Evil Barre Chords on Acoustic Guitar: Bm

This blog will describe an alternative way of playing the Bm chord.

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When singing and playing a song on acoustic, I like to think of it as a sum of all parts. There's no point playing a complex guitar part, if you have trouble singing along with it. In that sense, I'll make the work that my fretting hand does as easy as possible.

There is a bit of a stigma surrounding barre chords on acoustic guitar. Frankly, they are easier to play on electric, and you'll hear a lot of complaint from beginner acoustic guitar players. One of the main complaints is that 'it hurts!'. This is because you are exerting more pressure with your index finger with a barre than you would when playing open chords. Combined with higher and thicker strings on an acoustic, it's hard to sell barre chords to a beginner.

I've seen a load of guitarists use barre chords, when there is an alternative open chord. It's crazy for example to play a G major barre instead of an open G major chord. I also far prefer the sound of an open chord on acoustic to a barre chord. This can depend on your style also, but with the way I play, open chords sound better. It's not to say that you should never use barre chords, but I'd rather hear someone play a shortened version of a chord on a few strings, than a clunky version of a barre chord which doesn't ring out properly.

D major and A major are popular keys for songs, and both often contain a Bm.

Note! - There is a difference between the key, and the chord shapes being played. You could be using a capo on the 2nd fret to play the open D chord shapes, but you're actually in the key of E. My advice is always, find the original key of the song, then find the best way to play it using a capo if necessary.

I'll maybe see a song in F#, and I'll use a capo on the 4th fret so I can play with a D shape instead. More about using a capo in future blogs. It's common for songs in the key of D to have a Bm chord, which can cause problems for some players. The traditional Bm chord uses an Am barre shape, which can be a little easier to play than the Em barre shape, as less of the thick strings to hold down. For years though, I have not used a full Bm barre on acoustic.

To learn the variation below

  • Play a Bm barre as normal
  • Keep fingers 3, 4, and 2 in the same place
  • Remove index finger barre
  • Fret the 2nd fret of the A string with index finger

You can then decide if you want to play the top E string. I do, as I find the sound compliments a lot of the songs I play. You'll actually be playing a Bm11 to be precise, which is less intense than a straight Bm, which I find softens the feel a little. You can always avoid playing the top E string, if you don't want that particular chord.

 
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Playing the chord this way, also means that your index finger can do hammer ons and pull offs on the second fret, which can create some interesting effects. I've been playing with this chord shape for years, and will continue to do so! Here's a full example of the John Lennon song 'Happy Xmas (War is Over'), where you can see this version of Bm, along with hammer ons and pull offs with the index finger. This track is in the key of A.

 

 

 

Evil Barre Chords on Acoustic Guitar: F#m, C#m

I started a series of guitar lesson videos called ‘Guitar Lessons from Hell’. The purpose is to make guitar playing more accessible, by demonstrating some tricks and hacks that I regularly use. I have been playing electric and acoustic guitar for years, and have spent much of that time writing and performing songs. So, when I teach acoustic guitar, I teach from the perspective of singing a song whilst playing. If you’re new to guitar, this is one of the best ways of learning. Even if you can’t sing, just talking along will improve your timing and chord changes.

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You’ll probably notice quite quickly that some chords are easier to play than others. If I’m trying out a new song, I’ll often use Ultimate Guitar as a quick reference, and do a sight read and play of the chords listed. In many cases, there are a bunch of barre chords, which cause problems for beginners. It’s great to know barre chords, but it’s also useful to know alternative ways to play some of them. Every time I learn a new song, I’ll always look for the easiest way to play it. I want to sing the best version of the song I can, and don’t want any obstacles in the way.

Also, with acoustic guitar, barre chords are just harder to play. It takes more pressure pushing down on the strings than with an electric guitar, due to string height and thickness. In line with that, I prefer to hear chords ringing out like they do in open positions on acoustic guitar. I'll usually work with a song, until I've found the best position on the neck using a capo, and I'm playing the most comfortable variation of any barre chords.

F#m

The first trick is for F#m. This uses the Em barre shape, and crops up in a lot of songs in the key of E. Instead of playing a full barre, you can use the top 4 strings instead. You lose a little bit of bass from the low E string, but in most cases, this isn’t a big deal. As long as the song you’re playing still sounds good! Use your 3rd finger on the 4th fret of the D string, then use your 1st finger on the 2nd fret of the top 3 strings. This works as a semi barre. If you really miss the bottom E string, you can curl your thumb around the fretboard, and cover the second fret of the low E string. This is trick that Hendrix used a lot.

 
F#m_fixed.png
 

C#m

To learn C#m, start off by playing a full C#m barre chord. Remove the 1st finger barre and leave the other fingers in place. Then fret the 4th position of the A string with your 1st finger. Play all the strings from the A string. The top E string is now open, and in tune with the chord. I use this variation all the time!

 
C#m.png
 

Fat A

I've always found the standard A chord hard to play using 3 fingers. So instead, I use my pinky to play a semi barre. The hardest part here is making sure the top E string is till played, as you won't be fretting it. With a bit of practice, this shouldn't be difficult. If I'm playing this one further up the fretboard using a capo, I'll often do a semi barre with my index finger instead.

 
fat_A.png
 

You can watch a one minute example here, where I use all the chords in the Aerosmith song Cryin'.

Turning A Demo Into A Full Production

It’s a fun process turning a demo or sketch of a song into a full blown production. This blog describes an instance where a vocal coach asked me if I could produce a new version of his old demo.

Here’s a clip from the original demo:

 
 

It’s not amazing sound quality, but good enough to work out the individual parts. To start with, I’ll usually take the original track and add it to my DAW (Logic), so I can continually reference back and forth as I'm building up the new track. I’ll then use markers to map out the arrangement, e.g. verse 1, pre-chorus, etc, so I can focus on individual parts at a time. Then I’ll work out the basic chords and write down the lyrics, using Evernote.

 Initial tracking against reference track

Initial tracking against reference track

 Mapping out the lyrics and chords in Evernote

Mapping out the lyrics and chords in Evernote

Around this point, I often try something experimental, and put together a version of the song that I hear in my head. With song sketches this is a great way of testing out different arrangements, but in this instance the client wanted the new production to have the same arrangement and music as the old one. Anyway, I quite liked the alternative version, and may re-use the music, which is different from the original (so no copying!).

 
 

The plan was to replicate the first verse and chorus in the track, to check that the client liked the direction. In the track, I could hear drums (probably a drum machine), bass, keyboard, a synth lead, and a synth pad (used to transition into the verse). I could hear most of the parts, but had a little trouble hearing what the lead synth was doing in the pre-chorus section. To solve this, I used a multipressor plugin on the track, to duck all other frequencies that were not the synth. This made it much easier!

The first thing I recorded was the bass and drums. I always set the main groove of any song around the drums and the bass. In this case, I built up the drum parts using Superior Drummer, and used an electric bass (my Fender Jazz). For the guitars, I replicated the main rhythm part, and also played an arpeggiated part using the same chords. These were hard panned left and right, and sounded great to me! Then I replicated the synth and keyboard sounds using stock instruments in Logic, which worked well. To give it more of a contemporary feel, I used a drum machine sound for the riff and first part of the verse, then shifted to an acoustic kit sound, which the client liked. After this, time for a guide vocal!

I find it hard to hear if an arrangement is working without recording a guide vocal, so I’ll always record myself singing the part, and send that to the client along with an instrumental version. So here’s a clip of the initial track with guide vox:

 
 

At this point the client was happy with the sound, but asked if a real drummer could be used. I currently don’t have an acoustic kit in the studio, and have been getting on fine with Superior Drummer. I plan to record using a real kit in the future, but at the moment, it’s an issue of cost and overhead. What I ended up doing, was recording the part with my electric drumkit, which fed into Superior Drummer. This let me capture the groove of the drums so they didn’t sound robotic, and then I just fixed some timing and bleed issues in the editor. Here’s a clip of recording this way. Usually I’ll play a little more seriously than this, but you get the idea.

 
 

Next step was to get the client into the studio to record the vocals. He was happy with the first session, but thought he could do a better take, and also wanted to bring in the original composer to sing backing vocals and offer advice on the lead vocal. We did this, had a great session, and the backing vocals brought out a definite pop feel for the song, which you can hear in the video. A final request was to remove one of the keyboard parts that the client didn’t like from the original, and we replaced this with a cello (East West Composer Cloud).

The client had quite a large vocal range, going from a baritone into a softer mixed voice. When applying EQ, I referenced against Isaac Hayes for the low part, and John Legend for the higher part, using a Pulteq plugin.

Here's the original and final file to compare:

BEFORE                                                                      AFTER

Here's the client singing a section of the song from the vocal booth:

 
 

Final Thoughts?

I probably lost a bit of time experimenting with the drums, and testing out instruments that were not in the original such as electric guitar. In this case, it's best to keep things simple, and not try and guess what the client might want. I'd still love an acoustic kit at one point though!

Overall, I'm very pleased with the track, and feel we produced a radio worthy version.

Recording Voice-Overs

This blog gives an overview of voice-over recording, from the engineer’s perspective.

My studio was built with the singer in mind, but I am perfectly equipped to record voice-overs, and have done so on multiple occasions. It helps having a vocal booth and a Neumann U87, which is a popular mic for voice-over recording.

If I’m recording someone who is sitting down, the upside down position of the mic works better, as it’s easier to adjust the height with a standard mic stand, and it looks cool.

 
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First things first, prep! It’s great if you can get any session material from the client beforehand. This could be a video or a script. Here's an example of a recent script:

 
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The script lets you run the session smoothly, pick up quickly on any mistakes, and organize your recordings cleanly.

If you get a video, make sure it can be synced up with your DAW. Logic Pro X is great for this. This means that when you begin recording, the video plays at the same time. This is extremely useful, as it means that the voice-over will also be in sync, and post editing work will be quicker.

One issue though. How to stream the video into the booth? One solution I found is to use an ipad, a USB cable with a long extension, and an App called ‘Duet’. Hooking it up was a breeze, and I was able to sync the display from my second monitor (on the left). The iPad could then go into the booth.

 
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Next part is gain staging. This is a little different than recording a singer but not drastically. There is less of a dynamic range with a voice-over, so the levels are more consistent. With a singer, you want to have them sing the loudest section of the song, so you can set the gain around that. A recent voice-over was recorded with a -25Db average with peaks of around -13Db. There’s a low noise floor with 24 bit recordings, so the volume can be boosted easily afterwards. I also avoid going higher than -10Db in case of any clipping, which won't happen till 0Db, but I like a lot of headroom for safety.

When recording the session, there are a couple of different approaches that people use:

Do everything in a single takes with mistakes included

If you make a mistake, say ‘Again’, and read the phrase again. It’s usual to have about three full single takes. The main problem with this approach is that you will have to manually splice the audio when editing. However, it does let you fix the mistake immediately. It could be the case that on your second take, the same mistake is made, you forget, and don't have a clean take of it.

Do everything in single takes but start again if mistake

This approach goes for a clean take, and attempts to only have a selection of clean takes. The problem here would be if the take was a long one, and it's a complete pain to go back to the start every time. In these cases I would probably just punch the voice actor in to fix any issues, or use a separate take to fix the problems, and create a comp from that.

Everyone I recorded so far had someone already in place to do the editing and mixing for them. All they wanted from me was the raw files. This is easy in Logic. All you have to do is highlight the tracks, right click, and ‘export as audio files’. One issue I thought about, was how to adjust plugin values in multiple tracks at once. It could be the case that you have (like I did recently) 132 tracks, and you want to make the same adjustment to all of them (compressor, de-esser, low cut, etc). If you're in this situation, and using Logic, here's two techniques that will work:

How to add and adjust plugins for multiple tracks

This technique is a little 'hacky', but it works, and won't take too long.

  • Add a plugin to a single Channel.
  • Adjust the values of the plugin accordingly.
  • Save the plugin values as ‘Default’. This means any time you open up this plugin on a track, it will have these new values.
  • Highlight all the channels you want to add the plugin to.
  • Add the plugin to the first channel, and it will appear in all of them, with the values you set as the default.

Here's a voice-over I recorded using the above method. Fortunately I didn't do the editing!

 
 

How to apply the same amount of gain to multiple tracks at once

  • Select all tracks
  • Adjust the gain setting in the inspector window (see image below)
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If you are doing the mixing yourself, here's a useful article about broadcasting loudness levels. You'll need a brick wall limiter for this! I use Izotope Ozone for this stuff.

https://transom.org/2016/podcasting-basics-part-5-loudness-podcasts-vs-radio/

 

 

 

How to Record Quick Reference Tracks to Use in Your DAW using Spotify and Soundflower

 Chris Martin worked as a computer programmer for years, and was a regular Github contributor to the Soundflower project. His username was Chris++.

Chris Martin worked as a computer programmer for years, and was a regular Github contributor to the Soundflower project. His username was Chris++.

This article is about the use of Soundflower on a Mac/OSX. The same logic will apply to Windows, but using a different app, so there still should be useful info here for non Mac users.

If you’ve done a lot of mixing, you will definitely have read (or discovered) that mixing using a reference track is an invaluable practice. The point of this article is about making quick mix reference tracks for your DAW, which are often just snippets. There are loads of resources online about mix referencing, which I won’t go into here. Sound on Sound always have great info on this, and you can read a slightly old but still useful article here.

One note on some articles you might read. They often advise on NOT using a lower quality file. MP3s and most streaming services nowadays are a million times better than 5 or 10 years ago, so I’m very happy using them as references. When I’m mastering, I usually have an iTunes purchased file in place that I already own. If I ever re-mix a Beatles album then I'll probably up my game in quality, but until then, MP3s and streaming are fair game.

Back to making the tracks. I use an app called Soundflower to record audio directly from Spotify and sometimes youtube. I don’t regard this as piracy in any way, as I pay for Spotify and purchase from iTunes, and none of these tracks go outside of my studio. Also, I've had a couple of clients with tracks that were only available on youtube, so I had to use this method.

The original Soundflower app I used was called ‘Soundflower Bed’ which created a startup icon in the toolbar. It looks like the developers changed at one point, but the current version now lives as open source on GitHub (by the looks of it!), which means it is kept updated by multiple developers, and there should always be a stable reference. Also, it looks like it’s coded in C++, so anyone interested could jump right in! The most recent version of it is 2.0b2, which I think is the one I have installed. It's available from other sites too.

To confirm that Soundflower is installed, go to system preferences/sound and you should see it there. I always select the 2 channel one as seen below:

 
 Finding Soundflower in system preferences

Finding Soundflower in system preferences

 

When this is setup, you’re ready to record a track. If it doesn’t look like it’s installed, you’ll have to google. There’s a load of information on this, so you should be good. Here's the steps to record:

  • Open system preferences/sound/Output
  • Select ‘Soundflower (2ch)’
    • This means that all general audio will now be output to Soundflower
  • Set the volume to max (it hasn’t gone anywhere near clipping in my experience)
  • Open up Logic Pro X
  • Go to preferences/audio/devices and select ‘Soundflower (2ch)’ as the input device
    • This means that Logic Pro X will now bypass the recording interface and take the input directly from Soundflower
 
Logic_sound_preferences.jpg
 
  • Create a new audio track
  • Arm to record, solo, and put input monitoring on
  • Open Spotify and set the volume to max
  • Start playing in Spotify to test
  • You should be able to hear the track coming through Logic
  • Try recording
    • Stop Spotify track
    • Start recording in Logic
    • Start track again in Spotify
    • If you don’t hear the track, but you can see a waveform being recorded, then you are doing something right!
 Recording from spotify (you can see the waveform being created)

Recording from spotify (you can see the waveform being created)

  • Confirm recording has worked
 Post recording from spotify

Post recording from spotify

If that worked, then you will have a reference track that you can start using in your project. Usually I have a couple, and then often split them so that the chorus and verses sit in the same places in my song (so I can A/B against each section).

On another note, I am not snobbish whatsoever about the reference tracks I use, and I also particularly like the Selena Gomez song - 'It Ain't Me' used here. I even used a Coldplay track, but it was the one they did with the Chainsmokers, so not sure if that really counts.

I’ve found Soundflower to be extremely useful, as it lets me use tracks that I don’t have to purchase on iTunes, especially when I'll often just use a part.

If Soundflower doesn’t work for you, I found a great tool a while ago called Wiretap which I thought was good.

 

 

Fixing a Bad Note in a Backing Track

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I recently recorded a vocalist who came in with his own backing track, composed by a friend, which had a piano, keyboard and guitar. I mixed his vocal and he was happy, but mentioned that the original composer asked if a dud note could be fixed in the piano part that had always bothered her. You can hear it below at around the 7 second mark:

 
 

Obviously no task is too small, and I have a tendency to disappear down rabbit holes for indefinite amounts of time over tiny issues anyway, but this was actually a very interesting and potentially common problem.

How do you make fixes to a pre-recorded track, when you don’t have access to the individual instrument parts?

Some of this depends on the context of the problem. The original thought was clever use of a crossfade, where the dud note could be faded out smoothly. This would only work though if no other instruments were playing at the same time, or just the sustain or reverb tail from another instrument existed. In this case there was a guitar being plucked, and a cross fade instantly sounded wrong.

The next thought was to replicate the sound of the original keyboard, and fix the note in a separate track. The ‘Classic Electric Piano’ patch in Logic Pro X replicated the sound to a great degree, which meant I didn’t have to recreate the sound with a synth or sculpt it with EQ. A Rhodes electric keyboard was used in the original.

After playing with the notes a little, it sounded like the note should be an A#4. I tested this out, but then found I had to add the next keyboard note as well (C5) to make it sound smooth. This was time shifted a little so it was perfectly in sync with the original. At the problem part in the original, volume automation was used to duck the volume a couple of DBs. Here’s a screenshot of the new keyboard part added below the original track:

 The piano fix is the small midi part in green.

The piano fix is the small midi part in green.

Here’s the volume automation used on the original track to duck the volume by 2Db:

 The volume automation fix. The original track still plays, but is 'ducked'.

The volume automation fix. The original track still plays, but is 'ducked'.

I was extremely pleased (and relieved!) with the result. If you turn the volume up, you can hear a slight texture where the new note plays over the old note, but there is no obvious dissonance. In most cases, I'd challenge you to actually notice the change. Here is the change, which you’ll hear (or not hear, Ha Ha!) at the 7 second mark.

 
 

Here is the new two note keyboard part used for the fix:

 
 

So moral of the story. Even if the fix seems impossible, and certain death ensues, always, ALWAYS venture down the rabbit hole. Unless of course it's the rabbit below, in which case you should run for your life.

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How to Build a Boutique Music Recording Studio with Inexpensive Acoustic Treatment

When building up the first incarnation of Rocinante Studios in San Francisco before moving to LA, I read up on acoustic treatment. Initially I went for the basic approach of foam panels, and got a bunch of cheap ones like these from Amazon. Auralex is usually the company that you'll hear about, but I didn't want to spend much cash at the time, and these were cheap and made a difference. However, they won't do much for the low end, and only really stop reflections above 400-600Hz, which means you're screwed for proper bass handling. For that you need bass traps, which you can get foam versions of. I just didn't bother at the time. Still, a start's a start. Excellent article here, and accompanying image:

 

 A great reference diagram for applying acoustic treatment

A great reference diagram for applying acoustic treatment

I did manage to get some great recordings in the room though, but this was mainly for vocals. Acoustic guitars recorded with mics had a definite boxy sound. I could still work with it though with some friendly EQ. I used an acoustic shield for vocals which really worked wonders at a low cost. You can see my friend Alex singing with one in the image below, and here's a link to the one I used. Might not be the fanciest on in the world, but it did a great job at giving me a dry vocal in a non excellent space.

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When I was building up the new studio in LA, I initially used the same smelly foam, but with the intention of getting professional acoustic treatment. I used the 'sound on sound' diagram for reference, and covered all the main reflection points with the 2" foam. The sound was actually ok, but probably not great bass handling. As mentioned, I did notice a smell coming from the foam, which my wife wasn't too happy about.

 Initial acoustic treatment in new LA studio

Initial acoustic treatment in new LA studio

After some initial research I found a company called LA Sound Panels. They charged a $50 consultation which was deducted from the overall price if I a purchase was made. Installation was extremely quick, and I was super happy. Also, you can choose the colors which is great.

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After this, there was a huge difference in sound. The bass became a lot punchier, but never overpowering, and I could hear a lot more happening in a mix than before. One weird thing that happened though was the fault of using two computer screens. Here is my initial set up, where I have screens connected to a Mac Laptop. I started to notice an issue with my left ear, which I'd noticed before, but not to this extent. What was happening was that my DAW (Logic) was always on the screen on the right, which meant my head was always tilted that way, in turn exposing my left ear to more sound from the speaker than my right. This would very quickly fatigue my left ear and leave me feeling dizzy. It took a while to work out what was happening, and then I felt stupid for not working it out earlier.

 
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To remedy the problem, I position on monitor directly in the middle, which has helped a lot. I also upgraded my monitors to Yamaha HS8s which have made a big difference too.

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Vocal Booth - Worth It or Not for Music Recording?

When building up my recording studio in LA, I thought it would be a good idea to install a vocal booth. Try reading about vocal booths on www.gearslutz.com to see a load of contrasting opinions. Some argue that a vocal booth will produce a very dry sound, and can also produce a ‘boxy’ sound. A dry sound is not an issue for me, as this is what reverb is for when mixing. A boxy sound may stem from the materials that the booth is made from. With a cardoid mic 12 inches away from the singer, I haven’t noticed a problem.

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Instead of a booth, you could also do what Mike Skinner from ‘The Streets’ did, and make a DIY vocal booth in a closet with a mattress and blankets - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_Pirate_Material. I’m not sure if clients would find it professional recording in a closet with an old blanket though, so a custom booth seemed like a good idea. I also found this pic whilst researching DIY booths. This dude looks like he wants to murder and eat anyone who comes into the booth.

 Creepy murderer dude

Creepy murderer dude

I also wanted to be able to isolate the vocal as much as possible. I didn’t want to be in the situation where I record a great vocal, then notice a dog barking or a lawnmower in the background. A vocal booth doesn’t cut out background noise completely, but it’s not far off.

 
 Suz testing out the voice-over setup

Suz testing out the voice-over setup

 

The main companies who build vocal booths are www.vocalbooth.com and www.whisperroom.com, but I found that the pricing gets exponentially more expensive as the size increases. I found this guy, who had good reviews, and uses similar construction and materials - http://www.scottsvobooths.com. After chatting, we agreed on a 5 x 4.5 (width) x 7.3 (height). I’m 6.1, so this was perfect.

 A Neumann U87 used for recording in the booth

A Neumann U87 used for recording in the booth

No acoustic treatment is provided for the booth. Scott recommended some foamy bass traps that a lot of people use for the corners, that I could get nearby. These are 48 inches long - from Foammart. I then got a pack of Auralex squares from Amazon. I did some research on acoustic treatment for booths, and Whisper Booths suggest 30% coverage, else you can get a very dead sound. I also used some old CDs to get some reflection in the booth which can add a bit of brightness. I got the idea from a Sound on Sound article, and it also looks cool.

 
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How does the booth sound? Great! I usually have the singer about 12 inches away from the mic. I’ve recorded voice-over actors and singers, and everything has been recorded super cleanly. Another great use for the booth is to mic up a guitar amp. I can crank the amp quite loudly without too much noise escaping. Not completely quiet, but the neighbors won’t complain. Clients have also mentioned that they feel safe and comfortable in the booth, which is a good thing. Also, if you ever record in the booth, you can be added to the ‘Rocinante Studios Wall of Fame’. Yay!

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How to Play Stairway to Heaven on the Tin Whistle

I spent some time recording promotional material for my studio that I could share on social media. One thought was to record the Stairway to Heaven intro on acoustic guitar, which you can see here:

 
 

At the time I thought it would be fun to add some backing instruments, to replicate the original. I added some electric keyboard, and then replicated the part that John Paul Jones plays on the recorder, using a tin whistle. Then I thought I could do a separate video of just the tin whistle, as there's not many examples of this online for Stairway. So here's the version:

 
 

A couple of people commented on youtube that they liked it, and someone asked if I had the tab or could do a tutorial. Well, I can do both! Here's a video to accompany the blog:

 
 

I can read and write music notation, but nowadays I don't need to do so in most cases. I'm not playing in any classical ensembles where in the past I had to read music for clarinet. Also when I'm writing I usually go directly from the melody in my head to the instrument. Although for the sake of discipline, I'd like to write a bit more using music manuscript.

In the case of Stairway, I had a recording of it inside my favorite DAW, Logic Pro X. There's a useful feature that lets you convert audio to midi. If you have the midi, then you automatically get the score. You can read how to do it here - https://discussions.apple.com/thread/5194172?start=0&tstart=0. It actually worked fine with the tin whistle recording, but I hadn't played along with a strict tempo originally. So rather than fix the timing, I just replicated the melody using a keyboard, whilst recording in the desired tempo. Just for reference, I usually work out most melodies by listening to them, so in the original recording I did of Stairway, there was no sheet music used.

Once I had the midi with the correct timing (BPM 63), I had a neat score in Logic. Logic will translate all midi data into a score automatically, that you can then tweak. I also wanted to have the tin whistle fingerings in the music too, which I couldn't see how to do in Logic. Here's an example of my neat midi part with the corresponding score that was generated:

After a bit of research, I found a free music notation tool called https://musescore.org, that allegedly had a plugin that would create tin whistle fingerings from the score - https://musescore.org/en/project/tinwhistletab. This unfortunately doesn't work with the latest Musescore version. The plugin is coded in Javascript with a .JS extension, but the latest Musescore requires a QML plugin instead, which allows Javascript to be embedded. Having worked as a programmer for many years, I would actually be able to convert it. But, I couldn't be fucked in this case, and found another solution.

Someone created a font for tin whistle fingering, which you can download here - http://blaynechastain.com/blog/tin-whistle-tab-font-sibelius-plugin. It'll install on your system, and function the same way as a normal font. You need to work out what keys map to the tin whistle fingering. Here's a diagram I made up with all the keys. In some cases, pressing shift will give you the octave fingering, which is the same as the default fingering, but has a little '+' below it (but not in all cases). This is what I used to add in the fingerings. Obviously you need to know tin whistle fingering! But if not, use a reference like this http://www.thewhistleshop.com/misc/fingering.htm

I jumped ahead a little! Going back a step, I exported the score as a PDF from Logic. MuseScore then let me import the PDF, which it then converted into its own PDF format. Then I could edit inside. To add the fingerings, all I had to do was modify 'System Text' so it would use the new tin whistle font, then click on a note, and add system text with the corresponding letter/fingering. Not the quickest way of doing it, but it works! Here's an example of the fingerings added using system text:

Here's where to find system text in the tool:

All in all, MuseScore was easy to use, and with regards to plugins (when they're kept up to date), is very flexible.

Now, onto how to play the damn thing! I'm not going to give a big tin whistle lesson here, but there's some useful techniques that I regularly use:

Tin Whistle Lesson

Tongue your notes

One of first things that'll make you sound less like a beginner, is to 'tongue' the notes instead of 'slurring'. This means that every time you play a new note, make a 't' sound where you tongue touches your front teeth. A lot of tunes have a mix of tonguing and slurring, but if you're starting out, just tonguing everything sounds better. You'll hear a lot of beginners slur all of the notes. I'm sure you've all heard someone playing 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' on the recorder and cringed. I guarantee you'll cringe less if the notes are tongued instead of slurred!

Bend some of the notes

If you want to start sounding like an Irish tin whistle player, then try and bend some of your notes. Also, start drinking more Guinness and Whisky. E to G is one of the easiest bends to do. Tongue a low E, don't stop the sound, tongue the E again, then start slowly lifting you bottom fingers off (index and middle finger of right hand). With a bit of practice you'll be able to bend up to the G. You can also repeat this the octave up with the same fingers, which will sound great. This is just one a good example, but have a mess around with a tune you like playing, and experiment with bending up to different notes. You can also bend between single notes, but it sounds better with an interval.

Try some Vibrato

With singing, you want to control vibrato from your diaphragm/abs more, but with whistle you can get the effect from your throat. In case this sounds blasphemous to teachers of proper technique, you can watch a James Galway video where he explains how to do it on the flute. I tend to find I can get more powerful vibrato on the higher notes, but see what works for you. This is another technique that will get you sounding a lot less like a beginner. I watched this video years ago, and found it incredibly helpful. If you can get a moderate vibrato going, you'll sound great.

 
 

Oh, and if you want to hear me play a medley with the James Galway version of 'The Belfast Hornpipe', you can listen to it here. I mashed it up with Indiana Jones and Vaughn Williams, all played on the whistle:

 
 

Trills OR 'Hammer ons' and 'pull offs' (Also the C note trick!)

I'm using guitar technique names here, and I guess they sound more like trills on the whistle. It's basically a case of hitting the note above the current one, then going quickly back to the current one using a slur. I often tongue just before the hammer on, like I do with the bend. It sounds extremely impressive if incorporated into a fast melody (See my video example). You can do some simple ones such as trilling from G to A. You can also do a fancy B to C using a bend at the same time. Just gradually raise your index finger off the B note like a bend, but not all the way, which will give you a C, then go back to the B again (see video again!). I use this C trick in Stairway.

Use a different tin whistle type

In the image below, there's a traditional tin whistle with a plastic mouthpiece on the right, and one with a metal and wooden mouthpiece on the left. The one on the right was actually given to me as a kid, by a Scottish folk band after they heard me playing a recorder recital at Burns Night at my school. It originally smelled of cigarettes, but less so now. The one on the left is made by 'Shaw', and gives a breathier sound, similar to a flute. I find it's generally easier to play, and 'squeaks' less. Sometimes it's hard to get all the notes sounding good on the other whistle, so the Shaw style might benefit anyone having this problem. I actually just looked up Shaw whistles, and they are not the cheapest option! There's a similar one from 'Clarke' which also has a breathy flute like sound. Something like this - http://a.co/564EsmT

 
 

Alternative 'C' note

Some tin whistles can sound a little sharp or flat with the C note. Adding the middle and ring finger on your right hand can sometimes help with this. In the diagram below, the fingers can also be left on if playing B to make a transition easier. Also, you can trill between B and C this way:

Reading the Score

You can download the score as a PDF here, or you can see it at the bottom of the blog. The first half or so replicates what the original does, then I improvised the rest. Also, the notation should be in 4/4, but the software wouldn't let me change from 2/4 without messing things up, so I left it. Here are some notes on how to read it:

  • Slurs: When you see the curve symbol between notes, you should slur. All other times, tongue:
  • Bends: When you see the 'glissando' symbol, you should bend between the notes. In some cases, tongue the note first as indicated before starting the bend, else slur the bend:
  • Fingering: There is a finger pattern below every note. In cases where it is the same fingering, but on a higher octave, a '+' sign is used below:

Full Score

Did Kenny Chesney Steal My Song Title?

 Kenny Chesney laughing at a sad kitten

Kenny Chesney laughing at a sad kitten

I noticed on Soundcloud recently, that one of my songs started to get a lot of listens, currently sitting at 1,104. It’s titled ‘Bar at the end of the World’, and was posted about three years ago. The reason it seems to be quite popular at the moment, is that Kevin Chesney released a song recently called ‘Bar at the end of the World’, which has probably resulted in click throughs to my version.

The lyrical content and the music are different, but to be honest, the title bothers me.

Sure, there are lots of song titles that have been used over and over. ‘Beautiful Day’ is one that springs to mind. However, even though I was influenced by ‘The Restaurant at the end of the Universe’ by Douglas Adams, I still thought it was kind of an original title. But obviously not.

I’ve written a load of songs over the years, but have never officially copyrighted any. With titles, my guess is that unless it’s EXTREMELY unique, it’s probably pretty difficult to copyright. Do I think that my song title made its way to Kenny Chesney’s songwriting team? Maybe! One of the reasons I think this, is that it is the most popular song I have written. When I say popular, it means that my parents like it, and it’s had the most plays out of all my public songs on Soundcloud. This at at least gives it a bit more exposure in a search.

It’s also one of the few songs I have ever tagged as ‘Country’ on Soundcloud. When writing the song, I conceived it as a duet. When thinking of the female part, I imagined someone like Miranda Lambert singing it, so I could try and channel a female voice. I also deliberately used some country imagery, mainly horses, due to the fact that my wife and I have been horse riding for years, and I was making a conscious effort to write with more of a country style. I also had the crazy thought of sending it to Nashville once I recorded a studio version of it.

A side note, is that there is no use of ‘The’ in Kenny Chesney’s title. I deliberately didn’t use ‘The’, and thought for a while about it. It’s a small but important detail, as I wasn’t writing about a physical place, but a situation that everyone can end up in at some point.

A final point, is that I think ‘Bar at the end of the World’ is a good and reasonably unique title, which would be unusual for a non Douglas Adams fan to think up. From my perspective anyway! That’s all I have.

What may have happened, is that Kenny’s Chesney’s songwriters were looking for inspiration online by searching for country songs about bars. He has been know to sing about bars and drinks. This isn’t so inconceivable, and probably happens quite a lot when writers are working with a deadline. If this did happen, I think it’s a little lazy.

I’m more of a fan of how John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) writes songs, by just staring at a blank wall. I also love this quote:

‘Born on the Bayou’—I wrote that title down in my little notebook, and I would sit and meditate, looking at the beige wall in my unadorned apartment. Mostly in the wee hours of the morning or night, not being bothered by the family or anybody else, just kind of being given the time to follow my mind. It’s a form of meditation, I think. It’s certainly some kind of literal place that I was able to go'

My version is based on a bar at the end of the international terminal in San Francisco airport, where I have taken several flights to the UK. I’ve had many a beer and pizza there. I nicknamed it the ‘Bar at the end of the World’ due to it being at the end of the terminal. There was one time when my wife was on a different flight to the same destination, and we said goodbye at the bar. I think that this may have been the point where I came up with the idea of the song, based on a dysfunctional relationship and written in the style of a conversation. I imagined a couple talking at the bar, then one of them leaving for a flight after breaking up. Important note - the relationship idea was imaginary and not based on mine!

Do I even like Kenny Chesney’s song? It’s ok, and reasonably catchy. I also woke up to it on the radio this morning, and I’ll admit to it being stuck in my head. It’s in A major, and follows an A, D, G repetitive progression through most of it. At least it’s not in the same key as mine. There’s a Kenny Chesney song called ‘Pirate Flag’ which I think is much better. He definitely has a thing for nautical elements in his songs, which you’ll find in ‘Bar’.

Do I think it’s better than my song? Of course not! I think I have a better story, and I like the interplay between the male and the female voice. I spent a lot of time writing it, and it went through multiple drafts. The final version is something I’m very proud of. I’ll have a studio version in the near future with an actual female singing the female part.

Here’s the original soundcloud version from nearly four years ago:

 
 

Here’s a video of the first time it was recorded as a duet with my friend Jenn:

 
 

Here’s the lyrics, also saying who sings what:

Bar at the end of the World

Guy
In the bar at the end of the world she's calling to me
I got some bad news for you and me
I don't know how you'll take it but we'll see

Girl
I'd have your kids but I need to carry on
There's two lives here and I'm tired of living one
We used to say our lives should just be fun

Girl
Where did he go? I'd like to see him again
I can't remember when you lost your way
But maybe for one last night you can stay

Break

Guy
Well I'll spend the night and feel ok for a while
But how I'll feel when tomorrow comes we'll see
It's the bar at the end of the world for me

Girl
Were we happy, or really just fooling ourselves?
I really love a man who can make me laugh
But most of the time
You're making me feel sad

Girl
You need to pick up you clothes and
get the fuck right out of my house
There's a horse saddled up outside, she's ready to go
You can leave her at the bar 10 miles up the road

Guy/Girl
I should have known it would end like this
I really should have known it would end like this

Guy
The neighbours thought it was me that was beating you
You gave me a bloody nose and left me bruised
I'd hold a grudge with anyone else, but not with you

Guy
I finish my drink and pick my hat up from the bar
I turn around and she's standing at the door
She says, going so soon, would you like to have one more

Guy/Girl

In the bar at the end of the world she's calling to me
In the bar at the end of the world she's calling to me

 

Guns n' Roses: The Use Your Illusion 2 Secret Mini Album

Use Your Illusion 1 and 2 are now over 25 years old. I can remember doing Physics homework when I was about 15, listening to them on vinyl. They didn’t help. I actually failed Physics twice before leaving school. I then got a Master of Science after studying computing later on at uni. So fuck you physics, and your laws of dynamics.

It’s interesting how these albums have aged. Appetite is always going to be the definitive GNR album, but I’d argue, that to an extent, the Illusion albums have aged better. On Appetite, obviously Sweet Child o’ Mine should be the American national anthem, but GNR still have some of the hair metal/Sunset Strip sensibilities that were prevalent at the time. Not that this is bad. It was infused with so much punk and aggression, that it sounded nothing like any of the other bands around. I’ve tried listening to Motley Crue, but aside from  ‘Kickstart my Heart’, they don’t do a lot for me.

 Duff McKagen: The finest kickboxer in all 1980s action movies

Duff McKagen: The finest kickboxer in all 1980s action movies

The Illusion albums age well. I think one of the reasons for this, is that they have a very comic book feel to them. They’re neither too dark, or serious. Even when they are a little serious (Don’t Cry, November Rain), they sound to an extent like GNR were having fun with the arrangements. The final Slash solo in November Rain in particular, and Axl’s 25 second yowl at the end of Don’t Cry. I just listened to this to get the duration, and it’s also double tracked, meaning that Axl sang exactly the same part twice. Slash still has no idea what the November Rain video was about, but it's still cool to watch him walk out of the church in a bad mood and play a guitar solo. Maybe if I try playing a guitar solo when I'm in a bad mood, I'll kill people less.

One thing I love about the Illusion albums is that Axl really took time out to think about his voice. He described the albums at the time as having loads of ‘different voices', which is true. There’s a lot of low singing, high screaming, and also some spoken voice monologues throughout which I’ll touch on. I’d suggest though, that the biggest traverse that Axl does through his vocal range is actually from Chinese Democracy with ‘This I Love’. If you disagree, then you try singing through the range displayed here. It’s not just a jump from low voice to high scream, but a really fucking hard traverse that hits all the notes in between, and then some. Anyway, that topic is for another day.

The main thing I wanted to talk about was the mini album in the middle of Illusion 2. This starts on Shotgun Blues and ends on So Fine. Why do I call this a mini album? I think it’s a really cohesive set of songs, with some of the most interesting elements out of both albums. Also, it feels like the album is taking a breath from the first lot of songs containing 'Civil War', and having some calm before the final storm, containing 'Estranged'. Both tracks are the main epics on the album. To me, this mini album sounds like a dusty road worn slice of metal Americana. It's got more Americana in it than a Luke Bryan album. That's for sure. Here’s a breakdown.

Shotgun Blues
A quickfire song than is reminiscent of the way that Lies opens with Reckless Life. It’s a silly but fun song with the eloquent line ‘You can suck my ass’.

Breakdown
The beginning sounds like it could have been whistled by soldiers during the American civil war. Then it’s just got a great groove throughout. But the best thing about this track is when Slash kicks in with second guitar solo, near the end, and Axl impersonates the blind DJ from the ‘Vanishing Point’ movie. When listening to the album initially, I never knew this was from a movie. When I eventually (not connected!) watched Vanishing Point, I nearly wet myself when hearing these lines. It’s a similar thing with Civil War. It introduced millions of kids to Cool Hand Luke, to the extent that they thought the movie had borrowed from the album. Maybe not, but you get the point. Oh, and the banjo song from Cool Hand Luke is called 'Plastic Jesus', and it's one of the saddest moments in the movie when Paul Newman plays it.

Pretty Tied Up
Breakdown ‘breaks down’ at the end, and the segues seamlessly into a sitar intro for Pretty Tied up. This is another fun groove which is allegedly about bondage, but was lost on me as a kid, and I still don’t really listen to the lyrics here anyway. One thing I did notice, is that around the 3.17 mark, Axl says ‘Cool Ranch Dressing’. There was a cool t-shirt for this song. I can remember my friend wore it to basketball at school, but was told by the teacher to turn it inside out, as it displayed breasts, which are obviously evil.

Locomotive
The guitars on this song actually sound like a locomotive which was probably deliberate, and is also an old blues trick. This song is a little messy to an extent, but in a good way. There’s a breakdown towards the end ‘I know it looks like I’m insane’, where the vocals seem to live outside of the music. But it makes sense. There’s a slowdown after this, where Axl makes some really cool muted scream sounds, and the whole song turns into a road movie again, like Breakdown. It still surprises me that GNR haven’t licensed more of their songs for movies, as it’s not selling out, and they would sound amazing. Especially in a Vanishing Point remake.

So Fine
This has been a real slow burner for me that took years. It’s also not till after the 2 minute mark that it takes off, and boy, at this point, it REALLY takes off. My main issue with it, was it sounded like another ballad in the same vein of Yesterdays, which I got a bit bored of. When I was studying English literature at Aberdeen uni, I used to always leave my essays till the last minute. Time after time, I’d try staying up late and drinking coffee, but it never ever worked for me. What I’d always end up doing, was go to sleep eventually, get up super early, and write the essay. I never considered going to bed earlier the night before, as that was too logical. I usually wrote the essays directly on a computer, and listened to a Walkman at the time. I often rotated between Pearl Jam's Ten and and GNR’s Appetite and Illusions. These were great albums to listen to over and over again, and my super high tech walkman had a switch that would play both sides of a cassette without turning it over. It was during these essay sessions, when So Fine started to jump out.

It was written by Duff, who is a massive Johnny Thunders fan. If you’ve listened to ‘You can’t wrap your arms around a memory’ by Thunders, you’ll hear some similarities. Both songs are very ragged and raw, have slow build ups, then a great sing a long chorus that jumps out at your face. Duff was the biggest punk in the band, and it shows here. I got to see Duff playing solo a while back in London, and he played this, and I got so excited that I nearly soiled myself. I also love the story about Duff, where he thought that it was bad drinking a lot of vodka, so switched to red wine. He then drank about 10 bottles a day, and nearly died when his pancreas pretty much exploded. I just said that I love this story. Duff nearly dying isn’t cool, but thinking that red wine would make general alcoholism a little easier going is kind of funny. No?

I'm listening Use Your Illusion 2 whilst writing this, and it's reminding me of doing fucking physics homework again.

What I've Been Listening To: Part 2

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Here’s another set of five songs from my ‘What I’ve been listening to’ Spotify playlist. To read more about the list itself, see my first post - http://www.rocinantestudios.com/what-ive-been-listening-to-part-1/ I randomize the list, and then pick the first five standout songs. The Ship Song: Nick Cave - added 2011-06-15 https://open.spotify.com/track/69ufPR8ZCrKpYrZFFmddb1

It took me a LONG time to get into Nick Cave. My first album was Nocturama, which I really don’t think is a good representation of his best stuff, and isn’t actually a great album. For the most accessible Nick Cave album, I’d go for ‘Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus’. This is actually one of his later albums. ‘Abattoir’ has the more upbeat feel and heavier songs, whereas ‘Lyre’ has more ballads. What both parts carry is a groove that goes from start to finish. When an album has a groove to me, if feels like there is no filler, and all the songs work perfectly together. ‘Lyre’ also has a song called ‘O Children’ which is BRILLIANT, and was also used in the Harry Potter movie where everyone is on the run, and Harry dances with Hermione.

There’s a story that I love about this album, although not sure if it’s true. Apparently Nick Cave went into an office from 9 - 5pm to write, in Hove (England). I love the discipline of this. There’s a lot of talk about needing inspiration to write. Sure, inspiration can produce great things, but to be able to just sit down, and write well consistently, is the mark of the stronger writer. Jon Fogerty reportedly did a similar thing when in Creedence, where he just used to stare at a blank wall, to get ideas.

After this, I’d recommend ‘The Boatman’s Call’. The content on this allegedly stemmed from Nick Cave’s breakup with PJ Harvey. I’ve heard some people refer to this album as depressing, but I think it’s great.

Back to ‘The Ship Song’, I won’t over analyze anything here. The vocal melody is so strong, that it probably wouldn’t even matter about the lyrics. If you don’t like sad songs, you might not like this. I however do, and it’s one that stood out to me immediately the first time I heard it.

Pet Semetary: Ramones - added 2011-03-18 https://open.spotify.com/track/07b5vArZtW08PuEqCw61Ei

This song was made for the movie of the same name. Shortly after moving to California, I watched the movie on my own, and absolutely crapped myself. It was a temporary apartment that still felt strange, and I most likely slept with the light on. I’m not even going to talk about watching The Blair Witch or The Conjuring for the first time either.

I love the Ramones. They wrote perfect songs, that were all short and concise, like a lot of the fifties rock and roll songs. There’s too many great Ramones songs to mention. If you’re going to pick one album to listen to, I’d pick ‘Rocket to Russia’, which has the best version of ‘Surfin’ Bird’ that you will EVER hear.

What was sad about the Ramones, was that Johnny and Joey really disliked each other, and barely talked for twenty years or something. Johnny wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t want to go and see Joey on his deathbed, and he wouldn’t have wanted Joey to do the same thing for him. When he developed Pancreatic cancer, he became more thoughtful about many things, and did admit that yes, it was sad that Joey died. This sounds a bit weird, but is the closest you’ll get to Johnny being sentimental, which I found quite touching. Joey had severe OCD, and would often do things like go back to a place to walk through a door ‘properly’, else he would be in a terrible mood. Shortly before he died, he was allegedly going back to a place to do something like turn off a light switch again, and slipped and fell on ice. He broke a hip, and it was essentially complications from this that killed him in his weakened condition whilst recovering from cancer. I guess there’s a very dark humor to this, as it was more the OCD than the cancer that finally got him.

Pet Semetary is certainly not one of their most famous songs, but is a great one. With a chorus of ‘I don’t wanna be buried in a pet semetary, I don’t want to live my life again’, how can you disagree?

A Design for Life (Live): Manic Street Preachers - added 2014-08-22 https://open.spotify.com/track/3EsebSxY7NqvrkqB7vzyMZ

The Manics play stadiums back in the UK, but no one knows who they are in the U.S. This sucks for them, but is great for me as I get to see them close up at tiny venues like Bimbo’s 365 club in San Francisco. I first heard this song waking up to a radio alarm in my first year at Aberdeen University. I went out and bought the album, but accidentally bought the wrong one ‘Gold Against the Soul’, which is certainly not their best, although it does contain an amazing track called ‘From Despair to Where’. I did however manage to change the album the next day for the proper one ‘Everything Must Go’.

In my last year studying English literature, I left most of the dissertation writing to the night before. I had ‘This is my truth, tell me yours’ on repeat for the entire night, whilst drinking endless cups of Earl Grey and going slowly insane. After not sleeping, I drank whisky with my friend Ernest the next day, and then spent all of that night puking. Fortunately there was a toilet in my room, where I just slept in between the pukes.

This live version of the song is from the 10th anniversary edition of the album. It’s probably not the best live take of the song, but what it does have is the sheer anger and power in James Dean Bradfield’s voice, which literally gives me goosebumps when I hear him sing his disillusionment chant of 'We don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk’. This song is a great pick me up, and in turn, does make me want to get drunk.

Junk: Paul McCartney - added 2015-01-06 https://open.spotify.com/track/2EnRJ8kjTFpEZZWwbTNKZM

I mention a lot that I like sad songs. When I call a song depressing, it’s not that it’s sad. It’s because it’s shit. For example: Coldplay depress me.

This is a really strange song, that actually has the feeling of a piece of throwaway junk. There’s an instrumental version of it that I’ve heard a bunch too, but I think the vocals are great. When I listen to this song, it makes me think of trying something, but failing, then pondering over it. I guess a lot of the best songs contain something of that nature. It’s also used in Jerry Maguire, which is an excellent film, and managed to produce some of the best quotes I’ve ever heard.

This song had me at Hello.

Tonight We Ride: Tom Russell - added 2015-01-08 https://open.spotify.com/track/5y3TxkiIkzVWoLoFSuUjZn

I enjoy horseriding a lot, and go to Hunewill Ranch at least once a year, to ride. I always learn a cowboy song to sing at ‘talent night’, which has introduced me to a load of great cowboy singers such as Dave Stamey and Brenn Hill. I first heard Tom Russell at the Monterey Cowboy poetry festival (also with Dave Stamey). He had a really old Gibson parlour acoustic guitar, which unfortunately has made me hanker for a similar model. Just don’t mention this to my wife, as I’m on a ‘pocket money’ budget just now.

Anyway, I thought Tom Russell was great, and found out that he co-wrote the song ‘Navaho Rug’, which is a really famous Ian Tyson song. Who is Ian Tyson? He’s the guy who wrote ‘Four Strong Winds’, which you’ll definitely recognize. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Neil Young wrote this song, as it’s on one of his albums, and his version was the first I heard. My only complaint with the studio version of 'Tonight We Ride', is that there’s an intro that takes about 30 seconds.

About 15 years back, the UK band ‘Doves’ won the Mercury music award for the album ’The Last Broadcast’, which is a distinguished award in the UK. I went out and bought this album without hearing any of it, and found it EXTREMELY depressing (see my original comment above about the usage of depressing). To make things worse, there is an intro that last for 1.18 minutes. I can’t stand the singer’s voice, and I’m still annoyed about the purchase of the album to this very day.

For a good cowboy song, with a forgivable intro, this is a great one to listen to. Also, if you want to hear a more great cowboy songs:

Dave Stamey - The Vaquero song Chris Ledoux - The Ride Brenn Hill - Benny

The last time I went to the Monterey festival, I had just ‘prematurely' finished working for certain big company the week before, and was enjoying the beer at lunchtime. The venue where the show was in the evening was boiling. My feet were so hot, I had to take my cowboy boots off, and promptly fell asleep. I was awoken by someone next to me saying I was touching his girlfriend’s leg with my leg. I don’t think I have any sort of leg perversion, and anyone viewing the situation would have concluded that I was not mindfully operating my leg whilst sleeping. There was a load of space, and they could have moved their chairs. If the situation was reversed, and the girlfriend was sleeping whilst involuntary touching my leg with hers, I would take the high ground, and remain silent for the duration of the touching.

What I've Been Listening To: Part 1

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I love Spotify, and have been using it for years. As soon as I found out I could pay to remove the adverts, I did so immediately. I still hear people complaining about this, but seriously, for around the same price of a CD/Album download per month, I have access to most of the music I could possibly need, without people trying to sell me things. Non Spotify stuff I happily pay for from iTunes. I like the idea of Pandora, but regardless of their ground breaking algorithm, they keep on making me listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd. I can only listen to 'Free Bird' so many times. Coldplay actually came on randomly one day, and after skipping them, I looked out of my window to make sure no one had heard. I’ve been building up a playlist over the course of years called ‘What I’ve been listening to’. I add songs to it that I read about, or that catch my ear. I then use the playlist as a reference if I’m looking for something new or different to listen to. I occasionally play it on shuffle, but in most cases I like listening to single albums as a whole, but often make up playlists for parties from it. The list is here:

https://open.spotify.com/user/camartic/playlist/1896pvJtDjdgEfGKsw8B8o

I’m currently sitting at 999 songs, so thought I’d randomly go through the list, and share the 5 best songs that come up first. This video showed me how to visually randomize the list, which I find is more fun than shuffle - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ibBkjoLO4w

Enter The Ninja: Die Antwoord - added 2010-10-31

This song is just utterly insane. I heard it during one of my first trips to the U.S., when my wife and I had satellite radio in the rental car, and listened to Faction non-stop. This song was described as ’scaring the bejesus out of me!’ by one of the hosts. I would have to concur.

Sigourney Weaver: John Grant - added 2011-01-04

I love the lyrics in this song, and also Sigourney 'Get away from her you bitch' Weaver. The album that it’s from ‘Queen of Denmark’ actually makes me feel sad, kind of in a good way. Whilst I was working in London, I used to get off the tube early and either walk through Hyde Park, or Victoria, on the way to South Kensington, so I could listen to music before the joy of the office. If I was feeing pissed about anything, I’d often listen to ‘Marz’ from this album (you’ll get the ’sad’ thing from this song), followed by the Slash song with Iggy Pop ‘We’re all gonna die’, which would make me feel better.

Poor Girl: Eddie Vedder and the Supersuckers - added 2010-10-07

I actually had Bette Midler’s ‘The Rose’ in place of this, possibly to appear more outwardly eclectic. But as that’s a dickhead thing to do, I’ll go with the better song. This track is amazing, and has been on every party playlist that I’ve made, and is usually the first song. Either that or Merle Haggard’s ‘I think I’ll stay here and drink’. I have many memories of listening to this with my wife, Negronis in hand, whilst preparing food in both Kentish Town (London) and San Francisco. Eddie Vedder never overstays his welcome.

The Only Thing Worth Fighting For: Lera Lynn - added 2015-09-16

I’m still upset about True Detective 2. This show even made me start liking Colin Farrell, but it was screwed up. One of the good bits was the weird bar where Vince Vaughn met with Colin Farrell a few times. Lera Lynne was always sitting on stage on her own playing tunes like this one. I can remember one critic describing it as ‘the worst bar ever’, but I thought this was one of the highlights of the show, and Lera Lynne sounded and looked great. I caught her at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which was fantastic. This song is super moody, and just has Lera’s voice and an electric guitar, which is actually very hard to pull off well.

Outlaw Pete: Bruce Springsteen - added 2011-05-07

I was listening to Nebraska around the same time, so ‘Atlantic City’ was also a contender. Less people have probably heard this one, and it’s a great song. It’s not clear what happens to Pete at the end of the song, and it’s mostly not good. The final verse finishes with a young Navajo girl who 'braids a piece of Pete’s buckskin chaps into her hair’, which in turn is extremely sad, and one of my all time favorites lyrics.

Recording Breakdown: Elusive

I recently produced a track for Azure, which was a cover of 'Elusive' written by Scott Matthews, as performed by Lianne La Havas.

I originally accompanied Azure on this song back in Feb 2015 at one of her shows. It was actually a bit tricky coming up with an acoustic guitar arrangement, due to the way Lianne plays. She almost suggests chords with the guitar, and uses her voice to fill the space. She also uses evil jazz chords, which have been know to cause me nightmares.

What I did, was break down the jazzy E chord in the verse into two variants, played sparsely. Generally, I play the bottom E first with my thumb, then pluck the remaining strings on the second beat. Then I'll play the top E string just before switching variants. Like Lianne, Azure's voice is great at filling in the space. For reference, here's the tab of the chords I used. They probably have official names, but I build them up by ear, and will just call them 'Evil jazz 1' and 'Evil jazz 2'

Evil jazz 1

E|--0 B|--4 G|--4 D|--2 A|--x E|--0

Evil jazz 2

E|--0 B|--2 G|--4 D|--2 A|--x E|--0

I used my Martin D28 for the acoustic parts, with a matched pair of AKG P170 mics to record a stereo image, with an X/Y placement. One mic was pointing at the top 3 strings, and the other at the bottom, aimed at roughly the 12th fret. I have a great LR Baggs M80 pickup which I often use for recording, but using the mics gives more of a pure sound, which is significantly different. This gives me two recordings of the same take with slightly different sound. These can then be panned hard left and right, which gives a bigger guitar sound. You can cheaply get a stereo mic holder as seen below.

mics
mics

The LR Baggs pickup is still amazing though. It's fantastic live, and I use it to record all live performances in my studio. I didn't do too much with the guitar EQ, as it recorded quite brightly. Mainly I just used a high pass filter, which removes bass rumble, and cut some other bassy frequencies, which in turn gives a natural boost to some of the higher frequencies.

guitar_eq
guitar_eq

When I was doing the initial mastering, I boosted the volume of the entire track and noticed with a shock (and a lot of swearing) that there was hiss on the guitar during the silences. This stemmed from recording the guitars reasonably hot (higher mic input volume), but was remedied using a noise gate.

At the very beginning of the song, you can hear only acoustic, and a 'Bright Mk11 Blackface' electric piano plugin, panned slightly to the right. I really like it's tremolo effect. I then bring in some bass. There's not much chordal variation in the verses, so I slightly emulated what is in the Lianne version, by playing with the E note at the top and bottom of the octave.

On the chorus, I replicated what I did in the original performance of Elusive. I had to go back and study a recording I have of the live show (which was recorded way too hot because I'm an idiot, and clips badly). Fortunately I could make out the guitar. I used my Gibson ES for this part, and ran it through a crunch distortion in Logic called 'Big Brute Blues'. I just added a bit more reverb, and panned it to the left. I was actually really pleased with this guitar part (if I may say so!). I really dislike using bar chords, so either played open variations of the chords (such as Cm, where I also play the top E string open), or 3 or 4 note variations of the others (F#m, G#m), then connected them with some runs, which I think gives the lick a walking feel, rather than a rigidity that you can get from playing a solid chord sequence.

I also have an analogue synth pad on the chorus which is barely audible. This helps to fill out the overall sound.

Working with Azure's voice is great. There's a few standout things she does. I love her vocal flips, which you can hear at around 2:12. She also does a 'last minute' vibrato quite regularly, where's she'll hold the note for a while, then let the vibrato roll out just when you think the note is finishing. She should really patent this. There's a good example of it at around 2:39.

You'll hear me using the term 'hot' a lot, when recording with a mic. There's a school of thought based on analogue recordings that says you should record as hot as you can without clipping, to minimize noise. Too much pre-amp gain can introduce noise though, but too little can introduce noise as the level needs to be increased a lot after recording. The other school of thought is that with 24 bit recordings, you can record at much lower levels. I kept Azure slightly hot here, as she isn't doing any belting, and I wanted to capture the breathiness of her voice, which you don't always get as clearly with lower levels.

There's also a compressor on an effects bus processing half the signal, which lets me tame the louder notes and increase the overall volume. An issue I ran into was that some of the vowels that Azure sang cut through the mix more than others, and I didn't want to heavily compress the signal. What I did was run an EQ analyzer on her voice, pinpointing the precise frequencies that were jumping out. There's a particular bit where Azure sings 'fake' which caused a spike. I found this frequency and surgically cut it. You can see a couple more cuts in the image below. I also boosted some top end which I think helped to introduce more airiness to Azure's voice. I also used some volume automation to tame certain vocals more. This lets me dynamically change the volume in specific sections, without having to cut up the track to do so (know as 'multing')

azure_eq
azure_eq

When recording vocals, I like a singer to do at least 4 takes. This is called comping, and lets you pick and choose the best bits from each take, to construct a single final one. I know there's some magic in capturing a single take, but that's more fun with live recordings. It's WAY easier having the option of comping in the studio. It can be used to fix any problem vocals, but it can also be used to add more interesting vocals. I often find that the more interesting vocals come out in the later takes, even if the take isn't wholly consistent. Interestingly with Azure, I used most of her first take, but comped in little bits from the others.

azure_comp
azure_comp

When mixing, I'll always use some reference tracks, which can be used to get a recording sounding more 'commercial'. They can help with things like balancing out individual instruments in the mix, and also general EQ. With Azure, I referenced the original Lianne track which helped with the bass, and also India Arie's 'Ready for Love', which has a similar sparse feel, and a breathy vocal.

For the outro of the song, I used a similar acoustic lick to my original live version. You can hear fret noise when my fingers are moving, which I particularly like. This could be reduced by using a gate, recording less hot, or recording further away from the mic. I like a guitar to sound natural, and I think these small human touches can add warmness to a track.

Overall, I was pleased with the outcome of this. Azure has a really interesting dynamic voice, and as mentioned, I love the flips, slow rolling vibrato, richness and breathiness that I think captured well, and I look forward to doing more recordings with her.

Where the Rocinante Studios Logo Came From

Tam_O'Shanter
Tam_O'Shanter

I had an image in my head of a horse with horns and a forked tongue, looking like it had just come up from the depths of hell. I didn't want it looking too evil though. Initially I thought there might be an image from the Robert Burns poem 'Tam o' Shanter' to provide inspiration, for a creepy looking horse. There were horses, but nothing creepy looking.

Next I started sketching out an idea of a horse looking a little angry. Not sure what I used for reference here, but this was the direction I was going in.

Portable Network Graphics image-E708B1E68B4C-1
Portable Network Graphics image-E708B1E68B4C-1

At this point, I needed to reference an actual horse to make the sketch look better. Fortunately, my wife Suz and I are avid horse riders who go to a great ranch called Hunewill a couple of times a year. Suz takes a lot of photos of the horses, and she took a great one of Tulena who is the horse that she used to ride. Tulena has a weird habit of letting her tongue hang out of her mouth, which you can see below, which was useful when thinking of the forked tongue idea. Tulena is probably about 18 now, which means she gets to retire from the advanced group rides with mainly adults, to the buckaroo rides with much lighter kids. The horse who I ride 'Suede' is actually grumpier and in theory a better candidate, but this photo worked really well as a reference.

IMG_1014
IMG_1014

I made an initial sketch from this photo, as I liked the angle of the horse's head. I made the eyes mildly 'stern' looking, and hopefully not too angry.

Portable Network Graphics image-8BE1D290F904-1
Portable Network Graphics image-8BE1D290F904-1

I tried a different horse and added bigger eyes, but preferred the original, as this one looks a little cutesy.

Portable Network Graphics image-ED0C66D3261E-1
Portable Network Graphics image-ED0C66D3261E-1

Next were the horns. The main issue here was that I wanted a horse with horns, not a unicorn. So I initially went with small ridged horns pointing backwards. Which probably don't have a lot of use from an evolutionary perspective, but looked cool.

Portable Network Graphics image-13E21280720E-1
Portable Network Graphics image-13E21280720E-1

At this point, my friend Lallo (who is an ACTUAL graphic designer), helped turn this into a logo. A couple of early iterations were these two:

IMG_1015
IMG_1015
IMG_1016
IMG_1016

The final one was was this, which is the logo that is now used. The horns are a little more curved and forward pointing than the original, but it fits well, especially with the curve of the 'R'.

rocinante
rocinante

For the sketches, I used a Wacom Intuous Creative Stylus - Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad 3/4 and iPad mini (CS500PK0), with the Sketchbook App on my iPad. I'm not so used to sketching digitally, and there's a slight delay when the point of the stylus touches the screen. Once it has touched it's fine, but if you're used to regularly lifting a pencil up from the paper, then it can be a bit weird at first. It did the job though and was relatively quick to get used to.