I was still at the steep end of the infinitely frustrating, crazymaking learning curve trying to figure out audio engineering and then added insult to injury with another maddening ordeal of learning how to do drum programming while Chi kept on inundating me with more new and increasingly complex music he was composing. This was also the point where it became clear that there was a vitally important missing link that would enable me to overcome some major technical issues that were making progress unnecessarily difficult. 

Listen while you read to “First Strike”, a quick, cranky blues-y piece in 5/4 time that has recently been brought out of purgatory and is well on the way to completion. This particular (FAR from finished!) recording contains my first attempt at drum programming, but at least it’s a start. I expect this piece will end end up on the “Octopus!” album, scheduled to follow “Victory Speech” once we finally finish it.

October – November 2013

As I made more hard-won progress with learning how to do audio engineering and assuming a modicum of control over the odds and ends of equipment and software in our possession with production-savvy friends cheering me on and advising me via FaceBook, the consensus was that we really needed to invest in a proper audio input device. Our erstwhile producer Steven explained that it was the absence of MIDI timecode syncing that is causing the problem with the tracks not lining up vis-a-vis where I am trying to record them due to running an analog signal through an analog mixing deck with no proper MIDI interface to “translate” the signal into one the computer and software can easily make sense of. My using the Zoom h4 which is designed to be used primarily as a field recording device was also needlessly complicating things with gain staging and other functions.

In late September I took on the additional task of learning how to program drum parts so that I could begin building click tracks for the pieces we wanted to record. After spending crazy amounts of time trawling through endless tech-y mumbo-jumbo, online forums, etc., I finally begin to get my head around how the timeline in the Acid Pro software functions, and after many more hours, finally figured out how to access single-hit drum sounds and stick them on the timeline in some approximation of where I wanted them. I just don’t get “loops”, and they are not even useful for the music we are working on now due to the odd meters and multiple time/tempo changes in each piece.

With the drum programming, half the battle was in overcoming my inveterate aversion to doing it in the first place. Being a fundamentally (fundamentalist?) acoustic player that detests fake, plastic junk in my music, I found the concept of using samples highly distasteful, particularly when we have a competent professional drummer right here in the house and a perfectly good drum kit mothballed under the house and almost enough half-decent condenser mics in hand to mic it up and record it live, although that would certainly not endear us to our neighbours. After reading through a whole dissertation about this issue on the ‘net, I learned that even the major label drummers program their parts on recordings and even in live performances (!) due to what a nightmare it is to get high quality recordings of live drum kits and the difficulty of editing them once they are recorded. The more progress I make with this, the more excited Chi gets about it since he is finally starting to get his head around what is now becoming possible for us.

Chi got booked on a series of acting jobs that ran up a lot of overtime, so we FINALLY had the money to get a proper interface by mid-October and bought an Mbox Pro 2 factory bundle that came with Pro Tools 8 LE software from a producer who had acquired it for one project and then put it up for sale. That gave me the option of having an industry standard platform to use that I can drop the sessions recorded by professional engineers into and edit/add to on them on my own once I figure out how it works. Yes, ANOTHER horrendous learning curve!

When I finally had a chance to roll up my sleeves and deal with integrating the new interface into my cobbled-together recording rig, another massive outlay of time was spent working out how to proceed with installing the new device and software. Since most of the work I had done so far was on the PC running Acid Pro I wanted to be able to install the MBox as a “stand-alone” interface without Pro Tools on that machine and then also install the interface with Pro Tools on the Mac, which would give me a well-integrated properly licensed recent-model DAW.

The installation on the PC ended up being a net “fail”. I thought I had all the right plug-ins and drivers worked out, but when I pulled up some rough guitar/violin tracks we had recorded earlier, while I was able to listen to them from both the headphones and the monitor speakers plugged into the MBox, the sound was scratchy and distorted and just plain awful. I wasn’t sure if that was an accurate representation of what had actually been recorded or if it was due to some compatibility problem with the hardware (again!), but by that point I decided that my extremely limited available time would be better spent doing a “clean” install of the Pro Tools software the interface was designed to work with on the Mac that was now screaming-fast since I’d opened up 100 GB of space on the system drive the other evening when I cleaned it up in preparation for this undertaking. Naturally Chi chewed my ass off for wasting time trying to make the interface work on the PC.

So I spent all afternoon on Sunday installing Pro Tools on the Mac, which included a whole odyssey of optimizing the system for that program, reformatting the “Mystery Drive” (600 GB firewire drive — a handmade knock-off of a G-drive), which involved spending a lot of time moving huge amounts of video and audio data off of it and back on after re-christening it the “Audio Drive” in its new optimized format. I tried letting the software install itself while we went to a performance we’d got comp tickets for, but not surprisingly, it didn’t work right.

I finally had a go at it a couple days later and still couldn’t get any signal out of the headphones. I hadn’t bothered hauling the studio monitors from the workstation in the front room back into the office to test those, but I felt it safe to assume that if no signal was reaching the headphone port, there wouldn’t be any going to the monitors either. Making matters worse, I kept getting various error messages when I attempted to load and play the demo sessions the software had come with to give me an opportunity to play around with something that had been set up correctly instead of leaving me to create one from scratch and having it turn into a giant, mind-wracking clusterfuck.

Well…after TEN FUCKING DAYS of spelunking through the manufacturer’s website and trawling various online forums and wading through an enormous amount of stupendously confusing information, updating/upgrading things, applying various patches, etc., I finally succeeded in getting the interface to work and successfully launched a demo session on Pro Tools! One problem was that the interface didn’t like the way I had daisy-chained it into the rig, i.e., connecting it with a 6-pin (FW400) to 9-pin (FW800) cable to the audio (external) drive that was plugged (9-pin to 9-pin) into the Mac’s hard drive.

I also reinstalled the driver after another massive input of time researching which version to download and install, which included upgrading the Pro Tools LE 8 software that came with the interface to the most recent update that version 8.0 would take that was also compatible with my 2010 Mac Mini’s Snow Leopard 10.6.8 operating system. There were a variety of updates and patches I’d tried to install for various plug-ins that came with Pro Tools that had been giving me a bunch of errors, but I never succeeded in completely eradicating the errors. This was for the compressor, the Moogerfooger and some damn purple thing that I don’t even know what it is.

During this head-explodingly absurd ordeal, I’d come across some information indicating that the Mbox Pro 2 with its firewire 400 ports does not play nice with firewire 800 even with the correct type of adapter cable, and apparently you don’t want FW800 anywhere in your signal chain. That is rather problematic since FW800 is what both my Mac’s hard drive and the external drive have. After another excruciating pain in the ass trying various configurations of the gear in the abject absence of space my ludicrously inadequate workstation affords and ordering a new FW400-800 adapter cable, I finally at LONG FUCKING LAST got all the hardware peacefully coexisting and the software at least looking like it was working right.

It is insanely frustrating that I will not be able to reconfigure the house and set up a comfortable workstation where I can have everything set up in a way that makes some sort of ergonomic and functional sense until Chi leaves for Hawaii, so I’ll have to suffer with the maddening conditions I currently have to work under until then, at which point he will no longer be here to work with. Unfortunately with him everything always seems to reduce down to an all-or-nothing trauma-drama.

After the landmark accomplishment of finally figuring out how to get the interface to work and all the software, etc., sorted out, it took another entire week of slogging through yet another vast body of information and trying to mentally process it to the point where I was willing to attempt to rig in our MIDI controller (a Korg Microkey 37 we’d just bought for this purpose a few months ago) so I could begin programming drum tracks in Pro Tools with the plug-ins that come with that platform. OMG, talk about overwhelming! And I even have the advantage of being at least somewhat familiar with kit drums, hand percussion, etc., and being married to a drummer, but all the tech-y stuff is a bit much for me. Also not helping matters is that the music we most want to record now is so rhythmically complex that I’m sure even someone who knows what they’re doing with the software and programming drum parts would still find it quite challenging.

Once I got the interface and software working, this undertaking seemed to go from zero to 500 MPH in a matter of minutes. I eventually got the MIDI controller up and running and successfully wired in the DBX 286A preamp/processor we’d brought back with us from Tokyo and spent a few days tinkering around exploring the different inputs on the interface with our collection of mics and amps. It seems that thing is built to withstand people like me learning how to use it since thankfully I didn’t toast any of the inputs by mistakenly running too hot of a signal into them. We then began taking test recordings of our newer repertoire.

For all I know, the settings are all catty-wampus since I presently have absolutely no fucking idea at all what the various dials and buttons on the mic preamp actually do, but it sounded fine to me as is, so I can only assume that with the settings properly tuned in, it will sound infinitely better still. I was able to get a beautiful, clear, clean, warm sound whether playing instruments into our Rode NT2 wide diaphragm condenser mic, running a line from Chi’s electric/acoustic guitar directly into the interface’s line input, or micing the bass amp with the Rode NT2 through the DBX 286.

DAW version 3.0

DAW version 3.0

Toward the end of October we hauled “First Strike” out of the vault where it had been entombed for several years and put it on the workbench. Chi composed “First Strike” not long after we first moved to L.A. in early 2006. He was struggling to learn an insanely difficult bass part for what was supposed to be an international touring gig that fell apart for some inexplicable reason as such things generally tend to and got frustrated with it, so he came up with a really fucked up bass line in a blues pattern with a quick tempo in an odd meter. Now he worked out the guitar part and main melodies and overall architecture of the piece and developed it further. He came up with a brilliant idea for a bridge section of flipping the meter over which was incredibly difficult to execute, but once we assimilated it, it worked magically.

That is another especially demanding piece and I realized that in order to play this very challenging new music we have been creating, I will have to dust off my long-neglected classical technique. In addition to that, I certainly didn’t make it any easier on myself using “First Strike” — the most rhythmically complex piece in our entire repertoire (!) — to learn to program drum tracks.

So after all that, I finally arrived at the point where I could do a multi-track recording on the new software with a few days left for me to get at least scratch recordings made of several of our new pieces to bring to the Taxi.Com annual conference and have them (the pieces, NOT the production work!) critiqued by industry specialists and evaluated in terms of their potential for licensing and syncing once they were finished and recorded at broadcast quality. That brought on the next crash course: how to render the pieces from Pro Tools project files to exportable stereo audio tracks, and then get familiar enough with iTunes to convert the .AIFF files they bounced down to into .MP3 files and burn them to CDs to take to the conference. That kept me up almost all night the night before the conference, but I got it done and the pieces were very well received.

<previous> TO BE CONTINUED