Anatomy of a One-Man Band

Loop it!
Loop it and swoop it.

This week, I got to do something fun and different – my sister is getting her masters’ in counseling at the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS), which is a very groovy counseling/therapy institute located south of Market.  I heard through her that a group of CIIS students were looking for a musician to accompany them during a drama therapy performance, and, with no idea what exactly would be involved, or indeed even what Drama Therapy was, I said “what the hell” and decided to go for it.

I spoke with a group member, Jessica, on the phone and she explained what exactly they were doing, and what they’d need from me. The method they use is called “Playback Theatre” and in it a troupe of actors solicits stories from the lives of the folks in the audience and then plays those stories back to them.  It’s all improvised, and pretty abstract – men can play women, women can play men, scarves are involved…

My gig would involve improvising a soundtrack to the various scenes.  I’d been wanting to get my loop station together for some time, so I thought this would be a good excuse to go for it, so I ordered a couple of missing components and got to work getting ‘er set up and working.

After rehearsing with the actors, we did our performance today. It was really cool!  Listening to the stories while simultaneously thinking of what to play is a unique challenge – “Okay, she’s talking about the circus, what do I know that’ll work… and where do I start the loop… what key will this be in?”  It’s fast and really enjoyable to do, you gotta think on your feet! My only complaint was that we didn’t perform for longer, though I have a feeling that today will not be the last time I join an improv group onstage.

Incedental to that performance, I got my loop station complete and MUNI-transportable, and I worked out a couple of fun little ditties that I can recreate pretty consistently and cleanly.  I thought it’d be fun to post them here on Murfins. So, first I’ve written a breakdown of what I’m using and where, and then a posted few examples of some loops I did. The examples are far from perfect, since they were recorded live and on-the-fly, with no overdubbing or tweaking after-the-fact. That said, I’m pretty happy with them!

Without further ado:

kirk-hamilton-loop-station

Gear Breakdown

1. Tambourine (gotta have it!)
2. Flute
3. Avocado Shaker (which I dearly love)
4. Clarinet
5. Melodica (my new favorite instrument)
6. Microphone Stand (the hardest thing in the whole unit to transport)
7. Shure Beta-58, the mic to end all mics
8. Boss GigaDelay, Mic only
9. Boss NS-2, mutes the mic, supplies power to the pedals
10. Boss RC-20 looper, on loan from Dan Nervo. The heart of the beast.
11. Volume Pedal
12. Ovation Celebrity
13. Tuner
14. Crate Taxi 15-watt amp (rechargeable, portable, and LOUD)

To make a loop, I usually start with some sort of set pattern, and the challenge for me has been to speed up my transitions between instruments.  It’s quite fun to jam out with a looper, but in the interest of making something that’s actually enjoyable for people to watch and listen to, going in with a very specific gameplan (and instrument choreography) is very important.

A Few Examples
(Links go to downloadable MP3s.)

1. Dancing Pants

I really enjoy this first loop – the loop length is very short, and I think that might be why it works so well. I call it “Dancing Pants.” Got off to a good start, added things quickly, and got a pretty mean groove going by the end.  I’ve been in the habit of starting loops off with the guitar, and it’s nice to start it elsewhere (in this case, on the clarinet).

2. Forlorn Pants

Second loop is a down-tempo, so I guess I’ll call it “Forlorn Pants.”  The pants are forlorn, people. Pretty easy, with nice volume swells, though there are some pitch problems going on with the guitar that become evident later on – the big trick with this one is that it takes a little while to cycle around, so the whole thing moves quite a bit slower.  Using the delay on my flute to add ambient texture is really fun, and something I want to experiment with more.

3. Happy Pants

Third is a longer loop which is quite happy – it’s called, you guessed it, “Happy Pants.”  I’m a big fan of this little melody – I came up with it recently, and plan on working it into a larger show with a full band.  It’s very stroll-in-the-park-y.  Also, some rhythmic issues crop up, but whaddya gonna do?  Go with it, that’s what.  It’s still tough for me to get this groove settled without hearing the melody, for whatever reason.

4. Lemon’s Loop

Here’s an alliteration for ya: Last but not least is a little loop I made out of the Liz Lemon-y lick I noticed last week while re-watching last year’s 30 Rock episode “Greenzo.” It is one of the main reasons that I want to be Jeff Richmond, the guy who wrote it. I love it so much that I wanted to play it, so I did – it’s called “Lemon’s Loop.”  My apologies, Jeff Richmond, if you’re reading this.  And also, if you’re reading this, hi, Jeff! You are the man! I hope you like my blog!

…um, anyway. So, yeah, more timing issues come up in this one, there’s this effing late note that comes around every time, but once stuff gets going, it’s not that noticeable.  I’ve played this one better, but I’m happy with the clarinet solo, so, yeah!

To conclude – looping is really fun. I’d say these four examples show where I’m at after working on it for a couple of weeks. It’s an unforgiving medium – one fuckup sends you back to square one, you know?  I’m very interested in picking up an Electro Harmonix 2880 once I have some spare cash lying around – the idea of recording onto separate tracks (woodwinds on one, percussion on one, guitar on one) is immensely appealing.  But ’till then, the RC-20 does everything I need.

Oh yeah – and perhaps the coolest thing of all is how portable this setup is!  For all that’s going on, all of the sounds I’ve got access to, it is entirely battery-powered, collapses into three pieces, and fits onto MUNI like a breeze. Which means that it’s great for busking, and that’s the plan!

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Everything from that first picture is here, if you can believe it.

Unlikely Words That I Like

“Crampons”

Crampons are outdoor footwear that include pointed metal parts and are worn on boots to provide traction on snow and ice. General-purpose crampons designed for most mountaineering and glacierice climbing. For ice climbing, specialized crampons that provide better support for front pointingwelted boots to ensure proper fitting. travel are not well suited for vertical are advised. Most crampons require

“Ebb”

Ebb is the flowing back of the tide as the water returns to the sea (opposed to flood, flow ).

“Thwart”

Thwart (transitive) to prevent; to halt; to cause to fail; to foil; to frustrate.

“Gubernatorial”

Gubernatorial : of or relating to a governor.

“Phalanx”

The phalanx (Ancient Greek: φάλαγξ, Modern Greek: φάλαγγα, phālanga) (plural phalanxes or phalanges (Ancient and Modern Greek: φάλαγγες, phālanges)) is a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, or similar weapons.

“Chyron”

In the television industry (especially in North America), a lower third is a graphic placed in the lower area of the screen, though not necessarily the entire lower third of it as the name suggests. (…)

Lower thirds are also often known as captions, or occasionally chyrons in North America,[1] and astons in the United Kingdom, after the major suppliers of broadcast caption/graphic generators. Other common terms include superbars (or simply supers) (US) and name straps (UK).

“Tchotchke”

Tchotchke—originally from a Slavic word for “toys” (Polish cacka, tsatsca; Russian цацки, tsatsci)—adapted to Yiddish טשאַטשקע tshatshke, tshàtshq·qh|tshawtshq·qh, “trinket”, are small toys, gewgaws, knickknacks, baubles, trinkets, or kitsch.

The Exited Door

cover-art-squareAfter over a year of recording and rehearsing, writing and ranting, working and waiting, my first-ever solo album, “The Exited Door,” is finished and in-hand.  What’s more, as of today it’s available for purchase online!  In honor of that, I thought I’d devote a post to sharing links to all things Exited Doorian.  If you’ve enjoyed my blog or liked reading about the album, please pick up a copy!  It is an entirely self-funded project (look ma, no financial backers or label!) – I made the entire album with my hands and the scant contents of my bank account.  Your support really matters and is very appreciated.

Ways to Buy the Record:

1) The best way is to order the disc online from CDBaby. I love CDBaby, and they love me – the disc is a steal at $11.95, and the physical item is the way to go, not only because it includes all the lyrics, but because it contains all of the wonderful artwork that accompanies the record.

2) Download it from iTunes. The easiest and most familiar way to go. Though you won’t get a copy of the artwork if you do this, you can download it for free as a PDF from my website.

3) Download it from DigStation. Another good way to go – I’m not sure what the deal is with the downloads at CDBaby, but I know that when you download my album from DigStation, I get 100% of the income.  iTunes gives about .67 on the dollar, so that’s a huge improvement.  Plus, you get a downloadable PDF of all of the album art and lyrics, so it’s really the next-best thing to buying a CD.

Links, Etc:

If you’d like to keep track of the latest happenings with the record, as well as keep up to date on live performances, I keep my personal website and my myspace page very current.

I had a really good time writing the blog series about the creation of the album, and have organized the posts below:

  • Part one covered the album’s initial conception; this is the “why” behind the disc.
  • Part two discussed the initial writing process; this was probably the most exciting time in the album’s creation, when it felt like anything was possible.
  • Part three detailed writing the lyrics and creating the initial demos of the record.  This was also a fun project, and was a really fun time of the year (April/May of 2008).
  • Part four got all technical and stuff about the recording process; getting the rhythm section, strings, and horns recorded was a big logistical challenge that was fun to tackle.
  • Part five went inot detail about the final recording sessions – woodwinds, vocals, guitars, percussion – and the initial organization and mixing of the record.
  • Part six covers the mixing and mastering process; in other words, how we wrangled the audio from raw to finished.
  • Part seven discussed the album artwork and design, and the process of organizing the wonderful artists who contributed original artwork to the project.

Contributing Musicians/Artists:

A lot of amazing musicians played on The Exited Door.  Below, I’ve posted links to their various websites and projects.

Lindsay Garfield sings with the alt-folk group Or, The Whale – they are great, see them live!

Dan Apczynski writes for Acoustic Guitar Magazine and is the lead singer of The Cut Loose.

Dan Nervo leads The Cut Loose along with Dan A. – they rule.

Kenji Shinagawa played mandolin, and is an amazing guitarist who lives in NYC.

Brian Fox is a writer for Bass Player Magazine and also plays bass with The Estate. His amazing ex-band Pseudopod just might do some shows soon, too!

Scott Foster teaches with me at Urban and plays all over the Bay Area.

Brian Switzer plays trumpet with Native Elements, among other groups.

Alex Kelly is an amazing cellist, and has done some pretty rad things things.  He plays all over the place.

Joel Behrman played trombone; he is an amazing trumpet player, as well.

Daniel Fabricant played upright bass; his group The Nice Guy Trio is really good stuff.

Khamara Pettus is a fabulous actor and performs regularly around the SF Bay Area.

Fil Lorenz contributed wonderful Bari sax playing, and leads two groups – his Soul-Tet and his larger Jazz Orchestra.

Samantha Fisher did the album design and layout, and is truly amazing.

Michael Romanowski mastered the record, and I can’t recommend his services enough.  He works at Coast Recorders, and is one of the heads of the audiophile record lable The Tape Project.

bird-jpg

The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 7)

At the start of 2009 I finished work on my first solo album, titled “The Exited Door.” It is a collection of thirteen original songs, and it features just about every Bay Area musician I know.  It has been, to embrace the cliche, a labor of love – I began work on the record at the start of 2008, and spent most of the year shepherding the disc from conception to completion. I am immensely pleased with the finished product.

This is the seventh and final part in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its creation. Part one covers the initial conception, part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part three details the creation of the album demos, and part four is about the large recording sessions we did throughout the summer. Part five covers the final recording sessions and the initial mixing process, and part six details the final mixing and mastering processes.

The record is now available at CDBaby.com, as well as for download from iTunes and Digstation. Tracks from the disc are streaming on my myspace page.

Part Seven: Artwork, Photos, and Design

door7

Assembling the artwork and finalizing the design on the album was by far the easiest part of production.  With the tunes written, recorded, edited, and mastered, the only thing left to do was to put together the art and the layout and send the thing off to Discmakers.

river-of-dreams-album-cover1
Yeah, I know.

I’d had a pretty good idea of what I wanted with the design from the get-go; I knew I wanted some sort of portrait-like illustration for the cover, and my initial thought was that it would be something like Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” album cover.  Which is kind of hilarious, in retrospect.  That might be the least-cool album cover in existence.  I didn’t know it at the time, but it was actually drawn by Christie Brinkley when she was married to him, so it’s this total non-art kind of thing, with tons of watercolors and drawings, and it’s kinda sorta… lame.  But at the end of 2007, after putting down “cool” for a while and trying to come up with something more real, it was at least in the neighborhood of where I wanted the cover to be.

It didn’t take me long to figure out where to go to find an artist to commission to do the work. I know plenty of artists around San Francisco, but didn’t really know any of their work that well, and just tracking down an artist friend didn’t seem like the way to go, for whatever reason.  Right at the outset, however, when I thought about how much production and recording work I’d be doing at school, as well as how many students I’d be getting to help out musically, I realized (in a bit of a forehead-slapping moment of clarity) that I should get an Urban student to do the cover art!

Continue reading “The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 7)”

The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 6)

At the start of 2009 I finished work on my first solo album, titled “The Exited Door.” It is a collection of thirteen original songs, and it features just about every Bay Area musician I know. It has been, to embrace the cliche, a labor of love – I began work on the record at the start of 2008, and spent most of the year shepherding the disc from conception to completion. I am immensely pleased with the finished product.

This is the sixth in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its creation. Part one covers the initial conception, part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part three details the creation of the album demos, and part four is about the large recording sessions we did throughout the summer. Part five covers the final recording sessions and the initial mixing process, and part seven is about the artwork, photos, and design.
The record is now available for download at Digstation.com, and tracks from the disc are streaming on my myspace page.
Part Six: Mixing, Editing, and Mastering
door6
It was December. The music had been written, the charts laid out; the musicians had learned the parts and been recorded, the voice-overs were complete. The singers and I had learned, tweaked, and re-learned the parts, and the tunes had morphed from abstract ideas into actual recordings. This was the home stretch – time to wrestle these tracks into a finished album.
I’ve already discussed how much easier it is to mix things when all of the tracks are recorded and accounted for – the drums can be EQed to leave space for the bass, the vocals and the horns can be put where they need to be in order not to clash, etc. But there’s another aspect to it as well – when I have an incomplete session, it’s tough to get in the mindset required to make things sound finished; all of the ingredients aren’t yet in the stew, so it’s tough to begin to add seasoning.
Once all of the tracks are recorded though, for better or for worse, I know what I’ve got to work with, so it’s much easier to begin to chop up the audio and make it fit into the sound of the tune. Which, once the tracks were finished, was exactly what I got started doing.
Continue reading “The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 6)”

The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 5)

At the start of 2009 I finished work on my first solo album, titled “The Exited Door.” It is a collection of thirteen original songs, and it features just about every Bay Area musician I know.  It has been, to embrace the cliche, a labor of love – I began work on the record at the start of 2008, and spent most of the year shepherding the disc from conception to completion. I am immensely pleased with the finished product.

This is the fifth in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its creation. Part one covers the initial conception, part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part three details the creation of the album demos, and part four is about the large recording sessions we did throughout the summer. Part six covers mixing, editing and mastering the tracks, and part seven is about the artwork, photos, and design.

The record is now available at CDBaby.com, as well as for download from iTunes and Digstation. Tracks from the disc are streaming on my myspace page.

Part Five: Final Recording Sessions and Initial Mixing

door5

As the tracks started to reach their final state in terms of content, it grew a lot easier for me to mix them.  I’m just not able to mix things separately – I have no way of knowing if the sound that I get on, say, the drums alone will sound good once the bass, guitars, and vocals are added, so it just wasn’t possible to tackle the mixing until everything had been recorded.

It was quite a process, and was the most challenging part of the album’s creation. The transition from demo to full recording required me to put down my preconceptions of the songs at every turn. One of the dangers of making complete recorded demos of tunes is that it’s pretty easy to get used to the demo – to the mistakes, the odd mixes, and lackluster instrument sounds – to the point that it can be jarring to mix in real instruments played by real humans.  Since the sampled instruments and the real musicians were in utterly different universes, both in terms of mix and groove, I held off attempting any mixing until I had everything in place.

Continue reading “The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 5)”

The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 4)

At the start of 2009 I finished work on my first solo album, titled “The Exited Door.” It is a collection of thirteen original songs, and it features just about every Bay Area musician I know.  It has been, to embrace the cliche, a labor of love – I began work on the record at the start of 2008, and spent most of the year shepherding the disc from conception to completion. I am immensely pleased with the finished product.

This is the fourth in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its Part one covers the album’s initial conception. Part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part three details the creation of the album demos, and Part five covers the final recording sessions and the initial mixing process, and part six covers mixing, editing and mastering the tracks. Part seven is about the artwork, photos, and design.

The record is now available at CDBaby.com, as well as for download from iTunes and Digstation. Tracks from the disc are streaming on my myspace page.

Part Four: Recording the Musicians

door4

With the demos complete, the music scored, and the parts written, it was time to head into the studio and record the actual musicians. Since I had sent demos and charts out to everyone already, my plan from the outset had been to do modular recording sessions, breaking things up to make it easy to schedule time with each musician or group.  The Urban School has a very cool Pro Tools HD system and Control | 24 board, along with a nice big main room and an isolation booth.  Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to run the sessions entirely on my own, particularly when I was playing (on the horn session), I enlisted the help of two student engineers at Urban, Sam Tygiel (who is also a brilliant young flutist, guitarist, and songwriter), and the always-professional, low-key Daniel Moattar.

The great thing about demoing in Pro Tools is that it makes it possible to take the demos you’ve created and really easily replace tracks one-at-a-time through several sessions, until you’ve got a whole new recording. In other words, the demos act as templates for the finished product.

The plan was to record the musicians over the following sessions:

  • Drums
  • Electric Bass
  • Acoustic Bass
  • Piano and Keyboards
  • Strings
  • Horns
  • Guitars
  • Auxiliary Sessions (Woodwinds, Marimba, Clapping, Percussion)
  • Final Vocal Takes

Continue reading “The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 4)”