Category Archives: Music

Music

My mother was singing in a band when I was in the womb which means that my first time on stage with a band was before I breathed air.  I think that pretty much doomed me to the life of a musician.  Granted, I realized early on that the musician thing wasn’t particularly lucrative so I started a career in software development to pay the bills, and it has done so admirably for my entire adult life, but I continue to do the musician thing.  By my count, I’ve been involved in the production of over 40 different cassettes, CD’s or digital music releases as either a songwriter, musician, engineer or producer and I still love it.  Performing and recording music is a central thread in my life’s story.

Today I am planning a new recording studio and developing material for a couple of new recording projects, but this morning I keep pondering how I got here and what all those previous music projects actually mean to me.  Why keep doing this?  Clearly it’s not to “make it big” or become rich and famous.  So, why?  The answer differs from recording to recording.

The earliest recordings made by my brothers and I were strictly kids playing at making music, at least for me.  But that early playground led to a lifelong passion for all of us, so it’s hard to dismiss.  Rhett was first to blossom when he turned out to be a childhood drumming phenom.  I took a few more years to start figuring out guitar and songwriting throughout middle school and high school.  By the time I turned 20, though, I had learned multi-track recording, audio engineering fundamentals, multiple instruments, songwriting, and the lot.  I had matured from a kid singing in the basement into a young man who was serious about being a musician.  I think of all those early albums recorded in school as an extension and maturation of the learning process that started as soon as our hands were big enough to hold instruments.

Throughout my 20’s, I was learning a whole different skill set.  How to be an adult.  How to raise a child.  How to manage money and build a career.  I feared that I would lose sight of making music.  I feared that the creative spark would be overwhelmed by “real life” and I would be one of those guys who looked back nostalgically on the “good old days”.  It almost happened.  Maybe it would have, but I never let that idea of myself as a creative person disappear from my mind.  As I learned to develop computer software I used the technical skills I developed to work on building an online record label.  I learned how to use digital audio workstations to record and produce music instead of older analog 4-track equipment.  Eventually my brother died, our band ended, I went through some major life transitions, my indie label folded, and music took on a whole new role of safety net and survival mechanism.  I recorded a bunch of solo material and you can find it here on this site.

Through all of this, music has helped me bond with my brothers and with friends, given me an outlet to say things that I couldn’t say any other way, provided me with a constructive domain in which to apply other skills as I learned them, served as a psychological health practice, and (of course) it has been a lot of fun.  It is also incredibly satisfying that so much of the music I’ve been involved with is recorded.  It’s like I have most of my life on tape in one way or another.

I can listen to myself at age 8, singing the first song I ever wrote while my brother drums in the background.  Or at age 14 when I wrote the first song I really felt proud of.  There I am in high school falling in love.  There I am in my 20’s celebrating the birth of my son.  I can go online right now and hear my 30 year old self losing his religion and his brother and his grip on the life he thought he was living.  It’s all documented in this strange, mostly public, way.  I am keenly aware that the music I write and record today will be heard by my future self and will bring the thoughts, fears, feelings, desires, and circumstances of my current life to his mind more than any photograph or video can do.  It’s like a diary plus a photo album but with the intimacy of encoded thoughts and a spoken voice and the awareness on my part of exactly what it all meant to me at the time.

When I think about the music I am making right now, I’m not thinking of posterity or my future self or entertaining anybody or making money or getting famous.  I’m just saying what I find within myself to say, when I go looking.  I’m casting around for feelings and thoughts, listening to my own mind for snatches of melodies that I might want to use, giving myself subconscious commands, sketching melodies or words with instrument or writing utensil in hand, digging around for something that inspires me to hit record.  I do this now because it’s what I’ve done for so long that I don’t feel like myself if I don’t.  I really am doomed.  And I think that’s OK.

Fistful of Datas: Chapter 1

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About six months ago I was on Facebook and I noticed a post from my friend Liz about a 90’s cover band. I said it sounded like fun. That Saturday, we had our first practice.

I had previously been in the band Robots From the Future with Liz’s husband Keith. In fact, I was singing and playing the guitar for them as they took their vows on-stage at the Kitty Kat Club at the end of a Robots set which happened to also be their wedding. Liz had started taking drum lessons and really wanted a band to play in so she could have a reason to keep practicing and playing. Keith was already on-board on guitars so I volunteered to play bass and keyboards. There was an obligatory “Craig’s List Guy” who showed up for the first practice (I was late, I missed him, he wasn’t invited back) and there was one more person to join the trio of myself, Liz, and Keith, a young man named Cristhian Arias-Romero who was a friend of a friend and came highly recommended as a singer and performer.

For the first few practices we brainstormed 90’s songs we loved. We all came at it from different angles. Keith was suggesting things like They Might Be Giants and Ween, I was throwing out Elliot Smith and Jeff Buckley, Cris was pushing Britney Spears and Madonna, Liz was voting for Cake and Fresh Prince, it was a great mash up of music from different genres and years, like a tornado in a Sam Goody store circa 1999. I found myself thinking that this could be a fun band to be in. Not only did I already like Liz and Keith, but Cris was really a great guy too, the chemistry was fantastic from the beginning. If that could be combined with a band that could play a wide range of music and make it our own, maybe being in a “cover band” wouldn’t be so bad.

Cuz I gotta admit… I came into the band with a bit of a bias. I have always considered cover bands to be somehow lesser. It’s not like the musicians aren’t good, or the songs, it’s just that I associate cover bands with background music at weddings or fawning tributes to better bands. It was hard for me to mentally connect the words “creativity” and “cover band”. It’s like, “get your own ideas” or “the original artist did it better, why are you appropriating their stuff?” They’ve always seemed lazy to me and I’ve never been in a proper cover band before. Oh sure, I used to jam on the weekends with some guys and we pretty much just played Neil Young songs, but we never gigged and we didn’t take it all that seriously. It was just something to do.

So, joining a 90’s cover band? Really? I’m doing that now? And we named ourselves after a Star Trek TNG episode? Really??

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Well, I got past my initial skepticism and started to enjoy myself and before long we had our first gig on the calendar, a night at the Eagles Club playing for the 90’s Preservation Society. It was the perfect place to kick-off a 90’s cover band and the first gig went remarkably well. We flubbed some notes and there were nerves, but the crowd was really responsive and Cris was such a natural showman that nobody cared. He was dancing and belting out the “jams” and really selling it and it was electric. Keith and Liz and I were pretty solid as a unit. It was crazy fun. That was when I really realized there was something to this band. We weren’t just playing 90’s songs, even from that first show we were a little theatrical, we were making the songs different and owning them.

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There have been many conversations over margaritas and pizza at band practices about how cover bands are perceived. How many people in the music community look down on you if you “just play covers”. Some people don’t want to book you. Some of the people that DO want to book you only want you to be a radio made of meat. We’re a theatrical band that happens to play 90’s songs, not a tribute to Pearl Jam or background music for a bar mitzvah. Getting shows lined up was a little challenging at first, but a few made their way onto the calendar. One of our next shows was at Palmer’s Bar, which, frankly, is not generally considered to be a venue that most bands even want to play. Palmer’s is a dive bar with a stage about the size of a king size bed. Most of the people I told about our pending gig at Palmer’s used words like “stabbing” or “shooting” in their remarks in re: The Venue.

However, we were offered the gig and we took the gig and we rocked the shit out of Palmer’s, tiny stage and all. Nobody was shot or stabbed, and we were invited back, and we went back, and it was awesome again, and we are going back again later this month.

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During the summer I actually played a few solo sets too. I did a night at Acadia and I played acoustic guitar for a dog rescue event on the government plaza in downtown Minneapolis, but FoD just kept getting better and more fun. I was offered the chance to play a fund-raiser carnival for Safe Hands Animal Rescue and I turned it into a FoD gig.

By the time we played the doggy carnival we were really starting to gel as a band. Cris showed up to that one wearing a homemade pink poodle outfit and it was going awesome until we got rained out and had to cut our second set short after only two songs.

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Weekly practices, a few bar gigs, the 90’s Preservation Society, a dog rescue carnival, it was a busy first six months for our band, at least by my standards. I’ve never been in bands that play out on a regular basis. Most of my background is in writing and recording. This was getting to be a really fun time. And people were noticing. And then… sadly… Cris told us that he was going to be moving to Seattle.

This was a blow. I am happy for him, and his reasons are really solid, but we were just really turning into a really unique, creative, and interesting band… that happens to play covers. And we had three pending gigs on the calendar. And without Cris being a larger than life presence up front, it wasn’t sure how we could still be a cover band without turning into the stereotypical outfit.

Our next gig, the last one with Cris, was the 10th Brainniversary of the Winona Zombie Crawl, and it happened last Saturday.

This gig was special for a few reasons. One, we were playing both the opening and closing sets of the night bookending the acts Speshul K and Koo Koo Kanga Roo. Second, it was a road trip, Winona being something like 120 miles from my house, so we rented a trailer and got a hotel room for the night. Third, it was a freaking ZOMBIE CRAWL so we all went in costume. Last but not least, it was the last show with Cris without whom, it’s safe to say, we would not be the band we are.

The band all met up at my place around 1:00 in the afternoon where we ran through a couple songs, ate a pizza, and basically got loosened up. Then we went to the U-Haul place and got the trailer and came back and loaded up. The trip to Winona was beautiful, country roads with corn fields, perfect early-fall-late-summer weather, then the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota and the Mighty Mississippi River in the Lake City-Pepin-Wabasha area. We checked into our hotel, contemplated “food lamps”, and Liz and Cris worked on their makeup and Keith got into his robot zombie outfit. I think the kid behind the check-in desk at the Super 8 was crushing on Liz a little.

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Keith and I went ahead to Ed’s (No Name) Bar, our home for the evening, and unloaded drums and keyboards and guitars and amps and all that good stuff. Our sound guy was Rob and he helped us do the usual “plug this thingie in over there” action. Actually, side note, Rob did a great job and I heard from a few people that the sound was excellent, so thanks Rob!

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Eventually Liz and Cris joined us and we sound checked and stuff. Cris commanded quite a bit of attention as a 6 foot 6 cross-dressing nun, Liz had a bloody hammer, a bloody knife, and a severed head on a hook, Keith was silver with a rectangular scrotum, and I was an undead Lego man. All in all, not the usual Saturday night.

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As we started our first set around 9:15 the crowd started to filter in. It was starting to be good times but then we were afraid we would cut into the next act’s time so we cut it a little short. I loved getting a warm-up set like that. It was really nice and I think it set us up well for the closer.

Speshul K, the first rapper I’ve ever seen wearing a pink bathrobe on stage, did a set after ours, and then Koo Koo Kanga Roo got up and turned the whole place into the weirdest Saturday morning kids show you’ve ever seen. There were zombies everywhere, and a rainbow parachute, and a big sign, and lots of dancing, and pumping beats, and comic books, and Jello brain molds, and cake, and the place really got going. So much so, in fact, that I worried about going on and losing the crowd. The bar was set absurdly high. We had our work cut out for us.

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We started off with Poison by Bell Biv Devoe, and any doubts I had were quickly erased. The crowd was raucous. They loved us. They were singing along, dancing, loving everything. They stayed even though it was the midnight set. Cris was amazing, Liz and Keith and I were tight, and every song we played seemed to go better than the last one. By the time we finished with Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Should’ve Come Over” and Komeda’s “Boogie Woogie Rock n Roll” I was in heaven. It was the most fun I could remember having playing a set. We had a big on-stage group hug and there were tears and it was just…

It was one of those moments you remember for the rest of your life.

It felt like the entire band was leading up to that.

I’ve played music my whole life, and disdained cover bands, and this was truly special. Standing on stage, in a group hug with a robot, a zombie slayer and a nun in front of a room full of drunken zombies, dressed as a Lego. Not something I could have foreseen.

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I’ve got a lot of memories from this year, but this one is gonna stick.  We were Fistful of Datas.

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But lest you think this is goodbye…  Fistful of Datas isn’t over. A parting gift to us from Cris was an introduction to another singer, Mike, who will no doubt be amazing as well. But I think it’s safe to say that Chapter 1 of the story of the band is written, Chapter 2 is just starting, and I no longer hate cover bands. At least, not this one.

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Workin’ In a Coal Room, Goin’ Down Down Down

My house was built in 1876 and while it does boast such modern amenities as plumbing and electricity, it also has some unique features including three limestone walls in the basement and a coal room where the fuel for the old furnace had been stored before the conversion to natural gas.

Since the basement is the home of The Nuclear Gopher as well as the furnace (which is loud when it runs in the winter) I occasionally use the coal room as an isolation booth.  This past Sunday I decided to take that approach to some acoustic recordings for a new project I had in mind.

The coal room is basically a closet in the corner of my basement, perhaps 7×7, I haven’t measured, but that seems about right.  I actually do use it as a closet and it contains a set of shelves loaded up with model car kits, a homemade bookscanner, a sewing machine, an airbrush, an old Super-8 camera, a cookie tin full of spare parts for guitars, and various puzzles.  There is also (bizarrely) a dilapidated bandsaw, my microphone collection, a drawer full of tube preamps, all my old 4-track tapes, spare drum hardware, and god knows what else in there.  Not exactly tons of space left over at the end of the day.   Also, the door handle is a loop of duct tape.

This didn’t stop me from putting a chair, two mic stands, a music stand, a guitar, and a small folding table with my laptop and audio interface in there and cozying up for a day of recording.

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The Coal Room Artist’s Eye View

I recently acquired the debut Julie London album “Julie Is Her Name” and was absolutely astonished by how little accompaniment was provided and how little it seemed to matter.  Julie sings to one guitar and an upright bass.  No percussion, no vocal doubling, no studio trickery, just a trio playing together.  Ever since I heard that record I’ve wanted to attempt something more spare than my usual production approaches.   On the song “Trio” from the King Crimson album “Starless and Bible Black” drummer Bill Bruford is credited with “admirable restraint” for sitting behind the drums playing nothing because he didn’t feel the music called for it.  I’ve always loved that.  I wanted to keep that in mind for this project.

After the standard level checks, connections, etc, I was in a good position to record the first song so I hit record and was on my way.  There isn’t a ton to say about the hours that followed.  It was a pretty standard series of takes and re-takes, contemplating which songs to do, occasionally breaking to stretch my legs, the traditional Sunday football break (Vikings over Jets in overtime!), drinking some juice, some coffee, and basically keeping relaxed and enjoying the process until I decided to call it a day with six songs laid down, three new ones, two covers, and one new version of an old Lavone song.   The whole thing was really relaxing and enjoyable.

Even in the coal room, I noticed a tendency of my two condenser mics to pick up the furnace noise a little when it was running but I managed to get takes of all six songs at points when the furnace was off so the background sound is absolutely silent, probably the most pristine recordings I’ve ever managed.

I tossed together an initial mix render of the songs and put it on my iPhone to listen to the following day.  Listening to that I discovered a half dozen little flubs or errors I wanted to correct so I did those micro-edits.  I also found that the different songs asked for slightly different EQ and compression treatments because of the dynamics of the voice and guitar, and I’ve been tweaking those on and off for a couple of days.

The big question now is…  Do I stick with 6 acoustic songs, call it an EP, and just finish the mix/master or do I add a little more accompaniment keeping the “admirable restraint” rule in mind?  I’m leaning towards some additional tracking, which I will also do in the coal room with the same approach so the acoustics all match.  I’m no Julie London, but I like the sound of my voice on these recordings and I do think the spare production helps highlight it.  Any additional accompaniment will be spare.  I’m thinking there is room for bass, a few places could handle a light snare with brushes, a little violin, perhaps some accordion on one of the songs.  I’m looking forward to the resulting EP.  I have an idea already for making it the first in a series but I’ll hold off on writing too much about that.  We’ll have to see.   I’m just hoping to have it done before the new year so 2014 doesn’t go by without a new release.

If you are interested in hearing the result when it’s done, head to my ReverbNation page and subscribe.  I’ll be sending out an email notification when the EP is ready.

Monkey Mind (The Story of a Recording Session)

I woke up Sunday morning with the strong conviction that it was a day for recording music.  I poured some coffee and adjourned to The Nuclear Gopher Too1, as the sign reads on the door to my basement.

Important pre-requisites for a recording session at NG include comfortable footwear (preferably slippers), a coffee mug (there is a K-cup machine in the corner so you don’t need to BYOC), and most importantly, most vitally for true productivity, coming into the session with no clue whatsoever what you are planning to do.  This is a long-standing Nuclear Gopher tradition and explains most of the albums The Lavone recorded.

So, I’m kinda Buddhisty (it’s unfair to actual Buddhists who attend sanghas and follow a school or lineage to call myself a proper Buddhist) and I practice meditation.  The Buddhist term “monkey mind” is something I have great familiarity with and I have learned via practice that it can be a great help to spend a little time wrestling with the monkey when you want to create something.  When your brain won’t shut up, odds are you have something you might want to say if only you listen, and that could be the basis for a song, maybe even something as brilliant as “Shaq’s Been Traded to the Phoenix Suns“.  If you’re very very lucky.

The process then, is thus:

  1. Sit with coffee and slippers on
  2. Find paper and writing utensil
  3. Start writing crap until non-crap appears
  4. If the non-crap is non-musical, keep going, you’re hunting wabbits
  5. If the non-crap is musical, write as much of it as flows naturally and then go find a musical instrument that seems appropriate and try to play the nascent song
  6. If the song seems to pick up steam, keep at it, if it peeters out, go back to Step 3 and write something else or Step 5 and try a different instrument
  7. If you have chords and words and you can play the song in some way, it’s time to record!

This part of the process was easy yesterday.  Like, 10 minutes.  Lovely.  There wasn’t a song, and then, suddenly, there was a little bitty baby song.  Nice.  I had to try a couple different guitars and a keyboard before I managed to figure out what I needed to do to write the music but it wasn’t bad.  Excellent. Time to record the little bugger.

Starting a recording when you are working totally alone and have to be songwriter, performer, engineer, producer, roadie, coffee maker, AND stop yourself from checking Facebook or playing Tetris is partially science, partially art.  The tiniest bit of triviality can derail all your mojo, like, “Oh, I don’t know if I can drum this, plus setting up drum mics is a PITA, plus there are all these loops in this software I could use, and hey I have this digital drum kit, and damn I’m hungry, maybe I need some toast…”  Three hours later you have forgotten the song you sort of wrote.  Therefore it is my strong opinion that you treat developing a baby song like building a fire with damp tinder on a cold day.  You need to nurture the process in the early stages, keep at it, don’t let it die out, because it will and you will wind up with damp sticks instead of a blazing fire with toasted marshmallows.  Perhaps the metaphor has gotten away from me, but still, a song may start with a riff, a lyric, an idea, a metaphor, a feeling, a piece of cool gear that makes a noise that hurts your hair, but it’s not a SONG yet.  It’s the potential for a song.  The idea behind developing material by recording it is to build the song to find out what it is.

I was nearly sidetracked in the early stages yesterday, but happily I decided to just PSTFDOT (Put Something The Fuck Down On Tape).  That something was the rhythm guitar backbone of the song, recorded through a DI box along with a metronome.  In the process of doing that, I figured out song structure.  I had written two verses and a middle part, so verse/bridge/verse was the obvious song structure.  But I thought maybe I might write more verses or something so I decided to go verse(lyrics)/verse(musical)/bridge(vocal)/verse(musical)/verse(lyrics) which would either make room for another verse or would make a cool kinda of palindromic structural symmetry.

Equipped with a song structure, a draft of some lyrics, and a mostly accurate performance guide guitar and metronome track, I plopped some cans on (us recordists call headphones “cans”, but in my case it was literally two cans of mock duck strapped to my head, as is customary to do in my country) and I sat down behind that intimidating beast…  The Drum Set.  After replacing the mock duck with actual headphones, I set about composing the drum part, which consisted of hitting things, swearing, wishing I was a better drummer, clicking repeat, and ultimately reaching a sort of zen space in which I could practice non-attachment in relation to perfecting my drums on a song I would chalk up to a demo and probably re-record and most likely would just replace my drums with Battery 4 MIDI stuff anyhow and god dammit.

Once I had successfully drummed the part twice in a row without screwing it up too badly, I went into engineer mode.  This consisted of setting up the drum mics.  Now, everybody says miking drums and getting a result you don’t hate in a small studio is super complicated.  Especially without sound treatment in an unfinished old farmhouse basement with bumpy limestone walls.  But here’s the thing: digital plugins can hide a multitude of sins and if you’ve experimented enough to know your gear and you keep it generally simple, it can be done.  Over the last couple years, I’ve settled on a basic 3-5 mic approach that works for me.  Details in the footnote2.  After setting these up, along with the laptop/mixing board back behind the drums where I can hit record/play, I laid down the drums.  It was definitely less painful than it has been in the past.  I got it in maybe 6 takes.

Now, going back to my baby fire analogy, getting from “I think I should make music today” to “lyrics written and guitar and drum tracks recorded” is like moving from “shit it’s cold” to “how could you forget the marshmallows again?”  It’s great.  Momentum starts to take hold.  There’s, like, an actual song there.  It’s not done, and there are still 23 Pictures of Adorable Wallaby Babies on Teh Internetz but you’ve got something.  You’re not just feeding pine needles to matches and cursing your mother for bringing you into the world.  This is when you remember why you have this stupid hobby.  Because it’s FUN.

At this point a new phase begins.  The phase of OPTIONS, oh so many options.  This is the part where you can be like “Zither!  I need zi… wait, no, how about I plug my guitar into the waffle iron..  or, no, wait, SYNTHS!  I downloaded this awesome soft-synth with 110 virtual buttons and knobs that combines the Rokorg Moogaphonaprophet SEM-80 with the MiniBooger Whapdoodle Modular 17-Voice and it has a preset only dogs can hear!  Let’s try that!”  The thing is… if it makes noise you can record it.  And maybe you should, but taking a minute to find your coffee cup, take a deep breath (and a swig of the coffee that is now cold because you forgot about it earlier), and seriously deciding what you might be aiming for is usually helpful at this stage.  I opted for vocals.  I knew that part was going to have to happen, I wasn’t sure what else, so I figured that maybe filling out a known piece of the puzzle might bring clarity to the rest when it happened.

I plugged in a large condenser mic and, while still standing behind the drum set, laid down a vocal track, then a double of it, then a harmony on a couple parts, then a double of that and, voila, vocals.  What then?  Piano?  Keys?  Bass?  I wasn’t sure.

I resolved the dilemma by experimentation.  First I tried some synth pads, nope.  Then some synth bass.  Uh uh.  I thought about taking out my bass guitar but wasn’t in the mood and it was several feet away from where I was standing, so…  I tried some sampled strings.  Nope.  Horns.  Nope.  Grand piano…  Grand piano?  It was working but I wasn’t sure how I wanted it to go and I didn’t want to compose a piano part quite yet.  Backburnered the piano.  Then I remembered I recently acquired an ancient Crumar Roadrunner digital piano from the 80’s.  I decided to try that.  The piano sound of it was wrong for most of the song but I liked it on the bridge.  Even more importantly, the bass sound was excellent.  I worked up a bass part and started recording it.

This particular instrument lived in a shed for years before I bought it off Craigslist.  It is filthy, and has many keys that don’t work.  It was also out of tune.  I managed to adjust the pitch to get it in tune, and the keys I needed seemed to work so I started tracking.  I had the whole part nailed except for one flub and decided to delete that track and take another go at it and at that moment the E-flat on the bass portion of the keyboard stopped working.  I needed E-flat.  Damn.  I could no longer play the part I wrote.

I was bummed until it hit me that I might have a fallback.  This is where taking stock of your gear can save your ass.  I had recently made a list of all instruments I have, as well as the “virtual instruments”, namely, emulated keyboards and softsynths I have in software on my MacBook or PC.  I entered it into a Google Drive spreadsheet.  I also cataloged all the modeled guitars and amps and all the effects plugins and what they do.  I still have to go through guitar effects pedals and emulations.  Anyhow… I knew there was some Crumar stuff in the list so I looked and, sure enough, the Roady (bass and e-piano!) was sampled in the Retro Machines plugin.   I pulled out a USB keyboard and brought up the Retro Machines thing and sure enough, there it was.  Practically indistinguishable from the real thing.  It sounded exactly the same as my real Roady, but less noisy and with keys that all worked.   I got the bass and electric piano parts I wanted in two more takes.

At this point it was 12:15 and I realized the Vikings and Packers were facing off upstairs on the television machine.  I had enough song recorded to trust that I would be able to return and complete, so I went upstairs to eat and watch the game.  The Vikings lost, so maybe this was a mistake, but you live you learn.

Food and a break gave me the energy to come back at the song and revisit the grand piano.  I opted to use it, but slightly sparingly.  Then I felt like those musical verses on either side of the bridge needed some sort of lead part…  analog synth?  Guitar?  I wasn’t sure.  I tried the synth first and couldn’t find anything I was happy with, so I plugged my Les Paul into an over-driven tube amp head turned down to 5W of output, plugged into a cabinet, and close-miked with my SM-57.  I also ran the signal via DI to a second track on my DAW in case I might want to re-amp later.  If none of that made sense to you you’re probably not an audio engineer.

I did four takes of lead and I wound up panning my two favorites to opposite speakers so I wouldn’t have to choose between them.  The resulting dueling guitar solo thing made me happy, even if I hadn’t planned it that way.  Finally, I figured out what I wanted to do with analog synths.  I wanted something nasty and sawtoothed during the bridge and bookend bridge guitar solos that would feel a little like the Mellotron from Watcher of the Skies.  Like a pad, but one that was a bit discordant and ugly.  I patch surfed until I found something that fit the bill in Arturia Analog Lab and then that was done.

It was at this point that I realized I had forgotten something.  I had built the song up and up without ever replacing my humble little initial guide guitar track.  I originally recorded an electric guitar through a DI and I really wanted an acoustic, so I pulled out my Martin and tuned it up.  Only problem was, the dogs upstairs were barking like crazy.   I was afraid to mic an acoustic and wind up also recording Barky Bark and the Furry Bunch.  So, I reached for a stick-on piezo pickup and hoped that would work in the mix.  It turns out that it worked very well, because it was nice and bright and percussive and the rest of the mix had the bottom end taken care of.

And that, as they say, was that, as far as general tracking was concerned.  I slapped some placeholder dynamics plugins with reasonable presets on the various tracks and did a quick and dirty preliminary mix down to throw out on SoundCloud and listen to throughout the next few weeks in different settings.  I will critique it, make note of mistakes that need fixing, check the sound in various listening environments like my car, my different pairs of phones, my two sets of monitors, etc.  I may opt to re-record some things or edit some things or re-amp or re-equalize, but I think I’m keeping the recording as a whole, it turned out.  Sometimes I just decided I would like to re-record the whole thing, but not this time.  This doesn’t guarantee it will be on an album or that I won’t change my mind, but that was the process from baby fire to marshmallows in my tummy as I got into my tent to sleep for the night.

I hope sharing this experience was interesting.  Here is the song, complete with random animated GIF music video:

goo.gl/QwCyud

And here is the plain SoundCloud player:

Thanks for reading!

1 The Nuclear Gopher Too is, of course, the spiritual successor to the original Nuclear Gopher studio which is now an exercise room in my dad’s basement.   I’m sure all you Lavone fans from way back already know that.  Hah.

2 I nearly always use the same kick and snare mic (E/V N/D868 very near the soundhole of the kick and Shure SM-57 on the snare, usually on the top, sometimes the bottom, for those of you playing at home) and then I mess around with overheads and room mics.  I own two ribbons (a Cascade Fat Head II and an MXL R40 that I modded to not sound shitty), and several large and small diaphragm condensers, including a matched pair of AKG condensers that I often put in an XY configuration for that hip stereophonic sound all the kids are raving about these days at the malt shop.  My recording technique is: get the kick, snare, and overheads to sounding at least 85% right straight off the mixing board.  I set the board up with a laptop on a little table back behind the drums with me.  I try to minimize bleed but don’t usually panic about bleed issues for kick and snare because my channel strip plugin will gate that shit right out.  Overheads need to be EQ’d pretty close to the tone I want and level-set correctly, but that’s about it.   If I am working on a song that heavily features toms, I may add a couple close dynamic mics to that part of the kit.  I pretty much always add a channel strip plugin to each track KICK/SNARE/OH1/OH2/TOM1/TOM2 and then create a folder in Reaper for the lot of them and and add a bus compressor to that.  The result tends to sit pretty well in just about any mix and if your kick and snare are solid in terms of levels and bleed, you can use the signal to trigger MIDI to replace those sounds with something better later using Slate Drums or Battery or something, so my snare isn’t great but I don’t lose sleep over it.   Yesterday I opted for a three-mic setup, kick, snare, and the R40 overhead, angled towards the hi-hat/crash and fairly low.

Blogging My iPod #1 – Wilco / A. M.

I’ve been more or less sporadically accumulating music in my iTunes library for ages.  I’ve decided to make a point of listening to every album I have and saying something about each one.  I’m going alphabetical by album title.

The first one to come up is A. M. by Wilco.  I think I can safely say this is the least interesting, least “go to” album in the Wilco discography.  I never wake up and think “man, I wanna listen to A.M.”.  It’s basically only in my library because I love Wilco in general and I don’t want to not have one of their albums.  Isn’t that why you have Pablo Honey?  You know it is.  You never listen to it.

Anyhow, there are a few tracks on here that at least hold the potential of the Wilco music I love.  “Should’ve Been In Love” comes to mind.  “Dash 7” has a nice vibe, although it’s a little steel-guitary.  This is one of those albums that I won’t skip over when it comes up in shuffle mode but I almost never play on it’s own.

The True Story of How I Joined Robots From the Future

Tonight I am making my debut on stage with the band Robots from the Future.  The first time I heard about RFTF I formed the mistaken impression that the band consisted of Keith Lodermeier, Reynold Kissling and Mitch Miller, played new wave nerd art rock, and had been around for a few years playing shows and putting out CDs.  I believed that the description of the band at http://robomofos.com was mere marketing hype:

Robots from the Future is a group of pan-sexual, shape-shifting android butlers, born in the future, residing in the present (your present) in Minneapolis, MN, and they love run-on sentences, and running on sentences. You’d think that beings with the ability to travel great distances in space and time wouldn’t have a primary location but robots get lazy. Just think of all the crazy implications they’d have to deal with once they got back to their own time. They can engage in coitus with their ancestors and not have to deal with having never been bornor being born more than onceif they just stay put in the past. That’s how it works.

Clearly absurd.

It was not until I saw them perform at Cause a while ago that the truth was revealed to me.  After their set I spent some time speaking to Keith and told him that I enjoyed their performance.  Keith politely inquired if I would be interested in performing with the band on keyboards.  Seeing as how I was the proud owner of not one, but two (music) keyboards, ten fingers, and a fairly decent amount of alcohol in my bloodstream I said “sure!”.  Little did I know what would next befall me.

It started innocently enough.  An email, a list of songs, a couple of CDs, then a practice with Keith to go over the parts.  But the second practice is when things got weird.  I arrived as I normally would, keyboards and gear in tow, and knocked on the door to the practice space.  The door opened but it was no longer the practice space I remembered from the first visit.  The room was at least three times too large and there was a tennis court that had definitely not been there previously.  Keith was nowhere to be seen, but his hair was there, shining silver and moving as if attached to an unseen body.  Suddenly the room reverted to a more typical practice space and there stood Keith as if nothing had happened.

“Oh.  Ryan.  You, ah, weren’t supposed to see all that quite yet,” he said.

“What was all that?  The room!  The tennis!  Your hair!”

Keith let out a long sigh and said, “Transdimensional room, tennis is the official sport of the future we come from, and my cloaking system doesn’t work on my hair.  I was trying to fix that.  Look, if you’re going to join this band, I will have let you in on all of our band secrets, eventually, but there is something you must first do.”

“What?”, I asked.

Keith replied by placing his right hand around his left wrist and with a fluid motion, twisting his hand off.  He held the disembodied hand out towards me, it’s finger pointing at my forehead.  Circuits and electricity glimmered in the stump of the left wrist.

“You must be transformed as we have been transformed from the flesh of man to a robot.  Only then will you be able to truly comprehend the scale of our mission to this time.”

I froze.  The room began to change again.  I turned for the door but it had disappeared.  Behind me, two lights shimmered and Reynold and Mitch appeared brandishing laser rifles.  There was no escape.  I was trapped.  I wanted to play with the band.  I had my keyboards with me.  I had learned most of the parts.  And I was curious about these strange alien beings.  But I did not wish to be transformed into an actual robot.  For me, the price was simply too high.

“You never said anything about being turned into a robot!”, I protested.

“It’s right there on our website.  Are you saying we are liars?” Keith’s eyes blazing with a cold blue light.

“No, no,” I stammered.  What to do?  I had to think fast.  I turned and looked to Mitch and Reynold for some sort of salvation, but they had laid down their lasers and were now engaged in playing some sort of robo-tennis and seemed entirely disinterested in the proceedings.  Then, an idea struck me.  I had seen enough Futurama.  Could I?

“I brought beer!”, I said, and hoisted a 12-pack.  The robo-tennis stopped.  The blue light faded from Keith’s eyes.  All three robots said, “Cool”, in unison and each extruded a bottle-opening appendage from a different location on their bodies.  Practice resumed and they agreed to allow me to retain my human form under two conditions.  First, I let them replace my mushy organic brain with a shiny new metal positronic one.  Second, that I let them upgrade all my internal organs and bodily structure with new indestructible robotanium pieces.  These seemed reasonable enough concessions to me.  At least they weren’t making me into a robot.  Thank god for compromises.  Who says robots from the future are unreasonable?  You should see my new bottle opener.  Very convenient.