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Entries in hog heaven studio (31)

Sunday
Feb032013

Last Plane out of Rolandia

I'm never an early adopter of technology. I don't particularly like the treadmill of replacing the stuff as things are supplanted by the latest and greatest models, either. It's quite maddening. I don't like comparing tech specs too much. It's bewildering trying to figure out how two models are so alike but different enough to force a choice. I was late in the joining the computer revolution itself, electing to not buy in until August 2001. The one step along the way that I did take was in using the Roland VS-880 virtual studio recorder, which I bought home in August of 1997.

vs-880 recorder in its glorious simplicityVS-880

The 880 was a great platform for helping enable my increasing creativity as a musician and sound artist. The ability to non-destructively edit audio was a major draw for me. A reduced need to bounce multiple parts thanks to some extra tracks was handy too since all my recordings up to then had some kind of permanent artifacts of tracks getting merged down and losing the discreet parts, or taking a bit of a sonic hit as tape generations mounted. So many great things about the 880 fired me up. One thing I didn't particularly need to worry about then was how I'd interface with the world around me. It wasn't a real problem at the time because the idea of having a home studio was to be self-contained. And since the 880 era coincided with my collection of instruments and desire to explore with them, I really was pretty self contained. Sometimes I had sessions with other players but in large part, I just recorded things myself and had fun.

Roland uses an audio encoding format called RDAC which is their own deal. So if you're in the Roland Universe and using Roland gear, you're golden. But they don't make it too easy to interface with the outside world using WAV or AIFF or SD2 format. A later model called the VS-2480 answered demands that Roland get with the program and open a door to users who would be interfacing with the prevailing trends outside the Roland universe. To do 24 track recordings means that people are not exactly tinkering anymore. People set up to record that much are going to be working at another level. Roland was known for being slow about accommodating that.

2480: more is lessVS-2480: more is lessWhen I bought a VS-2480 in mid 2001, I stayed within the Roland family because I'd had such a good time using the 880 and at the time I still had no computer. The larger 2480, with 24 track capability, was enticing but arrived on the scene as my most prolific studio times were waning. It coincided with an attempt to record more live group playing at the studio, so the 16 inputs were handy to capture things in full multitrack glory. Those sessions never turned up anything of lasting value and I found that I had a habit of making a quick mix and burning it to CD and scrapping the source recording. Only a few tracks of any workable quality were done during the year or so that I had the 2480. My Stick-playing and Pro Tools evangelist buddy Tom Griesgraber swore I should just get into Pro Tools LE on the Mac and be done with the closed system that Roland offered. Finally, in the summer of 2002, I saw the light of that and sold the 2480 at some rather acute loss and did in fact get the PTLE 5 and start to learn how to use it.

If you wanted the fuller story, you'd have to read a whole mess of material from a forum site called VS Planet, where I trashed the 2480 more and more as time went on because I found that there was an elusive but very annoying preamp distortion issue. I didn't realize it but I seem to have been the one dude who found that issue and sent the entire 2480 user community on a crazy pursuit of that, with people working out fixes and other workarounds. It's officially recognized by Roland. I dunno if I was the only dude who was baffled by it or not, but eventually many others got drawn into it. In the process of bashing the 2480, a lot of people came to regard me as a troll. It's legendary.

When I got rid of the 2480, I was happy to do so and since I did not get rid of the 880, it seems never to have occurred to me to do the work of using the 2480 as the go-between device to move the 880 era recordings into WAV file format which could be used by computers/digital workstations. I did export a few tracks that originated on the 2480, and that was it. At the time though I knew I was not going to be so clever with recording as I had been on the 880. I felt there was a learning curve and that I'd be a while before any serious work would be done.

With the 2480 reviled and then sent away, the 880 was left to fend for itself. And the work of transfering things was regarded as not that important or maybe in a case by case basis, tracks might be bounced to WAV by a MIDI-synched bounce, two tracks at a time via a digital connection. That was all the plan there was for recovering things, sad to say.

CD stack with archived vs-880 sessionsThe data CD stack

Then, all that life stuff happened and the years kept blowing past and the CD spindles with VS-880 data archives were periodically found and put away, found and put away. The 880 and its CD unit still work. The SyQuest drive that also served as a backup/archive was found to not work—even a decade ago. In a related precedent from last year, Kelli finally bit the bullet and did her text transfer work that required a chain of old machines that once were used to do this tedious work and could finally be let go of. And so, taking stock of what I have, what would be recoverable, and goals to publish my music on more contemporary platforms like Soundcloud or YouTube, I have been thinking of what a preservation effort would be like. But one thing was missing until November: the 2480. It would be just one of two known (and somewhat efficient) ways to do the work. The other would be to have a Windows PC and a special program written by Roland VS users that would directly read the Roland archive CDs. Not knowing if that would be anything I'd actually ever do, the 2480 was the last opportunity to collect my old stuff and escape the Roland RDAC prison.

Last Plane Out of Rolandia

Recovering data CD material to 2480Recovering data CD material to 2480

In recent times since moving to Escondido, I met a guitarist named Brian Calwell who has been part of the Celtic jams I've gone to since the summer. At some point in November he mentioned he had two VS-2480s and that he'd cut his records on those, and recorded live shows with one. He also said he'd mostly moved on from them recently. I didn't ask right away but it was too good a situation to ignore. With the holidays coming up, I felt it would be a great time to remix the Hog Heaven Holiday Theme Music project. Brian let me come over to his place just a few miles away and spend some hours trying to extract the HHHTM material from the 880 data disks. That worked well and I did that project during December. While at his place I also was able to hear a couple other seemingly lost bits from the 2480 era and that fired me up. He was nice enough to offer the use of the machine, whenever

Just after Christmas, we were trying to work out a date for me to come do some transfer work and he just volunteered maybe I could just use it here for as long as I needed. BINGO! What a cool dude! So for the entire month of January, I had it and the CD writer on one side of my desk, and the 880, its CD writer, and the DAT machine on another side, and for a few weeks now I've plugged along at finally collecting all the recoverable material I can get from 880 data archive disks, DAT tape (not requiring the Roland units), and stacks of CDs. All that stuff is getting turned into WAV or AIFF files which I expect will be more durable since they are the working formats across PC and Mac these days. If nothing else, it will ensure that as much as I can make it so, everything will be in one format: uncompressed, non-proprietary 24 bit audio ready to be acted upon as needed, instead of scattered about on various formats.

DAT Hell

880 and DAT: the match made in Hog Heaven880 upon the DAT: the match made in Hog Heaven (studio)

The digital audio tape format plays two roles in this whole transfer scheme. The primary use for DAT is as a mixdown format, and I have about 30 tapes with various mixes and assorted scraps that maybe didn't warrant being kept in 880 format. DAT has been trumped by hard disk recording and CDs when it comes to a more playable 16 bit format. I have tried on a couple of occasions to play those tapes into the computer so I could have them to work with and be backed up before my machine totally ate the dust. The format now is largely regarded as dead. The last time I did a transfer, in 2010, I stopped the machine and made new files for each mix that played. That led me to some troubled DAT times where tape got munched or corrupted. So I put it down and hoped I'd find someone with a working DAT before more of my work was endangered. Some years later the situation has not changed for the better. I began to put in the lowest priority tapes and played them into the computer in real time with no stopping of the tape deck or the computer. I'll figure it out later. I kept spreadsheets of tracks and notes for things that took some more nuanced attention. Little by little this past month, I got those tapes played in.

880 archive on a DAT tape880 archive to DAT

There were just a couple other DATs that I had largely forgotten about. As I assessed where the 880 era material was scattered across formats, I found some DATs that were used as archive tapes, storing session data from the 880—mix parameters and all. Three tapes carried 880 copies of things that originated on 4 track cassette and that I thought it would be good to have in digital in case I ever decided to remix things or grab material to use elsewhere. Some of the ReCyclED stuff was on there, and a good thing too since there were a few core tracks that straddled that period of changeover from tape to hard disk. Importing those to 880 and then burning the archive disks got me to where all the other archive disks were—the point at which the 2480 would be able to import things, and in turn burn exported WAV files to CD.

880 capturing the DAT archive material.880 capturing the DAT archive material.

Lost? Yup. The flow on those DATs was like this:

4 track cassette source > transfer discreet tracks into 880 in 1997 > archive to DAT in 1997 (before the CD writer became available) > import to 880 in 2013 > burn to CD as workable format for 2480 > import to 2480 > export to WAV files on CD > import to Mac. Then the Mac of course will be able to use the material freely and will generate multiple backups.

Most of the transferring project started with 880 archive CDs done in 1998-2001. The DATs of course had that longer legacy. It was insane. The one DAT worked out that way. The other two? Well, they suffered from some unknown mix of garden variety DAT issues but somehow the 880 was not able to import them. That process was hit with various errors. I tried several times. Finally, knowing that those tapes were rather inconvenient copies of 4 track tapes (which still sit in a box here), I just destroyed them.

SyJet Crash and Burn

One last format was not so much an archive but a backup for works in progress. As it were, they seem to have last been used to backup the final mixes of Receiving from late 2000. The SyQuest SyJet was one of my first experiences with computer breakdown. It was a bit like a Zip drive but the disk was actually a removable hard disk instead of a floppy style in a plastic case. I had one go bad on me early on and the one I replaced it with (cunningly bought as an exchange with the old one put into the returned box, even months after it was bought) lasted long enough to do my best work, then it went on the fritz. Good thing I had left some notes on what was on them. After comparing that to other stuff I'd fetched on archive CDs and DATs, I gave myself licence to demolish the thing with a ball peen hammer. I kept the cartridges but the drive was toast. I found some online for $90 but that's not worth it if the evidence suggests I already have their contents.

Portastudio: the Final Frontier

I gave away my 4 track tape deck in 2005 when I was evicted and at the same time, music buddy Glenn Farrington was interested in recording something himself. I kept my tapes and to this day I have a good deal of stuff from about 1993-1997 on cassette in regular stereo and 4 track format. The problem is, these tapes rely on what might be an even deader format. I went to a pawn shop to inquire and we all had a chuckle about how they don't even see people bringing them in. I've seen a couple used ones online. But with all the magnetic, physical media, who knows what one might get. It could be money down the drain. But if I am ever to fetch my work from that period, that's the machine I need to get. Sure, I have mixes from that era, but the multitracks are here and ready if the machine appears. I doubt it's worth losing sleep about it.

One reason for holding on to some hope about it is that in 1996, when I did my original project bearing the name of The Artist Presently Known As Ed, I took it to a guy who did digital editing. He was a nice dude but somehow as we played my DATs into his system in real time, he did not pan them in full stereo glory. Somehow, we both totally missed the fact that the product I ended up paying for was summed to mono and when the CD he output was given to me, I found that it did not sound right. The problem really was that by the time I found that out, I had no recourse. I had him play the final product out BACK to the DAT tape I brought in with the mixes, and so my mixes were overwritten. So that project has never been heard in stereo since the day before I had it produced as an album. Recovering the source 4 track material would let me do that project some justice, not to mention I could use far less gimmicky EQ curves. I was young then...

Good Bye and/or Good Riddance

So there you have it. The task of trying to gather all my musical offspring back into one place after 17 years of changing formats. The Roland VS format is clever for capturing and doing some work but it's not too conversant. DAT is glitchy and is considered dead. Four track is more durable and resiliant but I don't have a machine. When this is really in the can, I can finally do as Kelli did a year or so ago, and get rid of some old stuff. DAT is off to eBay for some one else to worry about. The 880 and its CD writer are on the block. The SyJet already made it to the landfill by now. I reviewed material on my Sony Minidisc player and bounced just a couple things that didn't exist anywhere else. It's going to the thrift shop. The 2480 is going back to Brian. Now I will have a box of old cassettes to hopefully get to one day, but everything else is on the iMac and a few hard drives. I'll keep the DAT tape and CDs from the 880 for a while. The transfer process generated a considerable number of CDs with 24bit WAV files on them, so those constitute backups of session tracks, sometimes pared down to working tracks and other times littered with fragments. But it's all so much more available than ever.

WAV on CD finally. Now just to import it to the Mac.WAV on CD finally. Now just to import it to the Mac.

Where to From Here?

I can finally see a bird's eye view of my recordings, from all the solo work to stuff for Loaf, Mike Keneally, Tamara, Kelli and I, Magnificent Meatsticks, and a number of jams and short band projects. I have fanciful ideas of doing mashups of all sorts of things. Already I had thoughts stir in me that there has to be nearly an album's worth of ambient and sound collage material to release. I started all this in the hopes to remix as much of ReCyclED as I could, in some cases using material that, because of the limits of 8 tracks, had to be mixed out.

With a site like Soundcloud that makes it so easy to share and annotate recordings, it seems the time is right to get to the source audio, encode it robustly, tag it completely, and put it out there so people in Slovakia finally can discover the secret gems of the San Diego underground music scene in the late 90s. About my only reservation is that the track by track format doesn't let me publish things as I would on CD: tracks segued and overlapped or collaged into seamless running order. Physical media is dead for now, so it's sort of a thing to just face and roll with. In its place is the great possibility that stuff can be discovered and liked and shared without my micromanaging the transactions.

I am excited at the thought of seeing all my stuff presented well in one place. Because my recordings have been on so many formats, some in final mixes or in working mixes that just sort of ended up being the longstanding mix, there has never really been a consistent digital, web-ready approach. The mp3s on this site are more or less the same as they were as I added them over time, starting as early as 2000. They aren't tagged too well, and of course, hosting audio on a website like this is to be stuck in obscurity. So I have an idea that I should get a body of work together on Soundcloud, then rebuild this site again to feature players with my virtual albums. It might be a lot of work. I hope I can keep the focus because for so many years now I have really been shrugging off music creation and publishing as much as I was gung ho for it in the early days of my web design interests. It's about time the two finally meet and shake hands.

Listen to my Hog Heaven Holiday Theme Music from year 2000, done on the 880 in some haste, and remixed in Logic after being imported to the Mac via the chain of events chronicled here.

Friday
Dec212012

Hog Heaven Holiday Theme Music +12

Hog Heaven Holiday Theme Music? Tech Background

A long time in coming. That's what it has been for me to bring you this recording. Oh, it's not new. It's not even unheard. It's been here on this site for years, and each year in December I do something to share it around as a gift to people around me, either in person or online. 

What is new is that after a dozen years of kicking around with a rather boring mix and with the hasty cover art, this year I finally was able to address that and get it all remixed and fixed up with some snappier visuals. I owe a debt of gratitude to one Brian Caldwell, a figure I've met while in Escondido. For many months since I got here, I've jammed with he and Paul Castellanos at the Irish pub. I found that Brian owns two Roland VS-2480 recorders and after hearing of this, I talked some shop with him. I used to own a 2480 myself but found it really difficult to work with, especially after becoming very fluent on my VS-880. This Hog Heaven Holiday Theme Music project was done on the 880 in mid December of 2000, and has the distinction of being the last project that was done in a way that seemed album-like. It's only 15:35 long but it feels like an album, not just a one off track.

Recorded at the end of 2000, this was done fairly late in my 880 period. The 2480 came on the scene in late June 2001 and for all intents and purposes, buried the 880. It had the capability to bring 880 projects onto its hard drive, and while it was of nearly no use to me then, when Brian spoke of VS-2480s, my ears perked up. See, I have about 40 data CDs of 880 and some 2480 material. And since Roland machines have a proprietary audio encoding, my Mac can't even read the disks. So, for all these years I've hung on to the 880, expecting that if an opportunity like this were not to arise, I'd need to do a MIDI sync linking the iMac to the 880, and transfer tracks two or four at a time. It was pretty much a deal breaker to think of doing things that way. The good news is that with only eight tracks to mix with at once, anything that I mixed before with that many tracks was not that hard to recreate.

Brian lives just a couple miles away and let me come over to reacquaint myself with the 2480. I found it as difficult as before but the optimism was there that this time something might actually come of my time fiddling with it. My goal was first to grab the multitrack sources of this recording so I could give it a proper mix with richer effects and more clarity. I got pretty frustrated relearning the 2480 interface in just an hour but got my CDs with the WAV files I needed to get things into the iMac where I'd mix in Logic Pro. (He was nice enough to offer the use of the machine as I needed it. Then he let me borrow it. What a guy! That's giving me ideas to remix and finish such a thing as ReCyclED, toiled on for years and then sort of set aside when Receiving took center stage.)

The original recording was done in two main sessions, and each had eight tracks. When I got back home, I had 16 WAV files there, ready to... well, wait a minute! Actually, they could be mixed that way but you see, the initial recording process was really scattershot. I started off on what you now hear as the middle of the recording (track 5 if it were to be indexed). That started the entire project but there were five "songs" from that point to the end. Each had just a few tracks—never more than six at once—and when there were open spaces at the end of one "song" I'd use them to start a new idea. Maybe two tracks launched it, but as things ended on a previous "song" I'd have new track space to put in more ideas. The idea of sensible track layout (drums, bass, guitar, keys, fx) progressing from left to right was just not of any service here. Nope. If you looked at the tracks as lanes on a freeway, it would appear rather like the various color cars and trucks on such a road: at different places, sometimes traveling together, others out front, some longer or shorter, etc. In musical terms, it meant that in the lane of track 1, it might start as a tambourine and then become a keyboard, and then become a different keyboard later on. And tracks 2-8 would have equally odd instances of musical bits cutting in and out. The task was to get that into order so I could progress. This is just the preparatory work so the creative job of mixing can flow.

With those 16 audio files in one session at last, I cut all the separate regions (instrumental parts arrayed across the audio files) so they could be arranged next to each other with their "song" peers. I found there were 37 parts to work with. I got them grouped into the constituent "songs" and color coded the groups of tracks that were meant to perform together. Then, for the next song on the timeline, those tracks would receive like treatment. As the whole project progressed, a group of pink tracks ended and some green ones started, and then blue, and purple, and orange, etc.

Those 37 tracks gave way when I further divided a few that I missed, and when I deleted a couple instances and replayed just a few parts on drums and cymbals to improve feel and timing, and then added just a bit of cymbals for more texture. Other than that, the whole project was the same as before. What could be done now was to use ample plugins to do the detailed EQ and compression that I never could do, and to mix with far more variety in effects and also to do automation for tricky bits that I could never do with my fingers on just a few faders. I took the opportunity to time align a few things for improved feel. Things were done quite hastily in 2000. Because the parts were put down and then the mix happened no more than a week or two later, the idea of what the mix might sound like was not yet lost. But to recover such ideas a dozen years later? Um... better to just wipe the slate clean and put stuff into logical groups!

Mixing was a joy. One effect I found to be real useful and transformative was a subsonic bass treatment that does some amazing hocus pocus on drums and gives them a richer bottom end by synthesizing some lower octave information based on the extant material. It worked wonders on a relatively small headed tambourine that was played at real low level originally (and close to the mic for a natural bass boosting effect), but did not have the deep fundamental like the bass drum it emulated. This plugin took that calfskin headed tambourine and added some real balls to it, in effect turning it into a tribal bass drum sounding like it was being hit pretty hard. Further processing was done to separate the jingle from the drum part of the tambourine. Detailed filtering on cloned tracks let me cut the drum out of one track and the jingles out of the other, in effect creating two instruments from one instrument. I did that a couple places for the more rirualistic and festive sounding parts.

Creating some stereo spread without reverb was handy on some tracks, but since the aural model I had in mind when I worked in 2000 was that of the Paul Winter Consort playing their Solstice Live concerts in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I was cool with massive reverb. This is meant to be a powerful and atmospheric sounding recording, and so it gave itself to such processing. Some rich delays too.

With all the muckity muck of the 45 tracks that I mixed (the biggest project I ever mixed, but really only from 2-8 tracks at once), I was still keen to keep natural sounding dynamics intact. I mixed and remixed several times, reviewing in mono, small speakers, out of my room, and on headphones. I kept compression to a minimum on the whole mix, and used a bit of widening to make it even richer.

The art from 2000 was really basic and rushed. Remember, it was just to give away as a Christmas present. All I did then was to use a picture from a calendar I had a year before—one with a slightly iconic Ron Kimball portrait (porktrait?) of a giant hog towing a sleigh with a piglet at the helm. Then I used label maker tape to mark it up as from TAPKAE, and to call it Y2k Holiday Theme Music. The words "Hog! Hog! Hog!" were meant to be read as "Ho Ho Ho!" but I don't think anyone got it. It was innocent and cute but it was someone else's work and done stupidly cheap. So this time I put a bit more work into the design. I still used someone else's work but made it look a lot nicer. These days, since nothing is released on a CD-R anymore (at least not for free), a bit of humor got lost. Originally there was a CD with a paper label applied, with one side of the spindle hole showing "Side A" and the other, "Side B."

These days the prospect of creating some audio and turning it loose on the world is finally starting to appeal to me. In the old days I gave so much of it away anyway. With Soundcloud now proving to be a great sharing option, allowing ready downloads, links, and embedding, I have decided that I should properly post stuff with full tagging and notes, and set it out there. This tune is on YouTube as you see, and also on Soundcloud. While the mixes I've had around for years have been online, it's not much use to just have them hosted on my site. That's been kind of a shift of paradigm too. After blowing out the last of the copies of Receiving, I decided to get it on Soundcloud as a high quality download. Now this. I plan to work my way backward and remix things and get my more established stuff together that way.

Personal Background

A bigger story lurks behind the timing of both the original recording and this remix. Indulge me, and you might appreciate the layers of meaning to its creator.

In 2000, I was 27 and at that time of life when it was time to address the various broken relationships and other troubling aspects of life. Seeking to reconnect with my mom and the extended family constellated around her after the better part of six years estrangement (not even the first of its kind), I sought their numbers in phone books at 7/11 stores around their known neighborhoods. That turned up a successful connection and I went to a reunion two days before Thanksgiving that year. The occasion was not just to welcome me though. I was at least "second fiddle" that day; the larger cause was that my grandmother there had died the week before, literally the morning after I got a call back from my sister. I hadn't seen my grandmother in years.

Despite the mixed emotional content of that day, I entered the holidays with a great deal of optimism. It was made all the more interesting because it was just then that I found my young niece Kaitlin to be a delightful inspiration. I had three other nephews from my older sister, but I'd never connected with them at any significant level. But with my niece, I got that feeling that I could be someone for her. This time, my resolve was there.

Back at home in San Diego, that spark continued when I went into the studio and spent about a week and a half leaping from one instrument to another and back again, having all sorts of ideas come to me, fortunately at a time when I had some cool keyboards and percussion toys on loan, and lots of time to indulge the muse's calling.

Yes, it's spontaneous and rather unfinished and gets from one idea to another without returning to any one theme, but the joy of recording it comes through clearly. I've always found it interesting to note that this project has a lot more melody and charm than anything I'd done thus far. It wasn't so dark, or so goofy. Maybe it reflects some of the consonance I felt for a few weeks at the end of 2000. The world was a safer place. A little girl melted my heart and made it safe to be vulnerable again. Who knows.

Now, in 2012, the sad fact is the family relations continue to be unbearable most of the time, not unlike the situation that launched this whole story. It has been an incredibly challenging part of life to deal with all this, trying to live with either their presence OR their absence. The prolonged estrangement periods take everyone out of the picture for the most part, and the short punctuations to that are usually heated and savage. I did get to see my niece briefly as I paid my mom a visit in November (half-coincidentally just a few days before Thanksgiving once again). Unlike the occasions 12 years ago, I left there realizing there would never be a relationship, and because of my sister's intransigence, all those years have passed and I've not ever been given a chance to be in any relationship with my niece. It's not that there is no hope, but essentially, the book has been written by now. (To further indicate the measure of dysfunction, no one actually told me my own half brother had died until I happened to drop in at mom's place over six months after the fact!)

So while the optimism of 2000 has had stumbling blocks put before it, and the recent remix project was laboring under the cloud of a new dose of defeat for my spirit, this year, rather than limiting the dedication to niece Kaitlin, this year's work is dedicated to the people who have sustained me on the outside of the rather disappointing family I was born to.

The solstice happens in the darkest time but signifies the coming of the light.

Santa and the Kingdom of Childhood: a Bit of a Troubled Place

A related project that uses a bit of the 2000 version of HHHTM is this short video that I put together this year. The reading is from a book called The Dance of Time by author Michael Judge. I loved the reading so much that in 2010, I decided to do a few takes. The whole thing is explained in more detail in another post. Shortly after getting that video posted, I got a call from my sister Nikki, chewing me out big time for posting pictures of her minor child (Katie's 15 now). Oh? Well, she's my niece too. She tried to tell me she wasn't so I dared her to prove it with DNA testing. And four of seven pictures are mine. She tried to tell me they weren't when I hold the negatives in my box just in the other room. She threatened legal/law enforcement action. I know what she means, but her fiat declaration that Katie is not my niece is kinda flimsy. I mean, at one point, I was welcomed into their house, took pictures of my family member, and a dozen years later I posted them online? If my sister is worried about all that kind of stuff, maybe she ought tell Katie she can't have a Facebook account, or she ought not post pictures herself where people like me (she calls me a "stalker," or "pedophile" or "child molester") might find them. I offered to take out the three pictures I didn't take myself.

So enjoy the show. Merry Christmas to all. Even those family members who like to pretend they're not.

Tuesday
Oct302012

Leaving Tracks: the Advent of the VS-880 +15

This post isn't particularly tied to a single date or event, but rather a season of 1997 that turned out to really reinvent my life for some years to come. A few times in this journal there have been tales of my small but mighty VS-880 recorder and how the Hog Heaven Studio era played out. It's almost easy to forget a period that preceded that, but one that sowed the seeds of a rather hot and heavy period of recording.

pretending to pick my nose in a goofy shot of me up near my cassette deck mountain, 1995My mountain of cassette decks, numbering up to nine individual wells in three double and three single deck devices! 1995

You see, the VS-880 was my first digital recorder that promised me the aural riches of nondestructive, nonlinear editing. In 1997, when I got it, that seemed unimagineably mind blowing to me. These days we can't imagine doing anything on the computer without levels of undo and the ability to constantly move text, video, audio, and images around freely. Because I was a rather late bloomer when it came to digital life and computers, such options were far out for me. All my recording thus far had been on cassette tapes, mostly on the garden variety stereo-in-two directions type that anyone could record with gear from a home electronics shop, and then for a period of just under two years, I used a TASCAM 424 four track recorder. The VS-880 was a stratospheric leap from all that.

Enter the VS

I spent the spring and summer of 1997 watching my pizza delivery earnings pile up, and a relative windfall of $1400 when I sold my extensively reworked Pearl knockoff set. A lot of days were spent in the musical gear porn magazines MIX! and Electronic Musician, fantasizing about either a four track minidisk recorder or the more complex and robust VS-880, recording to an internal hard disk of (wait for it) a whopping 540 megabytes!  The thought of shelling out $1,800 made me dizzy but this promised to be worth it. The editing options offered the means to do things I had barely yet even thought of, but was bound to do eventually. At the time, I had modest expectations of being able to silence empty parts of tracks, collage things, and generally have more mix control over the eight tracks, which was a fantastic doubling of capability. Such a thing as the 64 virtual tracks led to fanciful thoughts unimaginable on tape where I'd been able to bounce two or three tracks to an open track, or if needed, bounce all four to another cassette and then if needed, back into the four track to add more tracks, and so on. Those days seemed numbered and fading into irrelevance. If there was to be bouncing, it would be in glistening, (nearly) lossless digital quality.

The machine, once I brought it home in mid August, was bewildering. Even with all the manual booklets, there were so many new terms that I did not know and some that I'd still not know even as I retired it four years later (maybe because I did not need MIDI or other synchronization features). I found the easiest way to start in with the new machine was to take my TASCAM and hook up the line outs to the corresponding four channels into the VS. That way, I was able to capture my current recordings and set about having something to work with while not exactly losing ground if nothing panned out for me. But that was of little concern for the most part, since I found myself doing this transfer on a lot of material in progress, and then really not looking back. The TASCAM's days were numbered. If anything, the only reason for using it was that it did something to the sound because of the noise reduction scheme. I can't say it was "the" analog sound but there is a character that I found pleasing for the time when both machines were in use, prior to Hog Heaven Studio's opening in summer of 1998.

ReCyclED

As it was, the project I set for myself was something that is still unfinished even these 15 years later, a thing called ReCyclED. ReCyclED was a recreational re-doing of a list of goofy and irreverent songs that I did with Matt Zuniga in the Rhythmic Catharsis days of 1992-1993, and intermittently since. After the dark and angst-ridden Hog Heaven from earlier in 1997, something downright stupid was in order, especially with the prospect of the TASCAM's four tracks letting me develop things a bit more than what Matt and I had the ability to do with drums, voice, and some percussive toys all captured to a couple cassettes and added mic inputs. I'd spent some time during the summer knocking out drum tracks, trying to recreate the old magic on my own, and when possible, adding guitar or bass-sounding low end with the help of a pitch shifter or a keyboard on loan, or maybe even a bass on loan for a short while. It was fun but the real fun started once the 880 came onto the scene. ReCyclED was the perfect project to put it to the test. And my apartment was a fine place to have some of the effects and editing features because I was on a rather austere noise diet at that apartment, with a stodgy and fussy family on one wall and a rather fussy roommate down the hall.

Drums in Exile, Redux

Not all the tracks could be done convincingly at home in that room. The entire founding story of Rhythmic Catharsis was one of being exiled from our suburban bedrooms into the underground or otherwise cavernous parking lots and garages in the commercial zones of town, playing drums and screaming on weekends and in the middle of the night, often as loud and indulgently as possible. Subtlety was not our thing. The godlike thunder of an untamed (unmuffled) acoustic drum set surrounded by concrete walls was our sonic calling card. It was a sound that is impossible to capture any other way, short of playing in an aircraft hangar. The nights spent outside doing this young men's ritual in the early 1990s were considered part fun and part therapy, hence the name we adopted as our moniker. There was something about the security of two sets of eyes out there during the middle of the night in places that were otherwise quiet and sometimes a bit creepy. I have done solo nights of this kind but I never liked to do so if I had to be extra vigilant about my surroundings. It wasn't too hard to imagine it being the perfect situation to be robbed of my stuff (my older drum set was sold in mid 1997, so I was now using my babies, my high end Premiers exclusively) by a few guys who could easily drive up with a truck while I was wailing away, unable to hear their approach, and years before I'd ever have a cell phone. So those nights were never so fun as when Matt and I were doing our duo stuff, even if he never really tried to do any of this with any true conviction.

The Road to Hog Heaven is not without Potholes

my drum set in a garage where I set up with my drums and recording gear to get some tracks for new materialDrums at Greg's place, with a bunch of percussion junk nearby, and the mixer rack off to my left

Art Pacheco, my roommate at the apartment, was a punk guitarist in a band called Frame 313 and his drummer Greg Benoit was nice enough to host my drums at his house not far away in Clairemont. (Coincidentally, it was right next door to a childhood foe of mine, Brad Tade, a tough Irish dude who once thought nothing of slogging me in the street on the way home from school and leaving me unconscious for several minutes. I later got an equally uneasy feeling around Brad when we both appeared at our 20th reunion last year. And also coincidentally, a neighbor about six houses up was recalled to be a drummer playing whatever garage rock his heart was set on back in 1983 while I was hot to trot for this cute girl named Christine Huggard who lived a few houses over. And now it was my turn, just down the road on the same cul-de-sac. I digress.) Greg let me in to play maybe a couple times per week for a few weeks that summer. I had my TASCAM there, fronted by my Mackie 1202 mixer, a few mics (a Radio Shack PZM for the kick, a cheap SM58 knockoff for the snare, and a couple authentic SM57s which I still use), my Alesis 3630 compressor, and a DigiTech Studio Quad multieffects processor. The rig was definitely on the low end but it did let me tailor my sound going in, and the degree of sonic precision available was high compared to the plain old cassette days with Matt Zuniga, even if there was no way to capture the godlike thunder of the drums in a concrete garage. At Greg's, I had the drums set up, miced, kick drum blanketed, mixer and small rack within reach, and I felt like a king.

I don't recall if I broke down the recording part of that each time, or if I just left it all up and ready, but eventually the Greg offer came to an end for some reason after a few weeks. Probably the usual noise complaints, or someone moving. Anyhow, all the gear eventually got absorbed back to my apartment, and with a few minor exceptions of my risking a very hushed drum recording in my room, or even taking the kit out to some parking garages and setting up my gear to play and record drums, I didn't really play drums again until the Hog Heaven days that kicked off in June 1998. I think I recall there being eight months or so that I didn't play drums. I just kept trying to use drum recordings in clever ways, using the delay hold function in the Studio Quad to appropriate up to 1.6 seconds of "loopable" drum material, or even playing in one noise or another and letting it build up. Of course, that was more desperate than just using jammed out recordings which were improvised with some feel for what I thought the lyrics required, and then using those two things as the basis for further work back home. As I was doing this, it was months before I even got the okay to start on Hog Heaven, and about four months more before it was ready to set up and use. Drumming was a luxury for that period. This in particular was a rich time for learning the VS-880 and messing with sounds.

Bad Cop, No Donut

One night in September 1997, about a month or so after I got the VS-880, I hauled the drums, mics, and small rack along with the new-and-still-largely unexplored VS out to one of the old garages where Matt and I often played during the second half of 1992. One song in particular, a tribal pounder called When The Elephants Fight, something that went back to the end of 1992 in its original form, was something there was no way to record except at full power. The vocal itself got into some loud, screamed passages. Since they were parts that were already more or less established from our earlier recordings, I set about recording each in a couple takes after getting a sound. (The early idea for ReCyclED was to do little more than current versions of old stuff, and maybe to spend six months on the project. All that went out the window when the digital options took over!) I thought that being out at this building in Kearny Mesa would be uneventful. It always had been. It had AC power, lighting in the garage, and enough cover to mask my location. What I didn't bargain for was that in the middle of the night on a Saturday, some clown would be upstairs at work. And that from his vantage point, he'd not hear the finer nuances of my vocal performance and my um, lyrical poeticism (ahem!). Instead, this joker called the cops and from nowhere came the cops in at least one car, maybe a second. They inquired of me about some complaints that I was screaming about raping children or something. I don't recall exactly what they said, but the caller just heard screaming and drums a-pounding and was scared and bothered. The thing is, it was more baffling to the cops because by that time the drums had been taken down and for no real reason but the messing with my new recorder and mics, I turned the overhead mics over to my open truck hood and I was recording the engine idling and revving up. This was just incongruous enough for the cops to wonder what the fuck was going on. I think I said I was just experimenting. From my upstairs apartment, I don't have any way to record my truck engine, et cetera. Dumb question, dumb answer. Of course, this was the end of the session for that night so I had to pack and go home. This might have been the end of the drumming for several months. Within a few months, the lyrics for Bad Cop No Donut took form, and in part chronicled the incident, and also another run in with the porcine patrol, the infamous Toss Panos/San Diego Streaker night from June, a few months earlier.

Bad Cop No Donut was one of the major productions done upon the VS-880, and was a project that had at least two primary versions with wholly different lineups and a lot of twiddling. It was emblematic of the VS era, but more so the digital era of always being able to dabble and fix and nip and tuck. A track like that was originally done around Bryan "Nucci" Cantrell's rather improvised drum part, done in a local rehearsal facility, and that I captured in stereo mix to DAT recorder in September 1997 with little more than a directive to play something disco like. So he delivered this loose and driving drum part that sounds exactly as it appears in the song. Then I took it home and eventually the song took some form as I added guitar parts, bass, even some keyboards, a lot of vocals, and then kept trying to find my balance. For the first time, I had to power to put too much in. The brilliance of the VS-880 for me was in those eight tracks there was enough space to get a lush mix and almost enough to get too much. A recording like Bad Cop No Donut, if spread out in full track count across a larger format tape (or moreso, across the nearly endless track capacity in computer based workstations), would have to reflect about six channels of Nucci's drums, my bass (with parts featuring a wah pedal), acoustic guitar, Todd Larowe's two rhythm guitars, and a few other guitar tracks for solos, effects like sirens, backwards stuff by Ron Sada, shredding and harmonized parts by Todd Larowe, and finally a shitload of my vocals—triple tracked lead for depth and fullness in the mix, quadruple tracked chorus backgrounds shouted repeatedly into one mic by Matt and I, and then some character voices too, done by Matt. If I had 24 tracks of 2" tape, I'd probably have filled it out. Instead, the arrangement cuts detailed parts in and out of tracks, bounces the more lush stuff to either a mono stem (all manner of guitar solo ideas cut a few bars at a time) a stereo mix of all vocals, and so on. The amount of stuff I wedged into the eight playback tracks makes me grin with marvel. Other similarly produced tracks done on the VS (and took a damned long time to record and re-record) include The Power of Disco (two very different versions exist and were done in this way, the first using a short segment of the Nucci track that ended up better serving Bad Cop), Zehdihm's Flight (with the Mike Keneally version ending up as a discard on account of tinny keyboard sounds that his one hour session did not allow us to work out), 8th Grade Report Card, Endless Cycle, Is God Trying to Make Me a Smoker?, etc.

New Tools, New Technique

The VS-880, in addition to providing lots of new track space to work with and to build out fuller mixes with more details, included some new tools to mess with audio. The nonlinear editing was huge to me. I originally got into editing so I could cut out some parts that were inherited from the TASCAM tapes, with bits that I'd mix out on that machine, but could precisely and permanently cut out on the 880. The ability to do the copying and pasting meant that I could use any source and draw something from it. Collaging things became easy since things could slide this way or that on the timeline with some great precision. The ability to set auto punch locations or to just use a bunch of virtual tracks prior to compiling the best parts of various takes meant that my ability to fix parts was greatly improved. This was important since it was during the 880 era when I gleefully bought, borrowed, or perhaps stole (not really) all sorts of instruments and devices and tried to wrangle sounds out of all of it, not always succeeding early on. Some tracks, like The Power of Disco (Compels You) or Bad Cop or The End of the Road for Missy the Cow, featuring cameos from a number of players and singers, afforded me the great chance to get some interestingly rich tracks together and to keep finding people who might work better for the track. Disco and Bad Cop took about a year each to nail down.

It took a bit less time to finish the tracks but no less a challenge to artfully develop an approach I used a few times: playing drum parts to establish a loop section, and then playing some live parts into the track, sometimes days or weeks later, trying to get a matched sound and feel that didn't sound weak (because looping drums automatically sets up a rather fixed dynamic for the song, and playing live will then not seem so consistent in volume and tone, even if done on the same kit, etc.) The two tracks that show off the approach best are The Power of Quim and Up a Dog is a Toy Experience. In each, I built the tracks off of looped material, then found I needed more drum activity and feel, so I had to set about playing in appropriate parts for a few bars at a time, and working hard to keep it sounding like they were single performances. You'll notice that the um, lyrical material on each is a bit peculiar. On The Power of Quim, I harnessed the Matt-isms that accumulated in the fall of 1998 when he'd come by and talk the oddest shit, and I later took snippets of it and kept morphing the details of what he was saying. Up a Dog is a bunch of random nonsense that turned out to sing well but was otherwise meant to sort of mock the San Diego poetry scene that Kelli was a part of then, as I witnessed it during a period when we hung out years before we became an item. I wrote it so I might go up and deliver it as a reading if ever prodded. Later on it turned into the loose and funky track once Todd Larowe left his JC-120 amp at my place for long enough that I put it to some use. Once I got my Mesa Tremoverb, the tinny JC was on its way back to Todd and I never used another amp at my studio except for single songs using someone else's gear if they brought it at all, or if I were to store it as part of my cartage/tech work.

Tom Griesgraber cutting the solo for a track on ReceivingTom Griesgraber at Hog Heaven in 1999, recording 8th Grade Report Card

A track like Farm Animals, a wacky thing that was only ever a drum/vocal screamer kind of thing in the old days with Matt, was one of the earlier things I did on the 880. I'd not yet been introduced to the word but the idea was known from listening to Frank Zappa: xenochronous recording. That is, combining unrelated musical parts done on different recorders at different times and places to achieve another piece of music. I had some drum bits that I'd recorded one day at one of the parking garages and had imported to the 880. Then, one day in late November 1997 and in a totally separate recording, a nice lad who answered my ad for Chapman Stick player came down and played some odd stuff in the name of a soundcheck or just some noodling. I kept recording the stuff then asked him to do some overdubs. It was all odd stuff and had nothing in common with the drums. But after he left, somehow I combined the drums and the various Stick parts, did a bit of copy editing to extend things to suit my lyrics, and then used the 880's absurdly wacky vocal transformer at the same time as I cut the track, the effect being printed as I went. Later on, the Stick player—a guy named Tom Griesgraber—and having only been using it for four months, progressed to be one of the leading Stick players, and a major promoter of the instrument, not to mention a peer among the Peter Gabriel/King Crimson players, having done albums and performances with Jerry Marotta, California Guitar Trio, and others. Tom appears in a slightly more serious player's role on 8th Grade Report Card, and again in the goofiest role as the bass player on Missy The Cow. There are a couple other tracks from the era that no one will hear anytime soon.

After getting a feel for the 880, another idea dawned on me. Earlier in 1997 I'd released Hog Heaven, a four-track sourced cassette release with me on nearly all sounds done at my apartment (except for a few odd bits where I used parts of a jam done elsewhere and with other people and either edited it or immersed it in a sea of effects). In those days, I always used digital editing as a way to assemble the final running order and flow. It was influenced by Mike Keneally and Frank Zappa. The thing is, I didn't realize that they were more likely than I to compose their songs with that in mind. So I did my version of it, assembling things that didn't always flow so well, and with studio time at $60 per hour, I could not afford to experiment much. And then a thing like Hog Heaven, which was rich in sonic texture and atmosphere and sound design, lent itself to the process. I did pay one guy to do it but had a hard time liking the result. The recordings were odd enough that I didn't need to feel that I missed my mark with the final collage work. So what I did was to go back to the four track tapes, import them into the 880, where useful, separate the parts that might have been punched into empty spaces on tracks, and other things that would help me control the sound more. I had the eight tracks, more effects, more EQ control, and some ability to re-compose things a bit to help the transitions. I ended up remixing much of the material and then using the 880 to then redo the entire running order with the tracks flowing far more appealingly. I used the opportunity to ditch one track that was filler and to put two others in. Then, once I had the entire thing remixed and playing as an album playing back as desired, I then took it to a new place for mastering. While it's never possible to totally disguise the relatively novice gear and performances, it was by far a nicer thing to hear in the second incarnation. It was also the first project I did that was released as a CD-R product, with all product being recorded at home. The cover art unfortunately was a dismal thing that probably moved four steps back for every step forward in the recorded part. The best part of that fiasco was that on the day I was printing it at Kinko's, a cute girl walked up and asked about it. Her name was Sarah. Oh, but that is a few other blogs' material...

Digital Heaven before Hog Heaven

That period of about a year from the time I got the VS-880, and into the new space at Hog Heaven Studio was the beginning of the magical period. It had its problems though. You see, it was the first computer device I ever had. I had to get my lessons in digital housekeeping the hard way. Did I know what "disk initialize" meant? Did I care? Well, I learned it pretty well when three tracks went to digital heaven in the days or so after Tom Griesgraber recorded our first attempts at Missy the Cow (with his guitar synth playing drums, I think), The Power of Disco (then named according to what I'd called it in 1993, "Disco Fever"), and another song. Well, that hurt. But Tom came down another time and we set about work on new versions or just other things. The 880, loaded only with a 540 megabyte drive, was not too dangerous, but the sting was felt when I lost those tracks. Around that time, I paid a whopping $375 for a new drive that would fit in there and serve my needs to the tune of ... THREE gigabytes! I got a backup drive, a 1.5 GB cartridge SyJet or something. One went bad. Oh, goody. Then I bought another, put the defective one into its box, and took it back to the store for a refund. That worked for the duration of my 880 era work but now does not work, so things on it are essentially lost unless I track down another drive like it. Less lost are the more incremental and hopefully mix ready CD-R session backups that must be brought to the 880 for mixing, and then if I ever wanted to bring them to a contemporary machine, I can play it out two tracks at a time with a MIDI machine synch. If I pick my work carefully, I could see doing it that way, but it's woefully inefficient. That's what I've come to hate about Roland. That was especially so when I got the VS-2480 in 2001 and found all sorts of proprietary issues that led me to sell that and get out of Roland's VS series (except that I still have my 880 and find that my fingers still know where to go pretty intuitively even years later). Anyhow, the 880 was my foray into digital audio, for better or for worse. I loved it until I had some kind of digital issue. Every now and then I found there'd be some corrupted file playback until I optimized the drive (defrag). Funnily, it took getting into actual computer based recording before I realized how good I had it on the VS series, at least in regards to how files were handled. That is to say, I had little control because they were behind the scenes except when it came time to do backups of whole projects.

Modest little room adorned in some goofy pig paraphernalia given to me by folks. Not a lot of gear yet, but it was growing...Hog Heaven, early 1999, with the VS 880 situated dead center

My complaints were generally few. By having a front end that fed mostly complete sounds into the 880, I found that I could use the onboard processing for getting a mix, rather than doing all the heavy tone-shaping. My analog front end evolved to include a nice and smooth Allen and Heath mixer, several channels of DBX or Alesis compression, a Behringer unit that widened my stereo spread and offered that kind of sweetening. I also had some evolving mix of effects processors. I'd mix my sounds (drums for example) on the way into the 880 where I'd almost never record anything but stereo mixes. A bass needing a flanger would be recorded with the effect. A guitar with an echo or lush chorus would get that before being recorded. Upon mixdown, I'd add more effects for the gluing effect, maybe to add stereo effects where the tracked ones had to be in mono to use track space wisely. The returns on the effects could be EQed and dialed in with the stereo widening device. All the high end on reverb would be rolled off on the mixer so the effect was more natural. That would be rolled back into the 880's returns. Listen to a track like Endless Cycle or Threads or Pearls Before the Swine from Receiving, and hear what a rich lush sound I got from my 8-track recorder with gear that anyone could buy from Guitar Center.

The Hog Heaven Sound Rules

When I listened to local recordings from San Diego studios, the ones known for being demo dens and other knock-em-out rooms where garage and clubbing bands would record, my mixes always sounded more cutting, more open, less chunky. I don't know whether it's that I love a good drum sound that isn't damped down with tape and pillows. Or that I spent more time dialing in complementary bass/drum sounds, or that I used a range of instruments that a guitar-slinging alt-rock band won't use. But I was very proud of my sound, all the more remarkable considering the VS-880 was never housed in anything more robust than an apartment room or a converted garage. The fact that Mike Keneally himself released some recordings that were done at Hog Heaven delights me, even though none of that is what I would have delivered if I knew he was going to use them. What still amazes me even today is that on that modest machine, I produced recordings of a kind of depth and completeness that even three subsequent digital platforms (VS-2480, Pro Tools LE, Logic) have not prompted me to learn and develop so fully. Granted, there has been a lot of other issues involved, but it's amazing to listen to the things I did on that "limited" machine, and to know I made stuff that amused me, or recorded for others, even getting an international recording credit.

Man, what button do I press in Logic to have that happen again?

Thursday
Jun072012

Proto-Blogging at TAPKAE.com +10

While my monthly archive might reflect a longer history than what I am about to write about here, the real beginning of this blog was on June 7th, 2002—still in the days before the actual blog technology existed (for me anyway). A small few entries have been added into the chronology to tell a story. Since I am just telling my own story anyway, they serve to fill in the historical record and it doesn't really matter if I play fast and loose with the entry dates, posting things into their proper place after the fact.

In the days before I discovered B2 blogger and later on, Wordpress, or still later on, Squarespace (which I now use as of 2011), there was no word "blogging." I just made a new HTML entry on the index page, and when it came time for a new one, I copied that entry over to the "archive" page and entered another on the index page. It was a bit lame but without a dynamic, PHP/database-driven site it was all I had. I didn't do it long enough to really get ridiculous. I've seen some sites that kept on that way and had to create archive pages that each carried oh, several months or a year's worth of entries, and then on to a new archive page. Only about two years of monthly posts accumulated that way and it wasn't too hard to manage the entries prior to discovering "real" blogging. I then started bringing stuff into the new formats in 2004 when my new hosting plan at Startlogic included something called B2 Blogger as part of the package. If I recall right, Startlogic offered a whopping 1 GB of space which dwarfed the 100 mb that my prior host Mavweb offered. I suppose Mavweb was state of the art a few years before when Mike Thaxton selected it and got me started in 2001.

But aside from all that, this blog got fired up in earnest on this day ten years ago. In many ways it was a simpler time and I didn't have all that much on my mind. Only a couple months before I had finished my year of school at Art Institute of California, so I was anticipating becoming a brilliant and high paid web designer (ahem!). Strike that. I was trying to get a couple crappy web design gigs with friends or friends of friends, and hoping my still-novice skills were up to the task if anything but pretty basic Dreamweaver-assisted HTML sites were needed. (Rockola's Mark Decerbo was one of the first to ever take me up on my work. Surprisingly, his site is still up, though a bit outdated as of 2007.) AIC turned out to be a rather disappointing place with regard to the proportioning of the subjects relative to the goal of a web design certificate program. The entirety of the web design courses included summaries of the Macromedia suite within 12 weeks. The other 36 weeks were broken into three 12 week blocks of Photoshop, Illustrator, and a CD-ROM production that included Macromedia Director and Adobe Premier primarily. But the web stuff was but one quarter of it all, and seemingly an afterthought. And above all, it was just a "design" emphasis. Never really learned coding there, and never anything with any real functionality. I recall being a bit miffed that I never was really showed stuff like Javascript or how to build CGI email forms and other stuff that really was, well... useful.

Getting out of school put me back into an unstructured world after a year. It had been a year of change, and not just because of schooling. In that one year from the start of April 2001 to that time a year later, my grandmother had died; I was in solo therapy for several months into the fall of 2001 in response to the family crisis around my older sister's big revelations earlier in 2001; I had entered kicking and screaming into the new age following my grandmother's death because my old man took over the house I lived in already for three years and ordered that I get two roommates; I got my first computer as just one way of blowing the inheritance I got (the rest was blown with an even larger display of gear acquisition for the studio); the notorious terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened and changed the work prospects for my industry of event audio; I finally finished Receiving; Kelli and I had gotten together during the winter and she had her car accident not long later; I was playing bass for a few months in an exciting trio with Dom Piscopo and Whit Harrington, and sometimes with the mighty Todd Larowe (listen: All Things Frippy and Return to Zero). Oh, those are the high points. Or low points. But in the midst of all that, I got the first drafts of TAPKAE.com done and then finally cut the first settled version loose on the world in May or June, and the first "blog" was posted. It is relatively brief because I had not yet embraced the long, detailed, and boring voice I have since attained here!

Rebecca Vaughan of Loaf, with Matt Zuniga's handiwork in the backgroundIt was around that time when I found that Hog Heaven Studio was bursting at the seams. The crazy influx of new gear during the summer before saw to that. With my grandmother gone, I took over the two rooms she called her own, clearing them out and painting them for the first time in perhaps all the years she and my grandfather had been there. One room was a bedroom with a bathroom attached, and the remodeling of that was one of the projects that was alluded to in the first blog. The other room, a rather generous 15'x17' space, was the room immediately adjacent Hog Heaven Studio. Together, they were two spaces carved from what was once a garage. Hog Heaven extended the garage street side wall some 6' more and so was split down the middle by a space that was on the flat part of the garage, and also on the sloped part of the driveway. Inside, I had leveled the floor but the beam through the middle indicated the old garage face. In the great room, I set up my living quarters in 2001 after the new rental arrangement was established. I got the entire wing of the house to do as I wanted, so I cut a mouse hole from Hog Heaven into the great room and went about using the band Loaf as my guinea pigs to try out the studio options that would result. I did two sessions spaced out by a year or so, but that first session with the whole band, I had the bass and drums in the studio with me (an odd thing that later was resolved with moving the control room into the great room later in the year), and then I used the great room for the guitars, keys, and Rebecca's lead vocal and percussion. I used upturned love seats and mattresses to provide guitar amp baffles. The Roland VS-2480, my then-new recorder, able to capture 16 inputs at once with no compromise, was relatively mind blowing after years of using the VS-880 and the four inputs it provided. At any rate, the new opportunities for using up to three rooms to record in was exciting. It was a whole new age for Hog Heaven Studio.

Kelli, later on in 2002One thing that is conspicuously absent from the site for some time (even into 2003) is any mention of Kelli and the fact we'd entered into a new relationship at the start of 2002. By the time we did that, we'd known each other for over 11 years anyway. I recall much of 2002 was a time when it felt like I was floating, particularly in that new relationship. However, it wasn't a feeling of being totally lovestruck. It's hard to say what it was, but perhaps because Kelli's presence put to an end the five year dry spell that preceded this new era, or perhaps that Kelli and I were old friends in a new role that seemed too good to be true and could have dissolved, or perhaps that her presence also brought with it a new feeling that I should get to church and start the process of grounding myself in something different than the years before. Hard to say. I didn't want to try to capture lightning in a bottle by writing about it. Kelli was talked around on the blog, usually mentioning "my girlfriend" during 2002-2003. If her name is in the entries from that period, it's because I redacted those entries to right that wrong in 2011.

I'm glad I have these few entries from 2002 because there is precious little digital evidence of my life from that first year or so of computer ownership. I had some problems with my data going off to digital heaven, particularly so with the folder that contained my Microsoft Entourage data. In one shot in the late summer of 2002, I erased about a year of my life's notes, calendar dates, emails. Bad move. Worse yet, I had not kept a parallel record in a paper calendar like I had for all years prior. So there's a big blackout during that period. And maybe things are as they are supposed to be, even with that giant flub. The period was one of transition at a deep level. Losing data was perhaps part of the exercise of getting lost in more ways than one, this time a way of losing control over things. And, since I have tended to be a keen historian and curator of my own life, a lesson might be gleaned that to overmanage things is of no use.

 

Monday
Aug022010

The Digital Audio Deep End

Apple logic pro is my present recorder used for podcasts.Podcasting using Apple Logic ProYou'd think a guy like me who had a history in audio would just take to this like a duck to quacking, but I'm not so sure about that. It is hard to overstate what a love affair I had with my VS-880, making it do stuff that people don't expect of 8-track recorders. In some ways I feel that that is plenty of technology for me. It was, after all, the machine on which I did my most creative work, and certainly the most complete sounding stuff. I didn't buy it knowing an awful lot about audio, so it was right-scaled for me, and though there was a learning curve, it helped me produce results for the odd sort of music I recorded.

A long time ago, back in 1995 when I was doing my first all solo project, a thing done on cassettes with just a couple stereo machines and a mic that was mixed in as a new input, Marty Eldridge of Rockola told me I should really be using ProTools to do what I was doing. Of course at the time, PT was waaaay prohibitively expensive for a guy who used probably all of about $1000 worth of recording gear (and that is stretching it). I knew nothing about computers then and didn't care to. Finally a few years later, Tom Griesgraber got himself into a ProTools Digi001 system which, after my glory days of VS-880 use and the attempted upscaling to a VS-2480 for about a year, I decided to get, having finally been on the computer long enough to think I could go for it.

But that story has been dribbled out over these pages for nearly a decade now; not having real knobs or switches is odd for a guy who came into this stuff enjoying that tactile approach as a major part of playing parts and recording them with those effects and processing characteristics printed to the recording on the way in. But I have wanted to streamline and get closer to a natural sound so the stripped front end of a digital workstation was appealing. But life was changing and little time did I have to give to master the stuff like I did on the VS-880. Some of my ProTools era stuff has a dose of the old Hog Heaven sound, and actually a lot of it is captured better. But I always liked a rich mix, calling freely on effects to create an atmosphere. I totally admire guys who can get dry tracks and make them kick, but that isn't quite my style. Interestingly, I've read one criticism of Peter Gabriel's second record that took issue with Robert Fripp's over-adherence to dry tracks, totally missing the richness that characterizes PG's sonic landscape; like, PG uses the quality of sound to convey a musical atmosphere as much as any lyric or tempo or harmony.

And so it is with me.

ProTools has been a big disappointment for me. I've produced just a handful of demos that even hint at what I would like to have accomplished on that rig. But the pitfalls of life had as much to do with that as the frustrations with the gear itself. Losing my studio has sort of put the nail in the coffin for my recording life. Being married with a partner who wants to get some sleep and have a relationship is also one big reason for letting it all fade. Not having a dedicated space to wail has something to do with it.

But humming along in the background for some years has been various digital audio editing work—for several years I edited sermons and church service audio, and have over four years of that material to cite as what I've been doing in audio. Lately I've been recording podcast material, requiring a pretty simple rig, but one that even ProTools couldn't seem to hack, which leaves me dumbfounded considering the hours and hours of jam sessions I recorded back in Hog Heaven in 2002-3.

So I am about to embark on digital audio studio mk3 (Roland VS; ProTools on G4s; iMac and Logic). I just now bought a Focusrite Saffire Pro so that I can get stuff into the computer by FireWire. It is a whole new paradigm for me on this computer. The Saffire is a good solid front end, and it also allows me a versatile combination of a number of channels from my Mackie mixer, and an 8 channel DigiMax ADAT preamp. That is to say, a range of channels that have some EQ or limiting on the way in. It even has SPDIF in so I can finally copy my DAT tapes into the computer and have a whole store of material that has gone unheard for years, simply because the DAT has not been set up since oh, 2006 or so.

The immediate task before me is to learn how to route Skype calls/chat connections into a recording program so we can draw upon distant voices for our JEM podcast, occasionally interviewing people out of the area. For the podcast audio, I find that both Peak and Garage Band output podcast XML data, so that helps.

So here I am, all dressed up and ready to go. Anyone want to record some stuff?

Wednesday
Jun232010

Magnificent Meatsticks

the richard meltzer review of the magnificent meatsticks. from the san diego reader july 2000Meltzer's review of the MagMeat song bearing his nameGoodness me. It was a decade ago when me and some fellow beer and burrito loving friends convened in Hog Heaven Studio and wrought havoc on the instruments there. The Magnificent Meatsticks were intentionally horrible, in part because of the facts of the matter: Ezekiel Bonham (Brandon Arnieri) was not particularly a bass player (though he was a technically proficient guitar player but one lacking in musical sense of his own); Ham Rockett (Mike Thaxton, who drove to San Diego each week from Dana Point just to hang out and do this stuff) was not particularly a drummer—in fact, he pretty much hit his first drum hits with us; and Leviticus Mitchell (me) was not particularly a guitar player. That was the point: to be equally handicapped so the worst possible result would follow! The other reason was that as my CD project was approaching a year or pretty regular recording and development, I was frankly burning out on the methodical approach, with some tracks happening delightfully quickly in the early days of the project, and later ones taking some prolonged period to get players and track as best as possible considering no one was getting paid! So the all-improvisatory MagMeat was a breath of fresh air for me, giving me a chance to rattle the musical tree but without sweating details like tuning, rhythmic precision, harmonic or melodic standards, or dare I say, foresight and control of any sort! We were doing our best to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and sometimes we succeeded. Occasionally we actually nearly broke out into something nearly like music, and that was simply not allowable.

Our band name was originally borrowing a couple letters from each of our names: BR AX ED from BRandon/thAXton/ED, but of course the beers induced brainstorming (in the classic tradition of garage bands). Fabulous Fucksticks was a contender before the slightly more acceptable Magnificent Meatsticks was voted in. Our individual names were taken from a formula guided by a biblical first name of some sort and the last name drawn from that of a famous rock drummer (Led Zep, Poison, Hendrix respectively in the list above). We rattled off a few more than that and kept them in mind for when we needed to bestow a name upon another guest Meatstick. I seem to remember a sax player named Steve Young came and blew some horn for us. We dubbed him Deuteronomy Carr after Eric Carr of Kiss. I seem to remember calling Jukka Pietarinen (a Finnish Keneally fan who was here for the Nonkerstock that summer) by something like Methusela Moon or Nicodemus Peart!

The MagMeat was always accompanied by file sharing and other illicit computer based activity by young men. Actually, I was not particularly a part of that but in those early days of mp3s, I was like a kid in a candy store when I realized that Thax seemed to have the means to get damn near anything I wanted, and more. So he was always feeding me some CDs of new stuff, old stuff, odd pop songs I asked for, and so on. He was like a musical drug dealer. That summer was in the very early period of my online presence. Earlier in the year, Thax had started me up on email, gotten me an MP3.com account, and some other stuff like that. I had no computer of my own, so I used to go to Brandon's place a few miles away to check in and make updates. I was getting into Photoshop, starting to dabble with effects and was having fun making little images on Brandon's computer. He used to let me tinker on that thing all night even after he went to bed. I'd mess around and leave at 5 am and then call it a night! It was a far cry from my prior computer experiences, long before all these great programs and the web had been developed. It was like learning magic.

Over some stiff beers (Arrogant Bastard and Stone IPA were pretty common) and some wicked good carne asada burritos we used to joke about how dreadful we sounded and how we could be famous on MP3.com since the space was given away for free. So we set about creating our space there and put up a number of recordings from the first few jams in June or July. We recorded everything straight to two-track and therefore had no mixing recourse. Editing was not off the table though so I practiced some savage editing on the two track stuff and did some odd things like copying and pasting a sample of the left side, making one side stutter or echo separate from the other. Other things we allowed to have done in recording was one vocal performance to "enhance" the trio recording, but it had to be improvised and fucking rude, loud, distorted, or otherwise unacceptable to most listeners. You can hear the seven cuts that we called finished elsewhere on this site. The thing is, since we recorded most of our jams nearly every week, there was massive amounts of material. It was more than my VS-880 could hold so I routinely cut the stuff ruthlessly and then burned CDs. Even still, there are probably 15 CDs on a spindle somewhere that has some of the most er, avant-garde stuff you (n)ever heard. To make up for a lack of chops or compositional foresight or tasteful use of silence, we usually drenched things in massive amounts of long-tailed reverb. It was quite something. (I still occasionally tickle myself with the idea of making a CD of that stuff, cut up ala Miles Davis material with Teo Macero at the helm of the editing block, slash cuts with no real attempt to mask the edits.) For such bad music so intentionally mangled, the two track stuff sonically has way more finesse than it deserves. It's not like we just used a boombox with a built in mic. There are moments when I like certain sounds and mix levels better than some of the stuff I captured track by track and spent days or weeks working on. All this went down 8 channels of mixer (with added effects all the way through) and through a compressor across the whole thing, and there it was!

We put our worst foot forward when I wrote to the San Diego Reader to tell them to pass on word about a certain track called "Richard Meltzer is my Fucking Hero" to the rock critic who bears that name and for the time around then, was a writer who contributed to the Reader. We used to crack ourselves up reading his concert previews, which never really focused on any of the artists being discussed. It was always wild stream of consciousness stuff. Anyhow, we figured we could get his attention with this ditty that invites Richard to come and "fuck me up the ass." It worked. I mean, we got his attention in one of the few articles he ever wrote (that we saw) that actually made mention of the artist in question! Check out the "review" here.

But personally, Magnificent Meatsticks in retrospect has proven to be a sort of heir to the absolutely irreverent stuff I did with Matt Zuniga in 1992-93 or so, and more broadly, the last hurrah of playing with total abandon and just not caring if anything was good or not. After the taste of live interaction in the MagMeat, I found myself wanting to start playing bass within a band context and was hoping to work in that vein a bit. The quartet I tried to get started later that year was a more developed thing for the few weeks it lasted. Brandon was in it, as was his friend Ryan on drums (still one of the best drummers I played with), and Todd Larowe. Various other groupings over the next year or so included Todd or Brandon at times. Eventually though, all that was way more than I was cut out for, some people within these bands giving me the news that I myself was not good enough a player to be in them if we were to really play the music I was hoping to play. But in the summer of 2000, I did not yet know that.

Ahhh—Hog Heaven in the summertime. No windows. No vents. No AC but for a fan or two. Insane humidity like a gym locker room. Play 15 minutes then open the door for 15 or more, then repeat a few times. Get burritos and beer. Come back and scan the recording for some highlights. Ah. The good old days.

Saturday
Aug152009

Second Verse Not The Same As The First

There was no fanfare today when the 20th anniversary of the start of my drumming and musical life came and went in a pretty dreadful day of work, toothaches, and just doing life. The story of this day in 1989 probably isn't that big a deal to anyone but it was a turning point for me. Of course, loyal readers of this journal know that music has mostly fizzled out in the past few years as life just got too dense and challenging to invest the time. In some ways I am glad to be rid of it; the layers of negativity that it evokes for me are gone: the darkness and alienation of the Hog Heaven period; the endless consumer merry-go-round; the no-go band projects with the flaky personalities. But as much as that sucked there must be the opposite virtues and joys: the endless hours dedicated to creating something from nothing; the ability to evoke mood and color from several instruments and recording gear and force of will; the sheer bliss of laying on the studio floor and pumping the latest mix and giddily getting a wild shit-eating grin.

Music for a while was my lens to see the world. Now I have other lenses to view things. But for a while, I guess I have to admit that my spirituality was music-based even though I had no way to articulate it as such. I mean, music is a way of understanding things at a deeper level. It is rooted to the mathematics of the universe itself. It is one aspect of our god-like power to create. It allows solo and group expression, akin to what I now understand as contemplation and action. The list goes on.

These days I don't really play anymore but find myself aching to do so. I hear music more fully than I had before, just as I listen to other people's music. That was one thing I never did before I picked up the sticks in 1989 and made a bunch of drum racket. It did happen parallel to my musicking but only in the years since about 2005 have I had more interest in enjoying music at a deeper level than when I made it myself. I anticipate that some day I will find a situation that will allow me the time to pick up a guitar and notebook and convey something real, and all the music that has seeped into me will somehow inform the resulting product. More than anything else I want to sing and write songs now, and leave behind the dissonant and dark stuff.

Not that there was anything so terribly wrong about that when that was what my soul had to say. It was ten years ago—halfway through this past 20 years in question—that the recordings that became my CD Receiving began to take shape. It is mind boggling that a decade has passed since then. It was a very fruitful year, 1999, but a very depressing one too. It was one of my darkest times. And much of what I did musically was dark. It was almost exactly then that I made some of the last recordings with any degree of humor at all. At the time I considered it to be musically growing up. The recordings that constitute Receiving in many cases came from pretty spontaneous moments that were sculpted into form. Some of my favorites were the ones that happened almost immediately. But equally so there are moments that are polished to a shine from long hours and even months of work. If nothing else, Receiving was a commitment to myself to record a CD's worth of stuff, and to press it to a commercial-ready product. I was aware that I was raising the bar for myself, and wasn't sure what would happen next.

Sometimes I think my life depended on this stuff to keep me busy, else I was ruminating on "stopping" cars or trains with my bare hands. Along the way in that period of 1999-2000 I was awake to do audio tech work, a few studio projects for others or my own music. I ate pretty badly. I was going to bed at dawn and getting up at 1 pm or later. I had very little social life. My imaginary relationship with Shelby was in full swing with what must have been mad sublimation of my creative passion—unable to act out with her, all my effort went to studio production while she was in Africa for a couple years. (I've written before that my most fervent and productive studio recording era was bracketed by her reappearance in my life just days before I got my VS-880 recorder in August 1997, and which ended almost to the day in December 2000 when our 12-year "friendship" totally unraveled in one day when she came back from Africa and I had just finished a holiday recording for my niece—on my VS-880, and the last thing of any real substance I did with that machine!) It almost seems that without Shelby, the whole enterprise fell apart, even though I maintained things for a while later with a bigger and better studio, other players, and more time, there was something missing. Maybe she was my muse after all, warped as that seems now.

I keep thinking that for all that musical period, the will to do it all was coming from outside me. Maybe it was the gear and all the promises that were made about how great it would make things. Maybe it was trying to please the people I worked around. Or maybe I was trying to live Mike Keneally's life. Whatever it was, now I get this feeling the stuff wasn't coming from within. The last few years—and the musical silence that buffers my earlier period from whatever may come—are letting me start to find my own reasons for playing, so that I might have a chance to sing my own song.

Sunday
May252008

Party Like It's 1999

I just found out that another snippet of stuff I recorded for Mike Keneally back in April 1999 will be a track on his new album, Wine and Pickles. As he says at his website, this is the album of oddities that slowly collected over the years and finally begged to be assembled into a release of some sort. The track in question is part of a track called Hum, which actually was released on Nonkertompf that year, albeit dressed in some studio overdubs done at Doubletime. There are three cuts on Nonkertompf that originated in my little studio, and another bit or two that were on a companion disk called Nonkertalk which was an interview disk. And now this. I always wondered what he had in mind when he left my studio with that digital tape. He did most of the work himself. He did all the instrumental parts and the mixing too. I pretty much just prepared tracks and moved mics and stuff like that, sometimes leaving the house altogether, with Mike working till after I left to work a gig. That was trust on my part. I didn't just go off and leave all my stuff with the door unlocked, but hey, it was in the old days when I was prepared to do anything for the guy.

Thursday
Jan182007

Downsizing

Well, after some deferred action due to much agonizing hand wringing, I decided to finally be good on my word and sell some shit and take the loss so that I might feel my overall load of material stuff is lighter. The most significant sale was my Warwick fretless bass which sold for precisely half the price I paid for it about five and a half years ago. I don't know what is more saddening. Is it the ridiculous sale price that eats at me? Or the fact that I had to fess to not being Jaco Pastorius or Jack Bruce (who plays a snappier version of the Warwick as I had)? Or is it that I really have lost my muse and it doesn't matter what I sell now because it all feels like having vestigial limbs or rolls of fat after a gastric bypass surgery?

The year 2006 was a year of really evaluating what is dear to me, and in the process, I watched as my musical gear and other household stuff just ate at me, even at the thought of its very existence, and for being under my roof. Sometime in the coming months, I will have to move again, and I really can't see dragging all this stuff around, while not using it like I thought I would. Glenn (Cheekymonkeyfunker musical buddy from 2005) tries to talk me out of selling stuff, but the last piece of music remotely worth signing my name to was done with him back in May of that year. All of 2006 came and went with not a single piece of worthwhile music emerging. So I feel that maybe I shot my musical load. So I hit Craigslist hard this last couple weeks to try to clean out the shit that is most redundant or underused. I still have more of that stuff, even before I slash into the core of things, but I am not really clear how I want to progress. But some things are obvious. I blew out a small collection of old, cracked, or otherwise unused cymbals today. Other stuff is on the block, including my first G4 Mac and the monitor that goes with it. I don't know whether I should sell my Pro Tools stuff or not. It is handy just as a sound card, but the presence of it drives me mad, considering how useful it would be if I worked the way I did back in 1995-2000.

I often talk about just heaving shit off a cliff and being done with it. Or heaping it onto a bonfire. Or just smashing it in the driveway. I've had many a thought about how I worked hard in the late 90s to be able to afford that stuff, with it often being a way to fill a void in my life that somehow I feel has been filled by being in a relationship and now married. Other gear was bought with inheritance money from my grandmother, and not insignificantly, I have realized that the shopping spree of 2001 was a huge mistake. The spree was the final blowout of my effort to replace a need for something wholesome in my life with gear that would permit me the means of channeling my fear and anxiety and frankly, hatred for the world into something meaningful. But when I go that far, I say, why would I want to make music now? Why spend all that time? Who cares? I played music for friends in my heyday and they pretended to like it. But now who are my music buddies? Who gives a shit? With mp3s and all the devaluation of the art of music and lack of respect for musicians, how could I ever even pay back my investment? Am I good enough somehow to even call myself a musician? Or am I just a guy who owns a lot of shit that has the potential to make music if someone with talent and vision picks up those tools?

Recording for me was always a very isolated thing. Rare were the days when I actually jammed with people, or actually collaborated. The studio was small, windowless, hidden in many ways. The world outside was harsh. The world inside was freeing. But I had to be very isolated, and I just can't do that anymore, at least not that way. I have a responsibility to Kelli to be present in the marriage, and frankly, the time I spent in the studio has always been well fed by a persistent hatred for how the world works, and the depression that follows. I just can't see returning to that type of life. Other things are too important.

I still pick up a guitar or bass or hit the drums some, but it's just not there. The spirit is just not in me to do that stuff in an original music setting, though I have fun poking around learning something now and again from other music. But it doesn't take my once-significant investment to have the tools to do music at that level. I miss having a keyboard of some sort, and I find myself longing for an acoustic piano again—after selling one in 1996, and also having sold over the years two subsequent electric pianos, and a synthesizer. I don't know why. While in exile in my apartment in late 2005, I found myself longing to have my studio put together again. Now that I have it and everything is ready to work with, I don't use it. All I have is a museum of who I used to be, or so it seems.

Thursday
Mar092006

The Power Of Bill Ray Compels Me

Required listening while reading this: The Power of Disco Compels You

Sometimes you just never know who will validate you seven years after you wanted or needed it. Artists are always in that bind; who can tell when their work will ever matter to anyone? And of course, it happens often enough that artists get dead before they get famous, or even recognized.

In late 1992, I wrote some silly song lyrics about a guy who had disco fever despite being a gross anachronism, and a first incarnation of the song was recorded by my buddy Matt and me in our drum-vocal duo Rhythmic Catharsis. RC was something that we did so we could get out and play drums and be loud and obnoxious youth. It worked. I never planned for it to be the start of my recording and composing history, but that is what it became.

I reprised that set of lyrics in 1995 when I embarked on another recording project and was looking for some material. This version was marginally better, but not worth writing about here.

Then, in 1997-2000 or so, I spent time re-recording a number of my older and completely irreverent songs and placing them alongside newer ones that were of similar character. The gear I was using was newer and would have been a total wet dream to an earlier version of me, given the various things I could do with it in the recording realm. Light years ahead of my cassette work, the VS 880 was the recorder I used for those years. I once again took advantage of my earlier work and wanted to give it a more refined recording while not losing the spark.

The odd thing about these re-recordings is that during my work as sound man and instrument tech, I happened into a number of professional gigging musicians who somehow were conned into saying they liked my stuff. A few of them came in to record bits, some specifically intended for certain tracks, and some were just off the cuff jams that got turned into something. Drummer Bill Ray is well known in town as a technically proficient and versatile player, and is among the upper crust in town, as far as players go. We had met at the Music Mart store back when it was on Convoy St. in 1990. At different times, we had both worked there. But after some early encounters with Bill, he slipped off the radar for me. Then I happened into him as he was doing this ultra schmaltzy corporate cover band gig with Polyester Express, for whom I sometimes worked as soundman/assistant. So Bill and I got a chance to reconnect and around that time, I was working on a new version of my song, and hitting road bumps. In fact, it was hitting so many road bumps, I was about to totally ditch a version of it which still goes unheard to this day!

I had a tentative drum loop which let me compose the track, lots of ideas for how to record things, but it was all getting real dense on my little eight track recorder. I asked Bill to come in and record some drums so I could get a convincing part in which at least would improve my sense of what needed to stay or go. So, one cold day in the last week of 1998, he came by my then-newish recording shoebox of a studio and proceeded to lay down the drums to this fourth incarnation of my little bit of disco fantasy. He did it with authority. I had what seemed to be a basic sound ready to record, and back in those days, I had no tracks to give to each drum on its own. It went down as stereo, and it was all EQ'ed and compressed as it was going to be printed. So Bill came in, and proving that no two drummers are alike, he played my same kit with my same mixer and EQ settings, and totally sounded unlike anything I ever did. You can hear it now; the snare drum hits the compressor and it explodes in your head. I was actually going for that lame dead 70s snare drum, but he just gets the sound out of any drum, see?

Anyhow, the song took all of 1999 to finally nail down and mix. The drums went down and were never changed a bit since he played them. All the other work was trying out doubled guitars, layered vocals, alternate vocals, solos, and so forth. With only eight tracks and two going to drums alone, my options were few except for all the sub mixing and bouncing, and finally, a lot of cutting of redundant parts of the arrangement. Mixing was made easier but by no means easy. Finally, in early 2000, over a year after the recording commenced, and years after the first idea for it, I got a version that was far grittier than I imagined, but far more fun and amusing when you factor in all the things I didn't plan on—Bill's explosive and dynamic but ultragroovalicious drumming, Todd's half-improvised monologue at the end, and then of course the fact that I finally improvised my way through whole new sections of lyrics while keeping the best of the old stuff intact. I also have to say that there is some bass playing on there that I did that I still marvel at because even now I don't approach the bass that way, despite bass being a favorite instrument of mine for the years since. The rhythm guitar is my work too, but it's totally uncharacteristic and another element of chance that keeps this track exploding. The guitar solo is by Danny Donnelly, the guitar player in Polyester Express, right along with Bill Ray. The whole lyrical story and monologue of Todd's is a tapestry of in jokes concerning Bill and Danny, and a nod to our late soundman buddy Phil Cole, who did in fact attend the last Led Zep show in the states in 1977.

Yeah, it was a victory to get that one in the can. I still listen to it and just enjoy it because it's funny. It's one of my finest pieces because it was one place where a lot of things came together for me. It's one of the few tracks that took a year to nail but still sounds spontaneous and edgy.

Skip ahead some time to the last month or so when Bill Ray sends me an email saying he thinks the time has come for my music to get heard and he wants to do anything he can to help. He heaps praise upon me for the stuff I've done. I'm sort of caught off guard; it's welcome but so out of the blue as to almost confuse me. He started talking up the song, and all things TAPKAE in his web world. He got me to create a MySpace account which I previously avoided like the plague. He got me played on some podcasts that were inclined to listen to his advice. He says he wants to play on some of my new stuff.

Flattered, me, but I'm at this point where I don't even know what I want to do in music. Not that I knew what I wanted to do back in the late 90's, but I did invest all the time I had in making music, not knowing if it would be heard, or when, or by whom. I wasn't concerned with peak oil or world economic collapse. I wasn't concerned with corporate mischief, or being a husband. I just recorded by throwing a load of shit on the wall then watching to see what stuck, and working with it accordingly. I didn't worry about if my gear was good enough to record professionally. I just threw myself at it because there wasn't anything else to do. I pushed the wrong button until I got the right sound. That's all I did.

So now, Bill is making himself at my disposal, and I have to wonder where the spark is. Do I record the various "serious" music scraps that have been accumulating for the past few years since Receiving was made? Do I just jam and hope that I get better stuff than all the things I've thrown out in the last few years with myriad other players and combos? Oh, there was no formula to my madness in 1998. Getting a guy like Bill or Danny, Marc Ziegenhagen or even Mike Keneally was utterly huge to me then, but I sort of had to take what I could get and make it work because it's not like they'd be at my beck and call. I guess I'm not used to someone of Bill's caliber stooping to my level and confusing me with a certain type of validation that I don't even get from most of my listeners. On one hand, I want to just shed all my complex thinking of peak oil and economics and all and reclaim my innocent halcyon days of recording into the wee hours. On the other hand, that is impossible, but it's not like my current musical output does much to reflect the current complex world-weary person I am now. I have long since burned a notebook of naive and cliche-ridden lyrical ideas that didn't have the goofy spark of The Power of Disco Compels You, or the utterly childlike love story of I Wanna Be Your Puppy. I've erased hours and hours of wanky jams that were possibly okay at least to keep around as notes, some of which were transcendent in moments, but the sheer amount of material, all with no particular focus became overwhelming for me.

I once used multitrack recording to hide my utter lack of ability on most instruments, but the current me doesn't want to do the multitrack recording thing, nor is the current me quite up to performance level on bass or guitar, nor is the current me bursting with ideas for things to compose. Nor is the current me loaded with enough clout to be a band leader. So what does a guy like me do when a guy like Bill Ray wants to play on my stuff mainly because he believes in it and would far rather do original music and stay clear away from the corporate cover band scene which took him to a desperate personal crisis? When do I decide it's time to not throw out all the stuff I record? When do I compose something that is "good enough"? Or when do I re-adopt the old habit of working with tracks until I know they are either good, or total shit? When can I shake the self consciousness?