Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 Roundup, Part 2: Travels with Joe (and Now Featuring Denise Too!)

I would be remiss if I did not take some effort to specially thank the people who collaborated with me. Since I didn't do any kind of real attempt to document all this at the end of 2009, to explain it all, I'm going to have to go back into 2009 to play catch-up, so bear with me.

I may not correctly recall all the details, but I think I first became aware of Joe "Covenant" Lamb when I was working on "Skullcrusher Mountain" with the Mandelbrot Set virtual cover band, a collection of folks who met each other in the forums on Jonathan Coulton's Web Site. My kind thanks to all the Mandelbrot Set folks for collaborating -- that was a lot of fun!

I was working on tracks and a mix for "Skullcrusher Mountain" and Joe did both a spoken-word and sung version, and also submitted a vocal track sung by his daughter, Charlotte. I was editing and mixing this huge pile of tracks, and it was a big challenge for me, as I was just barely beginning to learn how to edit, EQ, mix, and master. Joe was very patient with advice and tips and steady encouragement.

The end result was not that great. The source tracks varied a lot in audio quality (independent of the quality of the performances, which tended to be pretty good), and there are a lot of things I would have done differently -- for example, it would have been better not to accept any source tracks in MP3 format, because of sound quality issues. But lossless files grow pretty big pretty quickly, and we wanted to conserve space on But Jonathan Coulton did mention it in his blog and that encouragement helped me keep going, work on more covers, and eventually start entering songwriting contests myself. The Mandelbrot set did a couple more songs but seems to be on an enthusiasm hiatus, at least for now.

Anyway, the mix that I finally declared "final" is my "Too Many Monkeys" mix. You can find versions elsewhere but to get the best audio quality you should download a lossless ALAC (Apple Lossless) or FLAC file from my Bancamp page here. In true open-source fashion Joe made his own mix, which he prefers, and uses on his streaming JoeCasts, and you can find that one here.

More recently, I assembled a much different mix, in which I attempt to showcase a blend of all the originally submitted vocal tracks, here. But my personal favorite, after all that effort put into mixing vocals, is actually my updated instrumental mix. Somehow it just seems easier to get instruments played across countries and continents and time zones to "cohere" a little more easily than singers.

There are some more Mandelbrot Set mixes on my Bandcamp page. The tracks I've assembled there are ones that I worked on; there are others out there. See the track notes. My personal favorite of these is my own instrumental mix of Creepy Doll.

Anyway, in late 2009, Song Fu 5 was running and Joe was in the running -- of course, he would eventually go on to win Song Fu 5 and gain the coveted title of Master of Song Fu! I wanted to collaborate with him and he was kind enough to risk his contest standing by letting me contribute guitar tracks. These contests have very short deadlines -- a week, or maybe a week and a couple of days, to finish a track, from the announcement of the challenge to completed mix.

The first was the infamous Tom Furby. This was stressful for me. If I recall correctly, Joe was not using a metronome in his original drafts, which I then had to try to match. This is possible, though tricky, if I'm matching a completed track; it's like playing live, but without being able to see the other musicians' movements. But it presents a real problem in editing. Without a click the tempo inevitably wanders a bit. Let's say that you then take track A and edit it, adding an extra chorus. Track B was synchronized to the original Track A with the wandering tempo. If you take a chunk of track B and try to repeat it over the added section, there will be an inevitable synchronization problem. You can hear this slight timing train wreck in the final song.

Joe was also using a guitar tuner as his pitch reference, but his tuner had gotten accidentally set to "A=430," if I recall correctly, and so our tracks would not sound in tune with each other. I did multiple takes; I tuned my guitars to try to match Joe's tracks, but they always sounded out of tune, and then I had the problem of trying to record a 12-string in tune when I had been adjusting the pitch over and over. (They do not take kindly to this treatment; it's hard enough to get a 12-string guitar in tune once for a recording session). Add in the 6-string and ukulele. You can get a somewhat rhythm- and tuning-challenged sense of what I was trying to achieve, with a big triumphant sort-of-Celtic-sounding chorus of strings, here. I was so pressed for recording time that, if I recall correctly, I recorded and uploaded all those parts in the space of about an hour, while my wife was parked outside with the kids in the car, and the car running, waiting for me to finish so we could go somewhere (most likely, it was to Saginaw).

If Joe and I ever get an afternoon free in the same studio, I would love to re-record this song with him. Still, it won, warts and all, so I can't complain too much! And I learned a few things about how to do better collaboration in the future.

We next collaborated on Joe's song Ghoul Tide. I was able to take a little more time with this. I'm pretty sure he synchronized his sleigh bells rhythm track to a metronome click this time. I made a MIDI track out of Joe's vocal which allowed me to synchronize parts more tightly and add synthetic instruments in Logic. The difficulties we had with this one were agreeing one the rhythms the guitar accompaniment should follow. A few minutes on Skype would have helped enormously, but due to some kind of technical problem we were pretty much unable to hear each other on Skype. We had to resort to ASCII art to try to indicate the syllables where the chord changes would fall and what the strum pattern would be like. I had the idea of doing the guitars as a sort of multi-tracked smooth jazz thing, but Joe didn't really latch on to that idea. The parts I finally sent him sounded more or less like this -- a little rough, a little pressed for time, but at least they weren't notably out of tune! Joe used pretty much all of it, so I was very happy. If I recall correctly, my son Isaac is playing parts of the bass line while I'm playing some other parts.

Let's see... somewhere along the way Joe was looking for people to sing on this song. So my daughter Veronica and I are in there.

When I finally got the nerve up to enter Song Fu 6 myself, Joe was kind enough to assist me on my first complete original song, Polly Loves the Rain. He did a great job, probably never suspecting that I was going to harmonize with him, the poor bastard. (I did not plan to originally; it just sort of came out while I was messing with the track). I can't sing nearly as well as he does, but still, I like the way it came out. There's a video which, if I recall correctly, has the original mix submitted for Song Fu, before I polished it up a little bit.

And finally, for my original song Sherman's Lament, recorded as a shadow entry for SpinTunes 2 after I was eliminated, not only did Joe record vocals for me, but Denise Hudson, part of the duet with Joe known as Duality, recorded vocals, a Rhodes electric piano part, and some synthetic violins. I've been getting to know Denise and her music a little better and I'm really impressed with her mad skills. I have a vague plan to try covering her song "Spanish Lessons" early in the new year.

Along the way, I've also sent Joe some guitar parts for some songs by Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm. They tend to be a little rough, since I have been using these songs as challenges to try to improve both my playing and recording technique (for example, for "I'm Your Moon," I wanted one complete take with no editing so I could have a corresponding YouTube video). He took my guitar part for I'm Your Moon and made a full song out of it. Here is my version. He took my guitar part for "I Crush Everything," now available here and made this cover. Here is another version with my own vocal (it does not actually use the same guitar part; I've re-recorded it tuned down). He took my guitar part for Paul and Storm's song Live and made another cover. These are all a bit rough but playing covers, especially of songs with complex guitar parts, has been good practice.

To apply a little more organization to these tracks, I now have a separate album for parts of Creative Commons-licensed songs recorded specifically to encourage collaboration. I'll be adding to that in 2011. Any requests?

Oh, there's a little more we've recorded that I can't share with you. Joe and I both have a fondness for Rush. If you want to hear that, though, you'll have to hear us play live one day!

There's probably something else I've forgotten. My apologies in advance! It's freezing in here and my brain is stuck in first gear.

Anyway, my fondest thanks to the Mandelbrot Set folks, and to Joe, and to Denise, and to you too for listening and reading. Here's to lots more music in 2011!

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Roundup, Part 1: The Year in Fingerpicking

So, we're winding up 2010 and I wanted to do a quick recap of what I've worked on.

Sometime around fall or early winter 2009 I set out to focus on fingerpicking and discipline myself, but not in a mean, self-abusive way. It turns out that fingerpicking is really great for people like me who are a little obsessive-compulsive, especially in the dark winter months, and I was encouraged by some early progress. So, at the start of 2010 I decided to make it the "year of fingerpicking."

I started with the book The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking by Mark Hanson. (It's a great place to start and I highly recommend it -- I have two more of his books as well, but have not gotten into them yet).

I diddled a bit on songs like "Dust in the Wind," but really wanted to work on songs like Jonathan Coulton's "I Crush Everything." Fortunately, the song largely follows the same basic Travis picking patterns outlined in Hanson's book, and the combination of these exercises, the tab, and
Suuuupaadave's incredibly helpful lesson video allowed me to make progress, which I documented in a series of quick practice videos (one, two, and three). I did a more polished play-through of the doubled part, with some editing, in this video. The audio is available here.

Joe "Covenant" Lamb took this guitar part and added a lovely vocal track, creating his demo. On my to-do list is "re-record the guitar part now that I can play it more smoothly now," but inevitably it tends to be more fun to play live, work on a new challenge, or record something new than to re-record something old. I'll probably get to it when I get to the point where I can play it dramatically better than I did for that recording.

Anyway, my ultimate goal is to be able to fingerpick this song while singing it live. I've done it for small audiences of family and friends. It is certainly easier to do without the camera or recorder running, which invariably makes me screw things up a bit, but I did manage to record this live version. I also discovered that I liked the sound of the song drop-tuned down a whole step, and recorded this version which used double-tracked guitar and vocals, but a minimal number of takes and minimal number of edits, and was recorded on my Mac Mini setup with the Roland FA-66.

Of all these, the best version is probably the drop tuned one. There's an audio version of the song with a fretless bass line; the bass line is not complete yet and will get revised when I get some more quiet time in the studio (and maybe some more practice on the fretless).

When it came time to polish up my original song "Sherman's Lament," I naturally started playing the chords using Travis picking patterns, and the result can be seen here (audio version here).

Just a few weeks ago, I decided to start working on Paul and Storm's song "Live," since it is also a finger-picked song. The patterns are a little step up in complexity; where in "I Crush Everything" the basic Travis patterns predominate, "Live" uses a lot of variants with little melody bits added. Fortunately,  Suuuupaadave has made very detailed tab that covers all the patterns, and also done a two-part video lesson.

So, I've got some practice videos again (one, two, and three) showing my progress. I recorded the song on my nylon-string Godin guitar. My playing was a little rough yet, so I was not able to get a complete take, but I pieced together this recording, again with the intent of polishing it up later (it's still a little rough, particularly in the bridge and right at the ending). But I mentioned it to Joe and just a couple of hours later he sent me this, with another gorgeous vocal part, so I thought "well, good enough for the time being!" and suggested he just upload it to his Bandcamp page. Paul and Storm even noticed us on Twitter! (After I barraged them with several tweets, that is...) Their tweet read:

JoeCovenant [P] Got it. BTW, nice job on the "Live" cover, you and @paulrpotts. :)


So, there it is -- evidence of some real progress. Growing out and maintaining my right hand nails, with all the care then needed to avoid breaking them off, is a pain, but fingerpicking is really fun. I feel like I've discovered a secret way to sound like a much better guitarist than I am. Practicing finger-picking is relaxing and fits right along with my somewhat OCD personality. Playing the worked-out, polished parts is really fun, but what is even more fun is being able to take a basic song -- for example, a Christmas song, and improvising a finger-picked accompaniment for it, starting to come with not just the basic patterns, but melodic additions and variations on the fly. I did this for some small family get-togethers over the weekend of Christmas and got compliments on how cool it sounds. So for 2011 the plan is to continue: play, record, lather, rinse, repeat: not just finger-picking, but other styles. I just picked up a video of Merle Travis playing some of his famous songs, for inspiration. And my resolution, announced here: start doing it in front of an audience. (I'm getting nervous already!)

Also resolved: to learn bass in a more systematic way; to continue to make progress on freless bass; to enter at least one more songwriting contest; to record at least six more original songs; to record more instructional videos. I'd also love to get my hands on an Ovation USA-made mandolin and start learning how to play one of those as well. And more ukulele. And maybe a slide guitar. And and and and!