Help Is As Close As Your Social Network

light-logoI Just started getting into SixString, a social network for guitarists. It is available on iPhone and Android, which is an interesting, but not all that uncommon approach taken by many seemingly “app only” developers today, but I digress… What I found after submitting my first post is that this appears to be a community of like minded individuals passionate about one thing–guitars. Not only are they passionate, but so far, the egos seem to be checked at the door, which in my opinion is a key to a successful, vibrant and growing community.

Because of this openness, you see all skill levels participating, whether it is sharing clips of a simple riff, soliciting collaboration on an idea, or asking for help with a particular question or problem. Without ego, a community can be open and actually help the individual grow in the craft. For instance, last night one guy posted a question, along with a short audio clip demonstrating the issue he was having with his guitar, and within hours, if not minutes, he had constructive responses from several other members of the community. This is a great example of what a true community is, not simply another social network.

The point is that we are not alone as musicians or engineers, whether we singers, drummers, audio engineers or guitarists–anyone involved in the making and performance of music. There are countless social networks out there and in the world of music there are many communities that are available to answer almost any question or help you through just about any challenge you are facing.

However, remember that it is a two way street, and that where there are all skill levels, you too may have the knowledge or expertise that will get someone else over that hump that has been holding them back from getting to where they want to go. The more we give, the more we contribute, the more we all ultimately get back from the community, both as a whole and as individuals

This is at the core of The Smart Musician, so please leave comments, questions, observations, etc…so we can help each other in our music production and performance efforts.

Have a great weekend and remember to keep it rockin’!!!

Cable Quality Matters

English: Standard guitar cable. Magyar: Hagyom...

I have to admit, I am sort of a cable hoarder. I pretty much have more cables than I know what to do with, so many, in fact, that as we were packing for our recent move this past Summer, my wife drew a line in the sand: get rid of the excess cableage or else she would.

Ouch, just the thought!

The fact is that I could stand to do some trimming of the inventory, so I started going through them and got rid of a virtual ton of them. As I was sorting through the piles of audio, electrical and data cables, I saw many that I acquired as accessories along with electronic items I have purchased over the years.

It was as I was actually evaluating what I had on hand that I remembered something that my cousin told me many years ago. He was Prince’s lead technical guy for many years back in the Purple Rain days (supposedly the only one in his employ who was not fired) responsible for both studio and touring–his technical right-hand man. What he told me was so simple, yet so true: you can have the most expensive gear, but if you hook it all up with cheap wiring, you will still not get the quality sound out of the gear you are expecting.

You see, cables are often our weakest links in the chain–c’mon, admit it–how many of you just grab whatever you can find in a pinch, or the cheap guitar cable from Guit-Mart that they have on display up by the register, you know–the ones that make all the noise just by moving them around while connecting your $1500 guitar to your $2000 amplifier that goes to 11? Kind of like monitoring systems, cables get the scraps of our priority in the grand scheme of our world of gear.

But they shouldn’t.

Without cables, our gear just become expensive electronic islands, disconnected and pretty much silent. Cheap cables are like dirt roads compared to smooth, fast moving concrete highways. As I sorted through my personal landfill of cables, I pitched the ones that I knew were of the lowest quality, keeping only enough of those that would serve a minimal purpose–sometimes you need to have at least something, and deciding to deliberately throw bad cabling aside as I start putting the studio together in our new place.

It’s the little things that can make all the difference, and with cables, while you can spend a lot of jing on the best, you can still get incredible sound by thinking about what you are connecting your gear with, and choosing not to get the cheap stuff, but at least something decent. It will likely last you longer, and serve you well with good, clean sound.

What are your thoughts on cables? Do you care either way? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Size Matters

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!

Tactile Experience of Control Surfaces and Outboard Gear

I come from a generation that cut its teeth on analog gear, at a time when digital was just starting to be used, mostly in outboard gear like reverbs and delays. Fast forward to a few years ago, when I started dusting off recording gear and realized that what I have is more in the collector’s item category than useful components in my workflow. My computer has everything, and exponentially more than my old school gear can give me now, including quality, quantity and usage.

I quickly got up to speed on how to map my old way of doing things to a purely on-screen experience, and the results have blown my mind. I felt like a kid in a candy store (and pretty much still do) with the huge inventory of virtual gear and instruments that I can now use, all from my desk. I am completely invested in digital and am loving it.

However, there still seems to be something missing. The mouse and keyboard just can’t replace the feel and efficiency of a row of physical faders that I was used to, or the knobs on a fader channel or a piece of outboard gear. As I am putting my studio together in our new home, I am feeling the need to fill this gap.

For starters, I need a mix control surface. Now, there are numerous options, but very few provide what an old audio console does, like full 100 MM faders under a channel strip with EQ, sends, gain, routing, etc. What I am finding is that to get this, you need to spend north of $1k USD. Today, with digital technologies bringing the price of just about everything down to where most have access to all sorts of gear, I realize that physical components are the cost driver.

On the simplified end of the spectrum is something like the PreSonus One controller, which has a single fader, control wheel and transport controls, which you simply switch what you are controlling on screen on the fly. But for me, this only gets me part way. I learned on analog consoles and the experience of mixing to me is not unlike playing an instrument, so scaled down controllers do not fill the gap for me–they are more of a disappointment.

Here is a small handful of mix surface controllers that look like they are what I am looking for. ¬†It may be obvious, but I put more info in about my front runner ūüėČ

Behringer X-TOUCH Universal Control Surface 

This is the newest option in the marketplace, so new in fact that it is not yet available. ¬†There are some pretty cool features, most notably for me are the LCD Scribble Strips for each track. ¬†The X-TOUCH also includes 100 mm motorized faders as well as LED meters on each channel‚ÄĒthe 100 mm faders being a requirement for me, and the meters are also a huge feature lacking on most available control surfaces. ¬†The X-TOUCH is the cheapest of the mix control surfaces that meets my minimum specs, running about $600.

ICON Digital QCon Pro USB MIDI Controller Station

The ICON QCon Pro is the next in the short list. ¬†It, too, has motorized faders, but also has the additional requirement that it be expandable. ¬†It has the 8-fader configuration that is common across most mix control surfaces, but appears to be lacking LED meters on the channels‚ÄĒnot a complete deal killer, but close. ¬†It has transport controls, backlit LCD strip to display scribble strip info as well as control values for each channel. ¬†I am not so sure about the look‚ÄĒlooks industrial and kind of bland. ¬†The QCon Pro comes in at about $750.

Mackie Universal Pro Control Surface

The last mix control surface in the list is the Mackie Universal Pro.  Mackie has been making control surfaces for a while, and in fact, is behind the HUI protocol as well as the Mackie protocol, both of which are standards in control surface communications.  What the essentially means is that it can communicate with virtually any DAW application, bi-directionally.  The short explanation is that, for instance, when you move a fader on the controller, it will move the associated fader on the screen just as any of these control surfaces, but the faders will also move on the surface when set up for mix automation.  Now, this is a simplified explanation, however it is a feature that is easily assumed when looking for a control surface.  Just to be clear, the ICON and the Behringer both support these protocols as well, which is also a requirement in my search.  The Mackie also has 100 mm motorized faders, mute/solo/channel select/record arm buttons, signal LED, and a V-Pot rotary knob that can be used to control panning, send levels, dynamics, and other DSP plug-ing modules.  The other thing that helps win me over with the Mackie is the navigation control, which is provided in a tape-style transport along with a jog/shuttle wheel, loop in/out points and timeline quick jump buttons.  This, to me, gives this rig the feel of the type of console that I am used to working with.  I have had experience working on Mackie analog studio consoles years ago, so this looks like what I am looking for.  Of course, it is the most expensive, running just under $1100.

So, this is the short list that I am focusing in on and will be keeping my eye out for.  Do you use control surfaces in your studio or live workflow?  Leave a comment below and tell us what your setup looks like!

Home Studio Setup

Every musician has a place where they work on their craft alone. This can be as simple as a bedroom, a garage, basement or even a dedicated rehearsal space outside of the home. Over time, I have utilized all of the above, from a dedicated recording studio over 20 years ago to the multi-purpose dining room in our apartment that we converted into an office used by both my wife and myself, which doubled as my studio.

We moved a couple of weeks ago into a house, which has a room that will be used to set up my studio gear, including a bunch of things that have been sitting in storage because there was simply no place for it all to fit. Last night, I started getting things set up and my new studio is starting to take shape. This move marks a new chapter for my wife and I, in more ways than one, the relevant one here being a new music creation and production environment.

As thing settle down and the studio takes shape, The Smart Musician, too, is coming back to life. I will be sharing the process as I get things set up, including what I am doing, how I am doing it and why I am doing it the way I am. This new environment will also make it much easier to resume production of the Smart Musician Podcast, as well as additional audio and video content to share, and ultimately, help you to get more out of your music making experience.

We all do this out of passion, or at the very least for the pure enjoyment of making music, however as with any skill, practice is required–both in the development of the core skill of musicianship as well as the use of the tools used in the process. For the modern musician, the options, and therefore the amount that we need to learn can be overwhelming. This is what drives the core philosophy of The Smart Musician, and the reason we are here–to help answer the questions and to share our experiences so that you can spend the majority of your time making and improving your music.

Please leave any questions you may have in the comments below–we will do our best to answer them and help you find the answers that you are looking for, and ultimately to get the most out of your music making experience.

The Definition of Musician

I am a musician, classically trained as a child through high school, but I was not boxed into that context, rather have been at the core very organic and exploratory. ¬†I often say that my musical psyche is schizophrenic (I am pretty sure that is not a medically accurate analogy, but describes my point…), with my musical trigger points existing in just about every genre.

I recently saw a video created by Rolling Stone Magazine that essentially flamed the state of music today as being less than genuine. ¬†I have said for several years now that DJ’s are the new rock star and the dance clubs the new concert venues. ¬†I agree with a lot of what that video says, but I do not agree with issuing a blanket judgement of those who create electronic based music as not being true musicians in the sense of not being an instrumentalist.

I see Jeremy Ellis in the video above, and it blows me away to see the same skill and dexterity on the pads of the Maschine controller as I do watching a technically skilled violinist command 6, 7+ positions across all 4 strings. ¬†An instrument is just that–an instrument, something used to accomplish a task, which in the case of a musician is to express musical ideas and interpretations of what is inside their head.

Technology has provided innovation in musical instruments which in some cases provides a crutch, but in many others simply making it easier to express what the musician hears, sees and feels inside their musical self. ¬†These innovations and the instruments–the tools–do not define the musician, but musicians define themselves by what you hear. ¬†Close your eyes and listen. ¬†I think often what we see gets in the way of what we should be hearing, which is the message of the song, not the medium that is used to convey it.

My point is that music is a language of emotion, and people tend to form their identity around it, even defining their social circles or their own social status with it. ¬†But when people try to define what music is, and who is a musician and who is not, they attempt to apply logic to an argument that cannot be won just by the very nature of what they argue, because they project their viewpoint and opinion of what that definition is onto the world as they see it. ¬†This is sad because there is so much out there that we miss when we try to define something so fundamental and ubiquitous to are beings, which I believe shares the same common cause as much of the misunderstanding and division in this world–fear. ¬†It is the fear of moving out of our own comfort zones, but not just that–even more so it is our unwillingness to accept that our definition of music and what is a musician that tends to put discussion of music up there with religion and politics.

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Opportunities And Online Services For Musicians

It has been another dry spell here at [the] Smart Musician. A good 2 months with a single podcast, and that with me flying solo, and a couple more months on top of that since the last post. I am attempting to change that.

That said, I wanted to throw a couple of thoughts out there around how technology is more than just about the gear and tools to deliver music, but also about providing connectivity to services that support your endeavors. There are a couple of services that have stood out for me recently that I want to talk about.

Coursera

In recent years, the open courseware movement has been taking off. One of the more recent entrants into this space is Coursera. If you are not familiar with them, or the general concept, open courseware is essentially the open source movement for university level education. Colleges and univerities from all over the world are making courses available to the masses, free of charge, via video online.

I have “attended” a course on songwriting offered by Berkely Online, the online wing of Berkley College of Music. I am starting a second one this week on audio production. While you don’t get credit for these courses, there are options to get a course completion certification for a fee, and of course, you can also go full on and enroll directly through Berkley Online as opposed to going through Coursera.

This type of offering is huge in that you get valuable instruction from a top school for nothing but your own time and effort. This type of education can definitely give you an edge in your musical endeavors and I well worth looking into. Coursera is just one of several out there. Hit up iTunesU, check out some of the Roku channels offering courses, or better yet, just Google open courseware.

Studio Pros

I have been working on my first recording project in almost 20 years. Most of that time was spent performing live, and the past few years have been pretty dry in that area as well. But as I have been writing and piecing theings together on my own, I am seeing where my limitations are and am not willing to sacrafice the quality of the project by trying to force parts in that are not up to the same standard as the rest.

So, I hit Google again and found one place out there that offers studio musician and production services, called Studio Pros. For $150, you can get a studio vocalist to record your tune, and you even get one edit of that recording free. They have other packages available that go all the way up to taking a simple idea and producing the finished product. With services ranging from a single instrument part on a song, to full songwriting, scoring, arranging and production services, this type of service gives you the ability to materialize that tune that has been locked up in your head, and make it sound incredible.

Now, I have not used these guys, so I can’t say either way how they rate. But, I am impressed not only with the sample recordings of their vocalists, for example, but even more so with the concept, which from what I have been able to find, they pretty much have a corner on that market at this point.

Conclusion

The availability of different services out there is only growing, changing the landscape and providing more and more opportunity for the average DIY musician to improve and succeed more easily than in the past. Granted, it all still takes work, time and some $$, but today’s musicians get much more mileage out of those scarce resources.

What other services have you heard about or used? Leave a comment and tell us more about your experiences with them.

TSM 016: Back In The Saddle

Hi Everyone!

It has been over a month since the last episode, and it was high-time to get something out to you!

This week, Tom is flying solo, John is stuck between the matrix and a new home, and the engines are firing back up with some new experimental things to add to the TSM lineup…

…and a little talk about the beauty of old-school tube amp simplicity.

Here are the links Tom was trying to remember, but his old age just wouldn’t let him:

The TSM YouTube channel:  http://www.youtube.com/thesmartmusician
T
SM Twitter account:  http://twitter.com/smartmusician
T
om’s Twitter: ¬†http://twitter.com/tdmiller
J
ohn’s Twitter: ¬†http://twitter.com/thumper2501
F
acebook: http://www.facebook.com/smartmusician