Showing posts with label SpinTunes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SpinTunes. Show all posts

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...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Falling, a Nightmare in Three Acts

So as I mentioned earlier, my SpinTunes 4 round 1 song is a bit... unusual. It's almost five minutes long, in 3 "acts," with no chorus, with piano, fretless bass, environmental sounds, no percussion whatsoever. It's sort of artsy... like "Natural Science" on the album _Permanent Waves_, or something from a Pink Floyd album, or Thomas Dolby's "Mulu the Rain Forest," or an extended Kate Bush track from Aerial. Not exactly what I set out to make, but this is the song that asked me to make it...

Here's the track on Bandcamp.

This is the first time I've had someone else master one of my tracks. I sent Rich Wielgosz a .WAV file at 24-bit, 96KHz and he dripped it through some nice analog vacuum tubes and iron transformers (I think; I'm not entirely sure what he did) and sent it back mastered. Mastering involves compression, EQ, and maybe other tweaks to bring the file up to snuff as far as hearing as much musical detail as clearly as possible -- basically, it makes it sound louder, and clearer, and when it is done right it should do this without ruining what nuance is present in the dynamic range. He did a great job -- the remaining deficiencies in the audio are mine, not his. More info about Rich can be found here

My notes, the "song bio" if you will:

So, the SpinTunes 4 Round 1 challenge was to write a song about "a childhood nightmare." I think some people might just be able to pick a nightmare and write about it, but I don't really remember any details about my childhood nightmares. I remember one very vaguely - I was being chased, and at the end I was falling, and when I landed I woke up with a violent muscle spasm, my heart pounding, soaked in sweat.

I did experience a real-life nightmare, though. My parents divorced when I was three years old. My father left, and my mother moved my one-year-old brother and me from Seattle, Washtington, to Pennsylvania. I saw him rarely over the next ten years; for most of that time, he was only an occasional letter or voice on the phone. My mother's father became a sort of surrogate father for me, and role model, but he died of cancer when I was ten years old.

So, that's the material I've got to work with. With the original dream so vague, I'll need to "take it and turn it." What if I misunderstood the nightmare? What if I wasn't being chased at all, but I was chasing my father, and the nightmare is that I can't ever reach him, and fall? So this song is about that nightmare of separation, and waking up and realizing that it is not actually a dream.

Maybe that's a lot to try and convey in a song, although there is probably a single word for it in German. But I hope it works in some sense.

These lyric concept started with one very long and extremely fast first draft, although I have trimmed and revised it. I realized as I wrote it that it was actually a bit like _Green Eggs and Ham_ -- Dr. Seuss wrote that book with only fifty words, on a bet. Similarly, as I wrote this I realized that there seemed to be a special power in repeating a few words and phrases and varying them, almost as if it was the vocabulary of a child chanting a rhyme. In that context a truly consistent rhyme scheme also seemed somewhat unimportant.

I had imagined a very dramatic song with a heavy metal-style guitar accompaniment, and I messed around with a grinding heavy-metal guitar sound, but when I tried singing it, the song started to come out much, much differently. So it's been a process of heavy revision. I've never tried a serious multi-track project that didn't have a fixed beats-per-minute count, or recorded instruments without a click track. To employ "rubato," part of the challenge, I had to be able to vary the tempo freely over the course of the song.

To get pieces lined up I would play a piano sound with a guitar synthesizer, to produce a MIDI piano part, and then record bass and vocals to accompany that, part-by-part, in a very painstaking and time-consuming way, recording take after take, looping parts over and over in my headphones while recording in order to get a precise feel for the timing. There is very little use of the "flex" feature in Logic because I felt that it would be too tempting to spend hours and hours of my limited time tweaking parts rather than recording better takes.

Some of the audio directly from the guitar synthesizer can be heard as a horn part. There's a MIDI piano, and a MIDI Turkish oud lute, and then my unusual Steinberger Synapse 5-string fretless bass. The guitar I use to trigger the guitar synth has a piezo and humbucking pickups as well, so it is possible to record the audio from the guitar synth, MIDI notes, and two different audio signals from the guitar all at the same time. Then of course these can go into different amp models and effects. In practice I only ever used two or three of these at once. For vocals I got out my ribbon microphone, which I haven't used in quite some time. The environmental sounds I recorded in 2008 in Grand Marais, Michigan.

This challenge had its own challenges. I actually took three full days off of work, in order to give myself some time without distractions, and went into the studio like I usually go into my home office. But the extra time just seemed to encourage me to do something more ambitious, and there were plenty of distractions: our hot-water heater failed, and the subwoofer for my studio monitors failed (it was replaced before due to a design defect). Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, I used Logic heavily for days and days without any of the usual crashes, and bizarre behavior was minimal. Apple seems to have Logic reasonably well debugged by now, at least the features I rely on. As I write this I'm winding up day 3, and I still need more time. There's never enough time! And so everthing winds up a compromise, full of flaws that make me grit my teeth, but hopefully good enough to make someone else like it; and maybe I'll even like it, once I can get some distance from it, and come back and listen with fresh ears.

If I had to cite some specific influences for the style of the song, I'd pick out Peter Gabriel's song "Family Snapshot," as well as some Kate Bush sounds from her album _Aerial_. I've always loved the sound of fretless bass; for some of what I was trying to achieve, take a listen to "Mulu the Rain Forest" by Thomas Dolby.

I've never written, or really spoken much, about my parents' divorce, or talked about it with a therapist. As I worked on this song I found myself going through an emotional tunnel, and feeling far more tense and upset than just the song deadline could account for. I see this process as somehow therapeutic, although I'm not sure the result will be very pleasant to listen to, and I don't think as some sort of great breakthrough. My father and I are on good terms now; he is still alive and living in California. But my understanding, and my lived experience, is that it just isn't possible to ever truly "heal" this sort of early loss, or replace those years of parenting; the experience reshapes a child's whole being. There's a great lyric by the band Everclear, from their song "Father of Mine" that really captures this:

I will never be safe 
I will never be sane 
I will always be weird inside 
I will always be lame

If you don't know the lyrics, look them up; they are terrific. That song, though, is angry, and for me the feeling has never really been anger, although I've had a lot of people express anger on my behalf. It's more a sort of mourning.

Paul R. Potts, aka Common Lisp
Saginaw, Michigan
25 January 2012

Act One: The Dream 

Ambient nature sounds (wind) 


"Sleep that knits up 
the ravelled sleeve of care 
The death of each day's life 
Sore labour's bath; 
Balm of hurt minds, 
Great nature's second course, 
Chief nourisher in life's feast." 
- Shakespeare 

Note: guitar is down-tuned 2 half-steps, so I play these 
chords on guitar as Dm, Gm, Dsus4, Gm, Am7, C and Bbmaj7. As heard it is in the key of C minor (relative minor to Eb)... I think. I'm not so great with the music theory. 

I've been here before 
Fm Csus4 
I can't see where I'm going 
Cm Fm 
There's darkness behind me 
Gm7 Bb Cm 
Darkness ahead 

Cm Fm 
There's a man in the shadows 
Gm7 Fm 
I can't see his face 
Cm Fm 
I thought he was chasing 
Gm7 Bb 
But it turns out I'm running 

Cm Fm 
It turns out I'm chasing 
Gm7 Bb 
The man in the shadows 
Cm Fm 
But my legs are so tired 
Gm7 Bb Cm 
I know I'm not strong 

Csus4 Cm 
Why won't he wait? 
Bb Gm7 Abmaj7 
Did I do something wrong? 
Cm Fm 
I can't catch my breath. 
Gm7 Bb Cm 
Don't leave me alone. 


To sleep, 
perchance to Dream; 
Ay, there's the rub, 
For in that sleep of death, 
what dreams may come, 
When we have shuffled 
off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause. 
- Shakespeare 

Act Two: The Nightmare 

I will not cry 
I'm running, not crying 
I can't catch my breath 
My lungs, they are aching 

The man in the shadows 
Is gone and I'm calling 
Not crying but screaming 
Screaming and trying to 

Run and I'm slipping 
The path it is crumbling 
I'm screaming and gasping 
Falling forever 

I scream in the silence 
Too frightened for crying 
Falling for ever and 
Ever and falling 

I'm sitting bolt upright 
And sweating and shaking 
Down the hall mom is crying 
Her heart must be breaking 

The man in the shadows is 
Gone and I'll always be 
Missing his love, I'll 
always be aching 

Act Two: The Waking Dream 

Ambient nature sounds (beach) 

Instrumental break: shifts key to C major, I think. 

Cm Fm Csus4 Gm7 
Abmaj Gm F7 
Cm Fm Csus4 Gm7 
Abmaj7 Gm F7 
G7 Am7 E F 

F C 
When I was small, so small 
C G 
I rode on your shoulders 
F G 
My hands felt your beard 
C F 
It was scratchy and warm 
When I was small 

(Ambient sound: wind sounds return) 

F C 
Now you are gone, gone, gone 
F G 
In the sun on the beach 
F G 
We were laughing and playing 
F G 
In the grass on the dunes 
F G 
You ran and I chased you 
G F 
On a day long ago 
And then you were gone 

C G 
Gone from your children 
F G 
Gone from your wife 
C G 
Gone from my brother 
F G 
Gone from our lives 

And though I've awakened 
And though I've awakened 
I'll always be aching 
I'll always be aching 
I'll always be runing 
I'll always be runing 
I'll always be chasing 
I'll always be chasing 
I'll always be falling 
I'll always be falling 


All men whilst they are awake 
are in one common world: 
but each of them, when he is 
asleep, is in a world of his own. 
- Plutarch

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Spintunes 4

I'm participating in the SpinTunes 4 songwriting challenge. My round 1 song is due January 29th. My intent is to post "song bio" material here as I'm able. Last time, I had to drop, because real life was just too crazy to allow me any free time at all to work on a sing. I'm trying to make things happen differently this time, but whether I'll really be able to do this or not remains a bit unclear. Stay tuned. Song Fu is also running again, but in a very different form than it did before. I was considering trying to get a song done for Song Fu's "bioluminescence" challenge as well, but I just don't think I can get both done.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Start of Songwriting Season

So life has been busy. Crazy busy. We had a new baby. That's kid number five. I've been working crazy hours for the day job. I took only one day off for the birth of the new baby because I was working on such a critical deadline, that is all I felt I could spare. We've been trying to keep up with a house we're barely getting used to; we haven't even finished unpacking. Money is tight; things keep popping up to derail my plans, like car breakdowns. Part of our back fence collapsed due to the blizzards. The kids keep damaging stuff I wouldn't have even imagined they could possibly break, like tearing wallpaper off the walls, plugging our footing drains and flooding the basement with the garden hose, peeing in my shoes, or ripping keys off a keyboard. Our two-year-old is really a handful.

Et cetera, et cetera, Peter Cetera even.

Many days go by where it wasn't even really a question to get some quiet time for recording. I've been fortunate to get any time to practice guitar at all.

In the midst of all this I made the decision to sign up for the SpinTunes songwriting contest again, because it has been so valuable to me to have this incentive and occasion and support group. It's been invaluable, really.

The first challenge was announced 09 June 2011 and was due the evening of June 19th. The challenge was to "write a happy song about death." I thought I'd certainly be able to find a few hours during that week. I had been working a lot of overtime for the previous ten weeks or so, and was working very hard to hit a second deadline. If I had hit it, I would have tried to take three work days off in comp time. It was going to take me practically a full day just to get the office and studio cleaned up enough to work in there, leaving me a couple of full days to record a song. I had managed to get a simple lyric written and had a couple of very rough ideas.

That didn't pan out; I didn't get my build working, due to both my bugs and other people's bugs; I had to do two all-nighters; I had to travel to Lansing twice.

On Saturday (the day before the deadline) I blocked out about four hours. I thought that might be enough to record a sketchy demo. What happened instead was that my Apogee Ensemble went crazy. It had been behaving in a degraded manner. The week before it would occasionally reset itself, or start spitting bursts of ear-splitting noise through the speakers. But this was worse; Logic was locking up and crashing; the software meters wouldn't show any input data; the controls in the Ensemble control panel inside Logic showed crazy levels, like -454 dB. Apple's Audio MIDI Setup application was locking up and crashing; the Apogee Maestro application wouldn't talk to the Ensemble; I was seeing a non-stop string of errors in the Console. I reinstalled its firmware, and reinstalled its drivers, and rebooted. In this manner I managed to use up my entire time window in frustration. Apogee tech support is not available on weekends.

I thought that it was likely my Ensemble had fried itself in the extreme heat in the studio -- early in June we had a crazy heat wave and it was baking in there. I'm fortunate I didn't lose a hard drive. Our central air conditioning just doesn't get up there, apparently; we have to figure out how to improve the airflow. It's quite an old house, and many of the vents that we ought to be able to open or close can't actually be adjusted. The whole system needs some attention from professionals.

So I went for a walk with my Sony PCM-D1 digital recorder and recorded this podcast episode. I put that together later in the evening on the Mac Mini in the family room. Sunday was booked solid, with plans to have guests over, and a big backlog of basic chores I needed to catch up on, like grocery shopping. I pretty much had to announce I was going to be eliminated in round 1 by forfeit. It wasn't a good feeling. I knew that I had done everything I could, but still, it felt like establishing a work/life balance is what I had failed at, not just missing a deadline.

I put in some more work time and managed to get my code debugged. I was not working at peak efficiency and making dumb mistakes due to simple overwork and lack of sleep. Yesterday I got permission to take those three days off as comp time, a week late. And so the plan was to try to do what I had wanted to do a week ago.

Today I started by getting on the tech support chat with Apogee to see if I could get an RMA# for my Ensemble. The plan was to remove the Edirol FA-66 from the downstairs computer and bring it upstairs. I wasn't sure I'd be able to afford the out-of-warranty repairs for the Ensemble, and that was making me nervous. That box cost almost $2,000. If I had to shelve it because I couldn't afford to fix it, that would be a lot of money tied up in something I couldn't even sell. My head became filled with backup plans -- could I pay enough to have it fixed, then sell it on eBay, and track down an older Rosetta 200 with a PCI card to use instead as a simpler but perhaps more reliable and higher-quality setup? But the Apogee support person asked me to try uninstalling the Ensemble driver completely using a separate utility, then reinstalling it, not just running the installer again.

I thought I was just going through the motions to try to prove that the device was exhibiting a hardware failure. But for reasons not entirely clear to me, that worked. I'm not sure just what might have happened to the existing driver, but there it is; if you have an Ensemble, and it starts misbehaving, give that a try. Years ago I wrote a MacOS X IOKit audio driver, so you'd think I'd be able to diagnose a problem like this myself, but no -- it really seemed to me like it was very likely to be a hardware failure.

I've got a ventilation fan in the office bathroom window, pulling some cool air from the rest of the house, and that helps a bit. The plan is to get a portable air conditioner that vents to the window as soon as I can. Of course, if I'm going to record vocals, I have to shut everything off, and the heat builds up pretty quickly.

I often start to feel like I'm failing to do creative work for various reasons -- due to my day job, or due to the family. That mindset tends to lead me into thinking of my day job and my family as problems. That's a painful over-simplification. I didn't quit my day job like Jonathan Coulton, to produce songs. I didn't, and still don't, have the performance and songwriting and recording experience that had gotten him to that point yet. My life is not his life. I'm supporting a family of seven. My wife is a stay-at-home mom and we chose that arrangement.

Merlin Mann likes to ask the rhetorical question "what couldn't you ship?" He's asking people in business, particularly in software, to ask themselves how and why they've failed, and to address the root causes honestly. He talks about people who never ship anything -- who think they have big ideas for software projects, or writing projects, or music projects, but who are too busy, who have too many other priorities, and a lot to juggle, but still have time to watch TV every night, and don't even consider that to be negotiable.

I've shipped a hell of a lot. My entertainment time is highly negotiable. In the last ten weeks or so I negotiated away a lot of things, including a great deal of sleep and a great deal of time with my family. I wrote a server, in about five thousand lines of C++, to a rapidly changing spec, without the ability to debug it on the hardware platform it was designed to run on at all. It features three hierarchical state machines, a dozen threads, several message queues, and something like 70 methods. We shipped that (well, version 1.0 at least; there will no doubt be more features, more bugs, more maintenance).

I also completed a substantial revision to a piece of DSP code written in C. In this revision, through some simplifying and refactoring of a complicated piece of state machine code I managed to add features while removing almost 500 lines of code, or about 10% of the total program. I struggled for a few days with dumb bugs (most bugs turn out to be dumb, but occasionally I run into a bug that is truly fiendish). My boss happened to have possession of the debugger that I might have used to catch bugs right on the hardware, and it wasn't available for me to use this time, so debugging this involved some gritted teeth and a helpful co-worker with fresh eyes who read the code with me. I finally managed to extract the last obvious bug with the help of a separate test bench program, written in Visual C++, that allowed me to exercise most of the features of the program in an environment with a source-level debugger and the ability to log exactly what is happening. So that's shipped. My weekend was almost relaxing after over two months of this.

So I do ship, but the problem is that I'm often not able to ship what I'd most like to ship, and not able to work steadily on the projects I'd most likely to work on -- my creative projects. The creative projects have to fit into the cracks and between the teeth of the gears, without actually jamming them. That can be tricky. They're a luxury and yet I'm considering them to be more and more of a necessity as I get more burned out on this kind of work, and wonder how much longer I can keep doing this as a career. It seems now that there is not likely to be an upgrade path, if that makes sense.

So, with all that as prologue, today I recorded a song. I started with the snare drum that I was unable to record last week. It came out better than I expected. I used my matched pair of Rode NT-5 microphones in an X-Y pattern. With such a loud sound source, the exhaust fan in the other room didn't really matter much, so I left it on. I don't really know how to play drums, but I've manage to sort of teach myself just a tiny bit of stick work on a snare. That actually started with playing upside-down food storage buckets as drums during protest marches, particularly marching in solidarity with striking Borders bookstore workers in 2003.

I also recorded three improvised guitar parts on my Adamas 12-string, into the Radial JDV direct box, and then into the Ensemble. I put the capo on the fifth fret to make it sound a bit like a mandolin. It did not turn out at all like I had heard it in my head last week. I had been imagining something upbeat and Celtic-sounding, like a reel, with a dance-like beat. It didn't sound much like that -- it sounded minor and Middle Eastern. But I was trying to do a one-day wonder, so I had to press on.

I shut off the fans, improvised a vocal melody to my lyrics, recorded a few takes of that to get a reasonably clean one, and then did a few more takes to double it. I sang into the Oktava MK-219 at close range without a pop filter and it didn't seem like it needed one. I used Alloy with various presets on each channel. Now it definitely wasn't Celtic per se. Instead of a reel, it came out more like a dirge, even with the basic rhythm at 130 bpm. The combination of a fast beat with a very slow-moving vocal is odd. Still, like all my songs I at least like how bits of it came out.

I decided to ship it anyway. Sometimes you have to get a not-so-good song out of your system so you can listen to it and think it over and perhaps learn something from the attempt and try again, or just move on to something different. I haven't and written recorded very many complete original songs yet; this is number six, or thereabouts. If I get to a dozen I'll start to feel like I'm beginning to accumulate real experience at this.

I'd like to buy a copy of Nectar, the new vocal processing plugin from Izotope, since I really like Izotope's audio-processing tools, but that will have to wait. I have to remind myself that the right plug-ins might -- emphasis on the might -- help me to tweak a vocal found until I like it more, but no matter what microphone or plug-in I use, it isn't going to be work miracles on my vocal performance. I enjoy the sound of heavily processed audio tracks, even putting things like ring modulation or spinning speaker effects on vocals, but a lot of folks are a little more basic in their approach.

Merlin Mann would probably ask me whether that is really going to keep me from "shipping" -- from completing the project. The answer is no. The presumed-broken Ensemble consumed some of my valuable time, but it didn't keep me from shipping either. In fact, it seems that there isn't much that will.

The song, Today is Not That Day, can be found on Bandcamp here. It's not great. I'm not quite sure what I think of it yet. It always takes me a while to figure that out. I'm calling this Version 1 because, depending on what happens tomorrow and Friday, there's a good chance I'll record another version. While I was recording today I shot some video of the takes I put in the song, so maybe tomorrow I'll throw together a quick video. Goodnight all!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sherman's Lament, Live Video and Chords

I've made a new video for my original song Sherman's Lament and deleted the earlier one.

The new video can be found here.

A fully produced version of this song is available here.

Note that the chord changes I hit in the accompaniment on that version are slightly different, but not dramatically so.

If you want to play it, this song should not be too challenging as long as you can quickly transition between basic chords and you can do a little Travis picking. There are a few little grace notes and fills here and there but they shouldn't be difficult (and I never manage to play them quite as I intended anyway; the solo guitar arrangement is still pretty new to me). The verses and choruses are all basically the same with the exception of the bridge and coda, so I have only put chord notation on the first verse.

Please note that in the live video I am DOWN-TUNED (D to D) so if you want to play along with the video, you'll either have to down-tune or transpose the song. The guitar is my Babicz Identity Jumbo.

I've spent my career teaching history
       Dm7               G
But my colleagues always mock me
   Dm7          G
My papers are rejected
   C                     Em - F - G
My letters to the editor never selected

My memories of those days are mostly a blur
   Dm7               G
Of crudely drawn animation
         Dm7                  G
With our horn-rimmed glasses, we'd explore
    C             Em - F - G
The pasts of many nations

His bowtie he always kept impeccable
    Dm7                  G
The puns were completely unacceptable
  Dm7               G
I tell you this without much joy
    Dm7           G         C
For I'm no longer Peabody's boy


   F                Em
My life has been so ordinary
          Dm7           G
Since the day he went away
    Dm7              G
Now it's been almost fifty years
    Am           C
And I am old and gray
     F                Em
I've never stopped believing
     Dm7                 G
That he'll come back for me
   Dm7               G              C
My master, mentor, friend Mister Peabody


I followed Peabody's detailed instructions
To make sure our history functions
Fixing problems in our past
We righted wrongs and we had ourselves a blast

When our show got cancelled, he took it really hard
We heard him howling in the yard
On that fateful day, he broke his chain
And with nothing but his big brain

He trotted right through the door of his machine
We'd know where he went, but he broke the view screen
The government men took it away
Now how can I... get back... to yesterday?



Cartoons can live forever
But not so human men
I'm hoping that he gets here soon
So I can see his fuzzy face again
Maybe he traveled forward
And in some very different when
Some clever future doctors
Can fix me and make me young again
Now night is fast approaching
But if we meet up one day
F                G               Dm7 G C
We'll be dog and boy like it was yesterday


I had to pack up and go back to school
Which felt so very cruel
The history books all seemed strange
It's not nearly as fun when it can't be rearranged

Me, I just got older, and I discovered girls
But they never seemed to like me
Maybe the dog tags put them off
Or maybe they saw me scratch a flea

I never got married and I never had friends
I really hope this isn't how it ends
I hope my master won't forget me
And I'll make history with Mister Peabody


    F                   Em
Now you might think I'm just confused
            Dm7          G
And age has left me in a fog
But I never minded playing second fiddle
To a dog

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 4 Reviews

I did not submit a shadow for this round, but as a contributor I was given the opportunity to submit a vote. So I'll just go ahead and review the entries. Since we're down to the finals, this time there are far more more shadows than officially competing songs (of which there are only four).

The challenge was to write a song from the perspective of a character in a video game. The drawback of this, from my perspective, is that the song will assume that the listener has played a specific game, or is at least very familiar with it.

I do like video games and I've played quite a few of them over the years, going back to home Pong and Motocross consoles, through the heyday of arcade games (my personal favorites included Ms. Pac Man, Tempest, Gyruss, Burger Time, Robotron 2084, Pole Position, Tron, and Reactor) and early Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore 64 games. Scott Adams Adventures, Flying Saucer, Pyramid, Asylum, the original T80 FS-1 Flight Simulator (loaded from cassette), Castle Wolfenstein... pretty much the entire Ultima series, including the Ultima Underworld games... M.U.L.E... Seven Cities of Gold... Root Beer Tapper... I had a serious fondness for the Infocom series (are text adventures actually video games?)

I don't play any MMPORGs, I've played very few modern PC games (I think that last one I played was Alone in the Dark), with the recent exception of Half-Life 2 since Steam was released for Mac. The last games I've completed were for the Nintendo 64 and GameCube -- Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I like (and still have) some of the more obscure Nintendo 64 games like Space Station: Silicon Valley, Rocket Robot on Wheels, Tonic Trouble, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Kirby: the Crystal Shards. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and The Ocarina of Time sucked up enormous amounts of my time almost a dozen years ago...I got pretty far along in Mario Sunshine and Pikmin for GameCube. I played some serious Pokemon games with my son.

But my proudest moment was beating the evil duck jack-in-the-box boss in Donkey Kong 64 -- that was a hard, hard fight! Although I couldn't be bothered to finish the game -- it just seems to go on forever. Apparently it can take upwards of 100 hours or more to finish, at least if you're a perfectionist like me and want every point. And these days I hardly have enough time for even an unbroken hour of gaming, much less a hundred.

I tend to prefer game console games to PC games and intermediate or advanced kid-oriented games, oriented around puzzles, platform jumping, or racing, to "adult" games. Back in the day I played a lot of Doom and Quake and other first-person shooters like Goldeneye, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Perfect Dark, and similar, but I've mostly lost my taste for first-person shooters as they've gotten increasingly realistic.

So what were we talking about again? Oh, yeah, reviewing songs! All this is by way of saying that if you are considerably younger than I am, or you had different consoles than I had, or were a big PC gamer in a different decade, there's a good chance I know nothing at all about the game you're writing about. So how much "research" should I do in order to understand the context and try to judge your song as if I was familiar with the game? Well, as I'm not an official judge I'm not going to do very much. I'll be judging these songs mostly for how much fun I think they are to listen to and how well they stand up even if I haven't played the game.

1. Zarni DeWet - The Bleeding Effect

OK, so right off the bat I'm confronted with a song where, apparently, there's a hugely complex back-story described by paragraphs and paragraphs of text on the Bandcamp song page. Honestly, I get that these games can be very compelling and one can be really drawn in to the storylines -- I know this especially from the many nights I spent solving Infocom games "back in the day." (Did anyone else cry when the robot Floyd died in _Planetfall_?)

But I'm not going to read all that if she can't be bothered to edit it down to a couple of paragraphs. Even if I managed to put it all together, it wouldn't have much emotional resonance.

What I will say is that Zarni's vocal performance is gorgeous and impassioned here and I like the instrumentation. It does leave me feeling a little bit on the outside looking in, though, so I can't really rate this one as my favorite. It's too long for so few lyrics, for one thing. There's a long stretch of silence at the end of the track, too, which is a pretty big technical flaw.

I listened to all these songs three or four times. I initially rated this one the lowest of the four, but now I've changed my mind and I rate it best of the four, mostly on the strength of the vocal performance. Isn't that weird? Basically, it's because as I listened to this album over and over, I found myself thinking "oh, cool, I get to listen to that song again!" Initially I thought that the storyline was a little too self-contained to the video game world, but as I listen to it I think the lyrics stand by themselves more than I initially gave it credit for. I think that was something she carefully worked at, and not accidental. It reminds me a little bit of the lost '80s band Quarterflash, with their song "Harden My Heart."

Is that fair? Who knows?

2. Mitchell Adam Johnson - In Another Castle

This one is fabulous -- the instrumentation is fun and bouncy. Here we have a song that requires less R&D to understand; the whole Mario storyline is much more embedded in general pop culture. The video game sound effects work wonderfully in this track. We get a storyline told from the POV of Princess Peach. The lyrics are simply hilarious -- Princess Peach is supposed to be the carrot, but she's also the stick -- kind of an obnoxious tease, don't you think? The song captures that perfectly.

It's a damned tight race, but I rate this second of the four.

3. Rebecca Brickley - Where I Am

The recording here is a little odd (a very hollow tone, especially on the vocals, and some strange distorted sizzle on the hi-hat). The intelligibility of the vocals suffers just slightly for that. I had to read the notes to determine who the song was about. It's Carmen Sandiego, which (I think) has sunk into popular culture enough to be recognizable. Am I over-reading it to think something else about Carmen Sandiego is being implied by the phrase "playing for the other team?"

Nice swooping vocal performance, fun song, but it gets third place of the four. No, it's not really fair, and it doesn't reflect the fact that it's a fun song. It's just got slightly lower replay value for me, if that makes sense, and it's mostly because of the character of the recording. These songs are mostly really close to each other in quality so it's hard to decide.

4. Chris Cogott - In Bright Falls

I have no idea what this song is about without reading the notes. Oops, there's nothing about what the song is about. Who is Alan Wake? Huh. Google. Apparently it's the name of a game for the XBox platform, and a very recent one (released only five or six months ago). I've never played an XBox, and what with moving and working from home since May I have, in fact, been living under a rock, so it's no wonder I've never heard of it.

The production is fantastic. It sounds very much like "Paperback Writer" and very much like Brian Wilson was involved in the production somehow. This one is definitely the best produced of the four, although it's a little loud and the overall EQ and compression situation grates slightly. It's a very tight decision but it gets last place, mostly because the lyrics don't really click with me. It's not fair. Or do I want to give it third? Or second? Dammit. No, last place. Sorry. I'm sorry about everything. I'm going to feel bad for the rest of the day now. Crap.

Now, on to the shadows.

5. Charlie McCarron - The Pac-Man Duet (Shadow)

This is the funniest of the whole bunch. I think it is technically too short to meet the requirements, but it is absolutely-freakin'-hilarious. I'm hoping that Charlie's voice is electronically processed in some way. If he can sing like that without plug-ins then I'm both stunned and confused. And maybe slightly aroused. But mostly confused.

6. Mark Humble - I'm Q-Bert, Babe (Shadow)

I'm sad that this is a shadow. This is as good as the songs actually in competition this round. The integration of the video game sounds into the track, and the overall mix, are just great. Mark just seems like a music nerd after my own heart, perhaps a better producer than a performer. It's a little short, time-wise. Some of his rhymes are painful (what would _you_ rhyme with Q-Bert?) Still, really nice effort.

7. Brian Gray - Hard to Get (Shadow)

I think this pretty clearly about Donkey Kong, unless I've missed some games. The use of backing vocals is great and I like the bouncy keyboard track. I feel like if you're going to write a song about one of the classic platformers, it had better be bouncy, or you've failed to capture the humor and energy of the originals. This one does. The lyrics are funny and he came up with some excellent rhymes.

8. Boffo Yux Dudes - Floating Away (Shadow)

I'm not sure I get what game this is about. Who is Major Tom? The sound effects seem to be from Asteroids, if I'm not mistaken. Did the original Asteroids have some reference to the name of the avatar character actually piloting the spaceship? The song's a little hard to listen to with the layers of booming voice, but I like the slightly ethereal feel and the mournful lyrics. The vocal performance is actually pretty strong and actually feels like it wants to break out of the constraints of the "novelty song" it's stuck in.

9. JoAnn Abbott - Go For the Eyes (Shadow)

Again, I don't know what game this is referencing. The lyrics are funny but without context I'm not quite sure what is going on. The weird lyrics contrast oddly with the perky music and performance. I Googled "miniature giant space hamsters" so I guess this is from Baldur's Gate? But I've got no idea what that game is like.

10. Boffo Yux Dudes - One Level Down (Shadow)

I love the way the volume and beats per minute keep ratcheting up -- a perfect "form follows function" structure, and it completely captures the way the old Space Invaders game sped up and sped up until it became simply traumatic. Are video game songs the perfect niche for the talents of the Boffo Yux Dudes?

11. David Ritter - Pitfall (Shadow)

An ethereal, acoustic-guitar oriented song about Pitfall is very strange. Very pretty instrumentation and vocals though.

12. Boffo Yux Dudes - Elf Shot the Food (Shadow)

Wow, we have a third shadow from the Boffo Yux Dudes. This one is really funny and made me smile, even though I don't think I ever played the Gauntlet arcade game much.

13. Caleb Hines - The Writing on the Wall (Shadow)

Interesting -- actually a Caleb song, but sung by JoAnn. I have to confess that I've never actually played Portal, although of course as a Jonathan Coulton fan I know at least something of the storyline. The lyrics are funny. JoAnn doesn't seem terribly into what she is singing.

14. Governing Dynamics - One Four One (Roach) (Shadow)

I've never played any of the Call of Duty games so this one doesn't really resonate. Travis has gotten good at boiling storylines down to their lyrical essentials. This isn't one of his most compelling songs but like all his recent songs it grows on me the more I listen.

15. Inverse T. Clown - I'm Tops (Shadow)

After some Googling I think this must be from Mega Man 3 for the old Nintendo Entertainment System, which I confess I've never played. Inverse's sarcastic lyrical style works really well here in the "mouth" of a video game character and the all-electronic production works well for this as well. There's a harmony vocal that fits nicely in the track and makes me want to hear more layers of Inverse singing. This song works very well overall and it's not only one of the best shadows, but fairly competitive with the competing tracks.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 3 Reviews

OK, I'm a bit behind reviewing these. They've already been judged, and all but four of the entires eliminated. But I'm still going to review them.

The full album can be found here.

Here are the results.

I commented in the chat that I had mentioned in the previous rounds that I didn't envy the judges. For this round -- I really, really, really didn't envy the judges. These tracks are uniformly anywhere from pretty good to fantastic, and they had to pass four and eliminate eight of the twelve.

1. Governing Dynamics - Los Alamos

I have a confession to make. When I first saw pictures of Travis Norris, aka Governing Dynamics, I thought he was probably about twelve years old, and maybe in Junior High School. I did not really feel like I could connect with his music. I didn't like the way he recorded his guitars or the style of it. We didn't have the same influences. Somehow I didn't quite get it.

How things change. Travis was born in 1983, so he's not yet 30. In related news, I'm old. My opinion of what he's doing has completely changed. This is a seriously great song. It's more-or-less in a late-90's grunge-tinged style. I had somehow developed the impression that Travis couldn't really play well, and that's why his guitar parts sounded a little sloppy and dragging. This song proves that I was completely mistaken. He's playing them exactly the way they are supposed to sound. They are layered, but not in a wall that is intended to hide sloppy playing. It's a clean, sweet wall of tone.

The guitars on this song remind me, just a bit, of one of my favorite bands -- Gang of Four -- in that they are uncompromised and there is no concession to sweetness and pop. They don't sound like the Beatles. They're dark and deadpan. The vocals are gorgeous. The lyrics are great. He did indeed, as he put it, pull out all the stops.

2. Inverse T. Clown - I Have a Leap

This is pretty similar to what I've come to think of as a "standard" Inverse arrangement. The lyrics are about a Quantum Leap episode, imagined or otherwise, and a real historical event. It's clever and competent enough but it doesn't grab me. There's something again a little dry about the canned-sounding instrumentation.

3. Charlie McCarron - Queen of Heart

After his odd round 1 entry I was mostly baffled by Mr. McCarron's style of music. His round 2 entry I found much more promising and downright fascinating. This is a cool song. I wish I could play as many instruments as he seems to. The lyrics are understated and pretty.

4. Ryan Ruff Smith - The Driver (Dallas, 1963)

An oddly upbeat, melodic retelling of Kennedy's assassination over a finger-picked guitar and shaker, with a police scanner-style radio in the background. It's an odd choice. It works pretty well with the chorus lyric "as long as I keep driving, none of this is real." Gets me into the shocked mindset of the day. I'm still note entirely sure how I feel about this song.

5. Edric Haleen - I Was There

Edric's piano part here is a little darker, atmospheric, and dissonant. His vocal performance seems a bit odd, but when he doubles himself, it really takes off nicely. Could have run too long, but ends precisely when it should.

6. Ross Durand - Ivan Vaughan

Just a hint of an accent at work here that very effectively captures the idea of a friend of the Beatles. The guitar is pretty, the chorus is catchy, and it's nicely sung, but the lyrics seem just a bit short of ideas.

7. Chris Cogott - Final Flight

A wall of echoing guitar harmonics remind me of '80s psychedelic revival -- a beautiful production, and I appreciate that there is still a little dynamic range and the compression isn't flat-lined. Great guitar solo work.

8. Mitchell Adam Johnson - Pictures of Love

Another Beatles story -- this time about the breakup. Also just a bit psychedelic-revival. Beautiful guitars and a harpsichord sound in the background. Nicely produced. Songs like this remind me just how much I still have to learn about producing fully realized songs.

9. Steve Durand - Cuban Missile Mambo

This is truly the oddity of the competing entries. It would be hard to imagine a goofier song. Seriously -- Castro's barber? A mambo about one of the most frightening confrontations of the 20th century and the defining crisis of Kennedy's administration? Truly, Steve has balls of solid brass. Not entirely successful in tone, and the vocal performance is a little underwhelming, but quite funny.

10/11. Rebecca Brickley - Oh Mercy

For some reason Rebecca was not able to get the judges her final polished track in time, and so we have two versions. The "remix" version is polished and gorgeous, while the "judge's mix" is more demo-style, with some screwy compression and phasing going on, but they are the same song, and the demo is still pretty damned good, so I actually think the difference in production quality probably wasn't a large factor in the judging. These lyrics are just gorgeous. She's really imagined something cool here. The whole cadence of the song has a very cool martial, marching feel to it, although it's not quite coming from the percussion or the piano in isolation, but somehow more from the breathless style of the vocal performance. I'm so pleased to hear a song about an American war that isn't schmaltzy or cliched: the protagonist admits he "just wanted to make his poppa proud / he didn't much care what the war was about." And 'twas ever thus.

12. Zarni DeWet - Eric

This is a risky song. This got me into a debate with another listener, and I had to clarify what I meant by that -- the "risk" is simply that the listener won't really be able to go there, to empathize with the narrator and feel the emotional weight of the story, but will instead just scowl at the premise, and so not give it a fair shake. Are we ready for a song about Columbine told from the point of view of the mother of the shooter? Apparently, we are. This one made my spine tingle and it still does several listens later. It's just this side of pathos here and there, but it doesn't shy away the gut punch, and that works for me.

13. Gweebol - She Said, As She Handed Him The Telephone

The premise here is the historical oddity that Alexander Graham Bell's wife was apparently deaf. I love Gweebol's voice, but this song seems to meander a bit.

14. Duality - Columbia (Shadow)

The production sounds very similar to a number of other Joe "Covenant" Lamb songs and failed to entrance me. It's perhaps not his very finest vocal performance but it's way up there. More importantly, there's a new level of lyrical sophistication here. I didn't quite put the story together on the first listen. It's well worth a second (and third).

15. David Ritter - Portal of Doom (Shadow)

A bit of an oddity, the music is funky and jazzy, while the lyrics are dark and funny. Clever and nerdy -- "there's a frickin' black hole in the room." A bit fluffy, though, and ultimately a little forgettable.

16. Duality - Historical Verity (Shadow)

I don't claim to understand the whole context here. It's a funny song and I love the interplay between Joe and Denise's voices. There's something more serious going on, though, about the nature of war as seen from the level of the common man.

17. JoAnn Abbott - Candle in the Dark (Shadow)

I'm not sure JoAnn gets the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, but I could sum up my opinion on the matter by simply saying that there's actually no such thing as conservative art. Real art always subverts the dominant paradigm, tells the untold story. If it doesn't, it's not art, it's kitsch, like a painting of a fluffy kitten at a flea market or a flag airbrushed onto the side of an RV. It's expected. On the plus side, it's nice to hear Caleb's impressive keyboard work here.

18. Duality - St. Andrew's (Shadow)

A dark and minimalist song that shows us a side of Denise's vocal talents we don't hear nearly enough of. As I heard this in the online listening party, I went into a genuinely dark and frightened place! Denise, please let your demons out to play more often! Also: fantastic concept and lyrics.

19. Common Lisp (featuring Duality) - Sherman's Lament (Shadow)

Has it been long enough that I have enough distance to review my own song? Production first: there's some crackling on the transients that sounds awful. I'm not quite sure where it comes from. It seems to either be the transition from 24-bit to 16-bit, or the MP3 compression. I wish I knew how to get rid of that. Dither, no dither, limiter, etc.

I may be over-compressed here. I never seem to get the mastering quite right.

I guess I'm most proud of my lyrics. I think Joe and Denise did a good job with it, but somehow the smooth instrumentation and voices all together seem to lack energy. Too slow? The style of instrumentation just doesn't fit the concept?

As Doctor Lindyke pointed out, the song doesn't quite meet the challenge because it doesn't point out a connection to an event in history. I also heard the message that folks didn't really like the samples. I could attempt a remix, I guess, but it will probably have to wait until I've gained yet more distance and can be a little more objective. I might try a a "folksier" recording that is just guitar and my vocal.

I'm disappointed not to have more reviews; I've gotten almost no useful feedback on this song. My wife didn't really think much of it. I finally sang the whole thing to her a capella and she laughed at the intended places so I guess the lyrics ultimately did work for her, even if the whole mix did not.

20. Duality - Triangle (Shadow)

The most abstract, dark and dissonant thing I've ever heard from Denise. I don't quite know what to say about this track. It's nicely sung, but seems a little shy of lyrical content.


So, it's Wednesday night and at this point it doesn't look like I'll be doing a shadow entry for round 4. These contests are hard on my family, and my mood and energy level have been sinking a bit into a usual late fall downturn as the days get shorter. Also, the round 4 challenge has almost entirely failed to inspire me with any ideas. I had one, but it required a piece of music software that resides on my iPod, which seems to be lost. So barring sudden inspiration, I'll be sitting this round out.

I've really enjoyed SpinTunes. It's been great practice and great experience.

That said, now that the final round will be arriving shortly, I feel like the playing field is barely clinging to life, as far as any sense that amateurs are involved. Rebecca Brickley's is the only survivor that sounds like an artist who might be still learning how to do this, rather than one who already has it entirely mastered and down to a routine. I guess it just reinforces my feeling that I don't really belong in this competition any more, which is a disappointing feeling -- and one I didn't experience in the my (brief) experience in the somewhat more freewheeling Song Fu. It reinforces the sense that I should have started doing this earlier and gotten more practice in.