Monday, January 28, 2013

Coulton's Audio Tracks Part 2

In my previous post, I discovered the that the bass track used by Glee had been subtly altered from Coulton's track. At the end, I tentatively made the naive assumption that there would be no reason for them to re-record the bass track if they were working off of Coulton's original. But science doesn't assume anything. In fact, Paul Potts reminded me of a very good reason to re-record the bass. Namely center-canceling. He explains it well on his blog, and goes on from there to compellingly demonstrate which specific version and file format of Coulton's audio track would have likely been used -- a feat which I find nothing short of remarkable.

Essentially, center-canceling (aka center-kill or vocal-kill) is a technique where the left channel and right channel are split and one is inverted before adding them back together. This effectively mutes any sounds which are dead-center in the track. It's often used to eliminate lead vocals to create karaoke tracks, but since the bass is usually centered, it also removes the bass. Paul was looking at using the technique to try removing (most of) the duck quack from Coulton's source, but then he struck upon the genius idea of also center-cancelling Glee's track.

I was able to reproduce this result, and it results in a much cleaner track, with no bass or lead vocal. That lets me do what I had originally had intended to do -- compare the rhythms of the banjo and mandolin tracks. Unfortunately, these parts still get easily buried in a wash of strings, backing vocals, and compression, even after I apply heavy EQ. They're still kind of quiet, but I think there's enough there to go off of. In addition to using a center-cancelled and EQ'd version of the backing track, I also slowed the tempo waaaay down, which makes the precision of the timing easier to hear. It also lowers the pitch. A lot. What were originally high-pitched compression artifacts in the mp3 become annoyingly noisy background chatter.

I'll let the results speak for themselves.

Example 1 -- Intro Riff and Beginning of First Verse

This is the longest example, because I wanted to demonstrate how well the parts stay together over a long period of time. What you will hear on this tracks is: (1) only JoCo's solo banjo and mandolin parts mixed together on only the left speaker; followed by (2) only the Glee version, modified as described above, on just the right speaker; finally followed by (3) the two of them together (JoCo on the left, and Glee on the right).

First, we'll hear it at full speed:


Then, we'll slow the whole thing down to a staggering 30% of full speed. This track is over 3 minutes long, but it really demonstrates the precision over a long period of time:


To my mind, it is absolutely inconceivable to consider the possibility that someone could deliberately perform something so precisely at full speed.

Example 2 -- Added Fret Noise

As I was looking for distinctive spots on the banjo track to test, I came across this one distinctive little riff between phrases (after the lyrics "average groupie"). The banjo and mandolin have a sort of quick syncopation going on here, but what made it extra distinct was that it had extra fret noise in the track, which I discovered wasn't in Coulton's track. The riff itself is dead on, but it appears that the audio engineers actually added a fret noise to the track as they were editing. I can only speculate why they might do that (this particular section of the verse seems to have been cut from the final screen version, so it probably wasn't a foley effect). As before, this will start with JoCo on the left, then Glee on the right, then both. Note that while I'm only playing the banjo and mandolin (as before) I did verify that this noise isn't in the other tracks.

We'll listen at 50%:


Example 3 -- The Quack

As long as we're cleaning things up and slowing things down, we may as well listen to the "ghost of a quack" that Paul discovered in the track. Bear in mind that we are not listening for an actual quack, but for the artifact that was left over when the quack was almost center-cancelled. This sound comes just at the end of the following clip. As before, I start with Coulton's banjo & mandolin on the left (for reference, but no quack), then just Glee on the right (there's a sort of "click" near the end), and then the combined version.

But in case you don't hear it, after I play the combined version, I begin to loop over the quack. And while it loops, I do something almost magical... I discovered that the quack corresponds to a sharp spike around 4 kHz, so I slowly fade away all the other frequencies except for a narrow band at 4 kHz. This effectively isolates the sound.

Here's what it sound like at 40% speed:


And here's what it sounds like when you bring it back up to tempo (just the mixed version this time). This actually sounds pretty annoying:


In Closing

At this point, if I were on a jury, I don't see how there could be any reasonable doubt that these are the same tracks. To get something to match so closely at such a speed would be a super-human feat. And we already saw from the bass analysis that they just weren't that concerned with getting an exact match (nor would any sane person). So while the bass track appears to have been removed with the duck (and maybe lead vocals), the banjo and mandolin tracks do indeed seem to be none other than Coulton's. Which is what everyone suspected all along.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Were Jonathan Coulton's Actual Audio Tracks Reused by Glee?

No doubt you've heard about the Coulton/Glee controversy by now. If not, you can Google it. It's all over the place: Wired, NPR, CNN, and I won't rehash the details here. I really admire Jonathan Coulton as a musician, and I enjoy the majority of his work. I can safely say that I wouldn't be where I am today without his influence and inspiration. As for Glee, I've never seen it before, and up until this story broke, I had zero opinion of it and completely ignored its existence. I plan to go back to that status quo ASAP, but for the moment, the status is NOT quo.

As a personal disclaimer (and as a warning to more sensitive readers): I need to mention that the song in question, "Baby Got Back" (BGB), is one of two Coulton songs that I generally try to forget the existence of, due to what I consider offensive content (though musically speaking, I'd take his folksy arrangement over the original rap any day). But enough about me. On to the analysis!

MOTIVATION

People are talking about what legal recourse Coulton has, and the consensus seems to be that, due to some kind of legal loophole which I don't fully understand, his arrangement may not be protected by copyright. I am not going to rant about just how broken the system is, to allow such a distinctively unique arrangement to be stolen note-for-note for commercial purposes, without so much as an attribution or an advance notification, while simultaneously getting people sued for using a song as a backing track in a non-commercial setting with full attribution (shouldn't they be thankful for the exposure?).

However people are also saying that Coulton would have a much stronger case if his actual original backing track was used. The tracks sound so similar that Coulton even asked for help to determine if this was the case. Several people have responded using youtubedoubler, or by creating versions placing one track in each ear, or alternating between versions beat by beat. These convincingly demonstrate the versions are extremely similar. At the very least, it is obvious that the arrangement is the same -- aspects like key, tempo, instrumentation, rhythm, minor lyrical changes, and even the exact same notes are virtually indistinguishable. But beyond that, are the recordings actually the same? Can we even determine that?

My friend and fellow Coulton fan, Paul R. Potts, wrote a lengthy blog post where he searched for Coulton's missing "duck quack" sound effect (which Coulton used as a word censor), and tentatively concluded that the tracks looked the same, though admitting it was hard to tell. I found it a very interesting analysis, but I'll admit, I was not completely convinced. So I decided to take a crack at it myself. Rather than look for the quack, I decided to focus on minute performance details that would be easy to overlook and hard to hide.

METHODOLOGY

Unfortunately, trying to prove these two very similar things are identical (except for differences in vocals, mixing, and mastering, of course) is actually very challenging, because what you are really trying to do is prove the absence of any differences. Proving that something doesn't exist is difficult, because absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. It's analogous to trying to prove there is no Bigfoot -- just because you can't find evidence doesn't mean it's not hiding out there somewhere under the pines. With that in mind, the approach I took was to try and find evidence to prove that these are different tracks -- at least until I got bored of looking, or ran out time. Or actually did find a difference.

And, unfortunately for Coulton, I may have found a difference. Or several of them, actually. At least in the bass part. But I'll let you decide.

In 2008, Jonathan Coulton released a special album entitled "JoCo Looks Back". This was released as part of a fundraising campaign for Creative Commons. For a donation, you got a USB thumb drive containing source tracks to his 20 most popular songs ("chosen via a complicated algorithm") -- including BGB. I have this disk, and I used the raw, unmixed tracks from it to analyze Coulton's version. (Note: If Glee had these source tracks -- and I'd be very surprised if they aren't available via a torrent somewhere -- then they wouldn't even have to edit out the duck quack.) To analyze the Glee version, I downloaded a copy of the original full track that leaked onto YouTube before the episode aired (since this is just a cover of Coulton, there shouldn't be any issue with that). What actually got aired was apparently cut into a shorter version, but I believe the full version is what is selling on iTunes. And it lines up better with the original.

All the tracks were imported into Reaper, and lined up. Then the spectra were graphically analyzed using the included "gfxspectrograph" plugin (using a "blackman-harris" window with an FFT size of 32768, whatever that means). Originally, I was going to look at the rhythms of the banjo part. I figured the part was complex enough to have timing inconsistencies, and that it would be easy to see or hear if something was off. However, I quickly realized that the bass part was much more visible in the spectrographs. In order to hear the bass part better, I also applied a low-pass EQ filter around 400-500 Hz to the Glee track. To be fair, I applied the same filter to JoCo's bass track. This very well may not sound good on speakers with a weak bass response.

RESULTS

Listed below are a few spots where I found subtle differences between Coulton's bass track and Glee's. Each is accompanied by a description of what's going on, along with a brief mp3 clip, a spectrograph, and a transcription (as I hear it) from both versions. Note that the transcriptions are NOT canon. They are just what I hear and see. It is possible that I'm misinterpreting something, especially in the Glee version, where the part is buried in a larger mix.

The spectrographs below may look like a dayglow-pterodactyl, but here's how you read them: the horizontal (x) axis is time, and the vertical (y) axis is frequency. The bright purple lines represent a strong amount of sound at a certain pitch. The red and yellow are softer amounts of sound, and green and black are essentially silence for our purposes. Due to the way sound is generated, the lowest line is the "fundamental" pitch that you actually hear, while the higher parallel lines are the quieter "overtones" that give a sound its distinctive timbre. We'll ignore them since they are at integer multiples of the fundamental frequency, and don't provide any additional meaningful information. Vertical lines represent unpitched "noise" -- in the solo bass track, this is probably the sound of JoCo plucking the string, or moving his fingers around. In the full Glee track, this is probably the drum beat, or other instruments. In the full Glee track, you can see sounds from all the other instruments playing along, so its a lot busier than Coulton's solo bass track. But the bass line is still fairly easy to pick out.

EXAMPLE 1

The first place we'll look is the chorus. The bass part here has a fair bit of ornamentation, and its not likely to be exactly the same between the two by coincidence. The prechorus ends with the bass on G (the dominant) then moves up a step to A, to begin the chorus in the relative minor. It continues its upward trajectory by sliding up to an E, and ascends through F, G, and the high A before jumping back down an octave. This repeats 3 times before returning to the home key of C to finish and prepare for the next verse. To make the image a bit easier to follow along with, I labeled the main notes in the first appearance of this motif. The other two repetitions are unlabeled, but have the same shape. What is interesting is the little notes in between the main notes. Unfortunately, you'll need to click to view at full size if you want to actually see the details. I identified at least four possible differences.

At (#1) we have a little scale filling the area between A and E. In Coulton's track it is clearly a B and a C, without the D. If you look at the spectrograph, it is clear that there is a "gap" just before the E (where a D would be). Its hard to tell from just listening, but if you look at the graph of Glee's version, the D seems to be present. Instead, the gap is immediately after the A (where the B would be). In both versions, this is the case for all three repetitions.

At (#2) Coulton's version has another little run of notes between the E and the F, clearly consisting of a D and an E. I have listened to this section repeatedly in the Glee version, and hear absolutely no D; they just restrike the E. Checking the graph, I also see no evidence that would indicate that a silent D is present. This seems pretty obviously different to me, in each of the three repetitions.

At (#3) the Glee version seems to have a much more lengthy and prominent slide (glissando), at least in the graph (are they using a fretless bass? I don't know, but I don't think JoCo is). This could very well be a trick of the ear though, and/or an artifact in the image. I'm not convinced this is a good example.

I almost missed it the first time, but (#4) seems fairly definitive as well. After the repeated section completes, JoCo hits the C and holds it for a full two beats, contrary to the following measure (and numerous other places throughout the song) where he hits it a second time after a beat and a half. In the Glee version, I am fairly certain, from both listening and viewing the graph, that this note is restruck the first time.

Coulton:
Coulton's solo bass track - Example 1 (click to enlarge)

















Glee:
Glee's full track, emphasizing bass line - Example 1 (click to enlarge)





EXAMPLE 2
This example is notable because it's a case where there seems to be an extra note in the Glee recording that is obviously not in the Coulton recording (thus something was added rather than removed). This section occurs shortly after where the duck quack would have been, and, oddly, doesn't seem to occur in the first verse. This fact is interesting in and of itself, since JoCo's track seems to liberally copy and paste between verses. But what you can hear (and see) rather prominently in the Glee track is a quick additional E (circled) between the A and the F. This occurs under the phrase "'cause them punks" and is not present in JoCo's version at all. There may be additional differences with the rhythms in the Glee track, but it's hard to tell in the full mix.

Coulton:
Coulton's solo bass track - Example 2


Glee:
Glee's full track, emphasizing bass line - Example 2

CONCLUSIONS

While it is difficult to say for sure, it would appear that, at the very least, the bass part differs ever so slightly in these two recordings. This would seem to indicate that they were recorded independently. While you could theorize that, with enough digital wizardry, you might be able to transform one into the other, there quickly comes a point where its much easier to just re-record the track. This is especially true if you have a half-way decent instrumentalist on hand, and an army of lawyers reminding you that you are within your rights to do this, as long as you don't reuse the original recording.

Of course, I can't say anything about the other tracks, since I didn't analyze them. For all I know, every track except the bass could be reused from Coulton. But if they did use Coulton's other tracks, only with a new bass line, then they would have had to use the individual source track version that I'm using (see update). If this were true, then there would also be no duck quack to find. It also begs the question as to why they would re-record some parts but not others. Certainly, it would be faster (i.e. cheaper) to produce, though riskier if you got caught. But then why bother re-recording the bass part specifically? I would think that if you've got the time and the talent to re-record one part, you may as well do them all.

As much as it pains me to admit it, and despite the near perfect match, I cannot convince myself that this is Coulton's original track. At least not the bass part. Personally, I would have preferred to have found nothing of note; to continue to believe that Coulton's tracks were stolen in such a way that he could at least legally defend himself. But wishing doesn't make it so, and I have to follow what the evidence shows. And in all honesty: it only makes sense that if Glee is smart enough to know what they can get away with, they'd also be smart enough to avoid making a mistake like that. Although stealing was actually a pretty dumb move in the first place.

UPDATE (1/27)
Paul pointed out (in a discussion on Coulton's forums) that, because the bass track is centered, it would be removed if you used the phase inversion technique (often used to remove vocals, which are also centered). This would obviously be a valid reason for the bass track, specifically, to be re-recorded (along with some percussion which was also centered). It would even allow for the possibility that the full song (rather than just the source tracks) was used -- either the version with vocals, or the karaoke version -- but with a new bass track plopped on top. So whether the rest of the track is the original or not is still up in the air, though it is still a definite possibility at this point.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Song Bio - Footprints



Round 1 of SpinTunes 4 has completed. The challenge was:

Night Terrors - Write a song about a childhood nightmare. Include significant use of rubato. (2 minute minimum)


Concept

My entry, Footprints, is extrapolated from one of the few fragments of childhood dreams that I remember, and probably the closest I've come to a nightmare. I recall being pretty shaken up when I woke up after it. I realize that the challenge doesn't specify that the nightmare has to be one that you actually had, but that is the route I chose to take. It's not your traditional "chased by a monster" type of nightmare -- it was a more subtle, yet still disturbing, dream. In it, I was following these footprints that did illogical things (like stop in mid-track, or pass under walls, or go across the ceiling). I didn't know why I had to follow them, I just did. Obviously, they were impossible to follow.

To flesh this out a bit, I included similar elements from later dream sequences into this basic framework. About a year ago I actually experimented with lucid dreaming, and I realized that a somewhat common disturbing element in many of my dreams was being lost in some type of building with an illogical and un-mappable maze-like geometry. Often I am chasing something or someone, but without ever knowing why (and never finding them). This is similar enough to the childhood memory that I feel justified in using artistic license to combine them here.

The feeling of unease comes not only from the illogicality of the geometry (or the footprints) but also from the uncertainty of what I'm doing (and why), and the feeling that I must continue, though continuing seems impossible. I think of this as a sort of "mental claustrophobia". I've recognized this same feeling in real life, for example, when trying to debug some difficult code, and having no idea where to even start looking for the problem. I think everyone can relate to having a task which they must do, but which they do not know how to perform.

Music Theory Stuff

I needed to depict this restless unease musically. In that respect, this song is similar to my previous SpinTunes entry, Insomniac Lullabye. I even use a similar time signature change in the chorus of this song, although I resisted the urge to use a more complex signature (like 5/8 or 7/8). Of course, I try to use the required rubato to depict this restless feeling as well. I'm not sure how well the rubato turned out, though, due to my inability to play as smoothly as I should have.

But beyond meter and tempo, I'd recently been playing around with the various modes (and other scales), and the relationships between them. So my personal challenge this round was to use at least one mode or exotic scale (something other than major or minor). At one point, I was considering trying Locrian Mode or a Whole Tone scale, but those were a bit too exotic. Instead, I settled on the Phrygian and Lydian modes (specifically, I alternate between E Phrygian and F Lydian).

The reason for picking those two particular modes is that they represent the darkest (Phrygian) and lightest (Lydian) of the traditional modes (excluding Locrian). In fact, except for the 1st and 5th scale degrees, every note in the Phrygian mode is a half step lower than the corresponding note in the Lydian mode. This means that most of my song is in the darker Phrygian mode -- the descending figure in the piano accompaniment was designed around this mode, to showcase it's unique flattened 2nd scale degree. To introduce some contrast, I occasionally switch to the dreamy Lydian mode (in the intro, outro, and the midway point). To highlight the difference between these modes, I inverted the accompaniment into an ascending figure, highlighting the Lydian mode's unique sharpened 4th degree. The way that the piece is largely built from this single motif and it's inversion (with a contrasting upward arpeggio figure in the chorus) probably qualify this piece as being in a "Minimalist" style.

Since the dominant of the Phrygian mode is a diminished chord (B dim), I avoid using it, and replace it with the flat-vii chord instead (D min). I also focus more on the iv chord (A min). Then, in order to increase the ambiguity (to picture being lost in the maze-like halls), my verse phrases somehow ended up modulating down a major third, from E Phrygian, to C Minor, and I use the dominant from this key (G7) to create a half cadence, before unexpectedly jumping right back into E Phrygian. However, there is one point where I chromatically alter the scale to use the actual dominant chord (B7) -- this occurs in the chorus, at the words "I feel compelled". The V-i progression here conveys the feeling of compulsion and forward motion. This doesn't last for long though, since the progression continues (elusively) upward to the bII chord (F), which then forms the basis for repeating the Lydian-based progression from the introduction.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Song Bio - Insomniac Lullaby

This song was written for Spintunes 1 Round 2, "John Hancock Time" where the challenge was to write a song where the verse and chorus had different time signatures. Aside from that (and a minimum length) the song could be about anything. The song I wrote was Insomniac Lullaby.

<a href="http://calebhines.bandcamp.com/track/insomniac-lullaby">Insomniac Lullaby by Caleb Hines</a>

Concept

Approaching these types of challenges, where the topic is wide open, is always difficult for me, because I don't know what to do. I depend on the challenge to give me a concept to expand on, but these types have very little to expand. One obvious route is to play off the idea of "time", but that route can easily lead to very meta songs. Now I don't mind the occasional self-referential humor, but I've found it to be somewhat pervasive in previous songwriting contests that I've participated in, so I try to handle it with caution, if at all. I wanted something different.

From the previous Spintunes round, I was thinking a lot about how different musical techniques have different effects on listeners (incidentally, this was studied in Baroque music as well, and tied in with ancient Greek theories of rhetoric and oration...). So, my take on this song was to ask "why is the narrator changing time signatures?" Or more specifically, "what effect will changing time signatures have on the listener? And why does the song need to create that effect?" The obvious answer is to create a contrast of some sort. Unfortunately, that didn't narrow the topic a whole lot, but it was a start.

Also, I knew I was capable of meeting the challenge, because I had previously written a song that did exactly this for Song Fu. The song "Mr. Nehemiah Bloodwormer" ended up changing from 6/8 in the verses to 9/8 in the chorus, due to the sheer number of syllables in that name. In that song, I thought the transition was pretty smooth, so in this song, I deliberately wanted to see if I could emphasize the change a bit more. That may have harmed the song just a bit, because the judges seemed to have higher praise for songs that made a more smooth transition (and there were many that did this excellently). That makes sense, but wasn't what I was going for; fortunately, I think most people realized that.

I played around with a couple past song ideas, but none of them really fit the kind of contrast I wanted to create, so instead, I started toying around with specific time signatures. I kept coming back to the idea of doing a slow sort of peaceful waltz in 3/4. Then I remembered that in a previous Song Fu, someone had suggested a lullaby as a possible topic for a future challenge. That seemed like a good idea, and it would fit the slow 3/4 timing.

I think it was when I realized that the obvious contrast to a lullaby is insomnia, that I was sold on the concept. Not being able to sleep at night is a problem I have often had, and judging by comments from other participants, I was not alone. It seemed like a perfect topic that everyone would be able to relate to. At this point my song was going to have the verses unfolding a 3/4 lullaby, interrupted each time with some frantic chorus about not being able to sleep. But as I started to sketch out some lyrics, I began to realize I had far more to say about the staying-awake part than the going-to-sleep part, so I switched the verse and chorus around.

Lyrics

Another thing that happened when I first started to think of lyrics was that I came up with the phrases "tossing and turning throughout the night" and "lying in bed and trying to fall asleep". which both had a meter that would fit into a five-based signature. Now, I originally didn't want to use an exotic time signature, because I was sure that a lot of other people would be doing it (and I was right). But neither was I going to limit myself -- if an exotic signature genuinely produced an effect that I wanted. In this case, using 5/8 instead of 6/8 on the verse gave a frantic unresolved feeling that you get at night, where one thought ploughs over another before the previous one finishes.

In terms of the story, what little there is, I decided to cover as much time as I could in the verses, so I pushed the start of the song back to the moments before getting in bed, and had the song end at the beginning of the next day, without having fallen asleep. (On rare occasions, this is the only way to reset my biological clock.) Other than that, the words weren't too difficult to come up with. In fact, it seemed surprisingly easy to fit words into the "3+2" rhythm pattern.

Meanwhile, the chorus is basically just a short list of standard advice of how to fall asleep -- relax, close your eyes, etc. It represents those moments of clarity and reason, where you try to convince yourself that this time you really will asleep, by sheer will power. Of course, ultimately, it doesn't work. Incidentally, one of my sisters commented that she had no idea two lines could last for so long.

Music

I knew I wanted a guitar in the chorus to do a simple oom-pah-pah, like a waltz. That meant I had to play the guitar, which is something I don't do well. Fortunately the tempo was slow. I know a few chords that I can fake well enough, mostly in the key of G, so that pretty much determined what I was going to do. The chord progression itself is pretty basic, essentially just alternating between IV V I and ii V I, with an additional chord at the end of each line to lead into the next:

C D7 G Em
Am D7 G G7
C D7 G E
Am D7 G

For the verses, I wanted something frantic and distressed so I decided to change to a minor key. This meant that both of my Spintunes entries used a minor key verse and a major key chorus. Also, I decided to use a descending chromatic scale in Insomniac Lullaby, to signify the pain of being tired and unable to fall asleep. The bass progression G F# F E fits under the fingers well enough on the low E string, and G and D are open string. This meant I was going to be playing the verse in G minor (which is the absolute minor of the chorus, instead of relative minor) making for a rougher modulation than in Clockwork Man. Coincidentally, Clockwork Man also had a descending scale in the verse progression, albeit a diatonic one (Am G F E). Lest I become a one-trick pony, I made a note to myself to not use the minor key in the third challenge, or a descending bass scale -- and to come up with something upbeat and happy instead (that didn't work out so well, by the way).

Instrumentally, the verses sounded a bit sparse with just guitar, so I brought in a piano as well, and swapped around which one was playing chords and which one was playing at arpeggios in different verses. The piano arpeggios are 16th notes instead of 8ths, because I'm better at playing piano than guitar. I also brought in some drums (relatively rare for me) to represent the pounding in your head when you can't sleep. And of course, I recorded a bass part as well. This was my early mix, which I could have submitted, but as usual, I wanted to add more.

First of all, I had planned from the beginning to add at least one recorder to the chorus. Recorder is what I do best, and while I try not to overuse it, a lullaby practically begs for it. In the end, I decided to go all out, and use a full 4-part (SATB) recorder quartet, something I hadn't done in any previous challenge.

Finally, for the verse, I decided to add some violin fills to add some interest and restlessness. This was my first attempt at recording a violin part, and it turned out to be harder than expected. The violin is pretty new to me, and I'm even worse on it than I am at guitar. Also, I was using an old bow that didn't properly tighten all the way (which I've since replaced) and which I was holding incorrectly. Fortunately, I was able to stick mostly to open strings. In the second verse, I quad-tracked it (which made it sound a bit more tolerable) in order to go along with the generally louder/stronger feel of the multi-tracked vocals, drums, and 16th-note arpeggios in the piano. I managed to make a little nod towards Beethoven in this verse too -- the dotted-note rhythm in the violin imitates the theme in Moonlight Sonata.

Several people commented that they didn't like the ending. I deliberately wrote the verse to end on the dominant chord in order to smooth the transition from minor to major keys. And because of the lyrics in the third verse, it doesn't really make sense to repeat the chorus. By this time, its morning, and the character couldn't go to sleep even if he were able to. So my only other choice was to record some sort of final ending at the last moment, even just a final tonic chord, or leave it as it was. I thought ending on the dominant was a good way to picture the lack of resolution as the character begins his day without sleep, so I just ended it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Authorized Biography of Clockwork Man

Concept

The core idea for The Memoirs of Clockwork Man actually predates the first SpinTunes challenge by over a year. When I entered my very first Song Fu (Song Fu #4, in the spring of 2009), I was pretty nervous. I hadn't written very many songs, and I had never written, much less recorded one in a week. In the time between being accepted and the drop of the first challenge, I decided to brainstorm a couple potential ideas, in the hopes that one of them would just happen to fit the challenge.

In my biography, I had explained having strong roots in Classical music, but also being influenced by Jonathan Coulton. I tried to come up with a way to mash these differing traditions into one song. Since Coulton has written about robots on multiple occasions, some sort of pseudo-historical, steampunkish, pre-robot seemed fitting. Something like Boilerplate (BTW, that website is an awesome hoax!). I wasn't exactly sure what the song would be about, since the challenge hadn't been announced but when robots are involved, their lack of emotions is often played on. The chorus (in 3rd person) that came to me at the time was:

He's Clockwork Man, He's a crime-fighting automaton,
Clockwork Man, this lever turns him off-and-on,
Clockwork Man, if you take him apart, you'll find that
Clockwork Man wasn't built with a heart.


Incidentally, my idea for the melody was essentially identical to what I have now, only without the triplets (placing the accent unnaturally on figh-TING). The key part of the chorus is the three-note theme (A,C,G) repeated each time you hear "Clockwork Man". That was the hook for the chorus, and was designed to have a mechanical quality to it, with leaping intervals in a straight quarter note rhythm.

When the Song Fu challenge came out (which Coulton helped Ken Plume to come up with), it was to write a song from the perspective of an inanimate object. Excellent! Except that robots were specifically excluded. So instead I wrote a song from the point of view of the Great Pyramid, which I also think did a good job of mixing old and new styles. The second challenge was to write a march. I briefly considered reviving Clockwork Man, but I couldn't find a way to make it work, so I tabled it and wrote about Dwarves.

When SpinTunes #1 came out, I pretty quickly decided that this would be the time to recycle Clockwork Man. Settling on an idea of which direction to take a challenge, and then starting to flesh it out is usually the hardest part of songwriting for me, so I'll do anything that I can to minimize my wallowing in indecision. I started by rewriting the chorus so that it would be in the first person, and I replaced the "off-and-on" line (which was kinda silly) with "a hero you can depend upon". After all, why would a hero advertise how to turn himself off?

On the other hand, I knew some awesome chord progressions that could create a cinematic effect, like a score for a superhero film, and I thought it would be neat to incorporate them in an orchestral setting. As I was going through my virtual instruments to grab my usual orchestral string sound, I stumbled across some string-like synth sounds that I hadn't used before, and decided to try using them instead. I spent WAY to much on the Saturday after the challenge dropped playing with synth settings and bizarre chord progressions, until I came up with the movie-trailer sound that I ended up with. It was really cool, but didn't help me with my song so I tried to set it aside and get back to work. I hoped I could use it, but I wasn't sure whether I should.

Lyrics

As usual, the hard part was what to do with the rest of the actual lyrics. Superheroes are all about action, adventures, and a nemesis with over-the-top schemes, so I knew I wanted a lot of that (the name "Captain Billiard" popped into my mind one day driving home from work. I didn't know who he was, but it sounded cool, so I decided to keep it). But at the same time, I had a character who was essentially a bucket-of-bolts. I needed to somehow create some sympathy between the character and the listener -- some type of emotion that the listener could recognize and reflect on. Clockwork Man needed a backstory and a personality.

To flesh this out, I looked at the chorus that I had. First, he "wasn't built with a heart", so he's got no emotions; everything is a number for his internal Babbage Engine to process. Second, he's "a hero you can depend upon." He's almost boasting, so he might be a bit arrogant, thinking he's better than the people he's saving. Maybe he thinks that emotions are a weakness, and he is better off for not having them. This sounds a bit like Spock in Star Trek, and reminded me of the line "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", which gave me a potential idea for a final conflict in my song.

In order to create sympathy for the character, I looked at another Star Trek character, Data, who was always curious about human emotions, but could never achieve them (until they gave him that stupid emotion chip...). We've already established that Clockwork Man thinks he doesn't need emotions, but that doesn't mean he can't be curious about them, which gives us another conflict.

At this point, I had the basic idea for the song's layout. The verses would have an unfolding series of adventures as a sort of episodic "memoir" (that word has a period flavor), and would have a mechanical sort of steampunky accompaniment. Turns out there isn't much music written in the steampunk genre, so I got to make it up as I went along. In the bridge, this story would drop away, and Clockwork Man would explicitly make his argument that "Hearts aren't needed", and "You can't have friends". It gives the listener an insight into how Clockwork Man thinks, but it's an argument, that the listener knows is wrong. This would be underscored by a heart-felt accompaniment that contrasted with the earlier mechanical sound, and the final line "sometimes I wonder..." -- an open-ended line that invites the listener to interact with and complete Clockwork Man's thought process, while the song is modulating back to the original key, and the rational ticking of Clockwork Man's Babbage Engine comes back online. Ironically, the song is arguing the exact opposite of what the character is saying in the song (this is a technique Coulton likes to use as well, notably in "Not About You").

An early version of the first verse would have started in media res, with Clockwork Man serving tea as a loyal butler to his creator as the shadow of an airship suddenly covers the city. But I realized that wouldn't work for several reasons. First of all, the listeners don't know who or what Clockwork Man is a this point, and I needed to establish that -- especially since it's a rather unusual concept to begin with. So to establish the character, I decided to do what all good superheroes do, and begin with an origins story. Second, I had started to define his personality as a bit arrogant and friendless, as explained above, and not necessarily the "loyal butler" type. So the origins story involves the creator getting rid of him instead. I came up with the rhymes "created"/"he hated" and "didn't know"/"where to go", and I had the verse more-or-less written. I decided to use some short detached phrases (4-5 syllables) in the verse because I thought they sounded more mechanical than longer more lyrical phrases. I also introduced the line "my gears didn't know" which was as close as I could come to saying "Babbage Engine" in the lyrics. That set up the question of Clockwork Man's free will, and whether he is even capable of choosing his actions -- he's talking about his thought process in the third person.

At this point, we know who Clockwork Man is, but it isn't really clear what he does. The second verse is where the hero action really starts to take off. A lot of this verse is the weird result of random brainstorming, in an attempt to weave an elaborate "over-the-top" type of plot. I wanted to demonstrate Clockwork Man's powers so I waned to compare him to well-known characters of the era -- in superhero parlance, some sort of alliance, or league, or cross-over. In fact, I was thinking something along the lines of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Instead Sherlock Holmes came to mind. That made sense, because he was also known for his dispassionate use of logic; he's almost a human counterpart of Clockwork Man. But why are they teaming up? What rhymes with Holmes? Gnomes! Of course! And the adjective "psionic" fits the meter... Psionic Gnomes! Huh? Hilarious and over-the-top! Just go with it. Besides, it gives Clockwork Man a way to boast about bettering Sherlock. The later can become entranced, which conveniently rhymes with "advanced". I also wanted an army to fight. Originally, it was going to be an army of evil Gatling-gun-wielding Abraham Lincoln clones (ignoring the fact that cloning is completely anachronistic... this is steampunk after all), but that didn't fit the meter. Then it was going to be legendary game hunter Quatermain, but he's a bit more obscure, and neither are actually evil. So I finally settled on Frankenstein (or at least, his monster). If Frankenstein can create a monster, surely he can clone them?

Now that we know who Clockwork Man is, and what he can do, we can insert the bridge to explain how he thinks. Then all that's left for the third verse is to demonstrate how his thinking determines his actions. It's also where I can include some earlier ideas that didn't make it into the previous verses: an airship, a showdown with a nemesis (what rhymes with that?) named Captain Billiard, the city being threatened, and the needs of the many versus the few. Of course, every good (bad?) villain has to kidnap a hostage to use as a bargaining chip. Bonus points are given if it happens to be the hero's love interest. This means that valuable screen time in an action movie has to be devoted to building a relationship between characters... BORING! Let's just subvert that whole aspect and cut straight to the action. That works fine for Clockwork Man, since he has no attachments. But the outcome proves again to the listener just how wrong Clockwork Man is for thinking the way he does. The whole song has been building to this point where you really have to question whether he's a hero, or maybe more of an anti-hero. You have to question his motives, but are reminded of the "gears in his head" and that he may not even have a choice. Because, as the final chorus reminds us, he's Clockwork Man, a crime-fighting automaton.

Music

I started off with the idea for the chorus already there, with just a bit of editing to the rhythm to make it fit better, by using triplets. By the time I completed the words to the first verse, I was starting to figure out the rhythm. Since there were a lot of 3-syllable groupings, it was originally going to be in triplets, similar to those in the chorus. The problem was that that made the words go by too fast, and with the clock theme going, I wanted to stick to a strict 120 bpm. Then I remembered that a lot of music uses syncopation to create "pseudo-triplets" by following three quarter notes with a longer note. For possibly the first time, I understood the reasoning behind that rhythm and made a conscious decision to use it for that effect, rather than just to emulate a style. It was almost like a mini-epiphany, and it slowed the lyrics down to a more manageable speed, just as I had hoped.

I knew that if I were to use the intro, I had to musically tie them together -- the chorus and the intro are extremely different. For one thing, that meant making the verse start in a minor key (A minor) and letting it modulate to C major by the end, so I could go into the chorus. I was also able to use some minor key progressions to add tension to the "action scenes".

Continuity also led to reusing a lot of the same instruments between the intro and the rest of the song. I was going for a percussive sound, with clock ticking, a ratchet wrench, a triangle, a last-minute timpani, and other clanking sounds (though in retrospect it needed "moar cowbell"). The piano is also a percussive instrument, which I emphasized by using staccato notes. Originally, it was going to have mallets and bells as well, but I gave the mallet part to a harpsichord instead. Granted, the harpsichord was already at least 150 years obsolete by the time in which the action in this song purportedly takes place, but it still provides an effective "historical" sound -- and have I mentioned that steampunk doesn't mind anachronisms? This also fulfilled something I had been thinking about doing since my first Song Fu, but hadn't had the chance, which is to include a harpsichord in my arrangement.

This gave me an anachronistic trio of harpsichord, piano, and synth, in addition to the percussive sounds. I left the percussive sounds off the chorus and bridge, hoping that they wouldn't become too repetitive (which didn't work as well as I had hoped). I also chose to use the harpsichord on the first verse, to emphasize the setting and the "invention" aspect, use the synth on the second verse to emphasize the weird "psionic" stuff, and then bring everything in on the third verse. The bridge makes the common modulation to the bVI key of Ab, but then I had to further modulate up one half step and back into the minor in order to return to the third verse. That proved to be a bit interesting challenge in enharmonics and trial and error. I think the pivot chord was E7 in A minor, which is I think is enharmonic to an Fb German Sixth in the key of Ab. Or something. It was preceded by a Db chord, at any rate.

For the vocals, I ended up with something like 8 takes (that I bothered keeping), broke them into phrases, and selected the best of each. This went pretty smoothly thanks to the melody actually containing a number of short and detached phrases.

At this point, it was almost done, but it needed two bits more. I wanted some sort of brass instrument fanfare in the chorus, and I felt the bridge (which only had piano and bass) needed something more. Since I would be adding brass to the chorus, my original thought was that I could add it to the bridge as well, but that didn't really seem to fit the mood. Then I was given a mandolin for my birthday, and that fit perfectly. I played some long tremolo notes over the chord progression, and I think it added just the right dose of "tugging at the heart strings" that it needed. It took lots of takes, and a touch of post-processing to get the tremolo right, considering this was my first time ever playing a mandolin.

Since the brass part was now relegated to a relatively simple part in the chorus, I realized I could play it on a replica Civil War bugle I just happened to have lying around, and which is (almost) in the right key. To be fair, the thing doesn't sound all that great, and I pretty much used the only 3 notes that it's capable of producing, so I quad-tracked it, applied liberal doses of pitch-correction and reverb, and placed it low in the mix, off to one side. True, I could have just used MIDI, but I like the extra touch of authenticity the real bugle gives it.

Finally, the very last thing I had to do was record the "Don LaFontaine" intro vocals. To help in getting the low pitch, I recorded this part shortly after waking up (before going to work), which is when my voice is at it's lowest pitch. I also used a "vocal fry" (creaky voice) and a touch of EQ to cut some of the higher-pitched harmonics. I realize that the faux movie-trailer intro could be seen as damaging to the song, or it could be seen as funny or cheesy. I almost didn't leave it in, but in the end I decided that this song is based on an unusual concept, and it has to stand on its own and explain its own concept to the judges. For movies, a trailer is a quick and concise way to present an unusual setting, so I decided to keep it for the same reason. However, there is a full break between the intro and the song, and the song could certainly stand on its own without the intro, for a "low-cheese" version.

Friday, February 26, 2010

MIDI Bootcamp - Part 1: Introduction

Introduction

In this series of blog articles, I'm going to talk about MIDI, especially how I use it -- which may or may not be how others use it. This is mostly just stuff that I've figured out on my own, on the cheap. I'm by no means an expert, and I have no training that says "this is how you should use MIDI" (if such a thing even exists) so feel free to correct me in the comments if I say something wrong.

As a technical side note before we get started -- I do all of my work on a Windows PC. If you use a different OS (*cough*Mac*cough*), then I can't guarantee that anything I say about specific applications will work for you (technically, I can't really make that guarantee for Windows either). I can only hope that the general principles will still apply.

Why should I even care about MIDI?

First of all, it's true that nothing can quite match the sound of a real instrument being played well by a fine instrumentalist. What MIDI primarily brings to the table is a greater flexibility. You can simulate instruments that you could never own in real life, or even ones that don't exist. You can also clean up sloppy performances by fixing wrong notes, tightening up the timing, adding and removing notes, changing chords, dynamics, etc. An analogy might be the difference between using a manual typewriter compared to a word processor. The word processor allows you to go back after typing and change what you typed, the font, size, color, and so on.

What is MIDI?

MIDI means different things to different people. To many people, it means those horribly annoying sounds that start playing themselves when you visit certain websites -- especially at the end of the last century, before the general masses had the bandwidth to stream annoying mp3s. To other people it means racks of expensive electronics with names like Korg, Moog, and Yamaha, strung together with meters of cable...

No really, what is MIDI?

"MIDI" is an acronym that stands for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface". Let's see if we can unravel that acronym in reverse order (that's often a useful way to approach jargon).
  • Interface: This means that MIDI is a way of communicating between two pieces of technology (either hardware or software). Think of MIDI as a sort of language for programs and machines to talk to each other in.
  • Digital: This means that the MIDI language is expressed in numbers, as opposed to typical audio signals, which use analog waveforms.
  • Musical Instrument: This means that the things you can say in MIDI are things about about musical instruments. Specifically, about how an instrument is played.
Therefore, MIDI is a way to encode a musical performance into numbers that computers and other devices can manipulate to create sounds. For example, the MIDI data might have an instruction to play a middle C at medium volume. This allows you to decouple your performance from the sound generation.

The most important thing to know about MIDI is that it does not have any particular sound. It merely contains information about how an instrument was played. This information has to be converted into sound before it can be heard. The thing that does this converting is called a synthesizer. We'll talk more about those another time, but for now, realize that when people claim MIDI "sounds terrible" what they often mean is that the sounds created by the synthesizer sound terrible. This might sound like a minor distinction, but it's very important to understand the difference, because this is one of the keys to making MIDI "sound better" -- by realizing that MIDI doesn't actually have an inherent sound.

An Analogy

This is such an important concept, that I should probably give an illustration. Imagine an old player piano -- the kind that can play itself when you feed it a piano roll (a long spool of paper containing punch-outs which tell the piano which notes to play at any given time). Let's say your player piano is the most expensive, best-sounding piano in the world, and the piano roll performs an absolutely beautiful rendition of whatever music it's supposed to be.

Now take that same roll to an old, and poorly tuned piano, with a bad sounding tone, or maybe a kids toy piano (that's still capable of playing piano rolls for some odd reason). You couldn't say that the piano roll itself was bad -- you'd have to say that the piano that played the piano roll sounded bad. Of course, it's still possible to create a bad-sounding piano roll, even on the good piano, but in this case, that wasn't the problem. MIDI data is very much like a piano roll, and synthesizers are like the pianos that play them.

(Update: For your listening pleasure, here is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on a player piano.)

Conclusion

MIDI is a technique that can add variety and flexibility to a mix, and is a useful tool to add to your bag of tricks. MIDI data captures a performance as a set of instructions to a synthesizer, but the actual sound produced depends on the synthesizer used. Thus there are two aspects to using MIDI: (1) creating the MIDI data in the first place, and (2) converting it to sound.

Next time, I'd like to start looking at synthesizers a little bit more, specifically, software synthesizers. If you have any questions or comments, or would like me to focus more on a given topic, let me know in the comments below. Thanks!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to Get a Song Fu RSS Feed

Song Fu 6 signup is over and the contestants and the first challenge will be announced Monday. I even received an e-mail tonight stating that I had indeed made it in (I still have to retro-blog about my Song Fu 5 entries!).

In the past, I've found myself constantly refreshing the Song Fu page, waiting for a new contest to drop. With other websites, I've started using RSS feeds so that the page automatically updates me when it is updated, and I don't have to remember to go look at it all the time. Unfortunately, there has not been a specific RSS feed for Song Fu.

So I decided to create one. Actually, I created two of them, in two different ways. I don't know a lot about RSS, aside from the fact that it uses XML to update my reader, but these methods were both dead simple to use. Method one took a slight amount of work to set up, but it was awesome to learn how. Method two is the no-brainer way that I didn't discover until after I finished method one (ooops).

Method One

Quickstopentertainment (the old site that hosted Song Fu) actually did have an RSS feed, which the new host, asitecalledfred, seems to have retained (despite still having "quickstop" in the name). Problem is, the majority of items in the feed are not Song Fu related. It would sure be nice if there were some way to filter them out. After a bit of Googling, I discovered a service that Yahoo offers, called pipes. This tool allows you to create a new feed based off of one or more existing feeds, using a really slick graphical dataflow editor. It looks really awesome-powerful, just like its UNIX namesake, and I was easily able to program it to create a filtered version of the quickstop feed, only outputting entries that have "Song Fu" in the title. I think anyone should be able to access and subscribe to it here. One potential but minor problem is that since the site has changed names, the RSS url might change too. If that happens I would have to fix my pipeline.

Method Two

This method doesn't use the existing RSS feed at all. Instead, since I use Google Reader, I just use it's built-in capability to monitor a webpage for updates, as described in this blog post. I just clicked "Add a Subscription", and entered the url for the Song Fu category page (the first link in this post).

Results

Both methods seem to work well, but the morning that signup began for Song Fu 6, my first indication came not from an RSS feed, but from Twitter!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Song Fu Final Challenge

The final Song Fu challenge was a showdown between Molly and Berg & Jerry. Unfortunately, Molly did not submit a song by the deadline, so Berg & Jerry won by default. All other competitors (including those from previous rounds of Song Fu) were welcome to submit a "shadow" entry which would be posted, but could not receive votes. There were only three of us who did. The challenge was to write a song about a journey involving three main characters.

As usual, I toyed with several ideas early on, and eventually settled on the idea of a journey involving animals. I had been recently playing around with photographing wildlife in the zoo, so that felt like a natural choice. Of course, an obvious type of animal journey is a migration, but why would there be only three animals migrating, instead of a whole herd?

The answer turned out to be that the animals (whatever they were) were on the brink of extinction, which suggested a tragic song. A little googling later, and I decided that the Passenger Pigeon would be my subject. Honestly, I'm not a big fan of pigeons, not least of all because they tend to leave my car in need of a good scrubbing. But passenger pigeons really do have a sad story. They were once the most abundant bird in North America, and were known for their large migrations, and then, quite suddenly they went extinct, due to a combination of massive hunting, habitat loss, and not being able to sustain a large enough communal breeding population.

The last Passenger Pigeon -- that we know about -- was a zoo specimen named Martha who died in 1914. The last confirmed wild sighting took place 14 years earlier, but unconfirmed sightings took place for some time afterward. For the purposes of my song, I imagine there were three remaining wild survivors who outlived Martha, and are taking what may be their last migration.

I especially like the way this song modulates between E and D, the sound of the DMaj7 chord, the banjo-style rolls in the chorus, and the backing vocals in the bridge. The instruments are: baritone ukulele, melodica, shaker, tambourine, and bass. I actually played the bass line on my new guitar, then pitch-shifted it down an octave in software -- I'll probably be using more of this technique in the future. The rolls were played as a second uke part, with a capo on the 7th fret, IIRC. Since I'm not quite that good at picking, the timing of some of the notes had to be fixed in software, post-recording. I wanted to add a flute part as well, but never got around to writing one.

Here's the mp3 (link to box.net): Passengers.mp3

And here are the lyrics:
Passengers

[Verse 1]
Summertime is finally gone in upper Michigan,
Leaves are changing shades of gold, and falling once again.
The weather's turning cold, and winter's moving in,
So spread your wings and fly, our migration must begin.

[Chorus]
We're migrating to sunny Florida,
We're the only three,
Just you and him and me,
We're migrating to sunny Florida,
Three birds of a feather,
Seeking better weather.

[Verse 2]
Now it's time to take a break in central Tennessee,
So we'll roost here by this lake, and high up in this tree.
A person's down below, he's watching you and me,
I think he's taking notes, he looks surprised by what he sees.

[Repeat Chorus]

[Bridge]
Every night I find I'm wishin'
That we three weren't the last passenger pigeons,
Cause the livin's pretty lonely
When you're one of the only of your kind.

[Verse 3]
Used to be when we flew by, the sight would fill the sky,
Our flock would block the sun, and stretch a mile wide.
But since the people came, a billion birds have died,
And now we're all but gone, we're the last three still alive.

[Repeat Chorus]

Song Fu Challenge 3

Another retroactive post...

The third Song Fu challenge has long been over, but I want to describe my entry anyway. The challenge was to write a "standard" song exactly one minute in length. By "standard", the implication was that it had to have a more-or-less verse/chorus structure, where the chorus has to be repeated at least once (so you hear it at least twice).

I had two conflicting ideas for this challenge. I developed both in parallel, but before I got around to recording vocals for either of them, my computer decided to eat one of them. I went to open the file, and it was all empty.

The first idea (which I lost) was a mostly-serious song where the singer spends the entire minute asking for a minute of the listener's time, and urging the listener to slow down for a bit. By the time the song is over, his minute is up. The words for the chorus were something like: "Can't you slow down for 60 seconds? / There's so much out there to see. / There's Fourteen-hundred forty minutes every single day. / Can't you spare one for me?"

The second song (which I submitted) was more of a humorous, self-referential meta-song entitled "A Standard Song". I had the idea to do a meta-song at least since I signed up for the contest, and hadn't had the oppurtunity to do so until then. Specifically, I wanted to include a self-referential bridge with the words "bridge to nowhere".

To make it a standard song, I included the standard 3 verses and choruses as well as a bridge. At the end, I used the cliche of repeating the chorus a half-step higher: the so-called "truck driver's gear change".

The problem is that it was way too easy to write, and that there's no substance to it. I already knew what I was doing with the bridge, and the chorus just came to me. Squeezing that all into a minute didn't leave much room for the verses, or their lyrics.

Despite having ideas for two complete songs, I was having a hard time feeling very enthusiastic about either of them (or maybe I was just having a hard time finding time to record anything), so I ended up using completely synthetic instruments, with parts notated directly into my score-writing program. No live instruments recorded here (only the vocals). It's a fairly simple piano accompaniment, with bass, drums, and synth strings to fill out the harmonies (also, some backing vocals on the bridge).

I think this song could also have benefited from a better vocal take, but unfortunately, I wasn't really feeling up to it.

Here's the mp3 (link to mediafire): A Standard Song.mp3

And here are the lyrics:
A Standard Song

Verse 1 sets up a problem,
That's outside of my control,
It shows you what my setting is,
And clearly states my goal.

Then there's a chorus, chorus, happy little chorus,
I'll sing a little chorus right now.

Verse 2 the conflict deepens,
It's like rhyming words with orange.
My problem gets expounded,
With some painful metaphors.

But there's a chorus, chorus, happy little chorus,
I'll sing a little chorus right now.

And now for something different:
Here's a bridge to nowhere.

Verse 3 begins, I'm out of hope.
There's nothing left to do.
I guess somehow I'll learn to cope,
And live my life with you.

I'll sing a chorus, chorus, happy little chorus,
I'll sing a little chorus right now.

We'll sing a chorus, chorus, happy little chorus,
I'll sing a little chorus right now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Song Fu Challenge 2

The second Song Fu challenge is open for voting until a minute before midnight EST on Sunday night (June 14th). The challenge was to write a march. There were fewer entries this time than in the previous round, and several pieces had no lyrics. This round also produced some rather diverse entries.

My last song had ended up being too somber, and in a minor key, so before the challenge, I had decided I wanted to write something happy and funny in a major key. In the end, in order to get a happy and funny march with lyrics, I ended up turning to fantasy (though steampunk and sci-fi were alternative considerations), and writing a dwarven battle march. There's nothing here that's meant to be deep or meditative, just plain fun. The fictional setting gave me a framework that I could use to be as over-the-top as I had to be in order to get laughs, without actually addressing any real political issues. Other competitors may have had similar ideas, since there were a couple entries with marching robots, zombies and ninjas. To set up the situation, I posted the following comment with my song:
My entry, "Marching To Selador" is a traditional Dwarven Battle March, which has been translated and reconstructed by myself from the fragmentary remains of the original dwarvish runes. Little is known of dwarven music, so extensive scholarship was required to undertake the reconstruction. Due to the nature of dwarvish music, and especially the dwarven modes, which would sound quite foreign to our modern ears, certain artistic liberties were taken to convey the impression of a march to western audiences. For example, due to their stature, the dwarves would have actually used a much different tempo in their marches than what we are accustomed to. Where lyrics have been lost, they have been reconstructed based on knowledge of the Dwarves' widely-held socio-political views.
In addition to the traditional Sousa, I also listened to several Pre-Sousa marches, from the American Civil War. Marching Through Georgia was one that I specifically wanted to emulate. I also read a bit about Turkish Janissary Bands, which influenced the Turkish Marches of Mozart and Beethoven.

The name "Selador" is a reference to Tolkein's famous love for the sound of the English phrase "cellar door". Unfortunately, it made the dwarves in my song sound like they were door salesmen. The bridge modulates to the subdominant key, a technique which is common in Sousa marches, and presents a minor racial slur against elves, a dwarven "yo-mama" joke, and a reference to the fact that dwarven women are often said to have beards. The "piccolo" solo in the last chorus is, of course, deliberately reminiscent of Stars and Stripes Forever, and by extension, any traditional marches that use a fife. It was actually played on my Baroque flute, then pitch-shifted up an octave in software. Aside from that, the other instruments are 3 alto recorders, 3 melodicas, a sampled tuba, and various percussion (including two triangles). Alas, I have already sunken to the depths of using cheap sound effects and a "shout-along" chorus in an attempt to garner votes.

Here's the mp3 (link to mediafire): Marching To Selador (Traditional Dwarven March).mp3

And here are the lyrics:
Marching To Selador
(Traditional Dwarven March)

(Verse 1)
Fly the ancient banner, and sound the battle drum,
Sharpen up yer battle-axe, and put yer chain-mail on,
Line up in formation, boys, it's time to have some fun,
We're marching to Selador!

(Chorus)
Raise a shout, shout, shout, (HUZZAH!)
Shout for the dwarves!
Raise a louder shout for yer gold!
Watch the elves turn tail,
As the dwarves prevail,
We're marching to Selador!

Raise a shout, shout, shout, (HUZZAH!)
Shout for yer homes!
Raise a louder shout for yer ale!
And your axe will hew,
Every elf in two,
We're marching to Selador!

(Bridge)
We all know elves look pretty weird,
Their facial hair has all been cleared,
Even elven men,
Have a hairless chin,
There's more hair in yer mother's beard!

(Verse 2)
Burn the elven countryside, and chop down all their trees,
Watch the elven arrows all get caught up in the breeze,
When they come in melee we'll just bite off all their knees,
We're marching to Selador!

(Repeat Chorus with piccolo solo)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Song Fu Challenge 1

I'm posting this retroactively because I haven't finished building my time machine yet. But as soon as I do, I'll go post this when it actually happened. I've written and recorded my first Song Fu entry, and voting has closed. I collected a whole 35 votes, placing me in 20th place (out of 30) -- which really isn't all that bad for some random hack who has no followers, who has never publicly presented a recording of their music, and who is pretty clueless about modern pop music.

The challenge was basically to write a song from the perspective of an inanimate object (with a bunch of additional restrictions). My first idea was to write about a pen (being mightier than the sword), but I realized I was thinking about the class of all pen objects through history, not a single instance of the pen class. I needed a single unique object -- a Singleton if you will -- and preferably something that had been around for a while (not sure why). So I went to one of the oldest and most unique objects I could think of -- the Great Pyramid.

As I wrote the song, I found the Pyramid was taking on a life of it's own. It didn't really want to be funny, instead, it wanted to impart some kind of wisdom. Only I wasn't sure exactly what, until just before the deadline. The last line of the second verse was originally recorded with different lyrics, and then after days of listening, I literally re-recorded that single line with the new lyrics mere hours before submission.

Even though this wasn't written as an overtly Christian song, I like the Biblical allusions here as well, about the shortness of human life, and the vanity of worldly treasures. But it may have been too deep for a fun songwriting contest. Or maybe I just didn't express the idea well enough. I'm not very good with lyrics yet.

This piece also decided that it wanted to be written in the D harmonic minor scale, which wasn't what I had expected to write at all. I do love the little sopranino recorder riffs that I was able to add though. Those were fun to play. I even almost got through the middle solo in one take. I also used two ukuleles (soprano and baritone), a synth bass, an egg shaker, and a tambourine.

Here's the mp3 (link to mediafire): Ancient Wonder.mp3

And here are the lyrics:

Ancient Wonder

(Intro with recorder solo to set atmosphere)

(Verse 1)
Many long millennia have not been very kind,
But my weathered structure is still perfectly aligned.
I watch in silence as the ages come and go,
And humans live and die below.

Some say I was made by slaves, who labored day by day.
Some say maybe space invaders came and paved the way.
And while I might reveal a little of my history,
That riddle's better left a mystery.

(Chorus)
For here amid the shifting sands,
The Pyramid of Giza stands,
Unchanging, and watching over you.

(Insert mad recorder solo here!)

(Verse 2)
Come explore my passageways, what treasures lie inside?
A king who tried to never die, but now is mummified.
All his prized possessions -- his impressive stash of gold --
Were found and stolen long ago.

Your humans lives are far too short, at least compared to mine,
So why chase after things that don't endure the test of time?
You aren't defined by what you have, but rather what you do,
What treasures lie inside of you?

(Chorus)
And here amid the shifting sands,
The Pyramid of Giza stands,
Unchanging, and watching over you.

(Outro, Fade out)

Song Fu

I have entered an online songwriting competition called Masters of Song Fu (this is the 4th such competition). It's a fun little outlet for amateur (and professional) musicians, many of whom have a geek streak like myself. My aim is to increase my experience writing songs and have a fun time doing it. The contest is broken into a number of rounds, and voting is open to the general public. While I appreciate votes, I don't expect that I'll win -- but that's not my goal. I'm just seeing what I'm able to do with music (and learning how to do it better as I go).

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hello World!

If a post drops on a blog and there's no one around to read it, did it really make a sound?

Well, actually, I'm not sure that blogs make sounds, but this is my blog nonetheless. I'm not really sure why I have but it, but apparently everybody has one these days, in order to legitimize their existence, or something. I'm a Christian, a Software Engineer by trade, a Master's student in Computer Science, and have a host of hobbies and interests including programming, gaming, listening-to, playing, and writing music (mostly Baroque and Classical, but I'm experimenting), sci-fi and fantasy, computer graphics, electronics, and probably more that I'm not thinking of at the moment.

For readers who aren't computer programmers, "Hello World" is famously the name of the first program that everybody learns to write when they learn to program. It's kinda like tapping a microphone and saying "Testing... 1, 2, 3". It seems appropriate for a first blog post.

The word "refactoring" in my blog title is probably harder to describe to non-programmers, but I'm (mis-)using it in the sense of an internal transformation to improve understandability.