Soundcloud is a great service that allows musicians to easily share their creations and have listeners leave in-line comments on the music. But I’ve recently discovered an alternative use case of the service that’s very useful: it removes all the friction associated with “marinating” your music.
By “marinating” I mean that period after you’ve recorded something when you sit back and absorb it in different settings hearing the different sounds that present in different environments. If you’ve ever seen the movie Once with Glen Hansard this is “the car test.” Having interacted with a piece exclusively via your recording setup you’ll hear new facets to the song once you take it in jogging with an iPod, driving around via your car stereo or listening full blast on your buddy’s entertainment center.
In the past to get this kind of diversity of perspective one had to burn a CD, save it to iTunes, put it on the iPod, etc. There was just enough friction that you’d only do this once you had mastered the final mix as a sanity check. But Soundcloud has made it so easy that exporting the track and uploading (~2min of work depending on the length of the piece) is entirely frictionless. I find myself using the service to iteratively get more insight into the track I just recorded which helps me incorporate drastic changes. Here’s a case in point:
I was just tinkering with my buddy Nate’s song “Somewhere Safe.” I love the outro to this song so I pulled it into my music editor and started messing around remixing it. I came up with this:
But driving around listening to that I heard the refrain of another song by the band Snow Patrol so I went back, tweaked some things and made this:
This is kind of a silly example but It was only through driving around and letting that song “marinate” that I heard the other refrain. The takeaway here is that Soundcloud operates not just at a “sharing what’s finished” level but also works earlier in the formative stages of constructing songs. And it’s not that it enables anything you couldn’t do before, it just removes enough of the friction so that you will do it. Anyways, neat.
I discovered Nate Stone about a month back randomly while working in a coffee shop in Flagstaff. I was fortunate to catch this performance he did this past Sunday of my favorite song of his:
I had a beer with him afterwards and he declared “this is the night I got my voice back.” I know the feeling of what it’s like to have been super prolific at writing music and then lose the spark. It was pretty magical to be present and witness him get the spark back. There was only maybe five people in the whole place but you could hear the responses from people when it kicked in for him.
Download his last album for free here. He said he’s got material in the works to record a new album. I cannot wait to hear what this guy puts out next. If you’re in the Flagstaff area he plays resident every Sunday night 7-9pm at Coffee Bean.
To see other guys like Nate (not necessarily from AZ) check this list I made awhile back. The Interwebs have apparently deemed it #1 google result for “acoustic artist” for whatever that’s worth.
“Cabin Pressure” is the first song I’ve recorded in three years and wow it feels good to get this one out. That link is the MP3 and you can see the lyrics here. I wrote all the parts from scratch and it took about 15hrs in all to record and produce it from start to finish. Granted I don’t have the best voice but like most things I think passion can make up for a lack of raw talent. This is a big deal for me because this tune has been gestating inside me for awhile now and feels something like I imagine childbirth being like to be finally able to manifest this thing into the world for others to experience.
The quick backstory: like most songs it’s about a girl. And specifically the mixed emotional bag of emptiness/anger/sorrow when someone with whom you feel a close connection is able to casually exit your life and never look back. The recording is about 90% close to what I wanted and while I’m not entirely satisfied, I am done tinkering with it. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was how to normalize the volume of the final track so that it’s equal with other songs in my iTunes. It’s way more quiet than most songs but when I tried to boost the volume levels it would clip the audio (if anyone knows how to do this please share). I do have some random thoughts on the mechanics of songwriting and specifically Garageband as a tool for recording and producing audio.
Chickens and Eggs – the classic question is “which comes first, the lyrics or the musical idea?” For me they’re usually inextricably intertwined and tend to emerge over time where one affects the development of the other. I usually get a musical riff stuck in my head first and the lyrics start to gel around the melody as nonsensical mouth sounds. I can generally sing the lyrics “in tongues” before the exact words coalesce, but once they do it tends to alter the song itself. Like any chicken/egg problem at some point you have to bend one of the flaps and dig into it.
Discovery vs. Invention – I was talking with my friend Brian Chartrand of the band Ten Dollar Outfit about this (and btw i consider Brian to be one of the most talented local musicians in the Phx Metro Area). We agree that songwriting feels more like a process of discovery than invention. It’s this whole process of unearthing a song that’s in you like the archaeologist that chips away at a ruin buried underground.
Iterate using different playback sources – you get a different perspective when you take the song while it’s half-baked and listen to it in the car or while running. The frustration of recording comes when you get in a rut and from my experience you can avoid that by constantly seeing the song from different angles.
Professional vs. home studio – it has to be on your own time. I love recording at my own pace using my own equipment. No doubt I could get better quality audio going into a studio (I used the internal mic on my Mac and I know singing into a laptop screen doesn’t yield the best acoustics). But studio time is expensive (~$150/hr) and more importantly, because it’s a ticking clock you end up rushing it and there’s nothing worse than being stressed while recording and settling for something you’re unhapy with.
Alpha and omega – I like songs and albums that start and finish back at the same place. This song in particular lent itself well to this idea of fading in and out with ocean surf. I know this is possibly considered cheesy by some but for this one I had a really profound experience here and couldn’t get that vision out of my head while recording the song.
Let it marinate – it always works better for me to do it in chunks and distance myself from the recording in between. I spent 4hrs the night before I drove to San Felipe and layed down the basic melody and framework of the song. I put it on my iPod, spent a few days away from it and then listened to it on the road back home. I think you can screw things up if you try to force it all out in one recording session. Again, being able to record at your own pace is key.
Less features = more power – I love this program. It’s amazing to me how much functionality Apple can expose but in a way that still makes it dead-simple for a beginner to get started. Kathy Sierra always talked about helping your users to get over the “suck threshold” as quickly as possible. Garageband 3 is a shining example of an app that does this well. Kimbro pointed out to me that Apple tends to strip away features and that in doing so the program may be able to do less but you’ll actually get more out of it because you’ll be more likely to use it. I couldn’t agree more.
Sequencing and recording all in one – so did I mention I love this program? I have experience with using Sonic Foundry and Cool Edit in the past to record and produce songs on a PC and I find Garageband on a Mac to be superior in just about every respect. It merges the important features of both programs and has a few extra features that make things way easier. I picked up an absolute nugget from watching 15min of the Apple Tutorials – the arrange track makes it so you can divide your song into sections and manipulate groups of tracks as a unit. Very useful.
Make it sloppy – the over-quantized drum sounds that you get from using a drum machine make songs sound starchy and synthetic. What’s cool about Garageband is that via the Apple Loops feature you can get an onscreen drum pad for a track and pepper it with sounds that manually dub in realtime. The Takes feature allows you to build a drum track by layering different percussive instruments without having to manually rewind, do separate tracks and then merge. Making it “sloppy” by adding drums by hand gives the rhythmic section a more of a human-made feel.
Extend the library of sounds- I bought the percussion Jam Pack from Apple and it gave me 5 gigs of drum sounds to work with. They have Jam Packs for symphonic, electronic and other instruments. It’s neat to be able to have access to a big library of sounds. I wonder when the iStockPhoto of music will emerge?
Specific nerd details on this track (for anyone interested)
I used three physical instruments in recording:
a ’95 Jackson Charvel electric guitar through a Line6 head unmic’d (via headphones jack)
a Martin acoustic guitar with active pickups plugged straight in
an Ibanez bass ran straight in
The staccato pianic effect in the beginning is from doing tap harmonics on the acoustic and adding the “Acoustic Guitar Echoes” effect in GB. The ocean noise is a royalty free sound I got from imeem.com. I applied a flanger effect to all the verses to get an “under water” sound (because frankly that’s what it’s felt like) and dynamically maxed it at the end of each verse cause I thought it sounded cool (aka made my voice less annoying when i scream). I added distortion to the refrain vocals via the megaphone effect. The squealing guitar solo is proprietary ;-) It uses the distortion from the Line6 – I found that using the distortion effect from GB to added just enough latency to where it didn’t feel right. I compressed the mp3 at 192kbps for max quality so that’s why it’s larger filesize than most mp3′s of equivalent length. The entire song is only 3 chords with no change whatsoever but it still works (hey Jane’s addiction proved you can make a winner with 2 chords ;-) And that fat 80′s-style wah bass sound at the end is the filter effect applied over a slap bassline played on the Ibanez- i was really happy with how that part turned out.
Oh yeah, lastly feel free to redistribute, burn, mix, whatever. Everyone unless you’re Rhapsody (F$#@ you and your 2hr hold times to cancel service Real Networks). Music should be free with concerts generating revenue for musicians. If anything come out to our next concert or open mic and throw quarters at us onstage. Sign up on our site to get an email before our next show.