02 Jan

All Tech No Brains – Little Pebble

Well…we’ve come to the end of our little revisit to my misspent youth. Only one little track left, and we can get back to more important things. Whatever those may be. 🙂 Like some of those DOSBox articles I promised so long ago…

pebbles

I actually went on this little journey for a number of reasons. First, as I think I already stated, a blog is something of a painfully open little journal. And because of this, all current interests and activities are fodder. But the root cause of all of this springs from my desire to return to the world of audio. This case in particular is some self-flagellating (and induced) training on audio mastering techniques. You will admit, as I do, that I still have much to learn!

main_screenshot_small

And if I had had access to software like Ardour (www.ardour.org) fifteen years ago, who knows what we would have created. Maybe nothing–maybe all the goofiness of tracking boom-boxes back and fourth through a Radio Shack mixer was a necessary part of the process.

The evening that I showed up at Tom’s house armed with the “drums” from “The Phone Bill”, I found that he had done little planning ahead too. He had been out and about that day and picked up a “Relaxation” CD from some bargain bin. It was entitled something like, “Seashore with Cello and Gulls.” It was a real thing of beauty. Over 75 unadulterated minutes of white noise for only $3.95!!! It was cheap at half the price…I mean, twice the price!

The drums distracted him initially, and in reality, after we were done with phone bill, I was ready to go. However, Tom seemed a touch put out that we had not used his new CD for anything yet.

Sigh.

I’m glad I stayed though, or the world might never know about being “sturdy and strong.”

There were two parts to this one. The ocean noises and…well, that part in the middle. We simply ran a microphone into a quadraverb and turned the reverb up to eleven (a major mistake when you don’t have a true monitoring system) and played the CD. Tom did what Tom always did–wrote a funny little bit and spoke with alacrity.

But, we discovered that it needed something. That certain je ne sais quoi. By this time it’s really really really early in the morning. So, we kinda went back to defaults:

  1. We randomly detuned his guitar to a truly janglely degree, put some massive distortion on my bass, and sampled about a 3 second loop into the effects processor. This loop was put on infinite repeat and fed back into the mixer with the analog synth. We rolled tape while I completely improvised some crazy “dance of the baby elephants” melody line. We just filled up a few minutes and ended the cacophony. The length didn’t matter, we knew it was going to be faded in and then back out.
  2. Next we loaded that target tape up into one of the source decks and gave Tom a mic full of tube distortion. He tracked those fateful words so rich with meaning and portent, “Suddenly, a giant octopus…”
  3. Step Three: Smile at a job well done.

With a little manual timing to start cassette players and quasi-deft hand at the faders, we mixed the two tapes together.

Now to clean this up, I followed the same procedure as before with one deviation. The source audio I sampled with the Extigy had two problems. To get a good level on the ocean waves part would cause the middle bit to clip badly and come in waaaaay too hot. The final product still has a defect on one or two of the peaks (it sounds like clipping), but unfortunately it was recorded that way; so GIGO rules apply.

The second problem stems from the fact that–back then–I was monitoring with really bad headphones two feet away from the input (Tom). I didn’t find out that the voice over was COMPLETELY UNINTELLIGIBLE until riding home in my truck that morning. I had cranked the wet/dry mix on the reverb to the place that one could barely hear what he was saying. Oh, sure, there were plenty of reverb reflections, but the words themselves where buried in them. Enough of the live sound was leaking into my headphones sitting across the table from Tom that I didn’t hear the problem going to tape until too late.

Gee…perhaps we should have invested in some real monitoring headphones?

 

[amazon-product align=”center”]B000AJIF4E[/amazon-product]

 

Ouch. Before I could post it here, I would have to fix all of this. I tried a couple of ways to treat the entire track, but didn’t get too far. So, I eventually sampled the tape into two tracks in my studio software. That way, I could apply different filters on the ocean part and the crazy part. The first part cleaned up amazingly–a dynamic expander and more than a little noise reduction killed the lion’s share of the reverb and brought the vocal back to the front of the mix.

The crazy octopus part was more labor-intensive. I created a custom volume envelope for each peak so that I could automate “ducking” the bad spots. Then I compressed it and equalized the fire out of it.

Mixing these two tracks back together, I nudged the waveforms around a little which probably shortened the length some, but no biggie. I think I learned more about mastering with this one then I did on the others. Have a listen and tell me if you disagree.

Title: Little Pebble
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: Self-Help Tapes

Ok, that is all. However, not a final all. My brother Brad gave me one of our old band’s “professional” tapes. It sounded horrible. I intend to remaster all eight songs as a favor for him. Of these I may post a sample as a before and after with screen shots on the entire process.

We’ll see how it turns out. Until then, thanks for stopping by, see you soon!

28 Dec

All Tech No Brains – The Phone Bill

african_safari_pith_helmet

Welcome back! Today I have an unmitigated pile of steaming silliness for your consumption.

Wait.

Maybe that should be a steaming pile of unmitigated silliness.

There’s another of those pesky “flaming herring juggler” problems. (You’re free to do a site search on that one.) In any event, “Phone Bill” is the fourth entry of the five into this dastardly waste of our time and effort. To list some of the high points of its pedigree: It is somewhat politically incorrect. It holds the record for involving more household trash items in the recording phase. It may be the one that still elicits a few chuckles from me when I hear it. Or at least it ties with the giant octopus part of the fifth and final work. Hard to say, really.

Once again, the scene is 1992-ish. It all started with some changed plans, when Tom and I both found ourselves “at liberty” one Friday evening. So, to record! But what? As I was loading my gear into my somewhat beaten up 1985 Nissan King Cab, I started to look around the garage. Here was a set of toy bongo drums–who knows where (and when) they originated. And over here was a plastic document mailer tube. These are mostly cardboard now-a-days, but this one was almost like a chunk of PVC pipe, with two rubberized caps. Sure seemed like the evening’s recordings would involve some rhythmic elements.

I couldn’t have been further from the truth–but that was more in the vein of personal failings where the word “rhythm” is concerned…

Anyway, I also found a hardwired intercom that I had once purchased at a garage sale. It is so old that I can’t even find a picture of it anywhere on the web. But the units were beige, connected with 1/8″ phono connectors, and had these giant yellow TALK buttons. I tossed them into the truck with all the other stuff.

At Tom’s, the “drums” were brought in last and met with great glee. I guess sometimes enthusiasm may be worth more than careful planning–however this wasn’t one of those times!

We rolled tape on the two of us giving our new percussion instruments the “what for”. Tom was on the toy bongos playing barehanded. I had opted for the “shipping tube” with one end removed. Eschewing the use of a drumstick (not that we had one), I was using an ink pen. I’m pretty sure that we dropped a cheap RadShack microphone down into the tube for those big, ill-defined, boomy sounds. That and all the reverb on the tape.

Right here is where that planning thing would have come in to be useful. We both started playing random rhythms…and changed rhythms throughout the course of the tape. We probably intended to see what worked, and then go back and re-do it… But we didn’t. I can’t explain why.

And to top it all off, this was before I forced myself to develop my own sense of rhythm. To put it simply, we didn’t have great timing (the failings I mentioned earlier).

In spite of all these factors, once we listened back, it actually sounded tribal. So, speaking into the shipping tube drum, I sampled the phrase “Oom-Laba, Oom-Baba”. At least I think that’s the proper spelling, I don’t have the ancient text on hand at the moment… No matter, this sample was queued on the Quadraverb to be triggered at the press of a button. This sample was added in on final mixdown–I remember triggering it by hand. We also added in someone tapping the plastic tube with a fork or something…don’t re

What I don’t remember exactly is the complete order of events that followed. We either bounced out a tape of the “drums” and my synthesizer part. Or Tom (after a significant amount of writing time during which I ground and brewed some blue-berry infused coffee beans) recorded the voice over. I think it was the later, which I believe we ran through the intercom system. Gave it that great, phoned-in, scratchy quality.

That just left the synth part, which should have been played on the mix-down (less bounces means better “quality”). However, I know that I trigged the samples, so it had to be on tape.

So…here it is. Wish I could say it was life-changing, but I do hope it will give you a smile. If you scrub up to about the 1:00 minute mark, it won’t hurt my feelings. That’s where Tom will be heard to say, “I was hunting asparagus deep in the jungles of Kenya…”

asparagus

Oh, and one word of warning: The last line is proceeded by a curse word. Many may feel this particularly expletive to be relatively benign in today’s culture, however, I disagree. Actually, I believe that, at the very least, the use of curse words to be an indicator in one’s character that vocabulary and good manners are severely lacking. Now, this is certainly not the case with Tom, who was one of the most intelligent and erudite people I’ve ever met. I believe he included it here as a callback to phrases like “balderdash” and “pip, pip”. In other words, to further portray the pith helmet, monocle, and pork-chop-sideburns set.

Title: The Phone Bill
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: Great White Hunters

Whee!!! Only one left. I think it is probably the best of all–no mean distinction, that. It is called “Little Pebble”. It makes me giggle like a silly schoolgirl whenever I listen to it. In addition to all this, it is probably the most complex musically and may even have the highest concept. Well, relatively, that is.

See you, Space Cowboy.

24 Dec

All Tech No Brains – My Buddy Eddie

atnb

There’s just no good way to classify some things:

  • Duckbilled Platypus
  • Plasma
  • and “My Buddy Eddie”

For the purposes of honesty, maybe I should add Richard Simmons to that list.

Maybe not.

Anyway, heretofore with these recordings I could always offer a general target at which the mockery aimed. This one…well…not so much. From the very first, “Hey, come on in, man…” to the last strains of the ill-advised kudzu solo, “My Buddy Eddie” escapes classification.

I guess the closest I can think of is this William Shatner album:

william_shatner_transformed_man

The phrasings from this particular piece seem to pop into my mind as much or more than the others for some reason: “Sit back, relax, yeah, be cool,” in particular. Perhaps it was just the way Tom rattled it off. Oddly, I don’t remember even paying attention to what he was saying at the time. Which is even more odd when you realize that there was no drug or alcohol use involved with any of these.

Seriously.

Let me deconstruct the layers a bit. It sounds as though we had at least two tapes queued up. The first one was Tom’s voice-over part. Obviously, we couldn’t get enough of my bass head’s tube distortion on vocals. There may have been a little reverb on it as well, or that may have been applied to the entire recording as it went to tape. I don’t know, I wasn’t really into consistent professional approaches to my mixdown procedures then.

casio_cz1000

I’m pretty sure that Tom’s little synth was this Casio CZ-1000. The pad I was playing was probably a preset. I ran it through the processor with some reverb, chorus, and a dash of digital delay. And for Heaven’s sake, could we even begin to record something without that STUPID panner?!?!? We mixed this into the second queued tape of some custom patches Tom whipped up (or hastily edited) that sounded a bit like sirens. I love to hear those operators burbling along there in the lower parts.

Analog synthesizers are just cool.

So, I started playing the pad and using the bend wheel rather than fingering. About a measure in, Tom started the tape with the siren sounds. And after killing everyone softly with my song, he started the vocal tape (with a massive hiss injection). And then for some reason, after the VO was done, he grabbed a mic, brought up the level, and started playing kudzu.

Completly atonally. Creative differences like this have broken up more that one band, let me just tell you!

Well, the defects (outside of the kudzu, that is) are pretty obvious. Like most complete tyros, we went on way too long with the first bit. It really shouldn’t have been interesting enough to warrant such attention. That said, all-in-all, I still think “My Buddy Eddie” is achieves it’s immediate goal of being funny to at least Tom and myself. Which was all we were asking for.

Title: My Buddy Eddie
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: ???

Wasn’t that fun? Oh? Well, look at it this way, only two to go. And the next one, that we’ll just call “The Phone Bill”, isn’t particularly politically correct. But it is one of the most silly.  And that is saying something!

See ya then.

15 Oct

All Tech No Brains – Purple Tom

OK, so you’ve suffered through the pain that is “Thursday Morning”. Now, let’s move on to some really bad guitar. My apologies to Thomas Joseph Murray IV for maligning his technique, but in this case the kettle is in fact on the darker side of the monochromatic spectrum. To be clear: I was worse on bass than he was on guitar…but still…

Really.

Bad.

Guitar.

If my memory serves, Tom and I were looking around for our next great work when we discovered that our portable guitar tuners had built-in microphones…ostensibly to be used when tuning a guitar. However, when connected to a quarter-inch patch cable these pickups would pass sound.

guitar_tuner

Well, since Tom only had his used acoustic, we kinda…uh…pulled out on the strings (really bad idea) and slipped the guitar tuner through the sound hole to the inside of the guitar. A little masking tape to hold the cable out of the way, and presto! a semi-electric guitar! We ran that puppy straight into my Multiverb, and out to tape. I loaded the Multiverb down with a stereo panner, digital multi-tap delay, chorus, and reverb. And it actually ended up being track #2 all by itself.

Yeah, well, it was pretty idiotic, but there was no real harm done.

Let me pause here to give the reader a little background. Tom and I had been friends since in 8th grade, I moved to Greenwood Laboratory School on the Missouri State campus. It was a unique school, mostly the children of the Missouri State (then called SMSU) professors and staff, the assorted children of the very rich, and, well, me. Tom left Greenwood for his senior year to attend one of the large Springfield public schools–for two reasons: publicly, he wanted to take more college credit than (oddly) Greenwood would allow, and privately, to meet girls. There were only 120 or so students in the entire high school at Greenwood, Freshman through Senior.

He turned out to be successful in both endeavors. I personally know no other person who started College in Calculus III. But on the other score, the hippies had made a resurgence in the 1989ish time-frame and Tom joined in. Actually, that’s were the guitar entered into the picture. And if you’re wondering, he eventually became a much better guitarist then is heard here, but in reality the skill level was a fine depiction of our spoof target.  I assume that this song started life as “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix…and that, in and of itself, is somewhat ironic.

Not only that, apparently, a guitar is a requirement to hang with the hippies.

hippie_with_guitar
Wonder if Tom ever met this cat?

Anyway, this was brought back from the brink of extinction once again via the Sound Blaster Extigy. Here is what it sounded like directly from the tape. A lot of tape noise, low levels, and dead sound. And this was probably the cleanest of all the tracks on the tape.

Title: Purple Tom
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: Trippie Hippie Fireside Guitar


I’d call it a significant difference. Matter of fact, it sounds like one of my filters caused a slight pitch-shift–I’ll try to track that down.

Meh.

Not much excitement here–but, I’ll be back at you with Track 3 entitled “My Buddy Eddie”, which I assure you will be weird enough for all of us.

12 Oct

All Tech No Brains – Thursday Morning

atnb

Old Tapes

On warm summer nights (almost 15 years ago) at around 7:00PM, I would load up my sound gear and head for my friend Tom’s house. He’d be home for the summer from college, and neither of us apparently had much going on. I was working 3rd shift, and he was just a night owl. We’d keep ourselves going on freshly ground flavored coffee his parents had picked up in New Orleans that year. And over the rising steam of blueberry tinged mugs, we would record.

And record.

As the morning sun found us, I would be packing up my stuff and heading out. But I would not be leaving without a fresh cassette tape from our midnight toil. Many of those tapes are probably long lost. Several only Tom had–we kept them in the “sound library” for later background tracks. How I wish I had a copy of the “Death Calliope”…uh…long story. Somehow, though, one has survived in my possession.

This particular collection actually spanned 2 or 3 recording sessions and feature my just purchased digital effects processor. It was an ART Multiverb Alpha, and cost me about $400.00 at the time. We were so enamored with the capabilities of this box that we started to try all kinds of craziness. So much so that after I left, Tom had become disgusted with our “over-reliance” on this technology and scrawled “All Tech, No Brains” on the tape.

I remember being insulted. Tom later recanted, saying, “It’s better than I thought!”

multiverb

Create a Masterpiece

Anyway, if I can remember all the of the components, this was track was primarily made with:

  • Tom’s Brain: The libretto–yes, we actually called it that…
  • Yamaha BB300: My first bass…no attack, no sustain, but it was cheap. Which was alright, since I couldn’t play very well.
  • ART Multiverb Alpha: Sampler, digital stereo effects, and equalization. Mine looks a bit different from the picture, but pretty close.
  • ADA Bass Preamp: I didn’t know why I wanted this…Vic Wooten played one, though! I later become frustrated and sold it.
  • Glass of Water and Straw: Yep. Bubbles.
  • Portable Guitar Tuner: Hey, this thing has a built in microphone!
  • Radio Shack Audio Mixer: Oh, the hiss this thing imparted…
  • Any of a handful of boom boxes and cassette recorders…

To make the audio, I sampled Tom blowing air bubbles into a glass of water with the Alpha and put it on infinite repeat. That was patched into the mixer with my bass through the ADA preamp on a really ugly tube distortion. Here is where I’m a little sketchy–I can hear both of us talking in the background. Maybe we had an entire tape of the bubble noise? And while that was being recorded, we had an open mic? Whatever it was got slapped into a tape player and we recorded Tom over the top. Sounds like we had a flanger and a panner on Tom’s voice.

Yeah, it was pretty much the best I know of… 🙂

And Now, Clean It Up

So, I have a tape from 1993-ish that has been hanging around in box full of cassettes for at least 10 years. It is old, brittle, and full of wow and flutter. Really, it didn’t sound that great to begin with, as we hadn’t figured out how to set a level on a tape. Key concept that I didn’t know back then: Get the levels as hot as the media can stand, so the listener doesn’t have to crank the volume to hear it, thereby increasing the inherent noise level. Duh.

extigy

To clean up a file like this, you need some hardware and tools. For hardware, I ran the headphones out of an old tape player (does it really matter?) into a the line-in of a Sound Blaster Extigy. This is an slightly older device, but Windows Vista has built-in drivers and it works like a CHAMP! The recording was at 48000KHz sampling anda depth of 24-bit. So, while it may not be a professional interface, did a great job here. One my motivating factors in the purchase of the Extigy was to externalize my sound inputs. Internal sound cards will never be as “clean” as an external interface. Too much electrical interference going on inside the computer itself.

Software wise, Audacity is free, but the plug-ins are limiting. However, they were good enough for this project. I took out the hiss first, then added a little compression to fatten it up. There really wasn’t much to EQ on this trash–the recording level was extremely low on the source cassette. Remember to get a good sample of noise only to teach the hiss plug-in what you do not want.

On the high end, one might use Cakewalk Sonar and Waves plug-ins. X-Hiss from Waves is one of the best noise removers I’ve ever heard, but it is also one of the most expensive packages out there. So, I guess you do what you can with what you have.

Everything comes down to how much you tweak it. Or in other words, time spent.

End Result

If I remember correctly, the point of this particular “work” was to make fun of modern French poetry. Which poetry is especially virulent when translated poorly into English. I think you get the picture. And please remember, I am a Christian now–so, while I’ll let you listen to the end result; it was made years ago. Not that it’s bad or nasty or anything…I just can’t imagine revisiting this kind of silliness in my present life.

Just so you know.

Oh yeah, before I forget, the little flash player utility adds some hiss to the playback because it samples down for streaming. If you download the file, it is much cleaner.

Warning: All views or concepts expressed in these recordings are meant to spoof, poke fun at, or in some way make ridiculous those who take themselves too seriously. You have been warned…

Title: Thursday Morning
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: French Poetry

I’m a little proud of this and a little repulsed all at the same time. But since this is a blog, and one of the themes is creativity, I thought these recordings should be referenced. I’m actually rather hoping that Tom will find them and get in touch with me. I haven’t heard from him in almost as many years.