Check out this new release!
The debut EP from Focus Fox was released today. My brother-in-law Daniel Nelson is the brain child behind this five track modern folk rock/alt-country gem.
Dan’s songwriting has found a strong footing here. This short album seems to continue on from where Jeff Buckley abruptly left off. His intricate and lush guitar work accompanies his clear and sometimes vibrato-shaken voice. Lyrics are delivered directly, pulling no punches, but never feeling forced.
I had the honor of laying down some BGVs on track 2.
Get your ears on the album via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, or Spotify. Follow the band on Instagram.
Focus Fox – EP Tracklist
Better Than Me
It Must Be Hard
If You Would Try
We’re Gonna Fall
Way Aback When
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As they say, the deviled eggs are in the details.
Writing musical parts can be like hiding Easter eggs for kids. If you make the secrets too easy or too hard to discover, then the game isn’t fun. The patterns and motifs in music have to be somewhat conspicuous, but not too obvious.
Listeners, like children searching for treasures on Easter morning, enjoy the hunt, but only if the treasures can be found without too much hardship.
That said, I’ve tried to put Easter eggs into my music, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve hidden them too well.
I rarely get feedback on this level, so if you’ve found something in my music, it would be nice to hear about it.
P.S. And while we’re on the subject… how about this Fabergé egg? Woah.
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Maybe there are no secrets.
Mixing audio is not easy. I’m no expert, but something just struck me…
Maybe making a great mix simply comes down to listening to a song a thousand times and removing all the little things that annoy you until there’s nothing left to dislike. Hopefully the subtraction leaves you with enough material to reveal the goodness of the song. I bet great mixing engineers can get there in fewer than a 1000 listens. Maybe there’s more to it. Just a thought.
Got any mixing secrets?
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All Is Sideways release to be announced. Experts say album available “soon.” Place your order now!
What began ages ago as mere inklings of thought, vague notions of concept, and a few sparse melodies has now — at long last! — become a physical reality. The audio is mastered, the artwork polished, and the replication of my album has begun.
In a few short weeks All Is Sideways will be available in a variety of digital formats from the gamut of major online digital retailers, but those that preorder a CD will receive the album first (and signed too).
If you have followed the progress of this album, you know what a long, troublesome, and strange process it has been. The project began with a chance encounter with Jared Ribble in Nashville years ago while on tour. As time wore on and the tour meandered about the country, more chance encounters with musical friends (new and old) led to the creation of key components of the album. All Is Sideways features dozens of players in as many places playing all sorts of instruments. In as much as America is a melting pot, so too is this album a sonic stone soup. The individual tracks may seem too disparate to make an album, but one thing rings true for these songs:
They are part of me.
Time and again I’ve nearly given up believing that I’d ever finish this project. Attempting to make an album, one with your heart and soul embedded in the ones and zeros, can nearly break an artist. That goal is even more difficult when you’re a lone vagabond. You end up questioning everything — every note, phrase, idea, inclination — and not being sure of any of the answers you come up with. I found myself in a cyclical pattern of creating things, building layers, finding problems, giving up hope, discovering clarity, trying again, learning more than I wanted to know, rethinking my songs and myself, driving long silent hours on the road, questioning my purpose and plans, and eventually coming to terms (I think…) with the process. Album making is like psychotherapy, but the lines of professionalism and privacy get messed up because you’re both the patient and practitioner. It’s a head game and your results get published. Humbling.
So you can imagine why, even after all this time that I’ve had to work on the album, I feel a bit reluctant releasing it into the wild. While I’ve been really eager to get this album out there to you, my friends and family, part of me doesn’t feel ready. But as my friend (and engineer for most of the album) Lynn Graber often says:
“An album is never done. Eventually you just have to let it go.”
He’s right. I’ll never be finished with these songs. Every time I play them, listen to them, or think about them, I discover something new — a note to work on, a finer nuance to express, a deeper meaning of a lyric, a greater understanding of myself. I supposed that’s a place of growth or maturity or something else profound. In that regard, the songs may never be done and that’s probably a good thing.
Finished or not, the perfect moment will never come, so I’m letting the album go. Here it is: the button that lets me know that you want to hear what I’ve made for you. 😉
- “All Is Sideways”
- “Drift, Drift, Drift”
- “Death of Seasons”
- “Medicine Man”
- “Oceans of Blood”
- “Come On Up To The House”
- “Golden Slumbers”
- “If Ever In Doubt”
- “O Sweet Grace”
- “Bring Me All The Way Home”
Over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing more content about the songs on All Is Sideways via the internet tubes. Stay tuned.
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Are we making excuses for why we aren’t better musicians?
“Overcoming Musical Gear Ignorance” is an article I wrote that was published as a guest blog on my friend David Santistevan’s site. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now.
In that article, I gave 50 technical questions as “homework” for the musician that wants to get better at being a musician. The broad list covers a lot of little things that musicians really ought to know, but think they don’t need to know.
While we could easily get sidetracked judging ourselves based on whether we can answer those specific questions or not, the real issue I’m hoping to address is our attitudes about learning.
Learning is tough. Really tough. It takes dedication, willingness, and humility to learn new things. It’s not surprising that we make a lot of excuses to avoid it.
Excuses, excuses, excuses
Over the years, I have cited lots of reasons for why I wasn’t progressing as a musician, but they were simply excuses. Here are a few of my mental blocks.
1. My fingers are too fat.
Back in high school I picked up the guitar because I wanted to write songs. After a year or two of trying to learn how to play, I told Nathan Hamlin, my trusted friend and songwriting partner, that my fingers were too fat to play guitar well. His response?
Scott, my dad Vance has huge sausage fingers and he can play guitar better than I can. You have no excuse.
Nathan was right. I stopped making excuses and learned how to play guitar. Now people ask me to play guitar for them.
Still want to make excuses? Phil Keaggy has only 9 digits, Chad James has only one hand, and Mark Goffeney has no hands, but it hasn’t stopped any of them from playing guitar.
2. I need a better guitar.
For years I was convinced that if I just had a more expensive guitar, I too could play like a pro. Wrong.
In college I met Ben Albright, a guy who was known for his guitar prowess. Time and time again, I watched as he would pick up the same crappy instrument I had just laid down and play something inspiring. Clearly the guitar was not the problem.
The roadblock was in my mind. There was a reason I couldn’t make a guitar sing like Ben could. Besides not putting in the many hours of practice that he had, I had already decided that I couldn’t make great music without great instruments.
In a previous post called “How to Get Perfect Guitar Tone,” I included a video clip from It Might Get Loud of Jack White building and then playing a makeshift guitar on his front porch. The improvised “guitar” he makes proves his point that great music is possible even if the instrument is not very good.
I can’t blame my guitar.
3. I need better recording equipment.
We live in such a wonderful time. Recording has never been more accessible, affordable, or high quality.
My soon-to-be released album All Is Sideways was recorded in locations all over the U.S. over the past 3 years. Some of the songs have more than 50 layered tracks. I was privileged to be able to record with talented players on great instruments with really nice microphones and preamps into a sweet computer.
The funny thing I have to remind myself is that some of the greatest albums of all time have been made with much less. The Beatles recorded their highly complex Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a pair of 4-track tape machines.
Compared to the tools we have available to us today, musicians and engineers of the past worked with sticks and stones. Men have flown to outer space and back in rocket ships with computers on board that pale in comparison to the iPods in our pockets. Yet somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that to make an album like Led Zeppelin’s IV today, we need million dollar systems with all the latest technology.
Sorry, kids. Your gear can’t be the scapegoat here. Garageband is more than adequate.
Who’s left to blame?
Excuses don’t make me a better player. Better gear doesn’t make me a better player. Only my determination to learn, practice, and actively become a better player makes me a better player.
In my signal chain, sadly, I am the weakest link.
I want to fix that and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get there.
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A response to the question “After Analog vs. Digital, what will we fight about in the future?”
As part of their “#DJChat,” German audio equipment manufacturer Behringer asked this question on Twitter:
…Analog vs. Digital is a debate that will always continue. But in the future, what technology will we move on to AFTER digital? 😀 #DJChat
It’s an interesting concept. The wars between analog and digital rage on because they are systems separated by technologies that both have pros and cons. As technology progresses, what new pros and cons will we have to debate against older systems? Initially I answered with the following:
@BEHRINGER future: Cerebral vs. Digital. Was it made entirely “in the box (aka your head)” or did you collab with other humans and devices?
Realizing there’s much more to this debate than just a tweet, I thought I’d talk more about it here.
We Need Better Words to Describe How We’ll Make Music in the Future
In my original tweet, I used the phrase “Cerebral vs. Digital” to describe the future debate I imagine will happen. Maybe my choice of opposites wasn’t perfect. Better words can probably be found. This concept of diametrics I have in mind could be expressed in a variety of ways.
- Cerebral vs. Physical
- Solitary vs. Collaborative
- Internal vs. External
Each of those word combinations is describing the same contrast of ideas. But how to best describe it?
The New System of Mind Music
In the (maybe not so distant) future, musicians will have the ability to directly output music from their heads. Technology will be developed that will allow artists to simply think/imagine/hear the music in his/her head and output this as audio and/or notation. This cerebrally generated “audio feed” could be routed (maybe even wirelessly) to a recording device to be documented, distributed, and sold. Theoretically, this process could happen as a live performance. The signal could be routed to a sound system for a concert, to an internet connection for worldwide streaming, or even directly injected (almost telepathically) into the head of a “listener” outfitted with the proper “receiver” device.
The possibilities are fantastic. Composers could direct an entire imaginary orchestra as they hear it in their minds. Dancers could dance to their own music in real time. Musicians could play exactly what they intend to play. Singers could sing in whatever voices they can imagine. Handicapped artists suddenly would be unrestricted by their handicaps.
This is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If we already can control toy helicopters with our thoughts, then it’s only a matter of time before we can output music directly from our minds. UPDATE (2011-09-23): This just in… UC Berkeley neuroscientist Professor Jack Gallant announced today that it’s possible to recreate the video from brain activity.
This technological breakthrough in music will follow a path familiar to video games. With the Wii, Nintendo brought wireless motion-sensing accelerometer action to everyday people. The developers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band banked a lot of cash by making it really easy to “play” popular music without having to learn an instrument. Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox removed the need for a controller, allowing the person to become the controller. I don’t know who will create the first mind-controlled music technology, but somebody’s going to do it.
Cool meant something totally different back then. Don’t judge.
As with any change, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Unfortunately, music will experience yet another Regrettable Period in which we have to learn how to use this new technology properly. I predict some gross and unsavory abuse of the technology, much like the ubiquity of terrible synthesizers in the 1980s or prevalence of auto-tuned vocals since Cher started believing in life after love. But some lucky artist is going to enjoy the honor of being known as the one that mastered this wonderful new system, thus becoming the “Grand Master Flash of whatever-this-thing-may-become-known-as.” Someone will figure out how to use it right, but it might take some time. In the meantime, wear earplugs.
Why We’ll Argue About This
At first, this newfangled gadgetry will be heralded as the end of “real” music and musicianship. The critics will say it’s too easy and not authentic music. Traditional composers and invested players will complain that no one has to learn how to write or play anymore. And much in the same way that digital was derided as a poor substitute for analog, purists will say that this cerebral form loses something in the process. Those arguments all might be right, but there may be a bigger issue lurking.
Trapped “In The Box”
When the process of making music becomes entirely internalized it will be really great because of it’s purity and singularity of thought, but will it simultaneously suffer from lack of external influences? When digital recording became popular, the question was often asked by one artist or engineer to another: “Was this all done ‘in the box?’” – meaning: was the audio signal created, mixed, and mastered on the same computer? Early on, music created entirely in this fashion lacked the beneficial effects that analog systems inherently imparted upon the audio signal. Today, the line has been blurred by better technology, so it’s harder to tell if something was recorded analog or digital. Only engineers with “golden ears” can hear the difference (even then I suspect shenanigans). At any rate, the question still remains: What benefits will be lost due to the signal remaining “in the box” of your head?
Potential Musical Influences
- People – The comradery, inspiration, ideas, criticism, differing views, and friction found when people work together often makes for better music. Being alone can lead to dead ends and boring or bad music. Collaboration can make beautiful things.
- Hardware – Though they are inanimate objects, the instruments and devices used to make music come with their own inspirations, challenges, rewards, frustrations to overcome, and occasional good glitches. Sometimes a piece of gear has to be conquered and relinquishes its magic upon defeat.
- Criticism – The critic is the archenemy of the artist, but every good story needs a villain. Without judgement, no work is ever as best as it can be. Words are often revealed for their folly only after they’ve left the head.
- Movement – Music and movement are very strongly related. When making music, movement is both part of the instigation of sound, but also a reaction to the sound being created. Performance and dance are like cousins. So if movement is not necessary for the creation of music, what effect will that have on the final product?
Good Things Will Happen
A lot of things can go wrong in this new system, but a lot of things can go right too. Eventually we’ll work out the kinks. We’ll figure out the typical pitfalls. We’ll master this medium like we have with all the others. One day amazing music will be generated using nothing but musicians’ brains. I’m hedging a bet it will be the direct output of some ridiculously young Mozart’s mind that will blow us all away. Perhaps this new interface will teach us something about how our brains work. Maybe it will allow us to communicate more precisely on ever deeper levels. What if it develops into a new universal language? Hmm.
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A couple of weeks ago, my friend David, a young and very talented musician/singer/songwriter, asked me the following question. Hi Scott! Hey, how many GB of hard drive space do you recommend for recording on a laptop? Thanks, David To which I responded: Hey David, The recommended practice for digital recording is to record to […]
A couple of weeks ago, my friend David, a young and very talented musician/singer/songwriter, asked me the following question.
Hey, how many GB of hard drive space do you recommend for recording on a laptop?
To which I responded:
The recommended practice for digital recording is to record to an external hard drive instead of the internal drive. This is done for performance reasons. Recording to an external drive keeps your data separate from the rest of your computer data, allowing the computer to use the internal drive for the dedicated purpose of running the operating system. This also makes your recording data more portable for taking it to a studio and prevents trouble if you ever need to send your computer in for service (the recording data stays with you).
It is also recommended to use an additional external drive that serves as a backup so if anything goes wrong with a drive you won’t lose everything. So ideally, you would have two identical drives. They can be any size, but should be the same size. A typical song (2-5 min with 4-5 instruments with multiple takes for each instrument/voice) at 24 bit resolution and 48k sample rate will take up approximately 1-3 GB. If you’re lacking hard drive space, after the tracks are finalized the unused takes can be deleted, which reduces the file size of the song, thus giving you more room for additional songs. But as cheap as hard drives are these days, getting a decent sized drive shouldn’t be a problem.
The cost of external drives for computer-based recording is much cheaper than the cost of memory cards for hard disk recorders.
With all that in mind, I recommend buying 2 of the largest hard drives you can get within the budget you have. Remember, these drives should be the same size and used ONLY for your recordings.
Western Digital has good drives for reasonable prices.*
*Though I recommend WD drives for data storage, see my post The Western Digital (WD) SmartWare Problem for more about them.
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On the morning of August 29th, I (along with the help of fellow musician Katie Nelson) played music for the good people of Lakewood Baptist Church in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. We set up outdoors on their east lawn as part of their final al fresco service of the summer. The weather was […]
On the morning of August 29th, I (along with the help of fellow musician Katie Nelson) played music for the good people of Lakewood Baptist Church in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. We set up outdoors on their east lawn as part of their final al fresco service of the summer. The weather was perfect (I was able to remain the shade the entire time) and we sang and played well, which from my perspective made the entire experience enjoyable.
During the portions of the service in which Katie and I were not playing, we sat off to the side of the makeshift stage area with our backs against the stone wall of the church. As we listened to various readings and other musicians playing, we noticed a young man walking by on the sidewalk, mere feet from the congregants in attendance that morning. As he passed, I noticed (amongst other things) a paperback conspicuously poking out of the back pocket of his jeans – a tell tale sign of belonging to a particular faction of the now burgeoning hipster scene. I leaned over to ask Katie if she had noticed this small detail. She replied with the even more insightful observation she had made; that as this young man had passed, he had swiftly, and without losing step, swiped a pen from a table sitting next to the sidewalk. Though he did this in full view of the entire congregation, no one seemed to notice.
“The audacity!” I exclaimed in my head. “How dare he? Stealing! …and from a church! …and in front of so many people! What gall!” Inside I could feel my well-developed sense of justice rising up. I contemplated hurrying after him to correct this problem, but decided the scene would cause too much distraction since I was sitting in front of everyone. Instead, I quietly sat there and worked through a logical progression of thoughts.
- Calm down. It’s just a pen. No big deal.
- But it’s the principle of it all! Stealing is wrong.
- Maybe he has nothing. I hope he stole because he needed it, not just because he wanted it.
- How ironic though that he would steal from a group that would have given it to him had he simply asked. If he really needed a pen, anyone of us would have handed him a large supply of pens without reservation.
- Why would he steal from a church? There must be more to the story. Maybe this was a small statement of his perspective. Maybe he thinks that the church steals from people (a common and sometimes justified belief) and that he was simply playing his part as Robin Hood in this sad story.
The plot thickened in my imagination. “Oh well. Let it go,” I thought as I attempted to refocus my mind on the morning’s service and it’s over-arching themes of orphanhood, abandonment and adoption. (Apropos topics in hind sight.) Still, as I tried to engage myself completely, my mind wandered back to the possibilities of the young man’s motives.
A quote came to mind that I had read just a few days prior. The late comedian George Carlin once said:
I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood.
I mulled over that quote, weighing its humorous pithiness, poignancy, and pride against its subtext of angst, antagonism, and atheism. Knowing that all comedy is rooted in tragedy, I wondered of the origins of this one-liner. How had it been given birth via the life of its author? What were the “causes” of this “effect?” What did Carlin experience to arrive at a belief like this? Was this young thief on the streets of Cleveland living out a similar experience?
Again, I thought, “Oh well” and pushed the subject from my mind. The service finished with three songs performed by Katie and me, followed by a pizza lunch on the lawn. With the almost-noon sun moving over head, the shade was disappearing quickly, so as most everyone ate pizza and chatted with each other, I hurried to wrap cables and box up equipment. While I worked, a friend was kind enough to reserve an entire pizza for me. After packing away all the gear, I sat down again in the shade of the stone church to eat a few slices, when suddenly I noticed the young thief coming down the sidewalk again. This time with his shirt off and skateboard under his arm.
I was surprised to see him return, but remembered that oft repeated maxim: “A criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.” For whatever reason, the young man had returned and immediately I thought I should offer him some pizza, but Katie jumped first. “Nice shoes!” she yelled to him. He stopped and looked to see who had complimented his bright blues and yellow kicks, then he approached us. “Thanks. They’re pretty fresh aren’t they? My mom gave them to me.” We talked about shoes for a little bit, then I offered him a slice of pizza. He declined when he found out it had pepperoni on it. “He might be a vegetarian,” I deduced. I wished that I had something that fit his diet, but all I had was a pizza that generously had been given to me. Katie offered him some gluten-free cheese ravioli she had brought along. He accepted with a manner of indirect thank you accompanied by earnest looks and head nods saying, “Yeah, it’s all about generosity.”
Unfortunately, after a few sentences I was pulled into another conversation with some other folks, but I kept my ear perked on the conversation that continued between Katie and the young thief. He expressed his belief that “everyone should share together,” but that “the world and everybody just wants money.” His take on the local farmer’s market (an incredible market, which has some of the most affordable produce I’ve ever seen) was that the marketers are “just trying to take people’s money” and that “people should share food or offer food at a modest prices.” He talked about music, books, people, and church all with the same skeptical-about-everything-but-we-got-to-share-and-one-love-is-it-man sort of view. The irony of his thievery just moments earlier was not lost on me. I could tell that he had some deeply rooted anger, a very suspect anti-capitalist worldview, and plenty of sophomoric pride in his reading list.
As he turned to leave, he jabbed at Katie, “Nose rings aren’t very churchy.” Katie responded with honest sentiments about her experience with churches, describing religious people, the Jesus she knew, and the difference between the two. When Katie said, “I really love Jesus,” the young man agreed that he really liked Jesus too and added, “He is in my top ten people of all time.” Katie asked who else made it onto his top ten people list. He reiterated Jesus and mentioned a few authors before tagging on George Carlin to finished the list. I nearly laughed out loud. I wanted to point out, “That’s like saying your favorite books are Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Mein Campf.” I could’ve drawn a Venn diagram to show him the concept of mutual exclusivity, but recognized that rationality was not the impetus at work. He was a wounded boy striking back at a world that had brought him pain.
A Mutually Exclusive Venn Diagram
I dug deeper, “Where are you from?” He launched into a story about being born in Virginia, moving to Ohio at a young age, being drug to Detroit by his ex-minister mother chasing after “love for her boyfriend or whatever that whole thing is.” He returned to Cleveland when his girlfriend parted ways with him. Now he’s sleeping on a couch at the boarding house where his mother is staying. Katie saw that he was carrying a portable CD player and asked him if he wanted some CDs. “Sure! I love music,” he said. “I’ll probably just burn the tracks and then sell the CDs ’cause I need the money, you know. I gotta survive.” Katie gave him two of her albums as well as two of mine. He expressed his gratitude to us again with another obscure type of thank you and then left.
We spent much of that afternoon walking around town with some good friends. As we popped in and out of little shops, cafes, and novelty stores, the odd events of that morning came up in our discussion. We verbally processed the theft and subsequent conversation that took place, touching on the possible roots of such problems before moving on to lighter topics like “Which shop should we go to next?,” “Do we need to feed the meter?,” and “What do you want for dinner?” Towards the end of the day we found ourselves walking along the path of a local park just in time to catch the reddish-orange sun slowly sinking into Lake Erie. We paused for a moment to enjoy the scene before deciding it’s best to head “home” before dark in an unfamiliar town.
The path out of the park took us directly past a skate park. I scanned the crowd of young guys skating there wondering if the young man we had met earlier was among the dozens enjoying this extremely nice skate park, one of the many perks paid for by the hard work of the local “capitalist pigs.” I didn’t spot him, so we continued on. Just as we reached the street, I was surprised to see our friend the thief making a last second dash through the busy intersection to beat traffic. Since he had not seen us yet and knowing that he probably gets hassled a lot for skating, I jokingly yelled to him, “No running!” He turned to see who was reprimanding him this time and smiled when he recognized us.
“Hey! I listened to your CDs and that’s some really good stuff,” he immediately offered. “I liked them a lot. I burned them and took them down to the exchange already ’cause I need the money. Gotta survive. They only gave me two bucks though for all four of them ’cause they said that you weren’t popular.” Though severely lacking tact, I had to admire his honesty. Most musicians might run away crying after such a frank assessment, but we grinned and said, “That’s fine man. We’re not really famous, so it’s not a surprise.”
He then offered his assessment of the music: “It just goes to show that God helps those who help themselves.” I’m sure I gave him a funny look when he said that, because I’m not really sure how he arrived at that conclusion. How could anyone boil down four albums of songs to such a singular and contrary thought? (But then again, how could Carlin boil down the entire discussion of Christianity to logo choice?) I concluded that either our young friend did not actually listen, or though he did listen, he was so wounded that he could not hear. Then again, maybe what happened was a phenomenon similar to what the Beastie Boys experienced with their song “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!).” A tongue-in-cheek satire of frat boy meatheadiness became the anthem of meatheaded frat boys everywhere.
Make of it what you will.
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