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!

Start In the Studio


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The title of this post is both metaphor and literal. For me, just about all things musical start in the studio. As I stated in my previous post, my studio is made up primarily of gear that is north of 25 years in age. There is only so far I can go with it when trying to integrate it into a digital workflow where the weakest link is the AD/DA link. I have cobbled things together so it “works”, but I can’t scale with it nor can I take full advantage of the features available in my digital tooling.

I was told by a great interior designer (a.k.a Mom) that when figuring out how to fill and decorate a new space, start with one piece of furniture that will act as the starting point–like a couch or table–and build out around that. For my studio, that piece of furniture is the mix console. What I am looking for is a best-of-both-worlds scenario, incorporating the physical knobs and faders of the old analog world with the digital tools. In doing my research, I have settled on the board that I want to start with: the new PreSonus StudioLive 32. This will give me the Core and foundation of my new studio setup, linking the analog to the digital. This will also give me the same starting point for building out a live rig, which will come later.

From here I will then start focusing on research around reference monitors and acoustic treatments for my room. We bought a house last summer and Once again I have a dedicated space for my studio. I have plenty of reflective surfaces, including hardwood flooring to contend with, so I will be researching this heavily in the weeks and months to come. 

So, as my music creation starts in the studio, so does my re-entry back into the music thing, rebuilding my workspace and redesigning my workflow taking advantage of current technologies and possibilities. As I move forward on this project, I will share my progress. I would also love to hear your thoughts and welcome any input or questions you may have–just comment below!

Rebuild


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TSM has been on and off for the past 6-7 years, with a handful of false starts. Life is what it is and often times does not leave as much time for working on those “side projects” as we would like. One of my objectives this year is to jump start this project once again, but with a slightly different approach. Looking at where I came from, my experiences and what I have now–both in terms of gear and knowledge, I see a lot of value to offer and also a lot of room for change and growth.

My initial objective was to share what I know and my experiences, but I realized that I was focusing on the past. I value my past experiences, which have given me the foundation on which I stand now. But so much has changed, even in what I see as the short time that I have been away from the scene. This is where I have been reflecting, trying to sort out where to go next, not just with TSM, but with what drives it in the first place: my own music production and performance.

In the coming months, I will be working on transforming my working environment, primarily my studio, and also my workflows and how I manage collaboration with my band mates who are now spread out across the country. We have recently come back together, but with a songwriting and production focus. I am also in the planning stages of creating a house concert series which will be live streamed, featuring different artists seasonally, every 3 months.

I have realized that music spans both studio and live, even if you are not recording. Your practice setup is your studio, with different requirements than your live rig/environment. Technology has also developed with these lines of distinction being blurred more and more.

As I ease back into my own music projects, whether it is writing with my band mates, producing/recording a project for someone else, or working live sets–all of which are happening, I will be applying my experience along with re-creating my working environments, rebuilding my rigs, from studio to stage. This will be an evolutionary process that will not happen overnight, and I want to capture and share this as I work through it.

There is one common thread that runs through just about everything that I do that means anything to me, and that is a desire to help others get over hurdles and meet challenges, however big or small, so that their experiences with whatever task or project will be as enjoyable as possible by learning from my experiences and mistakes.

That is where I am heading, that is what TSM is about. I am here to help where I can, share what I have and to continue learning through the process. That also means learning from you. If you have any experiences–light bulbs, ah-ha moments that you would like to share, please leave them in the comments below.

Now, let’s go make some music!

Reboot (Let’s Try This Again)


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Hey there, everyone!

Just wanted to drop a line and let you all know that TSM is getting ready to breathe in some new life in the coming weeks. Life throws many challenges in our paths, but making music is a sure way to deal with those challenges. It has been my objective to help musicians in whatever way I can using my experiences and knowledge, particularly at the intersection of music and technology, so that we all can spend more time making music vs the sheer amount of grunt work that tends to get in the way.

As I start moving into the next phase of my music “career”, along with my life-long bandmates, the landscape of music creation, production and performance continues to change, and at an increasing pace. As I am jumping back in, there is even more opportunity–and things to learn. That’s where TSM comes in, to start the conversations, share ideas and build a community of musicians and anyone involved in the process.

I will be sharing where I have been, my experiences, and also what I will be learning as I get my head around current technology and what I see as performance distribution channels which give us the opportunity to create more music, more often and to carve out our own musical empires in the process!

Please send any questions or topics that are of interest to you and we will get the conversation started. If I don’t know the answer, we will go find it. I am looking forward to the next chapter and to sharing it with you all!

TSM Podcasts Return


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After a little over a year, the Smart Musician podcast is returning. Also known as the TSM Podcast, this series will be getting a slight name change–it will now be called the TSM Music Tech Podcast, putting the focus on gear and the creative uses of technology both on stage and in the studio. John Thayer and I have started production and will have Episode 17 on its way very soon.

Along with the name change will be a new podcast series that will be more general in topic, not as tightly focused on gear and technology, but will cover anything related to crating and performing music, the Smart Musician way. This series will feature more interviews with bands and musicians like you, sharing their insights, experiences and perspectives on creating and performing music.

There is also one other podcast series in the works that will center on quick tips–more to come on that soon. As we get the podcast engines humming again, we would love to hear from you about what topics interest you the most, what burning questions or thoughts you have or problems/issues you are trying to solve. Please let us know by leaving a note in the comments below or by sending a message on the Contact Us page.

Your Band Is A Business


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For many musicians, music + business = sellout. But if you really look at the activities that are common to just about every successful business, you will start to see that how they operate has nothing to do with money, but goals and objectives. Obviously, money is a primary goal of most businesses, but other organizations exist not for the purpose of making a profit, but for some other purpose, such as charities.

In order to succeed, any group of people with a common goal need to have some degree of organization and structure in order to progress, and bands are no different. In fact, bands that want to make music their full time gig must put structure and organization in place if they are to have any chance of succeeding. Even if it is just a passionate hobby, it takes money to pay for gear, gas and strings, so it would be nice to make a little extra jing off of playing music. If this is going to happen, then you need to start running your band more like a business. This is not selling out, rather helping ensure your success.

It’s not about the money, it’s about the music and bringing the best you can to the stage. There are many things that go into a well oiled music machine such as your band, all of which should ultimately support this purpose. This topic is more than can be jammed into a single post, so I am working on putting all of this together to make available to you as a free download–more to come soon, but just keep this one thing I mind: putting structure and organization, treating your band as a business is NOT selling out, but is actually a critical component in the long term success of any band.

Treat Your Cables Right


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I wrote a post a few days ago about cables and how their quality really can, and does, affect the quality of the audio signal going through them.  Today I want to share a few tips on how to help make sure your cables stay in good shape and last longer for you.  You may already know some of these things, so if you do, bear with me for a few minutes, but if you haven’t heard these ideas before, you are about to add a few more simple things to your bag of tricks that will help make your music gear life easier.  Understand that these concepts can be fairly difficult to explain, so I will be updating this post with more links to visual resources—as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words…

With that, let’s dive in.

Over/Under

This is a concept with any type of cable, whether it’s an electric extension cord or your guitar cable.  The natural instinct is to coil the cable using the same hand motion. For a right-handed person, for example, one would likely start with one end of the cable in the left hand, with the palm tending to be facing up, and grab a length with the right hand, with the palm tending to be facing down, bringing the two hands together to coil the cable in consecutive loops.  However, when you go to uncoil your cable, you will end up with a series of knots down the length of the cable.  The way to get around this is to wrap the cables over/under.  I correlate this term to how the right hand alternates the palm face up and face down when grabbing each consecutive length of the cable.  What you end up with is a cable that will unwrap without knots.  Here is a good article explaining this method in more detail, with some pictures to give a visual step-by-step description on how to wrap your cables with the over/under method.  I had this drilled into my head working as an audio engineer at a national sound company many years ago, and it has become second nature for me wrapping any type of cable.

Arm Winding 

Never, ever, ever arm wind your cables, the wrapping of cables between your elbow and hand.  This is a sure way to degrade the life and quality of your cables.  By doing it this way, the tension of the winding stretches and eventually breaks the wire inside the cable, not to mention you will also face the same knotting issues described above.

End to End 

At the end of a gig, usually after 2 AM, the first thing on everybody’s mind is getting packed up as quickly as possible and getting home.  My time at the sound company taught me the quick exit way to getting cables wrapped up, the end to end method.  You start by taking each end of the cable and bring them together, leaving you with half the length.  Then, grab the other end and bring those 2 ends together.  Do this until have the shortest resulting length and are still able to then tie off the cable in a simple single knot.  This will get the cables wrapped up quickly—it is up to you as to whether or not you choose to rewrap the cables using the over/under method.

Strain Relief

Strain relief does not deal with the wrapping of cables, rather the way the cables are connected.  This is particularly important when cables are grouped together or snaked, resulting in heavier total weight which puts additional strain on the individual cable connectors.  If you have ever seen and wondered what that little wire loop at the end of an audio snake is, it’s to take the strain off the connectors by hanging it from anything that will act as a hook, taking on the weight of the bundle of cables (the snake) instead of the connectors.

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?

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?