I’ve Snapped, But That’s Okay (And Song Previews)

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Image by openglam.org

Week 3, day 5. I think these headphones are officially molded to my head. The only thing taking me out of the house anymore is my part time summer job. I keep telling myself that this isn’t healthy, but I have so much momentum right now that to stop working would be like hitting a brick wall at 100 miles an hour. I didn’t sleep last night. I tried to go to bed at 12:30. Got back up at 2:00 and worked until 4:00 AM trying to get a keyboard part just right. Woke up at noon and started it again. I can’t help it anymore. I bounced the same track (sent it from program to disk) about 7 or 8 times today. Uploaded it for sharing with a few people privately about 3 or 4 times. Each time I upload it takes about about 20 minutes, so there was a lot of waiting. Briefly spoke with Girlfriend and family about vacation plans coming up next week. Was good to get some face time with real people, but all I could think about was finishing what I’m doing right now.

Finally starting to get some relatively decent sounds. Getting over the learning curve a little bit. Things aren’t taking as long. My playing is still a little rusty as I had about 3-6 months of basically not playing at all before starting on this project, but it’s all coming back, and I’m a stronger musician now because of it. I’m playing exactly what I’m thinking with minimal effort. When I have a sound or an idea in mind for a part, I know exactly how to achieve it, and it works. I just want to keep riding this wave. It’s so good to finally have a space to just let the ideas flow.

This project feels like the missing link. Before I had my own space, I just felt like I was losing idea after idea. I had pages and pages of notes during my last album of little tweaks that I wanted to make on each track or things that I wanted to try that would only take a few seconds each time, but I would have to wait for days…if I was lucky. Usually it was weeks or months before I could actually get in the studio and try what I was thinking. Now I can just do it and see if I like it, and it’s glorious. I feel free. I can’t…I just can’t even start…there aren’t words…fingers too slow…

But there’s no real point in going on about that. All I can really say is that having a place to record my musical ideas without having to write down every little thing or notate every little motif in sheet music form has made my life much much easier. Not that I regret having to learn notation. I feel like I’m a far better musician for learning it, but it’s still not the same as getting a feeling, picking up an instrument, and playing what I’m hearing in my head.

But seriously, enough about that. Because you all have been such good readers and because this is music–which is meant to been HEARD–I’ve decided to release some previews just so that you can get an idea of how the process is going. Right now I’m working with some covers as well as songs that I’ve either completely or mostly written so that I can focus more on learning how to record well. It removes a lot of pressure from the process and makes it a lot more fun. Hope you enjoy the work.

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Eureka!

Happy Monday! I tried to take the weekend off, but I ended up designing the blog banner for most of it, which was fun and productive, but I need to find a way to pull myself away from the work a little more. I’m finding that this is a second challenge of working from home. I love the work I’m doing, the work is never done, and I’m always around it, so I want to keep doing it all the time. Thankfully I have some friends who dragged me out of the house for a few hours on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. I still ended up working a ton yesterday.

Which brings me to this morning. When I couldn’t wake up until 10:00. Got out of bed at 8:00, dragged myself to the loveseat, sat back, and slept for another two hours. Not trying to brag about my laziness or anything, but considering that I’m 6′ 1″ and the loveseat has maybe 4′ 6″ of sitting space, this is actually kind of impressive. But at long last I got up and got to work.

I think I’ve mostly solved my MIDI issues from last week. Found the drum samples I wanted and a plugin that works, and I think I’ve figured out how to use it. The work flow also feels a lot better. A lot more normal. Started working on some new material today. Just sketching some song ideas. Little pieces of melodies. Trying out new virtual instrument plugins. It’s tricky because I can’t figure out how to get my computer keyboard to work as a MIDI controller. After about 30 minutes to an hour of trying to make that work, I gave up and went to the local music store to see if they had a MIDI to USB cable that I could use to hook up my synthesizer keyboard as a controller. They had only one in stock, but it had been specially ordered by another musician and I had nothing of value to bribe the salesman with other than my friendship and the memory that we’d played in several bands together over the years. Tried those angles, but no dice. This is one of those moments when living in a small town kind of sucks. Luckily I have some friends who have the cable I’m looking for and are willing to loan it to me for a little while.

Most of the rest of the day was spent sketching little bits and pieces of songs here and there and doing some stuff with loops and samples, which I used to HATE, but I’ve been coming around recently. Also messed with some EQ on the vocal tracks in the song that was giving me trouble last week. Another friend of mine let me borrow a pair of headphones for mixing. These headphones aren’t great, but they’re better than the Apple earbuds I was using before, and they’re good enough that I can get started on a mix. I’ll have to look into getting a good pair of AudioTechnicas pretty soon. For now, I’m just happy to be moving forward every step of the way.

M-I-DI-ing?: Week 2, Day 5

Yes the title is a MIDI pun, and it’s supposed to read “Am I Dying?” which I admit is both horrible and melodramatic. So let me give you more of the same.

I hate this. I hate working by myself at home. I hate this narrow spare room with its bare bed, bare walls, and large out-of-place desk crammed in the corner. At least I have a separate room where I can record, but I hate how hot it is in here. And I hate having to continually convince myself that what I’m doing isn’t totally stupid. I have an entire summer off, and the fact that I’m able to spend so much time at my computer making music is awesome. I’ve dreamed of doing this for years, I finally have the opportunity to do it, and now it’s taking FOREVER to get something decent recorded because I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

But let’s try to focus on the positive. The good news is that, for once, I started work almost immediately after rolling out of bed this morning. Well, kind of started work. It might be more accurate to say that I spent most of this morning falling down a rabbit hole. What I hoped would be a productive morning ended up as a search for a good free drum machine plug-in and a long and mostly failed attempt at figuring out how to use the damn thing. Let me explain.

I have one song mostly recorded, and I’m not sure what to do next. I should probably move on and start recording all the parts to my other songs, but part of me wants to finish a whole song from recording all the way to mixing before moving on, just so that I can get to know every single part for process. The problem with this song is that it sounds pretty good, but there’s something about it that’s not quite right. I’m not sure if it’s bad sound, bad performance, overall arrangement, lack of mixing, or lack of drums, but it’s hard to move on when I have this one little nagging issue. It also doesn’t help that right now all I have for monitoring and mixing are Apple earbuds. I know it’s a cardinal sin, but I’m broke and if I wait until I have all the right equipment to start, this will never happen. There are plenty of amazing musicians who have accomplished far greater projects with less equipment. At least I’m not recording with an 8-track, but alas, I digress.

So I’ve been going through my mental checklist, and I’m pretty sure that the sound and the performances are at least decent. My first priority was to get a clean and usable signal with no clipping (i.e. not so loud that it causes unpleasant unfixable distortion), so I maxed out my tracks at 60-80% capacity in order to leave some headroom but also keep things loud enough that I don’t have to turn them way up in the mix. My second priority was to play everything as professionally as I possibly could. The performances aren’t perfect, but they’re good enough to work with. I’m aware that I can use Beat Detective or Timewarp to fix out-of-time playing, but I’m a little bit of a purist. I like the little flaws here and there, and I’m not quite ready to start hacking my tracks into little tiny pieces at this point. Besides, I looked at the tracks and my playing is on-time enough that it shouldn’t be an issue.

I think the arrangement is fine. I have a live recording of a very similar arrangement of the song and it sounds pretty decent, so I’m ruling out arrangement as the issue. I haven’t done much mixing yet because, to be honest, it scares me and I don’t know where to start. So far I’ve done some panning and volume adjustments, added a few basic guitar effects and amp modeling, and put a slapback delay on the vocals. I haven’t equalized or compressed anything because I don’t really know where to start, and I’m kind of getting tired of watching tutorials and then going off on rabbit trails and finding out that before I know this thing I should know that thing and so on and so forth. So if I didn’t want to mix, I was left with trying out drums.

I’m pretty settled on getting someone else to play drums on all of the songs, but it’s really hard for me to tell if the arrangements are working when I can’t hear them with a drummer. It would probably be best to just do what I can and then go back and rerecord or edit anything that may need fixing once I have the drum tracks, but I will probably save the drum session until after I have all the songs basically finished so that the drummer can just come in and do everything in a few sessions. I’m impatient, so I decided that instead of waiting until I can afford to hire a drummer, I could do some MIDI drums myself. Who knows? Maybe they’ll sound good enough that I won’t have to hire a drummer. So that’s where I ended up. And now I have a plug-in that has some pretty decent drum sounds, but I still can’t figure out how to use the damn thing. I have a track pulled up and I’ve figured out which piano keys on the computer correspond to which drum sounds. I have a keyboard that I think I can use as a midi controller, but because I was super smart when I bought my interface months ago, I accidentally bought the version without the MIDI input (or maybe I was trying to save money?). I’m trying to get the keys on my computer to work for playing the track, but what I really want are some pre-made drum loops that I can just drop into the damn song and then mess around with like I used to do when I first started using GarageBand in…2007?. But I can’t find any MIDI drum loops and by this time I’ve eaten up about 3 or 4 hours of work time, and I’m wondering if it’s even worth the effort. That’s where I left it, and then I left my house to do errands because I couldn’t think anymore.

In sum, this week has been better than the last. In spite of the above difficulties and several others, it’s been a really good and productive week. I’m finding my weaknesses and working on them, and that happens with every single album. Sure, I’ve recorded two albums, one of which I’m mostly proud, and that’s saying a lot for me; I’ve spent a lot of time practicing and working on my musicianship; I’ve spent years of my life reading and studying literature and poetry hoping that it would make me a better songwriter; but I’ve also spent a lot of time avoiding the work of sitting behind a virtual soundboard. This project is finally giving me the opportunity to do that myself. The mix may not be exactly what I hoped for, but I’m trying to be happy with this opportunity to learn new things. Now, I guess since this whole MIDI thing isn’t working, it’s on to the compression and EQ tutorials…

Author’s note: today’s blog is brought to you in part by my iPhone from a waiting room, so please excuse any weird typos or autocorrect malfunctions that I may have overlooked. I also apologize for some of the jargon. I tried to keep it in layman’s terms as much as possible, but there were a few spots where I had a hard time working around technical terms. Thanks for reading!

Recording: Week 2, Day 1

imageAs you can guess by the title, I started week 2 of recording today. Last week was a little slow, as first weeks usually are. I’ve been spoiled the last few years. Up until this year, my friend had a studio in town, and he was a sound engineer, so I never had to buy any of my own recording gear or mix my own stuff. Now I have to learn how to set up and use entirely new equipment. Luckily I got things set up well enough that I could record basic song ideas. And then computer problems started popping up. But distractions weren’t all bad. My girlfriend was in town all last week and through the weekend. She was going to leave last night, but between road construction, wildfires, potential traffic, and weekend fatigue, we decided that it would be better for her to wake up early and head out this morning.

We woke up at 5:00 AM and had breakfast together. Smoothies with protein powder. per usual. Coffee. Cream and sugar for me. No sugar for her. Packed up and said our goodbyes.

I had originally planned on going back to bed, but I was feeling unusually energetic, so I headed to Pullman so I could finish up the day job really quick. Still working at the Washington State University greenhouse over the summer to subsidize my income. I get paid through the summer for working at the school district, but it’s not quite enough to live comfortably, and the extra job gives me motivation to get out of bed and a break from recording in the apartment. A little bit of mindless work before picking up the guitar helps to get the creative juices flowing. Came home and had second breakfast of bacon, eggs, cheddar cheese, and toast.

I was off to a good start, and then I ended up spending half of the day trying to figure out how to get my recording program (or DAW as we say “in the biz”) to run on my new computer. Basically stripped the whole system down to brass tacks, and I was still having playback issues. Took it to the computer shop and they tried to talk me into buying a whole NEW computer. They said that laptops are basically no good for recording, which is totally different from what they told me 6 months ago when I was shopping for a computer. At that time they said that most any laptop would run the software easily granted it had the hard drive space and a solid state processor. Needless to say I left in a pretty unhappy state. When I walked out of the mall, there were a few unkempt-looking guys and one girl randomly having a tailgate party in the parking lot. They were smoking cigarettes and asked me if I wanted to buy the girl for $600 an hour. Thinking only of the $150 I may have to spend on upgrading my RAM, I only heard the $600 part. I kept walking replied with “nope!” It was only after I overheard one of the guys say, “Well that was harsh” that I realized what they had propositioned and that they were (probably) joking.

I wasn’t in a problem-solving state of mind, so I stopped by the recycling center to take my recycling, and that seemed to help. Got home and looked into a few more options. As it turned out, I had installed my audio interface incorrectly. Reinstalling the driver and changing the input settings to ASIO seems to have fixed the problem. Spent the rest of the day working on random parts of songs that I wrote well over a year ago.

Need to start working on songs for the Seattle project, but I want to get my chops back by working on the songs that I’m familiar with first. After that, I should be better. I basically have about 3 more weeks to really get some solid tracks recorded before the family reunion in Florida. After that, the spare room will be taken for a few months. I can still record, but it’ll be a little harder to do it in my own place after my temporary roommate gets here.