Saturday, December 27, 2014

Four Days to Finish, and SongFight Votes Posted

Only four days to go, and there's still plenty to do.

I have a pretty good plan for song #4 - the next SongFight title was posted yesterday ("Three Stars"), and since I didn't have any other ideas I just started riffing on that.  I already have most of the instrumental tracks recorded, and I have a plan for the vocals.  I still need to do the vocals on demo #2, and I'll clean up the Grim Reality vocal tracks afterwards if I have time.

The polls are closed on the Grim Reality SongFight, the votes were tallied, and I got 3 votes.  That means that the regular SongFighters/voters didn't like the song, few if any of the readers of this blog (which boasts a readership in the mid-single-digits) voted for the song, and less than half of my immediate family (or maybe none of them) voted for the song.  Some important points:
1) the song didn't deserve votes because at best it was a rough recording with bad vocals,
2) there are no prizes and no accolades for SongFight winners so there was nothing at stake, and
3) I made submitting to SongFight a requirement of the Commuter Challenge for reasons unrelated to vote count (it was more about deadlines and participation), so the vote count should be irrelevant to me.

But since the count was so very very low, it sorta isn't irrelevant.  That SongFight vote count is my only empirical gauge of interest and encouragement.  I have always been acutely aware of the fact that my vocal skills are nil, but the poor showing also suggests that I am on the wrong track in terms of both content and execution.  My motivation for taking on this Commuter Challenge, and for making music at all, is ostensibly unrelated to the reception the music gets, but if that is actually true then why am I keeping this blog?  I need to re-think my motives and my goals.

As I'd suspected might happen, I'm going to have to "phone in" the CD cover art aspect of the challenge due to the time constraints.  My attempts to channel Wayne White will have to wait.  Better yet, maybe I should try to come up with an original idea instead of trying to borrow Mr. White's style.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Grim Reality" SongFight songs posted

They've posted the songs for the "Grim Reality" SongFight at .  I listened to my submission again and I think the assessment in my previous post is still accurate.  By the time of the deadline, it came down to the choice of submitting it to SongFight it as-is or not submitting it at all.  Even though I'm not perfectly happy with the recording I think that I made the right decision to submit what I had.  If nothing else, then at least the SongFight part of the Commuter Challenge has been completed.

As I'd mentioned before, if you want to vote you can visit, listen to the songs and click the ones you like.  Voting doesn't involve registering or sitting through ads or paying for anything.  The site moderators ('Fightmasters') urge people to vote for all of the songs they like instead of just one song.  I ended up voting for a bunch of them, and I think Inflatable Vegetables and The Worldly Self-Assurance have particularly strong entries this week.

As for the EP cover art:  I found what I believe will be the painting that I will try to Wayne White-ize, unless I run out of time and end up just phoning something in:

Got this number for $8 at a thrift store.  It appealed to me because it was cheap, it's big (image size around 23" x 17"), and it features a fair amount of water so I can play with the reflections of the letters. The drawbacks are that the original image is a watercolor (and I'll necessarily be altering it with oil paint, acrylic paint, or watercolor on either white acrylic paint or pasted-on paper additions), the image is a little sun-faded, and of course I might not have the painting skills to pull it off convincingly in the first place.

If for no other reason than to continue to provide pics for this blog, I will post in-progress photo updates of the cover art attempt.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

SongFight regrets and a photo just because

I don't do Twitter or Facebook yet (I'll probably start one and/or the other in 2015), so besides email I don't really have another platform to share weird pics.  Since I want to continue to try to make this blog less of a text-fest here's a photo of this year's Thanksgiving turkey, even though it has nothing to do with Jerkatorium:

We had Thanksgiving dinner at an aunt's house and they'd jammed this twelve-pound turkey into a little toaster oven.  I laughed so hard.  It was pressed up against all of the inside walls of the oven - we really hard to push and pull to get it out of there.  To be fair, it was a pre-cooked turkey from the store so they were just warming it up for an hour or so per the instructions on the package.  And it tasted great.

Back to the music:

The "Grim Reality" SongFight songs are not posted at yet.  I'll post another update as soon as they are.  Since submitting my Grim Reality song to SongFight, I've listened to the recording a few more times and I think it sounds really rough.  The guitar is fine enough, but a lot of the vocals are very noticeably out of tune. I'd been pretty pleased with myself for re-recording (and thus slightly improving) the vocals for the first verse just prior to submission the morning of the deadline, but after listening to the song a couple more times I'm realizing that I should have re-recorded almost all of the vocals.

I am irrationally reluctant to use sound effects in these songs, so there is no auto-tuning in the recording.  I played around with it a bit, but my only attempt sounded awful.  I think that my acoustic guitar was slightly out of tune (i.e. in tune with itself in terms of pitch relation among the strings, but not in tune with a 261.6 Hz C4 note standard) so when I tried to apply GarageBand's pitch correction to my vocal track it pushed my voice into proper tuning, which was out of tune with the guitar.  So I switched back to my unaltered vocals and that was what I submitted.  Maybe I can apply pitch correction to the entire song (guitar and vocals) after the fact.  I probably should have learned more about GarageBand before starting this thing.

I'm also thinking that I shouldn't be shy about adding effects to the songs, especially since my singing is nowhere near the quality I'd prefer.  Heck, people consider Adam Levine to be an accomplished vocalist, and he is the personification of auto-tuning; every note he has ever recorded sounds more robot than human.

The SongFight submission out of my hands at this point.  My first-ever SongFight entry is nowhere near as good as I'd hoped, but it has the virtue of being done (such as it is) and submitted, which is much better than the many, many times over the past dozen years that I considered submitting something to SongFight and then didn't.

As for this Commuter Challenge EP project, I am definitely going to try to improve the quality of Grim Reality before the end of the month, but (as noted earlier), I need to make the other songs presentable first.  That means I need to re-record the vocals for Butterfly, I need to write and record vocals for demo #2, and I need to compose song #4 before re-visiting Grim Reality.  Maybe I'll wait for the next SongFight title before starting on song #4 so I can make that one another SongFight submission...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

SongFight Song Submitted

So here we are, 77% of the way through our through our three-month challenge and I am 25% done with my project (which seems better than average for me).  That's right, I completed one whole song and submitted it to SongFight.  The SongFight title for this week was "Grim Reality".  

My timeline for submitting to SongFight before November 30 was really all about avoiding having to scramble to write an original song for SongFight at the last minute, so even though I checked that requirement off the list a little later than I'd wanted to, I'm still considering it a victory. is a great idea and a great site.  They announce a song title and participants write, record and submit an original song with that title before the deadline, which is usually within about ten days.  It's been going strong for almost 15 years, and in that time participants have submitted over 10,600 songs.  I have been listening and voting on and off since 2001, and some of my favorite songs in the world were SongFight submissions - I have around 500 songs on my phone and probably 15% of those songs came from SongFight.  Some SongFighters have gone on to slightly bigger/better things: at least six of the songs on MC Frontalot's first two albums were originally SongFight songs, Jim of Seattle got some viral fame with his "Welcome to Windows" SongFight submission, and Spinto Band's "Needlepoint" was originally submitted to the "Jimmy Hat" SongFight under the pseudonym Carol Cleveland Sings (okay so it's not like the Quarrymen turning into the Beatles or anything, but it's still good music).

The submission deadline for the "Grim Reality" title was just this morning, so of course they haven't posted the new fight submissions yet.  The songs are still up on the website for last week's "No Takebacks" fight, and there are some great entries spanning a variety of styles; 80s disco, country rock, hard rock, power ballad, rap, and an a cappella submission from Tyler Zahnke (who, as far as I know, is still participating in the Long-Form Commuter Challenge too).  Go to, listen and vote - you don't register or pay for anything, you just listen to music and then click to vote on the songs you like.

I'll post another update when the Grim Reality songs (including my submission) are posted.

As for the song itself, I guess I'm happy enough with what I recorded.  It's just me and my Silvertone acoustic guitar (plus a cameo riff or two on my cheapo resonator guitar in the background of the chorus) If I have time before the end of the month I'd still like to dink around with the track, re-record a bunch of the vocals and maybe add a bridge, but since that song is in a more-or-less presentable state I'll need to prioritize the other 3 songs first.

As promised, here's a photo:

It's my cheap, impossible-to-tune, E-string-eating resonator guitar next to Buko.  Buko is the only truly talented vocalist in this household.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

November's sub-par entries done

Almost every post in this blog says the same thing:  I haven't posted an update for a while due to work travel.  This post is no different, since I spent most of the past week and a half in Vancouver, BC for work.

Before leaving for Canada, I'd submitted my November updates to Brian.  As of the time I'm typing this they haven't been posted at the Commuter Challenge website yet, and I'm thankful for that because they're pretty meager.  I'm happy enough with one of the songs (the one I'm calling song #3 for now) even though it only has two vocal verses (out of three planned) written and recorded but no chorus or bridge.  On the other hand, song #4 is barely even a skeleton.  I'd decided to try something with accordion and distorted electric guitar and it sounded horrible, so I completely scrapped it and emailed Brian some Garageband bass loops I'd hastily pasted together.  Song #4 is hardly a demo version of anything, but I'm still going to claim that it's officially a demo in order to avoid the harsh penalty of our mutual extortion pact.

Another disappointment is that I have not yet submitted anything to SongFight, but I'm thinking that song #3 will become an entry for this week's SongFight (if I can get my act together and complete it).  The title has to be "Grim Reality" and it is due Wednesday morning (10DEC2014).  I have no work travel between now and then, and I intend to spend most of this weekend working on the songs, so I should be able to finish something.

So let's take stock:

Song #1 is my cover version of "Butterfly" by CandyShoppe.  At the bare minimum, I need to insert Andy's vocals (or re-do the vocals entirely) and tweak the levels on everything.

Song #2 is mostly done as far as the backing music is concerned, but I still have no lyrics or vocal melody worked out.  I know that will take some time and effort.

Song #3 has a solid base to build upon, and I'm going to try to get it essentially finished this weekend so that I can submit it to SongFight as "Grim Reality".  I need to write another verse and the chorus.

Song #4 barely even exists, but I'm going to take the approach I described in my last post and try to come up with a simple and catchy tune.  I'm thinking distorted guitar, uncomplicated bassline, straightforward drumbeat, and a lot of vocal harmonies if I can manage.  I am even thinking of making the words more or less random in order to illustrate the point that I'd brought up in my previous post.

CD cover art:  I haven't even started this, but I'm thinking of ripping off Wayne White's style to the best of my limited abilities.  In the late 90s or maybe the early 00s I saw a painting by him entitled "Spooky Western 2000" on display at a diner called Fred 62 in Los Angeles, and I thought it was brilliant.  While looking for an online image of that painting to link to for this blog, I found out that it is currently in the collection of film and music video director Charles Stone III.  Neither of them will ever find or read this blog, but on the off chance they do:  Mr. White, please forgive me if I attempt an inept and derivative imitation of your style for my fake CD cover art for my fake EP CD.  And Mr. Stone:  I admire your work, and I love that painting, please post a pic of "Spooky Western 2000" online somewhere, even if only in the background of one of your selfies.

Anyway, there is a lot for me to do in the next 25 days.  This weekend I intend to finish song #3 (probably "Grim Reality" for SongFight).  I will try to work the recordings of Andy's voice into the "Butterfly" cover and/or re-record the vocals this weekend, too.  After that I can work on and off (depending on work travel and etc) weeknights and weekends until Xmas.  From Xmas until New Year's Eve I'll be able to devote a lot more time to this project because I'll be off work that entire time.

I apologize for the continuing lack of photos in this blog.  I highly recommend clicking on that Wayne White link to check out his work, or even just do a Google image search to see great examples.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Post-Seattle Update

I haven't had time for an update for a while, mostly due to work and family travel.

Just before that recent travel binge, while working on the songs, I had a couple of complementary epiphanies:
#1)  I have been overthinking this.  Some of my very favorite songs in the world have nonsense lyrics and only four chords.  It hit me while I was listening to the four-chord ditty "Mashed Potatoes" by The Squish, lyrics:  "It makes no sound, and I wouldn't doubt, if you looked around, and worked it all out.  Well I wouldn't care, potatoes are mashed.  Would it be fair, if I ever asked?  It makes no sense, to turn away, it's my favorite game, that I like to play.  Well just as I feared, potatoes are mashed.  Would it be weird, if I ever asked?"  I love that song.  I've been enjoying that song for like ten years or more.  You could write more cogent lyrics by picking words at random out of a newspaper.  I could write and record two "Mashed Potatoes"-level songs per day -- sure, the vast majority of those wouldn't be as catchy as Mashed Potatoes, but if just 5% came out passable I'd have more than enough to have this project done in no time.
#2)  This project is not being scrutinized by anybody but me, and I have no reputation to build or lose.  I had big ideas about making a great first musical impression with fabulous original songs that would meet all of my own unrealistically high expectations, but none of that matters.  This blog has a single-digit readership, as does the Commuter Challenge, and there is nobody out there thinking, "Ah, at last!  That pimply bass player I saw in that crappy high school Van Halen/Scorpions/Kiss cover band in 1987 is finally producing some original music."  This frees me up to stop stressing about this project and have more fun with it.  My goal is to generate music, and it makes no sense for me to get bogged down by fears that something I make will be imperfect.

Neither #1 nor #2 are my way of allowing myself to cheapen this project, or an advance effort to excuse submit sub-par songs.  If anything, this just gives me more leeway and freedom to produce music; I don't have to stress out about musical concepts or messages, and instead I can just try to write the type of music that I might actually enjoy listening to.

A couple of weekends ago I was able to record some of Andy's vocals for "Butterfly" with the generous and patient help of the super-amazing Wendi.  The vocal tracks were a little free-form and might need to be digitally massaged into the song a bit, but he has an excellent voice and I'm excited about getting the opportunity to work with it.  Having said that, incorporating his vocals might not happen by the December 31 deadline, we'll just see how it goes.  I will post a version with his vocals at some point or another regardless.

More updates soon...

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mostly Pointless Update

Just writing an update because there haven't been any for a while:

SongFight:  I did not submit to last week's SongFight.  This week's SongFight title, "Taken Aback" is similarly general (and similarly similar) to last week's "Take It Back" and therefore, again, potentially easier title to write a song about, certainly easier than a title like "The Phyllis Wheatley Club" [which was the SongFight title immediately before last week's "Take It Back"].  This week's "Taken Aback" SongFight is due November 14, so I have tomorrow and a few weekday evenings to compose and submit for this one.  If I don't submit a song for the "Taken Aback" SongFight I will probably be compelled to submit to the next SongFight pretty much no matter what title is chosen, which is a great motivator for me to push to get it done now; I don't want to get stuck with a title like "Pestilence, Carcass and Death at Skoochies" or "Rockopolousaninjananophone Eternal - The Vishnu Cycle" [yes, both of those are actual previous SongFight titles].

Progress:  Slow.  More work travel is getting in the way, and I'm in a foul mood due to continuing mouth pain after getting my wisdom teeth out.  I have decided that the third song, which I already recorded guitar tracks for, is too slow, and speeding up the track in Garageband makes the guitar tone sound weird so I'm going to re-record the whole thing.  That's probably for the best because I'm considering re-working the verse/bridge/chorus structure anyway. 

Collaboration:  Good, potentially.  I have identified a friend with a great singing voice who is willing to sing on these tracks.  Now I just need to work out the logistics.  Oh yeah, and lyrics, too.  I should probably write some lyrics before we try to record the singing of those lyrics. 

I genuinely don't even know how to approach lyric writing.  I've written plenty of poetry (most of it pretty bad) for the Commuter Challenge, but when I dissect the songs I enjoy, I notice that most of those lyrics don't rhyme.  Often enough, the lyrics don't fit any noticeable sort of meter or pattern, and they look pretty random when written out on the page and separated from the music.  If I want to emulate my heroes then perhaps I should not confine my lyrics to any specific structure, but it's difficult for me to write without any sort of structure or plan, so I'm feeling a little rudderless even though I already have a title I should write a song around [i.e. Taken Aback, for SongFight].

Sunday, November 2, 2014

YouTube Links and Chatter About the Demos

My iPhone couldn't play the blog videos in the earlier post, so I'm adding YouTube links for each of the songs.  While I'm at it, I'll yammer about the recordings.

Here is the YouTube link to the original song "Butterfly" by CandyShoppe, track 4 on their Glitterbox CD:

Great song, great band, but somewhat challenging to find their music on the internet.  I see they have a facebook page (though I've never really been on facebook so I don't get updates), and some videos on YouTube.

Here is the YouTube link to a demo version of my cover version of the same song:

Significantly inferior to the original, and with noticeably more accordion than the original, though I can't blame the former on the latter.  I'm playing every instrument on this track except for the drums, which are all Garageband loops.  For this cover I replaced the piano melody in the beginning of the original with harmonics on the electric guitar (for measures 1-4 and 9-12 anyway).

As I'd noted in the previous post, I actually recorded vocals for this track but they are so very very bad that I cannot bring myself to post that version here, and I'm going to seek help from a friend to sing them instead.  And that goes for all of the songs I'm going to do for this project.

Arguably interesting tidbit: my 12-bass accordion has neither an E bass button nor an E chord button, so I had to play a sloppy D minor (i.e. a D major plus an overpowering F bass note) on a separate track and then change the pitch of that track up two whole notes in Garageband for those parts of the song.

Here is the YouTube link to a demo version of my original song, currently entitled Demo #2:

I have no lyrics written for this one yet, and thus no real title.  I will absolutely add vocals to this at some point or another within the next two months, but as of yet I have no idea what they'll be about.  So far this is just acoustic guitar, bass guitar and Garageband drum loops.  I will probably add other instruments to the track, but I'm not sure what yet.

Both of these demo songs have to go onto the back burner until December.  My November is peppered with a bunch of work travel, so I'll have to work on the two new demos with what little time I'll have at home in order to meet the November requirements of the long-form Commuter Challenge.

I'm also realizing that it's very likely I won't submit to SongFight this week despite the comparably general (and therefore comparably easy) SongFight title.  If I don't finish it tonight then it won't be ready by the November 4 deadline, and I seriously doubt that I'll finish it tonight.

I am also coming the the frustrating realization that anything I submit to SongFight will have to include my own sub-sub-par vocals, because any sort of vocal collaboration within the next two months will take a lot of extra time to arrange.  Yikes.  I'm going to have to find a key where my voice doesn't sound awful (if any such key exists).  Or maybe I should do vaguely "spoken word"-type vocals like Pop Musik or One Night in Bangkok.  Or maybe I should try to take on an affected vocal style to mask my bad tone.  All options sound like bad ideas, I'll just have to decide which is the lesser evil.

October Goals "Officially" Met - Demos Submitted

Okay, so they didn't turn out exactly as I'd hoped, but at least they're done.  I did my two demo versions and submitted them, one had vocals and the other didn't.  I haven't even written vocals for the second song.  As I'd feared, I took advantage of the vagueness of the term "demo version" to justify submissions that are less than ideal.  I have, however, written vocals for a third song I'm working on, which wasn't even close to being ready by midnight 10/31.

I am so very disappointed in my singing ability that I realize, as I'd suspected, that I am going to have to find someone else to sing all of these songs.  I've known since puberty that my singing voice is terrible, and this effort proves that fact yet again.  It's so bad that I'm declining to post the versions with my singing here, and instead I'm just linking to the instrumental versions:

This is the song I don't have words for yet, and I'm just calling it Demo #2 for now.  As with the others, I'm uploading it as a video because I don't know how to upload song files.

This is the cover song for the EP.  It is a cover of the song "Butterfly" by CandyShoppe.  This is actually the song I submitted with vocals, but the copy here has the vocals extracted because they are so very very bad.  Since it is difficult to find a copy of the original CandyShoppe song elsewhere (and because it's such a great song), I'm including the song in the video below:

I love that song.  My cover will not do it justice, but it's fun to make the effort.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

October Demos - Possibly Voiceless

Work (and especially work travel) continues to prevent me from making any progress on these songs during the week.  I've still been at it during the weekends, but this weekend was a little different -- I had dental surgery on Thursday and am still experiencing pain, swelling, numbness and bleeding.  This is extra-unfortunate because all I really have left to do on two of the demo songs is to record the vocals, and now the vocals are the only part that I can't seem to manage so well due to these mouth issues.

I might end up taking advantage of the vagueness of the term "demo" to claim that submitting instrument-only tracks as my October demo songs still count as demo songs, even if I intend to add vocal tracks later.  I hope it doesn't come to that, but I might not have much of a choice in the matter.

In happier news, SongFight's new title is up, and it is general enough that it will be difficult for me to come up with an excuse not to submit:  "Take It Back", due Tuesday November 4.  I have all this week to think about it, and then all of the weekend to record and submit the song.  I'm still not 100% sure that is what will happen, but it seems like a good bet.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Update 20OCT2014

I can't believe it's already the 20th.  Last week I had more work travel, thus the lack of updates to this blog.  Quick status update:  Over the past two weekends I have been doing a lot of recording.  I have what is probably the final cut for the instrumental parts of the demo version of the cover song, plus most of the music tracks for one other song, and then a basic guitar track recorded for a third song.  

I have not recorded any vocals for any of the songs yet.  The vocal work for the cover song will be comparably easy because at least the words and melody are pre-set.  I have no words or tune for the other two pieces yet.  So far it's just a bunch of background music.  This worries me.  I know that I am leaving the most crucial and difficult part of the songs for the last week and a half of the month.  Should composing go the opposite way?  Should I write words and/or a melody first, and then build the instrument tracks, rhythm and chords behind it to support the vocals?  I think that's how Gilbert and Sullivan did it.  Elton John and Bernie Taupin, too. posted their newest title a week or so ago:  "The Phyllis Wheatley Club", due date October 22, 2014, two days from now.  I understand that continuing to put off composing for SongFight in hopes of getting a truly inspiring title at some future week is a bad idea, but that is exactly what I'm going to do this week too.  I doubt that I could give the subject matter the gravity it deserves, and anything less would be disrespectful.  Maybe I'm overthinking it, but since there's only two days left, I am committed to not submitting to SongFight this week.

One bit of great news - the issue with my bass guitar's bridge pickup was limited to that broken switch.  I fixed the switch and now I have a fully-functioning bass guitar:

Here's a closeup of that broken pickup switch.

The first thing I did was to remove and boil the bass strings.  It's an old trick for making the strings sound brighter - I believe the process removes dirt and oils from the coils.

While that was going on, I got my tools together: soldering iron, trivet, screwdriver, needle-nose pliers, and replacement switch.  This is not meant to be a Radio Shack ad.  In fact I found the replacement switch to be of poor design (it requires a nut and a bolt, and any typical nut size prevents the switch from fully functioning).

Here are the old switches.  The broken one is on the right.  At this point in the process I have already unscrewed everything, marked the wires with highlighters so I don't mix up what goes where, detached the red wire with the help of the soldering iron, and used a razor blade to cut the crosswire off the old switch (the solder on that part wouldn't melt).  It's hard to see it in the photos, but this switch has threads in the placement holes so a nut isn't required, all you need is the bolt.  Unfortunately the new one has wider holes and requires a nut and a bolt.

All I really did was pay careful attention to where everything was wired on the old switch, and then repeated that on the new switch, and everything worked out okay.  Since I couldn't use any of the nuts I had without making the switch unusable, I ended up just glopping solder on that area in hopes it would keep the switch in place.  It is clear to me that the solder mound was not the right solution for this problem.  The switch is loose and wobbly, and I am afraid to use it.  But at this point the switch is working fine in the ON position instead of broken and/or stuck in the OFF position, and now the bridge pickup is working for the first time in who knows how many years.  I prefer my bass guitar tone to be a bit brighter, so I probably wouldn't ever turn that pickup off anyway.  If I ever need a softer tone than what is available from the bridge pickup, I'll just use the tone knob.

The bass sounds great now, much much better than I would ever have expected.  It's a little strange for me getting used to it as a "short scale" bass, but it sounds so good that I can't complain.  I'm so happy with the sound of this bass that I'm thinking of investing in a professional set-up and permanent re-repair of that switch instead of the sloppy half-measures I used.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Equipment for the Challenge

Decades ago I remember seeing somewhere (maybe Spy Magazine?  Maybe The Onion?) some satirical covers for fake comic books.  One was for a Super Mario Brothers comic book, where the Mario brothers in question were Mario Cuomo and (if I remember right) Jesse Jackson.  What made it funny was that the cover advertised it as the "All-New Text-Only Special Issue," and the cover illustration was just a bunch of word balloons densely packed with text.

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

In an effort to avoid "text-only" blandness, I'll start adding some photos to this blog, and maybe I'll look into other options for making the site a little more interesting.

My equipment for this challenge:

Andrei's violin.  This is a no-brand 4/4 model from Amazon that cost something like $35 new, and came with the bow, a nice case, and some rosin.  I'm sure that any legit violin player would be ashamed to be seen with the thing, but it is a great option for anyone without any violin experience who wants to take a stab at the instrument before investing in a better-quality violin.  The tuning pegs are not 100% reliable; the pegs and fingerboard are cheap molded plastic.  In order to get any sound out of it, it's best to score the rosin and spend a lot of time rosining up the bow first.  I may or may not use this on any of the songs.

My M. Hohner Marine Band Harmonica, a gift from Andrei.  I think I have (or had) another harmonica with a lower register, but I can't find it and probably lost it at some point.  Not sure if I'm going to use it on any songs, especially because if I want a harmonica-like sound I am more likely to turn to:

The Grande Vox 12 Bass Accordion, on loan from my dad for the past 20 years or so. I prefer the 12 bass accordions because they're so much simpler to operate than the more elaborate models, and because my fingertips are so wide that I tend to accidentally hit extra buttons on the 24 bass and higher models (it sounds terrible when that happens).  A big drawback to the 12 bass is the absence of the not-uncommon B, C#, E, and F# chords/bass notes (and of course all the minored versions of those chords). Simply keying those chords with the right hand as a substitute for the bass buttons doesn't fly - the keys are in a higher register, and it's too incongruous to switch between the bass buttons and the keys mid-song.  Also, some of the right hand keys of this accordion are screechingly out of tune; I can work my way around them for a note or two, but not if I'm sustaining chords.  Nevertheless I am certain to use this machine for one or more of the songs for this project.

My Silvertone archtop acoustic guitar.  There is no model or serial number on this guitar, so I'm sure it's just a cheap, mass-produced mid-century model.  Silvertone apparently used that "wind chime" logo through 1957, so the guitar is no younger than that.  Looking for it on the web just now, I found a scan of a catalog ad (probably a Sears catalog?) from 1956 which might be selling this exact guitar, #57 H 0702L, advertised as "Our Lowest-Priced Arched Guitar" for $17.95.  

Despite its unimpressive origins and pedigree, I got this guitar a couple years ago because I'd wanted an archtop and this one was free of the neck heel separation and dimpled fronts that plague poorly-maintained archtops.  Tip:  If someone claims the guitar he is trying to sell is a great slide guitar, that means that the neck is badly bowed and the action high enough to make the instrument nearly unplayable unless you're using it as a slide guitar (i.e. essentially making the fretboard unnecessary).  Most vintage archtops have that problem, fortunately mine doesn't.  Not yet anyway.  

I like this archtop guitar because it has a different tone; not a 'full' tone that most guitarists would want, but a more jangly, percussive tone that I like for background rhythm work.  It's like a cross between a guitar and a washboard.

My Kent 533 Videocaster.  A few years ago I gave my last electric guitar to a nephew because I almost never used it.  I had only taken it out of its case a handful of times in the previous two decades, so why hang on to it?  The nephew had shown an interest in playing guitar, so I happily handed it over.

As soon as that last guitar was out of the house, I was irrationally desperate to replace it.  While trying to decide what to get, I became interested in vintage guitars.  I bought a couple of Teiscos that looked interesting and had those great rocker and slider switches (instead of the toggle switches that have been ubiquitous for the past 40 years), but they didn't feel or sound quite right to me.  

Eventually I came across this Kent Videocaster and fell in love with it.  I will be the first to assert that four pickups is at least two more pickups than anyone should ever need on a guitar, but whatever was done with the design of this guitar was definitely done right.  With four pickups, two volume knobs, 6 slider switches (one for each pickup, plus two solo/rhythm switches), and two roller knobs for tone, anyone is bound to find a few tone settings they like.  Also the guitar is in great condition and has a great feel.  My only complaint is that the pickups are a little quiet in comparison to other electric guitars, but that's what the volume knob on amplifiers is for (and/or input levels in Garageband).

My Norma bass guitar.  It plays very well, feels great and has low action.  Unfortunately the bridge pickup doesn't work.  I hope it's just the broken pickup slider switch (broken off and/or pushed into the guitar before I purchased it), and I will try to fix that before using the bass in any recordings.  Also I would have preferred a long-scale bass instead of this short-scale model, but it's still a great bass.  Worst-case scenario, I might just end up using a digitized bass in Garageband.

In addition to the instruments listed above, I'll be using Garageband extensively (all drums will be Garageband samples and loops, and all 'engineering' will go through Garageband).  I will continue to use my trusty Blue Snowball USB microphone.  I'm hoping I can plug my electric guitar and bass directly into my computer, but if I need amplification I'll probably just plug them into my cheapo Squire 15 amp, which is not particularly fancy or nice, but it's reliable and I know how to get a decent tone out of it.  

Ah, what a pleasant way to avoid doing actual work on the project.  But enough of that.  It's the weekend, and I need to use this time to compose and record.  Time to get to work.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Late Update

I did a lot of work on a song on Sunday, but then I left for a work trip on Monday and didn't get back until tonight.  I didn't want to tap an update on my smartphone while I was traveling, and I didn't want to use my work laptop to access a website with the word "Jerkatorium" in the address, so I put off doing this blog update until now.

On Sunday I decided to get a genuine start on the project, and I'm glad that I didn't delay it any longer than I had.  I started with the very easiest aspect of the Challenge (the Garageband 'drum machine' tracks and some backing accordion tracks for the cover song) and it took all day.  Now that I see how much time it can take for me to make any headway, I realize that I have to push hard and devote a significant amount of time to the Challenge every weekend or else this project will be a failure.  I'm extremely happy that I gave myself all of December to do nothing but CD art and engineering the demo versions of the songs (at minimum, anyway).

I'd also had a brainstorm that might have helped me submit to the "No Vacancy" SongFight.  Having that brainstorm was actually pretty disappointing, because no matter how good any inspiration was, I knew it was going to be impossible for me to act on it in time for the Oct 9 deadline (due to the time constraints and work travel).  My idea was to riff on the national anthem.  "No Vacancy" maps pretty closely to "Oh say can you see."  Take out the "you" and they're practically the same syllables.  I wouldn't have re-done the Star-Spangled Banner with No Vacancy lyrics, but I would have been able to put some clever melodic references into whatever song I would have composed for that SongFight.  And what an opportunity for me to spout my opinions on the US immigration issues!  I wonder if any of the actual SongFighters are going to do anything like that.

I'm considering getting an iPad so I can use Garageband during work travel.  Not sure yet.  Knowing me, I'd probably just bring the iPad on work trips but then avoid working on the project until I returned home.

I promise you various pictures to help gussy up this blog.  Soon.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Long-Form Challenge begins today.

Today is the first day of the Long-Form challenge.  Since it's only the first day, there isn't much to report other than the other Challengers' goals:  a total of three people are participating, and our goals are listed here.

The current title (for songs due October 9, 2014) is "No Vacancy".  I doubt that this will be my Songfight song for the Challenge because no specific inspiration has hit me in the few days since it was posted.  Also, it's due on the Thursday of a busy work week for me, so if I want to submit a song for the No Vacancy Songfight I'll have to finish the song this weekend.  Seems unlikely.

The only progress I've made thus far is the deletion of all of the game/solitaire apps from my smartphone (to remove distractions).  And I think I've chosen a cover song for the challenge.  I don't want to state it here though, because I don't want to commit just yet.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Parameters For My Long-Form Challenge

The September Commuter Challenge is to come up with your own three-month creative project and map out the timeline and requirements for submission.  I have a few more days to think about it and tweak the text and/or goals, but this is most likely what I'm going to do:

My long-form challenge will be to record a set of songs, with the general “EP” or “extended single” as the model in terms of content and format.

For comparison, I dug through some of my old boxes and found 7 different They Might Be Giants CD EPs.  The EPs had 4 to 6 songs each (most had 5 songs). They each had 0 to 2 remixes of the main track (most had one remix).  They each had 0 to 2 cover songs, averaging approximately one cover song per CD.  I will endeavor to conform to that general format, with some extra stipulations to help ensure that I don’t end up phoning it in at the last minute.

The overall minimum requirements will be for me to record no fewer than 4 songs (with a personal goal of recording 5 or more).  At least three of the songs must be original compositions (not covers, and not remixes).  At least one of those songs must be either a cover of a song by a different artist, or a remix of one of my original songs on the EP.  If five or more songs are recorded, at least three of them must be original compositions, at least one must be a cover or a remix, and the other(s) can be originals, covers, or remixes.

Extra rules:

At least one of the original songs must be submitted to  The Songfight submission should not be an instrumental.  The words of the song must be relevant to the associated Songfight title.  The song must conform to the Songfight submission guidelines, and it must be submitted to in time to compete that week.  I should make every effort to meet the Songfight requirement of the Challenge in October or November.

I should avoid instrumentals.  Only one of the songs (but hopefully zero) may be completely instrumental.

I should avoid “experimental” or “avant-garde” compositions.  Only one of the songs (but hopefully zero) may be “avant-garde”.  This is to prevent me from lazily subverting the spirit of the challenge by producing low-effort, gimmicky submissions like Negativland’s Over the Hiccups by or John Cage’s 4’ 33” [though I do admire and appreciate both of those songs].

I am allowed to collaborate with other musicians to whatever extent I desire; I am allowed to employ/engage other musicians and vocalists to perform any amount of the music on any or all of the songs.  I am allowed to use any samples, loops, or other recordings that I want to any extent I choose.

I must create original CD EP case insert art - at minimum a CD case front insert (4 ¾” square), but my personal goal is to also have a back insert (5 3/8” by 4 5/8”) and lyrics/liner notes.

Timeline/interim due dates:

October 31, 2014:  The minimum I must submit (to breadbox at the Commuter Challenge website) is demo versions of two songs.

November 30, 2014:  The minimum submission requirement is demo versions of two other songs.  They must be different songs than those submitted October 31, 2014 (though one of the songs may be a remix of one of the other three songs submitted in October and November).  It is very highly recommended that one Songfight submission should be completed before this date.

December 31, 2014:  The minimum submission is four completed song recordings (at least one of which has to have already been submitted to plus original CD case art per the above requirements.  The personal hope is that more than four songs are recorded by this date, but I will have fulfilled the bare minimum requirements with four songs and one piece of CD case art.

[Extra note:  I am not going to make blogging a requirement of the Challenge; this is just something I'd like to do, and something I hope to maintain during the Challenge.  I'm declining to make it an extra requirement just in case I lose time or interest and stop posting here.  It might be fun for me to maintain this blog, but I can't let it get in the way of the Challenge (or my job, or my family/social life, etc).]

Why "Jerkatorium"?

Every band name is already taken.  This accursed internet proves to us that there is nothing new under the sun.

Don't believe me?  Brainstorm a list of five original band names.  Chances are, no matter what you put on your list, all of them are already (or were at one time or another) in use by a band.  I went through a zillion of them (Hork, April Mayhem, Shortbread, The Frownies, Monkey Fracas Jr, Itty Bitty Ditty Committee, etc etc etc) and there are already bands out there with all of those names.  In order to name a band nowadays you need to get very random (Bernie Bernie Headflap), and/or very specific (Crustacean Stretch Receptor), and/or very long (And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead).

I chose Jerkatorium because I saw an episode of The Simpsons where Homer reveals that he has a hidden room in the house where he makes beef jerky, and at one point in the episode he refers to it as his 'jerkatorium'.  The name stuck - it's a little self-effacing, a little lewd, and a little funny (to me, anyway).  But most of all, it is almost perfect to describe my project/exercise for the Commuter Challenge:  middle-aged man who used to be in rock bands in high school and college tries to recapture some of that magic by picking his guitar up and recording some predictable claptrap.  I'm an embarrassing, self-indulgent cliche before I've even started the Challenge.  The name Jerkatorium is nearly perfect.  And I like it.  Best of all, there are no results in YouTube when you type Jerkatorium in the search field.  The closest music-related Jerkatorium hit I could find on my Google searches is what might have been a music venue in Providence (but has probably been defunct since 2008?).

I could have used my own name, or I could have stuck with Finhork, but my name gets mangled and misspelled so badly and so often that I figured a different option would be easier.  And more interesting.

Welcome to Jerkatorium

I hope you were expecting indie music from a middle-aged man, because that's what this is.  Or that is what this is going to be, anyway.

Jerkatorium is the name of my 'band' (formerly Finhork).  The 'band' might end up consisting of just me and my computer.  I might or might not try to include collaborators by the end of this project.

The Commuter Challenge is a series of creative projects, and it has been going on for eight years now.  For most of that time the Challenges have been creative tasks with a deadline at the end of each month; there is a more thorough explanation/description on that website.

The September through December 2014 Commuter Challenge will be our first long-form challenge, and by midnight December 31, 2014, I will have recorded a minimum of four songs (at least three must be original compositions) and made some CD cover art to go along with it.  Yes I know that CDs are practically obsolete by now, I just wanted a format to follow in order to give myself some boundaries to work within.

This blog is just here for anyone who wants to peer over my shoulder at my progress.  This is my first blog ever, please excuse me if I lose interest and stop posting.