Glowbugs. And why I will stop buying Computer Music Magazine.

So, inspired by getting a whole two comments in the last couple of weeks (on a blog that has lain mostly dormant for over two years), I decided to write a post.

About 3 years ago, when we were still living in Arizona, with still a year to go before we moved back here to Helsinki, I bought my daughter a little yellow ukulele. I would pick it up occasionally, finger random chords (too lazy to learn properly) and strum. After a few times of doing this, a piece of music began to emerge and when I played it, my kids would dance. It continued to evolve gradually over the next year or so, developing a relative minor section and a couple of little (I rather arrogantly thought) Beatles-esque baroque runs on the top string.

I continued playing it and my daughters continued dancing to it and enjoying it. I began to try to think of lyrics and a melody but found nothing that would match the music. I then decided that maybe the ukulele part could stand on its own two feet without vocals. Especially without my vocals.

So I made a tune out of it. I recorded the ukulele part into Garageband, then began layering other instruments on top. First some drums, then some electric guitar (heavily processed) and some synths. I then added a bass-line. Here is the result:

I picked the title ‘Glowbugs’, or ‘glowbugs’ as for some reason (over-weaning humility?) I don’t like to use capitals in my track names, because it suggests prettiness, childhood, dancing. Referring to my daughters whom this little tune originally entertained. I used Poolside’s cover of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon (a favourite of my wife’s and my daughters’) as a reference track, especially to set tempo and the drums.

The track (by which I mean my track, not Harvest Moon) to me sounds unfinished. There is little escalation through the 4:21 of the track, it basically just repeats itself, with only the major/relative minor contrast to leaven things. The drum track doesn’t even really have any fills.

But even if I spiced up the arrangement, there would still be lots of mistakes to fix. For example the bass has some timing mistakes and a lot of fret-rattle.

Then I could get onto a proper mix. This would involve me learning about mixing. I have a couple of books on recording and mixing and of course the web is full of advice. I am also a sucker for Computer Music and Total Music. The kinds of magazines that come with a DVD including 6GB of samples and some new effects plug-ins, then tutorials in the mag on mixing and mastering. I am pretty tech savvy (with a degree in electronics engineering that even involved taking some DSP courses), so I always think I could be a pretty good audio engineer if I set my mind to it.

So sometimes I sit down at my computer and think, OK, let’s start improving my mixing. I open up a track and then start going through the process. And then I get bored. Trying to optimise a track that already exists at some level bores the shit out of me. It feels too much like work. It is incredibly time-consuming and detail-oriented. Within 10 minutes of starting I am checking Facebook or surfing the web.

I like playing guitar and creating music. I don’t like cleaning up tracks and mixing.

So that’s why Glowbugs will remain as it is and why I will never again by Computer Music magazine.

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ATG Live And Unedited from a Pub in San Diego Airport

Yeah that’s me in the middle in the shiny suit saying “You know if you hurry you could get a haircut” to the muppet on the right.

I really don’t have much to write about at the moment, but I find myself with time on my hands and alcohol on the brain at the airport in San Diego, way to early too early for my flight home to Phoenix and I realize that I haven’t written anything for a while. So I figured I’d just ramble a little.

My guitar playing has kind of stalled recently. I finished a song called Winter Storms about 2 weeks ago and since then I haven’t done much at all. (By the way, if you find yourself clicking through to Soundcloud on that link go check out this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this. (and of course this and this) It’s frickin’ nuts how much good stuff is being cranked out by amateur/semi pro musicians there. (sorry about the nested parentheses there, I don’t want this blog to start looking like C# code…))

Winter Storms contains a guitar break. I hesitate to use the word ‘solo’ as I am clearly no Jimmy Page. And that is my problem. Right now I feel like my creativity is limited by technique. I have more ideas for songs, but I am hesitant to ‘finish’ them. I plan on working more on guitar technique for the rest of the year, getting into a nice practice routine, rather than cranking out the songs. Hopefully by doing this, when I go back to writing again I’ll be doing more interesting songs.

Of course GAS continues to gnaw at my bones. Although I like my Cheapo Les Paul, I worked out that if I could sell that for approximately what I bought it for, plus offloaded my Fender Mustang I amp that I hardly use and maybe sacrificed my Squier P-Bass then I might have the funds to get a Gibson Les Paul Studio second hand. Upon realizing this, I began advertizing El Cheapo and the Mustang on Craigslist. So far no takers. But let’s see.

PS As I am now sat in an airport pub with all the other cattle class passengers, I feel obliged to point out that I wrote a bitter and sad song about how horrible it is to fly in planes these days and then I tried to do an experimental remix of it which has some good elements, but doesn’t really work. But I’d hate you to think I only write miserable slow songs, I also did a funky little one recently that I’m quite proud of.

Songwriting, Songstuff and Polar Bears

I only really got back into playing guitar about three and a half years ago, after a break that lasted about 13 years. The timing coincided with two major life events; becoming unemployed and becoming a father for the first time, both of which happened in the same week in February 2009.

I suddenly found myself in the situation of transitioning from a high-pressure consulting gig, to being a full-time father of a newborn baby girl. I’d done a part-time MBA before going into consulting, so I had placed my career at the center of my life from the beginning of 2004 until then. Five years of 60-70 hours a week grind. Well, probably more. Before the MBA I was a chip designer at that Big Phone Company that Finland is so famous for. That could be quite an intense job at times too.

Of course in February 2009, I was looking for a new job, but financially-speaking we had a lot of runway. So I wasn’t particularly anxious. Thanks to my unemployment insurance and Finland’s excellent welfare state safety net, we knew we wouldn’t have to sell the car until after the summer and we could afford the mortgage probably for the rest of the year.

This is a time of life I actually remember as being very happy. Although there was a lot of uncertainty, I’d got out of an unhealthy job situation and I could feel the stress leave my body.  I also had this incredible gift of a child and family to care for. Newborns of course sleep a lot, as do mothers of newborns. I was left with a fair amount of time on my hands in those early weeks.

It’s at this point that I dusted off the case with ‘Fender’ on the cover and reacquainted myself with my Stratocaster.

I bought this guitar, a Made In Japan sunburst model with a rosewood fretboard, as soon as I got out my first post-university pay cheque in 1994. On the same day I also got a Trace Elliot Supertramp combo (in British racing green) and a Tascam 4-Track Portastudio. My paycheque wasn’t big enough to pay for them all outright you understand, but I put down a deposit and paid for them in installments over the next 18 months.

Although I love guitars with a passion, my aim has never been to be a virtuoso, but really to write songs. I am fascinated by the creative process. Inspiration and craft. I get a rush creating original material. This is what motivates me to pick up the guitar.

I’d dreamed of owning a 4-track since I was a teenager, so getting that Tascam was incredibly exciting. After buying it, I had a brief burst of creativity, writing very few complete songs, but filling tape after tape with riffs and ideas. Then life intervened, and around the end of 1996 I put the guitar down, boxed up the 4 track and other things preoccupied me. I left the UK in 1998, without my musical gear and other things took center stage for over a decade.

By 2009 of course, Tascam four tracks were obsolete. But we had a Macbook and on every Macintosh computer there is a software package called iLife, which includes an application called Garageband. A feature rich, yet user friendly ‘DAW’ (digital audio workstation). A software recording studio. A Tascam on steroids.

Since then, I’ve continued to mess around with Garageband whenever I get the opportunity. Initially the same pattern of lots of ideas as in the 1990s, no finished product. But earlier this year I set myself the goal of completing one song a month and uploading a finished’ MP3 to a blog. I started in March and by the beginning of this month I actually had six tunes up there, so I was a little ahead. It helped that a friend of mine did a kick ass remix of the first track I uploaded to the blog, that really got me moving.

Then about ten days ago I started contributing to a forum called Songstuff. This is a place on the web where amateur, semi pro and pro songwriters come to share their tunes (often via Soundcloud). I signed up for this forum with the aim of getting feedback and advice from others on my material, but I find it equally interesting to critique and give feedback to others. It’s also just a great place to discover new music. The level of talent and standard of material you find there is staggering.

I’ve removed three tracks from the blog, because after joining Songstuff, I know I can make them better. I’ve become more aware of what is possible with home recording and now also I have something of an audience that I want to like my music. I want to raise my game.

If you are interested in hearing my music you can go to my Soundcloud page to steam the tunes

or the blog to download MP3s

http://polarbearsofarizona.wordpress.com/

I apologize in advance for the singing…

Bass Frustration, Tele Intonation Riddle

As a father of young kids, with a relatively demanding day-job it’s just not possible for me to be part of a band. Maybe in a few years I could commit to rehearsals and gigs, when my daughters are older (right now the younger is 10 months, the older just over 3 years) , but that’s still some way off.

So I’m a bedroom guitarist, or rather a spare-room guitarist, and I devote my playing time to trying to improve myself as a musician and trying to come up with original music that I record on Garageband. The GB projects led me last year to buy an electro-acoustic bass. A Dean EAB, which I managed to get from Guitar Center for about $130 out of the door when they had a coupon. I figured an acoustic bass could be a lot of fun and it has been, at least initially. The day I got it, I came up with a bass groove, which became the basis (bassis?) of a song I’m quite pleased with.

One thing I noticed straight away however is that the output from the passive pickups is totally lacking. So recording using a regular guitar lead straight into my USB interface just doesn’t work. I have to mic up the bass. I’ve been doing this since the beginning, just putting my cheap MXL condenser mic up to the soundhole. However, in the four months I’ve had the bass, the playability has degraded considerably. The strings now buzz and rattle like mad and all of these things get picked up by the mic. It’s now got to the point where I can no longer play grooves or more complex bass lines on it, but instead just have to follow the route of the chord and be extremely careful about how I play, to try and minimize the horrible extra noises. I’m tempted to ditch the thing and go looking for a cheap electric bass on Craigslist, but perhaps I can try raising the action (through introducing more neck relief) and also change the strings to try and fix some of the buzzing and rattling. I might also experiment with an after-market acoustic pickup as an alternative to the onboard electronics. In searching for images I found a nice post on another blog about the EAB. This author also seems to have experienced similar issues.

I’ve also experienced some strange problems with the intonation (‘staying-in-tuneness’) on my new Telecaster. I found I could tune the open strings perfectly but on the lower frets the notes would be out of tune, but then fine again at the 12th fret (where the octave of the open strings can be found). This really bugged me, because this could’ve meant some nasty issues with the lower fret placement and some serious time, $$$ or even a new neck to correct. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t noticed this in the store either. I must’ve been playing higher up the neck all the time.

Fortunately I was lucky. In trying to find out what the problem might be, I discovered a virtual text book on intonation written by luthier Mike Doolin of Doolin Guitars. After reading this I examined the problem with an electronic tuner and discovered that the fretted notes were going consistently sharp and that the degree of sharpness was increasing depending on how much pressure I applied. I figured that the guitar had just been in the store a long time and the strings were past their best. I changed them out last night and the problem, although not totally gone, is much improved and if I focus on fretting lightly I no longer notice it. Phew.