The Doctor of Mixology

I have written and recorded five tunes that are close to complete, and I have a bunch of improvs that are complete. In other words, in 2 months I have at least approached my goal of writing and recording an entire album. This is quite exciting. I have spent plenty of hours staring at the walls of my office, and many hours recording over and over to get things right.

I’ve made a few decisions. One is to bring in a drummer and a bass player. I’ve got some stuff I like in my “found objects” drum kit, but a real human playing the drums on top of that will definitely add a huge dose of “songness” to my tunes. Same goes for the bass. Some of the songs might not need it, but a bass player can embellish, bend, tweak, and add life to a song in the way a midi bass part can’t (listen to the bass part in your favorite song – the player probably almost never plays the same thing the same way twice). Usually, the drummer and the bass player in a band would interact to a high degree, so I’ll do the recording with both of them together, in the fall.

Another decision (well, it’s more of a necessity than a decision) is to hire a mixer, whom I think of as my personal Doctor of Mixology. Think of your favorite rock recordings. The drummer is probably beating the daylights out of the drums, with cymbals ringing and bass drum thumping. The bassist is pumping out low notes. The guitar is wailing, and the singer is screaming. Yet you can hear everything, clear as a bell, spread out before you left to right as if the band were right there. How do you get this? You get a mixer who knows how to produce this sound. He (not to be sexist here, but I’ve never met or heard of a woman who does this kind of work – Women of the World, please enter into this realm!) helps to find the right sound for each channel – in my case, a bunch of different horn parts, a midi drum part, a live drum part, a midi bass part, a live bass part, and a bunch of weird solo thingies. He creates a field of sound so that there is left, right, front and back. He balances everything in terms of volume and tone. He clarifies but unifies. He turns the agglomeration of tracks into a coherent and listenable recording.

His name is Mike.

We had our first session last night, more to see where we would be heading than to do any kind of final work. It’s great to hear a muddy mess get turned into a clear and ringing performance. Gives me hope for the future. Mike will also be working the controls when we go into the studio with bass and drums.

By the way, if you thought that rock recordings were made by bringing the band into a studio, placing a bunch of mics, and pushing record and play at the same time, I hate to disabuse you, but the process is much more collage-like than that. In the present case, to give one example, I would play in a line that’s the basis of the tune that is developing, then program in a bass part and a basic drum groove, then record some accompanying lines, then listen and not be satisfied with the quality of the original line, rerecord that, then rerecord the accompaniments, then diddle with the sound quality, splice in a phrase, and so on. Classical recordings use the same collage principal, but all the recording is done together by the whole group, with editing done through the manly art of splicing (all done digitally now instead of with scissors and Scotch tape). It takes 3 or 4 days to record the material for a classical disc, but months to splice it together.

Next steps for me: finish polishing up the incomplete tunes, then assess the amount of material I have (looking for 45-50 minutes, which feels not too long and not too short), create another tune or two if necessary, then record drums/bass, then heavy mixing and mastering (creating the “master disc” from which the CD is printed), then cover design, then to press, then release, then cover interview for Rolling Stone magazine.

Hopefully, the disc will come out by the end of 2014. But don’t hold me to it.

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On Endurance, Thinking, and Playing

A few observations:

1. Wearing headphones for a long time is no fun. We’re not talking earbuds here, but good quality headphones that go over your ears and play a high quality sound so you can hear what’s going on. It’s a drag to keep them on your ears for long periods.

2. Being your own producer makes the horn playing harder. This is because you don’t get up any steam in the recording process. You play and record something, then diddle around with the computer, then do it again, then contemplate, diddle more, play a little more, and so on, never really building up a rhythm with the playing. In a traditional recording session, you record take after take, while someone else operates the machinery and does the contemplation.

3. Creating the ideas and executing them all at the same time is wonderful, but also hard. We classical musicians are used to an orderly process: someone writes the music, we get our part, we learn it, we perform it, we record it. In the current project, I’ll get an idea, then figure out how to make it work, record a few parts, reassess, think some more, record some more. Not only am I trying to make the idea work, but I’m interrupted by my own flaws (bad intonation, bad rhythm, bad sound…), and I have to be constantly going back and redoing stuff. It’s like building a sculpture by carving a little, buffing a little, gilding a little, then carving some more, then gluing something back on that you accidentally carved out.

What’s interesting is that a work process seems to be emerging. It goes like this. Get an idea. Record some of it. Move onto a different tune. A day or two later, come back to the first tune. Rerecord some of the lines so they sound better. Wait a day or two. Wake up at 6AM with a good idea for that same tune. Record some more. Eat lunch. Listen to new version, which gives a new idea for the drum part. Alter it. Wait a day or two… This is much less linear than I’m used to, much more cyclical. Which is hard, but satisfying in the end. I wonder if novelists work this way.

Incidentally, some house guests of mine gave me a turkey caller. It’s now part of my drum kit.

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The Turkey Call

I’m working on a song in a driving 6/8 time. The bass line is based on one of my etudes, but I didn’t want it to sound like a horn player playing the bass part. In order to give it a more mechanical and perhaps even angry feel, I decided to take a new approach. In order to explain what I did, a little background is necessary.

My software operates in two different worlds: audio and midi. Although all sounds that go into the computer have to be translated into the digital realm, the audio world is the world of true playback. The midi world is the realm of computer-controlled rhythm. Example: record a musical phrase in the audio world, and it will be played back as is, as if you had recorded it onto an old fashioned cassette. You can mess around with it, but it exists as a unit. OK, now record another sound, say a door slamming. You can then place that sound into midi, and set it to play evenly every beat, so that the door is slamming over and over again. Ableton, the software I’m using, lets you move audio sounds (like the door slam) into midi quite easily.

Next piece of background: Ableton comes with many prerecorded drum sounds, but you can also build your own. You could, for example, hit a snare drum and record the sound. You can then drag that sound into your midi drum kit, which is basically like a huge piece of graph paper in which you can drag one sound into each empty box.

But you don’t have to put drum sounds in the boxes – you can put any sound you want.

So, long story long, I put each note of my bass line into a midi drum setup. I then added a version of each note one octave lower (the computer does this at the push of a button; these were now seriously low notes) and put each of those low notes into the drum kit. I then built my midi bass line in the rhythm I wanted – to do this, you set up a time grid, and you tell the computer what note should sound when. I had my bass line, which included the notes I had started with and their octave-down versions. Then, I built a drum beat to go with it using my “found sounds” drum set. The result is quite menacing, and just what I wanted!

The moral of the story: you’re never too old to learn a new trick.

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CD update 2

Today’s work involved fixing up the Japanese sounding improv I worked on previously and starting a related tune in a different style. I had the idea to use improvised pieces to generate composed pieces, and to order them on the CD with the improv followed by the piece it generated. Bach wrote lots of “chorale preludes,” which are improvisatory meditations based on chorale themes (read: hymn tunes). So, you get the chorale prelude followed by the chorale which generated it. My idea is kind of similar, and I love combining the Baroque concept with the contemporary style.

The Japanese-ish improv needed a drum sound in it, and I ended up putting a kind of heartbeat in the bass drum. The heartbeat fit perfectly with what I had recorded previously. Now I have two issues to solve: the drone part should probably fade in and fade back out at the end. This is not hard but I need to figure out how to do it. And, because the drone is a loop (I can’t play a note for 2 solid minutes), there’s a little fold in the sound at the point that the loop re-initiates. There must be a way to iron this out. I will find the way!

Listening back to this tune gave me an idea for an accompanying figure to use in the new tune I’m writing. I recorded the figure, starting with the bass line. So far, the best way I’ve found to record bass lines is to record one track up an octave, and have the computer drop it down where it belongs (in the analog era, that would slow it down by half, but digital magic avoids that problem), then record it again playing it in the right octave. The two parts together give me punch at the beginning of the notes and lots of tone. Like an electric bass, right? Then, because the horn is a single-note-at-a-time instrument, I have to record the harmony parts into separate tracks which I can play back together as a unit. I also made a drum part using my customized “drum set” of found sounds. Then, I improvised over all of that, trying to achieve a kind of sexy Brazilian sound, which was suggested by the accompaniment I had written. It pretty much worked (a miracle, since I’ve never pulled off a sexy Brazilian-tinged solo before), so we’ll see where it goes from here.

It would be nice to have an improvisation lead to a tune, which contains an improvisation which leads to the next tune, and so on. That would give real unity to the entire album.

Don’t touch that dial.

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CD Update

I’ve been working away on the CD I’m creating. I have large parts of a funk tune and large parts of a sort of ballad. Plus small parts of five or six other songs. And I’ve learned a lot of interesting stuff.

The software I’m using, Ableton Live, was really designed with DJs and hip hop, or at least some kind of commercial music, in mind. It is very easy to create a drum groove, then another, and seamlessly switch between the two of them. The software wants you to write in even four-measure chunks. It wants you to repeat stuff (think dance grooves). This, of course, has an affect on what you write. Music that moves from one idea fluidly to the next (classical music!) doesn’t fit nearly as well into the software’s structure as music that has one very even section, followed by another very even section. Think of the kind of drawings you might do on graph paper as opposed to what you might do on blank paper. Yes, you can draw some freehand stuff on graph paper, but you are then subverting the structure that the horizontal and vertical lines are providing.

Everything that you record (every clip, which is the name for a recorded chunk of music) can be viewed on screen as a graphed wave form set against a timeline. The timeline is divided into beats and measures – it looks like a ruler. This is great when you record rock music, which unfolds in beats and measures (most western music does, though there has been a long-term historical move into first a more fluid approach and then an abandonment of beats and measures, or at least a subversion of them). What Ableton is able to do is find and put a marker at the beginning of each new phrase. Let’s say your phrase is supposed to start on the second beat of a measure. You record it, then you look, and lo and behold, you actually played a tiny bit later than the second beat – you can see it in the graph. Horn players are always late when we play – go to any orchestra rehearsal and you’ll hear the conductor telling the horns they are playing behind the beat (the horn players protest vehemently, though not to the conductor’s face). Imagine my horror to see this lateness confirmed in black and white. So – that’s bad! What’s good is that the software conveniently provides a little handle to drag the beginning of the note right to the beat. You can’t always make it work; sometimes you hear a little fold in the sound, which is no good, and you have to start over. But in this album, I’m recording lots of harmony parts. If a guitar or piano plays a chord, it’s pretty much a given that the players will hit the notes all at once. When recording each line of the harmony separately, it’s very nice to have some drag-ability to get everything together.

Many of the tools that are to be found in Ableton can be used for their intended purpose or for another purpose. For instance, the dragging tool I just described. I can record a chord (each note separately), then drag each note, starting with the bottom and going up, so that there is a tiny lag between notes. You’ll hear the lowest note, then the next, then the next, and so on up the top. Result: a strummed horn chord, something which has probably never existed in a song.

Ableton also comes with huge numbers of effects, like guitar pedals. The great thing is, you can either record with the effect on, so that you hear the effected sound, or record with no effects so that you hear the horn sound. You can go back and apply the effect once the sound is recorded. So, if I record a verse of a song, I can try fifty different effects on the melody line, or a hundred, or however many until I find the perfect sound for that song.

I think I mentioned in my last blog that I am using “found sounds” for my percussion setup. I’ve recorded (and altered) lots of sounds and built a kind of drum kit out of them. Like everything associated with this odd project, that is both good and bad. The uniqueness of the sounds is good, but rock sounds like rock because of bass drums, snare drums, toms, and cymbals. This is an ongoing project, looking for a convincing sound for the style that is still completely my own.

Finally, I love recording short improvisations against a drone. I did one today that seemed just right for the album, and I think I might do a few more, and intersperse them through the album as a sort of sorbet between courses.

Back to work.

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New CD

In the fall, I applied for and received two months of summer salary to record a solo CD. This is incredible: I will get paid to make my recording! Quite unusual in my world. At any rate, here is the project: I’ll be composing and recording all the music myself, here at my house. It is all going to be run through my electronics, and the music will be basically written and played in a rock style. It’s going to be a rock and roll album played by a solo French horn. Go figure.

The plan is first to create some homegrown sounds with which to build a “drum set.” My software has very good drum sounds built in, but I want to use hand made sounds, mostly but not entirely using the horn. Various kinds of scraping and whacking the instrument will be incorporated. My son can make a very loud tongue click on a few different pitches, and that will definitely be part of it. And any kind of body percussion and also hitting “objets trouvés” will be permitted (these are my own semi-arbitrary ground rules).

Next, I need to write the songs. I’ve got some sketches already. Some of the music will emanate out of improvisations I do. Everything I play will get recorded by the electronics software, so a kind of experimental composition can develop, wherein an idea I play can then turn into a piece of music without a note ever being written down.

By the way, I have never done anything like this before, which is what will make it exciting.  And which is why I’m blogging about it. I’m hoping to keep a kind of blog journal of the process, and those of my army of readers who find this a boring topic, feel free to tune out.

Meanwhile, the first thing to report is that my official duties as a professor end tomorrow, and already I have brought all my gear home from my office at the university and set it up in my chosen recording room. I will continue reporting in as often as there is something to report.

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A New Instrument

I spent a few days two weeks ago at the Horn Symposium of the International Horn Society, in Memphis. Sound like a nightmare? Well, I had a great time. Picture 500 horn players (I’m using the word “horn” to refer to my specific instrument, the French horn, as opposed to all the horns together (including trumpet, trombone, etc.)) all gathered on the same university campus, playing concerts, trying instruments, schmoozing, talking shop, buying music and CDs.

I know a lot of these people, and because of my job a lot of others know who I am. So the schmooze factor was in overdrive. My UW students play in a horn choir at school, so I bought lots of music for them to play. Great players gave recitals (for my non-musician readership, a recital is a solo concert, often with piano accompaniment; a concerto is a solo performance with orchestral accompaniment; a concert is a generic term for any performance; a masterclass is an event in which a great teacher teaches in front of a crowd, ideally (but not usually) enlightening everyone, not just the student who is playing).

A colleague of mine (well, everyone there was a colleague of mine) gave a masterclass in which he made a statement that I loved. He said, basically, that you can play any piece of music any way you like, but you must have an OPINION about every note you play. In other words, you don’t just play notes, but you play them in a certain WAY, and you think about how they should go. I loved how he phrased that, and have officially stolen the idea. It might sound simple or obvious to you, but it is very easy to just play notes and try to hit them rather than playing with a concept in your head.

A high point for me, aside from eating barbecue, came when I was chatting with a guy from Boston who, in addition to playing the horn, sells and repairs instruments. He asked if I had tried the new Yamaha horn. I didn’t know what he was talking about, and he brought me into a back room where there were two horns and a bunch of spare parts on a table and three Japanese gents behind the table. It turns out that Yamaha, which has been making horns for quite a while, is developing a new professional level instrument and they were having people try out various permutations.

For you non-hornists out there, I should explain that the horn has yet to find its Stradivarius. There is no unquestionably great horn maker who has revolutionized the instrument and set the standard for all, as Stradivarius did for the violin. Rather, we’re in a period of evolution, where different designs are tinkered with in ways small and slightly less small. Horns have a lot of tubing and there are different ways you can wrap up that tubing (we call this, not surprisingly, the wrap). The bell of the instrument flares out dramatically, but there are lots of size variables there. The instrument has a conical bore, which means that the tubing gets bigger and bigger as you travel the 20-some feet of tubing from the mouthpiece to the bell. In what way does it get bigger and bigger? It’s still open season as far as that goes.

It’s not that every horn maker starts from scratch, though. There are a few basic wraps that have become more or less standard, and the new Yamaha is one of these (a Geyer wrap, if you must know). Yamaha had settled on the valves (the buttons we push, which add a particular length of tubing, which enables you to play all the notes of the scale – there are four of them on this kind of horn), so the real issue was the very first piece of tubing (called the leadpipe, pronounced “leed” and not “led”) where your mouthpiece fits in, and the bell, at the other end, where the sound comes out.

It turns out that the leadpipe on horns has a complicated shape, and therefore can make a big impact on the instrument. Each of the two horns had a leadpipe built in (that’s normal), but there were  three extra unattached leadpipes on the table that could be taped on (high tech, I know). And there were, if I remember right, two extra bells. And of course the two horns (which, I believe, had slightly different bell throats, which is to say that the way they opened into the bell was slightly different). The specifics of this are boring to the non-player and possibly even to hornists, but the point is that there were lots of permutations to try.

And trying was FUN! Each permutation felt really different from the others. It was hard to describe in words what my reactions were, though not impossible, but after a while it became clear just by listening which combination of parts let me just PLAY and which ones made me adjust and fuss. It felt like I was being allowed to be present at the creation of the genetic makeup of the instrument. And the version that suited me best was fabulous, so of course I pleaded with the Yamaha people to make that the one they end up with. Time will tell.

So, see you all in London next year for the 2014 International Horn Symposium!

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