Album Challenge: Post 24

Shaky Terrier is starting to sound like a song. Yay.

One thing I learned from listening to the Flaming Lips was: You can have more then one bass. While screwing around I happened to have 3 basses pulled up on the mix. I liked it. So these tracks have 3 bass lines for the most part. All hit up with Reaper’s bandisto, a kind of transistor distortion. They were meant to be 3 unison tracks, and are at times, but I liked the mess of mostly-unison. So here it is.

Finally got the key or finally settled on one. 1/2 step can make a big difference. Note that self.

I’ve wanted to use my live drums for some time. Just another sonic palate. I used the mic that was set up for my vocals. One mic that is about 12 feet from my snare. Sounds pretty good. I may just stick with that. Although my playing is whoa-fully late on the kick. On top of these drums I plan to sing “Mr. Fritzy Kibbleton”. It’s kind of a chorus-anthem thing.

I have some other ideas… adding variety to the BFD drums, doubling the length of the Shaky Terrier Chorus. We’ll see where it goes.

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Album Challenge: Post 23

I may as well admit I won’t be finishing this album on time. My self imposed deadline was tomorrow. Although I have enough material recorded there is still the matter of mixing, fixing, artwork, etc.

I’m ok with the lateness. I’ve still done a lot in six months. I’m more then 70% there I’d say. Better progress then I’ve made in years.

My current song, Shaky Terrier: Mr Fritzy Kibbleton, is coming along slow. Here is something.

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Album Challenge: Post 22 Picking a Key Again

Here’s the first attempt at this song entitled “Shaky Terrier: Mr Fritzy Kibbleton”. It’s way rough and I bet barely recognizable from the final version.

It’s great when you don’t take your own advice and then end up doing extra work. A while back I talked about choosing the right key for a song early on. I generally pick a key where my voice fits the song. If it’s a high energy song I might put my voice near the top of it’s range. If it’s a chill song maybe more toward the middle. What I generally don’t like is singing most of the song in a strained place.

I think it’s worth spending some time figuring this out because the final vocal usually comes after all the other tonal instruments. you don’t want to re-track all the guitars, the bass, and keys just because you decided your voice sounds better down 3 half steps.

Ooops. And that’s what I just did.

I think a good exercise for picking a key is to sing the whole song out loud a few times. Intuitively you may start where your voice works best. I just did that and came up with the key of #G on this one. If you don’t have success with that try using a piano and starting on different notes. Eventually you’ll find a starting place that makes the whole song sound good.

It’s also been helpful for me to wait a few days after I’ve rehearsed a song. It’s hard for your voice to open up and be relaxed when you aren’t totally familiar with the timing and rhythm. After a few days of practice you may find you are comfortable up a few half steps (if you want to go there).


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Album Challenge: Post 21

It’s been some time so I’m just going to lead with some work. A bit of technical stuff will follow. This one is called “Make Up in the Car”. Here is an earlier version.

Here is a later one. I don’t know how finished this is. I do know I’m getting burned out on it. It’s a better idea to move on to the next song.

Now for something more technical… I’ve been trying to facilitate fast recording. The idea is to capture ideas very quickly.

One thing I’m doing regularly is setting my vocals up for quick compression. That way I can hear how it will mix faster. It also lets me compare vocal takes quickly.

Here is how it works in Reaper. Reaper lets you define your custom settings as defaults. So I can set up a default compressor with the ratios and thresholds I like. I can set up a default track to have two instances of that compressor. Now every time I add a new track I get two compressors loaded on it (in bypass) with my settings. The compressor’s threshold is tuned for a normalized vocal. So I normalize the vocal and I’m good to go.

I spent some time dialing the compressor in. I wanted to compress things a lot but not hear the compressor. What I figured out is compression at low ratios (2:1, 4:1) starts getting heard at about a -6db reduction. That’s when they start to sound like someone is cranking down the volume. There is a bit more to this. Obviously there were some other parameters I needed to change to get a natural sound… attack, pre-attack, and this is only valid for Reaper’s ReaComp compressor. Also note the second compressor will not be operating on a normalized peak of 0 since the first compressor will knock that down.

I know someone is going to say this is equivalent to using presets. We all know presets can be useless on the wrong source. But in this case it’s not quite the same. I know the maximun peak on the audio. And I’ve tested out my settings on the compressor. So imo it’s just a time saver. kind of like a custom preset.


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Album Challenge: Post 19

Something I’ve been meaning to do it try and finish a song in one day. For me that’s about 4 or 5 hours when you count the actual work time. Anyone who says they are creatively productive for more then 5 hours a day is either lying or exceptional. They are lying. If they aren’t I wish they would so I could feel better about my snails pace.

So here is a song called make up in the car. It’s about how my wife gets up so very early each day and each day we still scramble out of the house to school. And where does that time go? Once again the second half of breakfast and makeup take place in the car.  Guess I’ll have at it.

Lets call this an exercise in breaking my normal work patterns. Something I think is important.

Ok. Day over. And here we have it.

It’s far from a full song. But something very nice happened. Or I felt something very nice. For the first time since I started working on this song I’m starting to think it could work. That is, be a good song and be put on the album. Some songs, maybe this one, are very delicate. If you don’t get the right rhythm they fail. If you don’t pick the right key they fail. If you don’t have the right tempo they fail. If you don’t sing them right they fail.

Speaking of singing. I tried this one in 2 different keys. Tried singing it at medium volume and low volume. Tried micings at 14″ and 24″. I pretty much always sing off axis now. That tames the sibilance in my voice.

What I figured out on this song is I like to sing back at about 20″, sing at a low volume, and sing in a higher key so the high notes are around an F3 (if I’m counting keys right). Getting the vocals right was what made me think this song could work. They are still very unrehearsed and the lyrics need to come together. Maybe today.

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Album Challenge: Post 18


What did I say about writing rap lyrics and learning Ableton Live on vacation? Well it’s over now and I’m certain I didn’t do either.

After a day of “normalizing” back in San Francisco I have now sequestered myself in the studio. I’ve even produced some lyrics. All I can say is, when you get in the zone or flow or whatever you call it, write as much as you can. That’s a place hard to get back to.  Although I’ve come up with some topics I like they aren’t exactly lyrical.

Here are some examples. Keep in mind the theme of the song is someone turning 40 or go listen to it in my last post.

  • Alexander the great had an empire when he was 30. By the time he was 40 he was dead 8 years.  You are doing better then that guy. (I once got a birthday card with something like that on it)
  • Every time you look in the mirror you see something new. Hair is missing from a good spot and growing where you don’t want it to.
  • As an example of shifting interests I give tips on maintaining a lawn. “First I let it dry, mow it down, apply some weed control, rake out the thatch. Hey, where did everybody go?”

I guess you’ll have to hear this stuff in context to make full sense of it. The issue I’m having is these sentences don’t fit into the syllable patterns I need them to. And even if they do the accents aren’t in the right places. For example, I might have an “s” sound where a vowel would work 5 times better. As I listen to what I wrote two years ago I realize how well it works.

Ok, new day. This is actually day 3 of semi writer’s block. Let me tell you what has worked. Two days in a row I woke up slightly hungover and had immediate ideas. This morning I wrote what will become that extra verse. Just sticking with it for 3 days has helped. Every day my thoughts became more… congealed.

And what didn’t I do to shake the writer’s block? I took breaks. I walked away for a while. I broke out the large artists notebook (I like to write on spacious black pages). I listened to some rap I like. I listened to some William S Burroughs giving advice on aging. I re-read the old email from Katie that started this whole thing. I tried to list the themes I’d covered in the old lyrics so that the new lyrics would be fresh ground. I paced the room bouncing a tennis ball while thinking lyrics (something I heard Paul Simon does).  I searched online for “things that change when you are 40″. That actually lead me to include “lawn care” in the song. I played drums for a bit to clear my mind. I went to a site that generates Brian Eno’s oblique strategies. I flipped through 10 and considered each. Then I got to this one, “It is simply a matter of work”.

And it was.

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Album Challenge: Post 17

It’s funny how things work. Many years ago I thought about trying some rap. But I could never put it together and I knew it. Rap is harder then you or I think. If you are a rapper you already know this. For those that think rap isn’t music or think it’s easy please try writing/producing a rap song.

Two years ago I wrote a rap song for a good friend’s 40th birthday. I should take on more of these requests because they end up producing some good stuff. This is what I finished in two days and sent off to him.

I talked about the importance of perspective. This has had 2 years. I’m sure I like it. I’m sure it fits with the album theme. It needs an extra verse. It’s needs some production. I’m hoping to finish at least the lyrics out here in Maine.

I’m on vacation. As my homework I’ve taken on writing these rap lyrics and trying Ableton Live.

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Album Challenge: Post 16

I think I’m ready to move on to the next song.


Here is what the latest version sounds like.

Here are some notes on what’s changed since the last version.

  • Completely re-tracked the vocals. The old ones weren’t rehearsed enough.
  • Added drums in parts. Again, here is that pattern I see popping up all over my songs. The kick is only present in the chorus.
  • Added strummed acoustic guitar chords leading into the chorus. Reminds me of Pink Floyd.
  • Added bass. I’m starting to convince myself I know how to think in bass. One thing I have over a sessions guy is I know the material very very well.
  • Added shouts. Screw!
  • Added a siren type sound. It’s actually my voice being pitched around by an auto tuner. I was shocked at how well that worked.
  • Piano rhythms change up throughout.
  • I used a paper towel to get a pizzicato acoustic guitar sound.
  • I added some internet found sound for the Bart announcement.
  • Added heavily distorted drums at intro.
  • Added some vocals as pads. Heavy delay. Some auto tuning up an octave.

Here is an example of the pizzicato guitar.

Here is the auto tuned vox effect. There is a bit more then auto tune on this. But auto tune is doing all the pitching work. This is just the stock plugin that comes with Reaper.

Next up a rap song. Something that was fully produced once before. But at the time it was a one day rush job. I didn’t get the sound I wanted.

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Album Challenge: Post 15

The importance of gaining perspective. After working on a song for a while it’s easy to loose perspective. Sometimes a throw away part is my favorite in hindsight. This has happened enough for me to get smart about it. Now I record a lot of ideas and review them after a day or two.

A good monitor mix. I have never been in a studio where the monitor mix wasn’t rushed and needed tweaking (Granted most of my studio recording was under “budget strain”). A good mix lets you hear the relevant parts of the music so you can pitch, stay in time, and “feel” the music as you perform . It let’s you hear the nuances of your performance if you need to. Take the time to get it right.

Why do I bring this up? I’ve been doing a quick and dirty monitor mix. I used headphones that were way too bass heavy. That was actually the biggest issue. Now I’m using some AKG 240s. It’s night and day. I can hear little details in my voice. Pitch better. Hear the music better.

They are open headphones. Imo open headphones always sound more open. They have less resonant cavity. Could the music bleed into my vocal tracks? Sure. Maybe a little. Ask yourself what’s important? The world’s cleanest album or a good vocal performance? From that perspective it’s easy.

Another tip worth mentioning; monitor with one ear open to the room. My voice never sounds natural through headphones. It always does in the room.



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Album Challenge: Post 14 Production List

Summery: Here is a list of production tips that have worked for me. Just jutting them down as a reminder. This list isn’t static. I’ll be updating it as I discover new ideas.

Drums: (I’m using BFD2 but these ideas aren’t specific to BFD imo)

  • Humanize velocity. When I do this the drums have more excitement… human quality? I wonder if differences in velocity can be perceived as timing variations? I’m using the global BFD parameter here. Not sure if you can do it per drum unless you use the grooves page.
  • Add swing timing. Sometimes I like this. Other times it doesn’t work at all.
  • Dry drums: Try dry hi-hats with the quickest decay. Try dry snare direct mic. Don’t use ambient mics at all. Ambiance can take up a lot of mix space.
  • Velocity to dynamics: Try setting at 100% for lots of dynamic variation.
  • Try adding my acoustic kit a la Beastie boys low-fi drums.


  • Use the sm7
  • Double the voice. You might have to do many short takes to get spot on doubles. As a variation try recording at different distances or with a different timbre to the vox.
  • Instead of moving the mic off axis to reduce high end leave the mic parallel with the floor and sing off axis.
  • Get a good monitor mix with non-boomy headphones. Hearing a good mix is important for the performance.
  • Set the compressor up for normalized audio. Record several takes, explode in place, normalize, add compressor.


  • Play a real bass. It just sounds better. A real performance has more interesting articulations.
  • Add some transistor type distortion. This adds high end that is harmonically related.
  • Record at half time. This allows me to play faster stuff I normally can’t. When played back at normal speed it doesn’t sound quite the same as real time playing but it’s a sound.


  • Vary the rhythm.
  • Vary the accents.
  • Add the sustain pedal. This gives things a certain dissonance that works on some songs.

Acoustic Guitar:

  • Strings can be muted with things like a paper towel. This gives a soft puckish sound.
  • As for vox leave the mic static and rotate the guitar to get the right balance for the song.
  • Try hard panned doubled performances of simple strummed chords.


  • Try using the vox as a pad a la “Terrible Doubts”. Use massive delay as I repeat phrases/sounds on the mic
  • Remember I can capture any sound routed through my sound card. Think “found internet sounds”. Cntr clicking on the output channels will route them to my DAW.
  • Autotune can be used to slowly pitch up anything with a stable pitch. It can used to pitch a sample to several different notes to follow a chord progression.
  • The reverb in my bathroom sounds very good on some things. Try committing to some of my house reverbs. A portable recording device can be used to monitor the song (Zoom recorder).  That way I don’t have to lug my whole rig, mics, cables.
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