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Independent musicianship

I am an Independent Musician. Yippee! It’s a grand sounding term with an air of freedom and emancipation. As if I’d ever been an enslaved musician. “Irresolute” would be a better description. “Indie” is a faintly derogatory handle that is used in the trade. Okay-dokey. Whatever.

We are a bit despised on a number of counts within the greater Music Industry – particularly by the owners of expensive and cavernous recording studios. Why might this be so? Well, with the advent of digital recording techniques – in particular, the blossoming of recording possibilities using a computer of modest power and software, also modestly priced – anybody with a credit card can set up a “studio” and call themselves an “independent musician” and/or “producer”. You don’t even have to play a musical instrument given the plethora of looped beats and samples of instruments, real, virtual, and imaginary that are available, often for free, to produce… er… music. A couple of minutes with your free MP3 encoder and you can upload your tunes to an online music distributor (OMD) for free and offer them for free download to the free, and not so free, world. It’s little wonder that, shall we say, the variable quality of all that output is a cause for depression and cynicism in established industry circles.

One the other hand, there is a huge pool (ocean?) of genuinely creative musicians who are now enabled to realise their aspiration to record, produce, publish and promote their own music without the hopeless trudge around the offices of established record companies, with a demo in hand (which cost a small fortune to make), in the vain hope that someone might ever listen to it past the first five seconds of each song. These bleak days, or at least their inevitability, are gone. You can still choose to go down that road – and I suspect that most “indies” would jump at the chance to land a contract with a “major” if the opportunity arose, often without close scrutiny of the terms of that contract.

Nevertheless, it is true that a lot of fine and established recording studios are simply going out of business or “restructuring”. What that means I can only guess – but creating ringtones for a living won’t keep the creative juices churning, I wouldn’t have thought. And what I will readily concede is that independent musicians, unless very well-heeled, will be unlikely to set up a recording facility capable of achieving the same quality of production routinely achieved at the established studios, especially those with long pedigree and hard-earned reputation.

It’s said, time and time again, that there is a tsunami of crap coming out of our home (aka project) studios. No doubt. But I’m not hearing that much better coming out of the radio or TV, either, by and large. A long as record companies’ artist signing policies are dictated solely by short term considerations with the “bottom line”, and with scant regard to artistic merit, then they will continue their slow decline – as will the attendant service industries: recording studios and CD pressing plants.

For my own part, it has been a liberating experience to be able to set up a facility, albeit it ever so humble, where I can at last record my songs and, with a little bit of investment on professional mastering services, publish “my life’s work”. Interim Reports would not, and future projects will not, have been likely otherwise.

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On the importance of acoustic treatment of the recording space

Trawling through one internet music recording forum after another (as I often do) is certainly illuminating. The multitudinous posts from earnest recordists enquiring from the experts which microphone, preamp, soundcard, converters, compressor, EQ, reverb – blah, blah, blah – is better than another have a rather dulling effect on my sensibilities before too long. And in truth, I’ve begun to make a bit of a nuisance of myself at one or two places by interjecting with a recommendation that the poster look to the room before he batters his credit card in the hope that some sparkling new high-end “professional” piece of gear will solve all his recording issues. Sometimes the repost comes back claiming that the initial poster is a hobbyist and is not aspiring to achieve professional results – so why don’t I just back off and let the guy/gal spend his/her money the way that he/she sees fit? That’s all very well, but it doesn’t gainsay the logical flaw in spending in the region of $2k on gear when a similar amount – or much less with a bit of research and DIY – on some acoustic treatment of the recording space would achieve a whole different order of improvement.

At this point I should perhaps confess (as you might read elsewhere on this site) that it took about a year for me to reach the same conclusion. There’s no question that a sexy new microphone with a price tag to suit is far more appealing than buying bags of mineral wool slabs, or even proprietary, pretty looking, sound treatment products. I should also admit that I did read a whole lot online about ways and means, materials and products, and earnest debates between the experts – not all uncontroversial – before I felt confident about doing something about it in my own place.

That notwithstanding, I won’t apologise now for my evangelising about the topic whenever I get the opportunity – such a difference has acoustic treatment made to my own projects. Hobbyist or not, you’re better off recording in a field with the cheapest of gear than in most untreated rooms with the most expensive recording equipment on the planet. So there!

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Fancy a tune?

This might be interesting. I’ve found this little player at which I can embed in all sorts of places. A bit like virtual busking except there’s nowhere for people to drop a coin or two. Still, I’ll leave it here for a bit and if it’s popular I’ll do a page with all the damn songs on players. Won’t that be fun?

So please, click away on the little player and play Red John and the song might go shooting up the charts. If these things work like that… I must find out.

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One For Julie (My Lucky Stars)

… is the title of the latest consequence of my incessant noodling. It’s a bit schmaltzy and jazz-tinged and is about as romantic as this guy is ever likely to get. Another result, so it is, of noodling with a glass of wine near to hand. I guess the guitar part was done and dusted within a couple of days, another day for the lyrics and there it is. I must say, slowish as it is, it’s fingering and singing-at-the-same-time is taking some practice to get down. It’s not a song that lends itself to careless and loose playing (you can get away with that sometimes): it’s got to be pretty tight. And because it’s not all that fast, sloppy playing will sound, well, sloppy. Sometimes there’s just nowhere to hide.

I think it’s a strong song, though: I’ll try and record it soon, post it around, and see what the world thinks.

Did I say “schmalzy”? Here’s a taste:

I like to be beneath the night sky
Taking for granted she’s nearby
Ooh, by the light of Mercury and Mars
I like to be thanking my lucky stars

Aw, isn’t that sweet…? I wrote it for my wife. She’s no doubt heard the guitar part developing as she’s being going about the house, but she hasn’t heard the song. I hope she likes it when she hears it.

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More on How Well

I posted How Well at a few places to get the benefit of some objective ears and some feedback on any “issues” with the recording. It seemed be liked by most of the good folks who took the trouble to listen and respond with comments. That’s always a relief and provides a little charge of confidence. Somebody heard “syllables in bundles” in the refrain. I like that. I don’t think it was a criticism.

More than one had a distaste for the “last” chord (it’s actually the penultimate chord but I guess it might feel like the last judging by the effect it’s having). On the guitar, its fingered as D major chord with a Bb in the bass. I stole the idea from the end of the 1st movement of Howard Hanson’s 2nd Symphony. Anyway, I suppose the chord is really a Bbmaj7 with an augmented 5th. I explained away its use as being a musical panic attack: “It reminds me of the occasions when I’ve almost dropped off to sleep and am awoken sharply by some trivial worry that has presumably been lurking in my sub-conscious, just waiting for the moment to strike!” I hope they understood!

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The season has arrived shockingly in the north-east of Scotland: warm sun, coloured vegetation and increased variety of birdcall. Easter with it’s usual display chocolate eggs and religion on the radio. Try and be patient with the tourist traffic and caravans tootling down the local byways. Ha! If it wasn’t so nice, I wouldn’t live here.

It’s also a New Year, of sorts: for the taxpayer and his nemesis… Not that I would begrudge paying fair dues. I just wish they wouldn’t keep changing the rules. How’s a man to plan? The feeling just grows that the concept of fairness doesn’t enter into it. Like sports referees: whim of the moment and selective blindness masquerading as flexibility.

Best slap on a new set of strings on the guitar: the moment calls for the open-faced optimism of the mahogany OM-18V.

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Mixing it

Getting to grips with some new titles is always interesting for its own sake – but it also refreshes the ears if they’ve been only fed a diet of familiar sounds and songs thereby slowly losing critical acumen. At another level, there’s the odd effect caused by continuously recording and mixing solo acoustic guitar and vocal. That kind of presents my ears with a pretty constant sonic palette and while that’s great for becoming sensitive and attuned to subtle nuances, it does become make me feel satiated with that sound world and in need of some contrast.

An easy short term fix is just to slip in a CD in the hi-fi for some sonic wash and rinse, but from time to time a real break is needed; some distance between the recording (say) and the mixing and the “auditioning”. It’s at this time I’ll explore swing jazz or immerse myself in some Sibelius or Mahler, or get out some maps and plan some days in the hills. I may even take a look at the TV but I always end up staring at twenty-four hour news channels or endlessly scrolling the schedules. Occasionally, a favourite movie DVD will get spin…

But not too long and I’m back in the chair again, mulling over that soundworld and trying to hear it with someone else’s ears. Just a guy with a guitar: who’d have thought it would be so involved?

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More on jazz

Driving to the day-job listening to Charlie Christian certainly optimises any vestige of motivation I have for the day ahead. I’m looking at a book which analyzes Christian’s licks and which I’m trying to commit to memory; the more kid on the inattentive listeners that I possibly know something about jazz guitar. I have a notion, too, that if I play back-to-back Christian / Benny Goodman CDs in the car, a little might also embed itself in my psyche. If not, it’s still easier on the heart and ear than classical music radio might be at that time in the morning without the recommended four cups of coffee that I will not yet have had time to consume.

I’ve long found the ambivalence I hear in swing-blues irresistible and wished I could play it. It has the easy aplomb of swing coupled with the darkness of the blues. I might even swipe the security pass at the door with the breath of a whistle escaping the lips. This is never guaranteed, alas.

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On altered guitar tunings

I used to play in altered tunings extensively and arranged a number of Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes in them (particularly DGDGCE). Now, I’ve grown to really quite dislike open tunings. Why? Mostly because it’s impractical to change tonality, or keys, in them. Play in DADGAD and your stuck in (the key of) D, or D minor, for example – going anywhere else is counter to the point of the tuning. These tunings are predisposed to playing very diatonic and modal tunes and don’t handle chromaticism well. Also, each has a very distinct sonic “flavour” to my ears – and as with any food, it quickly becomes humdrum if indulged in too frequently. In short, and for those reasons, I got very bored with them and, over a period of time, stopped using them. These days, I’ll only even go to dropped-D if it’s to play something I learned, or made up, years ago.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose, but I like to think I can tell immediately when listening to a CD if a player’s in DADGAD. Ho-hum.

I also used to be suspicious of players using altered tunings exclusively, suspecting a lazy approach to playing since it is much easier to get something tuneful out of an altered tuning that it is in standard tuning. I’ve altered my view on this since it’s self-evident that there are players who use altered tunings all the time who can play the pants off of me.

Anyway, the reason the standard tuning of the guitar – EADGBE – is what it is is no accident; it evolved as the most efficient tuning with which to play harmonically (as distinct from modally) and as the most convenient way to play scales – and hence melodies. Or something like that…