Wednesday, October 30, 2013

MIDI tutorials: string writing 101

One of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve had in recent years is arranging/writing “orchestral” backing tracks for my west-coast band, Helsott.  Much of my formal musical training (AKA “schooling,” which I find accounts really for little in the real world, but hey!) was as a composer.  However, I don’t think I’ve touched a piece of manuscript paper to compose in almost 15 years now! 

The fun thing about doing orchestral arrangements for a metal band, albeit sampled orchestral arrangements, is that it gives me a chance to flex those “classical” muscles I rarely use these days, and it brings that world right into collision with the world I mainly inhabit in my day to day gigging, that of music production.  Not only do I record and produce, but I also have worked as an instructor in vocational music production courses at the college level.  I find it really fun to share tips and tricks for production in the classroom environment; now, as the “mad metal professor,” I’ve decided to start blogging some of my favorites!  And here is my first installment...enjoy.

Create realistic sounding strings with MIDI sequencing:

1. Understand the ranges of the instruments that you’re trying to emulate!  A violin cannot play a D in the middle of the bass clef (D2 in MIDI language), and if your sampler doesn’t use this type of range constraint, you’ll need to KNOW what instruments can play what notes.  Get a textbook on instrumentation/orchestration; the two I recommend are Blatter’s “Instrumentation/Orchestration” and Kennan’s “Technique of Orchestration.”  These are both excellent tutorials on writing for strings and contain real-life examples of good string arranging.  One thing to be aware of, however, is that the designation for middle C in MIDI language and in “classical” writing is different.  In MIDI, C3 is middle C in most cases.  In classical training, it’s C4.  Don’t let that trip you up!

2. Understand typical voicings in orchestral writing.  In general, voicings in chords get tighter the higher the pitch.  Spread out chords.  Unless you’re going for a specific effect, don’t include typical 1/3/5 triadic voicings in your lowest range. 

Voicing on the left, not the right - better for lower ranges
It's even better to spread out these voicings even more!
My hand just can't reach that far.

3. Use more than one track.  How many tracks you use depends on the context and the ease of workflow.  In any given session, I’ll typically use anywhere from four to eight tracks of just strings.  One is always a “string section” with sustained articulations.  Others may include solo strings, individual string sections with specific articulations, pads, etc.  It all depends on the musical context and the arrangement style (when in doubt of “arrangement style,” listen to temp tracks, or a reference of a film score, orchestral work, gaming score, etc., and pay critical attention to the layering you hear).

4. Layer with more than one sampling program or library.  I regularly even mix in synth pads to blend in harmonies, typically with slightly adjusted voicings, although I will also double many notes in chords to reinforce harmonies.  (It all depends on the context, of course.)  A good tip I’ve learned is to start out with your most “realistic” library that you’ve got, even if it’s not that high quality.  Then “pad” it with harmonic pads, string emulators instead of samplers, etc., to deepen in the sound.  Just make sure your transient peaks hit at the same time (see #9 below).  If your time/budget allows, hire a session player or two on a REAL instrument to double what you’ve sequenced - that’s how many Hollywood sessions work!

In case you're wondering what sample libraries I use in my string arrangements for Helsott, it's nothing fancy.  I do NOT believe that you need the "latest and greatest" to make quality recordings if you know how to use what you DO own.  I have an older version of Native Instruments' Komplete bundle - the Kontakt libraries get a lot of mileage in my studio, although I tweak them.  I use a combination of software instruments for pads, along with a couple of hardware synths, including my old beater Roland X6 (my touring synth) and my even older Novation Nova II (the weirdo 90s era performance synth, not the table-top version).  Again, I tweak the hell out of patches.

5. Velocity editing is essential to create a true legato feel.  If you step edit, or use a pencil tool to enter pitch information, you’ll absolutely need to adjust EVERY velocity level to create anything even remotely realistic.  You have 128 values to use in MIDI language.  Use the entire range.

Note: no two velocity stems are created equal.

6. Pay attention to the release of notes in chords (your note off messages).  Keep these synced (to a large extent) but if everything is always perfect, it’s not necessarily going to sound “real.”  Too perfect = sounds like a computer.

7. Adjust articulations/style if it’s possible.  Many software and hardware samplers include mappings for tremolo, sforzando, fortepiano, pizzicato, etc.  Automate and adjust accordingly.  Keep in mind that in sustained articulations the timing will differ from sforzando articulations, which typically will contain the bloom of the attack right ON the MIDI on message.  If you don’t have this facility, you can accomplish the same type of thing (with the exception of tremolo and pizz) simply by automating the envelope (ADSR values).  Typically ADSR values are mapped to CC information, so they can be edited within your sequence.

If I'm speaking gibberish with the terms pizzicato, sforzando, etc., definitely check out one of those textbooks mentioned above in tip #1!  This stuff is helpful to know.

 Screenshot from a default cello patch in Kontakt.
Click on pic for larger version - note mapping of articulations!
These are below the range of the instrument - input them as a "note on" message.
I embed articulation messages in EVERY MIDI region, believe it or not!

8. ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TIPS EVER!!!  The bloom of the envelope (your transient peaks in audio-speak) should hit ON the beat, not after, otherwise everything will sound late.  Don’t just trust quantization - you’ll need to adjust by ticks/samples depending on the sequencing program you’re using.  I’ve been known to adjust note on messages by as much 30-40 milliseconds with slow, soft, sustained passages.  It’s best to go through phrase by phrase to make these adjustments - what works in some phrases won’t work in others depending on the articulations you’re using.  One tip, however - save a version of your MIDI file BEFORE doing this editing with hard quantization values (everything ON the grid), and export as a type 1 file (the type that preserves discrete track information).  This can be super useful if you switch over to another sampling library, another sequencing program, or if you ever end up working with REAL string can import MIDI files into notation programs like Finale and Sibelius.  On a side note in terms of quantization, I almost NEVER use straight 100% quantizations in order to create a more “human” feel, although I will include a hard quantized version of any session I do in order to export accurate MIDI files to Sibelius (my current notation program of choice, as it syncs with the version of Pro Tools that I’m on!).  Look for “randomization” or “humanize” functions in your sequencing software to accomplish this.

9. When it comes to mixing sampled strings, I will almost always export each track as a separate audio track and then mix in my DAW of choice (Pro Tools).  Do NOT rely on MIDI automation in the mix context.  Yes, 128 values seems like a lot, right?  Nope.  It’s not, not in terms of resolution!

Hope these tips help you take your “string writing” to the next level!  Questions?  Comment below, or ask me on facebook/twitter!

Here I am, having fun on stage with Helsott, on the Paganfest America tour.
photo courtesy of Stellavor Images, ©2013

Monday, April 29, 2013

lessons from the road 101

As many of you likely know, one of my many jobs is as a college professor.  I’ve been teaching at the college level now for about twelve to thirteen years, and for the past eight years have even held a full-time, tenured position at a community college in California.  Teaching is a big part of my life, but not ALL of it...

I just spent a month on the road with one of my metal bands, Helsott.  We were on the Paganfest America tour with Ensiferum, Tyr, Heidevolk (my latest obsession! - don’t get me started!!!) and TrollfesT.  Crazy, as I’ve never made the sacrifice to go on tour before...this was a first for me.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, there are ways to make money making music, and then there are ways to make music that feed your soul.  On rare occasions, these two phenomena coincide, but the vast majority of times, they don’t.  I’d been slanted more toward the “I’m a gig whore” variety of musician for many years and if it was about the “experience,” I wasn’t even remotely willing to entertain the thought.

However, a few years ago, I had an epiphany.  Playing church gigs, singing early music and teaching college - while financially more lucrative than most musical endeavors - just weren’t cutting it for me anymore.  Boring, with a capital “B!”  My life had clearly swung to a side of the pendulum with which my somewhat edgy, snarky self did not resonate.  I remember a specific moment when I was in my late 20s, getting ready to go to work to teach yet another night class.  I opened up my closet to a range of very “appropriate” teacher-ly attire from places like the Gap and Banana Republic.  And suddenly, I was horrified.  I cried to myself, “THIS IS NOT MY LIFE.”

Then I joined a metal band, and the rest is history.

Going on the road was a humbling experience for me, as well as exhilarating.  Here I am, a 35-year old woman and self-proclaimed “crazy cat lady,” who’s going on a major tour...her FIRST ever, despite being a successful working musician in her adult life.  It was sort of the ultimate validation for me, that I’m actually only crazy in a GOOD way, rather than in a stupid, delusional, “you’re just having a midlife crisis” kind of way.  By the way, I’m really sick of people telling me this is the case...I can’t figure out why some people are so threatened by others who actually have the BALLS to live their dreams.  I’ve sacrificed more than any of you could possibly know to do what I’m doing now, including family relationships, and it’s been heart-breaking to see how some folks just aren’t willing to let me be MYSELF.  

What was most difficult for me was the fact that I AM INDEED 35.  I was older than virtually everyone else on the tour, and being surrounded by a bunch of guys in their 20s was a bit “interesting.”  Plus, I’m sober, so I don’t drink or smoke or party in *that* sense - ANYMORE.  Believe me, I used to rock it with the best of ‘em, but I’m fucking old now and I’m just not a fan of endless hangovers anymore.  I got over that about 13 years ago.  If other folks want to do this, cool.  I just get tired of people giving me shit when I don’t.  It’s my choice and my prerogative.  I don’t judge others for their own choices, so why judge me for mine?  That got old.

I came home from nearly a month on the road about a week ago, and have mainly been languishing on the couch in my own snot due to some horrific “tour plague” that’s seemingly killed me more than the other folks in any of the other bands.  Perhaps that’s because I’m old...who knows, but in any case it’s sucked.  It has, however, given me plenty of time between reruns of Ancient Aliens to ponder what lessons I’ve learned from the road.  And these are what I would like to share with you, readers, in case you ever have the opportunity to go on a major metal tour for the first time when you’re an old lady (or man).  I just have to’s in my blood!

1. Worn out discount 10 dollar “I can’t believe it’s not leather pants” from H&M are not appropriate stage attire.  They WILL rip in the most embarrassing place (right at the ass cheek) and at the most inopportune moment (when you have run out of clean underwear and have had to resort to white, floral granny panties).  Suddenly a large crowd in Seattle will know of your predicament.

2. Part of “livin’ the dream” is being able to tolerate living in a van and sleeping in shifts while sitting up.  Don’t bitch.  Everyone else will tell you how much worse they feel than you.  And because everyone is sleep-deprived (and likely hung over), feeling like shit is relative and also infinitely tragic.  One can’t compare feeling-like-shit-ness.  It’s incomparable to personal I-feel-like-shit-ness-because-I’ve-been-sleeping-sitting-up-for-seven-days-straight-now-and-my-back-fucking-hurts.

3. Pack a good supply of ear plugs, hand sanitizer, foot spray, Febreze and baby wipes.  Ear plugs for the resonant snoring inside of said van with six men (this was somewhat of a symphony each night and I wish I had only thought to sample this brilliant cacophony of polyrhythm).  Hand sanitizer for when you inadvertently reach into a bag to grab a clean hoodie on which someone has just vomited (and of which you were previously unaware). Foot spray and Febreze should be self-explanatory, thanks.  And baby wipes...oh yes...when you are told that no one in four bands gets showers because one day the hot water ran out for the headliners, you will NEED those baby wipes.  Badly.  Additionally, I can guarantee that you will encounter venues which have no green room and onesies for restrooms with no locks on the door.  Don’t believe the bartender when she tells you that she’ll “watch the men’s room door” for you while you take a “sink shower,” as someone will undoubtedly walk in on you while you’re in the middle of washing out your armpits, topless.  Oh, and there will be a line of ten guys waiting for the bathroom who will witness this.  (Thanks, Reno, Nevada.)  Lesson learned?  Baby wipes.  Put a blanket over you in the van and use the baby wipes.

4. Roll with the punches.  Everything becomes incredibly surreal at a certain point, and things which are definitely NOT normal just have to be accepted as part of life.  Pick your battles.  Case in point?  A certain male band member (who will remain nameless as I am very professional!) had to be tolerated each and every day when he decided that the most appropriate place to take a monstrous dump was ALWAYS in the ladies’ room.  It didn’t matter if his band had a nice green room or if there was a clean men’s room with locking doors backstage.  Nope.  He could only “output” in the public ladies’ room.  With the door wide open.  It was like it was his mission to literally leave his mark in the ladies’ room each day.  As one of the only female musicians on the tour, you can either roll with it or not.  If not, he may poop on you, and that would suck.  And you may run out of baby wipes.

5. Entertain yourself.  People will get into trouble.  People will fall on top of you (large, heavy, and extraordinarily smelly people, I may add, remembering an instance at the San Francisco venue).  People will puke in your travel bag and not remember it in the morning.  People will randomly leave their soiled underwear just laying around haphazardly.  To avoid getting into trouble yourself, bring a nice supply of papers to grade and a book of crossword puzzles.  You are wholesome after all, yes, being that you’re a middle-aged teacher?  This way, you can have an excuse to gawk at endless shenanigans of half-dressed (in some cases yet in others completely “full Monty”), somewhat socially-inept and seemingly perpetually inebriated musicians and laugh to yourself...all while pretending that you’re completely engrossed in the Sunday Times.  Shit, I just blew my cover...

So, there you go.  Lessons from the road, 101, for 35 year old beginners.  Hope you don’t have to learn these the “hard way” as I did!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

what you see isn't exactly what you get

Today’s blog entry isn’t exactly about the music, per se.  However, this is part of a long string of planned musings on what I call “livin’ the dream” - the crap that goes on behind the scenes that no one really warns you about when you embark on the mission of becoming a successful working musician.  If you’re doing your job well, no one sees this sh*t either.  Well, I’m about to blow the “cover” - what you see ain’t exactly what you get.  I ranted in one of my last blog posts about a pet peeve: when folks gush to me, “you’re sooooo lucky to do what you love.”  This is well-meaning, but certainly is a bit of ignorant and somewhat offensive statement.  These people seem to think music comes pouring forth from my soul, with no effort, sweat, suffering or tears.  It just magically “happens.”  Aren’t I lucky that I don’t have to toil away, day after day, year after year?

Being a musician is a lot of work.  And it’s not just about making music.  OK - we all spend money on lessons, on instruments, on gear, on professional-level “tools of the trade,” etc...we practice endless hours, often foregoing social activities in lieu of perfecting our craft.  This is obvious.  The other part of being a WORKING musician...meaning being a musician that makes a living by making music with no real day job (not an easy endeavor) multi-tasking, meaning that one has to wear many hats all at the same time.  Publicity.  Web design.  Graphic design.  Video editing.  Schmoozing.  And - if you’re a WOMAN, you have to worry a bit more about your appearance.  I’m just going to SAY IT; I’m as ardent of a feminist as you can imagine, but I’m also practical.  I do realize that if I let myself go completely “Amazonian” - as in forego personal grooming and appear on stage in a pair of fishnet stockings with epic leg hair poking out through the holes - that I may not be taken seriously by my audience.  Look, people, I play in several metal bands, and that’s a culture that historically has women as the minority in the audience.  It’s changing now, to be certain (finally!!!), but still you’ll find no lines in the ladies’ rooms at most shows while the men’s room line is around the corner.  I have also dealt with sound guys and audience members who wouldn’t believe that I was in the band, as “chicks can’t play metal.”  Yes, and this has happened in the 21st century!

But I digress...this post is supposed to be part of the series in my “livin’ the dream” essays.  At the moment, I’m playing with an amazing pagan metal band, Helsott.  We’re about to go on our first North American tour, a big festival called Paganfest, along with Ensiferum, Tyr, Heidevolk and Trollfest.  (Google these names if you’re not a metal fan - trust me, this is a pretty big deal.)  I’m kind of the “session musician” of the band.  I do their “orchestral” arrangements, play the keyboards, sing the operatic female vocals - I’m the screaming Valkyrie in the background, and I produced their backing tracks.  It’s great fun.  On occasion, I fly out for the bigger shows, which are always a blast.  I’ve rehearsed with the guys a grand total of TWO times ever, so when I play shows, it’s usually “cold”...meaning I jump on stage and go, without the benefit of much rehearsal time.  This is not for the faint of heart.  I think I make it look easy, as I sing well, play well and can “windmill” my hair with the best of them while staying in time.  Yet the whole time, I’m about to crap my leather pants due to there I stand, looking fearless on stage, squeezing that sphincter with all of my might...

Glamorous, right?

Last summer, we shot our first official music video.  I flew out to California from Massachusetts the night before the shoot; our flights were all delayed (I was traveling with the hubby, as we was going to a week-long institute in Los Angeles), and I ended up having to gate-check my baggage, which can be a fate worse than death for a touring or traveling musician (never, ever part ways with your clean good!!!).  We didn’t arrive into LAX until 12:30 in the morning, and our bags didn’t come out...didn’t come out...didn’t come out.  I was having a coronary, knowing I had a shoot in the morning, and no clean panties, let alone my age-defying makeup, which in the case of a hi-def video shoot is a bit more important to my vanity than the undies.  The airline employees apparently “forgot” a few bags out on the tarmac including mine.  We eventually got the bags...and then had the distinct pleasure of dealing with Alamo Rent-A-Car at 2 am, heading to our rental and upon discovering that the car was missing from its stall, had to wait again in the line.  As thrilling as this was, the best part was arriving starving to the motel at 3 am and checking in (airlines don’t feed you anymore, and there’s not even food for purchase on Southwest).  Oh, and did I mention I was staying in Inglewood?  Nothing was open except for a few taco stands that served double-duty as gang hangouts.  Charming.  I went to bed hungry.

I was in bed at 4 am, and the guys from Helsott picked me up the next morning about six hours later to head to the shoot.  Originally, we were going to shoot this in front of a green screen in a studio, but the directors decided it might be more interesting to do this outside “on location” near Mt. Baldy.  It was just a “short walk” from the parking lot.  I was thinking, no problem, I’ll do my hair and makeup before and then just change into my requisite skintight leather pants once we got to the location.  I brought my tiny carry-on suitcase with me, including a little kid’s Hello Kitty blankie that I travel with often in case I need to nap somewhere (it’s soft and compact, so it works great to keep with me when I’m on the road...oh and let’s face it, I’m not that tough and I think it’s cute).  We rolled into the parking lot around noon, and it was - I kid you not - 107 DEGREES.  Riverside County in August is HOT.  The directors pointed us in the direction of the “short walk” we’d need to take to the shoot.  Instead of a stroll down a trail, we were faced with the prospect of heading down hilly single-track horse trail in 107 DEGREE HEAT for about a mile or so, CARRYING ALL OF OUR GEAR.

Yup.  Remember that word “glamorous?”

This was awesome.  Everyone was panting, sweating, dying in the heat...luckily, Mark (one of our guitarists) had a flat of bottled water in the back of his work truck that we somehow thought to bring with us.  (Lugging kick drums down a mile of horse trail in August?  Oh yeah.  You’ll get thirsty doing that.)  I was seriously regretting wearing my usual uniform of a black t-shirt, jeans and Vans by this point, let alone neglecting to bring any toilet paper with me as I was forced to “drip dry” anytime I had to pee behind a rock.  By the time we got to the location for the shoot, we were all pretty much thrashed.  After resting for a half-hour or so, I decided that I was “dry” enough (meaning that my sweat had crusted to salt, matting most of my hair) to change into my clothes for the shoot.

Let me paint you a picture at this point.  It’s dry and dusty.  We’re in a canyon in 107 degree heat, under the coverage of some trees but still the heat of the day is oppressive.  I’ve got black eyeliner and mascara running down my face - a bad case of “raccoon eyes” and salt rings under my armpits.  And I’m out there as the only woman with EIGHT metal guys (the type with long hair, long beards...the absolute nicest, most wonderful, kindest group of dudes you’d ever want to meet, but they don’t exactly look that way to people who aren’t familiar with metal culture) in the middle of nowhere.  Just another day’s work!

I decided to preserve some shred of modesty by pulling the ol’ “surfer trick” while changing my clothes by wrapping my Hello Kitty blankie around my waist, and stripping underneath.  Again, this is a kiddie blanket, so it’s a bit smaller than an average beach towel.  I get my sweaty, nasty jeans off, and I’m standing there with no pants on, perched barefoot on a rock, balancing on one leg, probably flashing my parts to all of nature as I try to hold up the blanket and simultaneously (unsuccessfully) attempt to squeeze into aforementioned sexy leather pants.  Skintight leather pants are exceedingly difficult to squeeze into in normal, daily life; I was on the road for about three weeks prior to this shoot, eating inordinate amounts of chicken fried steak in diners in backwoods Iowa, so this complicated matters, along with the stickiness of my sweaty legs.

As I’m in mid-perch, attempting to be somewhat discreet, suddenly a woman on horseback appears on the trail...FOLLOWED BY ABOUT THIRTY SCHOOL KIDS also on horseback.  The look on her face was absolutely priceless, as she stopped and asked our singer, “What are you guys doing out here?”

And Eric answers: “Shooting a video.”  He didn’t clarify the fact that this was a music video, just a video.  As I’m standing there with no pants on among eight guys.  Hmmmm.

The video was just released this past week.  It looks pretty good for a first video.  And one would never know that we were all on the verge of heat stroke.  I particularly like the comments on youtube...especially ones that say things like “the keyboard player is hot.”  Wow, thanks...good to know I can pull this off, in leather pants, in 107 degree heat, lip-syncing in the woods...

When I went to conservatory, no one ever told me that these were all going to be necessary skills in my career.  But there it is...livin’ the dream, baby!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

livin' the dream, part 863

I used to play in a short-lived all-girl 80s cover band called "The She Bops" back when I lived in San Diego.  All of the girls in the band were fantastic musicians, and we had a great rapport on the stage and off.  Like me, the drummer was a full-time working musician, and we would frequently tell each other horror stories about our current gigs.  At one point, we started kicking around the idea of writing a coffee table book together, which she decided we should call "Livin' the Dream" - all about what it's REALLY like to work as a musician for a living.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say to me: "Oh, you're SO lucky to do what you love!" in a gushy, goopy, dreamy voice that insinuates how much harder they have it because they sit behind a desk all day and how easy I must have it, not having to work until the nights and playing beautiful music day in and day out.  It's not "work" after all, right?


After so many years of working as a musician, I have so many ridiculous stories built up about what it's REALLY like that I feel like I might throttle the next well-meaning person who says this to me.  So, in order to save myself, I think I'm going to start using this blog as a space to vent and "release."  It needs to happen.

And now it begins...

Story #863: my husband and I were invited by a good friend and AMAZING jazz musician to perform on his monthly series in Boston.  If you follow me on facebook, twitter or anywhere else on the web, you'll know that I recently released a solo album titled "one."  We booked this gig in support of the album release, as I've been wanting to play more solo sets.  The gig, unfortunately, was the night before Thanksgiving, which is historically a terrible night to play as most people are home with their families.  But, such is the life of a musician - hell, I was a church musician for many years and NEVER had my holidays off, so I'm not complaining.  Holiday, schmoliday.  Work never stops for us.  My husband and I figured it would be great fun, as we almost never play shows together as it's hard to find middle ground between the experimental jazz he typically performs and the type of electronic music that I do (as my solo work).  This series would be perfect to play together, and we could have a two hour drive each way together to just talk and catch up - sometimes we're like "ships passing in the night" as we keep such wacky hours doing what we both do.

We left around 3:30 in the afternoon and took the "long way" up state route 2 to avoid holiday traffic on the interstate.  Halfway to Boston, I realized that I forgot to load out my theremin, which I had been planning to use as a CV controller for my Moog synth; that meant I'd have to rewrite about five or six patches to work in a different way once I got to the venue.  It stressed me out for a bit, but I eventually let go of it...although, I did feel this crazy, "how in the hell could she forget her fucking INSTRUMENT" vibe emanating off of my husband in the crowded car.  It was irritating, but warranted.  I'll admit it.

We arrived early, and the venue was locked.  It was extremely cold and we waited for a bit until our friend arrived and unlocked the door.  We set up, sound-checked and discovered the PA was blown in one channel.  So, we had to bring in one of my amps to fill in the gap - no big deal.

Then we waited.  And waited and waited.  And waited some more.

8:15 rolled around.  NO AUDIENCE.  (We were supposed to start at 8.)

What does one do when the audience doesn't come?  Hmmm.  We played, sort of like a musical chairs kind of thing, until close to 10, and then loaded out.  Then we drove home, hungry, as not a single restaurant was open the night before Thanksgiving.  In fact, the only place that WAS open was the McDonald's drive-thru on the Pike.  My husband and I ended up spending our two-hour ride home pondering the philosophical reason behind the two possible shapes of Chicken McNuggets - oval or boot? - and how these shapes could in any circumstance conjure up images of real chickens.  We also spent the drive suffering through "McGut" syndrome, with which any touring musician who eats far too much McDonald's is likely overly familiar.


I have absolutely no regrets, as it was a fun night, despite the fifty dollars in gas that were spent to play to an empty room.  We did have a great time catching up with our friend and spending time together.

So why am I writing this?  Well, folks, this is what actually happens sometimes.  You get all pumped up and nervous about performing (hence part of the reason why I forgot my theremin!  Duh.).  I know I build up ANY gig in my mind - doesn't matter if it's big or small...I ALWAYS want to sound my best and put forth 100% to deliver to the audience.  That's my job as a performer.

And then no one shows up...despite making event invitations, doing a blitz of promo, releasing an album on an actual label, having a doctorate in my field, playing in umpteen bands and knowing five million different people.

Don't feel sorry for me - I don't.  This isn't a "woe is me" kind of post.  Rather, to quote Dave Chappelle, it's sort of a "when keeping it real goes wrong" kind of thing.  It's just what happens sometimes.  You get booked on a bad night, or on a gig that's inappropriate for your band (which has happened to me countless times), or at a venue where the PA blows up midway through your set (this too has happened to me, more than once).  It's hard to not take let-down personally - that I think is the biggest challenge of "livin' the dream."  Because you do something that IS so close to your own heart and soul, it's really tough to not get beat down easily.

Don't ever tell me I'm "so lucky to do what I do."  I've sacrificed a lot - I don't have a steady paycheck, a retirement plan, good finances, holidays, paid vacation (yeah, if I take time off...I don't get paid ANYTHING), any sort of job security, etc.  I sacrifice to do what I love.  Anyone can do that...but not everyone has the guts, or thick enough skin, to live with that commitment on a daily basis.

That's it for now...expect more stories from the road to follow!  I'm keepin' on, keepin' on, just a-livin' the dream, baby!!!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

the story of sroM

As many of my friends know, I'm releasing my first solo album next week, on October 17.  The following is the backstory of the album and my journey into electronic music.

I began my journey as an “electronic musician” back in 1998.  I was studying composition at the University of Michigan, working on a Master’s degree.  My goal - at that time - was to get a Ph.D. and then teach at the university level.  I was on a track to being a “serious young composer” in those days; I wrote string quartets and orchestral music and all kinds of other cerebral works that incorporated types of stochastic methods of composing.  I even won some national awards.  I was very, very serious about what I did, and rather disdainful of folks that improvised or worked within more “open” performance environments.  I thought they were a bunch of New Age wankers.  I, however, was intelligent and deep.  I could write for the violin, after all.

Two factors were involved when I first got into electronics.  One - I was hell-bent on doing some competitive Ph.D. program (such as at the University of Michigan), and I knew that a language along with a minor area would be a requirement.  Electronic music, for some reason, could count for one or both.  I figured I’d get that requirement out of the way.  Plus, the only language I with which I had any facility at that was German...and German class was at 8 am.  I was, 20, 21 years old?  Get up for CLASS by 8 am?  You’re kidding, right?  On the other hand, electronic music classes were held at something like 4 or 5 pm.  I was up by then.  So, I enrolled, thinking it would be one of these jerk-off, easy kinds of classes...ha.  The first time I went into the studio by myself, I couldn’t figure out where the main power switch was located.  I bawled my arrogant little eyes out.  I graduated summa cum laude, valedictorian of my class at USC...and now I can’t find the fucking power switch?  Really?

I not only learned humility as a result of taking those early evening electronic music courses, but I also learned my way around a modular analog synthesizer.  We had a Moog Model V, I believe.  It was this mystical beast.  I was one of only two women in the class, and felt completely and totally intimidated by all of the guys...I was afraid of making that wall of electronic components explode by plugging in the wrong patch cable.  Yet something about the challenge - about making my own sound from scratch and about being able to immediately HEAR the result - was very appealing.  I was addicted immediately.

The second factor (that’s right - I said there were two!).  In 2000, I wrote an orchestral work.  It got slated for a premiere.  I was stoked.  I worked my ass off for months, writing, orchestrating, and then copying all of the parts and the conductor’s score.  Anyone who’s ever written for orchestra knows what a laborious, time-intensive process this is.  NOT glamorous in the least, and in those days, Finale was an extremely buggy program that one had to perpetually outwit - or so it seemed - to get anything to look half-way professional.  When I found out that I got that premiere, I took a week off from work and locked myself in my apartment.  I stayed up for three straight days, drinking nothing by coffee and Southern Comfort...passed out for one night...then stayed up for another three straight days, again bolstered by caffeine and shitty whiskey.  At the end of the process, the piece was done - fully copied, replicated, and bound.  It looked great.
I had two rehearsals.  Then the premiere.  It lasted five minutes.  The audience clapped, and I stepped on stage for a bow. 

Then the depression set in.  I knew I’d likely never hear that piece again.  All those months of work?  And that was it.  I started questioning every assumption I had ever made about writing music and about what I was doing with my life...this “path” I had chosen of the ivory tower, and basically just composing music that I’d hear once...IN the academy, performed by my colleagues.  It seemed really bleak.  

Shortly after, I vowed to venture into new territories, looking to electronic music as my compositional savior.  It was, in so many ways!  I could create something and immediately HEAR it.  The music was so much more flexible.  It could evolve...I could simply re-record it if I didn’t like what happened.  And the sonic/timbral possibilities far exceeded anything that I could have ever devised in a traditional orchestral setting!

Yet, most importantly, it opened up a whole different world in terms of an audience, as well as redefined what a performance could be.  I was no longer limited to a dead tradition - the whole “clap when the conductor gets on stage, and clap at the end of the piece even if the performance sucked because that’s just what you do and it’s polite, after all.  We. must. be. polite.”  I didn’t have to even NOTATE anything.  Notation...arrrrgh...had to have been one of the most stifling aspects of working as a composer up until that point.  How could one just notate a killer SOUND?  You can’t.  You have to think of this pitch and metric bullshit, and try to put something in a box.  To hell with that.  With electronic music, there didn’t have to be any prior knowledge of notation, thematic development or formal “structures” to appreciate what was happening.  An “audience” or a “listener” could simply envelop his/herself in the SOUND without any sort of preconceived agenda.

As soon as I could afford it, I started piecing together a modest studio.  A year later, I made my first purchase of an analog modeling synthesizer, and then the floodgates just opened.  I couldn’t stop programming and designing.  Then I started amassing as many performance synths as I could afford.  To this day, I’m a synth junkie.  I tell my husband he’s lucky because I’m not the typical woman who buys a million pairs of shoes.  Not me...I lust over vintage analog gear.  (Unfortunately, that costs a significant more amount than a pair of Louboutin heels.)

With synthesizers, I hate presets.  Sure, they’re user-friendly for someone who’s just starting out, I get that.  What I love is to sit with a synth in a single patch for hours to explore every single possible permutation of the programming available to me.  How does that create a new world of sound?  What are the possible musical implications of each?  

This was the concept behind the album, my first solo effort.  How could I create musical content with the absolute minimum of variables in the eyes of most?  I limited myself to one note, on one patch, on one synthesizer...and then recorded one track in one single improvisation.  NO EDITING.  Some basic effects processing devices were added both during tracking and during the “mixing” process to contribute to the musical form, but that was set during the initial improvisation.

Approach the music with a different mindset.  This is not about narrative, and it’s not about the typical kinds of factors like melody and harmony and verse and chorus.  It’s about sitting in a world of sound, and about slowing down to really take note of what one hears.  How often do we do this?  Today, music constantly surrounds us - in the mall, in the car, on our little white earbuds with our iPods blaring.  But how much do we REALLY listen to the details?  If one takes the time, there’s a whole world - a whole universe - of sound embedded in one note.  One just has to pay attention.  

The name sroM refers to a medical term: the spontaneous rupture of membranes.  This is the official designation for when a woman’s water breaks as she is about to give birth.  Interestingly enough, reversed, the same acronym means death (in Latin).  I loved this imagery, as electronic music for me was both a birth and a death - an embracing of a new type of sound world as my own home, and the relinquishing of archaic traditions and hide-bound educational systems.  The name challenged me to simply rely on intuition when sculpting sound.  It also resulted in moments of absolute ephemeral beauty.  As I don’t work with any sorts of presets...and many of my older synths can’t even store patches...each sound exists in time for a brief moment, never to return or be recaptured.

Friday, June 24, 2011

the latest and greatest

As someone who works with music technology for a living, I’m continually running into the issue of obsolescence as it relates to my own equipment.  Invariably, as soon as I have my studio up to “standard,” something else comes out onto the market that changes the game.  If it’s a new operating system, immediately my version of Pro Tools is incompatible.  Once the new version of Pro Tools comes out, then all of my Waves plug-ins have to be upgraded.  And so on and so on and so infinitum.  This phenomenon becomes an endless, frustrating dance over time, not to mention financially draining.

I had an interesting conversation relating to this topic earlier this morning with my mother, a self-admitted luddite who still refuses to carry a cell phone or get an email address.  Normally, we tend to have differences of opinion when it comes to technology, but I found that ultimately we share the same personal philosophy: it’s not about the tools you have, but about how you work with those said tools.  My mom’s illustration of the ubiquity of smart phones is a good example.  Just because one can send text messages or facebook updates like a fiend at all hours of the day and night does not ensure fruitful communication or lasting relationships.  So true.

As a musician who works with technology, there are interesting parallels, accessibility for one.  I can go into the studio, day or night, and record almost anything (well, with the exception of screaming guitar leads…let’s be honest!).  I don’t need to wait for a performer to read the notes on paper to hear what I’ve composed; that was always the great frustration of traditional “classical” composing, in my mind at least.  I’d work for months on a single piece, then everything would be over after the premiere…and I’d end up in an anti-climactic sort of depression every time.  (What was the point of all of that work for five damn minutes of hearing one’s own music?)  However, at the same time, accessibility can be a mixed blessing.  In terms of quality, I would say my “output” is proportionately slanted toward crap about 90% of the time.  Another parallel comes back to my initial paragraph, in terms of this idea of manufactured obsolescence.  Companies want to make money, and so they have to keep consumers locked into buying their products.  Thank goodness for all of the advances that have been made in Pro Tools software since version 5 (when I first started working with this).  But really, now with Pro Tools 9, do I really absolutely need to spend the hundreds of dollars in upgrade fees just so that I can have up to 256 internal busses?  Really?

As an instructor, I used to encounter some students who had sunk in serious cash into their studio setups…and then couldn’t make head or tail of a major triad.  These aspiring “producers,” “arrangers,” and “engineers” really didn’t have the musical background to make MUSIC per se.  But they had all of the tools at their disposal, and continually kept those tools “current.”  Over the years, I’ve been very careful about how much money to invest in studio gear, and also very selective about what equipment ultimately to purchase.  I’ve invested in both software and hardware products.  On the hardware side, I’m an analog synth enthusiast…partially because I will never have to upgrade an operating system on that particular instrument.  So I don’t have the latest and greatest “whatever” is on the market.  Who cares, if the end product is of quality?

Recently, with working on my music theatre piece, I became incredibly obsessed with the production quality of the backing tracks that may end up being used for the workshop next week.  I seriously did not see the light of day for several weeks, spending hours upon hours in the studio mixing, remixing, rearranging, adding another layer of string pads here and there, and generally obsessing.  I printed up the charts a few days ago, and the final copies came back from the printer’s yesterday.  And you know what I did?  I sat down at the piano and just played through everything.  Talk about liberating!  It’s so easy to get caught up in production that you can forget about the music…I’m happy to say that – at least in my humble opinion – the songs stand on their own.  Whether with a simple piano or guitar accompaniment, or a full progressive metal band, the songs can translate.

Lesson learned.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

jumping off the cliff

Finishing a long-term project is a bag of mixed emotions.  I’ve been walking around for the past eight years with tunes in my head, ideas for arrangements, brainstorming…all related to the same project, a musical titled “Serena in X-tremis.” 

The past eight years have gone something like this, in fits and starts:

Standing in the shower, an idea hits me.  Usually a melody.

Go to the piano.  Improvise for a few minutes.

Pencil in hand, pencil on paper.  Chart it.

Go into the studio.  Record temp tracks. 

Send said temp tracks to my collaborator (Ted Shank) for his feedback, lyrical revisions, and the like.

Revise. Re-record. Re-arrange.  Re-mix.  Over and over and over.

After eight years, I’ve accumulated over 80GB of sound files related to the same project, along with countless reams of staff paper. 

And then suddenly, I’m done.  Right before the deadline, a week-long workshop at the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj in Romania.  But really, now that the composing part of the project is finished, is it over?  Not exactly. 

That’s the beauty of music and of theatre.  Writing (in my case, composing) is just the beginning.  A project continually evolves, and slowly takes on a life of its own.  Unlike in other art forms, where the creator has control over the creative output from start to finish, music and theatre are dependent on other participants to make the creation come to life.  This is where the fun begins.  What will happen next?  Who will be cast?  What will his or her interpretation be of a particular character’s tone?  Did I do my job right, by successfully communicating what I wanted to convey?

It’s a scary cliff to jump off.

Let the adventure begin.  More to follow from Romania!