A New Studio

I got a grant from WARF (more later about that) to set up an electro-acoustic studio at the School of Music.

What??

The music that I wrote and recorded on my CD, about which I blogged at length (and which is called Air Names and is released on the Summit Records label), is electro-acoustic music. While I am certainly open to anyone’s buying that CD, it is also available to listen to on Spotify if you use that app, and on youtube (start here). Electro-acoustic music is played by “regular” instruments but applying computer sound processing, and by electronic instruments that are played by a human (as opposed to being played by a computer), and by instruments whose sound is altered by pedals (think electric guitar).

As some of you may know, I acquired some equipment when I got to my job at UW five and a half years ago. The basic process of creating music with it, for me anyway, isn’t that complicated. I play my horn into a microphone. The mic is connected to a fancy piece of equipment called an interface, which basically converts what I play into zeroes and ones. From there, the sound goes to the computer, where I have several programs that process sound in various ways. From there (in the most basic setup) the sound goes out to some speakers. The computer can also record the sound, track by track.

Other instruments could also be patched into the setup. For instance, an electric piano can also be connected. It already speaks in zeroes and ones, using a music language called MIDI. Interestingly, unlike most things dealing with the computer, MIDI hasn’t really changed since it was created in the 80s. Mac computers have been through at least 500 kinds of cables – it seems like every new computer you get is connected to its peripherals with a new kind of connection. Meanwhile, MIDI jacks have been the same for 30-plus years, and they look it.

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But I digress. An instrumental setup can include, really, unlimited instruments, both MIDI and acoustic. On many of the tracks on my CD, for example, I have several horn tracks, a few tracks with other instruments I invented, and a bunch of tracks of drums, plus a bass track. Think of a mixing board, like you might see in a picture of a recording studio (it looks a little like the transporter controller in Star Trek), where each row of sliders and dials controls one track.

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The computer has a digital mixing board with pretty much infinite tracks.

OK, so about a year and a half ago, all UW faculty were sent out a notice that money for the acquisition of large equipment was available from WARF. WARF is the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The foundation funds research projects at UW, and is technically autonomous and therefore not subject to any kind of state budget cuts, of which we have had many. WARF has a $2 billion endowment, and the funding for research here at UW is generous, to say the least. Many science departments have need of large sums of money for equipment such as electron microscopes. The idea behind the current round of grants was that cooperation was encouraged: the chemistry department could team up with the plant biology department with plans to share a million dollar microscope, and that way only one such scope would have to be funded.

This round of grants was opened up to the humanities departments for the first time. As at many universities, the STEM fields often eat up the equipment funding, but a clear-thinking Vice-Chancellor realized that the humanities have needs, too. I decide to put together a grant to create a whiz-bang electro-acoustic studio, that could function as a comprehensive research facility for our faculty and students. It would have to have all the newest and best technology, so that it would have the flexibility to accommodate performers with many different interests. At this point, there are only two faculty members doing the kind of music I’m doing, but the equipment could facilitate all kinds of other projects, from straight up classical recording to the production of high end hip hop, and everything in between. I lined up 15 School of Music faculty collaborators, got suggestions for useful equipment, and put together a huge wish list of stuff. I emailed people at other schools who had similar studios and got more ideas. Everything went into the grant application.

Long story short, I got my whole wish list.

This led to a new phase of learning for me. How do you go about purchasing stuff at a huge and bureaucratic university through a grant? Turns out the answer is “it’s complicated.” I had arranged with the Director of the School of Music that a room would be converted for our use (and our use alone). Now that the grant was a reality, we had to select a room. We found the perfect classroom and took it off the rehearsal and class grid. But it needed to be secured with a heavy duty lock, and then renovated into an appropriate (and nice looking) space. I could only acquire so much equipment before the room was ready.

This put me in a timing bind. Once the lock was on (that happened right before the winter holidays), I could theoretically start buying all the equipment. My office had become even more overstuffed than usual, with electronics in boxes everywhere. But I figured that it made more sense to wait on further acquisition until after the renovation – otherwise, all the equipment would have to be taken back out and stored during the renovation, then put back in yet again.

To bring you to the present, we met with the renovation team yesterday. The work will take place this summer. So yes, I will acquire everything, and we’ll store it in our empty classroom, moving it to “an undisclosed location” during the renovation. Midsummer, I’ll spend a week or two in the renovated studio, setting up everything, which will probably be one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever undertaken. We’ll open in September. Some of the stuff we’re getting is pretty amazing, and hard to describe (a Moog synthesizer, a theremin, a Reactable, an Eigenharp, and way more). But right now, the room looks like an empty classroom built in the 60s, with some boxes in the corner. The word “desultory” comes to mind.

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Today I got in touch with the recordings producer at NYU’s new zillion dollar studio, and got advice on how to store microphones and cables (we’ll need to build or buy all kinds of storage). In the weeks to come, I will need to comply with UW’s arcane purchasing system as I go on a buying spree. I aim to keep you all posted, trying not to be boring, as the process moves forward. And I’ll hope to see you all in September for the grand opening of the Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS).

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Label!

The new CD has been done for about a month. By done, I mean the mastering is all finished. The final step was to find a label to release the disc. This is a multipart step, though. See below.

I sent the disc to one label that a friend had recommended, but they didn’t think it would be a good fit for them. The next label I sent it to felt differently, so now I have a publisher! Summit Records is a label devoted to recordings by brass artists. Now that they have agreed to put out the recording, I will have to think (with the people at the label) about:

1. Cover art

2. Liner notes

3. Release dates

With a little hard work and a little luck, the CD will be released around the New Year.

Dear Reader, thank you for your kind attention the details of this project. I came into it with no idea what I was doing, and now I have a vague idea of what I’m doing. That’s progress. I’ll try to think of something else to blog about until release date.

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CD is DONE!!!!

My CD is done. All mixed. All mastered.*

Time to find a label for it.

 

* Mastering: making all the tracks live in the same sound world, at the same basic volume level.

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CD update: we’re close!

Since my last entry, we have mixed all the songs on the new CD. I have also played it for a few people. When I was making the CD, I thought it was extremely “commercial” sounding, but this is not the response I’m getting at all. I am way too close to the music to have any rational sense of what it is like. It will be very interesting when it is finally released to see what the response is. If any of you, loyal readers, end up owning the CD, I invite you in advance to tell me your reactions to it, positive or negative.

Next steps: I’m giving it a little rest, then going back into the studio for final mixing touch-ups. Is the snare drum hit too loud, the bass too soft, the horn too out of tune? We can fix all that stuff*. Then, Mike the Mixer will master the CD. This is a process that is somewhat of a mystery to me, but part of it involves making sure the volume levels are the same on every track. The object here is not to make everything the same, but rather to avoid the situation where you turn one track up really loud because it’s hard to hear, and the next track fries your speakers and your eardrums.

After the disc is mastered, I will start shopping it around to labels. I have no idea what this is like, having never done it. And that’s what is fun about this project – I’ve never done any of this before. So I guess you’ll have to stay tuned and read all about it step by step.

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*You may have heard of “auto-tune,” a pitch correcting app that is now used extensively in the pop world. We are NOT using auto-tune. Shall I repeat that? NOT using it. However, we did use an app to correct the pitch of one note that I had recorded egregiously out of tune.

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Recording and Mixing

It has been a while since my last report on the CD creation process, and much has happened. Since that post, I finished composing/recording my songs, engaged the drummer I have worked with for the last 25 years (in Meridian), bought him a plane ticket to Madison, engaged a local bass player, held the recording session, and started mixing.

First, the dramatic personae:

John Ferrari is an amazing drummer and percussionist. I’m using the term “drummer” to refer to his work on the drum set, on which he can play just about any style and any beat. “Percussionist” means he can play anything in the orchestral percussion family, not only drums but mallet instruments (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone) and anything else that you can hit with a stick or hand. There are drummers everywhere, but I insisted on getting John for this recording because I know from experience that I can say to him, “Can you play a groove in 7/8 time that sounds sort of like a group of camels moving through the Sahara at night but sort of like a blues band at a club on 43rd Street?” and he’ll sit down at the drum set and say, “Like this?” and it will be perfect.

I met Nick through a colleague of mine at UW, and heard him play a few times, and loved what I heard. Talking to people about bass players, I heard his name at the top of everyone’s list. I needed someone who could take my repetitive bass lines and start improvising on them, giving them life, variety, and the correct feel. You may remember that I had programmed the computer to play my (rudimentary) bass lines, and they needed to be brought to life.

Recording is something I’ve done a lot of, so I feel very comfortable in the recording studio. There are two parts of a recording studio: the room where the musicians play, and the control room. I have some experience being in the control room, but in this case I was going to be in charge of producing. Producing? That means that I would determine what we would record when, and when it was sounding right and when it wasn’t, and whether the recorded sounds were good (I was prepared to defer on this front to Mike, the mixer, who was engineering the session [that means he was placing the microphones {CRUCIAL} and running the equipment]). For once, I didn’t have to play at a recording session, which, I admit, was a lovely thing. I was very relaxed about the actual sounds we would get on tape (or rather, on “tape,” since there’s no tape any more – everything goes straight to hard disk), because Mike has a huge amount of experience miking drums and bass and engineering in general.

John and I arrived in mid-afternoon with a van-load of borrowed percussion, and unloaded and set up. Special thanks to the UW percussion studio for the equipment. Miking a drum set is a tricky thing, because the mics aren’t smart enough to pick up sound ONLY from the one drum you point them at. We had quite a setup by the end.

IMG_2142This photo shows John in action. The tent in the foreground covers the bass drum and its mic, to provide a little isolation for that sound. There are mics overhead and to the side that capture a broad picture of the drum sound, and spot mics that capture each instrument. Thanks to Mike for knowing what he’s doing – the drums sounded great. The music stand on the left was for Nick.

Traditionally, this kind of music is recorded to a click track. It goes tap-tap-tap to the beat and keeps everyone together. It feels a little like the Chinese Water Torture, however, and John had the idea to use that afternoon and evening to record some tambourine and shaker sounds that could either replace or at least humanize the click track. We were able to do that for every tune and still be home in time for dinner and a few Manhattans*, which are an important component of any recording session.

We all converged at 9:30AM the next morning to record bass and drums together. I had spent hours the previous week writing out the music for John and Nick – I wanted to give them a rudimentary picture of the melody and bass line. Music that shows this stuff is called a lead sheet. It doesn’t have everything – if it did, the musicians would be turning pages every three seconds.  Our process was the same for each song: listen to the recording as it existed so far, discuss the feel, and start recording.

In some of the pieces, I wanted Nick to play what I had written, and in others I wanted him to take my notes as a mere beginning, embellishing them in any way that felt right. He did this brilliantly. Wandering off the printed page into the land of creativity is what you do when you are a bass player, and Nick is a master. John, meanwhile had great ideas about the kinds of grooves that would work. For one song, for example, he suggested a techno groove that I never would have thought of in a million years but which was perfect for the song. He asked me what I had had in mind, and I said “I had in mind that you would have a brilliant idea of what to do with this song, which you did.” Hire the right people and life is easy.

We spent the day working through the songs, and finished the drum/bass stuff at precisely 5:00, when Nick had to go. Then, we wanted to overdub some more percussion, mostly timbales, but also congas, onto a few songs.

IMG_2148Here is John playing the timbales – his sticks are moving so fast, you can barely see them. He has to wear headphones to hear the recorded material as he plays. After finishing that up, I had two songs I wanted to add snare drum to. I sort of danced the part for John as we  listened and he stood behind the snare drum, and he read my mind and played exactly what I wanted. We wrapped things up by around 6:45, returned the equipment to the percussion studio at school and were done.

The next step in the process is mixing, as I have discussed in previous posts. But these post-recording mixing sessions (we have had two) REALLY matter. Whatever we do to the sounds will be what the vast CD purchasing public will hear. Mike and I started with what we thought would be the most difficult song, and spent four and a half hours on it. It may still need a little more tweaking. Getting it right can take time. In our second session, of three hours, we completed three songs, which felt much better.

I cannot tell you, dear readers, how excited I am that this project is coming to fruition. I hope we will be done in about a month, and then it’s a matter of sending the recording around to some labels to see who would like to release it. That will undoubtedly lead to its own blog post, so I’ll talk to you soon.

 

 

*Bourbon, sweet vermouth, and a few drops of Angustura bitters, for those who have not experienced this elixir.

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Tour II, CD II

Halfway through the Meridian Arts Ensemble Rust Belt Tour of 2014, with an update. Touring means: driving, hotels, performing. I’m so happy that the group is playing at the highest level even though we don’t see each other for much of the year. It makes me want to do more. We have now played and taught in Cincinnati, Berea, and Kent, all in Ohio, and did some video recording in Cleveland. We are doing this tour in collaboration with composer Andy Rindfleisch, who has written and arranged some amazing pieces for us. The video session was for his music. I asked how many takes we would have for each piece. Answer: one. We managed to get a good one for each piece – look for these on youtube soon; they will also be available in your grocer’s freezer.

As for the CD, I took the frightening step of playing it in its rough state for my Meridian colleagues. They actually seemed to like it! I feel like my butt is totally on the line: I wrote the music and played it, so there’s nowhere to hide, and if somebody doesn’t like it, that’s all me they are disliking.

Today: drive to Pittsburgh, do a student composer reading, then a masterclass, then a concert.

On a practical note, I have bought big pillows for napping in the back of my van for the drive home. This could be a game changer for me, since I need to drive 10 hours from Fredonia to Madison starting at 5PM on Monday. When I get tired, I’ll pull over somewhere and take a nap. The goal is to be able to pass through Chicago in the dead of night, when there’s no traffic. This is the glamorous life of the touring musician.

Speaking of which, it is time to hit the road.

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CD update and Tour

I haven’t blogged in a while, not because the CD isn’t proceeding apace, but because the academic year has begun, with all its responsibilities and time commitments. I know my loyal readers are wondering anxiously where we stand, and are undoubtedly curious about my present tour as well, so herewith is an update.

I have recorded about 53 minutes of music. This includes some of my previous improvisations as well as a lot of new songs. Looking back, I have very little idea how those songs came into being. It feels like they just arose: they weren’t there, then they were. Some began as a bass line, others as a little piece of melody, I guess. They often developed by growing a branch here or there. Sometimes I would find a sound I liked and that would turn into something. It all feels quite vague, but the wonderful thing is that I am almost done with the writing and recording phase of the project.

Once I have recorded all I will record, I am flying a friend out to record drum parts and also having a bass player record bass parts for some of the songs (they will do this recording together, as drummers and bassists are accustomed to working as a unit). Everybody who has listened to my tracks thinks there should be bass and drum parts played by humans (instead of by the computer), and I certainly agree (although the mechanical sounding midi bass parts using the horn sound are good for some of the songs). We should be able to do that in a day, or a day and a half at the most, with Mike the Mixer taking care of the sound at the sessions.

The real trick is the weather. January and February are not good months to fly someone to Wisconsin, so I hope we can get it all done in December. When we have figured that out, we can go to work in the meantime on the mixing phase of the CD: getting all the sounds right, and balancing the voices. Then, after the sessions, we will mix the percussion and bass in with all the prerecorded stuff. Then, it’s the small matter of finding a label to publish the CD.

Meantime, I’m on the road with Meridian for a 9-day Rust Belt tour. We have congregated in Cincinnati, where we have a concert on Tuesday morning (we arrived, all but one, on Saturday, and rehearsed, all but one, today = Sunday, and will rehearse as a full group all day tomorrow). I’m also pleased to be giving a horn masterclass at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory on Tuesday morning, and some other classes in other places later on.

The toughest part of touring is pulling yourself together. My drive yesterday was seven and a half hours, which is murder on the joints and muscles. Plus sleeping in a hotel bed (we favor the flea-bag genre of hotels). As I always remind my students, however: nobody cares where you slept or how tired you are when you are on stage. So, challenge accepted. Tomorrow we will work our butts off, and we will give great concerts. I’ll try to keep you posted every step of the way.

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