strumzilla

​A blog/journal about my life and the stuff I like. Popular subjects include music, guitars, gear, books, movies, video games, technology, humor.

Filtering by Tag: Bass

Failures - the greatest teacher

A collaboration with another guitarist fell through recently. I think that ultimately the issue was one of communication. The other guitarist had suggested we work on a song together. Having not really collaborated with anyone, I was eager for a chance to see what it could bring. I suggested a cover song by a band that featured two guitarists in dual lead type roles so that we would both have a sort of chance to shine. Now, full disclosure, this other guitarist is advanced beyond my current abilities. He’s posted covers of Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Yngwie and many other great guitarists. I had no illusions going in that I was going to need to raise my game.

I suggested something by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy or some equivalent band, assuming the hard rock or metal genres would be more to his liking. He suggested “Bloodstone” by Judas Priest, I’m sure in large part because there are multi tracks available and we could use the original vocals and other parts as needed. So, we’ve been working on this project for a couple of months now. I’ve done all of the heavy lifting when it comes to the mix, and the video editing as well.

He had waited until I recorded drums before starting on his parts, since drums are typically always going to be the foundation. I finally recorded drums about a month ago and we’ve been slowly adding bass, rhythm and he had finished all his parts to include the entire solo. His parts sound great, he clearly has honed his cover game.

I had been a bit lazy in listening to the original track, as I've never really cared about getting a cover exactly note for note. Some may say that’s a cop out, and they may be partially right, but I know for certain that I just don’t care about trying to mimic someone else’s song to the nth degree. That being said, I do see the value in learning the most difficult parts, just to raise your playing to a level you apparently aspire if you like a song well enough to cover it.

So, as I started to record my parts, he quickly noted some problems. I was playing a rhythm part differently than him, and he wanted our parts to match up. I think he’s ultimately correct in this case, it probably does sound better for the rhythm parts to lock step. So, I fixed that in fairly short order as it was a simple oversight. But, it does start to illustrate where small fractures were forming.

Without ever discussing it specifically, I gather he assumed we were going for a faithful rendition of the original. Now, as I said before, that’s really not my thing. I honestly don’t get it, you’re never going to sound as good as the original and what would be the point? I get it as an academic sort of exercise, because you can learn a lot about the player, the recording and songwriting process in general. But, when I’m recording a cover I try to stay close, but I don’t sweat small variations.

I had been making regular comments and suggestions about how I would record my parts and I had stated early on that I wanted to divide the solos up, so that we both would have our chance to wail a bit. This song is like many Judas Priest songs in that both Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing have solos. The Glenn Tipton is the initial solo and it’s a pretty laid back and easy part. It’s followed by K.K. Downing, and his solo is “The Solo” of the song. It was my intention all along that we would divide both sections so we both would have part of the Tipton and K.K. bits.

The K.K. solo wails from the onset, and there are two fairly distinct parts to it. The first part is a single position sort of classic rock riffy bendy part and then there’s slight pause and a fast descending triplet bit. I’ve been working on the whole thing, but I knew I was going to take longer for the second half. I had said a few times that I thought I would divide it up that way, with him getting the bulk of K.K.’s solo including the descending bit and some other bits after before there’s this pedal ascending section we could play in unison.

Like always, I have to divide my time among many disciplines - guitar, keys, drums, bass, vocals, video editing, visual effects, cinematography, model building, etc. I don’t choose to spread my focus in so many directions, it’s just about following my muse. So, it had taken me awhile to finally get where I thought I had a passable version of the solo.

Another note is that I had been using tablature that although perhaps wasn’t note for note accurate, it was pretty close to the original. The original track is very noisy, and there are definitely parts in there where it’s a true challenge to hear what K.K. is playing. All that to say I wasn’t sweating getting it exactly “right”. I don’t see the point.

Well, I recorded my solos yesterday and frankly I thought my part of K.K.’s solo was my best playing on the song so far. I don’t mean it was the best playing on the song in general, I just know myself and I was happy with my take. I was a bit surprised when I very quickly got negative feedback from the other guitarist. I didn’t save the conversation but it was essentially “I don’t like it.” Now, in fairness that may be just be unbridled truth. I gather he wants to get it note for note and in that metric, it’s definitely going to fall short.

What I didn’t hear was what specifically he didn’t like about it. Tone, bends/intonation, rhythm, clarity, vibe, all of the above? He suggested I take the Tipton bits, he play the KK bits, and then we play the last pedal bit in unison. If we were in a JP cover band and we played other songs where I would get “The Solo”, the scenario would be different.

I think the fundamental problem here is that we both see ourselves as lead guitarists. I’m not trying to argue I’m of his caliber, at least not yet. My idea with dividing the tracks up was so that we both would get a moment to share the lead but I was still deferring more than half to him, and it’s the more challenging/impressive part of the solo.

Without saying it, I’m getting the feeling he’s always seen his role as the main lead guitarist and I was the rhythm guitarist who might chip in with a simple line or two. There’s nothing sinister about him feeling that way, it’s just not how I see myself. If he had suggested I work on the part some more and made specific mention of what he felt was falling short on my part I would have likely listened and made an attempt to get closer to his expectation. I still don’t see the point, but I was trying to be a team player.

All that to say, I felt the tone of our whole collaboration went demonstrably south when he criticized my part, suggested he play the whole thing without giving me an out to fix whatever the problem was. I didn’t ask for that, and maybe he would have been receptive if I had, but I feel like I’m right in assuming he wants the lead and has all along.

Which is totally cool. I get it. I’m cut from the same cloth. So, after all this very considerable rambling, I realize this project was probably doomed to failure from the start and I’m just as complicit. I’ve known that I likely would never want to be in a band with another lead guitarist. I know there are many great bands who have successfully achieved this relationship, but a big part of my assumed band role is going to be as a songwriter and I’m not likely to want to turn over guitar roles to another player. I have no problem with another instrument doing their own thing, but I want my own space dictated by me, not someone else.

I thought we could find a happy medium where we would both get a chance to shine, but I feel like he wants to be the Lead Guitarist in any scenario. I’ve learned that I will not likely function well in collaboration with other guitarists, at least if they see themselves as lead guitarists with an equal editorial say.

The only negative thing to come out of this is I think it’s probably put a strain on our friendship and that’s too bad. The blame is probably on me. If I feel like someone is being disingenuous (note, feel, not know) about something I just lose trust and it puts up a wall. Ultimately this is just a cover video, it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. But, I start to wonder at all the positive comments made in the past and how genuine they were and how genuine any in the future would be. I felt like I finally got the real opinions about my playing, and unfortunately they were distinctly different from all others before.

As always, failures are the greatest teacher. I have learned that I really need to work more on my playing, both for playing entire takes at a level adequate for recording audio and/or video and that I’m not at a level as a soloist that I want to be. I’ve also learned that before going into a project with anyone I need to ensure that roles are strictly spelled out. I doubt I’ll do a similar project anytime in the future. If I want someone to play on a track, I’ll likely finish all the other parts first and then let them know exactly what I need. I’m not saying I’ll never collaborate with another lead guitarist, but I’ll make sure I go in with eyes wide open next time.

Hell Bent for the Cliff (lyric video)

This turned out alright. I ended up starting over on the mix because I hadn't gain staged appropriately in the beginning. This version is where I quit working on it, not necessarily the definitive version but I'm okay with where it's at for now. 

Hell Bent for the Cliff

Verse
The sea is rising we're casting seeds in fallow fields
Demagogues delude then doublecross in backroom deals
Arbiters of virtue claiming false dominion
Sycophants spinning vacuous validation

Chorus
Can you feel it slipping away?
Fragile fibers start to fray
Hell bent for the cliff
Constitution in decay

Verse
Millions starving, they're making bombs from baby food jars
Exalting the grotesque, ignoring the stars
Fear, lies and hatred have stolen the narrative
Waging war on the weak instead of live and let live

Chorus
So you chose to live and let die?
Universal truths you deny
Deadly decorum
Matrimony moribund

Verse
Gatekeeper Gladys adorned in apparatus so fine
Bankers stealing our gold businessmen drinking our wine
Orange orangutan squats on the ivory throne
The beds are burning and we’re staring at our phones

Chorus
Can you feel it slipping away?
Brittle bonds twist and break
Hell bent for the cliff
Constitution in decay

Verse
Mother, Mother I think they're going to build a wall
Nations rise and one day nations fall
Bent backs unbroken will stand again
A final reckoning comes to us all

Chorus
Can’t you feel it slipping away?
Karma gets the final say
Hell bent for the cliff
Constitution in decay

Crimson musings

I finally got to see the legendary King Crimson led by the steady hand of the venerable Robert Fripp in Dallas this past Saturday. I waxed a bit poetic on el facebook:

A theater unto itself, a King Crimson concert is a humbling display of power, precision, and passion. At times subtle and delicate, but unfailingly relentless and implacable all the while. I sat in bewilderment, my attention passing quickly from musician to instrument and back again, barely able to keep up with their performances.

Moving from joy to sadness, from confusion to clarity, from gobsmacked to gleeful, I was blown away by this night. These world class musicians were a sight to behold and brought a wondrous spiritual rhapsody, of a kind I've never quite witnessed before. Thank you, gentlemen, thank you indeed.

Set 1:
Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One
Pictures of a City
Cirkus
Neurotica
Fallen Angel
Epitaph
Discipline
Red
Islands
Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two

Set 2:
Drumson Outbreak of Wonderment, Joy & Bliss Arising
Easy Money
Indiscipline
The ConstruKction of Light (Part I)
Lizard
Moonchild
The Court of the Crimson King
Meltdown
Radical Action II
Level Five
Starless

Encore:
21st Century Schizoid Man

It was truly one of the most powerful shows I've ever attended, and judging from the audience response (a standing ovation after nearly every song) they felt the same way. I managed to sneak my way into Tony Levin's blog post about the show as seen in these photos. 

 

 

Back to music centric posting...

I finally posted my Life On Mars cover video (version 3.5) to youtube and shared it on facebook. I decided to just post it as is in the weekend before I resumed my studies at Berklee. I knew I wouldn't have the luxury of time once classes got rolling. At the time I had a few run throughs of the mix, but planned on re-visiting the audio mix at the end of the semester. That's still the plan as of now. I've already learned a lot in the past few weeks so I'm confident I can obtain a much better result at that point. 

I'm not happy with the musical performances, but they do represent what I was able to create given a short window of time. I performed most of the parts on individual days (I think I performed both the drums and bass on the same day?) and then worked on the audio mix and video edits on subsequent days. My approach for videos has been to keep performing entire takes until I get one that is acceptable and stopping there. I'll have to figure out tactics for punch in type approaches for video. Recording myself performing the music on video/audio is a complicated process and that's when I'm capturing complete live takes. If I were to attempt to capture punch ins like I can do with audio, that would add just another layer of complexity that I'm not really ready to take on for a cover video. I might consider this for my own music in the future, but then I would likely not try to present the performance as a continuous unedited take. 

The response was generally positive from some close friends. I think the ones who actually took the time to comment were doing out of friendship as much as their actual enjoyment of the performance. I still appreciated it though, my overall ego is fairly bullet proof but my artist ego is a delicate flower at times. The musicians and musicophiles from whom I was hoping for feedback gave it the standard facebook "like" but didn't comment. I'm assuming that's their diplomatic way of telling me I need to keep working on my craft. And I appreciate that. My ears are good enough to know my version isn't going to make it on any top 100 Bowie Covers lists, for that matter it wouldn't make it on a top 100 Life On Mars covers list. But it's a work in progress and this represents a moment in time. A few short years ago I wouldn't have been capable of putting together, and I would have been lacking in the confidence to share it with anyone. 

Midsummer(ish) Update

Work continues on the Life On Mars cover video. I actually had a "complete" version of all the music, and was relatively happy with it. But, in one of many learning points during this project, I gave a listen to the original (which I should have been doing more often) and realized my intro was just too fast of a tempo. I had tried various ways to approach the order in which I laid down tracks. I think drums first is still probably the best way, although in this tune they don't come in for the first minute. After learning that I really couldn't keep track of the drums while trying to play with the original, I tried using a midi version of the song with which I could include a click track and that seems the best approach. 

There are multiple ways to approach this sort of incremental song construction. Due to problems with latency, it was important for me to keep the recording setup between the drums and my DAW as simple and uncluttered as possible. Latency is a killer with drums and percussion if you're trying to record in time. I managed to get a version down that was close enough for my satisfaction. I did end up making some minor timing corrections, mainly for the occasional rushed kick drum on the "and" of 4.  

Probably the single biggest challenge of this project is that I'm recording to video.  Making corrections to timing mistakes and the occasional clam note is easy in a DAW, but trying to get that synced up to video becomes exponentially harder. There are ways around this with creative video editing, but it was important to me that the foundation of the video was going to be good performances on all the parts as the baseline. Although I'm mainly doing this for my own entertainment (and internet points, because, internet points), I have felt this might serve as a sort of audition tape that I could use as needed for bands, further academic endeavors, etc. 

My approach has been to keep attempting complete takes until I get one that's close to "perfect" (my version, not Rick Wakeman's). I then stop recording and know that I will use the last takes. In some cases this might be the 10th+ take overall. 

Once I looked at the rough draft of the video performances and had worked on the mix (I was on version 14 or so), I realized I just wasn't going to be satisfied with my version if it didn't have the same vibe as the original. I never desired or expected to make a perfect note for note rendition that would sound exactly like the original, but I felt like my version was too rushed and too produced sounding. It was lacking the dynamics and character of the original, and that's kind of the whole point. 

I resigned myself to have another go at the intro, as that was the biggest problem and I managed to have a "decent" go at the piano part yesterday. Although it was useable, I was suffering my version of a hangover after drinking four beers the previous day, and I wasn't giving myself the best opportunity for a good take. I also realized that my approach to the green screen needed some work. I've learned a small amount about videography, and one thing I've gathered is that your green screen needs to be as flat and "invisible" as possible and it needs to be lit appropriately. 

Looking at my various takes, there was a variety of lighting and screen real estate occupied by my green screen backdrops. I think for my project, the best approach will be one where the green screen completely occupies the background. There may be future projects where I have the green screen as a sort of object in the background that doesn't necessarily fill up the screen. 

All that being said, I need to re-shoot the entire thing so that I can have a consistent lighting and size for my green screen. I am learning to never see an individual performance as too precious. This is a growing process as I learn to accept not every take will be perfect, but become willing to keep trying until I get as close as I'm capable. I know when I've done my best, and that's usually when I'm just practicing or playing without the "red light".  The good thing is that I've learned to get over red light syndrome because you can always make another attempt. Part of the comfort level comes from really knowing the part well and having confidence that you can play it right. 

Tying in to that was finally settling on an arrangement from which I would build the song and giving myself time to practice it. I think I've decided on just playing the intro piano part independently without a rigid timekeeper and then locking in with the drums at the first chorus when they initially come in. I may tweak this as I discovered that the intro was fairly close to 113.5 beats per minute, but then it increases to 128 at the first chorus. It sort of slows down again at the end of the guitar interlude, but returns to that during the rest of the song. My dissatisfaction with the piano performance largely stemmed from timing and feel issues related to trying to play to a metronome/backing track when I had been accustomed to playing it more freely. 

Dealing with this tempo change has been instructive and it gives me some experience for the future as this issue will come up again. I'm definitely convinced that you need to ensure you practice the piece exactly the way you intend to record it. This seems obvious, but in this case I had been playing the piano part for so long that I didn't think this would be much different. And it wasn't really, but it was different enough that my playing become too mechanical and lost the vibe.

As mentioned, I'm also planning on tweaking the camera setup. My plan now is to use my GoPro and iPhone cameras so I have at least two angles of each performance. This just adds another layer of complexity, but I always enjoy performance videos with multiple angles (if done well) more than just the simple straight ahead shots. The GoPro is ideally suited for "neck cam" on the guitar and bass, and I'll also be able to get some alternate overhead shots as well as a shot of kick drum performance (this will be used sparingly, but I like this angle on drum vids).  

The ostensibly biggest obstacle in this project (famous last words) is getting the piano and drum performances down solid. These are the two that I tend to make the most mistakes (albeit few/small) compared to the vocals, guitar and bass. I find repeating takes of those performances is less arduous and time consuming than piano and drums. My plan is to approach it in this order - drums, piano, bass, vocals and guitar. My main reason to redo the bass & guitar is because I want the additional camera angles and I need to fix the way I use the green screen. I also need to help Aeyong install a window blind for our little half moon accent window which is still letting too much natural light in which can illuminate behind the screen and that's a problem.

Another impetus to repeating the entire process is that I've purchased my next equipment upgrade, which is the Slate Virtual Microphone System. This is comprised of a large diaphragm condenser microphone, preamp and a software based modeling system that models microphone, preamp, and compressor (as desired).  This system was announced a few years ago, but it's just now hitting the market. I've heard all positive reviews so far, but I don't know that it's hit enough of a market saturation to be certain.

Based on the microphone alone and considering its price point ($1K), it's a good upgrade from  Blue Baby Bottle (which is still a great mic) and should fill a niche for several years. Philosophically this system is the microphone equivalent of the AxeFx. As the technology has progressed over the years, modeling has narrowed the gap with analog gear, and most listeners don't know the difference. I've always embraced technology and I while I love analog gear, I also love the digital stuff for the flexibility, variety and power it provides. The three microphones it models (at onset, more will be added later) would be way beyond the wallets of all but the most successful (rich) producers. It models the Telefunken 251, Neumann U47 and Sony C800G microphones. Bought on the market (especially for classic versions), this three mic locker would likely run upwards of $50K.  Of the reviews I've seen so far, people are having a difficult time telling the difference between the original and modeled versions. I'm not sure how much I buy that, but for the price and what's a decent sounding (extremely flat) microphone it's more than worth it. It will be interesting to try this new mic out on the vocals for this project. 

There are more aspects to the video project to come, to include filming our dogs in various costumes against the green screen and the subsequent film editing and use of effects. These are all essentially new skill sets I will develop as part of this project. I'm always going to focus on music first, but an occasional video project is fun and a way to keep it interesting for the short modern attention spans (including mine).