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May 30, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Five

Into the Void

Belle hates it when I do covers. She says it's because I pick the worst covers ever, and she's probably right. I tend to make really obvious choices, the songs that were overplayed on the radio about 5-10 years ago. And I see her point, but I like doing them anyway.

Today's sketchpad, however, is not a well-worn cover. It's a very rough version of "Into the Void" from Nine Inch Nail's The Fragile. Since only three or four people seem to have actually bought and enjoyed Reznor's double-album, you may not know it. It's one of my favorites. I played this through three or four times to get the arrangement worked out, and then recorded it in one pass while it was still fresh, which will explain some of the... looser rhythms in the first half. For most of the song, the looper is in record mode, overdubbing whatever I feed in, and I wipe it clean halfway through (where the bridge begins in the original). The only editing I've done is to run the vocals through the grungelizer plugin (although it could use some cuts to tighten up the arrangement).

On covers in general: let's start with the words of my good friend, the Madmunk...

"To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all 'it was' into a 'thus I willed it'--that alone should I call redemption."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Walter Kaufmann, trans., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1954), 251.

I like cover songs - not mash-ups or remixes or sampling (although come to think of it I like these for the same reasons) but covers. For one reason or another, they have tremendous power for me. I had trouble articulating why exactly I like the idea of covers so much until I remembered the above passage from Nietzsche.

So what follows is a quick and dirty examination of the function of cover songs:

  • Homage - It's important that this be pronounced "oh-mazh." This is cultural criticism here and I simply won't sound anything less than utterly pretentious. Homage covers your tribute bands: Beatles, Led, Stones, GNR, KISS. We love the band; we play the band; we are the band. It also covers bands that simply enjoyed another band's material and felt like playing it, e.g., bands doing a one-off of David Bowie at a club. We love the artist; we play the artist, but we obviously are not that artist.
  • Irony - While some covers demonstrate affection, respect, or even worship for a given band or tune, other covers have a different relationship with the covered. I'm thinking here of three covers in particular: Dynamite Hack's cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz in the Hood," Nina Gordon's cover of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" and Ben Folds' cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit." All these covers are of material by hardcore rappers N.W.A. or its former members. The deadpan sincerity of the covers allow for the misogyny, profanity, and violence of rap music to shine in all its glory. Gordon's singing of Ice Cube's verse gives the words "punk motherfuckers" a sweet beauty, and you can hear the dejection of a man who discovers his ho with another man when Ben Folds sings, "Man, fuck that bitch." It's sublime. It borders on parody, but I don't know that Dre would take the hit if he weren't in on the joke, so I call it irony. Then again, I don't know Dre not to take a hit when offered.
  • Paying your dues - While the first two functions deal in a band's relationship to the artist covered, these next two deal with where a band is at in its career when it releases the cover. Early in their careers, bands have to build up their repertoires, and naturally they fill out their sets with other people's material. Sometimes, you see bands score their first hit with a cover, e.g., Alien Ant Farm with "Smooth Criminal" and Limp Bizkit with "Faith." Maybe they go somewhere from there; maybe they don't, but you have to be able to draw like Leonardo before you can paint like Picasso. You have to show that you have the ability to play just about anything before you can legitimately choose to play a certain way. You have to pay your dues, so you play a few covers. I cannot believe I implicitly compared Michael Jackson and George Michael to Leonardo and Picasso. My apologies to all who were offended.
  • Phoning it in - You'll also see bands playing covers at the end of their careers. You're under contract for another album but the band is coming apart at the seams, or maybe your career is waning and you need to build momentum. Either way, you need to do something and do it now, so you phone it in. You play some covers. I'm not saying these bands don't like the artists and songs they're covering, nor am I impugning the quality of cover or covered. I'm just saying that, at some point in a career, you can tell when a band isn't terribly invested in coming up with original, provocative material anymore (if they ever were in the first place). Rage Against the Machine's last album was all covers, but the biggest sinner here is Metallica. Since "Metallica," their last good album, they've written a sequel (songs have sequels?) to "Unforgiven," released a double disc of covers in "Garage, Inc." (covers we've played before and covers we haven't), and essentially covered themselves with "S&M."

These are all good reasons, and I'll claim guilty as charged to at least a couple of them. But while the 'munk is many things--a philosopher, a man of principle, and a fine poker player--he is not a musician, and I think his list is therefore missing a motivation. To me, the real value of a cover song is that it is an instant connection, with yourself and with the people around you. Original material, don't get me wrong, is fantastic--but it probably has to build an audience. Nobody can sing along with it the first time. But for the average bar band, unlikely to find (or often uninterested in) commercial success, it can be nice to toss out a song and hear the audience's approval as they recognize the first few chords.

Covers, like bad fiction, are about the conversation, not the actual quality. With an audience it means making a connection based on the shared emotional response to the original song. For the artist themself, the point may be to take part in the song, to metaphorically wrap yourself in it and take ownership, even in some small way.

Unless, you know, you're playing Sweet Home Alabama and Cocaine to a bunch of drunken rednecks and fratboys, praying that lightning strike the next submoron to yell "Freebird!" In which case you ought to be ashamed.

April 26, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session 3B

Once upon a time, I played in a college rock band. We played a lot of covers and a few originals--I wrote the words, and the occassional riff. You may remember that I rescued one of my songs a while back in one of these sketches, here. You might also remember that the band was actually named "Mile Zero," and I turned its website into this humble journal when things went pear-shaped. But I kept copies of everything, and when I was reloading Windows the other day I found the original copy of that song. If you wanted to compare the two, you could listen to the original version here.

There's a lot to learn here, if I'm seriously interested in this as a solo project song. Clearly, it's a different aesthetic with a full band. My guitarist was a lot more spastic and we multitracked him, so the sound is very full, if sometimes wanky (I actually think my solo is more effective for its simplicity). By contrast, my looped songs tend to be more spare, usually maxing out at three loop layers plus vocals and live bass. They are very different sounds, but I think they both have potential to work.

No, where I can learn the most is probably from the drum part on the Mile Zero version, provided by Brian "Dr. Dex" Dexter. Brian is one of the better drummers that I know, and he lends the song a nice disconnected shuffle during the verses. I really like the way that it works to give the bass line a little extra slinkiness. My percussion abilities need a lot of work to reach the kind of energy that a real drummer lends to a song. I've started breaking drum lines into slap patterns when I listen to music, in the hopes that I can reproduce them later.

The other learning opportunity here is the levels of energy present in the old version. A lot of it is due again to the drums, but you can really hear it jump in intensity during the second half of the verse. I think it's interesting that the chorus actually drops back a little from that level, before fully relaxing as the verse shuffle resumes. It's a neat dynamic that I've tried to replicate by reserving the distorted chords, but Brian's tom work is also a big part of it, and that's harder for me to fake. A better basic percussion loop (instead of whatever I tossed off when I recorded this) seems to me to be the patch this song needs.

Well, that and new lyrics. And I have no idea when I'll have time to sit down and work those out right now.

April 10, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Four

Baby I'm bad news.

This is the cover of Portions for Foxes that I recorded last week. Here are some of the reasons it's not very good:

  • The bass isn't high enough. I tried recording two tracks for this song, one direct from the pedal and another recorded from a microphone in front of my bass amp. The result is a very trebly bass sound, and the looped bassline that drives the song is very low. If you have the ability to boost the bass on your speakers, you may enjoy this more. With a graphic EQ, boost around 100-200Hz. I'll be fixing this tonight--it's relatively simple.
  • It's at the very top of my vocal range. This isn't the best place for me to be.
  • It required overdubs. I still can't sing and perform this at the same time as well as I'd like to do. This will be remedied by more practice, but it always bothers me to record music that I can't technically perform yet.
  • Even with overdubs, my rhythm is suspect. You'll hear around 3 minutes, where I start do do a more complicated chordal part on the G and D strings, that I can't quite keep it on the beat for the lower chord, which is a Dm6 double stop instead of the power chords or inverted triads I play most of the time.
Even with all that said, I think this is still presentable enough that I learned from it, which is the point of the sketchpads. I'm not ashamed for other people to hear it. One of the compliments I received from another bassist on these songs is that even though they're very rough, he can hear the attitude and the intensity that I'm trying to sing through them. I hope that's the case here.

April 6, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear

In case the Taiwanese music pirates who download my songs (hello there! Bet you're surprised!) were wondering, here's the deal with the original I said I was going to record last week. I pulled up my old lyrics, remembered how the structure actually went, and realized that it's pretty unfriendly to looping. So it's back to the drawing board on that one. Instead, I just spent a well-needed couple of hours recording covers of Closer and Portions for Foxes, which you don't get to hear, because they're pretty terrible or something I don't really want my mom hearing (hello there!).

I may have new stuff up this weekend instead.

March 25, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Three

Another voodoo song?

This song has a bit of history. Back when I was in an actual band, the division of labor usually meant that the guitarist would come up with a riff, then I would change the structure and write lyrics/bassline to match. But there were a few songs, including this one, that I wrote myself. Since those are mine (all mine!), I'm working on resurrecting them for my pretentious solo project. I think this one, which was one of our better numbers, works pretty well in its new format.

Back then it was called Voodoo Doll, and the lyrics fit the theme. Why so many voodoo songs? Well, when I was in high school, it was kind of a fascination of mine. I was reading a lot of William Gibson back then, and listening to a lot of blues. I also really like the loaded imagery that it helps create. Since I've already got a song on the topic now, I'll probably either change the lyrics or the name, so that it's less obvious.

I'll record and post another sketchpad with my other Mile Zero song later this week. It's one that wasn't ever a hit when we played it, but hopefully with a new bassline and some arrangement work, it might get a new lease on life.

March 24, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Two

Innsmouth Blues

This is a rough version of my Electroplankton composition, so the organizer can have a sample. It uses Rec-Rec extensively, and also a little bit of Lumiloop. I had a version that included Tracy, but ran out of time while doing the actual recording. Also it starts with a bit of a sampled in-joke, which probably can't be included in the final for copyright reasons. It needs more movement, I think, but I like it. I really used Cubase's automation tools, which made a big difference.

So it's a blues song about Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

February 27, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session One

Download here.

Every now and then I'm going to start putting up these little samples of music, just a song or two, for criticism or just for my own satisfaction. They'll often be covers that I like particularly, or maybe an original in progress. This time, you're hearing a cover of the Black Keys' "10am Automatic," although it's not quite accurate because I can never remember the second verse. Two things to notice about this song:

  1. I've started using Cubase to record these, because it's more reliable and offers native VST plugin support. Audacity's plugin support has always been a weak point for me, and you can hear why: the reverb and distortion plugins make this clip sound so much more professional and interesting than I was capable of before.
  2. I can't improvise a solo to save my life. Got to work on that.

December 5, 2005

Filed under: music»recording»mp3

More songs for the ever-growing army of the undead

There are three new recordings now up at Four String Riot. One of them is just a cleaner version of Voodoo Funk now that I have a USB preamp instead of a laptop soundcard for input. The other two are more interesting.

First is a new original, titled Lazy Sunday Eyes. I tried to get an Elliot Smith-style chorus effect going on the vocals, because I thought it would sound really good lo-fi, but Audacity has basically no facilities for that kind of thing. It's a pretty good song anyway, I think. There are some glaring mistakes left in it, but if I aimed for perfection I'd never get anything online. Belle said she couldn't really hear them anyway.

Also I've added a cover of the Dandy Warhol's We Used To Be Friends, which you may be more familiar with as the Veronica Mars theme song. I think this one worked out very well, and features obnoxious overdubs of my falsetto. I feel a little guilty about that, but note that otherwise all of the new songs continue to follow the basic manifesto for my pretentious solo project: no samples, no drum machines, and no prerecorded backup tracks. Of all the songs I do, We Used To Be Friends probably requires the most footwork for toggling the loop and distortion at the correct times. It's a lot of fun live.

I don't know when I'll be getting more "proper" gigs, because that's a process that requires a lot of work, but with three originals and two hours worth of covers under my belt, it's possible that I could do it fairly soon. As always, it'll be posted here if it happens. In the meantime, I continue to play at Stacy's Coffee Shop on Wednesdays, so feel free to drop in.

September 9, 2005

Filed under: music»recording»mp3

My Foundation

From world-famous Four String Riot Studios...

There's a new original up at Four String Riot. I played this one out at Stacy's this week, and it seemed to go over well. Note for equipment nerds: it uses the Play Once function of the DL-4, which I hope to exploit more as I become more familiar with it.

Also note that I'm not really happy with the recording quality on any of these, which I think comes from recording into a laptop soundcard. The vocals are flattened, and no matter what I do there's a lot of top-end distortion. It makes it really hard to care about fixing the little mistakes that I've left in, when I know it's still going to sound like a 4-track. Swapping the mixer or the mixing software doesn't seem to change anything. This winter I'm going to try to grab one of these TonePort things from Line6 and see if a good USB preamp will solve the problem.

July 28, 2005

Filed under: music»recording»mp3

Voodoo Funk

New original, half-finished.

Future - Present - Past