Virtual Band: Technology Breaks Down Barriers to Collaboration
Dean Brantley Taylor is a songwriter and producer. He also has chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which makes it hard for him to leave his apartment, much less sing or play an instrument. It’s even hard to simply listen to music, he says. “But, I’m in a band. Hallelujah!” he exclaims with a resounding euphoria you wouldn’t expect from someone afflicted with such a condition.
You might be wondering how that can be. How can someone who can’t play or sing, because it affects them so negatively, be in a band? Well, rather than wallowing in his own misery, Taylor has embraced modern technology and found musicians who were willing to help him realize his musical vision.
Taylor’s “band,” Mad July, also includes producer/multi-instrumentalist Marc Blackwell and singer Juliet Lyons. Musically, they are a pop-friendly rock band that sits somewhere between Evanescence and Kelly Clarkson. Members’ musical influences include bands like Garbage and Florence and the Machine.
They’ve received accolades like many other bands do. Their song, “The Night’s Heart,” was nominated for Best Alternative Song and Best Female Vocal at the 2013 Hollywood Music in Media Awards and their album Riding Gravity (July 2013) quickly hit #2 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases charts. Yet, despite such achievements, you might not realize while listening to Mad July, that something separates them from your average band. While most bands get together to write, record, and produce music, Taylor, Blackwell, and Lyons, have never written, rehearsed, or recorded a single lick of music in the same room together. Not once. Mad July is entirely a product of modern technology and the Internet.
Taylor lives in Denver, Colorado, and has a Ph.D. in civil engineering, but can’t work because of his condition. He’s been disabled since 1999. Lyons lives in the Bahamas and makes her living as a recording artist, songwriter, and composer. She has a BM in vocal performance and BME in choral music education from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.
Lyons initially got into music as a performer in musicals. “I was in love with opera at the time and was training for a career in classical music,” she says. “I ended up deciding to completely change direction.”
Blackwell lives in Mount Prospect, Illinois, and is an e-commerce operations manager at Motorola Mobility. He toured with a regional band called Mike and Joe from 1995-2007, playing an average of 175 shows per year.
As for their ages, well, Taylor admits he was subtly hoping to duck that question. “I rarely know the exact ages of my collaborators, but by their pictures and bios, I can surmise that most are over 30, with a few over 60,” says Taylor, speaking of the many people he’s worked with over the years. “One was 17. I like the fact that I don’t know exactly how old we all are—all that matters is how good the songs work.”
Taylor is the driving force behind Mad July. He started writing songs in 1999, and since he can’t get out much, he went online in 2003 to try to collaborate with other songwriters and musicians. He joined the Taxi forum (http://forums.taxi.com/) in 2006 when it was still very new. “For years, finding collaborators was slow going,” he admits. “Then I met Marc Blackwell on the Taxi forum in 2008. We hit it off right away and have collaborated on over 40 songs and two albums.”
Lyons entered the picture in February 2009 when she responded to Taylor’s request on the Taxi forum for someone to provide backing-vocal crowd yells. “Blackwell also contributed yells to the same song,” he recalls. “The song, ‘Bounce with It,’ and their yells, were used on TV last year, in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) show called Road to the Octagon on Fox.”
In December 2009, Taylor e-mailed Lyons and asked if she’d be interested in composing a melody for one of his lyrics. “She said to me, ‘I have no idea if I would be any good at co-writing, but I would love to try. Send me what you have and I will take a stab at it.’ We co-wrote that song and another, ‘You’re My Christmas,’ which was featured in the 2013 Lifetime original movie Christmas in the City. She turned out to be great at co-writing.”
Mad July was officially conceived in August 2011 when Taylor sent Lyons lyrics for the song “Kill with Just a Kiss” and told her it might be something different for her to try. “I wasn’t sure if she’d done many dark/evil songs before, but I thought her voice would be cool on this tune.” He also felt Blackwell would be the right guy to produce it. “The song came out so great we decided to write and produce more songs, which led to our band project, Mad July, and our [Riding Gravity] album release.”
The Creation of a Songwriter
Taylor was diagnosed with CFS in 1993. “By 1999, I became too fatigued to work,” he says. He has to severely limit walking, standing, talking, typing, reading, and watching TV—even listening to music. “In 1997, I stopped listening to music because it made my symptoms worse. But I guess my subconscious mind didn’t like this, because one night I dreamt that I was singing to an audience. I woke up and remembered one verse of the song. I wrote it down and then finished writing the whole song in 20 minutes. I’d never written a song before and had no musical training or background. After that, I kept creating music in my head and I became a songwriter.”
Taylor needs to spend many hours every day sitting quietly, alone. “There is a silver lining though,” he attests. “It gives me time to write lyrics and dream up melodies in my head. And collaborating over the web is such a blessing. It lets me be somewhat productive and get the music out of my head and into the world, and it’s a lot of fun.” And he gets to collaborate with people he refers to as “amazing,” like Lyons and Blackwell.
“I should add that Blackwell and Lyons were not at all skeptical of online collaboration, but many people are,” he says. “Personally, I don’t think online collaboration is much different than collaborating in person. Band members can be difficult, bail out, not pull their weight, or treat you wrong in person, just as easily as on the Internet.”
Making a Record via the Internet
As for the technical aspects of Mad July’s collaborations, according to Blackwell, they generally go something like this: Taylor writes complete lyrics and e-mails them to Lyons. Lyons composes the melody and chord progressions and records a simple rough draft. She and Taylor usually do a little back and forth to refine the lyrics and melody, before sending the draft to Blackwell. Lyons also sends Blackwell her rough vocal files and instrumental files.
Blackwell then produces the song. He plays and records most of the instruments, though occasionally Lyons will play an instrumental track or they’ll bring in a guest musician. As Blackwell produces, he sends drafts to Lyons and Taylor for comments and suggestions. This production back and forth usually takes several weeks. When Blackwell is finished playing, arranging, and producing all of the music, Lyons records her final vocal. Blackwell then does a final mix with that vocal and they do some more back and forth, as they all listen and make suggestions to refine the mix.
“We also usually post mixes on the Taxi Forum for unbiased peer review,” says Blackwell. “They often find weaknesses that we don’t see. Mostly we e-mail 192k MP3s to each other for review, but final recordings are sent as .wav files via Internet file transfer services. We’ve got the process down to a science.”
Mad July tries to keep e-mail discussion to a minimum. “It can really slow you down, if you try to explain or discuss things in too much detail,” says Taylor. “We prefer to let our lyrics, melodies, singing, and playing do the talking. As we work on a song, we never even talk on the phone or Skype or anything like that, just e-mail.”
As for some of the special gear used on Mad July’s “virtual” album, beyond the typical recording equipment and instruments, Blackwell provided a list: Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) music production tools Cubase 7 and EZ Drummer; virtual instruments Guitar Rig 5, Addictive Drums, Steven Slate Drums, and Stylus RMX; and Native Instruments Komplete 9, which includes virtual instruments and mixing tools.
Lyons played all the piano parts on Riding Gravity. “I played all other instruments,” says Blackwell. “Drums were mostly programmed, but we had our friend Brent England [from Indianapolis, Indiana] play drums on four tracks. He recorded on an eDrum kit and sent me the MIDI files, and I then ran them through one of the aforementioned drum programs. Also, Bryan Fusilier recorded strings for the track ‘I Don’t Know Where You Are.’”
“You’ll notice four of our songs are about empowerment,” says Taylor, in closing. “Since CFS can make me feel powerless, I really enjoy living an empowered imaginary life through our songs.” Hallelujah!
Click here for a free download of a Mad July track.