Best of 2014: Syro; Aphex Twin

Sometimes it’s when and where you listen to a piece of music that forms your opinion of it.

As I stated in the last blog, I’ve been in the process of listening to various albums on “Best of 2014” lists. Aphex Twin by an artist known as Syro is on many of these lists. It’s mostly a dance record with lots of beats and loops and not a lot of lyrics. My first listen to this was as I was driving. Personally, I find I’m a better driver when I listen to people talking whether it’s talk radio or audio podcasts. Not sure why, I just find if I’m engaged in the talk I’m paying attention to traffic better; whereas with music I think if I get into it I lose a bit of my focus on the road. So if you pass me and I’m singing, better steer clear. Attention cops, I’m not drunk, I’m just rockin out!

So as I said, my first listen to this album was while driving and my reaction was, “Eh. Dancey stuff. Not my cup of tea.” However, last night I gave it a listen as I was going to bed, thinking it might be interesting stuff to have on while I read. I was wrong in many ways. First off, i paid way too much attention to it and couldn’t read at all. Second it got me thinking about some different things mostly with regard to tuning. There are a couple of tunes which start with a beat and then have melodic things going on which slide up and down in pitch in a really cool way.

This is going to get a bit egghead science-ey so feel free to tune out. Most instruments which can play different notes (called chromatic) are restricted in the intervals between notes. A piano, once tuned, plays the same notes every time, same as a guitar or a trumpet. There are some instruments like a trombone or a violin which have the ability to play every frequency in between 2 notes. This leads to weird possibilities where the melody could contain notes slightly out of the regular scale. Then if two people were that good musically, they could stay in a strict harmony while moving around like this. Make sense?

Electronics allow this to happen with all instruments. One could have a whole bunch of things going on and then slightly de tune everything a bit and it would maintain the strict intervals between all of the notes. Syro is doing this in a couple of tunes. It’s really cool. Lots of people have experimented with stuff like this over the years; however to most of our ears it just sounds wrong. Or that the cassette tape has been out in the sun too long. Kids, ask your parents what a cassette tape is.

The other thing that’s kind of interesting (from a sound geek standpoint) is that to properly tune in one scale, the intervals between the notes will not be absolutely precise in a different key. Again, most people wouldn’t notice these slight variations in pitch and it sounds just fine. And our ear degrades as we get older; I probably had perfect pitch when I was younger but I know full well that I do not any more. So any music one tried to create using these super subtle variations would be playing to a pretty small market.

It was a coincidence but the same day I listened to Syro, I opened my copy of Bach’s “The Well Tempered Claviar” trying to decide which piece I would try to learn this year. I’m not exactly a Bach scholar, but I know a couple things about him. He was incredibly prolific as a composer and I think he was a total music nerd. These pieces encompassed every possible key signature in tonal music and from a bit of brief research on it; there are those who felt that the keyboard would have been re-tuned each time so the intervals were precise.

Anyway, kind of cool stuff.

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Best of 2014

Every year for at least the past 5 years I make a habit of looking at the various music journals and comparing their best of the year lists. If anything sounds interesting to me or if by some freaky chance they agree on something, I will immediately download the album and give it a listen. I’ve discovered some cool stuff that way. I will admit that I have also found a lot of stuff I really didn’t much care for. But that’s the fun of listening to music isn’t it? Discovering something for yourself and deciding if it really speaks to you?

I’m finding that this year’s entries are very moody. So far nothing’s really grabbed me but I’m a bit slow. Speaking of slow, I am very intrigued by a recent project by Beck where he released an album’s worth of tunes on sheet music. Very cool. I thought it was from last year but turns out it was 2012. Like I said I am slow. However i really like the idea he had of releasing the songs this way and then creating a forum where people can upload their own versions of the tunes. I’m working on a project of campfire songs and I think this is a great plan for this.

Hoping that something will grab me and that I’ll have to tell the world about it…

To Tumblr or not to Tumblr

My daughter has suggested that I might be better suited to blogging on Tumblr. It does appear that it might be better suited for what I’m doing, mostly because it allows audio and video clips as well. I’m going to start one at:

https://www.tumblr.com/blog/mikemccormickmusic

For now I’ll try and put things on both but if it seems to make more sense, eventually I’ll just use the Tumblr. Or it will end up like all the other gazillion unused blogs out there just taking up cyberspace somewhere. Perhaps somewhere in the universe there exists an intelligence that is processiong every entry on every blog everywhere and from that is making a pronouncement on the human race.

“Just leave ’em be for a bit. Right now thay’re a bit tedious.”

Hockey is Life

It’s been an interesting week for the whole hockey as a metaphor for life. Now first might I say I’m a real cynic when it comes to the small town, feel good, Hockey Night in Canada type of Canadian vignettes that show how hockey binds us together as a nation. I often feel like the nation’s obsession with the game gets in the way of other very important social activities and mis allocates public spending into building or improving expensive hockey rinks when more people in the community would use a pool or a theatre or a tennis court or a dog park. However, my cynicism was put aside this week with the retirement of Daniel Alfredsson and then the death of Jean Beliveau.

First Alfie. Since moving to the Ottawa area, he has been the captain of our NHL hockey team. The team has been up and down over the years providing its share of excitement and disappointment but no matter what, we knew that our captain was working as hard as he could to win. When speaking to the media he was always thoughtful, eloquent and showed pride in his team and community. He went above and beyond in his charity work providing a public face for mental health; a disease which has a tough time being “cool” when it’s fundraising time. Plus, Toronto hated him which just made Ottawa love him more. His return was joyous for all, the team seemed to enjoy it and then fans were given one last time to show their appreciation for a man who did a great job of representing the community for years.

Then Beliveau. I am not french and don’t claim to understand the culture of Quebec; I just know that their connection with both hockey and the Montreal Canadiens is way more than the rest of the country. I do know that Beliveau was a great, great player who always came across as classy and graceful. Not just that, hearing stories of the way he treated fans made me feel pretty bad in some ways about my own relationship with fans of the Arrogant Worms. He was very conscious of his signature, telling younger players how important it was that the signature be legible so that years down the road, someone could look at it and know who it was. My own signature … sucks. My handwriting sucks. In my defense, I have had issues with my ulnar nerve (briefly had to write with the other hand post surgery) but I can’t say I ever practised a signature that I could be proud of. My signature is repeatable and has a very obvious “M”. That’s about it.

Therefore. From now on I shall do my best to make my signature as legible as possible. It means that it’s going to take me a lot longer to write it and anyone who has a past signature will find they don’t match. However, this is pretty much the least I can do. Thank you M. Beliveau. Thank you Alfie.

Brilliant!

So we may have a brilliant idea.

When I say we in this case I am speaking of my daughter and I. She’s 13 and is my window on the world of young people. I really find that I’m somewhat oblivious to the world as seen by younger people. Sure I understand that there’s this internet thing and that people communicate with their thumbs but I’m pretty unaware of a lot of networking sites. Plus, the whole process of how kids discover things like music and comedy is new to me.

So she told me I should have a Vlog. I said that I had one until she explained the V at the beginning of the word. I’ve been reluctant to try and commit to weekly anything; I just don’t seem to have the productivity. However, when she explained that it didn’t have to be long, it didn’t always need to be scripted that we just needed our own hook a germ of an idea came.

My most recent song is about the “Bohemian Waxwing”, a bird which can live in very Northern Climes. It has been spending more and more of the year in Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Well, this year there has been a fairly temperate winter so far which has created a lot of freeze and thaw cycles. This has caused some of the small berries left on trees to start the fermentation process and the birds are getting drunk. Comedy gold! I put it to a Celtic Beat and debuted it at Soundcheck last week. Went over pretty well.

So here’s the plan. The hook is my beloved red plastic trombone. Somehow I’m going to find a way to play this in every video, even if it’s just the lead in to whatever bit I have planned. We’re going to call it “Red Plastic Trombone Theatre”. I hope to have the first one up this week and then make it a weekly event. I have a small puppet theatre that my father built for the kids years ago which I’ll use as a backdrop. And use for puppet shows of course!pbone

Soundcheck at the Neat

I host a monthly Open Mike at the Neat Cafe in Burnstown, Ontario. It’s been a lot of fun and a good opportunity to try out new material. We try to have a consistent night that being the last Wednesday of the month. However, sometimes we have to reschedule it if the Neat has other commitments. Or if we want to try a different night to see if the numbers change.

And then some months we screw up. Like this month!

So we knew that the Neat had a show already booked on the last Wednesday of the month and the following Thursday so we had to do it sooner. The Neat had put the 20th of November on their website so all was good; except that I got it in my head that it was wrong and we were doing it on the Wednesday (19th). So I’ve been telling people and changing my schedule and putting it on facebook and I’m completely wrong. So I’m trying to retract things today.

At least I didn’t have to retract something I said about Jian …

I Woke Up Country

This morning I woke up country. Every song idea I’ve had has come out country. Funny thing when one gets in a country spirit, almost everything seems like it could be a country song. Like, “I Woke Up Country”. Wonder if that’s already a song. I just went on google and haven’t found anything yet. Lot of , “Woke up this morning” though that seems more like the blues.

How about:

This morning, I woke up country

Woke up with country music in my soul

This morning, I woke up country

But I hope to go to bed with Rock and Roll

update 

I was going to add an mp3 file with the tune in my head. I didn’t realize that with the free version of wordpress I can only upload visual content; no audio or video. I may have to rethink this. I do have a website mikemccormick.ca which is currently under construction but I was just going to link to the blog. Now I must admit I am rethinking this as I can use wordpress on my site. Hmmmm

Building the Website

So I now have the website mikemccormick.ca moved to a new host. I’m using this experience as an opportunity to try and make the site better and more useful for all. My first site used WordPress to make the whole thing. I must admit, it was really simple to make a site that at least worked. I never did much to customize it yet it looked pretty good. It didn’t look good on mobile devices and it always had the blog stuff on each page. But it worked.

I have a few choices for the new site. They have WordPress but you know what, we must move forward! Charge! So I’m looking at things called Drupal and Joomla. Gotta love these names. Drupal sound like Drooper who was one of the Banana Splits so I’m tempted to go with it but from my little bit of reading, Joomla is simpler to use and is better at scaling for mobile devices. Joomla was not one of the Banana Splits.

Maybe he could have replaced Bingo or Fleaglebananasplits

Demos

I’m never sure when and whether or not it’s worth making a demo of a song. When I’m writing songs for the Worms, we just play them for each other when we have a gig or a recording session. I don’t pitch songs to other artists or to record companies. So there’s no real practical purpose at this point.

However, I do find that recording the song really crystallizes where it’s at. By recording it you are forced to decided how to get in and out of the song and what to do in between verses and choruses. As well when you hear your own song you can sometimes get a better sense of where the holes are and what needs to be fixed.

So the tradeoff I find is between how quickly you want to make the demo and how good you want it to be. I’ve tried a bunch of different methods which I’ll go through here with some examples of a recent song.

Using a smartphone

I have an Iphone so the apps I use are obviously for it.

VRPVoiceRecorder

There are plenty of basic recording apps; the one I use is called VRP 7. It’s free, it allows a variety of recording quality and it’s pretty simple to either transfer the file to your computer or to Google Drive to listen to it elsewhere. The limitation is that you can’t do too much to the file afterwards through the app and that you are limited to the sound quality of the phone’s microphone. But it’s really quick and easy

GigBaby Gigbaby_Small_Icon

GigBaby is a great app and probably the best 99 cents I’ve spent on the app store. It’s a 4 track recorder for iphone that has a variety of built in drum patterns that you can use. So basically, you select a drum pattern, fix the tempo (either by writing it in or tapping the beat), pick a track and go. You can sing one one track, play guitar on another, maybe add a harmony track or drop spoons on the floor (rhythmically of course). If you buy a gizmo like the Irig you can plug an instrument right in while still hearing what’s recorded.

The sound quality is again limited to the quality of the phone microphone but this is a really easy way to hear a song more fleshed out with either instruments or harmonies. I’ve used it to try and arrange a couple a capella tunes and it’s worked great. If you want the song to have different tempos you can go without a rhythm track, otherwise I don’t know of any way to change in the middle of a song.

garagebandGarageBand (Ipad)

My spouse or equivalent (inside joke between me and her) has an Ipad. I’m too cheap; I might get an android tablet on Black Friday or Cyber Monday! I digress. Garageband I believe started as a program for Apple computers and is now available for Ipad and Iphone. It doesn’t seem to work on my phone; I think it’s one of those things where the latest version of the app needs a smarter phone and the latest iOS which mine isn’t. However, the Ipad app works great and it’s a brilliant program. For drums you can either have it make up a pattern and just happily play away. It has great onboard sounds for keyboards, strings, and the drum sounds are also great. The only limitation sonically is when you try to sing or play an acoustic instrument, then you’re using the Ipad’s microphone which is crap. However, very quickly you can make a pop song sound really good.

I did a song for a curling bonspiel a couple of years ago and wanted it to be a James Brown style funk song. I used GarageBand to make up a backing track and sang live at the event and it worked out great.  I briefly tried to figure out how to get the midi information out of the program

Now you can get all sorts of adaptors and microphones and guitar connectors for Ipad now so that you’re getting a better sound from acoustic instruments. So I guess it’s possible to make studio quality recordings with an Ipad. But I’m not really sure why you’d do it. All of these things make your Ipad stuck in one spot. Kind of like a computer. But without the processor speed and the memory and the disc space. So I’m not really sold on them. But you can make a great demo or a song fairly quickly with this program and have lots of stuff going on.

Hey Folks

I’m going to try this for a while; having the blog separate from the website. That way the website can be more about projects and performances. We’ll see if it makes any sense.

My plan is that this blog will document my songwriting forays. I’ll link to various tunes as they are created and posted. I invite comment and criticism. Songwriting is an art, not everybody likes the same stuff. I write for me first but I always hope that other people will listen. I have several outlets for my songs. I am a member of the Arrogant Worms comedy troupe. Though we don’t perform as much as we once did; we still do shows and our fans seem to want both new and old songs to be part of our shows. I host a monthly Open Mike at the Neat cafe called Soundcheck and try to have at least one new tune ready to perform there.

https://www.facebook.com/SoundcheckAtTheNeat