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Anniversaganzathon! Free Music!

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Well, the Anniversaganzathon is over, and although I didn’t get as many submissions as I would’ve liked, the ones that I did get were pretty awesome. These are songs from regular folks like you or me, readers of The Makeshift Musician who wanted to make something cool. Click on the title of each song to download it.

First up we have Jettison Joe from California, with the, ahem, creatively titled Makeshift. He says:

“I composed this piece in four or five short sittings at the piano. I recorded it in Garage Band on my Powerbook laptop, which I connect to my Roland FP-7 keyboard with a normal USB cable. The only instrument sound used is Garage Band’s default Grand Piano.”

It’s a very fun piano piece with an absolutely awesome twist about two-thirds the way through the song. It totally changes the feel of the song without changing it’s spirit. Very clean overall, the piano sounds great, which shows you that you don’t need a studio full of professional equipment to make something sound good. GarageBand is truly a great tool for the Makeshift Musician. Thanks Joe!

Next up is my own piece. It’s surf rock mixed with 8-bit chip elements and it’s called Mighty Surf Wizard Battle, because wizard battles are totally sweet. I got the ‘acoustic’ instruments from my Yamaha Motif ES6 and the chip-sounding elements from my Novation XioSynth. I recorded it all in Cubase on a Mac and mastered it in WaveLab on a PC. It started out as a pure rock piece, but, as is the case with most of my songs, it didn’t stay that way for long. The chip elements were an experiment, but they sounded cool as a back-and-forth contrast to the acoustic elements so I decided to keep them in. Also, it’s quite a process to get an electronic guitar to sound realistic. I hope you enjoy it, dear reader; my credibility as a music writer is at stake.

Lastly, we have Jim Hickcox Heartbreaker from either Texas or Tennessee (?) with our only song with lyrics, titled Heartbreaker . In his writeup he weaves technical and personal issues into a classic tale of the troubles of a Makeshift Musician:

“When I saw that the Makeshift Musician was looking for submissions for the Anniversaganathon I decided immediately that I would make not only a pop song, but a second (perhaps less poppy) song using only free software. Two songs. That was my goal. Unfortunately, this goal could not have come at a worse time, as I was in the process of moving from Austin, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to my being in process, most of my instruments (including my midi controller) are in a guy’s garage in Los Angeles right now (remind me to take care of that, would you?). This leaves me with just what’s on my computer and a stunning lack of inspiration.

I have been into pop songs lately, so I wanted to go in that direction, even though I am a rapper by trade. My options for music were as follows: Pd, Max/MSP, Reason, or playing real instruments into either Garageband or Acid. My first attempt was to build a drum machine and synthesizer in Pd. I didn’t get very far. It’s hard. To just program in one song didn’t seem worth it. Perhaps I’ll get back to that. My next try was to program some drum beats in Reason, and then use Acid to record me playing an actual piano (the only instrument I have access to at the moment) and put them together. I kept getting pretty insipid results, though. I’m not a piano player, much though I may wish for it. I ended up working almost entirely in Reason. I had a new restriction this way, because I don’t have my midi keyboard I could only program melodies in Reason’s pattern sequencer, which is fine, but not awesome. Lucky for me, I have a thing for the basic chord playing features on your average fifteen dollar keyboard, so I emulated that. I took the (relatively minimal) track that I made and stuck it in Acid so I could record me singing on it. For whatever reason, I decided to record my singing slow so it would be high-pitched. Sometimes I do that. I also did the opposite, and if you listen closely you can hear what sounds like a retarded bear singing along in the background. I think I needed to do that to fight back against the crispness of the track.”

Seriously, this is a hilarious song. Is it just goofy or is it wry satire? It’s hard to say, but it’s great that he can pull something like this together against difficult odds, some of which he places against himself intentionally. Now I got that chorus stuck in my head.

Thanks for the submissions, guys. Here’s to another awesome year of making music any way we can!

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Be a Part of the Makeshift Musician’s Anniversary

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Originally Published January 2009

That’s right, reader. The Makeshift Musician has now been around for a year! It is now old enough to walk around clumsily and can eat mostly solid foods! I’ve written a little over 40 articles in the last 12 months, and some of my favorites turned out to be yours too, and some articles I’d just rather forget about. Anyway, for the anniversary I thought we would do something a little different. I present to you

The Makeshift Musician’s Music Anniversaganzathon!

I challenge you, reader, to make a song in ONE MONTH. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Just make it, put together a short writeup about how you made it and what equipment you used, and then send it to The Makeshift Musician via I’d prefer that you sent a link rather than the actual file, but do what you need to do. I’ll post the submissions on here for everyone to hear, along with the writeup and whatever lame comments I’d like to add myself.

I don’t care what genre the song is, or how you made it. You could take a Fischer-Price tape recorder and record yourself throwing plastic cups at your Grandma, as long as you did itmusicallyThe due date is February 7th. Also, it would be cooler if this song was something that you started after you read this post, but obviously I can’t regulate that.

Send your ridiculous, awesome, or ridiculously awesome song to by February 7th.

What are you waiting for? Why are you still reading this? There’s nothing left here of value. This sentence doesn’t tell you anything useful. Make some music!

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Music Appreciation

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Often I’ve found myself in social situations like a date or a party where someone asks me “what kind of music do you listen to?” This question usually confounds me. I like good music. How do I convey this to others without sounding like a jerk? I haven’t quite figured that out yet, so I usually just end up haphazardly listing several different musical genres and artists that I’m into at the time. Something like “Oh, I like classic rock like Queen and Kansas, I also listen to a lot of scores for videogames since that’s what inspires me in my career. I love bluegrass. Camille Saint-Saens is my favorite composer, and I love all the folks at OCRemix. Oh yeah, and some punk and electronic stuff as well. Oh and I just started getting into modern funk. Er… What about you?”

At this point I’ve just about killed the conversation. Anyone else have this happen to them?

There are many folks out there who are dedicated to a particular genre . They are the type who will have hundreds of CD’s, possibly alphabetized. They can name all of the obscure sub-grenres within their genre of choice, and they’ll know the vast differences between two different bands when, to us outsiders, they all sound the same.

Then there are those who will just say that they listen to a little of everything. Other music fans tend to look down on these people. The devoted fans will say that those who claim to like any type of music aren’t really listening and don’t appreciate music on a deeper level.

This is bullYou should spend some time and learn to appreciate any type of music you can find.

Let’s go back to my original point. I like good music. I think we can all agree that this covers a wide variety of genres. I like anything that has these elements, in order of importance:

1. Strong Melody
2. Interesting Rhythm
3. Compelling Atmosphere

Having only these three simple requirements means that I can enjoy just about every genre imaginable. I do tend to have a hard time with rap music since there is usually no emphasis on melody, but there are still a few in the genre that I enjoy.

Do not be too afraid, embarrassed or ashamed to enjoy music outside of your usual comfort zone. Our appreciation for music comes almost entirely from our experience of it, meaning our appreciation doesn’t actually come from some built-in musical part of our brain. For instance, if you were to raise a child exposing her to only music in the minor scale, and then as an adult she heard a major scale for the first time, it would sound completely alien to her, with half-step and whole-step changes that didn’t make sense. You can try this on yourself by simply making up a completely arbitrary scale that doesn’t match any known ones and then playing it. What is built in is a sense of rhythm and the ability to recognize the space between notes. Everything else is piled on by the music you listen to.

We will appreciate a song if it has, in our subconscious minds, an equal balance of familiarity and surprise. Too much familiarity and the song becomes boring, like listening to an old children’s song. This is why I hate slogging through most beginner piano books. On the other hand, if the song has too many unfamiliar elements it will sound grating and generally unpleasant. This is why many folks don’t like jazz or metal: they break too many conventions of music that other genres adhere to.

As we age, it seems that our definition of ‘unfamiliarity’ grows wider, and our perception of what is familiar becomes more narrow. By the time we are adults, we’ve pretty much decided what music we like and what we don’t. But remember that these concepts of familiarity are not built in genetically; they are slowly constructed, song by song, out of what you’ve listened to your whole life.

So engineer your own music appreciation. Challenge yourself, and your understanding of music will grow, as well as the music you enjoy. And great new music is always a good thing.

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My Journey Through Music

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

How did I get to where I am now? What cosmic sculptor shaped my life to get me from a dork who knew nothing about music to one who is writing articles about composing and engineering? How does one get from a layman to a master? Okay, I can’t answer that one, since the distance between my skills and ‘master’ is about equal to distance between me and Saturn. But I can at least tell you how I got to where I am, which is a pretty good place to be, let me tell you. What follows is a brief autobiographical account of my musical history. If you’re like me, and I know I am, you’ll be able to extrapolate some of this information to apply to your own life.

When I was a kid I didn’t show much interest in music. Music on the radio tended to bore me. I can’t even begin to describe how little popular music moved me at the time. Now I can look back and appreciate a lot of it, but it sure didn’t affect me then. As I got older, and other kids were listening to snore-fests (at least to me) Nirvana and Green Day, I discovered an obscure branch of music that actually did hold my interest: videogame soundtracks. While the popular grunge movement generally stuck with a couple of chords per song, games like Chrono Trigger, The Dig and EarthBound were showing an absolute stunning variety in musical styles. My emotions were finally being manipulated.

I had a mini tape recorder, the kind used for dictation, and I would hold it up in front of my TV or computer and record the soundtracks of King’s Quest or Castlevania. I would play Mega Man to get to a certain level, then pause it just to listen to the song. I was hooked, though I didn’t understand the full implications of what was happening.

At the same time, I was learning to play trumpet in the school band. I was not particularly good at it, and the only real information I retained from that was reading music from a scale. I eventually quit the band in high school. But around the same time I started gaining an interest in making my own music. I had this image of myself in a room full of blinking machines, building an entire song from scratch. Rich, multilayered compositions would come straight from my brain, through the electronics and onto a CD. It all seemed very romantic and incredible, and I felt like it would be a worthy use of my time and energy. Of course, I had absolutely no idea where to start.

How does one even make music electronically? I knew there were musicians out there who made whole songs and entire albums by themselves, but how did they do it? It was a mystery to me. Did they have special machines? Computers? My family didn’t have a computer more modern than a Commodore 64 until I was much older, and I didn’t quite understand the role of the PC in music making at the time. My sister encouraged me to get turntables, because after all, her favorite DJ’s like Bad Boy Bill and Tiesto spun records, and it all sounded electronc-y, right? I didn’t know, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t it and held off.

Even by the time we got a computer, ‘the internet’, that great modern tool for getting information, at the time was nothing more than a curious novelty for rich people, so our machine was offline. I didn’t know anyone who made music, so it seemed like this dream of being a great music maker, admired by all, would not be fulfilled.

Then one day I was looking through one of those massive computer catalogs that occasionally came in the mail, (remember those?) ogling over the amazingly advanced laptops: Several-color monitor? Less than 15 pounds? CD-ROM?? Anyway I found something in the software section that caught my eye: Sonic Foundry ACID. It was billed as a “loop-based music production tool.” The concept of stringing loops together to make music was a concept that I could grasp, and it was only a hundred bucks. My journey had started.

I ordered it (by mail; who does that anymore?) waited a painstakingly long time for it to arrive, then immediately installed it when it came. It was, in fact, pretty easy to use, and I was stringing together all sorts of loops that came with the program. It was fun, and I learned a lot about putting together music on a computer. I never quite felt truly proud of what I was making, however. These were, after all, just ready-made loops, composed by someone else, and then included with every single copy of ACID. I wanted to write my own music.

I didn’t know a thing about composing, but I went to Best Buy and bought one of those home keyboards and plugged it into my computer through the microphone jack (I know, I know) and started playing little melodies along with the loops that I put together. I started to feel a little better about what I was doing.

Around the same time I was thinking about what I wanted to do for my college career. When the time came to talk to my career counselor, I told him ‘sound engineer’. Composing music just didn’t seem to have career potential at the time, but someone who recorded and made sound effects did. As long as I could be in that room full of machines and blinking lights. This unusual request kind of surprised him, but after a moment’s thought he shuffled over to a filing cabinet and dug up an ancient brochure from a New England School of Broadcasting in Bangor, Maine, which had an Audio Engineering program, supposedly one of the finest on the east coast. I was a little wary because this pamphlet looked like it was from 1975, and in fact the school had changed its name from Broadcasting to Communications since then, but I learned more about it and eventually ended up going there.

Though in my classes I learned to record other people, like actors or a band, I utilized the knowledge I gained for myself. By the time I was finished, I had a complete understanding of how to make music using computers and recording equipment. Actually getting the money to acquire this equipment was a different story, but it was empowering to finallyhave this knowledge. I now understood that making music as a career was a possibility. There was just one problem.

I still did not understand music theory, so at this point I could only make bad music with technical excellence. (This is at least better than bad music with technical sloppiness.) During the next few years I moved and got a job at a major tech company somehow, gradually building a nice studio and making music occasionally. Because of my lack of knowledge I was never quite confident that I could make valuable music, however. Then one day, feeling unfulfilled, I quit my job and decided to work for myself.

Since then I’ve made it a personal quest to teach myself music theory. I picked up the banjo while in college and started formally teaching myself piano a couple years ago. I’ve been leveraging the internet to it’s fullest potential to assist in my learning and have gotten at least good enough for people to want to pay me to make music for their games. This, of course, was the goal the whole time, though maybe I didn’t always know it.

The journey so far has happened over the course of roughly ten years and I am far from finished. I still only perceive it as beginning, and I’m excited for what is to come. Come back in another ten years and I’ll tell you where I’ve gone.

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Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations. These violations can occur in any domain – the domain of pitch, timbre, contour, rhythm tempo, and so on – but occur they must. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that no one wants to listen to. Scales, for example, are organized, but most parents get sick of hearing their children play them after five minutes.

-Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin was recommended to me by a reader after I wrote one of my most popular articles, The Importance of Music to Humankind. I recently finished the book and I decided to share my thoughts on it with you.

Daniel Levitin is a record producer turned neuroscientist, driven by a great curiosity and passion for the world of music. He knows many famous people in both the music industry (such as the Grateful Dead) and the field of human biology (like Francis Crick). Because of all this I consider him to be a great asset to the world, as he helps us a get a little bit closer to understanding why music is a part of us.

What about the book though? He starts off with telling us about each of the basic components of music, like rhythm, melody and so on. Even if you already know music theory it’s presented in such a unique way, from the angle of a scientist, that it is still compelling to read. He tells us what parts of the brain are at work for each aspect of music, and what it might tell us about ourselves.

He goes on to discuss how music manipulates our emotions, how hours of practice, rather than talent, makes good musicians (score one for makeshift musicians!), and how culture and evolution both affect our music in different ways.

One problem that I had with this book was that Levitin wanders a lot in the course of each chapter. He breaks the well-established convention of letting the reader know where the author is going with a particular tangent. He’ll start a topic, then veer off with some anecdotal story without telling the reader how it ties in to his point, sometimes for several pages, until he’s done. Occasionally he won’t even bother tying it in at all. This makes it a somewhat more difficult read than it should be, but the information is so fascinating that I didn’t mind too much.

Every musician will benefit greatly from reading this book. It will help you understand what it is you are doing when you write and perform music. Levitin’s insight will give you focus on your purpose as a musician, and the powerful and strange things that happen to your consciousness when you listen to music will seem just a little less ethereal. 

Most Interesting Piece of Information: The fact that inside your brain is an honest-to-god synthesizer. It’s so complete that if you were to wire up that particular part of your brain to a speaker, you could produce simple tones just by thinking about them. We don’t actually do this because poking wires into a human brain is generally considered to be a bad idea. We’re not entirely sure how this evolved.

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Interview with Star Salzman

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Who is Star Salzman? He’s the most fun singer/songwriter/composer/producer you’ve never heard of. Check out his website at and you’ll see what I mean. With a keen and intelligent pop mentality, he writes catchy and whimsical vocals, complex synth arpeggios, sweeping (and realistic-sounding) orchestral arrangements and interesting, multi-layered drum parts. Take a listen for yourself, these are a couple of my favorites: GoodbyeBenadrylThe Long Road to OctoberHome is With You

Or hear some of his fantastic videogame remixes (from scratch. Not like those awful ‘remixes’ you hear at the end of pop albums): Tickle My WilyPillar of Salt

Since he writes, plays, sings, records and masters everything himself and is then humble enough to offer it to the world for free, I thought he would be a perfect candidate for the Makeshift Musician’s very first interview. Thankfully, he also thought this was a good idea. (Warning: small amount of profanity ahead):

MM: First off, tell me about yourself, for folks who don’t know who you are. What do you do?

Star: This is how you start out?! What do I do? I coalesce the vapors of human emotion into a semi-tangible musical experience.

Not really. Mostly I am just trying to figure out where I fit into things. I spend most of my time working my day job, which is figuring out computer problems, and then I come home and spend most of my other energy on social interaction, and if I have any leftover I write a few notes or tweak a few volume envelopes on the song that I’m working on. I wouldn’t say I’m a musician. I would say that occasionally I write music. Most folks don’t really know I’m into writing music. But I doubt they’d be surprised to find out, either.

MM: How did your interest in making music start?

Star: I used to be a bit of a nerd in middle school. I was in choir and orchestra and stuff. Really into music and really into composers. So I started downloading lots of .MODs off of BBSs and then I was listening to them in Scream Tracker 3 when I realized I could change parts I didn’t like and even write stuff since I didn’t have the download credits to get new music myself. But everything I wrote was very crap ( (1995ish). So I forgot about it for a while. In college I had a lot of free time on my hands so I started writing music again, this time using Impulse Tracker ( ( (2000ish). I was still using the same samples I ripped off my mod collection from 5 years previous.

Anyway, music changed for me one day, when I was madly in love with a chick who later turned out to be a lesbian. I decided to record my devotion to this chick in song form. And thus my first lyric music was born ( I recorded this in my dorm room on a p3 450 by first writing the music in impulse tracker, and then playing it through my speakers into sound blaster’s wav recording thing while singing over it through a Packard Bell screenmount microphone with a Ricola cough drop wrapper as a pop screen. One take, no autotune, just some chorus and reverb thanks to SBLive EAX. I was such a good vocalist back then. I seriously have deteriorated.

Anyway, showed this song to her (she never knew it was about her, I think) and she said it was “cheesy” so in a fit of emotional angst I stopped writing for a while again. A bit later a friend of mine was showing me this complicated program called Reason. I helped him figure out some basics on it, and then took the demo home to try myself. I fell in love immediately and wrote this piece of crap: ( (2001) but the seed had been planted. Since then it’s been a steady, slow improvement process. Along the way I started using cubase to sequence instead of Reason, and started gravitating more and more toward vocal music. Interestingly enough, the first vocal thing I did that was met with any sort of positive feedback was the Incredible Singing Robot ( (2003). But the rest is pretty boring incremental improvements.

MM: Did you have a lot of formal training in the areas of music, composing, or recording? How did you learn these things?

Star: I’ve had formal training on a few instruments. I was in orchestra for a couple of years on string bass… had private lessons for a year on Saxophone. But most of my real training is vocal. I was in choir for 4 years in high school and competed and such. I was really into it. Composing and recording I just sort of figured out by myself. When I was starting out there weren’t much resources on the internet for learning that sort of thing. There was no such thing as web 2.0 or Wikipedia. People were using Netscape in windows 3.11. I learned both recording and composing by painful trial and error and having some really close and honest friends to keep me dispassionate. Nothing is more important than an honest opinion when you are learning. I try to be as honest as possible with folks for that very reason. If something is crap, you should say it’s crap. Don’t beat around the bush.

MM: Most people, even many great musicians, avoid composing and producing because they’re intimidated by the idea and are afraid of looking or sounding bad. What gave you the confidence to write and produce and *gasp* sing? What keeps you confident?

Star: Honestly when I started out I didn’t need to be confident. My music was for me. This was again, pre-online community era where people still did art and stuff for their own personal enjoyment rather than social validation. This has largely been obsoleted by the tons and tons of online communities willing to provide “feedback” to folks. Singing I had the confidence from competition and solos in choir and whatnot. It was never really an issue. I’ve sung at weddings, in public, in front of large audiences so that part was pretty natural. Writing and production I basically tempered on the anvil of harsh self-analysis and equally harsh opinions from my friends until I made something to be proud of. However that bar keeps climbing, which makes it hard to produce anything anymore. What keeps me confident? Partly, it’s the nice feedback I get from people, my family and friends. The recognition is nice and it validates my own sense of confidence.

MM: What instruments do you play, and what is your studio setup?

Star: I suppose I technically play the piano a tad, but very terribly. However, I just added a badass Yamaha So8 Keyboard in addition to my crap no-name midi keyboard. I have two Event Studio Precision ASP8 Powered Monitors which kick all sorts of ass and were very expensive. I have a nice dual core amd 3800+ with 4 gigs of ram and a shiteload of hdd space. I have a rack setup with an ART Studio V3 preamp, an Electrix Warpfactory vocoder, a Boss RV-70 reverb, and my Motu 2408 Mk2 hardware interface. I have 3 mics: an AKG Solidtube, an AKG C3000b, and a Shure Sm58. I also have a Yamaha midi DT3Express drum interface that a friend left over here and never picked up. And a guitar and a bass lying around for no reason. All of this stuff including the rack and keyboard I bought used for around half price off craigslist, with the exception of the computer and my speakers. I also have a separate pc running gigastudio with an M-audio firewire audiophile. Pictures: Http:// Http://

MM: What inspires you as a musician and composer?

Star: Chicks, mostly. After chicks, myself. I really only get into songs when I really like them. If I don’t absolutely love the song, I usually half-ass it till completion. If I love the song, I can’t stop writing it. I think you can usually tell when I start disliking a song because it’ll radically change in the middle out of nowhere. That’s my feeble attempt to create inspiration by changing things up.

MM: Any awesome techniques you would like to share?
Tons! One I really like is for pop songs, mix/master at a low volume. It works wonders since your ear works with a lot of natural compression. Also, free VSTs are great! Check out ymVST! Great synth. I use it all the time. Also, for a real punchy song, double the drum with the bass in a regular pattern. With vocals, sometimes it’s good to use double mics to get different EQ curves. Also, a good way to mix multiple vocals is to go into a parametric EQ and peak a certain set of frequencies until it sounds painful and clips. Basically you find where your own voice has spikes when added to itself. Then invert the curve to eliminate the spike. Use vocoder on sources other than voice on synths for cool effects. Like instead of singing use a drum track to make a synth percussive.

Arpeggios are awesome! A great arpeggio is the 16th triplet arpeggio. Go up in thirds or on the pentatonic scale for 5 notes, then starting on the 3rd note of the original 5 notes, go up 5 more notes in either scale and repeat that pattern until you’ve filled out the measure. It sounds great. To vary up a regular, pulsing synth line, use pitchbends and play with note length. Say you’ve got an 8th note regular arpeggio, for the first iteration go the full 8th notes, second, change the 8th to 16th+16th rest with a pitchbend on the last note… It’s nice for variety instead of just varying velocity and timbre. Glissando/portamento is awesome! But use it for EMPHASIS rather than general effect. Try to vary intensity in general throughout your song, have a climax, have quiet parts. They make music much more interesting.

MM: How do you like working in different genres? Do you have a favorite genre that you like to write for?

Star: For a while, different genres were my only means of inspiration. I was so tired of my standard stuff. Most of the time I don’t really have a set genre when I set out to write stuff, and even when I do sometimes it goes in a completely different direction than I planned. Case in point: This started out as “80s” music but ended up sounding like the weather channel. But I made it work. I don’t really have a favorite genre. I just have some that I really hate. I hate most drum and bass, and I hate most “indie rock”. Before you jump all over me, I just think calling something ‘indie’ these days is usually just an excuse for shitty production and lousy singing. Since I am responsible for both and I know these bands make way more money than I do, they might as well stop pretending it’s because they are ‘indie’ and admit that it’s for the ‘I don’t care’ image.

MM: How do you decide what to work on?

Star: I work on whatever generates the most fun for me at the time. If it’s not fun I’ll unusually do something else. Like play video games.

MM: What about remixes? What makes you choose a particular song to remix?

Star: Mostly fun factor. Also I try to remix stuff that I think will generate a lot of feedback.OCRemix for me has turned into a confidence booster. I don’t really write remixes for myself. I write them so folks will tell me I’m good. Shallow, I know. But it helps. So whenever I feel like I suck at music, I make an ocremix to make myself feel better.

MM: What advice would you give to a budding musician, or what advice really helped you when you were starting out?

Star: My advice is to get honest opinions and LISTEN to them. Even if it means you have to cry a bit. If your stuff isn’t ready for prime time, the honest person will tell you. Go work on it. You aren’t perfect, you aren’t even close especially when you first start out. Don’t listen to sycophants, listen to the critics. If you make them happy, then you are probably making pretty decent music.

MM: How has making music affected your life, and how has your life affected your music?
Making music gives me stuff to talk about at parties where there aren’t any “real” musicians there who will argue with me for hours about how software will never sound as good as hardware. It lets me hate bands because I can say “I could do better” and then prove it when I get called out. My life has gotten in the way of my music and the output has slowed considerably. But I still love it. Hopefully will have more music for you to listen to soon.

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The Origins of American Music

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

In the last 100 years, the music output from American culture has become a dense and intricate web of interesting history, with new genres created and adored practically every few years, and musical styles splitting, forming, coalescing and ultimately mixing back with the styles they split from in the first place. It’s all a very evolutionary process; the DNA of musical styles mutated by individual artists, their survival decided by record companies and ultimately listeners.

But the origins of American music can be traced back to relative simplicity. Essentially, if you learn nothing else, remember that almost all American music stems from the mixing of European folk music (mostly Irish) and African folk music. The Irish, Scottish, English, French and Spanish immigrants, many living in the Appalachian mountains, started hanging out with African former slaves, who’s polyrhythmic spiritual music was already gaining popularity after the civil war. The Civil War itself brought many whites and blacks together simply out of necessity; soldiers’ fighting together shared their music with each other. Modern bluegrass is the closest reflection of this ancient (by American standards) combination of styles.

Negro Christian Spiritual hymns gained popularity in the late 1800’s, which were essentially old European hymns sung in an African call-and-response polyrhythmic style. Then near the end of the century, a peculiar African American dance gained popularity; an over-the-top parody of ballroom dancing called the Cakewalk, often accompanied by goofy costumes. The intense popularity of this led to ragtime, which then evolved into jazz, thanks mostly to African American marching and, bizarrely, funeral bands from New Orleans. Jazz, of course, became possibly the single most influential change in America music and led to blues and rock n’ roll. You probably know the rest.

It is interesting to note that if it weren’t for African Americans, the United States would probably still be listening to John-Philips Sousa and Irish-Appalachian jigs.

This is all a gross oversimplification of the full history of American music. I didn’t even go into Native American music, Cajun, Latin-American, or any of the several other cultural styles that have had their effect on our culture. The amount of literature related to this subject seems near infinite; the depth at which you can research any particular sub-topic is really only limited by your own conviction. Now that you have this tiny bit of information, you can strike out on your own and maybe hear some new stuff on the way.

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The Makeshift Musician’s Favorite Albums

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This week, allow me a little bit of self-indulgence with my list of my favorite albums. I can listen to these any time and love the experience over and over again. Everyone should be listening to these. Here they are, in no particular order:

Queen – A Night at the Opera – …and not just because of Bohemian Rhapsody. Actually, my favorite song on the album is ’39. This album is a pinnacle of songwriting, musicianship, experimentation, dramatic effect, modern recording, and just plain delivery. When you listen to this album, you can tell that Queen knew what they were doing and they can outclass anyone else in the world of rock.

Greg Graffin – Cold as the Clay – This humble collection of old-timey folk songs has depressing subject matter but nevertheless has an incredible warmth to it. The simple honesty of it all is inspiring. Plus it shows us that old-fashioned recording techniques still have a place in modern music.

Telefon Tel Aviv – Map of What is Effortless – Telefon Tel Aviv is a little known duo from Chicago who made the lovely album Fahrenheit Fair Enough back in 2001. In 2004, they released Map of What is Effortless, which was completely different in presentation. While the first album was light, glitchy and relaxing, the second album is dark, funky, dramatic and soulful. The album has that wonderful quality of being an epic musical journey from start to finish.

Eumir Deodato – Deodato 2 – Deodato was a pioneer in genre fusion. Deodato 2 is the epitome of his music writing skill and his and his band’s improv abilities. It’s sort of a mix of Latin, disco, jazz and funk. If I wanted to show you true musicianship, I would play this album for you.

Orbital – Middle of Nowhere – Orbital had an interesting history: some of their albums had a random, haphazard feel to them, while others would be amazing examples of clarity, substance and overarching intention. Middle of Nowhere fell into the latter category. Starting with the over-the-top double feature of Way Out and Spare Parts Express, the album descends into mysterious and moody atmosphere before slowly bringing itself back up to upbeat conclusions with Style. Another musical journey showing the great skill and experience of the Brothers Hartnoll.

Bad Religion – the Process of Belief – Most people would cite earlier Bad Religion albums, likeStranger Than Fiction, as their favorite, but the combination of dead-on songwriting, new drummer Brooks Wackerman, and much higher production values put this one on top for me. If nothing else, no one can fault Bad Religion for their bull-headed consistency and dedication to their craft. Particular favorites on this album are Kyoto Now! and Bored and Extremely Dangerous.

Alison Krauss & Union Station – New Favorite – Anyone who says white folks have no rhythm have obviously never listened to bluegrass. Bluegrass is the closest modern genre to our American musical heritage, the fusion of Irish and African folk music. Allison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglass and the rest of Union Station are the finest ambassadors to the mostly forgotten world of our past. And what incredible musicians they are! Listening to them jam together is a truly transcendent experience. New Favorite is the most accessible and fun album, with a lot of rhythm and a good showing from all the vocalists.

They Might Be Giants – Apollo 18 – Weird, nerdy experimental rock at its finest. This was when TMBG’s style was still catchy and fun in addition to being eccentric. Highlights include The Statue Got Me HighDinner Bell, and the incredible Fingertips, a sequential collection of no less than twenty individual songs, all different, each between five and thirty seconds long.

William Orbit – Strange Cargo – Undeniable atmosphere. Extensive sonic variety. Masterful skill with a studio. William Orbit’s Strange Cargo albums represent all of these things. One minute you’re listening to lovely latin style folk music, the next minute an unsettling soundscape of dissonant music and sound effects, then an 80’s sounding rock song with backup instruments that sound like they came from the Amiga demo scene. All of the Strange Cargo albums are great, but the first one makes the best overall impression throughout the entire album. Pick this one up to hear something truly unique.

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The Importance of Music to Humankind

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

I can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t love and/or express music in some way. I have one roommate who plays guitar and piano, another who sings and dances in stage productions. My dad plays multiple instruments in a church group. My best friend is the lead singer in a popularemo band. Everyone I know can talk passionately about either the music they make or their favorite music of others. People associate certain songs with specific memories and even develop emotional attachments to them. Heck, Guitar Hero, a game involving only rudimentary musical performance is far more popular than anyone imagined.

Clearly, music is a powerful force that drives all of us. Although I think the term “universal language” is misleading (play some modern heavy metal for your grandma to see what I mean), I still think there’s wisdom to that statement, pointing out the deep, subtle and compelling influence that music has on our subconscious.

What is music? Why are we even capable of creating and appreciating it? Did music evolve specifically along with our other unique traits, like communication, strong memory and creative thinking? Was it once a necessary part of survival in some direct or indirect way? Or is our extraordinary ability simply an emergent behavior; just a lucky bonus that came along, unplanned, packaged in as a result of our innovative brains?

We can (relatively) easily trace other aspects of human behavior to evolutionary survival and social techniques. For example, we enjoy team sports because their main aspect, rapid coordinated group behavior achieving a goal, is built in to our DNA. Look at football: there’s really not a huge difference between a group of players throwing a ball towards a goal and a group of hunters throwing spears at an aurochs. Communication was always important in a hunt, which, unlike most modern hunting for sport, involved a large group of people. This necessity for coordinated articulation initially led to sign language and eventually spoken language.

With such large groups of people living and working together their whole lives, communication had to eventually develop into something more abstract and versatile than simply the expressing of tactics. To develop camaraderie in a large tribe of folks, symbolic thinking and a sense of humor developed, which led to mathematics, visual arts and laughter.

This, and much more, are all things that anthropologists have known for years. But where does music fit in? This is more difficult to find out. Methods for recording music didn’t exist until the 1800’s, so while we have cave paintings or venus figurines to show us the visual expressiveness of our distant ancestors, we don’t have an equivalent for music. We’ve found some prehistoric instruments, like 30,000-year-old flutes made out bone capable of a five note diatonic scale, but these don’t tell much without us resorting to educated guesses. So all we have are theories of a relatively few dedicated musical anthropologists.

Is music unique among humans? Birds make a repeating pattern of notes that we call a “song”. Whales will repeat hours-long sequences of clicks and whistles, presumably from memory, that we also label as “songs”. Though, really, nobody has any idea what they’re doing. Why is that great apes, who share more than 90% of our genetic material, display no musical abilities, while humpback whales might be writing day-long symphonies right under our noses? The questions just never end.

My point is that despite all the music that we have made and enjoyed in the span of recorded history, we still may have only scratched the surface of the full potential of music. It may in fact really be a universal language, and we’ve all forgotten how to utilize it in that way. Nobody really knows. If we can somehow figure out where music came from and how it emerged, we might all be able to tap into some long dormant part of our brain (which really hasn’t changed in 250,000 years) and realize the true potential for music.

So here’s my goal: to achieve a deeper understanding of the origins of music and to understand the “point” of it being part of humankind’s physiology and identity. I will achieve this by 1) Understanding as much about music itself as possible, through playing, composing, studying and listening, and 2) Researching as much as I can on the subjects of anthropology, musical anthropology, evolutionary theory and biomusicology. You can bet that I’ll write about my findings whenever I get to a point of greater understanding. Feel free to send me your own thoughts as well.

Here are some books I plan on reading. Check them out yourself if you’re interested:

The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithin
Essentials of Physical Anthropology by R Jurmain, L Kilgore and W Trevethan
How Musical Is Man? by John Blacking
The Anthropolgy of Music by A Merriam and V Merriam

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Guitar Hero Vs. Actual Musical Skills

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Ah, Guitar Hero. Who would’ve thought that hitting rainbow colored buttons on a Fischer-Price toy while watching cartoon characters dance on screen would be so popular amongst adults and teenagers, who are usually very self-conscious about that kind of thing? Everyone has wondered whether Guitar Hero skills translate to actual musical skills.Alas, just about every real musician will tell you that they don’t. That’s only the quick answer though, and it’s not entirely true. I think there is some benefit to your musicals skills by playing with that little plastic toy guitar, even if those benefits are subtle, basic mental ones. I’m no neuroscientist, but I decided to do some research on the subject and then come to some hasty conclusions after that. Here’s what I found.

When you play Guitar Hero, you are sort of performing a simplified version of sight reading: watching as the nodes come down the line and then hitting the associated note. Now, obviously you aren’t reading from a real musical scale, and you only have a maximum of five notes to keep track of. But there’s one crucial difference between Guitar Hero and actual sight reading: Timing.

In sight reading studies, people display two different eye movement behaviors, saccades andfixations. Saccades are the rapid movement of the eye from one location to another, and fixations are when the eye lingers on a particular note. Though the musician is keeping time, this is not necessarily true for their eye movements. A musician may choose to occasionally move his or her eyes ahead briefly to see what is coming up, or they may have to perform rapid saccades when the melody gets complicated. With Guitar Hero, the “musical staff” is continually moving, forcing both the player and their eyes to keep up. The player cannot see very far ahead, so they can’t plan. During the first several rounds of a song in Guitar Hero, the player goes through some very rigorous sight reading exercise. Now, if someone would make an educational Piano Hero, with a moving musical staff (thanks Joe, for that idea), we could have a truly amazing way to learn to sight read.

There was a study done in 1997 by FE Truitt on peripheral visual input. This refers to the ability of the eye to capture more data around the point of focus without actually moving. The study found that even the most skilled sight readers could only see about 5 beats ahead when focusing on one note. Unskilled sight readers could only see about 2 ahead. With a constantly moving “staff” and a very short viewing distance, Guitar Hero is most certainly exercising your peripheral visual ability. Both the musician and the guitar hero will be exercising their short-term musical memory, storing what notes they can, and processing them to be played. Will Guitar Hero help with sight reading actual music? Nobody knows for sure, but it probably can’t hurt.

Of course, after several rounds of a particular song, the player is mostly relying on pattern memorization. But really, the same is true for musicians. A musician, when practicing a piece, will play a particularly difficult part over and over again. A Guitar Hero player is forced to play the entire song at the same tempo every time, where a musician can play however they want. Once again, the guitar hero is only playing different combinations of the same five notes, so they have a severe advantage over the musician.

Of course, the most obvious benefit of playing Guitar Hero would be the exercising of the fingers of your ‘fret’ hand while hitting the five buttons. I don’t believe this really does a lot for your fret ability on a real guitar, since that involves moving your hand in very bizarre and unnatural positions. But it does exercise your finger muscles and improves your coordination, which can translate, at least, directly to better piano skills. For your left hand, anyway.

So does being a master at Guitar Hero make you a better musician? I’m going to say no. Does it help with some basic motor skills that are required for a good musician? After doing some simple research, I would say yes. However, the amount of time some people spend becoming a truly scary Guitar Hero hero might be better spent actually learning guitar or piano instead. At least then you have the potential for real groupies instead of pretending to have them.

This is certainly not an exhaustive report, just me gaining a little bit more knowledge on the subject. There’s plenty more to read about neuroscience, muscle coordination, sight reading and all manner of other things related to pushing giant, brightly colored buttons to a beat while pretending to be cool.

For the record, I absolutely love Guitar Hero, but I’m embarrassingly bad at it. Guess you never can tell, eh?

Some interesting reading:

Wikipedia – Eye Movement in Music Reading

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