Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Tune: Bottled & Blue

My songwriting and recording are coming back after about four years away from doing anything serious with music. This morning I woke up with some lyric ideas including the phrase "bottled & blue" (image courtesy Jeff Hayes - see update #2 at end). Then I saw a photo of Lincoln on the cover of a magazine (second verse), and an hour later I had completed the lyric and written the basic song on acoustic guitar. I was thinking "this is a practice song for getting back into arranging and recording, so keep it simple - a basic blues tune."

This is more or less how it turned out except it has more chords than a typical blues tune (3-5), which is typical for me. I tend to use a lot of chords. I also tend to not remember a lot of the chords when I try to play my own songs a few weeks or months later (the old forgetting curve effect). The songs I can do on a moment's notice are the ones with 3 or 4 chords (I have written a few of those). But I digress...

I did this whole thing between 9 am and 6 pm today, including making an MP3 which I have now uploaded to my account (which amazingly enough is still alive though I last used it in maybe 2005). You can listen or download "Bottled & Blue" there. I also entered it in a contest just for the heck of it. If listening to unsigned artists is something that interests you, you can sign up for a free Garageband account to listen to and vote on songs. I have three other songs there which were in contests years ago (that's why they have ratings). This new one is my only active song.

In case you're interested, here's how this thing went down. I doodled around with words until parts of the lyric emerged, singing them with different melodies. I decided at the start it was a blues-rock tune, so even with more complex chords, the music came pretty fast on the guitar, and I recorded a simple guitar/vocal demo so I wouldn't forget it.

Next I fired up Band-in-a-Box 2007 (BIAB), entered my chord progression into the intro/ verse/ chorus/ bridge structure I wanted (this goes fast with copy and paste). I set the tempo at 64 bpm and searched for blues styles that would be good for such a slow tempo and also supported "Real Drums" instead of MIDI drums (BIAB comes with hundreds of styles but few of them are made for Real Drums). BIAB is mainly based on MIDI - this defines patterns of notes which are played by the synthesizer that's built into most PC sound cards. This produces decent but not highly realistic instrument sounds. With "Real Drums," they define patterns that are played by piecing together pre-recorded segments of real drums played by human drummers. So they sound more dynamic and less computer-precise than MIDI drums (so more realistic).

Then I exported the MIDI track from BIAB to a file I could import into SONAR 3. I couldn't find a way to export the "Real Drums" so I used a sound card setting to play the drum track solo in BIAB and record it directly in SONAR. I had to be careful to make the drum (audio) and MIDI tracks line up properly.

Now I had a band track with good sounding drums and MIDI for the other instruments that would play back through my sound card ( bass, piano, trumpet, and sax). These didn't sound so great, so I inserted a copy of Sonik Synth 2 (SS2) on an audio track and started selecting instruments there that I could substitute. SS2 has great sounding instruments, so I picked out piano, bass, and horn section sounds. The horns sounded good enough playing just the BIAB trumpet track (I chose a pre-mixed horn section voice), so I assigned a nice sounding SS2 guitar voice to that track for some additional texture. I played around with the levels and left-right position of the various instruments until I got a reasonable mix.

Next I recorded my vocal. I did 3 or 4 takes plus some "punching in" to re-record sections that I messed up (this is really easy to do in Sonar). I experimented with some different reverbs and finally chose a fairly light slapback echo effect from a free plugin called AriesVerb. I also applied some equalization to improve the "presence" of my vocal. It still needs some work and possibly some harmonies or background vocals if I get ambitious.

Finally I tried to do an electric guitar lead for the intro and break. I'm a lousy lead guitarist but these are short sections and I thought I could play something vaguely BB King-like, but I failed miserably. I resorted to playing keyboard leads which can be tweaked by editing the MIDI notes with the mouse. I chose two different B3 organ voices in SS2, mixed them, and assigned this nice, fat sound to my lead track. The sound is good but the solos should be redone. Oh well, it's a one afternoon demo! I also played the chords for the song using this SS2 B3 organ voice to add a little more texture and some human imprecision to the track.

After another hour of playing with levels and adding a fade to the output track, I mixed it to WAV and MP3 files and had some dinner. Then I uploaded the MP3 to so anyone who is still awake after reading all this can go listen to it.

I've been doing multitrack recording on and off since the early 1970's, and I've had a PC based recording studio at home since 2002, but it still amazes me that I can do all this stuff on my own and get something that sounds pretty good, if not exactly like a "real record." It's also a nice feeling to write a new song after a few dry years. Going from two words to a full song uploaded to the web in one day has happened once or twice before, but it's unusual and pretty cool, for me at least!

Update #1: OK, this is already the longest blog post in the history of me-kind, but to complete the record, here's the lyric for "Bottled & Blue."

Bottled & Blue

Yesterday’s colors
Yesterday’s tunes
Used to be wonders
Now more like cartoons

The news of the world
Too bad to be true
Cheap wine from Australia
Got me bottled and blue

I look in the mirror
Eyes dark as new moons
And I see Lincoln’s smile
So sad, wise, and doomed


Memories, oh memories
Frozen like photos in time
Memories, memories
Feels like I’m losing my mind

(repeats first verse & chorus)

Words & music (c) 2009 by Bruce Irving

Update #2: I've gotten permission to include the image I had wanted before I jumped the gun with this post last night, "Blue Bottle" by Boston area painter Jeff Hayes. Jeff creates "contemporary realist paintings" - I discovered him through a search for "blue bottle" and I really like his work. He has a blog in addition to his main web site.

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