An unexpected farewell

I almost didn't do it, what with the mad rush of it all and the absolute deadline of a 6:30 am taxi pickup; but I took a moment early this morning, just before driving off with the last of my stuff (except the bikes I realised later I'd left behind in the bike shed), to walk around its clean and empty rooms and say farewell to my old house.

It's funny: there was so much that was annoying and uncomfortable about it – and it was dark and crooked and creaky and slowly sinking into the ground – but I think of all my houses, it's the one I have the most love for.

My kids became adults there.

I grew up there too: I feel like I finally stopped treading water and started swimming around. And probably because of that, it's the house where I had the fewest sad times and the most happy ones. Plus I really became a part of the local community – I felt like I belonged, and was not just passing through.

There were times when I thought I might live there forever. Of course the house wouldn't have lasted that long; but that's how I felt.

As it turns out, I'm leaving for all sorts of happy reasons and embarking on a brand new chapter of my life. It's exciting and it's a step up. Still, it was nice to take a few minutes to reflect on how kind this house has been to me and my family (albeit with a bit of tough-love), what a safe place it's been for us (and for my kids' friends: mine was the house they could come to to sober up before going home, and more than a few teenage romances began in that cosy darkish loungeroom), and how handily close it was to anything you needed to do (unless it required a hardware store) and most of my favourite places.

Also, of course, it saw the birth of Echidna Love Train!

My new house is much nicer – it's much less crooked and cracked, full of light, has spacious living areas and a modern (well, 1980s at least) kitchen, a bathroom you can swing a cat in, a garage and workshop, and an owner who actually gives a shit to keep it nice – and I know we'll be happy there. Like I said, it's a real step up in lots of ways. But my old house is like that first half-decent guitar you had that, while not good enough to really take you far, was the bridge between being crap and being good. And you don't stay on the bridge (or you don't get anywhere) but you sure as hell appreciate it for where it got you.

And it was a pretty damn fine bridge.

So long, old house: it's been good to know you.

(Oh yeah I'll be back for the bikes on the weekend.)

 

Brussels sprouts

My girlfriend cooked Brussels sprouts; and I liked them

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Posterous is dead. Long live Posterous!

Three years ago I took long service leave and spent a few weeks home recording for the solo album I’d been intending to make for a decade. It’s still half finished. In fact I’ve just started working on it again.

The important bit, however, is that I documented the process. It started with getting my tremolo pedal repaired, and finished with me putting the final touches on the seventh song. (That should be “‘final’ touches” because most of the recordings are still waiting for drums, backup vocals, final lead vocals and feature instruments to be added.) Along the way I took several photos of my vintage guitars and random recording gear, learned how to use a pro-level digital multitrack recording program (the very fine and pretty-much free open source package called Ardour), figured out microphone placement for different instruments, and learned a hell of a lot (through trial and error) about musical arranging and audio editing and production. And it was all summed up in seven blog posts on Posterous.

A year ago Posterous was bought by Twitter, and a month or so ago they anounced they were closing down their site. This spurred me into action, so today I imported my Posterous posts – which consisted entirely of the seven-part recording diary – into WordPress and now I have a blog. The blog I always meant to write.

On this blog I will crap on about some stuff and rant about other stuff. Those who are connected with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or app.net will know what to expect. I intend to:

  • rant about politics and economics
  • muse about life in general
  • write about music and books that I find significant or inspiring or interesting
  • talk about software and gadgets that I find useful
  • probably share writings or songs that I am creating while in progress
  • probably other stuff too.

I’m thinking I’ll work up to posting regularly but for now it will probably be a bit random.

Anyway, that’s all for now. The Recording Diaries posts will appear sometime soon, once the import is finished. In the meantime, if you’re interested in checking out the not-quite-completed songs from my home recording efforts, they’re on my music website at deanlombard.com.au.

 

The Recording Diaries part 5: Flying away

One of the really important parts of this project is listening to music recorded by others. I’ve been quite deliberately listening to a lot of music that has sounds and feels and production values that I like and that I think accords with what I am trying to do. Some of this has been music with prominent acoustic guitar (such as the Indigo Girls and Jakob Dylan’s solo albums), while some of it has been the messy but energetic and exciting rock of artists like Okkervil River and Neil Young.

One album that has been unexpectedly inspirational has been Dan Kelly’s Dream, released this month. I stumbled across it while searching for a CD to give to a friend for his birthday (I bought him Sgt Pepper and snapped up Dan Kelly’s Dream for myself) and discovered that, like me, Dan had recorded the album largely himself (though with a few helpers) and using a weird-arse guitar (in this case a Japanese Fender Jaguar) with an imperfect but idiosyncratic sound. He’s been really creative and bold with is arrangements, and his lyrics are probably more witty and in-your-face than usual. I’ve been listening to it over and over???

???which is how I got the name (that name) for my album. There was a lyric in one of his songs: “how many times must I repeat myself/how many times must I defeat myself”. He was singing about making the same fucked up choices over and over again. I had been thinking the same day how so many of my songs are about the same types of situations, repeated again and again over two and a half decades of my life. Here I was bringing together songs from 1998 and from 2007 lamenting the same foolishness, describing the same heartache. And here I am recording them by myself: first playing the acoustic guitar four times over; then the bass six times over; then singing the lyrics three times over; then playing electric guitar eight times over; then playing it all back 20 times over while I mix and edit and try to get it sounding right. So much repetition. So Over and Over seemed the perfect name for the album.

Doing it again
So I returned to Fly Away, the song that just wouldn???t come together last time. the acoustic guitar was ordinary. The electric rhythm guitar was out of tune. The electric lead guitar needed something??? it just need more presence or something. The acoustic bass guitar didn’t seem to anchor it properly. The vocal was OK though, and the guitar solos were sort of alright. What to do?

1) new bass guitar
I put the acoustic bass guitar away and grabbed the electric. Unfortunately this is my crappiest guitar. It’s a functional but elementary low-end bass I originally bought for my daughter T when she was learning at school. It’s actually pretty OK, but I’ve spent enough time as a professional musician and using professional grade equipment to be quite unsatisfied with it. I hoped (correctly it turned out) that my rather excellent bass amp and speaker cabinet would turn  this sow’s ear into at least a polyester purse.

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I’m recording the bass using a direct line as well as an economical but quite good quality dynamic microphone designed to record a bass drum. It works brilliantly! It’s really helped by the amp and cabinet combination. The amp has a valve pre-amp, a six-band graphic equaliser and a built-in compressor; the cabinet weighs a ton (actually 23 kg) and has four 10″ speakers and a 5″ tweeter. Altogether this gives a punchy and round sound with some delicate highs but a fat bottom end. I’m amazed I can get such a great sound from a $300 bass guitar. And my guess was right: the smooth, more consistent and incredibly punchy bass is perfect for the song.

2) The guitar parts
After recording the new bass line I muted all the tracks except the bass and the vocal and recorded a new acoustic guitar track. Much better. I then re-recorded the rhythm guitar with the instrument in tune. Marvellous! This left me with the lead guitar part to deal with. I’d pretty much figured out that at least part of the track ??? these little half chords that ring out in between the verses ??? needed more sustain. This suggests using a solid-body electric guitar (I had so far only used the semi-acoustic L-202), so I bought a set of guitar strings and dragged my old Maton Mastersound MS-500 out from under my bed.

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This used to be my main guitar before I bought the L-202 last year. In many ways it’s a better guitar: it has a fuller sound, a better neck, no buzzes and it stays in tune for more than one song. i prefer the L-202 for its very distinctive retro sound, but the Mastersound is really a workhorse guitar. With a rear single coil pickup and a front humbucker that can be switched to single coil, it can emulate the most common guitar sounds (the Les Paul, the Telecaster and the Stratocaster) readily. If I played in a cover band this would be my top choice of guitar ??? you can go from Jimmy Page to Jimi Hendrix with the flick of two switches.

I was right about it, too. it was the perfect guitar for Fly Away.  And the song was really improved by having a greater difference in tone and feel among the electric guitar parts. I decided there and then to use both guitars in future recordings as a matter of course, rather than playing different parts on the same instrument.

Fly Away
It was done then. it still lacks something (apart from drums, which all the songs are lacking so far), a different instrument altogether for the instrumental break and probably a bit of noodling around in other places too. Perhaps piano accordion (by now I had written but not recorded the piano accordion part for Sleep All Day, and thinking of using it in a few other songs as well); though I may have a stab at synthesiser, or perhaps just do a harmonica solo. But whichever way it will go, I now have a rough mix of Fly Away to share with the world (or at least the part of the world that is reading this blog)

Life intrudes
Following the completion of Fly Away I became quite preoccupied and busy thanks to the looming federal election. I had sort of accidentally volunteered to coordinate volunteers on election day for GetUp!, handing out “scorecards” at my local polling booth showing where the three major parties stand on a number of policy issues relating to social justice.

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Had a fantastic time! We had more volunteers than all the political parties combined at our polling booth. And I was pretty pleased to discover that in our electorate, the safest seat in the country (held by Labor with a 27% margin), 25% of first preference voted went to the progressive Greens party. At the end of the day Labor won the seat of course, but their margin was down to 16%. That???s quite an achievement I reckon, and a sign I think that Australian voters are more actively rejecting the two-party system (reflected of course in the overall election result in which neither major party gained a majority of seats).

Enough for now! Another chapter coming soon with two more songs.

The Recording Diaries part 4: A milestone of sorts

Forgive me reader, for I have slackened. It is 12 days since my last blog entry???

As expected, I am discovering that this is harder than I anticipated. Partly because I am really having to write the songs as I go along; not the basic songs, which are already written ??? lyrics and chords and riffs and tunes ??? but everything else: the bass lines, the other parts. I’m spending heaps of time just playing bass guitar or electric guitar along with the basic tracks trying to figure out what will sound good; what will give each song that special something. I’ve done this before of course in bands, with a bunch of other people with one instrument each, trying different things and having cool ideas. But it’s so different when it’s just you, trying one thing at a time. How much falls through the gaps? Maybe those two mediocre guitar parts will sound fantastic together? I’ll never know.

Secondly, other parts of life necessarily intrude, or need attention. Not all begrudgingly either. Sure I didn???t need that house inspection from my landlord (though the frantic cleanup has done wonders for my peace of mind), and I certainly resent the time I have to spend shopping, and doing washing, and sometimes cooking. But hanging out and chatting with my kids and my girlfriend; visiting an old friend in hospital after a bypass operation, helping my daughter get ready for her first trip overseas, catching up with other friends, looking over my son’s VCE design folio as it comes together??? these are part of the rich tapestry of life that I wouldn???t trade for anything. I’m baffled as to why it never occurred to me that these things would be sharing my time with my ambitious recording project.

Thirdly: to put it bluntly, I am not actually a particularly good musician. Sure, I’m better than your average person-who-can-play-a-few-songs-on-guitar. But I find it really difficult to get one good take of anything without little mistakes or buzzes or whatever. It reminds me why in bands I have always tried to work with better musicians than myself. Essentially I’m a songwriter, not a guitar hero, and it’s starting to show. I’m just hoping that when it all comes together it will have that slightly messy but captivating feel that you find on albums by, say, The Kinks or Okkervil River, rather than just messy and out of time.

Anyway, shortly after my last blog entry I grabbed my acoustic bass guitar and started work on one of the songs I’d already recorded: Sleep All Day.

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The bass warrants a little digression. A true piece of Australian  musical history, it is one of only 40 “Bindara”s made in 1966 by Maton (though they did make another short run in about 1970). It’s based on the guitarr??n mexicano basses used by mariachi bands and has the deepest, richest tone of any acoustic bass guitar I’ve ever tried (and I’ve tried a few). I really like the sound of acoustic bass guitars and I think they especially complement acoustic guitar music. It’s also great for busking.

After recording the bass I recorded some electric guitar. I decided to just dream up and record three or four different electric guitar parts for each song so I could then listen back and decide which ones to use. So for Sleep All Day I did a few takes each of some quiet tremolo chords, a duplication of the acoustic guitar picking style, and some little guitar melodies. In the end I liked them all, so after the recording session I spent some time fooling around with the tracks, dropping bits in and out, working out relative volumes, trying some different reverbs on the lead guitar??? and I actually revisited it a few times over the following week, until I ended up with what I thought was a pretty good basic version of the song. (Bearing in mind that I will later be adding drums and, where appropriate, piano accordion or percussion or synthesiser or flute or something else; and re-record vocals for every song after all this icing has been added.) I played this to my kids and my girlfriend and they all gave very helpful suggestions: frank and fearless and not afraid to be critical ??? off-putting but of course exactly what was needed. I heeded their advice and ended up with an even better track:

(Remember, this is the same recording as the one from my last blog entry, just with the extra stuff added to it. I reckon it’s a great example of how you build songs up in the studio (and in your mind) from the bare bones to something with a bit more meat on it.)

The day after I recorded all the extra parts for Sleep All Day I recorded all the basic parts (acoustic guitar, vocal, acoustic bass guitar and three electric guitar parts) for another song, Occupied Zone (interestingly, written about the same dysfunctional relationship). A few days later I did the same for another song, Fly Away. The next several days were occupied with other things, but by the weekend I was able to grab some time to edit and mix both of those songs. Both were really hard, and I wondered whether I would ever get anything good out of them. Later I realised how fortunate I was to have had such an easy run with Sleep All Day. If I had have tried either of these other two first I may well have despaired too much.

In the end I got Occupied Zone to an acceptable state. i have to keep reminding myself that they don’t need to sound perfect: once drums and percussion and one or two other things are added to the mix, it;as amazing what little glitches and not-quite-right sounding stuff disappears. 

Fly Away had more serious problems. One of the electric guitar tracks was out of tune, the acoustic guitar track was a bit ordinary, and overall it felt like something was lacking somewhere. I will strip it back to basics and re-record bits.

The electric guitar also warrants an aside. Maton made just 133 L-202s from 1966-67 (they also made a smaller number of bass guitars in the same style). I was fortunate enough to pick up a rather decrepit example early last year in the Music Swop Shop in Carlton, and I spent quite some time restoring it (documented on flickr of course).

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It’s unusual in that it is a semi-acoustic electric guitar but with no f-holes (they are painted on) and with a solid piece down the middle. it has a totally flaky tremolo system that puts it out of tune of you’re not really gentle, and ??? like many 60s guitars ??? the pickups are wired out of phase with each other so using them together sounds totally different than using them separately. Basically it has a really distinctive retro sound which I love and I have been using it as my main electric ever since i got it back into shape (though my other one will be needed for situations where the sound needs to be more conventional). Paired with the Vox valve amp (a relatively recent model but based on the original 60s Vox circuitry, and running through an early 70s Vox cabinet) it sounds like it’s coming to you straight out of 1969. of course I couldn???t even play guitar when i was one year old, but if I could it would have sounded just like this.

The Recording Diaries part 3: A little victory

All yesterday I was going over Saturday’s recordings in my head. In particular, Sleep All Day. I knew it was a bit rough, I knew I hadn’t found my voice for the vocal, I knew the guitar was a bit lame… but it was fine for the songwriting competition entry. I was going to add a heap to it later, and I would definitely re-record the vocal once there was a bigger foundation. But I just couldn’t get it out of my head. In particular, there’s this little guitar bit that doubles the vocal line at the end of each verse, and it just grated.

On Sunday afternoon I went to 303, a local bar, for the bimonthly meeting of the Darebin Songwriters’ Guild. The Guild meetings are an organised open stage where local songwriters play three or four of their compositions one after the other, with a feature artist slap bang in the middle. Yesterday’s feature artists were my friend Frank Jones (of Whirling Furphies fame — but I know Frank because when I first moved to Northcote I lived across the road from him; plus our kids went to the same school) and his friend Brent Parlane. I also saw Fiona Claire and Phil Hudson, former bandmates from various other bits of my life. All in all it was pretty inspirational; and while I was walking home in the hail I decided to re-record Sleep All Day with acoustic instead of electric guitar. I will still record electric over the top of it for the finished version; but the little melodies that double the vocals need to be just on the acoustic, so they don’t leap out so much.

This morning after the kids went to school I set up my studio again in T’s bedroom.

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I only did three takes with the acoustic guitar because I have a weak thumb on my left hand and it’s hard to play barre chords on an acoustic (with higher action and thicker, tighter strings) for long. I didn’t get a perfect one — each take has the occasional buzzy or muted chord where my pissweak thumb gave way — but I managed to buzz in different spots each take so I used the best take and cut in chords from other takes where the buzzes were too prominent. This is now a finished track 🙂

Next I re-recorded the vocals. My voice is still quite out of condition, and of about ten takes I still got none I was happy with. However i was able to assemble a track out of three different takes that was significantly better than the one I did on the weekend, and I have decided to be satisfied with it for the competition entry recording. For the album, I will record all the vocals towards the end.

Anyway, I ended up with a much better version of Sleep All Day, all new except for the harmonica solo (which has an awful squeak in it that’s driving me crazy, but it’s just about perfect apart from that so I am leaving it).

 

When I was mixing it and EQing it and all that this evening, I drove the kids crazy (especially T) by playing it through the hifi over and over again til it was right. But they made some helpful suggestions, including to play some piano accordion in the verses. I can hear it in my head now, and I’ve decided I will keep working on this song until it’s done — acoustic bass guitar, some delicate drumming, electric guitar and the accordion of course.

An aside about the guitar

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I picked up this guitar about 16 years ago from Roger Lewis’s store in Russell Street. It was $900 and, with me living from hand to mouth in those days subsisting on Austudy and Family Payments, I had to pay a deposit and then pay Roger off over about six months. It’s an early Australian made guitar, made by Maton in 1957. in those days the serial numbers were simply sequential — so I know that mine was the 776th guitar they ever made. Acoustic guitars, like good wine, improve with age as the wood mellows. This one has its flaws, but such a beautiful tone that you put up with the odd buzz and the fat, short neck. With an original hand-wound bakelite pickup, it sounds incredible through an amp too (though it hums a bit). But I plan to record it acoustically.

The Recording Diaries: part 2 ??? an actual beginning

I’ve had a busy week. I bought a new couch last weekend, so the old one and a bookcase ended up in the recording studio (which is also my daughter’s part time bedroom) making it impossible to do anything until it was sorted. Since I still had a massive cut on my guitar-playing fingertip (and another on my thumb thanks to a couch-moving accident), it wasn’t really making any difference.

So I ended up doing this massive house reorganise thing where I must have moved at least one bit of furniture from each room into another. Took the old couch to the Op Shop. Got into a bit of a cleaning frenzy and got the place looking so good I will no longer be embarrassed if the kids’ friends’ parents drop by. it was a bit overdue; and having the place a bit more civilised makes it much easier to give energy to the recording project.

During the week I also had to go into work to tie up a few loose ends, and do a day’s voluntary work for Friends of Merri Creek (I design and lay out their quarterly magazine). Aas the end of the week loomed closer I was starting to feel like time was slipping away from me; so on Thursday afternoon I managed to grab some time to drag my guitar and little amp into the lounge room and go over the two songs I’d already decided to record first, in order to get a rough basic mix of each to submit to the Darebin Songwriters’ Award (which closes Thursday 5 August).

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Friday morning I was determined to make a start. My daughter (T) was returning from school camp at 2pm so I needed to be done by about 1:30. Thus this was the perfect time for my computer to totally crap out. It’s been doing this thing lately (erratically of course) where it won???t wake up from sleep. You just have to shut it off and restart it, and sometimes it starts up still asleep, and you have to do all sorts of esoteric things to it to get it going again. So I spent about an hour on this, and then a similar amount of time wrestling with my audio software trying to get it to work properly. It’s a great, full-featured professional quality free open-source multitrack audio workstation (Ardour) but it needs to be run in conjunction with another great, pro-quality audio routing utility (Jack) and they just don’t always play well together. So by the time I was ready to go at last, I had only around two hours, which is really not that much time.

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But I made the most of it! By the time I had to pack up and jump in the car I’d recorded several takes of an acoustic guitar track for one song, and an electric guitar track for the other. I decided in the end that the acoustic guitar track was too slow, so I’d need to do it again; but at least figured out exactly how I want to play it. And I figured out the optimal microphone placement, and that I’d need to remove the scratchplate from the guitar so it wouldn???t squeak when I played it.

Saturday dawned and I had a two-hour block in between taxiing T to and from her theatre class. I unfortunately spent a lot of that time faffing about with Ardour and Jack again. it’s great when it’s working, but an almighty pain when it’s not.

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I managed to get the new acoustic guitar part down, and while I got the speed right I just wasn’t quite happy with it. Fortunately T was quite happy for me to continue using her room for a few hours after we got home again. So I finally got that guitar part done (it’s a bit flawed but has a good vibe so I think I’ll keep it as is), and vocals for both songs. The first one ??? to go with the acoustic guitar track ??? was similarly flawed but with that special something. The other is acceptable but not really good enough; it’ll be fine for the songwriting competition entry, but I’ll redo it for the album.

In the early evening i ferried the kids to various places and came back to have the house to myself for the night. I made the most of this, recording the harmonica part for one song, and mixing both of them.

Stereo recording
I’m using a stereo recording technique I learned on a webpage somewhere, with a matched pair of condenser mics (R??de NT1-As) aimed across each other.

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The sound I’m getting is unbelievably good. A real natural vibe. On the acoustic guitar, I position them right opposite where the neck meets the body, so one is getting more of the sound projected from the guitar body while the other gets more of the close by room sound. Listening to it it doesn???t sound like it’s left or right or anything: it just sounds like it’s in the room with you. For the electric guitar, one is aimed at the middle of one speaker and the other is aimed at the edge. For the harmonica they are positioned right in the middle, and listening back there’s a very subtle spread of low notes to high notes from right to left. By recording the vocals in mono and sticking them right in the middle, everything is anchored but just so expansive.

Mixing
This is the tricky bit. i don’t have proper monitor speakers or a neutral monitor amp. Instead I’m running it through my hifi amp and speakers, which add the sort of colour that is really nice when you???re playing a CD, but not really ideal for mixing raw audio. It will have to do, but I’m thinking that I will do all the mixing at a friend’s place with the right gear.

I’m really a very amateur sound engineer, so I’m trying to have a really light touch, knowing how easy it is to destroy tracks by over-engineering. I’m just adding a little compression to the electric guitar (and to one of the vocals that was a bit erratic volume-wise) and some light natural reverb to the vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. By using good mics and instruments I don’t really need to EQ anything.

The songs
OK, so I have actually recorded two songs. The first one I’m thinking is ready for the album (what it lacks in polish it makes up for with vibe); the second is not  but I will use it as a guide track to do a better version.

Simple Song

I wrote this back in early 1990 during a bout of depression. I had been writing heaps of songs and I was stuck in this thing of using unusual chord progressions and complex melodies to try to be original or good or something. Brainlessness. Suddenly, i guess, I’d had enough and came out with this. It’s one of my favourites of my own songs. I’m planning to open the album with this, and as a (slightly ironic) reprise repeat it as an instrumental with a big wall-of-sound type production.

Sleep All Day

This is from three or four years ago. I was going out with someone who was actually n love with someone else. Not recommended unless you wanna write a cool song. The final version of this will have a couple of guitars, bass, drums, maybe one or two other things. Sparse but complex

Coming up…
That’s really it for the weekend; I’ll be hanging out with T and tidying up the garden a bit, as my landlord is coming over for an inspection in a week and a half 😦 But i’ll have the house to myself come Monday, so now that I’ve popped the cork I’ll be doing some more intensive work ??? building up Sleep All Day and getting started on maybe two more. And getting my voice working properly! One thing I learned this last few days is that when you don’t song for a while your voice gets a bit dodgy. Will have to start singing louder in the shower.