sorting things out

The grass is greener when you don’t cut it every day.

When you make music and you work in a room that has never been the beneficiary of any kind of acoustic treatment, you sometimes find yourself subject to the whims of the world around you. Aside from the odd nightmarish situation like the D’amore Construction debacle that ate up huge chunks of 2016 and 2017, I haven’t had a lot of my recording time interrupted by outside noise in this particular house. But lately the amount of people cutting their grass on an almost daily basis has been getting a little out of control. It’s left me wondering if some of these folks have lives outside of obsessing over the incremental growth of their lawns.

I was expecting Detroit’s Movement Festival to make me almost long for the sound of renegade lawnmowers. Every year an interminable low frequency 4/4 electronic kick drum thrum carries across the river and makes it impossible for me to sleep for three days straight. I like some electronic music an awful lot, and I don’t begrudge anyone their right to listen to whatever music they want at whatever volume they prefer, but I don’t think I should have to hear it in my house. Now that I’m locked into a sleep schedule that’s both consistent and healthy for the first time in eons, I’m wary of anything that might threaten to knock things off-balance again. I don’t ever want to go back to being a vampire if I can help it.

I don’t know what on earth happened this year, but for once the residual noise from the festival was almost nonexistent. The first day I heard the usual thing.

Boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom.

It wasn’t constant, so I was at least able to get some broken sleep until it stopped a little past midnight. The next two days there was nothing. I can’t find any information online that points to a sound system failing or a power outage, so I can only guess that the organizers of the event got tired of people from Windsor complaining and decided to turn it down a little or angle the speakers so they weren’t pointed right at us. Or maybe it was a cosmic fluke. Either way, I’ll take it.

It still needs to be said: when you’re playing music loud enough for me to hear it five miles and a river away from you, something isn’t right. I can understand wanting to “feel the bass”, I guess, but how about keeping your ears in reasonable working condition? If it’s that loud over here, I don’t even want to know how loud it is in Detroit. And something tells me not a lot of people are wearing earplugs to protect themselves.

I started out talking about recording, didn’t I? Right. Here’s a pro tip for you: if you’re going to play something resembling an album release show, it’s a good idea to have the album finished before you book the date. Time is flying, August 17 isn’t so far away anymore, and there’s still a lot of work I need to do on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.

I was in a position a bit like this once before with an album called GIFT FOR A SPIDER. I had to finish that one while rehearsing for a Mackenzie Hall show that ended up supporting it almost by default. It was easy enough. This album is a little more complicated, and more than twice as long. Not so easy.

The good news is I’m closer to being done than I thought I was. A few days ago I sat down and hashed the whole thing out. I’ve recorded one hundred and twenty-four songs for this album (yikes). I’ve had a pretty good idea which ones were making the cut for a while now, but the thought of trying to put them in an order that made some amount of sense was pretty intimidating. After forcing myself to take an honest stab at it, I’ve got a rough sequence that comes out to fifty-two songs spread across two CDs. I know it’s going to shift at least a little, and a few of those songs might get lopped off because of time constraints, but having a clearer picture of the album’s structure makes a huge difference. Now I feel much more focused, with a better idea of what I need to work on.

Of those fifty-two “keeper” songs, thirty-five exist as either rough mixes or mixes I feel good enough about to leave alone, sixteen need some work, and one still needs to be recorded.

There are probably at least twenty other songs I’d like to record. Given the amount of time I have to work with, it just isn’t realistic. If I let myself fall down that rabbit hole we’d be looking at a maxed-out triple-CD. The four-hour album slot has already been reserved for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I want this one to be at least a little more approachable than that behemoth.

The show is a little less than eighty days away. If I’m diligent, that’s more than enough time to get everything squared away. I’ve at least found a printing place that seems to be competent and reliable, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

A quick note about that:

The Minuteman Press ridiculousness was only the beginning of my printing-related fun. After A&A fared no better, I gave both Lacasse and Standard Printing a try.

Lacasse never gave me a quote, and three different people had to search the manager’s office for the booklet and insert I dropped off as a sample, with said manager nowhere to be found. They all came up empty-handed. By the time they dug up my materials I didn’t even want to know how much they would charge.

I had a much better feeling about Standard Printing. It’s a long-standing family-run business. I like supporting those places when I can. Again, it wasn’t to be. It took forever to get a proof, and when I asked if I could have the afternoon to look it over — something I’ve been doing with every printing job I’ve paid for over the last sixteen years — the woman I was dealing with got snippy and condescending with me, acting like my request was way out of line. Turned out someone working there wasn’t very good at following instructions. They went ahead and printed the whole run of booklets and inserts before I gave my go-ahead. She didn’t want me to see something I didn’t like and put her in a situation where she had to eat it.

I could have lived with their prices, which were pretty outrageous, but I’m not going to shut up and fork over my money to make up for someone else’s oversight. And if you’re going to talk to me like I’m a piece of shit when I’ve asked to be extended the same basic courtesy as any other customer, you don’t deserve my business.

A friend recommended Herald Press. On my fifth try it looks like I’ve found a place I can deal with. I got them to reprint the booklets and inserts for STEW as a test. Those turned out well, and the price was fantastic. Then I had them make a few prints of some art Greg Maxwell made for the SLEEPWALK booklet. Same story there. The plan now is to get all of the remaining album-related artwork printed in one shot so I’ve got prints of everything to display at the show. It’s pretty great to see these things at their intended size. I’ve got half a mind to put some of my favourites up on a wall in the stock room. I mean, how many people can say they’ve got a room full of (mostly) local art that was made just for them?

That’s the scoop over here. I’ll try to post a bit more often so I can hold myself accountable as the sand really starts pouring out of the hourglass.

Re-Make/Re-Model.

Since moving into this house a little less than twelve years ago, a former bedroom has served as my stock room. It’s where I keep CD booklets and inserts, mailing supplies, spare copies of albums, and other such things.

Over the years it’s gone through a number of transformations, alternating between “more or less uncluttered” and “total chaos”. It’s probably been nine years since I last sat down and organized things in any sensible way. I’ve just been throwing more and more stuff in there, hoping it wouldn’t get too unruly.

My hope was in vain. For a while now it’s been almost impossible to take more than two steps into that room without tripping over something. It was time for a change.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

The picture at the top of this post is from somewhere around the halfway point of the room being gutted and reorganized — something I did with a whole lot of help from the indispensable Johnny Smith. I’m a little sad I wasn’t crafty enough to grab a shot of what it looked like in there before we got started. Words can’t do justice to what a horrifying mess it was.

I’ve never been any good at throwing things out. I’m a bit of an emotional packrat. I attach nostalgic value to items that should be chucked in the trash without a second thought or invent some impossible scenario in which they might prove useful at some later date. It’s not so bad that you’ll ever see me show up on a reality show about hoarding, but we filled at least four large garbage bags with stuff that served no purpose and liberated no less than half a dozen boxes full of similarly useless stuff.

There were some fun surprises along the way. I dug up a stash of random blank CDs I didn’t know I had. I found extra inserts for some albums I thought I was running low on. And there’s this thing — a homemade album display case I made for my own amusement.

One decision transformed the whole room. I’ve always used this beautiful antique coffee table to keep all my copied and printed CDs together. It found its way into the stock room because we didn’t know where else to put it. Now it felt almost criminal to keep something so unique covered up like this…and there just happened to be a huge shelf taking up space in the basement, doing nothing, feeling unloved.

Out went the table, in came the shelf, a bamboo vase I’ve always loved but never known what to do with found a home at last, I cleared everything off of the desk and the shelf that holds album artwork so I could dust and tidy things up, and what we’re left with now is a series of images that tell a tale of redemption and grape soda.

It’s a much more functional room now in every way. You can walk around in there! You can even see the cheap double-neck acoustic guitar I bought when I was working on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and have never used. I’m still waiting for a call from Robert Plant, as you might have guessed.

I know when to go out. I know when to stay in. To get things done.

So said David Bowie. And while I don’t claim to possess his powers of knowing what to do and when, I do seem to have rediscovered my ability to get things done.

All of the sudden, fourteen songs slated for inclusion on the PG album are either CD-ready or the mixes just need a few adjustments. That leaves six or eight more songs to work on, depending on what I decide to do with the two I’m starting to feel iffy about.

Trying to guess at a release date is always a good way to jinx myself, so I won’t do that. I will say this: the finish line just got a whole lot closer. It’s a good feeling.

On the subject of things that aren’t too far away from being released, Ron snuck a song off of his forthcoming album onto his website. You can head over HERE if you’d like, scroll down a little bit, and click on “Sweet Solitude” to get a sneak peak at what’s around the corner.

What else is new? I keep feeling a strange urge to start an Instagram as an excuse to motivate myself to take more pictures, and to have a place to put some of the images I can’t share here unless I want to turn this into a glorified photoblog. The trouble is, Instagram is owned by Facebook, Facebook has some pretty troubling ideas about who owns your intellectual property, and it can lead to people like this giant dildo who calls himself an “artist” profiting off of your work without permission or ascription.

I realize it’s unlikely anyone would ever want to steal one of my pictures. I’m not a professional photographer. Then again, someone once stole the cover art for one of my albums that didn’t even feature proper cover art. I’ve learned if it isn’t nailed down some lazy person is bound to convince someone else to pick it up for them only to rip it out of their arms and say, “Mine!”

Maybe it’s best not to go down that road.

Progress, part 753.

You know how I said the Papa Ghostface album was the closest thing to hitting the finish line out of everything I’m working on right now, and I was going to concentrate on tying up all the loose ends there? I was wrong. Ron’s album was — and is — even closer to being done. So I’ve been giving that one my focus over the last few weeks. Felt like the sensible thing to do. I was doing a pretty good multitasking job, but there’s something refreshing about spitting all your energy into one album for a while as if it’s the only thing in the world demanding your attention. I’d kind of forgotten what that was like.

You’re probably wondering what an album being “almost done” even means with me anymore. In this case, it means it’s so close you could probably see the pores in its face if you looked hard enough. There’s one song left that needs some dressing up. My plan is to get that taken care of tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest. Then it’s just a matter of tidying up some mixes and trying to get them as good as they can be. Those mixes will go on a CD, and if Ron likes what he hears, my job is pretty much done.

It’s a strange feeling to be so near the end. It felt like we were about three quarters of the way there for a long time. Now it’s possible I’ll have an almost-final assembly put together within a week or so. I hear whispers there might be an advance single coming out sometime before the summer’s gone.

Speaking of advance singles, one of the songs Jess recorded over here a little while back just snuck out into the world. Have a listen, if you’re in a listening mood.

Mild hearts vacation in Hoboken.

Mic cables are forming heart shapes again. It’s only the second time this has ever happened to me. Could it mean love is in the air?

I don’t think so. But it’s fun to look down and see a thing like this in the studio.

I’m realizing I don’t use this blog as a “keeping tabs on myself” tool much anymore, when I used to do a whole lot of that. As bland as those posts probably were to read, they helped to keep me honest and motivated at a time when I needed an extra little kick in the posterior. So here’s where things are at right now.

This is Boardy McBoardface as he looked at the end of November:

Here he is now:

When I feel like I haven’t been making much progress, I take a look at that thing. There are thirty-three songs enclosed in red boxes that weren’t in boxes before (thirty-four if you count an accidental duplicate), including some that are recent or brand new additions to the board. Pretty soon, all one hundred and two of those songs, and maybe a few more, will exist in recorded form. That’s not so bad for having to multitask as much as I do these days.

Ron’s album aside, the next Papa Ghostface album is closest to the finish line out of everything that’s on the go right now. Thirty-three songs have been recorded for it, though a few of those are holdovers from the STEW sessions. I figure about a dozen of them will end up on the cutting room floor for one reason or another. There are another two or three I still want to record — catchier, more uptempo things to offset some of the slower and more morbid moments — and then it’s just a matter of filling out some arrangements, mixing things until they sound about right, and figuring out a good sequence. The cover art is already taken care of.

It’s the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be. I didn’t know that going into it. But it feels like a good note to end on.

More about that when the music is ready for public consumption.

One hundred and one songs have been recorded for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. That sounds ridiculous until you think about how long I’ve been working on this album (four years). When I don’t finish an album within a “normal” period of time, there’s bound to be a lot of material. There are about ten more tunes I want to record, a few more guests I’d like to try and get over here for some musical cameos, and then I can start hammering nails into that massive thing and making an album out of it.

The less said about THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, the better. I’m still confident I’ll clothe and bathe that beast someday, but right now it’s taking a very long nap.

While The O-L West is on hiatus for the time being, I’ve heard some rumblings about new Tire Swing Co. material. Looking forward to hearing and recording that whenever Steve feels the itch to get back in the studio. And there’s another collaborative project with a friend that’s being picked at here and there, but I don’t think we’ve even decided on a band name yet. It’s tough to come up with something good these days. I thought it might be amusing to call ourselves All the Good Names Were Taken, but there are at least two bands calling themselves that already (in Michigan and New York, respectively). Phooey.

A friendly reminder for those who may be interested: I’ll be popping in at CJAM on Monday, June 25th to play a few songs on Ron’s Travelling Salesman radio show at about 5:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. When the moment of truth arrives, you can listen live online over HERE if you’d like. Of course, if you miss it, it’s no big thing. As always, I’ll post an MP3 here to commemorate the occasion.

Quiet beasts don’t seek acceptance.

Yesterday it was April Fools’ Day and Easter on the very same day. And yet I had nothing ludicrous to report. It’s shameful, I know. In all honesty, this goof right here — which somehow fooled at least two or three people at the time — was always going to be hard to top.

A few kernels of news:

Mixes for Jess’s album have been approved, so that one should be out in the world as soon as she feels the time is right to release it. The video up there will give you a bit of an idea of what to expect. From beginning to end, it’s been a pleasure working with her. She even gave me one of the most challenging (and rewarding) drum assignments of my life. It’s a great surprise to be tested on what you think is one of your weaker instruments, only to come away from the experience thinking, “Hey…I did pretty good!”

I know I said this before, but it’s worth saying again: what a difference it makes working with a camera that’s a little more robust. It’s nice to be able to shoot handheld and move around without everything degenerating into a total shaky mess. Instead of being limited to static shots, it allows me to introduce a bit of movement when I’m not stuck filming myself. It wouldn’t be pretty if I tried to do the same thing with one of the trusty old Flip cameras.

About half of the songs on Ron’s album already exist as rough mixes, so some serious progress is being made there. It’s a very different project from Jess’s album. Where that one was recorded live for the most part, with her doing everything on every song but one, here my job is much more about arranging and fleshing out the songs. It’s fun having that kind of contrast in your work, where every gig is different.

The next Papa Ghostface album now has a title and cover art. One less thing to worry about during crunch time. That one’s been sitting on the back burner for a while, but it’s starting to come into sharper focus. I think we need to record a few more songs, and then all the necessary raw material will be there. Haven’t been filming any of the recording process so far, when my plan was to grab more footage of us working on this one after only documenting a little bit of STEW. Thankfully there’s still time to remedy that.

My oft-mentioned solo album with many guests continues to hum along. I’m not even going to try and work out where I am with that one anymore. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, and eventually it’ll be finished.

If all these things manage to see the light of day in 2018, maybe this will be my real making-up-for-lost-time year. Here’s hoping.

I howl at the moon and rage against the light that’s left.

Another year is about to disappear.

I want to say 2017 wasn’t very productive. I failed to hit almost every goal I set at the beginning of the year. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK still isn’t finished. Neither is the followup to STEW. THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE is still suspended in cryogenic stasis. The second misfits compilation remains little more than a rough outline.

But I did remaster all eight of the albums I wanted to take another crack at. That was a huge job. Ron’s album matured a little more, and after we get down the bed tracks for another song or two I’ll be able to concentrate on arranging and dressing things up. Jess’s album — a surprise development late in the year — was recorded in a day. All I need to do is finish mixing it. And in the waning weeks of December I managed to record thirteen more songs for SLEEPWALK.

You might think having to coordinate schedules with so many different contributors would be one of the reasons behind that last one taking so long. There’s only been one real culprit, though: crummy time-management and a lack of motivation on my end.

I guess that’s two culprits. Or a single culprit with a very vocal imaginary friend.

When the only music I had to work on was my own, I had a very clear sense of purpose. It never took me more than a few months to finish an album. Things are different now. With a few serious collaborative projects on the go and semi-steady work recording other people, there’s less time to focus on solo work. Prioritizing a recording someone else wants or needs to get out in the world within a certain timeframe is something to feel good about, I think, but my own stuff has been getting pushed to the side too often over the last little while. When I do have time to focus on it, the energy doesn’t seem to be there. In the back of my head I’m always thinking, “There are all these other things that need my attention, and there’s so much work I still need to do on this album of mine, I don’t even know where to dive in.” I end up psyching myself out before I get started.

I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t trade the friends I’ve made and the musical experiences I’ve had over the last few years for anything. It’s just been a bit of an adjustment trying to find space for everything, and I haven’t been doing a great job of setting aside enough time for the music that’s mine alone.

Giving that old whiteboard a new lease on life was a psychological step in the right direction. The work I was able to get done right as the year was slipping away was a much more significant leap. It felt good to ignore everything else for a week or two and pack in some much-needed musical Me Time. I know there are other things I have to work on, and I’ll give them the attention they need, but I think I’m in the right headspace now to make my ambitious solo album with many guests a priority again. If for no other reason, I need to get it finished while it still feels like it’s relevant to where I am right now.

It hasn’t been a small undertaking. There’s the supporting cast, which now amounts to twenty-six singers/musicians and thirteen visual artists. And as it stands right now, there have been eighty-four songs recorded just for this specific album. When I worked that out and saw it on paper, my brain did a backflip, a cartwheel, and something too distressing to describe. Some songs are finished, mixed, and CD-ready. Some still need some work. There are a few more things I need to record, and then it’ll be time to start looking at how I’m going to carve an album out of all of this.

There’s no way it’s going to be a single-disc affair, no matter how judicious I get and how many things end up on the cutting room floor. We’re probably looking at somewhere around fifty songs spread out over two discs. That’s assuming I can get everything to fit on two CDs. If not, I’ll make it a triple CD and live with the inevitable accusations of “self-indulgence” and “raspberry-scented binocular hoarding”.

Bite-sized musical statements have never been my thing anyway. You need a whole seventeen-course meal that leaves you so full you start hallucinating and singing made-up show tunes to strangers. Otherwise what’s the point?

I seem to shoot myself in the foot — and the face, and the ankle, and the armpit — every time I make any kind of list outlining what I’d like to accomplish in the coming year. In the interest of avoiding being riddled with proverbial bullets again, this time I’ll just say I have a feeling 2018 is going to be interesting, and I hope to bring a few long-gestating projects to fruition within the confines of its vast yearliness.

Meet the new board, same as the old board.

This whiteboard began its life in a pretty unassuming way. Once in a while we’d draw some silly things on it or use it to play a large-scale game of Hangman. It got packed away and forgotten about until the Great Demoralizing Move of 2007. Once I had my new studio space up and running, I thought it might be worthwhile to repurpose it as an “ideas board”.

I started out with good intentions…

…but within a few years the board was maxed out, and most of what was written on it was pretty outdated. I kept meaning to wipe it off and start fresh. I kept forgetting to do that. I think about six hundred people have heard me say, “I need to clear that thing off and write some new stuff on it,” at one time or another when they’ve been over here and have noticed the whiteboard.

Lately I’ve been in a bit of a recording funk. A lot of it has to do with feeling a little overwhelmed. It’s not as if I haven’t been here before, with several albums on the go at once, but sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what you want to work on when the options are a little bewildering. The whole idea behind propping up that whiteboard in the studio was to have something to fall back on. If I couldn’t figure out what to work on, I could walk over to Mr. McBoard and just point at something random and say, “You. I’ll work on you.”

It worked for a while, until I ran out of room to add anything new. Then it was just a thing that took up space.

Seemed like a good time to revitalize the board and get it up to date. The only things I was sad to lose were the doodles a few people contributed over the years.

There was a bird.

There was a cat.

And there was this happy face that grew evil over time.

Now I’ll have to ask some friends to draw some new things in the spaces between the words.

I hadn’t written anything new on the board in at least a good five or six years, and I made the mistake of using permanent marker, so you can imagine how difficult it was to wipe clean. Soap and water didn’t do a thing. It took toilet cleanser, a reckless sponge, and some serious wrist action to get anything happening at all.

Right around the time my hand was ready to fall off, I finally had a blank slate to work with. It was very strange to see the board with nothing on it for the first time in a decade.

I picked up some dry-erase markers. This way, the next time I feel a need to do some wiping it’ll be a lot less time-consuming. Then I went to work building a new list of stuff to fall back on.

Now it looks like this.

Most of the song titles are abbreviated, because some of them would stretch all the way across the board if they were written out in full. And what’s there is really just a drop in the bucket. But at least there’s a group of songs to choose from when I need to bail myself out of an overthinking (or underthinking) jam, with room for expansion.

Songs in red boxes have been recorded. Some need a lot of work. Some just need a fresh mix. Songs that aren’t in boxes haven’t been recorded yet. When there’s no work left to do on a song in a box and it feels CD-ready, the box will get filled in. “Stricture” at the top of the second column got smudged, and it’s annoying me every time I look at it (these dry-erase markers live up to their namesake to an insane degree), but once that song ends up in a box of its own no one will be the wiser.

It feels good to have a fresh start in this little corner of the room. Weird, but good.

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 file, 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 the video I 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 cameras that would hold up 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 probably 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.

2016, you elbowed my spleen.

boxing

I’m not sure how it’s 2017, and yet another year has gone to the graveyard of years.

2016 was another one of those years in which I didn’t get as much accomplished — or finished, at least — as I hoped. But looking back at it, maybe it was a little more productive than I thought. At least three major projects saw the light of day: Natalie’s album (which I recorded and played a lot of things on), the first O-L West album (a tag-team effort with Steve), and Ron’s new album (which I got to play a small but very rewarding supporting role on). And a good amount of meaningful work was done on other things that didn’t hit the finish line.

I think you’re supposed to outline your goals at the beginning of each New Year, and then you’ll be visited by three spirits in various stages of undress. At least that’s what the fortune cookie told me. So, some goals for 2017:

  • Finish YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. I think I’m in a place now where I can finally take that one off the back burner and give it the attention it deserves. There are a few more people I’d like to try and get over here to contribute some playing or singing, but most of the work that’s left now is just stuff I need to do on my own.
  • Finish THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. Yeah. I know. But I need to finish that beast someday, and it’s not an impossible job.
  • Compile a second volume of out-takes and misfits. There’s a ton of material for a collection that would pick up where the last one left off, stretching from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to the present.
  • Finish off the next Papa Ghostface album. That one’s coming along pretty nicely and shouldn’t be too difficult to tie up in the next twelve months.
  • Take care of the rest of that whole “remastering a bunch of albums that were mastered too loud the first time” thing I started with good intentions and then abandoned when all the protracted construction noise got to be too much.
  • Maybe make good on the occasional threat to write an album that returns to the “avoiding repetition and rhyming at all costs” approach.
  • Never trim the beard again (this won’t happen, but still).
  • Contemplate the mysteries of life.

I think most of that is doable. Maybe.

The ideal thing would be to get at least four albums finished for the year, two of which have been a while in the making. Of course, as we all know, announcing your plans is a good way to hear several giant pastries laugh at you.