‘Music’ Category Archives
by Joe in Music
As is (probably) obvious, I’ve been playing around with a bunch of instrumental electronic or electronic + guitar music lately. And it has been bugging the shit out of me that the songs are boring. Despite adding a bunch of sonic doodads and other ear candy, somewhere around the second verse the melody gets old, and it feels like there’s a shitload of repetition that needs to be changed up some. There are a handful of ways to deal with this — play the melody up an octave, throw in some embellishments, or throw in a harmony part, for starters — but they weren’t really doing it for me. It was still boring. So I took a look at structure. The typical pop song is structured something like this:
1st Verse (sometimes 1st Verse and then 2nd Verse)
3rd Verse (highly optional)
Outro (or just end it)
There’s a lot of variation available, but that’s a pretty typical skeleton, and there are a million ways to put some meat on its bones. But for whatever reason, my stuff starts to drags after the first chorus. In a song with compelling vocals, this doesn’t happen. The lyrics will be changed up enough during each verse repetition that there’s always something new in the main element to focus on. But like I said, the usual changes to the melody line in the instrumental stuff haven’t really satisfied me.
So I thought, hmmm. You know who does a really good job of making sure things don’t get boring, even with simple monophonic melody lines? Joe Satriani. What the hell is it he’s doing that prevents me from getting bored? And I mapped out whole bunch of his songs, including Summer Song, War, Surfing With the Alien, and Ice 9. What I found was this:
He never goes into another verse right after the first chorus. Never. Not in one song. Sometimes he’ll repeat the first verse an octave up before going into the first chorus, but after the first chorus, he’s already into the bridge/solo section, every time. The typical structure ends up more like this:
Intro (almost always 32 measures with a main riff and maybe some embellishments over it)
1st Verse, sometimes followed by a second verse up an octave, but not usually
Bridge/Solo, usually lengthy, usually contains at least one key change or chord center change, and often more
And it works. I’ve had it in my head that you have to repeat the melody more than that to make it memorable, but it’s just not true — and, duh, no wonder I’ve had problems with too much repetition! No wonder the songs I’ve been writing have stretched to five and six minutes, too. (I realize that’s very typical for many kinds of electronic music, but — and this should come as no surprise — that stuff tends to bore the shit out of me. Just not my thing.)
The really funny thing here is that most of the songs with vocals in them that I’ve written over the past couple of years have two verses and two choruses, maybe with another chorus thrown in after some kind of weird bridge. I’d already deviated from the “normal” structure in the genre I was comfortable with, but once I started focusing on a different kind of music, I went right back to the basics of what I (supposedly) knew — and it was wrong. Or at least it wasn’t working, which is basically the same thing.
So now I’m going to revisit some of those songlets with an eye toward cutting out some of the crud at the beginning. That extra stuff is just bogging things down.
Probably no lessons for me there I could apply to my writing…
by Joe in Music
I’ve been working on my solo music act lately, since my band is defunct and I have less than zero interest in starting a new one. The trouble I’m having is that I generally find solo music acts — particularly solo acoustic guitar acts — to be duller than dirt. A phenomenal songwriter or instrumentalist can provide the occasional exception, but they have to be really fucking amazing, and they’re thin on the ground.
Maybe more importantly, playing solo bores the shit out of me. I’ve got a reasonably high degree of technical competence, but cranking out solo guitar stuff in the vein of Leo Kottke or Chet Atkins or, God help me, one of those classical weenies, holds no attraction for me, and neither am I willing to bang out four chords for three minutes at a stretch and caterwaul over them all night long. Part of what’s rewarding for me musically is improvisation and the push and pull between different compositional elements, and while that is trivially easy to achieve with a well-rehearsed band, it’s damn tough to get when you’re all by your lonesome.
One partial solution is the looping device. I’ve used about five different looping devices over the course of my musical career, and they do add a little life that would otherwise be lacking, though I can never quite find one that does everything I want it to. I tried Ableton Live, and it has all the functionality I could ever want — but I’m never taking a fucking laptop onstage with me again, if I can help it. I’m now using a Gibson Echoplex, which does a lot of what I need, but looping guitar shit all night long also gets a little stale.
Enter sampling. That’s something I never would have contemplated a few years ago, due to a deep-seated unease with the form. In part, that comes from skepticism about “live performance” of electronic music. Watching some dude twiddle a few knobs and bob his head in time while he triggers a bunch of pre-recorded loops and samples has always seemed one bare step above watching somebody press “Play” on a CD and stand there doing a lame white boy dance for forty minutes. These days I realize a lot more goes into it than that, but from the perspective of somebody watching, it’s not really all that thrilling. Much of the excitement from a live performance comes from watching something get created in real time, and (to use an extreme example), watching somebody sequentially mute and unmute tracks in a big Ableton set is indistinguishable (from the crowd’s perspective) from watching TV while somebody fiddles intensely with the remote control.
The other part of my unease with the form comes from the fact that I’m not terribly receptive to found art. I don’t think it’s less valid than other forms of art and I don’t look down on its creators, but it doesn’t generally move me much. Photography is a good example. I have almost no interest in photography, and even photos that are really excellent rapidly fade from my mind, leaving very little impression. Sampling is similar, with the added problem that the same samples get used over and over and over again. I mean, how many fucking times do you need to hear the Amen Break?
I’ve gotten more comfortable with sampling over time, simply by getting more familiar with electronic music and the process of creating electronic music in general. Some of this stuff can only be considered found art in that it started with a grain of something, much like a synthesizer starts with a sine wave or other periodic function and goes crazy with it. There actually is quite a bit that goes on there, and some of it is really cool — and some of it can be wildly improvisational and fascinating. Half the problem has turned out to be my own ignorance (as in so many things).
So, with this in mind, I’ve gone back to take a second look at my solo act, and there’s a lot of potential there that I hadn’t previously considered. For example, if I sync the Echoplex up with my Elektron Machinedrum, I can build percussion tracks live and then sync guitar loops with them. Moreover, because the Machinedrum has a bunch of sampling capability (which I have, woefully, never exploited before), it turns out I can take clips of guitar — performed and sampled live — and do some truly perverse things with them.
Now this is something I can work with! It handles the improvisation and compositional elements I need, and since I’m sampling my own performance in realtime, it avoids the problem of reducing the performance to knob-twiddling, and it gets away from the sampling repetition problem, too.
All I have to do now is figure out how to orchestrate a truly crazy amount of MIDI foot-pedal tap dancing while simultaneously singing and playing my guitar.
Should be no problem, right?
by Joe in Music
I’ve been recording music in one fashion or another for somewhere between twelve and fourteen years. I started in college, almost immediately after starting to play guitar, in order to get song ideas down. My first recording machine was a $12 Kmart cassette recorder that sounded absolutely fucking atrocious, but it got the job done. I was fascinated by the permanent record of a transitory event and the ability to go back and hear what I was actually doing, instead of what it felt like I was doing. I was hooked. A year or so later, my old man gave me his old Fostex four-track cassette recorder, and there was no looking back after that. Since then, I’ve pretty much been responsible for recording every band I’ve ever played with, as well as my own solo activities. Some other time, I’ll probably write up a retrospective of that for my own amusement, but for now I have a different mission.
Gear is the great bugaboo of recording music. Everybody seems to think there’s a piece of miracle gear that will fix all their problems, when really it’s almost all what you KNOW rather than what you HAVE. That being said, I’ve been down some dead ends in the gear department, and there are definitely some things that will make your life way fucking harder than it has to be. I’m not a professional by any means (though these days I record and mix OTB with pro gear), but I’ve worked with enough consumer-grade, professional, and “prosumer” (and oh, how I hate that word) gear, that I’ve got a pretty decent idea of what gives good bang for the buck, and I sure do wish I could go back to when I was starting to do this stuff seriously and give myself some advice on gear.
So, here it is: A short guide to minimizing gear headaches, or What I Wish I’d Known Ten Years Ago. This is not a list for a professional, nor is it a list for a casual hobbyist–it is a list for a stupidly obsessed hobbyist who might make a little money here and there off it, but mostly just wants to make great-sounding music for him- or herself and is concerned about the most reasonable way to do that on a budget. Lots of lists of this nature leave a lot up to discretion: “This might work for you, or this, depending on preference” blah blah blah, but fuck that. Since this is a message to a younger version of myself, I’m just gonna tell it straight the way it works for me.
1.) Record and mix in the box (ITB). That means a computer digital audio workstation (DAW) will be the heart of your studio. I mentioned above that I am currently recording and mixing OTB (out of the box), but that is because I am severely short on time these days, and wrangling with bullshit computer problems is not worth it for me. Plus, mixing OTB is amazingly way better for my workflow. But, for most people, especially starting out, there are a million advantages to using the computer, as long as you have a good D/A and A/D converter and audio interface. As I write this in 2012, there is no sonic compromise to working ITB, or at least none you are going to hear.
2.) Buy a tower for your main studio machine, NOT A LAPTOP. Laptops are underpowered, non-upgradable, and you can’t really open them up and easily fix, say, busted video hardware. And they just don’t have enough room in the guts. I tried a laptop for a while, and it became an octopus, what with two external hard drives, a firewire recording interface, a USB hub, control surface, and other shit hanging off it. And, even though it was custom made for the express purpose of recording, I rode that poor thing into the ground, performance-wise. Get a tower.
3.) Get a pro to build your machine, somebody who specializes in computers for pro audio. There are too many weird conflicts and issues that can crop up when you try to jury-rig a budget off-the-shelf machine to do this job. If, for example, you don’t know whether you should be using TI or Ricoh for your firewire chipset, this is not something you want to fuck around with (TI, by the way. And yes, I learned that the hard way–but see below for one important caveat related to firewire). Get a pro to do it. I like ADK. (NOTE TO THE FTC: I do not work with, work for, receive compensation from, nor even know personally the guys at ADK. I just like their stuff.)
4.) Fuck firewire. Double-fuck USB. To date, USB has not been reliable or recommended for most audio work (some people will argue with me on this score–too bad). Maybe that’ll change with USB 3.0, but I don’t know. Firewire is more reliable for audio work, but I’ve had a lot of grief with it just the same. Typically, it will work fine 99% of the time, and then there will be some goddamn driver or bus conflict from nowhere–one that is totally unrepeatable, by the way–and I’ll get a nice, satisfying POP!! in the middle of my audio stream, even using a zillion-sample buffer. Or some other weird thing will happen that destroys my audio or crashes my session. I have had no difficulties whatsoever with PCI cards designed for audio, all the way back to an Event Gina I used way back in about 2000. These days I use an RME Hammerfall, and it works flawlessly.
5.) For most project studios, you’ll be adding one track at a time, or maybe two. Get the best two-channel A/D and D/A converters you can afford. As of today, you can probably get all the A/D and D/A you can handle for $800-$1000 per channel. More expensive than that, and it’s mastering quality–you almost certainly won’t hear the difference, particularly given the atrocious acoustics of most project studios–but that’s a whole separate friggin’ post.
6.) Get one good large diaphragm condenser. If you’re recording by yourself, probably virtual instruments and direct signals from bass and guitar will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, but you’ll need at least one good mic to do vocals, acoustic guitar, and anything else that actually disturbs sound waves before getting to your computer, and it should probably be a large diaphragm condenser. I used a Shure KSM32 for many years before moving on to fancier things, and it’s a damn solid workhorse for the price.
7.) Get one very good pre-amp. This was a relatively recent revelation for me. “Pre-amp?” I thought. “Who gives a shit? The inputs in my Fireface will do just fine.” Jesus, was I embarrassingly wrong on that, and for a long time. A good pre-amp makes a WORLD of difference. That being said, you only need one. The guys who are mixing their API, Neve, and whatever-the-fuck-else pre-amps are looking for a certain special “something” from each, and–take my word for it–it’s too subtle for you to hear. Records were made for a million years with all the inputs going into one desk with the same kind of pre-amp on every channel, and yours won’t suffer if you do the same. I use a Manley TNT, which is God’s Own Pre-amp, as far as I’m concerned, and quite possibly overkill.
8.) Get a decent pair of studio monitors. That doesn’t mean you have to go overboard–the workhorse of the recording industry used to be the venerable Yamaha NS10, which was relatively cheap and everybody agreed sounded like shit. It didn’t matter. The most important thing is to know your monitors. I recommend powered monitors, so you don’t have to fuck around with trying to match the power amp to the speakers, and I recommend avoiding ported or “bass reflex” systems, since they use a bunch of goofy tricks to increase the apparent bass that might result in smearing or inconsistent response. Tri-amped is a great way to go, but expensive.
From casual inspection, it should be obvious that a setup like this is 1) not something that will hold you back, sonically–that is, the gear will never be your limitation, and 2) expensive as fuck. The only balm I have for the latter is a motto I developed for myself many years ago: NEVER BUY CHEAP TOOLS. That was with respect to construction equipment, but the same applies here. Yeah, you can work with shit tools, but ultimately you will regret it. Their performance is sub-par, they will break when you need them, and in the end you will spend more money replacing them than you would have spent just buying good tools up front. Sometimes I’ve had to break the rule, when I really needed something NOW and the cost of a good one was prohibitive–and I have always regretted it, every time, without fail. So say it with me, one time loud:
NEVER BUY CHEAP TOOLS.