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.

Guitar Rig In Your Pocket

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Over the years I have continually been on the lookout for different configurations for my guitar rig as I find myself playing in different environments. I may play with a full band in a club, playing with a smaller ensemble for something like a wedding or impromptu jam, or just getting some fretboard time in by myself. Each of these opportunities call for a different setup appropriate for the situation. For instance, I am typically not going to bring a full guitar rig to a wedding ceremony 😉

One of the beautiful things about technology today is that many, if not most of us have a fully functioning guitar rig in our pockets! Mobile devices, smart phones in particular, have a wide variety of apps that will let you do anything from jamming in your headphones to full multi-track recording. Along with a relatively inexpensive connector, you can set up amps, speaker cabinets, effects and more all right from your phone.  There are other critical apps, such as tuners, that are also available.  Combine these applications with something like Evernote for lyrics, charts, etc…, you have everything you need to pull off performances all without having to carry anything except, of course, your axe.

This all sounds easy and fairly simplistic, but it is just one example of how you can use technology to make life easier for you and open up opportunities to play where you wouldn’t have otherwise.  There are some limitations, however, such as in a full on band situation, an iPhone probably won’t cut it for more than a song or two.  The lack of hands free control makes it difficult to switch sounds, adjust levels or control effects on the fly.  Virtually no guitar player is without some sort of pedal board, and at this time, there is not much—if anything—out there that gives you a pedal board controller for your mobile guitar rig apps, but I argue that is only a matter of time.  But for now, the options are limited at best.

But it’s not just guitar specific apps or uses that mobile devices give us.  As I mentioned above, mobile devices—tablets in particular, are excellent replacements for paper.  From set lists to charts and lyrics, your tablet is a great tool to have in your kit.  There are many different types of adapters for mic stands, for instance, that will let you set your device up for easy use and viewing while playing live.  There are even adapters that let you set your tablet up as a music stand to hold your sheet music.  Lastly, as I also mentioned, just using your phone as a tuner is an invaluable tool where a dedicated tuner is not available (you are using a tuner, aren’t you?)

So, as you can see, there are countless creative uses for your mobile device as a musician, and this is not only true for just guitar players, but for everyone involved from band to technician to fan.  I don’t see this trend going down any time soon as innovations continue to appear and the number of mobile devices increases each year.  I, for one, am excited about being able to leverage this type of technology to be able to take advantage of more opportunities to play.

How about you?  How do you use your mobile device for making or performing music?  You can share in the comments below!

Technology Tolerance

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I realize that here at the Smart Musician, we talk a lot about technology and how using it can make your musical efforts a lot easier. But at the end of the day, it’s all about balance. Technology is not a silver bullet. Th important thing is to keep things as simple as possible, while using technology to automate repetitive tasks, or those that can be automated to free you up to make music. However, it is easy to automate so much that you end up spending just as much time just manning the automation, which really just defeats the purpose.

It’s also as much about your individual comfort level with technology–your technology tolerance, if you will–the level of comfort you have with the amount of technology or automation in your rig. Finding the balance is important so you can minimize the amount of distraction and tasks that you do, like changing patches, settings, channels, etc. Keep in mind, too, that there is a limit to what you can do in a live setting and that some things are better left out of the arrangement. Less often is more, and while technological aids can often times enhance your performance, thought and experimentation should always be put into your setup and use of tech in your live system.

Again, it’s all about making great music and enjoying doing it as much as possible. The more you apply basic principles like keeping it simple, putting thought and preparation into your gear setup and keeping the focus on having fun and making great music, the more you will get out of your time playing and performing, and so will all of your fans who come out to take in the show! That’s a win-win for both band and audience, and the club owner too.

What is your technology tolerance–how much do you use technology in your setup?

Virtual Sound Check Technology

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The virtual sound check is a relatively new concept that is definitely going to become more mainstream as the gap in the latest live digital audio technology closes, and it is actually closer than it seems. In fact, it is not restricted to only the high end gear. This feature is available on several digital audio consoles, and opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the average band. In fact, I would even argue that it offers as much relevant value to the rest of us as it does the full time pro uses in that it chops the time needed to ring out a room during soundcheck, and therefore reduces the stress level for the operation as a whole and gives the band more time to set up and less time focusing on working with the FOH engineer to get the system ready for show time.

The concept is simple: digital audio systems that have integrated DAW functionality–in other words, can record the audio signals that are running through the console, can capture the audio running through each of the channels and save each one individually as a separate track. These tracks can then be used at future gigs in place of the actual band playing, allowing the audio engineer to do a virtual soundcheck without the band even being involved.

This takes the stress off of both the engineer and the band, allowing each to focus on their tasks simultaneously, essentially creating a nice chunk of time that would normally be compressed into an already tight time frame. When you get off of your day job late on a Friday afternoon, it is typically a mad rush to get home to get your gear, get ready and head to the gig–you already have little time to get things set up and ready. Virtual sound checks get rid of the engineer’s dependency on the band, giving him (or her) the ability to even sound check and get the system ready before the band arrives! This is HUGE!

While this is just one simple example of what this technology can do, the point is that there is a significant opportunity to shorten the amount of time and effort it takes to get all systems to the point of being ready for showtime, and giving everyone on the team that much more space to get things set up and that much less stress in doing so, which all adds up to making for a better performance.

At the end of the night, that means more physical, mental and emotional resources for everyone to focus on what really matters, and that is pulling off the best performance possible. Technology and its creative and intelligent use can make playing in a band a much more sustainable–and enjoyable–experience over time, and that is what it is all about.

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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