ear candy

you’re nine. have some wine.

a few weeks ago this blog turned nine years old. kind of nuts to think next year it’s gonna be ten. WHERE DID ALL THAT TIME GO? WHERE?

i don’t know if there will ever be another year like the first few, when i posted pretty much every other day. those were crazy times. but you never know. i’m just glad i got through those few middle years of being kind of “meh” about the blog and have once again committed to using this as a place to talk to myself. and motivate myself. and dance with myself.

these days i don’t like to go weeks without saying anything here if i can help it. but i had a valid excuse this time, i swear! i was sick.

it never fails. i’ll be ramping up work on something, getting ready to head into the home stretch, and then out of nowhere a mega-cold will knock me out for at least a week or two and mess up my ears for a while, so even doing any significant mixing work is pretty much impossible.

i don’t get sick often (knock on laptop screen). maybe once every year or two. but when i get sick, i get sick. in italics. i’d say about every third album i make, the coughing and sneezing and muffled hearing is bound to come calling before i’m finished, disrupting my momentum.

maybe it’s just my body’s way of giving me a break when i won’t take one on my own. i don’t know.

whatever the case, it’s awfully nice to have my ears back now, and to be able to sing without hacking up a lung. i wish this one time my ears had been given a free pass, because i could have put a huge dent in all that remastering work while recording was out of the question. what can you do?

a couple o’ things that may be interesting:

a day or two before that cold showed up, i was almost finished remastering CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. one of the few songs left to revisit was “95 streets to the right (is where i will find the heart of you)”. and i couldn’t find that song anywhere. the title wasn’t scrawled on any of my backup CDs.

i knew there was no way i didn’t back the song up. it had to be somewhere. for more than a decade now i’ve been backing up everything, whether it’s worth keeping or not. on one backup CD there was something called “dream songs”. when i saw that, i was pretty sure i remembered recording fragments of a few bits of music i remembered from dreams and then, instead of making a new song, just recording “95 streets” there too.

i’ve gone through a lot of different brands of recordable CDs over the years — maxell, TDK, sony, verbatim, ridata, and a host of others i don’t remember offhand. most of them have held up. whether it’s got audio or data on it, i can grab a CD that’s almost twenty years old and know it’ll still work without any issues.

before i started getting taiyo yuden CDs for the most important stuff (and TDK for the slightly less important stuff), i liked verbatim. around 2007 or 2008 they changed the way they made their recordable CDs, and they became pretty glitchy and useless. maybe the printable ones are better. i don’t know. i just know the “regular” kind degraded so much, they were only useful for making rough mixes, and even then i couldn’t play them on most systems because they were more or less defective. i don’t buy those anymore.

you know what’s coming.

for some reason i’ll never understand, i used one of those CDs to back up “95 streets”. as you’d expect, it was toast. it would get halfway through transferring the data back onto the mixer, and then it would freeze up.

i dug through another box of backup CDs and found an alternate, backed up to a different brand. that one worked just fine. right about then i was pretty happy i always back up everything at least twice, just in case one CD goes janky on me.

and hey, i’m getting a new camera tomorrow. that calls for more dancing.

the cheap pentax point-and-shoot and the little flip video cameras have served me well, but it feels like it’s time to step things up a bit.

i almost did this a year ago. i was getting frustrated with how grainy video shot with the flip cameras would get in low light situations. more than that, every time i filmed myself talking to the camera i would have to get it very close to my face to get the best, most present sound possible out of the tiny built-in microphone. without a flip screen to show me what the framing was like, i would usually end up cutting off part of the top of my head (sometimes creating the illusion of a receding hairline) or the bottom of my face (leaving my chin feeling shunned). and that drove me nuts, though i learned to live with it.

i did a lot of research, trying to find better cameras that would do better in low light but wouldn’t break the bank. you can spend a ton of money on a great camera. i’m never going to be a real filmmaker. something that costs thousands of dollars would be wasted on someone like me. so i was looking for the best bang for the buck possible.

i found some videos made by ray ortega and was impressed not only by their quality, but by his willingness to share information with viewers. i sent him an email, outlining what i was trying to do and what i was looking for. i didn’t expect to hear back. he wrote a long email in response, making suggestions and giving some very thoughtful advice. (huge thanks go out to him for being so kind and eager to help a stranger.)

then i decided it wasn’t the right time to spend the money. and maybe i wouldn’t know what to do with a better camera anyway. maybe i was fishing outside of my pond. so i sat on it.

with YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK inching closer to the finish line now, i started thinking again about how frustrating it was going to be to try and get the framing right for my narration bits, which will end up forming a pretty large part of the album’s video companion piece. with the few segments i’ve filmed of myself talking so far, sometimes i’ve had to go back and do it again four or five times before i get a take where i’m not cutting some part of my head off or moving out of the frame without meaning to. even using a small mirror to try and see what the camera sees only helps so much.

one suggestion ray made in his email was to use a better camera to film the bits of me talking and any interviews there might be with the other people involved in the making of the album, bumping up the quality of those parts and making for an interesting visual contrast with the older recording footage shot on the flip cameras. the more i thought about that, the more it seemed like a really good idea.

after a lot of mulling it over, i decided a canon T5i was the way to go. it has its fans and its detractors, but for the price and the ability it will give me to take pictures and shoot video at a level of quality far above anything i’ve ever done before, i look at it as a bargain, and almost a no-brainer. plus it’s new. i gave some serious thought to a used canon T3i, but it’s always nice to have a warranty. because you never know.

when it comes to video, i won’t be relying on a built-in camera microphone anymore, either. i grabbed one of these over the weekend.

it’s a zoom H1 microphone/recorder. for such a cheap little thing the sound quality the H1 captures is pretty outstanding. it’ll be worth the minor inconvenience of mounting it somewhere nearby but out of the camera’s field of vision, dumping the audio on the computer, and syncing it up with the video. another option would be recording my voice in the “studio”, mixing it all proper-like, and using that as the audio. but this will be much simpler and less time-consuming, and still a huge upgrade in sound quality.

so if you notice a marked improvement in the clarity of the self-shot pictures and videos that show up here from time to time, that’s why.

i expect there to be a bit of a learning curve, but i’m looking forward to figuring out how to get the most out of that new camera. and it’s not like the little flip fellas are going anywhere. when i’m shooting in-studio footage they’re still likely going to be the best choice. they’re small enough to position in odd places, i don’t have to worry about knocking them over (it’s happened before, and they don’t seem to care one bit), and it’s easy to forget they’re even there, which hopefully makes other singers and musicians feel a little less self-conscious about being filmed.

the heart and the brain.

heart-and-brain

on this, the ninth valentine’s day the blog has seen, i think a love song is in order. and no, it’s not the one some unknown person was screaming somewhere nearby a little before dawn that went, “I HATE YOU, WHORE” — you had to be here to appreciate that little ditty.

this song was written for GIFT FOR A SPIDER but went unrecorded for a year or two. it just might be the most tender thing i’ve ever written, with gooey, heartwarming lines like, “for now, you can hide how ugly you are, but the makeup won’t stay on. it always runs when you cry — assuming you cry.”

i’m content to have no inspiration to write songs like this anymore, but i can’t say i don’t get a kick out of the venom. who says awful, soul-destroying, toxic relationships that last all of four weeks aren’t good for something?

one day all your weapons will be useless

ain’t got time to work out a place to be.

crumb-patton

this whole remastering thing is a slow slog. but man, is it ever worth the tediousness.

if you’ve heard THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, you probably know this song. it’s one of several that’s got quite a bit of clipping going on.

weak bladder blues (original 2008 master)

here’s what it sounds like now, and what it always should have sounded like.

weak bladder blues (2017 remaster)

to say the song is easier on the ears in this quieter form goes beyond being an understatement, and flirts with chuck norris levels of truthiness. i can’t believe i ever found a way to justify letting all that clipping happen just for a little extra loudness. nothing like that will ever happen again on my watch.

for anyone who might be mastering their own music at home and wrestling with the question of whether or not they should over-compress it or introduce unnatural digital distortion in exchange for some additional volume, i offer the above as an audio add-on to my strongest recommendation that you stay away from that slippery slope altogether. concentrate on getting things to sound as good and dynamic as you can, without any consideration given to loudness at all. if anyone is miffed that they have to turn your music up a little louder than some of the other albums in their collection or they don’t want to listen to your stuff if it means they have to spend two seconds making a slight volume adjustment, well…you don’t really want people who are that goofy listening to your music anyway, do you?

as for the picture there, that’s a colourized panel from robert crumb’s patton — a retelling of the life of delta blues legend charley patton. a few historical inaccuracies aside, it must be one of the best comic strips crumb’s ever created. it’s difficult to find in printed form for anything like a reasonable price, but you can read it over here.

eighty eight keys and some lies.

mickey-piano

the piano shows up in the things i’m recording all the time in a textural role, but it’s been a long while since it operated as any kind of consistent musical driving force. i think you might have to go back to MEDIUM-FI MUSIC to find the last album where the piano provided the guts for more than a song or two.

i’m not sure it’s as simple as not being able to bring the upright upstairs where a lot of ideas are born. for some reason i just don’t seem to sit down at the piano and wander as much as i used to. i don’t know why. there’s really no excuse for that. it’s not as if i don’t keep the beast in-tune.

i thought it was about time something changed there. so i’ve been making a point of recording more piano songs lately. here’s one of ’em.

alien eggs

even if it ends up on an album, i don’t think sharing this one is giving much away. a naked tiny song is all it is. but sometimes i like those naked little tunes. and sometimes the heat comes on near the end of one such tune, a clicking sound is made, and the piano mics pick it up, but you like the performance enough to live with the click. this is one of those times.

the first verse is about mockingbirds. did you know some of them lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and then their offspring bully any other young occupants out of the nest and steal their food, leaving the adults with no choice but to raise them as their own? i find that fascinating, and kind of horrifying.

the second verse is about being a self-aware organic compound derived from sugar. a state of being we all think about from time to time, yes?

sound the alarm.

fire-alarm-2

dave konstantino’s revolution rock radio show and its companion blog have both been around longer than this blog of mine, which is coming up on its ninth birthday next month. dave just posted some thoughts about AFTERTHOUGHTS, along with a funny story about a renegade fire alarm forcing the entirety of the album onto the airwaves in one shot. a sly cosmic joke directed at its absence from the charts, or a simple fluke? you be the judge.

thanks to dave for the kind words. and thanks to the fire alarm for apparently being a fan.

i now know why the album failed to chart. it had nothing to do with a lack of airplay. it’s a bit of a strange feeling when you find out a twelve-year run of being a mainstay in the top 30 has ended with some of the best music you’ve been involved in getting shafted because one specific person didn’t care enough to place it in the on-air library at any time in a span of more than three months (and counting), rendering it ineligible to chart.

and that’s all i’m going to say on that subject.

elsewhere, zara’s album is finished, assuming she’s happy with the way it sounds. now i can finally get back to work on making slick, game-changing pop music like this.

the ongoing adventures of a humble, sex-starved dishwasher

kind words.

intense-squirrel-violinist

ron leary just did an interview over at the avb podcast. not only is there some great insight into his craft and music-related philosophies, but there’s an unexpected shout-out to me and steve around the 31:50 mark, with some incredibly kind words about AFTERTHOUGHTS. thanks for that, ron. it means a lot.

(side note: if you don’t have a copy of ron’s new album yet, you should grab one and support that magnificent fella.)

i think those construction flapjacks might finally be gone. maybe. before the weekend, they were taking their pylons away. i hear in some cultures the taking-away of pylons indicates the end of a job that’s been drawn out a month or more past the time-frame in which it would have been completed by competent people with some semblance of a work ethic.

plus there’s snow on the ground now. a lot of it, all of the sudden.

if they really are finished torturing me with the noise made by their pretending-to-work-while-doing-mostly-nothing shtick, blog things might be heating up in the casual walk to the end of the year. i’ve got so many things i’ve been wanting to work on over here, my eyebrows are about ready to take flight.

you see, it’s all clear.

greg-lake

i guess 2016 couldn’t leave without killing off at least one more talented person. two-thirds of emerson, lake & palmer are gone now, with greg lake joining keith emerson on the massive concert hall in the sky.

these guys gave me a lot of joy when i was a young ‘un, both with the epic prog workouts and smaller-scale gems like this.

greg lake was also the voice and bass behind some of the first music i heard that really challenged me, though it took a while before i figured out it was him. when i was seven or eight years old i came across in the court of the crimson king on cassette. the album cover scared the shit out of me. the music kind of unnerved me too, but at the same time there was something exciting happening there.

i grew up in the eighties listening to the radio. this wasn’t like anything they played on the radio. it wasn’t like anything i’d ever heard before anywhere.

try jamming on some brain salad surgery tunes if you run into keith up there, greg-man.

zara doing zara things (continued).

here’s that video action i mentioned a little while back.

zara says, “watch me awkwardly sway to my music as i make one of the happiest instruments possible sad.” (really. that’s what she said.)

johnny says, “lots of clichés have been peddled over the years about vocal power, but zara’s voice is so powerful it makes microphones shake — literally!”

the tasmanian devil says, “i like my new perch. i get to see and hear stuff.”

something i discovered in the course of editing this video: it’s easier to edit something when you have a lot of different elements to stitch together. more time-consuming, sure. but easier. when you’re only cutting back and forth between two different things, it becomes a little trickier to create movement without disjointedness. camera movement would probably help there, but i can’t move the camera around and concentrate on recording at the same time, unless i grow another set of eyes and hands.

you never know. it could happen.

my way of working around that was not making too many quick cuts, and deviating a little from the “show the person singing when they’re singing and show something else when they’re not singing” approach every once in a while, to keep it interesting.

didn’t feel right adding any additional instruments to this one, because it’s a really personal song, and also because i wanted the video to be a showcase for zara. it would be a little less of a showcase if every once in a while you got “random bearded person who isn’t zara doing things”.

it’s just you and me now, clovis.

sleepwalkers

it has just come to my attention that sleepwalkers is the best horror movie of all time. BECAUSE CATS.

(actually, it’s one of those “insanely bad but entertaining because it’s insanely bad” movies. watching it, you wonder if someone was drugging stephen king’s toothpaste when he wrote the screenplay. but still. cats.)

in the real world, where madchen amick doth not caress a cat while whispering my true feline name, the unnecessary construction crap continues, and continues, and continues. if i spend too much time thinking about how, if not for all the noise killing by ability to record for all of the most useful portions of almost every day, i would probably be almost finished that ambitious solo album there, it makes me want to murder things. i’m all for decompressing a little between albums, but not being able to do much of any meaningful work for almost two months now is getting ridiculous.

at this rate, i expect them to still be beeping and banging and alternating between working and pretending to work when next summer rolls around, and for our street to still not be repaired. hell, they should move in. why not? it already feels like they’ve been here forever and are never going to leave. might as well make it official.

the whole remastering thing has fallen by the wayside a little. instead of focusing on that the way i planned to, i’ve been dipping my toes back into the cassette archives.

i’m not sure what got my brain drifting back in that direction. i think it might have been one or two specific songs i wanted to hear. before i knew what was happening, i was listening to my ten-year-old self banging on a keyboard and singing about how endless matters are all that matter, and reading handwritten album notes from 1994 in which i thanked my wife and daughter.

you heard it here first — i was married and a father when i was ten years old. hey, i’m as surprised as you are.

then it hit me that i didn’t have access to a working tape recorder anymore. and that needed to change.

from 1994 (and maybe earlier) to the summer of 1998, this was what i recorded with:

my-old-friend

that’s a sony CFS-W305 cassette-corder. dig the “space sound”.

sometime in late 1997 it started getting finicky. sometimes it wouldn’t start recording right away. a few times it stopped recording at a random moment in the middle of a song. it still did the job most of the time, but when you’re constantly making music, you want something you can rely on.

around the time our sony friend was developing some issues, johnny smith bought a magnasonic CPS-912 boombox from a coworker. it didn’t have a built-in mic, but it had some nice speakers on it, so i started using it for listening and dubbing purposes.

then the CFS-W305 got even more temperamental and started chewing up tapes. that wasn’t going to stand. in the summer of ’98 i bought a cheap genexxa mic from radio shack that was sort of a poor man’s shure SM58, plugged it into the magnasonic, set it up as a room mic, and couldn’t believe how much fuller things sounded.

i’d put up a picture of the magnasonic here, but it’s packed away somewhere. and you can’t find a picture of it online. with the sony guy there, you can find the service manual without even trying, which is pretty neat. with the CPS-912, there’s no evidence anywhere on the internet that the thing ever existed at all.

it’s big and red. i can tell you that much. even after i wasn’t recording on tape anymore, i used its speakers as my monitors for a while before it got packed away.

there was another tape recorder in there for a bit. it wasn’t used to record a whole lot of music, but when i was in grade eight i would carry it around with me and make goofy field recordings. i loved that thing. i remember dropping it or damaging it somehow, and then it either got lost in a move or unloaded at a yard sale.

i don’t know what brand it was. in my memory it looks like a realistic CTR-70. kind of like this, only…more beige.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

it goes without saying that they don’t make a whole lot of cassette recorders anymore. not too many people are looking to record anything on cassette tape — not when you can buy digital sound recorders with stereo microphones that will probably fit in your pocket for not a whole lot of money. for me there’s just something appealing about cassette tapes and mono that never really went away. i grew up with tapes. a huge chunk of my musical life was recorded on that medium, live in one shot.

i know i posted a picture here a long time ago. here’s a new one that came out blurry for no apparent reason.

blurry-cassette-archives

aside from a handful of “greatest hits” and out-takes collections, all of that is original material, and they’re all full-length albums, most of them 90-minute or 120-minute cassettes. if you thought i was prolific about half a dozen years ago when i was putting out a few albums a year, you don’t want to know how productive i was when i was going through puberty. i was on a mission. it never occurred to me to play any of the stuff for anyone else. i just knew i needed to make it, and i wore the reluctant smithster down over a year or two until he became a vital collaborator.

(don’t ask me why i named him johnny smith but called us “the west team”. i’ve never understood what my logic was there.)

i’ve only revisited a few select songs here and there. i want to wait to really dig in until i can do it in a straight chronological line, and to be able to do that there are a few unlabelled tapes i need to go through to see what’s on them, and a little detective work i need to do to try and figure out when certain things were recorded early on.

the thing i’m realizing from the little bit of listening i have done — there’s very little music here that embarrasses me. even with the recordings where it’s obvious i didn’t know my way around a keyboard yet, there’s an almost violent creative energy there that’s a lot of fun to listen to all this distance on the other side of it.

i mean, i improvised a concept album when i was eleven years old. with shifts in perspective. and recurring narrative and melodic motifs. and i could barely even string a few chords together back then. that’s insane.

i’m not bragging. i just can’t believe i had the audacity to try something like that, and that i was confident enough to pull it off.

there’s a scary amount of music on those albums, taking in a lot of different sounds and subjects. i’m not going to put any of those songs up here, though. what’s going here is something i never thought i’d let anyone in the world hear, and one of the few things hidden in the spaces between all those audio photo albums that does embarrass me.

this is an out-take that didn’t end up on any proper album. it was recorded on july 2, 1997, the day i bought my first acoustic guitar.

by this point we’d recorded a lot of music and i was pretty comfortable at the keyboard. i felt i had a pretty good grasp of harmony and structure, even with my music theory-resistant brain. i thought i could pick up the guitar without having ever held one in my hands before, and just…play. i’ve written a bit about this before.

when i sat down with my shiny new piece of crap vantage acoustic, hit the record button on the sony CFS-W305, and started improvising, i had what you earth people call a rude awakening. i could not, as it turned out, just pick up a guitar and play. at all.

i think i was somewhere near standard tuning. i’m not sure. it wasn’t like i knew how to tune the thing.

here’s a little excerpt from that song, from that day when i was thirteen years old and feeling pretty demoralized all at once about not being able to make instant magic with six strings. the whole thing is more than six minutes long, and while it’s not quite as soul-destroying as i remembered it being, i’m not about to make you sit through all of that.

i don’t know what to do (excerpt)

and here’s a little song idea that was recorded a few days ago using my new tape recorder friend, also played on an acoustic guitar.

sunny day (fragment)

there’s nothing very intricate at all going on there. it’s just a dead-simple outline that may or may not someday turn into a fleshed-out song. but man, what a difference some years can make when it comes to things like knowing how to play an instrument.

i mentioned a new tape recorder friend. that would be this guy.

tapey-mctaperson-2

it’s a panasonic RQ-2102. new, these things go for outrageous prices. there are a bunch of people selling used ones in great condition on ebay for next to nothing. so i went there, and paid my next-to-nothing, and got one that might as well be new. i really miss that little tape recorder i remember being beige, and this is the closest-looking thing that seems to exist now.

i have to say i’m pretty impressed with the clarity of the tiny built-in microphone. of course it’s going to be lo-fi, but it’s the kind of lo-fi that brings back all kinds of good memories for me. while i’m not about to start recording full albums on cassette again, i’m looking forward to using this thing as both a way to capture random ideas at the embryonic stage (which is what happened here) and a field recording tool.

there are times when you just don’t feel comfortable standing on your porch with a microphone in your hand and headphones on. it’s a lot easier to play it cool with a little tape recorder under your arm. the added portability is an asset too.

and who shall i say is calling?

leonard-3

what the hell is going on with this year?

david bowie. prince. alan rickman. glenn frey. abe vigoda. paul kanter. dan hicks. harper lee. keith emerson. garry shandling. anton yelchin. chyna. ron lester. michael cimino. robin hardy. alan vega. all dead.

donald trump is the president of the united states.

and now leonard cohen has died.

do we at least get a break before christmas?

there will never be another quite like leonard. this is the first song of his that really dug its hooks into me, when i was about thirteen years old.