20 April 2015

Doing a demo in GarageBand, Part 3: Tracking Real(ish) guitars & bass

This is the third post in short series on the experience of recording a demo in GarageBand. See the first post here and the second post here.

The demo in question is a recent (January 2015) recording that was started in GarageBand 6.x and finished (more or less) in GarageBand X:


I think of recording the real instruments as "pouring" them in the moulds created by the software instruments in the composing/arranging process.

"Invincible Sword Goddess" is a fairly basic and straight ward slab o' rock, and its composing/arranging process left me with two "rhythm guitar" tracks, a "bass" track, and a not very convincing drum track (along with a few bits of disposable scratch vocals). Those are essentially the same things that I am equipped to replace with real instruments and hand-programmed drums. 
Other, "fancier" :) songs might have synth/keyboard parts and what not; those would stay software instruments to the end (because I don't have real analog synths to hand, let alone grand pianos or string sections), though I might twiddle with the parameters in the mixing stages.

Real guitars and bass ... with "unreal" amps

For good or for ill, I record electric guitar parts with amplifier modeling software. While purists will doubtless sneer, the budget home musician needs to use the tools that will help them get the job done.
Amp modeling software costs a fraction of what giant valve amplifiers do, can be recorded much more quietly, and is these days usually good enough that I think relatively few people can tell the difference. Recording this way, what actually gets captured in the fairly thin, boring audio signal coming out an electric guitar's/bass's pickups; all the "amplification" etc. is really an effect applied after the fact in the computer.
Thus, you actually have a lot of scope for messing around with the "complete" sound after you record it. You love your take, but wish you had used a different fuzz pedal model? Just swap it in, and -- presto! -- the "dry" signal you actually recorded is now affected slightly differently by the digital magic being thrown at it, and your part now sounds like it was recorded with the new fuzz pedal instead of the old one.
Actually, I find amp/effects modelling software to be really fun stuff to play around with -- but perhaps it deserves some posts all on its own, sometime ....
Anyway, to start tracking guitars, I just load-up a preset from my modeling software that sounds "good enough", and get playing. I can always change it later.

Tracking guitars


For "Invincible Sword Goddess" I followed an almost textbook process of "how to record guitars for a basic rock track": even in the software instrument version, there were two very similar guitar tracks panned right and left. Doubling guitar parts makes them sound "bigger", and panning them away from the center helps leave room for vocals (which can occupy a similar part of the sonic spectrum).
Listen to many recordings by "1-guitar" bands, and you'll hear this was done in the studio; 2-guitar bands may well place each guitarist on either side (left and right) of the stereo and then use 2-tracks (at least) from each, so that each individual part is likewise doubled (so: 4 tracks of guitar in total).
This can go on forever -- and you can read about sessions where a dozen or so tracks of guitar end up in the mix. I didn't go that nuts (I don't think my computer would be able to handle it anyway!) on "Invincible Sword Goddess", and I actually just recorded two basic rhythm guitar tracks that followed what I'd done with the software instruments quite closely, likewise panned left and right. They sometimes play the same riffs, sometimes they play slightly different things, and they use similar but slightly different amp/effects modeling (that I changed around at various times through the recording and mixing processes).

I remember reading an interview with one of my guitar heroes in which he objected to studio engineers spending 20 minutes fixing a mistake in software when he could have simply re-done the part in 5 minutes. Likewise, I read another interview with a famous guitarist who grumbled about how he could hear when sections had been copied and pasted from one part of a song to another.
And it is, no doubt, easily to overuse the technology that lets you do these kinds of things. I, however, am not not a professional guitar hero who's been performing for decades; I'm a homebody hack who tries to learn the part he's come up with seconds before recording it. :)
So if I can play a part through, I do, and if I have to patch or tweak mistakes, or it turns out to be more effective to copy and past a section of rhythm guitar, I do it. I read in the memoirs of a guitarist who recalled a producer, in the '70s, spending much of one night dropping in a guitar solo, note by note. That must have been a chore with the tech of the time! In contrast, I worked on one piece with a rather lengthy guitar solo section; I did it by recording a bar or two each morning between gulps of cereal. I would listen to what I'd done up to that point, and if I liked it, I recorded a little bit more. Or I might decide what I'd done the day before was rubbish and re do it.
I think it took a couple of weeks of this Frankenstein method, but by the end I had a guitar solo part I was pretty happy with. Sure, it would have been better if I could have ripped it out in one take over the 75 seconds or so that it eventually lasted -- but I couldn't, so I didn't. But I got the job done, and was happy with it. So I recommend you "cheat" however you need to get the vibe you want. :) You can go overboard, and waste a lot of time tweaking whilst sucking the life out of the performance -- but judicious use of copies and fixes won't kill you or, in all likelihood, your song.

Tracking bass

Having done the basic rhythm guitar parts, I then did the bass part using the same approach. In this case, I added a sort of "bass solo" improv bit in the bridge, where the software instrument version had simply had a repetitive bass riff. Or, anyway, it was mostly improv! I think I played through a few takes to get a feel for it -- after all, I'd never really tried to perform the part before recording it -- took the best one, and then went back a fixed the more egregious mistakes.

And then ...?

With drums and real guitars/basses tracked, I am left with no choice but to tackle vocals -- something which always fills me with horror. Still, it has to be done ... though I will at least leave it for a subsequent post.

16 April 2015

Warren Huart (Produce Like A Pro): The 5 Key Home Studio Components: Don't Let Budget Hold You Back

Warren Huart is a big name record producer (you can check out his credits) who runs a Web site called Produce Like a Pro (with associated Facebook page, YouTube channel, and All That) that offers "professional audio recording tips for beginners".

Well, that's me :) so it's so I definitely keep an eye on it.

There are lots of sites, and blogs, and things not entirely unlike Warren's -- and many of them are likewise cool, and informative, and worth checking out. But I get a special kick out of his, not least because nearly every video on the YouTube channel begins with "Hi, it's Warren Huart here! I hope you're doing marvelously well!", which is almost inevitably the most breezily cheery thing I'll have heard from anyone since ... well, since the last time I've watched one of his videos. :)

I draw special attention here to a video of his from late 2013 on "The 5 Key Home Studio Components: Don't Let Budget Hold You Back" -- which I think somehow passed me by when was then first uploaded ... or maybe I wasn't subscribed then .... But, anyway, I came across it recently, and thought it was well worth sharing here, as it very much fits in with not only the vibe of this blog but life-as-I-know-it in general. :)



It's very much well worth watching the whole thing, but (since, at the time of writing this, the video is already a year or so old anyway) I'll give away here that the 5 key components are:

  1. Computer: consider using what you already have or is already familiar. It's all pretty good these days.
  2. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW): Logic and GarageBand are awesome for Mac users, though if you want widespread interoperability with other people's set-up, then ProTools may be the way to go. But, again: It's all pretty good these days. Use what works for you.
  3. Audio interface: A simple USB interface with 2 inputs will probably do the job much of the time. If you are recording multiple live musicians, you would need something heftier -- but for many of us, that might not be necessary. Focusrite are one of the mentioned brands in this section of the video; I've been thinking of getting one of those when my current one (an MOTU MicroBook I) eventually dies or becomes too obsolete. Focusrite stuff also seems relatively available here in Bogotá, Colombia -- and availability is a key issue down here!
  4. Microphone: Probably a modestly decent condenser mic is the way to here. You can get something usable for around US$ 100, or something a bit better for US$ 100-300. Admittedly, I don't have one of these -- I've been using an old, budget dynamic mic for years, and it does the job! And decent budget (or, indeed, any) condenser mics seem very hard to come by at all in Bogotá, Colombia (where I am, as opposed to Los Angeles, USA, where Warren is!). But I've got one on my list for an upcoming purchase (when budget allows!). You can get them sent down here, though the shipping costs add on significantly. Since I travel to the US now and again, I will probably just pick one up next time I'm over.
  5. Monitoring: Headphones are a good way to start; closed-backs are recommended -- though I use some open-back AKG K 240 Mk2 set. Closed-backs are a bit better for tracking, I think; they prevent sound leakage better. Open-backs probably reproduce sounds better, and are good for mixing. The only time I would worry much about leakage is when recording vocals, and my vocals are so rough that a little leakage is the least of my troubles! So I've gone with open-backs. Of course, the place to move up to is studio monitors -- though I think those are a little ways further off for me. I do confess to sometimes do rough work with same the cruddy external computer speakers on which I listen to music while doing other work ... but they are not really good for that, and (as pointed out in the vid) abrupt volume spikes could just blow them out. Warren suggests usable powered monitors could start around US$150 -- probably more, in Colombia, if I can find them! -- so that's not outside the bounds of possibility in the coming few years, I suppose! (But I'd have to find them locally: I don't see trying to shift them over in my carry-on luggage as working too well!)
And then, finally, the real main point being made here is that "creativity trumps budget". Contemporary technology has brought a great deal of raw power and possibility within the range of very many of us, and you can make some pretty awesome sounding music on a shoestring budget. So, good news for those of us still splicing that broken shoestring back together!

Anyway: check out the video, and hopefully you do will be doing marvelously well. :)


13 April 2015

Doing a demo in GarageBand, Part 2: Not-quite-real drums

This is the second post in short series on the experience of recording a demo in GarageBand. See the first post here.

The demo in question is a recent (January 2015) recording that was started in GarageBand 6.x and finished (more or less) in GarageBand X:


I think of recording the real instruments as "pouring" them in the moulds created by the software instruments in the composing/arranging process.

"Invincible Sword Goddess" is a fairly basic and straight ward slab o' rock, and its composing/arranging process left me with two "rhythm guitar" tracks, a "bass" track, and a not very convincing drum track (along with a few bits of disposable scratch vocals). Those are essentially the same things that I am equipped to replace with real instruments and hand-programmed drums.

Other, "fancier" :) songs might have synth/keyboard parts and what not; those would stay software instruments to the end (because I don't have real analog synths to hand, let alone grand pianos or string sections), though I might twiddle with the parameters in the mixing stages.

Not-quite-real drums

Quite often, one of the first things I do is replace the software drums or loops I used in the composition/arrangement stage with more carefully programmed drum parts that use my own set of drum samples. As a player/performer, the vibe that comes from a semi-decent drum part helps me (I think!) produce better guitar/bass parts.

If you are a drummer, or have one available to track real acoustic drums: awesome! But I don't (well, as we shall eventually someday see, not really), and so that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about not-quite-real drums in the form of loops, or hand-programming, or GarageBand/Logic Pro X's "Drummer" feature.

Drum Loops

Sometimes, loops work just fine for this -- and my carving up loops creatively, you can actually get some good results. I've "released" songs on which all the drums are actually from loops -- and I doubt many listeners notice (not that I probably have many listeners!).

Loops can come in the form of MIDI segments (effectively including the "software" drum loops in GarageBand) or real audio segments (created by recording real drummers, and then chopping those recordings up into bite-sized pieces). Real audio loops come in various formats: GarageBand and Logic use the "Apple Loops" format developed by (you guessed it!) Apple, so those will be the most convenient kind of loops to use if you are working with those DAWs.

GarageBand and Logic come loaded with bunches; the old Apple Jam Packs offered more, and though they are now discontinued as such, I believe their content can be acquired by buying and downloading the relatively inexpensive Apple MainStage product. So that is, IMO, well worth it. Of other, third-party loop makers, doutbless there are many good ones, but I've so far either used various free loops that are sometimes offered as sample giveaways, while the commercial loop-makers from which I've bought stuff are Drums on Demand and Beta Monkey.

As examples, here's a track I did mostly with (I think!) Beta Monkey loops: "No More Gasoline" by Espada Negra. Here's another Espada Negra track done with some free/giveaway Drums on Demand loops: "Servants of Fate" (cover of a Mournblade song). And a cover of Hawkwind's "Hassan I Sabha", using some of the same Drums on Demand loops. Actually, that last one uses loops from two different sets recorded at different tempos, both crammed into a third tempo: that of my recording. You will read that this is a big no-no, since the drum sound are likely different in different sets of loops, and it will change again when stretching or crunching things at very different tempos ... but in this case, these "no-nos" created a sonic effect I decided I liked (and I don't think I had a lot of other suitable loops at the time!), and so I stuck with it. :) Whatever works for you. :)

Hand-programming drum parts

Still, I've found the most satisfying results come from programming my own parts; only that way can I get them to be just so. (And, OK, even better results have come from getting someone who is an actual drummer to record their work for me -- though that is not often a luxury I've had available!)

Of course, hand programming drums takes time -- even though you can often effectively reuse segments for subsequent verses, choruses, etc. Often, I've programmed a "good enough" drum part that captures the major elements of what I want the drums to do. I can, of course, always go back and change things later.

For my hand programming, I have long used Doggiebox in combination with a set of drum samples originally known as "ns_kit7" but now sold as "NDK Natural Drum Kit". Here's an example of a track I recorded using these samples programmed in Doggiebox: "Words to the Wind". I'm especially proud of the slightly "jazzy" (to my mind!) bit of high-hat work in the middle bit. Here's another recording on which I hand-programmed drums not least because the time signature jumps around between 2/4 and 3/4, which is not something that most loops are designed to help you do: "Twa Corbies".

GarageBand/Logic Pro X's "Drummers"

Though it wasn't available in GarageBand 6.x when I started composing/arranging "Invincible Sword Goddess", I moved to GarageBand X for the recording of real instruments, and this made significant aspects of Logic Pro X's "Drummer" feature available -- and this is actually a pretty effective way of dealing with drums for basic rock songs, at least for demos.

You can read, or watch videos, about how to use this elsewhere; the practical upshot is that you can quickly set-up a pretty decent sounding drum track throughout your composition, and this is almost certainly how I would start composing arranging in many cases in the future.

It's worth noting that you can achieve a bit more variety with the "Drummer" feature by sometimes carving up what are effectively its MIDI loops into smaller individual pieces -- even a single beat's worth, sometime, and placing them where you want. If you really need something very specific to happen in the drums, well, you can hand-program that part in a separate track that uses the same software-instrument settings as your "Drummer is using".

And then ...?

Anyway, with a usable drum track in place, I transfer my talents to the "meat" (as Uncle Monty might say ...): recording guitars and bass (to be discussed in a subsequent post).

06 April 2015

Doing a demo in GarageBand, Part 1: Composing and arranging with software instruments

This is the first post in short series on the experience of recording a demo in GarageBand, a recent (January 2015) recording that was started in GarageBand 6.x and finished (more or less) in GarageBand X:



I think it's a reasonably decent example of what an amateur (me!) with relatively limited time and resources can do with a bit of effort. This post takes a quick walk through the main points of the process I followed on this track.

Composing and arranging with software instruments

I don't always compose with software instruments, but when I do, it's usually because that makes it really easy to change things around.

Sometimes I pick up an actual guitar and knock out a riff or some chords, but using GarageBand's software instruments, played with my MIDI controller keyboard, is also a quick and easy way to get ideas down. Critically, it allows me to rapidly change a song's whole key, if necessary -- and it may well be necessary if I discover that I've composed something in a that's out of my vocal range! If you come up with your lyrics first, and have been singing them in the shower for months before you start on the instrumental arrangements, then that won't be a problem, but lyrics are usually the last thing I come up with.

In the case of "Invincible Sword Goddess", I actually composed the main riffs using GarageBand 6.x's software instruments -- as well as some from the old Jam Packs. Those are different from the software instrument patches provided in GarageBand X, though the old stuff will still be there as "Legacy" patches" if you ever had them in GB6, and doubtless the new ones likely also get the job done. One could also do some basic composition in GarageBand for iOS and then transfer that over into GarageBand for Mac, for more work, though I haven't really tried that yet myself.

I find it reasonably useful to twiddle around with the settings for GarageBand's software instrument patches to help achieve a vibe that was a bit closer to what I'd like to hear -- for example, when blocking out the guitar parts for this song, I messed with the amp and effect-pedal simulation settings used for the software guitar sounds.

It's probably not worth killing yourself over this -- I planned on replacing all of them with real instrument parts eventually, after all -- but IMO it's worth having your "software demo" versions sound not completely unrealistic. I would have probably despaired of getting anywhere if the giant fuzz-guitar parts I heard in my head had sounded like an 8-bit Nintendo game. ;)  You can handily save patches that you plan to use again, and call them up when blocking out the next song that calls for them.

After coming up with some of the main riffs for guitar and bass, I tapped in a software drum parts (also using the MIDI controller keyboard). This was in GB6; when composing in GBX, it's easier (and likely much better) to use the Drummer feature -- and, in fact the drums in the above demo (linked from my SoundCloud account are courtesy of the Drummer feature.

Then it was largely a matter of cutting and pasting different sections around to create (or destroy) verses, choruses, bridges, endings, etc. I exported various arrangements that I could take away and listen to in the car, etc. to help decide whether I was happy with the arrangement. I even sang some scratch vocals on some verse/chorus sections to ensure that it was within my range. :)

In the above description, I've telescoped a process that probably took weeks if not months. I work slowly, with lots of other demands on my time: job, family, etc. Also I find recording actual real guitar/bass parts relatively time-consuming -- it's easy (and often fun!) to get bogged down in issues of tone and other details -- but working with the software instruments let's be focus on getting the composition and much of the arrangement in place without distraction. So, though it probably took me quite a while in real time, nevertheless, before ever I picked up a guitar, I had a pretty good idea of what I was wanted to do.

And then ...?

And then I could turn to working towards a more "finished-sounding" product: making a better drum part, tracking real guitars, bass, and vocals .... But I'll start discussing those processes in a follow-up post.

18 December 2014

Budget Home-Recording on a Mac: The Agony and the Ecstasy (Though Probably More of the Latter)

Finally, a proper post on this topic -- spurred by a friend's post to Facebook asking "what do I need to start recording my own music?". Predictably there were a lot of answers -- and many of them were potentially good ones. As with any creative endeavor, "whatever works for you" is a valid answer, though when it comes to home-recording with a personal computer (of the sort one tends to have on hand anyway) or even other digital devices, a lot also depends on what you can do with what you have.

I am focused on a home-recording approach that is centered around Macs. I'm not an Apple fanboy who queues up to buy a new iThing the moment it's available -- and I'm on a budget, so I'm usually a generation or so behind on iThings, if I have them at all -- but I moved from a DOS-based PC to a MacIIsi in 1993ish because I didn't like Windows 3.1, and have stayed in Applelandia happily enough ever since.

The obvious recording tool for a Mac user is GarageBand, if for no better reason that it comes pre-installed on every Mac. Perhaps the other two biggest players are Ableton Live and Pro Tools, widely used on the Windows/etc. side where there is no GarageBand. I've never used either, though I understand Ableton Live is a bit idiosyncratic, "love it or hate it", while Pro Tools is clearly what the "big boys" use in pro studios (and so perhaps worth it to the Mac User if you really need that interoperability with your Windows buddies). Apple's Logic has probably a bigger and better solution of software instruments than either of these, and very easy to use software instrument/MIDI editor -- but mostly it is sold as a loss-leader by Apple for about USD 200 (at present). And, frankly, that's giving it away for what Logic is. I think Pro Tools retails at around USD 700 and Ableton Live for perhaps slightly less. So for the home-recorder on a Mac, Logic is a no-brainer ... excepting that you've already got GarageBand for "free", and it's really quite powerful on its own.

A Tale of Two GarageBands, and Their Logic


GarageBand first appeared around 2004, spun out of Logic, which Apple had acquired from its original German makers, Emagic. Possibly this was some idealistic Jobsian plan to bring music production power to the masses -- and one questions whether the masses have much use for that, however good it might be for them -- but anyway it was a godsend for the budding small-time Mac-using musician. Suddenly your computer had a basic, but functional, digital audio workstation built into it, and as updates and 3rd-party add-ons continued to appear over the years, you could (with a little know-how) start producing demos that actually sounded pretty good.

Something like a road bump appeared in 2013. GarageBand's big brother Logic received a significant overhaul in the form of Logic Pro X, and an effectively new version of GarageBand (aka GarageBand 10, GarageBand X, GarageBand 2013) followed. If you already had/have "original" GarageBand (maximum version number 6.0.5), the new GarageBand installs as a distinct application, with the older version shunted into a subfolder and runable separately.

GarageBand X offers cool new stuff, like the eminently practical "Drummer" feature (borrowed from Logic Pro X), but -- at least initially -- disabled or at least obscured a lot of functionality that the "advanced beginner" had come to rely on, like easy use of 3rd-party plug-ins and control of Apple's built-in software instrument settings. Some plug-ins (like IK Multimedia's Amplitube) simply stopped working on GarageBand X (even if they still worked in Logic Pro X). Luckily, a 2014 update (accompanying Yosemite) restored a lot of this control -- and if your favorite plug-ins are still a bit screwed in new GarageBand, the manufacturer may have come up with a serviceable workaround (as with the case of Amplitude, which still has no official fix, but can be convinced to do its job).

So with some know-how and decent 3rd-party add-ons, the budding home-musican can still make some pretty cool music in GarageBand X even without jumping to Logic -- though the low price of Logic makes the jump a continuous temptation.

For my particular part, I'm based in South America (Colombia) where my earning power is low and import costs are high -- so getting by on a budget is a lot more important than it might be in the US or Europe (where part-time students and particularly dedicated lawn-mowing teens can readily out-earn me in real terms!). So I haven't made that jump yet ... though it is tempting, and I might well do so before long. Maybe .... soon ... ish .....

Getting Going


Let us then imagine that one is a budding Mac-equipped musician: What do you really need to get started with recording your own music (or even covers of your favorite songs)?

My focus is on your basic guitar-based rock formula, rather than classical chamber quartets or techno or something -- though, ultimately, a lot of the basics apply everywhere.

Audio interfaces


If you play an instrument you need a way for that instrument to talk to your computer. Instruments (like electric guitars) and microphones that produce a "traditional" analog audio signal most likely need a separate audio interface unit. If you are just working mostly by yourself at home, a simple USB interface with limited inputs/outputs will do the job. (If you need to record lots of tracks from a full band, etc., something more capable might be in order.) I currently use a somewhat obsolete MOTU MicroBook; if I were getting a new interface, it would probably be a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (which, in my case, have the added advantage of being not impossible to find in Colombia -- or in the capital, Bogotá, anyway!).

Since I am principally an electric guitarist/bassist, I also use an MOTU ZBox between the guitar/bass and the interface. This little device supposedly simulates the distinct "Hi" and "Lo" impedance inputs found on many classic amplifiers. Since my real experience with classic amplifiers is limited, it's hard for me to say how well it does this .... But it gets good reviews, is relatively cheap, and it lets you feel a bit more geeky in the guitar department -- which is all cool. You can survive happily without it (I did for many years) but you might as well pick one up.

Amp modelling


At this point it may have become clear that I am not using traditional amplifiers for my guitar/bass; I'm plugging (more or less) straight into the computer, where software emulates the job of the amp. For the traditionalist/purist, this probably eliminates gasps of horror and/or snorts of derision. A lot of my recordings float in and around genres of "classic rock" and "stoner rock", and the latter is specially is a place of worship for giant, vintage, smoldering tube amps capable of leveling a mountain whenever the player touches (or even looks at) a string. That kind of thing is, of course, awesome. But it's also totally impractical for my purposes -- being not merely expensive (especially in Colombia) but also likely to wake the wife and child (as well as lay waste to the neighborhood).

GarageBand (and Logic) actually come with very useable amp models for guitar and bass, as well as various effect pedal models. I used the "original GarageBand" models for years and coaxed very useful tones out them. GarageBand X seems to offer similar kinds of stuff, with much improved interfaces, though I moved to IK Multimedia's Amplitude a couple of years back. Besides Amplitude, big players in this area are Line 6 and Guitar Rig. I like Amplitube's "Custom Shop", which basically sells models through an "app store" like approach; for example, if you want a model of the classic Marshall amp that Hendrix used, you can buy it online and download it for about USD 20 or so, rather than buying a giant complete software suite of amp modeling software (much of which you might not want) for hundreds of dollars). Amp modeling software has made great strides as computers have become more powerful, and I very much doubt the average listener can tell the difference between even GarageBand's built-in models and a real amp. Plus, it's extremely practical for the home-recorder who wants to get that "to 11" sound at 3am in their urban apartment. So I'm a fan of this approach.

Mics


If you want to record anything that doesn't produce an analog audio signal, like your voice (or acoustic instruments, or a real guitar amp's speaker), you will need microphones. Most mics are either "dynamic" or "condenser". Dynamic mics like the famous Shure SM57 and SM58 are often built quite ruggedly and are commonly used in live situations for vocals, guitar amp mic'ing, etc. They are good at capturing strong sounds (like loud singing and guitar amps) at close proximity, and are often a bit cheaper. Condenser mics are often a bit more delicate (and pricey), tend to capture a wider range of loud/soft sounds, and often need external power (though this is often built into modern audio interfaces). Condenser mics are often used for vocals and acoustic instrument in studio situations, and if that's your focus, you can probably get decent entry-level condenser mics like the Røde NT1-A for USD 250-350.

That's probably somewhere I'll go eventually, but so far I've just used the old Shure Beta Green vocal mic (basically a cut-price SM58, I think!) that was originally bought for the vocalist in my first band about 20 years or so ago. The cognoscenti will not be impressed, I think -- but frankly it's worked just fine so far for my not-very-refined vocal takes.

Keys


GarageBand has a lot of built-in software instruments -- that is to say, basically sampled sounds accessed via MIDI -- that are most easily used with a USB MIDI controller keyboard. You can get these in a variety of sizes with a variety of more or less sophisticated features . I have an M-Audio Oxygen61 (i.e. 61 piano-like keys); I probably would have been fine for what I do with a 49-key unit, but the shop here in Bogotá had a 61-key unit, so I bought it while I could. Very handy for adding even simple instrumental or synth textures, as well as tapping in drum/percussion parts. Speaking of which ....

Drums?


People do record acoustic (or electronic) drums kits in their homes; I am not one of those people. Partially because I am not much of a drummer/percussionist, and partially because an acoustic kit would be way to loud to be practical. So you are not going to hear a lot about the arcane arts of mic'ing up an acoustic kit here.

But a rocker needs drums.

You can fill this gap with loops; a bunch come built-in to GarageBand, though many more are available from 3rd-party providers. I like the loops from "Drums on Demand", which come in a variety of styles and tempos, and are easy to use (as-is or chopped up). Making good use of loops is something of an art in itself -- especially for the rocker looking to emulate the approach of a real drummer -- but there are a few tracks I've produced on which I think I've done OK with this technique.

The new(ish) "Drummer" feature of Logic/GarageBand X may be a "loop killer". You can read more about this elsewhere, but basically it uses sets of MIDI drum patterns associated with various styles and tempos, along with different sets of sample of different drum kits, to give a fair degree of control over what an imaginary "virtual" drummer is doing. It's pretty fun, and may well get better with time.

Otherwise, I've gotten some of my most satisfying results from hand-programming drum parts. There's a big learning curve here -- one has to learn to think like a drummer to produce something that sounds like a drummer did it -- and it's time consuming. But gives a lot of control. I've used a Mac-only application called Doggiebox to program drum parts separately (outside of GarageBand), from which I output audio files (corresponding to separate kick, snare, tom, hat, and cymbal tracks) that I import into GarageBand (sort of as if they were very cleanly recorded acoustic drum tracks). Doggiebox lets you create your own "virtual drum kits" using whatever samples you like; I've long used the "nskit_7" samples, no longer available under that name, I think, but perhaps available as "NDK Natural Drum Kit". There are other approaches like Toontrack and Additive Drums, but I haven't gone that route. If Doggiebox ever stops working, I'll probably stick with Logic/GarageBand's "Drummer" feature as long as possible before investing in another 3rd-party approach!

All that said, some simple hand percussion can be fun and "authentic". I actually have two cowbells on hand, and a few different things to hit them with, because ... well, obviously we need more cowbell. :)

Guitars & Basses


Also vital for the rocker. Not much to say here because if you've got one you like -- and an audio interface to get the sounds into the computer -- you are basically good to go (even with no more than GarageBand's amp models). If you only play one of guitar or bass, you might as well get the other and learn to use it -- 'cause then along with GarageBand's virtual drummer, you are then a basic one-man band.

You can, of course, also get away with using some loops and stuff here. GarageBand offers numerous loops of various kinds of guitar and bass parts, as both software instruments (i.e. MIDI) and real audio samples -- and, of course, a vast array of all sort of instrument loops (which can readily be augmented by 3rd-party loops) that are good for all sorts of things.

Instruments are usually pricey imports in Colombia. They cost more in real terms than they do in the US, and of course local salaries are much lower. But you can do worse than get decent "budget line" instruments like Fender Squires or Epiphones and then -- when your finances allow -- replace the pickups with higher-quality 3rd-party gear. (In my experience, the electronics are one of the key areas where budget guitars cut corners.) I have a '90s-era Gibson Les Paul Standard and a mid-'70s Rickenbacker 4001, both purchased long ago when I was a swinging bachelor. I could no way afford to replace them now :) especially in Colombia. I have a more recently acquired Epiphone "Inspired by 1964 Texan" electro-acoustic which (though it would benefit from a decent condenser mic to augment its electric output) is great. While it's cool to drool over more instrumental toys, a single electric guitar, electric bass, and electro-acoustic guitar will get the jobs done.

Monitoring


With all your cool software and hardware music-making toys in place, you still need some way of hearing what you're doing. Your options are basically speakers (e.g. studio monitors) and/or headphones. You can find a range of useable monitoring headphones these days: I use a AKG K240 MkII set. These let me monitor quietly -- which is a big advantage -- but there's a lot of low end you can't hear. Decent home-studio monitors would be nice for those times when I can make a bit more noise, but I haven't gone that route yet. Frankly, I can do a lot of practical work with just some bog-standard Logitech computer speakers. Purists and pros would rightly express their horror -- but you work with what you have, and what you can afford! The main disadvantage is that computer speakers, like headphones, are possibly going to lose a lot of low end -- and so you may produce mixes that contain a lot of muddy low-end simply because you can't hear it to mix it out. I try to get around this by listening to mixes on the car stereo (itself a long tried-and-tested approach!), but it's imperfect.

Check it out!


Someday, perhaps I'll have better monitors -- along with better mics, and better software. But using what I've got -- and keeping an eye on the numerous informational resources now available (lots of Web sites, videos, and blogs treating different aspects of recording and mixing) -- I've been able to come up with some stuff I'm not overly embarrassed by. :)

You can hear for yourself and decide via the following links:

01 July 2014

The music industry is dead (or at least pining for the fiords)? Long live music!

I can hardly believe one still hears grumbling and complaints about the "death" of music (or even, more properly, "the music industry" as such) at the hands of the Internet and the digital era. What year are we living in? 1973? For good or for ill, we are not.

In any case, "music" is far from dead. In fact, we are perhaps living in a moment of (at least potential) music creativity and expression unparalleled in human history. Never have our capacities to (1) make music and/or (2) listen to the results been greater for a larger number of people -- and we can reasonably expect (barring global demographic catastrophe, a possibility that we should not entirely rule out!) that trend to continue.  There is an enormous amount of good (and, of course, less good) music of essentially any style one can imagine (as well as quite a lot of styles one has probably not imagined!) being made all over the world, as well as numerous opportunities for finding this music that simply didn't exist before. Of course, there are often considerable difficulties of various kinds (legal, technical, informational, etc.) in terms of finding what you already know you want and then being able to listen to it readily ... but we shall see how all that plays out in the years to come.

What is "dead" is "the music industry" as it was known in the 1950s-1990s (essentially: that industry which revolved around pop music from Elvis through Nirvana). This could be seen as a simple consequence of things (technological, social, etc.) having changed faster than that industry itself, but it increasingly seems more like a curmudgeonly grumbling of of "Oooo, when I were a lad, things were different!". Despite the niche and somewhat "hipster" (not to say largely nostalgic or pseudo-nostalgic) resurgence of vinyl in recent years, the concept of a "record collection" is largely an artifact of a recording/distribution technology that depended on physical media. And, obviously, before records (vinyl, wax cylinders, CDs, whatever) existed, no one had such "collections" ... except, one supposes, of sheet music ... or of composers themselves (in the "collections" of rich patrons). (Many well-known classical composers of the 18th century or earlier were essentially producing on-demand for aristocratic patrons. Mozart tried to break out and make it on his own, but failed and died in debt. Slightly later, Beethoven got luckily with an expanding middle-class market for his music and was able to survive independently. This all sounds a lot like more recent cases we could probably point to!)

This is not to say that people are not still making money from business ventures associated with music. It seems likely that people will continue to consume music and to want to display their associations with music-makers that they like in some way. For the moment, people will continue to spend at least some money on downloads (or even physical media) of music they like, and if the current technological (and legal) limitations to all-streaming, all-the-time music were overcome (which we might well expect, eventually), they would probably spend some money on subscriptions to such services. Yet even if everyone had completely free streaming access to all music, they might still want to buy the merchandise associated with their favorite artists, see the live shows with other fans, etc.  Touring and merchandise have already become the major revenue streams for perhaps the majority of working artists artists (some version of the "Grateful Dead model"?), and so the evolving music industry is going to be about building relationships with fans and generating senses of community that encourage people to spend their increasingly limited and fragmented entertainment budget of both time and money on that given artist. In other words, if Artist X (and their other fans) interacts with me through social media in what I perceive to be a cool way, I will spend more time paying attention to what they are doing and be more likely to spend money on music, videos, T-shirts, fluffy slippers, concert tickets, etc. This has, to an extent, always been true -- but the ability for people to interact in this way has vastly increased in speed and scale, so it has become accordingly more important.

So though the days of towering rock and pop stars, sales of whose recorded music defined generations, may well be gone, we can probably expect that people will continue to make money from music (at least in the sense of live performances) and merchandise associated with that music (be this band T-shirts, or soft drink adverts, or whatever). Moreover, just as you could get rich in the 19th-century American gold rushes by not necessarily finding gold but by selling picks and shovels to people who might or might not then find gold, there seems to be a huge and as yet not fully exploited market for selling music making tools to an increasingly large audience (as the developing world becomes increasingly interested and accessible). I am unlikely to ever make back the money I have spent on instruments, and software, and other equipment associated with music making, but I have nevertheless spent that money to make my own music -- as have plenty of others. (Thus the redefined direction of this blog.) Perhaps most importantly here, what you can achieve with the kind of musical technology that is increasingly affordable to many is quite astounding in comparison with what was available only a few decades ago.

So: Long live music! It is not only still being made and heard, but is perhaps in fact being made and heard in greater quantities, by a greater number of people, than ever.  I can, in my spare time, record music on my (rather aging and in need of replacement) desktop computer (and increasingly on my mobile devices) that sounds (with my artistic limits!) pretty good (I think!) in comparison with what required state-of-the-art facilities in the year of my birth (more or less midway between Elvis and Nirvana, I think!). I can moreover make that music available to a large percentage of humanity at little to no cost. Yeah, lots of people can do it better than I, and I can't make a living at it (though luckily I don't need to), but -- if you think about it -- that's still pretty amazing and awesome. :)

30 June 2014

A change is as good as a rest

It's been over 2 years since I posted anything to this blog. The truth is that a blog for academic purposes simply doesn't make sense for me, these days. All my real academic thoughts get channeled into my real work at university -- and the pace of writing, presenting, etc. has been increasing. There's simply no time to duplicate work in a blog.

In fact, I'm not sure that blogs have much purpose for individuals these days -- except perhaps for people using them as part of their private workflow, or who are promoting other aspects of their work (fiction authors, perhaps -- I'm not sure the paradigm works so well for researchers). Otherwise, the only blogs that seem interesting are those that have morphed into mini-magazines or that are focused on very particular areas.

Still, I think I will keep this alive for the moment -- though I will repurpose it for musings on my music hobby -- and particularly my home recording hobby, a hobby sufficiently different from what I do for a living that I still make the effort to pursue it. So this will entail some minor redesign and whatnot, but I'll sort that out in the coming days/weeks.

I think, for the moment, I will leave all the older stuff here. A 2-year gap offers a pretty clean break to separate the new direction from the old!