Hyphen dom – free-dom in chains?

freedom-in-chainsFor several months in 2014, I worked closely with singer-songwriter Dom Ventura, aka Hyphen dom, on producing several songs for his album free-dom in chains?. Arrangements included drums, strings, bass and piano parts to fully round out his songs.

One of the biggest challenges I found as a producer was being able to embrace Dom’s loose attitude towards tempo. His songs would meander, sometimes adding extra beats to a measure, or rushing through a phrase. This meant that I could never record his guitar and vocal takes to a metronome or drum loop. Adding a lush string arrangement was usually not a problem, but adding bass and drums after the fact became a bigger challenge. I solved this by redefining the timing grid in the recording to match his performance, rather then trying to alter his performance to match a regular tempo. This allowed me to quantize the added MIDI tracks to the new grid.

In the end, I produced six of the songs on his album free-dom in chains?. I’m most proud of The DSM-5, as it rocks out the most with my arrangement of drums, bass, and small dashes of tambourine and organ. I also really dig the intro on The Name, which at the time, Dom didn’t get why I asked him to play the base chords for an extra 8 measures.

I got producer credit for these tracks, on which I also arranged and performed all the strings, bass, drums, and piano parts:

  • The Said of This
  • The DSM-5
  • The Window
  • Riders
  • The Thought of Dust
  • The Name

Download Hyphen dom’s albums on iTunes.

Star Wars in a Winter Wonderland

Michael Gee is a musical chum I met at the Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group. He had an idea for a parody of Walking in a Winter Wonderland, entitled Working With a Wookie on a Plan.  He brought along a karaoke track where the only singing present was the part starting “Later on, we’ll conspire…” which, because of the pick-up on the first line, I couldn’t edit out. This was fortunate, as Michael’s revised lyric also had the line “Later on, we’ll conspire,” only he followed it up with “Against the evil empire.” So, after quite a bit of cutting and pasting, we had a base track to record his vocals too. I suggested he not sing over the “Later on, we’ll conspire” vocals of the original. Then I added a virtual sleigh bell shaker sample to the track, and we had a complete song.

By the next morning, Michael had created a video to go along with his song:

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

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

The Weekend to End Women’s Cancer Recital

I was asked by my friend Kira Braun to record and photograph her “Weekend to End Women’s Cancer” fundraising recital. Kira performed with several of her friends and her teacher on some classical and contemporary tunes. It was a fantastic show, and the talent on stage absolutely top-notch.

My wonderful partner Hema was volun-told 🙂 to handle video while I took photos and recorded the audio on my Zoom recorder, which resulted in better audio quality than the camcorder. I then synced the audio and video and uploaded 13 videos to youTube.

The final performance was the highlight for me, and certainly they saved the most fun song for last!

Songwriter’s Showcase Event

I hosted a showcase event for our Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group today at the Central Bar. It was a great experience, and I got to see many great performances. In addition to announcing the performers, I also photographed and sound recorded the event to share with the individual performers.

Live mixing was handled by Phil, and Bruce helped out with some stage management. Belinda (our lead organizer) brought members from her other groups to populate the audience, and took some great photos too.

This event was unique in that almost all the songs performed were originals.

The Orange Purple Yellow Song

This is my latest song, about a guy and a girl, and another guy, with rather colourful names.  I wrote this song in one evening, music, melody and lyrics.  That hasn’t happened in a very long time.  Enjoy!

Download the full album for free.

Burn yellow train inside
Look blind and hide

Orange say you bite
French fry
Overnight if the sunrise

Purple mane on high
Red light
Orange with plight

Yellow ball of white
Stay dry
Tie the magenta kite right
Flip under weight and die
Tear sheet safe flight

Orange leave your sight
And sigh
Watercrest with the moonrise

Purple taking flight
They cry
Carpet stain pile

Yellow being like
They lied
Keep the hurricane mile high

Carmen Toth / Social Potion

I provided digital photography, video and audio recording of a independent singer-songwriter showcase. I used both “on-board” and room sound recordings for the highest quality audio, combining an intimate sound with the feel of a live venue.

All of the final videos are available here: bit.ly/O6uMVF

Hoarding Forum keynote video

I recorded a keynote presentation by Dr. Randy Frost, an expect on the issue of hoarding, for the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Dr. Frost asked that his slides be excluded from the video, as they contained images of people’s private homes. I ran a line from the room mixer direct into the camcorder to get optimum sound quality.

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.