Saturday, February 25, 2012


This song is my SpinTunes 4 round 3 entry. For this round, I took 3 days off work to record, like I did for my round 1 song. There's a video here.

The challenge was interesting: "Choose seven letters of the Roman alphabet. Now write a song using ONLY words that begin with those seven letters. No exceptions will be made for minor parts of speech or vamping at the beginning of the song or the end."

So... I was an English major and an essay and short story writer and poet, and I've been paid to do technical writing at times. In these contests, the writing of the lyrics themselves has usually come relatively easily, and I can generally start out by writing a lot of verses or rhymes and then trim them down. But this challenge turns that strength into a weakness, like a golf handicap -- it makes it extremely painful to write _any_ lines that don't sound forced or stilted, and writing normal rhymed lines is almost impossible. Almost as if -- that were the point of the challenge, perhaps? ; )

Initially I thought on the challenge for a day or two, but I didn't really come up with anything. My mind was pretty much a blank until I happened to sit down on the toilet (yes, really) and the first phrase popped into my head: "I owe you my life, my love." From my scribbled notes it looks like my first five letters were going to be I, O, Y, M, L, but at first I was going to use A and F. I wrote some lyrics using the F to write lines like "find another year of laughter," but there were a lot of really, really contorted phrasings, that barely made any sense, so I set the lyrics aside and on my first day off work, started on the music.

The music is quite different this time. You might notice I don't have any real chords in the usual sense. Oh, there are some implied chords, but here I am, a guitarist, and I'm never actually _strumming_ a chord. The approach I took for the music was inspired by a band called The Books. This song really doesn't sound much like the Books, but there was something about the way they recorded traditional instruments, especially the way they were equalized and featured as solo instruments, that appealed to me and was in the back of my head. The use of the ringing reverb on the percussion was also directly inspired by a Books song. (In fact, I wouldn't be shocked to find out that they used Logic's Space Designer plug-in).

In recording this I started with the electric guitar. The whole song started out as a phrase of a few notes ending with a harmonic. I doubled this and messed around in this vein for a while soon had four guitar tracks of repeating, overlapping phrases. Then I did a similar thing with fretless bass, and then ukulele. I had no basic structure in mind except for these repeating patterns, with the idea that I would then do a lot of mixer automation or editing to bring the overlapping parts up and down in interesting patterns. I have no idea why I thought this was work; I'd like to claim that I had a finished track in my head but in fact it was stone soup.

So right off the bat there was a very large number of tracks. Then when I felt that I had enough stringed instruments, I recorded a lot of little percussion bits: some real instruments, like shaker, a small guiro, triangle, and finger cymbals, but also an empty plastic cottage cheese container, some stainless steel measuring spoons, a meat skewer, a light bulb that I hit (gently) with a triangle beater, two metal rasps, and some tearing and crumpling paper. Grace was somewhat bemused when she saw me rummage through the kitchen drawers for things that would clink and clank.

At the end of the first day's recording, I had those instruments and percussion sounds all playing in one big mix, and listened to it downstairs on my PA speakers. It sounded kind of cool, and promising, but it was overwhelmingly busy, and nothing was evenly leveled. But still, it sounded like progress.

On day 2, I hacked and slashed and mixed and edited the tracks from the previous day, then started working on recording vocals, and got a chorus and a few lines of verse down. I had then run out of lyrics, so that afternoon I spent a few painful hours with a dictionary and rhyming dictionary. I finally settled on using W, so I could write "When we met long years ago you welcomed me with love and laughter." I managed to grit my teeth and write about ten new lines, plus a short coda, using the seven letters I, O, Y, M, L, A, and W. (If this doesn't sound hard to you, try it; maybe I just picked bad letters).

Ideally, given enough talent and skill and work, one could write a song that uses a constraint like this, and the result would not seem like a strange novelty, but just a good song. If it was done well enough, the listener wouldn't even realize there is something strange about the lyrics unless he or she really sat down and looked at them written out. That was my goal; whether I met it is for you to decide. But it's also the real reason the lyrics are sung the way they are -- repeating and overlapping -- because there just weren't enough lyrics to sustain a whole song unless I did something to recycle them and stretch them out. After I did it that way, though, I was very pleased with the results, and realized that a lot of my favorite songs don't have very many lyrics at all, or at least not very many unique lines - for example, Pink Floyd's song "Goodbye Blue Sky."

You might also notice that this song doesn't go verse, chorus, verse, chorus; it goes chorus, verse, chorus, coda. That's a bit different. I think it's because the first lines I came up with seemed to be a chorus, and I recorded those scratch vocals first, and just went from there. But then of course it needed verses, and it was so _hard_ to write verses.

Anyway, by late afternoon on day two I had the two-line chorus, the coda, and ten lines of what seemed like verse material. It seemed reasonable to cut those ten verse lines down to eight lines, which would have naturally broken into two verses of four lines. That would let me do chorus, verse, chorus, verse, coda; a pretty conventional structure. I recorded those so I had a reference scratch vocal and made a mix to send to Joe "Covenant" Lamb so he could sing it and send me a lyric (he's five hours ahead in Scotland, so it was quite late in the evening there; this sort of collaboration would be easier if he were five hours behind; I could hand him off something to work on when I knocked off for the day, and he'd have it done in my morning). But Joe is kind of a night owl so he did in fact have something for me before I went to bed. But unfortunately what he had for me was bad news: he was having problems with his recording setup, and his recorded vocals were full of crackling noises.

So, day 3. I started out working on stems. Oh yeah, stems. A "stem" is a partial mix in which you combine tracks into a single track to make them easier to work with. I also was up to almost 30 tracks just for the instruments and percussion, which was becoming unmanageable, so I bounced the bass parts together to a single track, the guitar parts, the ukulele parts, etc.

Of course I don't really know what I'm doing, and so I sound up deleting the original source tracks with their mixer automation, which means the stems are now not really changeable. I made a "basic" percussion stem, I put the reverb effects on that group of percussion into a separate stem, in case I wanted to adjust its volume, which turned out to be a wise move.

Grace came into the studio at this point to listen and offer suggestions. Of course one of my her very good and sensible suggestions would have involved changing the guitar stem. She pointed out that the song is too slow to get going and wanted me to remove one of the building "repeats" of the introductory guitar part. But that stem had become unchangeable due to my poor planning. It was at this point that I had a mild nervous breakdown...

Anyway, sometimes you just have to sort of cover up mistakes a bit, or feature them, instead of correcting them. I did what in screenwriting they call "hanging a lampshade on it." If there is an obvious plot hole, rather than ignoring it, sometimes the screenwriter will have a character specifically comment on how odd it is. This sort of makes the audience nod along and say "yes, that is odd" -- but because one of the characters thinks it is odd, it becomes more acceptable. My version of "hanging a lampshade" was to add some extra off-beat percussion hits on a slightly unwanted extra repeat of the introductory guitar phrase - basically making an awkward phrase more awkward. It also serves to introduce one of the percussion sounds that is otherwise kind of low in the mix when it is used elsewhere.

Joe was still having troubles, and it didn't seem like switching sample rate was going to help, so I realized I had to record my own vocals. This in a contest where I'd been specifically criticized by multiple judges for my weak singing! Did I mention I have a mild head cold?

So on to recording. But I knew, and Joe had also pointed out, some of my my ten lines sounded kind of clichéd or otherwise dumb. I had:

When we met long years ago, you
Welcomed me with love and laughter

I'll melt with willing obligation
*I'll make mad love with only you

My incandescent love I owe you
Another year's improvisation

I offer you my lullabye
You are my moment's inspiration

* Once more my love I'm all about
* Making myself all about you

I cut out the ones I've marked with a star, so I was down to seven. Then I had to throw out one pretty-good sounding line ("you are my moment's inspiration") simply because I couldn't find another decent line to go with it (and I didn't want to get into odd numbers of lines). With a little rearranging that left me six verse lines I felt pretty good about:

When we met long years ago, you
Welcomed me with love and laughter

My incandescent love I owe you
Another year's improvisation

I'll melt with willing obligation
I offer you my lullabye

There's that word "incandescent" -- a strange word choice, it sticks out a bit, but I like it. With very little time left, I had to stop there - but honestly, I'm not sure I could come up with better lines given the challenge, at least not without throwing out my letters and starting from scratch. It's a poetry cliché that you have to be willing and able to kill your children if they are deformed or just unnecessary, but it was especially hard to throw out these lines - so what if some of my children are a little goofy?

There's another aspect to the song structure, though -- the overall arc. I couldn't get those ten lines to tell a sort of story. With six acceptable lines the three pairs of lines do form an arc from the past to the future and back to the present.

With just six lines, it seemed more natural to put them together and repeat them against each other to make a sort-of-round. Again, the challenge was forcing me to create a more unusual structure, but when I listened back to my improvised melody in the scratch vocal track, I was very happy to hear that it seemed like the melodies would mesh pretty well against each other (this is where having essentially no chords in the accompaniment  -- where the melody doesn't drive the accompaniment to "take a stand" on a given subset of notes of the scale -- allows some flexibility.

Anyway, to my ear it kind of works like so: the first chorus builds up to 3 parts, then the sort-of-round of all the verses (or one big verse, however you want to think of it), then the second chorus sort of scales it back down, then you get a little dessert of the coda, fadeout, done, badda bing, badda boom.

I learned today (the end of day 3) that when it is cold and my singing muscles are tired I have an unwanted and automatic vibrato on some lower notes and not others. Sometimes no amount of retakes can make a take perfect, but you can kind of hide it by doubling it and harmonizing against it. Pitch correction can help a little bit but it can easily sound unnatural, and you've got to get within striking distance of the right notes and stay there. So again, the general deadline-based frustration, knowing that I probably could sing slightly better, but knowing that I wasn't going to have time to do so.

Grace's other suggestion was that when the vocals kick in, the accompaniment needs to go "up" another notch -- to get another instrument or shift one gear up. I considered adding some autoharp, but mine doesn't have a D major chord (and it also takes forever to tune). She was thinking the song needed to embrace a calypso feel. I thought it was a little like that already, but by "calypso feel" I meant something like the Laurie Anderson song "Blue Lagoon," or the Suzanne Vega song "Calypso." She meant something like a Calypso steel drum solo, and asked me if I had any good horn sounds. It was at this point that I had my second nervous breakdown of the day. After hyperventilating for a while I settled on bringing back in a shaker and some other bits of percussion. And then I spent a couple of hours tweaking mix levels, and mastering settings, and compressor ratios, and gains, and then decided it was mostly done.

Oh, also, this seems to be a love song to my wife of ten years, Grace. I am not a very romantic guy and I did not set out to write a love song. My idea of a love song is Gang of Four's "Anthrax." So imagine my surprise when THIS came out!

The lyrics before last-minute revisions read:

I owe you my life, my love
All I am and all I own is yours

When we met long years ago, you
Welcomed me with love and laughter

I'll melt with willing obligation
I'll make mad love with only you

My incandescent love I owe you
Another year's improvisation

I offer you my lullabye
You are my moment's inspiration

Once more my love I'm all about
Making myself all about you

Adieu, my lady love
I owe you my life

The lyrics in the finished song are:

I owe you my life, my love
All I am and all I own is yours

When we met long years ago, you
Welcomed me with love and laughter

My incandescent love I owe you
Another year's improvisation

I'll melt with willing obligation
I offer you my lullabye

I owe you my life, my love
All I am and all I own is yours

Adieu, my lady love
I owe you my life

Update: after submitting my song and meeting the deadline, I discovered that I do in fact have all the stem sources with mixer automation, since I was smart enough to save a separate project file for that. I also discovered that my bass stem was a little bit screwed up -- it had some excess distortion, as well as one of the ukulele parts mixed in with it, and had been bounced with the mastering plug-in turned on, meaning that in addition to the EQ on the track itself, it had aggressive mastering EQ and compression applied _twice_ in the final mix. That's no good, so I fixed that, and uploaded a revised version. The revised version also has some tweaks to the mastering so it is a little bit less aggressively bright and more natural sounding. Honestly, you might not notice these differences unless you do a direct A/B comparison and you're listening on something better than laptop speakers, but it was important to me that the track not have noticeable distortion in it. There is some noticeable "beating" of bass frequencies as the bass lines overlap, due to variance in the intonation of notes on the fretless bass, but I'm not going to fix that; consider it character. I'll just try to remember not to blend low notes on the fretless bass. The effect isn't nearly as noticeable in the higher registers, at least to my ear.

Many thanks to everyone who gave me praise and encouragement when they heard this track!

Update 2: well, it turns out I flubbed the challenge. In the process of recording my final vocals, I accidentally sang "I offer you this lullabye" instead of "I offer you my lullabye," and then repeated it on the doubling and harmony lines. And so I used an extra letter. Oddly, I had a dream early Saturday morning the day before the challenge was due -- a dream in which I was listening to my draft song and realized I had blown the challenge. I woke up in a panic at about 4 a.m., but could not remember exactly what the issue was. I read over my lyrics carefully, couldn't see anything wrong, and went back to bed. I should have listened to what I actually recorded; my brain did. In any case, I wasn't too broken up, because I received a lot of very positive feedback about the song, and I had tried to keep myself somewhat unconcerned about winning the contest. I feel that the judges' decision was fair; I did screw up. In the midst of working full time and raising 5 kids I don't need more stress. But still, I am curious whether I could have won the whole thing.

Credits: Paul R. Potts: Steinberger Synapse 5-string fretless bass, Peavey Firenza P-90 electric guitar (with Ernie Ball Slinky 11s), Ovation Applause tenor ukulele, plastic cottage cheese container, steel meat skewer, steel measuring spoons, paper, finger cymbals, light bulb, steel beater, triangle, rasps, sleighbells. Oktava MK-319 condenser microphone, Radial JDV direct box, Apogee Ensemble audio interface, Apple Logic, Izotope Ozone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Brother's Valentine

I wasn't sure I'd manage to finish anything for round 2, because I lost one day to illness and didn't schedule any time off work. But putting in a little time Friday night and Saturday afternoon, here's what I came up with (the link is to the song page on Bandcamp where you can download a high-resolution version). I also made a quickie video in what seems to be turning into a series of videos involving drawing or writing (you might call it the "no budget series," although art supplies don't grow on trees!) I didn't have a great idea for the drawings; they are doodles I had put in a new notebook over the course of the past week, with the idea that I might try animating them or otherwise turning them into a story for the video. The story part didn't really come together but I thought they belonged in the video somehow. I'm experimenting with some other drawings that I hope will eventually become low-frame-rate stop motion animation. iMovie is not really set up to do anything very elaborate with a series of stills. You can string them together but they have to be individually cropped (I think) and that's pretty tedious.

I don't have any chords to post. There is a melody, but it's pretty simple, and not very tightly played. There's a second synth part, but it is just some pedal tones. The song is in Bb. There's a repeating bass riff which is basically a little blues thing with some chromatic notes. It's all in one simple position.
Song Notes

The challenge for SpinTunes 4, Round 2 was to "write a musical Valentine's Day card to someone OTHER than your significant other."

I started thinking about ideas that have been kicking around in my head for a while -- about how hard it is for adult men, maybe with wives and families -- to maintain supportive friendships and creative partnerships with other men. There's the context of competition, of course - in sports, even playing on the same team, but what sort of role models are there for support and creative collaboration? Even talking about it seems suspicious, and immediately brings up the idea that such a desire is something only a closeted gay man would express.

If there seems to be homophobic anger in the song I hope the listener will understand that it is not intended towards gay men, but towards the society that has made connecting with men platonically taboo. I hope that comes through.

On paper this song was a mess, and I wasn't making much progress. It filled several pages in my notebook with ranty paragraphs of text that weren't really rappable verses. I could sort of read it and it was funny and made some sense, but it was much too long and didn't have a workably rhyme scheme. Only after going into the studio and recording the first verse did it start to come into shape. I recorded the chorus very roughly following a melody I laid down with my guitar synth, and screwed around with the pitch using some plug-ins, and that's where it pretty much stayed. At the end of a couple of hours the Friday night before it was due I had the first verse and a chorus and that was what I had to build on. It was weird, but I kind of liked it.

I was much more pressed for time on this track than I was on the last one; this one represents a total of about eight hours of work in the studio. There is much that is sloppy and that I might have liked to do better, but I'm also trying to just complete more tracks, imperfections and all. While I was recording rap sections today my three middle kids were down the hall in the bathtub having some sort of screaming contest, as kids do. I kept hearing the screaming in my headphones and finally just took my digital recorder in there and captured them screaming, and worked that into the lyrics and the audio. Lemons and lemonade... it was freezing cold in the studio today -- layers, chattering teeth, and stiff hands. The heat was on constantly so no chance to get audio takes without the heating system in the background; no time left for extra takes anyway. Oh, well!

I intended to record this one at 24/96 like the last one, but somehow my Logic project got set back to 24/44.1. If you don't know what that means, don't worry about it. I had to master myself this time using Ozone 5. It's not like having a real mastering engineer but it can still do some pretty cool things.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In Which I Say a Few Nice Things (and a Few Confused Things)

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.

Chris Cogott

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…)

Well. Hmmm.

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...