What does it mean to be an “amateur” songwriter?

On Song Talk Radio we have a wonderful variety of guests and songwriters, and one way to group them is whether they are professional or amateur songwriters. Often, when we refer to amateur, there’s a negative connotation that implies a less polished, unsophisticated, or otherwise lesser craft. When we talk about being professional, it implies a polished, well-considered, or elevated craft.

However, if we consider the word amateur and its inherent meaning, there’s a better way to look at it.  Amateur is derived from the Latin amatorem, which means “lover of.” So, if you love writing songs, you’re an amateur. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing. Surely, many guests on Song Talk Radio, both amateur and professional, are superb songwriters.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Those songwriters who have devoted their careers, either full-time or part-time, to songwriting and performing, tend to have more polished and carefully considered songs. But consider if this is because they are “professionals” and earn money from their songs, or because they have made a decision to approach their craft with commitment, seriousness, and time.

Also consider the advantages of being an amateur writer. You don’t have to answer to anyone, or consider if your songs are “radio-friendly.” You can take risks, be experimental, and pretty much do as you please. (Another caveat – yes, there are commercial songwriters who can and do pretty much as they please and still sell records.)

The bottom line is if you love what you’re doing, you’re an amateur. You can still put in the time and commitment to polish your craft, and above all, embrace your amateur status with passion, integrity and creativity. Keep on writing.

Quick Connections newletter

Layout of a 24-page newsletter for non-profit housing members with advertising, 6 times per year.  Electronic edition included bookmarks and hyperlinked advertisements.

Visit onpha.on.ca/qc for complete archives.

I was also responsible for research and writing of the “Going Green” section, focused on environmental initiatives and tips for non-profit housing providers.

Going Green writing samples:

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Evolution of my home recording studio

I recently purchased a new audio interface for my studio, after the mic inputs on my old one starting giving me static or no signal at all. I thought it would be interesting for others to see how I went about making the choice of which interface to buy, within the framework of the evolution of my studio.

So, even though I starting making MIDI-based instrumental music on my computer back in 1988 on a Commodore Amiga 2000, I didn’t really get into audio recording until around 2002 on my first Windows-based PC. One of the first purchases to be made was an audio interface.  At the time, I had a Roland D70 synthesizer, a drum machine, and (potentially) a microphone. I knew that I only needed to be able to record one track a time into the software on my PC. The first thing I learned was the difference between consumer-level “audio cards” (e.g. Soundblaster) vs. professional interfaces.  Primarily, the professional ones allow you to more effectively record audio while playing back audio at the same time. This is essential for any multi-tracking studio.

I opted for an M-Audio 24/96 interface, which was really just a PCI card with 2 RCA inputs, 2 RCA outputs, and MIDI in and out jacks. I fronted the interface with a 12-channel Behringer mixer with an Alt-bus (or submix bus). This allowed me to send only the keyboard, or only the mic signal, for example, into the M-Audio to be recorded on the computer, while still using the mixer to listen to playback from the computer and my keyboard.

Understanding this flow of signals, both MIDI and audio, was essential to making the purchasing decisions. Suffice to say, I figured out exactly how I was going to connect everything before ever laying down a dime. (Incidentally, this process also allowed me to know and purchase only the cables I needed.)

Over the next few years, I slowly expanded my studio to include monitors (speakers) and a couple of guitars. The extra inputs on the mixer made it easy to patch any of these extras in and use the alt-bus to send each one to be recorded on the PC.

The home studio, circa 2006
The home studio, circa 2006

Of course, as with most budget-gear, the Behringer mixer started crackling and hissing with static after a few years of use. At this point, I figured a multi-input interface would be a good idea. This would allow me to eliminate the hardware mixer entirely, thereby simplifying gain staging and improving signal path quality. I opted for an E-MU 1820 in 2007, which had a digital PCI card and a “break-out box” with 2 mic inputs and a few analogue inputs. Of course, it also had MIDI I/O.

By this time, I had sold off the old Roland D70 synth and got a CME U7 keyboard controller and a Roland JV-1010 sound module on eBay. This, together with the plethora of virtual synthesizers on the computer made my old Roland seem very quaint and limiting. I also gave up on the guitars (instead investing in killer guitar software).The EMU interface served me very well for several years. I attached the Roland JV-1010 and another drum synth to the other inputs. Theoretically, I could record up to 8 tracks at once, but the opportunity to do so never came up.The one limitation with the EMU was the lack of a dedicated output knob. I ended up picking up a Mackie 402-VLZ3 mixer which was used as a glorified volume control and mute button for my monitors, and in a pinch, I could also use its mic inputs if I needed.

Finally on to my latest setup. On July, I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface. While my old EMU allowed me to record up to 8 tracks at one, the Focusrite only allows 2. I figure if I hadn’t needed more than 2 inputs in the last few years, chances are I’m never going to. It has a dedicated volume knob, so I no longer need the Mackie mixer. However, my Roland JV-1010 has nothing to plug into (previously it plugged into line inputs on the EMU). This is not such a big loss, as I haven’t used the Roland in several months, since software synthesizers and samples are getting better and better.

The Focusrite is wonderfully simple. The only driver interface is to set the latency buffer. No software mixer panel, no built-in effects suite, just pure input and output. I picked the 2i4 model over the 2i2 model to have the variable control over the input vs. playback monitoring, and I thought I could use the extra outputs to feed into my Mackie, but didn’t end up using them. Plus I prefer to have real, old-school MIDI connections rather than USB for my keyboard.I did also check out the Presonus 44VSL interface, which has 4 mic inputs, for a possible future when I might actually need to record more than 2 tracks at once. The Presonus was more costly, but quality-wise felt and sounded about the same as the Focusrite. However, I was unable to get the latency for software synths to work – it was quite bad, in fact. I chose to shop at Long & McQuade, who offer a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy, so the Presonus went back and I kept the Focusrite.

So I think the take-away message here is to really examine your needs, do your research, and make informed purchases. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get good quality sound. If there’s one truth to the evolution of my studio, it’s this: the longer I do this, the simpler my system becomes – in other words, fewer parts. Part of this is the fact that newer computers can handle more of the workload, so your outboard gear can be pretty minimal, but part of it is also understanding signal flow and boiling your setup down to the essentials.

The studio earlier in 2013
The studio earlier in 2013

Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Let’s face it: home studio recording can be a pretty expensive endeavour, whether it’s just a hobby or you’re doing it professionally. It’s also true that it doesn’t actually take very much equipment to make a pretty decent recording. It really comes down to skill, attention to detail, and practice.

I’m constantly being bombarded with advertising for the latest gadget, software plug-in, or instrument that promises to deliver “that sound.” Temptations are high to freshen things up, try something new, and lay down the cash to make it happen. I’ve resolved, however, to learn to work well with what I have, and only invest when I’ve really reached the limits of what I can do in the studio.

Case in point, I recently purchased a clip-on boom mic stand, and a new condenser mic. This allows me to record guitar and vocals at the same time, which I could not do before. It changes a fundamental aspect of the recording process.

OK, so I also splurged on an upgrade to my drum machine software, but man, it sounds good.  And I deserve it.

MediHub International Inc proposal

I assisted a supplier of equipment and medical supplies prepare a proposal for exclusive distribution privileges in the Canadian breast implant market. I provided writing, proposal layout and business cards for the new business venture.

Red Lake Health Centre business plan

I assisted with the Functional Program part of this business plan for an acute care clinic in the remote mining community of Red Lake, Ontario. I interviewed health care staff and providers in the community, and translated their needs into spatial and building service requirements.

I also provided research, writing, photography, and layout services for two additional private, acute care clinic proposals in Ontario for the GW Health Group, inlcuding press-ready files for final production.

Use of Photoshop, InDesign, and Acrobat.

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Real Estate photography

My service for selling agents included ultra-wide, high-resolution digital photos and a full-screen slideshow at a dedicated webpage. I also provided flyers, including writing and layout, for distribution to potential buyers.

Canadian Surgical Institute

I developed marketing copy targeting private surgeons in Southwestern Ontario for a turnkey service. I also provided the acquisition of stock photography, and layout services for a 12-page brochure.

In addition, I created a business card and website with the same visual scheme.

Ontario Medical Group marketing

For this client, I created a comprehensive marketing strategy including brochures, magazine advertisements, and a 20-foot tall banner to hang on the side of a local hospital.

I also provided writing, layout and graphic acquisition for a simple single-fold brochure targeted at family physicians and other medical specialists as an introduction to the investment opportunity.

His Name is Chuck memorial website

I created this memorial website on a pro-bono basis as a special request from the deceased’s family. The story of his murder was, at the time, receiving some publicity as one of the perpetrators was up for parole after serving time in prison. The writing on the site had to be carefully crafted to reflect the family’s displeasure at the murderer’s publicity, but also remain a veneration of their lost father and husband rather than an angry diatribe.

I adopted the colours of the traditional native medicine wheel in the design, and the site also included a customized server-side guestbook.

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