Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Technical stuff has got me down...

I won't go into the details (this blog's already getting boring enough), but I decided to do some computer/studio updating work, to try and improve performance. It has turned out to be a slippery slope...I've been at it for the last two days!

Just as an example, how'd you like to see this message on your screen:

"Re-enter iLokManager Exception Description
Application: iLokManager
Error: com.webobjects.eoaccess.EOObjectNotAvailableException: No com.paceap.businesslogic.server.License found with globalID: _EOIntegralKeyGlobalID[License (java.lang.Integer)5073116]
Stack trace:
File Line# Method Package
NA : Non applicable, JIT activated"


Thankfully I was smart enough to put it at an unbusy time when I could afford to do some tweaking...

My kingdom for an abacus!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Simon says....

...he hears the mix of "I Don't Know Why" as not being 'done'. He feels it doesn't sound like it's all in the same room.

Hmmm...I heard that for a second when I was listening in phones before I posted it, but I thought I was going crazy. Good ear Simon!

Now that I go back, I don't know how much I care. It does sound pretty great. I was listening and comparing to Isaac Hayes stuff from itunes (that's my model for this tune - and ya gotta revere the masters!), and I can hear Isaac puts more reverb in the higher instruments, so jangley guitars tend to be pretty wet, but he's more austere with say the drums. I think I'll try that.

Point taken.

The thing is, Simon said "the recording strikes me as being at a "demo" level, somehow". OUCH!!! He was never much for pulling a punch.

I DON'T DO DEMOS! Them's fightin' words where I come from!

Fortunately, I think we are talking about small increments at this point...

I know so much more about mixing orchestral music......

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How cool is this? ......

I am doing a recording of a short classical piece I wrote for a funeral of a friend last year, performed live at the service, called "Dona Nobis Pacem". This means "grant us peace" in Latin. It's a pretty little 2 1/2 minute piece for a cappella 5 part choir.

I'm doing it as overdubs, so each singer will come in and record separately. I started with sampling software called 'Symphonic Choirs', which has a program called 'Wordbuilder' that allows you to build a performance of a choir by adding each syllable to the text. The sample then responds with the appropriate note and vowel. I can't tell you how tedious the construction of this is, or how long it takes! I will say that with the right know-how (which I think I have), you can produce a choir that is quite convincing in an orchestral texture, and amazing but a little too synthetic sounding in an a cappella (no instruments) setting. Not good enough for a final though, in my opinion.

So I'm bringing in some singers to replace the symphonic choir samples.

The first singer, who sang three pieces for me last Thursday, had trouble staying with the track. Totally understandable - because it speeds up and slows down, like any good classical piece does. Of course, she's in another room so I can't really signal or conduct her. Plus even with visual communication, there's a lot to do in a recording session if you're behind the board. I dealt with the timing issues in editing...and it's fine...but then I came up with an idea.

I recorded myself with a video camera conducting the piece to the track that preexists (not the most up to date camera there, but it got the job done). Then I imported the video into my computer and synced it to the music, which I'm then going to send out to a regular TV. It'll be a little tricky because the firewire bus tends to get overloaded when sending video and audio, but I'll figure it out (maybe I'll figure out how to run the video from a 2nd computer and sync it to the 1st). That way the other singers will be able to follow my conducting, and see the tempo variations. The video like the music, is random access, meaning you can start from anywhere virtually instantaneously.

A conductor is so much better than a click, because you also see the space in between the beats. Also a lot of the stuff you say to a performer to get the music shaped correctly is expressed in the physical gestures, so you have to spend less time explaining things.

click to enlarge

Anyway, the screen capture above is the Digital Performer environment, which includes a still picture of the movie of me conducting. Also in the picture is the mixer controls and sound wave data for existing tracks.

Now there are two of me...I'll be able to run the controls while another one of me will do the conducting.

Is that amazing or what!!!???!!!

A productive day...

I had a good day today. I finished the audio of the master for the film "Strange Girls". This was the final final. I worked with the final output level (I've been having some trouble with the very last loud portion having enough impact). Short answer? I turned it up. Sounds easy right? Don't count on it.

That's because turning it up requires signal processing, so I put [go to sleep for the next sentence if you like] a Waves Ultramaximizer on the main output bus, and created a new bus on an aux track and routed the audio to that bus and then to the main output, where I rode the aux up a few db in that spot. I managed to do as little harm as possible...

Of course, I could have turned the other stuff down, but I'm way too much of a hero for that -- and we got a loudness war going on!

What does that mean? Well, every CD you pick up has to be louder than the last. It's all out war. That's because we who create music have forgotten that people have this knob on their stereos (or slider on their computers) that allows them to increase the volume to a level they find desirable. As an engineer, you can't argue against it, you just have to join the fray.

When I'm just mastering other people's stuff, I'm encouraged to turn it up way past the point of distortion, and they say "it sounds great!". I've lost my mojo to fight too, I used to give the long "loudness wars" sermon. Now I've shortened the sermon, and I just do what they want, cause that's what they're hearing in other music. You should have seen me back in those days -- I used to go into this whole thing about fractal geometry, and the three dimensional aspects of sound. It was so cute..

It always ended up as loud as possible in the end anyway...

This is the kind of stuff I obsess over. I have an exponentially harder time getting anything done I wrote myself because of this...well...perfectionism.

As for the material, I went with the all orchestral approach. I'm going to put the pop songs ('pop' is used here in the broadest possible sense, as differentiated from classical sounding orchestral music) I wrote on another release at a later time. They didn't fit as well as I would have liked and I would have had to turn them down (those loudness wars again).

...and I've got 60 minutes on this CD as it is...

I also completed the mix on the song "I Don't Know Why", which makes a very short appearance in the film. I wrote it for the film, but I decided to expand it a bit and recruit vocalist Walt Elson, who has a bit of a Isaac Hayes [much respect] vibe going on.

It's on my myspace page if you want to check it out. The lyrics are a little more vacuous than anything I'd write for personal expression, but that was part of the fun.

Again, I was obsessing over the mix. I just got it as good as I could and then sent an email to all the musicians asking them to send me their thoughts. First I listened on my big system. LOUD. It was awesome. Second, I moved it to my laptop and listened, very trebly. HMMM.

So I go back and back out a little of the high hat, which was the bothersome part. Then when I check that out in itunes, it still sounds a little ... I dunno...hyped

Then I remember, itunes defaults to a sound enhancer in it's preferences every time they update it. ENOUGH WITH THE SOUND ENHANCER. IT SUCKS APPLE!! I turn it off in the preferences. Luckily I haven't gone overboard with the high hat attenuation. I checked against some other stuff at the itunes store.

Then I listen on headphones, do the drums have enough of the plate reverb? Should I pan the backup singer Pamela back a little more to the middle? Is the Walt's 5th word in tune? I gotta go back...

Back to the studio, after a few more dives into the mix...well you get the idea, I'm driving myself crazy!?!

But all in all it was a good productive day, and I hope I'm finished with this mix...

I going to let let someone else tell me if I'm not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As I was walking home from the gig...

...I was thinking: "what a lucky dude I am!"

But I digress...

The gig (see below) was fun. VERY LOUD. My ears are still ringing. I wasn't too sure at times if I was even hearing myself, so I'd stop and listen to see what was missing. Happily there was generally a missing element at those times. At other times, you'd think, "am I playing that?" or you'd hear a sound and think: "what instrument could that possibly be?".

In a musical existence where I'm generally adding a dash of this or a pinch of that, this was a wild sex orgy for music (Yes, it's a mixed metaphor). I met the participants about an hour beforehand at the venue, and we did a minimal setup. We didn't play a note together until the event started. There was no attempt to discuss in detail what we would do. I walked around the stage as our contingent took out their wild toys, at least those that were preset. Some would make an appearance only after the music had started. Then the bandleader introduced us, we started playing, and two hours later it was all over after one of only a few decrescendi of the evening. Beginning to end - it was continuous with no break. We said our goodbyes and that was it. But it wasn't like an orchestra (where the music is written out), or even a band (where you know the songs), this was an all out free-for-all. The feeling was wildness.

I wish all my relationships were like this!

But seriously...

The evening was designed to bring together the world of film, poetry and music. At the start there was a screen in front of us, and films played. All the films were by emerging filmmakers, a few of whom were there in attendance. Then there was a poet, who from time to time, when inspired, would read poetry from her seat in the audience. You couldn't hear her that well either

From the start notes were flying everywhere.

Our percussionist [Ravish Momin] had a small kit: a tiny (by most standards) kick drum, a snare and a cymbal with a large ride and small splash on the same stand, and an assortment of percussion toys, some of which I saw, some I only heard. There were shakers, and hand drums and things.

The bass player [Tom Abbs] had an upright bass, but he also had a digeradoo mounted in between the body of the instrument and the strings, cattycornered to the fingerboard of the instrument, and on top he had a violin bolted to the bass in the upper left quadrant. He played a lot with the bow (meaning 'a lot' if you're thinking of jazz) but also a lot of pizzicato (fingerstyle). The program says he also would be on tuba, but I didn't see that one come out. This guy was coming up with all sorts of unexpected stuff. I really enjoyed his energy and adventurousness.

Our guitarist [Bruce Eisenbeil] was as adventurous in approach, if not in instrumentation. He just set up a standard Stratocaster and a Fender twin. He did have all sorts of pedals, some of which were quite old, with lots of those old school sliders for real time interaction. Occasionally I would l look over at him and he'd be holding a feedback note - channeling Jimi Hendrix - and adjusting his musical figure with his knobs on the pedal (one of which he had on a stool so he didn't have to lean over while adjusting).

I was just playing a piano, and I was the most conventional in the mix by a long shot (imagine that!). No gadgets, no uncommon instruments - just piano. Once I got into the swing of things I did strum the strings a bit -- I wish I had taken a guitar pick! Oh well.

[Josh Sinton] played Baritone sax and Bass Clarinet. He took out a bunch of metal bowls at the beginning, but I didn't ever see him use them for musical purposes. He was right next to me too. Perhaps they were for spiritual or ornamental purposes, I never did find out. At one point in the proceedings, he spilled some water and went to get a paper towel, but I wasn't sure if that had to do with the metal bowls or a drink.

Finally our leader [Dan Godston] played trumpet, and came out with a few different horns surprising me during the evening. He had the standard trumpet which he used with and without mutes (which as you may know, are often less about muting per se, and more about timbre change on a trumpet. A muted trumpet can be very loud played forte.) Also he had a piccolo (small) trumpet, and an instrument he called a "slumpet", which was a trumpet with a slide, similar to a trombone.

As the evening spun out, the films ended and the screen was rolled up and we just kept playing. I felt like the music got better at that point. As a film scorer, I'm used to adding just a little to reinforce the film, so the in your face feeling of the music re: the films was something I wasn't used to. None of the film's audio was used, so we were the only sound. Afterwards I was discussing it with one of the musicians, and he mentioned that he had assumed the personage of one of the characters in one of the films. Interesting thought. There are of course lot of ways to score a film. You can score the action, or the emotion. You can score the setting, you can score the mood of the setting or of a particular character. You can also comment on the action/setting/mood/character either directly or by writing against it (think of the "Adagio for Strings" in "Platoon"). You can decide to drive the action, or to comment on it - in it or above it, so to speak. While impractical in a conventional sense, the music we were making didn't go with my default approach, but it definitely opened up possibilities.

One funny thing was, I was so sure everyone was going to be impressed by my touch. It's kind of 'my thing' as a pianist, because I can really play amazingly softly, which is difficult -- but it didn't come up!

I was nervous - after all - in the beginning. As we were playing, when someone in the band would look at me, I had this feeling they were thinking "don't play that, we don't do that here..." Afterwards though, the band was generally complementary. I was holding down the rhythm a lot. Like the proverbial group sex experience (and proverbs are the only experience I've had with that) you'd focus on one person for a while and then move on to the next. I found I was most comfortable getting with the bass and drummer. Often when I played single melodic lines I couldn't be heard, even though I'd play them at double or triple octaves as loud as possible, so I moved into more percussive stuff, taking a chord voiced in a 'part writing' style (lush and jazzy, in the middle of the keyboard) and hammering away, wandering chromatically about. By later in the evening, I had decided to let Dan, Josh and Bruce go on their way - occasionally musically commenting on a rhythm they made - while mostly holding with drums and bass. Other times I would do very high arpeggios, figuring that would be a way to leap out of the texture, and commented or complemented that way, like a bird flying quickly through the scene and attracting attention though quick movement and high altitude. The piano had by far the highest range of any of the instruments, so I spent a lot of time above middle c.

It was a test of technique which I felt pretty good about. I did trills, and tremolandi figurations that lasted probably for 2 minutes or longer, which is pretty demanding, without feeling like I was going to pass out.

Unfortunately, while there are pictures of the event, I don't know who took them, so I decided to write here at length for posterity.

Many thanks to the awesome Rona Mark for hooking me up to this gig!

...and that brings us back to me walking down the street after the gig feeling lucky. What wild dream did I have that in the space of one week I could be recording vocalist Carol Woods, playing electric guitar over a soaring pop ballad, recording strings, working with singers on a composition I wrote for choir, mixing a funk tune I wrote, working on my world music project, and doing this free improvisation gig last night?

It's everything I could have ever wanted out of life. Lucky.

Everything except the sex thing...

Friday, August 15, 2008


...yeah, a little.

I have a gig with the following folks (click to enlarge) on Monday the 18th of August:

We don't know each other, have never met, and there will be no rehearsal -- we will not be seeing the films in advance, or hearing the poetry....just improvising based on what we're experiencing at the moment. This is the kind of thing that could be incredible...or not.

Even though I improvise, I'm a control freak, which is why I NEVER go dancing, but I have been in an actual dance performance as a "dancer". (Parenthetically, I also co-choreographed that piece with dancer Janet Gerson. This was in the 80's. "Rituals and Incantations", it was called. I came up with the title and concept, which I always liked. Musicians dancing, and and dancers making music.)

...but I digress......

Somehow, this kind of reminds me of that...the only difference is that we REHEARSED Rituals and Incantations...

Anyway, it's a great venue. It's a place called Cell which just opened. I suggested this place to the guy (Dan Godston) who is putting it together. I saw a really great Turkish performance there with Sevgi a couple of months ago.

I am practicing though, although I don't know how to practice for it....

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sessions for "In Your Heart"...

This week I've been doing great sessions for a song called "In Your Heart". The song is by Lyricist and overall renaissance man Christian Holder and composer Noa Ain who is also a wonderful visual artist, with arrangements by the superhuman Andy Brick.

We had some great performances this week:

Vocalist Carol Woods came in to do a take-no-prisoners killer vocal. What a pro -- ready to deliver and completely accommodating -- she was totally prepared and ready to go! She has actually recently appeared in my neighbor's movie "Across the Universe". I also understand she's appearing on Broadway in a revival of "Chicago". She came in during the day before the show.

Saxophonist "Sweet" Sue Terry came in for some sax work. Sue and I have known each other for about 13 years. It was a pleasure to work with her again. We just turned on the song, put her track in record and she proceeded to negotiate some sophisticated chord changes like some shaman, guru-like intuit -- no chart in front of her (!). She's a monster.

After the first three takes, we said "Sue, do you have the music?" and she said "no". (US) "Would you like to see it?".... (HER) Uh...I, guess, yeah that'd be cool"...


We also had some great background vocals, arranged on the spot by three great singers, whose names I barely caught as they flew through. One of the singers had worked here before on a previous project, but I didn't even recognize her until about 1/3 of the way through the session.

Also, there was a fairly copious amount of other friends and family coming through. It's starting to feel like the Hit Factory up in here!

I was honored to pluck the guitar a little.

Special shout to Andy to trusting me to do this with this gang!

Screen captures from the talkback video feed (video link between control room and booth) are here

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A new axe....

It's been years since I bought a new guitar! The last one I bought was a bass whose only owner was the great Jaco Pastorius when he was still alive, and he died in 1987. I still use that thing.

We used to follow Jaco around when we first came to NYC, and see him in various clubs. One night we even saw the Word of Mouth Big Band with Toots Theilemans on the harmonica and Paul McCandless among others! Jerry Jermont sat in for a lot of the gig on Bass. That was at the original Lone Star Cafe (now a deli). Jaco liked to party (not letting any secrets out) and he let his bass go so cheap (in order to fund the party) that I couldn't help but pick it up. Simon found it at Matt Umanov's.

Well, I got a new acoustic last week. It's an Ovation, which is the kind with the rounded back. I bought it sight unseen since I heard that they were closing some factories and were going to start making them overseas. Also it was severely discounted on closeout.

As you may know though, guitars are a very personal thing, so it was a gamble. Acoustics are even trickier. I never even owned an acoustic steel string till I was in college.

I remember about 30 years ago (college days - yes I am old) my good friend Tom Bolling was working at a guitar store in my old hometown of Richmond Va., and he called me one day about a steel string guitar in his shop and said, "come down here immediately and bring your checkbook, because I just found the guitar that's going to change your life" (I still remember the exact words). Up until then I had only owned electrics and classical (nylon string) guitars. I had stayed away from steel string acoustics.

I did as he said, and later that day I had my first steel string -- and it did change my life.

Of course that was a fellow guitarist, a good friend that still lives about 50 feet from me to this day (different city even), and he was talking about this one particular instrument he'd found and personally played. This is because he knew that for me, I need really great action. The sound on that guitar wasn't unbelievable, but it opened up a little over time. The action was killer though...these days the instrument has gone downhill, as the neck is becoming warped. It's really unplayable, and right now I'm using a loaner steel string (an archtop - also Tom's). I used the loaner on a "School House Rock" (Yes, it's coming back) session a couple of months ago (thanks Andy!), but I hate the sound of the recorded instrument (sorry T). It did make it on that recording though (at least I think, more on this later...).

Fast forward a little -- to about 10 years ago I went into Sam Ash guitars on 48th street and while browsing picked up a guitar that played so well and sounded so good that I put it down immediately, because I knew that in a couple of minutes I was going to fall in love with it, have to buy it, and spend 5 grand on it (or 10 grand by the time I amortized the credit card debt). I realized at that moment how far guitars had come in the years since I bought that 1st steel string guitar back in Richmond. The guitar from 30 years ago was as costly as non-collector guitars were in those days. But there were no 5 grand guitars that I remember.

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty good about about the new axe.

A few things actually caught me by surprise. For one, I love the sound of it unamplified! I was expecting - based on my discussions with Bob Mondok at Sweetwater - that I was not going to be overly enthusiastic. It's not really loud (I don't need really loud) but it has a nice rich well balanced sound. Given Ovation's reputation, I was expecting loud. It has rich low frequencies, good highs, no annoying midrange, just like I like in an acoustic. I got the balladeer model.

I'm not in love with the direct sound, but I haven't heard the acoustic guitar yet on which I really liked with the internal pickup, so I'm not surprised by that. It's thumpy (but that's the nature of the beast). I was willing to be pleasantly surprised given what I gathered from Bob. but it's OK. It may be great as supplemental to a miced sound, we'll see.

I recorded with it today, and we had to go direct because I couldn't leave the control room (I was playing guitar but didn't want to leave Andy to fend by himself, although he's totally up to it, and because it made sense to talk to the other people in the room for suggestions). The sound worked for what this project is (guitar sits in a richly populated pop/funk mix), but it won't make me give up good microphones.

I'm still excited to see how microphones work with it. When I get some time, or the right project, I'll blog about it. I have a feeling I'm going to like it with my U87.

The action is a little on the high side, I read in the owner's manual that the bridge has shims in there that can be taken out, so I'm going to try taking one out and seeing about that. In the old days, I would lighten up the strings, but I don't want to lose that richness of tone.

All in all a hit.

...and the built in tuner was a nice surprise I wasn't expecting!