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!

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