Boo!

The predicted storms did indeed come in at sunset on Halloween night, but we still had a good turnout anyway. We never have very many trick-or-treaters and we may have less next year because I scared them all so badly this year.

Both years I’ve had the Halloween Soundscape playing I’ve had kids tell me the sounds scared them. I omitted “The Martian Invasion” from the mix both years since it isn’t traditionally spooky. This year the music loop began with “Halloween Hamlet”, then “The Witching Time” followed by “The Monster Lives” and “Graveyard Ghosts”. I burned that set over and over on a disk until the disk was full, hid the diskman on the porch, connected to small(ish) speakers and set it to repeat. Porch light on, front door open.

I had one girl in a fireman’s outfit come screeching in as the rain began to pelt down at sunset, but the goblins didn’t really begin to come around until later after the rain had mostly stopped. I don’t usually wear a mask and it’s hard to say if it was a hit or not. It depends on how you look at it. When I came into sight the first two little girls ran screaming down the walk. I had to hastily whip the mask off and assure them it was OK. That happened a lot. Though they were the only ones who really screamed I had kids fleeing all night long. I wasn’t doing anything spooky (like raising my hands in the photo). I was just holding a plastic pumpkin with candy in it. The eerie music probably heightened the effect. I spent the whole evening tugging the mask on and whipping it off, beaming brightly at the kiddies and cheerfully offering candy. The older kids thought the mask was cool and none of the parents seemed upset that the little kids were given a fright. Surprisingly the very little kids just stared at me, sort of puzzled, like they couldn’t figure out what was going on. One little boy after being initially frightened came back up and engaged me in a discussion on why I wore a scary mask. He was about four and came across as indignant that I’d do such a thing. I explained to him that his batman mask would be scary to bad guys, so his mask was scary too. He had a hard time getting his head around that and seemed inclined to argue the point but wasn’t articulate enough to do it, so took his candy and trundled off with his highly amused parents.

Fleeing Hurricane Rita

Hello, everyone!

If, last Wednesday night, September 21st, you saw on TV thousands of cars, brake lights glaring, inching through the darkness along Interstate 10, then you may have seen me. I was one of those exhausted, anxious, people trying desperately—and unsuccessfully—to get out of the city ahead of Hurricane Rita, looking for gas and finding none. We did not make it out, but the storm turned so I and my family were safe.

Ironically, I’m in the middle of a service project for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and was working on a new song about the evacuation of New Orleans, when I had to drop everything and evacuate myself! We stayed at a hotel with a lot of New Orleans evacuees. I realize how fortunate we were and will redouble my efforts on their behalf and also do whatever I can for friends and family who were hit by Hurricane Rita. You see, my family and my best friend lived in Beaumont. I grew up there. I have no great fondness for the city, but a lot of people I love evacuated ahead of the storm and may not have much to go back to.

I just wanted to let everyone know that “Gymshoes” is OK, home and dry.

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My Typical Recording Experience

This afternoon I had a typical home recording experience, complete with too many dogs, too many cords and too much laughter (which is where this story ends).

Some time ago I worked on putting a backing track to one of my old songs. To make a long story short, I set aside the good, but not really appropriate, backing track. Only today have I finally sat down and tried to put together a new one. I thought I had a scratch vocal & guitar file for this somewhere, but if I did it must have been so awful that I deleted it. So I really am starting over. First I made a typically muffled and muddy guitar track. Then I fiddled with various settings, making a gazillion guitar intros until I finally got the level to something that I could hear.

Then I had to do something about the metronome. Like turn it off. Without it I tend to get slightly off time with this song. So I sifted through my files to find something that was a simple click or tap, but loud enough for me to hear over my guitar. (Always a problem.) Decided this time to try a kick drum cranked all the way up. OK, so I’m ready to go. Got everything plugged in. Got everything almost disentangled.

To visualize this properly you have to understand where I’m working on this. I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor, wrapped around my guitar, wedged between the couch and the coffeetable, tethered to the laptop on the table by a fairly short headphone cord. Which is in the way of the guitar. More fiddling. Then I’ve got to get the cheapo computer mic—another thing with a short cord— positioned as close to the guitar as possible without me hitting it when I play. OK, am I ready now? Yeah, let’s do this.

I get halfway into the first verse and an itch begins. I try to ignore it, but my timing goes so I stop the recording & delete the file. I scratch. I start again. Now I’m itching all over. I stop. I scratch. I scratch all over real good. I tell myself it’s all in my head, but it feels like my back. I begin again. The dogs bark hysterically. I stop. They stop. Perhaps because I’m screaming. But at least I’m not itching.

I begin again, do a couple of takes, all the way through the song. I’m surprised at how much it sounds like me. The recording is better than usual. Unfortunately my playing isn’t better than usual, so what I’m really cheering is the quality of the cheap computer mic, not the quality of the music. It’ll sound better, I tell myself, when I get some other instruments in the mix. I go through some likely files, auditioning drums and bass. I’m still sitting on the floor wrapped around my guitar. When I get something I’m moderately satisfied with I decide I’ll do the vocal.

This is the beginning of the end.

I’ll have to hold the mic—and my shirt (more on this anon), so that means taking off the guitar. The stand is within reach, but that’s moot because somehow the headphone cord, the mic cord, the guitar strap and my neck have all gotten tangled up in a sort of web, with my head being at the center of the knot. Another five minutes while I get this sorted out. For reasons I can’t explain I did this without unplugging anything, even though it occurred to me at the time.

Guitar safely stowed, headphones back in place, I set up the program to record, checking the levels again. Then I pull my black t-shirt over my nose, grip the computer mic, hit record and start. The t-shirt prevents the “pbt” sounds from hitting the mic and crackling. I do a couple of takes. The neck of my t-shirt keeps sliding down over my nose, so I have to hold it. I’m not doing too badly. Out of key, but on course, despite being startled that when I take quick breaths between lines or words I accidentally suck my t-shirt into my mouth. This is distracting as hell. Stay focused. Just finish it, never mind what key you finish it in.

I have to do another take because of words at the beginning of a line being muffled by the t-shirt being sucked into my mouth. I’m plugging away though. This take is going well. Maybe not a total embarrassment. I’m holding the t-shirt a bit away from my mouth, but trying not to touch the mic with it. Trying not to look at the mic. I’m mic-shy. I don’t like doing this. But I’m almost finished. I can see the end of the song coming up. Almost done…and it will be a good take! (Well, pretty good, considering.)

Last chorus and my two dogs spontaneously come bounding into the room, one on either side of me. They don’t bark. The little one tries to get in my lap. I’m hold the mic, belting out the last chorus…just a few more lines…the big dog sticks her nose under my arm….and….I lose it… My voice goes up in a squeak and I start laughing and laughing and I think I’m not going to stop.

The dogs, their mission accomplished, wander off to stare vacantly out the window. I’ve stopped recording. There’s no reason to bark.

This is, in every respect, a typical recording experience…and people wonder why I do digital music instead of recording my own…

Kitchen Songs

“All I want is a decent melody…
a song I can sing in my own company…”
(U2, “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”)

Acoustic-electric guitar is my weapon of choice, though I’ve dabbled with other instruments. I like the versatility of an acoustic-electric guitar. I can play acoustically or I can run the sound through a variety of stomp boxes, plug into an amp and make it screech and wail. I enjoy writing songs for guitar, but with one instrument there is a limit to how fully a song can be realized.

In the spring 2003 I began using Acid to work up backing tracks for the songs I’ve written on guitar. It has allowed me to create a sort of digital living room band I can jam with. I always envisioned these songs as being not acoustic singer-songwriter stuff, but being backed by a full rockin’ band. After 15 years of dragging my guitar everywhere and jamming with dozens of different musicians, I finally gave up on my quest for a garage band. I have enjoyed jamming with friends and strangers, but jam sessions are based on a common musical repertoire, mostly classic rock of the 60s & 70s. (I was the only one who knew knew material from the 80s or later.) The musicians I know enjoy playing old favorites, or at least tunes they know. There was no interest in creating new original music (and occasionally definite resistance to learning new material).

Musicians either want to be professional or play just for enjoyment as amateurs. Amateurs who play for enjoyment want to play songs they know. People who are interested in creating new original music by and large are people who want to form bands and play professionally. I’m the odd one because I want to play music for my own enjoyment and that includes creating new original material. Although my strength is songwriting, I can’t sing very well. I have the passion of a professional with the guitar-playing skills of an amateur.

“You are only limited by your ability to imagine a sound structure–You are not limited by your ability to play something anymore.”
(Bono, Propaganda)

Acid expands what I can create musically because it is not dependent on my being an expert player. I can compose music using a variety of instruments through the Acid program. Basically, I now have a studio set-up on my laptop and I’m becoming a decent engineer and producer.

There are so many possibilities inherent in the technology that in spring 2003 I was diverted from my original project of creating backing tracks for existing songs into creating new original music composed entirely using Acid. The result of my initial efforts was Breakfast With The Blades, an EP which–as I revise this in the spring of 2004–I am still am very happy with and enjoy listening to. I followed it up the next year with a full length album, Lost In The Mix.

My involvement in what is essentially non-live studio-created music may make more sense if I back up a bit. I discovered punk shortly after getting my first guitar for Christmas 1987. (Better late than never!) One of the appeals of punk was the basic tenet that you didn’t have to be able to play your instruments; you didn’t have to be proficient. Attitude, enthusiasm, a love of music and something to say were more important than musicianship. This was very appealing to someone who had just taken up a musical instrument for the first time on the cusp of 30. That punk ethos is alive and well; it informs the music I make to this day. Through digital manipulation and license-free Acid sound libraries I’m creating original music using instruments I can’t play.

If this idea sounds strange, consider for a moment the composer of a symphony. He doesn’t have to play all the instruments in the orchestra expertly; he only has to know what they all sound like, what their range is and what effects a good player is capable of producing. He must have a good ear for music and an aptitude for composition. The tools have changed, but the principle is the same.

I have fiddled around with trying to record myself over the years. The equipment to make good home recordings existed and I periodically looked at it, researched it and priced it, but did not indulge in anything more than a cheap microphone. The price was prohibitively high for a hobbyist like me. I would also have been limited to the instruments I owned and my ability to play them—not to mention the fiddly business of cleaning up the recording.

Call me Ishmael. Here’s where my musical path intersected with the music of a descendent of Herman Melville, one Richard Melville Hall, given the nickname “moby” as a baby. His album 18 had an unexpected impact on me. As I listened to that album I realized that I didn’t need that elusive garage band I’d been looking for. The music was simple, elegant, powerful and yet used a lot of loops, sequencers, and samples.

I knew that all manner of things can be done by a single person given enough of the right equipment. However, what constituted “the right equipment” has been evolving over the years, becoming more compact, more sophisticated and easier to use. More and more the technology is married to the computer, a tool I was already proficient in using.

The fact that moby can play more instruments (and better) than I can doesn’t diminish the fact that he came from rock to the digitized dance culture and from there into something closer to mainstream music, using loops and samples brilliantly. My discovery of Acid music which followed hard on my discovery of moby opened my mind up to the possibilities of composing new original music in ways I had never thought of before–digital, home studio music, using and manipulating vocals and instrumentation (license-free and royalty-free, thanks to Acid) to create whatever sound I wanted with pretty much any instrument I can think of. Editing and tweaking is easier with Acid than any other music program I’ve messed with. Composition is as much fun as playing because in a way I am playing; I’m playing the instruments through the program and I’m playing a digital mixing board as if it were an instrument.

A digital band has taken shape in the form of neat little high quality digital packets. I have bass, drums, percussion, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, synth sound beds, pads, and effects as well as a multitude of other instruments from horns and strings to ethnic instruments from a variety of cultures. I can co-opt a number of digital vocalists to good effect in predominantly instrumental pieces. I can also record my own instruments and vocals digitally directly into Acid. At present there are no existing recordings of me playing guitar or other instruments. In the summer of 2004 I will return to my original project of creating backing tracks for several years worth of existing songs. Eventually I will probably lay down my own instrumental and vocal tracks on some of those songs, but the priority for Gymshoes is to provide a band for me to jam with so that I can enjoy jamming along with more fully-realized versions of my songs than vocal and guitar alone would allow.

The Breakfast With The Blades EP and the Lost In The Mix album were interesting experiments in creating complete songs using only digital materials, doing no live recording of my own. I enjoyed creating BWB and LITM and gained valuable skills in doing them. I plan on continuing to create new instrumental digital songs, to experiment with the technology and various genres of music, as well as playing live acoustic-electric music.