Archive for category Music
About 25 years ago I discovered the wonders of recording music. The equipment was primitive by today’s standards. I think my first recording at Music Man Studios in Wilsonville was done on a 4 Track Boss digital recorder. I had entered a song writing contest and I won an award in the adult group with the original Foolin’ Around
It wasn’t anything spectacular. I had just picked up the guitar again after not touching it much while raising 3 kids for 20 years. But now I was hooked.
Ever since I’ve struggled with the decision of the approach one should take on recording music. Fundamentally, is your source of recording material hardware or software? In the beginning I went with hardware and invested in an 8 track DAW from BOSS that worked pretty well, but I always wondered if that was the right decision.
Since then, the software technology has progressed beyond anything you can imagine. Most professional studios use Pro Tools, which, to the home hobbyist can set you back about $600 or more to invest in. It’s definitely the top of the line. I could never justify the expense there, but I did try to get a free (limited) version of Pro Tools that came with an audio interface box I bought from M-Audio. But that experience sucked the big one. Licensing for the limited version was a hassle, including dongles and everything. Finding drivers to work with the POS M-Audio box proved to be difficult. Hours and hours wasted on this path. All I can say is, don’t do it.
I’ve seen what Pro Tools can do. In fact, I’ve had another original, Invisible Man recorded with Pro Tools, but it wasn’t at home, this was at a studio. Amazing what it can do.
So I’d gotten wind of a relatively free Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) tool called Reaper that was in my price range, tried it out, and it worked pretty well. I made several recording using it and they are on soundcloud. Reaper set me back only $60. Not bad.
Recently I got wind of Pro Logic. For $200, you get the full enchilada. As an Apple user I decided to go all in. It rivals Pro Tools in many ways for 1/3 of the cost. It has options that will take years to learn and master. I’m in the process of doing a couple of recordings on Logic Pro at the moment, which I will release to soundcloud here soon. But this program strikes as the 3 bears of DAW programs. The one that is ‘just right’.
“mom always liked you best” was an LP that influenced me a great deal growing up. I listened to it over a 100 times I’m sure. It’s hard to believe that these guys were the “rebels” of prime time TV in the late 60’s for having the audacity to partake in satire on racism, The President, and The Vietnam War.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a great combination of music and comedy but the brothers had a particular talent for discovering other talent and giving them a chance on their show. Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Mason Williams to name a few.
From Wikipedia: other guests included George Harrison, Joan Baez, Buffalo Springfield, Cass Elliot, Harry Belafonte, Cream, Donovan, The Doors, Glen Campbell, Janis Ian, Jefferson Airplane, The Happenings, Peter, Paul and Mary, Spanky and Our Gang, Ringo Starr, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Hollies, The Who and even Pete Seeger were showcased on the show, despite the advertiser-sensitive nature of their music.
David Bianculli wrote a book called Dangerously Funny that is a pretty good account of the struggles between Tom, Dick, and CBS over show content. CBS had to try to balance the brothers’ loyal followers with letters from angry fans who wanted the show censored, and even reported pressure from the White House. Eventually the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had to be taped 10 days ahead of time so CBS could review/edit (sensor) content and not long after that the show was cancelled.
Donna and I randomly met a local gal at a party of a friend in Tualatin who dated Tommy Smothers in the late 1960’s. Their first date? Tommy was a presenter at the 1968 Grammy Awards show. She got a back-stage pass to the Grammys as a first date. As the story goes, the relationship didn’t last because old Tom liked to indulge in the hooch a little too much for her tastes.
A few years ago we made a trip to the Chinook Winds casino in Lincoln City to see the Smothers Brothers, well past their prime, but still pretty funny.
Twelve years I toiled in the D leagues of the Portland band scene. I may have gotten up to C level a time or two, but most of it was clearly in the D leagues. Farmers Markets, Private parties, and an occasional corporate event or business opening. I think the most I ever banked from a 3 hour gig was $100. Not bad by some standards. Money-wise that’s as good as some A-B league bands do. But clearly we were operating (intentionally) at the lower levels where mistakes are not a big deal. My goal was usually to get through the night with no quinker-dinkers and I got to the point where I could pull that off more often than not.
I was fortunate enough to ‘play up’ and got to work with some really good mentors who (thankfully) had patience. Along the way you learn some valuable lessons. Here are a few I thought I’d share, for whatever it’s worth.
The singer gets to pick the songs This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it’s often followed.
Travel light You can tell the smart guitar players because they aren’t packing around 500 lbs of shit to every gig. They keep it simple. I watched the best guitar player in Portland show up for a gig one time at Bridgeport Village with The Patrick Lamb Band. He was carrying about 3 things. His guitar on a shoulder strap, a small ( quality ) tube amp, and his pedal was in a bag along with a few cords. That’s it.
Myself, ability-wise about 15 steps down from him, had a habit of showing up for the Annual ZeeRocks corporate gig with my truck loaded to the brim with gear. Let me be the first to admit, the extra gear did not help. And it took an hour to assemble and I was exhausted when I was all done. Worse, I had to remember how to use it all during the gig…. to the point where I’d play the song wrong. You see that’s the point. If you can’t play the song right, then forget about all the other stuff. Priority 1 is learn the song and play it with no mistakes.
Keep the songs moving Some bands/duos do this exceptionally well. Nobody does it better than Tim Ellis and Jim Walker. They can string a medley of 20 songs together without ever stopping. It’s truly amazing. Too often I’ve run into a band member who see a microphone and seizes the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a stand up comic. It usually goes over like a lead balloon. Dude, you’re not funny. Another band member couldn’t stop fucking around with the PA and it drove me nuts. It’s like the entire gig was this 3 hour sound check. That messed with my mojo, but you do what you have to to get along. The point is, the listener wants to hear the next song, not your jokes, or a continuation of the sound check, or anything else.
Coming unprepared to practice is rude When one former band member announced that, “Yeah, I gotta go home and woodshed that one” for the 3rd practice in a row, I was ready to SCREAM. By contrast, nothing is better than coming to practice and cruising through new songs and having them sound pretty good the first time. Enough said.
Keep the gear simple ( see also, Travel light ). The more pedals and extra stuff you have to tweak, the more than can go wrong technically and throw your song off. I know this from personal experience. One of the worst flaws I had as a player for most of the time I played was having to tweak my pedals in the middle of a gig. Cardinal sin. All that stuff should be dialed in and operating it should be second nature during a gig. You can observe the good players doing this.
Put your best material in the middle of the set list. I finally learned to do this after realizing it was fallacy to think that you’re going to play a Farmer’s Market and there will be some sort of ‘grand finale’ that you will go out on. Fact is, most people show up to these sorts of events somewhere in the middle, so that’s where you want to put your best stuff.
Don’t take breaks right when you have some momentum going The set list is a guide, not the Bible. Be flexible. If your band has the mojo going and people are getting into it, keep playing. Just because the set list says set 1 is over and it’s time for a break doesn’t mean it’s the law.
Don’t spend a bunch of time in practice re-writing the arrangement Agree to either ‘do it like the record’ so that everyone has the same reference point coming in, or else document the arrangement and give it to everyone beforehand.
Don’t play too loud Better to have people asking you to turn it up than turn it down.
Be flexible with your band mates’ goals It isn’t he 1960’s anymore. Playing with another band is not a form a cheating. The pay is low, so naturally musicians who need the money are going to try to get as many paying gigs as they can. Sometimes the customer wants a duo. Other times they want a full 5 piece. The best musicians I know play in several different configurations… whatever the gig calls for. Give your band mates some room to breath in the area and try not to get your undies in a bunch when a band mate gets an opportunity to play with other musicians.
Keeping a band together can be a real challenge. Especially for us working stiffs who know good and well we need to keep our day jobs and try to do this as a semi-serious hobby or else risk starvation.
There’s the chore of finding others with similar musical tastes, ability, age proximity, and commitment levels. There’s dealing with personality types and communication styles that are different than yours. There’s aligning work and weekend schedules for practice and gigs and commuting distances. The bigger the band, the more of a challenge it becomes. A lot can go wrong on the road to becoming a paid band member, even if it’s just beer money.
But every now and then the planets align and you find a group of people where it comes together pretty well. Keeping that going however, is also hard work. Even if it looks good initially, the opportunity for a band-ending kerfuffle is right around every corner.
Let’s say you work up a couple of sets with a new group, it sounds pretty good and you think you might be about ready to take your show out to the local watering hole. You soon realize you need some demo tracks for potential customers. It’s nearly impossible to get a paying gig without giving a customer who is not familiar with your work something to listen to. The group gets together and decides the solution is to do some recording, put tracks up on Reverb Nation or SoundCloud and link to them from your band’s new Facebook page. How does one go about that?
Studio time is great but bring your wallet. Recording live in your garage probably isn’t going to yield a quality level you’ll be comfortable giving to a customer. The recording process takes time, patience, skill, technology, and smarts.
It’s the last one that eludes a lot of prospective bands in this writer’s opinion. It’s easy to become impatient and post a low quality recording because everyone just got burned out on the recording process and wants to move on. But smart bands know the quickest route to getting those tracks up is to record one instrument / voice at a time and mix until you’ve got what you want. Forget the live recording idea. Someone might go to jail before you reach consensus on enough tracks to release. It’s the story of the tortoise and the hare all over again, with different players.
The last band I was in had the debate about recording live vs. laying down tracks. This turned out to be a real fork in the road. I knew it was a huge mistake at the time but couldn’t convince my peers to layer and mix. One band member in particular was on this idealistic “No False Advertising” campaign and wouldn’t consider mixing tracks because “Then our customers will think they are going to hear one thing when they listen to mixed tracks, but will then be disappointed when they hear us live.” To that I say bullshit. If you can get pretty close, you’re golden and the customer won’t give a damn. They aren’t that stupid as to not know the difference between live sound and a recording.
I do sympathize with the position however if what we’re talking about is mixing in extra effects that we can’t reproduce, or screwing with the features of Pro Tools, or Garage Band (pick your tool) to where you are essentially in the role of song manufacturer vs. recording your musical abilities. That part I get and agree with. I think sometimes band members get so caught up in the bells and whistles of the tools that they forget to play the song.
Anyway, having said all of that, real fork in the road. There were only 3 of us, but the probability that we were all going to play (6) 3-4 minute songs from start to finish with no mistakes, with the right mix of voices to instruments and to the quality level that we wanted to release was next to zero. Take after take after take we struggled to keep our patience with each other and find some half ways decent. It damn near killed the band right then and there. We played the songs so many times we now hated the songs and didn’t want to play them again for 6 months.
Laying down tracks could have been done separately, in the comfort of our homes without the pressure of screwing up and having to start over when everyone else’s part was perfect. And it could have been done in one-third of the time and without the battle scars of trying to record live.
Next time someone says “Let’s record our demo tracks live”, don’t listen to them.
Confucius says “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
I think Lisa Mann may have read that advice and taken it to heart about 35 years ago. All of the leading experts say that the road to happiness is to figure out what your natural gifts are. Find your passion and follow it. Trust your instincts and do what you love and let the chips fall where they may.
It all sounds great. Wonderful. Nirvana. Why didn’t I think of that? How utterly simple! Unless of course you discover that your natural talent it to be a performer in the music business. I would guess that over 99% of the people who realize music is what they love to do end up selling out for their second choice for the simple reason that there’s no money in it. It’s fine for a lot of people as a second source of income, which is why most keep their days jobs. To try to make it in the music business full-time, most musicians / singers end up working the business from at least 3 different angles. Teaching is common. Some do some recording on the side. But if your real passion is performing and you’re trying to make the rent from gig money, good luck my friend. The math just isn’t there, no matter how good you are.
That’s why it’s impressive when I run into local musicians who have taken up the music business full-time come hell or high water. It’s what they love to do, so they put their hearts and souls into it, 401k be damned. These people understand the term “personal sacrifice” all too well.
One such local musician, Lisa Mann is a full-time musician ( bass player ), and singer who has taken this road. Lisa is very much an “in-demand” performer whose motto is “I’ll gig anywhere, anytime.” She has the flexibility to go out as a duo with just a guitar player for smaller venues, can put together an awesome trio if the budget is a little higher, or if you want the full meal-deal, go with Lisa Mann and her Really Good Band. Any/all of these configurations I highly recommend.
I first noticed Lisa as a volunteer at the Waterfront Blues Festival. I was lucky enough to get a “back-stage” assignment for an afternoon which basically amounted to monitoring the stage surroundings to make sure no kids were clowning around underneath. Tough job. One one such sunny afternoon in July, I had duty on the North stage and the first act was some kids from the Midwest who had incredibly high energy and stage antics. I couldn’t tell you the band name but watching them perform you got the impression that they were geared up for Woodstock. I think about 3 people were paying attention.
Next up was the “Northwest Women in Blues Review” which, near as I could tell, was sort of All-star cast of the best female performers in the Pacific Northwest. Sonny Hess I was familiar with as I’d seen her at the Blues Festival in previous years and was struck by the fact that she handles leads incredibly well. You just don’t see women shredding the neck on guitar like that very often so when you do, obviously you remember it. I was looking forward to seeing her perform with the other NW Women in Blues Review but I wasn’t too familiar with the other names on the list.
So I’m back stage and the women are setting up and I’m watching this short little bass player, all of about 4′ 10″ I reckon, setting up front on the big stage. Hmmmmm, I wonder who that is? Pretty soon we all found out. The vocals were so powerful. She belted out tunes Aretha Franklin style that echoed across the park and half way down into River Place. There may have even been some folks on the Sellwood bridge groovin’. What-a-voice. The crowd went haywire. How can so much energy come out of that tiny framework? I was wanting to find out more about this little dynamo on stage. Come to find out, her name was Lisa Mann. So noted.
It’s always good to discover another local talent to follow on your weekend musical diversions. Portland is rich with local talent that’s for sure. The bar is set pretty high for being considered in the top tier. Some of the local musicians we have — a few names come to mind — Erick Hailstone, Tim Ellis, Sandin Wilson, Jason Moore, Norm Whitehurst, Marty McCray, Tiffany Carlson, Jim Walker — and I would include Lisa Mann in this group as a vocalist and songwriter, are just one lucky break away from playing much bigger stages. The talent is there, no question. All that’s missing is that one lucky break a person needs to get the national level exposure and things could take off.
Talent aside, that’s not what this blog post is about. Portland is rich will talent, sure. But so are a lot of cities. Big deal.
This post is about heart. We see benefit concerts fairly frequently on TV. You’ve seen them. Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Elton John, Neil Young and a whole cast of others get together to give relief to Hurricane victims or Aids relief or whatever the cause. That’s nice and highly commendable, but these are all millionaire musicians. They can afford it. God love ’em for taking the time and I don’t want to take anything away from them for their efforts, but it’s a personal sacrifice of limited measure.
What IS impressive is when you find someone from the non-millionaires club whose finances are anything but flush, offering to throw a benefit for someone less fortunate. Enter Lisa Mann, some friends and the Rally for Aly
Aly, age 11, is Lisa’s next door neighbor who has been dealing with cancer. They thought they had it under control and in remission, but apparently it’s back. I don’t know Aly. I don’t know Lisa that well either. I’ve just spoken to her a few times in passing. But this benefit for her next door neighbor impresses the shit out of me because I know for a fact that a local full-time musician does not have the funds to be doing this all the time. So there’s only one explanation. Lisa has a humongous heart and she’s following it. She’s going to worry about her retirement plan on another day.
Please join me in supporting the Rally for Aly, and while you’re there, let’s thank every participating musician. In my estimation, these are local heroes that deserve our thanks.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s. I got the music bug pretty bad and had always wanted to become a really good guitar player, but alas I got married young and had a family and responsibilities therein. But now my kids were old enough to entertain themselves for the most part and apart from a taxi-ride now and then, they were getting pretty self-sufficient so I picked up the guitar and started taking lessons.
As someone who grew up trying to learn the guitar and appreciating that it’s a real challenge, I used to drool at the guys who could shred the neck. As luck would have it, one such individual, Erick Hailstone was playing in a band in my own home town. Erick is not your average shredder. He’s could share the stage with the top names in the business, he’s that good. He is the most well-rounded, knowledgable, gifted guitar player I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He’s got an endless library of Jazz Standards that he can seemingly pull out of nowhere any time he wants. If he happens to be playing with a rock band, he will absolutely blow you away with speed and tastiness of his licks. There isn’t anything the guy cannot do as far as I know.
Watching Erick and his band at the Sweetbrier in Tualatin just made my music bug grow more intensely. I was obsessed with learning as much as I could and getting good enough to play in a band myself. I figured it might take 5 years or so, but I had time now and it was a priority, so I was going to do it.
A couple of years went by and I was invited to play with the company band at Xerox, “ZeeRocks”. I didn’t think I was quite ready yet for this, but I couldn’t pass up the offer. It turned out to be a pretty fun group to play with and a great learning experience for me. An off-shoot of ZeeRocks was a trio we formed called The SoundWaves Band. To start with it was Dan Brantley and myself and we featured his daughter Rena on vocals. Rena has an awesome powerful voice and I enjoyed that band immensely. We worked our way up from the Farmer’s Markets to the next level so-to-speak where we got to play in a Restaurant BBQ on a golf course. Great setting.
But all the while, I’m reminded of “leveling” and playing “at my level” and no higher. The worst thing, I reckoned, was to get up on stage where the expectations on the guitar player are high, and suck. I knew enough about the limits of my abilities to not try it.
The SoundWaves started playing local Farmer’s Markets and those were a ton of fun. Before the very first one, I went out to the market the weekend prior to when we were scheduled to play and “scoped the competition” some. It was a guy playing his guitar underneath a tree, solo. I figured we might come in with our powerful female vocalist, a keyboard player and electric guitar and rock this house, baby. We did. They invited us back for several more gigs. For their $50 budget — for the band, they weren’t used to getting a vocalist like Rena to come in and blow them away. We were actually playing “below” our level a bit, but I was enjoying every minute of it.
Several years later, Dan and Rena had to exit The SoundWaves and I tried to keep the band going with new members so that I wouldn’t lose the momentum and the gigs we had acquired. I happened across some awesome female vocalists in Tiffany Carlson and Melanie Rae and convinced them to give this thing a go. I also borrowed the drummer and bass player from a local band called Seymour, and we had a 5 piece that did both covers and originals and we were having a pretty good time of it. The wheels sort of fell off after we got all primed for a series of gigs that got cut back to one gig — argggh! But I always felt we weren’t stretching our “level” too much. The key for me was hooking up with great singers and other musicians so that very little of the whole thing depended on just me. I just had to nail down the rhythm guitar, play a few leads and try not to screw up the background vocals.
After The SoundWaves experience was over, Tiffany had connections with a local restaurant in Tualatin called Haydens and was asked to play. She asked me if I wanted to join her and Melanie for a gig there. I declined. To appreciate why I declined, you’d have to have experienced what goes on at Haydens on a typical weekend. There’s a duo that plays there – Tim Ellis and Jim Walker. Ellis’ guitar playing is on par with Erick Hailstone’s. There isn’t much Tim can’t do. He can shred. His timing is always perfect and he rarely makes a mistake. His library of tunes is endless. Pair that up with a top notch singer like Jim Walker and you’ve got entertainment.
Consequently, the expectations on the guitar player at Haydens are sky-high. If some locals came to see live music on a weekend expecting to see Tim Ellis and all of a sudden it was Bill Toner, wow, would they be disappointed. I just couldn’t do it, much as I liked the idea of playing more gigs with Tiffany and Melanie. Instead I referred them to a friend of mine, Gary Lapado, who is quite the shredder on the guitar himself. Gary is more the right “level” for that venue, not me. They took me up on that suggestion, used Gary, and did great. I even went down to see them myself, ever-conscious of that little league experience and playing up a level before I was ready.