Songwriting: Ballads

Music To Pull Your Heartstrings

In last week’s blogpost Songwriting: Jazzing It Up, I talked about the thought process that we went through in composing our four jazz-inspired songs.

This blogpost will lead you through the steps that we took to compose four songs which convey a bit more emotion than our other songs.

Every one of our songs tells a different story – and each song has a different story of how they came to be.  The four songs listed below have unique styles yet all have a ballad foundation:

4. The Moon And You

My concept for this song was simple: Summer nights, the moon and stars – and that special someone.

The style that I was hoping to evoke was like so many beautiful ballads written by master composer Ivan Lins. This song was incredibly special to me, so I decided to sing it myself on the production release. Tom Povse arranged beautiful flugelhorn parts rendered by Gil Cohen. The coups de gras is the amazing strings arranged by Stan Muncy. In the studio, we were Blessed to have a second visit from superb violinist Matthew Szemela, where he gave the ending a sweet romantic feel.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas
Featuring: John Vargas (vocals), Gil Cohen (flugelhorn)
Strings: Matthew Szemela (violin), Mads Tolling (violin), Emily Onderdonk (viola) and Lewis Patzner
(cello); Strings arranged by Stan Muncy. Horns arranged by Tom Povse
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida
(drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

8. You’re Everything To Me

This is the second love ballad that I composed for this album. I wanted this to start out with a darker feel, about a person that didn’t take the time to let emotions sink in — always moving on to keep their distance from love and commitment. The story then evolves into a discovery of that perfect someone. It sounds a bit formulaic, I know. Interestingly, this song is one of our most popular with radio listeners around the world. Maya Victoria has the perfect voice to tell this story.

I wanted this song to have a dreamy quality, so I asked Stan Muncy to arrange strings. He did an incredible job, bringing in this amazing pizzicato feel and a superb lift during the chorus. I asked John Lewis to give us the dark, sultry feel in places, with his beautiful tenor saxophone. I was surprised at how easy it was to come up with the chorus, melodically and lyrically. Composing the verse was even easier, with just nine rapid notes in succession. Telling the story on top of that was more difficult.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas
Video: directed by Carolyn Vargas, produced by Roy Reyes.
Featuring: Maya Victoria (vocals), John Lewis (tenor sax)
Strings: Matthew Szemela (violin), Mads Tolling (violin), Emily Onderdonk (viola) and Lewis Patzner (cello); Strings arranged by Stan Muncy
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

12. The Rock Of Light

David Vargas at Gibralfaro fortress, Malaga, Spain

When I arranged the rhythm for this song, I was feeling something akin to Spanish Flamenco. My mind traveled to a family trip that we took to beautiful Malaga on the southern tip of Spain. I came up with the idea of a fantasy or dream sequence that the lead character envisions. The idea was of a businessman visiting Malaga, and took a day off deciding to tour the beautiful Moorish castles that overlook the city. During this tour, our lead character has a vision of how the city might have looked over 500 years ago.

David carried this concept to something much more coherent: This daydream shows a vision of what it might have been like to live in the city of Malaga during King Ferdinand’s brutal assault in 1487. This was a pivotal battle in the Reconquest of Spain, to take back the country from the Moorish invaders.

What David and I were trying to convey in this story is that all war is a nightmare. While some may see glory in war, we can’t look away from the human element — the victims. It’s especially painful to think of the many innocents that were caught in the crossfire of a King leading his forces to take back a country that was lost in war hundreds of years before. I’m sure that some very bad people lost their lives in that seige. What is tragic is the number of civilian lives lost (mothers, fathers, children – and their homes and property).  These innocents had no political agenda.

Tony Song’s guitar truly holds the listener, with a haunting rhythm accentuated by flamenco-styled turnarounds. We were delighted to see the feeling brought to the song by vocalist Mr Mego. What a storyteller! The perfect final touches came from Stan Muncy with a wide array of Spanish percussion including guitar-body-tapping and handclapping. We feel that all of these elements give our song a true Spanish feel.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas and David Vargas
Featuring: Mr Mego (vocals), Tony Song (guitar)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

16. January 16

Jesusa Estrada Cerezo – Our January 16

Here’s David to tell you about the composing and producing of our title track…

My dad John Vargas and I collected compositions that we wanted to produce in our new album “January 16” (which was untitled at that time).  We had literally dozens to choose from.

After selecting 15 solid candidates, I felt that our album could use just one more song written by myself.  I browsed through our rhythm arrangements library and one stood out to me. It had an R&B vibe to it.  At that moment all these ideas rushed into my head.

What really resonated with me was a tribute song to our beloved grandmother Jesusa.  Her birthday is January 16.  She taught us about love and putting family first.  I know it was meant to be that God inspired me to create a song to pay homage to her.

Most of the lyrics were put together in a matter of a few hours.  The creative juices were really flowing that night, and composing the melody seemed effortless.  I played the first version of the song to my immediate family and they gave me their feedback which I used to put the finishing touches on the lyrics.

My initial thought on the ending of the song was to have some interview footage paying tribute to my grandmother.  In speaking with our family one day, it was brought to my attention that my brother Andrew had some archived video of my grandmother speaking about life, and the importance of empathy, love, and Faith in God.  I knew this was the ultimate message of the song – and it is delivered superbly by my grandmother in her own words and voice.

16th of 16 songs on our album, “January 16” for me is a song that I’m incredibly proud of, as it tells the story of my amazing grandmother who will always be a part of me.

I’m still amazed that we were able to record such a meaningful song.

We love you, Grandma!

Music and lyrics: David Vargas
Featuring: Ricki Wegner (vocals), Matt Blaque (vocals), Stan Muncy (vibes)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

We hope you enjoyed this four-part blogpost on Storytelling.  We hope it will inspire the composers out there to get started on their own songwriting journey.

Blessings to you all.

John Vargas

Songwriting: Jazzing It Up

Our Take On The Venerable American Art Form

In last week’s blogpost Songwriting: Bossa Nova, I talked about the thought process that we went through in composing our four Bossa Nova songs.

Every one of our songs tells a different story – and each song has a different story of how they came to be. The four songs listed below have unique styles yet all have a foundation in contemporary jazz:

3. Play Something Blue

I came up with the concept for this 50-50 collaboration with David: Amid the everyday pain and stress of life – music can be a drug that soothes your soul. I composed the melody and wrote the verse and bridge lyrics. David wrote the amazing rap lyrics. I’m constantly amazed at David’s storytelling prowess, seeing so much storyline elapsing in such a short amount of time.

David had enlisted Maya Victoria for several songs in his own D-Varg solo releases. I loved her sound and decided to reach out to her for this song.  David is the main storyteller through his compelling rap, while Maya carries the melody, chorus and harmonic background parts. Maya and David have an incredible chemistry in this song.

Tom Povse’s brilliant arrangements for flute and tenor sax give this song a lush contemporary jazz flow.  Tom also trades improvised parts with John Lewis’ tenor.  Throughout all of this we hear Tony Song bringing masterful electric guitar phrases.

Music and lyrics by John Vargas and David Vargas
Featuring: D-Varg (rap vocals), Maya Victoria (vocals), Tom Povse (flute), John Lewis (tenor sax)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida
(drums), Stan Muncy (percussion).

Listen to the song

7. Stormy Weather

David composed the song “Stormy Weather” and arranged all vocal parts. This is a praise song dedicated to God, with the intention to remind people that there is always One looking out for us at all times.

After David completed the composition and we laid down the rhythm tracks in our first sessions, we brought Ricki Wegner into the studio for vocals. Ricki’s soulful voice was perfect for the vocal parts arranged by David.

After that session, David still felt that something was missing. We brought Tony Song back into the studio with his electric guitar. Tony laid down superb improvised guitar runs throughout the song. As a finishing touch, David brought DJ Jay Midnight into the studio to add special coloring as only he can do.

Music and lyrics by David Vargas
Featuring: Ricki Wegner (vocals), D-Varg (rap vocals) , Tony Song (guitar)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion), Jay Midnight (DJ)

Listen to the song

11. Views From My Window

The concept that I first envisioned for this song, was a look at the dark, painful side of living in the inner city. I realized that this song would be perfect as a contemporary jazz-hip-hop crossover. David carried the concept one step further by creating the device of a window in which the main character looks out at his/her world through.

I composed the melody and wrote lyrics for the first verse. I felt that this story should be started with our rapper as the storyteller, setting the stage for the dark city landscape. David wrote a compelling 8-bars of rap which smoothly eases into my first verse.

From that point, David and I kept writing melodic and rap lyrics as the story unfolded in front of our eyes. I thought that we could simply repeat the same rap intro lyrics on the way out. Just before going into the studio, David wrote new rap lyrics for those final 8-bars.

In the studio, working with Matt Blaque on vocals was amazing. Matt’s style and tone seemed a perfect fit. As I mentioned in my blogpost about our song “Right Next To Me”, Matt always gives 150 percent: He first laid down the lead vocal parts, then he went on to response phrases that I arranged, and lastly, he gave us a full library of harmony parts. Matt Blaque is a true pro.

As Executive Producer, I see so many creative surprises along the way. One special surprise was the amazing horn arrangements from Tom Povse. Tom arranged superb parts for Trumpet and Tenor Sax which give this song a cool bebop feel reminiscent of Miles Davis. These parts were expertly performed by Gil Cohen (Trumpet) and John Lewis (Tenor Sax).

Music and lyrics by John Vargas and David Vargas
Featuring: D-Varg (rap vocals), Matt Blaque (vocals), John Lewis (tenor sax), Gil Cohen (flugelhorn)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy
(percussion); Horns arranged by Tom Povse

Listen to the song

15. Hortensia

This song is a tribute to the official flower of my ancestral home, Faial Island in the Azore Islands of Portugal. You’ll find tiny Faial 900-miles off the coast of Lisbon Portugal, in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean.

When you travel there, you’ll see these beautiful blue flowers everywhere. We call them Hydrangeas in California, but in Faial they are Hortensias – the official flower of “The Blue Island” – Faial.

I had the honor of introducing my wife and our three children to Faial on a family vacation in 2015. David and I were in the midst of preparing our “Bossa510” album, but we took advantage of this trip home, to write a new song dedicated to beautiful Faial and it’s famous flower. Our songwriting sessions were delightful, hanging out in our vacation rental condo, looking out at beautiful Pico Island across the channel. David came up with the concept, he composed the melody and the very complex chorus as well as one verse. I wrote lyrics for two of the verses.

Several years ago we managed to plant Hortensias in our backyard in The Bay Area, but we’ve only seen white blooms. In Faial these lovely flowers range in color from white, to pink and other shades. The most common color is the beautiful blue, that gave our island its name.

Music and lyrics by John Vargas and David Vargas
Featuring: Nick Neira (vocals), Stan Muncy (vibes)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

Next Week

We’ll bring you a behind-the-scenes look at composing songs that are ballads. Visit our 510JAZZ Blog page next week to read our new blogpost.

Blessings to you all.

John Vargas

Songwriting: Bossa Nova

The New Wave Continues

In last week’s blogpost Songwriting: Beginnings and Uptempo Songs, I talked about my beginnings as a composer leading up to the release of 510JAZZ’s debut album Bossa510.  I also related how after our album release, my son David and I took 30 new songs that we had composed, selecting 16 of them for our new album January 16.  That blogpost went on to show you the thought process that we went through in composing our four uptempo songs.

This blogpost will show you the creative journey to capture the essence of Brazil’s Bossa Nova (meaning “New Wave” in English) in our own 510JAZZ compositions.  It’s not easy following in the footsteps of Antonio Carlos Jobim and hundreds of other Bossa Nova composers.  We did our best to be true to their style, while still adding in our own unique East Bay sound into the mix.

Every one of our songs tells a different story – and each song has a different story of how they came to be.  The four songs listed below have unique styles yet all have a Bossa Nova feel:

2. He Made It All For You

As believers, we’ve experienced so much inspired beauty in nature. These environments are seen right here at home, in faraway lands and everywhere in between. We believe that all of the beauty that we see in the world around us is because of God. I wanted to capture this essence in a mid-tempo bossa, which pays homage to the pioneer of Bossa Nova music, Antonio Carlos Jobim.

So many of the Jobim performances that I have heard, were centered on that gorgeous nylon-stringed classical guitar. Tony Song captures that essence for us. While I love singing my own songs, I learned an important lesson with our Bossa510 album, in that introducing a variety of vocalists brings new beauty to our songs. Ricki Wegner was a co-worker of David’s, and she agreed to come to 4Play Studios to lay down the vocals. The results were truly inspired – exquisite lead and harmony vocal parts. Stan Muncy added the icing on the cake with his superb vibes stylings and latin percussion.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas
Featuring: Ricki Wegner (vocals), Stan Muncy (vibes)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion).

Listen to the song

6. Fly Away

I’m writing this blogpost today while on family vacation in beautiful Kauai, looking out at the ocean and realizing that some of my favorite compositions were conceived while on vacation in the Hawaiian Islands. We took a family trip to Maui in 2015 and I composed “Fly Away”, with most of the text unfolding on the 5-hour flight back to the Bay Area. This song is autobiographical in that it explores the feelings that I have along the way, whenever we fly back to the Islands.

Nikki Rey sang my first Hawaii-inspired song Maui Moon on our “Bossa510” album. It seemed natural to bring Nikki Rey back into the studio for “Fly Away”. The real treat was adding the incredible ukelele stylings of Mr Mego as a counterpoint to Tony Song’s beautiful rhythm guitar.

While on a visit to London’s Heathrow airport, I captured the sound of an airliner flying overhead on landing approach.  I immediately thought of how this recording could flavor the ending of our song. I think it really makes the listener feel like they have now landed in Paradise (Maui).

Music and lyrics: John Vargas
Featuring: Nikki Rey (vocals), Mr Mego (ukelele)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

10. San Juan Island Sunset

Two years ago I took a solo holiday drive from the Bay Area where I live – all the way to Seattle, Washington. My favorite stop was the idyllic Deception Pass region of Whidbey Island. During this trip, I took the Anacortes Island Ferry across to lovely San Juan Island. Exploring this place was pure delight.

Coming back to my campsite at Deception Pass, I spent hours gazing out at The San Juan Islands across the water. I was especially entranced by the beauty of the sun setting on these islands.

I immediately set to work on a story of “what if?…”. What would it be like if that special girl came here with me and we found a little place along the coast, and we settled here? The song goes on to explore how we could spend every day enjoying the beautiful San Juan Island Sunset.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas
Featuring: Oshra Sedan (vocals), Tom Povse (flute), Gil Cohen (flugelhorn)
Strings: Matthew Szemela (violin), Mads Tolling (violin), Emily Onderdonk (viola) and Lewis Patzner (cello); Strings arranged by Stan Muncy
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion); Horns arranged by Tom Povse

Listen to the song

14. Lift It Up To God

God has been so good to me. So many chapters of my life were ones where certain things seemed out of control. Then I finally got it. ALL of our lives are best lived when we give God full control.

This song explores how we should open our hearts, our minds and our very lives to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. God gives us all the gift of free will, yet not all want to hear his call.

We brought David’s childhood friend Nik-Nak to sing lead vocals on this special song. Nik-Nak has a superb voice and he told this story with soothing confidence. We thought it would be good to add some female backing vocals, and decided to ask our friend Ricki Wegner to come back into the studio to sing responses, harmonies, and chorus parts. Ricki Wegner and Nik-Nak are the perfect duet for this song.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas and David Vargas
Featuring: Nik-Nak (vocals), Rick Wegner (vocals), Tom Povse (flute)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song


Next Week

We’ll bring you a behind-the-scenes look at composing songs with a contemporary jazz feelVisit our 510JAZZ Blog page next week to read our new blogpost.

Blessings to you all.

John Vargas

Songwriting: Getting Started / Uptempo Songs

My Beginnings In Songwriting

I started composing music in 2011 when my son David was working on his third album with his rap group Trinitydeep. I was so impressed with David’s ability to tell a story through his music. I never imagined that I could write my own songs like that. Instead, I wanted to sing covers of jazz standards and put the recordings on YouTube. My big concern was with copyright infringement. David encouraged me to compose my own songs, copyright them and become a music publisher.

The first two years were rough for me, in that the stories that came to me were halfhearted, uninspired works. A guitarist friend Bill Murphy advised me that composing is like a muscle. You have to keep exercising it, and it will get better over time. Bill was so right about that.

Bossa510 - from 510JAZZ
“Bossa510” – the debut album from 510JAZZ

2013 was a good year for me, in that I composed 14 songs with David’s help, and we collaborated 50-50 on two bossanova-hiphop crossovers. We named that collection of 16 original songs Bossa510, and it became 510JAZZ’s debut album, released in December 2015.

Listen to Bossa510


January 16 – Our Second Album

After the release of the “Bossa510” album, David and I set to work composing new songs. We planned on releasing a second album in the 2017 timeframe. The difference with this new collaboration is that most of the songs were composed as a joint-effort between David and myself.

When all was said and done, we had 30 songs that we were reviewing as candidates for our second album. David suggested that we release a smaller album this time, with just 12 songs, making it an easier production with a faster release. I asked for just one song to stay on the “keep list”, and gave David creative control as to which of the other 29 songs would be on the second album – and which songs would be released in a later work.

Interestingly, while David set the bar at 12 songs, he ended up selecting 15 songs. Just before going into the studio, David composed our title track – song number 16, entitled “January 16”.  This new album is comprised of four uptempo songs, four Bossanova songs, four contemporary jazz songs, and four ballads.  We feel that the “January 16” album gives listeners a wide array of music to choose from.

This little story just goes to show you how an album project doesn’t always evolve the way that you think it will.

January 16 - the new album from 510JAZZ
January 16 – the new album from 510JAZZ









Uptempo Songs Found In Our Second Album

Every one of our songs tells a different story – and each of them has a different story of how they came to be.  The four songs listed below have unique styles yet are all uptempo in feel:

1. Right Next To Me

To properly tell the story of this incredible song, I’m going to direct you to my other blogpost, Studio Talk: Right Next To Me.



Music and lyrics: John Vargas and David Vargas
Featuring: Matt Blaque (vocals), D-Varg (rap vocals), Tony Song (guitar)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song.

5. Don’t Take Your Love Away

Before we started studio sessions for our 2015 Bossa510 album, we had some setbacks that kept us from recording. David and I took this down time to compose some new songs. I had been working on one song composing melody and a first verse for a boy-girl love duet.  The concept goes something like this: Scenes of long-distance love show how professional pursuits can get in the way of romance.

Since we were on Christmas break, David jumped in and composed the hook and wrote lyrics for a second verse. Our youngest son Andrew joined in on the fun and wrote lyrics for the third verse. This was a really delightful songwriting project.

David brought the young crooner Nick Neira into the studio for the male vocal part. Our pianist Mark Rickey introduced us to his niece Kristen Nicole who sounded perfect to counter Nick’s part.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas, David Vargas and Andrew Vargas
Featuring: Kristen Nicole (vocals), Nick Neira (vocals), Tom Povse (flute)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

9. The Long Way Home

Composer collaborations with David are the most fun – where anything can happen. For this song, I simply came up the melody and the lyrics for the first verse, and then David built on that to come up with the concept for the entire song: Saturday drive, no set itinerary, no hurry – let’s take our time and explore.

We really enjoyed setting Kristen Nicole in these fun, fast-paced boy-girl duets, this time paired with the brilliant male vocals of Mr Mego. We wanted to keep the pace throughout this song, so we decided to not arrange an instrumental break. Just a fun Sunday drive from start-to-finish, accentuated with Kristen Nicole’s vocal scat in the ending.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas and David Vargas
Featuring: Mr Mego (vocals), Kristen Nicole (vocals), Tony Song (guitar)
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

13. Serendipity

This song explores what it would be like if we could just leave the responsibilities of everyday life behind – and travel the world. I had the basic concept in mind, but the real songwriting started when I was driving back to California after my visit to Washington’s Deception Pass and San Juan Islands. That one-week trip was magical for me in that I composed both “San Juan Island Sunset” and “Serendipity”.

“Serendipity” was borne of a marathon lyric-writing session as I cruised south on US Interstate-5 from Seattle to the Bay Area. My little Tascam DR-05 digital recorder got a good workout on those two days, as I played the rhythm track on the car stereo while scatting melody ideas. By the second day, I was singing lyrics with my new melody. I think the fast pace of this song was inspired by the Highway-5 cruising speed.

I decided that I really wanted Oshra Sedan to sing duet with Mr Mego, and I was thrilled with how they both rendered this song in the studio. Stan Muncy then took the updated session tracks and arranged strings. I was honored to hear that the string quartet liked this song the best – of all four songs arranged by Stan Muncy, They stated that they really had fun performing it in the studio.

Music and lyrics: John Vargas
Featuring: Mr Mego (vocals), Oshra Sedan (vocals)
Strings: Matthew Szemela (violin), Mads Tolling (violin), Emily Onderdonk (viola) and Lewis Patzner (cello); Strings arranged by Stan Muncy
Rhythm: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums), Stan Muncy (percussion)

Listen to the song

Next Week

We’ll bring you a behind-the-scenes look at composing songs with a Bossa Nova feel.  Visit our 510JAZZ Blog page next week to read our new blogpost.

Blessings to you all.

John Vargas

Studio Talk: Use Reference Songs When Mixing

Mixing is my guilty pleasure

I have been blessed with the ability to mix my own music.  I have been mixing  for the past 8 years now in Pro Tools.  Mixing, to put it simply, is the balancing of instruments and vocals in a song.

Pro Tools Edit & Mix Windows

Applications like compression, equalization, automation, panning, reverb, referencing and delay are almost always used in mixing as well.  We won’t discuss most of these techniques in this blogpost.  Our focus will be on referencing.

First, let me provide you with some background information to help set the stage.

Pro Tools is my go-to DAW

Pro Tools is a digital audio workstation (DAW) software application that is used to record, mix, and master audio content.  It’s widely recognized as the “industry standard” or “flagship” DAW for recording and mixing music.  Pro Tools can be found in most home and major recording studios.

Pro Tools Ultimate 2018
Pro Tools Ultimate 2018

I have to thank recording and mixing legend Dave Pensado and his manager Herb Trawick for giving me my license of Pro Tools at NAMM 2014.  This was such a huge blessing to me because it really elevated my mixing skills.  I attended a live taping of Dave and Herb’s Youtube show Pensado’s Place at the Avid Booth.  I shared a story with them during the Q&A session, and as a thank you gift for sharing, they gave me a perpetual license to Pro Tools.

I recorded and mixed 510JAZZ’s January 16 and Bossa510 albums using ProTools, and I found that it made things so easy for me!  Mixing does take time and is a skill that can be finessed with time.  Just like anything else, what you put into it – is what you get out of it.  I spent countless hours working on the recording and mixing of our 510JAZZ songs.

Reference, Reference, Reference!

One mixing strategy that I used, that is standard practice for mix engineers, is to use a professional reference song to check your mix against.  As a mix engineer it’s easy to question aspects of your own mix.  You might ask yourself questions like “Is the kick drum too loud?” or “Is my lead vocal to soft in the mix?”.  To remedy this a mix engineer will compare his mix to a commercially recorded song that sounds similar, that has been mixed by a professional: the “reference song”.   This technique allows the mix engineer to conduct an “A-B test” of their song to check if the vocal is too soft compared to the reference song.

Using reference songs greatly increased the overall quality of my mixes.  I’m lucky enough to have access to a huge collection of CDs at my local public library.  I would check out commercial Latin Jazz CDs, R&B CDs, Contemporary/Smooth Jazz CDs and even some Hip-Hop CDs to find songs that had a similar vibe to our own original songs.  It was pretty fun to jot down commercial songs that could be used for referencing.  For each song that I mixed on our January 16 album, I found a commercial reference song.

Magic AB 2 the rescue!

I purchased a “plugin” to make referencing easy in Pro Tools. A “plugin” is third party software that can be launched and used in Pro Tools or most other DAW’s. The plugin that I bought is named Magic AB 2 from the company Sample Magic.

Magic AB 2 from Sample Magic
Magic AB 2 from Sample Magic

The Magic AB 2 plugin allows you to load up to nine reference songs to compare your mix against.  This plugin should be assigned to the last insert found on the Master Fader in Pro Tools (see figure below).

The two main parameters you’ll see in this plugin are “A” & “B”.  When “A” is selected you will hear your mix playing in Pro Tools.  When “B” is selected you will hear the reference song playing.  Pretty simple to use huh?  This makes checking your mix verses a commercial mix insanely easy.  I’d recommend this plugin to any mixer.

Mixing our title track “January 16”

“January 16” is a special song to me.  It’s dedicated to my grandmother Jesusa.  We called her Grandma Susie for short.  She loved her family so much.  The Spirit really moved me to compose and produce a tribute song for her.  As we finished the recording of “January 16”, I knew the mix had to be just right.  I needed to spend some quality time carefully mixing the song, and to do that I needed a great reference song that I could compare our song against.

When it came to mixing our song “January 16”, the reference song that I chose was “Just Friends” from the artist Musiq.  I felt that “Just Friends” had a similar soulful groove to our song “January 16”.  It  contained similar instrumentation and vocal structure.  I was also very familiar with the song, as growing up it was one of my favorites.

I loaded up “Just Friends” in the Magic AB 2 plugin and was able to tell when referencing that my mix needed more low end, specifically kick drum and bass guitar.  Adjusting the low end really helped the mix of “January 16”. I was also able to compare the vocal level of “January 16” vs. “Just Friends” — this was a huge benefit!

Using Magic AB 2
Using Magic AB 2


If you are getting ready to mix your next song and were not thinking of using a reference song, I hope this blog post changes your mind. It’s the best way to make your mixes sound better.

Don’t feel like you have to purchase Magic AB 2.  You can still conduct A-B reference comparisons without this plugin.

Have a blessed week everyone.

Have you had a chance to listen to “January 16” by 510JAZZ?  You can do so now by clicking here.



Studio Talk: “Right Next To Me”

D-Varg and Matt Blaque are featured vocalists on the song "Right Next To me"


Right Next To Me is the lead-in track on our “January 16” album for a reason.  This song was composed to be a mover that brings fun into your 510JAZZ listening experience.  It’s the perfect anthem for dance parties and lively environments.  Matt Blaque’s stellar vocals carry the melodic component of this song while D-Varg’s rap storytelling is always on-point.

We’re delighted that this song is getting great airplay on radio stations around the world.

This blog post gives you a behind-the-scenes look at composing, arranging, recording and producing this superb song.

What They’re Saying

New Music Ear

“…The album opens with a medium paced Samba crossover with a big summery vibe.  It is a fun, bright and breezy number with hints of Michael Jackson (“Off The Wall” era) and Gloria Estefan’s Miami Sound Machine.  D-Varg’s rapping gives it an updated appeal to younger listeners who may not have heard music like this before…”

Andrew Goodwin
New Music Ear

Read the full album review

“Listeners LOVE the new single from 510JAZZ! “Right Next To Me” the sexy, smooth, bright bossa nova beat that will make you want to get up and dance!  It’s no wonder listeners across the globe are in love with this track.  Get your copy now in The Listening Loft

From Leadsheet to Hit Single

"Right Next To Me" features 5 exceptional Bay Area musicians

Our first samba original brought interesting challenges at every turn: establishing the form, composing the melody and hook, writing the verse, chorus and rap lyrics, recording the rhythm section, arranging the background vocals, adding the layers of latin percussion and electric guitar.  David and I couldn’t have successfully produced this song without the talent of 5 exceptional Bay Area musicians: Mark Rickey (keyboards), Tony Song (guitar), Charlie Channel (bass), Collette d’Almeida (drums) and Stan Muncy (latin percussion).

Building The Story

510JAZZ at Angelicas, February 17, 2018
I came up with the original storyline: a lively beachfront club where you go to be immersed in music and drink, surrounded by beautiful people, charged with adrenaline and dance.  The first verse came to me quickly, setting the stage for this story.  As with all whirlwind romances – there’s a storyteller and an elusive leading lady.  David ran with that, writing the lyrics for the second verse.  He quickly wrote twice the storyline for the rap verse that follows.  I find it amazing how these rap verses quickly build tension and then release.

I wrote the lyrics for the following verse, where our leading man’s head is spinning after his quick brush with this beautiful girl.  Before he knows it, he’s back in the game.  David uses rap to tell the story of how boy and girl develop their chemistry.

Improving The Form: Chorus and Turnarounds

"Right Next To Me" composed by John and David Vargas

Now we have the basic form for the song.  The fast-paced samba beat carried us through everything really fast, but something was missing – the hook!  David is a master of developing hooks.  He quickly came up with a simple but catchy chorus that we could use as an intro, then to keep things moving in the middle, and then again as an ending.  I thought our new form was perfect – but David was still composing.

David then took our instrumental interlude (8-bar acoustic guitar riff with unison scat-vocals) and wrote lyrics for it.  He transformed interlude 1 into an upbeat turnaround to keep the listener interested.  Then he wrote a brilliant storyline for interlude 2 which carries the listener into the final rap verse.  Tony’s guitar riff and scat-vocals layered with Matt Blaque’s vocals were just the ticket to keep the song moving.  Now we’ve got a story!

Melodic and Rap Vocals

When you bring Matt Blaque into the recording studio, he won’t let you close the session until he’s added a full library of vocal stabs and choral harmonies that the producer can use.  Matt is one of the finest R&B vocalists that I have ever met, and he has an incredible ability to arrange his own vocal harmonies.  Our session with Matt Blaque was truly magical.

David has a busy job here at 4Play Records.  He’s our producer and engineer – and he’s also our rapper.  That means that once he’s finally happy with the tracking, with the engineering and most of the mix – he can finally add his production rap vocals.  Working with David, I find him to be as rhythmically-tight as the drummer.  It’s amazing!  David replaced his scratch-vocals with the superb rap stylings that you hear in our commercial release.

The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

Channeling legendary producers Sergio Mendes and Quincy Jones, we wanted our rhythm to be complemented with a lively latin percussion.  We brought percussionist Stan Muncy into the studio and he laid down the authentic latin vibe with cuica, samba whistle, shakers, agogo bells, cowbell and then triangle.  Once everything was in place, we decided to add in a breakdown starting with samba whistle and leading into Matt Blaque’s chorus.  We couldn’t resist adding Stan’s samba whistle at the very end of the song.  Stan’s percussion stylings conjure images of Carnaval in Rio, with people dancing in the streets to samba music.  Brilliant!

The Guitar Man

Many of my own compositions were inspired by legendary composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.   Jobim rendered many of his own songs playing the classic nylon-stringed acoustic guitar.  I wanted this song to contain this same rhythm foundation from start to finish.  Tony Song delivered.

When we were close to completion, David called The Guitar Man back into the studio with his electric guitar  Tony then came up with the staccato picking that you hear in the intro, interludes and ending.  Then he added color throughout the song with beautiful electric guitar accents.

What Do You Think?

We think that “Right Next To Me” is a real crowd-pleaser – but we want to get your input.  Why not buy the song and then tell us what you think on Facebook, Twitter or on our Website?  We’ve placed it in our online stores for you to enjoy:


You can also purchase the entire “January 16” album at the above stores – or you can buy the CD on our 4Play Records Music Store.

Recording The Album – The Gear

When it comes to recording music, a good musical performance is always key. Musicians should show up on recording day prepared and well rehearsed.  This usually is the formula to a successful take.

It has been a blessing to be the recording engineer for both 510JAZZ albums Bossa510 & January 16.  All our music was recorded digitally with microphones, mic and line cables, microphone preamps, audio interfaces,  an iMac computer, and Pro Tools.

In this post I’d like to highlight which audio interfaces I used for recording both 510JAZZ albums and why I chose to use them.  When recording 510JAZZ’s debut album Bossa510  we used two audio interfaces: the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo (thunderbolt) and the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40.


Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo
Focusrite Saffire Pro 40

The main purpose of an audio interface is to take an analog audio signal that is captured from a microphone and convert it into a digital audio signal that can be routed into your computer.  The digital audio signal will get recorded in the computer by a DAW like Pro Tools (computer recording software).

At the time (2014-2015) the UA Apollo Twin was a new and very popular consumer audio interface.  It came with some of UA’s coveted plugins for mixing, so I knew I wanted to use it for recording our album.  The UA Apollo Twin was our master audio interface.  It contains two high quality microphone preamps and an optical input used to route in an additional 8 audio inputs.

These additional 8 inputs were supplied by the Saffire Pro 40 via an optical cable.  I must say the Saffire is a great interface that is reasonably priced and provides lots of versatility for recording and mixing.

This post is about recording… But if you did your math correctly, that gave me a total of 10 audio inputs for recording.  In 2015 (10) microphone inputs was more than enough for recording the core 510JAZZ band.

For the core 510JAZZ band; keyboard, electric bass, drums, and vocals, I was able to divide up the inputs.  I usually would dedicate 6 inputs to the drums, 1 input for electric bass, 2 inputs for keyboard, and 1 input for scratch vocals. I won’t get into microphone placement much on this post, but it did play a key part two shaping the sound of the band.

Once the microphones were in their desired positions, I would set my microphone preamp levels (input levels) via the gain knobs on the audio interfaces.  Gain staging at this level is really important, I learned from many sources that in the digital domain clipping the audio signal can be really destructive to your sound.  To combat clipping one can turn the gain knob down on the audio interface.  Clipping is usually indicated by a red LED indicator on the audio interface. Usually healthy levels for recording are indicated by green and yellow LED’s.

I learned so much from recording our first 510JAZZ album.  Fast forward to 2017 and recording our album January 16.  I wanted to get another audio interface to allow for recording more sources simultaneously.

When Universal Audio made the announcement about the Apollo Expanded  addition to their Console Software (which allows for the cascading of multiple UA Apollos) a lightbulb went off in my head.  This lightbulb visual was shortly followed by the classic “Cha-Ching” sound of cash register sounding off.  The UA Apollo interfaces are not cheap.  I found a great deal on the new Apollo 8 interface online and was able to get one for our studio!

Apollo Expanded


Universal Audio Apollo 8

The Apollo 8 became my master audio interface.  I was able to set it as the master interface in the UA Console Software.  Once I was up and running with all 3 audio interfaces (Apollo 8, Apollo Twin, Saffire Pro 40) I was able to record 18 inputs at once, yikes!

When recording the January 16 album this equated to more microphones on the drum kit – 8 total.  This allowed for our guitarist Tony to participate in all core 510JAZZ recordings.  I usually would dedicate 2 microphones to his guitar (electric or acoustic).  This was a great perk, but required so much more attention to detail.

I was up for the challenge and it really paid off.  I encourage anyone who is new to recording to start off with an audio interface that suits your recording needs and really get to know it.  When you are getting ready to expand you can think of an interface that would equip you for the occasion.

Be sure to listen to January 16 & Bossa510 by 510JAZZ.

Have fun, each day is a blessing.



David Vargas


Sound on Sound. Accessed 5 Sept. 2018.

Westlakepro. Accessed 5 Sept.

Pro Tools Expert.
universal-audio-introduces-new-apollo-expanded-software-powe.html. Accessed 5 Sept. 2018.

Universal Audio. Accessed 5 Sept. 2018.

“Song On The Radio”

This Week In Radio

We at 510JAZZ strive to reach out to terrestrial and Internet radio stations all over the globe – to tell them about our music.  We’ve been Blessed with very strong support from some of the best.

We’re delighted to see songs from our new album “January 16” playing on 21 stations this past week (August 25 to September 1).  Our most popular song is Right Next To Me (ft. D-Varg and Matt Blaque) followed by the song You’re Everything To Me (ft. Maya Victoria).  These stations have played several other songs from our January 16 album as well.  We’re thrilled to see this acceptance from our friends in radio.

We encourage you to check out these superb radio stations as they are playing the best in Smooth Jazz every day – including songs from 510JAZZ.  Look them up on your favorite search engine and click on their “Listen Live” link.

510JAZZ was heard on 21 radio stations during the week of August 27.

My Love For Radio

Ever think about the music that defined you as an adolescent?  Movies like That Thing You Do remind me of the excitement that artists and composers feel when their song gets played on radio – whether it’s that first radio spin – or several years later after thousands of spins.

I can’t help thinking about Al Stewart’s 1978 release Song On The Radio.  Every time I hear our music, it’s just like hearing Al Stewart’s hit single when I was a teen – pure magic!

Radio has sure changed since those days.  During that time we listened to the radio, fell in love with a song and then went to the store to buy a 45 or LP vinyl album, cassette or CD.  Then we would play it over and over on portable players, in the car and at home.  Radio was always the catalyst, for our love affair with music.

In 2018 music is available everywhere – as close as your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer.  The one thing that remains the same is that radio continues to be the catalyst that drive’s music lovers to seek out that song and “put it into rotation” (on their mobile devices, computer, etc).

Radio has changed in a big way.  We now listen to a mix of terrestrial radio and Internet radio.  We no longer need to purchase that physical album at the music store.  The list of radio stations is massive now, to where some of the best stations can only be found on the Internet.

The one common ground here is that every radio station has a presence on the Internet.  So if your favorite songs are only played on a station in Sao Paulo, Brazil or Galway, Ireland – you can listen from where you are, via their live stream.

The Internet has made the music world a much smaller place.

John Vargas

Interview With DrGlyn Reece of The Moth FM

On August 25, 2018, 510JAZZ’s John and David Vargas were interviewed by DrGlyn Reece on his show “Jazz and Coffee” on The Moth FM.

You can listen to this excerpt on our SoundCloud channel.

The Moth FM's DrGlyn Reece Interviews 510JAZZ

In this interview, you’ll hear selected songs from our new “January 16” album. We talk about songwriting, our musicians and more!

This excerpt is taken from “Jazz And Coffee” show S01 E23.

This interview was recorded live on The Moth FM on August 25, 2018. Permission to use this excerpt has been granted by The Moth FM.