Tag Archives: 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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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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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.

Solution?

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.

Peace.

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The “glamour” of being a recording musician

I’ll admit, when I decided that this was the week to make the transition from GarageBand to Apple Logic, I didn’t realize I’d be joining millions of others around the world. But with Apple’s highly-anticipated release of Logic 9.1.7 on Tuesday, that’s exactly what I’d done.

Initially, I’d suspected that the lengthy application download process, measured in days rather than hours, was somehow the result of a mistake or oversight on my part. (Wouldn’t be the first time, and certainly won’t be the last.) But once I started digging into the online forums of fellow musician/producer/Mac users, it began to dawn on me that I’d thrown myself into the equivalent of a worldwide historical (hysterical?) event.

Yet while the idea of helping to ‘make history’ (if joining hordes of fellow consumers in purchasing a downloaded product may be seen as making history) seems pretty sexy to me, the reality isn’t nearly as romantic.

And while the idea of being recording musician working on his 7th album may seem pretty sexy to the casual observer, the reality isn’t nearly as romantic.

I’ve been enamored of music and musicians since I was a toddler, moved by music from the beginning. I signed up to be suckered by my favorite rock stars as soon as I was old enough to hold a tennis racket. I shelled out my hard-earned teenage-wage cash as soon as I was tall enough to reach the record store counter. And for years (decades) I’d assumed that the images I’d seen on the covers of my favorite albums reflected the way my heroes actually looked in day-to-day life.

You know… Ace Frehley circa “Dynasty”, eating a bowl of cereal in the morning with silver cape flowing behind him, gently brushing up against the refrigerator. Steve Vai doing dishes. (Steve, honestly, do you ever have to do the dishes at your house?)

In the process of buying the whole ‘rock star’ shtick hook, line, and sinker, I was simultaneously accepting another unspoken un-truth: that if I am not larger than life like they are, then I’m less than. Which, in turn, lead to the whole mistake of believing that if I’m less than, then I must present myself to be greater than in order to fool others into thinking I’ve got my act together. The whole ‘public relations’ game, whereby good (that is, ‘sellable‘) albums are 75% cool packaging and 25% decent music. Until success ends up having nothing to do with music, and everything to do with promotion and sales.

Yuck.

A dear friend recently split my skies open the other day on the phone, when he related a story about John Lennon eating breakfast. Apparently some fan was outside his house, and a news crew was there, as well, just hanging out. So John and Yoko go outside, and John’s like, “Hey, what do you want?” And the fan is all, “Oh, your lyrics are amazing… and these lyrics meant this and those meant that,” and on and on. And John stopped the guy and said, “Don’t know what you’re talking about. I was having a snack and those words popped into my mind, so I wrote them down. It rhymed, so I used it. I’m just a guy. Are you hungry? Wanna join us for breakfast?”

Just a guy.

Though it goes against all the rules of “how to make it” as a musician in today’s hyper-saturated world of Logic-downloading freaks and geeks (currently slowing the internet down to a glacial pace), the truth is, he nailed it. I’m just another dude. Not supposed to admit that, I know. Supposed to have the kick-ass profile photo on every website that sells my music… so the kids will think I eat caviar in between takes. Because if being a musician is romantic, then the writing and recording process must be really glamorous.

Would that it were true.

I’m currently writing and recording my seventh album.” Translation: I’m currently going home after work and going into the spare bedroom where all my music gear is set up (“the studio”) and peeking at my laptop to see if Logic has finished downloading yet. I’m currently untangling my guitar cable and trying to move the bills and other paperwork off of my desk so I can open my guitar case and pull out my electric guitar. Better yet…

  • I’m currently turning on my guitar amplifier and wondering what those crackling sounds are and realizing with some trepidation that it might finally be time for me to actually learn how to change the tubes.
  • I’m currently erasing my 14th attempt to record a vocal track because, once again, it sounds like I’m trying too hard to sound like I’m not trying.
  • I’m currently searching for my phillips screwdriver so I can remove the backplate of my bass and replace the two (2) 9-volt batteries that power my active pickups… the same batteries that just died in the middle of a recording session.
  • I’m currently getting into my car to go to the grocery store to buy two (2) 9-volt batteries because I just realized the house is completely devoid of them.
  • I’m currently shopping online for an external hard drive that will easily store the 6 years worth of music on my computer so I can free up some space to continue recording.
  • I’m currently changing my guitar strings because I tried to fix my wife’s glasses and failed, and had to resort to cutting off part of my e-string to replace the teeny-tiny screw in her glasses until she can make it to the optometrist.

In the end, I think, not much of the creative process is nearly as sexy or glamorous as we (as observers) might initially believe. Most of the struggle for me seems to be in dealing with my own worst enemy: myself.

The swirling cloud of thoughts is often in the room, and no fun to deal with: Will I cave when my inner critic starts ranting about how these current efforts suck? Will I crumble when friends say they don’t care for a particular line? Will I be annihilated when no one buys my cd? Will I freeze when I try to play this song live?

What some may see as glamour is so much more often the dumping, quite literally, of old coffee grounds, the cursing of the grounds that miss the kitchen garbage can and land on the floor, and the search for the latest can of cat food as the cat cries with reckless abandon, eager to be fed after an insurmountable night between meals (“No night could be darker than this night, No cold so cold, As the blood snaps like a wire, And the heart’s sap stills, And the year seems defeated…”) as one tries in vain to satisfy those mundane, earthly requirements long enough to get back to the blank canvas.

If there’s a sexiness… if there’s ever been some sort of glamour, it lies in those tiny moments between ‘doings’, during playback, with headphones on, discovering that the vocal harmonies actually DID work, and sound like a choir. Or that the difficult passage that had to be “punched in” actually sounds very natural. Or that the previously ‘unplayable’ song is now quite withing one’s grasp for live performance.

Paradoxically, the only real glamour is that which is completely internal, having nothing to do with the perceptions and opinions of observers. Kinda funny, since the whole concept of glamour relies upon having an audience. No audience, no glamour. (If a woman gets out of a taxi and there’s no one there to see her diamonds and finery, is it still glamorous?) So maybe we’re talking ‘joy’ rather than ‘glamour’.

Either way, that spark of joy holds within it the fire to fuel a thousand galaxies. Or seven albums. Whichever comes first.

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New music update: mid-March check-in

I blinked. Now it’s March.

Since the last check-in a month ago, music has been happening. Here’s the progress update:

Kirtan — We’ve been meeting up with fellow musician friends and exploring new kirtan chants together on a weekly basis. Think acoustic guitar, bass, glockenspeil, djembe, frame drum, and didgeridoo. First public kirtan is scheduled for April 21!

Cheryl’s hymns — That has taken a back burner, as she’s been writing new kirtan chants left and right. But recording her Hymns Volume II is still very achievable for this summer.

My solo album #7 — I now have six songs completed for my forthcoming album, “refer to manual”. Just confirmed this morning that my dear friend Cindy Coleman (Duck Girl Art) will be at the helm for the graphic design work. I’m honored to have her on board. The music has been going extremely well. Instrumentation ranges from simple ukulele, bass and vocal to keyboards, drums, guitar, bass, and a choir of harmony vocals. And while I’m far from labeling myself a bona fide bassist, the time I’m putting in on the 5-string is really starting to bear fruit. Preview here: www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com. (Click on “refer to manual”)

I did have quite a scare while tracking the latest song, “island spice” (which has taken about 20 hours of work so far)… Was so exhausted after a full day of non-stop writing/recording that I absent-mindedly unplugged my Seagate external hard drive from my laptop without going through the proper procedures. After that, my computer refused to recognize it. And the only copy of the song was on that drive. Fortunately, I was able to go into disk utilities and repair the drive. Went to bed with it ‘repairing’ (I hoped). Woke up the next morning to a terrifying message: disk cannot be repaired. My heart sank. But before panicking, I closed the dialog box, and there on the desktop was the drive’s icon. Backed up to a flash drive as well as to the laptop’s hard drive, then shut down and rebooted. And all was well.

Now it’s time to get another external hard drive; I’ve maxed out the capacity of the Seagate, nearly 500 GB. Time for a 2 or 3 TB drive.

Where will we be in mid-April? My objective is to have at least 2 more songs completed for “refer to manual” and to be fully prepared for our kirtan debut on 4/21. These will move me toward my goals of releasing “refer to manual” this summer and performing kirtan publicly.

A life with music is good!

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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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