I wrote these comments below a couple of days ago, while judging for SpinTunes Round 1 was in progress. I held off posting this until the rankings for round 1 were posted. They just were, so here it is. New commentary is at the end.
Comments on SpinTunes 4 Round 1 Tracks
So I said I wouldn't do this -- review tracks for a songwriting competition that I'm in the midst of. But I'm a bad person; I can't help myself. I will try something different, though; I'll hold off on posting it until after the judging for round 1 is done. Also, I'll try positive reinforcement only. In other words, I'll only point out the stuff that I think is good. If I don't mention much about a given song it doesn't necessarily mean I hated it; it may just not have stood out to me. Try not to hate me. Everyone's tastes are different. here we go. This is probably ill-advised. I'm kind of like that in general.
Governing Dynamics - Fear Nothing
As is often the case with GD songs, I really like the guitar work. The basses are nice, the phasing is subtle and spacey, and it's nightmarish without being completely over the top. The emotive vocals are really nice. GD deserves to win a whole SpinTunes one of these times.
FauX - Sleep
I like the reverb-y piano and the keyboard and drums that sound unusually happy for a nightmare. The music has some interesting riffage going on. The last section has a sort of retro space sound that appeals to me.
Dex01 - Let Me Out
Nice reverb-tank guitar sound and I'm pretty pleased with the breathy vocal and the use of backing vocals.
Hazen Nester - An Indelible Mark
The guitar and toy piano sounds are nicely done, especially the little fingered guitar notes that track the melody at times. The singing is appropriately dry and intimate-sounding, and the lyrics are truly gruesome -- I get the sense that this is a true story. This is a strong candidate for best of the round.
Rebecca Angel - Monster's Lullaby
The whispery vocal is really lovely here. I'm reminded of Hugo Largo. Lyrics like "turtles clicking nails like knives" are suitably bizarre and nightmarish.
David LeDuc - Nightmare
Nice guitar work and vocal.
Felix Frost - Rust People
I like the variety of crazy sounds going on here.
Jacob Haller - The Maze
Lines like "an invisible man with a visible brain" make me smile.
Brian Gray - Just a Dream
I think this is a really strong song from Brian. I especially like the lyrics and vocal performance, and it got a melody that is a little more active and full of changes than the usual. It's funny. I also like his use of what he says is a box of silverware for some of his percussion!
Gold Lion - Lady in Blue
A really strong vocal and guitar performance here. It reminds me somewhat of Sarah Blasko.
Jess Scherer - Taken
Nice vocal and piano performances.
Jim Holmquist - Old Dan Next Door
I like the doubled vocals; I really like the idea that the nightmare is someone else's (not the narrator's) and it might have something to do with Dan being a war veteran. However, this also makes me fear that the song my get a technical disqualification since I'm not sure it's a childhood nightmare. It's a little confusing in that regard since it says "Dan next door had that dream since he was four." That will be for the judges to decide.
Drei Viertel Drei - Lollipop Lady
I like the idea that it's a real person who triggered the nightmare ("she lived in his nightmares.") "Lollipop Lady" is, I think, not an American idiom but I think it eventually becomes clear -- that she is a crossing guard. I like the idea that someone whose job it is to terrorize children about real-world hazards might wind up triggering other nightmares. The lyrics seem to use "kidneys" as meaning "fears" which again I'm not sure is all that clear.
Emperor Gum - Posted
Single tear at the touching lyrics. If a certain judge who talks about evaluating the song as a platonic ideal is serious, I expect him to rate this one quite highly.
Kevin Savino-Riker - Thunder
Strong lyrics; nice use of subtle internal rhymes. I like the slightly dissonant chord progression and the way he slaps that guitar around.
Menage A Tune - Haunting House
A strong effort from JoAnn in the production sense. I also like the fact that the nightmare story is based on her real nightmares.
A strong contender for best of round. The "I try to scream but there's no sound / I try to run but my legs are frozen to the ground" is classic nightmare fodder. I like the sort of Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds vibe.
Steve Durand - It Isn't Cool
The naked-at-school is a nightmare I don't ever think I had, but it's funny, and I like the cheesy church-organ, banjo, and horn sounds.
Jon Eric - Images Without Light
The title is a little strange but a neat metaphor for what we see with our eyes closed. This is a pretty neat and tidy package.
Ross Durand - Why Can't I?
Nice bluesy material -- strong guitar and resonant vocals. Classic nightmare scenario lyrics with a twist -- usually a flying dream is a positive experience and it's the person having the dream who is flying.
Comments After the Results of Round 1
So, I didn't expect to do really well this round, but after listening to all 34 entries several times, I did expect to survive the round. I did, but by the skin of my teeth -- my track was the last one not to be cut (assuming the results are correct and won't be amended). That was a little unexpected.
I didn't expect JoAnn to get cut. I didn't expect her song to sweep the round, but... cut? Really?
I thought Brian Gray's entry would get more love than it did; it was a really strong song, in my opinion.
The Felix Frost song I expected to do worse; in my opinion, it is technically sweet but just has too much going on to be a really compelling song; it's hard to hear all that stuff at once.
I like Chris Cogott's song but I didn't think it was dramatically the best, if that makes any sense.
So as usual I can't make a lot of sense of some of the judges' rankings.
Let me make some notes about how I feel about my old song a week later. I've tried to listen to it a few more times, and hear it through other people's ears. What I think is that I really like some things about it, and feel kind if indifferent about some things. I don't have a lot of actual negative feelings, although there are a couple.
Overall it feels a little too bombastic, prog-rock, high concept, whatever. It also has that dirge-y thing I'm having trouble expunging from my songs in general. It sounds to me like some kind of experimental piece that might go with an art exhibition, maybe a project in a student show done in the basement in a student union by a student jazz ensemble of three guys who recently smoked too much dope and went without enough sleep.
I really like the fretless bass, and the use of fretless bass up the neck doubling some of the melody. No one commented on that. There are a few glitches in my playing but for the most part I like the way that line sounds. That leaves me confused; am I just wrong to like it? Was it actually bad? Or indifferent? How many of the songs used fretless bass? And yet no one noticed it?
I like the guitar sounds, and the way they fit together. I like the melodies that are there, such as they are, especially the way it elevates in act 3. I like my long chord solo and the way the guitars haltingly follow each other in a sort of stumbling way.
I'm proud of what I achieved with the fake piano and the guitar playing; it's a more complicated accompaniment part.
I don't like the spoken word parts -- that Shakespeare and Plutarch. If I redid it, I would either get rid of them entirely or maybe bring in multiple parts overlapping in an intro.
I have mixed feelings about my vocals. In part 2 the pitch isn't supposed to be perfect. It's supposed to be spoken-ish and more poignant; the voice is supposed to sound distressed. In part 3 it's about a beautiful memory from the past for a while and it's supposed to sound energized, but it doesn't sound energized _enough_. I should have used some harmonies here, and maybe introduced some percussion. It's supposed to sound soaring which is in ironic contrast with the sadness of the lyrics which fuck it, if I have to explain this, it obviously didn't work.
Speaking of not working, I feel like people rarely "get" my lyrics. The internal rhymes, the twisting line... I put a lot of work into that, and my word choices, especially in editing it down and using a limited child-like vocabulary. I do a lot of editing, especially given the time constraints. The lyric went through something like five or six major revisions. I felt proud of it. Pearls before swine, it feels like, sometimes. I guess that's childish. It disappoints me that the lyrics really got no comments. I feel in general like the judges barely read the lyrics as they had almost nothing critical to say about the weaker lyrics in some songs.
This was a hard song to do, technically. I took three days off work to build it. I really have little formal musical training except I can read just a tiny bit and I've had some coaching on chords and scales; probably fewer than a dozen formal lessons in my life, and for everything else I'm either self-taught or ignorant or both. I don't know rubato from Ru Paul. I looked up the definition and it seemed to me that I had to be able to arbitrarily speed up the tempo to fit the mood of the song, so I didn't record with a click track. That meant that synchronizing all the parts, for example the vocal doubling was very tricky. I recorded over a hundred vocal takes in the process of trying to get good ones, over the course of three long days. There was probably a way I could have used a click track for the whole thing and had the click track vary smoothly, rather than just speed up or slow down on a dime, but I didn't know how to do that, at least not in time. I recorded the MIDI piano and oud with a guitar synth, then hand-edited the MIDI notes to clean them up, and sang against that as a reference, and when I made a change I had to throw out whole sections and record all the parts again.
Well, so what about all that? It isn't like that actually counts for anything if the finished product isn't any good. I was ranked very low -- far lower than people who probably spent 10% or less of the time I did - who probably just sketched out the lyrics and a few chord symbols and just improvised the melody for the recording. Which brings me back to what the hell this is all for, if none of this work shows. Which brings me back to what seems to be fundamentally a broken process on my part, that starts from the head and not the heart. But there must be some other musician out there who has worked through this same problem.
I say it just to vent, mostly. There's no point in whining about being misunderstood, if no one understands, if that makes sense. If the song isn't... at least intriguing, then I failed completely. And this is where my resolve wavers. Is it time to just sell this studio shit, my audio interface and mics and Reflexion filter and mic stands, my guitars and tuners and a drawer full of strings, software plug-ins, DX-7 and MIDI interface and direct boxes? And do... what exactly? Only play guitar? Or give that up too? Well, shit. This comes down to the question of why I do this stuff. Hint: I probably wouldn't stop even if no one else in the world liked it even a little bit. I guess that's the part that I feel like no one will understand who doesn't do this kind of thing.
But here's the thing about the vocals -- they don't sound quite like I wanted in terms of volume and compression, but as far as my vocal performance, they do sound mostly like I wanted them to, for the song. They sound a little haunted, to me, without being a totally over-the-top performance of mock terror which would have made the whole thing more parody than I was going for. The doubling isn't perfect but it's some of the best doubling I've done, and it would have been a hell of a lot easier with a click. The pitch on part 3 is, I think, some of the best singing I've done as far as pitch goes. In fact my singing has been improving, according to my own recordings of myself, and according to my wife, who has to hear me do my practicing and covers and what-not when I play guitar. So I was quite proud of it. Improvement. So I find the comments that single out my singing especially painful. Especially when I listen to some of the other shitty singing that apparently got a pass. At least shitty to my ear, in the sense that it was entirely conventional, tedious, and uninteresting.
Something something something about people who never seem to appreciate any form of novelty, even the appearance of it because they have such limited experience, in food, in films, in books, in performances. Something negative. In my book, at least partial credit will always be given for at least the attempt at originality. Even when the result doesn't entirely work.
Anyway, every part of this song had an increased "degree of difficulty" for me -- the challenge, the length, the changing moods I was attempting to get across, the technical difficulty of working without a click track, and even a bunch of practical things like shifting keys and down-tuning as well as my monitor speakers shorting out, electrical noise in my ribbon mic, the noisy kids outside my studio room and occasionally getting picked up by the mic, and our house water heater dying so I didn't get to shower for two days while recording. Did I mention the lights flickering and the power threatening to go out which made me want to freeze a track really early in the process so the judges had _a_ version in case I couldn't get any more work on it done, or even upload it? That sounds stupid but it's all stress and it all took up time and space in my brain and affected what I could get done. So... a successful failure? Did I learn anything, at least? Is this just one of the songs I have to get out of the way in order to write a better one later? Did I actually learn any skills from all of this? From the challenge part?
When do I figure that out?
Anyway, the review notes. I'll just mash these all together; you can read the originals and take apart who they are if you want.
Wow, quite the epic journey! Another nightmare about divorce and the father leaving and it also feels like a lot of important processing happened through writing this. The sound effects and music are all very effective for creating the moody, heartbroken, unsettling atmosphere. A few potential lyric tweaks in Act 3: the line “Now you are gone, gone, gone” in 3b feels like it comes too soon in the story line. I think it would be smoother to flow, “When I was small, we did all these things that were fun, and then you were gone.” rather than “When I was small, we did all these things, now you’re gone, then we did some more things and now you are gone.” Also the part “Gone from your children, gone from your wife, gone from my brother, gone from our lives” kind of trips me up because I start thinking - isn’t your brother and his children the same thing?
The lyrics... well, I was trying to do something with the fact that there's not actually a surprise. We've already had the reveal that the nightmare was real. The surprise is in the narrator's reaction; that the song has become happy, in a sense, about loss. It's supposed to be a sort of apotheosis.
It's nice to hear things like "the sound effects and music are all very effective." Really, thank you.
1. You're a little low in the mix. I get this weird feeling I’m in some kind of spoken word/poetry reading sort of environment and perhaps it is not really too song-y. This is fine with me, I almost think that’s more your milieu.
It's a fair cop. I had a hell of a time mixing this on short notice. I wanted to use my ribbon mic because of its figure-8 pickup pattern, which made it better at rejecting room noise, and so I thought it would be better for the soft "intimate" nervous barely-there sung/spoken bits. But it puts out lower voltage. I was getting weird noise issues when tracking that I haven't yet figured out. So the input gain was low. I compressed and gained it up as far as I dared in the mix. It didn't help that my monitor speakers were failing; the subwoofer kept cutting out, and one channel was full of static. Stupid Chinese shit from Blue Sky. Stupid electrical noise in my cheap Oktava mic. Stupid not being able to hear my own tracks properly when I was mixing.
My milieu. Huh. Still thinking that over.
2. I’m not one of those who feel that you can’t sing, because when you stay in places where you are strong, you get your plot points across really well. Your voice has an interesting breathy urgency that you often use good effects on a lot … uh… to good effect (duhhhh…)
3. Sometimes you go for these hero moments vocally though and this KILLS you and any vocal credibility you have. This may undermine confidence in your singing and I think that would be a real shame. I feel like this happens to a few people with twitchy vocals so I hope that there are other people who try to do things that are not their strengths reading this, because if you build slow and steady on something it … uh … wins the race (duhhh…)
Hmmm. And here I was really proud of pulling off something that to me at least vaguely resembled actual emotive, expressive, passionate singing in act 3, so that's frustrating. It's no fun to hear that the part of the song I thought was actually the best, others saw as a liability. And I don't know what to do if I'm afraid to fail, if that makes sense, because I'm not sure in what sense my vocals ever succeeded, so I don't know what I was doing right. And if it's only one or two types of things I do that sound OK, that's kind of boring and I would hate to be stuck only doing those things, but more so, if that makes any sense. I'd like to be able to say I was drunk when I wrote that last bit but really I'm stone cold sober, just confused and frustrated.
4. More of this thing I’m seeing that I’m thinking of as Inverted Rubato. It collapses a bit in the middle, technically – was it the structure? Sometimes you can be just SO arbitrary (pot … kettle. Eeek.) I don’t know. Really it is put together so epically, though. The CHORD PROGRESSION really makes this expansive as a work.
I DO NOT KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS BECAUSE I HAVE NO MUSICAL TRAINING d'oh... so really I'm just glad I did at least something that was close enough to rubato that no one claimed I should be disqualified. But I was kind of proud of my epic wandering chords so that part is good at least; it seems like I did what I set out to do with all those chords.
5. I like the content of this a lot, so it drew me in. Things that are interesting and change enough to hold my attention can skate in other areas.
Good? Not sure if I like the content, so that's still all a wash. Or, rather, I seem to have inadvertently written something resembling a deeply personal song when I did not really intend to be that revealing, and it was obfuscated and overlaid with various intellectualisms and artiness. But I do like the fact that a couple people told me that although they were unsure of the song at first, it sort of stuck in their heads, in a dream-like way.
6. This is very intellectual. I’m compelled, Paul. Compelled. This is an investment you should keep tinkering away at, perhaps adding some personnel. Many things you could do with this.
Well, that sounds like encouragement. but I actually think "very intellectual" is not entirely a good thing for the piece. I wasn't setting out to write an avant-garde thing. Too "high concept." Maybe the parts could find their way into other songs, but probably I should put this one in a box for a while like my not-quite-successful Thomas Dolby pastiche.
Not intending to be mean, but this sounds like a weirdo singing a church song. Just couldn’t get into it.
Not intending to be mean, but if you can't come up with something more specific and more constructive than that, I'm not sure you really should be a judge in this sort of thing.
Really, there's not much I can do with that. Between writing and revising the lyrics and three long days of recording and several long nights of editing MIDI and tracking guitar bits, a final afternoon mixing, and working with the guy who mastered it, something like forty hours of work on my part and you've got "it sounds like a weirdo singing a church song?"
I like vocal doubling when it’s done well, but this isn’t it. The pitch is pretty inconsistent between the two vocal tracks and it gets a little distracting. The first 2/3 of the song get pretty repetitive as well and once rubato enters the picture the rhythm of the vocals in relation to the guitar gets all out of whack. The last 1/3 of the song has a really good melody, however, and the best lyrics of the piece. It gets bogged down a bit by more tempo changes that don’t quite work out, but it’s a stronger finish than I expected when the song started.
Well, all I can say about the vocal doubling is that I did it as well as I could with what time I was able to take on it. When I listen to it in the final mix I only hear one or two "glitches" where they are noticeably off and to my ear most of it sounds pretty nicely doubled. And it sounds a lot better than some doubled parts done by people who are supposedly a lot more experienced at this. So I'm not sure what to think, exactly. I threw out a lot of takes for this.
I'm not sure what is repetitive (what is repeating or nearly repeating? The melody? I tried to vary it; maybe I didn't succeed.)
I'm happy to hear some praise for the melody in the final part. Probably what should have happened is that the last third, including the melody which I sort of discovered very late in the game, should have become the song. The difficulty with that is that the whole nightmare concept relies on the first two parts. So if I were rewriting it for myself, to be a different song free of the challenge, Act 3 might be a good place to start. Acts one and two maybe should be a different song entirely, or maybe they should just be conveniently erased from my hard drives...
I like the water sound effects. Hell, for this challenge I like sound effects in general. Good job putting us in the dream. Paul, as a singer, you're a formidable spoken-word performer. I sure wish you'd stick with the spoken word because you're AWESOME at it. So I bet you're not surprised that I like to imagine someone else singing here. There are parts where it's ok, notably in the beginning. But not Act 3. As far as the technical challenge goes, Common Lisp is wearing a belt and suspenders. The rubato is there, combined with accelerando and ritardo for good measure. I don't know if that was intentional or just covering all the bases. Either way, the bases are covered.
I really appreciate the commentary about the sound effects and "putting us in the dream." Stick with the spoken word. As a singer, I'm a formidable spoken-word performer. Ha. You're a funny guy. At least, it would be funny if I were hearing it said about someone else. I've heard this kind of comment from you before and it's not that I think you're wrong; I understand what you're getting at. But there's already an MC Frontalot and an MC Lars and what-not and while I know I'm never going to sing like a Jonathan Coulton, I just am not really willing to accept that I can't find a voice that I can use to sing. Even if it's an odd voice and not a pretty voice; a Leonard Cohen voice, say. I mean, have you actually heard some of these American Idol singers? Jesus, I may need to go lie down. I think I just had a stroke.
So part 3. It's the strongest melodically? It ends the song stronger than the reviewer expected initially? Or it's the part where my voice isn't OK? Honestly, I don't know. You know, I could use auto-tune. I could crank it up for the Cher effect and no one could accuse me of being off-key. It sounds unnatural to me. I can tell when my guitar is out of tune. In fact, I can tell with greater accuracy than my guitar tuner can. But my voice doesn't sound notably off-key to me in this song, and in particular in part 3. So I'm missing something. Is this supposed to be another dark night of the soul?
I'm frustrated; I don't know if I'm going to be able to take any time off work at all, next week, to work on a round 2 song. Am I improving? Is there any endpoint in sight when I can say "that actually sounds good?" Is anyone who claims to like my singing really just being polite?
Re: rubato. No, I still don't really know what rubato is, even after making my eyes glaze over on Wikipedia.
This is supposed to be fun, right?
What do I know? I'm just a weirdo singing a church song...