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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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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.

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An Open Letter to my Inner Critic

My Dear Inner Critic,

I notice that many of your questions about my lyrics tend to center around a lack of concreteness.

“Why would you say this? This doesn’t make any SENSE to me.”

I’d like to lovingly invite you to take off your ‘logic glasses’ for just a moment.

Let those crazy lyrics just wash over you, if you like. Are there any stream-of-consciousness connections that become apparent?

I understand that the answer for you may very well be, “no”. And I respect that.

Courtesy The Internet

Just please know that I chose those words, as I do with all of my lyrics, very, very carefully. And I do have reasons for them.

But in the end, as you so beautifully highlight through the very act of questioning, every listener will respond to the song from a unique perspective. No one else in the world sees the world exactly the way That Listener does; no one else on this planet has Her exact combination of experiences and perceptions. What She takes away from the music, if anything, will be unique to Her.

And that’s beyond my control.

Why do I write and record original music at all?
I’m realizing that my old intentions of “having millions of fans” or “changing lives” have wilted. Any sort of ‘success’ like that is completely dependent upon the Reactions Of The Listener. If The Listener buys a copy, then I’m a ‘success’. And if no Listeners buy a copy, then I’m ‘not a success’.

That would be easy if there was a sure-fire recipe for success. “Do ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’, and you’re guaranteed success.”

But there isn’t.

Plenty of unimaginitive songs and albums are selling off the shelves these days. While plenty of good songs and albums with their fair share of merit go unnoticed.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that those goals are no longer true for me. Especially considering the transitory nature of existence.

My new goal… with all of my songs…  is to be as true to MYSELF as I can; to be as HONEST as I can. And boy, am I ever realizing the inherent challenge in THAT.

So here’s to a new day filled to my continued commitment to honesty with my self and others in the ever-changing present moment.

Whether it’s comfortable or not.

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Day Three: Song Three

Newest song for the new album is called, “radio antenna”.

So far I’m not sure how to categorize this album… instrumentation includes ukulele, bass, voice, and now, jangly, open-tuning acoustic blues guitar.

radio antenna clip

May you create something you love. And may you let it go.

By the way…

In that strange space after recording all day and before re-entering ‘real life’. I always, always struggle with this transitional period. Sometimes it’s an hour… sometimes it’s longer.

Part of me is like, “yeah! Look what you’ve created!” and another part is like… well, I don’t want to give it my energy.

And I can stare at the clock all I want… but what the %$#! does it MEAN that nine hours have passed? Somewhere in there I ate something and went to the restroom. Drank LOTS of coffee. But where am I now?

Walking around in this half-reality, disconnected from anything… I find myself putting on anything at all on the turntable, just to take me OUT of the space I’ve occupied all day long. (J. Geils Band from 1973… or a mid-60’s soundtrack… something that vaguely resembles Grace Slick. Kind of creepy, but with a cool keyboard sound. Just get me out of my own head, please.)

Head out the door? Would be fine except for the whole issue of interacting with other human beings. Not sure if I can handle it at this moment.

Crazy? Genius? Idiot? Whatever.

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New Music milestone: mid-February check in

So here we are, half way through February.

How far have we come this year, in terms of new music and creating a rich and fulfilling life? Let’s take a quick look…

Cheryl’s Favorite Hymns, Volume 2

Cheryl and I have recorded her performing 12 public domain hymns, a follow-up to her Favorite Hymns Vol. 1 disc from about three years ago. Most of the ones she chose for Vol. 2 were written in the 1700’s and 1800’s. This very rough draft that we recorded was actually a gift to my grandmother, who has basically worn out her copy of Cheryl’s first hymns disc, and also a run-through to get an idea of how these hymns might sound with one voice, one guitar. This is in contrast to Vol. 1, which included lots of harmony vocals, multiple instruments, and overdubs. (When I say ‘very rough draft’, I’m speaking only of the very rudimentary recording quality–single mic, no mastering, etc. Cheryl’s performance was heartfelt, professional, inspirational… just generally brilliant, as always.)

The Sony ICD-BX112 voice recorder. The simplest way to capture song ideas since cassettes. Thirty bucks. So intuitive I didn't even need to look at the manual. Which is saying a lot.

We’re still not sure if we’re going to go the ‘stripped down’ route or not. I think it’s perfect, harkening back to Willie Nelson’s initial recordings that his record company thought were simply demos. He said, “Nope. This is it.” At first, they laughed. But in the end, he laughed. All the way to the bank. For Cheryl’s part, she really appreciates the musicianship that I bring to the table, and has concerns about not benefiting from that on Vol. 2.

Either way, we’re planning on taking this project into a professional studio in late spring or maybe summer so we don’t have to worry about engineering the disc ourselves. What a treat that would be!

We’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Our first cd of kirtan chants

Cheryl and I have been writing and playing kirtan chants since we met and discovered our shared passion for them in 2006. At this point we’ve written at least a dozen original chants, which could easily fill up 2 cd’s (since any given chant can run from 5 to 12 minutes in duration). So this might mean recording a first kirtan disc with only 5 or 6 chants on it, and then following up with a second disc of similar length.

A really joyful aspect of this is creating music with our good friend Charlie Kiene, an amazing hand-drummer and master of loops. We three have been getting together on Sunday evenings for dinner and a kirtan jam for the past few weeks, and it has been incredibly fun. Fun is good.

Not Charlie.

On the recording side of things, Cheryl and I have three of the initial five kirtan chants already tracked and delivered to Charlie. He’s in the process of adding percussion tracks as he sees fit. Cheryl and I feel supremely confident in his skills, ability, and judgment when it comes to tastefully arranging percussion that supports the basic chant.

I’ll be handling final mixdown duties in my home studio, and then we’ll very likely follow up with mastering at Scooter’s Place with Scott Smith and Lacey Black, two rock-solid resources here in our community. Then, it’s off to DiscMakers for replication.

Getting up to speed on the bass

After a year of goofing around with my 5-string bass, I’ve finally begun to start working toward actually being able to play it properly, at least in some sense of the word. The right hand finger technique is very different that my flat picking technique for guitar, and is taking some practice, patience, concentration, and determination. And I am discovering how much FUN playing bass can be! It’s opening up a whole new world for me.

I'm actually looking to get a 4-string, because at this point, learning the basics, I really have no business getting fancy with that low B. But this is what I have, so this is what I'm working with for now.

Which is interesting, because in the early 80’s, when I was a young teenager, I was initially very interested in playing bass. (My reasoning was that since it only had 4 strings, it would be easier than playing 6-string guitar. What a misconception!) I ended up getting a drumset and going that direction, while at the same time also picking up the guitar. In the end, the guitar was much easier to transport and more easily welcomed into a wide variety of living spaces than a drumset. (Plus, I sold my drum set to pay the electricity bill while in college.)

So now it feels like things are coming full circle as I find myself practicing the bass, working with the metronome to strengthen my sense of timing and really embracing the value of becoming ‘transparent’; that is, becoming the invisible glue that holds everything else together. This is in direct contrast with being the flashy peacock who loves the spotlight. “They tell me I’m a 4 on the enneagram, drama queen’s just what I am… pretending I’m not was such a scam…”

Next check-in: Mid-March. We’ve made some progress already this year, which is great. But we can’t stop here. Gotta keep up the momentum by doing a little bit every day, every week, every month. That way, when December comes around, we won’t find ourselves scratching our heads, wondering “where did the year go?”

See you soon!

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New videos for “A Place Of My Own”

Happy to report that the mastered songs are now at DiscMakers. They estimate that the final, packaged units will arrive at my doorstep by July 20, 2011. Digital downloads are available at http://www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com or at http://www.reverbnation.com/timbirchard. Physical cd’s can be ordered by e-mailing me directly: tim@timbirchard.com.

In the meantime, I’ve been creating very basic videos for each of the songs on the album. They are designed to serve more as a vehicle for the music than as a stand-alone video. I’m not a videographer. (Not yet.)

Cheryl and I are also laying tracks for a new kirtan cd that we’re recording. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirtan) We’re recording 8 original chants that we’ve written over the past three years. I’ve just finished tracking bass, and now it’s time for me to do the foundation tracks (drums, guitar, vocals) for one of the songs that I lead on. Once Cheryl is done with all of her basic tracks, then I’ll work on adding all the other parts and shaping the entire thing into something magical that we can both be proud of.

I’m so grateful to have the resources available for creating music that makes my heart sing.

Whether it’s pop rock, metal, or chanting sanskrit, I’m a musical creature. I believe we all are. Whether we have a heartbeat or not.

Wishing you a rewarding day!

T

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Mastering patience

Hey Friends,

This weekend was an exciting one — yesterday I received the final, mastered songs back from the studio. Scott Smith and Lacey Black did an amazing job. In fact, they sound SO good that when I got home and started listening to the first song, I started crying. Not to be melodramatic or anything, but it’s true. It just blew me out of the water.

I followed Scott and Lacey’s advice and listened to every single song with a “fine-tooth ear” to make absolutely certain that the product I send to DiscMakers is truly ready. And it’s a good thing I did… On one of the songs, I heard a little ‘click’ sound that is not supposed to be there. I went back to the original file that I’d submitted to Scott and Lacey– sure enough, there it was. I’d missed it.

So while 7 of the 8 songs are ready to be sent to DiscMakers, that one song needs some love and care. I plan to isolate the offending track, clean it up, then do a fresh mixdown. I’ll then submit the fresh file to Scott and Lacey for mastering and have them place it in the appropriate sequence location on the album. THEN it’ll be ready to send to DiscMakers.

Fact is, not so long ago I would have felt a sense of urgency and frustration about such an unexpected wrinkle. I may have even chosen to ignore it and pretend it wasn’t there (‘magical thinking’). But I know the cold reality — if I were to ignore it, every single time I listened to the final cd, I’d be listening for one thing: that ‘click’. Better to fix it now and get it right so the final product is exactly the way I want it.

Approximate time frame for mastering this final song again will hopefully be the week following the 4th of July weekend. We’ll see what Scott and Lacey’s schedules look like. In the meantime, I’ve posted the mastered songs up for free review at www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com.

Again, from the bottom of my heart, I thank every one of you who helped to make this possible!

I’ll keep you posted as things unfold.

All the best,

Tim

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