Published January 26th, 2014 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

Read the other articles in this series:

  1. And So it Begins
  2. Going Pro
  3. Partners in Crime

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: I am not an audio person. Or at least I don’t think of myself as being one. I took to visual work very naturally, but doing audio work has always made me feel at least a little out of my depth. Don’t get me wrong—I have a decent ear. But messing with all of this stuff was, at least at one point, pretty far outside of my comfort zone. Thankfully, that didn’t stop me from doing it anyway.

Like the previous post in this series, I wanted to actually detail what it is I use in the process of making my music. In this case, we’re talking about the finished recordings of the actual music itself, so in this installment, it’s all about the hard- and software.

If I wanted to be really specific, I’d start babbling about my computer’s guts—the type and amount of RAM I’m using, my processor, my motherboard, blah blah blah. But I don’t know that my system contains anything super special, so instead, I’ll start by talking about my software.

While attending college, I learned audio engineering using Cakewalk Sonar, so that’s what I use in my own studio (though I have Producer 8.5, not any of the more recent versions). It’s not the most user-friendly program in existence, but it has some nifty features, and it more than gets the job done.

Interfacing between my software and my microphones, I have a MOTU UltraLite mk3 interface. The UltraLite doesn’t have very many inputs, but I’m a small studio, so I’ve yet to need more than two inputs at once.

And as for microphones, I have three that I use regularly. They are RØDE‘s NT1-A microphone, which is my primary vocal mic; Shure‘s Beta 52A kick drum mic, which I primarily use for micing the bottom of my djembe; and AKG Acoustics‘ D88S dynamic microphone, which I use for various and sundry things. Lately I’ve been using it to record my bodhran.

To hear what’s playing on the computer as I’m recording, I have a pair of Samson SR850 Professional Studio Reference Headphones. They’re pretty comfy, though they’re a bit large for me. My old pair of studio headphones fits better, but since it tends to make rattling and creaking noises, I rarely use them anymore. I don’t need them messing up the work I’m doing.

I conduct all mixing through a pair of Yamaha HS80M active studio speakers. I never mix through headphones, because I don’t feel that’s a very accurate method of mixing.

And once a song is recorded and mixed to my satisfaction, I will export it from Sonar and open it in Sound Forge to master it.

And there you have it. This week I’ve discussed my songwriting process, the work I do when I’m actually recording a song, what happens once a song is recorded, and the various tools I use to do it all. I hope it’s been as interesting to read as it was fun to write about.

On Monday you’ll get an introductory look at “[untitled]“, the second album in the studio’s current dual album project. Then throughout February and March, I’ll share more details on each track, all leading up to the album’s release date in mid-April. There may or may not be other posts interspersed with the “Meet ‘[untitled]‘” series, but for the next nine weeks, you will be treated to a minimum of one update a week concerning the current project. I hope you enjoy getting to know this new album, pre-release! “[untitled]” is a very personal project for me, and I’m really excited to finally get it out there.

Published April 18th, 2012 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

So far in the “How to Bard” series I’ve been talking a lot about the philosophical side of music. This time I thought I’d turn my attention to the things that are more tangible. Instruments are pretty durn tangible.

Physical instruments—guitars, flutes, violins, et cetera—have always seemed to me to have definite and individual personalities. I tend to personify them, like I think a lot of musicians do. The Pagan side of me does believe they have their own spirit or energy, which is how I feel about a lot of other inanimate objects. So I suppose that’s why I tend to think of my instruments as being my partners rather than mere tools.

This is my bodhran. Her name is Star. She is an 18″ tunable bodhran with a natural skin head and black finish.

I am also building a small army of tippers.

“Bodhran” is a word that comes to us from the Celts, so the spelling is quite counterintuitive. It is pronounced “BOU-ron”. As if you were talking to your friend Ron and exclaiming, “Wow!” Aren’t silent letters fun?

I have had Star for around a year and a half at this point. My interest in the bodhran was piqued first by Brenda Sutton, who was kind enough to give me some tips on playing and maintenance, and then by my cohort Gabrielle Aumei when she brought her own bodhran back from Colorado. I hadn’t really done much with percussion since leaving orchestra at the end of 6th grade, but playing this drum has revealed to me a part of myself I didn’t know was missing.

I bought Star from Amazon, in addition to a case that is quite handy. If you’re interested, here is the bodhran and here is the case.

Star is my go-to physical instrument in most cases. And no, I will never have enough tippers.

Next I decided I needed to procure a djembe. Djembes are awesome, and I largely blame Debbie Gates and Sally Childs-Helton for making me want one. I was able to save up and get one last year. Allow me to introduce Bigboom.

That’s not thunder you hear.

Bigboom has thus far been featured on “Stepping Stones” and the “Stallion” songs. He is a 24″ tall djembe with a 13″ diameter natural head. He was carved from a single piece of wood and I bought him from World Wide Drums. Unfortunately they no longer appear to carry this particular drum, but they have lots of other nifty things to look at if you’re so inclined.

Bigboom is the reason I hope to have a kick mic for my studio soon. My other mics just can’t quite capture the low end of this drum’s range, which gets pretty far down there.

I’m still a little under confident with this drum. Despite the fact that I’m a great typist and I can sew without stabbing myself too horribly (usually), I’m not always able to coordinate both hands to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it when it comes to playing this drum. So I’m still honing my skills with this bad boy, and of course having a good time doing it.

Various percussion
What percussionist’s bag of tricks is complete without a bunch of other random noisemakers? None, of course. I’ve got quite a few random noisemakers that I think are rather nifty. Here’s a group shot of all of my extra percussion things.

I have a birthday coming up…

The cowbell and the tambourine attach to any mic stand or mic stand type of thing so that I can hit them with various objects, such as the timpani mallets that are probably wishing I’d left the store without them. I thought this was a nifty rig because, while I have a non-mounted tambourine, I wanted something that I could really control. This rig is great for producing more complex rhythms with a tambourine. It also makes it easier to control when the tambourine stops. I bought this to use on a new single that will be coming out at the end of April, and it’s already one of my favorite things.

And now to identify everything else. I have two egg shakers, which are technically my husband’s, but which I usually play instead. I have a wooden frog that my thoughtful in-laws bought me for Christmas (along with some of the tippers pictured above—and which missed this round of photos). The sleigh bells I bought for “Kiss Me, Jak Frost” and will hopefully find another chance to use at some point. And in the meantime, hey, I have sleigh bells! I also have zills, various lengths of copper pipes that make fun noises, and last but not least, yes, that is an anvil. I bought it for a single I hope to be releasing this summer and I found it, of all places, at JoAnn. It was in with their beading stuff. And it’s cute and hey, I have an anvil.

And lastly, for the peep show I promised you all…

Voice has been my primary instrument since I was twelve or thirteen. I’ve already talked a lot about it, so this time I’m not going to say very much. I will instead leave you with this.

I swear.

Making the phone call to ask my doctor for this photo was probably one of the weirdest calls I’ve ever made.

And so that’s pretty much it for this installment. This entry was a little random and probably kind of pointless, but I had fun with it anyway.

Next time I’ll be discussing the technological side of my music-making, with which I have decidedly limited experience compared to many other musicians. Then again, I’ve only been in this for about a year now. Either way, I hope you’ll come back as I continue to explore the physical part of how I do what I do.

Published March 28th, 2012 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

As promised, here’s another installment in the series “My Experiences with Learning How to Bard”. This week’s topics will be much more philosophical than last week’s. Keep an eye out for future installments as well, as I’ve already got some neat ideas planned.

Last week I ended by talking about how you shouldn’t let other people discourage you from being a musician by telling you you’re not “good enough”. My main argument was basically, “Being ‘good enough’ is not necessarily the point”. I wanted to continue on that train of thought by saying that any perceived lack of musical talent doesn’t mean you’re not a bard (or a minstrel or rocker or rapper or whatever suits your fancy). If it’s important to you, never let your music escape you.

The reason I keep ranting about this is because, at least in the US, we have developed this mentality that if you’re not a good enough musician to be a professional musician, then you shouldn’t be a musician at all. I find that to be a horrible way of looking at something that is so intrinsic to our humanity that it’s one of the most universally valued things across all times and cultures. In this country, we package and cultivate musical talent until it becomes a sterile, soulless representation of what everyone has inside them and we encourage the philosophy of That’s How It Should Be.

But music doesn’t have to be “pretty”. Music doesn’t have to be “good”. Music only has to be whatever you want it to be, especially if it’s your music. If you need a flawlessly executed aria, then that’s what you need. If you need to just make primal sounds for your own brand of catharsis, that’s ok, too. And yes, over-processed, vapid pop music has its place, as well. As I said, it’s about you getting/creating what you need at the time.

So experience music however it is you need to experience it. And don’t feel like you have to exhibit your music publicly in order to qualify as a musician. As long as you get something out of it, that’s really all that matters. I’ve said that I primarily view music as a vehicle for storytelling. But writing this I realize I can lump a few more concepts into that category—healing, for one.

In addition to the above, I would also like to encourage anyone reading to be bold enough to be independent. And not only with music, though that’s the only thing I’m going to touch on in this particular blog entry.

For a very long time, it’s been the case that, for most people, if you wanted to be a professional musician and actually be able to, you know, eat on a regular basis, that you had to get signed to a label. From where I’m sitting, getting signed to a label had and still has three primary benefits for an artist: Legal protection, which I won’t get into here, promotion, and recording.

All three of these services are very expensive and require many man hours and resources. In Ye Olde Times, they were prohibitively expensive for small-timers and independents. And not only did you have to have access to things like recording equipment, you had to have access to someone who knew how to use it, too.

A lot has changed. A lot. Of course, there’s still plenty of stuff that’s the same, but one of the biggest differences between then and now is that now you don’t have to be signed to a label in order to make a living from music.

For me, this particular light bulb went on when I started seeing SJ Tucker in concert. She breezes through Indianapolis every once in a while, puts on a heck of a show, and then heads off for her next gig somewhere in another state. And she does this full-time. She has almost a dozen professionally produced albums and various singles for sale on her website. Of course, she also vends at her shows, as well. She plays at conventions, she plays at festivals, she pops in to someone’s house for a day or two and rocks the shit out of things. And she’s able to make a living at this because over the course of the somewhere-around-seven years she’s been doing this, she and others have worked tirelessly to promote her and her music.

It wouldn’t be fair to say she does it all herself because I know there are many awesome people who join in the fun. But she sure as shit isn’t able to do this because a big label is financing everything for her. She is a musical entrepreneur, and she is one of many of them out there who is leading the way for the rest of us dreamers.

So there’s a precedent. It’s possible. You want to be an independent musician? You can actually make a living at it these days. So many things are so much more accessible now than they were even ten years ago—hell, I have a pretty decent recording studio in one of the spare bedrooms of my house and I paid for it by saving up money while I was a student in college. It’s not fancy and it’s pretty small, but it suits my needs. And with the internet, the promotional possibilities are staggeringly greater than they were in, say, the 1970s. Musicians don’t need labels anymore. Quite frankly, I think the labels need us a lot more than we need them.

So there’s your bit of whatever this qualifies as for this installment. My next topic will be my various instruments. That entry will be posted the week after next, as next week is the next Lyrics Dump post.

I’m really looking forward to the next installment in this series. I’m planning to show off a picture of one of my body parts that only a select few people have ever seen.

Until then, proceed with the kicking of life’s ass.

Published March 21st, 2012 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

The path of music has been a long one for me and is joyfully growing ever longer. Even when I wasn’t actively performing or writing, music was a big part of my life and had been since I was a child. I thought, therefore, that it might be interesting to write about some ideas I’ve had and observations I’ve made along the way. Thanks to Sean for inspiring some of the content of this blog entry. And as I think of new ideas to discuss, this may turn into a series.

First I’d like to start with a topic that’s less philosophical and more technical. I’ve been working on my singing technique since I was twelve or thirteen, which is more or less when I became interested in filk. Actually, I believe it was my interest in filk that really spurred my desire to become a better singer. There was something about filk that made me instantly passionate about it, and because of that passion I developed an urge be a filker myself. And I’ve never been one to do something halfway. When I decide to do things, I always mean to do them well.

So I joined choir in seventh grade. I was in choir again in eighth, and then in a different choir in ninth once I moved on to high school. As anyone who’s been in a choir can (I assume) attest, part of the general instruction given by the choir director is how to improve your singing technique. The director is trying to make you sound good for whatever concert is coming up, so they’re always listening for things that need polishing. My high school choir director was particularly adamant about this sort of thing, and so I definitely picked up quite a bit during that period.

At the same time as I was attending choir in school, I was also voraciously devouring as much filk as I could get my hands on. I was listening to it and memorizing it and then singing it on my own. There were no bardic circles I could join in Ohio, but that didn’t stop me from filking. And I was performing these songs on my own, I was doing my best to imitate the tone, timbre, and technique of the artists who were performing them in the recordings I had. Once I started doing that, it was only a matter of time before I began examining the stylistic choices the artists made during their performances and deciding that it would be fun to play around with other options. This is how I started to develop my own unique voice.

What’s the point of this trip down memory lane? The point is that if someone insists that you can’t be a good singer without years of formal training that you should laugh at them. It’s quite true that my method of learning will not work for everyone—but then neither will the method of learning that adamant proponents of formal lessons prefer. I just wanted to illustrate that if you want to be a singer and you can’t afford formal lessons that you don’t necessarily need them. Find a singer whose technique you admire and then imitate them. Your own voice will come to you in time.

And for the record, I have actually had some formal one-on-one vocal lessons with a voice teacher. I took one semester of these lessongs in college after I had already been singing on my own for years. I’m not sure how much I took away from that experience, but it was fun at least.

Also, I would like to point out that while I do have my own standards for my personal vocal ability, one of the reasons why I claim to be a good vocalist is because that’s what other people tell me I am. Let me state that if you are an aspiring vocalist, exterior validation is not a necessity. In my case I enjoy it because it’s nice to get feedback from people so that I know I’m on the right track. And in some cases it’s also amusing and incredibly flattering. One of the gentlemen who listened to some of “Cold September Ground” on Capstone night asked me how much formal training I had. When I told him I’d had only a semester’s worth, his eyebrows when up quite quickly.

So, why music? Or more specifically, why filk?

If there’s one thing I’ve been for my entire life, it’s a storyteller. As a child, games where I could put myself into another world as another being, often as another species, and act out that character’s story were always my favorite. I’ve been formally writing down narratives since I was eight (thankfully, my grammar and spelling have improved since then). And I’ve always loved to participate in others’ stories by reading them. I was one of those eight/nine year-olds who had their own library of books that they were actively adding to.

To me, music is a means to tell a story. It doesn’t matter what the genre, style, or instrumentation is. Music is about storytelling. So finding that I could actually do it—because for the longest time I was wondering if I was tone deaf—was like finding a puzzle piece I hadn’t realized I was missing. I can never stop being a musician. And that’s one of the many reasons why I’m constantly so ecstatic about getting to perform as part of Wax Chaotic.

So what if you feel the same way about music that I do—it’s as much a part of who you are as your arm or your genes—but you don’t think you’re any good at it? Or even worse, you’ve actually been told that you’re not good at it?

Important note: Everyone has their own standards for “good” and you can’t please everybody.

But say someone at some point told you you’re a bad musician and it’s discouraged you. What then? Give it up?

No. Fuck that. Fuck everything about that. Music is part of who you are—literally, actually. Anything that moves produces a vibration, including things like electrons. As you are comprised of things like electrons, you are quite literally made of music. So don’t give it up.

Maybe you’ll never be as wildly popular as, say, the Beatles because you lack a talent and that lack is holding you back from the bright lights and fame. But is that really what music is about? I’ve detailed what the purpose of music is for me, and everyone has their own views on the subject. Honestly I wish this blog had a bigger following so I could get some reader input on those other views. But so you might never be famous. That doesn’t mean you can’t still be a musician. You can still express whatever needs expressing through the vehicle of music. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise because you’re not “good enough”. Being “good enough” is not necessarily the point.

I have more thoughts to delve into, but I think I’ve rambled enough for this entry. So it looks like there will be a part two after all. Until then, I will leave you with this. Watch it and absorb it.

And remember the power of “unless”.

TEDxUW – Larry Smith – Why you will fail to have a great career