Discovering Post-rock

A few nights ago, I couldn’t sleep and so went over to YouTube to pass the time.

That led me to discover the Post-rock band “God Is An Astronaut” (what a name!)

Oh my.

Was totally mesmerized by this track (from their 2008 album), “Loss”.

Just about every track by them was super. “Loss” was my favourite, I posted at Facebook. The melodic progression was just brilliant. There was a bitter-sweet sense of stoic heroism in their music.

Decided to buy their music.

That’s not the only thing.

Daniel Sassoon left a comment at my Facebook post. Which was a timely reminder for me to check out his band, “In Each Hand A Cutlass“. I had an inkling about his band but never made time to listen to the music.

I don’t deny that it took an out-of-Singapore Post-rock band to connect me with a Singapore-based one.

What’s more important is that I made another purchase that day. Their sampler sealed my conviction to buy their album.

Was in a Post-rock mood the whole day after that.

Felt compelled to post this comment:

Is it just me, or does listening to Post-rock makes the head dip and heart soar? I just went over to give my wife and the dog a hug. Just felt like it. Too happy to care that this update sounds weird!

A few friends wondered what was Post-rock. I had a vague definition. Daniel gave a better explanation:

What exactly post rock is is hard to describe – at its most basic level it’s (normally) instrumental music that’s more about cinematics, atmospherics, tension and release rather than instrumental prowess and flashy playing (there are exceptions of course). Check out bands like Explosions In The Sky, Mogwai, Russian Circles, This Will Destroy You, Red Sparowes, This Patch Of Sky, Caspian, Saxon Shore, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Ef, Tangled Thoughts Of Leaving, If These Trees Could Talk, God Is An Astronaut, And So I Watch You From Afar, Hammock, Lowercase Noises and of course locally, I Am David Sparkle.

When I first started learning how to play the guitar, armed with only 4 to 5 basic chords, I kept playing repeated melodic patterns over and over. Now that I thought about it, it sounded a lot like Post-rock. Heh.

Anyway, am definitely checking out those bands.

And have also gained a new musical inspiration for 2012.

I might try composing a Post-rock album. Part of the learning and experimentation process.

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Homemade essential oil spray

My wife concocted a homemade essential oil spray. She did a bit of research over the Internet. To get rid of bed bugs. She says it works.

I thought it made our home smell like a classy boutique hotel. I asked her what name she’s calling the fragrance.

“No Bed Bugs Essential Spray”, she says.

Recipe:

Reuse a 120ml spray bottle or perfume atomiser.

Fill it up slightly more than 3 quarters full with boiled water (in lieu of distilled water).

Add:

  • Cedar wood essential oil x 10 drops
  • Clove essential oil x 5 drops
  • Lavender essential oil x 20 drops
  • Rosemary essential oil x 5 drops

Shake like mad.


Red Potion
Originally uploaded by Artform Canada

BTW, you can freely copy the above. A mere listing of ingredients and procedures cannot be copyrighted. Unless the listings have “substantial literary expression-—a description, explanation, or illustration, for example-—that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook”. Source: U.S. Copyright office (Singapore follows U.S. Copyright law pretty closely).
U.S. Copyright Office - Recipes

2011 Simpler Times (concept instrumental album)

This musical collaboration took place over email, half-way across the globe, over 10 months.

2011 Simpler Times - music album cover
Download/ stream at www.archive.org/details/2011SimplerTimes. Creative Commons license: Attribution 3.0

THE START
I got to know fellow ccMixter-ist, urmymuse, from following his uploads and finding that we share different but compatible tastes in electric guitar-based instrumentals. Early 2011, I asked if he’d like to collaborate on something. He was game enough to try.

Early on, we decided on the “Simpler Times” theme/ title. And that it would be released under a CC-BY license.

We had a general idea that it would be about carefree growing-up days, the overall process was really a lets-see-what-we-produce approach.

The album took shape as we emailed MP3 stems and refined the tracks. We abandoned one track that didn’t quite fit the theme. Eventually, we had seven.

THE FINISH
After the tracks were mixed and mastered, I invited people via Twitter and Facebook to preview the album. Two online pals (Deb and Kanako) were kind enough to volunteer.

Deb’s review was extremely encouraging (thanks, Deb!):

Hi Ivan, I like it! The tracks seem unified by a common theme / sound, which changes slightly to a more upbeat sound with the final track. I found it really relaxing to listen to and the sound quality (just listening in headphones) is superb. Thanks for letting me listen. Well done to you both. Best wishes, Deb

As Kanako had retweeted my preview invitation, I presumed she would be interested too (ok, so I was desperate for an audience!).

But instead of a preview per se, I asked if she could contribute a CC-BY licensed photo for the album cover. Backstory: urmymuse retrieved a few good CCY-BY-NC ones from Flickr, but I thought to get broader CC-BY licensed ones. I knew Kanako liked to take photos and I was always keen to have as many CC-collaborators on board a project.

THE LEARNING
Like all collaborative albums, I enjoyed the process of discovery and learning a lot. There’s always, always something new.

For one, it was very interesting to read the thoughts and ideas from urmymuse. As we discussed ideas for the track, he articulated fairly lengthy (but enjoyable to read) “thought-streams” of what the track meant or reminded him.

Receiving the MP3 stems from a fellow collaborator was like opening up a present in the mail. The stems carried with them the possibility of creation. I think that’s what keeps me excited.

To urmymuse, cheers man!

CREDITS:

“2011 Simpler Times” was mixed by Ivan Chew. Album cover by Ivan Chew, based on an original photo (CC-BY license) by Kanako Honma. All music and images licensed under a CC-BY license. Please credit:


Repairing my Fender Strat

About a year ago, I bought my second-hand Fender Stratocaster. It’s one of my favourite guitar now.

But a few days ago, the volume knob became loose. I could feel the entire volume control unit (beneath the pick guard; that’s the large white plate you see on the guitar body) move. Not good. And then the sounds was intermittent. Definitely not good.

I loosened the pick guard screws to access the inner workings. Several problems were apparent.

The volume control unit: After some time examining how it was bolted on (at first I thought it was glued to the pick guard from beneath), I discovered a hex nut held it in place. To access the hex nut, I pried off the plastic volume knob with a small flathead screwdriver. Then tightened the nut.

OK, one problem solved.

The other problems was less straight-forward (although to a guitar tech, they are simple problems).

Basically, the wiring and connections was broken and/ or loose. Needed to be re-soldered.

There was a soldering iron at home but I needed soldering tin. Bought some the next day. Then got to work.

Removed all the guitar strings. Loosened the pick guard screws.
DIY guitar repair - Fender Stratocaster

Flipped the pick guard over and this was what I saw:
DIY guitar repair - Fender Stratocaster

Took the chance to examine the pickup wirings.
DIY guitar repair - Fender Stratocaster

The problem areas:
DIY guitar repair - Fender Stratocaster

  • Spot #1: The picture shows the volume control unit. There’s a hard wire that’s soldered to the other two tone controls. The connection was broken. Must have been due to the loose nut.
  • Spot #2: Frayed and loose wirings.
  • Spot #3: Loose connection to one of the soldered points of the pickup selector switch.

DIY guitar repair - Fender Stratocaster

Here’s a closeup of the pick up selector switch:
DIY guitar repair - Fender Stratocaster

Right after I took those pictures, I went to work. I don’t have a lot of practical experience or skill in soldering. Steady hands required, for sure. In the end, I managed to muddle through and not burn up anything.

Re-strung the guitar. Works well now.

On writing: Show, not Tell

Over at the Speculative Fiction Writers of Singapore Googlegroup, Dave Chua shared this link from io9.com, on five situations where Telling is better than Showing.

1) Your characters all know something your reader doesn’t
2) There are too many mysteries
3) You have too much insane backstory
4) You can think of a more entertaining way to tell than to show
5) It gets in the way of the emotional potency of your story

Didn’t get the article. My shortcoming, cos I don’t quite understand the difference between Showing and Telling.

I’m aware that the rule-of-thumb is “Don’t just Tell your readers something; Show them!”

Just now, I decided to look it up.

Here’s an explanation from an author, Beth Revis:

It was cold. = Telling
Amy shivered in the cold. = Showing.

She adds:

The difference between boring showing and good showing is in the emotion.
Amy shivered in the cold. = Boring showing.
Amy shivered: the cold seemed to reach all the way through her skin and into her heart. = Good showing.

Sweet.

I got it instantly. One of the easiest and clearest explanations I’ve come across.

This Yahoo! Answers entry, by Vernan, is less concise but equally clear:

When you say, “The rose is beautiful.”, you are basically telling.

What you should do is to show why and how the rose is beautiful. It could about the physical appearance or maybe something deeper like an experience.

It could be something like…

I have seen how our garden rose grows and bloom flowers, but I have not seen it this beautiful. Its petals are pinkish with a strain of reddish dots. The dew on its petals emits a strange glow of colors as the morning sun passes through it. I have never thought that something in the world could be this beautiful, perhaps it is because Anna gave it to me when she was alive, before I drove our car straight to the lamppost. looking to the rose makes me remember her and our happy moments. I almost touched it, but I was afraid the touch of my hand, a foreign object could destroy its beauty.

Now the io9.com article made more sense.

Oh, I realise my blog posts tend to Tell than Show.

Perhaps blogging (as a writing style) tends to be that way.

Logic Express or GarageBand?

I’m in the process of transferring posts from the GarageBand Meetup Singapore blog to here. Decided not to maintain that blog, since the group is largely defunct.

The meetup group didn’t really take off. Few people I know are interested in remixing. Or those who play/ sing/ compose aren’t really into recording their own stuff. But the blog will still be there; it just won’t be updated. The GoogleGroup is still available for people to join, though the last time anyone posted messages was back in Oct’09.

Anyway, I’m reading this post about whether to get Logic Express or GarageBand and Jam Packs. The question from Jason, in Mar’08:

I’m currently deciding between Logic Express 8 or GarageBand 4 + 1 of the Jam Packs, and am leaning towards the latter because I think I will get more loops and software instruments at a cheaper price? Do you have any advice that might tip the scale to Logic’s side?

(Incidentally, its now Logic Express 9 and GarageBand is probably two versions up)

Out of curiosity, I decided to tackle Jason’s question. To see how I would respond, given what I know today.

I’ve been using GarageBand extensively since then. Not Apple-qualified, but confident enough to do show-and-tell with ease, plus share mixing and mastering tips and tricks. I’ve tried upgraded versions of GarageBand, and I’ve bought a World Music Jam Pack. Three days ago, I bought and installed Logic Express 9 (pictured on the right, below).
GarageBand & Logic Express

Jason asks for reasons to tip the scale towards Logic Express, so I’ll give it to him.

Get Logic Express, because the difference in cost is just under SGD$40 but you’ll get more from your money’s worth in terms of the Logic Express software instruments, effects and features.

First, let’s talk about cost.

  • Logic Express would cost you only SGD$39 more, compared to buying a GarageBand upgrade and a Jam Pack.
  • GarageBand comes with the Apple iLife suite, which means you have to buy an upgrade for iLife. That’ll set you back by SGD$78. Add the cost of one Jam Pack (I’ll take the high end price of $SGD201), your total cost is $SGD279.
  • Logic Express costs SGD$318.
  • Your price difference is SGD$39.
  • Even if you decide to get only the Jam Pack (in which case you can wait till you get a new Mac, with the latest OS and iLife suite), you’ll be forking out SGD$201 already. For SGD$100 more, you’ll be getting a heck of a lot more from Logic Express.

Which brings us to features. I’ll start with the loops/ instruments and features in Logic Express. You’re getting a lot more than the default list in GarageBand. Just consider the piano instruments. GarageBand ’11 has maybe 8 or 9 (the additional ones you see are from my extra Jam Pack):
GarageBand '11 - Pianos and Keyboards

Now let’s look at Logic Express’s default list: I count 22 piano instruments alone. There’s the “Acoustic Pianos” and “Keyboards” folder, with various sub-folders:
Logic Express 9 - software instruments library Logic Express 9 - Acoustic Pianos Logic Express 9 - Electric Pianos

That’s only the pianos. Here’s a screen shot of the Logic Express Software Instrument menu, with the right pane showing the expanded list of Logic Instruments:
Logic Express - Software Instrument Library

There’s more: here’s the EXS24 Sampler interface:
Logic Express - EXS24

Here’s a video that better illustrates how the EXS24 Sampler works:

OK, with that video you’re probably thinking, “Woah woah, feature-overload!”

That’s what I felt too. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Learning how to make the best use of Logic Express will take time too. That’s the point, right? Getting your money’s worth?

What I’ve discovered with Logic Express is that while I could get the same MIDI track editing features in GarageBand, it’s a lot more efficient in Logic Express (i.e. less repetition, get the same work done faster). Believe me, it makes a lot of difference. Plus, Logic Express has a better set of Mastering tools (I’ll save that for another post).

In summary, Jason’s question suggested that he’s looking for value-for-money. Seems to me Logic Express is a good choice in this case.

If Jason is reading this, would he be convinced? 🙂

Remixing Lunarin: “No Sun Under The Sky”

I’ve not done a detailed GarageBand “How To” post for a while. Since I’ve just completed a remix of Singapore rock band Lunarin‘s CC-BY-NC-SA track, now’s as good a time as any.

Here’s my completed remix, titled “No Sun Under The Sky” (an obvious reference to Lunarin’s original title):

Creative Commons License
No Sun Under The Sky by Ivan Chew is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Singapore License.

CREDITS:

You can listen to the original version of “The Sky (Algiers)” in this YouTube vid from Lunarin’s live concert on 1 Oct 2010.

In my remix, I’ve used Linda’s vocals and sampled a bit of the track’s piano, bass and clean guitar.

TOOLS USED
GarageBand ’08.
Audacity for Mac.
Macbook Pro.

REMIXING PROCESS
It took me about 5 evenings to produce the remix. Spent about 3 to 5 hours each session, at home after work (I watch a bit of TV, more to accompany my wife — and then sneak off to work on the music!)

EVENING #1:
After downloading their GarageBand zip file (68 MB), I opened it up and saw 16 individual tracks are in AIFF format. Properly labeled too. I suspect that Lunarin was using Leopard, which was a later version of my Tiger OS X. Still, it seems that the GarageBand file is backwards compatible.
Lunarin - The Sky (Algiers)

At this stage, I wasn’t too sure how to approach the remix. The problem was that I was familiar with the original version of “The Sky”. The original tune was stuck in my head.

EVENING #2:
Coincidentally, I came across Admiral Bob’s (a fellow community member at ccMixter) pensive and sensitively played piano sample. I toyed with Lunarin’s vocal sample over that. And thought I heard magic.
ccMixter - Nobody Left to Save

It’s my habit to note the source files/ URL, credits, licenses, and other details of the song (like the Beat Per Minute, Key, and time signature). Such notes come in very handy when it comes to crediting the sources (a requirement for using CC-licensed works), as well as during the remixing process (i.e. what were the original time signatures).
credits - Lunarin & Admiral Bob

EVENING #3:
Once I decided to use AdmiralBob’s stem, I also adopted his BPM, key and time signature. I created a new GarageBand project with those settings.
Remixing Lunarin

From the Lunarin’s GarageBand file, I exported the individual track layers as I needed (used the Solo button to isolate the individual track). Then I opened them up in Audacity and made the necessary tempo conversions. This was because AdmiralBob’s piano track, which would be the backbone of the remix, was in 153 bpm (Key of Em, 3/4 signature) while Lunarin’s was 147 bpm (C Major, 5/4 signature).

For Linda’s vocals, I used a combination of the original BPM as well as the converted one (depending on the mood/ effect I was aiming for in the remix).
Change Tempo using Audacity

Put all the original and converted stems into a separate folder. BTW, the export-convert process tends to be iterative at this stage. As I explore possible musical ideas and arrangement for the remix, I’m going back and forth to get what I think would finally work.
Stems - Remixing Lunarin

Once the foundation (i.e. the arrangement) of the remix was more or less set, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty, cutting-splicing-dicing work. Mainly on the vocals, to get the best fit to the backing piano track.
Remixing Lunarin

I’m also applying effects to individual tracks as I go along. My preference is to work in the effects along the way, rather than leave it all till the end. Yes, I know some pros advocate the latter approach but I guess my remixing method is like painting — building up the layers gradually.
Remixing Lunarin - effects

EVENING #4:
For this remix, the hardest part was getting the sound level adjustments correct, so that Linda’s vocals stand out at the right level — yet not drowning out the various backing tracks. In this case, I created three layers for the vocals — a middle stereo layer, and a Left and Right pan.

From experience, this method gives the vocals more “body”. Also, in building up the Linda’s vocal recording, there’s a very audible intact of breath. It came to be a distraction, so I slowly and carefully lowered the volume at certain points. This part of the remixing sucks up a lot of time; it’s more process-oriented and repetitive. Not exactly fun, but critical.
Sound level adjustments

When I think the track is ready, I export it as an MP3 file: stereo, at 128kbps, highest Variable Bit Rate (VBR) setting.
Exporting a GB track

It would be unusual to get the first version right. As I listen to the track as an MP3, I spot areas for improvements, e.g. parts that are too loud, too soft, vocal parts sounding a bit off in timing… and so on. It’s an iterative process of making adjustments in GarageBand, exporting the track, listening to it (and repeat). I ended up with about 9 or 10 versions before I was satisfied decided I’ve to stop!
Remixing Lunarin

At one point during the final sound/ remix check, I decided there needed to be an orchestral string part near the end. To create that grand concert hall mood. So I recorded a software instrument track. This was the only original part I created for this remix. You can listen/ download the string sample, here.
Software instrument - GarageBand

EVENING #5:
When I’ve listened to my remix for, oh I don’t know… the 10,000th time! I get to a point where I’m satisfied (but never fully happy though). I make the final sound adjustments and export as an MP3 file.

The proverbial icing on the cake is to key in the metadata (e.g. title, artist name, credits, album cover). I use iTunes for this (there’s also Windows Media Player, if you’re using a Windows-based computer). I’ll make it a point to indicate the CC-licensed sources in the Comments metadata section (that’s where the earlier notes come in).
No Sun Under the Sky (ft. Lunarin & AdmiralBob)

That’s it. Phew!

You can check out the upload and page details at this ccMixter page. I’ve provided the dry stems for the orchestral strings at that site.

Hope you liked this remix. I know I had fun remixing this. From my favourite S’porean band, no less.

Feel free to leave a comment.

Lunarin is Linda Ong (Bass, Vocals), Ho Kah Wye (Guitars), and Loo Eng Teck (Drums, Vocals). Among them, two of them are practicing lawyers and one is an engineer 🙂
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