A Word on Process

Recently I watched a documentary on the history of the cassette tape. That format is making a comeback, of sorts; it has a small but fiercely loyal fanbase. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around this. By almost any measure, this format is inferior to every other: its audio fidelity is worse than what came before (vinyl) and what came after (compact discs), album art is way too small, maintaining tape decks is a pain, blank tape is harder to find and more expensive than ever…I have no idea why anyone would prefer this format to digital or other analog formats.

But then the documentary made a point I hadn’t considered: audio cassettes made it easy for anyone to record sounds. All you had to do was put a cheap tape into a cheap recorder, press record, and there you go. Band demos, messages to loved ones, interviews with interesting people, etc, could be done easily with little fuss. And it occurred to me that despite all of the money I’ve spent over the last 20 years buying audio interfaces, microphones, and computers, and the time spent learning how to use them to create music, my recording process has gotten more complicated and more time consuming instead of simpler and faster. Maybe these cassette fans are on to something after all.

I am in the early stages of collecting ideas for my next music project, and I am spending lots of time experimenting in my studio with guitar riffs and synthesizer sounds. I’d like to record as many ideas as I can, then review them later to see if any are worth developing into songs. Here’s how a typical studio session goes:

  • boot my laptop and turn on my Tascam audio interface
  • make sure I have a mic or a direct connection to the interface for whatever I want to record
  • start jack, which usually works right on the first try
  • start ardour
  • connect jack to ardour, which is supposed to happen automatically, but usually does not
  • fire up a drum machine, probably Hydrogen, program a basic beat, and get that connected to jack
  • create an ardour track for the instrument I’m playing
  • record a test sample played along to the drum beat to verify everything is working
  • start making music…

I’ve been doing this a long time, and none of this is particularly difficult, but it is tedious, and it eats into the limited time I have to record. On a good day – or if I’m continuing the previous night’s work and I’ve left everything setup – this takes 10 minutes. If I’m trying something different, or I run into an unexpected technical problem, it can take a lot longer. A sizeable number of my sessions consist entirely of trying to get the recording rig setup; an hour or more in I’ll realize that I’ve squandered all of the time I had for playing and try to leave things ready to go the next day. I spend way too much creative capital messing with gear. Brainstorming ideas takes a lot of time, a commodity that has been in short supply since I became a father.

A cassette recorder now seems like a pretty handy thing to have.

Well, not exactly. As I said, the format is substandard in almost every way. But I should be able to use the digital equivalent. After all, I’m not trying to create a work of art, I’m trying to make sketches into my audio notebook. I want to walk into my studio, pick up my guitar, hit record, and try come up with a cool musical idea. I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to make this happen, and it’s turned out to be surprisingly difficult.

First I tried to use my Olympus LS-10 recorder. I love this device, but I ran into a serious setback when I discovered that the batteries I left in it had leaked and half the buttons stopped working. I was able to take the device apart, clean up the mess, and get all the buttons working. But I managed to break the power switch in the process, and now I need a screwdriver to turn the thing on and off. The LS-10 is now in the pile of household items I need to fix but probably won’t because I’d rather be playing my guitar.

So next I decided to try an old cellphone I have. I placed it in front of my guitar amp and hit record. The results weren’t terrible, actually, but they weren’t great either. The built in mic is just too limited for capturing the sound of a room, so I tried to figure out a way to connect one of my mics directly to the phone. This introduced new challenges. With the appropriate adapter cable I could connect my mixer output to the phone’s mic input, and then run as many mics as I need to the mixer and record whatever I want. While this would work, the setup would be almost as complicated as my existing computer setup. Worse, it would be a different setup. That is, I usually plug my mics, synths, etc, directly into the audio interface and do my mixing in the box. Setting up an external mixer so I could feed the cellphone makes things more complicated, not less. I abandoned the cellphone idea.

Maybe there is some software that would make this easier? After a few minutes of googling, I stumbled across a tool I had totally forgotten about: Jack Timemachine. This clever utility does nothing until you click on it’s big button, at which point it will record the last 10 seconds of whatever you were playing, The idea is that as soon as you play something that makes you think “gee, I wish I had recorded that!”, you click the button and it captures it for you. Neat, right? I even found a blog entry that talks about using the timemachine in a simple recording workflow, which is exactly what I was looking for.

A pre-built binary doesn’t exist for the linux distribution I use (Arch Linux), so I downloaded the source code and built it myself. However, every time I start it I immediately get a segmentation fault and the program crashes. Now, I am a software engineer, and I could probably dive into the code and fix this issue, but after a long day at work messing around with code is the last thing I want to be doing. It’s on my todo list – the app is too cool to abandon – but who the heck knows when I’ll get to fixing it. Probably right after I fix the LS-10.

I’m running out of ideas. Maybe the cassette tape isn’t such a bad tool after all. I do have an old Tascam Portastudio 4 track in a closet somewhere….

A Point of Light/Summer of ’86

In these two tracks – A Point of Light and Summer ’86 – I tried to continue to explore some of the ideas I had for The Far End of Never. That means more synthesizers and guitars. I’ve been trying to write music that looks back as it moves forward. This is a tough line to walk, and I’m not sure if I have succeeded. It sure is a lot of fun trying, though.

I decided to go with “real” hardware on these. All of the guitars were played through my custom built AC-30 and captured by a Shure SM-57, and all of the synth sounds were created with the Yamaha DX-7 I got last Fall. I’ve just scratched the surface of where I want to go with this combination of instruments.

Enjoy!

From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come

Recently I was searching the web for some orchestra samples when it occurred to me that I should be creating my own sample library.

I spend most of my studio time trying to come up fragments that I can use to build a complete piece of music. Usually I start with a small idea and try to keep adding to it until I have something I’m happy with. When I start, the big picture is not always clear to me, and I frequently will go in one direction for a while before giving up and trying something else. This means I’m sitting on a large – and growing – collection of licks, two bar phrases, drum samples, and other cool sounds. Some of these are not being used for much of anything, and others I use quite a lot. So why shouldn’t I make them available to other musicians? It would be really neat if someone else thought something I created was worth using in one of their projects.

To this end, I’ve added a sample library to this site. There isn’t much hear at the moment, but it will grow steadily over time. Any musical artifact that I think sounds good on its own will be added here. These samples are free for you to use. If you find them useful in your own project, I’d love to hear about it.

Click here to enter the sample library

A Familiar Story

This last year had been nuts. I had a clear vision of how I wanted the next few years of my life to play out, and then the universe laughed, and all my plans evaporated. The several months leading up until September – when my son was born – and the 7 months since have been dedicated to building a home for my family life. It’s been an exhilarating ride. And predictably, making music had to take a back seat to other pressing concerns.

Which isn’t to say I stopped completely, the lack of updates to this site non-withstanding. I have been very steadily working on my follow up to The Far Side of Never. It’s rare that I get large chunks of uninterrupted time now, so I have to fit my music making into smaller increments. This has been really challenging. My process usually involves lots of experimenting until I land on an idea I like, then lots more experimenting to shape the idea into a completed track . This takes lots of time that I don’t really have any more. My whole approach to writing music has taken a kick in the pants, and I’m still trying to figure out how to make it all work.

In the meantime, this site has been languishing. I always find a reason to put off making updates. The main reason is that I don’t have much completed music to share. When I created this site I told myself that I would not blog about the lack of updates. It’s so lame when you see a blog that has been updated 3 times in the last 2 years, and each of those updates is an apology for not updating. I don’t want to have a site like that, so I have resolved to not post until I have something worthwhile to say, and there has been very little over the past several months that I think is worthwhile.

This reason gradually become a lame excuse. My situation changed, and I need to change with it. I’ve been doing some serious soul searching about what kind of art I can create given current limitations, and I feel pretty good about what I’ve come up with. Over the next several days there will be some big changes to this site and the beginning of a plan on how to move forward. I’m not going to say any more just now; I’d rather show than tell. Hopefully this is the start of something cool.

New Adventures in FM Synthesis

I’ve mentioned this on this blog before, but I’ve been working on adding synthesizers to my music to scratch a retro music itch I’ve had since watching Stranger Things. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some classic hardware synths, but I’ve been put off by the ridiculous price of vintage gear. Software emulations have had to make due instead. Until recently, that is.

An old friend of mine – who taught me my first guitar chords, but that’s a story for another time – was in town recently, and he suggested we check an small mom-and-pop music store that we used to go to when we were in high school. “There’s no way that place is still in business”, I said. And I was wrong. The owner told us that although his store doesn’t make much money, he still loves teaching music and introducing kids to their first instruments. We had the kind of experience you just can’t get at Guitar Center.

While my friend was trying out distortion pedals made by a brand I’d never heard of, I noticed an old keyboard burried under a stack of other old keyboards and a mountain of dust in the corner. It was the large DX7 on the case that caught my attention. The Yamaha DX7 is one of the best selling synths of all time and its sounds dominated the pop charts back in the 80s. I’ve always thought it would be cool to have one, but they get expensive, usually going for $500 and up. That’s more money than I want to spend for a piece of hardware that’s over 30 years old. But this one was listed for $145. There had to be a problem with it, right?

Nope, no problems. After verifying that it worked, I asked the store owner why it was so cheap. He told me that he used to teach lessons on it, but after upgrading to a newer keyboard he thought he’d get rid of the old one. “I’m more interested in finding a good home for it than trying to make a lot of money on it.” I could give it that home, I said, and I bought it.

I’m still learning how to use it – the DX7’s reputation for being challenging to program is well deserved – but I knew from the minute I first turned it on that it will become a central part of my music from now on. Here is a small sample of me triggering the synth using a guitar with a Fishman Triple Play midi pickup.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

I’ve got some pretty cool news. Will Brack, my longtime friend and musical collaborator, has released his first solo album. It’s called Wanderlust, and it’s very cool. Check it out at Will’s website.

Will’s a really talented multi-instrumentalist who has been slaving away on this album for the better part of the last year. As you can tell from listening, his influences come from everywhere: jazz, hip-hop, pop, and maybe even a little rock (though he’d never admit it). The whole album is pretty damn good, but I’m partial to Prologue (those vocals are killer), Back the Funk Off (with Funkmeister James hisself on bass), and Just Takes a Little Time, which I got to contribute to. If you listen closely, that’s me playing guitar. I’m thrilled to have been a part of this record, even in such a small way.

And get this- the folks at Stereofox love the album too.

Will’s inspired me to get moving on my own music. Maybe next time I’ll be lucky to have him contribute to my album.

guitar practice notebook

Staying In Shape

The guitar – and I assume any other instrument – has limitless potential. There are so many styles, so many techniques, so many different approaches to playing that no person could master them all in a single lifetime. The challenge for guitarists is to figure out which style and technique will get them where they want to go creatively, and then attempt to learn them. The first item is harder, and I struggle with it daily. The second thing is actually pretty simple. If there is a particular technique you want to learn, simply go to YouTube to find numerous videos demonstrating it, then practice it. In the twenty some-odd years I’ve been playing, I’ve tried to learn a wide variety of techniques. The goal is to have the physical skills to execute whatever idea serves your artistic vision. Now, I’m not even close to this ideal, but I do think my bag of tricks is diverse enough for me to can play in a variety of pop styles.

Over the last year I’ve been in a couple of groups that have a major hip hop influence. I got to take my playing in a new and rewarding direction, but I neglected to keep up some of my old skills. When I began working on the music for this site, I realized that some of the rock techniques I first started playing when I was 16 were a little rusty. Guides on effective guitar practice mention the need to review things that you’ve already learned so you don’t lose them, but I haven’t been doing that. Finding time to rehearse, perform, and write new music is hard enough. How am I supposed to add “review everything you know” to that list?

Well, I don’t think I can. What I can do, though, is make sure I touch on a core set of techniques that I need to maintain in order to do all of things I’m trying to do on the guitar. Below is a list of these techniques along with some exercises to keep them on point. If I go a few days without playing, I can feel it when I finally pick up there guitar again. The idea behind these exercises is to put together a mini-practice routine that will prevent me from losing too much ground between serious practice sessions. If I spend 20-30 minutes each day running through these exercises, I’ll be better equipped to tackle something that I’ve never tried before.

A note before I begin: I ALWAYS use a metronome (or some other timekeeping device such as a drum machine) when doing exercises like this. Being able to play to a beat is such a fundamental skill, and keeping a notebook of tempo settings is a great way to measure progress.

Warm Up

I tend to carry extra tension in my neck and shoulders and I need to take a few minutes to get rid of it before I start playing. The older I get, the more important this becomes. I can’t go from stone cold to blazing lead passages without warming up. Before picking up my guitar, I stretch. If I’ve been sedentary in the hours leading up to my practice session – which is likely, since my day job requires me to sit at a desk – I try to a few minutes of light activity first. A short walk usually does the trick. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes if I get the blood moving a little bit before I start.

After that, it’s chromatic scale exercises to wake up the left and right hands and getting them working together. I start slow, and try to resist the urge to speed up until I can I cross all six strings and back down again cleanly.

options width=800
tabstave notation=false
notes 5-6-7-8/6 5-6-7-8/5 5-6-7-8/4 5-6-7-8/3 5-6-7-8/2 5-6-7-8/1 |
notes 6-7-8-9/1 6-7-8-9/2 6-7-8-9/3 6-7-8-9/4 6-7-8-9/5 6-7-8-9/6

 

Chords

Once my pick is warmed up, I put it down to play some chords with only my fingers. This excerpt was taken from Luis de Milan’s 1st Pavan, a classical piece I love playing on my nylon string guitar. The chords are basic open position forms that we all learn as beginner guitarists. The point here is to make the changes cleanly and to play the correct notes using the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand.

 

options width=800
tabstave notation=true key=G time=C|
notes :h (3/5.0/3.1/2.0/1) (2/5.0/3.3/2) | (3/5.0/2.0/1) (0/5.2/4.2/3.1/2) | (2/5.0/4.0/3.3/2) (3/6.0/4.0/3.0/2) | (0/5.2/4.2/3.1/2) (2/5.0/4.0/3.3/2)|
notes (0/5.2/4.2/3.1/2) (5/5.4/4.2/3) | :w (2/4.0/2.0/1) :h 1/3 | :w (0/5.2/4.2/3.2/2) =||

Arpeggiated Chords

Being able to play individual notes across strings has never been easy for me, and I tend to avoid it. That’s a bad habit I have to break, since the technique sounds so good when done smoothly. A good riff to use to practice this technique is the intro to Never Thought That This Would Happen by Arkells. Note that this one requires a capo at the 3rd fret.

options width=800
tabstave notation=false
notes =|: :16 8d/5 5u/4 8/5  :8 0/2  :16 5/4 8/5 5/4 7d/5 5u/4 7/5 :8 0/2 :16 5/4 7/5 5/4 | 3/5 0/3 2/4 :8 0/2 :16 0/3 2/4 :8 0/2 :16 0/3 2/4 :8 0/2 :16 0/3 2/4 0/3 =:|

Endurance

Knowing a riff is one thing, being able to play it for a long time without getting tired is another. The intro to Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita is a great example. The riff isn’t too hard to play once, but playing it for a minute (or longer) at a time is very difficult. That 1st position F chord is a bitch. I have to focus on keeping the using the least amount of pressure needed to fret the notes with my left hand or else I cramp up.

options width=600
tabstave notation=false
notes =|: 3/4 1/2 2/3 (3/3.3/4) 1/1 1/2 3/3 | (2/3.3/4) 1/1 1/2 (0/3.3/4) 1/1 1/2 0/3 =:|

Alternate Picking

Troy Grady’s Cracking the Code site has been a tremendous help to my playing. Every guitarist should check out his site. For years I struggled with the problem of playing faster in one direction. I can ascend a scale pattern much more quickly then I can descend. Grady’s videos made it clear that the downward pick slant I use by default trips me up on my descending runs. To fix this I’ve been working on alternating between downward and upward pick slanting, and have the basic idea down for pentatonic playing. The lick isn’t hard; the key is to switch to upward pick slanting when the run switches from ascending to descending. I should be able to go up and down at the same speed.

options width=800
tabstave notation=true
notes :16 7d-10u/4 7d-9u/3 8d-10u/2 8d-10u-8d/1 10u-8d/2 9u-7d/3 10u-7d/4

Closing Thoughts

By the time I’ve run through these exercises, I feel warmed up and ready to cut loose. I don’t think the specific exercises matter, and I plan to switch them up every now and again to keep them interesting. But having a basic workout planned out in advance has really helped me power through those days when I don’t feel like practicing. It’s so much better to practice a little bit each day than it is to practice for a long time every once in a while.

Aging Toward Youth

A couple of years ago I brought my 84 Camaro to a hot rod garage to ask the owner’s advice on what I should I do with it. My main question: would it be worth the time and effort to restore the car? I was quick to tell him that I had no illusions that the car was in the same league as the ’59 Corvette, ’32 Ford, and ’72 hemi Barracuda that were taking up all the room in the shop. He laughed, and said that didn’t matter as “we all want the car we desired in high school.”

This comment has been stuck in my head ever since. The guy was right – when I was in high school in the mid ’90s, third generation Camaros were cheap enough to be affordable by high school kids but not so old that they were falling apart so several of the gear heads I knew had one. And I wanted one too. I didn’t get one until many years later. I told myself it was a good purchase because it was cheap and fast and fun to drive in San Diego with the t-tops down and AC/DC blasting, but maybe that was a lie. Maybe I was just trying to hold on to the dream I had in my youth of how I would be as an adult.

What does this have to do with music? Well, I’ll tell you. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of synthwave. For those not in the know, this is an electronic music sub-genre that is heavily influenced by 80s sounds and sensibilities. FM-84’s album Atlas is an excellent example. It’s new, yet sounds like it’s been around forever- or at least since 1985. Stranger Things got me started on this. I loved the theme, and that made me seek out other examples. Something has been nagging at me, though. Do I like it because it’s good, or because it reminds me of my youth? It’s probably a little of both, but I think more the latter than the former. The entire show was fantastic, but it totally played to the nostalgia of it’s audience. Watching it brought me back to all the sci-fi 80s classics I loves as a kid. Now I’m listening to the music, playing Asteroids on my phone, and considering a move back to my old stomping grounds on the East Coast. Is this what a mid-life crisis looks like?

The music is really good, though, and that is all that’s important. I think there is a way to be inspired by your past yet create something new. In fact, all of the best art is like that. I’ve decided to trust in this, and write what I’m inspired to write without reading too much into my motivations, whatever they might be. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing synth parts for my next track. I have the hints of an idea that combines some behind-the-beat vintage rock and roll guitar sounds with the old-yet-new sounds of analog synths. Here’s a sneak peak:

It’s taking longer than expected (when does it not?) as I try to write for a new instrument and figure out how to get my hardware and software synths and sequencers to work together smoothly. But these delays are a good thing: I’m leaving the comfort zone of what I know in order to do something new. This wouldn’t be the case if all I was doing was trying to recapture my youth. You can’t recapture your glory days if you never had that glory to begin with.

Besides, I know longer own the Camaro, so there is hope for me yet.

Anticipation

It’s 3:45 pm. A little over 3 hours from sound check, and almost 8 hours until our set is scheduled to begin at midnight. The rehearsal we had this afternoon went well. We kicked the rust off of our set and ran through the two new songs we’ll be doing with a guest vocalist. All signs point to tonight’s gig being successful, and morale is high. But there’s a lot of down time between now and then for things to go wrong. Our front man is also the show promoter, and he’s got a ton of things on his plate, like coordinating with the other acts on the bill and entertaining the friends and family who came in from out of town to see us. During rehearsal I could see the fatigue in his eyes. And this sinus thing that has been kicking my ass all week shows no sign of easing up before showtime. By the time we go on all I’ll want to do is sleep. I’m not sure I’m going to make, but not making it is NOT an option.

This is the life of a musician, I suppose: figuring out how to turn it on when the switch is stuck in the off position. It’s amazing how fragile the whole thing is. Getting four people to agree on a vision and to figure out a way to make it happen is hard work. It doesn’t take much for things to fall apart. I used to think that bands only broke up when something bad happens, like the singer forcing his wife into the band or the drummer stealing money or something. But there are so many reasons why things might not work that have nothing to do with people being dicks to each other. Finding time to rehearse, figuring out how afford the gear you need, convincing people to let you play, building an audience that cares about what you’re doing, finding motivation when life is beating you down…the list is endless.

To be honest, though, these are really nice problems to have. When everything comes together, man is it worth it. Soon I’ll pack up my fancy new pedal board, the guitar I wanted more than anything when I was 16 and now own, and the amp I built myself, and head to a packed house to perform music I helped write. This is all I want to do with my life.

 

 

We Need New Dreams Tonight

I should probably start this review by saying that U2 is, without a doubt, one of my all time favorite bands. The Edge is the model for the guitarist I want to be: an architect of sonic bliss that stands just behind the shaman front man. The crowd focuses on Bono – as they should – but Edge is the foundation. Anything I say about this group is all sorts of biased.

The band is currently on a tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. Instead of promoting new music, they are celebrating their glory days. This is not a bad thing. I didn’t really get into U2 until sometime in the mid-90s, and didn’t get to seem them live for the first time until the Elevation tour in 2001. By this time many of their early concert staples had fallen off the set list in favor of more recent work, and I had to content myself with YouTube footage for live versions of the classics.

Until, that is, I saw show #2 of The Joshua Tree  2017 tour in Seattle on May 14th.Their stage, which can be seen in the picture ahead of this post, included a Joshua tree shaped ramp extending into the crowd. The show began in twilight with Larry walking across the stage – by himself – and down the ramp to his drums, and launching into the intro of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. I thought that was a ballsy move- that song, as iconic as it is, usually doesn’t make an appearance until later. But I guess they decided to do a set of pre-Joshua Tree hits before moving onto the main event. This included “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Bad’, and I was in heaven.

And then they went right into The  Joshua Tree, complete from beginning to end. I knew this was coming, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less spectacular. I completely support this is trend of bands playing their classic works all the way through. The first time I saw it was at a Springsteen show in ’09 which featured Born To Run. Talk about a transcendental experience.  There seemed to be a noticeable difference from the songs U2 has been playing in their shows for years (“Where the Streets Have No Name”, I’m looking at you) and rarities like “One Tree Hill”, which felt a little shaky. I guess that’s too be expected given that they rarely play these songs and that it was only the second night of the tour. But I’ll let that slide if it means I get to hear “In God’s Country”.

One highlight of the night was when Bono introduced Eddie Vedder to sing the last verse of “Mothers of the Disappeared”. The crowd went nuts. I should have predicted this given that we were in Seattle, but I was caught by surprise, making the moment even sweeter.

And if all of this wasn’t enough, we got to here a bunch of post-Joshua Tree classics in the last part of the set. “Beautiful Day”, “One”, and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”, which included a moving tribute to women’s right’s activists.. To end the night they did “I WIll Follow”, which the Internet tells me hasn’t closed a set of theirs since 1982.

What a way to kick of the summer and be reminded about why making music is worth the struggle.