"Havana" Heartbreak, Hemp Tone Caps, and Moses Sumney: February's Best Podcasts for Music Makers

Welcome back to our Best Podcasts for Music Makers series, where we set out to find and share podcasts that dig beneath the level of biography or style and get at the heart of music creation.

Every month, we’ll look back on some of our favorite podcasts, highlighting the best moments that discuss the techniques or gear behind a given sound, the approach to songcraft, or a flash of inspiration that might just stoke your own creativity.

Below, you’ll find the 100-year history of one of last year’s biggest pop songs, how an indie auteur built a track over a few years’ worth of recording sessions, and lessons from a producer’s failed beatmaking career. Have a podcast we should be checking out? Let us know in the comments.

The two hosts of Switched On Pop—musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding—use their combined knowledge of music history and theory to dissect pop hits. Often, the pair will also interview outside experts to help parse the cultural or historical importance of what could pass as just another Top 40 track. This latest episode examines the dual influences that make up Camila Cabello’s "Havana"—the traditional Cuban music of son and the Roland TR-808 kicks of modern Atlanta hip-hop.

Nate begins by explaining the 808’s early use in pop music, like Marvin Gaye’s 1982 "Sexual Healing," which used the drum machine to make its smooth, light rhythm. But successive waves of hip-hop producers in Atlanta would add distortion and compression to the 808 kicks, creating the bombastic low-end you hear in songs like OutKast’s "So Fresh and So Clean." By sampling and re-pitching the 808, producers began to craft melodic kick lines as heard in Lil' Jon’s "Get Low" and Gucci Mane and Migos’ "I Get the Bag."

Cabello’s "Havana" not only includes a bass melody of these pitched 808 kicks, but also a piano line that recalls 100-year-old Cuban nightclub music. Pianist, musicologist, and Afro-Latin music scholar Kwami Coleman joins the podcast to talk about the history of Cuba’s son montuno music and the rhythmic style of playing the tres, a guitar-like Cuban instrument. These mountainous folk patterns, a century after being adapted by Havana nightclub piano-players, return refashioned in the stylized piano riff at the heart of Cabello’s "Havana."

Camila Cabello
From Camila, Epic, 2018
Shop Now on Reverb LP ››

Like the long-distance lovers of the song, Cuban music and hip-hop are separated but intertwined, as Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion instruments laid the foundation for the breakbeats and drum machines that hip-hop is known for.

Moses Sumney has been around for quite a while for an artist who just released his debut album, Aromanticism, last year. This episode of the always fantastic Song Exploder shows the breadth and depth of Sumney's songwriting approach, while offering a window into the working world of an artist with enough interest and label support to have the time and resources to dedicate to their art.

His song "Quarrel" began by listening to Stereolab and Radiohead with producer Cam O'bi in LA, found its lyrical content on a strange and upsetting cruise, took shape with Brandee Younger's harp recorded in a Harlem apartment, and finished with a killer full-band section that includes Paris Strother on keys, Jamire Williams on drums, and Thundercat on bass.

Moses Sumney
From Aromanticism, Jagjaguwar, 2017
Shop Now on Reverb LP ››

The song's varied palette—which also includes Sumney's choral-like stacked harmonies and a menacing guitar—is a staggering mix of influences, styles, and moods. Be sure to check out the full episode for more insight into its creation.

Artist and technologist Darwin Grosse usually steers this podcast into the inner-workings of music software programs, speaking to developers and musicians about how they build and use programs like Max, Absynth, and VCV Rack. The latest episode takes a different approach, as Darwin holds a discussion with Chris "MayDay" Rucks, a formerly aspiring hip-hop producer and the author of the book Don’t Make Beats Like Me.

Although they talk briefly about Fruity Loops, Reason, and Digital Performer, the heart of the matter is the personal skill-set that a producer has to develop to go from being a talent to a successful talent, including dealing with all the people they’ll meet in the music industry, being comfortable signing contracts, and being responsible for the work you’ve signed on to do.

"If we put two producers with the same talent, skill, and equipment side-by-side and one will have significant success compared to the other—that producer has an ability to conquer those things that scare the hell out of him in his pursuit," Chris says.

Any budding genius making beats by themselves would benefit from listening to the show, taking in some of the lessons Chris shares from his own failure to become a producer (he now works in music licensing), as well as what he’s learned in his relationships and conversations with successful producers.

Even if you don’t build guitars, The Luthierist offers insights into the mechanics of the instruments that are always enlightening. In this first of two new episodes about guitar electronics, hosts Paul Rhoney and Jason Rodgers dive deep into tone caps—the capacitors responsible for rolling off your highs when you turn down the tone knob.

Orange Drop Treble Bleed Circuit

Spurred by a listener’s question about rolling your own tone caps, Jason talks about seeing an Instagram post of noted luthier Scott Walker with his hand-rolled caps made of hemp "cigarette" paper and hemp oil. (We independently checked it out. Walker’s favored brand is Rips Rolling Papers and a virgin cold-pressed hemp seed oil.)

But before you take a trip to the head shop, you’ll want to ask yourself if you really need a different tone cap—or if the material makes any difference to you. While Walker’s personal caps mimic the vintage paper-and-oil varieties, you’re more likely to find mylar, "orange drop" polypropylene, or ceramic caps in guitars today.

Between all these materials, Paul says he can’t hear any difference, except in the cheaper and less desirable ceramics. He generally prefers to use Cornell Dubilier brand caps. But whether you’re buying pre-made or rolling your own, what’s important is the capacitance, with higher values leading to darker tones, and your tolerance—whether the capacitance fluctuates by 5, 10, or 20 percent. Generally speaking, the tighter the fluctuation, the better the cap.

Check back next month for our next Best Podcasts for Music Makers, and if you listen to, love, or create your own music-related podcast, please let us know in the comments.

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