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.