Microphone Mathematics: The Art Of The Inexact Science of Transcribing Lyrics

Posted on September 19, 2012 by Kevin Beacham | 0 Comments


Transcribing Lyrics is not an exact science by any means. Even when you think something sounds obvious, it can turn out that it wasn’t so clear after all. After years and years of research and study of lyrics I consider myself, for lack of a better word, an expert, but I still regularly mishear things and make mistakes.

In fact, I’m still correcting years of listening mistakes. Quite often I’ll be listening to a song from the 80s or 90s and BAM! A lyric will jump right out at me that I either could never figure out or for the last couple decades had accepted it was something else. Among the most famous for me is in Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap”. Spoonie’s style is smooth and articulate. Even at 10 years old when this first released the words were easy to understand…except one piece. There’s a moment where his flow is rushed to make his point. Part of the challenge is that Spoonie Gee was doing something that was fundamentally different than most other MCing at the time, he was Rapping conversations. Most of “Love Rap” has him going back and forth playing both himself and the young ladies that he meets on his adventures. If you never tried to write a rhyme like this it probably doesn’t sound very challenging, but trust me, it is. To this day it is not something that many MCs have learned to do very well. Telling a story is one thing, but detailing a conversation is quite another, but that’s an article for another day. At one particular moment in the song he had to quickly abandon his laid back approach to express a thought. Spoonie had just arrived at Girl #1’s house where her first words were alarmingly, “Let’s have a child.” Bold, bold lady. Spoonie wastes no time in countering with all the reasons he is not interested in having a baby. Perhaps it was the anxiety of it all that resulted in the rushed dialog. After he outlines some immediate goals and expected consequences, he blurts out, “Believe me, to me girl, that ain’t no joke!” Today, I hear that line with pure clarity, but back in the day it was a source of mystery. I think I was just getting used to his technique of jumping from one character to the next. To me, the obvious thing to add there was her name, so after working the rewind button multiple times I decided that her name must be “Tanegra” (pronounced “Tuh-Knee-Gra”)…ha. That seemed reasonable and I thought it was a cute and unique name, it also helped me get a “false” picture of what she looked like. Yeah, that’s it, I thought, “Believe me, Tanegra, that ain’t no joke…”…whoops! It wasn’t actually until a couple years ago when I picked up the “Anthology Of Rap Book”* where I learned of my 30+ year old mistake. One of many I’m sure…

In my experience, the primary tools for transcribing lyrics are: a good and critical ear, not being over-confident, listening in quality headphones, and having patience. Other than that, there are two other major types of challenges. There are ones that relate to you personally and those that are a matter of unrelated circumstance. Personal challenges can be as simple as your age, background, or personal preferences. I find lyrics on the popular lyric sites out there and I can easily make educated assumptions on the reasons why they are so often terribly wrong. Sometimes it seems likely the person transcribing didn’t live in that era. Sometimes I can recognize when it’s someone in a different country who doesn’t have a full grasp on the English language. They may understand the basic language and even Hip Hop slang just fine, but other things easily elude them. That doesn’t only relate to people outside of the country, it can also be geographically challenging right here in the USA. MCs are regularly referencing things that are specifically related to their region, city or even neighborhood. Having no knowledge of these things is a disadvantage. Case in point, that is why in “Anthology Of Rap” they suggest on “Road To The Riches” Kool G Rap says “In a seafood store sweeping floors for dimes”, but he says a “Keyfoods store”…which is a Brooklyn born grocery store. Whoever transcribed that one is probably not from New York.

When I picked up “Anthology Of Rap” I flipped thru it and filled in many blanks that I had wondered about for years, but I also found more than a handful of mistakes or proposed mistakes. They certainly did a much better job than most online sites, which are notoriously bad. Recently when I was doing my blog special on reviewing the GZA albums I went online to check a few things. One site goes a step further than just giving you the lyrics (or rather their proposed version of the lyrics), but also seeks to give you the meanings behind them. In one GZA song I found several clearly misprinted lyrics, but they also had meanings attached, which is a double-whammy. Wrong lyrics = even more wrong meaning…

I’m by no means free from blame. I have the same problem all the time. If I can’t get the actual artist to verify the quotes for me then I leave “???’s” when I know I’m unsure, but even sometimes things I think are right, end up being wrong.

When I did the special on I Self Devine I sent him the quotes for corrections and to fill in blanks. There were definitely a handful of things I thought I nailed that were incorrect. This leads to another challenge. MCs love to make use of poetic license, as they very well should. MCs such as I Self Devine develop their own language and often think on their own plane, so their words or concepts aren’t easily audible to the average listener.

When I’m transcribing lyrics I try to enter that persons mind. I listen to the music over and over again, countless times. I don’t just dissect the words. I also use my own brand of makeshift psychology. I try to think about what they were thinking and feeling, not just in the song, but also at the time when they wrote it. That’s why you will notice that I am prone to regularly make predictions when I’m writing. Strangely enough, so many times artists tell me how accurate I was to the real situation. Like in the I Self Devine series I say that Doom probably unable to resist a chance to express an untapped rhyme scheme a la his forte’, swaps the last two words for “swollen glands”. I Self read that and told me that is exactly what happened. In the studio, Doom asked him if he could change one thing in the hook… Assumably, with a tone suggesting that he “had” to do it…the mind of a mad scientist at work. I’ve had several instances such as that, but I’ve probably had even more of getting it wrong…

At Rhymesayers I was given the task to transcribe the complete album lyrics for Freeway’s “Stimulus Package” album. When I agreed it seemed like a good idea. I was the best-suited person for the job there, as I do that sort of thing all the time. Plus I was flirting with the idea of going in and transcribing a bunch of classic albums that didn’t have lyrics and the online versions I saw were often atrocious and/or ridiculous, I figured this would be great practice. At first it was exciting. I don’t think the average person fully appreciates Freeway as a rhyme writer. There are so may little things he does with this wordplay and the means in which he links words can be fascinating. However, after a while it started to weigh heavy on me. The deadline was approaching and there was so much I still had to figure out. A large part of the issue was NOT his articulation. It was my lack of knowledge on the subject. I don’t stay current on Philly slang or street terminologies**, thus many of his references to those things sounded like foreign language to me, so I assumed I was just mishearing, but actually, I was often hearing them right and they just didn’t make any sense to me. 

Other personal lyric transcribing kryptonites are Sports Names that are not from the 80s when I stopped watching sports, references to fancy or not so fancy cars because I don’t pay any attention to cars, and then any number of handful other miscellaneous tidbits of info that I generally have zero knowledge of. Like being stumped and simultaneously ridiculed by Jay Z when he says, “You n****s ain’t know about a Robb Report”…to which my immediate thought was, “What’s that?” I think it’s quite genius and insulting the way he introduces the elite unknown while using perfectly improper English, on multiple levels. In any event, it’s actually quite fascinating all the things that I’ve learned or learned about via Hip Hop lyrics. Yes, a blog post on the subject is in the works…

In terms of matters of unrelated circumstance, there are some things you generally can’t control. Of course, the obvious is the articulation of the MC. Many MCs are just not that well spoken. Others utilize shorthand or they purposefully mangle words, pronunciations, and contextual meanings to compliment their style. But, that’s not generally where I find the largest challenge. The biggest hurdle is usually reserved for how the beat contrasts with the lyrics. So many times the words get buried in the music. I’ve been in sessions where I have seen it happen. It’s that fine line between an engineer understanding things technically and being able to grasp it sonically, so to speak. An engineer can probably show you that the voice and the music is level as it should be from a technical aspect, but that doesn’t mean the lyrics aren’t buried. Sometimes I think it’s the vocalist using a wrong type mic or just not being on a musical accompaniment that compliments their voice. However, I’m by no means a sound engineer. Truthfully, I consider sound to be one of the most intriguing and confusing things in existence. I can guess, that in least in some ways, Rappers are specifically difficult to mix, particularly when they are using their natural talking voices and not really expressing any harmony or key to apply musicality to.

There are certainly examples of Rappers who have had particularly challenging careers with their voices being heard. Immediately, Bahamadia comes to mind. Her voice sounds just right and prominent on her “Kollage” album, thus easy to hear. If my ears aren’t deceiving me, on “Kollage” she’s mixed a touch higher than a normal mix would probably place her, which I guess was a direct result of the tone of her voice and the style in which she rhymes that was sometimes intentionally soft and airy a la “Innovation”. Plus she has some powerhouse names for Engineers and Mastering on her album he definitely get it. Yet, on many song appearances after this album she sounds buried in the mix, probably because random engineers just mixed her per normal, not considering her particular voice and approach. Another famous case is MC Tee of Mantronix. His voice is constantly lost in Mantronik’s complex layers of heavy beats and edits, making him one of the most difficult MCs to transcribe lyrics for. It’s a shame because he is often thought of as not being that great lyrically, but I 100% disagree. I would argue that he was pushing the boundaries, but it got overshadowed due to not being heard***.

Beyond the basic mix, there’s also just the consideration of where certain lyrics hit in the song and what type of instruments are behind them. Sharp snares, blaring horns, and any other number of prominent sounds are likely to obscure a few words. I also experienced some of that in my Freeway fiasco, but luckily for me since it was a project we were involved with I was able to request the Acapella version of the album. That made life so much easier when I finally came up with that solution in the final hour…didn’t help much with my severely lacking slang skills though…

The logical solution to all of this is for MCs to always include their lyrics. Surely, not all songs need lyrical translations as many are so Dr Seuss like that a child can figure it out. If you are an MC you probably know if you are in that category or not and can make the call. For everyone else, in this day and age there’s no reason not to include lyrics unless you are too lazy to type, don’t want to release them for whatever personal reason or it’s just an oversight. I know including them in the physical packaging is an additional cost, but there are other easy options like putting them on a blog, PDFs in the digital version, etc… Don’t leave the lyric lovers guessing and let us garble your intentions, though I suppose it might be funny for you to watch us try…

Written By Kevin Beacham, with a million lyrics in his head…some of which are likely wrong…

Editor’s Notes:

*The Anthology Of Rap: When I started reading it I had a notebook handy to jot down mistakes I recognized from memory. I planned to write the writers a letter praising their efforts, but offering the corrections/questions for any later editions. I have since misplaced the list and also decided maybe that was too pretentious of me. I actually have notes of corrections/questions/additions to most Hip Hop books I read. Maybe one day I’ll share them…

**Much like how I misread Cory Calico’s name as Cory “Coleco” as I announced him into the Scribble Jam Battle one year. I apparently know more about 80s video game systems than weaponry…

***Another infamous Mantronik moment is the vocals for Just-Ice on “Turbo Charged”. Someone needs to get in with those masters and fix that!!

When thinking of an image to use for this I was reminded that "Microphone Mathematics" was originally intended to be a video segment with Carnage and myself having these discussions on camera, but time and schedule constraints have slowed that process, perhaps one day. Anyway, we did have a cool intro for it, which actually uses some Freeway and Jake One with some cuts by Plain Ole Bill...


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