Riley Learns the Hard Way

January 28th, 2008 |

Last night Riley was getting ready for bed when he came into the living room wearing only his underwear and said “What are those two hard things by my tee tee that when I squeeze them it hurts all the way up to my stomach? That’s not in my Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body book.”

Angel’s New Do

January 27th, 2008 |

Angel got her haircut yesterday. The move from long to short hair takes about five minutes but the move from black to her natural color blond is a process that takes a while and usually involves a red stage which began last night. I think it’s awesome.

Here’s a picture my mom took today while we were all at lunch with most of my family.

Riley and Angel Johnson

We’re still working on teaching Riley how to smile.

Falling for Me

January 25th, 2008 |

The song I’m currently working on is called ‘Falling for Me’ and it’s proving to quite a little bugger.

This is the song specifically for which I bought the MOTU software. If there were such a thing as a school of Jellyfish/The Zombies-style songwriting, this would be my senior recital. I don’t usually write songs to emulate any certain band or style but this song is definitely an exception. My friend Jeff Lehman was here last weekend and I played him the song and he said “It sounds like Jellyfish”. Perfect! Precisely the reaction I was hoping for. I hope people see it as a tribute and not a rip-off but either way will be fine by me.

I’ve got almost everything tracked that I intend to put in there with the exception of the electric guitar. I’m sort of mixing as I go along and the thought that I keep having is “What on earth am I going to do with all this stuff?”

The ending of the song uses one of those tricks where you recapitulate every previous musical theme, except you actually just lay them right on top of one another. This would be a simple task if each section of the song had the same tonal center but, alas, nay. The verse is in E flat, the pre-chorus is sort of in E, and the chorus is sort of in A flat with a minor four chord. Even someone with a remedial knowledge of music theory could see that you can’t get there from here.

I’ve learned that to make this work would be an easier task for a graduate-level mathematician than a music major (cough! dropout!) such as myself. A grand idea such as this is better fleshed out with a calculator than a guitar. But it is always interesting to me when purely intellectual means yield such artistic results. The whole thing does actually work. And it does actually sound rather awesome. Who’d have thunk it?

Check this out. My MOTU software is out of tune. I’m having to go in a pitch-correct many, many of the horn parts. And it’s not that the whole thing is out, it’s just certain notes. It sounds like – for instance – they set up their recording equipment and it went something like this:

Producer: (to the oboist) OK play a C.

Oboist: Seeeeeee.

Producer: (to audio engineer) Did you get that?

Engineer: Whatever.

Producer: Fine. (to oboist) OK now play a C# or somethin’.

Then they never went back to check if the oboist actually played a C that was in tune. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Well it wasn’t! Maybe the C# was perfect but the C was notably less than.

With my pitch-correction software you can’t just tell it to go in and fix everything either. You have to go in note by note and nudge the pitch up or down depending on the lazy oboist’s mood. D minuses for all y’all. Boo!

On Mastering

January 20th, 2008 |

After the webcast last night I spent an inordinate amount of time pondering the points that were made against my mixing and mastering of Sin No More, especially the mastering.

There is a major issue in the audio world that has been studied and discussed for years. Recently it has made its way into more main stream consumer magazines such as Rolling Stone. The issue is basically this: some mastering engineers are making albums louder and louder as the years go by. This may not seem like much of a problem to Joe iPod Owner but it is most certainly a problem. Without going into too much detail the problem is that the methods used to make albums louder (namely compression and limiting) also serve to make them sound very one-dimensional and extremely un-musical.

The reason people want their records to be louder is so they can be heard when they’re played in a jukebox, or in a bar, or in a club, or in a noisy convention center – more on this later. And not just heard, but heard better than the song that played before yours.

This is in some ways similar to the steroids issue in baseball. If one person juices, that raises the bar. Now we’ve all got to juice – even though we are morally opposed to it – because we must keep up.

I decided that I would resist the temptation to juice the songs on the album I’m working on and it actually worked against me in front of a panel of professionals who were adamantly opposed to juicing.

Think about this. Have you ever noticed when you’re watching a TV show and a commercial comes on how you have to race for the volume control because the commercials are so much louder than the show? I have. Now imagine that you sit down on your couch and turn the TV on in the middle of a commercial break. You adjust the volume to a comfortable level and then when the show comes on you can’t hear what anyone is saying. Is this the fault of the audio engineer for the show? Or is it the fault of the audio engineer of the commercial who wants to make sure you hear about a new men’s razor with 17 blades and a laser site attachment?

This is basically what happened at the NAMM show. The volume of the PA was adjusted for the first song and then left where it was for the remainder of the show. So right off the bat the songs were being criticized for their aggressive limiting and distortion, but at least you could hear them. Then when my song comes up I was hoping and praying that they would see that I had tried to do the right thing by not playing the loudness game. They didn’t.

My song was mastered to the volume level of Jellyfish’s ‘Spilt Milk’, an album that is now 15 years old. I thought that album would be an excellent norm against which I could compare my own mastering. But it worked against me. The other songs were mastered loud enough to be heard over the commotion of a huge convention and mine was lost in the ambient noise making it appear that the vocal was almost non-existent, especially comparing it to the loudness of the lead vocals in the previous songs.

I’m not really griping. Like I said yesterday, I am very grateful to have been chosen. And this served as a great lesson and illustration of why mastering engineers make albums so incredibly loud today. It pays off even to a panel of experts who hate loud albums.

The NAMM Aftermath

January 19th, 2008 |

Well they didn’t really have anything good to say about my song unfortunately. They said the vocals weren’t loud enough, which was actually something I mentioned to Angel yesterday that I thought they might say. But I was surprised that they said that having only heard the first chorus and part of the first verse. I think the vocal sits nicely in the first chorus but starts to get a little buried as parts are added in the verses and pre-choruses. So I will definitely keep that in mind on future songs.

One of the guys said he heard distortion which really puzzled me. He said the same thing of a few different songs but in those cases the distortion was happening because of over-aggressive limiting in the mastering stage. That was certainly not the case with my song. My song was clearly quieter than all the others. I would say as much as seven or eight decibels in some cases. The only thing I could figure was that the distortion he heard was in the mp3 rip. I think it was 192Kbps which would certainly reveal it’s limitations to the highly trained ears of a panel of distinguished pros like these men.

I think that the vocal might not be quite as buried as they think. The songs that were played before mine – as I’ve already mentioned – were mastered to be very loud. Then you throw my song in there with it being drastically quieter than the rest, and my vocal being in a very low register and the result is the perception that the vocal is way too quiet.

This was a great opportunity for me. I got a critique from some Grammy winners which is more than most song writers will ever get. For that I am very grateful. So I will learn from this and do my best to improve in the future.

NAMM Webcast

January 18th, 2008 |

Here’s the info on the NAMM Live Webcast. It’s going to be tomorrow, Saturday the 18th, at 5:00 PM PST. That means 7:00 PM Central. Maybe that goes without saying. Maybe not.

If you want to tune in go to this page and scroll all the way to the last event. It’s the one that says 5PM Critical Listening — A production, engineering, and arranging session with Elliot Scheiner, Terry Howard, Benjamin Wright and Rory Kaplan. Below the description there is a link to “view the talk online as it happens.” Or you could just click here and hope for the best.

I hope they go easy on me. I’m just a delicate little flower and I don’t take criticism very well being that I already know everything about everything.

‘Sin No More’ at NAMM

January 15th, 2008 |

We were fixing dinner tonight when my phone rang. It was a New Hampshire number. I don’t know anyone from New Hampshire. Whenever I get a call from a state I don’t live in it’s usually a Blockbuster Video robot telling me I have a movie that they’d like to have back. This time it was different.

The man on the other end introduced himself as being from Cakewalk. Cakewalk is the parent company of SONAR, my recording software. I figured he was calling about my recent email to their tech support to see if I was happy with the service I received. I was. But that’s not why he was calling. He said they really liked my song ‘Sin No More‘ and wanted to use it in an event they’re hosting at this years NAMM conference. Obviously I then soiled myself.

A few weeks ago I saw that Cakewalk was taking song submissions from SONAR users for this event. I sent ‘Sin No More’ on a lark just because I had a few minutes to kill and the registration form was extremely short. I actually forgot about it approximately three minutes after I sent it, until tonight.

So it looks like they’ll be playing my song with a few producers there to critique it. There is going to be a live web cast of the event and he said they’d send me some info on how to watch it. If it’s open to the public I’ll pass that info along to you.

He said “We really like your song” so I hope that means they really like my song and not “We’re going to have a field day with this piece of garbage”. We’ll see. Wish me luck.

The Nicastro Cover Up

January 14th, 2008 |

This may be a manifest No Doy! but in an effort to keep my good friend Dino Nicastro from being implicated in any sort of tastelessness I should mention that the drums on these new songs are actually programmed.

I’ve talked in the past about how excited I was to have Dino agree to play the drums on my new record so some may have put two and two together coming to the conclusion that the drums are being played by Dino.

We found that scheduling time to record became extremely difficult since we both have families and various other responsibilities. I do most of my recording as soon as I get home from work because that’s when I have some free time. Obviously that proved to be problematic being that Dino isn’t even off work until after I’m usually done. The fact that Dino and I live about half an hour away from each other didn’t help either.

Dino and I are still really good friends of course. There was no anger on either side. It just wasn’t logistically possible to get an album done in any reasonable amount of time.

Now I have to say that doing an album with sequenced drums goes against just about everything I stand for as a musician. But necessity is the mother of contempt or whatever so I have to did what I had to did.

I’m not actually using a drum machine or loops really. I’m actually programming the entire song and doing my dead level best to make it realistic and convincing. The sound library I’m using is this one. Pretty impressive stuff. It’s an extensive collection of drum samples played by a drummer I could never afford, on drums I could never afford, through mics I could never afford, through a recording console no one could ever afford.

I hope no one is put off by the fake drums. I admit it is quite off-putting even to me but it’s the quickest way to get things done at this point in my life. Bummer.

On ‘Going to Memphis’ I sent Dino an early mix to have him steer me away from anything that might scream “drum machine lameness”. He pointed out a couple of things that were give-aways and I corrected them. So hopefully we can all just get past the fact that some of this album is done with MIDI. Yuck!

Going to Memphis – Available for Download

January 10th, 2008 |

Here’s the latest tune from my upcoming album ‘I Have Walked On The Moon’. The song is called ‘Going to Memphis’.

Going to Memphis – Click here to download the CD-quality wav file. 29.78 MB

Going to Memphis – Click here to download the 256Kbps mp3 file. 5.59 MB

I worked on these lyrics for probably a year or so. I found it extremely hard to tell the story of the last fourteen years of my life in less than three minutes, and make it rhyme. Hopefully they make sense.

This song will (for a while at least) bring to a close the drew’s-like-totally-gone-country-or-something section of the album. The next two songs will switch to the 60s pop genre. Which is going to be awesome and fun.

My MOTU Retraction

January 8th, 2008 |

I now formally retract all of my vitriolic spewing about the MOTU Symphonic Instrument plug-in—save one. Some of the sounds are lousy.

I received an email from SONAR’s (my recording software) tech support today. They informed me that many people using VST plug-ins are having the same problem I’m having. They offered a solution which involved some .ini tweaks, and Voila, dinner is served. Happy emoticons for everyone.

‘Going to Memphis’ is now overdubbed and mixed to my liking. Tomorrow I will begin work on getting it mastered. Stay tuned.