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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.

Instrumentation

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?

Execution

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:

ALICE AND THE ITERATORS
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]

~FIN~

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.

2 Comments

  1. andrew millard wrote:

    Have not listened to all of it, but I heard some good stuff, I will be specific later if you like , but just wanted to say hello and compliment the drumming.
    I enjoyed reading the commentary above, I think the lack of jammin’ would be the worst part of it, the rehearsing was always my favorite part. But not having to deal with the egos would just about break even.

    Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  2. A FAN wrote:

    I’m loving each fucking bit of this. It is now my immediate life goal to record something awesome like this in 28 days. Or die trying.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

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