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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do-It-Yourself Wireless Control Surface

I was looking through my gigantic, elephantine Sweetwater Sound catalog the other day an I came across this item:

It's a wireless control surface for your studio. It's very nice, with a transport wheel and display and all sorts of other nice functions. I'd love to have one myself. You can control your entire setup from anywhere in the room, which is particularly useful if you tend to record yourself, like I do. The idea is that your controls stay on your person so you don't have to hit record on your main setup, run across the room, pick up your instrument and then start playing. Anyway, having this fancy control panel would be cool and all, but look at the price! Two-hundred dollars!? I don't know about you, but I only know one, uh, person who can afford that luxury.

Since I'm not lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills and throwing solid gold bars at pigeons for fun, a while back I bought this thing at Staples for about 30 bucks instead.

It, too, is a wireless control surface, and it has 80% of the usefulness. All you need to do is hook this thing up, start up your recording/mixing/ speadsheet/ whatever software and assign keys. I have functions like play/pause, set placemark, undo, record, create new track, and switching between various tools all mapped to my wireless keypad. I almost never touch the actual computer keyboard at all. It is much easier to record my own vocals when I don't have to take the headphones off and walk over to the main setup whenever I want to rerecord. I just hold the device while I'm singing.

Sure, it doesn't have it's own display or a cool transport wheel, but give me enough time and I might be able to come up with those too. Anyway, there are several different kinds of wireless keypads and input devices. They can totally make your life easier without the need for indentured servitude.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jumpstart New Song Ideas

Sometimes it can be really hard to come up with ideas for new songs. You may find yourself, as I often do, simply repeating the same chord progressions over and over again, and you're afraid that all your songs will start sounding the same. Here are some things that I do to get myself back into the creative flow:

Listen to New Music - I have an article on introducing yourself to new musical genres. Follow the steps in that article and you'll no doubt gain several ideas for new songs. Listening to interesting new music always gives you a new perspective on things. Everyone else in the world looks at things a little differently than you do. A piece of music represents one artist's or group's point of view. By continually stimulating yourself with new viewpoints, you will always be able to see everything differently, even that keyboard sitting in front of you.

Try writing in a different genre - I covered this a lot in Don't Find Inspiration: Create it. Writing a different genre than you usually write in will give you something new automatically, plus you'll learn a lot while you do it. Pick a random genre or combine two different genres that don't normally go together. You can get some weird and interesting results, and they will always be creative.

Play with more obscure chords - Break out your old books and look up some of the more esoteric chords in them. Like listening to new music, hearing new chords will give you a fresh perspective. Try combining chords in ways that you haven't tried before.

Mess around with some pre-made loops - If you have the ability throw together some looped drum tracks or chords on your workstation, dig through the presets that you have and put some together. You'll have instant accompaniment while you try to play new stuff. It really helps get things flowing quickly.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Makeshift Musician's Favorite Albums

This week, allow me a little bit of self-indulgence with my list of my favorite albums. I can listen to these any time and love the experience over and over again. Everyone should be listening to these. Here they are, in no particular order:

Queen - A Night at the Opera - ...and not just because of Bohemian Rhapsody. Actually, my favorite song on the album is '39. This album is a pinnacle of songwriting, musicianship, experimentation, dramatic effect, modern recording, and just plain delivery. When you listen to this album, you can tell that Queen knew what they were doing and they can outclass anyone else in the world of rock.

Greg Graffin - Cold as the Clay - This humble collection of old-timey folk songs has depressing subject matter but nevertheless has an incredible warmth to it. The simple honesty of it all is inspiring. Plus it shows us that old-fashioned recording techniques still have a place in modern music.

Telefon Tel Aviv - Map of What is Effortless - Telefon Tel Aviv is a little known duo from Chicago who made the lovely album Fahrenheit Fair Enough back in 2001. In 2004, they released Map of What is Effortless, which was completely different in presentation. While the first album was light, glitchy and relaxing, the second album is dark, funky, dramatic and soulful. The album has that wonderful quality of being an epic musical journey from start to finish.

Eumir Deodato - Deodato 2 - Deodato was a pioneer in genre fusion. Deodato 2 is the epitome of his music writing skill and his and his band's improv abilities. It's sort of a mix of Latin, disco, jazz and funk. If I wanted to show you true musicianship, I would play this album for you.

Orbital - Middle of Nowhere - Orbital had an interesting history: some of their albums had a random, haphazard feel to them, while others would be amazing examples of clarity, substance and overarching intention. Middle of Nowhere fell into the latter category. Starting with the over-the-top double feature of Way Out and Spare Parts Express, the album descends into mysterious and moody atmosphere before slowly bringing itself back up to upbeat conclusions with Style. Another musical journey showing the great skill and experience of the Brothers Hartnoll.

Bad Religion - the Process of Belief - Most people would cite earlier Bad Religion albums, like Stranger Than Fiction, as their favorite, but the combination of dead-on songwriting, new drummer Brooks Wackerman, and much higher production values put this one on top for me. If nothing else, no one can fault Bad Religion for their bull-headed consistency and dedication to their craft. Particular favorites on this album are Kyoto Now! and Bored and Extremely Dangerous.

Alison Krauss & Union Station - New Favorite - Anyone who says white folks have no rhythm have obviously never listened to bluegrass. Bluegrass is the closest modern genre to our American musical heritage, the fusion of Irish and African folk music. Allison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglass and the rest of Union Station are the finest ambassadors to the mostly forgotten world of our past. And what incredible musicians they are! Listening to them jam together is a truly transcendent experience. New Favorite is the most accessible and fun album, with a lot of rhythm and a good showing from all the vocalists.

They Might Be Giants - Apollo 18 - Weird, nerdy experimental rock at its finest. This was when TMBG's style was still catchy and fun in addition to being eccentric. Highlights include The Statue Got Me High, Dinner Bell, and the incredible Fingertips, a sequential collection of no less than twenty individual songs, all different, each between five and thirty seconds long.

William Orbit - Strange Cargo - Undeniable atmosphere. Extensive sonic variety. Masterful skill with a studio. William Orbit's Strange Cargo albums represent all of these things. One minute you're listening to lovely latin style folk music, the next minute an unsettling soundscape of dissonant music and sound effects, then an 80's sounding rock song with backup instruments that sound like they came from the Amiga demo scene. All of the Strange Cargo albums are great, but the first one makes the best overall impression throughout the entire album. Pick this one up to hear something truly unique.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Start to Finish: The Process of Making a Song

The way I write songs may be a bit different than most. First of all, my songs don't exist in live form. I only write a song as a finished studio piece. Second, I generally don't know where the song is going when I start it. It can be a kind of messy way to make music, but it usually yields interesting results. Even my more focused songs, like Harvest or Continuous Welded Rail followed a similar writing process. I mostly deal electronic instruments, because I have a strong, possibly quixotic desire to be a one man show, but I'll occasionally throw in vocals or some live instrument part. Lets get to work!

Part I: Composing and Producing

I always start with one of two things: a concept for a type of sound, or a melody or chord progression. Sometimes I'll randomly come up with a melody at an unexpected time, or sometimes I'll stumble on one when playing around with the keyboard or banjo. Other times there will be a particular song that I like and I'll want to write something in a similar style. I never use those AB-whatever song structures that are so prevalent in pop music, nor do I try to come up with hooks for my songs. I love hooks, I'm just not particularly good with them.

Anyway, lets say I've got an interesting melody. I'll then practice playing it over and over with different instrument sounds, like piano, strings, synthesizers, maybe horns or something. During this time my left hand will often be searching for chords that fit with the melody as well. Eventually, I'll find a sound that clicks with me and I can picture an entire soundscape surrounding the melody, which is when I get to work.

First I'll decide the tempo I want the song to be at. I do this by tapping a special button on my drum machine that gives me a tempo readout based on my rhythm. I start a new song in Cubase and set that tempo. Then I'll pull up some drum preset on the keyboard and record it real quick and loop it. I'll choose a drum loop that roughly fits the feel I'm going for, though it is unlikely that it'll be used in the final production. This makes for a metronome, or click track, that is way better than the usual obnoxious beeping sound that the software gives you. Now I can play my melody along with a nice beat to keep time.

I'll record the melody first in MIDI format, which means instead of recording the sounds of my keyboard, I record the data of what keys I press onto a MIDI track in Cubase. After that, I'll tell Cubase to quantize my notes, which essentially means make minute changes to each note so that they're all in time with the rhythm. I don't do it too much or everything will sound too mechanical. But since I have just about the worst rhythm a musician could have, it's very useful. Once the notes are in place and they sound like someone with actual talent played them, I'll have the software MIDI track play my keyboard, and this time I actually record the sound. Often for simpler melodies or chords, I won't bother with the whole MIDI/Quantization thing.

I'll then record other parts in the same fashion, like a bass line or a sweet pad (a simpler background chord). I'll also start thinking about what kind of percussion I want. I make sure that I experiment with any instrument sound I can think of. I never leave out any possibility for any kind of sound. Who says you can't have harpsichord, oboe, a screaming synthesizer, xylophone and distorted rock drums all in one song? I'll never tell you that.

By this time I'll be thinking about new melodies to follow up the first one, new chords to move the song to, and transitions to tie the pieces together as I make them. Because I pretty much record as I write, a very experimental way to make music, I'll often end up with several versions of a song, each one going in different directions. Many of them are terrible, but by continually experimenting I'll find new avenues to write in. Working with each part is like working on a miniature song, since any one part can sound completely different from the next. Sometimes I'll go from purely symphonic to purely electronic to several layers of percussion without melodies, and each one requires a different mindset when mixing. This is also a good time to record anything acoustic, like bongos or, *shudder*, vocals.

Eventually I'll get to a point where I either think it would be a good place to end the song or I simply can't think of anything else to add. Sometimes I'll try to incorporate some elements from the beginning of the song into the end, to wrap things up nicely, but it isn't necessary.

Part II: Post Production and Mastering

After I have everything pretty much written, I get to the mixing and engineering stage. This is where it starts to sound less like a collection of disparate sounds and more like a cohesive song. I'll fix up the percussion and add in interesting rolls and crashes to spice up transitions between parts. I might add some small, quiet higher pitch melodies to complement the main ones. I'll change the volume levels on everything until it all sounds great. Remember this: Good volume levels on everything will mean the difference between a mediocre song and a great one. I'll add effects like reverb, filtering and distortion.

I'll keep tweaking it as much as I can. Then I'll leave it alone for a day or two. This is important. I'll leave it alone and make sure I listen to a lot of other music that's not mine during this time. When I come back to the song I'll have a much more neutral and fresh perspective. I'll tweak whatever I think needs work and then I'll burn the song to a CD. I'll listen to this CD in my car as I drive to see what it sounds like there. Listening to your song or mix on different sets of speakers is a great way to make it an excellent, well rounded mix. I often find, for instance, that the bass in my mix is a bit heavy in the car compared to my studio monitors. I'll also probably listen to the song on headphones, which you should be doing anyway occasionally when writing the song. This helps with tweaking the stereo image you've made in your mix.

Once I've listened to it in a few different environments I'll go back again and tweak whatever is left. Then I'll declare it done. (Maybe after listening to it in the car again?) I save it as a WAV file, and bring it to my Windows computer for mastering. I only do this because my mastering software ended up being Windows only. I'll add a very small amount of compression which I add to all my songs to give them a consistent volume level. Then I'll convert that to a high quality (256kbps) mp3 file, put all the necessary tags on it, and upload it to my website or send it to whoever may have asked for the song in the first place. I keep the master WAV file in several different places, (one on the Mac, one on the Windows machine, and one on a separate backup hard drive) to be safe. I also backup the original Cubase tracks as well, because you never know when you're going to need the original tracks when you're famous and some creatively starved rapper wants to pay you millions for the right to call your song his own.

Then I take a quick break and start all over again! If you want to hear examples of songs of mine that followed this procedure pretty much to the letter, listen to:

Falling Gracefully
Apathetic Macrocosm
Quantum Foam
Behold! The Mountain Cries

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Postmortem - What I Learned From Producing a Game Soundtrack

Recently I completed my first soundtrack for a computer game; a turn-based strategy title in a stylized fantasy setting. Although the game is on the verge of cancellation, working on the score was a fantastic learning experience.

Generally, a composer is given artwork from a game, or if he's really lucky, an early playable copy of the software to play around with. I didn't have much artwork or software to go by. Actually, I didn't have any. I was writing the soundtrack based entirely on the background story and game structure that the director described to me over the phone and through email. So it wasn't quite the same experience that a composer for media usually has. Regardless, in the end, I had roughly 40 minutes of music spanning 15 tracks. Here are some of the things that I learned from the experience:

MIDI Quantization is your friend - I didn't start using MIDI quantization until this project, but now I've learned how useful it can be when trying to write and simultaneously record. MIDI Quantization is the process of playing a melody and then having the computer nudge the notes around a little to keep everything synced up with the tempo. Some would call it cheating, and it is in a way, but when you're writing an entire soundtrack and live performance is irrelevant, then it can save you a lot of time and frustration, and allow you to focus on quality of composition.

is an important musical technique to know
- Because of the experimental nature of my writing style, I tend to simply throw in whatever sounds I think will make a song interesting. The game had a fantasy setting, so I couldn't go nuts with, say, the electronic elements as much as I would like. I had to stick with a smaller sonic palette than I normally use, a situation which tends to give a person a false sense of creative limitation. It will, however, force a composer to be more creative with the elements that he does have. This is probably why the soundtracks to all those old Nintendo games are so catchy: when you only have four channels of audio to work with, you tend to make those the best damn four channels of music you can possibly deliver.

I really, really need to learn more about chords and chord progressions
- oh boy do I ever. Learn how to make a variety of good chord progressions or all your songs will start sounding the same. This has always been a problem of mine and it's starting to catch up with me. I learned a lot just from making so much music in a relatively short period of time, but there is still so much left to learn. If you learn as much as you can about chord progressions, and drill chord structures into your mind, you will become a much better musician.

When writing for others, you can't get too attached to what you make
- You need to see everything you make objectively. Even when you think you've made your best work, the other members of the team may not like it at all, and you'll have to rewrite it. I was fortunate to have a team that gave me a lot of creative freedom, but I still needed to do the occasional rewrite.

You can learn a lot when you force yourself to write every day
- In fact I wrote a whole article on this after finishing the soundtrack: Don't Find Inspiration: Create It. It is one of my most popular articles.

- I didn't really do this before I started the soundtrack, but now I can't stress this enough. If you have a 30 track song, and you need to re-record a particular string part but you just left all the tracks labeled as "track 21", "track 22" or something else equally generic, you're going to be miserable trying to figure out precisely which string patch you used before, especially if you first recorded it weeks ago. Label each track with precisely what was recorded, along with any special conditions involved in recording it.

I learned a lot of small technical things as well, but these are the most important, overarching lessons I've learned from writing and producing a score. I think they all can apply to music writing in general. Any other composers or producers wish to share their thoughts?

Head over to to hear a few samples from the game soundtrack: The Regrets of Man, The Inevitable and Legacy of the Dead.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Piano Playing Tips for Beginners

Now, I'm not a fantastic pianist, but I've been learning for a few years now. While I'm not going to teach you to play, (there are plenty of other resources on the internet for that) I can share a few things that I've learned about playing. They all tie in to one golden rule: with practice, skill comes automatically. These principles can apply to practicing with any musical instrument, by the way.

Forget the tempo: go for accuracy - The most important thing to remember when practicing with an instrument is to slow down. Play as slow as you need in order to play accurately. With practice, speed will come automatically. You never need to worry about tempo. The correct tempo will come on its own. Remember that: ACCURACY is the most important part of practicing and playing.

No problem is insurmountable - As you're playing, you'll come across parts in a song that seem too complicated for you to play. Most likely, this is because you're going too fast (see above). There's no leap in skill or ability required to nail a particularly hard part, just keep practicing it over and over very slowly and the skill needed to play the part will come automatically.

Reading music will get easier - Reading music was always a chore for me at first. When I would get to a new note, I would have to stop, look closely at where the note was on the staff, then go over the acronyms in my head (e.g. FACE) to figure out what note to play. It's painfully slow in the beginning and really frustrating when all you want to do is play, but after several songs, you'll just start to remember what notes are where, and the link between the musical staff, the names of notes, and the notes on your instrument will strengthen to a point where, once again, it becomes automatic.

Take frequent breaks - As soon as you start feeling clumsy, or if you're like me, clumsier than usual, take a quick break. Do something else with your hands, like play a song you already know well or play a quick game of Tetris for a few minutes, then go back to practicing. This works wonders for me. Roughly for every 20 to 30 minutes of playing I'll take a 5 minute break. I'm convinced that I'm getting better faster simply because of this.

Okay, so that last one doesn't tie into my golden rule so well, but it is important, so I'm keeping it in there. Deal with it. Remember these principles and practice every day and you will be able to play anything. I promise.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Patrick Bettison's Carnival of Music Lessons

My article, Gain the Confidence to Compose Music has been featured in the March issue of the Blog Carnival of Music on Patrick Bettison's Bass Lessons blog. Go check it out if you haven't already read it, and check out all the other interesting articles on there. There's quite a variety this month, ranging from a high schooler's essay on music and cognitive theory to my personal favorite, 5 Reasons Why you should Ditch Your Guitar Teacher. Go self-teaching!