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.

Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health

Mental health and taking care of your emotions is so essential to everyone. It’s a great feeling to learn about yourself to the point of knowing the things that work for you and give you joy. I’m still on my journey, and have a long way to go, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far.

Second time’s the charm

I find myself saying this truism from time to time: “The second time you try something, it usually works out better.” For myself, this includes marriage.

My first wife was a test case in emotional baggage. Her past was ripe with abuse, family tragedies, and emotional self destruction. My own past couldn’t be more different: loving, stable family life, opportunity, and valuable education. Things started falling apart seven years after we got married (no kids). She started expressing unhappiness, and how I couldn’t fill her emotional needs; incidentally, a revelation that came to her after seeing a therapist herself.

We tried couples therapy for a very short time. Afterwards, I began seeking professional help for myself. I recall my first session, complaining about my wife’s neediness and anger. My therapist turned the tables on me, getting me to see my own responsibility in the relationship. This was my first lesson in cognitive behavioural therapy: introspection, and understanding what I actually had the power to do. This was not easy; it took many sessions, most of which I felt angry at my counselor for not giving me easy answers. I didn’t want to look at my own faults; it was better to put the blame elsewhere. Of course, the truth was that I was equally responsible for the downfall of my first marriage.

I grew up being on the receiving end of care, and while I wasn’t spoiled to the point of always getting my way, I was always supported by family and friends. Hers’ was a life of disappointment after disappointment, always being let down, desperate for someone to take care of her. I too, was eager to be her provider. But I wasn’t up to the task; I didn’t have the skills or the practice to be anyone’s savior. The kicker was that while I so busy trying to be her everything, I didn’t realize that the whole ordeal was making me miserable too. The fellow she cheated on me with made it clear that I wasn’t the guy for her. He’s extroverted (I’m introverted), an enthusiastic smoker and drinker (I’m neither), and party guy (which I am not). I remember talking to my brother about this; he told me flat out, “Sometimes we’re just not able to be what the other person needs.” By 2010, we were divorced.

I think it’s this fear of failure that demotivates many men from seeking emotional support and help. I’m stereotypical in this regard; I wasn’t taught how to deal with my feelings at a young age. For me, I take an intellectual approach to emotional intelligence; tracing the root causes and reasons why I feel the way I do. Where do my insecurities come from? What did being teased and bullied as a child actually do to me? Understanding is the first step toward getting past blaming myself, and getting on to making things better.

Side story

As a bit of an aside, I have a story I love to tell my friends and anyone who’s willing to listen. As I was going through my divorce, someone told me that when any significant relationship breaks down, one person ends up on the high end, and one ends up on the low. I’m convinced I’m on the high.

Sometime after I moved out, I got a message from my soon-t0-be-ex-wife that she had a box of my stuff, and our camping tent, which we agreed I could have. I asked her to please drop it off at my office, as I didn’t want to reveal my home address (petty maybe, but still my prerogative). When she finally got around to dropping my stuff off, I asked her to leave it at the reception desk, since I didn’t care much to see her either. She told me I had to come downstairs to the car, because she has the six-month old in the back.”

I relented and went downstairs to get my box and camping tent, and sure enough, there was an occupied baby seat in the back of the car. When I got back to my desk, I had to do the math. We had been separated for about 18 months. Seems that for all the talk about having kids later, she didn’t waste any time once I was out of the picture. And if the guy she cheated on me with was the father, that’s a big minus, as he was already married with two teenage boys. The patterns of self-destruction she seemed to be so good at were reaching new heights.

Moving on

By this time, I had a better understanding of myself and was acutely aware of how much happier I was to be able to let go of years worth of resentment. By this time, I had vowed to invest more time and energy in myself. I think the idea of being selfish is largely misunderstood. There are two kinds of selfish: the first is deciding to invest in your own happiness, which results in better relationships with others. The other kind of selfish is being greedy and manipulating so that you can only be happy if others around you suffer. Here’s a list of really simple things that I neglected during nine years of marriage, and I knew would make me happier. I followed through with them all:

  1. Live within a 30-minute bike ride to work
  2. Get back into songwriting and music
  3. Be debt-free
  4. Meet new people
  5. Get back into playing tennis

Like any good songwriter, I got a few songs out of my divorce. One hasn’t been fully recorded, although writing this article has certainly got that fire stoked. The other is a song called Brand New Door, and it’s about moving on. My friend Sunny helped me with the vocal track.

I also met my future wife, and suffice to say, I knew from the get go she was a far better fit for me. I vowed to never let resentment build up again, and we’re actually pretty good at talking out our differences. We were married in 2014, which is also the year things started to unravel for me in an unexpected and unceremonious way.

The downward spiral

In late 2013, my fiancé and I were living comfortably together in a rented house in the west end of Toronto. We got a great deal on the place, playing landlord to the upstairs apartment. In less than a year, the owner told us he needed the house back. We were homeless, and ended up moving in with my parents, north of the city. (Incidentally, our first morning at my parents was also my 40th birthday.) My 30-minute bike ride to work was now a 90-minute commute through regional transit, subway and streetcar. This didn’t irk me too much, as I got a lot reading done, and I knew it was only temporary.

In early 2014, we were set to purchase a townhome close to our west-end rental. Everything seemed to be place until, on the day of our home inspection, I lost my job. I had never been fired before. It was sudden, unexpected, and emotionally brutal. I wrote a song about it.

I had no idea why I was let go. The organization I worked for had just undergone an operational and human resource audit. I can only surmise that the consultants told management they were paying me too much for my job. My position morphed into a slightly different one, as I saw on the organization’s website, presumably for a lower salary. There’s nothing quite like quantifying your worth in dollars to take a kick at your self-esteem. Looking for new work proved to be daunting task, as I found myself in a job market where I seemed to have no place.

Eventually, I leveraged a connection I had to land a stable, well-paying permanent position. Of course, there’s a downside. While I have a full-time job, four days a week I spend working by myself at home and one day I week I commute to another city to meet with my co-workers. While working from home is ideal at times (e.g. snowstorm), there are feelings of isolation and loneliness I can’t seem to escape. I know my productivity suffers by not being around the people I’m working with. I’ve tried to find other ways to be productive, by working on personal and freelance projects during lunch breaks and during times I would otherwise be commuting in the city to get to and from an office. As much as I am an introvert, and value time by myself, it’s still a struggle spending many hours on my own.

Finding a balance

So I’ve lost only two items on my “happy” list. I can’t bike to work anymore, and I stopped playing tennis a while back due a knee injury (from playing tennis). That’s not bad. I’ve recently started playing a greater role in my physical health.

I’ve since taken on many music projects, including co-hosting a weekly radio show and podcast, and being in an indie folk-rock band. I’m also meeting great new people through Meetup.com and other venues. I wrote about this a while ago.

I’m happily married. And my mom loves my wife. And my mother-in-law loves me. What more does a guy need?

At times, the future feels very uncertain, particularly with work. I think finding a balance is important, and it varies from person to person. For myself, my hobbies are actually really important to me, and I take them seriously. For everyone, I believe it takes a lot of introspection, and knowing yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t. We tend to spend a lot of time doing things we know aren’t the best for us, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective, and find ways to ensure you’re content with whatever situation you’re in. I’m trying and I hope you are too.


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.

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

Neel on Song Talk Radio with his new Progressive Electro-pop songs

This week, I had the privilege of once again being the guest on Song Talk Radio, where I talked about my current songwriting and recording project of progressive electro-pop songs. For this project, I’m abiding by three self-imposed creative parameters:

  1. I’m not allowed to use the 4/4 time signature
  2. All my lyrics are stream of consciousness, random, and narrative-free
  3. The finished album of songs won’t have any breaks in the sound; songs will blend together like a DJ mix

I was also lucky to have my composer and manic creative friend Frank Horvat on the show in the guest host chair. Frank had some great insights when interpreting my songs and my creative approach. Thanks Frank!

Check out the show page on Song Talk Radio’s site, or just listen to the show here:

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.

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.

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.

Light Your Way collaborative songwriting

As part of the indie rock band Beige Shelter, we were approached to write a new song for a youth gang prevention event. Although we declined to perform for the event, we realized our new song was also a great message for mental health awareness and conversation.

My friend and Beige Shelter frontman Adi Aman had written a song a few years ago with a message to help out a friend going through some tough times. Adi sent me a rough recording and his lyric/chord sheet to play around with. In particular, he said he wasn’t very happy with the melody. Before I even got a chance to look at it, he followed up with a revised lyric that was more poetic and a bit more abstract.

The rewriting process

At the time, we were still involved in the youth prevention event, and I took this angle when rewriting the song. I thought a more direct lyric would be more effective in reaching young people. I also wanted to highlight the aspect of reaching out for help and getting it from friends and family. This, to me, is at the cornerstone of good mental health—people need to be willing to come forward and talk to someone they trust, and their communities need to be willing to listen, empathize and help as best they can.

I printed out Adi’s lyrics and chords and sat at my piano to work on the song. Starting with small edits, I quickly found myself rewriting entire phrases. I realized that using Adi’s lyrics as springboards, I could develop a much more direct song, and marry a melody to the words more easily. This is the sort of lyric I never would have come up with on my own, but using Adi’s original take as inspiration gave me the direction and focus I needed. Here are the working pages I used:

Page 1
Page 2
Page 3

I took care to develop a simple, flowing chord progression and catchy melodies. It was amazing how much mileage I could get from using C, G, F, and Am by playing around with the time between each chord change. I introduced a new, unheard chord to start the pre-chorus section. In other words, the Dm had not been heard in the song yet, but the rest of the pre-chorus chords were also used in the verse. This, along with the melodic centre change, was enough to give the listener a sign-post that the pre-chorus was a new section. For the chorus, I returned to the base C major chord but lifted the melody again.

Back and forth

I presented the revised song to Adi and he liked it very much. He had a few revisions for some of the chord changes, especially the unusual chords I used to end the chorus. Adi felt keeping it simple would be more effective, and once he sung it with his rich voice, I was compelled to agree.

Our bass player Tom made a suggestion for a lyric change at the end of the second verse:

Me: It goes “For your grief, but you know…” which is kinda cheap. We need a good word that rhymes with “grief.”

Tom: Believe.

Adi (singing): For your grief, but believe…

Me: And that flows great into the pre-chorus lyric “You have got the strength to carry on…” — well done, Tom!

Feedback from other songwriters

I presented the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup by playing back the recording from our latest rehearsal. Members found the song to have an inspiring message without being didactic, and with a good flow to the chords and melody.

We adopted two points from the group to improve the song:

  1. Revised the chorus lyric “And you think that there’s no way to see the light” to “And you think there’s no way out of your plight” so that the word “light” isn’t featured twice in the chorus.
  2. Extended the ending to repeat the main hook “We’ll be lighting your way” a few times before finishing the song.

Recording and Producing

We wanted to release Light Your Way as a single during the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Mental Health Week between May 1 and May 7. I knew this would be a tight schedule to get it arranged, recorded, mixed, and released.

During our first recording session, we were still finessing lyrics and making small changes to the chords. I used a rehearsal recording to set the tempo for a drum loop. I recorded Adi playing his acoustic guitar and then recorded his vocals.

Tom recorded a bassline at his home studio and sent it to me. Meanwhile, I developed a drum track and added some piano comping. Our lead guitarist, Karan, was busy with final exams and couldn’t commit to the recording session. I asked singer-songwriter and guitarist Paul Vos to contribute lead guitar based on some noodling I had done on my keyboard. Paul did an awesome job with the last minute crunch and played the part with great finesse.

During the mixing stage, I decided the piano track wasn’t helping and re-recorded an electric piano track with a little more interest than simple comping. I still wanted the acoustic guitar to be the main rhythm instrument—the electric piano was just there to add some weight to the track. I also added a string pad and a tambourine to thicken up the choruses. Finally, I recorded some vocal doubles with Adi for the choruses, again, to give them a little more thickness.

Final release

We wanted something unique for the cover art. Adi happened to see a canvas watercolour painting of tulips that my wife Hema had done a few years ago. He liked it enough to ask her if we could use it for the cover art. She gave us her blessing, and I took a photo of it to develop the cover. We kept it very simple, with the Beige Shelter logo and the title. A big thanks to Hema for her beautiful contribution!

Here’s the final track, which is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Music and other digital retailers. It was a great joy and privilege to write and produce this song with Adi, Tom, and Paul. Enjoy!

7 ways to bring variety to your collection of songs

When writing a collection of songs, whether for a album release or in general, we sometimes end up playing it safe and resorting to tried and true motifs and ideas for every song.

For myself, when I become a fan of an artist or band, I like to hear a variety of songs. Sometimes the differences are obvious, like a ballad vs. a rockin’ out song. And sometimes, the variety comes in more subtle ways—-ways that only looking closer reveals. Your audience will know something feels different and unique, but only the more discerning listeners will know the how and the why.

More than likely, you’re already doing some of these “7 ways” — they are by no means truly unique ideas, as my examples of popular songs will show. Some of them may not work for you, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Hopefully, looking at these will spur on some more ideas. So let’s get into it.

One: Play with the structure

The typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure is a go-to for many songwriters. But you don’t have to look any further than the Beatles for excellent examples of structural inventiveness. In I Feel Fine, for example, the title occurs at the end of each verse. Then there’s a “B” section that almost sounds like a bridge, until it repeats later, and then maybe you can call it the chorus. Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? It’s all catchy, the title is clear, and the changes are frequent, regular, and interesting. They did something similar with A Hard Day’s Night, and we argued about discussed it on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

When you play around with structure, the parts of the songs sometimes defy conventional nomenclature. Call it a bridge or a chorus, it doesn’t matter; it’s merely semantics. Sometimes it’s more effective to use terms like “A section”, “B section”, and “tag.”

Sometimes the narrative you establish can inspire an unconventional structure. For my song, Depend on Me, I established a narrative with three distinct parts: an easy going afternoon drive, a car accident, and the aftermath. This structure inspired me to begin the song with a simple verse chorus, verse chorus, then a bridge (for the accident) and a completely new section for the aftermath.

Two: Write a song with very few or no perfect rhymes.

Rhymes are usually an integral part of any song in a popular medium. If there’s anything most genres have in common, it’s rhyming. More “pop” songs characteristically have lots of perfect rhymes. At the other end, folk songs tend to have fewer perfect rhymes.

First, let’s talk briefly about rhyme types. Perfect rhymes are pairs of words which have both final vowel sounds and final consonant sounds the same – e.g. space / race, moan / cone,  exemplify / diversify. Assonance rhymes have the same final vowel sound, but different final consonant sound, and the result is softer – e.g. lost / cough, graze / lake, policy / bakery.

The tricky part might be writing a song that minimizes perfect rhymes. Fast Car by Tracy Chapman comes pretty close, using mostly assonance rhymes to end her verses.

For my own song Hurting. Choosing. Learning, I managed to get through four verses and two choruses with absolutely no rhymes, and writing the verses as haiku poems to boot.

Three: Do a few songs in 3/4 or 6/8 time

This one is fairly common, but still, many songwriters fall back on the ubiquitous 4/4 time signature.

Before I get into examples, let’s go over what time signatures mean and how they work. Time signatures are normally expressed as two numbers (four-four, six-eight, or three-four). 4/4 time is sometimes called Common Time (go figure). The first number, or the one on top, is how many beats there are in one bar or measure. The bottom number represents the note division of the beats. So, if the bottom number is 4, the song is counted in quarter notes. If it’s 8, it’s counted in eighth notes (half the duration of a quarter note). It’s far less common to see a 2 for the note division.

For example, 4/4 time is counted as “1,2,3,4” in a moderate pace. 6/8 time is counted as “1,2,3,4,5,6” where each beat is about half the duration of the quarter notes. Of course, tempo plays a big part in exactly how fast the song is; the note divisions are relative to each other and also represent rhythmic emphasis—i.e. most of the time, there’s a strong emphasis on the “1”, otherwise known as the downbeat. In 3/4 time, the emphasis is usually on the 2 and 3, and in 6/8 time, the emphasis is usually on the 1 and 4. You can usually focus on the kick drum and snare drum hits in a song to indicate the stressed beats.

Compare the songs Wrapped in Grey by XTC and I Go To Sleep by The Pretenders. See if you can identify which is in 3/4 time and which is in 6/8 (hint: in the chorus of Wrapped in Grey, the snare hits on the “2” of every other measure).

Four: Treat your title differently

Many songwriters write from titles, which is a great way to get your song moving in a focused direction, and sticking to that focus. Sometimes the title is a phrase, at other times, a single word or pair of words.

Context is important here – does your title stand alone, or is it part of a larger phrase that maybe connects it with the verse or pre-chorus? Take note of your collection of songs; do you stick to one way of singing your title?

Consider Billy Joel’s song The Stranger. In this song, the “stranger” shows up frequently but it’s always part of a larger phrase in the verse. There’s a catchy “B” part which might be called the chorus, except that the title doesn’t show up there.

Contrast that with a song like Layla, where the title is the main hook (apart from the classic guitar riff), tops each chorus and melodically stands by itself.

Then look at the classic rock song Closer to the Heart by Rush; here the title is a full phrase that ends each verse in a verse-refrain structure (there is no chorus).

You can examine just about any song and note other ways in which the title shows up. Consider melody, narrative and what it might mean if the title was incorporated differently. For example, often when the title shows up as part of a larger context or phrase, the song is following a verse-refrain structure (see tip One above).

Five: Try a song with a quiet / small chorus

Where is it written that your chorus has to be the “big” part of your song? Typically, your chorus has a melodic center change to a higher, more expansive and catchy melody. But in Pretty Good Year by Tori Amos, the chorus is the most understated part of the song. The melody goes nowhere, it’s dynamically quieter, and very simple. The bridge is the section that takes on more characteristics of a chorus, expect the presence of the title and refrain (multiple repetitions in the song).

For a different example, check out the song Pretty by Miggs. The verse has a good amount of melodic range, and is fairly resolved. The chorus (“If it’s worth it..”) has more tension and less melodic range. Similarly to Pretty Good Year, it’s the C-section of the song that takes off with the catchiest, most energetic part of the song (“It takes a lot of steps…”). Call this part the post-chorus, maybe.

I took the “quiet chorus” approach when writing my own song, Brave DaughtersIn this case, the chorus lyric was more reflective and less direct than the angrier verse lyrics, so it led me to treat the music with a lighter energy.

Six: Open a song with your chorus

Opening your song with the chorus is a great way to give it a great kick off, particularly if your chorus is catchy and tight. This works usually when your chorus expresses the central theme of the song, and it doesn’t spoil anything to give it away up front. If you’re used to working in a double chorus at the end of your songs, this is an opportunity to keep that a single, lest you have too many choruses in your song.

A couple of good examples are We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twister Sister, and All About the Bass by Meghan Trainor. (Note: The song doesn’t kick in until over 2 minutes in We’re Not Gonna Take It, but that first couple of minutes is classic music video satire at its finest.) In both songs, the opening chorus is treated more like an introduction, with lighter arrangements than the full-blown choruses that come later.

Seven: Try a different mode in a song

I’ve saved the (arguably) most complex tip for last. Using different modes assumes you know about scales and key signatures, but after that, it’s fairly simple. Customarily, we begin a chord progression on the I chord of the key we’re playing in. But what about starting on the II chord, or III chord? Doing this imparts a subtle tension to your song, and especially works well if you resolve to starting your chorus with the I chord.

Try playing a major scale using the same notes but going from the II tone to the II tone. For example, the Dorian mode in C major would go like this:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

You would also stick to chords in the base key signature. So in the the key of C major and the Dorian mode, this would mean you start your chord progression with a D minor. Famous songs in the Dorian mode include Scarborough Fair (made popular by Simon and Garfunkel), and Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles.

I tried this myself in a collaboration I did with my friend Shari Archinoff, called Winter Without You.

Note that the special, unusual chord progressions start with the II, III, IV, or V chord. It’s very common to start with the VI chord, known as the Aoelian mode or natural minor—just think of every song starting on A minor and using C major, F major, and G major.


You can also combine any of these tips into a single song. Please comment below about any of these 7 ways you’ve used, or about other tips you have for adding some variety to your collection of songs.