Month: April 2020

It’s always something.

There are two reasons my DIY documentary hasn’t gone live on the blog yet. The first is pretty innocuous. I underestimated how long it would take me to put together the giant blog post that’s supposed to accompany the video content. I’m still working on it here and there. The second reason is a good deal more frustrating, and part of the reason I haven’t finished the blog post yet. Distractions: they’re what’s for brunch.

I started using Vimeo to host some of my videos a few years ago. The maximum file size I’m allowed to upload here is about one gigabyte, which is a little strange since I’m paying for 38 GB of storage space. I’ve been able to work around this for the most part, but back when I still hung around Facebook there were times when I wanted to embed a video over there without having to link to a blog post. Vimeo allowed me to do that. When they removed the functionality of the embeddable video player for users with basic accounts, I upgraded to a Plus account and got on with my business. Then Facebook stopped supporting Vimeo’s player and I couldn’t embed anything there anymore.

It didn’t bother me a whole lot. I grew to like Vimeo. It was fast, it was easy, and it didn’t blink at files the WordPress server didn’t want to play ball with. The weekly 5 GB upload limit wasn’t very generous, but it was far more than I would ever need. Even the re-encoding process was pretty invisible.

My feelings for Vimeo have soured over the last week or two. It’s not me. It’s them. I’ve been trying and failing to upload a version of this documentary that isn’t glitchy. If I upload a shorter segment, everything’s fine. When I upload the whole thing, the video and sound stutter in some places. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to happen if your internet connection wasn’t able to handle the video you were trying to watch and it kept buffering. But buffering isn’t the issue here.

I re-edited a segment or two where the stuttering was really noticeable, thinking maybe there was too much visual information in those parts for Vimeo to handle. It didn’t make any difference. I updated my MacBook’s operating system — something I’ve resisted doing for years — and made sure my browser was up to date. I made sure no other programs were open during the uploading process and there was nothing else hogging any of the browser’s resources. I must have tried uploading the same video seven or eight different times. It kept stuttering in the same places. It didn’t help that I could only do this so many times in a week, since you’re only allowed to replace an existing video with a new file once or twice before it starts to count toward your weekly limit.

The size of the file I’m working with is a hair over 3 GB. It takes almost twelve hours to upload. I can’t close my browser or allow my computer to slip into sleep mode at any point throughout that twelve-hour period. A whole day disappears every time I try to fix a problem I didn’t create. As a point of comparison, it took me about four hours to back up more than 450 GB of stuff from my MacBook’s hard drive when I updated my macOS to High Sierra (and that’s as far as I’m willing to go, because too many programs I rely on are no longer supported by Mojave).

I couldn’t figure it out. I’ve asked Vimeo to deal with a ton of WMV files before this. I never had a problem with any of them. One of those files was about half the size of this one. It took six or seven hours to upload (oh, the joys of having a slow internet connection), but there was none of this stuttering junk when it was done. My original file plays all the way through without any issues on a 2009 Acer laptop that runs like a slug and should be dead by now. It’s also glitch-free on my MacBook, which is no spring chicken itself. It isn’t 4K or HD. It’s not a huge or complex file. And yet Vimeo can’t seem to handle it.

I had to pester Vimeo Support to get them to acknowledge me, and what I got was little more than a brush off. I was told the issue was a timestamp overlap, which I assume was created at the re-encoding stage. I was told to try uploading an MP4 file instead. And that was it. I don’t know what causes a timestamp overlap or how you fix it, but I know I didn’t create it, and when you pay for the privilege of receiving assistance in a situation like this only to get a curt “change your file format and stop wasting my time” when you ask for help, well…let’s just say I won’t be recommending you to any of my friends after this, Vimeo.

I tried appealing to WordPress. I explained the situation. I’ve never needed to upload a file this large before. I’ll never need to do it again. All I want is to be able to host this file somewhere so I can embed it in a blog post. I told them I would be willing to pay for some temporary WordPress superpowers that would allow me to upload a larger file. After paying for this blog’s server space for twelve years running, I thought I might have built up enough goodwill for them to give me a pass this one time.

The response I got was a little more detailed than what I was able to squeeze out of Vimeo, but it wasn’t any more helpful. The guy who wrote back told me there was no way to get around the maximum upload file size. He said WMV wasn’t a great format anyway and I should consider re-encoding my video as an MP4 file and splitting it into two or three parts.

Here’s the problem with that. I tried making MP4 files when I was editing this film. Sony Vegas crashed on me every time. The only format I could get it to spit out with any reliability was WMV. Could I take my WMV file and re-encode it as an MP4? Sure, if I wanted it to look like it was filmed with a piece of charcoal. The quality wouldn’t just take one hit — it would be degraded a second time when whatever hosting service I uploaded it to re-encoded it again. It isn’t a slick, professional film, but I’m not prepared to live with that level of visual atrophy.

Nothing connected to this album can be straightforward. It’s almost comical.

I found a website called Wistia that allowed me to upload my file for free. It took another twelve hours, but I thought I might fare better over there. No dice. There must be something in the file that doesn’t respond well to being reprocessed as an MP4 (which is what every video hosting site on the planet does no matter what kind of file you give them). I don’t know what it is. The stuttering didn’t seem quite as bad over there, and there are things about Wistia that appeal to me. The quality of their 360p streaming video is as good or better than Vimeo’s 480p. You’re allowed to get into quite a bit of customization, too. You can insert chapter markers into your video, for example — something Vimeo doesn’t allow you to do unless you pony up the dough for a Pro account.

I sent them a message asking if they could do anything to compensate for the timestamp overlaps on their end. I told them I was prepared to migrate over to Wistia and sign up for a paid account if they were willing to help me out. We’ll see what kind of response I get.

Don’t think the absurdity of all of this is lost on me. I know I’ve put a lot of time and energy into trying to solve a problem no one else would care about. The stuttering hasn’t bothered the small group of people I’ve shared the video with so far, and I’ve been getting some pretty incredible feedback. But it isn’t about how small the issue is. I put a lot of work into this thing. I’m not okay with the idea of presenting it in a compromised form. I want it to play from beginning to end without getting buggy.

Spending a few hundred dollars a month for a video hosting service that’s geared toward commercial businesses isn’t an option. YouTube isn’t an option either. They’ll hammer the video quality into oblivion. Dailymotion won’t let me sign up for an account because of some glitch in their website. There are other sites out there like Vidyard, but I doubt their server would handle my file any better than Vimeo’s has, and I’d have to pay for a year’s subscription if I wanted to give them a try.

With all the advances that have been made in computer technology, you’d think by now it would be the easiest thing in the world to upload uncompressed video to the internet and stream it at the speed of light, regardless of the format. But no. That would be too simple.

Whatever response I get from Wistia, I might have found a solution. And you’re going to laugh. Because all of the sudden, for no apparent reason, Vegas is letting me render MP4 files. I don’t know what changed. Maybe clearing some debris off of the Acer laptop’s hard drive shook something loose. I’ve had to break one or two of the individual segments into even smaller pieces in order to get them to render, but there are enough existing transitions in the film for me to do that pretty seamlessly, and MPEG StreamClip should allow me to glue all those pieces together without any transcoding.

If that works, and if the gaps between the joined files are as nonexistent as they were when I did the same thing with Steeper, I might be in business. Logic would dictate that Vimeo shouldn’t introduce any stuttering into a file that’s already in their preferred format.

So far I’ve been able to render about two-thirds of the segments I need without any serious trouble. There doesn’t appear to be any discernible difference in quality from the WMV files I was working with before, and the file sizes are about the same. It’s probably going to take me the better part of tomorrow to finish all of this, and then it’ll take another day to upload the results, but with a little luck I just might have a version of this video I can share without gritting my teeth by the end of the week.

It’s a long walk to make for some peace of mind, but I’ve come this far. I’m far too stubborn to give up now. And hey, this debacle got me to update my operating system to something a little less archaic. Everything seems to run a little smoother now. Microsoft Word doesn’t freeze up on me anymore! Getting the computer out of sleep mode in the morning takes ten seconds instead of ten minutes! Rejoice!

A few other quick things that have nothing to do with any of this:

YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is at #7 on the CJAM charts right now. It’s lived inside the top twenty for eleven weeks in a row now, and in that time it’s hit #1 more than once. CJAM has been very good to me for a very long time, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one of my albums get this kind of extended consistent airplay. It’s nuts. Thanks, as always, to everyone who’s playing my noise, whoever you might be.

You’ll be shocked — shocked! — to learn none of the DJs I sent the album to outside of Windsor have acknowledged the gesture in any way. At least I only wasted three copies. That’s better than wasting thirty, right?

Steeper and steeper.

I’ve finished this film-like thing that digs into the making of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK (and a whole lot of other things too). For a minute there I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say that.

A few days ago, when I was getting deep into the home stretch, I tried to join a bunch of WMV files with Steeper so I could see how things were shaping up. While everything worked fine when there were seven or eight things I was trying to glue together, it didn’t go so well now that I had twelve of them. The command-line interface would show the joining process progressing without a hitch until the very end. Then it would hang on “indexing output file” forever. If I tried to save the file at this stage, the program would freeze up. If I tried to save the file at some earlier point in the process, the same thing would happen. If I was lucky I’d come away with a file that was partially playable but incomplete.

When a program freezes up on me and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to unfreeze, my impulse has always been to force it to close so I can get on with my life. Johnny Smith suggested leaving it alone and waiting to see what would happen. It took five or ten minutes, but eventually the indexing process finished. So then I tried saving, thinking the indexing couldn’t happen until Steeper knew where to put the file. The program froze up on me again.

I thought I’d try one more time and let it freeze during the saving process. Maybe if I didn’t force the program to quit I’d get lucky and it would take pity on me and unfreeze at some point. And wouldn’t you know it — that’s just what happened.

The output file I was asking Steeper to deal with was much larger by now than it was when I was putting together rough assemblies a week or two ago. What was once a few hundred megabytes had grown to a few gigs. It makes sense that it would take a little longer to index and save all that information. I could have saved myself a bit of anxiety if I’d allowed that simple idea to make its way into my head.

Maybe it’s a good lesson to learn about impatience creating the illusion of a problem when there isn’t one.

As I like to say, all’s well that ends with sixteen files joined together as one. I spent a good chunk of yesterday combing through the whole thing and making a few last-minute changes. It’s funny what you miss when your head is buried in something so involved. Most of the time it was a messy edit here and there, but in one case I forgot to insert a bit of text letting the viewer know who a musician was. Pretty glad I caught that little oversight before it was too late.

I’m supposed to be finished by now. I’ve been working on this every day for the past few weeks. I was doing preliminary editing work on some of the musical segments as far back as 2014. And still I can’t escape the feeling that the end has snuck up on me a little. It’s going to be strange to wrap my head around not having any more editing to do.

In a lot of ways this little homemade documentary completes the work done on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. The two things are meant to live together and illuminate each other. There’s a ton of music on the album that isn’t represented in the film, but that’s because it wasn’t feasible to film every piece of music I recorded, and I wanted to be able to put together a final assembly that was less than ten hours long (which I managed to do!). I also wanted the film to emphasize the work that involved other singers and musicians. I think that’s the most interesting stuff to watch, even if it might create the impression that the album was less of a solitary mission than it really was. I can set up a camera and film myself constructing songs on my own any time. Bringing other people into my music like this isn’t likely to happen again. I’m glad I was able to document some of that as it happened.

I couldn’t fit in everything I wanted to. I had an embarrassment of raw material to work with — more than fifty hours of self-shot footage, fifteen hours of archival footage filmed by a handful of friends over the years, hundreds if not thousands of photographs, and I made use of twenty-seven different public domain films ranging from experimental animation to unintentionally hilarious educational films, vintage cartoons, and even a cigarette commercial from the 1940s. I had to make countless small and large decisions about what to show, how much of it to show, how to cut it, and where to put it.

It took well over a thousand edits to suture all those choices. I know this because I counted them.

One of the things I enjoyed most about constructing this thing was working out what music to use and how to employ it. Even when the music isn’t the focus, there’s very little narration that doesn’t have music behind it. With only a few exceptions, everything you hear is period-correct. When I’m talking about the early cassette recordings, almost all the music on the soundtrack is sourced from those recordings. Same deal when I’m talking about Papa Ghostface, GWD, and any number of solo adventures. I knew I’d recorded a lot of instrumental pieces, but it was pretty neat to discover I had access to any mood I wanted without having to reach outside of my own catalogue. I managed to incorporate more than sixty songs, from one of the first things I ever recorded in 1994 to some piano noodling I recorded last week. I even got to pull out a handful of things that haven’t been released in any official form.

It was a challenge to shape all of this into something with some amount of rhythm and cohesion. It was also great fun, and more emotional and cathartic than I thought it would be. I’ve never put so much thought or work into any video-related thing I’ve done, and I think it shows in the final assembly. It ain’t a high-definition experience, and it won’t be screened at any film festivals, but if I start to feel self-conscious about that I remember the Daniel Lanois film Here Is What Is. Some of the footage in that documentary looks like it was filmed with a potato. It doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to watch.

Just as there’s a lot of music that’s specific to the album, the film touches on a number of things that aren’t SLEEPWALK-related. In a way it serves as the last word on what I do and why I do it the way I do. I wasn’t expecting to dig into all of that. It just happened. One thing I was expecting: you get to see my expanding waistline in all its glory, along with vivid evidence of Maximum Beardage (2017-2019) and Maximum Beardage Jr. (2014-2015). The relative gauntness of my face in a few bits I filmed breaking down some song elements at the mixer over the last week or two is pretty striking. I don’t miss carrying that spare tire around, either.

You know you’ve lost more than a bit of weight when you can wear a sweatshirt that hasn’t fit you since 2008.

Here’s how old this hoodie is — it’s from a time when CJAM was still situated at 91.5 on the FM dial. Pretty freaky.

And here’s something else that’s freaky. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK has a total running time of two hours, thirty-three minutes, and thirty-five seconds. Its video accomplice? Two hours, thirty-three minutes, and thirty-one seconds. They’re within four seconds of being the exact same length. That’s a margin so thin it almost doesn’t exist. And it’s pure coincidence.

Once I figured that out, I was tempted to make a few fades or transitions a little longer so the length of the video would match the length of the album stroke for stroke. But it felt a little too cheeky.

Working on this video project has been engrossing, and I’ve been surprised almost every step of the way. I’m a little sad it’s over now. One of the most amusing surprises came from my eleven-year-old Acer laptop, of all things.

The S key stopped working years ago. I was able to squeeze a bit more life out of it by ripping off the plastic key cover and pressing down on the sensor, but that only worked for a few weeks, and then it was dead. After that, whenever I needed an S I had to copy it from an existing document or a file and then paste it where I wanted it to be. This is the computer I use for duplicating CDs too, so you can imagine what a treat it was when I had to input the song information for SLEEPWALK. I found the only way to avoid losing my mind was to copy and paste a lowercase and uppercase S next to each other so I’d have easy access to whichever one was necessary at a given time.

While I was messing with all of this video stuff, the laptop started coming out of sleep mode on its own at random times. A single letter kept repeating over and over again in the field for my login password, as if an invisible finger was pressing down on it. It wouldn’t stop until I hit the backspace. It was the letter S.

This happened maybe half a dozen times. Then it didn’t happen anymore, and the S key started working again. I guess it wanted to announce its rebirth to me.

I have to hand it to this laptop. I’ve asked an awful lot of it over the past few weeks, and I’ve worked it hard. Aside from Vegas crashing on me a few times, it’s been pretty smooth sailing ever since I stopped trying to edit it as one big project and broke it up into smaller pieces. Acer the Aceman took everything I threw at him and held up just fine. If anything, he seems to run a little better now. Try figuring that out.

It’ll be at least a few days before the video shows up here. I need to add some more content to the blog post it’s going to be attached to. But it’s a-comin’. I’m going to try to have that all squared away by Monday at the latest.

Hello in there.

John Prine beat cancer twice, but he couldn’t fight off the coronavirus and the pneumonia it brought with it. He was seventy-three.

I have a bad habit of not discovering the work of some of my favourite artists until long after they’re gone. It’s happened with Nick Drake, Laura Nyro, Tim Buckley, and too many others to mention. I got lucky with John Prine and had the chance to appreciate him while he was still here.

For a long time I knew his name without knowing his music. I didn’t know anything about him. All I had to go on was his amiable, weathered face with its mop of hair that looked like it just fell out of bed along with the rest of him. One day I saw this pop up on my YouTube sidebar and thought, “Why not?” I clicked on it. Within a few minutes I’d become a fan.

John could make you laugh one minute and rip your heart out the next. A blessed few writers have that gift. I think it comes from a deep reservoir of empathy and an understanding of human nature in all its awful and wonderful contradictions. Harry Nilsson had it. Randy Newman and Lyle Lovett have it. Rickie Lee Jones has it. Tom Waits too. Springsteen has it, sometimes, when he feels like dusting it off. Not many others do.

John had it right from the start. He released his debut album in 1971. Some of the songs on it: “Sam Stone”. “Angel from Montgomery”. “Paradise”. “Hello in There”. “Six O’Clock News”. “Donald and Lydia”. “Far from Me”.

How you can write songs like that, full of the weight of living, when you’re only twenty-four years old is beyond me. The words only grew more resonant as he and his voice grew older. You could say he aged into the songs he wrote as a young man.

If there’s some comfort to take from something like this, it’s the knowledge that he’s probably somewhere smoking a nine-mile-long cigarette right now, grinning with abandon. Trying to write your own epitaph is a fool’s errand most of the time, but you’d be hard-pressed to write one for John Prine that’s any better than the last song on the last album he made.

La modifica.

My hope to get all that video-related business taken care of by the end of the week was pretty optimistic — and, as I’m realizing now, not very realistic. I think I underestimated how much work was involved. Or maybe I wanted to believe the editing process would be a little more straightforward than I knew it was really going to be. Bouncing back and forth between two different computers doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to save files on one flash drive or another on my MacBook, only to transfer those files to the external hard drive plugged into the crusty old Acer laptop so I can work with them in Sony Vegas.

It’s a little complicated. But it’s fun. I’ve been eating, drinking, sleeping, and even dreaming this homemade documentary over the last week or so. There’s no turning back now.

I’m enjoying the process of piecing things together. There’s a lot of narration, because there’s a lot that needs to be said, but I’m trying to take a “show don’t tell” approach as much as I can. For example, I could talk for a long time about how I felt I came into my own as a guitarist and found a way to speak through the instrument for the first time when I was an angry teenager with a short-lived band. I think it’s more effective to drop a fiery guitar solo from a live performance in the appropriate place and let the music do the talking.

There are some things I can’t touch on if I want a final assembly that’s less than ten hours long. But that’s what the forthcoming album-specific blog post is for. This film — if I can call it that — is more about putting the album in its proper context within the full arc of my artistic life and stuffing in as much behind-the-scenes footage as I can while I’m at it.

Working with a voiceover track instead of speaking to the camera has been a new experience for me. I’m used to treating public domain film content in a very specific way, using it to break up the rhythm of my monologue while commenting on what’s being said in an absurd or irreverent way. Now it’s become a different tool, serving as a visual counterpart to the words when I don’t have appropriate footage of my own to lean on or I want to mix things up a little. I’ve never been so thankful for the existence of the Internet Archive and the abundance of material that’s fallen into the public domain for one reason or another.

I had a bit of a scare the other day when I was trying to stitch a few segments together with Steeper. I kept getting all these messages telling me the program couldn’t find something called “delete.exe”, and everything went wonky on me. “Great,” I thought. “I find a simple solution to a problem, and now I have to find a work-around for the solution itself.”

After a number of failed attempts to join four or five files, I took a look at the different elements of Steeper I downloaded. There was something I’d forgotten to click on. It was “delete.exe” — the part of the program that allows you to overwrite old joined files. I downloaded it, tried again, and the issue was resolved.

Note to self: when a program comes in a few different downloadable parts/executions, it might be a good idea to grab all of them before trying to run the thing.

Being forced to break everything into chapters has been even more of a blessing than I thought it was. Making a change or fixing a rough edit is much easier when you’re dealing with smaller sections as opposed to one big chunk. It’s much less overwhelming when you don’t see the whole pile of work in front of you. And it helps to maintain a sense of structure, which was something I was concerned about having never done anything on this scale before.

I’ve got about an hour of footage assembled now, and I’m still far from finished. I’m getting there, though. Every day I either get another segment finished or I put a good dent in one or two of them. Today I should be able to finish three. That feels pretty good.