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Justin Bieber, PaulStretch, and the Slow Motion Music Quiz

This morning’s meme seems to be Slow Motion Justin Beiber, the entertaining result of taking Bieber’s U Smile and stretching it like taffy with a nice piece of open source audio processing called Paul’s Extreme Audio Stretch (but its friends call it “PaulStretch”). The result is a weirdly ethereal ambient piece that lasts for over a half hour.

But what if you throw other stuff at PaulStretch? It turns out it does a pretty nice job of turning anything into a variation on gooey ambiance, though the results do vary in the details from song to song.

So here’s the question: can you recognize super-slow, super-smoothed versions of popular songs? I’ve picked two dozen highly recognizable songs at random out of my music library, fed small you’d-know-it-if-you-heard-it clips of each into PaulStretch, and presented the results below. Give ‘em a listen, take your best guesses in the comments if you like.


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Every single song about Steven Slater

Since flight attendant Steven Slater’s unorthodox deplaning on Monday, August 9th, from a jetBlue plane on which he had been working, there have been no less than twenty-one different songs on the subject written and recorded and posted to the internet.

This is all of them.

If you know of any not featured here, or related folk-musical artifacts or oddities tied to the subject, leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to get them added. If you’re curious about the backstory to some of this, see my previous post about the Slater folks music / viral weirdness thing.


The various songs of Steven Slater

My version, lyrics by Max Sparber:


Rachel‘s Ballad of Steven Slater


Jonathan Mann‘s Ballad of Steven Slater


Folk music, viral weirdness, and the Ballad of Steven Slater

[Psst! If you like this song, you might check out the album I recorded earlier this year, Inchoatery!]

This is probably the only time I’ll ever end up being the soundtrack to Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room”.

So: I recorded a song yesterday morning, using the lyrics of fellow Metafilter user Max ‘Astro Zombie’ Sparber. The song is called Ballad of Steven Slater. It’s a little three-minute pop-rock tune that I’m pretty fond of, especially for something I knocked out in only a few hours. Here, give it a listen!

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UPDATE 8/14: now with music video! Check it:

Of course, you might already have heard a bit of it yesterday, if you happened to be watching CNN…


Monotoning with Echo Nest Remix

A question occurred to me a while back while exploring the Echo Nest Remix toolset (see previous NIN tomfoolery):

Could I easily and algorithmically make recordings more monotone?

The answer turns out to be “sorta”. I’ve written a simple python script that uses the Remix library to do some fine-grained pitch-shifting to the songs I throw at it, and the results vary widely from song to song for a variety of reasons I’ll explain below with some examples. If you want to skip the nerd talk and jump straight to the weirded-up music, see the bottom of the post for a collection of songs I ran through the script.


Here’s an example of a song that produces very clear results: Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb

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Note the that song seems to pretty much hang on a single chord throughout (or more specifically seems to idle back and forth between a major and a minor version of the same chord), while the melody and the guitar solos seems to hop around into weird jarring normal-then-chipmunks-then-normal territory. I’ll talk in more detail about this in a bit, but the key thing happening here is that the script is shifting basically every chord in the song to the tonic, the root key of the song. So instead of a chord sequence like Bm -> A -> G -> Bm -> D we end up hearing Bm -> B -> B -> Bm -> B.

Note also just how flat the song becomes in the process. Instead of big satisfying chord changes and nice minor-into-major catharsis when the verse breaks into the chorus, it’s all just…samey. This is actually something like an ideal outcome for the monotoning process, if not an ideal way to produce engaging recordings.

My friend Roj suggested a good alternate name for this process: “boringization”. When the process works well, it strips out most of the musical movement in a song, producing something far more static, at best sort of hypnotic and at worst simple dull and uninvolving.

One Note Pony

Here’s a far simpler example: Suzanne Vega, Tom’s Diner

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With an a capella track, the job of the script is very simple: figure out what note the singer is singing, and pitch shift that to whatever the tonic of the song is supposed to be. The result is Suzanne Vega singing one note over and over again. (Or nearly; the process’s pitch detection is very simple and imperfect and so it can for various reasons be fooled a bit, so we get moments where she’s shifted to the wrong note.)

And while the note remains the same, the quality of her voice changes significantly from note to note. This is a result of the pitch-shifting being done—when you take a complex sound like the human voice and shift all the frequencies up or down significantly, the result will generally not sound right because the distribution of frequencies in your pitch-shifted sample is different from the frequencies present in that person’s voice when they’re actually singing that lower or higher note. In other words, the timbre, roughly the frequency qualities of the voice, are changed.

This is why voices sound funny when music is played back at the wrong speed on an analog music player (e.g cassette deck or vinyl turntable), hence the Alvin and the Chipmunks or Boomy Satan effects everybody is familiar with regardless of whether they’re an acoustics nerd. (The effect of inhaled helium or xenon on the human voice is not unrelated—the differing density of those gases induces a timbral change in sound created while it’s being exhaled through your larynx. But that’s a different discussion.)

The Harvey Girls releases I’ve Been Watching A Lot Of Horror Movies Lately

My good friends and sometimes musical collaborators The Harvey Girls (lotsa music there) have just released their new album, I’ve Been Watching A Lot Of Horror Movies Lately. Go check out some samples, and pick up a copy — at $8 for a disc or $6 for a download, it’s a hell of a deal.

The new album features a lot of interesting live-looping work that Hiram has been doing, and it’s good hypnotic fun. (I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him do some of this stuff live solo as well, which is impressive in its own right as a feat as much technical/choreographical as it is musical.)

While you’re at it, go listen to this great cover of Spanish Bombs that The Harvey Girls did in collaboration with the fantastic Alantl Molina and VerĂ³nica Bagnoli.

Nine Inch Niles 2.0 – The Crane That Feeds

New recording, and new video! I’ve put together, again mostly automatically, a rough clone of the NIN single “The Hand That Feeds” using, again for reasons that mostly escape even me, random sitcom audio. Samples from Frasier used to rebuild NIN tracks never sounded better! Which is not saying much!

Here’s the music track in isolation (or download the mp3 here):

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But, a little background on what’s going on!

So it’s been interesting seeing reactions to The Seattleward Spiral: some folks love the concept and hate the execution, some folks like the raw weird noise of the thing, and a lot of people have opinions on how it might work better. And certainly there are a lot of different things that could in theory be done to make it work better — if I had known the project was going to get so much attention I would have taken it a little more seriously in the first place. Heh.

But, so! How to do it better? There are a lot of possibilities; unfortunately, many of them involve rewriting portions of, which I’m frankly not ready to do — I need get more comfortable with Python, and much more familiar with what Remix can and can’t do, before I can really get into that territory. (If you missed the previous post: is a Python script that uses the Echo Nest Remix API, a music analysis and manipulation library, to rebuild a song (song “a”) from the pieces of another song (song “b”) by slicing both up into tiny bits and then trying to match those bits together heuristically. To put it simply. It’s the clever bit of guts at the center of these experiments. I did not write it, I’m just enjoying using it and trying to learn more about how the whole thing works.)

One of the common suggestions that is practical at this point is to, instead of running against an entire mix, run it against each individual solo track in a mix — guitar, bass, vocals, drums, etc. So, the guitar track gets imitated as best as possible by foreign audio; the bass does too, separately; and the vox; and the drums; and then all of that gets mixed together again at the end. The notion is that the sum of the parts may be a lot more listenable than a single pass would be.

And I’m happy to say that, having tried that out and produced the media below, it does improve things somewhat. There’s a steady beat — thanks largely to being able to rebuild percussion tracks in isolation — and the overall dynamics of the song are a lot better too (it gets loud, it gets quieter, there’s notable section shifts). The track is still, note, not something that really sounds in a casual sense like The Hand That Feeds, or necessarily something you’d put on at a party; the resemblance is still primarily rhythmic, and while the overall feel is more musical than the tracks on Seattleward there still no real harmonic or melodic correspondence between the original and new creation. Solving that problem is for another day.

Building the track

Part of the challenge with this method (aside from it being a lot more time-consuming in general to produce a track) is getting my hands on those isolated instrumental and vocal tracks in the first place. Hence the return to Nine Inch Nails as source audio; they make available stems at, which is honestly a fantastic move that I’d love to see more bands make. I grabbed the Garageband session for The Hand That Feeds (no Downward Spiral tracks available, and I’m out of date on NIN since like 1996, but I remember hearing this single when it came out), bounced out each of the seventeen individual tracks that make up the mix, and proceeded to throw the same Frasier clips at each of those as I did at the mixed tracks on Seattleward, using to rebuild them.

Then I took those newly generated frasierplexes and imported them into the Garageband session alongside their respective source tracks from Trent and company, and made a rough mix of the new audio to try and generally mirror the sonic profile of the original. I threw a little distortion on the tracks that were replicating guitar and synth and bass, compressed things fairly aggressively, applied some panning to give it a little more sense of space and separation (if Frasier is saying four different things on four different tracks I want to at least give that some stereo spread to keep it from becoming totally mushy), put a little reverb and echo on a couple tracks, and, bam: The Crane That Feeds.

Producing the video was a cinch; I just used the script with the final mix as my a file and a random clip of Frasier singing on a telethon for the b file. Hence the weirdly camera-centric music video.

Nine Inch Niles – The Seattleward Spiral

Album Cover

So what started yesterday as a silly photoshop joke turned, today, into a silly computational music generation sort-of-joke.

The Seattleward Spiral is a from-scratch, mostly-automatic reinterpretation of Trent et al’s 1994 The Downward Spiral, using nothing but sliced up audio from the NBC sitcom Frasier. The result is something arguably far more “industrial” in some sense (and far, far less listenable in that same sense) than the original album.

The reconstitution was done using “”, a python script that takes two files, the target track a that you’re trying to recreate, and the source track b that provides the audio content used for that recreation, and slices both up into very small pieces, assembling the bits of track b one at a time according to whichever piece best matches the current bit of track a.

The script is provided with Echo Nest Remix, itself a fascinating and extensible music manipulation library and API I’ve been playing with lately and will have more to post about soon. Fun, fun stuff. If you’re not afraid of a little light monkeying around with your command line it’s worth checking out.

In any case: The Seattleward Spiral was created by running afromb against each track from Downward Spiral three times, using three different bits of Frasier audio — the theme song, and the first five minutes or so form two random episodes I found on Youtube (“Two Mrs. Cranes” and “Niles Starts a Fire” or something like that). I dumped the three tracks for each into Garageband to create a very basic mix with just some static panning to create a bit more stereo action, chucked those out to mp3, and that was that. It’s a tremendously quick, dirty mix, with functionally no human intervention in the choice and arrangement of the sounds on the record.

You can grab the whole thing via this zip file, or listen to individual tracks below. I think that Closer To Roz, in particular, works well.

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The Lonely Iterator

My main musical goal when arranging and recording Inchoatery was to achieve more of a full-band sound than I have in previous recordings. I wanted the album to sound less like a solo project and more like something a functional rock group had put together.

There were a couple challenges there, for me:

1. Instrumentation — what are the pieces of the “band” that need to end up on tape? With what mix of sounds does it stop sounding like a guy in his bedroom and start sounding like four or five people putting on a show?

2. Execution — what does it take to put those pieces together convincingly? How do you, mechanically, get from one guy’s ideas to a convincing full-band sound?

I want to talk mostly about the second point here — and that’s where the title of the blog post comes in — but I’ll cover the instrumentation thing first.


Rock bands have drums. Or: rock bands have rhythm sections. Something is underneath it all, driving it along. Drums and bass, working together to keep your shit in gear. Rhythm guitar adding to that, where applicable. These are the guys in your band who, if they’re doing their jobs right, are keeping things tight in the pocket and letting the vocals and the lead guitar lines and any other melodic elements move around freely without sounding stranded or unmoored or flighty.

A solo singer/songwriter/guitarist’s performance is going to be fundamentally different than a rock band’s performance, regardless of questions of skill or talent, because of this different musical dynamic. I’ve done a lot more of the former than the latter with my own work, and at times I very much miss being in a band and having that different dynamic available. Short of actually starting/joining a new band (and all the logistical and emotional complexities that could entail), my best bet is to learn to do it all myself. And I’ve been steadily chipping away at that problem over time.

So I got myself a drum kit last July, and have been having a good time with it and am learning to play them (relatively quickly, I guess, based on the feedback I’ve gotten from a few folks). A lot of years of musicianship beforehand have probably been invaluable on that front. Playing a little bit of Rock Band drums honestly didn’t hurt either. So going into this project, I knew I had drums, and I knew I could beat out at least basic tracks with some kind of steadiness.

We also own an electric bass, a fantastic little John Deere custom job with decent action and not-great pickups. I’m not much of a bassist but, again, I can knock out simple things — guitar skills transfer in a useful way there, though there are different things that work on guitar vs. bass and different physical approaches to the two instruments, and my bass fundamentals could use an awful lot of work.

Guitar I’ve played for years and years, so as a portion of the rhythm section that was a given, though I’m honestly not all that satisfied with my rhythm guitar chops. Familiarity breeds contempt, perhaps; remembering my early days of really questionable rhythm execution may come into it to, with me viewing my current skills more harshly than I ought to. It’s hard to say. But I don’t have any reason to be embarrassed about my playing in general.

Piano isn’t so much a standard rock component, but it’s hardly unprecedented and it’s definitely a viable component of a rhythm section. I’ve had a chance to put that into action in the past when playing with The Man So Cool, and had a lot of fun with it, and I own a nice electric piano that I’ve been playing a lot of for the last couple years. Both the left and the right hand work on a piano can tie into the beat in a way that helps reinforce the underlying rhythmic skeleton of a rock song.

So that’s a good set of sounds. Throw ‘em all in a basement and you’ve got a rock band. Right?


One nice thing about being in a band is that you, personally, generally only have to worry about one or two things at any given moment in a performance. Play your guitar, or your drums, or your bass, or your piano, or your triangle or theremin or musical bicycle. Maybe sing as well. Maybe shake your ass around a little too but that’s just icing. You’re paying attention to the other guys who are playing their own parts, but all you need to do is know that they’re doing their own thing and you’re all generally aware of each other, and, pow: a performance happens.

It’s one of the wonderful things about being in a band: something happens around you that’s bigger and more complicated than just the thing you’re doing yourself.

So there’s two big frustrations that come with building a fake band yourself out of overdubbed parts:

A. You have to do all the work.

B. You can’t jam.

Doing all the work means knowing how to play the instruments, as the first step. But beyond that, it means having to know how to make those instruments work together. It means having to be able to plan out an arrangement in four or five or however many parts and know what the drums are doing at the same time as the bass and the guitar and the piano and that so on are doing their own things, and anticipating the way in which those various parts will interact in a pleasing or exciting or surprising way.

It means, basically, being able to hear a whole rock song in your head in however many separate simultaneous pieces, and to be able to turn that into recordings, one track at a time, in a way that fits together cohesively in the end. Which is challenging in a lot of ways. Fun and rewarding if you pull it off well, certainly, or I wouldn’t try. But that’s the scope of the problem.

Playing with yourself

Not being able to jam, though — that’s a killer. And it’s a wall I hadn’t really run into before in the way that I did when I started working earnestly on the recordings for Inchoatery.

Obviously you can’t play everything at once, and obviously that creates a more significant lower limit on laying down a multi-part track — recording four or eight or twelve different instrumental parts one after another takes more time than recording a single live take (setting aside the question of how good any given take is and how many times you might need to try to get it right). That much I knew going in, and I generally work pretty fast when I’m recording a song so it wasn’t really a concern.

But there are other implications that I didn’t consider.

For one thing, the difference between recording one song and recording eleven songs brings into play the question of how you put down the individual instrumental tracks for each song. If I need to record drums, bass, a couple of guitars, piano, and vox for pretty much every track on the album, do I do that set of instruments for song one, and then move on to song two and record those again, and so on? Or do I record the drums for everything first, and then the bass for everything, and then the guitars, and so on? Neither is inherently correct (or incorrect). But!

I don’t have a recording loft with everything set up and ready to record at a moment’s notice; I have a house with instruments in various places, and a Macbook and a small audio interface and a small collection of microphones. If I want to record drums, I have to take my little studio to the drums and do a little setup before I can get started. If I want to record electric bass, I steal my kick drum mic and haul my gear over to the other end of the basement and set the mic up and tweak it and dial in an appropriate effects chain on my PodXT. And so on.

Factory farming

So the practical answer was to do all the drum takes at once. And then all the bass takes. And so on. Even granting that I’d probably come back to individual songs to retake something if the original takes didn’t work, I was motivated by the short timespan of the month and the desire to not lose my fucking mind setting up and tearing down a recording setup sixty six times instead of six times to take this assembly-line approach. To say nothing of the risk each time of setting things up inconsistent with a previous take and so having things sound uneven within a track or between album tracks.

The downside of that process is that it puts a big buffer, both in terms of time elapsing and in terms of the amount of musical data I’m shuffling around in my brain, between e.g. the point where I record a drum track and the point where I put down the bass track that goes with it. Which means that my memory of exactly what I did on the drums — specific kick patterns that I might want the bass to match, specific dynamic moves or sudden drops, small variations that I may have improvised while tracking the drums from one take to another — isn’t fresh in my mind when I go to add the next track. Some of that I can compensate for by reviewing the existing recording, or making explicit notes, or doing a lot of dry runs or repeated recording takes on the bass part to work out the details — but time was a factor here, and so was energy level. I couldn’t get this stuff perfect without killing myself in the process and running out the clock as well.

But it gets worse! The assembly-line approach introduces difficulty in tying any two tracks on a song together as tightly as I might like, but that’s true for every subsequent instrumental track as well. Small problems between drums and bass; small problems between guitar and the drum-and-bass undercoating; small problems between the piano and all the other stuff. Little issues stack up in a multiplicative fashion. Errors and mismatches get amplified.

And, the kicker: there’s no real time for do-overs if it all goes badly. Because of the time constraint of doing the whole thing in a month—which is practically reduced to recording the whole thing in a lot less than a month, since there’s a lot of writing and arranging and revising and planning that needs to happen before I can really seriously roll tape on the final tracks—it becomes a get-it-right-the-first-time situation. Or, at best, get-it-right-the-second time, if I’ve got the time and the energy to try.

Okay, but that ‘iteration’ thing?

So here’s the thing. With a band, if you’re all collaborating to put together new music from scratch, it often goes something like this:

an algorithmic play

ACT I: The Idea

Alice: I have an idea for a song.  It goes something like this.  
Alice: [plays song idea]
Bob, Corin, Dio: Huh, cool.  Let's try it.
Alice, Bob, Corin, Dio: [plays basic parts around song idea a few times]

ACT II: The Refinement

Bob: Hey, what if we do this thing at this point in the song, like this?
Bob: [mimes or sings or plays or draws picture in dirt on basement floor 
    to convey musical idea]
Alice, Corin, Dio: Oh, you mean like this?
A, B, C, D: [tries out idea]
Corin: Wait, what if it was a little more like this?  
Corin: [Miming/signing/playing/scribbling commences]
A, B, C, D: [tries out idea]
Dio: Holy diver you've been down too long!
Bob: What he said.

ACT III - XXVI: Iteration

Alice: Hey, this is just Act II again a bunch of times but with different 
     specific ideas.
Corin: You write out the plans, I carry out the act.
Bob: What she said.  Oh, and what if at the end of the second verse we...

ACT XXVII - Satisfaction

Alice: Hey, after iterating through that song a number of times, we've 
    created a pretty solid finished product.  What a joy this process of 
    organic collaborative development can be!
Alice, Bob, Corin, Dio: [go to bar]


The missing piece of the puzzle, trying to do this all by myself, is Acts Three through Twenty-six. That process of steadily iterating through the “idea, implementation, evaluation, refinement” phase of songwriting is invaluable, and every good functioning band does it whether they think of it in such absolute terms or just let it happen.

I think of it in those terms, and think of the word “iteration” specifically, in no small part because of my formal Computer Science background—anyone who has been exposed to software engineering concepts will recognize the idea and the terminology immediately. (A related idea from CS is the “waterfall model”, which to the best of my knowledge has nothing to do with TLC.)

And trying to recreate this process of band-wise song iteration on my own — and failing to do so satisfactorily — was the biggest unanticipated roadblock I encountered when working on Inchoatery.

All in all, my challenges came from this combination of:

- not being able to — or not having the backing musicians around to help me — do everything at once (which, as a habitual solo recordist, I’m accustomed to), and
- wanting to really sell a full-rock-band sound (something I’m less used to), and
- trying to pull of nearly a dozen tracks at once (which I’m manifestly [HA!] unaccustomed to, as I usually work on one track at a time as they come to me throughout the year), and
- not having a group to collaborate with about changes and refinements (which I’m used to for solo work but not used to when developing full-on rock songs), and
- not having the time to, even however laboriously, create many iterations of the song on my own, because I had only a month to complete this project.

The result was that I was stuck with only my own ideas to work with, I was responsible for executing all of them as cleanly as possible (which was not in a lot of cases as cleanly as I’d like), and I didn’t even have the time to really tear down and rebuild those ideas and that execution enough to get the bugs out of the arrangements the way I’d be able to do if I was working with real live fellow musicians at a natural pace.

On the bright side, there were far fewer band arguments.

Sour Grapes?

This isn’t intended as an earnest complaint: I chose to do this project in the first place because I’m attracted to the process and to the challenge, and pulling the album off as best as I can (and I feel I did a pretty damned good job, all in all) is a big part of the appeal of trying to do an album in a month in the first place.

I had a lot of fun doing this, and I’m really happy with the album that Inchoatery turned out to be.

A lot of what surprised me in the process of recording the album has been tremendously useful to me, too; every frustration has been educational, every roadblock a wonderful kick in the ass. I can too easily get used to riding on the easy paths of writing and recording to which I have become accustomed over the years, and that means it’s easy for me to stop learning, and a project like this is a great way to get out of that didactic slump. Certainly I’m better equipped to plan and execute a project like this in the future, thanks to all the messes I had to muddle through this time.

Lessons learned

And there are solutions to a lot of the problems I ran into:

- Take more time. That’s not so much applicable to a stunt like album-in-a-month, but setting aside that arbitrary constraint there’s no reason I couldn’t have done more iterations of these songs and gotten more of the details pinned down, gotten more polish on the final recorded tracks, etc. Being able to just take a week or a month off from a song to let it sit and gel would eliminate a lot of the stress this project involved.

- Put it on paper, work it on paper. I have notes I made throughout the month, and basic sketch demos I recorded when an idea was starting to come together. I wish I had written more down instead of trying to carry ideas around in my head, and I wish I’d gone back and listened to those various demos a bit more to remind myself about some of the ideas I had that got left by the wayside throughout the month. If you think some specific thing might improve a track, write that down. It may save your ass later on when you review your notes and remember that great idea that slipped your mind.

- Seek help. I like that this was a 100% DIY effort, but the difference between doing it all myself and doing very nearly all of it myself is a point of silly pride, not a practical accomplishment. Get someone you know and trust to listen to what you’re working on early on, and throughout the project. Get more than one set of ears on it. Share your doubts; talk through your ambitious ideas; find out if there are problems you didn’t consider. Take advantage of whatever creative support network you might have to inject perspective into your creative process.

- Demo early, demo often. I created very rough sketch demos for most of the songs on Inchoatery, and decent full-band demos as well, and each time I did that I was forced to test my vague ideas and prove they worked. I could have done that more often before starting in on the final recordings and saved myself some pain. Every time you have an idea and you’re not absolutely sure how it’s going to work in reality, just try to record it. You’ll know immediately if you’ve actually got a plan or just a vague intention for how to execute that idea, and you can refine or abandon it from there, with confidence that that particular problem is taken care of.

Those are all lessons I’ll be making use of going forward, at least if I’m smart enough to remember them. If nothing else, I hope I come back to this and give it a re-read before next February rolls around.

Aside from providing me with an excuse to do some creative work and producing thereby a pretty solid, listenable album, this last month has been a deeply worthwhile investment in my own writing and producing skills. If you’ve thought about trying something like this but never quite made the leap, I heartily encourage you to go for it.

Album released: Inchoatery

Last month’s album is done (and it better be, since February is over), and it’s ready for consumption. Please check out it out:

That page has the album available for immediate streaming, plus notes about the album in general and links to more details about (and various demo and sketch versions of) each of the songs on the album.

If you’d like to snag the whole album directly in mp3 form, you can download this zip file, as well.

I’m pretty happy with what I came up with, and it was a challenging and exciting and very educational month. I’ll be posting more details about the work I did and what I learned, but for now I’m just pleased to be able to say it’s finished and ready for consumption.

Album is done. More soon.

Put the finishing touches on yesterday morning and finalized the mixes in the afternoon. Having it done is a big relief. I’ll have a post about it with all the final recordings at some point this weekend; I’m currently getting all the content organized on the site here so it’ll be ready for consumption, before I throw the switch.