The Nameless Guitar
For a long time now, my preferred tool for composition has been The Nameless Guitar, an old, wrinkled, destroyed Spanish guitar that has the strings a kilometer far from the neck. What such a sparse instrument does for me is "funnelling" me into composing at a "molecular" level, taking away a lot of the fluff.
I had the luck of my teen years coinciding with the rise of the first personal computers, whose primitive speakers (and the admirable creativity of people who made music for videogames) taught you inequivocally how any song, at its bare skeleton, is only a melody on front and a bassline behind. That's all you need.
In fact, whenever a new song "assaults" me in the middle of a walk or a shower, that's all I need to capture, those two lines of notes, and I'm certain that I will be able to get back to them at more propitious time.
So from that point of view, the Nameless Guitar is no longer sparse, we are going crazy luxurious here because you generate the melody by singing, plus, open the floodgates of abundance, you have access if you want it to six-notes-six simultaneously for your chords.
What you won't get with the Nameless Guitar is a delicate timbre, or swishing effects, or the bluring of electric distortion (so often used in a similar way to make-up on an ugly face), or the plugin of the month or the fancy polyphonic keyboards or...
In other words: if I get a song to sound killer in the Nameless Guitar, I'm more than certain that it has the "strong bones" I need; only then I'll move down the chain and add detail, arrange, improve the lyrics... (Additionally, in my case, another plus of such a shitty guitar is that playing it actually requires an extra degree of physical aggression, something that also helps in the style I practice :D ).
In addition to this general philosophy, however, I've recently discovered how well suited is the DAW as a composition tool for works of detail, once you've figured out the aforementioned "bones". I discovered this technique by pure chance, stumbling upon a need and then figuring out the best way to address it.
Here's the scenario: finding a certain section where I know I need further elaboration to pour everything I have in my head, and I cannot reach it through let's say conventional, linear methods.
In those instances I've found very useful to loop the section to be fleshed out, and record myself time after time after time, doing anything and whatever, and then listen to what I've recorded, collect only the findings, and discard the rest.
In many takes I don't have findings. In many others, all I get is one note. But one note is all it takes. It feels like being a detective who receives clues: "Hey, I like the sonority that dissonant note creates there, I'm going to explore in that direction". "That subdivision in thirds really felt unexpected, I like it". And of course, with this method, you expose yourself to all kind of happy accidents too.
Out of the accumulated fragments, a sort of "Frankenstein" emerges (you can physically see it on the screen as a "Frankenstein", a collection of patched parts). You repeat the process until all the "body parts" have been gathered, and then, you apply the proverbial "lightning of life" by finally rehearsing the whole part, and recording it from beginning to end.
That moment feels as if some mysterious composer had given me a gift. There is no way I could have reached the bottom of what I wanted to express with the tools we had say 20 years ago. In a way, what this technique does is taking me beyond myself.
And not only the results are sensational; the process itself puts you into a great state of "high", I guess because the iterations are so quick and vibrant; you play the part time after time after time, and there's no pressure to "do it perfect" because the part does not exist yet, so your brain gets all the soothing effect of repetitive tasks, but at the same time, there is a feeling of advance in each iteration, which keeps you engaged ("Come on! what's next? What's still missing? What do we try now?").
So far I've used this technique successfuly twice, once with a final guitar crescendo, and other time with a section of intertwined vocal harmonies, both of which needed delicate balances between ellaboration/not becoming too distracting. It can be applied to any sonic production that fits inside a DAW session, and I have a feeling this is going to be a keeper in my arsenal.
The song "Martin Scorsese", by the band King Missile, exemplifies beautifully my problem with the term "fans":
I haven't checked the etymology, but I'm pretty sure "fan" can only mean one of two things: 1) Abbreviation of "fanatic" (like in King Missile's song; the kind of guy who wants to chew your fucking eyeballs and stuff), or 2) Abbreviation of "fancy", someone who "fancies" your work, which sounds very immature, wussy, high-schooley kind of stuff, not very recommendable to have around either.
So do you want to have fanatics and people who "fancy" your music? I know I don't.
I'd like to have an audience, but that term does not please me either because it defines a collective, it's like saying I want to have a parish to give my sermons to, or, more demeaningly, I have something to say and need "a group to address to". Audience. Gotta get me one.
I consider the collective aspect a subproduct. The artistic experience happens on a one by one basis. The guy with headphones who suddenly goes "wow, this shit rocks!". Then later, when several people are touched by what you do, fine, you put them side by side and you have a collective; but all that comes after the fact. I address to the individual. Each person who attends one of my concerts does it from a different vital position and for different reasons. They give me the privilege of their attention, and I do my best to prepare a "good meal" for them.
I'd like to be a sort of gathering point; to create the space where things, human things, can happen. People together, for once not yelling at each other, not divided in A vs B, but sharing an experience. Beautiful experience, but, let's not take the solidarity too far, all we share at that spot. After the gathering is done, I don't need the adoration part. I want them to dissolve peacefully and go back to their lives, lives that have been hopefully enlarged, as mine is also enlarged after the giving.
I don't know if the term "aficionado" transfers well into English. In Spanish it has the connotation of someone who is into something, but without making too much of a deal of it. I have the impression that in English it's used more in a negative way, as "a hobbyist, someone who is not professional at something". The Spanish notion goes with me, I'd prefer having "aficionados" who come to my concerts when they hear there's one, because they enjoy to some degree what I do, then thank me at the end in a brief and simple manner, if they are so inclined, and each of us can go back peacefully to our own lives. I find this simplicity beautiful. I don't have a use for all the hysterism traditionally associated with the term fan. I think we are more than well served of hysterism in our world these days.
With certain loses you die a little, a part of yourself goes away. This is how I feel about Chuck Mosley's passing away. I know he wasn't a mainstream musician anymore, and all I got to know of his work was two albums, but I consider him a big influence of mine and always respected him as a very original artist and free spirit.
As most of my peers, I got to know Faith No More through "The Real Thing", and later "Angel Dust", both already under the Mike Patton mantle. A bit later, in summer 1993, I made my first big travel abroad, to a town in Maryland, US, and one of the first key locations I pinpointed after arriving was the record store. That summer for sure created the foundation of my musical taste.
Among the myriad of records I acquired that summer, I grabbed and listened with great curiosity "Introduce yourself", FNM's second and last with Mosley's vocals, to find that FNM had replaced a singer of great personality with another. Mosley's voice struck me with his very personal tone; and his original way of phrasing (for example, in "The crab song", or the supercreepy "Death march") has for sure influenced my own singing style. All in all, I like "Introduce yourself" better than "The real thing", where I find the music, don't get me wrong, great, but a bit more watered down to the usual chorus-verse-chorus, that is way less than what this band has shown it can do (in the same way, and for the same reasons, I prefer 1000 times Nirvana's "Bleach" over the ultrablockbuster "Nevermind" -- Of course this says more about me than about the music...)
I remember reading very rough comments from the band against Mosley, then later I got surprised reading an interview with him where he seemed to me as laid back and easy going as his voice in the albums seemed to suggest (btw, the band's comments should not be held against them; everybody in their 20s is highly inflammable, and to put things worse at that time they were all under the terrible pressure of record companies, Rolling Stone magazine pushing their buttons in search of the "hot declaration"... FNM's song "Motherfucker" is referred to that period).
A bit later I got "We care a lot", FNM's first work with Mosley. Again rough and intricate music, my kind of deal, with not an ounce of "fruitcakeness" coming from the fact of having keyboards and being in the 80's... on the contrary, everything dark and rough as an electric chainsaw, with Mosley on front directing the chaos (but man what a tight chaos), and you could tell how revolutionary and underground of a band they were, the first shows must have been incredible, with people looking at each other in confusion...
Only two albums, but created in an absolute state of grace. As usual, it's sad seeing someone dear leaving before their time, an original spirit with still so much to say. Musicians are delicate creatures, that seems to be both the blessing and the curse of the profession... Rest in peace, Mr Mosley, and thank you for being a part of my life forever.
Always a great believer in process -I think it could have saved the lives of so many musicians, plus eliminate so much frustration in those who live wondering why don't they achieve more-, I keep on refining my own production line and doing my best to understand better every day the intricacies of how I work; a fractal learning that never ends and never fails to bring amazing new insights. It is always fascinating to see how, the moment you apply a disciplined approach to the right problem, things start to grow; how something that started being hard refines, becomes easier and also improves its quality, just by applying the slow and steady lens of continuous improvement.
For the people who don't believe in this structured approach ("we're making songs here, not cars!"), process can often feel like micromanagement, and, truth be told, I sometimes have a personal tendency to micromanage and I've fallen into that trap more than once. Being fundamentally self taught in productivity matters (and also, given the traditional lack of interest they attract in my field, often forced to adapt instead of adopt), with no direct feedback, reference or sensei at hand, I for sure fell during the first stages of my journey in the so-called "random access lean". It's only natural; when both types of efforts, the good and the micromanaging ones, are equally labelled externally as "silly", how do you manage to split the waters?
(To that you have to add, during the first period, a certain well know "dazzling effect" that people who connect with Lean experience when they first discover it. When you learn about these techniques, and the way they can turn everything into a sort of fascinating dance, it's like the solidification of a certain "there must be a better way" intuition that you've been carrying around for years, so awwrr, you throw yourself confidently into the ocean armed with your brand new laser gun. I think this period is a tender and legitimate Lean infancy, it has its value as good practice, and it's great fun too, just observing how you can apply your 5S or your value stream mapping or create a kanban or kamisibai board for this or that task and, wow, look, it works here too, it improves too...)
It is also well known, however, that at the end of this charm phase very often lurks the ghost of disenchantment; once you've trained yourself in the new shiny tools (and they don't take long to understand, because their whole point is being simple), once they start to lose their novelty halo, there is a certain tendency to plateau in your development: continuous improvement does not continue anymore, you enter in "yeah I know that" mode. In the end, it's the reappearance of the same problem you used to have, only at a higher level; again, you realize that you can do anything but you cannot do everything. Again the ocean remains true to itself, unboilable.
The exit from these rabbit holes finally comes, if it ever comes, through a deceptively simple word: purpose. What do we exist for, as organization or entity? What are we trying to achieve and why? What difference do we want to make? What's the world we want? (Like Deming said, "We are here to make a new world").
Once you make conscious, hone and craft that definition of purpose, you have the guiding light, the True North that will separate the wheat from the chaff; and you enter the mature transition from "what can I change?" to "what do I need to change?" To reach the next objective. And which objective you choose so you stay true to your guiding star, your purpose.
Purpose is something you design, customize for yourself, and you have to give some periodical thought to it, water and prune it like a plant. Without periodical, deliberate care, the daily fires, the unimportant-but-urgent crap, can take you away and alienate you for months.
You create your purpose with the things you love, and although it's a steady point of reference, I don't think it has to be 100% immobile; you complement it as you learn and mature, you refine it with what you find after so many trials and tribulations. Someone compared it to the work a sculptor does; you take away the unnecessary, and leave only what really counts; something that, now that I think of it, is the very essence of Lean...
I have to become better at finishing. The muse I serve is cruel, the road is paved with the bodies of my predecessors. Suicided, OD'd... and all they thought they could handle it, and they all thought they knew better. As long as I don't put stuff out there and call it "finished", there is a terrible psychic tension within me. So the way I see it, the options I have are: either getting better at finishing, or calling the whole thing off, which in my case is not possible--being able to create music is such a blessing in my life, where would I be without it?
I feel dirty for the things I had to do yesterday to make the rhythm guitar sound decent. Still this shitty affair with the guitar emulation that sounds well while playing but harsh and horrible when listening to the recording later. Aaaarggg!!! Anyways, at least it's done.
Today, faced with the grim perspective of doing comping work (which is just another name for "office work"), I think I've found the "economy of work" I was looking for in the latest days. It is simple, with the simplicity you get when you've taken away all the unnecessary. Maybe I'm still under the natural high of the discovery, but I think there's something good here.
The quickest way to phrase it is "a child guards the entry". My music production from now on is going to be as follows: 1) I'll have fun. 2) Once a reasonable amount of fun is satisfied, then I'll move to all the other stuff, the one that only feels good "having done".
That's what I have done today and it's worked very well. Thinking of the "thingy" I want to publish this month, I found the playlist needed some more toughness in the mix. So I've gone through my files looking for something not too complicated to record. I've ended up with 3 candidates. One discarded for being more heavy-thrash than punk (putting it in such a short selection would make for a confusing whole, I think). The other was punk but had a tempo change; I think I could pull it off but it's risky (I always think I can pull it off). The third candidate was ideal, short and rude and stupid...
I've applied pretty much the same workflow I used in the previous song (see the hour-by-hour report of a few days ago), and recorded a "live" demo with voice+distorted guitar played at the same time. One of the best investments of my time ever was changing the dull beep beep of the metronome for drum sounds. It's like a little crappy Fisher Price's live concert.
I've had a ball recording this thing, then I've turned to the child and asked him "are you happy, have you had enough fun yet?" And the child has said yes, so then I've moved to the comping of "Empty roads" and done it keenly and with great proficiency.
I'm going to apply this same technique, and ask the same question, in any of my musical sessions. I'll take it from there. And in the days when there's only time for one thing, it's going to go to the child.
Today is the end of the new deadline I set for these logs. They obviously make me good, and I'm afraid to quit them, but now I'd like to experiment with writing them privately. I don't know how much of the benefit comes from turning the daily amorphous toils into a narrative, and how much is the unconscious notion of some kind of "audience" out there, making what I do "important". I would hate to turn this into a "soap opera", an end in itself instead of a means to an end.
So I'm going to move these logs to a private format for a few days at least and see how it goes. If there's actually someone who is not a robot out there reading this stuff (the site metrics are extremely modest, although I can say I already have more followers than Jesus did in life), firstly I apologize for all the crap that unavoidably intertwines whenever you try to break the silence; the thing with writing a diary is that you write every day, not only on the good days. I hope you've found something of interest among this mishmash of things, or at least had a laugh or two. If you haven't died of boredom yet, next week I'm going to be releasing a few music-related texts I accumulated last summer, so you can look forward to them...
Got the keyboards recorded, courtesy of Yoshimi. As usual with keyboards, most of the time went to finding a good instrument; I always feel as if I were auditioning people for a musical; "Saw+chimes" -- "Thank you, that's enough". "Space Ethereal #9" -- "Don't call us, we'll call you". Etc. Once I got the sound, and the choice for the chord inversions, the recording itself was trivial.
Got a hint of how my musical mind works in what has happened with the rhythm guitar; for more than 48 hours I've remained unaware of the fact that the track was still in a crude DI state, the recording that I used for the basic initial metronome demo. It's like, my mind knows the content is there so it doesn't care so much about the "dressing", it disengages. Although in this case it's understandable with so much stuff happening all of a sudden in the other tracks, with the new solos and all. Today I'll record it again with some nice Rakarrack setting that blends in well with the mix (currently that guitar goes Houdini the moment the final solo kicks in...)
I also advanced with the bass; performing with certain fidelity is still a challenge, but once recorded, a bit of processing has made the track much clearer and sweet. HPF, valve simulator, EQ, compression and limiter.
Of course performing using an emulator adds an additional layer of difficulty (it's like trying to play accurately while standing on top of a rubber ball), so the performance is less than stellar... I'd rate the bass a 7, and the guitars an 8.5. That's the thing, there's always the temptation of stopping and improving the performance, but where do you draw the line? It's like riding a bicycle, very dangerous to stop, have to keep moving.
I've also checked the hardware latency of my system with the option provided by Ardour. About 11ms! Why, oh why? I thought the bottleneck could be in the USB, so I've run the test connecting the GTrack to the USB2 and USB3 ports in the computer, and I get the same results in both cases (the GTrack is a few years old, so I don't think it can run with USB3).
I thought the latency wars were over with this new computer, I have all the boxes checked, i7, 16Gb Ram, SSD... The computer is way more reliable than my previous laptop, and I can add plugin after plugin without fearing for my life, but this latency thing is a killjoy...
Anyway. Let's keep learning what we can, and pushing stuff out there in the meantime.
I keep surprising myself at how incapable I am to foresee how long will things take. For today's session, I intended to record the "reinforcement" guitar track, plus the keyboard -just a few ambient notes here and there, so no big deal-. And I felt a bit guilty for cutting myself too much slack doing only those two things.
Yeah right. It's turned out the guitar track has grown on its extremes two solos, which inhabit the gaps between words in the vocals, and logically they have taken some time to adjust.
The song already had a solo, and heaven knows I'm by design very sparse arrangement-wise in my songs -sometimes too much for my own good-. In this case it's like the solos have found me, rather than the other way round.
To compose them I've naturally turned to this technique I've used several times before of recording myself time after time, then listening and keeping the "hints": discoveries, unexpected vibes... A couple of mistakes have turned into intervals that I wouldn't have come up by myself, and I'm very happy with the way the solo flows. It reminds me a bit of the style of some Black Sabbath's ballads, Tony Martin era.
Despite having a comfortable process to record the solo, it has been tiring; about 3 hours of concentrated work, that you could not leave halfway through; besides, listening to the song so many times has also exhausted me emotionally. It's a very very sad song, that connects a lot with my personal situation; but in these arenas, sadness is also good, it's like crying at the movies, a harmless way of putting things out there, it liberates you...
With such a feat, today would be a happy day oh happy day, but some technical BS has started to creep in with the complexity. I resist to mention it here, I'll try to take it out of the way for good before the next log. Let's be careful, not overcook, we're almost there.
What I did yesterday, after considering several options, was starting a new song from scratch.
I live by my intuition and along the years I've learned to listen to it and follow it, sometimes very blindly. But I've found that it is very powerful and it serves me well (it's a miracle that a peculiar creature like me has hit his forties relatively intact).
Intuition is immediate, boom, while logic, on the other hand, lives within time. Sometimes logic has taken years to catch up with why it was a good idea to do X.
(Also, in other occasions, I've mistaken the signs; in the musical realm you have aesthetic clues that tell you if you hit the target; in real life not always, so sometimes intuition is easy to be mistaken with that other tiny voice of plain desire...)
Deep water navigation to try to explain what I did yesterday. Here's a more superficial explanation; I've found that it is a great practice to document things; together with that, I've found that sometimes it is great to forget about the whole documentation and just do things from scratch. That way, you avoid the risk that the documentation has turned into "bureaucracy"; you turn your eyes back to the prize.
I apply this kind of "clean eyes technique" in all my documentation, and music production is not an exception. It usually happens when I have a "back to roots" feeling; "it cannot be so hard to record a song, let's just do one, solving all the problems as we go".
So yesterday I opened a new project folder and dived headlong into the power ballad, entitled "Empty roads". I also decided to log the process as I went along, to find what are the main time wasters; here is the log:
Find song tempo
Change metronome sound
Setup audio interface
Find song's previous documentation
Install word processor (required for the lyrics file)
Prepare tracks for demo (voice+guitar: 2 mono tracks)
Recording demo tracks (with metronome)
Bass (emulated) - Set levels
Setting levels in the chain (emulator sound, headphone levels...)
Setting guitar tone (Guitarix)
Generate drum track (Drumgizmo)
End of session
A simple look at this tells a lot about my workflow, the opportunities for improvement, and the time hogs. Bass emulation was a royal PIA, and the final solution I got was only meh, a compromise. I don't know if I'm doing something wrong with this new computer; in the past I've recorded like 40 or 50 songs with bass emulated via Rakarrack, and it was OK, but I don't seem to get a good sound now. This is the nasty thing with so many moving parts... Maybe I'll check some MIDI based solution in the future.
What I discovered in this marathon session? Well, firstly, I couldn't have gone through it if I didn't enjoy the process a lot. The stage where you record stuff and see the song grow and grow fills me with joy, a joy that links directly to my childhood, recording silly stuff in cassettes and replaying it to myself time after time.
This song was well rehearsed because I was in the habit of playing it now and then. In the recorded result right now I see both how rough everything is, and also the composition and performance quality.
I'm starting to see the recording process as an arrow shot; you can either hit or miss the target, but it doesn't make much sense to try to redirect the arrow once it's in the air. Something like that. The more you tinker, the more you risk breaking something.
And I need the joyful part. I need to express myself. Some people don't seem to, but I do. The fact that music no longer has market value should not stop me from launching stuff out there. And if it's going to sound rough, then so be it. I'm going to be extremely sparse about "audio production" (the boring part), and do only the audio stuff that I learn along the way while I'm singing, playing...
In the end I've mentioned it before, I enjoy that kind of roughly produced music. When you like the song, at one point the song is just the way it is. So chances are some other people will lend it an ear or two too. Not everything is lost.
These ideas are scattered because I'm still elaborating them. I think I'm giving myself permission to be sloppier and happier. I have to maximize the joy I get out of music, otherwise I won't do it, and I will get depressed and frustrated. I have to stop having bursts of productivity, or rather have them everyday and make them somehow sustainable.
Today I've recorded the actual voice track; I've searched my notes on how to set the session like a thirsty man seeks water. That's the test that shows that the process is good, when you go back to it spontaneously.
I'll try to keep keeping it simple and maintain momentum. While listening, this song has grown an additional guitar part and a keyboards section, that I will have to "manifest" tomorrow. Still great fun, still dying to do it. Let's keep things this way.
Got to listen the whole Bandcamp thing. After giving it some consideration, I think I'm going to scrap "Zombie barf". I believe in the song, it doesn't deserve the poor audio treatment I've given it; plus I don't want to ship junk. When I was in my 20s, it was enough for me to get the song good enough so that others "saw what I meant", the vibe I was aiming to, and the execution was only in second place. Now I find that approach too lacking; I can do better than that and I know it.
I try to see it as a "failing forward"; I've created a new category for songs like this, unpublishable, but good as elaborated demos, to show to one's band when or if I ever get to have one again.
After this listening I've made a lot of reflection. "Zombie barf" took like 20 hours of "production" (the term including everything besides composition and rehearsal). AB tests in different speakers, all the different plugins... the works. "You're repulsive", on its side, took hardly 2 hours; the guitar is not layered. The drums are a simple loop. The voice is not layered either (hell, I didn't even use a pop filter!) And it sounds way way better. There's something fishy going on here. The technical disease perhaps?
I need more standardization and additional creative constraints. I'm still deciding how to go about it. A good beginning could be what I wrote about a couple of days ago; arranging things so that I can play or sing something every day. A computer screen is like a rectangular spotlight focused on your face and it doesn't have much to do with music making per se - as process I mean; of course it is a sensational tool, etc...
Perhaps I also have to admit that the genre of music that I do doesn't take too well the me-myself-and-i approach (although it is still possible; I'm listening to one of the proofs right now, in fact it has become one of my go-to albums...)
An idea that has been in my mind lately is adding a new filter to the song choice process: technical feasibility. It's something that I've never taken into consideration before; I just thought of the songs I wanted in the album, how well they would match with each other... With my humble resources maybe I should pay attention also to things like "this one is straightforward, but that one has 3 tempo changes", "this one has a crowd chant that is going to be hard to pull off..."
As a "bucket resolution", as a container while I figure out the rest, I've decided that in the final week of November I'll release what I've got. Like a game of "musical chair"; if it is an EP, good. If it is a maxisingle, so be it. If it is a single, it's ok too. If I don't even have the single I'll record a podcast explaining what happened... Something, I don't know.
I feel a bit "bruised" today, as sometimes facing the truth leaves you, but I don't feel sad for having gone through the whole process of the song only to discard it later; closing the cycle has its value too. The accumulated experience is useful and what I have to do now is try different working patterns. Today I'll simply play for a while at random, explore, wait for some spark to happen.
Not much time available for rock and roll today. I'll try to take it where I left it yesterday; I'll listen to the session, polish a bit the things that stick out the most and try to get something printable that is convincing enough for effect in the Bandcamp placeholder. I'll move in that direction as much as I can (A snail just passed me from my left side at dizzying speed... but whatchagonnado...)
The deadline I set is gone. As these logs help my process so much I'll keep going for five days more, as a homage to Megadeth's "Five magics"...