Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Turquoise Era: 2009 -

The Glowing Zone (2010)

1. Chasing the Zone
2. Real in Real Time
3. Tanka Truck
4. Clackamette
5. Cut and Run
6. What I Would Have Said
7. Regrets
8. Preprise
9. The Glowing Zone
10. Per'anai
11. Warranty
12. Stumbled Through
13. Floral Aura
14. Matching Smiles
15. One Rare Moment Together
16. Swarga ki Sans
17. Helicopter Mom

This album picked up where Blue Taxi left off and represented yet another level up in my production. After creating websites and other promotional tools to share my work, I was surprised by the resulting requests for me to make my music commercially available. This is the first album that I put together with that end in mind, i.e. the intent to market it online.

The Glowing Zone - The title track was pieced together out of various short recording sessions I squeezed in whenever I was able. The main rhythm guitar part just popped into my head one day, and I took it from there. There were a lot of stressful things going on all around me, and I was determined not to let any of it drag me down, so my work on this song provided me with a handy escape; it was a "glowing zone" in the middle of the darkness, so to speak.

I originally intended for this to be a song with a vocal part, and the melody was conceived with that in mind. While I was working on it, I decided to put in a sort of ghost vocal track using the tin whistle to use as a reference until the lyrics were ready. However, I drew a complete blank; I couldn't for the life of me think of a good idea for lyrics. On the other hand, I thought the tin whistle had a nice, cheery sound, so I went with it, bringing in the sax later. The tune therefore wound up being an instrumental. (People seem to be liking those better anyway...)

I was surprised the sax line turned out as well as it did. I hadn't touched the thing in months, and getting my fingers to move was a chore, but I still managed to get it all done within the space of an hour. I had far less trouble with the tin whistle, the various guitar parts, and the piano part, which I actually played on a digital piano with weighted keys.

That weird guitar opening is my Strat HSS using a Marshall JCM-800 model, my Marshall Guv'nor Plus distortion pedal, and my Yamaha SX-90 rack-mounted effects processor set to reverse-gate reverb. (I added the phase-shifter on the board later.) The rhythm guitar part is my Telecaster, also using the JCM-800. The various guitar parts that pop up later were either my SG or the Strat using either the JCM-800, Boogie Dual Recto, or a Vox AC-30 model in tandem with either my Zoom 5000, Marshall Guv'nor Plus, or Boss Metal Zone pedals. (At the very end you can hear the latter two growling in unison.)

Tanka Truck - During the summer of 2007 I got a few presents for myself: Sonar 8 Producer's Edition, a new computer to go with it, and a Cakewalk sound interface. This song was the first test of the new setup. I'd toyed with the idea of setting Japanese tanka poems to music for some time; I'd done so once before, on one of my earlier albums, but I wasn't satisfied. (For one thing, I'd fudged the traditional tanka pattern.) This time I was determined to maintain the customary rhythm and build the tune around it.

I started with the piano and bass synth parts, which I recorded in MIDI played on my Edirol keyboard controller. I then programmed drums and added a few other backing keyboard parts. As a sound source, I used a battery of software synths including Pentagon, Adonis, Cyclone, D-Zone, and the VST version of Synthfont (soundfonts mainly compliments of Merlin and Gort). Next I plugged my Fender Precision bass directly into the Cakewalk interface and doubled the bass line. Then I made a rhythm track out of this which I took upstairs, put in my studio laptop, and used as backing to record the guitar, koto, wind synth, additional keyboard, and vocal parts. Finally, I copied the latter tracks, added them to the original mix on my new computer, put it all together, and mastered it. This is the result.

The koto is genuine; my wife gave it to me for my birthday years ago, but I'd hardly touched it. I thought about adding real shakuhachi, hichiriki, and kokyu parts, but it was clear that it was going to take a long time to work them up to spec. I therefore stuck with the koto plus a shakuhachi part that I added using the wind synth.

The lyrics are all my original tanka, and can be seen on my main blog site. A lot of people have told me they really like this tune, so here it is.

One Rare Moment Together - I closed the 2009-2010 fiscal/school year with another instrumental. (This definitely seems to be my principal direction now.) It all started with me noodling around on the cheap Pro Martin acoustic guitar I use at the school. I had the capo set on the 7th fret and was improvising in 3/4 time. This tune just came out. I brought the guitar home and plugged it directly into my upstairs recording setup (It has a built-in pickup, albeit not a very good one) to lay down a fake track, but when I overdubbed a "real" track using the Pro Martin I liked the sound of the two tracks together so much that I just left them as is. Then I got out my Epiphone 6-string (with new phosphor bronze strings), clipped on the Fishman pickup, and laid down a couple more parts doing different things. I like the sound of the growing guitar ensemble, so I threw in a couple of tracks on my 12-string, too. That's when I had a completely different idea.

At first I considered writing lyrics and doing a vocal part, but that got left by the wayside. I'd been wanting to do a recorder-based tune for some time, and this seemed like a good opportunity. The guitar ensemble had overgrown the melody line, so I put a soprano recorder on it. My old veteran recorder, a cheap student model, just did not want to play in tune, so I went out and bought a better one. It's joined down the line by my alto recorder (still the old friend) followed by my new sopranino one. I really got a good idea of what my recorders can and can't do well at my level of ability, so partly for that reason and partly because I wanted a bit of a change, I added my Irish tinwhistle, too (Two, actually - the solo in the bridge is played on a C whistle, and the changeover theme is played on a D one).

Although the melody stays more or less the same throughout the piece, the instrumentation evolves as it goes, so I decided to take it even further by adding a percussion/drum line followed by bass (still in D tuning from "Floral Aura"), my Telecaster (bridge pickup) using a Marshall JCM-800 model played clean with chorus, an SG "punch" part (bridge pickup) using the JCM-800 boosted with my Marshall Guv'nor (grunge sound) and Reflector (room reverb) pedals, my Strat (bridge pickup) doubling the "punch" using a HiWatt dr-103 boosted with Boss Metal Zone and Delay/Reverb pedals, a melody double part on the SG (both pickups) using the HiWatt boosted with the Guv'nor (fat blues sound) and Reflector (spring reverb), and another unison part played on the SG (neck pickup) using the same pedals but a Vox AC-30 amp model and added delay. The mix was finally topped off with string (my Roland keyboard synth) and choir (the SonicCell) parts.

All technical stuff aside, I'm finding that I enjoy doing this kind of music most of all, so there will probably be more like it. Also, in 2011 I submitted this tune to the Torycon (All Japan Amateur Recording) contest, and it was one of the judges' picks, my best result to date!

Matching Smiles - This is my first new tune since completing the BLUE TAXI CD. It was inspired by a beautiful story I've had the privilege of watching unfold on the blogosphere and Facebook. The lyrics are directly based on, and sometimes even paraphrased from, the comments of the friend at the center (or should I say at one of the two centers?) of the tale.

From an artistic and experimental standpoint, this song is notable in that all of the synth parts except the drums were made using soft synths rather than hardware. Whether I used a keyboard or not, the sounds were all produced from within the computer. The piano, English horn, and bass synthesizer parts were soundfonts downloaded off the internet (mainly from the HammerSound library). The synth solo when the beat first picks up was played using my new Arturia Minimoog V emulator (which I know I'm going to have fun with...if I can find the time to play with it!). The ethereal string sound accompanying most of the song is the Stringer, a freeware VST synth plug-in created by FalkesLab (whose site seems to be MIA) which emulates vintage string synths. (The template I used is the Eminent 310, which is what Jean Michele Jarre used on his first albums.)

As for guitarwork, the principle rhythm part is my Telecaster using a Matchless DC-30 amp model (set fairly clean). This is then boosted with my Strat HSS using a Marshall JCM-800 model and the Sonic Cell's reverse-gate reverb. The first, plain solo was done with my SG using a vintage Fender (Blackface) Deluxe model boosted with an Ibanez Tube Screamer (i.e. a very American sound). The guitar chorus that follows was mainly my SG going through a variety of things; the high voice is one of my PODxt's fantasy amps modded with reverse reverb and enhancer via my Sonic Cell, the two main backing voices are going through a Hiwatt DR-103 amp model with just a touch of delay and reverb (i.e. a classic British sound), and the less-clear descants behind them are my Marshall Guv'nor Plus and Reflector pedals going through a clean Marshall amp model. The bass, as always my trusty Fender Precision, was direct-lined through a Roland Direct Box.

Blue Taxi (2009)
Blue Taxi

1. Herald of the Dawn
2. Perspective
3. Blue Taxi
4. Promise
5. Which Do You Fear
6. Live With You
7. Invisible Man
8. Publicly Private
9. Erweina
10. Secret Identity
11. From the Hat
12. Tribal Culture
13. News du Jour
14. Quite Enough
15. Not Baroquen In
16. Intelligent Evolution
17. Give Us Back

A major turning point in my composition and home recording came with the establishment of an all-digital studio setup based on a Roland Sonic Cell and a computer running Edirol's Cakewalk Sonar 7 (which came in a turquoise-colored box; hence the name of this "era"). Although it took up far less space than my old equipment, the new gear allowed me resources that I could only dream of before.

Of course, all this came at the expense of a steep learning curve. I acquired the equipment and dabbled with it while still working on the Blog Blunder album (below). Once I was satisfied that I had learned enough, I mothballed the old equipment and started working with Sonar and the Sonic Cell exclusively. There was still a lot of hands-on learning involved. The first album of the Turquoise Era, Blue Taxi, was more or less a collection of experiments. Just as the Open Halls album came about through my testing out my new (at the time) PODxt, Blue Taxi was intended from the start to be a sort of training course. Some have argued that I overdid the production work, sacrificing musicality in favor of "cheap effects", but the whole point was to see what I could do and what would result from my experimentation. Besides, I feel that, musically, this is a stronger album than Blog Blunder.

Herald of the Dawn - The album kicks off with this instrumental. It was pieced together out of two different song ideas that just seemed to segue together. I was in the mood to do something guitar-oriented and upbeat. I just recorded the two main rhythm guitar parts and then stacked things on top of it. I used a number of different guitar/amp/effect combinations, but it's still fairly basic. The real fun was with the vocals and sax.

I originally planned to write lyrics for this song, but I couldn't come up with any good inspiration for it, so I gave up and left it as a hummed chorus. I thought it worked better that way, so I went ahead and posted it that way. After a while, however, (and after listening to comments from others), I decided it wasn't quite enough, so I went back and added the sax lead. It definitely spices things up, I'd say.

Incidentally, I sent this song into an all-Japan home recording contest sponsored by my regular musical instrument store chain. It didn't win any awards, and I'm still waiting for the judges' comment sheets, but it still felt pretty good doing it.

BLUE Taxi - The title track, another instrumental (one of five on the album - a record), was just a spontaneous and rather impulsive idea...maybe an attempt to ward off some of the grimness that had been surrounding our household in the wake of my mother-in-law's death. The layered sequencer rhythms that start at the beginning were originally inspired by a photo I was looking at of a creek flowing through one of the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. I just popped open one of my little MIDI programming applications (in this case Midisoft's Studio 4) and started laying down tracks for the heck of it. The idea of forming it around a blues progression came later, as did the addition of drum and guitar/bass riff tracks. After that I just sort of went with whatever idea crossed my head, adding tracks, deleting tracks again, adding effects, adjusting effects, deleting effects, and just having fun.

I originally intended to make lyrics for this song, maybe a philosophical rant in layered harmony, but I gave in to random impulse again and made it an instrumental.

The title comes from the fact that, during the leadup to the funeral and the event itself, I often had to provide taxi service to and from the Suigo-Itako Bus Terminal (a good twenty minutes one way) in my BLUE RAV4. This is driving music!

Erweina - Yet another instrumental, included here because it got so many favorable comments (and it's a favorite of mine). I was in the mood to do something mostly synth-based, and that Juno string sound just said, "Use me, please!" That was the track that went on first, followed by the bass and then...other stuff. All the parts were recorded in real time, though I did quantize the drum and sequencer tracks to clean them up a bit. I also recorded the bass, drums, and sequencer tracks in MIDI first so I could try them out with different sounds before settling on ones I liked. I then used my (forlorn) keyboard synth to flesh things out a bit.

There are three different melody parts, the first being my wind synth, which I had broken out of mothballs and dusted off for another instrumental (not included here). I had originally planned to use my sax, but I had trouble finding opportunities to record it because my recording was mainly restricted to nighttime after everyone else was in bed. Since the "windex" was out, I figured I might as well use it instead. The second one was my keyboard synth using a modified sawtooth lead sound, something I could cut loose and jam on a bit. A guitar part comes in partway through (my Strat, neck pickup, using a modeled Roland Jazz Chorus amp), first playing rhythmic arpeggios and then jumping into the melody sandbox with the keyboard synth.

The title (which is bound to cause certain eyes to roll) comes from a fantasy place name, i.e. a temple mountain in a sci-fi/fantasy setting.

Secret Identity - This was an unexpected fan favorite, an wow, did I have fun with it! It wasn't just all those different vocal parts (six, to be exact) in harmony using different effects and pans. It wasn't just all those guitar parts (Telecaster/Roland Jazz Chorus, Telecaster/Fender Deluxe w/ Tube Screamer, SG/Matchless Chieftain, Strat/Line 6 Chemical X, SG/Line 6 Chemical X, 12-string acoustic dry & plain). It wasn't just the fact that I recorded the basics of the drum track in real time and then went back and shifted things around and added twists and fills. I think the best part was the fact that this was the first tune I'd ever pieced together. I often have lots more snippets in mind than ideas for complete songs, and composing is often a matter of picking and choosing bits and fitting them together. This time I recorded different snippets at different times and stuck them together to make a rhythm guitar fake track. I then built the song around it (and took the fake track out). Yes, there are some mood swings in the middle (as exemplified by the guest appearance of Slowdive in the middle)(Just kidding).

As for the lyrics, well...let's just say I got a bit fed up with my weekends getting wiped out. I was really happy to see winter vacation and the promise of some genuine free time ahead.

Quite Enough - Yeah, seriously...I did have quite enough of listening to my FIL rant about the tanking economy and the fact that it was "all America's fault". This is one of two "raw-recorded" acoustic numbers. The main guitar part is my Epiphone 6-string acoustic guitar (capo set at 5th fret), and it was another spontaneous test of my Roland/Edirol R-09HR digital recorder that was partly improvised, partly rehearsed. (You can even hear my futon rustling because I was sitting on my bed at the time.) I then added a second guitar part (Epiphone 6-string, normal tuning) doing slap harmonics and backing up the main part during the twin refrains. A third guitar track (Epiphone 6-string, open G tuning) was stuck in to help with the bangs and strums during the bridge. I was originally thinking of doubling the mandolin solo with winds and/or keys, but I decided to leave it "as is". I then topped it all off with five vocal tracks. It's all rather simple and minimal compared with most of the other tracks in this collection, but hey...sometimes less is more.

A lot of people told me they liked this song, so I sent it into that home recording contest, too. It didn't get an award, either (and I'm still waiting for the comments).

Intelligent Evolution - Another unexpected fan favorite. I wanted to experiment with creating different parts of the song not only at different times, but in different places, and putting it all together. The drums, main riff, and string pad were made on my desktop (internet station) computer using a combination of Finale PrintMusic and SynthFont. I then used SynthFont with some soundfonts I'd downloaded off the internet and exported it directly as a wav file. The "evolving break" in the middle (primitive marimba to medieval style to Baroque style to modern orchestral) was made on my work laptop (during one of my breaks) using Sibelius and SynthFont with soundfonts, again exported directly as a wav file. I then put them together on my studio laptop using Sonar and added the guitar, vocal, and incidental keyboard tracks.

Something else I did with this tune was dig out my forlorn guitar stompbox collection rather than rely solely on the digital effects in the PODxt and Sonar. The guitar you hear the most, playing rhythmical riffs in some places and power chords in others, is my SG (bridge pickup, open D tuning) using a model of the Hiwatt DR-101 amp with the preamp set at a modest position (to clean up the sound) and my Zoom 5000 Distortion and Zoom 5050 Choir pedals. I bought those pedals by sheer providence back in 1992, not knowing they'd become valued collectors' items, and I still really like them. (They are often described as the last really good pedals made by Zoom before the latter decided to focus on cheap-sounding multi-effectors, but whatever.) The second most-heard guitar is my Telecaster (neck pickup, standard tuning) using a model of a vintage Fender Deluxe, which naturally has a jangly sound. During the verses I strummed it clean with my BOSS Super Phaser, giving a nice, light background, but during the intense interludes I stepped on my BOSS Metal Zone pedal, giving it a really noisy scream. The third main guitar part, which isn't so distinct till the very end, is my Fender Strat Special HSS (bridge pickup, standard tuning) using the Marshall JCM-800 amp model (again, with the preamp eased off to lighten the drive) boosted with my new Marshall GV-2 Guv'nor Plus and RF-1 Reflector pedals. I set the Guv'nor to a sort of hybrid grunge/British art rock tone and put the Reflector in reverse reverb mode to give me that really cool, ghostly wail. The guitar solo is also the Strat using the same amp model and pedals, but I used the neck pickup, set the Guv'nor in a more classic rock mode, and used the Reflector's spring reverb. I also added a bit of echo using Sonar.

Yes, the song is definitely very 80s-ish. I didn't do it that way on purpose. I guess my 80s upbringing just surfaces from time to time. As for the lyrics, I chose the title "Intelligent Evolution" because of the "evolving" break in the middle and then used that as the theme. Yes, it's very sarcastic, but sometimes it's good to poke fun at stereotypes.

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