Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cross-Blog Information and Introductions

In order to try to avoid boring people with material they aren't interested in, I have divided my writing up into five separate blogs. The downside to this is that I have a tendency to wander from one area of interest to another over the course of a typical year, so it may look like I've dropped off the face of the earth. In case anyone is interested in following what is going on in one of my other blogs, I thought it might be useful to post this road map once in a while.

Geek Like Me Too is my general-purpose personal blog. The most recent postings are about a recent Jonathan Coulton concert in Pontiac that I attended and recorded. I have provided recordings of the show as a set of MP3 files, of interest to geeks who like music.

Geek Like Me is its predecessor, done in Blosxom, now still up only for archival purposes.

Geek Versus Guitar is about guitar playing. Recently I've recorded a few Jonathan Coulton songs myself. It will also be about learning to produce songs with my home studio.

Praise, Curse, and Recurse is about programming topics, mostly Haskell, Python, and Scheme. My free time has been devoted to other things but I will no doubt be back around to programming before too long.

The Marcella Armstrong Memorial Collection is about my family history, and the big task of scanning, restoring, preserving, and archiving family photos and documents. Of interest to any family members, but also of possible interest to people doing their own similar projects.

Tales from the Potts House: William Hope Hodgson contains information about the "Hodgecast" podcast available on iTunes, in which I record classic William Hope Hodgson novels and stories. I have more podcasts planned in both this series and possibly others in the near future.

Anyway, there it is... please join me on any of these blogs that might catch your interest. I always have far too many projects going at once!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Skullcrusher Dad

I don't claim to be a great singer, but after three or four tries my voice loosened up enough so that I don't think my attempt at Skullcrusher Mountain is totally embarrassing, only slightly embarrassing. But what else are blogs for? I really should see if I can transpose this to a different key.

This is another Jonathan Coulton song. This tracks are made available under the same license terms as the original: Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 3.0.

Christmas in July

Today we did some recording outside with my little Sony digital recorder Thus, I give you the Potts family recording of Jonathan Coulton's song Chiron Beta Prime. Isaac is unfortunately not in the picture (he was taking it) but maybe we can Photoshop him in later. The Asian girl is not actually one of ours, she is a neighbor who came out to join us. If you listen closely you can hear the sound of glass crashing in the dumpster behind the Trader Joe's store a few yards away from our apartment building.

These tracks are made available under the same license terms as the original: Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 3.0. I don't quite know what the "unported" means except I gather they are constantly updating their licenses.

For what it's worth, the license I normally use for my blogging is Attribution, NonCommercial, ShareAlike. ShareAlike means that the derivative work can only be distributed under the same license. Since I don't think it is correct to impose further restrictions on Mr. Coulton's work than the ones he originally offers it under, I'll use his license instead, although it appears he does not technically require this. This is complicated! But I think it means you can use our version of this song to create another derivative work and make that work available for non-commercial use without using the same license. Will artwork in the future often come with a chain of attribution and derivation kind of like the way that digital signatures are validated cryptographically by a chain of trusted signers? Maybe I spent too much time out in the sun today.

Anyway, I hope you like the song, we had fun recording it, and thanks again to Mr. Coulton for making his work available. If you like his song please support him.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Little Fretless Bass and the Cher Effect

Here is a new version of "The Future Soon" which has a fretless bass line -- my first attempt at recording a bass line. The bass is a fretless Steinberger Synapse 5-string (one of the new ones). These basses are interesting because they are composite: part wood, part carbon fiber, with a shell on the neck and body kind of like the Parker Fly, and they have a piezo pickup at the bridge with a hunk of ebony in it. This gives it a tone that sounds a lot like an acoustic upright bass! It also has a magnetic pickup, but for this track I used only the piezo pickup.

The guitar track is the same dry track dirtied slightly by putting it through a tube amp simulator in Logic, giving it just a little bit of crunch, which I think sounds interesting on an acoustic guitar. The bass is also through an amp simulator and a little flange.

I heavily tortured the vocal line by applying the "Cher Effect" (unnatural pitch correction, like the effect used in the song "Believe," plus a little chorus). It seems oddly appropriate for a song whose narrator aspires to become a cyborg! I want to try to record some more vocal takes and get a better track at some point when it is quiet around here (that was a little joke).

This really tortured my little Mac Mini (Logic kept throwing up somewhat random misbehavior), as well as my sanity. It's hard to try to record a bass line through headphones while in the same room there is a Sesame Street DVD playing, my son playing his guitar, and two babies yelling. At least it was better than yesterday, when I was recording the guitar part and they kept running around and crashing into me. That made it extra-challenging! At one point I was thinking to myself "I bet Jonathan Coulton doesn't have to put up with this" but then I realized -- he has a toddler at home, and does his own recording in his apartment, so he probably does!

More Info on The Future Soon Guitar Parts and Rough Cover

OK, for those interested, here's a lot more info about the Jonathan Coulton song.

"The Future Soon" is played kind of freely, unlike some of his other tunes such as "Chiron Beta Prime," which has a very steady rock beat, so I did not record it using a click track reference (although maybe I should have). I recorded the guitar line. It took a few takes to get a reasonably good one, and a couple of very minor edits (yes, I must confess, I was not able to jump to the Aaug chord on the 5th fret at the end of the the line "when Laura calls me home" smoothly, so I had to do a little edit there. JoCo wrote a while back in a forum post that he finds that chord difficult to jump to and so skips it when playing the song live, so I don't feel too bad. I'm sure after playing it a few dozen more times, I'll get it.)

Anyway, this guitar track has some string buzz and some timing flaws, but I thought it was good enough to let other people hear (I have to stomp on my perfectionist tendencies, or I never finish anything). I'd welcome any feedback.

Technical details for recording geeks: I played this on my Ovation acoustic/electric, an Elite 1778T-PTF (with an outrageous purple flame design painted on a spruce top), directly into my Apogee Ensemble, and recorded and edited it in Logic. I'm not entirely satisfied with the sound of the Ovation going direct like that; the preamps are very clean, but the dry result seems a little toneless. Maybe I just need to play with the EQ a bit, or maybe it needs an amp simulator. I'm also considering adding a tube DI box to my recording rig at some point, like the Summit Audio TD-100.

Taste in guitars is very personal; JoCo seems to play Martin acoustics, which sound a little more hollow and woody, while the Ovation has a plastic body and thus sounds a little more artificial. This model Ovation also has an ebony fretboard, which makes it sound even brassier. I'm biased towards more "modern" instrument materials and designs, I guess, although at my age you might expect that I'd prefer more traditional guitars. I really like the sound of the Parker Fly (steel frets and carbon fiber and piezo pickup), Chapman Stick (steel fret-like bars), Steinberger basses, and graphite-top guitars. But for electric guitars tones I also like single-coil pickups on instruments with hollow, more natural, woody tones like my Peavey Limited ST. No, I can't explain it either, but I know what sounds good to me.

Anyway, my son is also learning guitar and bass. He's pretty new to both instruments yet, and although he's making a lot of progress, this song involves some very quick chord changes, so he can't quite play it at speed yet. But he can sing! He used to be in the Boy Choir of Ann Arbor. His voice is half-changed now and he's not quite gotten full control over it yet, but it is still a lot better than my scratch vocal for the song (it is right off the high end of my range, so you really don't want to hear me sing it). I'm very proud of him for doing this!

If you would like to learn this guitar part yourself, and I highly recommend it to aspiring guitarists because it is a really nice set of chords, I refer you to suuuupaadave's YouTube channel here. You can also find the videos on his blog. The lesson for "The Future Soon" is in his very first post. I don't claim to play it exactly like either suuuupaadave (or JoCo) does, but I think my play-through is pretty close.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Future Soon Guitar Parts and Rough Cover

The first somewhat odd fruits of my little collaboration with Mr. Coulton (of which he remains blissfully unaware so far, lucky him!) are ready.

These tracks are made available under the same license terms as the original: Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 3.0.

Here's the dry guitar track (no reverb, no effects, flat EQ).

And here's a "wet" version with a little compression and chorus.

Here's a version with my 13-year-old son Isaac singing the vocal. I'm calling this a rough cover version because it isn't reallly EQ'ed and mixed properly, and the vocal track was really just one take without much practice and without any editing.

Now, one more version. I recorded a fretless bass line. I'm not a very good bass player, so this was quite painful because I had to assemble it from numerous takes; it's still rather imperfect. There's a light flange on the bass line but nothing else done to it. The guitar is run through an amp simulator that dirties it up just a bit and a spatial effect. For this version I also applied the "Cher Effect" to the vocal -- unnatural-sounding pitch correction and chorus. It seems somehow appropriate on a song where the narrator imagines himself becoming a cyborg.

I'm uploading MP3 files, but here's an offer: if you would like to use my guitar track in a some kind of cover under the same license terms, I would be very happy to collaborate with you. I could send you an uncompressed original file, or re-record it at whatever BPM you specify (well, within reason). I am not great at recording to a click track at an arbitrary beats-per-minute rate -- my attempt to turn "Chiron Beta Prime" into a ballad by slowing it down to 90 beats per minute was not entirely successful, but I'll do my best. Or, if you want to record a vocal track along with the track as it is and send it to me, I'd be happy to take a shot at mixing it, although I don't claim to be a true pro at this kind of thing yet.

Cuckoo for JoCo

I've been inspired recently by Jonathan Coulton's songs and his story about quitting his day job to pursue his dream of being a professional musician. We went to see him perform in Pontiac on the 10th of July (my concert recording can be downloaded here. I'm not quite ready to quit my day job, but I've been inspired to work harder on my music and podcast projects.

Besides just being excellent songs, the sleeper feature of Jonathan Coulton's songwriting is that he has released just about everything under a Creative Commons license (attribution non-commercial 3.0). This has various consequences, but the two most important for me have been:

1. I was able to record his recent concert in Pontiac, edit the files and post MP3s for other fans to download for free without breaking any laws. That's fantastic! Kind of like trading Grateful Dead recordings.

2. I am allowed to use his songs in my own creations, such as recording a cover or remix, as long as I follow the license (basically, I have to give him credit, and it is done for non-commercial use).

This also means that guitar player geeks like me are getting seriously into his work because they can share tabs and analyze his chords and share their findings without copyright restrictions.

Anyway, in my next post I'll share the first fruits of this kind of collaboration with Jonathan Coulton!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New Neck and Pickguard for the Jag-Stang

I have some new guitars, but I'll hold off talking about those. Right now I'm excited about a new Warmoth-made neck I ordered for the Jag-Stang. It's a thing of beauty, finished with a vintage tint, and a nut and stainless steel frets pre-installed. I've been sold on stainless steel for at least some instruments after playing a Parker Fly.

I also have some auto-locking vintage-style Gotoh tuners to install, and a new Warmoth bridge with adjustable string saddles to help conform to the new neck radius. The Jag-Stang also got a new pickguard a few days ago, purchased from a guy on eBay. It's a nicely made pickguard, but it is difficult to judge how the colors will look when buying online. It's black abalone (with greenish/blue). This looks kind of strange against the red body, but it was hard to judge before installing it. It would probably look much better on a black or blue body. I'll withhold final judgement until the whole thing is back together, but I think it will unfortunately look somewhere between "unique" and just plain ugly.

The pickguard needs to be cut down very slightly around the neck pocket, preferably without removing it. The headstock needs holes drilled for the tuners (not the big holes, but small holes for the screws). The bridge will need the usual Jag-Stang tape or tubing to keep it from shifting (I don't really use the trem, and it should add to the tuning stability). The guitar synth pickup needs to be reinstalled. I think this time I'm going to take it to a local luthier. The part I really don't fully trust myself to do is drilling holes in the headstock. I don't want to screw up a nearly $300 guitar neck!

Ultimately, I would still like to build an all-new Jag-Stang. That would involve replacing the body with a Warmoth body. The original Jag-Stang pickguard shape won't quite fit the Warmoth replacement body so I'd need a Warmoth pickguard. I'd have the body routed for a Gotoh Tune-o-Matic bridge with stop tailpiece (I'd consider string-through-body ferrules but I'm not sure that will work with a Tune-o-Matic bridge). If I did that, I think the only parts that were original would be perhaps the jack plate and the switches! That's OK, the original Jag-Stang was just not a well-built guitar!