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July 6, 2005

Filed under: music»recording»production

Music Boxes

I have just spent an hour or so playing with new audio toys. Krystal is a lot of fun, and it actually runs VST plugins (a sore spot with Audacity). This means I can have access to virtual synths and filters that I could never justify buying in hardware. Ditto for the Jesusonic, the blasphemously-named but incredibly versatile multi-effects simulator from the same guys who created Winamp. I haven't had a chance to really get down and experiment with it, but it basically gives you fine access to the equivalent of a pedalboard, complete with custom-built stompboxes, assuming you're willing to do some automation work and hook a laptop into your signal chain. That idea got me playing around again with Hammerhead, the great freeware drum machine.

I don't intend to exploit any of these tools to their full potential.

Earlier today I wrote about how empowering it is to have such powerful studio tools for practically free. As a writer and a bit of a technophiliac, the thought makes me giddy--a part of me can't wait to hook the bass up to a whole set of midi-controlled filters and start playing "In The Hall Of The Mountain King." The catch to all that power is that it can be a distraction. I've owned hardware multieffects units before, and it's possible to spend weeks just twiddling with the parameters of a few patches, never really being satisfied.

My current philosophy of music says that the fewer options I have, the better I can exploit them. I want the maximum level of flexibility with the least amount of complexity. I formed a lot of this mindset when I was playing live--I had a multieffects unit, which I then replaced with an ingenious but complex pedalboard. Both were too complicated onstage, and there was too strong a possibility that A) something would go hideously wrong and kill the whole signal chain, or B) a mistake would throw the whole thing into confusion, and I'd end up using a clean tone for everything anyway. Singing and playing bass is hard enough without doing a tap-dance to try to fix the result of a badly-aimed kick.

Nowadays, I use only two pedals. One is a 3-channel preamp, which does my clean/thick/distorted sounds. The other is my looper, incorporating a whole set of its own headaches. I miss the other sonic possibilities from my pedal collection (chorus and envelope are most tempting), but keeping it simple has forced me to be a better player. For example, where you play on a bass can have a dramatic effect on the sound. Playing back by the bridge with a little bit of a bend in the note can mimic an envelope for my purposes, and the sound is in my hands instead of on the floor. Moving up on the neck or palm-muting achieves the opposite--a thick, bassier tone with less growl. Combining greater control of my technique with a simpler range of effects (albeit ones that I know inside and out) lets me intuitively build my sonic palette, and I never have to stop the performance to turn a knob or press a button--very useful when building, layering, or exiting loops.

This is not to say that I'm against technology in music. I have unlimited respect for people who have learned to play a studio, as it were. The things a clever engineer can do amaze me, as my admiration for Trent Reznor and Rick Rubin shows. I'm also fascinated by bands like Muse that have incredibly complicated effect racks controlled by midi boards--but they have lots of money and people to figure those connections out for them. They make different music than I do. My vision as an experimental bassist is the equivalent of an electric blues guitarist--dirty, chunky Rock produced by one person. I shouldn't need more than some overdrive and a little EQ to pull that off, and I like the challenge that comes with restriction.

I certainly plan to use the tools I've got. If it records as well as it looks, Krystal will replace Audacity as my default studio. I may mess with Jesusonic for overdubs of sounds I can't create in analog. Just as the Ministry fans have hoped, I'm already thinking of ways to use Hammerhead live, converting the looper back to a delay and creating drum patterns instead of sampling my bass percussion. But these are just added compositional tools, and if they conflict with my vision or my comfort zone I'll toss them right back out. Music should be about the songs, not about the process.

Besides, if I take the time to sit down and worry about my tone again, I'll never get anything written. I'd rather be a musician with an armful of clumsy originals than a technician with a flawless orchestration applied to nothing in particular.

Filed under: music»recording»production

"It's me ma's. She thinks I'm having it cleaned."*

While we're on the topic of music, I saw this note on MusicThing the other day about building a home studio for less than $50. The Thing notes that, assuming you already own a decent computer (one that can see this web site), you probably already have most of what's necessary to record good music. Personally, I find that to be incredibly empowering.

I'll admit right up front that I'm a terrible amateur producer. I don't know the tools very well, I never balance the vocals correctly against the instruments, and I overcompress like crazy. My recording attempts sound like a guy who tossed something together as fast as he could, and there's a good reason for that. But that doesn't mean that it's not possible to put together something really incredible with the equipment I've got--namely, myself, a bass, some pedals, a cheap vocal mic, and an eight-year-old laptop with a buggy sound card. The software I use (Audacity) is free, and I understand there's even better stuff (Krystal) out there for a tiny amount of money (assuming that you're using it for commercial purposes).

There are an awful lot of classic rock albums we now regard as timeless that were done on a four-track tape recorder, where finished portions would have to be "bounced" onto other tracks to make room for more vocals or instruments. The Beatles and the Boss both made great music this way, but you don't have to--Audacity lets you record as many tracks as you want, move bits around, take out parts you don't like... It's more than enough to put together a demo, at least. I'll tell you a secret: only the snobs care if you did it with great technique and expensive equipment, and they won't like your music anyway. My old band got a pretty good CD recorded in my drummer's basement using an old ADAT machine, cheap mics, and a shower for reverb. One of the best albums I've ever heard, the Black Keys' Rubber Factory was, in fact, recorded in a rubber factory using whatever they could get their hands on. It is dirty and imperfect and it rocks like nobody's business.

The only real barriers are time and ambition. It takes time to learn, and it takes ambition to stick with it. It's become much harder to find excuses for my own lack of productivity since I realized that.

* A classic line from The Committments, when the band's manager pawns an old stuffed bird in exchange for a drum kit.

June 12, 2005

Filed under: music»recording»mp3

A Tiny Monkey Might Work

Does anyone else have this problem? At home, I have a collection of (ahem) illicit music files, some of which are duplicates that I either own or could obtain through fair use, some of which are "research for covers" (justification rocks!). In order to get them to some level of consistent volume, I'm forced to run a pretty heavy compression plugin through my mp3 software. This morning, though, I threw a bunch of new songs onto the iPaq for the Metro ride, and realized yet again that controlling the volume between the Pillows and the Pixies, for example, is just enough of a distraction to pull me completely out of the groove.

I recognize that we don't necessarily want to hand people more ways to mess up their music (don't get me started on equalizer abuse), but are mp3 rippers this inconsistent? Or is this another indication of increasing compression and degraded dynamics in music as time goes by?

Perhaps I need to switch to a more sophisticated Win CE music player. The problem, as I see it, is that the free ones are typical open-source mid-completion, and Microsoft is reserving WMP10 for native devices only--no upgrade available. If only I could find a display model with what I want and Bluetooth installed...

Title via the Monkey Explains It All guide to guitar effects.

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