeah, there is a kind of general brotherhood that’s great. I’ve learned a great deal over the years from everyone that I’ve worked with and have gained some truly wonderful friends in the process.

You’ve been praised for coming up with some pretty unique and exciting sounds on a cappella tracks. Is that largely a result of letting experimentation with plugins and/or outboard gear guide you, or do you have a fixed idea in your head before you start experimenting with the vocal tracks?

I have a weird brain. In terms of mixing a track, I tend to get a feel for what the big *moments* are and come up with sounds in my head that make sense with the song. So, things like guitar solos, or specific percussion sounds, or the sound of the bass, and the reverb on the lead, etc.

I hear what I want and then start fiddling with sounds. I’ve always been that way, though. I go about creating instrumental tracks the same way.  I’ll hear a melody and some sort of . . . instrument it should be. Then I’ll figure it out on the keyboards and look for the sound at the same time.

In the context of creating individual sounds in a cappella tracks. . . I always hear it before I start fiddling with anything. I don’t get how people could open plugins without at least a vague idea of what they’re looking for . . . you’re just kind of hoping for a miracle and that can only work so many times, I think.  That said, sometimes you’ll get some track from a client that should go in the mix and you have no exact idea of what to do with it . . . but you know the plugin you want to use for it . . . and you try a couple presets at random that sound good and something pretty much clicks.  Then you tweak to taste.

This doesn’t happen to me as much these days as it did 5 or 6 years ago, but sometimes you’ll get like somebody chewing cereal into the microphone or doing a bong rip and you know it should be . . . something . . . and it somehow becomes a helicopter.

*shrug*

Those are lucky times, though.

What are some of the best tracks you feel you’ve worked on in the past 6 months?

I really enjoyed working on the All Night Yahtzee album, especially “Never Alone” and “Lovegame.” Both of those came out exactly how I wanted. 

Also really enjoyed mixing the EP for Blueprint. . . those guys are a fun bunch and they can really sing well.  Their “Party Rock Anthem / Sexy and I Know It” mashup was particularly fun, but great EP. . . though I’m biased.

Also, last week I mixed a pretty awesome track for the Imperial College of London Techtonics.  Their cover of “Earthquake” was really fun and allowed me to really flex my creative muscles a bit.

What track(s) have you heard recently that you wish you’d worked on?

Fuckin’ “Phoenix,” [by Brandeis University Voicemale] man . . . perfect mix. Perfect arrangement. Heart-wrenching solo. John Clark makes me violently angry sometimes. Fucker is just so damn talented.

Also, REALLY would’ve loved to work on “Titanium” from [University of Chicago’s] Voices in Your Head.  Tat Tong did an excellent job (as is par for the course with him) . . . but damn . . . I remember seeing that shit live at BOSS for the first time. That’s all Imma say.

The Pentatonix cover of “Starships” or “Love Lockdown” are superb as well, and Scott Hoying clearly was a black gospel singer in a past life.  Either that or he’s fooling all of us and wearing reverse blackface. . . or he’s just disgustingly good at singing.

I know that you do a fair amount of work outside of the a cappella world. What are some of your favorite non-aca tracks and/or artists that you’ve worked on/with?

I’m a big fan of Chance Fischer. I’ve been working with him for about 3 years at this point, and he just kills anything you send him. His rhymes are smart, witty, and his hooks are pop accessible.

My favorite track that we’ve worked on together would probably be “The Lights (Unstoppable)” 

The storyline in those verses . . . smh.

Also, I’ve been working with Spits Nelson for about a year and a half as well. His current single, “Greatest Feeling Ever,” is one of my favorite beats that I’ve ever done.  And I like what he did with it. The track was a real collaborative effort with a fair amount of back and forth between us on arrangement, etc. 

Also, Dylan Owen is pretty dope. “Cold Wind Blowin” is a track I did with him about 9 months ago. I didn’t even send him a complete beat, it was just a drum loop and the main piano part. He sent me back a complete song that was dope like a week later. It inspired me to actually finish the beat and make it into something.

We’re looking to put out an EP at the end of the year. We’re both big fans of one producer / one artist type albums (guest feature verses are ok) . . . we both dug Skyzoo & Illmind’s “Live from the Tapedeck” as well as Saigon’s “Greatest Story Never Told” and Chance Fischer / Kleph Dollaz “Passport to Nowhere” EP as well as the original Asher Roth & Nottz Raw EP, to name a few, and after talking a bit we decided to make a go of it. I’m consistently impressed with the quality of the material we work on and it really inspires me to work that much harder to make the project something worthwhile. 

I also really like “The One That Got Away” by Fritzwa. . . I remember hearing the first laptop microphone recorded 2-chord mp3 she sent and knowing we had something and fleshing it out with  her was a great experience. 

Oh, and I’m going to be working with Alfredo Austin on some pretty cool stuff soon that I’m excited about. He sings pretty not terribly or something and the direction is really interesting.  Can’t say much more about that now except that I’m looking forward to working on it more in the coming months.

Is your heavy experience in a cappella a source of friction or conversation with other artists, or something you prefer to avoid bringing up because of any old-fashioned stigma (barbershop, glee club, etc.) that may exist?

I don’t go out of my way to not talk about it or anything, but I definitely don’t go out of my way to bring it up at all. A cappella is fairly helpful when writing background vocal arrangements for R&B or pop tunes and is a great tool especially in making little “a cappella breakdown sections” that are really cool.

That said, most people have a pretty nerdy view of a cappella. When people that I work with that I don’t know very well ask me what I do for a living besides producing, I tell them that I mix vocal music . . .  kinda like the stuff on Glee . . . and then move the conversation back to the instrumental music that we’re trying to create.

How (if at all) do the techniques that you end up using with a cappella groups translate to other types of artists and music that you produce?

I don’t really treat  a cappella and *real* music any differently. My goal is to make good music. . . no matter the medium of expression. To me, it’s all just signal and thusly can all be manipulated to make it do what you want. . . you just need to know what it is. . . and to a slightly lesser extent, exactly how to achieve it.

That was actually one of the goals of Next Level; to show that aca isn’t some totally exotic beast living on its own island . . . the same basic principles apply no matter how you’re creating the soundscape for them.

TOPIC: WORKSHOP 

You were recently involved with the Next Level Recording workshop with Sled Dog Studios in western New York. How did the workshop go? Was it pretty much as expected?

I was really happy with the results of the workshop. We created some pretty awesome songs and the participants got to be pretty hands-on for the whole process. The feedback I’ve gotten thus far has been fairly positive. 

We didn’t really have any real expectations for the workshop as none of us had actually been to any of the other existing workshops like soup2nuts or aca bootcamp. A few of the participants had been to those, though, and were still able to get something new and different out of Next Level . . . so I think it went not too bad.

We’re actually looking to potentially put on another, more condensed version on a weekend in November. We are trying to gauge interest now and move from there. Tat is going to be back in the States again for SoJam, so it all just kind of makes sense.

Did you discover significant differences or commonalities between your techniques and those used by fellow producers/instructors Tat Tong and Dave Longo?

At this point, I’ve been working with Tat going on 7 years, so we’ve been sharing techniques and such for years. It’s always interesting to me how differently we approach the material though even when using similar techniques.  It was great to share some plugins and tricks with one another.  Also, Longo mixes in Pro Tools . . . which neither Tat nor I use, so it was interesting for us to actually be sitting shotgun on the mixing end.  Was actually pretty cool to make Dave sweat with all the nitpicky tweak-y stuff that we kept asking of him.

But yeah . . . a lot more similarities in how we approach things. We all like loud drums, heavy bass, and cracking open the efx workshop.

Would you do a workshop like that again in the future?

Already looking into it!

TOPIC: PERSONAL

On Mouth Off, they mentioned that you went to college as an instrumentalist (reed player?) before getting involved in a cappella. A lot of instrumentalists get to college having never heard about a cappella music. Were you in that situation?

Yep! I wasn’t even peripherally aware of it before college. Well, I mean. . . I guess I grew up watching Carmen Sandiego, but I didn’t know it was anything that young kids did.  There are so many groups at Cornell though that it’s hard to stay ignorant of a cappella’s existence for long.

Are you ever in a position now (studio or otherwise) where you need to play an instrument?

All the time! Producing tracks for other artists involves fairly extensive keyboard use, drum programming, and I utilize an Akai EWI [Electronic Wind Instrument] when composing tracks as well since my first instruments were all winds . . . not keyboards.

You have also been praised (Mouth Off, RARB) for your singing voice. Do you ever think about getting involved in performing again?

Well, thank you kindly sir! As far as singing is concerned, there may be some secret projects in the works with a few previously mentioned folks, but I don’t see myself being up on a stage again anytime soon. These days, people ask me to rap way more than they ever ask to hear my singing voice anyway!

I’m not all that old, so I’ll never rule anything out, but for now I’ll be keeping myself behind the glass.

I also heard that you were once interested in law school. As a musician-turned-lawyer, I can tell you forgoing law school was a wise decision on your part. But, if you had to work in a profession other than music production, what would it be?

These days, if I weren’t producing I would still want to be involved in the music industry in some way . . . maybe as an A&R or something like that. Had I never joined that damn a cappella group I would probably be just finishing up law school about now.

James, thank you so much again for agreeing to do this interview. Are there any exciting projects you’ve been working on which we should be looking forward to in the future? 

Tom Anderson and I are collaborating on something pretty dope that, at least for now, we’re keeping a bit mum about; however, it should be really fun and more details will come soon enough. Traces, the co-headliner for BOSS is working with me to produce an EP due out this fall. We’ll have arrangements from Roger Thomas (Naturally 7), Tommy G (Committed), and Tom Anderson (Random Notes). I’m pretty excited about the potential for this.

Will also be co-producing a pretty powerhouse EP from a previous CASA festival headliner with Ed Boyer that should be dropping this fall.  And on the non-aca front, both Spits Nelson and Chance Fischer are preparing to release their albums at the end of the summer and I produced some tracks for them that I’m really happy with.

I think that’s it for now, but since I tweet about . . . everything . . . as soon as there is more cool stuff, I’ll be sure to let you know!

#TwitterFromTheShitter #p00psplosion #acappella #YouKnowYouLoveMe

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Don’t forget, you can check out James Cannon’s websites herehere, and here and he’s on Twitter right here.

Also, you can check out my prior interviews in the Producer and Professional series by clicking on the “Spotlight” category to the right.

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