Thursday, July 20, 2006

How I came to be stuck...

The process I have been using for my solo effort is similar to your "all or nothing" approach:

1) Get the chords, melody and lyrics written for all the songs
2) Write and record the drums, keys, bass, and synth parts for all the songs
3) Write and record the guitar parts for all the songs.
4) Make tracking mixes
5) Write and record all the vocals for all the songs
6) Final mix and mastering

The reason that I am hoping to hear about other working patterns is that it has been more than a year since I finished step one and I am still struggling to get past step four, with not much to show for a significant investment of time and effort. In addition, it is hard to get (positive) feedback on things which are so manifestly "works in progress"; the whole experience has been much more isolating than I would have liked it to be.

I work in software, and in my professional capacity I spend many days telling people to avoid this kind of "all or nothing" project methodology (in software we call this the waterfall model). The two arguments which seem to resonate the most are:

1) If something goes wrong at any point in your project, you wind up with nothing. If you use a more incremental approach even if your project gets canceled 1/3 of the way through you still reap 1/3 of the benefits.

2) If the people who are so excited by your ideas that they have green-lighted your project have to wait (any longer than they absolutely must) to see the results they will probably forget about you/lose faith/move on to something else new and shiny.

But back to music...

I'm not sure if I can change my approach at this point: I'm far enough in to it that the only possible way out seems to be to keep moving forward or die (aka the deathmarch scenario, another great software concept).

The reason (I think) that I chose to do things in the order I did was that each step in the process (2, 3, 4) used a tool which required a significant learning curve (Reason, Line 6, ProTools), so I was able to spend more time getting familiar with the tools than if I had been sticking to one song at a time and moving from tool to tool.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Somebody's Dad

I posted some tracks from "Somebody's Dad" (Seamus, Coming Home, Daffodils, and Nighttime Feedings) on Soundclick.

How I came to be stuck in audio mixdown limbo - Part 3

I finished recording in 2001 and called the album "Somebody's Dad", because while I was recording it I did become somebody's dad and I found (and still do find) the whole concept slightly unbelievable. The recording quality on "Sombody's Data" was a little better than "Four Track Mind" - I had learned some valuable lessons: don't atttempt to record on the cheapest tapes from Radio Shack, don't attempt to bounce tracks to and from the cheapest tape recorder from Radio Shack, do record at the highest possible signal volume.

But there were still some things I wasn't happy with. Editing on cassette tape is a process fraught with peril - every time you try and fix something you introduce more noise into the signal - so to keep the noise down I kept edits to the absolute minimum. While this technique allowed the album to sound slightly less like mud, it made me leave some things on the tape which, with the charity of hindsight, I can only characterize as fuckups. Also, while I was investigating different, noisier, sounds on the guitar, the 128 midi voices in the Roland were not cutting it any more ("ugh, Japanese Koto again?"). The drums on the Roland were particularly poor and if you don't have drums, you simply do not rock.

So I decided that for my next album, I had four engineering goals:

1) No audible fuckups
2) No more tape hiss
3) Better instrument sounds
4) Real drums

Doesn't look overly ambitious, does it?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Four Track Mind

I posted a couple of songs from "Four Track Mind" (Falling in Love, Roach Motel) on Soundclick.

How I came to be stuck in audio mixdown limbo – Part 2

I recorded an album on the 4-track, called “Four Track Mind” (I know, I know. I thought it was clever at the time, apparently so did every other schmuck sitting in his bedroom with writers block and a 4-track recorder in front of him). I converted the tape to mp3 a while ago and I might post it somewhere on the web for documentary evidence, but it’s pretty hard to listen to. The sonic palette is quite limited: an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar with the distortion pedal in the on position AND an electric guitar with the distortion pedal in the off position, vocals through an instrument mic (SM 57) and ersatz percussion noises from things like me banging on a Quaker Oats can with a wooden spoon. The recording quality is atrocious (cassette tape is a horrible recording medium AND I had no idea about what I was doing) but by the end of it I had accomplished my main goal: to learn about overdubbing and parts – how to write them and how to play them, how to leave space and fill space.

However, I was kind of unsatisfied with what I could accomplish with just guitars, so I bought a Roland midi keyboard with 128 built in voices. I spent some time getting the rust off of my piano skills and listening to the various sounds that the Roland could make - "ooh, a Japanese Koto?!?!" plus stupid sound effects like the sounds of rain/static and breaking glass. But undeterred, I dialed in the "Piano 2" sound and recorded another album on the 4-track, adding the Roland to the basic setup from “Four Track Mind”.

How I came to be stuck in audio mixdown limbo – Part 1

I am a creative/artistic type person. One of the ways that I express that creativity is by playing and composing music, and I have been doing that, not exclusively but pretty consistently, for over 20 years. I started with interminable shuffle-blues jams in High School, progressed rapidly to non-remuniterive attempts to busk in the Paris Metro and quickly graduated to banging out prospective jingles for coffee beans and public transportation on an out-of-tune grand piano in my college fraternity house.

As you can see from my GAS list, musical equipment costs money, and as a young man on my own in the world I didn’t have any. My priorities were paying the rent and getting laid, and the only work I could get (as a temporary office assistant) really didn’t cover much more than the essentials outlined above. There was a period of time where I focused on attaining a slightly more elevated career path than “that kid in the typing pool”, so most of my time (and the little money I had) went to education and training and working long hours at apprentice rates. But by the mid ‘90’s I was making a good salary (essential 1) and married (essential 2), so I started spending a little more time with music.

I had a bunch of songs that I would play at my local coffeehouse on solo acoustic guitar, and a (small) group of accommodating friends who would come down to hear me play, but I wasn’t really happy with what I was playing. The songs were OK, but there were things about the songs that I was just not able to convey on solo acoustic guitar. So I got an electric guitar, a distortion pedal, and a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder.


I've been hangining out in some online musician forums for a while now (mostly Harmony Central) but nothing comes close to these two archived threads from MARSH.

The Daily Adventures of Mixerman

Slipperman's Recording Distorted Guitars Thread From Hell

Mixerman is a funny writer and the Daily Adventures are a traditional episodic narrative/workplace sitcom setup like "Tales of the City" except set in an LA recording studio. Slipperman is like the best teacher you never had in High School who can say "fuck" in every other sentence and smoke a cigar while he is standing in front of the class pontificating. It helps to be interested in audio mixing (which is where I am stuck right now) but I think anyone can enjoy these two guys. It's like listening to "Car Talk" (Mixerman and Slipperman apparently tried doing a radio show at one point but I cannot find a link); you don't really need to be interested in fixing cars to enjoy the show.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Price of GAS

GAS = Gear Aquisition Syndrome, a common ailment afflicting musicians, but also prevalent amoung the general population of middle aged men.

Item Year Cost
Aria Acoustic Guitar1997300
Shure SM57 Microphone1998 100
Frankenstein Electric Guitar 1998 300
Tascam 4Track Analog Recording Hardware 1998 300
Boss Guitar Distortion Effect Pedal 1998 50
Dunlop Crybaby Wah Guitar Effect Pedal 1999 50
Roland XP-10 Midi Controller 2000 400
Cakewalk Home Studio Recording software 2001 100
M-Audio Delta 44 Audio Card 2002 200
Line6 POD XT Amp Modeler 2003 350
ImageLine FLStudio Recording Software 2003 200
M-Audio 1x1 MIDI Adapter 2004 50
Digidesign Mbox Audio Card 2005 200
Digidesign ProTools Recording Software 2005 300
Propellerhead Reason MIDI Instrument Library 2005 500
Epiphone Elitist Les Paul Electric Guitar 2005 1000
Squier Telecaster Electric Guitar 2005 200
RODE NT-1 Vocal Microphone 2005 200
Behringer Truth Near-Field Monitors 2006 350

And don't even get me started on what it costs to run my car...