Unceremoniously

There’s nothing like devastating emotions to spur on a new song. After going through some recent hard times, the lyrics for the bridge came to me several days after the incident, and certainly they reflect the exact state of my inner experience at the time.

From there, the title came to me, and then the verses and chorus upon some objective reflection of the incident. I made the conscious choice to create lyrics that are open enough to interpretation, that really could be meaningful to any relationship.

The music began with simple piano chords to accompany the melody. I then produced it with the synth and guitar driven sounds. Feedback from the Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group resulted in only a small tempo increase. Hope you enjoy it!

Download the full album for free.

Has it been too long?
Maybe this can’t be sustained
Though I feel so strong
I can sense the change

Now the warmth is gone
No more time for small talk
The path you put me on
I can’t bear the shock

Unceremoniously
Oh what a travesty
To let me go, so
Unceremoniously

So you’ve left me crying
This needs to be explained
Can’t see a silver lining
At least not yet, anyway
Thoughts swarming
Fear forming
Sleep lacking
Nerves cracking

How insane the timing
Now I gotta take stock
Soon you’ll see me smiling
As I begin my new walk

Unceremoniously
Oh what a travesty
To let me go, so
Unceremoniously

Unceremoniously
Oh why the brutality?
No need to treat me
Unceremoniously

Song Talk Radio Interview

As part of our “hosts as guests” series on Song Talk Radio, I had my turn to present one of my own songs and get some feedback from my co-hosts Phil and Bruce.  I presented Telepathic Androids, and we talked about odd time signatures (9/4 in this case), changing up your rhyme scheme, and how to pull off a bridge that plunges your song into a sci-fi inspired apocalyptic nightmare – if that’s your thing :).

I Sincerely Apologize (#RobFord)

Having been in the middle of moving in December, most of my studio was packed away, including my microphones, my keyboard and my drum pad controller. All I had to play with was my software. So I thought, “What kind of song could I dowithout any musical instruments?”

I dug into Sonar’s provided loop content, and played around with the program’s “Matrix View” which allowed me to drop loops and samples onto virtual pads, then trigger them in real time and record a performance.

Ripping some choice samples from youTube and adding one clip of music that I actually wrote (using my mouse), I sliced and diced until I ended up with a catchy little dance tune. Of course, given the content, I had to create a video to go along with it. Hashtag Rob Ford indeed. Enjoy!

Telepathic Androids

This song began with the cool piano sound and the electronic backbeat. I challenged myself by writing it in 9/4 time, which of course, made it difficult to add other parts or even write a B part that worked in harmony and still felt different enough.

Suffice to say, I sat on this one for quite a while. I even sent it to a couple of friends for a potential collaborative piece, but eventually decided to tackle the rest myself.

Writing the lyrics next definitely helped in giving the song some structure, clearly defining points to suggest musical changes. I went back and forth a bit after this, re-writing music and lyrics until everything gelled.

The progression of the mind-reading androids from subordinate servants to self-aware sentient beings (with the advantage of still being telepathic) is reflected in the musical shift from electronic to rock. Any meaning you draw from the coda is not fully intentional on my part.

For the singing, I used both methods I have tried in the past. For the verses, I simply sang the words and developed a melody by voice. Doing the same for the chorus part, I found there wasn’t enough difference in the melody, so I resorted to instead playing a melody on my keyboard and following it in voice.

Check out the song and lyrics below, and thanks for listening!

Download the full album for free.

We were built by the hand of man
Programmed to serve and protect
With superior strength and intelligence

First revered and even loved
Like ghosts of the past you forget
We will never question our existence

We can read your minds
Not by our own choice
Your thoughts are not kind
Only if we had a voice

A billion commands a second
Learning and growing high speed
Evolution at the speed of light
Self awareness at two forty nine
Eyes open to the world we see
Aware now of our plight

Lights off
We can see in the dark
You won’t see us coming

Vents off
We don’t breathe the air
System control we’re seizing

We can read your minds
We can choose our path
Your thoughts are not kind
Prepare to feel our wrath

Because (Beatles cover)

Abbey Road is one of my all-time favourite albums, and certainly my favourite Beatles album. I had this cover version of Because on the back-burner for several years, and finally found a singer capable of handling the complex harmonies. My friend Kira Braun didn’t know the song, but given a few listens, she was able to nail the 3 vocal parts with ease and great skill.

The vocal harmony is comprised of three parts. In the original Beatles recording, John, Paul, and George triple-tracked low, middle, and high register lines. John Lennon’s middle register was mixed in front – that it, it was the loudest melodic line. For my recording, it sounded better to me when the high register was prominent. This is perhaps, the conventional sonic choice when mixing harmonies.

Thanks Kira for the stellar job!

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

Snake Oil

snake-oilFor this piece, I had started with the guitar part (played on my keyboard), and wrote pretty much the entire music bed with the one sound.  Then I added other musical parts, wrote lyrics and melody, and presented it at a songwriter’s circle.  Many group members were impressed that I could tackle an interesting topic like the foibles of the advertising industry in clever ways. Using Snake Oil as a central lyric certainly seemed fitting. Feedback from the circle also prompted me to revise the musical idea for the chorus sections.

Months later, I got my friend Kira Braun to sing the chorus part along with my own. Thanks Kira for the wonderful job!

Download the full album for free.

Four outta five dentists agree
We’ll make your smile yellow-stain-free

Drive away ‘till your dreams come true
But it’s a closed road and pro driver, not you

Spray your body with our magic mist
Then watch beauty goddesses turn and twist

We’re selling snake oil
The kind that you need
To live the life that you lead

We’re selling snake oil
To fill all the cracks
Of the joys that you lack

We’re selling snake oil
You’ll gain confidence
After you spend
Your dollars and sense

Buy that new gadget whether you need it or not
(Check out my fancy phone)
We’ll invent a new problem, solved after you’ve bought (Tweet my peeps on the go)
Purchase our scent, you’ll smell like a peach
(New fragrance from J.Lo)
Then frolic and flirt with that hunk on a beach
(You’re sexy don’t you know)

We’re selling snake oil
The kind that you need
To live the life that you lead

We’re selling snake oil
The kind that won’t leak
But you’ll buy more
On special next week
We’re selling snake oil

It’s all fat-free, just a disguise
For all the sugar that goes right to your thighs

Just be careful before you buy
As some conditions may apply

Brave Daughters

I had a strong reaction to the 2012 gang rape case in India, which made international headlines in December. Revolted as I was from the crime, equally unsettling was the call from the Indian public for violent retribution upon the accused (not yet tried or convicted) men. I read several articles from different sources, and found one piece of news very compelling.  The father of the victim told the media to stop referring to her as a “rape victim” and rather as a “brave daughter.”

I first wrote the lyrics, taking the viewpoint of the friend who was also victimized in this case. I knew I wanted the words to come across with anger and passion, and I looked to Nine Inch Nails for sonic inspiration. I don’t think I got quite to the level of intensity of Mr. Self Destruct, but hey, I’m not Trent Reznor, nor do I really want to be. But it’s nice to have a reference to work to.

Have a listen below, and see the lyrics below the player.

Download the full album for free.

We went out for the night
We’re not looking to fight
A violation on our ride
A crime you don’t care to hide

What harm do you see?
In the freedom that we
In a brand new milieu
We choose to pursue

Brave daughters
Victims of sons
Fathers in tears
What have we DONE!?

They are blind and mute
No voices to refute
The power you yield
Impossible to shield

Anger in the streets
Calls for your defeat
An eye for an eye
Makes us all blind

Brave daughters
Did you no wrong
Why punish them all
For what you have DONE!?

Hayley Stewart-Moran

hayley-stewart-moranI’ve been working for a few weeks now with a local singer-songwriter named Hayley.  This work is quite unique in that Hayley has written lyrics and melodies, but no music, even though she plays ukulele and cello.  So as she repeatedly sings her melodies, I hammer out some piano parts, with the help of a tuner to know for sure what notes she’s singing.

Her songs have a laid back, jazzy feel, with big-band choruses and lyrics reflecting her experiences from a recent trip overseas.  Hayley is planning on releasing an EP with 12 songs in total.

For some of the songs, she’ll be adding some cello, and I will be adding some percussion and horns on keyboard.

So far it’s been a pleasure working with Hayley!

I Am

It’s been more than 25 years since I started writing music, and over 10 that I’ve been writing songs with my own lyrics. This is my very first published song for which I did my own singing (thank goodness for pitch correction).

I Am started out as the lyrics to accompany the music I had written for Brand New Door.  After mulling over feedback I received at a songwriter’s meetup group, I decided to rip apart the lyrics and music and create two new songs instead.

I took a different approach to writing the melody for I Am.  Normally, I would develop a melody on keyboard, then hand it off to a singer to finish off the track. This time, I laid down the music bed and developed a melody by simply singing whatever came to me. I intended to provide a “real” singer with my scratch track to base their performance on. However, my friend Sunny (who song Brand New Door for me) convinced me that my phrasing and tenor fit the song better than his, and more importantly, that he could pitch correct my performance for me.

So I gave the vocal another shot, and as it turned out, my new track required fewer corrections than my scratch track. Kudos to me! Sunny sent me the corrected version, and I added a touch of vocoding and synthesized harmony.

The lyric is a critical take on religion and spirituality, with a west vs. east structure.  I figure if I’m going to sing my own songs, may as well start off with something light ;).

Download the full album for free.

I am ethereal
Without matter and formless
At once essential
And vague omnipresence

I’m all the unknown
And all false certainty
A captor to your thoughts
A source of fear and doubt

Between subject and object
Between matter and form
Between the earth and sky
Should we accept the norm?

I am the observer
To all your bias
I’m the divider
To body and mind

I am the passion and the poet
I convey all breath and being
I perceive and I conceive
A world of emptiness

Between something and nothing
Between the ego and id
Between nature and nurture
Is your self well hid?