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Podcast: The Process of Making a Song

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This week I’m doing something a little different. You can now listen to me provide a running commentary on one of my own songs. I talk about the chords, working with MIDI, EQ, robots, and how stuff comes together to make a cohesive whole. It’s like having the Makeshift Musician come over to your house! In a non-creepy kind of way. You can download the original, non-commentizated track, Ashur, the Sky God here. Then,

download the podcast here.

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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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The Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a Musician

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

If you’re looking to learn about playing, writing or recording music in some way, any way, but don’t quite know where to start, this is for you

So you want to start making music? You want to be the next Bach? Have lots of ideas and want to make a CD? Perhaps you just have a serious deficiency of groupies in your life and you want to change that? Whatever brought you here, you want to make music in some way, and doing that may not be as hard as you think. This guide will act as your starting point on your new path. Regardless of what instrument you want to play, or what kind of music you want to get into, this guide will show you how to get started, from choosing an instrument and learning to play it to composing and eventually recording. 

Before you start

If you’re completely convinced of your own ineptitude, or you think it is too late for you to take up the difficult task of making music, then I’ve got something to say to you:

You Don’t Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Getting an instrument

The most popular instruments in Western society are the rock staples (guitar, bass guitar and drums) and piano. There are plenty of other instruments out there to choose from though, if you feel like doing something different. If you haven’t decided yet, take a look at this article for advice on choosing and buying an instrument:

Picking up an Instrument

If you’ve picked piano, here are couple of other articles that you should check out:

Starting out with Piano
Piano Playing Tips for Beginners – (note: while this article was technically written for pianists, the lessons generally apply to all instruments)

Becoming a better listener

As you start to play music, you’ll discover an interesting phenomenon: you’ll notice more about the musical world around you. After a while, you’ll gain the ability to de-construct all the different music that you’ve been listening to. This is a wonderful experience and will make you a more observant person in general. Now is a good time to take the initiative and start actively becoming a more deliberate listener. Try the techniques listed in these articles and discover new dimensions in music that you never understood before:

Introduce Yourself to New Musical Genres
Listening to Music Intelligently

Composing music

I have two things to say here about composing music, whether it’s a short rock song or a 20-minute symphony. 1. All music, and I mean all of it, is made of of the same basic components, which means that if you can write a bluegrass song, you can also make a disco song, a dirge, a traditional Japanese folk song or anything else you could imagine with the same basic techniques.2. There’s no special talent or magical skill needed to write music. If you have the ability to make pleasing sounds on your instrument of choice, then you also have the capability to compose your own songs. Once you’ve learned some music theory, even just a little, you’ll realize how simple it is. If you can take a pile of colored blocks and arrange them in an interesting pattern, then you’ll be pleased to know that while writing music is a bit more complicated, it’s still pretty much the same basic concept. If you’re still not convinced, this might change your mind:

Gain the Confidence to Compose Music

Then look over these once you’ve decided to take the plunge:

Don’t Find Inspiration: Create It
Daily Songwriting Exercise

Making a studio and recording music

This is possibly the most complicated part of being a musician, but it can also be the most fun overall. Recording is also most likely the most mysterious aspect of music creation for beginners. Years ago, the recording realm belonged solely to the professionals with expensive studios. Now that computers have changed literally everything in our society, anyone can make a studio of their own and even make their music sound fairly professional with minimal equipment.

There are a couple of things you need to know when delving into the recording world. First is the concept of multitracking. You need to understand how that works before you can understand how a studio works:

An Introduction to Multitrack Recording

Knowing and understanding the components of a studio and how they relate to each other make up the second important part of what you need to know. You can learn this and how to build your own studio on a minimal budget in the Makeshift Musician’s most popular article, short and snappy:

Make Your Own Recording Studio

or go in depth with the ultimate resource:

The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Read these too:

What Speakers Should I Get?
Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

Once you’ve got your studio up and running, this would be a good read:

How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth


What is left to learn, now that you’ve become a prolific, multi-talented musician? Believe it or not, there’s still a lot we don’t know about music and how it affects us. There’s much to learn, and you could devote your whole life to music and still not learn everything there is to know about it. Here are a couple of articles that may help guide you towards a deeper understanding of the mysterious phenomenon that is ‘organized sound’:

The second most popular article on the site: The Importance of Music to Humankind
Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
The Origins of American Music

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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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How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Thanks to Jade from OffBeatLove for the article idea

I recently went to see a great funk band perform at a big event. I’ve been into funk music lately and I really liked their sound; enough that I decided to buy their CD after the show. I was pleased to learn that the album contained pretty much the same set that the band played at the show, and since their set was fantastic I was excited when I put it in the CD player in my car a few days later.

Well… It was clear that it was the same band. The talent showed through, but… it was just so dull! I kept skipping tracks, ready for the next one to blow me away with some badass funkiness. Instead I got that disappointing feeling of being underwhelmed. (Now you know why I don’t name the band itself!)

Why does this happen? How does a great band make such a stunningly mediocre album? The answer, good reader, is what I call conservative recording.

Let’s say you’re just learning how to record. You’ve learned all the rules of proper recording, like avoiding overloading and conventional EQ techniques. For example, you are supposed to record with a loudness threshold at just below the point of overloading (overloading causes distortion) and you are expected to keep the entire mix that way. When using EQ you are told to dampen tracks instead of boosting them whenever possible. Reverb is only for room ambiance. These and many other techniques make up what is considered ‘correct’ recording: methods for making music that is pleasing to listen to.

It is vitally important that you learn these rules and implement them. Understanding why these guidelines and practices have been established will make you a better recording artist. What I’m getting at though may involve a fundamental rethinking of the recording and mixing act itself.

In both the visual and musical arts, the great, respected masters have spent years learning the rules of their craft. A master painter has learned perspective, light and shadow, and anatomy techniques. A master musician and composer has a deep understanding of music theory, like chord progressions, rhythm and melody. Their status of ‘master’ however, was not achieved by their technical skill alone, but also from the skillful way that they bent and broke conventions in ways that surprise and move us and allow us to see the world from a new perspective. Yet they could not have achieved any of that without first learning the rules. One who has no technical skill and who simply breaks conventions will likely end up producing ugly art, and one who has great technical skill but doesn’t surprise us will end up boring us to tears. Both trained skill and the creative violation of expectations are necessary to make great art.

How does this all apply to recording? Instead of viewing recording as a means of getting your live performance on tape, you should instead be looking at your recorded music as a separate kind of performance, in a way unrelated to your live one. The recording act should be seen as an integral part of the performance, rather than a means to an end. How you mix your music will affect how people enjoy it, so it should be given just as much care and attention as your playing.

Let your drums overload a bit. Crank the midrange equalizer on your guitar track in a way you’ve never heard before. Use effects in unconventional ways. Never be afraid to break the rules of recording to see how it sounds. The beauty of digital recording is that you can simply change it back if you don’t like it.

Give your recordings some life! Do everything you can to make the recording as breathtaking as the live performance. You and I both know that this is possible, but as long as you keep viewing recording as an obstacle in the way of your music, then you’ll never be able to achieve true studio greatness. The problem with the funk band was that they recorded and mixed their music very well, with great technical proficiency, but they didn’t take advantage of the opportunities available to them with producing an album. 

The sound made by musical instruments and human voices are fundamentally altered and weakened when recorded and played back. You can easily tell the difference between a real guitar playing and one playing through a speaker. This is why we have studios in the first place; you can’t just put a microphone in front of a band and expect the recording to sound great. You need to use the recording and mixing tools at your disposal to make that band sound incredible.

So do it. Learn the essentials of good recording, and then add the same level of passion and creativity to your studio work as you would anything else that you love do. Don’t play it conservatively. Do it like you mean it, and your album will be something you’re proud about.

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5 Reasons Why You Should be a Musician Instead of Working in IT

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Whenever some bloated media company makes a list of the best jobs available, ‘Information Technology’ or ‘Software Engineer’ is invariably on it. Popping up like some wretched leprechaun, it promises you good pay, exciting challenges and opportunities for long-term growth. This must be a lie, as someone clearly tripped, fell on a keyboard and accidentally published jobs like ‘Product Brand Manager’ and ‘Paralegal’ on the same list. Don’t fall for it. You should become a musician and make people pay you for your music instead. You don’t have to worry about ‘job stability’ when you’re unemployed. Here are five reasons why you should give up the corporate hamster-wheel and start making noise:

1. Women – There’s no question: rock stars attract the opposite sex. Look at Keith Richards (or better yet, don’t), a man who could probably frighten babies just by thinking about them. If women can somehow overlook his terrifying fossilized-magma-face, then they can certainly find the strength to ignore your pasty complexion and never-lifted-anything-heavier-than-a-paycheck body, just as long as you’re holding a guitar. Some anthropologists believe music performance evolved as a method to attract potential mates. If this is true, then ghouls like Steven Tyler and dorks like John Mayer so far represent thepinnacle of human evolution. Be afraid.

And if you happen to be a member of the fairer sex, well, if you’re not yet tired of having every guy you meet slobber all over you, how about meeting a few more of them by becoming a musician? 

2. No Money Problems Really, how can you have money problems when you have no money? Only the most successful rock gods have to think about nerve-wracking stuff like ‘which dollar-bill denomination should I roll up and smoke tonight?’ All you’ll have to worry about is gas money, Taco Bell and where you can crash after a gig. You get to have the Zen-like existence of a traveling monk, except with burritos and more hair.

3. Better Self-Image – Actually, you don’t have to change much here. Instead of being a muscled barbarian warrior with a sweet ax on your D&D character sheet, you get to be a muscled barbarian warrior with a sweet ax on your album cover. What could be better?

4. No More Corporate Butt-Monkey – Corporate life is rough. If people don’t like you at your job, you pretty much have to just bend over and take it like a champ. For instance: 

Boss: Your code for the donkey level is messed up. The QA testers couldn’t even get 3 donkeys in the bed before the whole game crashed. And I know you logged 150 hours of overtime last week to make it, but we decided to put those funds towards gold-plating the inside of the CEO’s pockets, so now they’re always full of money. Oh yeah, and you’re fired.

You: Oh no, who will crush my spirits and make me want to dig my eyes out with pistols now?

No one can really say ‘You’re fired’ to a musician. 

5. Fulfill Your Childhood Dream – When you were a kid, did you say, “When I grow up, I want to work hard at my job so that each day I can be propelled a little bit further up the corporate anus”? You probably said something more like “When I’m older, I’m going to play a song so ridiculously awesome that John Lennon himself will have no choice but to crawl his fetid corpse out of the grave and throw up the horns.”

Maybe not in so many words. 

Though children crying have to be one of the funniest things on this green Earth (see Fig.3), if you think that your child-self would have cried at the sight of your current-self, then you need to snatch up a guitar right now faster than Fat-Elvis would grab a peanut-butter-&-‘nana sammich.

After you read this, you’ll probably go back to pretending to write an SSH script and when you get home you’ll strap on that ever-dignifiedplastic Guitar Hero toy for your nightly session and think to yourself “I can’t make music. I have no talent!” This will be your excuse. Well, I’ve beaten that argument to death with a bloody wrench already, and I’m still not done talking about it. I challenge you to take up an instrument, quit your job, and start looking for gigs. Give Lennon’s corpse an awkward, grimy high-five for me when you get to the top.

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You Don’t Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

You know why I believe in this so much? I’ll tell you why.

I joined the school band when I was in fifth grade. I played trumpet. I didn’t particularly like playing the trumpet and I only mildly enjoyed class. When, in high school, we had to learn music theory, I was almost completely mystified by things like the Circle of Fifths, chords and other musical concepts. I never did particularly well and and mostly languished in the beginner level classes while my classmates moved on to the advanced ones.

I never showed any real musical talent; indeed, folks around me probably thought I didn’t enjoy music at all. I didn’t listen to popular bands like other kids my age listened to and I was very vocal about my disappointment in the music on the radio. I appeared to be a pretty un-musical young person.

You know what though? Now I play piano and the banjo. I’ve learned and understand a great deal about music theory. I’ve made several hours worth of music. I went to school for Audio Engineering and got an A- on my final independent study (writing and producing a six-song album.) Someone thought my music was good enough to ask me to write music for their game. I write about music, for a site you may have heard of, and actually have people writing to me, mefor answers about making music. This is the guy who could barely stay afloat in band class! If those poor folks only knew!

Am I writing just to praise myself? Well, after putting all that together I have to admit it does sound pretty awesome, but that wasn’t my point. My point is that if I could do all that withoutany ‘inborn’ musical ability, then anyone else can do it too. I don’t see myself as a particularly self-motivated guy either, so I’m sure anyone out there can probably do better than me.

I’ve heard many people say that they won’t pick up an instrument simply because they think it is too late for them to learn. There are a lot of scientific studies that say people can’t learn as effectively past their teenage years and after age 17 your neural pathways are pretty much do-blah blah blah. Forget that crap. Maybe my neural pathways aren’t as flexible as they once were, but I have many other skills and traits that come with age that make up for that problem, like self-discipline, good time management, big-picture thinking, and the prospect of getting paid for what I do. I had none of these things when I was a kid, and my learning was probably much slower because of it.

The only reason you might think that you are aren’t a musical person is because society tells you that you aren’t. But the fact that you can enjoy music scientifically proves that you can also make it, since you use much of the same parts of your brain for both listening and performing. In many hunter-gatherer cultures, the concept of musical talent doesn’t even exist. Everyone is taught how to make music and dance from a young age. This is how our own cultures were until relatively recent times. Why the change? Different values? Elitism? Who knows? You shouldn’t let it hold you back.

So what are you waiting for? Angels to come fluttering down, bestowing upon you a golden guitar? You definitely have no excuse now. If you do still have an excuse of some sort, you can bet that the Makeshift Musician will do it’s best to unceremoniously blast that one out of the water tooGo pick up an instrument and start playing!

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Electronic Musicians: Use Some Acoustic Stuff!

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

I have a challenge for all you purely electronic musicians out there: incorporate some sort of acoustic instrumentation into your songs. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

Sing! You’ve got a voice, and even if you don’t, you probably have a friend who does. Throw in some lyrics. If you’re no poet, just write some stuff that doesn’t make sense. It wouldn’t be the first time an artist did that.

decent pair of bongos or some other percussion instrument only costs around fifty bucks or more. Go ahead an add some fun drumming. Record multiple takes of the same part for a cool, dense multi-layered effect. 

Grab your guitar or steal a friend’s. Learn a couple of basic chords or simply learn the exact chords that you’re already using and then strum along with your own music. Something as basic as strumming can be very effective. For an example, see Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’.

If you are absolutely clumsy with real-world instruments, find a friend who can play something and record them. Recording with other folks is really fun anyway, and it could lead to fantastic collaborations in the future.

Why am I challenging you to do this? There are three interrelated reasons. One is that acoustic instruments not only sound great by themselves, they will also add real gravity to the electronic ones. Synthesizers just sound more legitimate when performing next to physical instruments, and having them mixed together makes for a profoundly rich sound pallete.

The second reason is that by being purely electronic, you are limiting yourself. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a mostly electronic musician myself, but I’ve still found the time to recorded banjo, guitar, bongos, random percussion, sound effects, my own voice and the voices of others. I see these as challenges. I’m always looking for ways to record real stuff in with my electronics. By getting a microphone and adding some acoustic elements, you are expanding your own potential as a musician, and that can’t be a bad thing, right?

The third reason comes from the motto of the old LucasArts Audio Stooges (Michael Land, Clint Bajakian and Pete McConnel), the geniuses behind some of the best music in the game industry: “Music travels through air. If it’s not going through air, there’s a problem somewhere.” Just as it is good to get out of the house and play sometimes, it’s good to step out of the computer occasionally and just make some noise. It will enrich your life.

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Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is part 1 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Maybe if you’re just starting out with your studio you haven’t given it much thought, but do you realize what professionals do when they build a studio? They design the entire place from the ground up, making walls with crazy angles and covering them with different materials. Then they make a separate room for a drum kit and another separate room for vocalists. They cover the walls with either unusually-shaped wood or this unbelievably expensive foam padding with tons of little pyramids cut into it.

Obviously, we at home can’t recreate this stuff, but we can throw together our own acoustic dampening setup without giving up thousands of dollars and our first-born.

Most of us don’t really get to choose where our studio is, we just have to deal with whatever room we can fit the studio in. I’ve had, as a studio, my childhood bedroom, a college dorm room, the single-bedroom in a single-bedroom apartment, and the one-car garage of a much nicer apartment. If, however, by some stroke of good fortune you can choose where your studio is, try to choose a room that is somewhat isolated from everything else. You want to be loud and not have to worry about neighbors or roommates attempting to bludgeon you to death after you’ve played the same guitar solo eighty times just to get it right.

Once you’ve got your place, what can we do to make it less echo-y? Here are some of my suggestions:

Rugs: Go to Goodwill or Wal-Mart and get some big, ugly shaggy carpets like your Aunt has in her living room and nail them to your wall. The more hideous the color, the more fun you’ll have putting them up.

Pictures: Since they have flat, non-porous surfaces, pictures would seem like a bad choice for acoustic dampening. However, anyone who’s ever moved knows that a room sounds really obnoxious until you put some pictures up on the walls. Get some pictures that you know will inspire creativity. 

Egg-crate-style mattress pads: For the true faux-professional look, get some of these while you’re at Wal-Mart. Remember, the only difference between expensive acoustic foam and cheap mattress foam is pretentiousness. 

Furniture: You’d be surprised at how well furniture can not only scatter sound waves, but also make the studio more comfortable for everyone. Get an old couch or easy chair and see how it changes the feel of the place.

Just remember that the more angles you have in the studio, the more sound gets bounced away harmlessly from your microphones, which is what you want. You don’t want the place stark and hospital-like, but you don’t want it overly cluttered either. Try to make your studio into something cozy and comfortable and inspiring. I hang huge wall-hangings full of weird geometric patterns in my studio, which have the double-effect of dampening sound and looking awesome at the same time. Experiment a lot and you’ll likely find some combination of things that works perfect for you.

This is part 1 of the Studio Guide


>>> Go to Part 2: Get a Computer For Your Studio

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