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SFP: Playing for Change


Mark Johnson listens to a recording for the Playing for Change project.

Photos: Courtesy Playing for Change

Playing for Change is the name of an ongoing multimedia movement designed to unite people through music. You may have encountered it online in the video “Stand By Me,” which, as of this writing, has been viewed on YouTube more than 12 million times. It begins with street musician Roger Ridley performing the 1961 Ben E. King classic on guitar and vocals outdoors at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. Ridley is subsequently “joined” by 37 other musicians singing and playing along with him in New Orleans, The Netherlands, New Mexico, France, Brazil, Russia, Venezuela, The Congo, South Africa, Spain and Italy.

The man wearing headphones and documenting all of those performances in the video is Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer/director Mark Johnson, who envisioned, created and cultivated Playing for Change during a period of 10 years. For Johnson, the collaboration, extensive travel and effort behind “Stand By Me” established the template for Playing for Change (, which now encompasses the 2009 CD and DVD release Playing for Change: Songs Around the World, featuring 10 songs and seven videos from the Hear Music label; the nonprofit Playing for Change Foundation, which offers facilities, technology, musical instruments and education to communities worldwide; and the feature-length documentary Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, which is slated to debut this month on PBS.

In the documentary, musicians offer heartfelt performances in the moment from the streets of their hometowns. Johnson shared the ways in which he and his fellow engineers captured and mixed these passionate, once-in-a-lifetime performances.

How did you know where to go and which musicians to record?

When you’re making a documentary, you basically raise enough money for airline tickets and go. So a lot of it was just showing up; a lot of it was also researching different parts of the world and what kind of music they have. I knew I wanted to add choral music from South Africa and sitars from Asia. So I would start off with a road map and show up in countries with a guide I would find in that area.

The whole idea of the project was to get back to the roots of the music, and to do that I felt like we had to go to the streets. It definitely was not [just] a project about street musicians; it’s about all musicians. Street musicians alter people’s opinions of success because they don’t change their art; they go out and play every day, and somebody can walk by and have a life-changing experience.

It reminds me of friends’ stories about visiting Cuba and Brazil and hearing the incredible music on the streets.

Exactly. When you go to the people, you’ll always find the most amazing music because it all comes from the soul. Music is one heart to another without any filter, and that’s what we were trying to explore. So we wanted to go back to the roots of it all and start with that, so no matter what we had, at least it was pure and it was real. Musicians would tell other musicians, and that word of mouth helped us.

We recorded people in Native American reservations and subways and street corners and the Himalayan Mountains. We went all over the Middle East. Ninety-five percent of the music was recorded live outside. Musicians would hear whoever had played before them, and I would use an iPod video to show where [the performance] was at, at that time, so they could get a feel for it.

What inspired you to pursue this project for all these years?

I was a recording engineer at the Hit Factory in New York City in 1998. I was on my way to the studio one day, and there were two monks in the subway station; they were painted all in white from head to toe and they were playing music — one guy was playing a nylon guitar and the other was singing. I looked around and I saw all these groups of people come together through the music. Then I watched this performance, and some people were crying and dropping their jaws, and [I saw] a lot of smiling. I got on the train and it occurred to me that some of the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio.

How did you choose your recording equipment for this project?

[In the field,] I wanted to use the exact same equipment that I was using at the Hit Factory. So the idea was to bring that kind of equipment to the streets so that people have an opportunity to be heard in a much better context than microphones [mounted] on cameras, which was the most common way of documenting people outside.

Can you talk about how your field equipment has evolved during the course of this project?

When I started out, I would bring a lot of equipment. Most of the ideas for how to record outside came from a guy named Mickey Houlihan. He has a company called Wind Over the Earth ( in Boulder, Colo. He was my consultant for the whole project, and we started out working with golf cart batteries, the Exceltech [AC power inverter], Grace 801 [mic pre’s] and a [Tascam] DA-78. It was very heavy and costly to ship, but it did work.

So I could record musicians outside, it would sound really good and I could overdub other musicians to the tracks. Then we switched to car batteries and a smaller Exceltech XP125. I then switched to a Digi 002 [interface] with the smaller battery-powered Grace Lunatec V3 [mic pre], and those are powered by Power Runner Model 2 battery packs. Then I was much more mobile and that’s how I did a bunch of recording. As a backup, I would use a Metric Halo Mobile I/O 2882. But the problem is when you go to foreign countries where you can’t fly with car batteries. For example, in the Himalayan Mountains, I would buy a car battery and then take it up to the mountains and find out it wasn’t charged. That left me wanting to be completely in control of my own power, so that’s when I went to using an MBox 2 Pro with the Grace mic pre’s, which would get me six tracks. If I needed more than eight tracks, I would use the Metric Halo Mobile I/O. A lot of the stuff that I was doing was multitracking on top of other tracks, such as [with] “Stand By Me.” So six tracks was plenty.

The majority of the recording came down to using a lot of hypercardioid mics and dynamic mics, and then more recently back to the Neumann KMS 105, which is a really great hypercardioid mic. I would usually [use] windscreens on the mics. So now I could go anywhere, anytime, power myself and record up to six tracks.

Grandpa Elliott of New Orleans, seated, and Clarence Bekker of The Netherlands

What recording device and software did you use?

I recorded everything with a Mac laptop to Pro Tools LE, except when I used the Mobile I/O; then, I used the Metric Halo software. I mixed it on an HD system.

Did you figure out mic setups on the go?

[Laughs] It was definitely challenging. A lot of times it was just pick the right mics and turn them against the wind and hit Record. Half the time we would record these musicians, they would already be performing when we’d show up, so we had to adjust to what they were doing. Sometimes I would ask them to move or turn around because of the wind. But for the most part, it was really spontaneous. I got good [at] knowing when to use which kinds of mics. I would have 57s, a Beta 58, a Schoeps [CMC 6], the B&K [4011], the Neumann 105s and the Shure Beta 52 for bass or low-end instruments. I had passive Dis, and then [would] try to figure out which mic pre’s to use. Over time, the combinations got better.

The challenges were constant — battery life, wind, rain, too much sun, and also the car horns and extraneous sounds around you. Obviously, you’re going to have some of that. But when you put together 40 tracks around the world, you don’t want to have too much extra noise in each of them where it gets overwhelming. The other important thing was a tuner. I had feared that problem because you’re outside, and tuning shifts so much due to temperature.

And you had to set up cameras at the same time.

Yeah. We shot on HD, Mini-DV and 16mm film. But the whole thing was very basic: start off with a good track, inspire the people and then point and shoot.

It’s interesting that the overdubs worked out so well: You played mixes live and people played along to it.

Yeah! For the most part, it was one take, very little editing — just people finding the place where they could fit in and play in that spot.

So you mixed as you went along.

Right. “Stand By Me” starts with [street musician] Roger Ridley on guitar and vocals, and then we add musicians. But with “War/No More Trouble,” we wanted to challenge ourselves a bit more. We did that in the same key and tempo of Bob Marley and the Wailers Live at The Rainbow, a [1977] concert of his in England. So I tapped the tempo of the “No More Trouble” part of the song because there’s a drift in tempo from “War” to “No More Trouble.” So I had the musicians play “War/No More Trouble” to that click, and then got permission from the Marley family to use Bob’s vocal and video. So Bob Marley is singing with Bono, Israelis, Palestinians, Catholic-Protestant kids, and musicians from Congo and Zimbabwe. It’s the most amazing feeling because his whole spirit and energy are actually in the track, and that was one way to take it one step further from what we had done in the past.

How did you mix the final tracks?

Most of it I just mixed in the box in my apartment. For some of them, I went to Chalice Studios in Los Angeles.

What is the monitoring setup in your home?

I use Genelec 1030s. I’m in love with them. Paul Simon, Jackson Browne and Keb’ Mo’ used them, so my ears were accustomed to them for many years. Everything I used was real simple — no compression on anything. When I mixed, I [used compression], but when I was recording everything was just clean.

This is a remarkable undertaking.

The power of music — when it is being used in the right way — enabled us to go into places we otherwise would have never been able to survive. And we tried to show all the different ways with which people use music to persevere through struggles; then people start to realize that we’re all the same.

Matt Gallagher is Mix’s assistant editor.