Thursday, October 28, 2010

Today's The Day

I'm a little late arriving at this party, but last night I recorded a cover of Inverse T. Clown's song "Today's the Day." Because the Too Much Awesome community site is now defunct, I was unable to track down the original song before recording it, so I worked entirely from other people's covers. Edric Haleen had made a PDF of the song scored out, but it didn't really resemble a lead sheet (no chord notation, many, many pages long, piano in treble and bass clef) and I can't really sight read well enough to play that in any reasonable amount of time.

So, I made up my own chords... it's in G major (at least, my version is; I'm not sure about all the others), and the guitar part is basically crunchy 5ths (major chords without 3rds). I played the main guitar part on my Fernandes Telecaster copy with some extreme processing. The level going into the amp model was (accidentally, because apparently the input gain on the Ensemble got reset) very low, which resulted in weirdly horrible break-up. Which is exactly the sound I wanted. Come to think of it, this might be the song that finally calls for me to break out the Gonkulator. Well... OK... maybe not.

I kind of like the way my vocals came out on this one. I hit the mic extremely hard, and it was gained up pretty high, but the Apogee has a "soft clip" setting that kept this from turning into digital clipping. I now have three sound-absorbing panels up in my studio and they are helping to dry up the reverb I get when singing. (I will get more eventually, but I'm doing this as I can afford it, bit by bit). The panels seem like a pretty basic thing but they have a big effect on the way the vocal track sounds when it hits the EQ and compressor, even when these things are all virtual, and how it sounds in the completed mix. It also seems to be easier for me to stay on pitch when I'm hearing less natural room reverb in my headphones. I experimented with a second microphone lying on the floor in the corner but didn't actually use that track in the mix, and after applying Flex time to help align the two vocal takes, it would be really hard to synchronize it.

Oh, I made a really quick video. It might make you dizzy.

I started out with a doubled solo recorded on the Fernandes, but it was pretty weak, so after the kids were asleep I went back in the studio and played a new doubled solo on the Parker Fly, screwed around with various compressor and mastering settings, and bounced a new track. Hmmm... if I had known I was gonna use a second guitar, I would have tuned the first one...

Here's my video on YouTube.

Here's the full-resolution track on Bandcamp. (I've also added bass and screwed around with the mix a little more; the bass is the Steinberger XP...)

Some link rot has occurred since the original project happened... but:

Here's the intro page on the blog which has an embedded player for the original song.

Here's the full blog feed. I'm particularly enamored of Kevin's, Joe's, and Jeff's videos.

Here's a link to the original on Dr. Lindyke's Bandcamp page as a backup.

"Mad props," as the younglings say, to Mr. The Clown for writing such a fun song and allowing people to cover it. (Note that releasing a recording under a Creative Commons license is not necessarily the same thing as releasing the intellectual property of the words and music under the same license). It is the way I intend my original tracks to be released as well, but it seems to me to be a bit of a gray area unless explicitly pointed out.

Monday, October 25, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 2 Reviews

Three contestants who were eligible to continue in round 2 failed to get songs in by the deadline, so the judges have only five, instead of eight, songs that must be eliminated this round. However, so many of the entries are so very polished this time that I'm afraid that some of the more "quirky" artists -- and I count myself among them -- will probably be cut.

This one will be a particular challenge to judge because the judges will need to be at least moderately familiar with the original songs, in order to determine how well they have met the challenge. I have to admit, I don't know all the songs that these tracks refer to. I will see if I can track down a few more of them to listen to -- so these notes should be considered very preliminary. I'm forgoing grades or ratings at the moment.

UPDATE: doing some more listening; second impressions in italics.

1. Governing Dynamics - Melt In The Sun (So Many Pretty Ways)

This is a really intriguing effort from Travis. I'm not familiar with the original. Oddly, Travis sings quite well on this track, but Joe sounds like he's a little bit out of his element as he reaches hard to hit some of the high notes on the chorus. I'm not so sure that his presence on this track really adds to it. The walls of guitars I find gorgeous, especially on the solo. A strong contender, although not one of the most polished.

Second impression: the main vocal really is decent; he's not hugely strong on his pitch (I'm not either), but the raw feel seems appropriate for the song. The churning quality of the whole thing, the mood of the bridge (where the guitars drop away), and the volume swells really make it pretty. Travis really knows how to build a mood with guitars. I definitely expect this one to do well.

2. Danny Blackwell - Like A Family

For some reason I'm hearing this mix entirely in the right speaker, which is a pretty big technical SNAFU. I've confirmed that the left channel of the MP3 is silent. The instrumentation is intriguing -- is that autoharp? I think this one will probably wind up eliminated, a little unfairly perhaps, but there it is.

Second impression: listening to this in mono to bring the mix louder; it's a really a very pretty song -- and there's a dry humor to the lyric and performance that makes me grin. If the judges mix it to mono, double the volume to compensate for the lost channel, and give it a fair listen, it has a good chance. I'm still not sure I can bring myself to listen to the Spice Girls in order to see how well it meets the challenge. Might make it; I hope it does.

3. Ryan Ruff Smith - Baby, We're Through

The reverb is a really nice nod to the original -- and I love the vocals and surf guitar. This reminds me strongly of something that would have been on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Nice organ sound. A bit of a ringer again, this one? Likely to do very well, I think.

Second impression: the reverb-y "sha la la" backing vocals and bass-heavy piano and guitar riffs, low in the mix, definitely make the track work. Will definitely make it.

4. Common Lisp - Science (In The Service Of Beauty)

It's very hard to appraise my own tracks with anything resembling objectivity. I think my lyrics capture the feel of a sequel to the original, and the track also throws out some ear candy that will be familiar to anyone who knew the original. But it doesn't have a really strong synth bass line and although it has a fairly strong melody, it may not be "synth-poppy" enough. There's not as much guitar in the original, where it is used mostly as an accent here and there. As for my singing -- well, obviously I'm still developing as a singer. The picture I posted with a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Singing is not really a joke -- I did buy a copy, mainly so I'd have the accompanying CD of exercises. I'm lining up voice teachers to consider working with.

Anyway, I'll sadly predict that my track will fall below the cutoff and will be one of the five to be cut. In other words, I'll actually be pleasantly surprised if it does make it. (Or maybe I'm just faintly hoping to get out of the stress and sleep deprivation of round 3...)

Second Impression: eh, I still can't listen to this objectively... but perhaps it's not quite as bad as I thought. It really could have used an intro synth riff, maybe some backing synth chords, a riff under the spoken parts that doesn't just following the melody of the verses and chorus. I had some bits sketched out but basically had to finalize it because I was running out of time. My vocal isn't too teeth-gritting; it only really goes flat in a couple places. Could have been mastered a little hotter, as befitting the style, although I usually like to keep more dynamic range. Nicely edited, at least... still hard for me to judge how it will strike the judges (especially since I was surprised by the generally low opinion of my last track).

5. Inverse T. Clown - Hey, Jessie

Funny... but gets surprisingly dark! Perhaps this is a little out of character with the original. Probably will not make the cut (3 of 5).

Second Impression: the instrumentation is funny, but the Casio keyboard demo feel doesn't quite fit the original. The flow of the song is nicely one. I'm still furrowing my brow at the grim tone, since Springfield always struck me slightly campy. Still don't think it will make the cut.

6. Mitchell Adam Johnson - When Donna Came Back

Fantastic. The recording and compression style seems just slightly too modern, but it has a great vintage feel.

Second Impression: "mmm... mmm... mmm..." still really enjoying this track. Never thought I'd say this about a song, but the guitars and bass are a little too loud in the mix, and so it sounds just a little muddy, with the vocal slightly under water. Definitely feels over-compressed; the reverb can't really "breathe" that way. But still a fine entry.

7. Ben Walker - When I'm A Hundred And Two

I'm pretty certain this track would achieve the judges' highest rating. However, Mr. Walker has noted that "When I'm 64" was never released as a single and so did not chart, and is thus not eligible. So I'm gritting my teeth as I write this, but this track will likely be disqualified and the contributor out of the running. I suppose I should be happy that that gives me a better shot at making the cut for this round, but I'm really not -- if I could pick the songs I wanted to lose to, this would definitely be one of them and I salute Ben's talent and skill in putting this together. (4 of 5 to be eliminated)

Second Impression: it just makes me want to cry that this one didn't meet the challenge. It is so very nicely mixed and the chorused vocals and doubled and guitars are just gorgeous. Really nice use of dynamics. At least he's got a really strong track for his portfolio or a future album release.

8. Edric Haleen - O! Say Can You See?

Leave it to Eric to come up with something totally unexpected that technically meets the challenge (apparently the national anthem did chart, in a rendition by Whitney Houston). It's beautifully performed -- it sounds like it comes from a musical based on the War of 1812 (and Edric is just the guy to produce it!) However, it goes so over the top that I'm not sure it can even still see the top from there. May be cut on the grounds that it is just that bit bombastic and the judges didn't seem to appreciate Edric's humor in that regard last round.

Second Impression: this track starts to get on my nerves as it goes on, especially the hammered chord at the end.

9. Charlie McCarron - Over The Bridge

Intriguing -- the original was fairly plaintive and soulful, and this one is quite jazzy. Beautifully recorded, it seems like a very impressive song in its own right, but how well it meets the challenge may be a bit open to debate.

Second Impression: Charlie's voice is growing on me. I like the open feel of the mix. The bass line and drums are superb. I'm starting to think this is a really strong entry.

10. Zarni De Wet - Stacy's Dad

The original was a power pop song, and this isn't quite in the style; like Charlie McCarron's song, it's more jazzy and abstracted. But very evocative lyrics, and quite professionally produced. Maybe it doesn't quite gel. The straight-up references to the melody of the original notwithstanding, perhaps it isn't quite "hooky" enough?

I love the lead vocal and the cleverness of the lyrics -- especially the sentiment, written from the perspective of someone with a "trophy wife." It feels a little post-feminist -- or perhaps I should say neo-feminist -- to consider the dilemma of a man who plays second fiddle to a gorgeous wife -- and whose own daughter also exists in her shadow. There's more emotional depth than is evident at first listen. The mix isn't quite all that it could be. As for the reuse of part of the melody of the original -- well, I was afraid to do it. I think it works without lapsing into a real copyright violation, but I don't really know what the judges will make of it.

11. Duality - Mars Ain't The Kind Of Place

Joe's singing in this one is again impassioned, and Denise's playing atmospheric. I'm impressed by the flowing feel they achieve, and the lyrics are gorgeous. I like the intriguing little bell tones tinkling out of nowhere. If I had to guess, though, given the judges' reactions to Duality last time, I think there's a good chance this one will also be eliminated (5 of 5).

Second Impression: Joe's vocal performance here really is very nuanced and lovely. Like their last track, though, my ear starts to crave a change of some kind -- a change-up in instruments, maybe. If I were producing it, I'd try fading out the piano on the bridge-ish section, while keeping the bell sounds, and bring in a fretless bass, and add harmony vocals there -- just something to keep the ear interested.

12. Brian Gray - One More Cloud

Big reverb'ed drums and moaning guitars... big close-mic'ed vocal... very promising but I can't judge it yet; need a few more listens.

Second Impression: the lyrics are strong, but the vocal performance is perhaps a little fatiguing. Perhaps relies on reverb a little too much.

13. Ross Durand - Folsom Breakout Blues

Another very strong contender -- certainly in the top few as far as production goes. Great guitar tones, bouncy drums and bass.

Second Impression: bass could be EQ'ed a little better. Very tightly edited.

14. Steve Durand - Miranda

Clever and funny. If I had to guess, a slightly off-key vocal might result in this one sliding down to the point where it is eliminated (I've already suggested 5, though, so perhaps it gets in with low marks?)

Second Impression: I'm pretty sure the vocal's "loose" relationship with the key is deliberately done, for camp effect. I love the backing horns. Sung from the perspective of Fernando? Rhymes are a little off; lyrics do a great job of continuing the story. Now noticing the backing vocal which is on key tighter. The real stories never end, do they, Mister Frodo?

15. Gweebol - Thank You Mr. Postman

Beautifully done -- slightly lacking in musical hooks, but the backing vocals really capture the original. Great lyrics.

Second Impression: beautifully produced, but yeah, the jazzy melody and accompaniment takes some odd turns. By the time it hits the solo, I find myself looking at my wrist (where I don't wear a watch.) Doesn't feel like the original, and the melody doesn't have much of an "earworm" quality. Lyrics are very clever, though.

16. Rebecca Brickley - Elderly Dream

I can see the references to the original, and it is competently done and tells a story, but I'm not sure some of the phrasing really pops as well as it could.

Second Impression: this one has grown on me a little -- I especially like the chugging rhythmic feel and the simple goofiness of a single hand clap and shaker for percussion. The feel of a demo, but doesn't suffer for it.

17. Chris Cogott - Roadward Bound

Gorgeous guitar and vocal sounds. Nicely produced.

Second Impression: everything about it really channels Simon and Garfunkel. The close harmony, and the way the percussion kicks in, are both just beautiful. The lyrics are nicely done and growing on me.

Adding Shadows

18. Duality - Today

Joe's acoustic guitar tone always seems slightly off pitch to me. A demo feel. This seems like a country song. The blend of soloing chorused guitar and keyboards has some harmonizing problems. If I can ever get Joe and Denise into my Batcave (er, studio) I'd like to take a stab at producing this. Joe plays guitar better than he claims to, but it needs to be recorded and EQ'ed a little differently. The mix is somewhat poor.

19. Danny Blackwell - La Reina

Again, only in the right channel -- but this song is hilarious, especially the Spanish, which he then translates (I had a couple of years of Spanish -- which has faded, but not so much that I can't laugh at this!) KEY CHANGE la... la... la... This song makes me want to jam with Danny -- preferably after doing shots of tequila. And I don't even like tequila...

20. David Ritter - Cage of Love

A big, boomy song. It references "Every Breath You Take" primarily through the chord changes. Gets a lot of credit for recognizing that the original lyrics are creepy and mentioning "restraining order..."

21. JoAnn Abbot - Georgia Morning

Nice to hear JoAnn with instrumentation (Is this Caleb on MIDI?) I'm not familiar with the original but apparently it was a grim tale! The lyrics seem quite strong although like the previous one, probably could use to be edited a little tighter (showing, not telling, and all that).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 2 Completed

I've done a little more tweaking. I haven't managed to do quite everything I had remaining on my to-do list, but I found that because my wife is going out of town earlier than I expected. It's due Sunday night, but I have to get to a stopping point sooner than I thought. So, rather than delve into any new synth parts or re-recording vocals yet again, I'm calling it finished. If my notes are correct, I put in most of last Sunday, and then 3 late-night recording sessions of four or five hours each, so I'm guessing I've got about 30 hours into it, in total.

I cut out one of the short spoken word breaks to bring the total running time to about 4 minutes. It's about 30 seconds longer than a typical pop song, and people are very well-programmed these days to expect songs to end pretty much at exactly 3:30, but I hope it doesn't feel excessively long.

You can find the track here on Bandcamp.

I've uploaded a little work-in-progress video on Vimeo.

I'll try to come up with a video next week if possible.

Here are the final lyrics:


I am a scientist, true. But define "mad."


Once I was blinded by beauty
That I mistook for technology
I loved to play with electronics
Producing all kinds of crazy sonics
But these days I'm a nature lover
Give me a human under the covers


BEAUTY mistaken for
SCIENCE in the service of
MONEY producing new
Connections, rejections
Maybe too much introspection
Too much to handle
It can't hold a candle to you


Goodness, Miss Sakamoto! Is it really you? Do come in.
My, my, you haven't aged a day!
May I offer you a cup of tea?
You've heard, perhaps, that my little inventions have made me a wealthy man?


My meters are all a-quiver
Your touch gives me the shivers
Now let's conduct an experiment
Oh never mind, it's completely irrelevant
My vacuum tube's overheated
I've lost my cool, I'm completely defeated



ThinkPods and GeekPads
and things that warm up
Devices that vibrate
chips that make music
Psionics, dildonics
Good old telephonics
Machines that go "bing,"
Science chthonic,
Glowing rectangles
And cables in tangles
Just hop on the network
You don't need to do legwork
To find my location
You won't need cogitation
Texting is peachy
But pheromones can't reach me
Your webcam is online
But that's not in real time
Come over to my place
I can't feel you in cyberspace...



I see your teacup is empty!
Oh, dear, we've run out of sherry as well
Please be careful where you step; the laboratory is so cluttered.
It's very hard to find qualified help these days.
What? You say you might be interested in assuming your old... position?


Now your machinery's in order
You can trust me, I'm a doctor
You know that science is dandy
But come on honey, give me some candy
I want to study biology
In specific, your anatomy


SPOKEN (on drums/fadeout):

It was so good to see you, Miss Sakamoto!
Do come back and see me again soon.
Perhaps next time, you might care to have a look at my etchings?
My door is always open.

I've determined that Bandcamp's preview and MP3 downloaded files sound considerably better if I feed it source tracks that are down-shifted to 16 bits without using dither, so that's what I'm doing now. It also appears I could just give Bandcamp 24-bit files, and some of my projects are at 96KHz, so maybe I'll experiment with that when I get a chance. Almost everyone will be listening at 44.1KHz, 16-bit, so I'm not sure if there is any big benefit to be had, unless Bandcamp's sample rate conversion and world length conversion algorithms are somehow magically superior to mine.

SpinTunes 2, Round 2, Process Notes 4

Wed, 20 Oct 2010 19:20 -0400 (EST)

Done so far this evening: tracked rhythm guitar for chorus and verse. Reasonably happy with the results.

Up for tonight: MIDI tweaking for 3rd verse melody; record 3rd verse vox tracks; re-record 2nd verse vox tracks; see what I can do with the bridge lyrics.

"Tweaking" is the single biggest time consumer, probably even more so than vocal tracking. It involves everything from touching up edits of audio files, trying to keep everything synchronized on the beat, adjusting mix levels, or just cleaning up train wrecks.

New EQ on vocoder output smooths some things out.

Made a quick and dirty video showing some of the work in progress. It is still in the queue on Vimeo. Couldn't get it to upload to YouTube, for some reason -- iMovie claims it uploaded it, but doesn't give me an URL, just a link to my user page, and it never shows up in my list of uploaded movies.

Wed, 21 Oct 2010 02:46 -0400 (EST)


After getting the kids to bed and into the studio about 10 p.m., I started tweaking guitar parts. I determined what key the song is in (Bb) and made some adjustments to the chords I'm using (dom 7 instead of m7 in one place), tweaked guitar effects and levels, and worked on getting the rhythm guitar part to synchronize more tightly with everything else. The result was impressive -- it sounds much better! I'm playing the Fernandes Telecaster copy from, I think, the mid '80s. I love this guitar -- got it cheap at the local Guitar Center. I don't usually like Telecasters, even expensive custom shop ones, but this one is more comfortable to play and sounds great; it intonates really well. It's been hacked up a bit (has some better-quality tuners). I'm considering replacing the bridge with a Babicz "full contact" bridge (it is supposed to be a drop-in replacement including the location of the screw holes).

I gave up on sending the doubled vocals that I recorded for the vocoder out panned left and right and decided to focus on more of a performance-like vocal that will be centered, so it's less likely to sound either off in terms of alignment or tuning. My vocal is still far from perfect but it sounds better. I used an Izotope Alloy preset with some tweaking that seems to work better on my voice as well.

Recorded verse 3 and chorus 3 vocals... guitar backing to the bridge (which may be temporary)... tweaked melody for verse 3... tweaked vocoder fades...

For length reasons I cut out some bits of the dialog and the whole song now is about 4 minutes even. That requires moving a lot of pieces. I'm getting better with Logic but there are still a lot of shotcuts and features I could no doubt make better use of.

I have a draft that I could live with. It needs to be mastered a little louder, but if I wasn't able to do anything else I could live with submitting this one as my SpinTunes entry.

Here's my to do list:

- Gain all track mix levels up by one or two dB?

- Gain everything up by a few dB into the mastering plug-in, play with limiter settings

- Try not dithering when I export a WAV? (Supposedly this makes the generated MP3 file sound better)

- Guitar synth solo to replace the solo I have now after the bridge?

- More guitar synth, maybe in the bridge section?

- Tweak drums further

- Try tweaking volume automation more tightly to track vocal level?

- Bass synth part for breaks/under bridge? Some backing synth pads?

- Look at the final bounce in Soundtrack Pro to verify that it's hitting the compressor/limiter at the levels that I want.

So close! Yet I'd still feel like I failed if I didn't put my absolute best effort into it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 2, Process Notes 3

Tue, 19 Oct 2010 22:09 -0400 (EST)

I don't have a lot of time to work on my song tonight, since I need to get a reasonable amount of sleep -- with only a few nights left, I have to pace myself so I don't crash early.

So far tonight, I revised the verse and chorus MIDI melody tracks to better fit my singing range (and just to sound better). I'm going to try to track all new verse and chorus doubled vocals tonight.

Wed, 20 Oct 2010 02:07 -0400 (EST)

Tracking clean vocals with good pitch control is still my Achilles heel, but after many takes I have a verse 1 and chorus 1 that I think I can live with, especially given that I just don't have the time for endless retakes.

I got a scratch take done for verse 2, which will need to be replaced, but it helped me figure out the MIDI notes for the vocoder feeder tracks, and tweak the alignment of various spoken-word clips. The track is still really sparse -- I'm sort of putting my faith in the idea that I can flesh it out with backing instruments pretty rapidly when the vocals are done. That's been the case with my other songs -- I'm better at that part than I am at vocals. I hope that I'm not just deluding myself! But if I get only the vocals done, it's still a track I can submit and it will meet the length requirements.

The vocoder plug-in is behaving for me now! The EVOC 20 Polysynth is my BITCH! It helped when I got a cleaner, better-leveled and better-aligned vocal track to feed it. I was just too tired last night to figure out what was wrong with the source tracks.

Logic just crashed while I was dragging a region to the arrange window (sigh) -- but fortunately it seems to have saved everything. It's crashing now only an average of once per project, and I haven't lost any work since I upgraded to Logic Pro 9. Considering that's 40 or 50 hours spent editing in an immensely complex application, I think that's actually not a bad record.

Bedtime for tonight. I'll be woken up in about 5 hours by my wife getting ready to take our oldest son to school, and likely before that by a cranky baby, but I may be able to get an extra hour or so of sleep in before I have to start my work day. Eyes... stinging... carpal tunnel... acting up... I'm too old to stay up this late night after night!

Monday, October 18, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 2, Process Notes 2

Monday 18 Oct

This evening I played with the synth melody for the first verse, and recorded some vocal takes for the first verse that I'm not really happy with. But they are there anyway -- if I'm going to finish this, I have to not obsess about quality as I go along, but get all the major parts completed, at least in draft from, and hope I have time to re-record and polish bits later. This is known as giving myself "permission to suck." (And oh, my singing can suck, so very, very hard!)

I added a vocoder, doubled the vocoder using two different vocoder synth sounds, and added a doubled verse vocal -- it's still really rough, but it's getting there, and maybe it will be good enough. I'm hampered a bit by the fact that I don't really play keyboards per se, and never studied keyboard formally. I've always been more interested in programming them than performing on them. I'm sticking to the white keys. Because of my, er, disability, I have to record keyboard bits a short phrase at a time, and clean up the resulting MIDI data. That's very time-consuming. Will my "ear" make up for it? We will see! (I also have an old Roland guitar synth and guitars I can use to trigger it, so it is possible I could play some synthesizer parts on guitar, but that usually doesn't work quite as well as one might hope, and the MIDI data generally also requires extensive cleanup. It might sound a little more "humanized," though).

So now I've got a scratch mix called "scratch_bounce_first_full_length.wav" that basically tells the story, intermixing spoken and sung bits, with a mostly complete first verse and placeholders for most of the rest. That tells me I'll come it around the right length.

I edited the lyrics some more on the computer -- it seems to fit my process best to start off drafting the worlds on paper, and move to the computer as it starts to settle down into the final form.. Here's what I've got -- this is probably close to final (but often times I find that I have to edit single words or lines to better fit the actual singing rhythm).

As is usually the case, most of the best bits came from the revision process.

"Science (In the Service of Beauty)" (er, working title)


I am a scientist, true. But define "mad."


Once I was blinded by beauty
That I mistook for technology
I loved to play with electronics
Producing all kinds of crazy sonics
But these days I'm a nature lover
Give me a human under the covers


BEAUTY mistaken for
SCIENCE in the service of
MONEY producing new
Connections, rejections
Way too much introspection
It's too much to handle
And it can't hold a candle to
(beat... beat... beat... beat...) you


Goodness, Miss Sakamoto! Is it really you? Do come in.
My, my, you haven't aged a day!
May I offer you a cup of tea?
You've heard, perhaps, that my little inventions have made me a wealthy man?


My meters are all a-quiver
Your touch gives me the shivers
Now let's conduct an experiment
Oh never mind, it's completely irrelevant
My vacuum tubes are overheated
I've lost my cool, I'm nearly defeated



If I might ask a personal question, what's that intoxicating scent you're wearing?
Oh, dear me, my mistake; you're not wearing perfume.
I was so sorry to learn of the loss of your husband.
I see the tea is gone -- would you care for something a little... harder?

BRIDGE: (spoken)

ThinkPods and GeekPads
and things that warm up
Devices that vibrate
chips that make music
Psionics, dildonics
Good old telephonics
Machines that go "bing,"
Science chthonic,
Glowing rectangles
And cables in tangles
Just hop on the network
You don't need to do legwork
To find my location
You won't need cogitation
Texting is peachy
But pheromones can't reach me
Your webcam is online
But that's not in real time
Come over to my place
I can't feel you in cyberspace...



Oh, dear, we've run out of sherry as well
Please be careful where you step; the laboratory is so cluttered.
It's very hard to find qualified help these days.
What? You say you might be interested in assuming your old... position?


Now your machinery's in order
You can trust me, I'm a doctor
You know that science is dandy
But come on honey, give me some candy
I want to study biology
In specific, your anatomy


SPOKEN (on drums/fadeout):

It was so good to see you, Miss Sakamoto! Please do come back and see me again soon.
Perhaps next time, you might care to have a look at my etchings... my door is always open.


It's now very late Monday evening/Tuesday morning; it's after 3 a.m. and I need to sleep. Tonight I was able to record doubled verse 1 vocals that don't suck too badly, and probably could stay as they are if I get desperate. I reworked the vocoder setup, composed a melody for the chorus, and recorded a doubled chorus vox that I most likely have to throw out. There is something wrong with the way the vocoder plug-in is triggering -- it seems to go all detuned sometimes; I can play the track in Logic repeatedly and get different results. There is something not quite right about the synth waveform I'm using; it seems to detune itself and so the vocal I tracked against it then seems to go off pitch. Is this a problem with my captured pitch bend data? That doesn't seem to be it. Maybe the synth has tries to emulate an old Moog a little too closely, in the way their oscillators would drift out of tune?

I recorded all new spoken word parts to matched the revised lyrics. I don't have a good idea yet how I'm going to render the bridge -- sung or spoken? Vocoded? To what melody? So, I don't know exactly how long it will be.

The arrangement is still really sparse; I haven't gotten any guitar or bass done, and I've stripped the drum down to the barest beat. It stands now at very roughly 4:30, assuming the bridge takes about 24 seconds, and assuming I keep a synth solo that is about 30 seconds long and plays the verse melody. I'm thinking I might be able to combine them somehow, or maybe one of the other will have to go...

Update 2 Tuesday 19 Oct, Morning

I got about five hours of somewhat broken sleep (four kids, three of them very young, including a 2-year-old who sleeps in the bed with us; he makes life interesting!) Lack of sleep is not really the best thing for vocals, I'm finding. But I have to work around my day job, and I really can only record while the kids are either out of the house or asleep.

The esteemed Mr. Dolby himself tweeted a link to my previous blog entry! Very exciting! No pressure! (Did he do it wirelessly, I wonder? From the Nutmeg?)

I did a quick edit, update, and cleanup of that entry and this entry. Hmmm, now I'm linked to Dolby's tweet which is linked to my blog. Is it all going to recursively implode?

In an effort to provide some links I watched the original video and listened to the song for the first time in quite some time. I figure now that I have my own verse and chorus melody, such as it is, I'm in less danger of accidentally appropriating his. (I'm going for style and tone here, maybe with a few little shout-outs to the original, not a remix; I'm not using any samples).

I have no hook, and no real riffs to speak of. Sigh... I can only do my best -- it is what it is! And the clock is ticking. Thanks, everyone, for your encouragement!

SpinTunes 2, Round 2, Process Notes 1

So this challenge, announced late Friday night, is to produce a sequel to a famous song (one which made it to near the top of the charts). Erm. Um. Wow.

This one is a little tricky to me. The first step, of course, is to pick a song to continue. And while good songs are supposed to tell a story, in theory at least, that you could pick up ten days, a year, or 30 years later -- in truth an awful lot of songs that actually charted are pretty static and closed; very often, they don't describe a story, they describe a situation, and it's usually a pretty bland version of romantic love. Not that's love isn't all well and good, but to quote Gang of Four, "I don't think we're saying there's anything wrong with love -- we just don't think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery."

Besides, the songs that charted that I enjoy seem to tend towards folk, techno, new wave and punk, and I'm not sure they chart, for the most part, do they? Did The Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds" chart? How about a sequel? Big raging tornadoes? I wrote down "Don't You Want Me, Baby" by The Human League -- that one seemed potentially promising; "Tainted Love," "Jack and Diane," and "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson. And went to bed in mild despair.

Saturday I didn't get much time, but I played with the idea of covering "Don't You Want Me, Baby." I didn't record anything, but I played around with some synthesizer sounds. It wasn't really going anywhere.

On Sunday Grace took the kids out to their grandmothers, so I had a chunk of time. I determined that in fact Thomas Dolby's song "She Blinded Me With Science" did, in fact, chart in June of 1983. I was a huge Dolby fan, collecting all his vinyl albums (including the European release of Golden Age of Wireless), EPs, and albums and EPs of collaborators including Lene Lovich and Adele Bertei. I recorded Dolby's King Biscuit Flour Hour concert off of K104 radio in Erie, PA. I remain a Dolby fan, and a few years ago I took my son Isaac to see him play in Detroit. Now he's working on new material. I think it will eventually be on a new album, but if you join his online fan club you can get access to the songs he's finished.

Anyway, "She Blinded Me With Science" is pretty much Dolby's silliest and least meaningful song, but it is pretty recognizable, and it does have the germ of a plot, at least as I see it: a mad scientist with a beautiful lab assistant. He has a love-hate relationship with her because she's "tidied up and [he] can't find anything! All [his] tubes and wires -- and careful notes! And antiquated notions." Despite the line "and now she's making love to me," I always thought of that as kind of his fantasy -- I imagine he's just too nerdy to do much but nervously dance with her at an office party and fantasize from afar. (Maybe I should go watch the very silly video).

So now it's almost 30 years later. Our mad scientist is semi-retired, and immensely successful. One day he gets a knock on the door. Why, it's his old lab assistant! And their positions are somewhat reversed -- he's gone ruggedly handsome with age. She's still beautiful -- his archetype of female pulchritude, in fact -- but alone -- and she needs a job.

I scribbled down these lyrics (actually imagining that these parts are spoken):

Goodness, Miss Sakamoto, is it really you? Do come in!
My my, you haven't aged a day!
May I offer you a cup of tea? Or maybe something a bit stronger?

And a scrap of a verse:

Once I was blinded by beauty
In the guise of technology
But these days I'm a nature lover
Give me a human woman under the covers

I inserted:

I loved to play with electronics
Producing all kinds of crazy sonics

I'm that, like in the original video, the mad scientist was a thinly disguised version of Dolby himself. And Dolby himself, after Wireless, took an interesting turn -- although he had injected a lot of humanity into his electronics, he became something rather different on some of his later songs: a jazz artist, sometimes singing white soul ballads, although of course he still loves his studio gear and fat waveforms and ear candy. So I imagined the mad scientist is much less nerdy in his old age -- not to mention rich.

So I started riffing in Logic with drum loops, grunts, squeaks, hiccups, shouted words, and keyboard parts that sounded vaguely like the Moog sound Dolby used in the original. But -- while I refereshed my memory of the original lyrics -- I did not listen to the original. I didn't want to accidentally recreate a melody too closely, if that makes sense.

Before I went to sleep Sunday night I had two little test bounce files that seemed to be promising enough to go forward. (I won't be able to work on this one much this coming weekend, so I have only a few evenings, whatever scraps of time I can get, to finish it -- and it's going to go really fast; there's no time to change approach radically or start over).

I wrote down the following revised and fleshed out lyrics:

Once I was blinded by beauty
That I mistook for technology
I loved to play with electronics
Producing all kinds of crazy sonics
But these days I'm a nature lover
Give me a real human under the covers

I imagined this next bit as a chorus, but I think it is going to be a bridge instead. Here is what I wrote on paper and recorded as a scratch vocal, mostly to determine timing (fleshed out and edited a bit from my paper notes):

BEAUTY mistaken for
SCIENCE in the service of
MONEY producing new
ThinkPods and GeekPads and things that warm up
Devices that vibrate, chips that make music
Psionics, dildonics, good old telephonics
Machines that go "bing," Science chthonic,
Rectangular screens that glow
so many things you can know
Connections, rejections
Way too much introspection
It's too much to handle
And it can't hold a candle to
(beat... beat...) you

The song might not have a true chorus, but will instead bounce between verses and spoken-word sections. Here are a few more scraps of verse:

My meters are all a-quiver
Your touch gives me the shivers
Your machinery's in order
Every system in working order
You know that science is dandy
But come on honey, give me some candy
I want to study biology
In specific, your anatomy

Although that's not quite right, it's too long, and I need a third verse. But Dolby's becoming a bit of a dirty old man in real life (as am I, apparently). If you've followed some of his recent songs, he is often quite suggestive. It seemed appropriate to have his "mad scientist" avatar behave the same way.

So that's how it stands now.

Now, it only needs:

Revised and tweaked percussion with ear candy and shifts as the song changes section
Rhythm guitar that hints at the original
Re-recorded verse 1 vocals
Finished verse 2 and 3 melodies (mostly the same as verse 1, but it needs to track exactly
Recorded verse 2 and 3 vocals
Bridge melody
Recorded bridge vocal
Synth bass
Perhaps some synth chords/pads to flesh out the backing
Harmony vocals if and where I can manage
Some percussion hits for kind of an outro that suggests the way the original ends
Oh, yeah -- A title

That's all. And a video, if I can manage it. Good Lord, I'm in hell again! Why do I get myself into these things?

In my fantasies, Dolby gets wind of this one, doesn't immediately sue me, likes it, tweets or blogs about it, and it goes viral.

Errr... perhaps I'd better lie down for a moment until reality returns.

If I keep doing this, though, it does seem at least plausible that at some point, one of these songs might gain some serious eyeballs and earholes... but for now, I'd settle for just making the cut of round 2. Please don't suck... please don't suck...


If you're visiting due to Mr. Dolby's tweet, thank you for following my progress!

I'm competing in the SpinTunes 2 songwriting contest, round 2, having passed the round 1 judging by the skin of my teeth.

My track will be posted in this Bandcamp album by midnight Sunday, and available until I run out of free downloads. It will also be part of an album of this round's entries (to be announced).

I'm an amateur, doing this in my spare time -- so please, don't set your expectations too high, and be kind!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

SpinTunes Round 1 Aftermath

So, I should be working on round 2, but I'm not really gonna be able to concentrate on that until I've "debriefed" a bit from the round 1 ratings and reviews.

After listening to the 28 submissions, my impression was largely that there were about 5 or 6 "ringers" who are either pros or semi-pros, whose tracks had a professional "sheen," and who would clearly be rated much more highly than I was. These included Mitchell Adam Johnson, Rebecca Brickley, Ryan "Ruff" Smith, Ben Walker, and Brian Gray.

I figured Edric would slot in right beneath these along with Steve Durand, Duality, and Chris Cogott.

Below that I expected we'd start to hear from the folks who either couldn't produce or couldn't perform their songs quite as professionally, but who still had something compelling to say with their words and music despite some flaws -- like Austin Criswell, Ominous Ride, Governing Dynamics, and me.

Below those, I expected to see the ones that were essentially promising demos: just guitar and voice, like Russ, but that these would likely still make the cut, until we got to some tracks that I just didn't think were that good for various reasons, like wait WHAT and Swatshots, which wouldn't make the cut.

I thought I had a sense for these things -- I know my track has its flaws, but thought I managed to get it to stand out in some ways. The instrumentation, I thought, came out very nicely. I felt that I met the challenge well. I was aware my verses didn't have the most compelling melody. I expected to be somewhere in that mid-pack.

Apparently, I was a little over-confident: I did make the cut, but I barely squeaked by! There were two ties, for fourteenth place and seventeenth place. The one entry that made eighteenth place was the last to make the cut. I am tied for seventeenth with Joe and Denise, which just baffled me.

I expected Joe and Denise to place far better. Their ranking is almost incomprehensible to me! It is a beautiful song, and I feel that something is rather wrong with this contest if a beautiful song just barely squeaks by. I just wish I could better understand what that something is.

I was quite startled by both how much I disagree with the judges about some tracks, and also how much they disagree with each other about some tracks. That is strange to me. I wasn't expecting everyone to agree, but I thought the bulk of the tracks would be pretty non-controversial, as far as scoring went.

Governing Dynamics was rated the highest by Dr. Lindyke, barely made the cut by Kevin Savino-Riker, was judged about mid-pack in those that made the cut by Glen Philips, was near the bottom (failing to make the cut) as rated by Jeff MacDougall, and was ranked third by Zack Scott. That seems a bit bizarre for what, to my ear, is a pretty and competently done track -- a decently structured and written song -- with a performance that dragged it down a bit.

Ominous Ride was third according to Dr. Lindyke, but ranked very low by the other judges, only making the cut (just) in one other case. This wasn't my favorite track -- but, really judges? A skillfully played, produced, and sung rock song that has a bouncy and fun feel to it rates so low?

Ben Walker failed to make the cut only in the opinion of one judge, Glen Philips, and that was on the technicality of using too much of the "Cheers" theme song. I would have thought that would bother more of the judges a lot more.

Edric, who I thought would obviously be in the top four or five, was all over the map, although did average out ranked reasonably well. I can't come up with any rational explanation for this.

I was surprised that four judges rated Wait WHAT mid-pack or better.

Gweebol did fairly well by all the judges, which also surprised me, because I feel like the song, while very nicely produced, did not (or barely) met the challenge.

Zach Scott's opinion of Steve Durand's track was a bit of an outlier.

I'm not enough of a statistician to be able to determine this, but it would be interesting to calculate exactly which songs were the most "controversial," which judge was the biggest outlier, and which opinions of particular songs by particular judges were outliers. It would be equally interesting, perhaps, to see which songs inspired the least controversy.

Anyway, what did they think of my track? Did they write anything I can learn from?

Zack Scott wrote "Clever lyrics, and the skill is apparent, but the sleepy song didn't do it for me."

He didn't mention the shift in the bridge. I agree that the verses and chorus feel a little sluggish. I'm at a bit of a loss how to avoid that, other than just increasing the BPM. (The rap section and the verses and chorus have the same BPM). Maybe just a faster rhythm, shorter notes, a little more staccato performance? There was some reason why the lyrics inspired me to sustain those notes; I guess I was trying to convey a sense of peacefulness in the verses. Ann Arbor is a tree city, after all, and I generally felt very peaceful there, whether walking downtown or biking out Huron River Drive.

Jeff MacDougall wrote extensive comments: "Challenge: A - Clearly about Ann Arbor. Lyrics: A - Some very clever rhymes and interesting phrasing. Structure: A - The basic structure isn't bad but a little odd. Took me out of the song a few times. Did enjoy the rap break though. Melody: B - Solid melody in the chorus but the verses left me wanting more. This song gets extra points for the rap break. If it had a better melody during the verses, I would have ranked it a bit higher. This stands out as the most original effort in this contest."

I'm not sure exactly what he meant about "took me out of the song." Distracting because of the long second verse? The rap section? The spoken words or sound of the car leaving at the end? I can only agree with him about the verses. It's nice to be called clever and definitely nice to be called most original. (I'm actually not sure I agree, though; I thought Charlie McCarron's song was much quirkier, with his looping falsetto vocals and intriguing instrumentation).

Kevin Savino-Riker also wrote very detailed comments: "Starting out as a stylish sing-songy guitar pop-folk piece, you have a nice lead guitar lick and great interplay between the guitar parts and bass line... but then the gear change into a fully-produced prog-rock rap track caught me off guard. It was sort of a “we now interrupt this song to bring you... THIS OTHER SONG” moment. The transition back to the pop-folk outro felt much more natural to me, though, so I’m not sure how to suggest a better way to lead into the rap segment. The lyrics throughout the song are great; this whole song is an awesome frustrated kiss-off; you got some great digs in there. The sound bites are a nice touch. Taken individually, I love each part of the song. The intro and outro lyrics are wistful and sweet, nicely matching the softness of the music, while the rap interlude completely rocks and the lyrics accordingly take on that great pissed-off edge. Taken as a whole, if the transition were a little less abrupt, I’d be less inclined to want this to be two separate songs."

That's a great critique -- I struggled with that transition. I did what I could to put a drum break in there and ramp up the volume. I'm not quite sure how I could have made it better. His comments about the interplay between guitar parts and bass is very gratifying, since I worked hard on that (although no one seemed to get that the main "guitar" part is a ukulele). And I'm also very gratified by his comments about the lyrics.

It's interesting to note that no one so far has criticized my singing, which I've felt is one of my main weak points. Maybe it's not as weak a weak point as I feared?

Glen Philips rated me quite low, barely making the cut, and wrote "Ouch. Painful rhymes. I get it, that’s the joke, but I’m not laughing. Ah a change up! BTW I’d kill for a $250K house, triple that for San Francisco Bay area prices. I like the lazy acoustic riff. I don’t care for the vocals. The overly cheeky affectation is not fun. You met the challenge very well, it’s just a tough song to get into or care about much. I should say good production! At least I’m not distracted by production issues and can focus on the song and performance. At least the bridge has some life, but I don’t care for it either."

Given that I've gotten so much support for my lyrics and rhyming, I'm going to basically have to see his comments as an outlier and chalk it up to "I can't please everyone." "Cheeky affectation?" If ever I could sing a personal song honestly, this would be it, so I really don't know how he could think it is "affected." Perhaps because of my very mixed feelings about the city I struggled to succeed and feel secure in for twenty years? How to make it more personal or easier to get into or care about? Maybe that's a matter, in part, of the vocal performance? "I don't care for the vocals" sounds like a pretty clear opinion about my singing.

Dr. Lindyke wrote "OK, do this... go back and listen the spoken portion of this song, and compare it to the rest. It's as if they were written by two completely different people. One is hip and solid and edgy, and the other is lost and looking. Now go back and listen to "Polly Loves the Rain" from Song Fu 6, round 1. DAY-um! Paul... spoken word is your forte. You're GREAT at it. Keep the rap, replace the song."

Erm. Not sure quite what to do with that. I wrote all the lyrics in the same day or two, and I'm the same person as myself. The bridge changes mood because I had some more angry and bitter feelings I wanted to get out. It's supposed to be kind of an emotional journey. I guess the transition is a problem.

Should I just pretty much try to give up on singing or writing melodies? I really admire musicians like MC Frontalot, but I'm not sure I'm ready to be entirely a nerdcore rapper. I don't really know and love rap enough to feel like I can do that. Replace the sung part for just this song?

I'll give round two a shot, although I'm not nearly as sanguine about this competition as I was for round one. I have much less free time available this round; Grace is going to be out of town next weekend, so I pretty much have to be done Friday night, since I likely won't get much time at all on the weekend.

This challenge seems like it is going to be quite difficult. There are some songs that I'd love to write and record sequels to, but I don't think most of them qualify because they didn't chart high enough. I can imagine needing to try at least one or two before I find one that clicks. I don't really have time for any false starts. And i don't feel like I'm quite musician enough to really carry off an homage to the instrumentation and style, especially singing style, of very many artists, with the possible exception of something like Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" or After the Fire's "Der Komissar." And -- those songs don't feel to me like there is any sensible sequel to be written! Hmmm... maybe something Beatles?

Friday, October 15, 2010

SpinTunes #2 Round 1 Reviews

One of the things I'm really digging about SpinTunes is that it isn't settled by a web page vote, but by judges, and the judges are writing reviews. I am excited to read them and hoping to gain some insight from them. That's oodles more meaningful to an aspiring songwriter.

I'm a contestant, not a judge, but I thought that in the spirit of the thing I'd write my own mini-reviews of the 28 official entries. You can find them in the SpinTunes #2 Round 1 album. Note that if you download the songs, Travis would prefer that you download the whole album rather than the individual songs. The reason for this is apparently that Bandcamp counts each individual song download against the free 500-download limit, but treats the download of the full album the same way. (If Travis runs out of free downloads, he will have to start paying to provide more).

If I were actually a judge, I'd be asked to pick 8 to eliminate, so I'll do that, too.

It may be interested to see whether my picks match or don't match the picks of the official judges. Note that I have not read any of their comments yet.

So -- headphones on -- here we go!

1. Danny Blackwell: "A Song About Woodsetts"

The production is a little crude; there's a lot of computer fan noise or other hum, and the guitar is too loud in the mix with respect to the vocals, and clips here and there. The lyrics are very pretty though, the singing is nicely done, and the picking and slides are well-played. Lyrically, it feels slightly incomplete. It sounds like this was done live, demo-style, rather than tracked and mixed. However, it also feels very personal, and I like that. I give it a B.

2. Ben Walker: "Oxford"

The mix is EQ'ed a bit too bass-heavy. The lyrics are excellent, for the most part, although not all the metaphors really pop ("a roll of bubble wrap" doesn't quite work for me.) The singing is top-notch and the vocal track fits quite well into the mix. I really like the tango-inspired middle section. I have a BIG problem with this track, though, on an intellectual-property basis. I feel like the inclusion of the famous chorus from the TV show Cheers, is too big a musical quote. Quoting one line or one melody phrase would be funny, just like The Huey Lewis song "I Want a New Drug" quotes "Purple Haze" in the guitar solo, and Rush's 2112 Overture quotes the 1812 Overture. But this takes four of the most recognizable bars from another song and uses them verbatim. I think that's probably not justifiable, fair use or not; if this were a commercially produced song, I can guarantee a Verve Pipe-style lawsuit would be in the offing and Mr. Walker would owe all his royalties for this song to Viacom or whoever owns that bit of intellectual property. So: A-, but disqualified -- and thus ELIMINATED. (That's 1 of the 8).

3. Austin Criswell: "Mt. Holly"

Beautiful ambient singing: this reminds me of a long-gone band called Galaxie 500. The production is a little boomy and distorted, but not unbearably so. The lyrics are pretty. It's short and sweet. A-

4. Inverse T. Clown: "The Pinpoint Accurate Telling of the Origin of Salem, OH"

There's nothing in the rules that says the song about your hometown has to be truthful. So from Inverse, we get a funny fantasy with a fat bass-heavy electro beat. It's competently done but it feels slightly flat and pasted together, without a lot of emotional interest. B-, but it doesn't get eliminated.

5. David Ritter: "Fired"

The whole mix is over-compressed. The lyrics are funny, but it sounds to me like this was a song that was about something else, but which was hastily repurposed to be about a town by mentioning where it happened. Competently performed and produced for the most part, but I'd disqualify it, were I judging, for failing almost entirely to be actually about a town. So -- ELIMINATED. (That's 2 of 8).

6. Governing Dynamics: "Stars Over Avalon"

I'd like to start off by saying that I would love, love, love to have the chance to play live with Travis of Governing Dynamics. As a guitarist, naturally, I just love his churning guitar lines. This one reminds me a little of Sonic Youth. It's mournful and atmospheric. That said, it's also a little sluggish, and feels too long. I like the phrases "what we might lack in artificial light -- at least we can look up and see the stars at night." But the lyrics need a little more life and a little more editing, it feels a little unfocused, and it tells me very little about the town. Another B.

7. Duality: "To the End of the World"

Joe's singing on this one is downright operatic, and it complements Denise's flowing river of arpeggios beautifully. When Joe hits the chorus and his voice is doubled, it gives me chills. "Although I've loved this town, it's time that I learn to fly -- leaving behind all I've known." On paper, the words sound like too much speech and not enough melody to work -- but it does work, very nicely. There are a couple of slightly off notes in the accompaniment, and some places where the aligned vocals don't entirely align, so I have to ding it just a bit. It also could have used a change in the arrangement, say for a chorus break, to change things up slightly over the course of the song. But it gets an A-.

8. Edric Haleen: "Lansing, Michigan"

I expected Edric to go over the top, and I wasn't disappointed --- his barbershop quartet with himself is amazing. The lyrics are gently humorous in a way that, as a sarcatic pessimist myself, I can admire but just simply can't pull off myself. He's very likely simply more emotionally well-adjusted than I am. He may even have had a happy childhood -- the jerk. Edric deserves perfect marks for this one. A+.

9. wait WHAT: "LBC"

The production is excellent here, but it drags, it feels like a very stock instrumental accompaniment, and I don't really have any appreciation for most of the jokes. (A gay bar that has upside-down barstools? Fellatio jokes? Really? Are we in 6th grade here?) C. And what the hell is LBC anyway? (The song should tell me; I shouldn't have to Google it). That's kind of indicative of the way in which this song feels like an inside joke. ELIMINATED. (That's 3 of 8).

10. Brian Gray: "South Bend Aid"

This is both beautifully sung, and hilariously funny -- probably the best one so far. My only gripe, and it's a small one, is that the backing tracks all feel a little bit like a "band in a box." But I can't complain too loudly since I use Apple Loops and Logic-supplied drum samples for my own percussion sometimes. I do love the modulations, so I wouldn't cut the breakdown part or the end, but I would shave a little bit of the middle bars and make it a hair shorter. A-.

11. Charlie McMarron: "Stillwater, MN Air"

The instrumentation in this one is downright weird -- Philip Glass-like looping, rolling piano arpeggios and clarinets doing very odd things. Is that a recorder or a slide whistle? I think this is referencing something but I can't quite figure out. As soon as I feel like I start to get a handle on what the song is doing, it's over. Interesting, I guess, very pretty at times, but it just doesn't quite work for me. B-.

12. Emperor Gum: "Cheltenham"

Clarinets again, and what is that bass instrument? Even more Philip Glass-like. the vocal is very poppy (as in a badly placed, overloaded microphone) and distorted, and that makes it a bit painful in the headphones and a bit hard to understand. The lyrics are elliptical to the point of being almost incomprehensible. A recitation of things in a sculpture garden in Cheltenham? The clarinets sound nice. C. ELIMINATED. (That's 4 of 8).

13. Common Lisp: "Leaving Ann Arbor"

The instruments are pretty and nicely recorded. The vocals are a weak as far as pitch. The verses and chorus feel like they needed to be a few bpm faster. It's a love/hate relationship, apparently -- it really takes an unexpected turn into a funk/rap section with a heavy bass line the lyrics turn into a dark and angry rap, and then finishes on a spoken word conversation and a gentle fade out with a Zappa-esque kazoo bit to lighten the tone again as a car drives away. (I'm not going to give myself a grade -- I'll let the judges do that -- but I'm also not going to eliminate myself, because of course I want the chance to try the next challenge!)

14. Mitchell Adam Johnson: "London"

A band-in-the-box production again? Nope, at least not the guitar and bass. This sounds like something done in a full-service studio with real money behind it. The words are beautifully sung, but the lyrics weren't quite compelling for me. B.

15. Rebecca Brikley: "Here"

Beautifully done. Beautifully sung. Moving lyrics and a fantastic performance -- very warm and personal and human-sounding. Fantastic piano. Isn't there a rule about keeping this contest open only to amateurs? Because this sounds like someone with several albums under her belt. A+

16. Charlie Wolf: "I Love LA"

Very nice bass sound, a guitar that sounds ever so slightly out of tune. The vocal is decent, but just a little weak. Poignant lyric, but having spent a summer in Los Angeles, it raises the question: can anyone actually love L. A. without sounding phony? A little short, a little unmoving, and doesn't stick in my head very well. B.

17. Ominous Ride: "San Francisco"

I love the slightly raw-sounding guitar -- is that a chorus effect on a piezo-equipped electric masquerading as an acoustic? The lyrics are just slightly overwhelmed and a little hard to understand. The percussion needs to be something that is EQ'ed a little differently. As the song goes what sounds like a second guitar gets a little out of sync here and there with the main guitar and drifts out of sync with the percussion, and the main riff gets a little stale. B-. It just doesn't consistently sound good. ELIMINATED. (That's 5 of 8).

18. Swatshots: "Level"

The instruments start out with a lot of reverb and buzzy low synth, like something you might hear in the soundtrack for The Crow. But this is muddy, I can't understand the vocals, and the vocal performance is heavily distorted and mostly just sounds bad. It's like a bad version of The The or His Name is Alive. I guess they are channeling Joy Division, but even that was better recorded. I appreciate the anger in the lyrics but not the production, and it just gets worse as it goes on, like a high school kid with his first 4-track. This is one of the only ones I don't even want to listen to until the end. C-. ELIMINATED. (That's 6 of 8).

19. Russ Rogers: "Song for St. Michael"

Russ Rogers is part of the duet Godz Poodlz. The lyrics are a decent effort but the production is unfortunate; it sounds like it was recorded on a mono cassette recorder. So, it's a demo, and a badly recorded one at that. Not quite sure how to evaluate it fairly; am I supposed to judge the song as it is, or as I imagine it would be if it were given a proper production? (This question becomes critical later, when I get to JoAnn's track). It's too bad; I get the impression that Russ just didn't get enough quiet time to put into it (and wasn't able to do a multi-track recording at all). The lyric seems decent enough. B-.

20. Chris Cogott: "Fairfield"

A big fat power pop anthem. Nice! The chorused guitar is excellent. Slightly bland, though. A-.

21. Ross Durand: "From There"

I like the ringing, boomy guitar and bass contrasting with the delicate picking. I like the lyrics and the production and vocal performance is quite good. A.

22. Ryan "Ruff" Smith: "Golden Valley Sunday"

Jazzy electric and acoustic guitars! It's a bit of a relief after all the power chords. This is beautifully done. Impeccably recorded vocals and instruments. The ironic contrast between the lyrics and the performance is just marvelous. Another ringer? A+.

23. JoAnn Abbot: "Not in Copiague"

Like Russ' track, it's a little frustrating to review this one. JoAnn is an excellent singer who here sings this one as a single voice entirely a capella. It's a pretty melody. She's a good singer. But it doesn't even qualify as a demo. It's not even to the point where a musician collaborator could honestly play her an accompaniment part and still call it her work, because she hasn't even sketched the barest hint of accompaniment.

It seems to me that the challenge of a songwriting contest is to come up with a complete song. To my way of thinking, this means, at a minimum, instrumentation playing explicit or implicit chords to accompany the vocal melody, and stating or at least implying a rhythm. Without that, it's like comparing a black and white pencil drawing to an oil painting, and I don't feel that it is fair either to JoAnn or to the rest of us to compare them on the same playing field. For a song to feel complete, it generally needs accompaniment to act as backdrop, set the mood, either match or contrast with the tone of the vocal and lyrics, and hold it all up.

Now, some folks might think I'm being too narrow in my thinking of what constitutes a song; after all, there's nothing in the rules to disqualify JoAnn's song. Some songs deliberately eschew all accompaniment -- Billy Bragg's song "Chile, Your Waters Run Red," as he sings it live, is a beautiful example -- but you could argue that he's working with the reverb in the hall, and even with the sound of the audience, in fleshing out the song, and it's an artistic choice. And it works because of the power of the lyrics and the plaintive singing style. His song isn't lacking anything.

To me, trying to judge this song is like test-driving a car that has a running engine but no wheels or seats -- would Car and Driver rate it on what they imagine the cornering and comfort of the ride would feel like? No, that wouldn't be fair to the other car companies that engineered and build the whole package.

So, either this song is barely a D, for what it lacks, or gets a grade of "Incomplete," which would make me eliminate it anyway -- which is not really fair to what JoAnn actually has done here, which is to sketch out a really quite decent lyric and vocal  performance -- or it shouldn't be considered a qualified entry. Rather than insult JoAnn, or make a mockery of all the effort that the other competitors have put into their instrumentation and production, it makes more sense to me to say that it isn't fair to pit these songs against each other on the same field of battle. I'd disqualify it. Would I want a rules change that says that entries may not be plain a capella recordings? I'm not sure about that -- I'd hate to rule a future "Chile, Your Waters Run Red."

I'd be very interested in your opinion. Does this make any sense? Am I being too hard on JoAnn?

If I were just to judge it as I imagine a completed arrangement to be, I'd have to say that the melody is a little repetitive and it has a few too many lines (if fully worked out as an arrangement with a chorus and instrumental break of some kind, it would be at least five minutes long). But I don't want to give it a letter grade. I like JoAnn, and I like what she's doing, but out of fairness to the competitors, I feel that this has to be one of the songs that gets ELIMINATED. (That's 7 of 8).

24. The Boffo Yux Dudes: "It's My Hometown, Syracuse, Baby!"

This is a funnily bland band-in-a-box (perhaps a mighty Casio or Yamaha?) backing track, with a lyric and vocal that is decently recorded. It's lacking in dynamics a bit. B.

25. Gweebol: "Darktown"

This sounds like Frente (does anyone remember Frente?) Or maybe Tori Amos on acid. It gets a lot of points for originality. The vocal is nicely recorded. It seems to only use the actual  name of the town in passing, though, which seems a little odd. I'm not quite gonna disqualify it, but I'm tempted. B.

26. Zarni DeWet: "Where I'm Gonna Go"

A breathy female vocal and piano, recorded a little poorly but with a performance that makes up for it. With not much change in the meter or instrumentation (no bridge per se) it risks starting to feel a little repetitive, and that's what happens at about 1:40. Does it mention the actual town name? It seems to mention several, but it isn't clear which one it is about. A-. ELIMINATED for not clearly meeting the challenge (that's 8 of 8).

27. Heather Miller: "Fairfield"

I like the tinny guitar, played slightly ineptly with string scrapes, with the full kick drum -- it's a little odd, but it shows that there was some thought about EQ'ing things so that the instruments and vocals don't stomp on each other. The vocal performance is nicely done, with a country feel. I wish I could sing as well as she does. The lyrics have occasional funny bits. It's a little hard to distinguish the verses from the choruses. The nostalgia feels slightly forced. Is there nothing at all bad to say about the town? A.

28. Steve Durand: "In Paradise with You"

One of the more bizarre songs in the pack, this is a Hawaiian slack-key guitar ballad. The singing is just ever so slightly bad, but mostly in a good way. It takes the album out on a slightly silly note. Tape hiss. Is this recorded on a real cassette four-track? I get the feeling that the artist is doing a lot with very little. Not my favorite style, but very nicely done. A.

And now for the shadows:

Duality: "I Just Can't Find a Virgin"

I wish Joe and Denise had chosen to make this their actual entry! It's hilarious. It might need another reference or two to actual things in Dundee to really bring it home. Is this Joe attempting an American accent? It would be insulting, but Denise is in Austin, so they get a pass. The harmony is just delightful.

Via Satellite: "From Home"

Mournful, muddy, and hard to listen to. The lyrics are buried. There's a lot going on in this track, but I would have definitely eliminated this one had it been in the competition.

Bram Tant: "Living in the Countryside"

I wish this one had made it in under the deadline, because it shows a lot of promise, and I'd like to hear more. It's a little crude and unpolished, but the lyrics are appropriately descriptive and sardonic, and it definitely feels original and personal -- both things I value a lot, you may have noticed. I'm not quite sure how he's getting that odd droning guitar sound -- an alternate tuning?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Steinberger Parts Dilemma

Previously on this blog I've talked about my Steinberger basses and the difficulty in finding proper parts for them. Here are a few details on what I've learned in the hopes that it helps someone else.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are many versions of the famed Steinberger bridge, and they tend to all be slightly incompatible in size and fasteners used to attach them to the bodies.

The older bridges that I've seen -- from the Newburgh-manufactured era -- use somewhat exotic and hard-to-find black "Filister head" screws: #6, 3/4" in length. I had to resort to trial and error, mail-ordering several different types until I found the correct screws to attach the 4-string bridge to an XQ-4 body.

Looking for a correct original replacement bridge? Good luck. You can probably find one for a Synapse, a Nashville-era instrument, or a Spirit, but bridges for Newburgh-made instruments are hard to come by.

I found out the hard way that the clever Steinberger "kick-stand" leg rest is functional, but has a rather critical design flaw: they are fragile. I made the mistake of putting my XP bass down on a bed leaving the "kick stand" unfolded, to attend to something, and turning my back on one of my children for just a moment. The instrument got pulled off the bed and onto the carpeted floor. With maple bodies, composite necks, light weight, and a 5-bolt neck attachment, these instruments aren't all that fragile, and the instrument itself would have suffered no damage at all. But the leg rest is essentially a little lever made out of rather thin aluminum, and it snapped off like a dry twig.

After I beat the child in question severely (KIDDING! I'm KIDDING!) Although I'm ashamed to admit that some angry yelling was involved... OK, I mean "after I calmed down," I thought OK, no big deal -- newer Steinbergers have the same leg rest, so I ought to be able to get a replacement, right? Er, not so much. The originals use "Filister head" machine screws. But not the longer Filister head wood screws like the ones that were used to attach the bridges. They are countersunk differently. The head shape and width is very important because they fit flush, so you don't snag your clothes on them. These screws use a 7/64" drive -- another somewhat rarely-seen dimension.

Left: Filister head machine-threaded screw that was used to attach the leg rest; right: Filister head wood screws that was used to attach the bridge (and which I did successfully find replacement parts for, but it wasn't easy).

By the way, if you ever need some of those Filister head wood screws on the right, to attach a Newburgh-era bridge to the body on something like an XQ-4 bass (and don't ask me exactly what other models they might have been used on), I have a whole bag of them now. Drop me a comment, and I'll mail you some, so you don't have to go through what I had to go through to find them.

Anyway, now that a short story has become hopelessly long, the screws weren't broken, so I thought I'd be able to reuse them, but I picked up a couple of replacement leg rests and the original screws don't fit. Fun, huh? (In other words, the "Licensed By" leg rests aren't quite the same as the originals.

I could go on a quest for machine screws that are the same in all other respects except the head, I suppose, but I know from my previous efforts how hard it can be to find exactly matching screws.

It leaves me wondering if it is possible to remove just the head part of the folding leg rest and swap it with the leg part of a newer one, or drill out the part a bit to accommodate the heads of the screws. It is possible, of course, to play without the leg rest: just put on a strap and stand. But my "use case" is to use this thing mostly in the studio while sitting at the computer. Maybe I will just leave it off and make the XP the bass I always play standing up. (In fact, that's just what I did for "Leaving Ann Arbor").

The situation with bridge parts is worse. I wrote about the damaged bridge on my XQ-4 v1 bass. It got worse, such that the D string tuner no longer works at all. It was almost impossible to get the D string off, but it is now sitting here unplayable.

It needs more attention than I can give it, especially since the last thing I want to do is screw up an original Newburgh-era Steinberger bridge.

I went so far as to buy a replacement bridge, but it doesn't fit. The Nashville-era XQ-4 bridges aren't quite compatible. On the bright side, I suppose, I have a spare Nashville-era XQ-4 bridge that fits the white Steinberger, should that one ever become hopelessly damaged as well.

I asked Peekamoose Guitars in New York if I could send them the bridge to repair. I expected either a "yes" or "no" answer, or maybe a "no" with an explanatory note along the lines of "we only repair complete instruments." Instead I got back a surprisingly ranty note about how they have to test the instrument under playing conditions, saying that there "are some aspects of how components behave which cannot be replicated by substitute means. The only way to prove beyond any doubt the instrument's parts are working correctly for that instrument alone, is to test, measure and play it at the adjustment specs we know are dead on the money..."

Yeah. Erm, thanks for the lecture, but methinks thou dost protest too harshly. you could have just said that it isn't profitable enough for you to work on a part without being able to charge for a setup too. That, I can understand, and I don't really object to it -- luthiers deserve to get paid. But don't tell me a shop that does a whole lot of repair on Steinberger bridges couldn't fix a screwed-up tuning machine without my whole instrument. Luthiers tend to keep scratch bodies and necks around. They make little jigs and test apparatus all the time so they can do things more efficiently and easily without constantly putting the parts back on, or taking them off, the instruments in question. Hell, just attaching the bridge to the end of a two-by-four, with a nail at the other end to hook the string's ball end onto, would serve to establish whether a the tuning machine works smoothly under tension. It probably would take a luthier less time to make that jig than it did to write the e-mail I got in response. And I don't need them to do the setup. I enjoy doing that part myself.

I might still send it to them -- they've pretty much got the market on Steinberger repairs cornered at this point -- but that exchange left just a slightly bad taste in my mouth. And I've got to consider cost of shipping -- this is a heavy bass. This doesn't encourage me to ask them if they've got a replacement leg rest I can install on the XP bass. It's the kind of situation where I might hold on to it until the next time I'm actually in the neighborhood, maybe as part of a vacacion trip to the area, and see if I can drop it off in person.

I also attempted some minor superglue finish repair on the XQ-4, and it was a bit of a disaster. The instrument has a few spots of leprosy in addition to the broken bridge, where the repair is worse than the original ding. The superglue I used was not good stuff -- it dried yellowish, looking far worse than the superglue Stewart Macdonald sells for drop fills. It works really well for Dan Erlewine, and he explains and advocates for the technique in his book, but I'm clearly not him. And this isn't even my first attempt. My advice to you: don't try. If I do send it to Peekamoose I'll ask them if they can do anything about the finish. My expectation -- not a lot, but maybe some of the more egregious leprosy can be polished out a little.

There's one more thing -- both my Newburgh Steinberger basses came only with gig bags. I'd like to get hard cases for them. It's hard to find a hard case that will fit the small "Flying V" body of an XP bass. There are, though, companies that will take a tracing and a few measurements and build you a custom case that fits your instrument snugly. I might look into that.

Meanwhile, I'm still keeping an eye out on eBay for a matching Steinberger GP guitar, maybe an R-trem model without the Trans-Trem. These models are quite rare. They either don't come up, or they are extremely expensive, and I don't have a lot of money to put into the guitar collection at the moment. Maybe someday!

UPDATE: I finally got the right replacement leg rest! An eBay seller just happened to post one for sale, and my automatic search caught it for me. See:

Leaving Ann Arbor

I'm in the SpinTunes 2 songwriting contest, and I've completed the first challenge: a little ditty called "Leaving Ann Arbor."

You can find the tune on BandCamp, complete with lyrics, here. I made a quick lip-sync'ed/finger-sync'ed video for YouTube which you can find here.

Here's approximately what my studio-in-progress looks like now:

On this track, I played the Applause ukulele, the black Steinberger XP bass, and added a few accents in the form of chorused guitar chords played on the Parker Fly. All the guitars went through the Radial JDV direct box, which did just what I was hoping it would do -- loaded the pickups, both piezo and electric, the way they should be loaded, and made the instruments sound the way they are supposed to sound. I haven't been able to do a direct comparison between this box and some other direct boxes I was considering -- for example, the Summit Audio TD-100, which also has a variable load control -- but I definitely don't have any regrets about buying the Radial box. I'm very satisified with the way the instruments came out.

As for the vocals -- well, I think they are still kind of my weak spot. I did as many retakes as I had time for. My recording time is very limited. If the kids are in the building, and awake, I can't really record vocals. I did most of my tracking very late at night, after the kids were in bed and there were no lawnmowers, jackhammers, or leaf blowers running in the neighborhood, and no traffic on our street. I had to give up a lot of sleep working on this song. I've discovered that singing (or playing) when I'm very tired really doesn't produce the best results, but that's the time I had to work on it, and it is what it is.

It didn't help that I chose some intervals in my melody that were a little tricky for me: for example, on the line "One cafe was all I needed," there's a minor second interval on the word "cafe." Apparently I'm terrible at singing half steps, at least in that note range, and I just couldn't hear that bit of melody in my head correctly in order to sing it accurately. I finally had to put together a track of MIDI keyboard just to listen to in my headphones, as a pitch reference, to get it anywhere near correct, and it's still pretty loose. And all this is double-tracked, so I had to sing it twice, synchronizing the takes as well as I could.

The instrumental accompaniment was kind of picked out by ear -- I'm not even really certain what key the song is in, and there's something that is, to my ear, not quite right about the way they fit together. Had there been more time, I might have been able to fully write out the melody and chords and listen to them as MIDI parts to make sure they fit together the way I wanted. But again: tight deadline, late-night recording, and a lot of takes; it is what it is.

If you're interested in the process, my scrawled notes kind of illustrate some of how it went. First, I had to pick a town. I was born in Seattle, but only lived there for three years. spent the ages of 3-10 or so living in North East, PA, then moved to Harborcreek, PA and lived there until I left for college. I spent four years of college in Ohio, then most of a year in an internship in the same place, then moved to Ann Arbor in (if I recall correctly) June of 1990. I lived in Ann Arbor until June 1st of this year. So I've lived in Ann Arbor longer than anywhere else, and having just left, it was definitely uppermost in my mind -- and I was full of mixed and conflicting feelings about my time there, viewing it both warmly and with disgust, and seeing it as both a success and a failure.

I started with the beginning of the first verse in my head. The silliness of the first verse was intentional -- I wanted to do the silly wordplay and artificial word breaks to force a rhyme:

Ann Arbor / You haven't got a harbor
But you've got a big arbor-
etum... and enormous U-

So I had the first few lines in my head. Every Sunday we take the kids over to my mother-in-law's house, and I usually bring a guitar. This past Sunday I took the ukulele, since I had the vague idea that I wanted this song to have uke accompaniment. I got an hour or two where the kids were mostly out of my hair, with the ukulele, to try to come up with a melody and an accompanying ukulele part. I wrote out that riff and some chords (just picked out by ear, written down in ukulele tab, without really knowing what chords they all were), and that's my first page of notes:

Then, basically, another session or two of scribbling ideas for possible lyrics (both literal rhyming phrases and words/phrases that didn't fit but which I hoped I could eventually make fit). I think I wrote some of these out while waiting for my son to finish his Hapkido lesson. (As a parent, I've got to take what down time I can). Note that at this stage I feel that it is pretty important to write things down on paper, in pen, instead of typing them on the computer -- for one thing, I can do that anywhere, and for another, there is no deleting -- although lines are scratched out, they are still readable. You never know when you might want to go back to one of your original ideas and refine it. If you delete that line on the computer, doing editing on the fly, it is gone. (Of course I'm ignoring the idea that you might use version control, but most people don't do that, and you want to resist the temptation to delete anything you wrote even if you deleted it immediately, on the fly, between saving separate versions).

The first thing I recorded was the ukulele, and the first vocal part I finished was the chorus. I recorded a separate ukulele track of the melody for the chorus for reference when singing. I didn't have a melody for the verses for some time. In a later evening session I finally picked out a melody and recorded the first verse on ukulele for reference. The song sat like that until the next night, then I did a scratch vocal of the second verse with the kids screaming in the background, and of course realized that the second verse didn't exactly match the first verse. Despair, editing backing uke loops, retakes!

Then in preparation for actually recording the full vocal, I started transcribing what I had into a text file on the computer and editing that:

A few lines got cut: in the chorus I was considering using the lines "I once adored you / I now abhor you" before "I just can't afford to love you anymore," but it didn't really work. I had some extra verse lyrics: "I didn't have a lot of cash / At the Fleetwood, I ate hippie hash / I grew long hair / I was full of hot air" but the second verse was getting too long, but yet I didn't feel there was justification for a third verse.

The rap part was originally going to be sung, but essentially I wasn't having any luck coming up with a melody for the bridge. When it came about, I did it very rapidly, with only one or two takes of both the spoken voice tracks and the bass line, and assembled in an hour or two. The drums were Apple Loops. The keyboard part I never actually played -- I is just not even true chords, for the most part, mostly just two-note intervals, drawn in Logic's MIDI score window after picking out a cool-sounding synth sound. When I pieced it together I removed that "You'll be a renter once more" line because it had the wrong tone, but also because the section was getting too long. I liked the rap section quite a bit, but it was lacking a good sense of transition into and out of it. I eventually patched that together with more drum fills, tightening up the editing.

In one of these evenings I tried to add a 12-string guitar part, and that was the point where I tried to write out some chord names (and, I discovered later, screwed some of them up). The chord names below the arrows are transposed into my 12-string tuning, which is down a full step. So this is the closest thing I've got to a lead sheet for the song, and I know it's at least partially wrong. (That "Still Needs" checklist at the bottom rapidly expanded on the last day).

There was supposed to be a third verse, but the song was getting pretty long, so I improvised the outro part instead. The kazoo idea had been in my head from the beginning -- I went out and bought a kazoo especially for this song -- but the kazoo and shaker were recorded very late in the process. The kazoo came in a kit with shakers, a wood block, spoons, and a little tambourine and I recorded all those, but would up using only the shaker and kazoo.

I uploaded a "finished" track for safety, in case I screwed it up badly. After it was supposedly done, though, it took at a twelve-hour session hours of just cleanup and tweaking: mixing, mixing, mixing, setting volume envelopes on each track, adding bass line to the parts where it was lacking, coming up with an electric guitar part, re-tracking vocals, aligning vocals, re-tracking vocals again, aligning vocals again, tweaking plug-in effects, choosing mastering settings, bouncing some test tracks. During this time, I also went out and recorded Grace driving the van away. I also dug up the clip from one of our podcast chats.

This part is a bit of a blur. Basically, I worked until I was dizzy with exhaustion and had to stop. I uploaded one more version that I called "Final," and tried to pick up the remains of my weekend with the family -- and despite being so tired, slept very badly and started out the week feeling like death warmed over.

And I screwed it up in one respect: the final version that went to the judges had levels set way too low. I had been playing with the mastering plug-in settings, and had taken compression ratios way down so the quiet parts would sound more open, and so there would be a big volume difference between the verses and the rap section. I also set the downward expansion ratios in the multi-band compressor settings to unity, because I didn't want quiet ukulele bits to be faded downward when there was nothing else happening in that EQ band -- I wanted there to be some quiet space that wasn't silence, if that makes sense.

But when I did this, I brought down the overall volume of the track, and I was neglecting in not actually compare it, level-wise, to the way most pop tracks are mastered these days, even ones where limiting is used more judiciously than, say, in Metallica's famously loud mixes. Compression and limiting has been a bit of a thorn in my side -- I don't like a lot of modern pop mixes because there is no dynamic range left -- but when I have to listen to a CD in the car, I appreciate the fact that I can actually hear the details over the engine and road noise. So I try to walk a middle ground.

In the listening party I realized my experiment had resulted in a mix that was just way too quiet -- people just wouldn't expect the track to have such a wide dynamic range. So I had to quickly bounce a new one with more usual compression settings and with gain added going into the multi-band compressor, and with the final limiter stage (Izotope's "Loudness Maximizer") set to start working a few dB lower.

Now the rap section has a "haircut," without being totally squared-off buzz-cut, while the verses are still not hitting the limiter to speak of, which I suppose is a compromise I can live with, since I do want people to be able to listen to the track in real-world environments (in the car, on their iPods while riding the bus, etc., instead of just in soundproof listening rooms).

But of course I was very upset during the listening party and for hours afterwards, feeling like I had done so well until I blew it with a mix no one could hear. Had I gotten more time, I might have tried to do more of the volume correction on the original tracks -- but then again, maybe not, since it doesn't quite make sense to me that a delicately picked ukulele should be as loud as a snare drum hit.

It was too late to get that revised version to the judges, but it is the one on my Bandcamp page and in the SpinTunes album.

That's kind of how it goes with me: there's an idea, and a few words. It seems to be very important to my process to capture something at this stage, and then sleep on it. There's an expansion, and then a contraction. it's important to get out as much as I can before I start editing it down. The process for me is very much like writing an essay or short story.

Grace sees me stress out about this, and asks me once in a while "are you at least enjoying this?" To which I really don't have a satisfactory answer. It is stressful, it is exhausting, and it is miserable. But it is also very gratifying at times. The best I can say is that I enjoy having done it, especially when I can go back to a track after a few weeks of distance and assess it a little more fairly, and think, hey, there's some good-sounding stuff in there!