It's been a rough few weeks following our return from Scandinavia. Although there's the obvious struggle to find a post-vacation groove, that hasn't been the real issue. My mood in September has been dominated by a couple of unexpected shifts that began almost immediately upon our return to the States.

This summer we spent a lot of our time and energy interviewing potential business consultants for the Music Tech Center ("MTC") business plan. Once we selected an individual, then our time was spent scoping our request and describing our vision of the project to the consultant. The analysis we requested had two very concise constraints, 1) leverage the commercial building that we already own in Bozeman and 2) make sure that I can personally be involved in day-to-day musical activities once the facility is up and running. The first requirement stems from having invested years of architectural effort into our building and having negotiated a very carefully structured agreement with the City of Bozeman. It also reflects the unusual circumstances that allow us to own the building for a monthly outlay comparable to renting a space 1/5 the size. The second requirement, in many ways, is even more fundamental. If the MTC doesn't develop into an outlet for my musical interests and a rallying point for my own collaboration, then it fundamentally makes no sense. In that case, it fails to satisfy my own needs, and we cannot justify moving forwards.

Well, a couple of days after we returned from Scandinavia, we received the final, 87-page business report. Given its length, and my own scrambling for time, I started by reading the summary section. I was immediately struck by how far the vision had drifted away from our constraints. We had received a "Yes, proceed" recommendation but the proposed project was based on looking elsewhere in Bozeman for a small rental property. The document also neglected to consider the construction costs necessary in a rented space to tame the acoustics enough for any form of musical activity. In essence, the business plan chose to veer off course from the get go and then justified its alternative path. In doing so, the consultant invested most of his time (and our money) in the wrong project. Worse yet, much of the data the consultant collected (reflecting feedback from local music promoters, musicians and recording engineers) was incredibly negative, delivering the clear message that Bozeman really doesn't need anything like what we've proposed.

A sense of gloom and disappointment settled over me and it really hasn't lifted yet. Mind you, I'm glad to have this information before proceeding with an expensive remodel but somehow I can't shake the feeling that the picture painted by the report is on the wrong canvas. We've been scrambling to gather more information and to make better sense of the situation. In light of construction scheduling and fairness to all the parties that have helped us prepare for the remodel, the only option we've been able to settle on is postponing the project for 6 months. Of course, there's a very significant chance that during the 6-month delay we will conclude that we cannot (or at least should not) proceed with the project. We'll leave the door open, just in case things align over that 6-month period and in that case we will proceed with the project.

Although I had every reason to anticipate some amount of disappointment related to the MTC planning, the more recent disappointment hit me out of the blue. On Friday, September 14th, the day before my last radio show of the Summer schedule, I received a voicemail from the music director at KGLT. At the time I was sitting with my daughter in her piano lesson and felt it would be too disruptive to take the call. Kiley had a good lesson and only once we'd said goodbye to her teacher did I feel it made sense to screen my voicemail.

There was only one message and it only took a few words before I knew it was not a good one. I quickly realized it was a message from KGLT's music director; usually that means the new schedule is out and he's letting us know about our time slot for the semester. The tone of his voice, however, suggested this wasn't routine; there were issues related to musical style and scheduling that meant I was being pushed out of my Saturday 9-midnight radio show. Worse yet, instead of being given another time slot, it was suggested that I squeeze into an already full Friday 9-midnight slot, meaning that I'd end up doing a show once a month. Being a father, a musician and a software engineer keeps me pretty busy, but more importantly it takes a great deal of my focus. The few times I've only done my show once a month have been very difficult because I lose my rhythm and spend half the show trying to get back in gear. I was also unhappy about cutting into my good friend, Adam Kish's biweekly radio time. On top of that, I was frustrated that I'd been putting so much time and effort into Loud Rock Director responsibilities, only now I wouldn't actually be able to play any of the new material while it's still fresh.

The KGLT change also hit particularly hard because of my musical struggles here in Bozeman. I've had a terrible time finding anyone to play with or collaborate with. At this point, all it'd take is someone interested in heavy music (metal, alternative, punk,…) but my attempts to post ads and respond to them have failed miserably. Similarly, to see a reasonable variety of heavy concerts, we've had to accept the fact that travel is a requirement. The 2-hour drive to Billings is the shortest path, and has led to shows by Halestorm and Korpiklaani. You also know about the trips to Canada for Iron Maiden and Sweden for Amaranthe. This coming weekend we'll take a road trip to Salt Lake City so that we can catch the Nightwish and Kamelot tour. Given the struggle to make Bozeman my musical home, the radio show at KGLT had been the one bright, shining star of hope here in town. It put me in contact with people that love music, including at least a few that enjoy the heavier varieties. It also kept me wrapped up in new music and the excitement that goes with it.

Over the course of roughly 2 weeks, two key components of my musical hope for Bozeman collapsed. I've picked up a few pieces (I've got two substitute DJ spots lined up, October 12th and November 9th). But that won't take care of the whole problem. I've gotten a great deal of support and positive feedback from friends around the world. Their support has included a common theme, that when one (or more) paths become eroded or blocked, find a new path. I am doing my best to live up to that advice. This quarter I'm taking two songwriting-related classes at Berklee online ("Melody" and "Harmony"), and I'm excited about the effect those classes will have on my creative efforts. I've also set a rough target of next Spring for the first round of demos for my next album. No clue whether it'll be recorded in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Sweden or Finland, but at least I've got a path I can head down. Onwards, bit by bit...


Sentenced - Vengeance Is Mine

Admittedly, I love Sentenced. The "Frozen" and "Crimson" albums are in my regular listening rotation and I often find myself with a craving that can only be satisfied by immersing myself in Sentenced. Those listening moments are typically darkened a bit by my own sadness that Sentenced is gone and only partially replaced by Poisonblack (who I also listen to often). If you're gonna end a band, though, what better than to hold your own funeral. It's not often that entertainment leaves us with a perfect punctuation to end a chapter or series (e.g. the last episode of "Newhart"), but Sentenced did that for us when they released "The Funeral Album" and associated concert video.

Not that Finnish goth metal shies away from dark themes, but Sentenced took the funeral theme that much further for their final album. You can tell, even without listening to a single word or note, just look at the song titles: "End Of The Road", "Lower The Flags", "Consider Us Dead", "Her Last 5 Minutes", "We Are But Falling Leaves", etc. I've often enjoyed albums that have such a well-defined theme that cohesiveness is guaranteed. I have similar feelings about My Chemical Romance's "Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge", there's just this energy that develops out of a solid vision; the songs aren't just thrown together by when they were written and recorded.

As you might guess, I quite often listen to "The Funeral Album" in its entirety. However, there are other times when I need a quick dose, I need some Sentenced and I need that album but I don't have time for the whole thing. When that happens, I need to cut to the chase and go right to the one song that pumps me up when things aren't going well. Unlike many of the other songs in goth metal, "Vengeance Is Mine" is about revenge and retribution, not decline into darkness. Much like Queen's "Death On Two Legs", "Vengeance Is Mine" gets the message across directly and pulls no punches.

There's really no better way to give you a clear picture than to simply present the words. The whole song (words and music) deliver the message, but this verse/chorus combination is sufficient to give you a sense of what I'm talking about:


Excerpt from "Vengeance Is Mine", (Music: Tenkula & Sentenced, Lyrics: Lopakka)

Verse 2
We're not done, I will hunt you down
One by one... I'll blow you all to hell
For you faceless, nameless cowards cannot hide
The day of reckoning will arrive

Strike from behind and knock me to the ground. Kick me while I'm down.
Stab me in the back, you bastards. Tear my heart out of my chest
I'll rise from the ashes, from these ruins of mine, from the wreckage
I'm right on your track you bastards. A dozen of eyes for an eye. Vengeance is mine.

Next time you're feeling a bit beaten down and demoralized, go straight to "Vengeance Is Mine" and crank it up. When you've got more time, listen to "The Funeral Album" in its entirety. I highly recommend the experience!


Louder + Faster != Better

What ever happened to space? As I review music for my loud rock radio show at KGLT, I don't get much breathing room. Modern day heavy music is fast and its consistently loud. Musicians in heavier styles today can play excruciatingly fast, to the point you almost can't believe that humans are capable of this. Similarly, modern music has squeezed itself into the upper registers of dynamic range (see Loudness war). In essence, us fans of heavy music barely have a clue what silence is.

It's interesting to think about this from the perspective of musical notation. There are two equally valid sets of notation symbols, one for notes and one for rests. If you learn to read sheet music, you need to know how to read them equally well. You don't get to focus primarily on notes and simply downplay rests. Modern heavy music, however, seems to tremble in fear over the slightest thought of a rest, at least any significant period of silence or reduced dynamics.

I think that's unfortunate. Once I've listened to an entire album of high tempo, nonstop pedal-to-the-floor metal, I'm drained. I'm also left less impressed with the speed and intensity because all I have to compare it to is speed and intensity. Speed and loud dynamics are powerful when they are compared to something. When a band can play slower pieces, with more open space and -then- shift gears and play a barn-burner, that'll get my attention. If a band can lull me to sleep with a nice quiet passage, -then- they can truly shock me by hitting the red on the meters.

Modern technology makes it easy to create more of things. Most processing gear and algorithms is meant to take something and make it sound different. Silence is like zero. It's the lack of something, and we have a tendency to want to fill it with something. I don't think that's a good thing. I think we should recognize the value of silence and its partner, quiet, when it comes to generating truly memorable music. The intricate interplay between sound and silence is what leads to real beauty. Imagine building a beautiful custom home and forgetting leave any living space. That's the way much of speed and loudness wars leave me feeling. I ache for moments of open space, of calm and of varying texture, without letting go of the Heavy.


Scattershock - Recording "Wrong Train": Part 2

In my previous article, I explained how we shifted our focus from the Shatterbox remixes to finishing off the Scattershock tracks originally recorded in Denver. This time, I will go into some detail about what it took to finish the recording, mixing and mastering of the Scattershock Wrong Train album.

During the same period when I was tracking rhythm guitars, Steve and I were using our nights in the studio to finish off the drum and bass reprocessing. Once we'd wrapped that up, we proceeded with vocal tracking. Over the years, Steve and I had always hoped we'd find someone to handle lead vocals, but that never panned out. We finally talked it over and decided that he and I were still the two people most likely to truly feel the songs and lyrics. For a number of reasons, we decided it would be best if I took on the lead vocals, and the two of us would split backup vocal parts. Once that decision was made, we dug in and worked our way through the songs and parts. Somehow, all the energy and eventual frustration that was part of the Shatterbox remixes came pouring out. For the first time ever, I really felt like I was able to channel my emotions directly into my vocal performances. I still wish my voice had more natural magic but I feel like this batch of tracks reflects the best my vocal cords and years of training could produce.

While we were working our way through the rhythm guitars, lead and backup vocals, Nancy and I were making the difficult decision to move out of the Bay Area, relocating to Bozeman, Montana. This was a very painful decision for me, and was equally hard on Steve. Although it didn't soften that pain for either of us, we agreed that we would do everything necessary to make sure we finished the Scattershock album. By June of 2009, when the Hearst-Reynolds family packed up and drove out of the Bay Area, we had completed all the vocals, all the drum and bass reprocessing and all of the rhythm guitars. We had not, however, finished lead guitars nor had we mixed or mastered the songs.

I had packed up all of the essential recording gear from Redwood City and brought it to Bozeman with me. I set it up soon after our arrival and had a functional, if not exactly polished, recording space in the shop building of our Bozeman home. After solving the problem of cranking up the Powerball enough to get my desired lead tone (more about that in a future article), I pushed my way through the solos, many of them coming easily, while the "Wrong Train" solo, which has always been a challenge, took many days of practice and tracking.

When I finally had the guitars wrapped up, it was time to focus on the mixes. I was working for McDSP at the time, and we were developing new versions of the Classic Pack plug-ins. With FilterBank, CompressorBank, MC2000 and Analog Channel needing thorough testing, I had the perfect opportunity to put them through their paces, while simultaneously establishing the best settings for our mixes. After a lot of experimentation, I felt that I was close to having the mixes nailed, but the relatively untreated space where I was mixing was making it hard to be 100% sure. I'd left my Tannoy System 15DMT studio monitors in Redwood City, so I was mixing with just my DynAudio BM6A reference monitors and BM15A subwoofer. With the challenging acoustics of my space, the single reference point wasn't enough. Thanks to my good friend, Billy Costigan of Poindexters, that problem was solved by a new pair of Focal Solo6 Be monitors. They did the trick, giving me a distinct perspective from the DynAudio speakers and I was able to make the final adjustments to the mixes.

All along, I'd imagined that we would also do the mastering, but after years working on these tracks, I realized it was time to hand them off to someone with fresh ears and a new perspective. Thanks to one of my father's connections, I had been lucky a year or so earlier to observe a great jazz session at Fantasy Studios. While there, I got to meet Jesse Nichols, one of their engineers, and had really been impressed with his work and his personality. Awhile after that, Jesse was kind enough to help us pick out the perfect vocal mic for my voice (a Neumann TLM 103). With that front and center in my mind, it was natural to approach Jesse and Gannon Kashiwa for input on the mixes. We got some great help from Gannon on the mixes and I made another round of adjustments, then we handed those off to Jesse who did a magnificent job mastering everything. I doubt I'll ever do my own mastering again...

After it was all said and done, we had completed 9 songs. The two oldest ones ("Same Time Next Week" and "Don't Wanna Talk") date back to our Secret Life days. The rest of them are all songs from the Shatterbox era and would have been part of that unreleased batch of mixes. The good news for us, though, is that these versions of the songs sound much better and represent a much greater, more personal accomplishment.


Scattershock - Recording "Wrong Train": Part 1

A few months ago, I explained the history of my partnership with Steve Rosenthal, and how we eventually recorded 14 songs at Rocky Mountain Recorders in Denver, with help from engineer, Gannon Kashiwa, and bass player, Paul Olguin. You can find the two earlier articles here (Scattershock - A History: Part 1Part 2). In this article I will describe the long path that followed before any of those tracks were released.

Sometime in 2006 or 2007, while I was working at Apple and after I'd finally gotten my Redwood City recording studio fully functional, Steve and I decided it was time to put Pro Tools and our analog gear through its paces. We'd always felt that the early Pro Tools recordings we'd done of all the Shatterbox material hadn't had the energy or polish we wanted, and decided that those sessions were the perfect opportunity to experiment with processing and mixing. We started by patching various pieces of analog gear into inserts in Pro Tools, running drums, bass, guitar and vocals through all the outboard gear, learning which units sounded good on which tracks. After many nights of trial and error, we eventually established a collection of signal paths and settings that we liked. Using those, we reprinted all the Shatterbox audio tracks through our processing chains of choice.

The resulting analog-reprocessed tracks established our new baseline for mixing. Steve and I continued our weekly evenings together in the studio, using plug-ins to fine tune the tones and eventually established a collection of settings that could be used across all of the songs, with only small adjustments on a case-by-case basis. With that in place, we were able to focus on the mixes themselves and soon wrapped them up. To further exercise the analog and digital gear, we proceeded to master the songs, learning even more in the process.

By the time we'd wrapped up all the mixing and mastering, we were excited about how good the songs sounded. The analog reprocessing had breathed fresh life into the songs and everything sounded so good that we wanted the rest of the world to hear it. Since Mike Levine had contributed to the collection as a songwriter, vocalist and bass player, we contacted him to let him know how excited we were and that we were interested in releasing them as an album. Steve and I had started Crayonmaster, the company that held the rights to our songs and would act as the music label for the release. We were happy to cover the legal and logistical costs of the release and wanted to split any proceeds equally between the three of us. Unfortunately, after a brief period of optimism, it became clear that Mike was unhappy with the plan. After a few more attempts to reach a compromise, Steve and I decided it was not going to work out.

This marked one of the most painful, frustrating periods of my music career. Steve and I had spent years writing, tracking, mixing and remixing this collection of songs and now, just like that, the project was tabled. Fortunately, in the midst of the unhappiness, an idea was born. We remembered the Denver tracks and realized they provided us with a new opportunity. We were free to do whatever we wanted with those tracks and quickly established a new goal: finish enough of those songs to release an album anyway. While setting up Crayonmaster, we had discovered that another band had been formed with the name, "Shatterbox", and they had locked up domain names and social profiles with it. Thus, the name, "Scattershock", came to be.

Then began another round of recording and mixing. Although we were happy with all the performances from Denver, I was not satisfied with the tone I'd captured using my Soldano X99. Listening back years later it just didn't have the excitement or power that I wanted on our songs. It was fairly easy to make the decision to re-track my guitar parts, this time in my own studio and using my ENGL Powerball. We rolled up our sleeves again and proceeded to reprocess the drum and bass tracks using the analog gear and knowledge gleaned from the Shatterbox remixes. It took time but was quickly a source of satisfaction. The tracks came to life even more so than the Shatterbox tracks.

As for the guitars, I hunkered down and started tracking them, with the Powerball cranked up and my trusty Sennheiser e906 up close and personal with my Marshall cabinet. I made some adjustments to the parts, aimed at establishing two distinct rhythm parts for each song. Typically, I tracked the first part with my Anderson Drop Top using my standard high gain, relatively bright, distorted tone. The second part varied more in tonality, but most often was tracked using my Anderson Hollow-T and a darker tone. To this day, I am happier with the Scattershock guitar tones than with any other project.

Next time I will explain how we moved beyond rhythm tracks to vocal tracking, lead guitar, mixing and mastering.