Interstellar Dreams

My son has this rocket ride-on toy that has a bunch of sound effects and looks like it came right from the 1950s. Watching him run through the house with it reminds me of all the dreams I had as a kid of getting into a rocket and exploring the galaxy. If they made an 80s cartoon about them, Interstellar Dreams would be the opening theme.

Planning to Plan

More often than not the only time I can set aside a few hours for music is in the evening after my day job is done and my son has gone to bed. The house is quiet, I have no other pressing obligations…and my brain is completely fried. Overcoming the desire to just watch TV and go to bed is the biggest challenge I face as an artist.

I feel stupid writing this. I spend so much of my time during the day thinking about what I am going to do once I’m in the studio that you’d think I’d carry enough momentum to get over the hump and actually do something productive. Alas, this is not the case. My day dreams are vague and not fully fleshed out, and I often find myself wasting a sizeable chunk of time trying to figure out what I want to work on. I rarely get things done on days like this, and I end up going to bed frustrated and convinced that I was stupid to ever think I could pull of being a musician at all.

The best defense to this is to have a solid plan, a clear idea of what I need to do in my next session. Planning is hard, though, and I tend to look for excuses to avoid it. In fact, I should be working on a plan now, but I decided to procrastinate and write this blog post instead. I can convince myself that blogging IS productive, and stave off the voices of self doubt for one more day. I’ll put the plan together tomorrow, for sure.

New Toys

This was a good Christmas for me gear wise. I have been looking for some gear that would help me create and record music without having to rely on my laptop. I’ve written about this before, but having to boot up a computer and load a bunch of software before I can make music is tedious at best and creativity destroying at worst. Being able to record an idea on the spot is important, and these two items have been a big help.

Tascam DP-006

Tascam DP-006

In many ways using this digital 4 track instead of my “real” 16 track interface is a step backwards. Mixing on it is cumbersome, and editing almost impossible. But I can turn it on, hit record, and capture an idea with minimum fuss. There’s no need to fiddle with mics as the built in ones are not half bad. Here’s a short example: I dialed in a basic distortion sound, put the recorder on the floor front of the amp, and played some rock riffs.

That tone is a pretty good capture of the sound in the room, and plenty good enough for sketches and the beginnings of ideas. I think it might even be possible to record stuff on this thing that ends up on final tracks.

Arturia BeatStep

The other cool toy is the Arturia BeatStep.

Arturia BeatStep

This is a hardware step sequencer that makes it really easy to create patterns by moving knobs as opposed to fiddling with a mouse. In my first test I plugged it into my Paia Fatman synth, then sent the audio through my MoogerFooger low pass filter and into a rackmount effects unit to add delay and reverb. The sound was so cool I decided to capture it with DP-006. I cheated a little bit- I sent the audio into my laptop to to mix it with a simple drum beat, and then routed the output into the DP-006’s line input. The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes.

So there you have it- I’ve run out of excuses to put off brainstorming ideas because of the overhead of managing equipment.

Cybernetic: an original DX7 patch

Reviews of the classic Yamaha DX7 FM synth agree on one thing: programming it can be a real pain. The synth has one small LCD display and a single control for adjusting the value of a parameter. Every few months I decide to get serious about programming it, spend a day or two re-learning what I learned last time, and then move on to actually making music. Don’t get me wrong- I love this synth, and use it on most of my recordings. I just rely on other people’s patches because I’m never all that excited about my own.

Recently I decided to give it another go, and this time I’m much happier with the results. I landed on a metallic guitar-like sound that made me think of a bunch of robots battling out in a dystopian future. Here’s a brief sample.

I think that sounds really neat. But the fun really started when I ran it through my MoogerFooger low pass filter and added some reverb.

This patch is definitely going to be featured on my next track. If you’re interested, you can download it from my sample library

The Hands of Fate

We truly are living in the darkest timeline.

At the beginning of the year I did a lot of soul searching over where to take my music career – such that it is – in 2020. I finally admitted a few important facts to myself:

  • The solo projects I’d been contemplating are more ambitious than I have the time or skill to realize at the moment. The rare upside of not blogging regularly means I never elaborated on them here, so I don’t have to post about why I couldn’t finish what I’d started.
  • Putting together a band is not feasible at this time. Finding collaborators is exhausting, and starting a band with purpose of writing and performing originals takes large blocks of time that I’m unlikely to have any time soon.

The issue, if I haven’t made it clear enough already, is that my schedule is just too unpredictable. Saying it out loud helped me realized that I’ve been depressed and living in denial about this for a long time. I could simplify a lot of things in my life by just putting the music thing on hold for a while…but I just can’t do that. The only thing worse than having too little time for music is not having any time at all. So I worked out a project plan – with milestones and deadlines! – for a new initiative that would allow me to narrow my scope, create music, and try to share it with as many people as possible. I knuckled down and committed to hitting those deadlines. Progress was made.

I should know by know that as soon as I make a real plan, shit goes sideways. Not long after I started I found an ad on craigslist from a band looking for a versatile rock guitar player. Now, I have a really low opinion of the musician ads on craigslist. My success rate in finding bands to join or musicians to jam with through this site is pretty abysmal. (I should write a whole post about that one day.) This doesn’t stop me from periodically checking what’s out there. It’s always amusing. I peruse the ads more to amuse myself than anything else. How could you not be amused by this?

Need Red headed musicians

Looking for a few red heads in their mid 20s who are looking for a band to join. Need a lead guitar/singer, a bassist and a drummer. Must have red hair

This is the kind of crap that gets posted ad nauseam. But the ad I found sounded pretty cool: an original band needs a guitarist with a range of rock and pop influences ranging from Peter Gabriel to MGMT. Regular rehearsals, a few gigs a month, and they’d be willing to work the new guy in at his own pace. It was like somebody heard my guitar playing, saw my current situation, and said “that’s the guy we want, we’ll do whatever we need to do to get him”. In other words, WAY too good to be true. Keeping my expectations stupid low, I figured I’d reply to the ad.

The guy who posted it might be the most normal musician I’ve ever met. After a long conversation about our musical backgrounds, he sent me a few songs to learn and invited me to a rehearsal. It turns out the ad was spot on: the band is committed to writing and performing originals, they have modest gigging aspirations, and they want a guitar player who will help write the next collection of songs. Their current guitar player is in 3 bands, and only has time for 2, so he’ll be leaving as soon as a replacement is found. He’ll also help the new guy get up to speed. It’s pretty much everything I want out of band, and they’re making it easy for me to join.

TL;DR: I joined the band Crash Society You should check them out, they’re awesome.

Everything was looking up. I put my new year music plans on hold, and began learning the set list. I made some changes to my amp to make it more reliable for gigging. I put together a new pedal board to get all the tones I’ll need. I started to collect ideas for new material. I figured this was a great way to start over as a musician. I felt better about music than I had in a long time.

Then 2020 delivered the COVID-19 smack down. I made it to 3 rehearsals and was feeling good about the entire set list when quarantine happened. We haven’t been able to meet for almost 2 months. I know this is temporary (we have to go back to normal eventually, right? RIGHT?!?!?) but it’s hard not to be demoralized.

So, it’s back to my original plan for 2020, at least until the timeline gets even darker.

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.