Friday, January 27, 2006

Slow week in the studio

The crunch at work has been putting me home pretty late for most of the week except last night, so I haven't much felt like recording anything, just want to relax and sleep. Tonight I should be home at a decent hour, and though I have to do some laundry, I'm gonna take a few hours and work on more tracks for Only In Your Mind (Bummer Version). I ought to be able to lay down bass and some vocals with no problem. Maybe even a solo, but that's probably pushing it.

The weekend will be fairly full, but I hope to get in some more tracking time on Sunday. Don't know what I'll be tracking, but I've got plenty to do so I'm sure I'll find something. :)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Weekend Results

Well, I was able to get the rough basic acoustic and rhythm guitars done Saturday night, but that was the end of my progress on recording for the weekend. Sunday was taken up mostly with sleeping late, football, more sleeping, more football, and then working on a strip for the webcomic. Not having the MIDI drum track really put a dent in the progress.

So, since I didn't actually get a full cut done on the song, with bass and vocals etc., I haven't made an MP3 file - I'd like to get something that sounds like a whole song done before exposing it to you! A rough-sounding song is OK as long as it's complete and recognizable, but you don't want to hear just drums and guitars in that state. I'm just doing one-pass takes, too, leaving in minor mistakes, just to get the whole thing down so I can listen to it and live with it, and let my brain start adding parts to it as a background process while I do my daily thing.

I should be able to get bass and a solo done sometime later in the week, and maybe even do the vocals, since I don't have to sing loud to do roughs. I have to say that doing this new version has brought the song back to life for me; it's one of my favorites out of all that I've written, so it's fun to breathe new life back into it.

Oh, and of course I discovered that I haven't ripped the original demo of it to MP3 yet, so I can't put that up either. Sigh. I hope you'll be patient!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

"Quantize" Is My Friend.

So it turns out I do not actually have a MIDI file for the drum track of Only In Your Mind, which I thought I did. Well, all right then. That just means I would need to record them over again, which would be the first time I'd recorded with my e-drums.

Now, I thought this would be problematic, in that the studio is in my bedroom, but the drums have been set up in the living room. So either I had to install Digital Performer on the art Mac (which is named Albert Einstein, for future reference, a kudo to Fred Pohl's Gateway series), as well as disassemble the spaghetti wiring of my audio/MIDI interface to relocate it to Albert so I could play the drums where they were, or I had to cross my fingers and hope the drum set would fit into the small area of floor space in the bedroom. When I bought the drums, I got a small student set for just that reason; time to put it to the test. Here is the result:

Happily, it fits quite nicely! Of course, I can't get to the wardrobe while it's there, but then again it is very light and easy to move all in one piece - I only have to remove the pedals, and the whole thing is easy to tuck under one arm, I don't think it even weighs 25 pounds.

I figured it would be pretty easy to lay down the track; I would just import the original song right off the CD and then play along over it. Yes, that's called "cheating," but see, I'm not a great drummer. Serviceable for casual jamming, maybe, but not really that good. I used to be better when I was in high school, where I played drums in the school band and practiced 3-4 days a week. Anyway, so with the magic of digital technology, I brought in the album track and that worked great. And then it got complicated.

DP has this cool function where it will analyze any piece of audio to find its "beats" and tempo. This is mainly used for slicing up drum grooves for loops, but you can do it with a whole song if you want. Since it's very important to record using a click track, for time accuracy, I figured I'd use that function to get the exact tempo of the song and then set everything up to record at that tempo. Easy, right? Heh... sure.

It turns out that even though we recorded the song with a click track, the timing wavers quite a lot - even the most excellent drummers are not computers! (Sorry, Hiro...) And while it's okay to have the tempo go up and down a little bit - great orchestra conductors do it all the time for emotional effect - the tempo analyzer just couldn't quite get the thing right, and the click track was wavering all over the place. After a couple hours trying to make that all work, I just said the hell with it and started over.

I wound up just picking a tempo that I knew was almost exact (117 bpm, if you're wondering). going in by hand and slicing up the audio file whenever it got to a place where the song beat deviated from the click, then moving the cut pieces very slightly until the snare hits lined up properly. It's easier to do than it sounds, because the software shows the audio waveform graphically - and the big ol' metal snare hits are the biggest peaks in the wave. You can just nudge them with the arrow key until the peak lines up with the beat markers. There were some little perceptible gaps, but I was able to fix all the timing weirdness, and thus just play directly along with the original song to record.

But of course, I'm a crappy drummer, and thus we come to the title of this post. All MIDI recording devices for many years have had the lovely helpful function called "Quantize," which perhaps sounds like something Stephen Hawking might be on about, but what it does is the computer looks at where your drum hits are, and if they're late or early, it puts them where they're supposed to be. Quantize is the crappy drummer's (and keyboardist's too) best friend! So now the drum track sounds like a drummer with good timing played it. Interestingly, this software will take an audio drum track, recorded with mics from real drums, and quantize that too. So, perhaps your favorite "famous" drummer isn't as good as you might think. (Here's a hint: if he's young and cute and in a band that gets mainstream radio play, he's probably cheating.)

Anyway, so I got the drum track done, in a lot less time than it would have taken me to program the drum machine - which is exactly why I got the e-drums, other than for fun. Next time it will be quicker, I'm sure. And now, it's time for dinner and a jynnan tonnyx!

Guitars and hopefully bass later tonight. Should be able to get a rough pass of the whole thing done, then vocals tomorrow.

Here's a pic where you can see the whole studio setup. My old guitar rack is on the left, with my Mesa amp below. My old 4-track and the R-8 Mk II drum machine are above the screen. This is just about all you need these days to record some pretty high-quality music.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Studio is Officially Open

This past weekend marked the first "serious" use of Casa Del Jefe Studios, where The Girlfriend came over to start working on recording a simple demo for herself, which she's never done before. She's been pretty nervous about the whole thing, but she did really well. Still plenty of work to do, but we'll get it done. She's coming over again tonight for a few more takes.

The Groove Tubes GT67 mic is just as excellent as I expected, transparent and warm and wonderfully sensitive, and set on the super-cardioid pattern, it really just rejects any sounds that are not made right in front of the capsule. Of course, when I first set it up, I forgot that the front of the capsule is on the side of the mic with the GT logo, so on the first run through for sound, I wondered why I was getting some delay on her voice... it was because the mic was turned around the wrong way, and it was only picking up the bounce off the far wall. It still sounded great, though! I turned the mic around, and that took care of that.

She sang and played her guitar live, no click, just the mic and with her acoustic pickup plugged in on another track. There's just enough live ring from the acoustic thru the mic to give the plugged in sound the proper metallic overtones that acoustic pickups usually leave out, so this arrangement is making it totally easy to make the whole thing sound great. I'm really happy that my room, as weird as it is in "acoustic shape," is working so well with the live mic.

This weekend is my "Me Weekend" for January, where I get the weekend to myself for creative time and headspace, so I will start officially recording the songs for the Anniversary CD. I remembered yesterday that I once was playing around with a version of "Only In Your Mind" that used the same exact structure, but was in A minor instead of A major, so all the rest of the chords were different and the melody was slightly altered. Much sadder. Since I still have the MIDI of the original demo drum track, I can bring that into Digital Performer and just record the song with the different chords very quickly - I should be able to get a decent rough version with all instruments and vocals down within a single day, just like I used to when I did my 4-tracks.

I'll see what I can do about uploading the original 4-track of "OIYM" in the next few days, and after the weekend I'll put up an MP3 of whatever progress I make.

Here's a nice review from one of The Girlfriend's friends, to whom she sent a burn copy of the Steele CD:
"The Steele CD is fantastic -- far above average for the genre. It reminds me a fair bit of Lynch Mob... and I really dig me some Lynch Mob."
That made me smile! I dig me some Lynch Mob too, that's a very nice compliment. Hmm, I don't have any Lynch Mob on CD... I bet my neighbor has it. George Lynch is a badass guitarist, although, well... I think he's still trying to be a little too badass. Ah well. Doesn't change the fact he rocks!

At some point here I'll start offering CD-R copies of "Steele" for a low price, maybe $3?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

So Here's the Plan...

While I'm not going to spend a ton of time explaining the whole thing right now, I used to be a dude with a record deal. Briefly. It fell apart rather depressingly, but I did get a bit of a consolation prize: I got to actually finish my CD (we used to call them records or albums, for you whippersnappers) and release it on a label in Japan in 1996 - ten years ago.

The album was called "Steele," because my rocker-dude stage name was "Jeff Steele," and I didn't really have a band at that point. The name now makes me cringe a bit, but the Japanese label, Alfa/Brunette, thought that "Steele" sounded like a "strong" name for a band - I guess they'd never heard of all the other American bands with the word "Steele" in their names - and at that point I didn't really care much, I was just happy to put the damn thing out somewhere. Really, I was about done with the music business, but I did want to finish the album so I'd have something to show for 15 years of slogging it.

So we did it and put the thing out over in Japan. I have no idea how well it sold, though I do know it made the label some money. I never saw a penny, of course; the artist rarely does in the music biz. The guy we paid to play the drums on the last 4 tunes made more for that session than I think I ever made in my entire music career. (He did a great job, so I'm not complaining, it's only an example.) I never got to go over to Japan to play, because we couldn't line up a management company over there, which is essential, and obviously there wasn't a clamor for it, heh. So the album was released and sold, and at least a few thousand people there bought it. I hope they liked it.

I like it. It's not the greatest album ever, and there are some bits of it that make me roll my eyes, but considering how it came about, and also the fact that the songs on it were written at various times over a period of about 8 years and thus show some wild divergence in "style" and "feel," it's a pretty decent hard rock album. I think there are plenty of people out there who would enjoy it - if you like stuff from the 80s like Def Leppard, Van Halen, Whitesnake, Ozzy, the heavier end of "commercial hard rock" a.k.a. "hair band" or what the kids these days call "butt rock" music, you'll like this stuff. So, now that the song rights have reverted to me, I'm going to see what this newfangled Inter-Nets thing can do about helping me reach those people.

So, here's the plan: hopefully in November of this year 2006, I am going to release the "Steele 10th Anniversary Double-CD Set." CD #1 will be the original "Steele" album, exactly as it was released in Japan (though probably with different art on the CD, heh); CD #2 will be a bunch of remixes and re-dos of some of the original songs in different styles, just for fun, and maybe a new song or two. I've built a small recording studio in my apartment and I can pretty much do everything by myself. I hope I can get it all done in time, but I'm not going to kill myself trying to make that happen. My life is full of other stuff now, and doing the music is for fun.

As I'm making the new CD, I will blog the whole thing right here, logging everything that I do and record and learn. I'll put up MP3s of different bits to show progress and to get feedback - actually, if you follow this blog, you will have heard every last bit of the music long before I actually produce the CD. I'll be working on the album art and I'll put that up here too.

I have no idea if anyone will be interested in buying it, but that doesn't matter. I'm gonna do it anyway, because I like making music. When I lost my record deal and pretty much everything else in my life fell apart along with it, I lost a lot of my love for just making music - as opposed to trying to be a rock star, which is a very, very different thing from making music. For a long time, I just turned my back on it all, I was really bitter about what happened. It's still tinged with a bit of sadness, but I find that I still like to play and write songs, even if just as a hobby. And really, once you've been on stage and played in front of people and been cheered at, that never really leaves you.

I want to make music, and I want people to hear it, simple as that, though it's highly unlikely that I'll ever perform on stage again. So, I'm just going to do it.

I'll be putting up the whole original CD as MP3 files within the month, so anyone can grab them. I have a MySpace site, and I'll be putting some up there too. I'll be willing to burn full-quality audio CD-Rs for anyone who wants them, for a small cost to cover time, materials and mailing - but of course if you wait for the set, I'll be doing a full pressing and professional package, which will be a lot nicer and last longer.

And then in 2007, I'll be putting out new music - a CD of "post-Steele" stuff that should have been my first US album, which will be under my real name (heh), and maybe even another full CD of Steele 80's hard rock stuff - I've got plenty of it left over, trust me!

That's the plan. (But don't hold me to it too rigidly...)