Synth Summer

In the Spring I took Electronic Orchestration, a class focusing on synthesis and sound design.  We would learn the fundamentals of sound, and after learning the basics, make our own patches.  Up until then, we had to rely solely on preset banks, mindlessly browsing for sounds that fit.  Presets are great, but if you want something specific, the search can be frustrating.  Knowing the basics and tweaking can help a lot, but I wanted to be able to build sounds from the ground up.

Of all the cool classes I’ve gotten to take, I was most excited for Electronic Orchestration. Unfortunately, due to covid-19, we weren’t able to continue as planned.  Our next step was supposed to be a deep dive into Native Instrument’s Massive, a virtual synthesizer, but since we weren’t in class, we didn’t have access to the school’s computers that had Massive installed.  The class continued with a focus on mixing and mastering.

When the semester ended, I declared Summer 2020 Synth Summer!  I would spend time each day learning about synthesis and practicing sound design.  (This didn’t start until June because I was finishing up my Songs From Home EP which came out on May 30th).  Once that project was done, I was eager get back into learning.

I began Synth Summer by browsing classes on Linkedin Learning (formerly Lynda.com).  I took Learning Synth Programming by Scott Hirsch, and then Massive Digital Synthesis by Evan Sutton.  The first class refreshed the basics for me, and the second was the deep dive I’d been waiting for.  I’ve had Massive for a couple years now, but my understanding of it was pretty basic.  Most tutorials on YouTube are way too general, don’t explain what’s actually happening to the sound, and skip over settings and parameters entirely.  There’s a ton of tutorials on making specific sounds, but they’re more on the side of telling you what to do, rather than explaining why these decisions are made.  Massive Digital Synthesis is the perfect Massive class in my opinion, not only is everything explained, but you’ve given a lot of ideas to experiment with on your own.

Digital Synthesis Massive

I’m currently reading through Massive’s manual, and trying to take it all in.  I’m far from an expert, but I’m improving and that’s exciting for me.  If you want to hear sounds I’ve made, I have examples in this video, or you can listen to this remix (all the main synth sounds are mine).  I’m excited to keep learning and making music!

 

 

Songs From Home: Quarantine Collabs

In March I had the idea to make an EP of music in response to the covid-19 pandemic.  With the stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines causing feelings of isolation, I wanted to celebrate what we still have.  The idea was to collaborate with artists remotely from the safety of our homes.

When the stay-at-home order was announced, I moved back to Faribault with my family, and it’s there I started writing.  I had a workspace, my laptop, headphones, and a MIDI keyboard.  In one week I completed six demos, five of which would eventually make it on the EP.  From there I announced my plan on Facebook and asked for collaborators.  I got a great response!

great response

Starting on April 18th, I released a song a week on Soundcloud.  I also made a video to document the making of each song.

Since my instrumentals were done, I mostly needed vocalists, so I wasn’t able to work with everyone, but I’m very grateful for the people I did get to work with.  Here’s everyone that helped on the project: Ocho (melody and lyrics for Life on Pause), Jacob Ross (bass for Life on Pause), Luke McGreavey (alto sax for Life on Pause), Anssi Tenhunen (voiceover for Infection Control), SMILEBRO (final drop for Infection Control), Matthew Ruff (melody and lyrics for House Arrest), and Mary Clare Stroh (melody and lyrics for Quarantine).  My awesome collaborators made these songs much better than I could have on my own!

The final EP will be released on May 30th with the final song: the long-awaited Covid-19 Rap.  For some reason, I got a lot of requests to rap about the virus.  If I didn’t do it on this EP, it probably would have never happened.  I guess we’ll find out if that’s good or bad.

Pre-save Songs From Home on Spotify.

Big Turn Music Fest – 2020

I had volunteered at Big Turn last year, and it was a good experience.  I discovered new music and met a ton of musicians.  I knew I had to come back.

One of my favorite things about this festival is that many of the acts are lesser-known, Minnesota locals.  They have a great lineup of successful artists (Lydia Liza, We Are the Willows, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Messersmith, Charlie Parr, ect), but they also showcase artists who don’t have a big following.  Some performers had fewer than 100 likes on their socials, and it’s cool that they were included.

Big Turn hosts a wide variety of music from pop, hip-hop, folk, funk, reggae, blues, EDM, bluegrass, and more.  The audience is diverse, too.  It’s not all young adults, but an age range from tweens with their parents, to couples in their 60’s.  Given the range of audience, you’d expect the older folk to be turned off by metal or rap, but I generally saw age diversity in nearly every venue I visited.  These people, like me, wanted to check out new music, regardless of genre.

My first stop was ArtReach, a visual arts non-profit.  Glitch and electro-pop artist SYM1 was performing with EDM producer Eye Dyed.  They had a fun, high-energy show with lots of dancing and dope beats.

After that I went to Mandy’s Coffee & Cafe where singer-songwriter, Noah Short, was performing.  He is a classic, coffee shop, singer-songwriter: acoustic guitar, pretty melodies, and emotional lyrics.  He was accompanied by a guy playing a cajon-type instrument, and a girl who sang and played piano.  It was lovely.

After that I explored more, checking out random bands from their descriptions in the logbook.  Beth Kinderman & the Player Characters stuck out because their bio boasts songs about video games and nerd culture.  When I first walked in, they didn’t thrill me, but as I stuck around (not wanting to leave after one song) I started to like it.  Having the songs be about nerdy things made me more attentive to lyrics than I normally am; and a few of the songs were pretty catchy.  I recommend “Refusal of the Call.”

After that I started my volunteer shift at the Barrel House.  My job was to check wristbands and make sure we didn’t exceeded our 75 person capacity.  The worst part of the job is explaining to drunk people that, yes, the fire marshal comes through counting people, and my one job is to make the fire marshal happy.  However, I did get a brush with Minnesota music royalty from the experience!  Apparently one of the guys wanting to get in was Greg Norton of Porcupine and Hüsker Dü.  The person he was with kept asking me if I knew who he was.  I kept saying no, and eventually she told me.  At that point, he had already slipped in the back where there was no volunteer.  I’m gonna call that networking.

My time at the Barrel House was all right.  Volunteering is awesome because you get to hear music for free, and the only downside is being tied to one venue.  Aside from having to argue with drunk people from time to time, it’s a good deal.  I would definitely do it again.

 

Notable Acts (that I actually saw)

SYM1, Eye Dyed – electro-pop, EDM, high energy.  Dance-able.

Noah Short – Soothing singer-songwriter, pretty melodies, thoughtful lyrics.

Beth Kinderman & the Player Characters – Nerd narrative.  Catchy songs.  Intricate lyrics.

Soultru -R & B, solid voice.  Soul vibes.

Beat Station EP

My creative projects fell through the cracks during my Fall semester.  Understandably, I was busy with work and school.  Over break I knew I’d have a lot more free time to make music, but I also knew I’d waste that time without a plan.  Thus, the Beat Station was born.  My guidelines were simple: I had to write an EP of electronic music, but I could only write songs while at the Fillin’ Station Coffeehouse.  I could do mixing, layering, and tweaking at home, but not songwriting.

The main reason for this project was to help me finish songs.  I’ve mentioned before that one of my struggles is indecision in songwriting.  Only being able to write at a specific place helped me to hunker down and make decisions.  A lot of times I’d be working and think, “Oh crap, they’re closing in an hour and I won’t be able to come here for a few days.  I need to finish this.”  When a song is coming along, you want to finish it, but being able to work on it whenever you want makes it easy to procrastinate.

This was also a great excuse for me to document something.  My teachers always talk about the importance of documenting, but I never really did it.  Suddenly I had a story to tell about my songwriting challenge, and lots of opportunities for pictures and footage in the coffee shop.  I made three videos about the experience and lots of social media posts.

In retrospect, this challenge wasn’t ideal for my songwriting goals.  Since I was releasing an EP, not only did I need to finish four songs, I had to produce, mix, and master them. That takes a ton of time, and I wanted to focus more on songwriting.  Typically when I write an EP, I write more songs than will actually be included.  That way I can pick the best ones to release.  In this project I wrote four songs and released four songs, so I didn’t have room to curate.  Going forward, I may do something similar, but with the goal of finishing demos.  At the end of the writing phase, I can pick the best ones to produce and release.

IMG_20191223_141255_836

I went into this knowing I wouldn’t do it perfectly, but that I would learn what to work on for next time, not from YouTube videos or by sitting around thinking, but by doing it and seeing the results.  This turned out better than I hoped, and now I know how to improve.

Now available everywhere.

 

Deciding is Creating

I’m the type of person who wants to do a lot of creative projects, so many in fact, that the vast majority never get done.  A lot of times I just don’t know where to start, so I don’t.  What I’m learning again and again is that you need to be decisive to be creative.  Creating involves making a choice, and if we find ourselves unable to choose, we’re unable to create.

In my Music Promotion class, we were given a video assignment.  We had to make weekly videos, three to five minutes long, based on a prompt.  The prompts were short and open for interpretation.  I was excited to make some videos, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

If this had been a self-imposed project – like writing a song – I would have procrastinated and taken a lot of time to get the “best idea.”  Since this was for class, I had a deadline.  It forced me to make a decision and run with it.  It wasn’t so important what I chose, so long as I chose.  This resulted in me actually finishing projects in a timely manner.  As the saying goes, “Done is better than perfect.”

One of the best parts about music school is having assignments that push you to create.  Being graded is a great incentive, and you’re left with a product you’re happy you made.  Unfortunately, we don’t have similar incentives for projects outside of school, so we’re left to our own devices.

I wrote before that I have a lot of ideas, but it’s easy to have a lot of ideas and do nothing.  It’s the easiest thing in the world.  You get a false sense of satisfaction, thinking of all the great things you will do – someday.  In his book Anything You Want, Derek Sivers writes “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed.”  I have more unfinished songs than I can count,  but when I do finish one, it’s always a win.  Whether or not the song is good is less important than the fact that I’m finishing songs.  It’s practice for creative decision making.  

This is something I’m still working on, but if you want to write more songs, pick one tune and finish it.  It doesn’t matter which one, what genre, or whatever.  Make a decision, then it’s easy.

Getting Back Momentum

I haven’t posted in a hot minute, and it’s pretty clear I’ve lost traction.  I used to post once a week, but it’s been months since I’ve done anything consistent.  I’d like to put the blame on the fact that I’m taking a heavier load this semester, but the simple fact is I could be doing better.

One of the reasons I’ve failed is because I broke out of my routine.  Last semester I had a large amount of free time every Tuesday, and I spent it in the library working on my blog.  It wasn’t hard work – I liked writing and looked forward to it.  I would fill up my tumbler from Jazzman’s Cafe, find a lo-fi playlist, and hide away in a corner of the library.  I’d do my best to articulate my latest discovery or inspiration, and in doing so better understand it.

It’s hard to know why we stop doing things that make us happy.  You’d think we wouldn’t need to worry about it, but we do.  There will always be days where it’s easier to watch Netflix than work on a song, and even though songwriting will bring you joy, Netflix is easier in the moment.  In the short term it’s inconsequential, but in the long term it makes you miserable.  When I go a long time without creating, I’m just not as happy.  Sometimes that unhappiness can cause me to sink into the things that caused it in the first place, but the cure requires an effort on my part.  I have to get to work.

 

 

I Moved to Mankato

As many of you know, I’ve been going to MSU Mankato since January of 2018.  I’ve been living and working in Faribault: making the drive to class a few days each week.  I started slow with just Music Theory II, then took Activities in Music Industry and Songwriting 1 the following semester.  I liked my classes a lot and felt I was learning exactly what I needed to.  My last semester was three classes plus guitar lessons, and I was happy to hear some major improvements in my songs.

Because of the commute and my work schedule, I haven’t been able to take a full load.  This has been frustrating to say the least, and the lengthy commute – made longer by the Minnesota blizzards – meant more time on the road and less time making music.  Because of this, and wanting to be more engaged in the community, I decided to move.

It wasn’t an easy decision.  I actually tried really hard to find a schedule that would make staying in Faribault sensible, but I couldn’t find one.  I’d been living with two guys that were good friends, the rent was cheap, and my family was a two minute drive away.  I was pretty sad about moving to be honest, but now that I’m here I know it was the right choice.  Let me tell you some things I like about Mankato (so far).

I live two blocks from a coffee shop and a used book store!  Well, I live near downtown so there’s lots of places I could mention, but those two I was most excited about.  I’m probably just romanticizing the idea that I can walk over and get a cup of coffee and smell old books whenever I want, but it’s always been a dream of mine.  What’s more relevant to this blog is that I’m within walking distance of Pub 500, and they host an open mic night.  I’ve only been once, but I’ve already met some cool, local musicians.

I’m also excited to be able to go to shows without having to drive forty five minutes.  The Coffee Hag hosts singer-songwriters, and the What’s Up Lounge a variety of acts including rock, indie, and hip-hop.  And for bigger artists, there’s the Mankato Civic Center.  I’m sure there’s other venues and events as well that I haven’t discovered yet, but I’m hoping to learn it all.  I want to meet more people, make more music, and be part of a great musical community.

Is The Song Even Good?

It’s a good question to ask, and the answer isn’t always obvious.  When compiling songs for Chasing Ghosts, I was constantly changing my mind about which songs to include.  I had about ten songs I liked, but wanted to release five.  One of these songs was “Maybe Next Time.”

When my roommates heard it for the first time, it instantly became their favorite.  They regularly requested it at shows and were very encouraging, so I decided to record it.  When I released the EP, a lot of people mentioned that one, and it became my most played song on Spotify.  And to think it was almost a reject!

This lesson is this, we’re not always the best judge of our own content. We see our art in a way no one else does, and what might seem to us like a lame idea could resonate with others.

Did you know that Slash from Guns ‘n Roses originally didn’t like “Sweet Child ‘O Mine”?  In an interview with Loudwire, Slash says, “I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t fond of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ And that gives you a good idea of how credible my opinion is…”  When Ed Sheeran wrote “Shape of You” – currently the most streamed song on Spotify, ever – he wanted to pitch it to Rhianna.  It was the head of his record label who convinced him to keep it.  “I don’t know what it’s like to choose a hit,” Sheeran said during an interview,  “I just like writing songs.”

Basically, our job as songwriters isn’t to judge art, it’s to create it.  There’s going to be a certain amount of self critique and creative decisions on our own, but we can’t neglect the importance of community.  I can become biased for or against a song based on the amount of time I spend on it, how musically complex it is, and how personal the lyrics are.  A person giving me feedback won’t have these biases and can give me a different perspective.

At the end of the day, we are the artist and we make the final decisions, but getting outside viewpoints is useful.  Sometimes we need a kick in the pants that the house track we produced is actually pretty bad and a cheap imitation.  Other times we get the good news that someone connected with our lyrics in an unexpected way.  Whatever it is, take the note and keep working.

.

 

Works Cited

Childers, Chad. “Slash ‘Wasn’t Fond of’ Guns N’ Roses ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.” Loudwire, 15 Apr. 2014, loudwire.com/slash-initially-not-fan-guns-n-roses-sweet-child-o-mine/.

New York Times.  “Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’: Making 2017’s Biggest Track | Diary of a Song,” YouTube, 20 December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpMNJbt3QDE.

Krishna, S. (2019). Spotify reveals its most-played music for its 10th anniversary. [online] Engadget.com. Available at: https://www.engadget.com/2018/10/10/spotify-10th-anniversary-decade-of-discovery/ [Accessed 2019].

Why You Should Make To-do Lists

I’m a big fan of to-do lists, making a list of what needs to be done on a daily basis and holding myself accountable.  It does wonders for my productivity and stops projects from falling through the cracks.

Every week I’ve been trying to post a video and a blog post.  Since school ended, I’ve been missing weeks.  Somehow, with more free time, I’m getting less done.  I attribute this to the illusion of more time phenomenon, a phrase I just made up.  Basically, when you have a ton of free time, you don’t think you need to plan things out because you assume what needs to be done will happen eventually, given all the available hours.  But time has a way of slipping through our fingers, and only in retrospect do we notice it was wasted.

When I’m working on a project, I break down what little bit I can do each day.  For instance, when planning a video for a song I already know, all I have to do is practice it a few times daily.  It’s the same when I’m planning to record.  I just practice my part to a metronome every day leading up to the day I record.  It’s incredibly easy to do, but greatly improves the outcome.

Make To Do List

In his book, Keep Going, Austin Kleon writes, “A little imprisonment – if it’s of your own making – can set you free.  Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life…” (20).  My advice to anyone starting a to-do list, start small.  It can feel great to write a bunch of stuff down – imaging yourself as an unstoppable, productivity machine – but don’t overdue it.  It’s better to have a small, completed list than a large, unfinished one.

That being said, don’t be discouraged when you fail.  You may find that you “weren’t modest enough in your estimation,” to steal a line from Jordan Peterson.  A good strategy for me is to put down the bare minimum of what needs to be done, but then make a secondary “If there’s time” list.  Anything on the “If there’s time” list is strictly optional, and considered extra.  That way, I accomplish more if I’m able to, but if I’m not, I won’t lose momentum.

Making lists, modifying them over time, and finding what works is helping me know myself.  I’m not great at it, but I’m getting better.  Even when I fail miserably, I still get more done than I otherwise would have.  Failure is a part of the process, and shouldn’t be discouraging.  We are still moving forward.

 

Works Cited

Kleon, Austin. Keep Going : 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. New York, Workman Publishing, 2019, p. 20.

The Importance of Making Demos

When I thought about demos, I used to imagine a shittier version of the final song: badly recorded, unedited, and with a sub-par performance.  I used to label tracks “demo” when they weren’t up to snuff.  It was never planned; f I was embarrassed to share something I made, I used “demo” as a qualifier, thereby excusing all mistakes.

Nowadays I have a better grasp of what a demo is.  It’s a rough take of the  finished song, not intended as a final product, but a necessary step in the creative process.  All the essential elements are there, and the arrangement is done (to the best of your ability).  When you listen to the demo, you’ll hear how all the parts work (or don’t work).  You’ll discover what sections feel too long or too short, if the drums are meshing with your guitar, if there’s enough contrast from verse to chorus, if the bass guitar is boring, or any number of issues.  

There are some things you simply won’t know until you hear them in context.  These are changes you want to identify before final tracking.  When making a demo, you’re not concerned with guitar tones, what the best mic is, getting great takes to edit, or editing at all.  Your goal is to get the idea down, have it sound good enough, and learn from it.  How will the final song sound?  Once you have a better vision of what the song is about, going into the studio is fun because you know exactly what you’re going to do.  It takes a load off your mind, and then you can spend more time experimenting with tone, knowing you won’t need to come back and re-record.  

Even if the song is just guitar and vocals, I still recommend making a demo.  You’ll be surprised at what you hear when it’s playing back.  It’s counter intuitive, but while you’re playing you don’t notice everything, and the demo can reveal what to fix.

I’ve recorded songs with and without demoing first, and I highly recommend it.  There’s always the occasion where my original demo was spot on and I don’t need to change anything, but that’s usually not the case.  Most of my demos have been pretty bare bones, but I’ve found that the better the demo, the more you learn from it.  That being said, don’t be a perfectionist.  Make the demo, make it pretty good, and move on.  Keep finishing.