Sunday, May 29, 2011

How the Demo Comes Together: Part 4

Hey there non-followers! As promised, this week we will continue the (seemingly) never-ending saga of how I produce my demos. Last week, we got all the instruments into a kind of arrangement, and got the drums and bass into more or less their final form.

Now comes one of the hardest things about my demo recording process:  recording, editing and tweaking the Final Lead Vocal. <gasp!>

Setting Up the Vocal Track

Depending on the song, I will first try a few takes, singing the song all the way through.  When I listen back to these takes, I will get a feeling about whether of not I should "comp" a vocal track. Sometimes, though, one of the few tries I have just recorded is good enough-- but that's rare.

Let's go through what happens if I determine that I have to "comp" a vocal.

Comping a Vocal

You have probably figured out by now that "comping" means "compositing." I'm going to record lots of vocal tracks and take the best pieces to construct a "Really Good" vocal track. Here's how it works in practice:

First, I set up twelve new tracks. Four of these tracks are dedicated to the verses, four are dedicated to the choruses, and four are dedicated to the bridge. Like this:

Second, I record each section all in a row--one after the other. Like this:

Third, I create a new track that will become the "Comp Vocal Track."

Fourth, I dig in for a tedious listening session with headphones, LINE BY LINE.  I evaluate each individual line against each of the other three. When I find the one I like, I snip it out and copy and paste it into the new track, being careful to put it in exactly the same place in time as the original. After all the pieces are in the right places, I crop them and fade them in and out, like this:

Then I do it to EVERY SINGLE LINE in the song, until I have a completed "Comp Vocal Track."

Rendering the Comp Vocal

At this point, I have a vocal track that I'm basically happy with. It might seem like all of our hard work is done. Sadly, this is just the beginning.

The next step is to render the vocal as a 24 bit/ 48kHz mono file:

Why am I doing this?

Here's the thing: I am the first to admit that I am NOT a great singer. I acknowledge my limitations.  I also understand that at this particular point in the music industry, bad pitch in your vocal is considered passe. So, just like the majority of major label recording artists, I am going to use pitch correction software to pull the notes that are REALLY out of tune back into pitch. Let's face's easier than practicing... O_o

Transferring the File for Tuning

So I'm going to be using Melodyne for this. Since I'm using Linux, I have to jump through hoops in order to use this program. Since Melodyne was written for Windows, I have to use WINE in order to have it work in Linux. To get low latency happening in WINE, I have to use the software packages wineasio and JACK to get everything to work.

There's still a problem though: no matter what esoteric software hackery I try, I can't get it to work on my normal desktop workstation. Therefore, I have to use a pretty involved work around using Dropbox and my Google Chrome Cr-48 Netbook.

The Cr-48 Interlude

Yep. I'm one of those people. In December, I received one of the Cr-48 Netbook computers from Google. The people who got these things were basically Beta-testers, to see if  the Google Chrome Operating System was ready for deployment into the world.  I used the Chrome OS for about a month, but was frustrated that there was no way to work offline. Therefore, I took a drastic measure: I flashed the BIOS and installed Linux on it. After a brief relationship with Linux Mint Debian Edition, I came back to Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal.  I installed all the usual suspects, and much to my surprise and relief, Melodyne worked.  So that became my work flow: use the Dell desktop machine to record, and use the Cr-48 for vocal tuning, using Dropbox to transfer the files.

Anyway,  here's what a Cr-48 looks like:

...and here's what the Ubuntu installation on my Cr-48 looks like, just so you know:

Pitch Correction
Then I use Melodyne to fix some of the "pitchiness" of my vocal performance, like so:

Melodyne is a strange animal. It is easy to overdo. My goal in using it is to make it sound like I can stay on pitch at the ends of phrases and to correct any notes that are crazily off. The ear can really focus on the things that don't sound natural, so it is best to use this kind of thing in moderation....with great power comes great responsibility...(sorry, since my son's favorite super hero is Spider-Man this week, he asked me if I could put something about Spidey in my there ya go). If it ever starts to sound like a robot, I undo it and try again. I'm going for pitch correction that is as undetectable as possible.

When I've spent two hours editing the pitch, I export the fixed track to Dropbox, so I can import it back into REAPER on the other computer:

Here's what it looks like imported back into REAPER:

...and here it is with effects applied:

Now just think: background vocals are exactly the same, but you also need to worry about how they match in TIME with the lead vocal.  I don't think I'm gonna get into that in this's gone on long enough as it is...

Next week we'll get to mix prep and the rough mix...and then we will be done with this nonsense.

This week:

New song started. Better than last week's...still not sure what to do about that mess....

Steve Goodman
John Prine
Michael Peter Smith
Todd Snider
Terry Allan


Guitar Pro

Jodi's new album is out! Get 'em while they're hot!
Download here: Jodi Ann Cd
or order a physical cd here:

See ya next week.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How the Demo Comes Together: Part 3

Hey there non-followers!

...actually, I seem to have picked up a new follower this week!  Thanks for following me!

Ok. This week we are continuing to go through my demo-ing process.  If you haven't read the other two parts in this series, I suggest you read those before you read this one, so you're up to speed.

We left last week after I had recorded the "real" acoustic guitars, edited the midi drums and bass so they would fit together, and I recorded a scratch vocal, so I can record the electric guitars with everything in place (more or less).

Arrangement and Considerations

By this point, from listening to the rough renders I have been making to put on my iPod, I have the beginnings of an idea as to what I want to do with the electric guitars--what kinds of guitars will I be using? Humbuckers or single-coils? If single-coil, Strat or Tele? 

I start to get a feeling for what kind of sound I'm looking for from listening to the song on the iPod....over...and over...and over...and over...

In fact, I listen to it and sing along so much that my son plugs his ears and runs screaming from the room every time he sees me ambling towards him, regarding him with a vacant stare, my green earbuds in my ears, and singing along with the 
track he heard me recording just a few short days ago. 

Before I record anything, I have a vague idea about what I think the arrangement should be. It's not rocket surgery, it's not brain science--it almost always goes like this:

(and yes, i realize this should probably go in part 1...apologies!)

All Instruments (to get the listener's attention) usually with a solo guitar playing some kind of variation on the chorus melody.

First verse:
Limited drums
Maybe nothing but acoustic guitars for the first half, add bass for the second half.

Prechorus (or Lift):
Add sparse electric guitars. 

Add Electric guitars. Drums change from high hat to ride cymbal...generally busier beat.

Second verse:
Drums are playing a slightly busier version of the beat they were playing in the first verse.
Acoustic guitars are like highhats with they start to act like it...playing 1/8th note-centered rhythms.
Electric guitars playing, but still sparse.
If there's a piano or organ or electric piano, I tend to add it here...lightly.

Second Prechorus (or lift):
Busier bass and drums...big drum fill into the chorus.
Everything else builds to the chorus...more note density, everything gets louder, everything ramps up to the second chorus.

Second chorus:
Everything explodes.
Most electric guitars here.
Maybe electric guitar or keyboard fills when space is left by the vocals.

Normally, in my songs at least, this is where The Big Truth Of The Song is here is where the CLIMAX of the song happens...kaboom.

Third Chorus:
Everything breaks down to one acoustic guitar (usually the one left, for me) and some "skeleton" drums...just the hats and a bass drum, maybe. least until about halfway through...when it all explodes again with everything firing on all cylinders until the end.

So naturally...I have been thinking about this "Master Plan" all when I come to record the electric guitars, I have the EMOTIONAL ARC OF THE SONG in mind, and I can tailor my guitar playing  to suit it.

Electric Guitars 

Now it's time to record. After I have listened to what I have so far and figured out basically what I want each guitar to do, and I've decided which guitar I'm going to use, I push the red circle.

For this particular example, I'll be using this Strat for both parts:

Through this amp, for both parts:

Normally, for one of the parts, I opt for a "chunky" 1/8th note type of guitar, just playing power chords and not really deviating from steady 1/8th notes. This guitar is normally using the bridge pickup.

For the second guitar, I pan it the other way and play more triads in the upper register.  Sometimes I go for a more punk-inspired "Big Ol' Messy Bar Chords" approach.  Just depends on the song. This song is using the triads, using one of the "in-between" settings for the pickup selection.

Here's what it looks like when the electrics are laid down:

After that, the next huge PITA is getting "real" drum and bass tracks.

Final Bass and Drums

See, after I'm finished with the electric guitars, I like to go in and add unique, custom drum fills for between each of the section, tighten up the relationship between the bass and the kick drum and the bass and the guitars.  After I have the bass part pretty much figured out, I render it as a new take, so I can start treating it like audio and not MIDI.

So here's the bass before the render:

And after the render:

Then we do the same with EVERY INDIVIDUAL DRUM TRACK....the definition of tedium....

Before the render:

After rendering each instrument of the drum kit as a separate instrument:

And after exploding each instrument to its own track:

And naming them:

Now I can treat the drums as if they were an actual drum kit and not just MIDI ones and zeros!

Better end it here. Vocals are a completely different can of worms...whole new levels of tedium....stay tuned (hint, hint).

This Week:

New song...started recording it...started hating it....don't know whether it's destined for the scrap pile or it a couple of days before I listen again and make the final determination. 

Danny Malone
Darrell Scott
Hoyt Axton
Jimmy Buffett
Alan Parsons Project-Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Jodi got her CD's!!! Woohoo!!! If you want to purchase one, and listen to what it is I do, download it here:

or get a physical cd here:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How the Demo Comes Together: Part 2

Hello again, non-followers!

This week's post is going to be an in-depth walk-through of how I record my demos.  To get an idea of the equipment I use, please refer to last week's post.

First things first:  I have a Song. I'd say that it's basically 90% finished by the time I start the demo. It's not totally finished, because most of the time things change as I start to get things recorded. There are usually things that sound strange and could use a little tweaking. I like to think of the demo process as a much needed step in pre-production that lets me test things to see if they work FOR the idea I'm presenting in the song, or AGAINST it.

The Scratch Track
So the first step is to load the template I have created that has my instruments and effects pre-loaded, and decide on a tempo:

Once I have the tempo ironed-out, I play through the song once, playing guitar and singing, using REAPER's metronome tool to keep me playing in time. I label this track "Scratch."

Like this:

Acoustic Guitars
After that, I render the track as an MP3, so I can put it in my iPod and listen to it a couple of (dozen) times and make sure the arrangement is correct. Once I have determined that everything is cool, I look for an appropriate drum beat that will be the NEW AND IMPROVED "metronome" for recording the "real" acoustic guitar tracks.  When I have the basic drum groove settled, I record acoustic guitars. Usually, I record one track playing the chords in an open (or close to open) position on the guitar.

For the second guitar, I usually use a capo in a higher position.

When I'm happy with the performances, I like to pan them left and right to some degree (this depends on the song), and add a little compression and stereo widening, to make the acoustic guitars sound big and to sort of leave space in the middle.

So now I have two acoustic guitars playing in different registers, and a basic drum part, playing a loop of the BASIC drum groove of the song.

Better Drums
This is where the hard, time consuming part comes in: at this point, I start WRITING the drum part. The process I use to do that is fairly easy to describe, but it takes hours to actually DO. Basically, I drag and drop the BASIC drum part of the song to various areas in the song. For example, in the verses, I'm usually using a drum beat that has an eighth-note pattern on the hi hat, but for the chorus, I'm using largely the same beat, but with the eighth-note pattern on the ride cymbal.  This is also the point at which I put the drum stops in the right places and put markers in so I know where each section of the song begins and ends.

After the new and improved (but still not finished) drum part has been done through the end of the song, I start on the bass.

I don't have a real bass. I know. I know. Working on it. Until I actually purchase one, I'm using a VST plugin for my bass sound. You can get it here:  4Front Bass. I like this plugin because it sounds "real" enough to be on a country or rock demo. Basically, it doesn't sound "synthy" and that's why I like it.  While the internet is FULL of synth bass plugins, plugins that sound like actual wood and wire basses are sort of thin on the ground.

This is where I compose the bass part. Manually. In the piano roll screen. Yeah, it takes a while...The composing part of this equation involves locking the bass in with the kick drum and making the part build in intensity as the song progresses. Sometimes this involves reshaping the kick drum to fit some of the bass parts. I just aim for consistency and parts that interlock to advance the EMOTIONAL THEME of the song.

Scratch Vocals
At this point, I like to record a Scratch Lead Vocal Track (usually labelled "Scratch LV," but for some reason labelled "Lead Vocal" here). I do this before I edit the bass and drums to their final forms and before I record the electric guitar parts. I think it goes a long way towards making the project feel more "real" when I can react to the vocals and the final drum and bass parts as I lay down the electric guitar parts.

I think I'll stop here this week, before we get deep into electric guitars and vocals. I'd probably also render a new MP3 of this song in its current form, so I can listen to it and try to figure out what kinds of electric guitars I'm hearing in my "mind's ear."

This Week:
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit--Here We Rest
Darrell Scott--A Crooked Road
Love At First Bite = BOO! :-(
Happy Birthday Jodi!!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

How the Demo Comes Together: Part 1

Hey there non-followers!

This week, I'm going to go over what I use to make the demo once I've (more or less) finished the song.  This is going to get pretty involved, so bear with me...I might have to chop this into two or three parts.

Before I begin, let me say that up until 2009 or so, I was using Windows XP for my day to day recording needs using the software I will mention later. In 2009, I got SERIOUSLY irritated with Microsoft for making me "check in with the home office" every time I made a hardware change. That irritation led me to dual-boot Windows and the Linux distribution Ubuntu.  Basically, I was tethered to Windows by the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) I was using. Lately, however, I have jumped completely clear of the Microsoft Juggernaut and all its encumbrances. I feel I am able to create music more easily now that I have an operating system that respects my Freedom.

First Things First: The Computer
My main audio production machine is an eight-year old Dell Dimension 3000 like this:

...with these laughably out-dated hardware specs:

CPU: 3.2 GHz Intel Pentium 4 with Hyper-Threading
RAM: 2 Gb (the max for this motherboard)
Hard Drive: the original 40 Gb drive it came with, and a 160 Gb drive for extra storage
Optical Drives: a 52X Dual Layer DVD RW with lightscribe
and one external 500 gb Western Digital MyBook for archiving

I have a random 19" widescreen Acer Monitor.

The Operating System
I am currently running Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal.  This in itself comes with a host of new issues. For example...I have no on-board 3d acceleration on this ancient motherboard, and the new Ubuntu Unity Desktop Environment REQUIRES it to run correctly....or, you can search for the package called "Unity-2d" and install that.  That's what I did.

One of the things that makes Linux such a powerful operating environment is the way you can configure  totally different environments depending on who's logged in. I have taken advantage of that: when I log in as my normal, non-audio user, such as when I'm just doing normal day-to-day computer user stuff (checking email, downloading podcasts, maintaining the system, listening to my music library) my desktop looks like this:

However, when I want to get down to some serious audio recording and editing, I simply log out and log back in as my Audio user. That desktop looks like this:

Really different, right? The Audio user's default desktop environment is XFCE. XFCE tends to use less resources than the standard Unity Desktop, and we need all of our CPU cycles for processing audio! Also, I have streamlined this user's startup script to only start thing that are ABSOLUTELY necessary for keeping the system running while we are recording our kick ass songs. 

Now for the REALLY mind-numbingly geeky section:

Software Tools I Need To Record Stuff
So now that we have an operating system running with a dedicated Audio user, we need to give that user the tools he or she needs to create music. 

Obviously, you need to have the ability to encode and decode MP3s, AIFFs and basically any other audio format you may be required to work with. So get those.

Linux as its own amazing audio workstation software: the best is undoubtedly Ardour, and I install that for my Audio user to use. But here's the deal: back in my Windows XP days, I tried several different kinds of DAW software, from SONAR to Cubase, Protools to Reason, to Emagic's Logic (before they were bought by Apple).  I was never all that happy with my results. Then I found REAPER. REAPER was nice for me because I found all of the controls easy to use, and I used it so much it became intuitive, not to mention, it worked with the demo of the drum software I really like: Addictive Drums.  

So now my shameful admission to my Linux buddies: I don't use Ardour much. I feel like the learning curve is too steep for me to get usable stuff done in a sane amount of time...and since you can't use tempo synced plugins like Addictive Drums in Ardour, it requires what I feel is a big time investment just to make it useful. I use Ardour only when I want to learn something new about that program....and when my Richard Stallman guilt compels me to do it.  

So I run REAPER in Linux. The thing about that is you need to do some extra hacking in order to get all these things to play nicely with one another. Since this is a songwriting blog and not an Audio Production in Linux blog, I'll just list all the stuff I do without getting into too much detail. 

To run Windows programs in Linux, you need to install WINE, to (not) emulate the windows runtime environment. You need JACK, the audio system for Linux that allows for low-latency audio. Also, I install wineasio and activate it so REAPER will communicate audio with very low-latency to the Linux JACK daemon.   

After that, it's just a matter of configuring REAPER and JACK to work well together. 

Getting Audio Into REAPER
So here's how my signal path goes:

For vocals and acoustic guitar, it's like this:

Either my mouth, or my homemade D-35 Style Dreadnaught:

Into a Studio Projects C1 Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone:

(It's upside down because I've been recording vocals) 

Into an m-audio mobilepre preamplifier/audio interface:

Into the computer via USB.

If I am recording one of my electric guitars, I use this kind of signal path:

One of my guitars, probably my parts-o-caster:

Into my vintage Silvertone 1482 amplifier, miced with the worst possible micing technique with a Shure SM-58, thusly:

Into the same m-audio mobilepre.

If everything is set up correctly, you can record stuff in REAPER with low-latency and you may find you get something that really starts to resemble music. Like this:

I think I'll end here for this week, with most people's minds having been fully blown.  I will meet you here again after a recovery period of a week. At that point, I will describe how I set my session up and running and how I edit, mixdown and convert the song for the listening pleasure of the entire world!

Stay tuned!

This week:
Job Hunting For Freelance Work
Lessons on Commission?!
New song written Thursday, got it mostly recorded.
Rusty Wier
Ray Wylie Hubbard
No more Fender/Guild Custom Shop Nashville???

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Quick One

Hello non-followers!

This week I thought I'd just quickly outline something I thought of to help me out of a rut in my own songwriting.  It's one of those things that will trick you into writing something cool.  I'm avoiding the word "exercise" here, because an exercise always seemed to be something that you did to develop certain songwriting "muscles," but were never actually things that you ended up using in a  "real" song.

So here's the gist of the exercise:

Step One: LEARN a song by one of your songwriting heroes. Seriously. I don't think you can call yourself a "huge fan" if you don't learn any songs by the people you admire. Ideally, you should do this by ear...I know...kind of being a hard ass about's for your own good kid. Better to learn by listening over and over again, than to learn by looking it up on some lyrics and chords website (that may or may not have the correct information).

Step Two: Write out the lyrics of your hero's song.

Step Three: Notice what's going on there. What's the rhyme scheme? What are the stress patterns?

Step four: On a separate piece of paper, write out ONLY the rhyme scheme with the rhyming words in their appropriate places, like this:


................sends me
................mends me
................defends me

Now, obvoiusly, form the chorus rhymes, we are able to tell exactly which song this is coming I would use the verse rhymes as a jumping off point. In other words, let's use the rhymes of the first verse to create a new story unique to our own perspective that uses these rhymes from this classic song to get our head into a new creative space...

Like this:

you never told me why you had to go
you just bought a plane ticket for mexico
it was something you were running from, that much i knew
but when you got on the plane i didn't know what to do the story is changed and probably now the rest of the rhymes from the other verses might not make so much sense now, but from this little "rutbuster," we now have the basis of a story...which is WAY more than we had before. I would probably also at least use the rhyme scheme of the chorus, since it contrasts well with that of the verse.  Obviously, it would need to be rewritten about 50 more times...but the lesson is still the same: sometimes when you set up some rules for yourself, like,  "I am  going to use the rhyme scheme from the verses of  'Up On Cripple Creek' to springboard me into a song," you force yourself into thinking in ways you probably wouldn't ordinarily.

Try it.

This week:

Mixing with my new studio monitors:

Still in touch with my old roommate who is now an audio engineer.

Still looking for a job....that pays more than $8.45 an hour (seriously?)

Early Willie Nelson
Kevin Kadish
The Music Row Show
Early Jimmy Buffet