Entries in music (30)


Collaboration: when it's working, it doesn't hurt

As a result of the "Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies" I took this Spring through Berklee Online, I've been thinking a lot about collaboration. The class format and the students in that class combined to create a highly interactive environment. We were spread all over the world, spanning an entire day's worth of time zones and yet everybody interacted and learned from those interactions. Strangely, though, when the topic of collaborative songwriting came up, many of the students were uncomfortable. Their concerns are similar to those I've seen across most of my life experiences, in music, in software, in school.

Collaboration scares people. It's seen as giving up ones own goals, degrading ones own vision. It's seen as the path to impurity and struggle. Sadly, there are so many examples in the real world to support this. Just listen to anything from The Troggs Tapes (careful there's lots of swearing) to the U.S. legislature and it's clear that working together is hard. Watch any reality TV show or This Is Spinal Tap and you will get a a vivid reminder that collections of people have a hard time agreeing on anything, especially when a shared creative goal is involved.

Despite that, however, there is nothing better than a successful collaboration. When it's working, it really doesn't hurt at all. The ideas flow more quickly and you look back at the end result with awe. The song or other creative work is something that no one person could have generated. Sure, sometimes you end up with the offspring of 100 maniacs but the beauty of creative endeavors is that you can always set one aside and move on to the next. In fact, many of us believe that's how creativity works anyway. Not every creative work is successful, but the practice you get on the unsuccessful ones combines with the raw output of repeatedly trying to assure that you do generate successful works.

Absolutely, though, it takes a different approach to be successful when collaboration is involved. Too often everyone thinks they have an agenda and when that agenda does not get satisfied in the end result, it's a failed effort. That's why it's important to alter the goal. The reason for collaboration is to generate an end product that could only exist through the efforts of many. It is not the product of one person's vision implemented by many. So, you really cannot know how it will turn out based on the first conversation or the initial vision. It will evolve through interaction, conversation and critique. And once complete, every one of the collaborators will see themselves and every other collaborator reflected in the final product.

Does that sound too hard? Do you have to give up too much of yourself to make collaboration work? No, absolutely not. In fact, with the right collaborators, you will find that you express more of yourself, especially your strengths, than if you try to do it all yourself. I'm a guitarist and part-time vocalist. Although the bass has similarity to guitar, I am not a bass player. I understand the mathematics of rhythm and the mechanics of playing a drum kit, but I'm no drummer. I can spend hours sequencing keyboards, bass and drums but experienced musicians can accomplish the same thing (no, really, way better things) in much less time. If I surround myself with the right people, ideas become songs much faster. They don't lose their freshness and excitement somewhere along the arranging and recording process.

So, the next time you find yourself shying away from an opportunity, fearful that interacting with others will erode the vision, think again. Go out on a limb and try writing a song with someone else. Try developing a software product plan with collaborators. Or, just plan a pot-luck dinner for next Saturday night. Then, let yourself revel in the unexpected outcomes. Enjoy the process, the ebb and flow as all contributors' personalities and efforts factor in, flavoring the final product. Then, experience the end product and think back over how each of you contributed and how each of you achieved things that were personally rewarding. With practice, you will be amazed at how much you enjoy the process of reaching the goal, and that the results of your efforts are unique and well beyond anything you could have accomplished on your own.


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.


Creativity: you don't grow out of it

Almost every one of us has had this experience at some level. Activities that used to fascinate and transfix you as a child eventually get pushed aside in favor of more practical and sensible activities. Maybe you loved building forts out of cardboard boxes, maybe you made up recipes using whatever you could find in the kitchen, maybe you wandered your backyard with a magnifying glass. In most of those cases, you look back and realize you don't do that as often as you used to.

It starts in grade school when you have to do your homework before you can play. Or you need to clean up the house first. Soon your parents and teachers don't have to say anything, it becomes ingrained in you. The process is gradual but highly effective; we learn to push all the responsible and "necessary" activities to the top of the list and barely notice as fort making, cartoon drawing and puppet shows get pushed farther and farther down the list. Eventually they're buried under so many other responsibilities that we forget them.

The problem with that eventuality (if my own experience is at all applicable to you) is that we don't really forget those things. They burn deep down, eating away from the inside while all the exterior forces scratch away from the outside. Despite the message that pummels us from the world around, "cut your hair, get a real job, stop wasting your time", the crazy, intense, youthful creativity that we start out with is still there and suppressing it hurts, literally.

For one, suppression is destructive because it makes us less effective in everything we do. Many of you know how much more difficult it is to teach your parents' generation about technology than it is to teach your kids. Just watch a 6 year old and a 60 year old, each with an iPad. The 6 year old will bang around, try things and learn from mistakes. They will ask you questions whenever something doesn't make sense ("Why does the picture keep flipping when I turn it?") but the minute you answer the question, they run with it (I constantly find my iPad with rotation lock active and I rarely, if ever, use it myself). Kids take these things very seriously (they want to learn as quickly as possible) and yet they approach everything with a wide open, playful sense that means they seldom get demoralized or frustrated.

The non-technical adults I interact with are quite different. Every challenge is a struggle, every quirk is a land mine. Even though adults have much more experience to draw on, seeing analogy in technology is much more difficult. Where kids revel in the newness, starting from complete lack of information and rapidly climbing the learning curve, adults get impatient. The first hurdle and they fall deep into the mud, sucking them down into mental gridlock. And, in my opinion, this is tied very closely to buried creativity.

You can't make creativity go away. If you do, you become less effective in so many ways. When you bury your creativity, you also bury your happiness, although this process is slow enough that you don't really notice until you are quite far down that road. It doesn't matter where your creativity naturally focuses. It's dangerous to bury it, assuming that more practical use of your hours will make up for it. Every one of us needs to find a balance: support yourself and your family without walling up your creativity behind brick and mortar. Your creativity is a fuel and a skill that facilitates everything you do. The more actively you exercise it, the more likely it will be available when you really need it.

For me, this means remembering that music, and specifically, guitar, drive me in a way that nothing else does. I am happy and energized when I give myself time to play my instrument. Listening to music isn't just a passive thing for me, it's enveloping and something I need to do regularly. Maybe it's cooking for you, or gardening or oil painting. Can you figure out how to restore the creative activities in your life? What is the key for you; what creative arena defines you?