What with ’09 being the year of the weddings, there were a couple opportunities to stretch my musical muscles for the betterment of magical nuptial time.
Dave SG is an amazing friend. He also made our wedding cake. He asked if I would compose the processional for his wedding. I was truly honored (slash payback is a bitch). He also requested that it should be performed along with his friend Andrzej on guitar. After struggling with a couple different original tunes, I ended up adapting Dave’s favorite general fuzz tune. I think it came out quite nicely. I may revisit it down the road. I’ve named it dragon fly, after the theme for his wedding. Download it here.
Lars is also an amazing friend. He asked me to DJ his wedding. On my birthday, he made me a mix cd which included a random track discovered at the nursery school where he works. It is song about Lars, who fights off dragons and needs to eat lunch. It is a very cute acoustic track. Lars was lukewarm about playing the track at their wedding. I spruced it up a bit and slipped it in during dancing go booyeah time. It amused me to no end. And now you can hear it too.
I’ve been a fan of Jon Hopkins for a year or two now. I discovered his music when someone said I sounded like him, which I now take to be a huge compliment. Earlier in the week I saw he was going to play in SF, and since he hails from the UK and I’m on my show bender, I figured I should catch him. He was opening up for Royksopp, whom I’ve never heard of. I checked them out online, decided they were sorta fun, and figured I’d go pick up a ticket at the show.
On Thursday morning, I discovered that the show was sold out. Royksopp is far more popular then I realized. I checked craigslist, saw many people looking for tickets, and figured it wasn’t going to happen. No big deal. I was haphazardly checked craigslist every once in a while, when I ran across a fresh post selling a ticket for face, but the buyer had to come pick it up. I was downtown with no car, so it wasn’t realistic with the demand for the ticket. I called the seller, got the address, google mapped it, and saw it was in the far south part of the city. There was no way I could get there fast. Google maps will now plot your public transportation options, and upon clicking the pub trans link I learned there was a bus that left from right in front of my building, and the line ended at the exact address of the selling. And the bus left in 3 minutes. So I went for it. I dropped everything at work, ran downstairs, jumped on the bus, and headed to south SF. Sure enough, the bus dropped me off at the exact location I needed to be. I found the seller, bought the ticket, and since we were at the end of the line for the bus, the driver was smoking a cigarette, and I was able to get back on the same bus to bring me right back to work, just in time for our weekly social gathering. Booyeah.
Then off to the show, which was at the Grand. I hate the grand. Security made a huge stink over my metal water bottle last time I was there and the sound is generally terrible. It turns out that the Warfield just bought the Grand. Shockingly, security didn’t care at all about my water bottle or laptop, and they’ve put in an entirely new stack of speakers since I’ve last been there. Issues magically resolved. I got there right when Jon Hopkins took the stage, and his set blew me away. The way he adapted his mostly mellow musing to a dynamic, occasionally bombastic, live show was inspiring. His setup was all tactile and no laptop, so watching him deftly trigger and manipulate tracks was fairly engaging, which is unusual for this type of music. The light show brought it home. I was really impressed, which is no easy feat with my extreme electronic music snobbery. My only complaint was that it was too short, under an hour, but that’s what happens when your the opener.
There’s always a voice in the back of my mind that when I go to a show like this that it would be perfect if I could meet the artist, do a short shpiel and a cd handoff. The likely hood of this happening is almost nil, since the artist has to be milling around in the audience and I have to capture their attention. After Jon’s set, I scoped out the two areas that he was most likely to appear, and lo and behold, I saw him appear from the stage door. So I went up to him, chatted about venues in the city, and I asked him if he knew about echoes, and it turned out he just recorded a living room concert from them a couple weeks ago. Perfect. That gave me a fantastic license to do my self promotion thing and make the connection. I felt on top of the world. I don’t expect anything to come from these connections. They rarely do. Its just an unbelievable feeling to accomplish a really unlikely goal. I just felt completely in tune with the universe – that special combination of luck and preparedness.
I have to admit, Royskopp didn’t reel me in. They place got jammed, hipsters were everywhere, and it just wasn’t my scene. They do write some fun music though. I stayed for an hour and then bailed, hoping to make it home before Stiners went to bed. I made it back in the nick of time. After tucking Stina in to bed and saying goodnight, I actually felt like the luckiest guy in the world.
Echoes, a nationally syndicated radio show, ran a listener poll to honor their 20th anniversary of broadcasting new age/downtempo electronic music. The poll was to rank the top 200 cds played on their station.
Are you kidding me? I didn’t tell anyone about this poll. Not even my wife. Obviously, I’m deeply indebted to echoes/John Diliberto for promoting my music over the past few years. It’s such an exquisite honor to be listed so close to BT’s “This Binany Universe” (which is truly the album of the decade IMO) and Moby’s “Wait For Me” (which I love, and am psyched to see him in concert on Thursday). Just browsing through the list is to walk through some of the most brilliant music ever made. I certainly don’t deserve to be ranked higher then Sigur Ros, Air, Ulrich Schnauss, or Vangelis (to name just a few). I’m sure it helps that my music was more recently featured then some of these outstanding albums.
Anyhow, if you read my lessons page, you know that I don’t often get feedback on my music. Therefore, when something like this comes along, I really don’t take it for granted. My deepest gratitude to those who voted for me, and to echoes for supporting my music.
You’ll have to be patient for the next album. I’m made some real headway on it, but there’s a long way to go. It won’t be finished before our first child arrives in Feb/Mar, and therefore it’s not gonna happen for a little while after that. But I assure you I have no plans to stop creating music. There will be a sixth album eventually, and now I have a renewed spark to spend a few long nights this week working on it.
I’ve recently been energised with musical motivations, and have really begun to dig into a few new fuzzy tracks. Thank goodenss. This is lifting me out of a semi-depressive state and has fired up a few vacationing cylinders in the ole brain mass.
Sonic curiousity recenty posted a rather effusive and elequent review of all five of my albums (!). That was a suprise. I also found out the round about way (a new fan discovered my music) that a BBC documentary podcast used a few of my tracks.
I’ve finally posted Soulful Filling on Jamendo, so hopefully that will expose my latest to a few new folks. I recently got paid from magnatune and from the Prom Queen folks (for licensing my music in the next season), which spurred me to pursue a couple other monetary generating avenues. We’ll see how that pans out.
I’ve also finally conquered the both the major “new age-esque electronica” radio shows. I’ve already had some killer exposure through echoes, and now I’ve been highlighted on a recent hearts of space program. Booyeah.
A while back I wrote a blog post describing 6 lessons I learned about creating and distributing music on the internet. More than one person wrote me to say they were disappointed that the lessons didn’t touch upon the process for actually creating electronic music. So now that I’m back on vacation and had some time to ruminate, I’m going to try to jot down a few things I’ve learned about creating computer music. Please bear in mind these lessons are deeply rooted in personal opinion.
1. Pick a Tool and learn it.
All music creation software is going to have strengths and weaknesses. All the major sequencers – Live, Cubase, Sonar, Fruityloops, Reason, etc – have a huge group of loyalists and detractors. The reality, especially when you are just getting started, is that it doesn’t matter much which tool you pick. They all provide the basic functionality required to create music. What really matters is that you spend a lot of time learning the software inside out. They are all extremely powerful and versatile tools, full of innovation and nuances. It will take a lot of work to understand how to bend a sequencer to your will. Discover its limitations, and learn how to work around them. Amazing music has been created on all of them, so you know that it’s possible for you to do it too.
2. Don’t become a collector of software
I’ve discovered that I’m much more productive when I have limited resources. Don’t become a collector of sequencers and synth plugins. It’s so easy in this day and age to either download tons of freeware software or steal commercial software. Buy a sequencer, and play with the built in synths for a while. There are “lite” versions of all major software, and if you are just getting started with computer music the “lite” version will provide you with ample functionality. If you spend your hard earned cash on software, you’ll be more inclined to use it to its maximum potential.
Try not to go on a buying spree of synth plugins, because you’ll never dive deep into the potential of the plugins. It takes time to just become familiar with the presets of a synth. I’ve definitely gone on some synth buying benders, and became much less productive as a result. It’s great to have powerful tools at your disposal, but you need to be familiar enough with your tools to know when to actually use it.
3. Learn the foundations of electronic music
I think it’s extremely important to understand the basics of analog and digital synthesis. Even if you are planning on just using synth presets (as I do for the most part), you’ll want to know how to tweak a patch so it sounds just the way you want them to. I was lucky enough to attend Oberlin college where they offered advanced curriculum in electronic music. Everything essential I learned in the first semester: How to construct sounds on a analog synth, how to build patches on a sampler, how to route and modulate the sound signal, etc.
I think Reason is the perfect software to learn all these concepts on. The software is built just like a giant modular studio, where all the components and the way your tie them together mirror their real life equivalents.
4. Finish a Song
Not long after you get started, you’ll start creating little song snippets that you enjoy playing with. Eventually you’ll flush some of them out so that you have really awesome little song snippets. The real challenge is to create a full song from a song snippet. This is a daunting and often elusive task. So my advice is make a full song out of that snippet, even if it’s crappy and super repetitive. It just needs to have a beginning and an end.
The sooner you are confident that you can create a whole song, the sooner you’ll build the confidence that you can do it again. Otherwise you’ll be spinning your wheels indefinitely on lots of little song snippets. Once you have a complete song, you can always improve it. So . . .
5. Improve your songs
Find a good set of critics. People who you can listen to and take criticism from. It’s important to learn how to take negative feedback. You don’t always have to agree, but an objective set of ears often has a lot of value. Learn to differentiate from constructive criticism and mean spirited bashing. Its much easier to be a critic than a creator. All artists must learn to grow a thick skin, because almost everyone who is not you doesn’t appreciate your art.
Most listeners attention span is very short, so learn to trim the fat from your music. I’m always going back through completed tracks and finding measures which I can delete. It can be difficult to throw away some of your brilliant output, but songs are usually stronger when there’s less filler and more substance.
I personally can’t stand repetition in electronic music. I’m always looking to make variations in tracks so that it never feels like its constructed on repeated loops. I like to either create slight variations in note patterns or automate filters to keep repetitive parts interesting to my ears.
On the flip side, I’ve also learned to not over obsess over the details in a song. I self master all my own music, which is a huge, painstaking effort. I know a professional would do a much better job than I do, but the process of mastering a song usually reveals mistakes in the mix. At some undefinable point during this process the returns from tweaking a song starts diminishing. When a song sounds pretty much the way I want it to, it’s time to move on.
I’ve discovered that I work best by iterating through songs. After finishing an album, I’ll start from scratch. First I’ll create a new song. I’ll work on it a little bit. As soon as I start to become frustrated with it, I’ll create a new one. When the second song becomes less fun, I’ll go back to the first song. If no inspiration hits, I’ll return the second song. If nothing there, I’ll start a third song. And so forth. Always iterating through the songs, starting from the first one. I’m not super strict about this, but generally adhere to it.
After I have four or five songs that I’m working on, I’ll start filtering the tracks. I’ll listen to each one and put them in one of three folders – “likely”, “maybe”, “unlikely”. I’ll inevitable only work on the songs in the “likely” folder. And I’ll iterate through those tracks, creating new ones when I’m frustrated with the ones I’m working on, and when I have enough tracks I’ll filter them again. And so forth.
I used to not do this. I’d bang my head against a song until I couldn’t take it anymore, and would often be in a dark mood until I’ll could push through. I’ve learned that if I’m working on a bunch of songs simultaneously, I’m much fresher to the material when I revisit it. I know this advice seems to contradict with the “finish a song” statement – but there’s a big difference to having a whole song mapped out and from it being done. I also have the confidence that I’ll finish a song cause I’ve done it almost a hundred times. It took a long time to build that confidence.
Since it doesn’t cost anything to keep the songs from the other folders around, you don’t have to throw them away. One day they may become handy where you need a section for a song that you are working on. I often construct songs by taking two song snippets and figuring out how to seamlessly meld them together. I enjoy the challenge by taking two unrelated songs and figuring out how to blend them together. A good example of this is “starry” – the A and B sections were two unrelated song snippets. I massaged the B snippet to be in a related key to the A snippet, and eventually fused them together. Booyeah.
7. Frustration is part of the process
Great art always takes great amounts of work. I’ve now finished five albums, and what I’ve learned is that the pain and suffering you endure to create your music is what makes it so good. It’s the curse of having high standards.
I’m always working so hard to finish an album, but after it done, I become a little lost. If you are playing lots of gigs to support your music there’s lots to look forward to, but if you are mostly a composer like myself, it can be a big letdown. I’m starting to appreciate the process more than the end product. As I’ve gotten older I’m starting to grasp that life is about the journey, not the destination. Don’t rush the process. Without frustration there would be no fulfillment.
The advantages of computer music over a band is that you are in complete control of everything. The disadvantage is that you often get so stuck inside your own head that the music never evolves. To grow as a musician, you have to play with other musicians. Computer music is often a solitary art form. I think its important to find some other people that you can collaborate on tracks with. To work with a someone who has a different perspective or skill set is always a learning opportunity. I believe if you find the right musical partner(s), 1 + 1 = 3. As soon as I started using Live (instead of Reason), I started working with other musicians, and it propelled my music way farther than I could have taken it alone.
9. Dissect music that inspires you
Start picking apart the songs that you love. Learn how to play their melodies. Figure out what the chords progressions are, which can often be derived from the bass lines. Count out the rhythms. Make a .wav file of the song so that you can import the song in your sequencer. Then you can loop parts, even slow them down, until you understand how they are constructed.
First focus your attention on all the sounds that are at the front of the mix. After a while, tune those sounds out and listen to all the subtle sounds in the back of the mix. You want to learn to be able to focus on song and hear individual tracks in a mix. It takes lots of practice and concentration.
When I run across music that truly inspires me, I usually go through a couple phases. Soon after the joy of discovering such amazing art wears off, I’ll get depressed, because I’ll never be that talented. This is closely followed by jealousy. Eventually, maybe a couple days later, I’ll be able to celebrate it again. Ok, so I’m moody. Be glad we’re not married.
There are always going to be people who are more talented than you are. That doesn’t mean that your art has no value. Use the people who inspire you as teachers. Or break into their house and set their couch on fire. Your choice.
My approach to composition
I’m an improviser at heart. I’ll just hit the record button and jam with myself on a piano or rhodes until I hit upon an idea that might be worth revisiting. Then I’ll play around with the idea until its time to re-record it with a metronome to determine its actual rhythm and tempo. This will be the starting point for my new song. Then I’ll start flushing out this idea a little bit. Sometimes this initial idea, which is the launching point for my new song, will be removed along the way.
The way I compose music is akin to chipping away at a block of stone to create a statue. I tend to mold rough ideas into fully fleshed out song segments. I go over parts endlessly, tweaking this and that until it achieves the sheen that I want. I don’t often know what the end goal is, but I have the confidence that a good idea will eventually blossom into it’s potential. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but I can usually tell when an idea is worth pursuing.
I like pudding. One day I’d like to bathe in it. What a glorious day that will be.
I also like comments. Feel free to leave me feedback so I can learn how you resonate with my perspectives.
On Friday night, I was introduced to:
And in a maybe slightly over-enthusiastic frame of mind I claimed I would make a audio remix of the video.
So I did.
As the year comes to a close, I’m very proud to say that I ranked on both of the ’08 echoes polls. I’m #9 on the listener poll (thanks very much for voting for me!) and #12 for the echoes essential picks. This is really quite an honor.
I recently received an email from a music student which said that while its a great gift that I give my music away, its disheartening for someone like him who wants to make a living from his music. This is something which I’ve thought about a great deal in the last few years. Its a tough to justify against the argument that I’m devaluing something that people do as a means to support themselves. I hope that free music doesn’t discourage people from supporting other artists. The bottom line is that I am very fortunate. Its a joy to create music, its amazing to have such powerful tools at my disposal, and that I’m lucky enough to have a day job which pays the bills. I do it because I can, and I try not to take that for granted. I hope its helping make the world a better place. It’s certainly is something that fulfills me.
In no way should this devalue other peoples art. There is going to be an accelerating amount of freely available art whose sole purpose is to be shared. The Internet, the availability of inexpensive sophisticated tools, and a digital native population will ensure that. It will always take a combination of hard work and luck for your art to be seen beyond the scope of your peers.
Music is very much a thing of value, and I can’t imagine that will ever change.
The first Soulful Filling review just popped up on the intertubes, and it’s pretty fabulous. Many thanks to Scott for writing it.
Robert Johnson decided to set the world record for distance skateboarding, and is doing so by skating around the world. He’s documenting it too, all video blog style. His final update from his epic skateboard trip uses some of my tracks, and they work really well with his video:
Someone discovered my music via this video and kindly pointed it out to me. I then had an email exchange with Rob, and I simply marveled at the power of the internet to connect me with such an inspiring individual.