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April 21, 2008

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Musical Sketchpad, Session Thirteen

Better Off Dead, as made famous by Bad Religion:


Been a while. Give me a chance to explain this one.

Bad Religion's Stranger than Fiction caught my ear again a couple months ago. It's the album with a lot of the classic BR songs on it: Infected, 21st Century Digital Boy, and Incomplete, for starters. But there's an impressive level of songwriting in evidence, with sharp lyrics and chord progressions that--if not incredibly original--are more complicated than they sound, and certainly more involved than punk deserves.

In fact, I like the songs so much, I've had an itch to do the whole lot of them as acoustic, voice-and-bass covers, inspired in part by the sound of the baritone guitar on the most recent Evens CD. "Better Off Dead" just happened to be the first one I picked. I think it'd be a fun project, to cover the album from start to finish this way.

There's not much technique on display here, either in terms of production or musicianship. I experimented with doing some fingerstyle arpeggios, but in the end I just strummed and sang. This mix has barely even been mixed, and has had no EQ or compression or mastering, as far as I can remember. I don't know how it'll sound through your speakers. But I'm pretty happy with the performance, and still oddly taken with the idea--although I won't subject anyone else to it anymore. Just this once.

September 3, 2007

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Musical Sketchpad, Session Twelve

Plenty More

Around 1996, the Squirrel Nut Zippers had a song on the radio from the album Hot, starting a tiny swing revival that lasted just long enough for high-schoolers to realize that swing music was really kind of a dorky fad. Hot sold a lot of records, but I don't think most people ever bought a copy of the previous album, The Inevitable. Which is unfortunate, because it was a dark, feverish little gem. I wrote a whole movie with it as a soundtrack in my head. "Plenty More" closed it out, and has long been a favorite of mine for its cynical swagger.

This is not a particularly original cover, nor is it flawlessly-executed. My copy of Sonar hasn't arrived for the new laptop yet, and so I recorded it on the Pro Tools rig at work, where the air-conditioning has been turned off all weekend. So I haven't cleaned up my terrible drumming or the other timing issues. But I've wanted to do at least a quick recording of this song ever since Something Awful called me a "a shakier, less confident version of John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants (when he does his goofy lounge singer voice, no less)".

Yes, it's terribly cheesy. I have no taste in synths. Now go buy the original.

June 9, 2007

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Musical Sketchpad, Session Eleven

Trouble, oh trouble set me free

It's been a while since I did any recording. And I've been meaning to do a new cover for a while, using more production instead of looping. So here's a punk cover of Cat Stevens' "Trouble," done just using the Variax and an assortment of Cubase plugins. I don't really have the voice for this kind of thing, but I like the rest, and I'm very proud with the drum programming.

September 16, 2006

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Musical Sketchpad, Session Ten

My brother's a guitar player, and sent me a jazz song he'd recorded in Audacity. I added drums first using the Impulse sampler in Ableton Live, then played some basic chords with the Hammond B4 patch of the MDA JX-10 soft-synth. Finally, I exported the whole thing and laid down a bassline in Cubase.

It's kind of a jazz odyssey.

On the whole, I think it sounds quite good--better than most of the recordings I do. I'm tempted to start doing more singer-songwriter material outside of the Four String Riot rules.

August 26, 2006

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Musical Sketchpad, Session Nine

If I can call you Betty, Betty you can call me "Mastermind"

A month later, and I've finally gotten around to writing some lyrics for this song. This is what David Byrne would call a "monster" version--the lyrics aren't completely set, the recording quality is up and down, and there's still work to be done to make it gel. But I think this is finally starting to go from riff to song. Next month I'll try to have a final version, as well as a final recording of "Strange Chemistry" and a re-written version of an older song, bringing my total of originals to seven.

This sketchpad was also done completely virtually, by hooking my Phrazor VST effects rig into Ableton Live Lite and recording from there. Ableton's not my perfect DAW, but it lets me record post-effects, and Cubase LE won't, so for now it's all I've got. The quality is different from recording through my physical pedals, and I'm not sure if it's actually better yet. The distortion is too soft--I overreacted to the treble I heard in my good phones. Something I'd like to try is to record just the clean audio with the midi messages from my controller, letting me tweak effects or maybe even correct faulty presses after the fact.

I dig the bass synth at the end. If I can think of a structural change I want to make, it mainly has to do with transitioning between verse to chorus and back--too abrupt.

July 24, 2006

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Musical Sketchpad, Session Eight

Very much a work in progress.

This is a pretty short audio file--only a couple of minutes long. It's still only instrumental, and doesn't it develop very much. But I'm posting it for three reasons. First of all, this is the next all-new original I'm working on, and I thought people (someone? anyone?) might be interested in hearing a song as it develops from a riff (this .mp3) to a scratch vocal version to a full structure to the final, polished version. So this song will be the subject of the next few sketchpads.

Second, it illustrates a quick object lesson for any other budding engineers out there. I don't know if I ever made it clear, but I've never been entirely happy with my recorded bass sound. The lack of balance can be partially blamed on bad headphones (now remedied) but was also caused by a lack of bass and a shrill high end (see: the distortion from Sketchpad Seven). I had thought that running the direct output from my bass amp's preamp section would give me a better sound, but it seems to interact oddly with the Tascam, and the result is not significantly better than before. Concerned that it might be a problem with my pedals, I tried swapping out my MXR distortion for my old Digitech Bass Driver.

Now, the Bass Driver wasn't necessarily an improvement. But it has two outputs--one marked "Amp" with a clean signal, and one marked "Mixer" that adds a speaker simulation for direct recording. And while I wasn't necessarily happy with the overdrive I was getting, I did notice that it sounded remarkably better through the Mixer output. A few quick patch cable switches, and the final result was to record my usual pedals through the cab sim on the deactivated Bass Driver. Now what the laptop hears is a lot more like what I hear from my amp. There's a bit more meat and less rattle from the MXR's distortion, and the clean channels have a better growl to them, with a more contained bottom end. All thanks to the speaker sim on a (nowadays) $50 pedal.

Finally, I'm putting this up because I think this is probably my favorite background loop for anything I've done so far, and the bass riff isn't bad either (although the chorus progression may have to go). I'm really looking forward to putting the rest of the song together.

June 17, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Seven

Strange Chemistry

Although there's no reason they should be, these sketchpads are really satisfying. I put the file online, post a short description, and then probably two people download it. I guess they just make me feel productive--and it's always good practice to record yourself.

This is an old song. The band didn't like it. I'm not sure if it is worth resurrecting or not, but hey: that makes five originals! (six, including Innsmouth Blues). A couple more, I could be all indie and release an EP.

June 15, 2006

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Musical Sketchpad, Session Six

One minute music.

Sometime next week the ProTools rig that my department ordered at work will arrive. I'm very excited, and not just because it's a serious DAW to play with outside of work hours (mental note: pick up a flash drive for my personal projects). It's also a real opportunity to add much more polish to the Best of B-SPAN podcasts. One of my plans is to add musical beds underneath all narration--but for that, I need freely-licensed samples that include both intros and outros, plus a subdued central loop. And why use our canned music library when I can make much more interesting backgrounds myself?

This sketchpad is an attempt at building such a loop, using a riff that's cool but far too busy to fit into the Four String Riot. It's not perfect for that purpose--the overlaid solo is choppier than I wanted, and this is probably too high energy to use for such low-energy material--but I think it turned out surprisingly well as a compositional experiment, and was good for planning my approach. I think it also proves that it's possible to build this kind of music quickly using just my bass and a few software tools. The drum loop was programmed using the essential free beatbox Hammerhead (using its Acoustic kits) and then imported into my Cubase session. I recorded all of the bass directly into the Tascam US122 at the same tempo, then tweaked it with either the built-in effects or the MDA VST collection which is fantastic and free.

Much easier than writing a real song. And honestly, not much less fun.

May 30, 2006

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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.

Future - Present - Past