Thursday, December 22, 2011

Singing the Accounts Receivable, Dancing the Accounts Payable

He's a guy
(who knows some guys)
Who have some money
In Asia.
And right now
That's all
I know.
But until his guys pay him
(and he can pay me)
I'm afraid
The answer
Is no.

Monday, December 12, 2011

One Man Studio Band

The energy of musicians bouncing off each other is palpable, both live and in the studio, but when a single musician writes, arranges, plays, multi-tracks all parts, engineers, produces etc. then how does he keep the energy of the piece on the boil? How does he prevent it from sounding wooden? Is their a knack to keeping the feel of the piece alive and kicking? Is it a state of mind, or is it more complicated than that?

To start with, I'm not sure if I have enough perspective to really answer this. I've been pretty much a solo act for 15 years now (and I don't know if it is the impending holidays, the fact that I'm operating on four hours of sleep, or what, but just thinking about that reality threw me into a paroxysm of defensive rationalizations on the order of a middle aged divorcees answer to the question - "so, have you met anyone yet?" ).

But anyway, my experience in the studio is almost exclusively recording myself - I think Lee Knight has a lot more insight into playing and recording from both sides of the glass. That being said, here are some of my thoughts.

The studio is actually a terrible place for pen-and-paper style songwriting. I don't even turn on my DAW until I have the melody, chord progression and key lyrics already written. First step is to block out the drums. Start by figuring out exactly how many sections the song has, how many measures in each section, how many beats per measure, how many beats per minute. Pick a drum kit/sound, and create a basic midi drum pattern for each section, either using something from one of my midi drum libraries or playing it by hand on the keyboard. Make sure that the drum patterns match up with the rhythm of the melody and support the meter of the key lyrics. Generate drum fills to mark section transitions and hand edit/tweak the fills as necessary.

When I get all the sections of the drum track done I'll loop the drum track and run through the song on guitar or piano (whichever instrument I used for the pen-and-paper style composition) to make sure that everything works together. When I'm writing on a single instrument I don't always keep an accurate count of how many times I'm playing a given figure or notice that I needed an extra measure here or there to get from point A to point B, so frequently I have to go back and tweak the drum patterns.

Once the drums are done I lay down the bass. I'm a competent but not ambitious bass player - if the bass part has a groove and follows the chord progression I'm usually satisfied - it's very rare that I'm trying to drive the melody or show off some technique from the bass. I'll usually rough out the bass part against a loop of the drum track, but then I eq the drums so that the kick is extremely prominent and I can make sure that the bass part is going to lock in with the kick drum. If there is a particular phrase that I'm in love with on the bass that doesn't work with the kick I'll go back and edit the midi for the drums, but in general I try and play to the existing drum track.

When the bass track is done I'll loop the drums and the bass and run through the song on guitar or piano and make sure everything works together. I usually record a scratch track of this. Then loop the rhythm section and play the melody on a sympatico keyboard patch (usually organ these days) and record a scratch track of that.

That's probably 4-8 hours right there, so if that's done in a day I've had a pretty good day. Bounce a copy of the track to listen to and go explain to the family why I've been hiding in the basement all day and not doing anything worthwhile around the house.

Now it's time to work out the arrangement. Unlike the pen-and-paper composition process, the DAW is a great place to write the arrangement. In many cases, the arrangement flows organically out of the songwriting. If the solo acoustic demo already says everything that you want to say with the song, then you're done. If the song is firmly anchored in a particular genre you go with the standard arrangement components for that genre - a jazz standard is probably going to sound good with a clean guitar and piano, an R&B song is probably going to sound good with a crunch guitar and organ, a rock song is probably going to sound good with two clean/crunch/fuzz guitars, a dance song is probably going to sound good with phat synths and tempo-synched filters, etc.

On the other hand, I'm not usually super concerned with matching any particular genre marketing expectations, so this phase can be really creative/crazy/exploratory. However, unless there is some compelling reason not to, the arrangement will usually have at least one guitar part and one keyboard part. Writing the arrangement tends to be a lengthy process that overlaps with both tracking and mixing - if there is something that is making the mix impossible it probably has roots in the arrangement, and you have to fix the arrangement before you can fix the mix.

Ok, I think I've finally gotten to the point in the process that you are asking about.

I usually refer to this as Tracking. I'll defer to Lee's comments on this (if he chooses to contribute ) but for me tracking in the studio is almost completely unlike playing live with other musicians (especially in a jam-type situation).

When I'm tracking an instrument in the studio it is all about executing the part. The part is not necessarily written in stone before I start, but the only way it's going to end is with me executing the part in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY twice in a row. The part might be a verse, a chorus, some combination of contiguous sections or the whole song, but I am going to set the DAW to loop record and keep playing until I nail it twice in a row. Over the years I've gotten much better at this (I rarely have to track more than 4-5 takes these days), but when I started reproducibility was a huge problem.

Tracking, in it's very nature, is not creative. It's all about executing the part, and a lot of the parts are not, in themselves, musically challenging. I didn't go to music school to play a barre chord upstroke on the 2 and the 4, but a lot of times, that is what the song requires. When I'm tracking, I'm listening very hard for three T's - timing, intonation and tone - if any of those three T's diverge from the rest of the part it needs to be both intentional and expressive (and repeatable). Some ears, very little brain and mostly muscle memory.

You need to be in a disciplined, professional state of mind to do it successfully, and if the part doesn't wind up exhibiting some vitality or energy that's the fault of the writing, not the studio performance.

Writing the part is, superficially, more similar to playing live in a jam setting. In a jam you listen, understand, and react to what is going on around you; if you make a compelling new thematic statement you expect the arrangement to dynamically reconfigure itself to accommodate your idea. All the other parts of the arrangement exist at the same moment in time and are (reasonably) flexible. In the studio, you have to write your part of the arrangement before the other parts of the arrangement even exist, and once a part is written it is a PITA to change it, so you are largely confined to only using the open space left to you by the previous part writers.

To work around this, I try to be very conscious of how much space any part is taking up in the arrangement and to make this space as small as possible, especially for parts which come early in the arrangement process. I still struggle with this, but not fully appreciating this when I started doomed me to years of over-stuffed arrangements and unsatisfying mixes.

There is a fair amount of knob-twiddling that happens during the Tracking phase. Juiced about that new Fuzz pedal? Knock yourself out. Connect a line-level signal to a Hi-Z input by mistake and decide that you like it? Why not? But in addition to being fun and hopefully inspiring, your sound choices in the arrangement are going to have a direct and immediate impact on the mix. When I'm mixing I want a variety of textures; wave forms with transients and wave forms with sustain; instruments with a strong fundamental and instruments with a lot of secondary harmonics; coverage across the audible spectrum and no uncomfortable signal buildup in any one EQ band range. I don't want too many (any?) instruments using reverb, panning or delay at the track level, especially if those settings conflict with another instrument.

So there are a bunch of more creative elements in the arrangement and tracking - it's not all a grind. I suspect that I am more naturally disciplined than a lot of musicians, but even beyond that I just get really juiced and excited to be playing in front of a band that is really bringing it; driving the beat and riding the groove and letting me blow over some tasty changes.

Arranging and Tracking; deciding what to play, twiddling knobs, and actually playing it, takes a while - on the order of 1-2 hours per instrument per part. If a song has 3-4 sections and I manage to track all the keyboard and guitar parts in a day, that's been a good day. Bounce the track, get up from the chair and go upstairs to find out if anyone has thought about what to have for dinner.

Vocals and solos.

Given my druthers I would never sing on any of my tracks. I don't have a front-man style personality so I have never wanted to be the singer; I smoke, so my tone is inconsistent; as a lyricists I frequently write lyrics that are difficult, if not impossible, to deliver effectively; I have to mic the vocals so the room has to be reasonably quiet - vocals are just a drag. Still, the main reason I started songwriting was to have a cooler/more popular vehicle for my prosy-poetry; and there is no one else volunteering to sing my songs, so I suck it up and try to sing. Frankly, the less said about this the better.

I have the opposite problem with guitar solos. I love them too much. Objectively, I am a semi-competent but not very interesting lead guitarist. Why I think that entitles me to 16 or 32 bar solos is a mystery. Again, the less said about this the better.

Once all the tracking is done it's time to mix. I do believe that if you get the arrangement right, the mix should be a matter of just pulling up the faders, but it doesn't seem to turn out that way very often. After singing, mixing is my second least favorite part of the process - I don't have a great sounding room to mix in, a lot of time the arrangements are crap, the whole process is a lot of minute and fine-grained decisions with endless ramifications that I don't really hear until I bounce the whole thing, take it out to the car and realize "Wow, this isn't very good". Mastering is almost as bad except I care less - a compressor, non-surgical eq and reverb to taste. Bounce it, covert to mp3, upload to soundclick, post on the blog and then check back madly every 30 seconds to see if anyone listened. ;)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

From the Coast of Malabar

A tee shirt and sandals for Christmas
Bulbs blink in the bar on the sand
No pine trees are here to be slaughtered
But there's a plastic one up on a stand
The music's a Malayam pop song
But there's no local word for reindeer
The drink is some black market whiskey
That takes me to a place far from here

Dublin is grey and it's snowing
The Chieftans with Cooder beside
A song called the Coast of Malabar
That I live out from the other side
I married that raven haired woman
Set down roots in this place far from home
But on days like the day before Christmas
I feel sad and like I'm all alone

And I remember with fondness that auburn haired lass
With freckles and eyes like green colored glass
But by evening I'll stand up and my mood will have passed
I'll come back to my raven haired wife and my home
My dusky hued brood, three sweet girls all my own
Pull out my oud and sing songs of today
Rice and sambar for dinner; enjoy Christmas day.

And here is the traditional Irish folk song, performed by The Chieftains and Ry Cooder:

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Ornamental Cabbage

A little warm up instrumental from a hypothetical Sunday Jazz Brunch Jam.