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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Starting Out With Piano

Despite the fact that I've been writing music and performing melodies on my various keyboards for something like eight years now, I've only relatively recently started learning to play the piano in a formal fashion. You know: proper hand position, sight-reading, stuff like that.

Although I've had some musical training and could, in fact, read music, I wanted to learn piano as a beginner, as if I couldn't read music and had no training whatsoever. I did this so that I knew I wouldn't miss anything important. This might be beneficial for you too, if you're thinking of playing.

If you want to learn piano, here's what I think you should do:

First get yourself a keyboard. No one who isn't smoking hundred-dollar bills can afford a real piano, so don't bother. I tend to make fun of Casio keyboards a lot for their uninspired, out-of-date sound, but in fact I have a Casio keyboard in my bedroom and practice on it every day. The piano sounds fine on it.

Anyway, get yourself a keyboard that has a full 88 keys. Any less and you'll be hindering your own learning, and you don't want that. DO NOT get anything that has fewer than 88 keys. If you're really serious about practicing all the time, you will, within a few months, regret getting a smaller keyboard for cheaper. You'll start trying to learn an awesome new song that you've always wanted to play and then find that you can't because you don't have enough octaves to work with. This is maddening.

The best place to find a nice keyboard is a local music shop. They'll have a nice selection and can point you to a decent one in your price range. You can get one with 88 keys for around 200 to 400 dollars. It probably wouldn't hurt to check a place like Best Buy too, though their selection is limited.

Now you need to actually learn to play. You could pay for private lessons and they certainly would be nice, but you don't need them. There's nothing wrong with getting lessons, but you can very easily teach yourself. I've looked through a number of beginner piano books and the best one, the one that taught me to play, is the Hal-Leonard book Teach Yourself to Play Piano by Mike Sheppard and James Sleigh. You can probably find this one at the same music shop where you bought your keyboard.

Teach Yourself to Play Piano
assumes that you have no experience with music whatsoever, so its a good start for the beginner. It emphasizes using the left hand as much as the right, it teaches some basic music theory, and best of all, it doesn't resort to godawful kid's songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb or London Bridge to teach you music. You even get to play a genuinely enjoyable and satisfying ├ętude at the end of the book. You will be able to play piano by the time you finish, and it's only 50 pages!

After that, I suggest you find some beginner-level books of sheet music for you to learn from. Find books with music that you've always wanted to play, like from bands or composers that you really enjoy. This will make the learning process very rewarding. Not only will you be able to appreciate the songs on a more intimate and technical level, it's also simply very satisfying to hear yourself play a song that you love. I really enjoy music from video games, so I bought sheet music from old games Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, both of which have great soundtracks. You can also find a near infinite amount of sheet music on the internet, if you know where to look.

As you keep playing, you'll learn more and more about music theory. The best advice I can give you is: practice every day, even if it's only a few minutes. Really, you should be practicing about thirty minutes every day at least. For maximum results, practice an hour-and-a-half or longer every day and your skills will skyrocket in weeks.

Now that you've gotten to this point, take a look at my other article, Piano Playing Tips for Beginners.

By the way, no one paid me to endorse the book Teach Yourself to Play Piano. I don't get nearly enough traffic for anyone to pay me anything!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interview with Star Salzman

Who is Star Salzman? He's the most fun singer/songwriter/composer/producer you've never heard of. Check out his website at http://starblast.org/ and you'll see what I mean. With a keen and intelligent pop mentality, he writes catchy and whimsical vocals, complex synth arpeggios, sweeping (and realistic-sounding) orchestral arrangements and interesting, multi-layered drum parts. Take a listen for yourself, these are a couple of my favorites: Goodbye, Benadryl, The Long Road to October, Home is With You

Or hear some of his fantastic videogame remixes (from scratch. Not like those awful 'remixes' you hear at the end of pop albums): Tickle My Wily, Pillar of Salt

Since he writes, plays, sings, records and masters everything himself and is then humble enough to offer it to the world for free, I thought he would be a perfect candidate for the Makeshift Musician's very first interview. Thankfully, he also thought this was a good idea. (Warning: small amount of profanity ahead):

MM:
First off, tell me about yourself, for folks who don't know who you are. What do you do?

Star: This is how you start out?! What do I do? I coalesce the vapors of human emotion into a semi-tangible musical experience.

Not really. Mostly I am just trying to figure out where I fit into things. I spend most of my time working my day job, which is figuring out computer problems, and then I come home and spend most of my other energy on social interaction, and if I have any leftover I write a few notes or tweak a few volume envelopes on the song that I’m working on. I wouldn’t say I’m a musician. I would say that occasionally I write music. Most folks don’t really know I’m into writing music. But I doubt they’d be surprised to find out, either.

MM:
How did your interest in making music start?

Star: I used to be a bit of a nerd in middle school. I was in choir and orchestra and stuff. Really into music and really into composers. So I started downloading lots of .MODs off of BBSs and then I was listening to them in Scream Tracker 3 when I realized I could change parts I didn’t like and even write stuff since I didn’t have the download credits to get new music myself. But everything I wrote was very crap (http://www.starblast.org/starsongs/old.mp3) (1995ish). So I forgot about it for a while. In college I had a lot of free time on my hands so I started writing music again, this time using Impulse Tracker (http://www.starblast.org/starsongs/fire.mp3) (http://www.starblast.org/starsongs/FIRE.IT) (2000ish). I was still using the same samples I ripped off my mod collection from 5 years previous.

Anyway, music changed for me one day, when I was madly in love with a chick who later turned out to be a lesbian. I decided to record my devotion to this chick in song form. And thus my first lyric music was born (http://www.starblast.org/starsongs/sayitold.mp3). I recorded this in my dorm room on a p3 450 by first writing the music in impulse tracker, and then playing it through my speakers into sound blaster’s wav recording thing while singing over it through a Packard Bell screenmount microphone with a Ricola cough drop wrapper as a pop screen. One take, no autotune, just some chorus and reverb thanks to SBLive EAX. I was such a good vocalist back then. I seriously have deteriorated.

Anyway, showed this song to her (she never knew it was about her, I think) and she said it was “cheesy” so in a fit of emotional angst I stopped writing for a while again. A bit later a friend of mine was showing me this complicated program called Reason. I helped him figure out some basics on it, and then took the demo home to try myself. I fell in love immediately and wrote this piece of crap: (http://www.starblast.org/starsongs/starz0r.mp3) (2001) but the seed had been planted. Since then it’s been a steady, slow improvement process. Along the way I started using cubase to sequence instead of Reason, and started gravitating more and more toward vocal music. Interestingly enough, the first vocal thing I did that was met with any sort of positive feedback was the Incredible Singing Robot (http://www.ocremix.org/remix/OCR00988/) (2003). But the rest is pretty boring incremental improvements.

MM:
Did you have a lot of formal training in the areas of music, composing, or recording? How did you learn these things?

Star: I’ve had formal training on a few instruments. I was in orchestra for a couple of years on string bass… had private lessons for a year on Saxophone. But most of my real training is vocal. I was in choir for 4 years in high school and competed and such. I was really into it. Composing and recording I just sort of figured out by myself. When I was starting out there weren’t much resources on the internet for learning that sort of thing. There was no such thing as web 2.0 or Wikipedia. People were using Netscape in windows 3.11. I learned both recording and composing by painful trial and error and having some really close and honest friends to keep me dispassionate. Nothing is more important than an honest opinion when you are learning. I try to be as honest as possible with folks for that very reason. If something is crap, you should say it’s crap. Don’t beat around the bush.

MM:
Most people, even many great musicians, avoid composing and producing because they're intimidated by the idea and are afraid of looking or sounding bad. What gave you the confidence to write and produce and *gasp* sing? What keeps you confident?

Star:
Honestly when I started out I didn’t need to be confident. My music was for me. This was again, pre-online community era where people still did art and stuff for their own personal enjoyment rather than social validation. This has largely been obsoleted by the tons and tons of online communities willing to provide “feedback” to folks. Singing I had the confidence from competition and solos in choir and whatnot. It was never really an issue. I’ve sung at weddings, in public, in front of large audiences so that part was pretty natural. Writing and production I basically tempered on the anvil of harsh self-analysis and equally harsh opinions from my friends until I made something to be proud of. However that bar keeps climbing, which makes it hard to produce anything anymore. What keeps me confident? Partly, it’s the nice feedback I get from people, my family and friends. The recognition is nice and it validates my own sense of confidence.

MM:
What instruments do you play, and what is your studio setup?

Star: I suppose I technically play the piano a tad, but very terribly. However, I just added a badass Yamaha So8 Keyboard in addition to my crap no-name midi keyboard. I have two Event Studio Precision ASP8 Powered Monitors which kick all sorts of ass and were very expensive. I have a nice dual core amd 3800+ with 4 gigs of ram and a shiteload of hdd space. I have a rack setup with an ART Studio V3 preamp, an Electrix Warpfactory vocoder, a Boss RV-70 reverb, and my Motu 2408 Mk2 hardware interface. I have 3 mics: an AKG Solidtube, an AKG C3000b, and a Shure Sm58. I also have a Yamaha midi DT3Express drum interface that a friend left over here and never picked up. And a guitar and a bass lying around for no reason. All of this stuff including the rack and keyboard I bought used for around half price off craigslist, with the exception of the computer and my speakers. I also have a separate pc running gigastudio with an M-audio firewire audiophile. Pictures: Http://www.starblast.org/studio1.jpg Http://www.starblast.org/studio2.jpg Http://www.starblast.org/studio3.jpg

MM:
What inspires you as a musician and composer?

Star:
Chicks, mostly. After chicks, myself. I really only get into songs when I really like them. If I don’t absolutely love the song, I usually half-ass it till completion. If I love the song, I can’t stop writing it. I think you can usually tell when I start disliking a song because it’ll radically change in the middle out of nowhere. That’s my feeble attempt to create inspiration by changing things up.

MM: Any awesome techniques you would like to share?

Star:
Tons! One I really like is for pop songs, mix/master at a low volume. It works wonders since your ear works with a lot of natural compression. Also, free VSTs are great! Check out ymVST! Great synth. I use it all the time. Also, for a real punchy song, double the drum with the bass in a regular pattern. With vocals, sometimes it’s good to use double mics to get different EQ curves. Also, a good way to mix multiple vocals is to go into a parametric EQ and peak a certain set of frequencies until it sounds painful and clips. Basically you find where your own voice has spikes when added to itself. Then invert the curve to eliminate the spike. Use vocoder on sources other than voice on synths for cool effects. Like instead of singing use a drum track to make a synth percussive.

Arpeggios are awesome! A great arpeggio is the 16th triplet arpeggio. Go up in thirds or on the pentatonic scale for 5 notes, then starting on the 3rd note of the original 5 notes, go up 5 more notes in either scale and repeat that pattern until you’ve filled out the measure. It sounds great. To vary up a regular, pulsing synth line, use pitchbends and play with note length. Say you’ve got an 8th note regular arpeggio, for the first iteration go the full 8th notes, second, change the 8th to 16th+16th rest with a pitchbend on the last note... It’s nice for variety instead of just varying velocity and timbre. Glissando/portamento is awesome! But use it for EMPHASIS rather than general effect. Try to vary intensity in general throughout your song, have a climax, have quiet parts. They make music much more interesting.

MM:
How do you like working in different genres? Do you have a favorite genre that you like to write for?

Star: For a while, different genres were my only means of inspiration. I was so tired of my standard stuff. Most of the time I don’t really have a set genre when I set out to write stuff, and even when I do sometimes it goes in a completely different direction than I planned. Case in point: http://www.starblast.org/starsongs/weather.mp3. This started out as “80s” music but ended up sounding like the weather channel. But I made it work. I don’t really have a favorite genre. I just have some that I really hate. I hate most drum and bass, and I hate most “indie rock”. Before you jump all over me, I just think calling something ‘indie’ these days is usually just an excuse for shitty production and lousy singing. Since I am responsible for both and I know these bands make way more money than I do, they might as well stop pretending it’s because they are ‘indie’ and admit that it’s for the ‘I don’t care’ image.

MM:
How do you decide what to work on?

Star: I work on whatever generates the most fun for me at the time. If it’s not fun I’ll unusually do something else. Like play video games.

MM:
What about remixes? What makes you choose a particular song to remix?

Star: Mostly fun factor. Also I try to remix stuff that I think will generate a lot of feedback. OCRemix for me has turned into a confidence booster. I don’t really write remixes for myself. I write them so folks will tell me I’m good. Shallow, I know. But it helps. So whenever I feel like I suck at music, I make an ocremix to make myself feel better.

MM:
What advice would you give to a budding musician, or what advice really helped you when you were starting out?

Star: My advice is to get honest opinions and LISTEN to them. Even if it means you have to cry a bit. If your stuff isn’t ready for prime time, the honest person will tell you. Go work on it. You aren’t perfect, you aren’t even close especially when you first start out. Don’t listen to sycophants, listen to the critics. If you make them happy, then you are probably making pretty decent music.

MM: How has making music affected your life, and how has your life affected your music?

Star:
Making music gives me stuff to talk about at parties where there aren’t any “real” musicians there who will argue with me for hours about how software will never sound as good as hardware. It lets me hate bands because I can say “I could do better” and then prove it when I get called out. My life has gotten in the way of my music and the output has slowed considerably. But I still love it. Hopefully will have more music for you to listen to soon.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Difference Between Reverb and Echo

When you're working on music and you want to add some nice room ambiance to a vocal track that you recorded dry, you add reverb. But when you're in a large room and you hear your own voice distinctly coming back to you, you call it echo. Wait, what? What gives? Is there a difference?

'Reverb' isn't just some fancy term to make industry professionals feel elite, though I'm sure it has that effect. Reverb and echo are two different things. Here are the technical definitions of each:

Reverb
is characterized as random, blended repetitions of a sound occurring within thirty milliseconds after the sound is made. This is all the sound that immediately bounces off any nearby surfaces before it gets back to your ears. So first you'll hear the original sound and then all the stuff bouncing off the walls, furniture, trees, people, giraffes and even acoustic tiling. Your brain is specially equipped to notice reverberations before your conscious perception does. It blends the reverb with the original sound before you even notice it and then tells you that it all came from the same location, just so you don't get confused. Weird, huh? With enough practice though, you can turn off this feature and notice the reverb that occurs in every space. Snap your fingers, or as I do, make a sharp clicking sound with your mouth, and try to listen to the room around you instead of yourself. You'll start to hear it. Try it in different rooms. It'll sound different each time.

Echo
is defined by distinct repetitions of a sound occurring after 30 milliseconds. This is when you can unquestionably hear a distinct... well, echo of a sound coming back to you. When you are at a big canyon or inside a gigantic room and you, of course, say "Hello!" and then a moment later you hear it again, that's echo. For some reason, in the world of music production, it's called 'delay'. The term 'echo' is, to my knowledge, never used. What's wrong with 'echo'? I have no idea.

Next time you're at the Grand Canyon, a cathedral or an ancient meteor impact site, try some of these other phrases instead of boring ol' "Hello!":

"I'm not a crook!"
"Olly-Wolly Poliwogy Ump Bump Fizz!"
"Nooooooooooo!"
"AMPA receptors are both glutamate receptors and cation channels that are integral to plasticity and synaptic transmission at many postsynaptic membranes."
"meine hosen sind juckende!"

Friday, May 2, 2008

Vacation

I'll be on vacation for the next couple of weeks, so there won't be any updates for a while. In the meantime, why not read up on some of the articles that you've missed? Every one of them is listed by category on the sidebar over there. Or, send a message to makeshiftmusician (at) gmail.com. I'd love to hear from you!

-ben