Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fun Escape - A Closer Look

The past couple of weeks have been a chance to get away, in more ways than one. I discovered that National Solo Album Month (NaSoAlMo) had started in November. In thirty days or less, participants are challenged to create an album from scratch with a minimum duration of thirty minutes. I figured it would be an excellent opportunity to work on an extended burst of creativity before settling on the obligations of my life. My compo experience probably prepped me for what I was about to do. I've made songs in an hour, so having a month to do about ten songs would be no sweat. Unlike the usual compo system, I was free to re-upload newer versions of my tracks as I saw fit via SoundCloud. Since the forum would be via Reddit, the social reach is potentially much wider than the usual compos I attended.

What tripped me up at first was the lack of something to unify the various compositions I would write. A week went by, and then another, but the launching point wasn't quite there. In the meantime I recorded riffs and things into my phone's voice memo app for later reference. Eventually I came across a 1947 anecdote about a bus operator who stole his own bus and drove off, escaping the grind. At that moment I remembered an older song I'd wrote called "Fun Escape" that carried the basic concept of that anecdote. A way to say goodbye to the drudgery of living -- and that happened to tie in to the fact that I was escaping life for a while by way of my creative outlets. All these things clicked together to become my concept album.

As a proof of concept, I re-produced the song "Fun Escape" and included it on the album as the launching point. After that is "Next Stop", in which the bus driver protagonist laments the futility of his existence. The stipulations of NaSoAlMo allow for one cover version of someone else’s song, so I used that opportunity to record "Mad World". Originally performed by Tears for Fears, the song complements the album concept I was going for. The minimal chord progression of "Mad World" also fit in with my style of pop songwriting. To nail the theme even further, I added a few lines to the existing lyrics. The accompanying brass and clarinet riff was originally part of an Optigan sample pack, which I chose to give the song a drunk-at-the-saloon vibe.

Breaking out of the doldrums is the turning point of the story, which is expressed in "Mile After Mile". The song's tone is intended to be optimistic and cheerful as the bus operator drives toward the setting sun with no particular destination. This continues with "Bus with Wings" as the protagonist imagines being able to fly around the world in his vehicle. In terms of arrangement, the idea was to get brighter and more fun in tone as the adventure goes on. The rock snare of the opening song gives way to sidestick action of the next, and later a brush kit. By the time the album reaches "Bus with Wings", the beat consists of a simple tambourine. Ideally this would create a sense of floating ever upward as the album progresses.

Eventually the narrative reaches the second turning point in "Lady Hitchhiker". I came up with the riff early in the month, and originally intended the song to be more of a subversive, sultry number. It wasn't until I was finalizing lyrics that I realized that the titular hitchhiker could serve as the catalyst for the bus driver's loneliness. To that end, I added Spanish guitar help give the track a more melancholy tone. The driver's turn of events causes him to want "To Go Home", as his initial road trip excitement has worn off. To make the singing sound as laid back as possible, I recorded at a slightly slower tempo, then time-squashed the vocals to the correct BPM. The unusual synth sound in this song came about as I was wracking my brain over what to add to the arrangement: somewhere outside my window a toy siren went off that swooped up and down in pitch. This inspired me add a Theremin-like instrument to the song.

Wrapping up the concept is a suite of tracks regarding the bus driver arriving home. "The Audience" shows the rush that comes with fame, as his fun escape made him a local celebrity. Soon afterward however, the protagonist realizes his fifteen minutes of fame are up in "Yesterday's News". The album ends with the bus driver reconciling with the people of his home town. "Passenger Stories" tells the tales of two characters: one is a generous elderly woman, the other a greedy politician. Both people end up as riders on the protagonist's bus. The song also reveals that if the driver had not returned to his everyday existence, he never would have met the love of his life. As I look back at this completed album and head back to my day job, I wonder what may be waiting for me.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Live. Die. Remix.

If you visited this blog from my main site, you've noticed I do quite a few different things. I run an online radio show, and make music videos to help get that music out there. I push out remixes, arrangements, cover versions, and sample-based music. For fun and exercise I also record original songwriting, which has mostly been localized to a specific compos; the music I do there is kept separate from my other outlets. Years before settling into music, I did a little bit of fan fiction. Like most fan fiction, the stuff I wrote is not very good. In a sense I've also done visual fan art by way of crossovers in my webcomic, in which the outside artist was merely emulated and not actually participating in my strips.

Along the way I've become part of various remix-based communities. Early on, I shared my self-hosted music files on message forums like the ones on OverClocked ReMix. Branching out from that, I focused on on putting things out through SoundCloud and YouTube. My albums are on BandCamp, and my webcomic is published through Tumblr. I've gained peers who do the kind of stuff I do, and we've kept in contact and met up in person. I avidly look out for remix-related events, and have gained acquaintances there. Most of the remixing events I attend happen online; in-person events happen less often and are usually simple meet-and-greets or festivals.

Where does copyright fit into all this output and sharing? I think about copyright the way I think about pickpocketers: it affects me more after the fact, when someone takes action against me. So it might linger in the back of my head when I'm working on a remix, the way a recent mugging might, but I don't think it influences the creative output itself. In an example of my own sample-based work, I'll take a short clip, maybe just a brief vocal from an existing recording, then loop it, add drums from some other recording, and blend them to make a beat. On top of that I might layer in some new chords or a bassline, and the result is a new song, remix, or mashup. A lot of it depends on context. If I had to clear a remix idea with the copyright holder before I even started working on it, I'd hardly remix anything. I mix and match before I even decide what I want to do, so asking beforehand would just limit my palette.

As far as actually selling remixed work, it's definitely a murky grey area. If someone is selling remixes, that person should at least try to contact the original authors. A while back I was asked if my "Finality" re-arrangement could be used for a student project with a possible cash incentive, and it made me take pause. The composer of that piece is Masato Nakamura, whom I assume is rarely, if ever, contacted for permission on anything. Ethics is another thing that depends on context. I definitely do not believe that a remix or sample-based work is plagiarism. If you're making something out of something, it's different than simply taking an existing work and renaming it as your own work, or making it look like it has no past iterations. The remixers I consider my friends tend to have the same values I do regarding this. After all, I follow and enjoy their work. It would be weird if my friends were straight-up plagiarizing.

Probably the most egregious thing a remixer can do is not credit the remix sources. In mashups, sometimes it's easier to publish a track as "Jon Doe - My New Mashup" rather than listing the 23 different source tracks to make that one mashup. It's not that they're hiding anything or taking credit for other people's recordings; sometimes it's just cumbersome to list all of that. That's an example of good intention. Bad intention is plagiarism, where the artist claims he recorded everything himself, or is hiding stuff deliberately. I recall there being a minor kerfuffle on Wikipedia regarding an album entry of Girl Talk: He neglected to make a definitive list of samples for his liner notes, which led to an ongoing edit war regarding a user-generated list on the wiki page. Another musical act I've been a longtime fan of also neglected to mention a bunch of samples in their albums, and it's made my hobby of Wikipedia editing feel like a chore.

Websites have recently worked to meet copyright holders halfway in an attempt to please everyone. YouTube in particular has licenses that in some cases can cover the copyrighted material, and allows content creators to generate revenue with cover versions. Loudr is another example of a site essentially including a lawyering service to clear covers versions. Sample-based remixes can be sold legally through Legitmix, provided the sources are available through iTunes. It wasn't too long ago when putting up anything even remotely resembling copyrighted material on YouTube led to rapid removal, regardless of intention from the uploader. Things have changed a bit since then. Depending on who you ask, we're either moving into an new age of creativity, or a mindless pit of regurgitation. Either way, it's an interesting time to remix.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Finding the Perfect Musical Sketchpad

Shortly after a compo round ended, I stumbled upon a thought that provoked a chat session among other music makers. I wondered aloud why I tended to put one project on hiatus to work on a different one. For example, I had stopped publishing my webcomic to focus on hosting my radio show, and this in turn halted new mixtape episodes since I put all of my new Duosis material into the radio broadcasts. I also placed any new non-Duosis musical projects on hold while I did all the other stuff. Someone in the chat suggested I sketch out my compositions bit by bit over time so that I could do more things at once. It's a fair suggestion, except that my sketching usually involves painstaking sequencing that takes almost as much time as producing the completed song. I don't know sheet music or play instruments, so even laying down a skeletal structure of chords and melodies would take time. How could I sketch out my ideas quickly?

This question spurred a search that has not led to a fully adequate solution, but nevertheless brought a few options to my attention. My first train of thought was some sort of musical app. I have a mobile device on me for most of the time, so why not use that to lay down songs? Google brought up Fiddlewax, which looks like the exact opposite of iOS GarageBand. Skeuomorphism is largely absent from Fiddlewax, so there's little to no association to physical instruments. There are even different types of input that people can choose based their own level of musical knowledge. One snag is that there's no MIDI export in GarageBand, so taking a work-in-progress over to the desktop for polishing is a complicated effort. A few other apps seem to have the same problem: they function well as digital instruments, but when it comes time for post-production you're usually stuck with an audio recording.

After a while I pivoted toward a different musical note-taking option: using my voice as a writing instrument. Doing so with technology isn't a new concept: there's the old John Tesh anecdote about how he was in a hotel room without a piano, and that he ended up singing into his answering machine to lay down what would become the NBA on NBC theme. Regarding contemporary gear, I had tried Loopy HD in the past to record one-man-acappella-band versions of potential songs; I also later checked out Take Creative Vocal Recorder, which has similar functionality. What I was looking for now was some way to use my voice as a controller. Ideally my sung notes would trigger an on-screen element that could jot down the notes for me. In my search I immediately came across Imitone, which recently got financial support from Kickstarter. The app developer's goal is to open up music making to anyone whose larynx could express music. This seems too good to be true, so I'll see how that goes when the product is available for public release.

I later tried other processes based on software that I already had on my computer. Microsoft Research Songsmith sat on my hard drive for years after I installed it to make some joke songs for compos. One way I could use it for serious work would be to hum the melody idea I had in my head, select the corresponding chords manually in each measure, and then export isolated instrument parts as MIDI. Once I had the MIDI parts loaded up in a DAW, I could do whatever changes I wanted. So that worked for the chordal sections somewhat, but what about the melody line I sang? For that I used Melodyne's feature to export audio as MIDI. This isn't a perfect method, as a lot of the time the software has a ballpark guess as to what was sung. Getting close to the intended line however, as someone in the compo chat suggested, is an improvement to having to sequence it from scratch.

Going through other potential solutions also caused me to figure out problems I had in FL Studio that had prevented me from inputting things via microphones and MIDI controllers. If I can take anything from this search, it's that. This brings me to my current state of musical sketching: meeting technology halfway to get my ideas down. Regardless of my method, I still lean on simple chord-identifying programs like Reverse Chord Finder just to know what it is I'm writing. I shouldn't be a choosy beggar; the initial problem wouldn't be there if I learned notation or took music-playing lessons. As I said in the chat, it's not like my cartooning where I can sketch out something in fifteen seconds and then finish eating a sandwich.