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...

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.