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©2018 BY ERIK ON MEDICAL INFORMATICS.

When Tools Get Better

April 7, 2018

GarageBand

 

I sing. I know, everyone sings. But I mean, I sing as one of my official hobbies. I started singing along with records. A friend from work heard me sing along with his band at a company function (I may have been drinking) and a few months later invited me to audition when his singer left the band. That audition was a disaster, but I was hooked. I took lessons and bought a microphone and a PA and practiced…listened…practiced…

 

My teacher showed me that Spotify had karaoke tracks for any popular (and even somewhat unpopular) song, so I subscribed to the premium service and sang my ass off to the popular tunes of my misspent youth. 

 

How hard would that have been when I still was a misspent youth? How could I have practiced by myself without a backing track? Maybe I could have played  keyboard or a guitar. I bought a cheap acoustic guitar to give that a shot. Turns out, playing and singing at the same time is an expert level trick. Back then the only way to get good at singing the rock and roll music would have been to join a band. But how would I have practiced between band session? I don’t know. Also, it turns out musicians are notoriously, constitutionally flakey. Spend the next three hours playing super awesome metal with my friends or sit around playing video games and getting high? That’s actually a difficult choice for a real musician.

 

Internet powered karaoke tracks, Spotify or otherwise, provide the devoted hobbyist an opportunity to advance more rapidly than ever before possible. But alone in my room, how could I tell if I was even progressing? “Listen” Jesse taught me, “it’s the most important thing, the key skill for any musician…to listen”; some of the deepest wisdom I have acquired from another person in the past decade. Music (and most creation) is not about following a set of rules in the correct order. It’s about trying things and “listening” to your results. You must listen to your own stuff critically, more viciously critically than you would if it were someone else’s stuff. You’ve been listening to music your whole life. You can tell if the notes you sing go with the notes that are playing and the effect their combination has. You have all the human emotions and if you can detach from your performance you can feel the effect and judge it and put this into a feedback loop and improve and repeat the process until you are…well, not Robert Plant of course, but something better than you were. Pride.

 

But listening to yourself is difficult while you are doing it and you only hear your own point of view with your own familiar voice rattling about and resonating in the same skull you’ve been using for decades. What would it sound like to an audience that had the questionable advantage of living their lives outside your cozy brain pan / pie hole? How would I compare what I was doing live to the studio recordings that comprised 99% of my listening experience? How different was a studio record from a live performance anyhow? Was it just a matter of doing a thousand takes and keeping the best performance? I had an uneasy feeling that singing on records sounded different from real life live performance. Was that a characteristic of the recording? The microphone? Rock and roll singing technique? Is that really what Ozzy Osbourne sounds like in everyday conversation?

 

How could I tell if I was any good? How could I tell if I would sound good to an audience or the poor fool who one day happened upon my performance on Spotify discover weekly and was in the middle of benching and couldn’t hit the next button. Only by answering such questions could I improve in the way I wanted to,

 

“Haven’t you ever recorded yourself?” Corey asked in a perfectly neutral tone which somehow still made me feel like a rube. I probably asked him how he did it but of course the answer for me would be “the computer”. I had a Mac and every Mac comes with GarageBand. I started playing around with it. At first I didn’t know what it was. I mean I knew it had to do with recording music but what did that entail in detail? It was “free” as long as you had already dropped a load of doubloons on a Mac so how good could it be?

 

Turns out, pretty damn good. Bizarrely good. I can’t believe we now take this kind of thing for granted good.

 

I soon worked it out based on internet research which was in turn based on Google and the fact that the internet existed because of an obscure government program from the 1970s that had absolutely nothing to do with music production and the fact that pretty much everyone will express his opinion and share his knowledge for free.

 

For a few hundred bucks I got the industry standard vocal microphone (Shure SM58) and an interface from FocusRite (which I later learned was a legendary manufacturer of studio production equipment likely used to make many of my favorite records) that could take the microphone analog signal, add some volts, and convert it into digits to feed to GarageBand via USB. 

 

I plugged some existing headphones in and downloaded some karaoke tracks from a karaoke service. I added the karaoke MP3 as a track in GarageBand. You press record and can set it up so the karaoke track and your singing play back through the headphones. The first trick I learned was how to set the vocal level relative to the karaoke track in the mix so I could sing in tune to the track. I picked this up pretty quickly and soon I was singing in key consistently. I would record myself singing “House of the Rising Sun”, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, “Master of Puppets” and “Ever Long” and holy crap did I suck.

 

I was on key and on beat pretty consistently but my voice sounded terrible. Why? Humans  naturally hate their own voices when we hear them recorded. I read forums online and, yep, a lot of singers hate their own voices. But there was more to it than that.

 

I interneted on production and mixing and learned some basics. First you need to mess with the frequencies. Some frequencies need to be louder, some quieter. For rock music you pretty much always get rid of the bass, everything below about 100 Hz. I have a pretty deep voice so that was disappointing to learn. I discovered that GarageBand makes it pretty easy to do these frequency edits and my voice sounded better. Then I learned you need to make room in the mix for your voice. You have to “cut through the mix” as the hep cats say. In my case I found I had to increase the volume of frequencies centered on about 2000 Hz. Things were better.

 

As I listened obsessively to my own recordings I was able to alter my singing to remove sounds that I found irritating. After several months I would do it with out conscious effort.

 

I researched more production technique. You can sing the same part on multiple tracks and mix them together so you are, in a sense, harmonizing with yourself.  This was a revelation. I had always wondered why voices on records sounded different from live singing and doubling and frequency editing were obviously a big reason. Then I learned about compression. It was free in Garageband; in the old days a good compressor could have been a thousand bucks. On some songs I experimented with adding fuzz and reverb.

 

And I kept getting better, rapidly. Within a year I had a band (thanks to BandMix.com, another internet thingy) and we were doing original songs and I was co-writing those songs and I had decent skills not only at singing in a live situation but also in the different set of skills needed to record.

 

I’d estimate a year and half. That’s how long it took me from deciding to learn to sing and writing songs in a metal band, recording and preparing to perform live.

 

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s it would have taken years and thousands of dollars to acquire these skills. You would have needed a reliable band and access to a studio and someone willing to let you play around with the very expensive studio equipment. How would one have done this back then? Maybe you would have started in a band and made friends with a studio producer and asked to apprentice? Possibly there were degrees one could earn in junior college? I don’t know. But back then it would be very rare for the lone genius in his basement to be the musical talent and the producer and put together something amazing on his own. In fact the only example I know of is “Boston”.

 

I don’t want to give the impression that I am a professional level singer destined for a career in music. Not even my mom thinks that. I’m just a guy who got good enough to be past the 'this is hard I’m so frustrated I quit!' phase into the 'I still suck compared to my heroes but this is super fun several hours per week and I take great pride in what I have created and I want to do more and keep getting better' phase of run on sentence level achievement.

 

My point is that I was able to get this good and acquire these skills at 5 or 10 times the speed that would have been possible any time before the 1990s. That’s an amazing thing and it’s all because the tools got better, cheaper, faster, and more available.


 

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