Expanding The Landscape of TSM


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I have been a bit lax the past week or 2 in my blog posting responsibilities, but I have not been sitting on the couch binge watching Netflix. What I have been doing is getting ready for a 5-Song EP challenge for the month of May, which started 2 days ago. I have also been thinking about TSM and where to go with it, especially seeing as my original motivation was focused on live performance, gear, and how to leverage technology to make live performance easier and better. That has not changed, but what has is that my focus is not just on the live aspects of music performance now. My musical landscape has been changing—expanding, really, and leans more toward the studio and songwriting, recording and production. This really is the starting point for a lot of us. In fact, the lines between studio and live have been blurred, if not all-out erased in some cases. The technology used in the studio today is also used live.

Technology is also bringing the stage to the living room and to a streaming audience. This alone is a deep pool of discussion topics. The environment we live in is drastically different than it was 10 years ago, even 5 years back! As things have changed, I am learning and re-learning what I need to know to make and perform music in today’s world. The fact is that I have not worked on a studio project for about 20 years. That has changed as I have been re-assembling my studio and am starting work on an EP, along with a couple of other recording projects that I am working on. So, I am going to fire up the video camera and start capturing the processes and tools that I use as I work through this project. You will have the opportunity to follow along with me as I go and as I learn all over again.

This will be a fairly rough process that I hope will be of some sort of value to you as I learn—even better, we learn together! It will be a bit messy as I dive into new gear and software, as well as dusting off my vocal and guitar chops (I have not sung lead vox in many years, like 25 long years…) I figure that I am going through this process either way, I might as well capture it and share what I am doing and what I learn. There is no magic plan, just a direction, tossing the proverbial map aside and pulling out the compass as this is all about the journey, not a final destination.

I hope you will find this useful, and if there is anything that you are looking for and that isn’t covered, just drop me a note in the comments below.

Analog Workflow in a Digital World


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As I have been getting back into the recording side of music over the past several years, I have been re-learning a completely new toolset—a digital one. While I am like a kid in a candy store with all of the tools that are now available (and affordable), I just haven’t found that joy I experience when behind a physical mixing console. Being able to visually scan an array of channel strips and make fader adjustments on the fly on multiple faders using all of my fingers is just one example, it’s like playing another instrument. On a screen, I can’t do that unless it is on a touch surface, but again, that lacks the tactile feel that an actual physical mix desk offers. As for my DAW, I have been using Reaper for quite a while now, and I love it. The Reaper team has approached the tooling the right way, and made it very affordable.

But a new contender came onto the scene a couple-3 years ago and brings a new approach to the DAW. Harrison Consoles released Mixbus, which is based on the open source Ardour engine, incorporates modeling of the components in their famous consoles. What I love about this package is that it has a “knob per function” mixer layout based on Harrison’s music consoles, laying it out exactly like a physical board. Additionally, the channels provide processing that would normally be gotten by using plugins, and again, this processing is modeled from Harrison’s boards which for just about all of us are out of financial reach (their boards cost about the same as a modest home).

Version 4 was just released and with it a lot of tweaks and improvements that previous versions lacked and kept me away from really adopting it. I am beginning the process of figuring out how to move my projects from Reaper to Mixbus, or possibly just use Mixbus during the mix and master phases. But I would love to use Mixbus through the whole process, so in the coming weeks I will be working with it to do some comparisons with the Reaper workflow. I have successfully brought over my key plugins and validated that they work in Mixbus, both VST and VSTi (virtual instruments). I have not yet worked with the MIDI editing features, but they look comparable to Reaper.

Either way, I am excited to work with Mixbus and the modeled signal path, tape saturation and metering features that set this DAW apart from the rest. It appears to have everything that I need and at the same time brings me closer to what I have really been missing from the “analog”/physical world. My long term objective is to integrate a physical mix console back into my workflow, and have it drive Mixbus. This would bring the workflow processes that I “grew up on” back and give me the best of both worlds.

What does your workflow and tooling look like? How well does it work for you? What would you change? Leave a description of your rig in the comments below!

Never Go Without This One Thing


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This one is for all of you stringed instrument players. If there is anything that will kill the quality of a performance, it’s being out of tune. Even with a flawless groove and tight interaction between the players, bad intonation will simply put it in the toilet. This may sound embarrassingly obvious, but it happens. This can be caused by a number of factors: playing in an environment that has constantly fluctuating air temperatures has effected my intonation on a few occasions (e.g. The stage is right next to the club entrance on a cold Minnesota night in February.)

But what I have seen even more often are players tuning by ear, which not only puts you at high risk of being out of tune relative to the other players, but is a serious mark of an amateur–completely unprofessional. One of the most important tools in your setup is a tuner, in fact it is mandatory in mine. This will not only level set the entire band’s intonation, but will allow you to tune at virtually any pint during a set, even during a song, without ruining it for the band and audience.

Tuners are not that expensive and in fact are built into many processors out there. They are a cheap insurance policy for maintaining a level of quality and are simple to use. It is one of the many little things that you can do to funda and jeep tour edge. Sounding great is not exclusive to the pros, but is what we all should be striving for, and as musicians, the quality of our performance, without a doubt, starts with a well tuned instrument.

Do you or your band use tuners? What has your experience been with or without them?

Progress in the Studio


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Making progress in the Smart Musician studio this AM, with EP 01 of the new branched-off TSM Podcast recorded. Still more work to be done to get the configuration to where I need it.

More to come soon!

Size Matters


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Ok–cliche, I know, but now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain. There really is no argument that computers are a core tool in our lives for most of us, and for just about any modern musician today–arguably even all you classical musicians out there (me included). This has become especially true for the recording process, where hard drives have replaced tape in most instances (that is another discussion, for another day). That said, the primary interfaces for computer based recording are the keyboard, mouse and monitor.

Now, keyboard and mouse size does not make much difference aside from personal preference, but your monitor configuration can make all the difference between friction and freedom. For me, one who makes his living using computers, it is the environment and objective that dictates not the size and quantity of monitors. For example, my primary machine is a 13″ laptop, which is perfect for traveling–try opening up anything bigger than that on the plane, unless you’re lucky enough to be traveling in first/business class ;-). It is the environment that dictated my choice in monitor size. While I don’t fly every week like I used to, I do find it much more comfortable and portable with a smaller screen.

But, in the studio? I still use my little 13″ laptop, but I have 2 external 23″ monitors hooked up to it as well. This provides plenty of screen real estate in order to open and organize all the windows that I need for recording–tracks , transport, mixer, plugins, etc…this does not work so well on a 13″ monitor alone, but with another additional 46″, well things lay out nicely.

This does not come without cost, but neither does anything when it comes to gear, and these things are just that. However, when you look at the price of most gear we have, a monitor setup like mine comes in at less than about $800. Given the fact that your monitor (s) are the focal point of the recording process, this is a pretty good price point.

You could spend more, or less, but either way the size of your monitor real estate is something that you will want to maximize in order to get the most productivity out of your setup and workflow while minimizing the friction involved with the process. What monitor setup do you have in your rig? Tell us in the comments below!

Software and Technology Bridging The Gap Between Studio And Live Performance


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If there is one thing that brings the true geek out in me, it would be talking about software and virtual gear.  This has to be because it blends two of my greatest passions.  The evolution of technology over the past decade–or less–has accelerated the evolution of software based solutions for the average musician.  As with most of the advances in music technology, these new possibilities were previously only accessible to high end professional operations.

The scope of this discussion is too large to cover in a single post, but I do want to touch on some high level observations that will fuel future discussion in more detail.  The one overarching concept, however, is the latest technologies emerging that are blurring the lines between the studio and stage.  At the heart of this discussion is commodity computing hardware and open software standards.

The VST plugin is the example that comes to mind that describes the many ways that impact the way we do things both in the studio and live environments.  Originally, and still most widely used in the studio, Plugins have broken barriers to accessing high end and classic gear, both instruments and processing alike.  Having been primarily geared toward studio applications, plugins are emerging as viable contenders in the live performance space.

The primary challenges that come to mind to getting plugin-based solutions to work in a live situation is around standardization of required processing power, usability, and hardware implementation (getting signal into and out of the software processor), and latency.

The other intriguing technological application of what has traditionally been studio based in a live scenario is DAW-based mixing and control.  Again, the same challenges apply here as well, however there is very active evolution in the digital, network-based audio systems.  The ability to run IP networks that carry audio over ethernet opens up a whole new world of live sound with endless possibilities for creative setups and problem solving (and prevention, for that matter…).

While a lot of this new live audio technology is still proprietary at the hardware level, that gap, too, will be bridged just like all of the other technologies that have exploded over the past few decades.  However, the widely available and affordable hardware and software that exist today give the creative musician or engineer the raw materials to design and use powerful setups that provide more power, flexibility and options to their toolboxes, ultimately making their jobs easier and allowing them to focus on what they do, not the tools they use to do it, and that is the whole idea behind the Smart Musician.

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