Q & A with Rock Hits 2016 Producer Jim McMillen
Leo Flynn (Left) Jim McMillen (Right)
1. How do you remake rock songs with classical stringed instruments?
Most classical string music is weighted towards harmony and counterpoint. Most pop music is weighted towards rhythm. So, I have to find the basic essence of the rhythm of the song and then translate that groove onto an instrument that was not designed for that purpose. Guitar and Electric bass are designed for rhythm, but viola and cello are not. Our viola and cello parts tend to look like the left hand of a piano piece! Not for the timid. The players and I have developed these techniques over a period of many years.
2. Which was your favorite track to produce?
Hard to choose only one track out of the over 700 that I have done for VSQ, but some projects stand out: The Nightmare Before Christmas - A tour de force of string special effects, put to musical use. Madonna - Her melodies are so strong, they are easy to accompany. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young - Strong melodies, great results. Mudvayne - Incredibly harsh music; extremely well done! Yellowcard - Don't know why, but these tunes adapted well for the strings. Jane's Addiction - I think we do their music better justice than they did! The Decemberists - Their neo-folk melodies really set the strings on fire. The Beatles - Don't change a thing from their arrangements. Anything you "improve" only makes it worse. Tool - Any of the VSQ tracks based on Tool are stellar because their music composition is stellar.
3. What song was the most challenging to arrange?
Imogen Heap - Hide and Seek - Very rubato with lots of electronics; came out great. Macklemore - Thrift Shop - How do you recreate rap with strings? Listen to this!
4. How do you keep the emotion/feeling of the song intact or do you try to alter that feeling when you think it’s necessary?
I try to duplicate the groove of the piece in the lower strings and the emotional quality in the violins. Every once in a while there is a piece that simply will not translate to string quartet, and only then do I re-imagine it. I believe that people want to hear the tunes they love in a similar environment to how they are used to hearing them. They want to sing along with the melodies. I do not try to take the melody, throw out the rest, and reconstruct it into something unrecognizable, changing the rhythm and feel along the way. I try to take something that is already beloved and adapt it for strings.
5. How does the pre-production process with Leo (brand manager) and James (A&R) usually go on a project like this?
As I understand it, they choose the tunes based on a long list of variables and then submit that list to me. Then I create sampled mockups of the pieces. After a good listen, James and Leo help me mold those early versions into a piece that emotionally complements the original. Not as easy as it seems! Some tunes these days have Thunder Drums and Whisper Vocals. That makes it difficult to assess which of those competing emotions will predominate. Or will they co-exist, or will we switch back and forth by making some sections soft and some loud, because you cannot hear a whispering muted violin over a roaring cello playing quad-stops!