Jasper said, “I think it’s a J.”
I said, “I think its a N.”
Jasper waited a few beats, and said “Nope, its a K” with full confidence despite complete ignorance.
I thought to myself “Wow. There’s a game for a five-year-old”
A couple hundred hours later, I finished building 1.0 of that game.
I ended up building it using the ionic framework, and have published the android version of it on Google play. If you have 60MB to spare on your phone (due to lots of tiny videos of Jasper) and a small child who likes to guess things and touch screens, you should totally install it. I even wrote a theme song for the app.
“Nope!” uses realtime data from 511.org. If there is no internet, it just makes it up like Jasper would.
I also made the source code available. That’s just how I roll.
Releasing “Oughta See”
The journey to release “Oughta See” was quite different than what I had anticipated. About two years ago I developed permanent hearing issues as a side effect from taking prescription medication. Returning to music production was a challenging process, and the getting to the finish line with a new album was extremely victorious. It was also particularly draining.
While feedback on my music is infrequent, I do occasionally get some pretty touching emails. One day I got an email from a fan named Gus that included some audio clips where he played french horn over some of my tunes. I was floored that someone took the effort to record that and send it to me, and it sounded pretty good to boot. One google search later I discovered that Gus plays french horn for the Boston Symphony Orchestra! The timing was perfect, because I had just written a trumpet part that I wanted to try out. So the horn you hear on the first tune, “opening”, is Gus. The violinist on that tune is a new collaborator, Damian Sol. I met Damian through my Men’s group, and it was super fun collaborating with someone whom I’ve grown so much with outside of music.
Garrin Benfield is someone who I’ve seen play in the SF scene for almost a decade. I’ve had him in mind for a while, and it was awesome how much great material he gave me in a single session. He’s an incredible musician. Sarah Holtzman played a big role on this record with her flute prowess. I haven’t had her over for a session in over 5 years. It’s always a joy to reconnect with her.
The cover art
The cover art was an interesting collaboration. Dave SG really stepped up when I was in deep crisis. He flew across the country and spent a week with me. He changed the direction of my life by bringing me to the Men’s Circle. He’s an amazing artist, and we both really wanted to collaborate on the album. So when his family came out for a visit this summer, we discovered this flower picture, and he came with the idea of incorporating fire into it. Standing outside around a fire every week at the Men’s Circle is a big part of my life. He’s one of my closest friends, and we constantly inspire one another.
I’m really not promoting this album very much. A few years ago I tried to strategize how to grow my facebook audience. I correlated the number of likes to how important my music is. Now its just a number. I’m never going to have a huge audience. My music is niche and not instantly accessible.
I also know that my music has had meaningful impact of a number of people. Since I’m not trying to do this as my career, I don’t have to grow my audience it beyond what it is.
I wrote in my very first lessons post that my friends are not my fans. While that is still true, its have been a nice surprise to discover that I’ve won over a few more of my friends in the last few years. Two of my friends had my music on while giving birth.
I now have a lot of limitations about my hearing. I have hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to sounds) and tinnitus (ringing in my ears). That I can work in a solo controlled environment where I can easily adjust the overall volume is essential to me now. While I’m filled with regret and anger about this unwelcome change, I’ve mostly learned to adjust to my new life situation.
Finishing the album
As I very slowly worked on getting the songs finished and mastered, I found I loss the sense of urgency that I used to have. There was only the faintest of invisible whips at my back. By the time I released this album, these songs were mostly old friends. I’ll need some space from them, but I know in a year that I’ll really enjoy listening to them. I’m already able to tune them out when they are playing, and it used to take a year before I could do that.
This is my seventh album. It might not be my best one. I think “soulful filling” will be tough to displace. But, right now, it feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done. I can’t describe the joy and gratitude I have about being able still to create music. I’m a pretty excited to see what else I can uncover.
I woke up yesterday with an idea for a new part of a song. I sang it as best I could into my phone. Last night I transcribed it just as I imagined it, and added in a few new layers. Tonight I flushed it out even more and got it pretty dialed in. After a couple of listens of the whole song, I decided I didn’t like how the new part integrated in the song and deleted it.
I put 2-3 hours of work into this. The result was pretty faithful to what I had envisioned, which is rare for me. Yet, I don’t see it as a waste of time. It feel significant. I’m proud that I saw it all the way through and then was faithful to my instincts. It also makes me feel more confident about the original idea that I had before.
I also know that I will totally forget about this experience in a year from now – hence this post. Some of the work that I pour into these songs does not move them forward. It can be frustrating for sure, but it doesn’t drag me down the way it used to. Not all my ideas take me where I want to go, but I believe it’s worth finding out.
1. It’s crazy challenging to be a professional creator
I know a few professional electronic music producers. These are people who have more talent, attention to detail, knowledge, and discipline than I do. They all have multiple jobs and hustle to make money. Its crazy challenging to have a creative pursuit be a source of income. You will mix a ton of stress in with your passion. I made a choice to make music a hobby instead of my profession about a decade ago. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.
2. Facebook likes does not equal happiness
In the last few years I’ve discovered the joy of not caring if more people discover my music. While I would be unsatisfied if I didn’t have an audience at all, I do not believe I would be happier with twice as many facebook likes. I just feel grateful that there are people out there who care about my music. That is sustaining enough. This is another advantage of not requiring music to be a source of income.
3. Hating your newest release
I usually feel lousy about my latest album by the time I release it (though I may not admit it publicly). I am totally burnt out on it, and all I hear are the flaws. I’ve talked with other producers who have experienced the same thing. So if you go through this, then you might be doing it right.
4. Making music is a lot of detail work
The emotional component that I’m capturing when I compose a track happens during a handful of hours. It probably takes a hundred hours to complete a track. When people react emotionally to my music, they figure that I was feeling deeply when creating it. The reality is that the majority of the time is it more like a puzzle that I am trying to put together. I’ve learned to enjoy a puzzle though.
5. Find a mentor
A high level goal for the past 5 or so years is to find a mentor. I feel so incredibly lucky to have found one. It is a paid mentorship, and it is the best investment I could have possibly made. To have someone your respect listen closely to your music and provide concrete feedback is amazing. You need to be at a place in your life where you want to hear criticism and things you should change though. You need to disable your defense mechanism and then sort through all the feedback at a later time.
6. Shortcuts are important
Even though I spend far less time working on music then I used to, I’m far more productive with that time. I learned lots of shortcuts. I’m not afraid to use tools like quantize and doing lots of note manipulation after playing something that felt like there was some juice in it. I usually limit a music session to moving some aspect of a song forward. It makes me feel like I’m always making progress.
7. Find the silver lining
Due to life circumstances, I took a 9 month break from music. It has been awesome to re-discover songs that I haven’t listened to from 9 – 15 months. There’s a gift there. Making an album is really hard. It was like someone handed me a bunch of mature ideas on a platter. This makes it simply joyous to work on these songs.
8. Bad ideas are part of the process
Remind yourself that trying things that don’t work out is not a waste of time. When you find yourself frustrated about a project, put it away and do something else creative.
9. See the forest
Don’t get so lost in the minutia in the track that you forget the feeling you are trying to capture. Most people won’t care about the minutia.
10. Lighting is important
It’s really important to be able to adjust the lighting in your studio. You want to set the right mood for music time.
I’ve never had such a positive experience finishing up an album as I did with this one. Not setting a hard deadline for finishing the album was an excellent decision. It eliminated the element of stress from the tedious and time consuming process of finishing up the tunes (final mixes and mastering). I made loose goals along the way so I had something to aim for, but didn’t feel bad if it took longer to achieve these goals. My free time has diminished greatly from my pre-fatherhood days, so I really wanted to make working on tunes a fun outlet as much as possible.
My drive to promote my music has greatly diminished. I used to spend a lot of time sending out cds and emails to outlets for consideration. I very rarely got any response. It can be fun to share my work with other people, but its also a labor intensive process with a lot of rejection along the way. At this point, a decade in, my music has found some of its audience. There are people who care about it, and that’s pretty sustaining to me. Of course I hope my audience continues to organically grow.
My favorite part of making music is when ideas are flowing well and starting to coming together. It’s not when I’ve finished a track / album. It took 6 or 7 years, but I did eventually learn that it’s really more about the journey then the destination.
I pour myself into these songs. It takes more time then I care to admit. The tracks on this album took many different directions before they were finished. There was a ton of content that was written and removed. Many times I had to remind myself that trying things that don’t work out is not a waste of time.
All I used to create these songs was my computer, a mixer, two MIDI controllers, a mic, and speakers at slightly uneven heights (and a LOT of software). My recording room is completely untreated, with a tile floor, glass windows, several bikes, and a couple large plastic baby toys that need to be passed along. The recordings always sounded good enough to me. Thank goodness there are tools like RX and Melodyne to clean up my recordings though. I did outsource the some of tricky instrument recording though – thanks very much to the internet + skype.
In the past three years I’ve become aware of what an amateur I am at producing, mixing, and mastering music. I’ve attended workshops with Carmen Rizzo and Rena Jones. I have learned that there is a huge amount of knowledge that I’m lacking. They all have very strong opinions over what gear and software you should use, how to treat your audio, and to never self master your music. If you listen to one my tracks and then of their tracks, you can hear the difference. I don’t think of this as a failure on my part – I just know that there is a lot more to learn, and that later in life I hope to learn more about my craft.
I’ve been making music as general fuzz for over a decade now. I no longer feel the burning need to prove to myself that I can make an album. I also have no intentions to stop creating music. General fuzz has become such an important part of my identity. I hope to create music for the rest of my life, and in theory, I have a lot of time left. I do need to try vary the course some though. I’ve got to try working in different styles and collaborating with different people, so that I can grow as a musician. I need to also take breaks from music, and allow some time for inspiration and motivation to brew.
Releasing an album is very exciting for a number of reasons. One aspect that I have only become aware of recently is that it acts as snapshot of my life. I can now listen to my previous releases and remember what was going on at that time. It’s also something concrete which represents a step forward in my path as a musician.
Most importantly, I’m proud of what I made. So far I have no regrets about the album, which was my ultimate goal. I felt that way after “soulful filling”, and I learned that it was worth aiming for.
Also, this moment brought everything into alignment.
With great pride and pleasure I’m releasing my sixth general fuzz album, “miles tones”. As always, it’s available as a free download off my website: http://www.generalfuzz.net.
Its been over three years since my last release, and during that time I became a grown up. My 1.5 year old son now takes center stage in my life. There are many musical references in this album reflecting the anticipation, arrival, and development of my son during the past few years.
This album turned out to be sort of a companion album to “soulful filling”. It has that same mellow vibe and melodic sensibility. I’ve decided to attempt to release albums with a more consistent vibe, so all my latest mellow tracks ended up on this one. As a result, the next album will have significantly more bump to it.
I was lucky enough to work a whole mess of truly amazing musicians in past couple years. It was an absolute honor to have Audio Angel, Josh Clark (the guitarist Tea Leaf Green, a band I have seen 20+ times), Ryan Avery, Phoebe Jevtovic Alexander, Jesse Ivry, Emiel Stöpler, Shakiban, Peter Medland, and Ryan Hughes in my “studio”. I’m particularly grateful to Ryan Avery, a stellar violinist and electronic music composer, who generously came over to my studio many times to help flush out some tracks. If you dig my music, you should definitely check out his – its in a similar vein to mine.
I decided not to make any CDs for this release, since its wasteful, expensive, and, really, its sorta pointless in this day and age. I’m always very grateful for donations, and the money always goes directly back into my music. I’ve added 4 awesome new “locked” bonus tracks to my website. If you send me a donation, and I’ll send you all 7 locked tracks. It’s like a whole bonus general fuzz EP. I also built a “song unlocker” on my website to incentivize folks to spread my music on the internets. If you simply post my website anywhere on the internet (facebook, twitter, google+, blog, etc), let me know, and I’ll unlock a bunch of tracks for you.
Many thanks to Chris Brown, Nora Barrows-Friedman, Dave SG, and of course my incredible supportive wifey, Stiners “the pants” McGee.
The album art was a photo taken by Sophie Thouvenin.
I do very much hope you enjoy this release. Feedback of all kind is always welcome.
Thanks so much for listening.
Unlike the last two “lessons” post, there is no unifying theme to these ideas. These are just random thoughts that I jotted down over the last year while I was working on tunes. Hopefully you can find something useful in one of these savory thought nuggets.
1. Instant inspiration
When I need to work on something fresh, I’ll take a song that has already been somewhat fleshed out and start a new unrelated song section using the same set of plugins. I might keep a drum part or bass line from the original song to use as an anchor, and I’ll try and build something new in one or two sittings. Since I’m “restricted” to the plugins already in the track, I’ll spend no time patch/plugin hunting. The entire time I’ll just be writing music. It’s most often a cathartic exercise, and occasionally I’ll write something worth keeping. I could either fold this new part back into the original song, or use it independently.
2. Focused song writing
When I’m trying to write a new melody line for a tune, I’ll create a loop in a song section and start jamming. As soon as I play something interesting I’ll stop recording and drop whatever I just played in the section. I’ll tidy up the bad notes and off rhythm, and then play around with the notes in the midi editor. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m an abuser of quantize. I used to just jam on the loop for like 20 minutes and then scrub through the entire recording until I found the interesting ideas. This new approach is way more efficient way to make progress on a song (though maybe not as fun as the endless jam approach). I may do several passes in a section to see if I can create a few different melodies, but I often stick with my first idea and move on.
As of late, I’m letting finished songs sit idle for long periods of time – like 6 months to a year – before revisiting them. Then I’ll have fresh ears, and am much more willing to modify (and hopefully improve) the song. Similarly, it’s fun to go through unfinished songs that I haven’t looked at in a while and re-evaluate then. Often I find a single section in one of these songs that I think is strong, and throw the rest of it away. I might try to meld this section with other cannibalized song sections. I love the challenge of trying to connect two unrelated song sections together – transposing sections to related keys and trying to find a way to make interesting transitions from one section to another.
4. The hustle
The vast majority of opportunities for your art are not handed to you on a silver platter. When there’s a musician I want to rope into playing on a track, a producer that I really want to meet, or whatever – I find a way to make the connection happen. It’s showing up to gigs early or staying late after a show to make an introduction. It’s knowing when a person of interest is going to be at a place and finding them. It requires good timing, confidence, humility, and friendliness. Like anything important, there’s the risk of failure. In the long run, you rarely regret trying, where you will almost always regret not trying.
5. The whole story behind the music
I recently had a recording session with a violin player that I thought went really well. Upon reviewing the material, I found that I wasn’t happy with the way things were recorded – the phrasing and dynamics of the recorded parts didn’t sit well with me. I initially got depressed since I thought I had wasted my time. Later, I remembered that the recording session was necessary to clarify what I wanted the violin parts to sound like. I’m confident that during subsequent sessions, I’ll record the parts the way I want them. I’ve been through this experience many times. It just takes a lot of time and patience. Listeners to my music have no idea how many failures and changes I made to these songs before they hear them. Moreover, they don’t care (and I don’t blame them), much like you don’t care about the many edits I made to this post. Looking back, I don’t remember the painstaking hours I spent obsessively tweaking my tracks.
6. Letting tunes ferment
When I released my last album (Soulful Filling), it was the first time I had no lingering doubts about a release. Almost two years later, I still feel the same way, which is sort of astonishing. I know I’m not going to be able to do it with every release going forward, but I now know it’s a goal worth pursuing. Currently I have a dozen or so tracks taking shape with a similar enough vibe, so I started mentally assembling the track order of a new album. When I looked at what would comprise the next album, I knew that I wasn’t going to feel as good about it as I had about Soulful Filling. So I removed any tracks that I had doubts about from the track list. I can always release them as bonus tracks. Of course this advice could easily be taken too far. There’s no need to be paralyzed by quest for perfection. The goal of an artist is to constantly grow and improve – so I’m not hoping that this next album is the best album I’ll ever release. My goal is to release something that I believe I will have few regrets about a couple years later. Set your bar high, but not out of reach.
7. Making progress
Previously, I mentioned that I always iterate through tracks to reduce frustration. Another thing to add to that is that when I open a track, I always try to either add or modify something before closing it. This helps me feel like I’m moving it forward, even if I abandon it later. Unless I’m really in the zone working on a song, a music session will last about 20-60 minutes (my free time is pretty limited these days anyways). I’m pecking away at these tunes, but I don’t care. I used to get so lost in my obsession to produce music that I forget I make music because its fun and emotionally fulfilling. Its important to not to lose sight of this.
8. Self mastering
I’ve self mastered all 5 of my albums. I am by no means a mastering jedi – infact, I’m quite an amateur, with almost zero training in the subject. I sent out my second album to get mastered and was totally unsatisfied with the result, so I figured it would be better if I just did it myself. Its a terribly painful and tedious process, and I’m not very good at it either. The best thing about mastering your own tunes is that I inevitably always find mistakes in the mix along the way. This is invaluable. So even if I send out my next album to get mastered by someone who knows what they’re doing, I will always do a first pass so that I can hopefully identify all the mistakes in the mix.
9. Ableton Live
Little magical musical accidents sometimes occur in Ableton Live. As soon as I have a set of clips that are working well together, I lay them out in the arrangement view. I’ll create a loop for this section in the arrangement view, and then add new parts back in the session view. By default, the last clip recorded in live will playback when I hit play in the arrangement view. When I move to a different section of a song, the last thing I recorded will automatically (and non-intentionally) play in the new section. Occasionally it will sound inspiring (though never spot on). So I’ll investigate, reorganize the melody and rhythm of the clip so it works in the new section, and BAM, new unintentional part to the song that may even help connect two sections together.
Please let me know if you found any of these useful, or if this post reminded you of other lessons you’ve learned along the way. . .
When I was growing up back east, I had a very hard time accepting feedback from other people, especially my parents. I was particularly defensive when it came to my ideas, which was probably to compensate for how emotionally fragile I was. Over the years, I have dialed back this defense mechanism since it turns out that other peoples ideas can be valuable. By which I mean, worth money. For example, Garbage Pail Kids was not an idea I came up with, and that guy was laughing his way to the bank when I was 8 (and deeply defensive).
I’m currently nearing the end of my second paternity leave. This was very different then round 1, since Jasper has developed into a little dude and we have a nanny 3 days a week. Knowing full well that I was going to have some time to work on projects during this leave, I tried to come up with a challenging computer project that would force me to learn some new mad nerd skillz.
The initial idea came to me when I was last in Newton, and I attempted to explain it to my dad. He had some feedback, which I initially rejected. I later mulled over his words and happened upon some shiny useful nuggets which somewhat reshaped my initial idea. This is a hard learned technique I picked up from surviving a long term relationship. More over, I realized I could get more nuggety goodness by sharing my project idea with lots of other people and seeing what they had to say. So for the first time in my life, I actively solicited lots feedback from tech savvy people. The rewards for this approach have been bountiful (in terms of insightful ideas, not cash). The trick was to be open to all feedback, and take my time evaluating what people had to say. I believe this to be the most valuable thing I’ve learned during developing this web application, which has nothing to do with all the intentional computer learning that I set myself up for.
Now that I’m finished the first pass at this app, I’m really interested in the feedback that my beta testers have to give. Instead of being bruised by negative feedback, I’d like to see if I could use any of this information to improve the app.
The basic idea behind the app is a general fuzz song unlocker, where people earn the right to unlock bonus songs by promoting my music. It’s a little ironic to spend so much time and energy building something that I know my fans will actively dislike. Almost all my previous music was free to download before – how could I have the nerve to make people jump through hoops to get new stuff? This is the advantage of being slightly more established then I was a decade ago – there are at least ten people across the globe who are willing to do a little more then nothing to hear unreleased tracks.
I had a relevant conversation with Stina at dinner. She was talking about how amazing our friends wedding website was. When I asked, she admitted that she hasn’t taken the 5 seconds to write them an email telling them how much she liked it. We consume, and rarely provide feedback to those who produce. I’ve already fully come to terms with this behavior. Therefore, I’m trying to incentivize people to take that easy extra step. It’s an interesting idea which may not work at all. If nothing else, I had a really fun time building the app (I had almost forgotten that I actually enjoy programming), it’s a very solid piece of code that I can add to my resume, and I’ve internalized a valuable life lesson. That is, money is good.
One of the major fears I grappled with during Stina’s pregnancy was that my musical self would become seriously diminished. Now, on the other side of the baby fence, I’m relieved to find the fuzz fire still burning. While life is certainly fuller, its not going to be a Herculean effort to carve out time to make sweet love to my keyboard.
I’m in an interesting place with my music. I have 10-11 songs in my pocket – some finished, some on their way. Instead of kicking into high gear trying to finish up the album, I’m attempting to soak in the satisfaction of being flush with songs. In the last few years, I finally realized it’s more about journey then the destination, and the journey is a lot more fun when it has clear direction.
I’ve also been working on a secondary album – one that will be a bit of a departure from my previous releases. I’ve been working on some far more aggressive songs. It’s been super fun to crank the speakers and rock out. I’ve always had a love affair with quality aggressive music – Metallica, Audioslave, the Crystal Method, etc. These new songs will most likely alienate my core audience – so I’ll need to strategize how to release it. One idea is to release it under a different pseudonym, but it seems a shame not to capitalize any fan base that I’ve built.
My fourth album, Cool Aberrations, spanned from super mellow to some somewhat uptempo. Like all my previous albums, it was really just a snap shot of all the songs that I had been working on at the time. After releasing Cool Aberrations, I decided that I wanted my next album to set a chill vibe and maintain it. Its amazing, and frankly surprising, to say two years after I released Soulful Filling that I still have no regrets about it. It came out exactly the way I wanted it to. I can’t say that about any of my previous releases. I doubt I’ll say that about my next one, but it’s a nice goal to have.
In the past two years I’ve also written a couple of fun mid tempo tunes. So I’m trying to determine whether I should put these tracks on my next album (like I did in albums 1-4) or spin off yet another album of mostly midtempo tracks. I go back and forth on this. It’s a little stressful for to think about, so I’m trying to coax the decision to be more playful then stressful. Should an album be a snapshot of my current work, or should I continue to try and maintain a vibe? I’m not sure. This next album won’t be as consistent as Soulful Filling regardless of my decision. That’s fine. It’ll take a listener on a fine melodic journey.
Another thing I’m also considering is changing my tag line. Currently, its “lush melodic instrumental electronica”. While that’s as succinct a way I can describe my music, its not very targeted. I’ve discovered that my fan base is largely comprised of folks who enjoy new age music/lifestyle, which is kinda funny since thats not my bag anymore. I certainly listened to a fair bit of new age music when I was a teenager, but that was 20 years ago. Anyhow, I was thinking of trying to capitalize on that fact, and change the tag to something like “new age 2.0”. I was originally thinking “new age evolved”, but Stina thought that sounded condescending to new age music. Anyhow, it’s just another idea to kick around as the album coalesces.
Recently, I’ve seen a bunch of studios of artists that I admire. They are all chock full of synths, analog tape machines, and other electronic music gear. I get by quite nicely with a computer, two midi controllers, and a mic. Here’s a picture of my studio in our east bay house. The posters extend all the way around the room. It’s a little ironic that I’m such a live music fan yet I produce and compose very precise electronic music.
Anyhow, I’m definitely interested in any feedback you might have on album composition or tagline ideas. . . .