Friday, January 28, 2022

Prime Suspect


For a while now, I've wanted to experiment more with the USB port on my Boss Katana guitar amp. I've had the idea in the back of my mind to try to use it to reamp guitar parts, but I've never found a need to be able to do that. I have a handful of tried and true guitar sounds that I use for nearly everything, and then adjust a bit with EQ if I need to. So instead of being forced to reamp out of necessity, I decided to invent a reason to use the guitar amp this way.

The first thing I wanted to try was running synthesizers through my guitar amp using the USB port, and then recording the output. That's what I did for all of the synth parts in this track. I wrote a few notes in Reaper's MIDI editor, looped it while adjusting the guitar amp, and then recorded what I came up with. I mostly fed in simple sine waves and triangle waves and relied on the amp's built in effects and distortion to color the sound. I'm pretty happy with the results, and I could totally see myself doing this as part of a more complex arrangement to add variety to my synth lines.

Is it really better than using an amp simulator though? Maybe, maybe not. It's certainly less convenient, because I have to plug everything in and do all the routing instead of just adding a effect to the track. But the process of adjusting physical knobs to dial in the sound I want is pretty cool, and if the final product sounds this good it's probably totally worth it.

After I had all my synth parts in one track, I started editing them together into a song. I pulled some drums from LMMS, and programmed a hi-hat pattern in Reaper. This track probably didn't need a guitar solo, but I wanted to make sure I could actually get some practice doing a normal reamping. I recorded the solo directly from the guitar into my computer, and then played it through the guitar amp using the USB port. I was able to dial in my tone to fit in with the track, and I also reamped it an octave up and an octave down. While I was at it, I decided to record one of the synth parts on guitar as well.

Prime Suspect was a bit of an experiment. I wanted to know what would happen if I tried to make music in a completely different way than I usually do, and the results sound pretty nice. It's not my most complex arrangement or catchy song, but I still like it as a little jam.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Trip to the Harrowing Woods

The original working title of this song, as you can see on the VLC window in my screen capture, was Guitar Symphony. I wanted to see what would happen if I layered a bunch of identical guitar parts and panned them around, and this is the tune that I came up with.

Trip to the Harrowing Woods was written from the top down, taking my last song's method one step further. Last time, I wrote the rhythm guitar parts first so that the drums could support the song better, but because there were no drums in this song I instead wrote the melody first and chose chords, backgrounds, and countermelodies that supported the melody I already had. The song still sounds like something I wrote, but I can hear the flipped perspective.

The form is kind of an AAB thing, with an intro, a repeat, and an outro to match the intro. Between the last B section and the outro, however, is a section I'm not sure how to name. It's not a development, it's not a bridge, and it's not a breakdown, but it has some elements of all of those. Or perhaps the entire tune is one big AB form? However you want to analyze it, I suppose.

I drew from several different inspirations for this composition. Before I even started writing, I had decided that I wanted to work in E Dorian. The intro and outro evoke some of the classical guitar playing I did a few years ago, and the guitar arrangement reminds me of playing in guitar ensembles. And towards the end, when I play a 4:5 polyrhythm in the acoustics, I'm thinking about minimalist pieces I've come to enjoy.

This is my first music video in a while to not include an improvised guitar solo, but I thought it didn't really fit the mood. I've used guitar solos for a while to make longer instrumentals more interesting and avoid repetition. In this piece, the expansiveness of the arrangement gives me more opportunities for contrast. Even then, I probably could have done more.

So, did I get the results I wanted from all the doubling? Sorta. The melody was doubled four times, the chords were doubled five times, and the countermelody was doubled six times. I think I ended up with four or five harmony tracks. Apparently, however, it wasn't enough to get the big sound that I wanted. I guess if I want the sound of a hundred instruments in an orchestra, I'm going to probably have to play a hundred layers. It's safe to say that this will not be my last experiment with pushing the limits of my DAW's ability to manage tracks.

Electric guitars were split 50/50 between my Telecaster Deluxe and my Les Paul, and I pulled out the Hohner steel string along with the Squier J Bass. Actually, the jazz bass was the only non-improvised part that didn't get doubled. I had enough bass already.

The song title comes from the video I recorded to go along with the music. In the video, you're seeing me play Harrowing Woods on Disc Golf Valley, and getting my record best score on that course. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

All The Things You Are


Almost four years ago, I recorded All The Things You Are as a five-part Alto Saxophone harmonization of the melody. I've loved this jazz standard for a long time, and it felt like about time that I record it on guitar. As usual, I did a few things in this recording that are unusual for me. First, I used a microphone instead of capturing the direct output of either my guitar or my amplifier. I wanted to see what the amp sounded like with a mic in front of it, and I'm pretty happy with the results. Also, I didn't use a click track for this recording. I thought of it as a test of my musicianship, and I'm mostly happy with how this track turned out. It's not perfect, but it's very human.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Act Casual

 I put this together in a rush because I wanted to see if I could still do a decent split-screen edit. The answer was no, I needed to do a little better job of preparing if I wanted to get good results, but the song was really good so I posted it anyways.

This isn't a very complicated song, because I knew I only had a couple of hours to finish it. It's a modal groove in F Mixolydian, and I put some synths on a melody. This one ain't rocket science as far as composition goes. 

The most interesting part of this little jam is the production. I recorded both the bass and the guitar DI, which gave me flexibility to mess with tones afterwards. For both of them, I threw on some compression, an amp sim, reverb, and some simple EQ. On the guitar solo, however, I got a little bit more involved. I tried out the Guitarix distortion plugin, which fit the vibe of the tune pretty well after some extreme EQing to tone down the fizziness. A bit of delay for atmosphere rounded out the solo tone.

Everything you're hearing that isn't on screen was done in LMMS and Reaper. To start, I put together the basic drum patterns in LMMS. On top of that, I layered the chord progression and wrote the melody. All of the synths are stock TripleOscilator patches except for one of the melody doubles, which is ZynAddSubFX. After I had the form laid out, I exported the tracks and brought them into Reaper, where I edited the drum parts to add fills and spice up the pattern from time to time. That's really all there is to it.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Ready. Set. Stay.


In this tune, I expanded on a few ideas I explored in previous songs, but with a rock band setup instead of a guitar solo over synths. I'm pretty happy with the way the drums support the ensemble, which has been a big compositional goal of mine lately. I've also lately enjoying playing my extended guitar solos in a different key or tonality than the main melodic material. 

The A section is based around a riff over the chord progression to Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon", which is essentially a two chord shuttle in Bb Dorian. I took some chances with the intervals I chose to highlight, and I'm still making up my mind whether I like the dissonance in some places. The B section has the same chords, but with a different harmonic rhythm.

My method this time around was to play all of the rhythm guitar parts with a 16th note hi hat pattern and a kick drum, add bass, and then write the real drum part to the guitars. Normally I write the drums first because it's way easier to play rhythmically solid guitar parts with a drum groove than without, which is why I made sure to have a hi-hat pattern going to keep me locked in to the feel I wanted. That way, when I went and wrote the drum parts, it all matched up and the programmed drums didn't feel oddly strict like they sometimes do.

The bridge modulates from Bb Dorian to Ab major, which changes the feeling of the song drastically without straying very far from the home key. By this point in the song, you've only heard two chords, both of which are fairly dissonant. When the Ab6 chord hits, it's clearly a modulation even though it's still "in the key" from a more simplistic point of view. The change is dramatic, while also feeling inevitable in a way. I bet I'll use this kind of modulation again in a future song. I suppose it's not too unlike how Avril Lavigne's song "Smile" tonicizes the four chord in the chorus, and even though the song never really leaves the key of A major, the four is clearly treated as the root for a while. That's something for me to play around with more later.

The rhythm parts were recorded on my Epiphone Les Paul, and the lead part was recorded in (mostly) one take on my Fender Telecaster Deluxe. 

I didn't realize until I started improvising, but this tune is in the same key and at the same tempo as Onyx, which I wrote a few weeks before. Of course, the feel is completely different, but I still threw in a quote of the melody in my solo, to acknowledge the similarity. I mean, they're even both based on a sixteenth note hi-hat pattern and a riff that walks up the scale. Seems like I can give up on writing music, because I have no original ideas left... song coming out same time next week!

Friday, January 7, 2022

Seven-part Rondo in E♭

This was a fun one. The form is ABACABA, or a seven-part rondo, but of course I've taken a few liberties with this centuries-old form.

In the A section, the guitar takes the lead, while the synths play a syncopated chord progression. In keeping with the classical vibe, the harmony is a circle progression that sometimes skips the tonic to keep the momentum moving forward. The drums generally follow the rhythm of the synth part.

For the B section, the roles reverse and the melody is in the synths, and the guitar plays a hybrid chordal/countermelody part. Here the harmony is much simpler, so the bass is more free to be independent. Tonally, the B section modulates to the mediant, which is atypical for a classical rondo in a major key, but I've always thought that modulating to the dominant sounds a little cheesy for my taste.

The C section is the guitar solo, and for this part I've condensed the harmonic relationship between the A and B sections into a four chord loop and put it in a new pair of keys- B minor and G major. You could think of G major as the parallel major of the B section key, but my intention was to evoke the major III chord in the key of E-flat. Putting the B minor chord first in the loop weakens this interpretation, but in either case I like the way the modulation sounded. 

After the solo, I tried to mellow things out a bit by taking the drums out occasionally in the A sections- the B section remains unchanged. I chose not to try to transpose the B section back into the tonic key because (if you haven't already noticed) modulations are important to my songwriting process and I didn't want to ruin the emotional impact of the B section. And besides, it's in a very closely related key anyways.

And finally, the gear I used to make this happen:
  1. My 2008 Epiphone Les Paul Standard into a Boss Katana 50mk2 with an Electro-harmonix Metal Muff and the built-in phaser and spring reverb on the Katana. I used the neck pickup the whole time.
  2. A Squier Affinity Jazz bass from 2009, both pickups on full. Recorded DI, but with a 50/50 blend of one of Reaper's built in amp simulators and a ton of compression.
  3. Organic, an additive synth plugin that comes with LMMS. I just hit the "randomize" button until I found something I liked, slapped an envelope on it, and called it a day.
  4. LB302, another LMMS plugin. Set to sine wave and with the distortion turned up. Originally I was intending for this to be the only bass on the track, but it sounded pretty weak so I decided to grab the real bass and mix this one in for color. You can still hear it pretty clearly in the last two A sections where the drums and bass guitar cut out, leaving just the synths and this synth bass.
  5. The synth melody in the B section was a combination of Triple Oscillator and ZynAddSubFX.
  6. MuseScore's default piano sound reinforced all of the synth parts for just a little more fullness. It can be heard clearest in the B section melody.
  7. The drum samples came from my old high school drumkit. I still thank past me every time I use them.
  8. There's a hi-hat sound through an auto filter that comes from LMMS, along with a few extra percussion samples.
  9. All the mixing was done in Reaper, along with exactly two edits in the bass part to correct wrong notes (can you spot them?).
  10. OBS captured my screen, my phone recorded the videos of me playing, and Kdenlive put it all together.