Song Sources: The Howling Tongue of Each Other (FAWM 2016) part 2

This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on The Howling Tongue of Each Other. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists.

Part 1 is here. See also the equipment list if you’re curious about that sort of thing.

This covers tracks 5-9.

Continue reading →

Song Sources: The Howling Tongue of Each Other (FAWM 2016) part 1

Since this year’s FAWM was a bit more varied song-to-song, I thought it was worth talking about all the songs.

Most of the notes here are directly from my “liner notes” posted with the songs on FAWM.org, but I’ve updated the entries with my current thoughts. I hope this proves useful to other songwriters and home recordists.

Before you click “more” I want to stress that, while I’m happy with the recordings — and some people have even paid money to download them — these are still home recordings, recorded on a lot of DIY gear, good quality budget stuff, and using comparatively simple production techniques with mostly real instruments. I think they’re good quality demos, but I can still tell the difference when I listen to something recorded in a real studio and can definitely tell the difference next to something that’s been professionally mastered. Continue reading →

Song Sources: The Howling Tongue of Each Other (FAWM 2016) part 3

This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on The Howling Tongue of Each Other. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists.

Part 1 is here. See also the equipment list if you’re curious about that sort of thing.

This covers tracks 10-13.

Continue reading →

Surprise EP of Scottish Songs for St. Andrew’s Day!

Here in the U.S. St. Patrick gets parades, green beer, and buttons telling people to kiss you, and everyone becomes Irish for a day. Everyone goes to the “pub” and sings along to “Finnegan’s Wake” even though the song isn’t nearly as hilarious as the book.

But mention St. Andrew and you get looks of “huh?” which, coincidentally, is also the reaction most Americans have to songs in the Scots dialect. Some people know what a caber is. Everyone knows Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne,” or rather, they know a single verse and chorus sung to a different tune than the one Burns wrote, because they sing it around his birthday. (News Years is close enough, right?)

300px-haggis_scoticus

The wild haggis in its native environment.

There’s no swilling copious amounts of Scotch that’s been dyed blue or wild haggis hunts. We don’t run around calling each other “Jo” and dancing the fling, except by accident.

We don’t even get to see the St. Andrew’s Day Google Doodle in the U.S.! This year’s is Nessy winkin’ at ye. Look at it. Loooook!

st-andrews-day-goo_3513533a

I love that Scotland allegedly invented a lot of its history and culture during the 17th century because everyone was doing it.

I love that possibly their most famous citizen ever, Robert Burns (or at least he was until that Braveheart movie came out — you know, that movie staring the crazy racist Australian living in a America) was not just a writer, but a songwriter, and one who wasn’t afraid to toss off a bawdy verse or two. I love Scottish music and songs, especially the really dark stuff that comes from the ballads throughout Britain — stuff that doesn’t survive as well in other Celtic folk music traditions.

So in honor of St. Andrew’s Day, this year, on a whim, I decided to spend the last week recording an EP of five Scottish songs plus one that’s American but has a connection to one of Robert Burns’s most famous songs, mostly in the original Scots. Silly? Maybe. A peculiar thing to just up and decide to do on a week’s notice? Maybe that, too. But it was fun.

Here are dropbox links to the MP3s if you don’t want to use Bandcamp:

Twa Corbies
Glenlogie (Bonnie Jean o’ Bethelnie)
Battle of Harlaw
MacPherson’s Rant
The Blackest Crow
Is There For Honest Poverty

Continue reading →

BB King Taught Me to Talk

B.B. King’s passing hit me pretty hard for a celebrity death, even though his passing came after a long battle with diabetes and its complications, and was perhaps even expected given his age.

Although there’s probably not a lot of evidence of it in my music these days, BB King is one of my biggest guitar influences. And not in a background “the dude influenced everyone” sort of way: he was the first guitarist I ever intentionally tried to emulate in every way possible. Weirdly, he’s also indirectly responsible for my interest in Celtic music and two degrees removed from Mark Knopfler, the only other guitarist I’ve really tried to emulate. (I didn’t discover my third major guitar hero, Richard Thompson, until I’d been playing for 10 years, and I did not directly borrowed much of Thompson’s technique.)

I started learning how to play blues fairly early after picking up the guitar, and BB King was my first exposure to it. My grandfather used to tape things off public television and mail the tapes to his family, and one of his tapes he sent us had a BB King concert from the early 90s (I think). I watched it constantly, and tried playing along with him. I dissected his playing as best I could (which I can’t say I’ve done with any other guitar player besides Mark Knopfler). I wasn’t smart enough at the time to know that the other thing that truly made him great was the economy of his playing, never playing more than he needed to and actually “saying” something with the guitar. So it was pretty easy for me to play more than he was playing, but I never hit nearly as many perfect notes.

I mainly learned the use of vibrato from him. In fact, I thought I was doing it pretty close to the same way as him until very recently when I watched a video where he did it in slow motion, and I realized I wasn’t doing it exactly right at all. But in revisiting his music, I think I also learned my tendancy to use double stops (that’s where you play two notes at once) as accents from his playing. A lot of other artists do this, but King did them in slightly different places. It’s hard to explain, but I know it when I hear it.

In 1997, about the time I was starting to get really seriously into playing guitar, especially blues, he put out the Dueces Wild album, which had him playing guitar with a bunch of people. Including van Morrison:

I was blown away by Van Morrison’s voice (most people are), and promptly started picking up Van Morrison albums … mostly his stuff from the 80s onward, which is ironic considering that if I had picked up his earlier records, I would have found him doing a lot more blues. Van the Man’s Philosopher’s Stone album had some blues on it, but what interested me more was the Celtic stuff he was doing. He did an entire CD with the Chieftains:

The first Chieftains album I picked up had this song on it:

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Mark Knopfler … it would have been hard to have been alive in the 80s without hearing any Dire Straights. I may have already had a Dire Straights best-of record. But I picked up Knopfler’s Golden Heart after I heard that, which is still one of my desert island albums. It would be a very short hop nowadays to go right back to BB King from Mark Knopfler:

(That’s from 2008.)

In a very short span of time in 1997, I had gone from playing and listening to mostly blues and alternative rock to listening to more and more Celtic folk, which ate up a lot of my attention in the following years, but I can pretty clearly remember listening to a small stack full of BB King records in the car when my dad and I road tripped to my grandparents’ house in Kentucky during spring break of my senior year in high school, including a really lousy tape-to-CD transfer we picked up in a gas station on the way.

For a long time, I thought that the blues was more or less antithetical to Celtic music. (I know better now.) Since I was better at the Celtic stuff, blues technique rarely made its way into the music I recorded, even when I did songs that were closer to bluegrass, which absolutely borrows from the blues. Blues guitar uses bends and vibrato, seventh notes and flatted thirds, almost none of which appears in the folk music I was playing. Celtic music rarely even allows vibrato. I did eventually find some middle ground, and I’m finding more all the time. I still played the blues for fun, and most of the blues songs I played were BB King songs.

Later, when I was a bit wiser, I went back and listened to BB King again, I got a little better at knowing when not to play. I’m still fascinated with the economy of his playing. In between, I learned a lot of sounds to make on the guitar: how to make it sing. How to make it scream. But BB King taught me how to make it talk.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say as much with as little as he did.

So farewell, Mr. King. Thanks for always giving me something to learn and for the introductions to some of my other favorite musicians.

FAWM 2015 retrospectacle

Such a retro spectacle.

For the third year in a row, I took part in the madness that is February Album Writing Month (FAWM), writing (and/or co-writing) and recording an entire album of 14 songs in 28 days.

As with previous years, the recordings where I collaborated with others were particularly memorable, so big thanks are in order for Dave Benham, Rick Veader, Kate Fleming, Lexa, Joe Scala, and Mosno.

The Writing Process

Typically, I don’t try to dictate what type of music I end up with when writing over such a short span of time, and this year I almost ended up with 14 different genres!

Like last year, I picked two words around which to build the themes for the album, chosen at random in a dictionary (my Arabic dictionary this time … I like to make sure I’m surprised!). They were “drown” and “evidence.” You can’t make this stuff up! Consequently, I ended up with songs about water (“The Brigandine” and “Dry Town”; “Gold Rush” and “Oh Brother” also have connections to water in the lyrics), trust (broken or kept), crime (“Dakota” for a serious song and “Bad Luck, Jack” for a nonserious) , and other related themes. The “evidence” theme also led to a lot of thinking about history and how we record, reconstruct, and examine it. “The Brigandine,” “Gold Rush,” “1851,” “The Field of Agincourt,” and even “The Last of My Kind” came directly out of that take on the theme.

Unlike previous years, I ignored the weekly challenges for the most part and just focused on taking whatever opportunities to create that came along — but I did write a couple things that fit a select few challenges, the biggest being the “epic outro” challenge for “Last of My Kind.”

The Songs

Here’s the entire playlist, along with some notes about each song.

1. Oh Brother (Ain’t It Hard) — A Welch/Rawlings-style recording of a song made to sound like classic American Apalachian folk.

2. Southeastern Breeze — An instrumental with guitar, mandolin, and banjo. The recording sounds like bluegrass, but the tune itself is closer to Maritime. My favorite part of this was learning the same tune on multiple instruments in the course of a day. Went to Teavolve’s Open Mic in the middle, came back and nailed the mandolin in a couple takes.

3. Dry Town — A completely fuzzed-out rocker (probably the most aggressive song I’ve ever written), but with lyrics inspired by Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It is about the current droughts in California and more broadly about our use of natural resources. It was inspired by this famous photo.

4. DakotaWith David Benham on Native American flute. This is story about a woman assaulted on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakoka. Her assailant is a non-native — reservation police had (and still have to some extent) a problem investigating, much less prosecuting, non-natives who commit crimes on reservations and then leave. Many poorer reservations also have problems with higher instances of violence against women (not just sexual violence as here but domestic violence as well). Banjo and native flute are a magical combination, and there is more material from mine and David’s session.

5. The BrigandineWith Rick Veader on pennywhistle. Peter Easton was the most successful pirate that ever lived — yet most people haven’t heard of him. This is a story about someone who joins a crew in Britsol as a fisherman, but the captain of his ship hates Easton for having cut off his hand as punishment for escaping press-ganged service. The captain pays gold as protection money to Easton (a standard bit of racketeering), and when it comes time to pay again, he fires his (no doubt inferior) cannons at Easton’s ships. The pirates make short work of the narrator’s vessel, murder the captain by hanging him from the rigging until he freezes to death and then dump his body in shallow water wrapped in the mainmast, and take the rest of the crew prisoner. Notable: It’s a folk song in 7/4, with one bar of 6/4 in the chorus.

6. (Someone Please) Have Mercy On Me — This one got a lot of comparisons to Gram Parsons’s Flying Burrito Brothers, so I guess that’s what it sounds like. I try not to talk too much about my personal beliefs, but this one’s about where we go when we die, which I believe is “nowhere,” and making the most of your time while here.

7. Bad Luck, Jack — It was Friday 13th, so I started thinking of horrible ways to go. Then I just created a couple guys going around knocking people off, and the body count kept climbing. The really fun thing with this one was the recording process, where I figured out how to make my guitar sound almost exactly like a horn section!

8. Gold Rush — A slow, majestic waltz narrated by the ghost of a California gold miner who lost everything in pursuit of riches. I think this is the first time I’ve played keys (piano and organ) on a public recording.

9. I Thought You Were the Wind — This is a story of an immigrant who loses his friend/role model to a bad situation. I left the lyrics intentionally vague, so it could be about a lover, friend, older sibling, etc., and there are many different kinds of trouble that they could have gotten into. However, I will let you know that while writing it, I actually had the brothers in mind from last year’s “Hold Tight,” but told from another perspective and with a different outcome … characters are as mutable as situations, sometimes. Southwest flavor with guitars and what I think is some of my best mandolin playing.

10. 1851 (Allons Enfants) — France’s 1848 revolution had an incredibly ironic outcome: Not only did it fail to reestablish the republic after deposing the last king of France (who was comparatively reasonable as Monarchs go) but the elections that followed saw a Napoleon elected President and — wouldn’t you know it, just like the last two guys named “Napoleon,” he declared himself emperor after a little bit of time in office pretending he totally wasn’t going to do that. I realized that someone could have been a child at the time of the first revolution (old enough to remember and understand what was happening) and still be young enough to be approached to “do his part” by revolutionaries in 1851. In the song he tells them why he won’t bother supporting them, because he thinks that it will end just as badly as it did before. The arrangement has some intentional resemblance to Knopfler’s “Done With Bonaparte.”

11. This was a collaboration with Kate Fleming, called “One Little Paper.” Kate unfortunately had a cold at the time, so, out of respect for her, so I will keep it private until she gets a chance to do the vocal to her satisfaction.

12. The Field of Agencourt (King Henry)With Lexa Hartman on bodhran. I was surprised to find that there are a dearth of battle ballads about this very famous king and battle, at least in English. So I decided to write one. I played pennywhistle on this, which was another first for me.

13. The Last of My Kind — Caveman rock! This was written for the “extinct species” challenge given by a member of the FAWM forums. I picked … Homo neanderthalensis. There is a narrated poem backed by a massive amount of percussion and chanting (Lexa helped again), but stick around for a huge musical shift for the epic outro. The song/poem/thing as a whole was inspired by — and constructed somewhat similarly to — Italo Calvino’s “The Dinosaurs” from Cosmicomics (one of my favorite books … it also gave me the title of the second Midway Fair album).

14. We Are Travelling/Compagnie Generale Aeropostale — With Mosno and Joe Scala. This is a cinematic suite of recordings we made based on an idea Joe had: a pilot crashes in the desert and is rescued by Bedouins, who he has to convince to take him back to the city. I wrote the lyrics for the pilot and then wrote the verse in Arabic, which Mosno edited and sang lead on, and then we did a live recording of both songs. Joe created the plane crash (believe it or not, that’s a bass guitar), and we made sound effects, then edited everything together. This was so much fun we’ve made tentative plans to expand it into something larger. One of the best days I’ve ever had recording music!

The Recording Process

In 2013, my first year completing the challenge, everything was done as a one-take video. Last year, I had just gotten my digital home recording setup, which allowed me to do some overdubs to enhance the recordings, which was especially important for songs that needed harmony vocals and two guitars. The recordings sounded more substantial but certainly still had a hand-crafted feeling even when I wanted a fully produced sound. Both years I thought I ended up with a few decent songs that have since appeared in my set lists both solo and with my band, Midway Fair.

This year, I went one step further and decided to create more fully produced tracks and playing a wider array of instruments. In fact, I’m downright proud of the list of instruments I played:

Guitars (of course)
Bass
Mandolin
Banjo
Piano, organ, and synthesized accordion
Pennywhistle (first time!)
Bodhran and some other types of percussion
Lionel’s Cigar Box Guitar (see here)
Drum machine programming
And lots and lots of vocals

For nearly all the tracks, each individual instrument was an overdub. Last year I typically did the vocals and acoustic guitar simultaneously, which led to a lot of doubled vocals because I still wanted to get the lead vocals just right. This year I didn’t really use stacked vocals at all but instead went with a lot of two-part harmony throughout the song (and plenty of three-or-more-part harmony on the choruses), which gives the songs a different feel, more polished maybe. The recordings were definitely cleaner, but they were also easier to mix despite having more tracks, and not just because I’ve gotten much better at the recording aspects in the past year.

I also think the biggest strides I’ve made in recording and writing since last year are improving what parts I play on each instrument. Too often in the past I would overdub a part and either scrap it entirely because it was messy or try to bury it in the mix … leaving a messy part buried in the mix. Recently, I’ve started simply avoiding the EQ for a lot of parts and focusing more on playing the right thing. Granted I don’t always succeed and there are times when I could have stopped playing or one instrument is stepping on another, but I think I’m getting there, and the result is recordings that sound a lot fuller but not as messy.

My mixing skills overall still need a ton of work, but that’s a lifelong pursuit.

Technical Details

I’ll try to keep this brief, but for the gearheads, this is what I used:

1. Interface and DAW: Scarlett 18i8 with Logic Pro X.

2. Plugins: I used no third-party plugins.

Nearly all of the compression is the “Vintage FET” and “Vintage Opto” plugins. These were my primary tone shaping tools in post as well. — I used almost no EQ throughout, except as an effect (such as the vocals on “Bad Luck, Jack”) or to correct shortcomings in an instrument (such as the piano on “Gold Rush”).

I used the rotary cabinet simulator in a couple places, which I find to be a very useful effect, but it was also the “amp” used for the acoustic on “Bad Luck Jack.”

For reverbs, I stuck mainly to the presets for the vocal plate, short ambiance, and large hall with very few exceptions. Most often I would turn on a preset and then delete the EQ and redo the compression settings just to keep the reverb settings, which usually required very little adjustment for my purposes. I do think the reverbs are still the least convincing aspects of Logic, but this is likely user error on my part, as they allow you to shape them in every conceivable way. I was at least much better about it this year than last.

I used the Tape Delay plugin in a few places (especially the vocal on “Last of My Kind”) and also used it as a “tape head” filter in a couple places. It adds a nice compression and distortion when set 100% wet with 0ms of delay and will also do through-zero flanging when needed.

The Spectral Gate plugin got a couple seconds of use in “The Last of My Kind” for the utter insanity at the end. Man, I want to turn that into a pedal, but it would be hyooooooooj.

I used a stereo tremolo plugin on “We Are Travelling” and on some sound effects.

One of the vocal tracks on “Bad Luck, Jack” used the pedal plugin for a treble booster.

3. Amps: Every electric guitar and bass track was recorded using Sakura, the 5W amp me and my dad built. I never felt like I wanted anything else, and despite the low wattage, I thought it worked just find on bass!

4. Acoustic guitars: I used my Crafters of Tennessee mahogany dreadnaught (similar to a D-18) for all of the acoustic parts that used a pick. I did use it on one or two fingerpicked parts when I thought the sound was more appropriate. Most of the fingerpicked acoustic parts were done with my Koa Larrivee D-05.

5. Electric guitars: On “Dry Town” I used my 50th Anniversary Sheraton for the rhythm and lead, and the red tele for the secondary lead. The Sheraton reappears as the “horns” on “Bad Luck, Jack.” The red tele also makes appearances as the lead guitar on “Someone Please” (middle pickup) and “Allons Enfants” (neck and middle). All other electric guitar parts were the DonQuixotecaster, usually on the neck and middle pickups.

6. Bass: Epiphone Viola bass.

7. Keyboard: My Roland FP5 provided the piano, organ, and accordion sounds used on the album. I did have to do a lot of post production for the piano and organ (EQ for the piano and a rotary cabinet sim for the organ), but overall it was more than adequate for my needs.

8. Microphones: I really abused the Sennheiser MK4. It appears on every track, and there were several tracks where it was the only microphone used. I did use a Sennheiser e609 for a couple guitar tracks, an AT2021 when I wanted a darker sound for something, and an AT2020 for the acoustic on “We Are Travelling.”

9. Pedals: For the most part, I didn’t need to deviate from my main pedalboard.

Compressors: Nearly every electric guitar and bass part used my Bearhug Compressor first in line. I also use compressors a lot in post, so there are typically multiple layers of compression.

Delay: I used the El Capistan for the delay on most of the tracks that have it, though I did use some post-processing delay on a few things. The “chorus” pedal on “We Are Travelling” is the other delay pedal on my main board, a Malekko 616.

Distortion: “Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees” fuzz, the one that Luke from Luck Duck pedals built me a long time ago before I started building (and the fuzz that lives on my main pedalboard) is the main dirt pedal (besides the amp itself driven by a MOSFET booster) on the outro to “Last of My Kind.” The Snow Day OD makes an appearance during the solos on “Dry Town.” A couple fuzzes I built appear on other tracks: the Rust Bunny is the primary fuzz sound on “Dry Town,” and the Tea and Crumpets fuzz is part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack.” Lots more clean electric on here!

Volume pedal: Ernie Ball VP for volume swells.

Filters: I don’t use filter effects very often, but when you need ’em, you need ’em! A major part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack” was the Something’s Fishy pedal, an FSH-1 clone, set to a short decay and short attack.

Tremolo: The Tap Tempo Cardinal makes an appearance on “Dry Town” on the Sheraton lead track.

10. Drums: Unfortunately, for the most part, if you hear a drum, it’s programmed. However, there is some improvised hand percussion on “The Last of My Kind” and “Bad Luck, Jack,” and Lexa’s bodhran on “The field of Agincourt” is of course real.

11. Other stuff: No idea what the pennywhistles were. The harmonica on “1851” is a Hohner. The cigar box guitar on “The Last of My Kind” was made by Lionel on the BYOC forum.

I think that’s everything!

Final Thoughts

Out of the three FAWMs I’ve done, I ended this one feeling much better about the output than previous years. I had a few clear favorites in previous years, and a couple songs each year that I thought were pretty lousy, but I can say pretty confidently that this year I have no regrets. Sure there are a couple places where I wish I’d had more time to really nail a certain part (particularly vocals, which are tough on songs I haven’t internalized), a couple vocals that could have used more practice, and some mixes that could have been improved with more time, or a couple lines that I might revise in the future, but what album isn’t like that?

Now I have to decide what to do with the recordings, if anything. I have considered having the backing vocals replaced with the other people in Midway Fair and overdubbing real drums for some songs to use on future recordings. Of course, then they would need to be remixed, and I’d probably want to redo a few things in a real studio … and, and, and. I’ll just live with it for a while and see what happens!

Other FAWMers

I also want to link to two people’s albums I was very impressed by.

The first is Gardening Angel from Spokane, WA — this was her first FAWM. To me she sounds like Beth Orton and Tom Waits got together to make an album together. Fantastic heartfelt writing and voice. “Big Blue Jar” is my favorite on here.

Another is Lightning Streak Dave, who wrote a concept about the robot dystopian future, with the opposition led by Donald Duck, told from the perspective of a dozen characters including what must be the last living DJ. “Steamboat Cleanup Crew” in particular is utterly spectacular, some sort of marriage of industrial, blues, and chain gang music. Exceptionally creative and expansive recordings.

Joe Scala of course also completed his 14 songs, taking a different tack from previous years and working on several songs at once. He actually wrote 3 songs on Saturday the 28th and recorded 6 in the same day, so he totally Please Please Me-ed it! It’s a shame the recordings with Chris Durm and Tony Colato had some technical difficulties, because they were cool songs that I am excited to play at Marksmen shows. Also, check it out: Katie Scala has a co-writing credit on “Let Me Your Light”!

The Notelet War (or, How to write a snarky office note that actually does something)

A different kind of note than I normally discuss here.

For a while at the office, we’ve had a note on the microwave that says

If you use this machine, clean it.

Or some variant thereof. This morning I walked in and it said

Wh-a-a-a-a-t? Someone’s lunch exploded! Please clean the wave [sic]

I opened up the microwave and sure enough there was some crusty, cheesy and tomato-y residue. Not my lunch , but … I needed to use the microwave and considered just using it with what was in there, because I want my tea as fast as possible, but there was the possibility that something would fall off the roof of the microwave into my tea, and then I’d have to clean the microwave anyway and then make another cup of tea, so I did the adult thing and cleaned the microwave out of a robust sense of pure goodly self-interest.

But I was a little ticked about the note. And it wasn’t just that they abbreviated microwave with just “wave” and didn’t even put an apostrophe. I don’t know if it’s written by the same person who puts notes on the fridge in all caps rife with misspellings, grammar errors, omitted words, and lack of punctuation, but what really miffed me is that this note didn’t accomplish anything important. So I wrote a note that

It probably took you just as long to write the note as it would have to clean the microwave.

Those of you who are mature, rational adults are probably shaking your heads right now and realizing that this would not end well. Fortunately, all parties declared a cessation of hostilities and nothing really came of it.

Some people don’t like notes. I do. They’re just wonderful for passive-aggressive behavior, which is my favorite kind of behavior.

Back when I worked as an editor, we had a party one day, and a coworker, B, had baked something tasty (probably babkas, and since her name starts with a B, I’ll just name her Babka). She put her dishes in the sink at work afterward, and someone threw them out. These weren’t ambiguous dishes of any sort. They weren’t some aluminum trays or anything like that. They were nice CorningWare glass dishes, clearly meant to be reused and not tossed out.

This came on the heels of someone tossing out some blue cheese of mine, presumably because it looked moldy. (It doesn’t go bad! Itgoes good!) So I wrote a little note:

Please don’t throw out other people’s stuff.

And I put it on the wall behind the sink.

Whereupon later that evening, after I had gone home, some irony-deficient soul threw out my note.

So I made another and hung it up.

That one got thrown out by lunch time.

This time I made two.

Please don’t throw out other people’s stuff. This includes signs asking you to not throw out other peoples’ stuff.

Both trashed.

Come on, at least recycle.

My next task was to ensure that the sign couldn’t be thrown out. Being just a piece of paper, this is quite difficult, because, in the same way a person can shrug off a single papercut, a human can easily overpower a single piece of paper. But many papercuts may make even the strongest warrior cry out in agony! So I did what any sensible person would do, and that’s make dozens of copies, stay at work very late, and then paper the entire wall of the kitchen with signs.

Naturally, the next day, someone came around and explained that she had been removing signs because she found them “unprofessional,” though no mention was made of how unprofessional it was to throw away someone’s dishes, and was looking for the person who made the signs. My co-workers, bless their hearts, did not rat me out.

My boss called me into her office and asked me, even though she couldn’t prove it was me, not to put up any more signs.

This was right about the time that things really started to go downhill, businesswise, at that office, right before we knew for sure that the editorial contract my section worked on — which was the biggest one there — was going to someone else, and we were all going to die get fired be restructured.

Now, whenever I write a little sarcastic note at work, I wonder if this was the sort of thing that factored into my being laid off when it came time to pick and choose who got to stay.

hmmmm … naaaaaah.

Hey, I promised to tell you about an office note actually doing something, not something good!

Meet Sakura! — Me and My Dad Built an Amp

Normally I like to keep the blog more about music and relegate my gear stuff to my “Things I Make” page, but this one’s something special!

This is my “Woodchipper” amp design. It’s nothing revolutionary, basically a tweed-era champ with some modern refinements, like better power filtering, a mids boost/modified presence control on the second preamp stage, and switchable negative feedback that adds a surprising amount of versatility.

This is a build report for the amp itself. If possible, I’ll create a build document if you’d like to make one for yourself (or modify an existing champ build), excluding plans for the cabinet, of course, because that was all my dad.

Turren board

A friend from the forums (Morgan) hooked me up with a drilled piece of eyelet board in a trade, and loaned me his staking anvil and provided the turrets.

Sakura woodchipper - guts

I populated it and worked on it a little bit at a time over the following week or so, until I had the chassis wired.

Sakura Woodchipper guts - heater wire

Took Merlin Blencowe’s (The Valve Wizard) advice on keeping the heaters away from the side of the tube sockets, and coming up over the top

Sakura wood chipper guts - pots

Took a close-up of the pots and feedback switch and realized after I did so that the wiper lug of the mids pot was backwards, so I fixed that right after. Comparatively minor mistake to having that leftmost cap backwards (yeah, I did that) or forgetting to connect the leftmost red wire (B+ power connection) (yeah, I did that one, too!).

PCB close-up

Close-up of the circuit board. Not the absolute neatest work possible, but I did my best, and it was my first time working with turret board after all.

Sakura woodchipper - chassis tube side front

Here’s the finished chassis from the front …

Sakura woodchipper - chassis tube side back

… and the back (yup, I tortured myself with a detachable power chord).

Sakura woodchipper - mounted without shield

Inside the cabinet showing the tubes in and the speaker (a Weber alnico Signature 12). We came up with a nifty way to keep the chassis in there without requiring bolts through the whole cabinet, using z-brackets …

Sakura woodchipper - back of cabinet

… and a piece of wood across the bottom of the back of the chassis, so simultaneously protect the tubes and hold the chassis in. You can see that I didn’t exactly coordinate with my dad on every aspect of the cabinet design … so reaching the on/off switch can be a tiny bit annoying.

Sakura woodchipper - cabinet corner

Have I mentioned what awesome cabinet work my dad does? He made it out of solid cherry!

Sakura woodchipper - Front of cabinet

Here’s the front, taken outside under our cherry tree :). Oxblood grillcloth goes great with the cherry wood:

Sakura woodchipper - faceplate close-up 1

Close-ups of the hand-painted control panel.

Sakura woodchipper - Faceplate close-up 2

For the curious, the “midrange ^” label is easier to read in person.

It gets a little gritty but still sounds mostly clean, basically perfect for my music, and it’s not overly loud.

We’ve already taken the amp for a spin: we took it to the blues jam/open mic I go to a lot on Thursday (Bippy’s), before I had painted the faceplate, and it did a great job of hanging with a (respectful) drummer with the volume at noon despite the 5W. That 12″ speaker really helps!

The name “Sakura” is a type of Japanese cherry tree. My dad wanted me to name it Cherry, but I thought that was a little um, not my style.

Update 7/5/14:

I filmed a demo:

Updated 12/21/15: I forgot to post the schematic. I also have made a few improvements to the tone control and voice switch since filming the video. Here’s the schematic. If you’d like to hear what it sounds like now, my 2015 FAWM album uses it on nearly every track, including for bass.

I Hate Cutting the Grass

What grass makes me feel like.

It’s not just my hay fever. I just think the whole idea behind lawns, and mowing them, is stupid.

Let’s think about this. We have entire departments of the city whose job it is to issue citations when someone’s grass gets too tall. That’s anything over something like 12″ I think. Why? Because at some point we decided that we weren’t going to allow this one particular plant to get too tall. I have bushes in my front yard that are 3 or 4 feet tall, but that’s okay, because they aren’t grass. I can grow flowers that are basically local weeds, and they might get two feet tall, but that’s okay, because they aren’t grass. So we have to mow it. I use a push mower, which does a terrible job. Most people burn up some fossil fuels.

Mowin’ it old school. Evidence I’m either a masochist or an ascetic.

That right there is everything that’s wrong with the world. Don’t like how this plant looks? Burn some fossil fuels!

But there are some plants that aren’t even okay to have in the front yard! There are communities (I don’t know about in Baltimore, but I bet some of the covenant communities here are like this) where you can’t grow, say, tomatoes in the front yard. Tomatoes! They have flowers. They get some pretty red fruit. But not okay. Why? I guess because they’re food. Can’t have anyone growing

Not an acceptable flower. People might think you aren’t just interested in wasting your huge tracts of land.

food in the front yard! Other plants that do that that are purely decorative are perfectly okay. We can’t have livestock in the city like goats or sheep that would eat the grass, either.

And people say this boils down to property values. You have to prove that your land is completely non-productive or you might devalue your neighbor’s land! One particular plant has a height limit or you might devalue your neighbor’s land! If you really want to prove that you’re super awesome, you

“Can you believe someone was wasting all this land growing crops? I’m so glad I can just ride my mower around on it as a leisure activity! What’s that? Oh, I totally need this much land or else I might be able to see my neighbor.”

can be one of those people who buys up forty acres of farm land and fills it with lawn as faaar as the eye can see. You could put some freaking horses on that land! But no! They smell bad and the gasoline required to run your riding mower isn’t going to burn itself and contribute to the destruction of the planet!

How did we reach this mindset as a species? What is wrong with us?

Do all the things (not just one thing well)!

I do a lot of stuff. That’s a bug, not a feature.

Grassrootsy ran an article yesterday, discussing whether quality of product or publicity is important. This is a quick excerpt from Joy’s post:

Just to clarify: content is quality. The music has got to be great. Totally agree with you. But just b/c its great doesn’t mean it gets exposure. And just because its great doesnt mean people will listen to it. That’s where solid promotion comes in. Otherwise all the talented independent artists out there, would be famous by now.

I agree with this, just like I agree with Joy on most things she writes. Getting exposure for things is clearly important. But the reason this came up for me is that recently a friend wrote to me asking for press contacts for Baltimore. Three years ago, I might have had something useful to say. I even landed Midway Fair’s second album a few reviews, so obviously I must know something about promoting music to “the press” (even if none of those reviews were by anyone in Baltimore).

But I had to type up an e-mail that explained that, now, I know nahthing. I shared what information I had, but it was a couple years old.

At some point, I realized that there’s really only so much time in the world, and promoting my music is probably my least favorite activity ever. It makes me feel really distasteful, and not just because I’m (apparently) antisocial and don’t want to talk to people. I don’t even like to sell the albums that I’ve spent thousands of dollars recording. When I’m allowed to, I sell the albums for whatever people are willing to pay. That’s pretty inconvenient for making the money back to make more recordings, though.

Instead I just decided to spend the time spent doing halfhearted promoting on things I apparently do enjoy: writing, playing music, and building little electronic boxes (that I barely use at all).

Building little electronic boxes obviously does nothing for promoting my music, except, well, in a way it has, because almost every video on my YouTube channel has more views alone than the entire Midway Fair channel had (back when it had videos, before YouTube inexplicably deleted them all). It’s taught me a lot about the science of sound, about really listening to how sound actually works. When I started doing some home recording recently, I was able to transfer that knowledge to better arrangements. When working in the studio in January on our forthcoming Most Distant Star EP, I had a better sense of what to grab to get the sound I wanted … and when not to grab anything. And when to do nothing at all.

Most of the writing I do these days isn’t the sort of writing I really want to do … I’m not writing fiction, and I certainly don’t write as many songs as I ought to, but instead I spend a lot of time writing about how to build little electronic boxes and helping other people do the same. Is it a waste of time? I don’t know in the long run. But I don’t think it is. It has actually forced me to think harder about whether someone else can understand what I’m writing. Sometimes the target audience is one person. Sometimes it’s several people. But I can say for sure that I didn’t think quite as deeply about how well I was communicating when I was just writing fiction. I think my songwriting has also become more facile simply by staying in practice writing anything instead of only sitting at the keyboard when I had the intention of creating something “great.” (Which does not work and never has for anyone ever, not even for the one person somewhere reading this who thinks it worked for them. I just want to be clear on that.) Maybe I don’t end up making great songs, but at least I make songs when I want to.

I guess my point is that just because something doesn’t accomplish a specific end goal doesn’t mean that it’s not worth pursuing, and even getting good at. I’m doing a lot of things that don’t advance whatever minuscule ambitions I have for my music, and yet somehow those are still useful in making better music.

And you know what? I bet there are also people out there for whom promoting music is a way for them to get better at being a musician.

At some point, I realized that I really only have time for a certain number of things in life, and actively promoting my band takes time and energy, so when it came up on the chopping block, I had to see if it accomplished any of my goals in life. You know, those nonexistent goals. I don’t tour, I’m not trying to get on a label, I don’t play pop music, and I can’t even name a venue in Baltimore I’d like to work toward playing. In fact, the only definable goal I could come up with for my music was that I wanted to be really good. And if I thought about it, that’s the only thing I’ve ever cared about … I just want to be good. When I record an album, I want to be able to listen to it and say, “This is actually good.” When I write something, I just wanted it to be good. Once it comes time to do anything with them, I lose interest quickly. Which is stupid, I know, but I just can’t see the point. What would I do if I worked hard at publishing my writing? Give up playing music and continue writing fiction all the time, so that I build a body of work and eventually enjoy the modest success of having someone, somewhere, download and read my book? I like playing music too much. What if I focused on just music and worked hard at making a living at it? I could spend a lot of time getting good enough at promoting music to live out of my car when I’m 50 (i.e., modest success) and sell out a small venue 200 times a year, but the trouble is I also like doing all this other stuff. I also want to be good at having a house and sleeping in it.

All this is sort of another way of agreeing that quality is of supreme importance, but that you can’t ignore publicity if you want anyone to know your music. If that’s what you want.

But as someone who doesn’t rely on selling CDs to pay for his next meal, I wonder, what would the world would be like if more artists just ditched their ambitions to be famous, important, or even known outside of a handful of friends and instead just tried to be really good at what they do?

Of course, wanting to be good at too many things in general means I’m not really that good at any of them, just good enough to realize how much better a lot of people are at it. But maybe someday I will be, if I don’t get bored and move onto something else.