Monday, January 26, 2015

Got Yer Ears On, Good Buddy?

I've always sort of bragged that I'm not a "knob tweaker", meaning that when I do anything sonically - playing, recording, listening - I don't spend a lot of time fine tuning with regard to the creation of or consumption of noise.  I more or less just set things to the way I like, then leave them for the duration.  But lately, I've had a strong longing to become more articulate about what I like and don't like.  I've wanted an avenue to explore the range of sounds and how they are captured.  I've wanted more control of the sounds I produce and capture; and I've wanted to broaden my sonic palette. Although this urge has been welling up within me the past few years, it became greatly amplified after reading Glyn Johns' book "Soundman".

I've confessed before that I love hanging out in recording studios.  Love it.*  I like the process of recording - all of it, from setting up the microphones to the final editing.  I've felt of late the almost irresistible urge to jump behind the console; or failing that, bug the crap out of the engineer with my questions.  Of course, neither one of those are viable options for learning how to hone my sound.  How would I learn how to record and manipulate live sound without having to take classes or read a (usually outdated) book?

The answer:  church.  The short version of the story is that I emailed some folks at my wife's church to see if they were in need of a back up sound guy.  I told them I knew nothing of it, but would be a great blank slate or sponge, whichever metaphor you choose to use for someone who'd eagerly take in the knowledge imparted to him.  Turns out a back up sound guy is something they've wanted for a long time, and there may even be a small amount of money in it for me eventually.  Sweet.

This past Sunday, I shadowed the sound guy at the UU church for the first time.  I only hung out with him at the second (11:15) service.  Little did I know, Andy (sound guy - blanking out on his last name) does WAY more than sound.  Andy is also in charge of:

  • managing/distributing devices for hearing assistance to those who need them each service
  • managing all cameras (I believe there are four) for the live feed in the church building and online
  • Lighting
  • projecting slides (usually with hymn words on them) on the front walls
  • Archiving the audio and video of each service
And it was fun to watch him work.  He explained everything to me as he worked, raising and lowering sound and light levels while panning and zooming four cameras mounted throughout the room that he transitioned to once he had the shot he was looking for.  It was all so smooth and fluid.  He would aim camera two via a joystick at the desk, line up the shot he wanted, transition the video feed to that camera, bring down the choir mics, bring up the minster's mic, line up his next shot on camera one, transition to camera one and so on and so on.  It was something to behold.  He was friendly and patient, willingly sharing anything he knew with me.  I think I'm going to have fun learning how to work the console , but it looks like I'll be learning a lot more in the bargain!

The other cool thing is that Andy has connections with local live venues, recording studios, and video production companies (that's Andy, third from left.  I think he looks sorta like David Lowery).  I hope it will lead to many opportunities to really learn my way around a console and work with interesting people.  We'll see.  Right now, I'm just scared shitless of the wide array of knobs and responsibilities.  But you have to start somewhere.  I'm  looking forward to putting on my ears and really listening to the world around me.

*-Some studio adventures recorded here, here, here, and here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Quick One

Tyler Ferguson and I did another Storyzilla Story Show this past Wednesday.  It went very well despite some of the usual frustrations with sound and timing.  In fact, I'd say it was our strongest performance yet, especially considering last second changes that were so "last second" that they occurred during the show.  We only rehearsed once for the show the previous night, and we sounded great.  We only did one new song, but it was a ton of fun and we nailed it.  I had only played it through a few times at rehearsal the night before.

At any rate, that will be my last Storyzilla show for awhile.  It was nice being the house band for this event, and I do believe that Tyler is going to carry on without me.  I have various other musical happenings I want to make sure I'm ready for, and I have concerns I've outlived my usefulness for Storyzilla.  I should be getting back together with Tyler in early March.  We're hoping to revamp our set, work up some more originals, and find more venues to play.  So stay tuned!
Tyler Ferguson (left, on guitar) and I.  The scarf was worn not for
fashion reasons, but because I was cold as hell.  And also,
it's my wife's scarf, so it's something special I can wear on stage
with me.  And also it's made of Alpaca fur, which, holy shit, is
super soft and warm, you guys.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Photo Dump

Hey - can I show y'all some photos?
Below are some photos from some of the recording sessions that went on in December at Kevin Reynolds' house.  The ones of me layin' it down with my ukulele were from a recording session that didn't quite yield anything; the one of Dan Lodge-Rigal playing his guitar is from the sessions that bore some much tastier fruit.

That's me (below) playing bass yesterday at both services at the Unitarian Universalist Church here in Bloomington.  They stream the services online, but as far as I know, they don't archive them for people to check out.  Because if they did, I'd recommend that you check out yesterday's 11:15 service.  It is not uncommon to find people transformed or moved in some way during the service. Usually, I'm not the one getting teary eyed or spontaneously clapping or hugging people.  But I have to say that yesterday's services were the exception.  I'm not sure why.  If I'm being honest (and at the risk of sounding like a cranky old man), I don't have a lot of use for the "good feelings" that UU services can inspire, because often those go away on the car trip home when the kids start bickering or whatever.  But yesterday's services inspired in me a renewed sense of importance and determination to carry on the work of social justice passed onto us from Dr. King.  I'm not dissing the "good feelings" and the uplift that many folks seem to get from the service.  But for me, the spiritual sustenance comes from living the values professed in those services; better still, the sustenance comes from getting out of my comfort zone and doing what needs to be done.  Let's face it:  there's no sheriff with guard dogs and fire hoses waiting for me if I live a life that plainly but clearly witnesses to others my values. So it's the least I can do.  I'm being intentionally vague.  At some point I'll revisit this topic and say way I really mean.  Still trying to process why that service got to me so much.

ANYWAY - back to the music from this service.  I only played on one song at both services.  I played in a small band with the choir.  The band was me on bass, Dave Sharp on guitar, Patrick McNaughton on drums and Dan Lodge-Rigal on piano and lead vocals.  I think we played real well.  I have to confess the two times I played this song I was suffering from some major panic attacks.  I don't know why - I knew the song inside and out.  But my face was burning, my armpit odor was in overdrive, and a few times I startled because I thought I was fainting.  Very strange.  If anyone noticed, no one said anything.  I was real proud how everything turned out though.  Meant to ask the sound guy to record it at the soundboard, but I forgot.

I did decided to string my Fender Jazz Bass with flatwound strings to see how it would sound.  I had seen Esperanza Spalding use flatwound strings to great effect on her fretless Jazz Bass.  Granted, I can't play like ES, and her gear is a lot nicer than mine.  But I was looking for that mellow vintage sound that flatwounds gave most early rock tunes.  I think it has a lot to do with the room we played in, but the strings delivered exactly what I had hoped for:  volume and a full, vintage bass sound.  Of course, the sustain wasn't great, but I kind of expected that.  I think it would probably be different if my Jazz Bass was fretless; I don't know.  The one thing I found interesting:  between services, I would mess around with my bass at a very low volume.  I would pick at it with my fingernail - I was messing with the opening bass part for "Whipping Post" - and I was surprised at how ballsy that bass sounded.  Deep, strong, round, not bassy but not tinny and anemic sounding either.  Before I bought my Jazz Bass, I would've told you that the only bass that I knew was innately ballsy was a Rickenbacker 4001 or 4003.  You can make a Precision Bass sound ballsy, but you have to have the right set up for it.  But the Jazz Bass is not the refined lady I thought she was.  She's got a lot more range than that.  She's a keeper for sure - I love that bass.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

To Do In 2015: Audio Edition

As each year dawns anew, I usually come up with 3 or 4 goals to attain in the new year.  It keeps me focused; and often, I'm able to attain those goals.  For whatever reason, I've decided to create a 2015 "to do" list instead.*  The difference is that this would be a master list of goals of varying difficulty that I want to knock out this year, knowing I probably won't achieve all of them.  But hell, if I even get most of them, 2015 will rule.

This list covers all aspects of my life - family, work, fitness, etc - but below are some of my sonic ambitions for 2015.

  • Buy new, larger capacity SD card for 4-track recorder.  (done - 5 Jan)
  • Learn how to bounce tracks on 4-track recorder.
  • Learn how to master tracks on 4-track recorder before exporting to PC.
  • Get top of ukulele fixed or replaced.  Though it is playable, the crack in the top - caused by an unknown culprit probably with the name AUGGIE or MARINA - breaks my heart and might get worse with age. 
  • Make a cardboard upright bass from scratch.  This would be a blast to busk with, and they don't sound terrible.
  • Record one ukulele multi-track a month.
  • Learn every bass line of every song for a single album.  I've did this with the Jam's "Sound Affects" (and most of "Setting Sons") when I was younger.  I really enjoyed it and felt like a better bass player for it.  I haven't decided on an album yet, but I think XTC's "Skylarking" or "Black Sea" would be excellent, possibly attainable challenges.
Of course, this isn't the limit of my audio ambitions for the year; just a start.  I want to do more field recordings, and I've already had a lot of musical action this year that I've not yet shared.  Stay tuned - I'll keep you apprised of my progress.

*-I was calling it a "bucket list", but as that terminology insinuates imminent death, I decided to just call it a "to do list".

Friday, January 9, 2015

Fat Friday Feature: Dethklok's William Murderface (Bryan Beller) On "Deth Theme"

Now and again on Fridays, I showcase some of my favorite bass players/bass parts.  Today, we're going to check out William Murderface's playing on "Deth Theme".  For the uninitiated, Dethklok is a fictional band at the center of Adult Swim's "Metalocalypse", which is a show  you should definitely check out.

I've mentioned before that the world of metal has mostly been a source of amusement for me more than that of a serious interest.  There are, however, definitely exceptions to that generalization.  The various sub-genres of death metal and thrash metal feature some really great drum and bass work - it's a shame that most fans don't make it past the face melting guitar playing.  Because when you listen to the bass player and the drummer in these bands, the good ones are always locked in nice and tight; tighter than you'd think possible for a type of music driven (HARD) by double bass drums.  Such is the case with William Murderface (whose bass work is done in real life by Bryan Beller).  In addition to the galloping fast right hand technique, Murderface must often do the same riffs as the guitar player only on a bigger neck with thicker strings.

I like just about everything I've ever heard from Dethklok, so Google around and see what else is out there.  I have selected for this entry the opening theme from "Metalocalypse" - "Deth Theme".  It's one of the catchiest tunes they do among a wagon load of catchy tunes.  By the way, if you choose to watch this video on You Tube (instead of watching the embedded version below), make sure you read the lyrics listed below the video.  Who says the age of great song writing is over?

And as a bonus, check out this video from Bryan Beller explaining how he plays his bass on "Deth Theme".  Here's packed a lot of really great info in this short clip, talking about how Dethklok performs live, and how he achieves his tone through string choice (definitely not hype), detuning, and right hand technique.  He seems like a nice, talented cat.  He definitely gave me some things to try next time I pick up my bass.  Worth a look if the "behind the scenes"-type videos interest you.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Audio Scratch Pad: Christmas Hangover From 2014

There were some things that didn't quite work out for last month's Christmas music showcase.  Kevin Reynolds and I had started - a bit too late - to work on "Winter Wonderland".  The thought was to give it a Hawaiian feel - it was to be a ukulele and lap steel duet wherein we'd trade leads, with maybe bass thrown in for good measure.  Kevin recorded me playing a rhythm track at his house, then he sent it to me to put down leads.  I did sort of a "proof of concept", a rough track, and awaited to see how his lap steel part would sound on it.  We'd rerecord whatever didn't sound right.  We ran out of time to get this up before Christmas, but I thought I'd throw it up as an "audio scratch pad" entry.  So while this is by no means a perfect track - my playing is quite ham fisted - you could see where we were going with this track.  Maybe next Christmas!