Monday, November 1, 2010

Wrapping Up SpinTunes 2 Round 2

Well, it was not entirely a shock, and a bit of a relief given the sleep deprivation I've had to undertake to complete entries, but I've been eliminated from the SpinTunes 2 contest. I have to say, being eliminated is a considerably less fun that a good elimination, if you get my drift.

I've mentioned this before and I don't bring it up again by way of defense, but perhaps by way of explanation. I work from home eight hours a day. I've got four kids. One of them is two years old and still nurses in our bed with us, often loudly. He's more difficult than any of the others have been; he is gradually getting more of a vocabulary, but his most typical style of conversation still involves shrieking at the top of his lungs. At 5 a.m. He has figured out remarkable ways to wind up taking up an entire king-sized bed. My wife is a stay-at-home mom. We homeschool. We recently moved into a a new house and are still very much in the process of adjustment (hell, we haven't even unpacked most of our things).

She's pregnant (yes, we're having a fifth) and sometimes needs extra breaks and assistance. A poopy diaper will occasionally make her throw up. Oh, and I can't make coffee because although when she's not pregnant she loves coffee, when she is, the smell makes her queasy. (These things will improve; by the third trimester she'll be more energetic and not queasy at all). So I get by on tea these days, but I'm well below the US RDA for caffeine.

I had, basically, four late evenings, starting from 10:30 or 11 PM, when the kids were finally down and quiet, to whenever I finally had crashed and had to give up in order to get a few hours of broken sleep. That was typically 3 or 4 AM. This just doesn't serve to get out my best musical thinking or performing. It was very frustrating trying to record at 2:30 or 3:00, having been up since before 7 a.m., waiting for the heat to go off so it was quieter in my studio room, and constantly forgetting my own vocals. Or, playing back my tracks and realizing that my singing was way off pitch, and not because I'm not a trained singer, which I'm not, but because I was so tired. Or playing back a keyboard part I had painstakingly edited to use as a reference, and realizing that it wandered into another key, and I hadn't caught it because my musical "ear" was shot for the night. Or worrying that I was going to get sick again, feeling that burning itch in my throat and wondering if I was going to lose my voice.

This past round, my wife was gone for the entire 3-day weekend and so I had to be single dad. I was unable to work on my track at all for that entire weekend. I knew I had to finish early. So I did as much work as I could possibly do in the first few days, and then just had to spend Thursday evening polishing what I had, with many ideas for the track still only in the larval stage.

So it was a relief to turn my song in early this round, on Thursday, but also frustrating because I knew that there was still a lot I could have done to improve it. Fortunately I was mostly able to let it go and feel as if I had done all I could, but it's still an unpleasant feeling, knowing that the work you've submitted doesn't really represent the best you could do, under better circumstances.

I am planning a shadow entry for round 3, but I'm not going to lose as much sleep over it.

I'd like to use this forum, such as it is, to publicly thank Spin for putting together such a fun and engaging contest.

I'd also like to, at the risk of further alienation and burned bridges, address the judges.

I feel for you guys -- I haven't been a judge in this kind of context, but I have done something that, I believe, probably feels similar, and that is serve as a manager, and write employee performance reviews. It's amazing how, suddenly, when you have a little authority over people, what you thought were friendly relationships can grow a little cold and you suddenly realize that this job, though necessary, really isn't any damned fun at all, and managers can't actually have employees as friends.

Thank you all for your hard work. For the most part, I really appreciate the insights you provided in your comments. That is something that the Song Fu structure, based entirely on online voting, couldn't really give me, and it's priceless.

Dr. Lindyke wrote of my track:

I think perhaps the mistake here is in trying to replicate the new wave techno-pop sound and missing. The first thing I think one should notice about the style Dolby used is that that the effects and shouts are tightly arranged instrumentation... there's nothing random about them

And he's dead on target. I got caught without enough time left to focus on the accompaniment parts. I had some rough drafts of intro and bridging synth lead, bass, and chorded parts but, simply put, ran out of time to polish them and had to just try to "close up ranks" with the existing segments that I had.

It didn't help my nerves any when I found that Dolby himself had tweeted about the project and I had a bunch of Dolby fans following my progress. I became fixated on the quality of my vocal performance and spent two of my scarce late-night sessions tweaking the melodies and recording and re-recording and re-re-recording my vocal takes.

I am much quicker at guitar than synth, so I quickly put together the backing rhythm guitar part. It isn't entirely distant from the original track, which had some rhythm guitar accents (by Andy Partridge of XTC, no less), but yeah, it wasn't quite how I originally intended it all to fit together -- by a long shot. The original was mostly supported by synth melodies with rhythm guitar accents. Mine is kind of the other way around now. If I get inspired I will see if I can do some further work on the track.

This sort of brings up an interesting point about these contests. What are they measuring, exactly? In the real world, most musicians that I know collaborate with other people. They play with other musicians; they do recording with people with other skill sets; they are produced and mastered by people with yet further skill sets. Thomas Dolby in 1982 did not write, arrange, record, produce, and master his song entirely himself, and he certainly didn't complete the track from soup to nuts on his own in one week. Jonathan Coulton has proved that he can do this sort of thing on a tight timeline, but he would be the first to admit that not all his "things a week" turned out stellar. In this regard this process seems like it may tend to reward musicians who do what they know best, writing and recording songs that sound like covers of themselves, if that makes sense, and don't try to push themselves into new territory, whereas the challenges are all about new territory. Anyway, I clearly don't have it all figured out yet.

Glen Phillips wrote:

The mix is terrible. The groove is herky jerky and nearly the opposite of a groove. I do think this is inventive. I enjoyed the variety of timbres that weave in and out of the song. The cadence of the vocal speak-sing is painful. The melody is barely existent. I actually enjoyed the synth solo at 2:24. Although it just outlined the vocal melody. The rhythm guitar sounds like it’s in a different song. “The band” is not playing together. They’re all doing their own thing. Challenge is met well.

Glen has distinguished himself in the reviews so far by using the rudest language of any of the judges. He may think that he's just being refreshingly honest, but what he's really doing is mostly undermining his own credibility and alienating the contestants.

I don't believe he's generally wrong, and I don't even entirely disagree with mots of his comments, but looking at the tone of most of his reviews, it feels to me like he hasn't been around the internet long enough to realize that sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek don't work very well in plain old ASCII (or even Unicode) and that by 2010, we've hopefully left behind irony-for-the-sake-or-irony. Either that, or he just has a more severe case of Asperger's than I do.

In particular, he seems to be biased towards mistaking incompetence for lack of effort, and weakness for carelessness. Case in point: his comments about Danny, which can only be characterized as "vicious."

His reviews also don't give me a lot of useful information. I'm puzzled by his comment that "the melody is barely existent" -- the verse and chorus melodies are presented three times, both sung and partially expressed by the vocoder parts, and even played an octave down by a synth bass line, three times. And if the melody is "barely existent," how can the solo reprise it?

It doesn't feel to me like Glen put a lot of time and revision into his comments. It feels to me like he spent what time he did spend on them rubbing his hands together and cackling at his own clever insults. I would like to suggest that Glen not be invited to judge in future SpinTunes competitions.

Kevin Savino-Riker wrote:

Boy oh boy, this was a challenge to undertake. This is a faithful tribute in addition to being a sequel, but there’s something working against you: the original is so incredibly catchy that all I can do is think of this song as less catchy than the original. But you’ve got some terrific ingredients here. You have a good melody and a great limericky batch of lyrics. One problem, or maybe two directly-related problems: the spoken word delivery has a bit of a clunky cadence and inflection to it. I think this song wants to be a good 15-20 bpm faster, and I bet if you sped it up, all the problems would disappear. The monologue would bounce better, and the added energy to the melody would make it instantly more catchy. After I finish writing these reviews, I’m gonna try a little experiment (hah hah) on this song and see if I’m right.

I want to thank Kevin for his very constructive comments. Since the cadence of the spoken parts were called "herky-jerky" and "clunky" I have to believe there's something wrong with this part, but I'm still a little bit at a loss as to what it is. I spent quite a bit of time aligning these parts so that they syncopate (hit on and off the beats) the way I wanted them to, dragging clips around and even time-stretching them. This is one of those times when I feel like it would have been really helpful to have someone to collaborate with on this track -- not long-distance, but in the studio. I've got a good ear for some things, musically, but apparently rhythm isn't my strong point.

The suggestion about BPM is an interesting one. I thought the original was at 120 bpm, but perhaps it isn't -- or perhaps the modern ear just wants a faster techno beat. I deliberately didn't listen to it before I started, so as to avoid accidentally cribbing a melody or synth part wholesale.

Jeff MacDougall wrote:

Challenge: A - Fantastic. Instantly knew what the original tune was.

Lyrics: A – Great lyrics. Keeps with the writing style of the original.

Structure: B – Not bad, but a little odd. Which I would have gone with given the nature of the song... Except that it caused me tilt my head like the RCA dog a few times.

Melody: B – Nice but didn’t stick with me.

A great technical effort here. I was smiling through the whole thing.

Helpful and supportive, but not a lot of detail. The impression I get from these shorter comments are generally that the judges realized something wasn't quite right, but they didn't have a clear idea on just what would make it better, which is quite understandable; it often isn't all that clear, and can only be resolved by experimentation and fiddling. (Hell, I wrote it, and I don't know just what to do with it either...)

Zach Scott wrote:

It really doesn't hold up to the original. The original was catchy, and although this sequel captures some of the novelty and vocal flourishes, I can't overlook that it seems a bit like a mess.

I can't really disagree with the "a bit of a mess." Still, some more detail would have been helpful.

Len Peralta wrote:

I know what he’s trying to do here. However, I don’t know if he totally pulls it off though. While pulling from the original Thomas Dolby song, the song suffers because all I can think about is how good the original song was. You know when a TV show can’t get the rights to an original song, so they create their own version? This is like that. Plus, it could have been about a minute shorter.

Thanks, Len. "Knowing what [I was] trying to do and [not] totally [pulling] it off" is pretty much the name of the whole game for my entry this round, especially that disappointed feeling that tells me if I'd only had more time to put into it, it would have been considerably better. At a minute shorter, the song would have come in at 3:09. The original was 3:42. In hindsight I can figure out places where I could trim the monologue bits and bridge and lose maybe 15 seconds. I already trimmed at least 10 seconds of monologue. I don't think I could lose a full minute; at 3:09 I don't think it would feel right, and would be considerably shorter than a typical pop song. If I lost a whole verse and chorus that would do it, but I'd want to rewrite and maybe expand the existing verses to salvage some of my best lines, which would have meant rewriting the verse melody, and that would have been surgery I just didn't have time for. The question then becomes, would I try changes that major if I did pick it up and work on the song more? Should the solo go, or at least part of it? I'll have to consider it.

Spin himself wrote:

I definitely hear a lot of references to the original. My only real problem with this song is the spoken word sections. They seem to drag, and leave me just waiting for the singing to start again. (did I just say that about Paul?) Those sections just seem to put everything on hold, and it's an unwelcome interruption when someone is ENJOYING the song. Overall nice work, but I fear for you in what was a tough round.

Helpful comments. If I do work more on this track I will definitely do major rework of the spoken word sections. I think more accompaniment instrumentation and some revisions to the way the guitar parts work would likely help this as well -- so that the different parts don't feel so disjointed. (Disjointed seems to be a theme of my previous entry, "Leaving Ann Arbor," as well).


I was actually surprised by what judges didn't comment on. No one commented on the drums. I wasn't really satisfied with my use of a loop -- a loop I made myself rather than a canned one, but a loop nonetheless. I was quite pleased with my little percussion fills and splats and boops, and there were no comments on those parts. After the last round of reviews I was very nervous about my singing. There wasn't much comment about that at all; maybe my untrained voice wasn't as grating as in my last entry? Did the vocoders help or hurt that? There were no comments at all, positive or negative, about the vocoders -- and I really, really expected them to be kind of divisive, as in "I hate vocoders" or "I love vocoders."

Also, every person I've played this for in person has made comments about my lyrics: "did you just say dildonics?" (And also re: my other doubles entendres). It seemed odd to have no feedback on whether the judges thought those fit or didn't fit. I guess they didn't stand out, which is a bit of a shame, because I feel that my lyrics are one of my stronger points as a songwriter, if not the strongest.

And finally...

I have really enjoyed SpinTunes, but I must say that I feel like the "field" of entries, with the eliminations in this round and the previous round, have somehow lost something.

It's hard to articulate precisely what I mean, except that I'm kind of imagining living in an interesting neighborhood, full of eccentrics. There's the guy down the street with the broken-down cars in his front yard who makes those weird metal sculptures. There's the bag lady. There are the young kids. There are retirees. There are black families. There are the Hispanic families. There are those Asians who no one is sure where they come from, except that they made that weird dish at the neighborhood picnic. It had something to do with raw squid marinated in something that smelled horrible. When you got up the nerve to taste it, though, after it spent ten seconds on the grill -- wow, it was weird. But really delicious, too.

And, you know, it's noisy and weird in this neighborhood, and there's alway some damn crisis going on, but you wouldn't really get rid of any of them.

Well, maybe you'd get rid of that house full of college kids who always have their stereos turned up really loud -- you've had to call the police on them three times now, and they throw beer bottles all over the damned street. And there was that time where that one passed out on the front lawn and you thought maybe he was dead. OK, so you're glad that they are gone.

Oh, and that one guy who you are pretty sure was dealing drugs. It's good to have him gone.

Oh, and that crazy guy who used to shout at everyone's dogs.

Oh, and the people with dogs. You're pretty glad they are gone, too, and at least their damned dogs won't dig up your rose bushes and crap in your lawn any more.

Oh, and then there were the foreclosures. The blacks and Hispanics are gone too. The neighborhood is awfully white now. And that Asian family moved out too. No one really knows what happened to them. Some kind of immigration issue.

But you know what? It's gotten kind of quiet around here lately. I mean, you can get a good night's sleep now, without all that barking, and partying, and loud music, and breaking glass, and the police haven't had to come around much. But, still -- it's a little too quiet, don't you think? And maybe, just maybe, not as much... well... fun as it used to be. And that's a shame. That guy with the big guitar amps in his garage is still there, but that's hardly enough fun folks for a really great block party.

But more seriously -- it does feel to me that the remaining field has lost much of its amateur character. Its quirkiness. If I want to listen to music that is performed, recorded, and produced by professionals, and which doesn't take interesting risks, I'll turn on the radio. Er, no, on second thought, I won't. Pretty much not ever.

I'm not sure exactly what this means, except that it may have something to do with the economy, and a situation in which really polished musician/producers, with degrees in music and actual training and stuff, who ought to be selling albums and touring, and busy becoming part of the so-called "music industry," are now reduced to entering songwriting competitions with goofy amateurs like me. And while the results have been interesting, I'm not sure that really is the right place for any of us.

And on that, I'll wind up my long-winded comments and get back to my own little field of dreams where I can pretend that one day I'll be Jonathan Coulton, when in fact I'll most likely just be that crazy guy down the street. You know -- the one with all the loud kids, who never quit his day job. He writes those smutty lyrics. His wife must have the patience of a saint. I can't imagine how he thinks those are appropriate songs to sing around children. He wrote that nasty protest song about Dick Cheney, rest his soul. I really can't approve of that. He built that home studio, but never had the money and time to take more than a few lessons. No, he never plays in public. But if you go visit him he'll insist on singing them for you, every chance he gets...


JoeCovenant said...


("stands and applauds" to all you non-usenetty folk out there.)

;' )

Travis said...


I really hope I'm not the guy with the big guitar amps. :) But I suspect I may be...

I've stated this elsewhere, but I really thought your song was one of the best as far as squarely meeting the challenge -- both reminding me of the original ("TECHNOLOGY!") and advancing the story the way a sequel should. Production wise, this was a very ambitious project and I think it's just unfortunate you didn't have another few days (or longer) to work on it. It's equally unfortunate that production has been so heavily weighted in this iteration of Spintunes, but those are the punches we must roll with, I suppose.

Since you were lacking on specific feedback--here is some for you, which is totally objective and you are, of course, free to completely ignore. :)

Despite the judges not mentioning the drum loop specifically, I think the oft-mentioned "there's-something-slightly-wrong-about-this" comments, especially in regards to the spoken word sections, were probably related to the drum loop. I listened to the song again just now, and because of the well-placed auxillary percussion I'm not sure I would have noticed it was a static loop without you tell me so first. I think some tweaking with the loop would do some wonders with this song. Unfotunately I can't get too specific about what to do with it, cause if there's on thing I'm certainly not, it's a drummer.

In regards to the tempo, I'm not sure I quite agree with Kevin's suggestion of 15-20bpm faster -- I feel that might make things sound a bit cartoonish, or maybe like the song was intentionally being sped up to fit a TV show's credit sequences or something.

(Hmm. Just had an idea for an animated music video for the song. Can someone can get on that, please? Thanks.)


Maybe just a bit faster--say 4-7BPM, might help keep things moving.

I am hesitant to suggest any modification to the lyrics, but if you were -looking- for things to cut out, at first glance here are the things that I think could go:

"Just hop on the network, you don't need to do legwork"

"Texting is peachy, but pheremones can't reach me"

Those are my two least favorite rhymes in the longer spoken word sequence, and I think they could be excised with maybe slight rewriting to the lines surrounding them without leaving any gaping plot holes.

"I see your teacup is empty! Oh dear, we've run out of sherry as well"

Up to debate. At first glance this felt like a bit of filler where none was necessary, but it occurs to me it serves to update the timeline of the song and provide a mental image of what's going on. Eh.

"Do come back and see me soon - Perhaps next time you might care to have a look at some of my etchings?"

I think these lines could probably be combined... alternately, I think you could get away with fading out the ending 3 or 4 seconds earlier.

And oh, in regards to the lyrics getting little mention -- Glen wasn't really paying much attention to them for anyone, and Zack might have just missed it. I figure Jeff gets a pass since he noted the continued style of the original and gave them an A...

In regards to Dave and Kevin, I would say they're familiar enough with your work that they had no real need to ask whether you just said "dildonics" or not. I grinned at that line when I heard it (and also hoped my mom didn't notice -- I was streaming the LP from my parents' living room, haha) because not only did it fit the song but it was, in my mind, a standard (and good!) Common Lisp lyrical twist.

What I mean to say by that is you have a "style" and we're getting familiar with it. (This is a positive thing.)

Anyway, there are my completely unasked for 2 cents.

In short -- good work. Looking forward to any forthcoming shadows and any modifications you make to "Science".

-Travis "G.D" Norris

Paul R. Potts said...

Thanks for your comments, Travis! I actually already collapsed some of the spoken word parts to shorten it a bit, but in retrospect I agree with you that the bridge needed to be shorter.