Clock: A Simple But Very Big Thing

The start of my guitar education marked the start of me using the input half of my snazzy audio interface (Focusrite Saffire). Prior to that my recordings, with a few exceptions, involved "in the box" sounds. Since I started recording myself playing guitar, I've been having timing problems. Sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Being old school, I'd just do a new take. Or being new school, I'd done some more modern magic and make corrections. I have read and heard people talk and complain about latency. I just chalked my problems up to latency and my own n00b guitar chops.

Several people I talked to seemed to think what I was experiencing might be a bit much but until today I've been accepting this crappy state of affairs. What changed? Today, I was playing around with a track from sudara and glu on alonetone. I noodled and noodled but every recording I made was way out of time. wtf!

Eventually, a gasket blew and I recorded myself playing quarter notes with a metronome. The recordings were like a 16th note off! Check the audio settings in Live. The reported inbound latency is 9ms (a lot less than a 16th note!) ... What gives? Look lower. On a Mac, lower in the software stack is CoreAudio and the app you use to configure things is called Audio MIDI Setup (pictured above). Here is where you select the default audio ins and outs, their properties, etc. Looking at my settings, I see Clock Source: and mine was set to Device. I change the setting to Mac and magically my guitar playing no longer sounds like a fall down drunk (just tipsy).

So there it is, I'm a dumbass. But maybe my story will save you some grief. Too bad I won't get back the time I spend recording and discarding takes. Argh!


Thank You

The post RPM recovery has begun in earnest but before I go on to write about other more interesting things (he says, blithely assuming there is an audience for his drivel) please bear with me as I wax sappy.

In my last entry I failed to thank a bunch of people I've never met. Without them, of course, my RPM CD may never have happened.

First are my friends at alonetone.com. It was here that I learned of the challenge on the first place. And there were a few people there that encouraged us all. For me, support came from sudara, sandbags, glu and kavin.

Next are all the people that make the challenge happen. I have no idea who you all are but wow. You're doing something big.

Lastly, I should mention the fine freaks 'n folks on the #rpmchallenge IRC channel. When things were sucking, they were always there with helpful shortcuts and cheats. Awesome.

Thank you, all. For things you don't even know you gave me.


It Is Done

I have completed the 2009 edition of the RPM Challenge. It was a surprising and rewarding experience that I will almost certainly repeat next year. Some thoughts:

At the beginning, a month seems like a long time. I thought, going in, that I'd be able to whip up a bunch of tracks, discard several, spend some time working on mixes, master the whole thing as a unit, do some cool artwork and so on. The reality is quite different. Real life gets in the way; this challenge happens at the expense of other activities or in the gaps between. The tracks are not as plentiful as I thought. The mixing was rushed. Mastering, well, who are we kidding. Artwork... what a schmuck. People spend lifetimes developing their skills and I think I'm just going to imagine something and produce a quality product on the first or second try. Hah!

Through this challenge I read @imogenheap as she works on her latest and envied her the time she can afford to devote to making each track the best it can be. To try many ideas, only keeping the best. Not feeling the need to finish before bedtime because you don't know when you'll be back.

Enough whining. Fucking hate that shit. There is much to be happy about and thankful for.

Obviously, my family. Who tolerated the odd noises emanating from my lair and the amount of time I spent hiding there.

Gear stuff:
  • Ableton. I managed to join the army of beta testers for Live 8. There are sounds on my CD that are a direct result of new things in Live 8.
  • Oliver Chesler, of Wire To The Ear, had a video showing (Waves) GTR Solo on his site. That inspired me to get GTR Solo (easy since it's free for the first year). This led directly to I Wanna Be Like Trent.
  • my beautiful guitar. Only been with me for a short while. My playing is still weak. But honeymoon is definitely not over.
About the CD. I stole the title from Ian Rankin. In his latest book, Doors Open, there is an artist character Westie:

Westie always thought of the government as “They.”

One of his first portfolio pieces was a manifesto, printed in black against a blood-red backing: They Are Out to Get You/They Know What You Do/They See You as Trouble. At the foot of the sheet, the printing had switched to white-on-red for his coda: But I Am Better Than Them at Art.
For me, "They" is the recording industry establishment and, well, that's a rant for another day.

Incidentally, to the copywrong police or lawyers that stumble upon this, the 5 words I used are the only connection between Rankin's work and me.

The CD is a bit of an eclectic ramble through various things in my life through this past month.

I'm not sure I should do this but what follows are some tidbits about each track. So if you don't want me telling you what the tracks "are about" then stop reading here...

In the second week, I had to fly for work and the week was almost lost (for music). Denver happened on a three hour stop-over in the Denver airport of all places. The noise you hear throughout the track is the real noise of the airport that morning while I sat there. The odds of me capturing that much noise without some kind of page or clear human voices is weird.

While away, I got nothing musical done but on the flight home I couldn't stand it anymore and I broke out the laptop and did Coming Home. I have good headphones. Really good. But they are no match for twin jet engines propelling a tube of aluminum around 500mph. When I got home I listened to my work and hated it. It was some herculean re-arranging, mixing and EQing that saved the track.

Still Breathing is my favourite. It happened quickly and organically. Some simple chords followed by a little guitar jamming. Pretty soon I had all my building blocks. Arrange, mix and post. Given infinite time, I would have spent a ton of time tweaking this track. I'm actually grateful that I did not have the time. No guarantee that I wouldn't have fucked it up. It feels fragile. As though correcting the flaws would break it.

As I wrote above, I Wanna Be Like Trent was inspired by a video showing random drum loops and synths being run through GTR Solo. As soon as I got mine downloaded and installed, I was running all kinds of things through it. Pretty soon (like 30 minutes, crazy) I had this dirgy thing going which was crazy fun... The only thing to do was to add some guitar wankery. Which, you guessed it, used even more GTR Solo.

Spazangles came from a practice session. Every guitar player is given warmup exercises; I was farting around and decided to record a couple patterns. Then I added some keys. Then some bass. Soon enough, I had this little mess on my hands. Without the RPM Challenge, I'm not sure it ever would have seen the light of day.

Happier Times came from me playing with chord inversions on the keyboard. Gmaj7, Bbmaj7, Amin7, Abmaj7 was the first one. I stumbled on one set of voicing that really tickled my brain so obviously had to record them so that I could try other stuff with them. Added some synth bass and felt the need for some thin-ish busy snare pattern drum loops and went on the hunt. Found some that sort of fit but I spent a pile of time editing out the features that didn't work. Then some Mondo Sekrit Effects to add variation and space... That gave me a bed upon which I could wank with my guitar until I went blind. I recorded something like 100 different loops of guitar. The thing was turning into a monster. Sensibly I walked away for a couple days but before doing that I left myself a trail of crumbs so that I could later find the good bits to quilt together into what you hear.

Improv is just that. An improvisation. I was fooling with a synth sound and an arpeggiator. It just lent itself to some free form playing; which I did for a while. That lead me to a basic sequence which I recorded. Then while watching the piano roll of the midi, I played and recorded the guitar parts (doing my best to emulate the great Robin Guthrie).

Nowhere started with me playing with FabFilter's Twin2 (which is great fun). After making a lush, if not pretentious, soundscape it was time to bring up my nascent mad guitar skillz. While developing the track (the term "writing" is all wrong) I found myself stuck, going round and round, basically nowhere. Rather than fix it, I decided to explore that idea and develop it further.