Category Archives: Music

Music I’m listening to

The Blue Collar Bass Player.

This post is mainly aimed at my bass playing friends but also other types of musicians might enjoy it. I just got through reading the latest revision of Ted Gould‘s book and felt compelled to share this review.

With his new book (iTunes link), Ted skillfully bridges the gap between the living room and the global stage. In between these two extremes is where most working bassists live and learn — often the hard way — the important lessons of making a good impression, doing homework, getting and keeping gigs, and much more.

Unlike a lot of professional or self-help books, this one isn’t “fluffed up” with vague, useless concepts that up the page count but waste your time. Instead, Ted packs it with value, pulling zero punches with dead-on advice to help bassists avoid common pitfalls and bring their best to their job as musicians. Whether you’re trying to get from basement to bar, from local venues to regional or beyond, or simply expand your work to other types of gigs, “The Blue Collar Bass Player” is the book for you.

No joke, this book is packed with practical, awesome information. Definitely worth a read if you want to up your game!

It ain’t always what it’s supposed to be.

Lately I’ve found that I really miss playing music regularly. When I first joined Red Hat in 2008, the plan was for me to move up to New England so I could join most of my coworkers in the Westford office. As a result, I gracefully exited the musical projects I was involved in at the time, so they wouldn’t be hampered by my sudden move. However, a plummeting housing market in the DC area and my mother’s struggles with her spinal problems put the kibosh on my move, and circumstances led to me basically just working from home. That has continued to work out pretty well for both me and Red Hat, so I don’t see it changing any time in the near future.

The unfortunate result, though, is that I haven’t been playing music regularly now for several years. And that gets me right where it hurts — in my work/life balance. Anyone who knows me knows I put a high value on that balance. I’ve been better at achieving it over the past couple of years. But the question I’ve asked myself lately is “to what end?”. Sure, I get to spend more time with my family, but it’s not like we are busy every second of every night or weekend. So the question is, am I doing the best with that non-work time that I could? And the answer to myself was no. I was missing the fun of being creative, and that’s what music does for me.

So I decided to challenge myself to get back into the music scene in the local area. I wouldn’t say that Fredericksburg, Virginia is a bustling music marketplace, but we do have our share of venues and bands. There are some limitations: most of what people are playing around here is bar music, i.e. classic rock, country, and/or blues (or hard metal, which is just not my bag, baby). That means I have to do away somewhat with my predisposition, which is singer/songwriter stuff in the folk/rock/pop genre. Because when you’re playing professionally, you are working in a marketplace, and rule number one is, the customer is always right. And if the customer wants to hear “Gimme Three Steps” for the eight thousandth frickin’ time, then I’m going to do my best to chew it up — dig?

Letting go of my personal feelings about tunes I like (or don’t), though, has been easier to solve than another issue: finding great people to play with. I’ve done auditions for a while now, and I’ve discovered — or maybe rediscovered, since I probably knew this long ago the last time I was auditioning — that auditions are a two-way street. When I show up for an audition with a group, they’re not just seeing whether I’m good for them, I’m determining whether they’re good for me. So far the second half of that equation has been missing. So I’m trying to branch out beyond just answering ads, and try to meet other musicians who maybe aren’t actively looking. It stands to reason that many great musicians in the area are already hooked up with a group, simply because they’re great and everyone knows it.

Fortunately I’ve found there are worthwhile open mic sessions in the area. I’ve never done these before — I found all my previous work through referrals and recommendations, working with a series of steadily excellent musicians. Not being a born extrovert, I also found that I had some trepidation about attending an open mic. What if I didn’t know the tunes? What if no one wanted me on stage? What if none of the other players was any good? Then I realized all these what-if’s were basically killing any positive outcome before it even had a chance. If I went, sure, there was a chance it might not end up having value. But if I didn’t, then there was a 100% chance it wouldn’t have any value. So it’s pretty simple — just go, already!

It’s turned out pretty well so far — I’ve found that there are some truly great musicians around this area. Sure, they may all be in good bands already, but they also tend to know each other, and the way I look at it, if they start to know who I am, they’ll be able to give me or someone else a heads-up for a situation that might be good for me. The open mic is just as much a networking opportunity as a musical one. So by embracing that opportunity my hope is to get more wired into the local scene, make some new friends, and maybe find a referral to play with some great musicians again. I think the key is not just to go, but to keep going. That’s reinvigorated me, so that I’m practicing more on my own again — and it’s helped me shake the rust and dust off.

So today, I’m going out again to an open mic that was fun last Sunday, after which I’m headed off to another audition. And while the other guys are certainly going to audition me, I’m also going to audition them. So don’t just wish me luck — wish them luck too!

What I’ve been missing.

There hasn’t been a lot of music in my life lately, other than listening. Work has been very demanding lately, and between that and traveling to do fun things with the family, not much time has been left over for playing. Today I have a day of glorious playing ahead, though, with some good friends up the road in Reston, VA. It’s nice to have a hobby that gives out such a positive vibe and that you can share with other people.

You can also really connect with your tools as well when you play music. This morning I took out a couple of my basses to make sure they were ready to rock’n’roll, and I enjoyed getting reaccustomed to a couple of my favorites. One of the basses I’m bringing with me is a 1953 Fender Precision issue. I believe it’s the Sting signature model, but I can’t be completely sure. I bought it used for a little under $700, and it’s Japanese made as I would expect from that model. (Typically the Japanese made instruments these days are second only to American built Fenders, and only by a slim margin in my opinion.) The serial number seems to support it.

But unlike the mother of pearl signature marker at the octave fret which you see on the Sting model, this one has a black bar. On very close inspection it seems like the previous owner actually painted carefully over the inset, and then refinished the neck. He did a fine job, though, so I had no qualms about buying it. It did make me wonder why you would go to so much trouble to cover up the signature on a signature model bass. Maybe the guy played in a honky tonk band and the Sting signature gave the other band members the willies.

All I know is that one of the other mods he made was to add a Lindy Fraling hand-wound pickup that, when combined with the strings passing through the body at the bridge, gives this axe the sonic nuts. The neck is pretty round and kind of like playing a baseball bat compared to a couple of my other basses, so playing this bass for long stretches can be a little like a wrestling match — you have to muscle it into submission. But the reward is a big fat P-bass sound that’s shaded just differently enough from a stock 1960’s style Precision to give it a unique vibe. Definitely looking forward to playing it today!

Live from Fedora Moonbase Alpha, part 3.

Quite a while ago, I wrote about the dead-simple process for setting up a microphone with Fedora’s PulseAudio sound system. That was part 2 in a series that was meant to discuss creating a better podcast. At the time, I meant to follow up with a piece on how to do some audio sweetening to make your recording sound better to your listeners. Unfortunately, life and work got in the way, and I didn’t get to part 3 — so here it is, hopefully better late than never.

Thanks to John Poelstra for inspiring me to write this. We had a nice conversation about audio the other day, and I figured it would be worthwhile to capture some of what we spoke about, but also to explain better some of the concepts I tried to pass on to John but perhaps didn’t do it well.

I’m going to assume at this point you’ve been able to capture your audio from a reasonable mic source into Audacity using the record function. You should now have an audio capture with a visible waveform in your Audacity window. Before we move on, you may want to save your Audacity project, or maybe just write the audio to a simple .WAV format file using the Export function.

Audacity lets you not only record audio, but alter it based on algorithms that range from the simple to the highly complex. Audacity is compliant with the LADSPA standard and can use LADSPA plugins to perform some very interesting, useful, or even downright disturbing changes on your audio tracks.

Of course, you don’t have to search them out or build them on your own. There are tons of very useful LADSPA plugins for audio programs available in Fedora repositories. One set we’ll be using is the TAP (Tom’s Audio Processing) set. The package in Fedora is ladspa-tap-plugins; make sure you install that using the Software Manager or another tool before proceeding. Also, you’ll need to restart Audacity if it’s already running, so it will recognize the new plugins.

Keep in mind, however, that all the effects in the world won’t make a crummy recording suddenly sound great. A lot depends on the quality of the original recording, and of course that starts with using a decent mic. “Decent” need not mean “pristine” or “expensive” for amateur use, however. There are solid podcasting mics available at reasonable prices, some less than US $100. Here are a couple easy changes you can make on a moderately good recording that will help it sound better.

You won’t find precise settings below, because the recording you make is going to be different from anyone else’s. You’ll need to listen carefully to decide how to alter the settings for each of these effects. Don’t be too drastic — sometimes a subtle touch is all you need to go from “OK” to “wow”!

Here’s a final note about a setup tweak in Audacity: I find it’s really helpful to change the interface preferences so the VU meters show a wider signal range. By default, they go down to -48dB, which isn’t enough to see what’s happening with noise, especially when you’re working with digital audio that’s capable of a high dynamic range. Open Edit, Preferences and choose Interface in the dialog. Change the meter/waveform range to at least -96 dB, which is the range of 16-bit audio. (You can choose more range if you like, but at our level of work, it’s probably not necessary.)

Noise

First, let’s eliminate some noise in the recording. Do try to minimize noise by making your recordings in a quiet room, away from loud equipment like computer fans, air conditioners, your snoring dog, and so on. But I’ll assume you’re not doing your recording in a pristine environment like a treated studio. So you’ll likely have some significant noise in your recording. (If you are recording in a treated studio, good for you! But don’t lord it over everyone, though — remember no one likes a know-it-all.)

At the beginning or end of your recording, locate a section where there is no speaking or substantial background noises, such as from a squeaky chair. Use the mouse to drag through that section of your recording. You only need a second or so for this process to be effective. After you make the selection, you can hit Play to just play the section in question, to verify there’s no sudden noise other than the ambient environment. Watch the playback meters, and hopefully you’re seeing noise at somewhere around -70dB to -60dB or so.  That’s actually quite noisy, but hey, we’re all friends here!

Now from the menu select Effects, Noise Removal. In the dialog, select the Get Noise Profile control in the frame labeled Step 1 to analyze the ambient noise in your selected audio area. This should be a very quick operation, and the dialog disappears. Audacity has stored a frequency profile for the selected noise for you to use in the next step.

Now use your Home key to move the time cursor and deselect the audio. This means the next process will run against your entire track. Select Effects, Noise Removal again, set the appropriate parameters for Step 2, and then select OK. If you’re not sure what to do, the defaults (24dB reduction, 150Hz frequency smoothing, and 0.15 seconds attack/decay time) are not bad for beginners, so feel free to try them out. You can use Ctrl+Z to undo each attempt after trying different parameters. What you’ll see is that after running the noise removal once, if you play a “silent” section again, the noise floor will be much lower!

Amplification

Now it’s time to boost our signal. Unless you’ve taken a lot of time to set up a gain structure for your audio input hardware, your signal’s probably pretty low. Your speaking voice may only be peaking at -20dB to -15dB. That’s very quiet compared to everything else your listeners hear on their speakers, where music typically peaks at almost 0dB (and way too often, if you ask me, but that’s an entirely different topic for another article and another time).

Use the Effects, Amplify control to boost the volume of your audio track. Set a new peak amplitude of close to 0dB. I often use -1dB or -0.5dB. Select OK to apply the amplification, and you’ll see the amplitude of your signal (the “width” of the waveform) grow significantly. Before you go any further: TURN DOWN YOUR SPEAKERS! If you’ve been recording and listening for a while, you’ve likely turned them up a lot to make up for the lower signal of your earlier recording. Now is a good time to lower the volume, so you don’t blow yourself out of your chair by playing your newly amplified track.

Note: Depending on your recording situation, the equipment you’re using, and the recording you’ve made, you might want to use a high-pass filter or an EQ to gently roll off very low frequencies, such as under 80 Hz. If you’re recording a voice in a quiet room, signal under that level usually comes from bumping the mic or whatever it’s attached to. If it has a lack of shock protection, that bump sounds like a booming impact in your recording. Rolling off those low frequencies can lessen the effect. Of course, you’re always free to re-record and edit to fix a particularly glaring problem!

Adding some warmth

Now, if you’re heavily into music or audio, you might have already taken care of this step in your original input. In that case you probably didn’t need a lot more amplification of your track, either. But if you didn’t warm up your recording by running through a tube preamplification stage (preamp), you can fake it to some degree using an excellent LADSPA TAP plugin called, appropriately, TAP Tube Warmth.

In your Audacity menu, choose Effects and look at the bottom of the menu that appears. You’ll see numbered lists of plugins. Unfortunately, there are so many plugins available they won’t all fit in a single menu, so they’re numbered by Audacity when it starts up. Look through the list for TAP Tube Warmth. This plugin will add some of the subtle, pleasing harmonic overtones that help make good announcers — the Leo Laportes and Bill Goldsmiths of the world — sound so pleasing to the ear. Of course, if you sound like Gonzo the Muppet, TAP Tube Warmth may not be a total solution, but it might help!

The higher you set the Drive level, the more fuzz you may hear as a result. Try not to overdo it — you want enough harmonic content added to warm up your voice, but not enough to be distracting or overpowering. A setting of somewhere between 3-5 is usually best. Experiment with the tape/tube slider to find a pleasing combination of the sound of tube warmth and analog tape squeeze. Starting with all tube is typically best, and moving to the left a bit at a time until you’re happy with the result. (Leaving it at 10, all tube, is fine too.)

Compression

One of the best-loved and most often used (many would say overused) tools in the audio engineer’s bag of tricks is the compressor. A compressor allows you to reduce the difference between loud and quiet areas of your recording, so your voice feels more present to the listener. Using compression allows you to overcome passages where your voice changes volume drastically, for example if you moved slightly away or toward the mic while recording.

Like amplification, compression can help the listener pay attention to your voice even if they’re surrounded by other loud noises — like listening through earphones while on a subway car. Speaking volume that veers wildly between loud and soft, like loud hiss and poor recording quality, is the mark of a substandard podcast. It’s important to recognize, though, that a voice blaring at a single volume for long periods will make your listener feel fatigued or even agitated, even if they don’t know why. So do listen critically to your work, and avoid over-compressing.

Other sweetening

There are other effects you can apply, but be careful and sparing if you want the result to sound natural. You might find an EQ (equalization) plugin helpful to cut annoying frequencies or compensate for a flattening of the voice. Some people apply a curve to mimic the frequency response of a well-known microphone like the Electro-Voice RE20, although it’s really difficult to get the result to sound genuine. If you don’t have a genuinely deep voice, you may find it helpful to give a slight boost (be subtle!) to the low-mid range frequency.

Reverberation is another possibility, but don’t overdo it. It’s probably not your goal to sound like you’re in Mammoth Cave or St. Patrick’s Cathedral! A little goes a long way to establish a space around your voice. Again, experiment in a good listening environment to see if this is something you like or even need.

Conclusion

Hopefully this will put you on track to start creating better podcasts, or maybe if you weren’t interested in it already, you’ll try your hand at it. A minimal equipment investment can lead to hours of fun. But remember that the most important part of podcasting is that you have something interesting or informative to say. All the equipment, technique, and software in the world isn’t as important as creative expression that makes your listeners respond, laugh, and think.

Good luck!

Getting in tune.

It’s not a bad idea, before you embark on a week-long trip away from home, leaving your wife with the mutant beasties called “children,” to make sure you give her a sanity break. So I sent Eleya out today to go see “The Dark Knight” on her own. I still haven’t figured out what I’m doing about dinner for everyone while she’s gone, but it’ll come to me soon enough. If nothing else, the dog is getting quite a bit slower in her old age. (Kidding. She’s a tough, crusty old hound anyway.)

In the meantime, I’m getting back in touch with my love for The Who. I was lucky enough to catch The Who on their 1996 Quadrophenia tour here in the States — the better shows with Billy Idol, and when the Ox was still with us — and it was a life-changing experience. Feeling a bit nostalgic today, and maybe the glass of saké isn’t helping. So I’ve put “Who’s Next” on really loud, and I’m cleaning up some bugs, and hoping that Eleya will let me sneak out for the late show. 😉

Paul and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Bumpy ride.

To continue today’s epic streak of bad luck:

  • My softphone gave out on me right before I was supposed to speak on an agenda item at a meeting this afternoon. My landline was in use by the wife, and when she got off, the conference system wouldn’t let me enter the room, claiming there was no such conference, which might have been pretty funny in other circumstances, considering I had just come from there.
  • Mad rush to finish some marketing work put me at the dinner table just as everyone was getting done. Then they had to rush off to a school function where my daughter had some creations on display, while I went to a LUG meeting.
  • On the way to the LUG meeting, alone in the car, I was poking a finger around one of my teeth to clean off a speck of something, when the car hit a bump and I basically abraded my gum all the way down to the soft furrow at its base, guaranteeing myself about a week of annoying pain.

I think I’m going to go pull the bedcovers over my head and wait for next week. In better news…

Crowdsourcing design.

I’m probably superlate to this party, but I hadn’t seen 99designs until today. Pretty cool.

Musical mayhem.

This past weekend, for the first time in months, I was able to get together with some fellow musicians. This particular soiree was an 80’s cover band a friend of mine is putting together, which is at the same time horrifying and a huge amount of fun. He’s more of a traditionalist so there’s not as much New Wave in it as I’d probably prefer. I’ll probably harass him until we can play Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” with big chunking guitars.

Unfortunately our keyboard player had to bail at the last minute so we had three guitars, bass, and drums. I hadn’t brought my keyboard with me, so I played sound engineer, song compiler, and the extra guitar guy really rich bands bring along to play ostinato figures through a delay unit for texture. It was fun getting away from the bass for a while, and my Variax really came through with some sweet tone.

The sleep of the innocent and just.

I opened Transmission last night before I went to bed, downloading a torrent of free music. And I didn’t for one second feel guilty, because it was Nine Inch Nails’ new CC-licensed album. I was thrilled because instrumental stuff has become my MO for background noise while I work.

This morning, it took me about 20 minutes to order the FLAC download due to site overloading. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to resume the supposedly one-time download thus far, without success. (I’ll probably be able to find it via BT or a more successful friend later on.) Lesson to musicians going their own way: You can’t make money if your site doesn’t work under real-life load. I hope that in the same spirit in which he disclosed the economic fallout from his last Internet distribution experiment, Trent Reznor will disclose the problems he had with the store, and then use this to help educate other independent musicians about how to effectively harness technology for their own Internet sales. On the other hand, not every indie is as popular as NIN.

I’ve long thought that a useful Fedora or CentOS spin would be a simple turnkey music and art storefront using all FOSS technology. Grab yourself some Amazon EC2/S3 space, install “Fedora Artist Store,” fill out a web-based form to set prices and upload your work, and watch the money roll in.

In any case, to do my part to support the model: