Friday, February 18, 2022

It's a Nice Drive on 7th Street


This is the second installment in the series of songs with titles inspired by my recent car troubles. After everything got fixed, I still didn't feel completely like driving home on the highway, just in case. So instead, I took a much nicer drive on a smaller road. That has absolutely nothing to do with how I wrote this song, but I thought the feeling was sort of similar.

All of the lead melody parts were played on my MIDI keyboard controlling ReaSynth running into a guitar amp simulator with just as much distortion as I could manage without ruining the peaceful mood. I tried to target chord extensions with this melody, starting phrases by emphasizing the ninth of the chord.

The song starts out with a V - vi - I - ii progression, which looks like it would be fairly stable on paper, but the way it's phrased creates a fair bit of ambiguity. Not to mention the fact that these are all being played as jazz chords, so only the root motion clearly shows the direction of the harmony. I didn't intentionally have the guitar double the bassline in the lowest note of the chords, but it sort of happened that way and created a really nice effect that I enjoy every time I listen to the verse progression.

In the chorus, I tried to emphasize the IV chord, similar to a few pop songs I've been enjoying recently. Hitting the IV right on the chorus simultaneously darkens the sound because it's a IV, but brightens it because I'm staying in the tonic key, which sort of sounds like a Lydian mode. I feel my ear being told both stories at once, which is probably why I like this harmonic move so much. Now that I've experimented with emphasizing IV a bit more, it makes me wonder what other modes could I evoke in the same way? That's a question for next week, perhaps.

There's absolutely nothing novel about my bass part, so I'll move on to talk about the bridge. Before I do, though, I guess I should try to remember to do something different with the bass next time to keep it interesting. Anyways, the bridge. It's a sudden modulation to the relative minor, forecasted in the melody only moments before it happens. I'm not normally a fuzz kinda person, but if I was going to use any distortion in this tune, I wanted it to be on the cheesier, more vintage sounding side. The riff is sort of a combination of a couple different songs I've been enjoying lately, and I doubled it on bass just to prove to myself that I could.

All of the guitar parts were played on my Fender Telecaster Deluxe, and all the guitar sounds were made using stock Reaper plugins.

Friday, February 11, 2022



Sometimes things just don't go as planned. A normal day can get flipped upside down by one unexpected moment. Sometimes, though, you don't even have a plan but something cool and unexpected happens. Both of those things happened to me yesterday, but today I'm here to talk about the thing that turned out unexpectedly good: this song.

Following from my last song, I wanted to see what would happen if I recorded a song completely direct in, and reamped it after the song was written to dial in exactly the tones I wanted. The bass part went a little differently, but all of the guitars were done like that. I wasn't hearing anything but totally dry DI guitar and a metronome until after everything was recorded and I started messing with sounds on my guitar amp.

One of the benefits I discovered was the ability to change tones gradually instead of a sudden shift. For the rhythm guitar parts, I chose a low gain crunchy distortion for the verse, but turned the overdrive up for the chorus. I really liked how there was no seam between the lower and higher gain sections, just a nice dynamic contrast. For all of the parts, I also gradually faded in some delay at the very end. These are all things I could do with automation in a DAW, but doing it on a physical amplifier with my hand made me feel a lot more in control, like I was contributing to the performance after the fact.

As far as post effects go on the guitars, I kept it pretty simple. A nice reverb on the rhythm guitars, and EQ on all of them. The lead guitar is almost exactly what came out of my amplifier, but with everything under 300hz taken out completely.

The bass part was my now-standard 50% mix between clean and Reaper's default amp simulator, along with a ton of compression and a bit of EQ to pull out the extreme lows to give the kick drum breathing room. At this point I'm pretty happy with how my bass guitar sounds, so I didn't feel the need to change anything today.

After I recorded all the parts and reamped them to my satisfaction, I started work on the drums. Using a combination of MIDI finger drumming and writing the notes in with my mouse, I pieced together a part that complimented the rest of the ensemble. My biggest gripe with this song is that the drums turned out sounding a little too stiff for my taste, especially with the lax rhythmic feel of the guitars. The drums just refuse to lay back, but I still haven't found a method for humanizing drums that I really like. Perhaps an exploration for another day?

And finally, the gear list:

  • Lead guitar was played on my Fender Telecaster Deluxe.
  • Rhythm guitar #1 was played on my Epiphone Les Paul.
  • Rhythm #2 was played on my Squier Affinity Tele.
  • Bass was played on the Squier Affinity J Bass.
  • The guitar amp was my Katana 50mk2.
  • On the software side, Reaper handled the audio and KdenLive handled the video.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Sunrise on a Snow Day

The score for this piece is available on MuseScore. It's the follow-up to my song Trip to the Harrowing Woods, in which I wanted to see what would happen if I doubled every guitar part to make it sound like an orchestra of guitars. For that song, I think I didn't go big enough. I like that song, but I didn't quite reach my goal. So I decided to make it happen, whatever it took.

Orchestras have a lot of string players because they need to be able to play very loud using only the acoustic sound straight out of the instruments. That's not all, though. There are also some interesting things that happen to the sound waves when you have that many musicians all playing the same thing- or rather, almost the same thing. It would be impossible for every single cello player, for example, to sound 100% completely identical to every other member of the cello section. Each musician is going to play slightly ahead or behind the group, because humans aren't perfect. Every note will be at least slightly out of tune, and even if everything is played in tune and in time like a superhuman, the physical distance between each player means that even identical sounds will be slightly out of phase with each other. That means that the highs and lows of the sound waves aren't going to line up. All of these little differences add up to the rich sound of a large ensemble. It's why a choir sounds different than just a louder version of one person singing.

There are a few ways to approximate this sound as a guitarist. Chorus effects, along with reverb and delay, can make a single guitar sound bigger and fuller, but it never quite sounds like more than one guitarist, at least to my ears. While a Chorus effect on a guitar may claim to make it sound like multiple guitars, it just sounds too perfect to me. I can tell that it's one guitar, and usually that's okay. But for this project, I knew there was going to be only one way to get the sound of fifty guitarists in a room- I had to play this forty-five times, over multiple days.

Okay, let's take a step back and talk about the composition. When I recorded Trip to the Harrowing Woods, one of the biggest limitations I had was the fact that I was trying to record everything off the top of my head. That's what I do most of the time, but for this project I decided I needed to write some sheet music to make the process easier on me. Instead of having to remember things, and coming up with parts as I went along and then having to remember those too, I just wrote it all out ahead of time. It's roughly an ABA form, with the A sections in F major-ish, and the B sections in Bb Minor. I say -ish because writing in sheet music gave me the opportunity to get more creative and chromatic because I was able to look at the music from a top-down perspective instead of writing one part at a time. The modulation to the distant key of Bb Minor feels pretty smooth because I had already been using chords outside of the key of F by the time the B section rolls around.

After I had the music, I looked up how many members there were in an orchestral string section, and played each part an appropriate number of times. For example, I found that an orchestra typically has eight basses, so I recorded the bass part eight times. I did this with guitar part, matching it up with an equivalent section in a string orchestra, and playing the part that many times. That wound up being forty-five times recording a four minute song. As I'm writing this, I just finished on Wednesday night, and I started on Sunday, recording whenever I had free time. But like I just said, if I wanted it to sound like that, I had no choice but to record everything that many times.

One idea I had early on was to write the Guitar 1 part as a solo, and I stuck to that. While all of the other parts were recorded directly into the computer with no amplifier sounds, I ran Guitar 1 through an amp sim and gave it a little more in the way of audio effects to make it stand out from the rest of the group. I didn't need effects other than EQ and reverb on the rest of the guitars because the massive amount of tracks took care of it for me. I didn't want each guitar to be colored too much by effects, because that would probably add up to some nasty sounds that I don't feel like discovering right now.

This really was a mission of discovery. My choices were to put in the effort and see my idea through, or just... not do that. The choice was pretty easy, although the process sure wasn't. I think the final result was worth it, but I doubt I'll do another one of these any time soon. I have some ideas for where to go next with this genre of "guitar orchestra", but the idea of doing something more complex with this format feels a bit daunting. This wasn't even a hard piece, but playing it that many times meant I made plenty of mistakes I had to fix. But there's still a part of me that wants to write something faster and crazier. Maybe one day...