Anatomy of a song – Sun Tunnels “I Guess Not”

Eds. note: this post is the third in a series of posts about songs from my last EP.

A theme I’m playing with in my latest EP Old Haunts Volume 1, and for that matter any other volumes I might make, is how recordings can collect pieces of sound or ideas from different places and times and then mix them together into one moment. “I Guess Not” is in some ways the newest song on the EP and in other ways not so much.

 

It began as a microcassette scratch recording of guitar and melody from May 2003. I have tons of these “proto-songs,” but since tapes are an annoying medium I didn’t listen back to most of them until months or years later while at the same time capturing them in digital form, at which point I would decide if they had anything good in them or not.

Most of these proto-songs are very bad but some will have a hook or at least something interesting going on. Among this subset most don’t become fully realized songs, but a few like “I Guess Not” do. An even smaller subset of those go on to become “real” recordings.

I started this recording in September 2008 in a practice space with drummer Terry Kyte, who was in Open Choir Fire at the time. I had sent him a demo a few days earlier, then we met up I think in their space on Capitol Hill and ran through a couple of takes with me on guitar and him on drums. His part and performance were awesome.

I think that practice space used to be here

A couple of months later my friend and erstwhile bandmate Sugar McGuinn came to my house and recorded bass on top of what Terry and I had done. He also played a few takes and was great.

Then nothing. I think in my head it had been a good attempt but not worth pursuing, either because I didn’t mic the drums well, or because I didn’t like the lyrics much, or because I didn’t get a good guitar take. So it sat on a hard drive for years and years… til last Summer, when I was looking for recordings to finish and came across it again.

At the time my wife and I had recently become a “waiting couple” for adoption, and one piece of advice we got was to find projects to work on while waiting. I picked “finish some old recordings and put out an EP as Sun Tunnels” as one project. Also I started occasionally running around Greenlake while the weather was nice, and I’d listen to mp3s of stuff while running to decide what was worth working on and what specifically needed to happen to finish each song.

“I Guess Not” needed new lyrics, a second guitar to join (and partly cover up) the one I’d recorded along with Terry (the guitar and drums bled together in the audio and so couldn’t really be separated), maybe some harmony vocals, an instrumental solo of some kind during the interlude, and better mixing.

In the end it got all of those things, as best as I could. Lyrically I kept some of the original lines from what I wrote in 2008 (or whenever it was) but bent them toward a new theme. I think the song now is about smartphones and how weirdly hypnotized we are by them in a way that might seem extremely strange to an observer from 2008. I think about it most every day on the bus how weird it is. We’re all staring at our hands.

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Anatomy of a song – Sun Tunnels “Saturday”

Eds. note: this post is the second in a series of posts about songs from my last EP.

Cast your mind back to the year 2000. Remember it? I do, some of it, and one thing I did late that year and early 2001 was to write a song called “Saturday.”

“Saturday” is one of the more upbeat songs I’ve come up with, though the lyrics are a classic 90’s ironic slacker take on getting up late on a Saturday and feeling like you’re wasting your life. Ahh, to be 22 again. No thanks.

I played it at shows for a while and maybe tried to record it at some point back then, I’m not sure. I know I played it live at Aurafice Cafe on March 16, 2001 because I had an mp3 of it on my website for a while. Coincidentally that’s how I met Seth Howard, he somehow found my site back then and emailed me. We still hang out all the time.

Later I decided to record it “for real” just to have a memory of this song I’d written and I thought it would be easy and fun to do. I started recording in June 2005, and finished it just this past October 2017.

What took so long? I can report I did not work on it continuously for 12 years. Instead I’d been picking up the audio project (in Cakewalk Sonar, RIP) every few years and messing with it, then dropping it again when it got tedious. It got tedious for one reason mainly: drums.

The drums started easy: with a Boss DR-202 drum machine like this one:

I’ll usually start a recording with scratch guitar and vocals on top of fake drums (acting mainly as a metronome that’s more fun to play along with), then add real drums, then redo the other tracks to establish their “final,” better versions that are also more cohesive with the “final” drums. I used to get fake drums from the DR-202 til I sold it in favor of software plugins. I kind of miss it now.

This song “swings” and getting that beat right on a drumkit wasn’t easy for me. In fact I never got it right, but rather recorded some takes and then cut and pasted them up in Sonar. I remember spending hours and hours on the cutting and pasting in late 2007, at which time I also recorded most of the other parts (vocals, bass, guitar solos). Even after that though the drums weren’t right.

I also took some sideways detours. This was shortly after I moved to Madrona and Seth (aforementioned) suggested I try building a plate reverb, presumably because one would fit in the basement. I tried building one and spent a lot of time at it, and in fact there are 2 noisy audio tracks (muted) of my vocals going through the plate.

I did not use those. There are also muted samples of random TV commercials. For fun? No to those too.

I know I picked the song up again at least 3 more times months and years apart, to try mixing and remixing it. Still not right.

Things picked up in 2014 when I attended some sort of Sonar seminar/road show and learned that you could easily extract MIDI transients from audio tracks, and decided I should try that. I did, and it worked. What this did was to create MIDI containing the information of which drum was hit when in time and how hard.

Now I could replace my kick, snare and toms with samples and I could move them around in time, make them louder, quieter, etc. I cut the low end out of the drum overhead tracks so that you can only hear the cymbals in those, and now the whole kit comprises sampled drums along with the “real” (edited, from my earlier work) cymbals.

wavs to MIDI

The only problem is that the MIDI captured my playing, after edits, which still wasn’t good, as far as timing and feel. With MIDI you can manipulate notes, in this case drum notes, and you can apply processes to them en mass such as “quantize.”

Quantizing moves notes to set locations in time, like say, to the quarter note. All notes that are “pretty close” to a quarter note location in time will get moved to that nearest quarter note as part of the quantize process. This makes it sound more like a machine playing but it’s better than a not-so-good drummer.

So I tried quantizing, but I could not get it to work right. For one thing, the version of Sonar I use (X3) has a lousy user interface. It represents decades of tacking new features onto existing features without ever designing for the whole experience, and then moving things around so that you can’t find the things you use all the time because they’ve been moved somewhere else. Like the quantize function. But then also, the song swings, which apparently is hard to quantize, and it just would not work.

So then another three years went by til I picked it up again and just moved the drum notes around by hand. It took a long time.

so many edits…

Then I sent it to mastering, and it came back with the kick drum really pronounced in the mix, so I could really hear that it still wasn’t right. So I worked on it some more and sent it back to mastering. And it was still bad. So I worked on it more, and then it was done.

I should take a moment and acknowledge that this was not good time management. I should have tried again with a real drummer, or programmed a drum machine, or started over entirely. I swear 95% of the time spent on this song was on the drums and most of that was just the kick drum. Which ended up too quiet in the mix! I’m going to try not doing that again.

On the plus side, I got to cross it off the list and put it on an EP. Hear it on Bandcamp.

Posted in Anatomy of a Song, Recordings, Sun Tunnels | 1 Comment

Something old is new again

These things are related, maybe:

Low power FM is a thing.

Apple Music is set to surpass Spotify in US subscribers.

I view these as tiny (miniscule) glimmers of almost-good news for musicians, premised on the contention that tech has been very very bad for musicians this century, where musicians are defined as a class of professional laborers whose work is to compose original material and/or to perform live and on recordings, and bad is defined as a state in which music making by artists with established audiences can’t sustain their livelihood.

If LPFM is growing in popularity (a big if, since there’s not much evidence of there being any actual listeners) it would suggest that listeners are feeling a lack of shared experience and human interaction in algorithmic music programming and on-demand streaming. Shared experience is one of those things musicians trade in.

This article/polemic makes an argument for what’s wrong with Spotify. The same argument would apply to Apple Music, except for one difference: Apple’s main business is selling the devices through which one listens to the music. The recording industry itself was born out of phonograph manufacturers partnering with artists to sell Victrolas, not to sell records.

I’ve been observing in the last decade how the most effective way to have a career in the music business is not to make music. It’s far more lucrative to sell services to musicians, as with Tunecore or Distrokid or Reverb or renting out practice spaces, or to sell instruments, effects pedals or recording software, or as a developer or marketer or whatever at a service that essentially gives music away to listeners (i.e. Spotify) — than to actually make music.

Obviously tons has been written about this and I don’t have much to add, other than to observe that as Apple increases market share of streaming I would argue it begins to assume some moral responsibility for helping to solve this problem. As Victrola engaged Enrico Caruso in the 20th Century, Apple should sponsor and develop artists, not just take their cut and assume “they were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.”

Just consider:

Could companies like Apple pick up where labels left off? I think they can afford it.

Update: this article goes farther to answer that question.

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Old Haunts Volume 1

Somehow I neglected to mention on my own blog that I released an EP of music. This EP here in fact:

 

I posted about the first song already, and I’ll be posting about the rest of them over time. I’ve been busy lately for reasons I mostly keep off the internet (I became a dad!), so things take a while.

The story of this EP is outlined on its Bandcamp page, but in short I have a lot of old songs in various states of completion. As I finish them I’m piping them into EPs under the heading Old Haunts. It’s been really fun.

The concept has a lot of parts to it that appeal to the way I think about and remember things. It’s what I’ve done instead of keeping a diary.

First there’s the music, which has its own set of facets I like to look at: when and where I came up with the melodies, the words, the recordings; when and where I continued working on them and eventually finished them. I try to keep track of that stuff, and some of it is captured in the computer files of the recordings themselves.

These first sets of songs all represent many years in the making. Like “Saturday,” I wrote it in 2000/2001, started the recording in 2005, worked on it every few years and finally finished it Fall 2017. That’s insane.

Next there’s the artwork, taking a similar approach to images. This first EP includes a photo collage (in the Bandcamp download) of my home recording spaces, and myself in those spaces, since 2002. I can see creating similar collages cohering to other ideas, and if I don’t have a picture of some particular place from the time of recording, I can go to that place and take it now.

The cover photo is the view of downtown Seattle from the apartment where I rented a room, in Wallingford, taken I think Spring or Summer 2001. That same view would look really different now. I left the image slightly rotated by mistake.. I’m not sure if that will bug me forever or if that’s somehow better that way.

Then there’s the remembering of things. I once wrote a song called “Nostalgia” and this is not that. I wrote “Nostalgia” in my early 20s while thinking about high school, around very specific emotions and impressions that maybe you could call nostalgic but that I don’t really have anymore.

This is more of an accounting, some kind of framing. Not really to draw any meaning from a set of sounds and images connected across time but to arrange them in a way I like to look at. Having a few levels to work with makes it that much more fun to work on. Hopefully other people will at least like the music!

Posted in Music, Recordings, Sun Tunnels, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Anatomy of a song – Sun Tunnels “Fruit Fly”

In 2001 I wrote a song called “Fruit Fly” and then recorded it in 2008, here it is now:

This is its story.

I built it on an A chord shape with embellishments that follow the main vocal melody, which transitions to A7 and D for the bridge, then G and D for the chorus. Not actually those chords since I tune down a whole step, but those shapes.

I have a memory of playing it at the Red and Black cafe in Portland in 2001 and two women at a table telling me they liked it. I looked like this at the time.

I still wear that shirt to do yard work

 

“Fruit Fly” dropped off my set shortly after and I don’t think I played it for a while. I remembered it in early 2008 apparently as that’s when I started recording it in my rented Madrona basement.

For the recording I did some things I usually don’t. I didn’t want to bother the neighbors so I kept things quiet in that house — no drums, no loud amps — unlike in Wedgwood where our neighbors didn’t seem to care. Anyway, for “Fruit Fly” I tried programming drums and using an amp simulator for the guitars. I used this thing:

But I think just for the amp simulation, and used other effects boxes for overdrive and delay.

I recorded lots of guitar parts and then spent time editing and mixing them so they did interesting things without competing too much with the vocals. The main/rhythm guitar part, i.e., that simple chord progression with embellishments with which I played the song solo, has a delay on it here to give it a driving kind of quality.

The long outro guitar solo was new, I never did that before the recording. I think I was listening to a lot of Tears for Fears at the time so I like to think that part was inspired by them somehow. Maybe?

I programmed the drums using Sonar’s MIDI “piano roll” which is kind of awkward but it worked. I used samples of the drums from when I recorded Andrea Maxand’s “Here Comes the Revolution” for Ball of Wax #4. This was a bit interesting because I used one mic for that and so the kick and snare both have a lot of hi-hat in them. Old timers call that “bleed.” I call it art.

piano roll. Worst sushi ever

For bass, I thought I’d try programming that too, so it’s also a piano roll MIDI composition. I borrowed some kind of synth keyboard from my friend Sugar McGuinn and picked the “Jazz Overdrive” preset on it, set up the MIDI track to drive the keyboard and then recorded that. I’ve heard it called “printing” when you record something on one track that’s sourced from another track playing through some outboard stuff. Printing.

bass piano roll. I see now the sushi joke would have worked better here

Instruments and vocals were tracked between January and March 2008 and then the song was pretty much done. But it wasn’t! I put an early mix on SoundCloud in 2012 but for whatever reason I didn’t really finish it until this year 2017, when I added some handclaps, did some final mixing and then had it mastered by Rachel Field at Resonant Mastering.

I don’t remember why the title “Fruit Fly,” I think it was a random working title that didn’t get changed. I rewrote the lyrics a few times. I think it used to be about worrying that your desires are transparently obvious and foolish so you should anticipate ridicule, and now it’s still about those things but the chorus says to not waste time worrying about that and just get on with it.

And now it’s done. The recording sounds good to me (Rachel helped a lot) and represents the original song while also being very different from what it sounded like solo. It’s not perfect but spending any more time on it would be ludicrous.

What next? “Fruit Fly” is on a 5-song EP I’m finishing any second now called Old Haunts Volume 1.

Update 2/7: I neglected to mention the EP has been out, go see it on Bandcamp.

Update 2/16: check out a similar post for the second song, “Saturday.”

Update 3/23: read about “I Guess Not.

 

Posted in Anatomy of a Song, Music, Recording, Sun Tunnels | 1 Comment