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ronws

How to give and take criticism

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It's been a while since we had a thread about critiques. How to give them but more importantly, how to receive them when you have posted a song.

As you may know, it is a premium or charged service to have your singing submissions reviewed here by experts.

Edited to add: just realized this. If you wanted an expert opinion on your singing and went to a vocal coach near you for that appraisal, you would have to pay for a lesson to get that. Robert's fee for a year is less than the cost of one lesson. Let that thought sink in for a minute. If the poster wants an expert opinion, they can get one. People here are concentrated on singing, above all else.

end of edit.

What if you get what you asked and paid for? Someone actually listens and offers some things to change or improve?

The worst thing to do is get defensive. I have been there, done that. Live, most everyone has liked my singing and applauded. How could the people in this forum not appreciate my total awesomeness? Well, fortunately, my parents let me know how worthless I was, so, I don't start out with an inflated opinion of myself. But I would still get defensive because I am good at fighting. You know, if I was good at singing as I am at fighting ....

Anyway, you have a few options for receiving criticism that will go a long way for you.

First, accept the pointers and work on the things suggested. Forget for a moment that someone is taking time from a busy day to review and compose a reply. Just take the advice at face value. You asked for a critique and advice, got what you asked for, now use it. Even if you think it sounds weird like "find your little boy voice." Sometimes, during training, you are going to make some sounds that are funny. Part of my "training" is making funny voices. Either scrunching up my voice to sound like Minnie Mouse or creating a lisp and a hick accent and doing something similar to Hayseed Dixie. It's a good way to stretch the voice. So, don't be afraid to try the advice.

Or don't. You can think, well, they just don't appreciate what I did. And you may be right about that. And getting defensive and abrasive and frankly, being a whiny butt won't make people like it any more.

Because here are some impediments or accelerants, depending on your results, of posting here. Each person has his or her own taste and sensibilities. I also think a number of people are mislabeling tonality shift as pitchiness because it sounds like a cross-phase beat in there. And, even if someone has the same hearing range as you, they can only hear the recording you posted, not you, live and in person.

The only person from this forum who has heard me sing live is my brother, Slstone, and former moderator Aaron (he is originally from Texas and came back here to visit family, once or twice.) Even in phone conversations with Bob and Adolph where I may sing a snippet over the phone, that is a phone, not live and in person and phone mics are very limited and have a compressor circuit that squashes everything into a mid range about a few dB wide.

So, let's say you think you did fine and others are just being too critical for the sake of being critical. And that could happen. So? To quote the song from the Disney feature, "let it go, let it go ..." Like the military strategist realizes, not every hill is worth fighting for. Pick and choose what to argue about, if at all. And certainly you can ask for clarification. Whether you get that clarification or not, I don't think asking for clarification of a critique is argumentative or defensive. But I had realized that if I write "What do you mean I was off pitch? Where?" Reading that, you think I am getting in your face and flexing my biceps. Not the case at all. I am looking for a landmark. A turn of phrase or a timer mark. If I know where to look, that can sometimes lead to the solution, which is often a vowel sound that is not working.

Also, while on the subject of recordings, since that is all we have to hear each other, I am going to have to repeat the words of Robert and even GSoul, as well as others, such as my brother, who is a recording pro, with his own label, studio, the whole nine yards. You need to make the recording as good as possible with what you have.

And that means singing the song more than once, if necessary. A number of songs I have always sang well live have problems when recorded and I left those problems in, at first, not hearing them and being from the mind set of live performance, where stopping is death, there are no do overs. In recording, it is the opposite. Recording is all fake. From the first moment you change eq or put on a compressor, it is altered and no longer "reality." 

"But I am a singer, not a recording engineer." Well, now you are both. You are the one who created and "produced" this recording, good or bad.

"Well, I only get to sing this once at midnight on Tuesday because my family laughs at me and it is my only time." Okay, so make that time work for you. And I am not making fun of that. I have often structured my recording time around times when my wife is busy with something else so as not impact our time together. We all have family and don't have all day to record.

So, aside from improving recording skills and work flow, which can be and often is another thread, you can take the advice and follow it. You can take the advice and ignore it. You can simply thank people for their time. And remember that what they hear is based on the recording you provided. Can you change something about the recording or the mixing and editing you did to it after sound files were done?

The one thing you don't want to do is get defensive. Even if it is a natural instinct, and it is, because we are great apes (technically chimpanzees) swinging from the trees and fighting over bananas. You raise your hackles and beat your chest and the ape opposite you does the same. It is how we impress prospective mates to continue the species. (I enjoy that image. Let that sink in a moment ...) You cannot belittle or harangue someone into liking your singing or your recording of your singing.

Let's say that you get some responses, all positive, but not many. So, live with that. Not everyone in the world is going to like you or the song or your singing of the song. It's our simian nature, again. And the few people who did respond and responded favorably, well, that is your audience, no matter how small. Accept success at all levels and grades. And review what it is that you did that garnered applause. Firstly, a song that really fits your voice, especially if it is a cover song. Second, well-rehearsed and recorded, not a dud note in there. And you sang it like you wrote the song. Try to repeat that, ad infinitum. To quote Ricky Nelson from the song "Garden Party," "You can't please everyone so you've got to please yourself."

And what if we just want to showcase? There is not a separate showcase section but I don't know if it would help. We can still showcase in the review section and a number of people do. What if not a lot of people care for your showcase? Well, let me be a bit abrasive and say, "well, boo-hoo for you. Here is a tissue to blow your nose." In the real world, you could produce and release an album and have the great un-washed public not buy it, either. Famous stars with way more talent, work, and gear than you have spent a million dollars, literally, on albums that tanked right from the start. Launching right of the end of a dock and straight down into the water. What is the difference between them and you? They don't quit. Winners never quit. They fail as often or more often than others but they don't quit, ever.

And what if someone reviews and simply liked it and you feel that was not enough of a review? Well, excuse me, but most people are gracious to accept applause and take it as a sign that they did things right. Try to be one of those people. Don't assume that because you think you have a problem that others will think so, too.

You do not hear yourself as others hear you. That is a fact, whether you like it or not and you cannot change that fact no matter how stubborn or old or young you are. Just get over it.

Also ask yourself what it is that you need from here. You could have all the applause from all the singing experts here. Let's say it's a grand slam. Everyone likes it. Great. That does not mean that it will be a success as a professional recording. And conversely, you get panned here but could sell platinum on the open market. So, go and sell platinum. It is nice to have the accolades and kudos from one's peers but what do you want to do with that, other than be well-liked in our group, awesome as it may be (and I am not being sarcastic)? And you could get all the applause here and be a recording success. So, go and do it. Others have. Keith Goehner and his band Drop Head have a major release. 

And so does Adon Fanon and his band Ghost Ship Octavius and that is an awesome album and yes, I bought it, including the signed poster. It was worth my hard-earned money.

Something else I thought of. Sometimes, you do a cover, with either a backing track made to sound very close to the original and in some cases, is the original backing track (producers these days have another revenue stream from making pre-master stems to sell to karaoke sites, so you are paying for the legit use of the music and only have to pay copyright if including it on your album, for sale, but that is a whole 'nother thread) and is, in other cases you and / or some friends creating a new recording with your own instruments and you do it well but it is not well received, especially here, because you don't sound like the original. That is also okay.

There are a number of cases where a cover of a song became more well known and liked than the original. Nearly every Bob Dylan song went further as a cover from someone else. To some extent, same with Ray Wylie Hubbard. "Redneck Mother" was a huge hit as a cover song done by Jerry Jeff Walker. Shinedown's cover of "Simple Man" has been as big a hit for them as it was for Lynrd Skynrd and these days, I see young'ns doing a cover of the cover.

So, you do a song here and you don't sound like the original but you sang well and even you know that you sang well and it doesn't get a lot of traction. That's okay, this just wasn't the right audience, this time. We may be experts in singing but are human, nonetheless. You could still go big with it in the public place. At least you did not have comments that would seem detrimental or hard to take.

Again, I think it is good to define for yourself your purpose in singing, the purpose in being here.

Next, I want to talk about giving critiques, if I may be so bold.

 

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I am not a singing expert or voice coach or teacher of singing, I have no program, am not certified in any singing program to teach it or singing. I am always learning.

That being said, how can we give critiques that can help? How much "Simon Cowell" do we need to channel? Granted, he was abrasive and rude but he was also controlling the reigns of a multi-million dollar recording contract and like any business, can only invest in good and doesn't have time for a total and complete wreck at the start.

It's hard to express or understand inflection of voice in the written word. When we tell someone we did not like a recording, it helps to remember that they cannot hear us speak. And it may help to remember that you want to distinguish that while you found problems with the singing, the individual is a good person. That is, while it is important to be blunt and honest in the actual effort of helping others who would NOT be helped by sugar-coating problems, being rude is not necessary and can, in fact, reflect negatively on this forum. Just like we only have recordings to hear each other, we only have written words to judge this environment.

If there is a problem you can spot, try to offer some hints and suggestions to fix it. The generic advice of "get a coach" doesn't help as much as we would like it to. And yes, there are people who want advice for free. Well, now it costs. Granted, we as fellow reviewers do not directly receive compensation for reviewing but if the fees collected paid the operating costs of the entire forum so that the entire forum would not have to need a premium charge, is that not a good trade-off?

And you might think, well, I could start a forum and collect for reviews. Well, go ahead. No one is stopping you or could stop you. And good luck with that, really. And you will find out what it costs to pay a hosting service and a platform and how ad dollars only go so far. But you put up ads to get sponsor dollars and then people complain about the ads. It;s like radio. Broadcast radio, you have to endure commercial ads because that is what pays for the broadcast. Sat radio? No commercials but you pay a premium fee for it, which pays for the broadcast.

And then you could put up with any number of people coming in and thinking they run the joint.

Here is something for both reviewers and posters. Not everyone is into your genre or song choice. myself included. What if someone does a song and they do it well but it just does not inspire you to comment? That happens a lot. It has happened to me. I know some obscure songs and artists and am I am lucky to get a comment, usually favorable and I leave that be. And, that is what I get for posting a song that almost no one knows. So, are we better off not posting anything if our only comment was "I did not care much for it"? I think so. Sometimes the polite and better thing to do is not say anything at all. And that is something posters need to accept, as well.

I know a person who posts stuff and always does well but I don't always comment, especially if the recording didn't move me. Nothing wrong with the performance or recording. I don't have to comment, even though people are looking for comments.

And how do we deal with any number of new posts, where the section can get inundated with new posts? I don't know.

Probably the best thing I can think of when giving someone advice is to talk as if I were standing right in front of them. I know we are all tough guys and tough love and all that. And while any number of people will ask that you give direct and pointed advice so they can improve, you can present it in a way that is not degrading or puts them on edge. It is not sugar-coating, it is being direct and honest in a helpful way. So, yes, we as reviewers can be better. And being an expert does not mean that the expert does not have something new to learn, even if it is how to deal with other humans. I am not impressed with someone who might think that because he or she is an expert, that gives license to behave in a confrontational or abrasive manner.

And if a poster interprets the response wrongly and gets irritated, take the higher road. You don't have to respond to that. You already gave your wisdom and advice.

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So, more advice for posters and I speak from my own comedy of errors, missteps, misadventures.

The recording. It is all that we have to hear you. So, it does need to be as pro sounding as you can manage. That does not mean that you have to be an award-winning producer. But you can incorporate the basics. For the moment, I am assuming you already know the song you are singing, forwards and backwards.

Rule #1, make a clean recording. Forever and ever, amen. Thank you and good night ....

In the gear store here, there are home recording bundles you could buy that might save you money instead of buying each piece separately. But let's say that you are very limited in budget and can only afford one mic. Get a condenser mic and they are not expensive. You can find really good ones for 90 dollars or less. The Samson kit, which has two capsules is like 88 dollars but you can buy just the mic for 40 dollars and there are professional engineers who are recording albums with it. As in albums for professional release.

You need an interface with direct monitor to avoid latency (signal lag) that is in most DAWs or recording software suites. The cheapest is m-audio m-track, originally made by the people that developed Pro Tools. And a pair of headphones. You can find gear cheap on ebay, if you wish. And while shipping may take a while, you have time to rehearse your song or read the manual on your DAW.

I started with Audacity, which is free, but a bit awkward to use. I upgraded to Reaper and paid the 60 dollar license. It gets free updates through 2 versions. I started at 4.1, I think. So, I get automatic updates to 6.1. Usually procedural and file management updates. An awesome set of plug-ins recommended and used by Glenn Fricker at Spectre Sound Studios, part of Spectre Media Group. He records and mixes metal. Reaper is a free download with a trial period. After the end of the trial period, it still runs but you get pop ups inviting you to pay the license. At 60 dollars for small time use and pro sales less than $20k, it is a great deal. There is no difference between trial and paid. It is the same fully functional DAW and people such as Glenn Fricker use it to record professionally.

One more bit of "Glenn" advice. Do not cup the mic capsule. Most mics are cardiod pattern. That means they pick up what is directly in front of the mic and reject what is to the sides and behind it. In dynamic mics, this is accomplished by ports behind the diaphragm that are tuned to be opposite phase and cancel each other out. If you cup the mic, you block these ports, you stop that ability and turned your expensive dynamic mic into a crappy omni-directional that picks up everything and your voice now sounds wimpy. Ideally, your mic should be in a holder on a stand, with your hands nowhere near it. Even condenser mics have a back plate and you can face that back plate to something you want to reject but if you cradle or cup that, you now have something that rejects nothing when what you wanted was just your voice to be picked up. Glenn even has a t-shirt to reiterate this point. A condenser should be on a stand and if you are using a dynamic, hold it by the barrel and leave the grill completely clear. As he points out, ever notice how guitarists who play guitar and sing at the same time always have good sounding vocals? It is because their hands are too busy to cup the mic, which is on a stand. Unless, of course, your desire is to have your voice sounding like pureed doggy doo-doo.

Don't sing too close to the mic, especially if you are singing a high and loud part. It's the "proximity effect." The closer the mic, the more bass signal in a tone gets picked up. But you can also overload the mic.

Next, when you adjust the gain stage for the mic on your interface, have an armed track (not recording just yet) in your DAW. Start with the gain knob at zero. Sing the loud and high parts. Turn it up until the meter in your DAW, not the LED in your interface, but the level meter in the track in your DAW goes to about -18 dB for a loud song and no louder or higher than -12 dB on a soft song. You will need that head room for adding effects, later, which will add some volume. It is way easier to turn up the volume on a quiet track than to fix clips on an overloaded track. How do you fix clips and distortion? Start over with proper levels, that's how. It will take less time.

You will read a bunch of stuff from people saying that you need to record as "hot" as you can. That was fine for recording to analog tape. Digital does not have that loss and there is no need to clip yellow, let alone red.

And you can lean to the mic for low soft notes and lean away for loud high notes, and also sing slightly off axis. And spend a few dollars and get a pop screen so your p's and b's don't explode in the track.

If you do this one thing, a decent condenser mic into an interface with live monitor and adjust the input level to not get into yellow, you have accomplished rule #1 for about 99 percent. Now comes the hardest 1 percent.

 

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Don't let a mistake stay in the track. I know. I have had to do a few different takes on songs I have sang for decades but mess up when recording. Everyone, even Saint Dio, makes mistakes. The difference is he and his engineer did not keep the mistake. Nor do you. It doesn't matter if you sang it once or a dozen times. Just make it good.

That is 100 percent of a clean track that you can start mixing.

In addition, I would add my own preferences for song submissions. I don't want to know how long or little it took you to record. Just stand up unadorned and present your stuff. It might sound great. Because that is all we have to hear. If you say that you recorded once on the fly, you invite criticism that you did not spend enough time on it, even if it was good. It is possible to get it right the first time. But if someone tells you that you did not take enough time, whether that is germaine or not, you invited that by saying how long or little it took you to do it. Same with having a cold or being tired. Don't say anything. It may have created a tone that worked. Later, if asked, you can reveal some of the conditions of the recording. I want to admire your singing and recording, not how awesome you are for getting it one shot. Or, likewise, having to tell you that a little more time would have helped a lot.

The only different reason for posting is that you have a problem you want fixed, in which case, record it fresh with no editing or mixing or effects. Then, yeah, it's okay to record, export and link up in less than an hour. Because now you are working on a specific thing instead of a song, in general.

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And, as stated in the banner area at the top of any page here, put your song file, preferrably an mp3, on a file-sharing site that gives you a link to that player page. Do not provide a file download link. We do not want to download every file that ever was and take up room on our computers. And downloading files increases the risk of viral infection. So, if you posted a song and someone has to download to hear it and you have not received a response, that is usually the reason. Soundcloud, box.com give you links to a player page. From the player page, someone can just hear the file but also have the option to download, if they wish to do so.

Posting a player page link goes a long way to getting your song reviewed. And you can avoid problems if you will take the time to review your own thread and try the link and make sure that it works. Don't just start thread, post, submit, then log out. Give it a few more minutes. Then you can vamanos a la Ristorante para comida (y cervezas.)

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Thanks Ronws, I would just add one thing. If there is a specific problem you "the Poster" want to address and get help on, State it clearly so you can get feedback on that problem or question instead of a general post of good job or sorry that doesn't work.

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Good point, MDEW, and that brings us back to review and critique or showcase. A showcase is where you just want to present a song that you liked. As opposed to needing constructive pointers. For example, the poster could say, "to me, I think I sound weak in the chorus where it goes from low to high. I am ok on the low, okay on the high. But the transition between is causing me concern."

That would be an awesome question to answer because it is detailed instead of just saying "What is wrong in here?"

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Another thing about critique, one that might certainly bring debate and, oh well, feces occurs.

Song choice. I think anyone can sing any song. However, I think, they should not sing every song. Some songs are going to sound good with your (in general) voice. Other songs? Not so much.

I think, if we really want to help singers develope, we should not be afraid to say that while yes, the singer technically sang the song, maybe in the original key. this song does not match their voice or mastery of technique, at this time.

I task myself, all the time. Some songs that I like to sing but even I can hear that it just doesn't sound right in my voice, maybe because the original is so strong and iconic. And that is okay. The greatest singers we all have admired do not record for public release, every song they have ever sang while doing dishes on a Sunday. They record and perform only the songs that work right in their voices. And when doing a cover, will change a song's key and arrangement to suit them. That is a cover, rather than a tribute. My favorite example is Dio's cover of "Dream On" by Aerosmith. And he only did the one song. He didn't try to do that whole Aerosmith catalog.

So, are we helping if we say, "Dude, I know you like the song and you have got passion, but it is just not working, with the original still in mind"? 

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Yes, good topic. 

When you ask for feedback, be prepared to completely remove all your pride. Expect the best, but be prepared for the worst. If it's the later, hold your head high, keep your chin up. Then with humble disposition, go work on it. Refuse to lose and be defeated.  

When it comes to working on becoming a better singer, a big part of your success is predicated on your endurance and tenacity to keep going and try again, and again, and again. If you have good techniques and train smart, you will eventually win and get it.

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