Financial Black

I like to try to keep my musical world in the financial black and as a mostly obscure indie musician, that’s never easy. Exactly like just about any other small business, I have to figure out costs versus income. The tricky part is that some spending is more a guessing game than science.

The production side of things is one area where it can get tough for me. Does a new guitar or plugin mean I’m going to make “better” music? Will listeners notice the sonic upgrade of a new audio interface? Is spending more money on gear going to hurt or help me? If a new tool speeds up my ability to make records that’s a good thing, but not if I slide into the financial red.

Just like many things in life, it’s the art of balancing. Part of finding the sweet spot is knowing who you are and how you like to work. I’m someone who likes to figure out minute details. That means, for me, overly complex systems slow me down. Massively slow me down. A plugin with a million moving parts is an absolute black hole of time suck. Same thing with too much of anything production or performance related. Combinations and permutations are not my friend.

What’s the answer? Truthfully, I really don’t know, but there are some broad, overarching things that make sense for me and for my career. I can’t go out and buy a $200,000 ’58 Les Paul. Or hire an orchestra to play my string parts. Or spend huge bucks on ads à la Bloomberg — not that I have, or ever will have, billionaire level resources. But the flip side is also true. Buying less than pro gear and ignoring marketing are not sharp things to do. So here I am right back at the start with more questions than answers and keeping my fingers crossed that I keep finding that elusive sweet spot.

“To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker

I love the meeting point between music, technology and business. And I also have a soft spot for people and companies that pursue quality. So “To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker brilliantly checks off many of my reading interests. The book takes you on a somewhat out of control odyssey primarily detailing the creation and eventual demise of the high resolution audio player Pono. But the genesis of the device and the core of the book is what matters most.

For Neil Young, Phil Baker and the Pono team sound quality was the philosophical and business driver. It’s what informed the entire project and it’s also what ultimately drove the company out of business. The challenge for Pono was three fold. First there was educating the consumer as to what high resolution audio is and why they would want it. Second, the technical hurdle of building not only a physical player but also a distribution system in the form of a dedicated website. And third, convincing record companies that the pricing of high resolution audio should be similar or equal to the cost of compressed audio formats. None of these elements are what one would call a breeze to achieve.

I probably should add another massive mountain that Pono had to climb. Money. As the book details, product development is not cheap and at pretty much every step Pono was hunting for capital. To say it was an uphill battle would be an understatement. Just about every setback you could think of, they encountered — from personnel to engineering to finally losing their dedicated distribution website. All of these setbacks were costly and in the end lead to the demise of Pono.

Was it a worthwhile effort? On the business side, Pono burned through a whole bunch of cash and are no longer in business, which obviously isn’t a good thing. But from a purely audio quality and art perspective, I would say absolutely Pono did what they set out to do. Recordings should sound the best they possibly can and compressed audio doesn’t do that. There’s the argument that the consumer simply wants more songs and not better sounding songs, but why can’t they have both? Computing horsepower and bandwidth are not the limiting factor they were even in the recent past. If you can stream high definition video you certainly can stream high resolution audio. And that’s exactly what the Neil Young Archives are doing right now. My hope is that the large labels and streaming companies will follow in Pono and Neil Young’s footsteps and give listeners a chance “To Feel the Music”.

The Making of Necessity

NecessityWhen I started writing for my seventh release Necessity I didn’t, like I never do, have a clear idea of where the record would end up — didn’t know what songs would be on the record, didn’t think the album would feature the electric guitar and certainly didn’t anticipate the overall vibe of the album.  But in retrospect, it all seems very obvious.

A few years ago I started going back to my “old” way of writing.  For the most part, I now write everything down on paper.  I have a sketch book (one of those little Moleskine manuscript paper books) that I write down all kinds of ideas — chord progressions, melodies, licks, etc.  I had been writing directly in the computer, but going back to writing on paper just seems to work better for me right now.  A little while ago, I also started documenting ideas into a portable recorder (a Zoom H2N).  So between the manuscript paper and the recorder, I feel I’ve streamlined my writing process.  I know this may not seem like big deal, but this “new” way of working really has helped me to be more creative.

For Necessity, I also changed how I record.  I suppose my current approach is a little (or a lot) more traditional, but it feels very freeing to me.  If you think of 70’s style recording (write a song, record bed tracks, then overdubs, then leads, then mix and finally master) that’s how Necessity was made.

So here was the basic workflow for the record.  After I wrote the tunes, I created bed track templates in Logic Pro 9.  Essentially, I did mockups of the songs using loops from EZdrummer and wrote rough basslines using Spectrasonics Trilian.  Sonya (Mitlewski) played all of the keys with piano/Rhodes/Wurlitzer sounds coming from Modartt Pianoteq Play and pads from Spectrasonics Omnisphere.  I recorded my rhythm guitars using my Seagull Artist Studio CW into two mics and my Godin Freeway SA into a Line 6 HD300.

I then bounced stereo stems of the bed tracks as: drums, bass and harmony (keys and rhythm guitars).  Those stems, along with charts, were sent off to Dave Patel (drums) and Henrik Bridger (bass).  Dave and Henrik then replaced the MIDI loops/parts with their original parts in their respective studios (Dave’s studio is called DaWG Studios and Henrik’s studio is called Château Juliet) and sent their parts back to me.

After I had all of the bed tracks done, I recorded my leads, which were all recorded with my Godin Freeway SA into a Line 6 HD300.  The outputs of the HD300 went into an Apogee Duet and were recorded in Logic.  One of the reasons the album is called Necessity is that I basically HAD to record leads directly.  Right across the street from me there are three 30-50 storey condos being built.  It’s non-stop noise.  Recording the electric directly eliminated any noise “concerns”.  That said, I’m truly happy that I used the electric (rather than an acoustic) for this record!  I think there’s a saying about necessity…

One other recording “change” with Necessity is that I went back to bouncing individual tracks down as audio files.  For instance, all of the MIDI keys were bounced as audio.  When it came time to mix, everything was an audio file. I’m not sure how that affected the sound or feel of the record, but it helped me to focus and continually move forward.  And finally, I mastered the album in iZotope Ozone 5.

So that’s the somewhat techy description of the making of Necessity!  For those who want even MORE tech, check out the list of gear/plugins I used below.

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Apple MacBook – 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo | 4 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM

Logic Pro 9

Apogee Duet

Yamaha HS80Ms

Godin Freeway SA

Seagull Artist Studio CW

Line 6 POD HD300

M-Audio Axiom 49

Modartt Pianoteq Play

Spectrasonics Omnisphere

PSP Audioware VintageWarmer, oldTimer, Xenon, EQs, PSP84

Sonimus Satson, SonEQ

TC Electronics M30 Reverb

iZotope Ozone 5

USB FireWire Audio Interface Showdown

If you lurk on various music tech forums like I do, it’s pretty hard to miss all of the talk regarding USB and FireWire audio interfaces. The general consensus seems to be that for audio, USB is vastly inferior to FireWire — that you’ll get far less performance out of a USB device than you will out of a FireWire one. Well, I’m a hands on guy, so I wanted to test this out for myself. This clearly is not an exhaustive, definitive test, but honestly, I was surprised by the results.

Here’s the gear I used for the test:

  • 17″ MacBook Pro (2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo/ 2GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM)
  • Logic 8.0.2
  • Apogee Duet (FireWire)
  • Edirol UA-4FX (USB)
  • Edirol UA-1EX (USB)

All of the “stress” tests were done at a 128 sample I/O buffer setting. I could have bumped up the buffer, but I work at 128 and that seems like a “real world” test. So here’s the lowdown:

  • 1,280 simultaneous notes using the Basic Decay 1 patch (EXS24)
  • 255 mono 16bit/44.1 khz off of the internal drive on the MacBook Pro. (I’m sure I could have done more, but I didn’t have 255 stereo 24 bit files handy…)
  • 15 Space Designer stereo 3 sec reverbs on inserts for a single audio track (16 bit/44.1 khz)
  • 47 tracks of audio (16 bit/44.1 khz) with a 3 sec Space Designer reverb inserted on each track
  • Playback of Apple demo (Shiny Toy Guns) roughly 1/3 of CPU meter (audio + video)

I had the exact same results from both Roland interfaces and from the Apogee Duet. Not only was there zero performance difference in terms of maximum number of notes, max plugins, etc, I found there was no difference in the response/latency of Guitar Amp Pro (a guitar amp modeller included in Logic). I’m not a great keyboardist, but the keys and drum samples I played seemed equally tight through USB and FireWire.

Again, this obviously wasn’t a comprehensive test.  For instance, it’s possible that there’s a differential in performance between USB and FireWire on older computers. It would have been nice to have had a number of different computers to test, but that will have to wait for another day. For newer computers though, my take is: If you’re recording, mixing and/or playing in the box, either FireWire or USB will work just fine.

Safe Computing – Part 1

Over my almost thirty years of working with computers, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that I’d like to share. I’m going to start very generally and over the next few months (hopefully!), I’ll get more specific. So here we go!

  1. Suspenders and a belt. I think everyone knows this one… But still, I’ve seen lots of people lose LOTS of data — including songs and entire albums (yikes!). So… If the only place that your data exists is on your one and only hard drive, your data (meaning your songs, your contact database, etc.) simply doesn’t exist. If you believe this to be a computing law, then your life will be so much better. So, BACKUP your drives. And do it often.
  2. Two places at once. Backing up is just the starting point though. Ideally, you should have your data exist in two geographically unique places simultaneously. Let’s say you have your backup drive permanently hooked up to your computer. What happens if there’s a fire? If you’re robbed? Water damage? Well, what happens is you lose both your main drive and your backup. So, you should backup up your drive and then take the backup to a secondary location. In the best case scenario, the backup would be stored half way around the world, but if you’re like me, that isn’t a practical possibility. Try to, at the very least, move the drive to another room in your house. I take my backup drives down to my storage area.
  3. Take a nap. To me, it’s surprising how many people leave their computers on 24/7. Computers need to sleep just like people do. From my experience, many cases of computing wonkiness (that’s an official term!) can be cured with a simple restart or shut down. I turn off my computer at night and then turn it on again in the morning. It’s easy to do and it gives me a better computing experience. It’s also better for the environment.

The Sweet Indie Label Software Suite

So you’re a musician and you want to start up a record label, eh? Well, it’s not all fun and games. For me, the most not fun thing is all of the business I have to do. And if you’re an indie musician like me, you’re going to have to do the same not fun things that I have to. Lots of not fun things. If you want to keep your focus on music and not business, I’ve found one “trick” is to streamline your business software. And the best way, in my opinion, to do that is to buy a Mac. Yeah, I’m biased. I’ve used Macs since the early 90’s and yes I do some music seminars for Apple. But still… buy a Mac. You’ll thank me later. So this is what I’m using to meet my day-to-day business needs:

  • Bento.  It’s a kind of FileMaker Pro lite, but not really.  If that makes any sense.  You get some of the functionality of FileMaker (which I’ve used for over 10 years) in a much simpler, clearer interface and you get the ability to sync up your contacts with Address Book.  Which then syncs up to Mobile Me and your iPod/iPhone.
  • Mail. Sometimes I think my life is e-mail. Sure there are lots of e-mail programs out there, but Mail is integrated with many other Apple programs. I don’t think e-mail can be too much easier.
  • iCal. If this program can keep me organized, it can keep anyone organized!
  • iChat. If you’ve never done video conferencing, you don’t know what you’re missing. With iChat when I’m talking with someone, I feel like they’re sitting right across from me. Works brilliantly. I also use it for file exchange when I’m working on a project.
  • Mobile Me. You can back up all of your important files to Mobile Me, use it for file exchange, and the web gallery feature is my new best friend. If you use iPhoto you can create a photo album that can be instantly posted to Mobile Me. Saves a tremendous amount of time, and the web galleries look first rate.
  • iPhoto. Keeps all of my photos organized and makes editing photos a breeze.
  • Safari. I like it because the browser is super quick and works with the other Apple programs I use.
  • Quickbooks. Clean and lean. Does what it says it’s going to do. Invoicing and accounting don’t get much more simple.
  • Square Space. I’ve just started using this service (my site is hosted by Square Space) and it’s made any work I have to do on my website a breeze.
  • Firefox. I primarily use this as a secondary browser to check out my website. I like the program, but right now I’m more into Safari.

That’s about it! With this setup you’ll have most of the tools you need to get your music out to the world and still leave time for the most important thing — music!