Laredo, the Streets of

If you read this blog, I am pretty certain that you don’t tune in for the sounds of a lonely guitar on the high plains, or cowboy tunes strummed in a saloon. You’re here because, like me, you’re kind of synth nerd and you want to read about and listen to the finer points of control voltages and weird software.
The thing is, if you read this blog, you also know that I’ve developed an affection for the esoteric instrument called “the guitar.” When I’ve had a few hours to kill in the music room, it’s more than likely been in practicing pentatonics and managing the fret board than wiggling knobs and patching cables. This will not always be the case, i promise. Stick with me here for a bit. I’ve fallen for a diversion, but it will lead somewhere, eventually, that will come back around to beepy buzzy beats.

In addition to learning the guitar for the last eighteen months, I’ve also been trying to understand and learn about recording. I’ve been ingesting old TapeOp magazines and any information I can find on the internet about recording methods and gear.As I do this, I realize that I need to expand the purpose and mission of this website to include these newfound links and informations and, well, gear. I recently installed a patchbay, I now have a decent little mixer, and I’m all set up to where it’s very easy now for me to press “record” and create some tracks. Like many music hobbyists, I find that I end up reading about this stuff more than actually using it (there are legitimate reasons for this that I’ll get into some other time) and last Sunday I decided that I need to actually play some music and actually record it.

Just a couple nights earlier I picked up a very large book at a local bookstore called The Folksinger’s Wordbook, edited by Fred and Irwin Silber. As I browsed it, I ran across The Streets of Laredo, which is an old cowboy song that I like. I believe the first version I remember hearing was by Marty Robbins, and more recently I discovered an odd cover by The Blue Aeroplanes. So here I had the lyrics as well as the basic guitar chords. True to the old saying that all you need are three chords and the truth, the chords were D7, A7 and G. That’s it.

On Sunday, I set up some mic stands, opened a few recording tracks in Ableton, and set forth. First was the acoustic guitar rhythm track played to a click at 115 bpm. D7, A7, G. Done. I played around with some positions for the microphone, an Audio-Technica AT-2035 until I found something I liked, and I used a software compressor and EQ to get something I thought sounded good. Once this was down, I spent fifteen minutes or so recording some picking on the same acoustic guitar. Over the next hour, I recorded two or three tracks of accordion, some whistling, some singing, and various electric guitar tracks. The electric guitar was mic’d with an Electro-Voice 635, which is odd in that It seems to have a very low output. I plan to test this specifically, because I also noticed that my Onyx 1220i mixer seems to have a wildly different gain structure than the Motu Ultralight I use. When I had a mic plugged into the Ultralite, I left the input gain/trim at 0. I assume that this is unity. It recorded a nice clear sound at a good recording volume. With the Onyx mixer, I had to turn the gain up near its maximum to even get a usable signal at all, and it was still significantly quieter than the Ultralite. The last little bit on the gain knob ramps the input up from barely audible to overdriven. I don’t know yet enough to know if this something that is supposed to be — like they’re using different input gain methods — or whether it’s even an issue. With digital recording, I read the tracking levels aren’t as vital as they are in analog, since the noise floor is so low and the bit-rate is so high (48k in this case). I can (and did) raise the level up in mixing with no noticeable noise. So maybe it’s no big deal.

Once all the recording was done, I gave myself a break for a day, and went back on Monday to listen to the tracks. It was easy to pull out the whistling, singing, and all of the electric guitar since it was all pretty bad. The whistling and singing was terribly out of tune (I’m not good at either, though I would like to be) and the electric guitar parts were uninspired. I knew my window for time to record this was running out before the house got noisy with people, and I was not into it.

In the end, what I got was a bass line of accordion with two acoustic guitar parts. The rhythm strumming and some surprising lead picking. Surprising because I don’t remember all of what I did here and it’s all one take with no edits. It’s simple and might not warrant all 1000 words of this post. But I’m pretty pleased and it led to a week (so far) of thinking how I might add in the modular synth to something like this, and really giving some thought to recording techniques and some more gear that I could use (like a compressor). After mixing this, I thought of some stuff I’d like to try and make some changes, and I plan to get back in, maybe this weekend, and visit The Streets of Laredo again.

layering reality

not necessarily friends

When Marc Weidenbaum first began the Disquiet Junto project five weeks ago, my first thought was that it seems like a good idea, but there was no way that I was going to be able to take part every week. Just due to the normal schedule of life — work, kids, partner, dog, “things to do,” friends… I couldn’t conceive of how I’d find the time every week to sit down, basically escape from weekend life and responsibilities, and make a complete track (update — I didn’t make this week’s due to the above issues).
However, a funny thing has happened. Having these projects has led to really thinking about process and workflow and goals in a way that fiddling around with gear previously never did. In my day-job I draw pictures every day, and in twenty years I’ve become a believer in deadlines. When I used to teach, I would tell students that if it weren’t for deadlines I’d never complete anything. It’s also kind of a running in-joke that a work is never “done.” Rather, one just has to find a good stopping point, and in my case the deadline is always that stopping point.
Screwing around with gear often creates interesting results, and I often post the results here on Dance Robot Dance. Quite often those results are twenty-second gems buried in eighty minutes of dreck. That signal-to-noise ratio isn’t really acceptable when one has to somehow fit it in between preparing dinner for the family, doing laundry, going to Ikea, walking the dog, and it has to be done by Monday night.
The genius of this project is that it’s an assignment. A specific goal is in mind, which has in all five cases been something I’d never have on my own attempted (field recording? me?) except for the Junto. Limitations are the key not only to the parameters of the projects, but to the workflow and process as well. I’ve written before that when staring at the sonic potential that is my studio desk, and multiplying that potential times infinite when software is considered, the very act of beginning can be daunting. The analogy I use is Photoshop. Given a piece of paper and a pencil, one can focus on the thing one wants to draw and focus on that creative end. One draws a line with a goal in mind. One can erase that line, again with the goal in mind, but chances are that there won’t be a lot of wanking with the tools. When faced with a new open file in, say, Photoshop, knowing that one can use any number of millions of colors, a smorgasbord of tools, and, even more importantly, one can erase and undo forever, never having to commit to anything. With the aforementioned time limitations imposed by ” real life,” this Disquiet Junto project just doesn’t allow for that.
So let’s review: by giving the assignment, the project takes away the lack of direction and focus inherent in sitting down and futzing with musical gear. And by requiring the piece to be done by Monday night, it takes away the possibility for indecision and mental masturbation that is inherent in never having to make anything permanent. For each project I’ve chosen a specific set of tools, sometimes at the beginning of a project and sometimes in the middle of the work, and really focused on what that tool does and how does it contributes to what I need, which in turn gets me to find certain limitations and personalities inherent and applied to my neat-o tools, which leads to better tracks and more interesting results.
The time limitation also encourages one to use what one knows rather than, again, putz around for hours trying out new things.On its face this might seem like an unacceptable limitation, given the want for creativity and breaking new ground. But what it really does is takes us back to that pencil-and-paper analogy. It’s easy to worry oneself into a corner with the idea that one isn’t “good enough” to record, or play live, or whatever. But when it comes down to just making a song and getting it out there, one uses what one has. Right? This plays a big part in this most recent Junto, which I’ll explain in a moment.

This Junto’s assignment was thus:

Plan: The fifth Junto project is about amplifying the inherent musicality of everyday life. Of all the Junto projects so far, this one may call for the lightest touch. Of course, achieving a light touch may require the most amount of work. The project will be accomplished by adding sounds (notes, riffs, tones, beats, noises, processing, drones, what have you) to a foundation track that consists of an original, unedited field recording.

Pre-Production: First, you will make an audio field recording from everyday life. This track will serve as the foundation for your piece. This recording can be made anywhere — on the bus, or while riding a bicycle, or sitting in a field, or waiting in the lobby of a building, or in the kitchen, wherever. There are only two rules regarding the field recording: (1) Do not include intelligible voices unless you are certain that recording people, wherever you are, is legal. (2) Do not edit the field recording, except to fade in and out to achieve the desired length. Chances are you’ll record quite a bit, and then select your favorite segment. You might even, after starting work on one foundation track, make decisions about what constitutes a good foundation and then go and make a new field recording.

Length: Keep the work to between two and five minutes.

Sensibility: In the end, the foundation field recording track should remain fairly discernible in the mix.

I happened to be walking out of a grocery store when I read this email, and since I knew I’d be looking for something to record as the basis that had some significance, I opened FiRe on my iPhone and hit record. I recorded the drive home, and became enamored with the tick tick of the turn signal as a rhythmical base. Once I took a listen to the recording I was bummed that it sounded awful. The internal mic of the iPhone just didn’t cut it. I don’t usually mind inherent flaws in equipment, but this had a lot of noise, was very low-level, and had a weird distortion through-out. So the next day when I had to go to the grocery store again, this time with my 13-year-old son, I carried my little M-Audio digital recorder along for the ride. I recorded the entire trip — shopping, paying and the drive home. But the drive home, again, with that tick tick of the turn signal was what I fell for and ended up using.
The music I recorded was based on a D G A progression that I’d learned that week in my guitar lesson. We’re dealing with triads, and these chords are using just the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings with the first D chord starting on the fifth fret. It’s a simple little thing but sounds nice and worked well. After recording the first set of chords at 84bpm (which by the way is the BPM of the turn signal of a 2001 Honda Civic), I just played against that in my headphones for about a half hour. Plucks, strums, rings, different settings on the amp and pedals, different patterns within the chords… just trying to get different sounds so that I could edit it all together later.
In the end, the parts I used were either straight from the guitar to the amp (a Vox Night Train) or with a Real McCoy RMC3 Teese Wahwah, set just so the filter is on a bit, which really gives this G&L ASAT a nice tone and even overdrives a little.

These are some of the guitar parts, isolated.

[audio:http://dancerobotdance.com/audio/junto05guitarsoverlay.mp3]
This first one is two overdubbed parts. I really like the overlaying.

[audio:http://dancerobotdance.com/audio/junto05guitarrock.mp3]
There are two variations on the same thing here — only the first one is in the final track.

Lastly, after playing the guitar parts, I had the inspiration to drag my accordion out of its case and see it might work out. I’m happy to say that it worked out brilliantly. It’s no lie to say that in the year I’ve been taking guitar lessons I’ve learned more about my accordion then in the ten years previous. My accordion lessons ten years ago were about reading music and developing technique for playing. They were never really about understanding how music works and why it’s structured the way it is. That’s a topic for another post, I realize, because I could cover a lot of ground with that.

Here are the accordions near the end of the track, isolated. The very last bit you hear is some editing in Ableton to have the accordions jive with the beeping of the car when the door is opened.
[audio:http://dancerobotdance.com/audio/junto05accordions.mp3]

So here’s the finished piece.

In the end, I don’t think it comes together as well as I’d like. But that’s part of the nature of this Junto project. To me, it’s like sketching. Just get it down. Yes, I could have edited the original field recording. I could have worried about the levels differently. I could have rewritten and edited parts to make it hold together. But instead it was time to make dinner for the kids and get some work done. And move on to the next project*, having learned a lot from this one.

rose's water ice

* After all this, I didn’t get the next week’s project done. I’m way under-water with my current children’s book deadline. Number seven is due tomorrow night and I suspect I’ll be able to get to it. I hope so.