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Q&A about “dots and dashes”

1) How did this album come about?
Like many independent musicians, I’ve been at this for awhile, saving, investing in new gear as I’ve been able, and writing/recording whenever the opportunity arises. In this case, I knew I had some vacation time coming up, and I just cleared my calendar, put my head down, and put in the hours in the studio. Got up early, made coffee, and went in to see what the writing/recording gods had in store. For me, no matter how exhausting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating the creative process can be, it’s always worth it in the end.

2) Tell us about your gear.
I run a PRS Custom 24 through a Mesa Boogie Mark V combo. The PRS is stock, except for the addition of a Tremol-No system I had installed, because I really wish it was a hardtail. But other than that, I love my PRS. It’s a ’96, and it plays like a dream. I also have an original CA (Composite Acoustics) Guitars “Legend” acoustic, from before the company was bought by Peavey.

My preamp is a FocusRite Saffire Pro 40, and I’m running Logic. I’ve basically been doing what I can to copy my heroes… Jim Matheos and Kevin Moore are two musicians I really look up to, so I’ve taken bits and pieces from their studios and gone with that. I’m very happy with the results.

3) I understand you got an endorsement deal with CA Guitars for the Legend?
Yes, that’s true. I was doing some work with Lance Keltner at his studio in Austin back in the early 90’s. He was on the phone with the guys from CA Guitars that particular morning, so I had to wait awhile. Of course, there I was, sitting in the studio of one of my heroes, playing his acoustic while he was in the other room. I was happy as could be. I would have gladly sat there all day.

I guess he was impressed that I didn’t cop an attitude… but honestly, how could I have? I was grinning from ear to ear, looking around, taking mental notes, and just trying to soak in the whole vibe while it lasted. He was incredibly down to earth, friendly, and patient. One thing led to another, and the CA Guitars folks were interested in supporting the arts-based diversity work I was doing at the time.

4) Let’s talk about the album. The song “dots and dashes” is 16:09… what inspired that, and what was your writing process for that song?
Well, I never actually planned to write a song that was so long. It just sort of unfolded. I guess I had a lot of pent-up creative energy, and I’ve just been bursting at the seams for the chance to have the time and space to focus completely on writing and recording.

This particular song just kept happening in little sections. I was sitting on the couch with my acoustic and a little hand-held digital voice recorder, capturing ideas. The night before, while walking into the dining room to eat supper, I had a brainstorm, and I told my wife I’d be just a few minutes while I jotted down some ideas. Next thing I knew, I’d written all the lyrics to “dots and dashes”, and it was an hour later. Thankfully, as a musician herself, she’s very understanding. She knows what it’s like when inspiration strikes.

So I was reading through the lyrics and just goofing around with different ideas and recording them in little bits and pieces as they came out. I would read a phrase from the lyrics and matching music would present itself. Later, I pieced it all together, recording it in sections since the instrumentation was so different between certain sections.

5) That song alone jumps from genre to genre, and everything from blues rock to prog metal to jazz is found on this album. When people ask you what genre of music you play, what do you tell them?

I’ve given up trying to fit myself into a box. When I first got some decent recording equipment and started getting serious about writing and recording, I was just in heaven, exploring all kinds of sounds and not worrying about genres or marketing or anything. Then, as I started to get a few albums done, I heard people tell me that in order to market myself properly, I had to have a target audience, choose a genre and stick with it, etc. And I tried to do that. But as time went on, I felt like I was trying to squeeze myself into a smaller and smaller box.

Finally, with this album, I just decided to forget all that and go back to what I love doing, which is writing and recording and exploring the endless world of sound. That’s why you’ll find so many different styles of music on this album. Things have come full circle, and I’m digging deep and setting aside the inner critic that likes to say, “Uh oh, you shouldn’t do that… it won’t be well received.” Maybe not. But I’m happy.

The biggest catch-22 I’ve run into is figuring out who I’m writing for. I’ve heard musicians getting criticized for being self-indulgent in their writing, like having obscure lyrics, or stories that aren’t readily understood by everyone. Steely Dan, one of my favorite bands, is a great example. On the other hand, you can write something very accessible and that can be seen as pandering to your audience. After awhile, I finally realized that no matter WHAT I did, there was no way to please everyone. So now I write what I love and roll with it.

6) I see that some of the songs on this album are brand new, and others are from 2004. How did that come about?
I have quite a back log of songs I’ve written over the past decade, but back then my equipment was comparatively crude, and the recordings I have from back then reflect that. Initially when I started this album, I set out to write new material and only record that. Then a dear friend happened to ask me about re-recording an old song from back in the day that he loved. I decided to go for it, just to see how it would sound, and I was really pleased with how it turned out. At that point I realized that I have a lot of really good songs that could finally receive the proper treatment they’ve deserved all this time. Bringing those songs back to life has been enormously rewarding.

7) Do you have fun recording?
Like Jim Matheos said in a recent interview, “‘fun’ is a strong word.” Writing and recording can be a very rewarding and satisfying journey, but it’s certainly not without its frustrations. Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever made has been the result of days, weeks, sometimes months of effort to get things just right.

8) How long does it take you to record a song, once it’s written?
I’ve been following this pretty closely over the past six years, and the average for me is about two hours worth of recording time for each minute of music. The song “dots and dashes” is 16:09, and I can tell you that, yes, it did, quite literally, take me 32 to 35 hours to record and mix that song. Basically, four or five days straight of nothing but working on that song, for 8-10 hours at a time. Draining, but very satisfying in the end.

9) What is your dream?
I’m living my dream. I’m writing and recording my own music, on my own terms. I’m surrounded by people I love, I have food, clothing, and shelter… I have everything I need. Compared to so many people in the world who struggle just to eat every day, I’m the richest man in the world.

10) Any advice for musicians just getting started, or looking for their “big break”?
Just do what you love, and do it for the joy of it. Another one of my heroes, producer Ken Scott, says that if you do it for the money and you don’t get the money, you’ll be unhappy. But if you love what you’re doing, you’ll be happy either way. I agree with him. Whether I’m cutting a guitar solo or cutting the grass, if I’m doing it for the joy of it, then I’ve already won.

Check out “dots and dashes” and all of Tim’s music for free at www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com


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Filed under Living a joyful life, Writing & recording original music

Writing. Recording. July. Murakami.

July 31st, and the leaves are turning on the aspen tree in the front yard. It’ll be an early winter.

A look back on this month leaves me feeling philosophical. Or maybe it’s because I just finished re-reading Murakami’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” for the umpteenth time. I could say that each of his novels is like the perfect pop song… verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus… but someone else has probably already said it, and I’d be simply rehashing. It’s frustrating to love someone’s writing so much, to connect with it so deeply, and not be able to adequately express it.

Expression. That’s what July has been about. Releasing three different albums… one, a collaboration with my brother Chris; one, a solo endeavor; (www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com) and one, Cheryl’s second volume of public domain hymns (www.cherylbirchard.bandcamp.com). Looking back at July is like looking out the window of a fast-moving car on a tree-lined street… nothing but a blur of colors and sounds.

Not that it felt that way in the moment. At times, the writing / tracking / mix down process, seemed like sitting in the dentist’s chair for an extended stay. A root canal, maybe. Especially when  the fatigue of multiple back-to-back 10-hour recording marathon sessions left me unable to determine what was wrong: my guitar sound, or my ears.

And yet it is all so satisfying. Can there be such a thing as a sexy root canal? For the dentist, maybe?

July will be over in about 15 hours, and it’ll be time to return to my “other” world. A world where writing, recording, and creating music happens in between other things, like alleyways between buildings on a city block. After spending a month tending sheep in the country.

But that’s okay. That’s good, in fact. Because without it, I might get permanently lost up in my head… wandering through maze within maze of concepts, colors, brush strokes, sounds that I lose myself completely and end up a hermit. At least this way I interact in some meaningful way with the outer world. And truly, it’s like a see-saw… without “down” there can be no “up”.

And even though it will all get swallowed up in the end, what a beautiful, fascinating, tragic, glorious thing to see those leaves change.

Like I said, it leaves me feeling philosophical. Murakami does that to me. Every single time.

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New Album: The Sacred and Profane

The latest album is ready in digital form (www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com). Aiming for an August release of the physical cd.

This album is about three questions:

What is sacred?
What is profane?
Who decides?
Words and music by Tim Birchard except “Eagle Pass to Torreon”, words by Chris Birchard; and “Hunger”, words by Chris and Tim Birchard.
Thanks to my friends and family who are always supportive.
Special thanks to Glenn Schindler, Jason Gabbard, and Scott Kadera for always being there.
Special thanks to my brother Chris for the collaborations.
Special thanks to David Kairis and Katie Kisiel for way huge support.
And, as always, deepest thanks to Cheryl for unwavering love and support.


Filed under Writing & recording original music

Mid-April check in

The year is more than 25% complete.

Where am I today, in the music creation process? What road markers have I reached, pointing me in the direction of my goals for this year?

1) Written several new songs for Refer to Manual (a work in progress), including my first ever country song. (Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?)

2) Started a new band with friends/fellow travelers on the path: Blue Lotus Feet (an improvisational kirtan group). First gig is in 7 days; second gig is already scheduled in May. Not bad.

3) Wrote a new kirtan chant, realized that several chants I wrote six years ago want to come out into the world instead of being locked in the ‘fear’ closet. The result: “Mantras of Compassion” (also a work in progress).

4) Updated recording software from GarageBand to Logic Pro 9. Persistently worked toward ironing out wrinkles (i.e., incomplete download from Apple). Dug into a Logic Pro book, joined the forum… basically jumped into the mud puddle with both feet, knowing full well it would be a messy process. It has been. Still is. But I’m moving forward.

This is an excellent time to mention that Apple’s Customer Support was outstanding… quite possibly the best software support I’ve ever received in my life. Not kidding. Here’s how it went down: I called their toll-free number. Yes. A telephone number. And then I got the usual voice prompts. Punched in a couple easy answers. And within THREE MINUTES I was speaking with a human being. Like an ACTUAL human being. Someone who was polite, professional, and clearly wanted to be helpful. After answering a few questions, this person (my new best friend Mike) got an expert on the line (Stephen) who could address my issue. Note: Mike didn’t transfer me to Stephen; Mike STAYED ON THE LINE while Stephen joined the conversation. (Yes. I know.) After I’d said hello to Stephen, only THEN did Mike say goodbye.

Stephen then proceeded to solve my problem within five minutes, following up with a confirmation e-mail with a job ticket number, should I need it. Turns out I have not. Also turns out that Apple offers free customer support for 90 days following the purchase of any of their software products. I am VERY PLEASED with the customer support I received, and I’ll be an Apple customer for life as a result.

5) Updated interface hardware/software from M-Audio Firewire Solo to Focusrite Saffire Pro 40. Some of my heroes use this piece of gear, and I’m glad I chose it, as well. The noise floor is incredibly low. Amazing. Spent days actively chasing down the most basic functions. Finally broke through today. Monitoring DAW from both independent headphone mixes. Recording separate/simultaneous mic tracks.

I remember a quote from someone, somewhere… “Knowledge can never be given; it can only be stolen.” Sometimes I feel frustrated that it has to be that way, but I know it’s true; the only way I’m going to improve the quality of my recordings is by digging deep, digging consistently, and never putting down my shovel. Excellent sources of practical information include YouTube, general internet searches, technical manuals, forums, friends… If I want a piece of information badly enough, I’m going to get it.

And hand-in-hand with knowing WHERE to look is knowing what QUESTIONS to ask. The right question is more valuable than a million irrelevant answers. It’s the key to opening those locked gates. So it really does pay to think carefully about what question I’m going to ask, and how I’m going to phrase it so it’s easy and inviting for others to address.

6) Getting a fresh connection with inner wisdom. Using that to guide my music and my life. Setting aside the small mind and trusting the process just a little more than before.

Objectives for May 15? Write more songs. Increase proficiency with Logic and the Saffire Pro 40. Practice! Practice! Practice! The biggest objective I see now is to be ready to take full artistic advantage of the month of July. Given a month of vacation, painters paint. Writers write. Travelers travel. Recording musicians tap into our inner flame, access the Source, and channel the music. And we do it with the tape rolling.  At the end of the day, we do it for love of the process. We can’t imagine NOT doing it, as draining and challenging as it may feel at times. We can’t stop. And we don’t want to. At LEAST not until we’re dead.

And probably not even after that.


Filed under Writing & recording original music

Growing pains

Change. It can feel so exhilarating. And so frustrating. All rolled up in the same enchilada.

Joyful Exhilaration

The music, connection, and promotion of our new kirtan band, Blue Lotus Feet, has been an amazingly natural process. It has all just fallen into place, blossoming where seeds happen to fall. It feels like a rare occurrence in my life when collaborating musically with others has felt so easy and so rewarding. (My involvement with Fancy Shampoo is another joyful example that comes to mind.)

The musical fruit that has been ripening for the past 6 years is bursting forth with beautiful seeds and delicious, fragrant flowers. My Macbook, M-Audio Firewire Solo interface, and GarageBand have been fantastic, reliable tools on that path of my journey. I’d gotten to the point where I could pretty quickly and easily create a recording that I could be proud of, and I had six solo albums to show for it.

But finally, after at least a year of research and consideration, I realized that I was becoming ready to take things to The Next Level and upgraded to Apple Logic. With that step has come many joyful realizations and “Eureka!” moments. Today, in a further realization, it became clear to me that I’ve simultaneously outgrown my ability to only record with one mic at a time.

The Frustration of Tech Limitation

Cheryl and I spent most of today working on tracking vocals and guitar to add to the kick-ass drums you played the other day for Om hari om shanti. After hours of hard work, we ended up frustrated, with no final product to show for our efforts. The problem? Only one mic capability. In order to capture her singing and playing guitar simultaneously, the plan came down to this: 1) record a scratch track with the mic pointed halfway between mouth and guitar’s soundhole. 2) Go back and track only guitar while listening to Scratch Track. 3) Go back and record only vocal while listening to Scratch Track. 4) Get rid of Scratch Track; vocal and guitar tracks should sync up. Should.

Problem is, that process doesn’t capitalize on the most important aspect of a dynamite recording: namely, a comfortable, natural performance. One of Cheryl’s many talents is her ability to consistently perform great takes, time after time, when singing and playing simultaneously. Take away the ability to capture both sound sources simultaneously while throwing in the additional (and unnatural) need to try to match what you did in the last take, and the “natural, joyful, heart-focused performance” goes out the window. Replaced by an analytical, “head-centric” exercise in musical dexterity. Math.

Gosh, with the ability to use two (or more) mics simultaneously, we could have gotten down to business right away and spent our day capturing magic instead of trying to devise workarounds.


Focusrite Saffire Pro 40. Eight (8!!) mic inputs for simultaneous mic’d performances. To say nothing of the multiple line inputs (guitar with pickup, keyboard, etc.).

To be clear, ‘it ain’t about the gear’. In my opinion, there are quite enough rich lawyers and surgeons out there with time and money on their hands to collect top-shelf gear to show off to their friends. While G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) can definitely play a role in a musician’s choices, at the end of the day the key virtue is perspective. The music comes first. Capturing the music comes second. Excellent equipment capturing crappy music results in an excellent recording of crappy music. Crappy equipment capturing excellent music can result in a decent, listenable album. But a balance between high-quality gear and high-quality music… THAT’s the goal most of us aspire to achieve.

The downside: the learning curve involved in becoming proficient with Apple Logic has just been compounded by another new piece of gear.

But that’s okay. I’m in it for the Long Haul. I’ve been squeezing juice out of my current setup for six years… and squeezing juice out of whatever system I could for the past 30. The most important thing for me to remember is not to rush the learning process. It took time for me to get comfortable with my old rig; it will take time for me to get comfortable with this one. The difference is, when I do reach that level of comfort with this system, the possibilities will be much more far-reaching.

Here’s to patience, persistence, and recognizing every opportunity to be joyful in the Present Moment.


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