Movember Man-isms Part 1: Physical Health

I’m a creative and intellectual guy first and foremost. I’d much rather be writing songs, playing piano, reading, watching great movies, and learning new things than going for a jog or doing a workout. I feel like this is hard wired in me, so I have to hack my way to engaging in physical activity. Bit by bit, I’m appreciating more and more that it’s as essential to my being as music and other activities. Well, not as essential as music, but hey, I’m learning, and that’s the important thing.

Who’s got my back?

I remember way back in high school, a bunch of us, and by us, I mean my math and science geek friends, mostly non-athlete types, thought it would be an easy credit to continue taking gym class after Grade 9. We had no sense that exercise was good for us; we simply wanted an easy class next to advanced math. I distinctly remember being taught a section on “Wellness.” We thought it was utterly hilarious that there was academia behind making sensible decisions about being active and eating well. After all, we were teenagers, and therefore invincible. Nothing could possible hurt us. We biked to school, we spent lots of time outdoors, and ate mostly home cooking. What was the problem? Certainly my enthusiasms at the time were mostly intellectual and creative; the physical would take care of itself.

I started having back problems in my mid-20s. Spending countless hours in an office, at a computer, no doubt played a critical role. Many visits to the chiropractor later, the pain always returned. I took up yoga and pilates (the “For Dummies” series on DVD were my instructors), which did help, but only when I was working out consistently.

Only this year, I happened to meet a personal trainer, and thought it was time to try something different. Keagan Campbell tailored a program to my specific needs. My only goal was for my back to stop hurting; I had no interest in developing a six-pack or increasing bulk.

I think the big change in my attitude was to accept that I can’t do this myself. For something like physical fitness, I have no expertise. DIY is great for many things, but this isn’t one of them. I need someone to tell me what to do, and that’s perfectly fine.

I’ve learned a lot from Keagan, feel stronger, and visit the chiropractor much less. Both my chiropractor and my wife have told me my posture is better and I look stronger. Keagan’s approach is also learning-based, so I can eventually become self-sufficient.

At the same time, I know that if I push myself too hard, I hurt myself and lose my motivation to continue. The whole “no pain, no gain” mantra just doesn’t apply to me. I had to ensure Keagan developed a program that pushes me, but not too much. Slow and steady wins the race, indeed.

When I do the workouts myself, I usually take in a podcast so I feel like I’m feeding myself intellectually too, and it feels less boring. When Keagan is working with me, we spend rest times talking about Star Wars, so that’s cool too.

Doctor says…

We hear time and time again that men don’t go to their doctor for routine check-ups. I guess the stereotypical reasoning is that we can muscle through anything just fine on our own, and it makes us look weak if we admit something might be wrong. This is clearly a case of guys just making up stuff to try and look better. The fact is, we all age and stuff that’s sometimes out of our control can go wrong.

Besides, for most things, we seek professional help. Auto mechanics, lawyers, contractors, programmers, the list goes on. With all these things, the assets we’re trying to take care of are more expendable and temporary than our own bodies: our cars, our separation agreements, our basement renovations, our digital gadgets. It’s cliché to say it, but also true: you’ve only got one body. And for you smart asses who claim you can get replacements for missing body parts ala Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, most stuff that goes wrong is way more subtle than having your appendages severed, and the replacement is never as good as the original.

I once went in for a physical and both my blood sugar and LDL (bad cholesterol) were a bit off normal. My doctor suggested I made a few minor dietary changes and check back in 6 months. I reduced my red meat and sugar intake (not dramatically), and in 6 months I was back in normal ranges. Is this story more or less embarrassing than having to take pills for the rest of my life because I never had it checked until it was too late?

I am what I eat

I’ve always had a sweet tooth. My mom (and many others) always fed us Indian sweets growing up. I didn’t find out until quite recently that diabetes is rampant in the South Asian community. Couldn’t possibly be all the roti and sweets, could it? I also found out that heart disease is equally bad, and in my genes too. My father had a (mild) heart attack several years ago and his father died quite young from a heart attack.

I’m pretty lucky that I can eat just about anything and not gain too much weight, but even this is not as true as it used to be. Just like my fitness health, I need to take small steps towards improving my eating habits.

In my late 20s, I developed a sensitivity to dairy. It took many rushed visits to the bathroom to figure this out, and in the end, all it took was my doctor saying, “Why don’t you try eliminating dairy for a week and see how you feel?” I think this was one of my first signs that my adult body was aging and changing. I’ve since learned which dairy products work for me, and which don’t.

When my blood sugar and LDL were tagged during a routine blood test, my doctor suggested dietary changes. I took small steps towards better eating; I cut sugary breakfast cereals out and reduced the sugar I take in my tea. When I order a chai latte at Starbucks (not very often) I order it “half sweet” which actually tastes better; more like chai, less like candy. As a couple, we’ve also drastically reduced our consumption of bread and heavy pasta, opting for thinner bread and gluten-free pasta instead. I still indulge the occasional sweet treat, but on average I’ve certainly reduced my consumption of high glycemic foods.

Very recently, I had an unusual day where I had a Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwich (on an English muffin) for breakfast and white pasta for lunch. I felt so lethargic and tired in the afternoon I almost took a nap at work. It’s amazing how different it feels when you fall back into a previous “normal.”


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

How I Listen to Music: Smart Playlists

Way back in the day (c. 1988) I started making mix tapes. Now, I realize that these days, a mix of songs on Spotify can be called a mix tape, but I’m talking about the kind of thing that only magnetism and spinning spools can do. Real tapes had restrictions in the way that digital mix tapes don’t, particularly with regard to length. I used 90-minute tapes; that’s 45 minutes per side. Likely, and not by coincidence, vinyl LP records maxed out at 45 minutes as well. I would carefully time each song and come up with thematic combinations that optimized the 45-mintue duration. Not surprisingly, a mix could take hours to construct and record. It was meticulous work. In the 90s, making mixes from CDs, I had a mix tape called “Girls, Girls, Girls” which proved enormously popular among my university classmates’ walkmans, and featured great female artists or female-fronted bands like Frente, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, and Garbage.

Fast forward to c.2005 when I got my first iPod. A 2nd-generation iPod mini, to be exact, with a massive 4 gigabytes of storage, enough to hold 1,000 songs. At first, I put a bunch of random songs and manually created playlists on the iPod, all managed through Apple’s free iTunes software. Today, I have a an iPod Classic with 160 gigabyte capacity that literally holds my entire music library (10,560 songs as of today, November 5, 2017).

Getting smart about my playlists

A short while after using my iPod Mini, I discovered smart playlists in iTunes. These playlists are dynamically created based on criteria that I specify. My mind immediately went back to creating 90-minute mixes, but they could be constantly changing and updating themselves.

The keys to creating my smart playlists are:

  • rating each song, and
  • using the “comments” field to group them in meaningful ways.

The auto-populated “genre” field is largely useless as a criteria. I don’t care that the powers that be determine Sarah McLachlan as “adult contemporary” or “pop” or “rock” depending on the album; I want to tag my favourite Sarah McLachlan songs as “girls” and “Canadian” and “90s pop” for example (using the “comments” field).

As for rating songs, I use the following guidelines:

  • 1 star: I don’t want this song showing up in my smart playlists
  • 2 star: mediocre songs, I don’t need to hear these too often
  • 3 star: pretty good songs
  • 4 star: excellent songs, I want to hear these fairly often
  • 5 star: my absolutely favourite songs; these can make it into many smart playlists and I won’t mind

Suffice to say, most songs are rated 3 or 4 stars.

Building the smart playlists

Once I had most of my songs rated and commented, it was time to start building smart playlists grouped by tags in the “comments” field of songs. A few of my first smart playlists included:

Smart Playlist Associated comment
80s Pop Top 40 80s pop
80s Alternative 80s alt
Canadian Canadian
Smart Girls girls
Funkalisicious funky
Riffin riffin
Saxy and Horny horns OR saxy

I want to include mostly my favourite songs and fewer of my less liked songs. Since I’m thinking in terms of 90-minutes mixes, I limit my smart playlists to 20 songs (90 minutes, or one tape) or 40 songs (180 minutes, or two tapes). The math works out pretty nicely. For example, my 40-song smart playlist for 80s pop includes:

  • 16 songs rated 5-star, with comment “80s pop”
  • 12 songs rated 4- star, with comment “80s pop”
  • 8 songs rated 3-star, with comment “80s pop”, and
  • 4 songs rated 2-star, with comment “80s pop”

The lists are filled with the least recently played songs. This point is crucial. This means that every time the smart playlist refreshes, it automatically picks songs I haven’t heard in a while. Basically, over time, I get to hear ALL the songs I’ve tagged as 80s pop, while mostly hearing my favourites.

Here is my smart playlist settings for the 80s pop songs, one “auxiliary” playlist for each star rating:

0s pop 5 smart playlist settings

80s pop 4 smart playlist settings

80s pop 3 smart playlist settings

80s pop 2 smart playlist settings The auxiliary playlists are used to build a master playlist; they are never played individually. The master 80s pop playlist is set as follows:

80s pop smart playlist settings

Reusable Method

This method is reusable for any number of criteria. I’ve created many other dynamic playlists that effectively shuffle through my entire library of songs. When I add more music, I only have to rate the songs and add tags in the comments fields to make sure they find their way to the dynamic lists. The rest takes care of itself. The “Live updating” check box in the smart playlist settings makes sure the list is always reconstructed every time it is played. With my iPod classic, I have to plug it in and sync it before the lists are updated on the iPod.

The list of choices for criteria in iTunes is very long; you can base the smart playlists on just about anything. For example, I have a list called “Best of the Year” which looks like this:

Best of the Year playlist

And I had to create my own “Shuffle Songs” playlist, because the one built into iTunes would pick random weird stuff like old podcast episodes, songs rated 1-star, or classical music, which don’t work in my typical lists of more popular music. Here’s my customized “Shuffle Songs”

Shuffle songs playlist

The biggest advantages to using a geeked-out system like this is rotating through your entire music library and hearing songs you haven’t heard in a long while. It does take some effort and time to get it setup, but then it’s only a matter of rating your new music and putting some tags in the comment field.

Happy listening, and please comment below if you find this method useful, or if you have other cool (or geeky) ways of listening to your music.

Live music photography

Our band Beige Shelter performs gigs in and around Toronto. Sometimes I take my camera with me to practice live music photography and share my photos with the artists to help with their own promo material. I love supporting local music.

Lately, I’ve been trying to capture more subtle moments in performance. I used to try and capture the highest emotional moments (singers with their mouths wide open), but I’m finding the space to add a variety of shots where the energy is perhaps less but there’s also a sense of a performer being focused and “in the zone”.

For these photos, I shoot with my Nikon 85mm F1.8 prime lens on my crop body Nikon D7000 camera. I always shoot wide open and under-expose to get the sharpest photos.

Here’s some photos I took at two shows, at Spot One in Brampton, and Folly Brewpub in Toronto.

The Countless Few (#MeToo)

Following news of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, many of my female friends posted “#MeToo” on social media. Some of them even shared their own harrowing stories of sexual assault. Their courage and vulnerability really got to me. It’s one thing to hear about famous people who live a world away, but another thing to see these stories coming from people you know. Frankly, it made me feel sick that my friends had undergone such pain in circumstances where better behaviour on the part of men would have prevented them. I knew I wanted to express something, but I didn’t presume to speak for assault victims, or even the guys who perpetrated the acts.

Lyric writing process

I started with lyrics for the chorus:

Is it you too?
Of course we believe you
Wishing it weren’t true
Join the countless few

The idea for the “countless few” came from the notion that this issue is pervasive and it seemed like there were countless women coming forward, and certainly there are countess women who are accosted or assaulted every day. The “few” refers to the notion that, as a culture, we believe it’s rare, or only affects celebrities.

Later, I changed the first line to “You said, ‘Me Too'” as I wanted to include the “Me Too” phrase and I thought it would be more powerful than a question. All too often, I write lyrics that are questions, and I’m trying to make stronger, more affirmative statements. Not to worry, though, I saved plenty of questions for the bridge :).

On the first day of writing, I only had the chorus, complete with chords and melody. I wrote the verses two days later, and then the bridge on the following day. I changed one word in the bridge, “Gotta unlearn the hateful stuff” to “Gotta unlearn the hurtful stuff”, even though “hateful” first came to me, I thought “hurtful” was more appropriate and accurate.

Here’s my worksheet as I worked through the writing. You can see some more earlier versions of lines I went through.

Being conscious about chord choices

I knew I wanted this song to be haunting. I decided to drive both the verses and choruses with minor chords. The last line of the chorus (“Join the countless few”) begins on a major chord, to help highlight that phrase. I also employed one of my favourite chord tricks, flipping the V chord from minor to major (in this case, E-minor becomes E-major), which works best at the end of a phrase where you’re returning to the I chord (A-minor). Check out the chord progression at the end of the chorus.

I made a conscious choice to start with the relative major chord for the bridge, to give it a different colour than the heavily-minor-chord-driven verses and chorus.

I was also conscious about returning to a more haunting quality to end the song. I revisited the verse section with new lyrics and ended the song on the VII chord (G-major in the key of A-minor), which is very unresolved and leaves the listener hanging. Just like this issue remains unresolved, the song doesn’t conclude in resolution.

Production process

I started with recording the piano part, quickly discovering that I couldn’t play it to a click, or steady tempo. The verses had a natural slow down at the end of the each phrase, while the chorus and bridge kept a more steady tempo. So I recorded the piano part in “free time” and re-defined the grid to match my performance. Here’s a screen shot of some the tempo changes in the first verse and chorus:

Notice how there are deep slow downs as the verse lines end. The chorus maintains a more steady tempo.

At the time, I added a cello part and a drum part, but I suspected they just muddied up the arrangement. I slept on it, and the next day it was clear that the simplicity of the piano and vocal was much more haunting and effective. I did add a soft synth pad to complement the piano.

Final version

It’s nice when you’re inspired to write a new song and it comes together fairly quickly. I knew I had to get this out fast, before the emotion of what I was feeling faded. If nothing else, I think writing this song will open the window to looking at this issue in a healthier way.

Download the final lyric and chord sheet.

Can’t believe what I see
The shame of our time
What we’ve put you though
It weighs on our minds

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

There is no excuse
For stealing your pride
Sorrys won’t fix the pain
You don’t need to hide

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

How has this been taught to us?
Can’t we respect the lot of you?
Gotta unlearn the hurtful stuff
Gotta change our attitudes

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

Must listen to what you say
It’s our time to change

Gain staging, or why you should record quietly

The volumes of your recordings are of utmost importance while you are recording, mixing, and mastering. In other words, it really matters how loud your stuff is. This affects the quality of your finished product and the ease by which you can manage multiple tracks and get the best sonic results.

The trouble is, it can be confusing at times to know how loud is appropriate. How loud should we record? How loud should we mix? What about the ever elusive mastering stage? That’s what I’m here to explain.

Two important facts

I was convinced that recording to a level of 0 dB was the “sweet spot” for recording when I first starting digital recording. The problem with this statement is lack of context. 0 dB is a sweet spot only if you’re recording to an analog system and you’re measuring average volumes. The first fact to realize is that analog and digital measurements for volume are very different.

A typical analog meter measures volume from silence to a maximum much higher than 0 dB. A digital meter measures volume to a maximum of 0 dB. If you line up the two meters, you can see that the “sweet spot” of 0 db in analog is about the same level as -18 db in digital.

digital vs analog meters
digital vs analog meters

But the nature of recording hasn’t changed from analog to digital. You still need a reasonably loud source to record at a conservative level. The difference lies in how the measurement systems work. In analog, volume is measured in dbVU (decibel volume units). In digital, it’s measured in dbFS (decibels full-scale).

Analog meters show average levels (also called RMS levels). Digital meters show peak levels. In the digital realm, peak levels are critically important for one simple reason. If your signal exceeds 0 dbFS in digital, digital distortion is introduced. This is not the warm, fuzzy distortion of analog tape or tube saturation. Digital distortion is nasty and not musical in any way. In other words, you want to stay way clear of peak levels reaching that 0 dbFS mark.

Here’s a sample vocal recording I did where the peak levels reached about -12 dbFS.

And here’s another sample where the peak levels exceeded 0 dbFS.

This brings us to our second important fact. A finished, mastered song peaks very close to 0 dbFS. This is how we hear songs on CD, on the radio, and on streaming services. They are loud. But this loudness is the result of mastering, not recording. All professional recordings are captured and mixed at much lower levels. Part of the mastering process boosts the volume to get close to 0 dbFS without going over.

Recording

So you’ve armed a track for recording in your DAW (digital audio workstation) software. Note that in most DAWs, when a track is armed for recording, the meter shows the level of the incoming / recorded signal. When the track is not armed, the meter shows the playback level; this can be lower or higher than the recorded level depending on fader position and/or plug-ins. There also may be a setting for meters to show average levels, peak levels, or both. I prefer to have all my meters showing both.

When you’re performing (guitar, vocal, whatever) pay close attention to the peak levels. Most meters will “sticky” the peak level, meaning it shows a little mark where the highest peak occurred and keeps it there until there’s a higher signal. This is important because you want to make sure the highest peak doesn’t get anywhere close to 0 dbFS. I usually shoot for peaks around -12 dbFS to give myself enough room, in case something does peak at -10 dbFS or -6 dbFS.

Only things in the analog world determine the recorded level: the volume of your performance (or output level of your synth or amp), the distance from the microphone, and the gain setting of your preamp (i.e. the gain knob on your audio interface). That’s it. If you exceed 0 dbFS in your recording (referred to as “clipping”) then there’s nothing in the digital realm that can fix the distortion. You have to re-do the take at a lower level by reducing the level of the audio before it hits the digital converters.

If the signal sounds too quiet in your headphones, increase the level of the headphones. If the waveform looks small on the screen, zoom the view to see it better. You can always monitor at whatever level you like, just don’t record too loud.

Mixing and Summation

Avoiding digital distortion isn’t the only reason to record quietly. As you overdub track after track, each signal adds gain to the mix. Compare the peak levels of the individual tracks against the summed master channel below; it peaks much higher.

mixing summation
mixing summation

If the level in your master channel is getting too high (sometimes referred to as “hot”) then reduce the levels of your individual tracks. With projects having several or many tracks, they can be playing back at much lower levels than the recorded audio.

Plug-ins like compressors and EQs are optimized to work at conservative levels, usually around -18 dbFS or -12 dbFS. The specifics here don’t matter as much as just making sure your tracks are playing back at a reasonable level.

Sonic Clarity

Recording and mixing at conservative levels can result in mixes that are more dynamic, open, and detailed.  Plug-ins and your DAW have room to breathe, and perform all their complex algorithms in their optimized zones.

In the final mastering phase, a limiter is applied to achieve the final volume. A limiter is a plug-in that limits the volume to a prescribed level (usually just shy of 0 dbFS) without letting anything clip. For most mixes, the limiter can apply several decibels of volume, making the mastered song much louder than the mixed version. This is the only time in the production any level gets close to 0 dbFS; the final glossy coat that finishes the recording and prepares it for release to the world.

Write a Song Together Meetup

In September, I hosted a new event at my Meetup group, The Songwriting Supermarket. I invited members to get together and collaborate on writing a song in two hours. Three other talented songwriters showed up, and we had a blast writing and recording a new song, Don’t Fix Me.

Before the session, I asked each member to state their songwriting and instrument playing skills. Together, we had the bases covered in terms of lyrics, chord progressions, guitarists, singers, and one pianist (me).

I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano while Carole suggested an idea for a song that expressed a message of “It’s not up to you to try and fix me or my problems.” She came up with the title “Don’t Fix Me.”

Meanwhile, Layla, guitar in hand, suggested my chord progression was too complex, so we opted for something simpler. As it turned out, the chords we picked ended up being for the chorus. I wrote a slightly more complex chord progression for the verse.

Layla and Bruce came up with great phrases and rhymes, with some critical input from Carole to make sure we kept to the theme. Together they settled on lyrics for two verses and a chorus. Bruce worked out the melodies as I played the piano.

We collectively decided the song also needed a bridge. Since the verse and chorus were both in major keys (starting on the I and IV chord, respectively), I tried the relative minor for the bridge. Bruce jumped in with a melody that fit perfectly to finish the writing off with a short, 4-line bridge.

We recorded two takes on my Zoom recorder, with Bruce on vocals and myself on piano. For a two-hour session, we focused on getting something done, perfect or not. We managed a complete song, chords, melodies, lyrics, and structure all coming together. Kudos to Bruce, Layla, and Carole for a great session!

Song Studio Student Showcase Photos

I attended the Song Studio Student Showcase at Hugh’s Room in Toronto this year. Song Studio is a week-long songwriting camp in Toronto, hosted by Blair Packham and others. I know several songwriters who have attended and they all say it’s an amazing experience.

For the week’s grand finale, the students put on a show with a stellar backup band featuring Rik Emmett of Canadian rock band Triumph on lead guitar. The students hand over lead sheets containing chords, lyrics and the structure for their original song. The band haven’t practiced or heard the songs before, but within about two measures, they lay down a backing groove like they’ve been performing it for years.

It was a joy to watch the performances, hear the original songs, and cheer on some of my friends. I had my camera in tow, and took a few snaps. My friend David St. Bernard used my phone to shoot a video of the incredibly entertaining closing song by Matt Gerber.

Congrats to the students and faculty for a tremendous show!

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

Moving clockwise, each note is a fifth above the last one. A fifth, as we know, is the third note of a major or minor triad (3-note chord), and the fifth note of any major or minor scale. For example, the C-major chord is C-E-G. The G is a fifth above C, and one “hour” past C on the Circle of Fifths. Similarly, an A-major chord is A-C#-E. The E is a fifth above A, and one segment after A on the Circle. This pattern holds true for any starting point on the Circle of Fifths.  And it comes full circle; if you start on C and go up a fifth 12 times, you’ll be back to C.

But the Circle can also be used to represent chords. The outer circle refers to major chords, and the inside circle to their relative minor chords. Remember, the relative minor is always the VI chord in a major key.

For example, in the key of C-major, the 6 major and minor chords are:

I Chord II Chord III Chord IV Chord V Chord VI Chord
C-major D-minor E-minor F-major G-major A-minor

How many songs in C use a variation of these 6 chords? Many popular songs use only 3 or 4 of them. Now look at the Circle of Fifths. The chords touching the C-major are the other five major and minor chords in the key of C major.

Just like the notes, this hold true for whatever key you’re in, or your base starting point on the Circle. In the key of G, all the chords touching the G correspond to the other major and minor chords in that key.

There’s also a great youTube video that explains this well, specifically for guitarists.

Get experimental

Developing a chord pattern based on the six major or minor chords is tried and true. Even if you use the I, IV, and V chords in your verse and chorus, you could try starting with the II, III, or VI chord for your bridge. All the notes you’re using belong to the scale you’re in—i.e. you’re never going out of key.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a seventh chord. That’s the one that sounds bluesy or jazzy. It’s called a seventh chord because it’s a major chord plus a flattened seventh note. That is, the seventh note of the scale is taken down by one half-step or semitone. That note is out of key, technically, and it sounds Phrygian awesome (see? It works).

The point here is that going out of key is cool. It creates musical interest, adds tension and can really open up a song.

So how does this relate to the Circle of Fifths, you must be asking? Say you’re writing a song in the key of C-major, and you’re using the tried and true chords—the ones on the Circle that touch C. If you want to extend a little, say for your bridge, or heck, the third line of your verse, try a chord that’s “two hours away” from C. So, try a D-major, B-minor, Bb-major, or G-minor.  Just like the seventh chord, these chords have one note that’s out of the base key signature or scale. The other two notes of each chord remain grounded in the base key signature.

If you want to experiment further, try the chords that are “three hours away” from your I-chord. Once you start introducing chords that have two notes out of key, things start sounding weirder or more dissonant. The trick here is to stay grounded in your home base. It’s fun to travel to strange and exotic places, but it’s reassuring to come back home soon.

And of course, this holds true right around the clock. You can start on any chord and you’ll have five other chords that are guaranteed to work in consonant harmony with it. Try chords that are 2 or 3 hours away from your base, and things can get interesting.

A fine example

The Beatles were masterful at creating interesting changes in the songs without compromising catchiness. In other words, they did some weird stuff without making it sound weird.

Take A Hard Day’s Night as a fine example. The A part starts with G-major, F-major, and C-major. Even though it starts with a G-major, the section is clearly in the key of C-major. The G and F are either side of C in the Circle of Fifths. It’s very consonant (i.e. not dissonant). The second half, however, things start to shift. They introduce a D-major chord (“things that you do”). The D is “two hours away” from C. They quickly return to the G-C-G pattern they introduced at the top to finish off the section. It’s like you’re walking along the curb of a street, and just for a moment, you step on to the road (maybe into a puddle), then right back on the curb.

In the B section (“when I’m home…”) they shift to a B-minor. This is a great contrast for two reasons: it’s “two hours away” from the base C-major, and it’s the minor flavor (it’s also Paul taking the lead vocal from John). By the end of this section, they’ve returned to the D-major chord that we’ve heard before.

The twists are both subtle and noticeable. There’s no mistaking the B section for anything else when it comes in. They always return to base fairly quickly.

Light a new path to songwriting

I co-wrote a song called Light Your Way with Adi Aman for our band Beige Shelter. We released it in May for Mental Health Awareness month.

Download the chord/lyric sheet here.

The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all remain in the E-major key with no dissonant chords. The pre-chorus introduces the F#m chord which wasn’t used in the verse. For the guitar solo section and bridge, we flipped over by “3 hours” to the C#-major chord. By the end of the bridge, we’re back on B-major which is perfectly consonant with returning to E-major for the final choruses. Sometimes when you step far away from your base key signature, it can be tricky to get back to base.

Writing with purpose

I don’t deny that sometimes you just stumble upon some magical moment when you’re writing; you don’t know why it works, but it sounds cool and different, and you go with it. For myself, I’ve been trying to embrace my intuition for writing more recently. Knowing about the theory doesn’t destroy your intuition; in fact, I think it strengthens it. If you practice writing with purpose enough, you’ll begin to forget the reasons you make excellent snap decisions, but you’ll make better ones and feel more confident that they’re right. Keep on writing.

Blair Packham and the Jitters show photography

I went to the album release party for Blair Packham, a top Canadian singer-songwriter who was the frontman for The Jitters a short while ago. He continues to write catchy, clever, and thoughtful songs and he also teaches songwriters at Song Studio in Toronto. I know Blair from his numerous appearances on Song Talk Radio (some of our best shows, thanks to Blair’s articulate insights into songwriting).

For this show at the Pilot, Blair performed songs from his new album Unpopular Pop with his band The Impossible Dream, and then took the stage with his old band The Jitters. I had a eureka moment when they played Last of the Red Hot Fools, as I recall that song being on the radio when I was a teenager, but I never lined up Blair (or the Jitters) with the song.

I’m glad I took my camera, as Blair really dug the photos (“Wow! Pictures of me that I don’t hate!”) I’ve been listening incessantly to the Jitters and Unpopular Pop since…

The (not so) secret ingredient to making your mixes sound good

When you start creating mixes, you quickly realize that the low and low-mid frequencies are problematic. Without care and attention, they can sound muddy, boomy, and unclear. Mid- and high frequencies are much easier to manage—you can have multiple instruments and voices taking up the same sonic bandwidth and still hear everything clearly. Try this in the low frequencies and it’s a mess.

We feel low frequencies in our bodies. It’s where the punch, the groove, and the drive of a track lives. It’s critical to your mix that instruments in the low frequencies be clear, full, and bold.

As with many mixing decisions, it’s not about increasing the level or power of bass elements; rather, it’s about eliminating the stuff that gets in their way.

The Secret

Enter the ubiquitous high-pass filter. The name is fairly self-explanatory; it filters out sound so that only high-frequencies pass through. The high-pass filter is sometimes called a low-cut filter. It’s easy to see how it works with a diagram. The horizontal represents frequencies, and the vertical represents amplitude, or volume.

a typical high-pass filter
a typical high-pass filter

In this example, the filter is set at 80 Hz, which means everything under 80Hz will be reduced in volume—just follow the slope of the line. For reference, 80 Hz is about the same as the low E string on a guitar. The low E string on a bass is one octave lower, about 40 Hz (that’s E2 and E1 on the piano).

For most instruments, including the human voice, there’s very little of value below 80 Hz. The bass guitar and thud of the kick drum usually live between 40 Hz and 250 Hz. So, the general wisdom is to high-pass everything except the bass and kick drum to 80 Hz or higher. The kick and bass will then have room to be heard clearly, which usually adds punch and groove to your mix.

Every single digital audio workstation (DAW, the software you use to record audio) has a high-pass filter. Usually, it’s a feature of your EQ (equalization) plug-in.

How high is your high pass?

The next question, then, is how high should you set your high-pass filters? That depends on your material. The rule of thumb is to dial up the filter during playback on a track until it starts sounding thin, then back down a bit. If you high-pass too much on guitars, pianos and vocals, you could rob the mix of warmth and body. If something sounds thin in solo, it could be just right in the mix; never judge your settings when listening to a track in solo—it only matters if the mix sounds good.

High-pass filters can also be used on bass and kick drum, but normally they are set very low. For dance music, you may want to include and emphasize the sub-bass (below 40 Hz). For most rock, pop, country and folk tracks, I recommend minimal high-pass filters on the bass and kick drum. Again, what matters is the kind of sound you’re after. Mix with purpose and you’ll get what to where you want to be much faster.

Microphones with high-pass filters

Some microphones have a switch for a high-pass filter. Usually it looks like this, where the crooked line indicates the “on” position for the filter. Usually they’re fixed at 80 Hz.

Microphone showing hi-pass filter switch
Microphone showing hi-pass filter switch

If you’re recording vocals or guitar (where there will be a bass in the arrangement), it’s advisable to use the high-pass filter on your microphone. Eliminating low frequencies you know you’re not going to need during the recording phase allows you to record a more consistent, louder signal.

Always mix with purpose

Finally, it’s easy to get carried away and high-pass everything judiciously. If you mix with purpose and subtlety, the overall effect can be dramatic. In other words, a subtle high-pass filter on 8 tracks, when they are all mixed together, can make a big difference.

I’ve personally found using high-pass filters to be the one technique that is universally effective on just about any mix, from a simple voice-over narration to a full band. Next to volume, it’s the move that makes the biggest difference to your mixes—in a good way.

If you’ve never mixed with using a high-pass filter, try it out on an old mix and see if it doesn’t clear out the muddiness and open up the sound. I’d love to hear your thoughts—leave a comment below.