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Grappling With December

The ep continues.

In fact it hasn’t stopped, but Mr December stretched time thin enough that I wanted to spend every available minute making tunes.  This meant that talking about making tunes (right here) thus got a little shafted.  But the battle marches on, and by the day I become increasingly consumed by it.

The Good:

The most exciting news is that I have an early mix in hand for ‘Where’s My Place’, the first track to be essentially (ie artistically if not technically) done.

Now let’s stop for a second.  Allow me to restate the magic word ……done.
That is not something I have said much about music before.  It’s a great word, and (half unexpectedly) a true sense of satisfaction and relief comes with it.  I expected to be a little paranoid at this point, but no, there is an audio file that captures something I’m rather happy with.  This is wonderful and true.

Now that I have celebrated the victory of the moment, let us descend back to the pragmatic world of ‘what now’.
I have decided that the final mix engineer will be me.  The reasons for this I will go into in another post – but for now the good news is that without booking a studio and a geek I’ll be able to put this one up (you know, on the internet), and soon.  This should hopefully placate the outrage so many of you have expressed to me in various forms of “I went to your site, and there were no songs!!  **Angry Roar** etc etc”.  Well how dare I do that to you.

It won’t be much longer now – I just need to test my mixtures on selected human experimentees and work through a list of changes.  So far I have found that the room acoustics in the studio continue to shroud me with some smoke and mirrors, but I’m already starting to learn the ways by trial and error (largely error).  There are another 3 songs coming up towards mixing in the near future, and with practice I remain confident I can make the little songs sing from within my humble little concrete box.

The Hard:

Speaking of that room brings me to the other half of the post, where in full disclosure I talk about how lots of not-fun things have happened in the process too.

A short list would include these examples:

1. December.  When the day job and Christmas join forces they manage to steal almost all waking hours.  Christmas can be greedy, and that is irony.  I have no idea how people with children survive this month, surely you are up against the odds.

2. More than 20 unexpected computer crashes on one day.  It eventually turns out my new buddy melodyne and my old buddy reaper kind of hate each other.  Not openly, but once they both work up a sweat they will suddenly murder each other, taking our past few hours handiwork with them.  I make a lot of backups fortunately, as one crash even corrupted the whole project file past oblivion.  It felt at least 4000 degrees celsius in that room, and 5 hours work took a sweat-soaked 13 that day.  Oh technology.

3. More untraceable computer crashes.  A couple of times a day even now everything I have open just disappears.  It’s good that it’s hot in there at this point, because usually I’m too exchausted to throw punches at the monitor.  I yell and pace and start that session again.  I built and tweaked that computer very carefully as a dedicated studio workhorse, internet free, and it’s been very stable for years.  But even when you tell it that, it looks back at me with a calm black screen.  My heart has taken to stopping beating when I press save – that’s normal, right?

3. Insomnia.  I am not the best sleeper, what musician is?  But it seems to me that it’s more of a battle if I’ve got a day off in the studio planned.  Turns out going to bed at 4am really eats into you morning productivity.  This I am learning.

4. I didn’t change the demos.  I have had the luxury of some expert songwriter comments on my initial demos.  Well played, great help.  I decided to wait until the instruments were done to change the melodies.  Poorly played.  I have now heard my original ideas so many times it is very hard to change them in my mind.  An error.  This isn’t too bad for ‘Where’s My Place’ and ‘Robot’, but there were some great tips for ‘Run You Down’ and I’m so confused trying to sing it now.  It will take some untangling.

5. Ergonomics.  I am an environmental engineer during the day, on a computer.  From the evening to the early morning, I am on the the studio computer.  Red eyes and strange stomache and neck pains testify that is a lot of hours.

5. Am I over-consumed?  My wife has used the term ‘EP widow’ to describe herself recently.  There’s a few things in that that we’re sorting, but I too feel a wary sense that my brain is leaving this world more and more for things like midi notes, eq curves and the way drums bounce off words.  I don’t mind focussing hard, but I wish to keep my roles as a human being in tact too.  And you know, that’s a surprisingly fine line.

So to say that these songs flowed out in a dreamy organic way that was more enjoyable each second would be a lie.  I don’t know if people mean it when they say stuff like that, but my road seems messier.

Still, I am going to get all Disney at the end of the post, because I already sense the hard/annoying bits are part of the victory.  Like overhangs on the way up a mountain. Literally ridiculous at the time, but later you wouldn’t trade them. Well I hope that, anyway.

Soon you will be able to hear the first part of that mountain, and that’s something.

Watch it Happen

Here it is for the keen beans.

The video diary covering the small house in the mountains where the EP began.  It was shot and edited on the iPhone, so don’t expect Inception – expect instead an unglamorous ‘making of’ that won’t give you it’s 9 minutes back.

But I can assure you it is an accurate and balanced account of a cool and productive trip.

Branch broken, free falling

Well it has begun, and I couldn’t be more glad. The photo is my big recording progress sheet with a bunch of boxes with lines through them. Yes indeed.

The general hassle and sweat of moving a studio and the short timeframe in the mountain shack kicked me into motion, and I was actually rather disciplined- long days, alarms to wake up, to-do lists, progress goals. Seriously.

Here’s an interesting fact though: it is still hard.
Even when making an EP is really all I want to be doing and I constantly pine for the chance, given that chance I still have to force myself to actually sit down in the chair and pick a song to open. Not sure why that is, but it is.

But after chaining myself to the desk (well, the pile if furniture and road cases), I’ve done about 60% of 3 tracks. And fixed and finished the demos. So no snippets to post, but you can trust me that things are in motion, and that is such a relief.

I did take a little iPhone video here and there, and I may just compile a little YouTube memoir of me in a small house making sounds. It will be one for the musos probably, as there was no time for hilarious stir-crazy nonsense, just making of. Ok the stir-crazy nonsense did creep in, it just feels lame filming yourself dancing, so I didn’t. Yet.

Now I’m away a bit over the next weeks, so I’ll try and name the EP and start thinking cover art concepts while there are no keyboards handy.

Then I can’t wait to hear with fresh ears what I’ve done. Oh I do hope it’s good.

On a Limb

So here’s an update then:
I’m away recording!

Very.
Excited.

Well, at the moment very exhausted. Packed down the studio and just finished recreating it in it’s new temporary home far far away. See it all in the pic? Look how happy it all is!

Oh so thankfully everything seems to be working and the room even sounds pretty good.

Not sure how the posts will go, I’ve got 3 days and a big list- it’s all go up here. But I will try to take a few videos to make a record of the goings on.

Also, I have 11 songs finished, as was my goal before coming away! Ok the last few demos are unfinished and a little sketchy (in the yuk way), but I’m still calling it a win by the skin of my teeth. Because I decide the wins.

So on the agenda is demo tidying, and parts. Beats, bass, keys first and maybe more vocals if I feel drawn to polishing up a snippet for posting.

But right now, so much sleep.

75% the singer

I have a theory that when you see a band play live, or even hear a track, it’s 75% up to the singer whether you like the sound or not. Of course, I’m talking song-based music, not sample based minimal (where I can only presume it’s the……ok you got me, I don’t own any sample based minimal albums).

75%.

I come to this theory because it’s at least 60% the singer to me, and being a keyboard/band/production nerd you would think I would be the lowest of anyone. But there you go, it hangs on the voice.

This is, of course, less than ideal for Birds in Branches. I am very comfy on the keyboard (having been doing since before I could tie shoelaces), but singing notsomuch. In an ideal world I should be getting clever others to guest the vocals, and I do have some rather singeriffic friends. But this is my own project, and I’m finding myself so very opinionated – I want the melody just the way I hear it. That is not the way you can afford to think in a band or a collaboration.

And, besides……I want to be a singer. There, I said it.

I always did. I remember since way back saying I would trade all my skills for a rad voice. Right then I should have hired a teacher and got started – but I thought I was already a lost cause. Too old, or too far gone. I’m 27 now, so way back then I may have been the youngest person ever to decide I was too old to learn to sing.

So I’m going to fight back all that and sing my songs, because that will force me to make myself a singer. And making myself a singer is something I really want to do.

So how is it going so far? Well I haven’t picked a teacher (this is the first thing everyone seems to ask), but I’m starting to decide I don’t want to. I’m not planning to make the opera rounds, I want to sound like me on my songs – so if I can get good advice on not hurting myself and how to practice well, then I’m thinking it is probablly best if the rest is up to me. This decision is also based on talking to some of the best singers I know. Truth told, they all have wildly different stories and advice, and most have less theory and tips than I expected – it seems you just have to do it and work it out.

Thus I’ve spent a few months practicing every day based on a smattering of online lessons, and mostly a ‘speech level singing’ book by Seth Riggs. I nearly breathe that ‘excercises cd’ off my iphone. It is slow work and signs of improvement are subtle and sparse, but I’m off and running and improving. And for all my flaws, once I do finally start something, I am a rather determined and presistent guy who won’t (or can’t) stop. My lovely wife is already a little sick of Seth Riggs and his excercises, but that will get worse before it gets better.

It’s true, I do think that the vocals are still the weakest link, and it’s tough to handle such a slow improvement process when it is is thing holding back the songs most. It’s also a bit of a confidence drain as I do the demos.

But what choice do I have? You play the cards in your hand. And if the freedom from one day liking your own voice is anything like the freedom I got the day I began to like my own keyboard sound then it will be worth it.

And one thing is for sure: when I’m constantly recording and hearing back my own voice, there is no danger I’ll decide I don’t need to practice.

the art of a techie

There has been a small pause in my EP progress as I threw myself into the final stage of a long saga of putting together a live install PA. And it was great.

The venue is a church I go to in Redfern – a beautiful/ghastly old 1800’s brick building with 20m ceilings and more hard surfaces than you could yell the word ‘echo’ at. Armed with zero PA install experience, the confidence of the fine folk at that church and…….. Google, I set about the long and scary process of spending much of the savings of a small church on a combination of heavy foam-packed bits that …..should…..work together.

My obsession with quality gear was unabated by the strict budget, and we haggled out the lowest possible prices to get a tasty Presonus digital desk hooked up to fancy latest-tech JBL fixed line array speakers (with sub), and separate sends per foldback wedge. And all the right stuff in between.

The moment of truth was a few days ago, after we hacked and ran and mounted and soldered and powered up. And to my _extreme_ relief, sound. Good, even, tasty, clear sound. This made me very happy.

Now I have not forgotten this is a Birds in Branches blog, believe me and here follow my whim. The satisfaction and relief of installing a tasty sound system was surprisingly similar to that of finishing a song or polishing off a recorded track. It was hard, annoying, fun, boring, exciting, there were more problems than expected, and it was easy to second guess yourself right to the end. But at the end, there it was – sounding something like how you had dreamed it would. Remarkably similar feeling.

So are the tech guys of the world actually artists? I think so. I think sound tech has more ‘art’ to it than I ever assumed.

This does blurs boundaries a little – could the setting up of my studio be considered art, or just what I’ve done with the studio? Perhaps it depends on whether it can be shared. If I setup a studio in public, would that be a creative release ticked off?

Abstract wonderings aside, I did milk the tech-guy effect for all it was worth. Nerdy banter with the strange igor-like character in the back docks of the gear hire section. Nerdy banter with the cable supplier about the physics of directional sub woofers. Ok, nerdy banter with everyone. I’m a nerd.

I also acted uppity about the way my helper coiled cable, got fast food, did things late at night, and put things loudly through the sub woofer that should probably never be put through a sub woofer. I would like to note that these all made a lot of sense as I did them – and I feel I now have a bond with wonderful tech guys I’ve known over the years.

Thankyou, tech artists everywhere.

A Carpenter Vs His Tools

Who makes the chair – the carpenter or the tools?
Carpenter. Of course.

Who is responsible if the chair is cool?
Carpenter. Of course.

But the tools actually cut the wood….
Yes, but the inspiration, tool selection – all the carpenter.

So we are all agreed. The tools do not create the art themselves.

But not all chairs are just for sitting on. What if you were making a niche chair that would only be purchased by other chair-makers, to learn from towards making their own? In this case it is still the carpenter, but the value isn’t just in the chair. It’s in the understanding of what tools, how it was made and the lessons learned.

Great, fine. But are you even a chair maker then? Sounds more like you are a teacher. Or perhaps a product promoter……

And though I have enjoyed overtyping the word chair, this brings us to music – and in particular the blur of internet era music.
And especially particularly internet era electronic-sounding music.

There will always be pure consumers who don’t make music, just enjoy it (thankfully). But it seems to me that in the synth world at least, most people loving it are also doing it. And the loving and the the doing are linked. Now this is always true for musicians (find me a musician who hates music), but it changes things when the musicians become the majority.

Lets talk prog rock for a moment. If there ever has been a non-musician at a Dream Theater show (or a girl for that matter, but that’s another story)…….why? It’s a technical skill and gear show. Which is fine, I bought an album and I still have it. But you can imagine such a show working just as well (or better) at a music gear trade show, covered in ads and endorsements.

The same thing is happening on youtube, soundcloud etc – I’m searching out product demos and finding artists I like. Artists who apply their art to a particular piece of gear a track at a time, and get a fanbase from people who crave inspiration as to how to use a bit of gear they already own. I had a go myself for fun, and some quick Blofeld sound demos got clicked into the hundreds in hours.

I don’t know what all of this means, to be honest. What artist wants their songs to be equipment promotional material? Kickback free promotional material? And anyway prog is decidedly not cool. No one is pretending it is. So it’s selling out, forget it. Right? Welllllll……

You see if I’m honest I’m starting to want the extra dimension in artists I like too. I want to know what they use, how they work, what exact piece of gear made each of the tastiest noises. And some of these product demo artists are seriously creative. And thus the line blurs within me too. The mystery of not knowing is intriguing and cool, don’t get me wrong. But in the end I want to know. Everything. And knowing makes the listening somehow even sweeter, you can feel some of the story behind it all. Now I am without doubt a music geek, but what if there are a lot of music geek fans? What if it was a music geek fan majority?

I am glad to be able to hit the brakes at this point, because I don’t have a ‘market’, and I firmly believe music itself dies an awkward death if you even think of a market as you create it. All I have to do is make what I like.

But what I would ‘like’ would also involve the making-of back story. It would also involve the how behind the what. This offends a part of me, a utopian artist part. This part wants to believe everything here has it’s genesis in my own genius. But then that is not true. Even in a solo project, I am a collaborator – with friends, with a website host, with hardware and software makers (even if they have already been paid full retail), and (frankly) with the inspiration – which does not really feel like it’s even mine either.

So where are we now? Well if I’m to be truly honest, I have to post un-arty things. Because the process of art is largely, in truth, un-arty. I admit I hesitate because I fear gear posts encourage the gear addiction disease in musicians. Whenever I play live people ALWAYS want to talk about the rig, and it feels like it’s missing the point. And, ok, moreso because it’s uncool for an artist to be gear geeked.

But here begins the journey of the first release – letting go of what you secretly wish you were like, and being straight about what seems to really be.

So, detailed gear posts will be included. Each after a big mouthful of humble pie.

In that spirit, here is a picture of the birds in branches studio, just as it is.

Good song / Lame song

What on earth makes song good?

You know, as opposed to bad?

This is a very critical question at this point in the process of a first ep, and I’m terrified to acknowledge that I simply don’t know.

Oh, I’m very opinionated. I’m tapping into the iPhone on the way home from a show where I watched a band with incredible songs, and a band with songs I couldn’t stay in the room for. I surely do not shy from judgement.

But
The
Question
Is
Why?

I think answer is both impossible and perplexingly nuanced if you dare to think about it. Little parts if the melody, the rhythm in the bridge, lyrics twisted in a way that feels fresh. You can definitely feel the magic when it’s right. But the scary thing is that the difference is so very subtle that it would be pretty easy to be that second band, with the songs that don’t…..quite……
And not know it.

On some level, who cares, right? Like what you like and go buy a beer during the other band, it’s all good.

But it’s not, because flip the interrogation light around on your own fledgling songs, and that same sense that is normally so certain gets all static-y and scrambled. I’m usually satisfied I know if a song is good by the second verse on the first listen these days.  But you can’t see your own stuff clearly. At all. All of my songs to me are some equal combination of lame, wonderful, plain, confusing, and the most honest thing I ever wrote. And pretty hard for me to sing. All at once. I know I mean them and I can sense some magic, but I’m never ever sure whether I’ve under or overcooked them.

So really, how do you know?

I don’t want to stack up hours of careful sound sculpting on a contrived chorus, I want to make the chorus amazing first. But it’s great now. Or maybe it would be wholely great if……

And see that ‘if’ there? That ‘if’ could send a man truly mad.

So I am very grateful and very reliant on the songwriting compass inside my friends (and their honesty in telling me where it points). But I’m also starting to realise that no one going to puff up my confidence in my own songs for me. It is my duty to make them how I like and then just get them done. If it turns out I am the guy with bland songs, then it is my job to not know it, and to carry on regardless. True story.

This will be a hard pill to swallow I think. I really really want to write good songs, but really no one gets to do that. Everyone simply gets the chance to write songs, and see how they go. Damn you, risky leap of faith.
It’s easy to see how someone would get hooked on pleasing an audience, you just want to know where you are.

Well if it is one big contraption running on work and hope, then I will do my darndest to add those two ingredients.
And then do it again and again.

The Cosmopolitan Life of a Sample

I have a silly way of doing drums. Really. There are only some very thin justifications for why someone would trigger their drum samples out of a hacked hardware synth.

But it seems I can’t get enough of cramming by SL-ed Blofeld full of sample goodness, painfully saving presets for each variation, and slowly piecing drum multi’s together. Surely half the sensible world has gone and bought Battery, and is dancing in the land of flexibility, cut groups, pre-mapped kits, no noise floor, slicers, and generally integrated drum-relevant features that help a guy make a beat. But not this guy. He sure is stubborn.

The one thing on my side is those JLM preamps and Lynx converters, adding their sweet sauce on the way in. But then I got to thinking about the life of some of my favourite samples, where they’ve been already.

Take for example a tasty 909 kick I unashamedly enjoy. Under the careful watch of Goldbaby’s wizardry, this started it’s life in New Zealand from some Japanese electronics, jiggling it’s warmth through a Metric Halo interface and onto a hard drive. It was then sent across the world to be cut into vinyl on a UK Plate Lathe. This vinyl was sent back to New Zealand to be captured again via a vintage 70’s record player through a restored phono preamp from the 60’s – back through the Metric Halo and onto the hard drive one more time. Then, I purchased it across the Tasman Sea (presumably) via satellites, promptly selecting it from it’s peers to be (slowly) rammed into the hacked Japanese sample ram of my German digital Waldorf synth. I then send it on it’s final journey through those mathematical algorithms and analog summing mixer, through the JLM’s and Lynx converters, and finally into mine own hard drive, where it faithfully holds together my beat.

This little audio file (audiophile?) has done more travelling than most of us, and has seen all kinds of processing in it’s short life. It is a little arrogant of me to think that my reckless decisions at the end of the line will suddenly make or break it? Perhaps it is.

So, then why do I do it?

Because I do. For no real reason, I like to do it, and despite the hassle it ‘feels’ better.

Now let’s read that sentence again, and marvel at how wonderful music is. Give that reason at any other day job and you are on probation. You would have to be. But that’s how I make most of my decisions with Birds in Branches.

What a blessing is art to otherwise rational lives.

PS- if you read this far down intrigued about why there is a wooden spoon on my blofeld in the picture, the short story is it’s because I don’t own a drumstick. Obviously….

Spreading Sheets

They say that you need to be organised to get something done. Well I haven’t been doing a lot of the latter of late, so maybe it was time for a little of the former.

Enter my new faithful personal assistant, google docs. In particular, mr google spreadsheet.

This little guy is now holding all my song sketches, lyrics, chords, comments and recording notes. I could say that I miss the smell and feel of 4000 pieces of scrap paper, but the honest truth is it’s a great relief. Not just having it organised, but I always had a slight degree of terror that my pile of paper would somehow destroy or vacate itself – rendering me back in square one. Right where I started, but angrier.

So now, having multiple backups in ‘the cloud’ as the iKids call it, gives me a whole bunch of ‘whew’ whenever I see it. It also looks more formidable, convincing me in my despairing moments that I am….getting….somewhere…..slowly.

Finally, and this is the real kicker, the colour yellow.

I have chosen yellow to mean “this space needs filling with something wonderful”. I have also expanded it’s definition to include “something better” and simply “something” on occasion so far, but at least it’s working.

I have to be able to see something to do that is important, as otherwise it is far too easy to jam away on my synths/guitars or blog my way around the very latest in “music gear I don’t need but still want to watch”. I don’t know if I’m the only musician who loses time to music equipment websites, but my igoogle page is a crack-house of alluring press releases with new filters and 64 bit support.

So the yellow squares are on my side, calling me towards art instead. They are playing a very important role, and I expect I should need to thank them when it comes to digital booklet time. They will have earned it, no doubt.

Solder Surgery

I’m not naturally that much of a DIY guy, and certainly not natural with electronics.

But good music gear is sometimes just sooo much money (or for keyboard players sooo non existent) that here I am. Ordering components, buying desoldering braid and generally getting my surgical on with a circuit board.

I bought a JLM baby animal preamp kit about 14 months back. These things sound like a Belgian beer tastes- all thick and deep and detailed. But you do have to build the critters. Using, like, hands and hot pointy melting implements.

Somehow (and I emphasise the wide-eyed perplexed nature of the word ‘somehow’) I got mine done. And then I went and broke it.  I blew a DI board testing out the new MFB synth II (more about that little piece of wonder later, lest I am tempted to convolute in my third post).

So after 5 giddy weeks waiting for 42 cents worth of FET (whatever exactly that is) to arrive from Thailand, the surgery is on.

If this doesn’t go well, the album will be recorded in mono….
*holds breath*

Edit:
Success!
It appears to be fixed!

This is a weight off the mind, and a big scary item ticked off the list. Allowing things lower on the list that have a little more to do with music.

Very VERY glad about that.

Demonstration

First things first, songs.

We all know that 99999 hours spent on a track won’t make it the song you pick when you are controlling the iPod on a road trip.  That comes from somewhere in the heart of the song itself.  So I want to make sure my songs are as connected and vivid as possible before any parts are started.

So, demos. Really naked basic versions of the songs to hear back. I’m lucky to be tight with two great songwriters who have agreed to give feedback, help trim the fat.  There are 2 demos done and sent so far. And the next ones are lined up.

We. Are. In. Motion.

The Staaaaaart.

Why hello!

The preparations for the Birds in Branches EP begin, and I figured a shiny new website was thus in order.

As so many of my creative friends with day-jobs know, actually doing your favourite thing needs to be fought for.  Birds in Branches is like that for me.  Great once you’re doing it, but it is a gauntlet to actually get to there.

So all this fanciness is a testament to my confidence that soon there will be an EP.  I believe it, you can believe it – there needs to be this whole huge wave of belief.  This will be the first set of many finished songs.  See what I’m doing there?

You are very welcome to follow along the highs and lows of the process here on the blogular, I’m hoping it will be a diary of beginnings.

And maybe of wit.  Let’s believe more falsely in that too….