Sunday, 18 August 2019

Gold

So I'm walking around Bunnings yesterday and I hear the classic 70's rock song "Gold" by John Stewart playing. Stevie Nicks backing vocals, Lindsey Buckingham-esque guitar solo, in fact, if you didn't know better you'd say it was a Fleetwood Mac song. I still remember when my dad brought it home on 45 and played it non-stop on the turntable for hours, 1979. During the formative years...but it's funny how some stuff sticks in your head.

So I'm thinking, "there's some stuff going on in there like I did with a previous song, I think that one will come up easy as fingerstyle. And I might even try wrist pumping to get bass drum/snare, that might be my avenue into that technique."

I looked up the chords, it's just Am, F with an occasional transition through Em. I initially thought I would run drop D tuning, so that root note plus perfect 5th/major 6th/minor 7th rollicking bluesy feel isn't too much of a pinky stretch. It didn't really fit, so I left it at standard tuning. Besides, from Am the stretch to put your pinky on the 4th string F# isn't too bad, and rather than trying to then hit the G on the 4th string, just drop the A off the 3rd string, careful left hand muting and right hand picking will make it work.

The melody wrote itself, I think he only sung four notes for the whole song - C, down to A, down to G. And B during the Em transition.  The synth "walking progression" during the first part of the song hurt my head, I couldn't find the starting note. I've often said my ear is bad, but I'm starting to think it is that my brain gets a preconceived idea of what I'm hearing and then won't let go of it, pretending it is right, fighting my ear. Once I worked out what the end note of the synth progression was - by playing notes and listening to it looped - it got easier after that.

So within an hour I had everything sussed and was playing it okay. But it's a simple song so it needs some flair so it doesn't sound like the same thing over and over again.  The structure has the synth predominate at the start, then favours the blues progression from the middle forward. I ran that variance, and threw in a "reset/quieter" part, and then some "chorus" repetition to finish it off. I should attempt the solo, it's only short. I didn't put in the wrist pump, I should!

But wow, that was a fast and groovy song to arrange. You would have heard it, but not known what it was, it charted quite high for a short while and then was lost to the annuls of history. Except it was burnt into my brain as a kid :-) Check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPjhHcLpfr4

Update: so two days pass, I noodle on it for around 40 mins each day. Discovered some more things to do with the bass line, and realised that the bar when he says "turning music into gold" is actually only 2/4 - so two beats dropped. I turned on the mic just now, and got this very rough capture:

Gold demo:

JAW

Sunday, 23 June 2019

What's happening June 2019

So busy, mostly with volunteering for kid things.  It's nice, I have a netball team and I am the chairman of a kids orchestra organisation, but it's left no time for me! No gigging, no youtube, no blogging...but I'm not sure I could ever stop playing. See previous blogs about obsession.

So quick one in between work/family/commitments (must remember to so "no" next year) - a few weeks back I happened across an Ennio Moricone piece, which I have always loved, and always wanted to play.  I checked a couple of fingerstyle versions on youtube, the only one I liked was by Luciano Renan, but some of the ways he was approaching it didn't fit my style, and more importantly I wanted something "quick and easy". So in true JAW style I started making my own arrangement based heavily on his one.  Still needs work and I'm not sure if I like the structure just yet, but here's a demo :-)

JAW


Ecstasy of Gold demo:

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

What's happening April 2019

I may have said "yes" to a few too many kid things this year. I'm on the netball committee, and coaching a team, Was coaching a basketball team, but that season has ended. I'm on the executive committee for a youth strings orchestra and that one not only takes time but is kinda exhausting. So I've dropped all gigging, and am not focusing on any new arrangements. Kids are only kids for a short while, so I've being involved while I can. I'd still play through DSotM once a week though...the addiction runs deep...

But with Easter, I took a week off, and had a look back at what I was working on. I'd forgotten that I'd been doing an arrangement for Dragon "Rain" and Dylan "It's all over now baby blue"! And I hadn't tabbed anything.  I'm glad I mention what I'm working on here! My obsession with "Monty on the Run High Score" continues and I'm going to fit in a time soon to record a video. Oh, I did have a look at two phrases in "Pumped Up Kicks" which has some fascinating syncopation, the work is based on Kel Valleau's work, I will talk about that later too.

Until next time!

Saturday, 19 January 2019

C64 High Score with Rob Hubbard

A while back I arranged and played Rob Hubbard's "Commando High Score". If you were born circa late 60's early 70's and had a Commodore 64 you are probably just started humming it in your head. Danny over at No Reason got in touch with me - another fan of the song - he was doing a podcast on this obscure little song and wanted to interview me! Of course I said yes!

During the interview he mentioned he was interviewing Rob Hubbard, the composer. I was dumbfounded and awestruck...yes I am a huge fan of Rob's chiptune work in the 80's, he was a monster in the scene, so many lame games but with fantastic soundtracks. His music had an impact on my life that remains to this day.  What he could get out of the 3 channel SID chip in a C64 was simply incredible.

Now "Commando High Score", circa May '85, has what I consider a sibling in "Monty on the Run High Score" circa June '85. Both have the very familiar doo-wop 50's chord progression I-vi-IV-V (eg Stand By Me), albeit in different styles, but the "feel" is very familiar. I mentioned to Danny to ask Rob if after creating "Commando High Score" (which apparently he did very quickly) if he then took a bit more time and expanded it into "Monty on the Run Game Over". I look forward to the answer!



One of the features of both songs is a soulful melody, the doo-wop progression and a mid ranged  arpeggio that plays the same notes even though the background chord is changing, a very clever "trick", I'm sure there is a musical term for it. The melody also hangs onto the same scale notes also creating these fascinating chord sounds against the chord progression.

Anyway, I then was inspired to arrange "Monty on the Run High Score" as well, it's much longer and true to form I have made it very difficult to play. I will post it soon.

...but I also arranged it for my kids to play as a trio. My kids primary instruments are double bass, cello and alto sax. Perfect for this arrangement, They have been on holidays and their brains have turned to mush, but I've had them play it through in 3 separate sessions, it needs plenty of work but I'm loving the sound of it. Dare I say I like it more than playing it myself! The part for the girls is very easy and they pretty much nail it, the melody is on the edge of play-ability for the lad, he's getting there though. Decided to record an "early version, warts and all" so that one day we can all look back and laugh :-)

JAW

Saturday, 24 November 2018

How I record and why I embraced auto-level (in certain circumstances)

I have dabbled in audio recording for many years with varying degrees of success.  While I once thought that only the direct feed from a guitar plugged in would get a good quality sound I am now convinced that microphones are best.

I have been using a Zoom H1 for a number of years, it is a stereo condenser mic that records to a micro SD card, at the low price end of the stereo condenser mic range. Perhaps one day I will venture out into the more expensive land of mics, but for now, I get more than I can deal with already at this level.

Over the years I've messed around with various filters, apparently everyone loves a bit of reverb. No, I don't. A mic has already captured whatever reverb the room you recorded in offered. I won't muddy up the sound by adding more artificial reverb or any other delay style effects. (Singers - don't hide under layers of delay effects.)

But I am a sucker for getting the graphic EQ "right". Where "right" means what my ear hears, through my fancy closed monitor headphones. Almost without fail I will boost the bottom end frequencies slightly, decrease the mid slightly, and boost the top end. I have many presets I have created but each recording I will listen with the EQ being applied realtime, drive up a frequency range to max to see what it sounds like, drive it down to min to see what it sounds like without it, and then pick an appropriate increase/decrease or leave it as it is.

A pretty common mild EQ I would apply looks like this:



The mid range I have removed here is what I'd call the "AM radio" sound, whereas the low and high ranges give more of the "FM radio" sound.  You can overdo it, and many times I have, so I have to remember to calm down and not "over produce" the audio.

Levels are important, particularly at recording. You don't want to overdrive and clip, but you don't want to be so low that you aren't using up all the dynamic range you have. I've read many times about aiming for a peak recording level of -12db, but you know, I reckon go a bit higher. If the crescendos have a tiny bit of clipping I think that is okay, almost "nice". It's not "pure", but it kinda accentuates the power of the top end of the volume dynamic range. Even when I apply my EQ filters I don't stress too much if it maxes out with a tiny bit of clipping.

That's because you want the end result to fill out the dynamic range of the signal, ie, be as loud as you can get. "Stuff sounds better when it is louder". If someone jumps on to your youtube video and has to turn it up, then you didn't get you final amplitudes right.

But I stop short of compression. Sure, with compression you can max out the levels in frequencies without clipping, create this powerful "wall of sound", but you are heading into over produced land again, like adding reverb and other delay effects. That original signal - the pure sound of an instrument - you want to stay true to that. Get the original sound right to start with, don't dabble too much from there. I'm sure this can be said to distorted electric guitar, I don't do much with them anymore.

And here's where I was when I was inspired to ramble on about this. Your time range dynamics, that is, over the course of a song where it goes soft, then goes loud, that's important. If when you are preparing to record setting up your mic, play as loud as what you intend on playing during the recording and set the level so that is close to the boundary of clipping, lock in that setting, perfect.

But what if you can't do that? Or, things change during the recording session and you can't change the level setting?

I have had this problem several times while recording my kids orchestra and band performances. I will set a level, record, and then later find it was way too low, or way too high, and that ruins the whole recording.

The Zoom H1 has an auto level feature. Where it will ramp up the level if the signal is low, or bring it back if the signal is high. I once believed that this was awful, complete heresy, worse than compression. I don't think that now, because, after ruining a few recordings getting the levels wrong I reluctantly turned it on for the last performance.

The problem being that I leave the mics on stage, and the little kids perform, the big kids perform, guest performers, then everyone combined - no chance of setting a fixed permanent level, even if I could access the mics in between performances.

You know what? The auto level was not as awful as I was expecting. I had two mics set up for either side of the orchestra, a H1 and a H1n and both did a similar admirable job. Sure there was the expected occasional "inrush", where the mic had scaled itself up trying to hear something as the performers were waiting to start, and the first note smashed the level, the mic went "WHOA!" and scaled right back, and it is very apparent in the wavefile.  You know what? Perform an amplitude fade for those few events and you will barely notice.



Looking at this sample stereo wavefile the first song is louder than the second, so it's not like the mic is constantly hunting to have every moment at a pre-designated amplitude. If I was to guess, and I'm allowed to because I write control algorithms for a living, I would say the Zoom will work in a range where it won't change the level until an extreme high event comes along where it very quickly scales down, and it's only if it's not hearing a minimum signal will it scale it up. So most of the time it is doing nothing, just leaving the level setting alone.

Which is exactly what you want in the situation I just described!  Yes; you will get a few glitches but fix/hide them in post production. That is nothing compared to ruining a recording by fixing a level that is not appropriate.

Mind, changed. Key learing: do fix the audio level if you know what to expect; if the unexpected is expected and you can't change the level as it happens, then turn on auto level and deal with the very few issues you will get in post.