A Month of Firsts

I realize I haven’t written in awhile, but this last month has been an incredible month of first times…

1)  The first time I performed one of my own compositions in a concert hall.

I performed my piano piece “Equinox” in the McAfee Concert Hall as part of the Student Composers Recital.  As far as I know, I was the only freshman composer who participated.  It was wonderful to hear the sound of my piece performed in such a wonderful venue.  And it was such an honor to be featured among so many other talented artists at this school!

I performed "Equinox" in the McAfee Concert Hall as part of the Student Composers Recital.

2)  The first time I was an assistant engineer in a session at a professional studio.

One of my audio engineering major friends from school was producing a singer/songwriter’s debut EP, and he asked me to assist the tracking and overdub sessions.  The artist was very talented, and we had some great players on that record.  I can’t wait to hear how the final project turns out!

Assisting a session at The Brown Owl Studio here in Nashville

3)  The first time I joined a professional band.

I knew someone who knew someone who needed a keyboard player, and now here I am.  It’s an up-and-coming group (fellow music students at my college), but they’re legit…

Details later!

More details later!

4)  The first time I received international recognition for a composition.

My track “Bittersweet” was selected to be part of the Piano Cloud’s Best of 2013 Playlist on SoundCloud.  The Piano Cloud is an international online community of pianists, and the thirty tracks in the playlist were chosen by the votes of these musicians from all over the world.  If you’re a fan of my piano music, I highly recommend you listen to these other tracks in the playlist, too.  There are a lot of wonderful artists featured, and I’ve truly been enjoying listening to all of them.

 

5)  The first time I finished the first piece for my sophomore album.

I’ve begun working on my second piano album.  As of right now, I’m expecting it will be out sometime in the early spring of 2015 or possibly towards the end of 2014.  I’m aiming for seven pieces, or at least a playing time between 40 and 45 minutes.  This first piece that I’ve finished is more impressionistic and called “Oneiros”––the Greek word for dream, because it started in a dream.  (This may elicit its own future post…)

Putting “Position” Back in Composition

Have you ever noticed that the word “composition” has “position” in it?  It may be a coincidence, but recently, I found out that position is more than a part of the word—it’s a part of the process that can make all the difference.

Over the last few months, I’ve been having a dry spell in my composing.  Even though I probably composed my usual amount of music last semester, I was beginning to get to a point where composing was just another thing on my homework to-do list.  There was no enjoyment—just dread.  It all came to a head last week, when I realized how miserable I was when I composed, and I started to wonder if I had lost the abilities and passion I’d had for composition before my album release.

This semester, my composition professor has been allowing me to focus purely on piano composition.  What more could I ask for?  But even so, whenever I’d been practicing piano, I had repeatedly rationalized why I “didn’t have time to compose” right then.  Last week, not surprisingly, I had managed to put off composing until the day before my lesson.

That afternoon, as is my habit, I headed to the music building to practice piano.  Unfortunately, I discovered that every single room was taken; there was no piano to play anywhere, but I was determined to practice.

Sometimes, it's better to have a mediocre piano and a wonderful place to play...

Sometimes, it’s better to have a mediocre piano and a wonderful place to play…

I searched all over campus before I found an unoccupied piano tucked in an obscure room in the business building—a beat-up old upright.  I didn’t expect much, but when I played the first few notes, I was shocked.  It wasn’t the piano—it was the room.  The acoustics were amazing; I heard the reverb that I always try to imperfectly replicate in the studio.

That night, I snuck back into that room and made myself compose.  Although the first few minutes went by slowly, something began to change—I became free again.  Shockingly, I found myself enjoying the composing process.

You see, whenever I composed in the designated “piano practice rooms,” I never felt safe or free.  Even though I knew otherwise, I was always sure someone was standing outside the door listening and judging what I was writing.  And then there were the blaring trumpets and screeching flutes emanating from nearby practice rooms.  But when I moved to a different place—a part of campus where other musicians don’t go—all of this changed.

I’ve realized how important space is in composing.  There has to be room for the music to breathe—to let the listener contemplate the music and take it in.  Not only this, but as the composer, I need to have quiet around me to be able to “hear” this silence.

I don’t think there’s one “right way” to compose; everyone has different methods.  But next time you’re stuck on a piece, just remember—there’s “position” in composition.

My Best Worst Semester

These past three months in Nashville have been a whirlwind of a semester.  While this semester started off rough, I’ve finished it having done things I never dreamed I’d be doing so soon.  But it was a tough start…

When I went home for fall break in October, friends would ask me, “How is your first semester of college so far?”

I think I took too many classes...

I think I took too many classes…

“Awful,” I’d tell them.

At the time, it wasn’t far from the truth.  I started off the semester being unwell, and as a result, got behind in my eleven classes.  (Yes, I technically did take eleven classes, four of which were “zero-credit classes,” which was another problem…)  I had no friends, because I was either sleeping, studying, or practicing all the time—and barely doing well with any of those things.  And then I failed my first exam… ever (because I was so sick at the time).  There were also many days of awkwardly walking around the cafeteria, tray in hands, hoping to find someone to sit with and then discreetly looking for a remote table so no one would see I was forced to sit by myself…  It seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.

I could have easily thrown in the towel and come home or at least dropped some classes—but I didn’t.  When I got that exam back with a big fat D- (only not an F because of some extra-credit), I felt a fire beneath my feet.  I had failed—but I dared myself to fail harder.  I wanted to work harder than I could fail.

I didn’t come to Nashville to fail—I don’t think anyone intentionally does.  I had worked for years to make it to Music City.  I had sacrificed so much to be able to say I was having even a horrible semester in Nashville, so I was determined to make things work somehow.  I came to realize that, no matter how good you were, you wouldn’t always win at everything.  Sometimes, I was going to fall down.  But you can’t fall if you’re already on the ground—you only fall because you’re standing up and trying to go somewhere.  It was time to get back up.

Hanging out at Oceanway Nashville

Hanging out at Oceanway Nashville

In the midst of the mess, I started taking every chance I could to meet people in the industry.  Over the course of the semester, I visited eight studios and sat in on sessions at four of them.  Before long, mingling with award-winning producers and engineers and industry leaders had become a normal thing to do after school.

And then things escalated… Before I knew it, I had landed an internship at a well-connected studio—despite the fact that my school normally doesn’t allow us to officially intern until we’ve taken more audio classes than I’ve taken.  But I think that, with where I am, it would have been crazy for me to wait another year…

One day, I woke up and realized what was happening: if this was a bad semester, then it had become my best worst semester ever.  Seriously—it had been three months since I’d moved to Nashville, and I had already met some of the best producers in town and had been offered an internship that could launch my career.  On top of this, I somehow had managed to get good grades, too.  And hey, I’d even made some friends.  Who was I kidding—I’d had a great semester!

I’ve learned a lot of things this semester, but one thing I’ve learned well is to keep trying and to not quit.  I think a large part of how I’ve gotten the opportunities I’ve had lately is that I’m not afraid to try—or to fail.  I’m not always the best student in the class, and I’m certainly not the most talented engineer around, but I’ve often been one of the few who tried.  I’ve watched so many people afraid to try—afraid to approach a studio, afraid to study harder and still not do better, afraid to do things differently, and simply afraid to fail.  Yes, sometimes you’ll fail, but keep trying, and maybe it won’t have to end like that.   And who knows?  You might even get an internship.

How I Overcame Composer’s Block

String Quartet No. 1

It was a Friday night, and I found myself, once again, sitting alone in my dorm room, alternating between staring at my much-too-blank score and at the dusty keys of my keyboard. Making progress on my midterm composition project seemed impossible. I’d never even written a string quartet before. How was I supposed to write my first one in three weeks? And it wasn’t like I could spend the entire day working on it for three weeks—I had fifteen other credit hours of course work to deal with on top of daily two-hour piano practicing.

For two weeks, I tried and tried to make progress on my quartet, but after the first twenty measures, nothing was working. I tried different approaches to composing. I tried sitting outside under the oak trees and just “listening” to whatever came into my head. I tried imagining how the piece should’ve sounded. After those methods failed, I went back to the piano and started improvising off my main theme. I started to make progress that way, but it too failed.

Frustrated, I came back to my final Tuesday composition lesson before the due date bemoaning the unproductiveness and composer’s block I was experiencing.  I told my professor that I wasn’t sure it was possible to finish the piece in another week.

His confident response was, “I’ve seen your portfolio.”

My professor had seen my portfolio, but had I?

My professor had seen my portfolio, but had I?

In that instant, I saw the light, and I realized that my biggest problem wasn’t my method of composition or even a lack of experience––it was that I hadn’t thought I could do it.  I suppose it was a sort of artistic depression—it seemed so hopeless, that even though I was fighting so hard, I was at the same time barely trying anymore.  But then I stepped back and looked at what I’d written, and I realized that my professor was right.  I could finish the quartet.

“Compose” began to take on a whole other meaning for me that week. I may not have been “hearing” anything in my head. I may not have felt any emotion to inspire the piece.  I may not have had a story—but I had my willpower and my mind, and I realized that was enough. I pushed through the walls. It was a revolutionary concept: Why didn’t I just compose?

With three days left until the due date, I simply didn’t have time to think about whether or not what I was writing was any good.  If I caught myself staring blankly at the empty staves, I’d tell myself, I’ve seen my portfolio, and I’d just write something. It was when I stopped trying to make the piece “good enough” that I made some of the most memorable moments––and wrote the most music.

In the end, it only took around fifteen hours to write my string quartet once I stopped getting in my own way.  Until I pushed myself to write the quartet in three days, I don’t think I’d truly seen my own portfolio.  But now I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s better to step back and look through the fading pages of your well-worn book of compositions than to stare hopelessly at an empty score.  It is in your portfolio that you can see how far you’ve come and dream of how much farther you can push yourself to go.

Mission accomplished!

Mission accomplished!

So readers, let’s hear from you: how do you overcome composer’s block?  Have you ever felt like you were your own biggest obstacle?

The Next Step

It’s amazing how much can change in a few weeks’ time…  I’ve moved to Nashville and started college.

Up to this point, my posts had running through them the consistent theme of being a teenager and trying to figure out how to make good recordings and compositions on my own—and often getting in over my head with my undertakings.  However, now I have the ability to learn from some of the best of the best; I’m not on my own anymore.  But I don’t know what that will mean for this blog.  For that matter, I’m still figuring out what that means for me.

I got to sit in on a session at RCA Studio B!

I got to sit in on a session at RCA Studio B!

It’s hard for me to truly comprehend how much has changed; I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet.  A few weeks ago, I was just a random teenager from the Southeastern countryside setting up microphone’s on my home piano and recording an album as best I could.  But now, I’m more an aspiring producer and engineer who’s new to Nashville, and I’m out making connections.  Back home, I spent countless hours researching the music industry and audio engineering on the Internet and in books; now, I go to class and to office hours and sit in on real studio sessions for myself.

This is where I choose to be on a Friday night.

Where I choose to be on a Friday night.

Every once in a while, I’ll be walking across campus, and suddenly it hits me that I’m finally in Nashville, doing what I’ve prepared for years to do, and I get such a big grin that people must think I’m up to something.  Maybe I am up to something––up to making the most out of every moment here.  I’m always thinking about the next step––where I need to go and what I need to do next to meet my goals.  I have so much work and am so busy that I plan nearly every hour of every day.  My life is so planned, yet sometimes, I feel like I’m wandering aimlessly.  Sometimes I just step back and look at everything I’m doing and at life as a whole and just ask, Why?

IMG_1876

At least I have an ohmmeter and a turquoise rug…

There are many whys that I don’t think I’ll ever answer.  But the whats and the hows––I can deal with those.  And so, I will continue to follow the roadmap of my dreams––for as long as it is God’s will.  I will continue to be grateful for everything I’ve been given and do my best to make the most of it all.  It’s not going to be easy, but I can almost guarantee it will be interesting––oh, it sure has already!

So friends, will you join me?  I have every intention to continue this blog, going forward.  I’m learning and doing so much that there is plenty to write about.  And hopefully, these new experiences will make my blog even better.

Airborne is Out!

It’s been a wild ride, but my debut solo piano album Airborne is done and out!

Eleven months ago, I was inspired after returning from two GRAMMY Camps and had a bold idea: I was going to release a thirty-five minute solo piano album by the end of the following summer.

At the time, I only had one piano piece (“Airborne”) that I felt was good enough to record.  I had already committed to producing an EP for singer/songwriter Lily Garay that fall, too.  And there were college music school auditions in February to practice and prepare for.  Suffice it to say that the prospects of releasing a full-length album were not good.

I was determined to record on the C7

I was determined to record on the C7

It seemed crazy to be thinking about recording another album—especially for piano, because it’s so hard to record it well.  Using a keyboard sample was never an option for me, though.  I was intent on miking my acoustic C7 and make it sound professional.  I knew that I was starting the hardest project I’d ever done, but that didn’t stop me from starting.

Along the way, as expected, I faced tremendous challenges.  I took apart (and reassembled) a piano, finding out more about the sostenuto mechanism than I ever wanted to know.  I picked up and applied some acoustical physics to make my sheetrock-walled, 15′x16′ recording room work.  I made clean edits that I never could’ve imagined as possible.  I learned the value of rest, as I struggled through overuse injuries.  I realized experientially that sometimes my best compositions come with deadlines, and I wrote more music this year than any other.

Sometimes letting go and uploading the project is the hardest part...

Sometimes letting go and uploading the project is the hardest part…

Readers, friends, and fans, I’m going to take this post to thank you all of your support, encouragement, and prayers along the way.  Though I say Airborne was a solo album, in many ways, it was not.  I never could have done this without the guidance and feedback of my piano teachers and other mentors, or without the skills I learned at GRAMMY Camp or Camp Electric over the years.  Thank you to each and every one of you who have been a part of the journey!

Most of all, I thank God for giving me these gifts, and for the grace to allow me to pursue them and make it through this last year.  Soli Deo Gloria!

 

So finally, have a free listen to my album.  I’d love to know what you think about it.  And if you enjoy what you hear, please download it on iTunes here.

Bright Idea or Playing With Fire? – Airborne Studio Diaries

As the lone audio engineer for my piano album Airborne, at this point, I’ve done way too much solo piano editing.  Am I that bad a pianist?  No, but I’m a perfectionist, so I strive to meet impossible standards—especially since I have such a strong idea of how my own compositions should sound.

Even so, editing is much more than finding flawless takes and putting in crossfades to piece them together—it’s about maximizing musicality through artistic and technical choices.  While I don’t purport that putting together twenty different segments into one track is as good as playing a perfect take straight through, I will go so far as to say that, when edited well, the difference between a composited track and a one-take track can be minute.  However, with any kind of solo instrument recording, making edits is playing with fire if you don’t know what you’re doing.  And with piano recordings, their many inherent challenges only pour on gasoline.  Even so, by following some simple rules, I’ve found one can safely edit a piano recording:

1)   First, ask yourself, do I truly need to edit this?

Is This REALLY Necessary?

Is This REALLY Necessary?

The less editing and processing you do on an acoustic recording, the less time and effort required.  If you’re not sure if you should edit something out, save yourself the trouble and don’t.  The goal shouldn’t be perfection, but expression.  It’s better to have an emotional track than one that’s robotic and totally accurate.  With acoustic styles, it has to sound “real” and believable—like you’re sitting in the audience, transported by the sound of the performance.  So to me, it has to be about the feel.  If I find a take that deviates slightly from my score or that has some other “mistake,” if it sounds good and adds to the expressiveness, I leave it alone.

2)  Document, document, document!  Did I say to use proper documentation?

Bad File NamesIf you’re going to record twenty takes, you’d better not leave them all labeled with a generic “Audio __” and without indications of the contents.  While I’m recording, I keep notes about different takes:  Take 3 had nice tone, but there was a mistake in measure 37…  Take 6 was accurate, but the first verse wasn’t very expressive… Take 7 had good runs, but not much else going for it…  So in a way, I really start making my composited track before I slice a single clip.  It sure beats having to listen to two hours of recordings without a clue which takes are best.

Unfortunately, sometimes takes I thought sounded great after I recorded them end up being terrible when I listen later, so it’s not always that simple.  To remedy this, before I start editing, I make a list of all the different sections of the song.  Then, as I listen back, I make even more notes about different takes.  Most of the time, I just write things like, “Verse 1: Take 4 good,” or, “Section B: Take 9 okay.”  Sometimes, as I’m listening, I hear one take that stands out as clearly the best, but a lot of the time, it’s harder to discern, so documentation helps me narrow down which takes to choose from.

3) Just because two takes are mistake-free, that doesn’t mean it’ll work to put them together.

Even with the advanced capabilities of today’s DAWs, don’t assume that any two takes can be edited together cohesively.  Be sure to keep the tone and dynamics consistent across an edit.  While it may be possible to use workarounds to help blend takes together, don’t make “fixing” your first instinct.  Instead, ask yourself if it wouldn’t be better to find a different combination of takes—especially if you have several alternatives that sound at least almost as good on their own.  In the end, swapping in a slightly less-perfect take can sound best if it makes a transition more smooth on the whole.

4)  When you do make an edit, be sure to do it on a zero crossing at the start of a transient.

Some Zero Crossings

This is true no matter what kind of recording you’re editing.  What’s a zero crossing, you say?  In audio, it’s a point at every half cycle of a sound wave where the voltage is equal to zero.  We want to make an edit on a zero crossing because this will allow you to make an edit without any unwanted noise being emitted; if you don’t edit at a zero crossing, you’ll usually hear a click or a pop.  Never let an unwanted noise from a bad edit stay in your piano recording.  

Unfortunately, you can’t just pick any zero crossing to edit on, and you can’t always easily find the “right” one, either.   Try your best to find a zero crossing right before a transient.  Sometimes, when looking at waveforms, it’s not obvious where one chord ends and another begins, but this is where the fade tool comes in handy.  By applying a short crossfade at your zero crossing edit, you can transition more smoothly between two takes.

5)  Watch out for phase issues when crossfading.

A crossfade with correct phase relationships at the edit

A crossfade with correct phase relationships at the edit

Often, adjacent takes at your edit point will have similar waveforms.  So if you don’t line up the takes properly and then apply a crossfade, you can get some phase cancellation as one take blends into the other.  If you cut the end of one take after the positive phase of the sound wave, then don’t make the beginning of the following clip start positive, too, as the two takes would be out of phase (i.e., it won’t sound good).

6)   Be wary of making an edit while the piano’s sustain pedal is being used.

This is especially true when there are a lot of low notes.  Although crossfading eliminates clicks and pops from poor edits, don’t assume it makes every transition seamless.  On the piano, pressing the sustain pedal causes the notes to all blend together.  Trying to make a natural-sounding edit during a sustained passage is extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances.  In order for an edit in this situation to work the two takes would have to have the sustained notes sounded at nearly identical volumes.  Otherwise, you’ll hear a sudden change in levels, which draws unwanted attention to your edit.  For this reason, I try to make my edits only at places where I change the pedal, if at all possible.

Wrap-up

Piano editing is weaving––not quilting

Piano editing is weaving––not quilting

In the days of analog recording, editing on such a fine level of detail was impossible in most cases, so I suppose getting a perfect take (or at least a take you could learn to live with) was the only option.  As a product of the digital age, my dilemma is, how much should I need to use these new editing technologies, especially on such a raw, acoustic project?  Should I be able to play a take straight through and be happy with it?

But perhaps it’s not a matter of should, but a matter of making the best of what I have and where I am now.  To me, good digital editing is as much of an art as creating good music.  However, acoustic piano recordings should never be patchwork quilt-making—they must be a woven tapestry appearing as without a single seem.  Master weavers create garments with no evidence of where they re-threaded; so must master audio engineers blend takes into a single, seamless recording.

Studio Diaries – Airborne, Part 2: The Rubber Meets the Road

I didn’t want to do this, but I’m pushing back my Airborne album release to July 19.  I’ve changed my plans, but I haven’t changed my mind—I’m still making an album.  I’m going to push through these roadblocks and move forward.

It's probably getting desperate when you're editing in the car...

It’s desperate if you’re editing in the car…

Honestly, I’ve only finished editing two of the six tracks for the album—and I’ll still have to master the whole thing.  I haven’t finalized my scores, either, so I can’t register any copyrights (I don’t publish my music until it’s registered).  I’m still not completely sure how to use my graphic design software, so I obviously don’t have album packaging artwork.  And as for planning the release party and the promotional videos—let’s not even go there.

When I made my album deadline schedule, it seemed feasible to do the whole thing myself.  But now that I’m in the thick of it—well… I see why most people don’t do it alone.  

It’s really a matter of hanging in there, at this point.  It’s a matter of pressing on in spite of the burnout.  It’s a matter of sheer commitment, and even of blood, sweat, and tears; the honeymoon is over.

Since last August, I’ve been in this studio composing and practicing these piano pieces.  And now I’ve been working on the recordings all day for several weeks.  I confess that in a lot of ways, I’m ready to move on.  I’m not sure how much longer I can handle dissecting twenty different takes of songs I’ve been working on for almost a year—and the tension of not being sure if I made good enough edits or if I used the right mic technique.  I’m always concerned that my engineering won’t live up to my compositions.  It’s much easier when I’m recording other musicians and their songs.

Will my engineering live up to my compositions?

Why do I still persevere and keep doing this?

Sometimes I really wonder why I’m doing all this.  Why do I work until exhaustion?

Well, for me, I suppose it comes down to love.  Yes, love for what I do, but love for my listeners, too.  (However, I know sometimes I keep going more out of obsession.)

To me, love implies an honest effort—one that I continually strive to attain.  And why put in all this work just to build myself up and gain attention?  No, I want to make music that speaks to people in ways that words cannot—that perhaps makes someone’s day a little better.  I know I’m really blessed to be able to work hard and to pursue these dreams, so now I want to bless others.

But what’s all this talk if I don’t go walk it out?  The love is in the hard work; I want it to be about giving my best:

“Let us not love with words and speech but with actions and in truth”  (1 John 3:18).

Doing my best is my only “good enough,” and I need to keep moving forward.  I can’t let the obstacles stop me, so it’s here that the rubber meets the road.

Rubber Meets the Road

Let’s hear from you all:  what’s your best advice for getting through the “crunch time” in making an album? How do you keep going through burnout?

Exceptions Are the Rule – “Airborne” Studio Diaries, Part 1

In The Studio

After five years of studio work, I somehow continue to hope that, maybe, my next recording session will be “normal”—no technical problems, no surprises, and no burnout.  But I’ve never had a “normal” session.  Apparently, in the studio, exceptions are the rule.  

Recently, as I’ve been recording my piano album Airborne, every day has been an exception:  five-hour experiments gone bad, poorly timed thunderstorms, and unexpected results.  Don’t believe me?  Read on.

Monday – Preparations

It was a dark and quiet parking lot—too quiet.  Breaking the calm, in a mad dash, I sprinted across the asphalt field under the eerie glow of fluorescent lights—a foreshadowing of the kind of week to follow.  Alas, it was 8:52 and BestBuy closed at 9:00.  Would I make it through the doors in time to buy a pair of earbuds for the week’s sessions?  But lo, the doors were open.  Mission accomplished!

Disassembling the house in the name of room treatment

Disassembling the house in the name of room treatment

Upon returning home, I came to my burgeoning pile of homemade acoustic treatments (i.e., pillows, blankets, sheets, towels, and sleeping bags) that were ready to be strategically placed in the room.  And after an hour, the studio was ready for the next day.

But the question remained: Was I ready?

 

Tuesday – “Equinox”

I’d planned a methodical schedule for recording “Equinox,” and on Tuesday, the piano tuner had arrived and left on time.  I was ready to set my mics in their final position—or so I thought.

Since I only owned cardioid mics and had my piano in a small room, I’d decided on close-miking using either ORTF configuration or a crossed pair technique.  I began my final positioning experiments, supposing that choosing between two techniques wouldn’t take long.  Oh, how wrong I was!

Just a few mic techniques I tried

Just a few mic positions I tried

By the fourth position I tried, I had a clear recording with a nice stereo image that still sounded decent in mono.  I should have stopped the experiment right then. However, my perfectionism told me I could do better, so I tweaked the setup a tiny bit—to my peril.

Let’s just say that when close-miking, slight adjustments can drastically alter the sound!  I ended up spending way too long trying to get back to position #4.  Apparently the measurements and photos I’d taken weren’t precise enough…

Even so, I ended up successfully recording “Equinox” that day, although I didn’t finish until midnight because of the extra time spent on miking.  One thing was for sure—I wouldn’t move the mics until I’d recorded all the other pieces!

 

Wednesday – “Breakthrough”

There’s clearly a wormhole separating my studio from the rest of the house.  When the blankets are over the doors and the windows, when the room has been deadened to an eerily isolating quiet, and when I’ve sealed myself in that dark space in the middle of the day, I’m no longer in my “practice room”—I am in a faraway studio, removed from mundanities and civilization.

The Impenetrable Partition of My Studio

My Studio’s Impenetrable Partition

Not surprisingly, spending entire days in this place starts to mess with you—especially when you haven’t slept much, and you’re the only one doing every job.  I was weary enough from Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I confined myself to the studio again on Wednesday, and within four hours, I’d recorded what I needed.  Shortest session of the week!

 

Thursday – “Precipice”

Getting in the Mood to Record "Precipice"

Getting in the Mood to Record “Precipice”

“Precipice” was easily the most challenging to record.  It’s over eleven minutes long, full of awful technical passages, and extremely demanding expressively.

Once I had Logic running and my pre-amps on, I hit “R” and began to record.  That first take went great, and the expressiveness was there.  Feeling pleased with myself, I put on the headphones to listen back… And heard nothing.

At first, I wasn’t concerned, because I thought maybe I hadn’t set up my output correctly.  But to my horror, I looked at the waveform in Logic, and it was just a flat line.  Gasp!

There’d been no phantom power going to the mics.  For non-technical readers, effectively, the mics were “off,” since they needed the power to bring the signal up to a useable level, so my first take’s performance wasn’t recorded.

Breathe.  Don’t… Panic…

I couldn’t let this mistake ruin the rest of the session.  Perhaps my second take would be better anyway…  So I laid down two or three front-to-back takes, before it was time to take a break, and that’s when I heard it:

Booooomm.  

In came a thunderstorm, continuing the mood of “Precipice.”  I laughed at the coincidence at first, but it wasn’t funny when it turned my “short” break into three hours… 

Around 1 AM that night, I was still recording, but between takes, my parents came and begged me to let them sleep.  So I relented.

 
Friday – “Precipice”

Okay, no forgetting the phantom power this time. Red light =  (:

No leaving off the phantom power allowed…

At this point, I’d expected to record the fifth piece, but I still hadn’t finished writing it.  Plus, I wanted to record a few more sections of “Precipice.”  I thought I had some good takes, but none felt like the take.

I hadn’t even warmed up, but I decided to start the day by recording one more unbroken take.  Within two measures, I knew I was playing the take.  It was almost perfect.  And I even landed the runs that I spent an hour trying to record the day before!

I never get a single take that’s that good—especially when it’s the first take of the day.  But hey, aren’t exceptions the rule?

 

Update – 5/31/13

With four of the five pieces recorded, editing is the next test.  And this weekend, I plan to record the fifth piece (which I finally finished composing!).  If things continue to follow the rule, I wonder what exceptions will happen…

To be continued…

 

So readers, do your recording sessions follow the rule of exceptions, too?  What do you do to prepare for the unexpected?

288 Hours

Oh, the doom of May 18!

Oh, the doom of May 18!

May 18.  The day is burned in my mind.  It ominously looms over me like a storm cloud, on the verge of raining havoc upon my world.  So what dreadful tribulation shall befall me on this date?

May 18 is my album’s tracking deadline.

No big deal, right?  Wrong—I still have to finish writing one of the pieces (which I’ll refer to as “F Minor” for now) on the album.  That’s a serious problem—really serious.

What went wrong?  How did it get to be a week before recording while I’m in this situation?  Nothing went wrong—it’s just how making an album goes.  I built in “extra” days and weeks, but I’m still running out of time.

The quesiton is, can I write a piece in one week?  Can I learn to play “F Minor” with confidence in this timeframe?  Well, yes—I have to.  Something has to be on track five, and I have every reason to believe that something will be on it.  It’s really just a question of making myself do it, how well it will turn out, and how miserable I’ll be for the next week.  Let’s find out…

How much can I do in 288 hours?

How much can I do in 288 hours?

“Equinox” and “Precipice took me four months each to write—or an estimated 100 to 150 hours per piece.  Let’s do some math.  With twelve days to finish “F Minor,” only 288 hours remain.  Subtract a good 50 hours for the time spent setting up and recording all the pieces from the 14th-18th.  And then, to be liberal, factor in 7 hours of sleep each night, 2 hours a day for practicing other pieces on the album, 4 hours daily for eating and other non-music tasks, 13 hours spent at church during the timeframe, 4 hours for giving piano lessons, and 6 hours for other social activities; we end up with 115 available hours to spend writing the new piece—assuming an extremely intense schedule (which probably won’t happen).

I’m aiming for a four and-a-half minute piece—less than half the length of “Precipice,” so with 115 working hours, that means I have around 26 hours to spend on each minute of “F Minor.”  Yes, finishing another piece is possible. 

But still, even if the total number of hours I spend on “F Minor” is similar to what I’ve spent on other pieces, twelve days is still twelve days.  There’s something to be said for spreading out a composition over several months, because sometimes the best ideas come when you’re resting.  On the other hand, I’m finding that having a time limit forces you into creativity (as discussed in my post, “Composer’s Block: Pushing Past the Walls”).

Under pressure, innovation soon bursts out.  There’s no time for waffling around, so I simply must buckle down and write something.  Sometimes, deadlines drag me, along with my ideas, kicking and screaming, until the welcome end, but I console myself with the fact that there is an end in sight.

Until then, I’m racing the clock.  I originally intended to base “F Minor” off a piano pop ballad I wrote last year, called “I Am Free,” which would have made this week much easier.   I was going to adapt the existing piano part to include the vocal melody and to follow the same song structure.  However, I’ve been hearing new ideas in my mind, and now it’s a completely different piece.  I didn’t plan for this.

It's not even a lead sheet!

Trying new methods for composing

In light of my time limit for completing “F Minor,” I’ve been using a new approach that’s helping me compose faster.  I began my work by deciding to follow an ABACA form.  And though I usually write a score simultaneously, for now, I’m only doing a “lead sheet.”  To save even more time, I’m not even notating the melody yet—I’m just naming the different melodic ideas and writing their names above the corresponding chords (not really a lead sheet, but that’s okay, right?).

I never work like this!  It almost feels like I’m cheating.  But when it comes to meeting deadlines, you gotta do what you gotta do.  A new method might be the key to creating something even more original than I could have imagined.

Even with a novel approach, however, a time limit is still a time limit, and the pressure is on.  Indeed, I am greatly encouraged that, in 288 hours, it will all be done.  Well, the composing and tracking will be…  Then I have another 288 hours (twelve days) for editing—which I’m sure will elicit its own post…

So, readers… How do you cope with an impending deadline?  What methods do you use to streamline composition?