Friday, December 28, 2007

Piano 101: 1. El Puerto

Ok. I had another goal in getting back to the piano. I wanted to build my playing back up well enough to record my old repertoire for my parents. They had to listen to me practice this stuff every day. At the time they were probably sick of hearing it. But it's been almost 20 years, and I thought it would be nice for them to have a record of me playing again. The full project will take me a while, so the recordings will probably come slowly. But the first rough track is here.

I chose to do El Puerto, from Isaac Albéniz' Iberia Suite first. It was one of my favorite pieces to perform, and probably my favorite piece of piano music, period. It could use some polish, but here it is.

Track 1: El Puerto (Isaac Albéniz)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Piano 101: I Wish I Knew How To Quit You

I was back at the Steinway Gallery again on Saturday.

Steinway Guy emailed me to tell me he just received two new Bostons that I should check out: a 193 (6'4") and a 215 (7'). So I went in Saturday to have a look. That makes it three weeks in a row I've been in there.

The new Bostons were great. The tone on the 215 was gorgeous, and it played a lot like a Steinway B. But its action was a touch mushier than the 193. So Steinway Guy says he's going to have his tech look at the 215 to see if he can firm up the action, make it as crisp as the 193. To be honest, I'd rather his tech see if he could voice the 193 to make it as warm as the 215. (Ya, like they're going to voice a piano to the tastes of some guy who can't afford to buy it). I'm really impressed with the Bostons, though. They sound and play great at half the price of the core Steinways. Of course, even half the price is a darn expensive piano -- well above the range of the Japanese pianos.

I also played the Pramberger 228 (7'6") again. It's a nice piano, great tone. A little loose. There's a buyer in San Antonio who wants it. Steinway Guy held on to it because he knew I was coming in Saturday and I had mentioned that I liked it. I had to laugh. I told him to go ahead and send it to San Antonio.

But the star of the show remains this one Steinway A. I've probably played four or five As (6'2") and four or five Bs (6'11") at SPG. But this one A is "The One". Number 578688 (or "688", as I like to call it) may be the nicest piano under 9' that I've ever played. It does everything I ask it to do, without complaint or hesitation. It's like it wants to make me play better. And the tone is like buttah.

Ok. This is getting a little weird.

Anyway. Steinway Guy is going to email when his tech has had a go at the Boston 215. Probably later this week. That'll make it four weeks in a row. Johanne is definitely starting to get suspicious.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Piano 101: Coming Out (Again)

When I started practicing again I had no idea how much pure joy I would get out of just playing. I'm excited every time I step out to practice at the University or a friend's house, or even when I play bits and pieces on pianos at the store. And when I'm done my head is so full of music that walking and talking and chewing and breathing all feel locked to some rhythm. (I probably look like a dork).

But my goal of all this was to be able to play piano again in public on demand. And my target was Christmas. Well, today is December 22... and yesterday I played in a little Christmas recital at the home of a friend who teaches. I think that counts for "in public", even if the public was pretty small.

I performed two pieces: a Chopin Étude (Opus 10, Number 3) and a piece from Isaac Albéniz' Iberia Suite (El Puerto). They're kind of challenging to play, but I think it went pretty well. I hope to record these two over the next couple of weeks and post the recordings on this blog.

Afterwards, the host of the recital suggested I might be able to perform at one of the upcoming recitals at a music school she's involved with here in Austin. If it works out, I might be able to find leads to other recitals, too.

Hm... better get back to practicing!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Piano 101: Ancient History

My mother is a piano teacher, so we've always had lots of piano music in the house. I remember sitting on the floor at her feet under the keybed of her old "Chopin" upright piano while she played. When I was old enough to reach the keys I started plunking out stuff myself. With my mother's help I began to make my way through the lesson books. This informal arrangement lasted for maybe five years, I'm guessing. I had stumbled my way to about a grade 5 level in the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) grading system. We decided that if I wanted to "do it right", I needed a teacher. So at ten years old I began formal lessons with Edith Orton, a great Ottawa teacher.

Mrs. Orton guided me through the Royal Conservatory examinations until RCM grade 10. Along the way she encouraged me to perform in recitals and compete at the Ottawa Music Festival and the Canadian Music Competition. My repertoire was mostly from the RCM examniation syllabi, but also included, importantly, concerti for piano and orchestra. My orchestra was my mother, playing the orchestra parts arranged for second piano. As I advanced through the grades, Mrs. Orton also stressed the importance of occasional lessons with other teachers. I had the opportunity to meet with Jean-Paul Sevilla, Andrew Tunis and Douglas Voice, all three at the University of Ottawa at the time. But more than anyone else, Edith Orton taught me music, and I'm forever indebted to her for it.

After grade 10, Mrs. Orton decided I would benefit more by getting a new teacher. The obvious best fit was Douglas Voice at UofO. I think I must have been about 17 years old and probably starting grade 12 at High School. (High School in Ontario at the time went to grade 13). My two years of lessons with Douglas Voice prepared me for the ultimate Royal Conservatory exam: the Associateship Diploma in Piano Performance. Creative planning of my High School course schedule over the years allowed me to finish grade 13 spending only a half day at school. The other half I could spend practicing.

My lessons with Douglas were completely different from previous lessons. We would often spend our time discussing issues of interpretation or experimenting with different sounds and techniques to decide what might work for a given piece. I took the Associateship exam in the Spring of 1986, the same time I graduated from High School. I thank Douglas for bringing me to the "next level" of performance, and for introducing me to an incredible new world in the piano repertoire -- in particular the Spanish piano works of Granados, Albeniz and Ginastera.

After High School I had a bit of a premature mid-life crisis. I had always assumed I would find some kind of career in music. When I realized I didn't want to get a BMus, it became obvious that my options were pretty limited. I panicked. I got into computers. During the musical winter of my computer studies, I did manage to spend one semester at the piano, fulfilling a Humanities credit by doing a juried recital course in piano performance. It gave me the opportunity to study once more with Douglas Voice, one-on-one for the semester. We remained good friends, but that would be the last time we studied music together. Douglas succumbed to cancer in 1998. I wish I could play for him one more time.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Thom's Journal -- Say Goodnight

Temptation is a harsh master who carries a double-edged sword. He came to me hard in the fall of 1995. I was traveling a lot to Texas and California. My then-partner was traveling a lot to Asia and Africa. I was lonely, but it wasn't just the physical separation, we were also growing apart emotionally. Just to make things more complicated, I started falling for another woman. The longing was both titillating and tortuous. The opportunity first presented itself in San Francisco, but I managed to avert temptation and say goodnight. I sat in my hotel room in Santa Clara for a while strumming my guitar. The plodding progression that would become the foundation for the song perfectly reflected my dark mood. I really did cry myself to sleep conflicted by longing, guilt, obsession, love, frustration and confusion. The next morning I was overcome by emotional numbness and wrote the chorus.

When we did Say Goodnight as a band, the crunchy distortion of the electric guitar gave the song an even more tortuous feel, which I like. I almost still like it better just me and acoustic guitar, though, because it's so much sadder that way.

Thom's Journal -- Not A Setting Sun

Louis Fagan was one of the best friends I ever had and an extremely talented poet, lyricist and musician. When he died of a heroin overdose in 1997 after having ostensibly kicked the addiction, I was angry. What a waste. Adding to my emotional anguish was the fact I was in New York City at the time and incommunicado. Although several people tried desperately to get hold of me, by the time I got back, the funeral was over and for a long time I felt like I had no closure, especially since nobody ever shared the results of the autopsy with me.

Writing Not a Setting Sun was an exercise in catharsis. I had to get my anger and sadness out. I still intend to write a song celebrating Louis' short life and the wonderful music he created.

Thom's Journal -- No Forever

This song is the antithesis of What Will You Do. Anger can be a self-defeating emotion if you can't get over it. If you can, it can be highly instructive. In pouring out my anger toward a recently ex-girlfriend, I took the first steps toward reversing a pattern of behaviour that wasn't conducive to lasting relationships. I had a tendency to jump into things head first without considering all the implications. Add to that an ill-developed sense of self coupled with an intransigence to recognize my own culpability and I had a sure-fire recipe for ending up single. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the next time, or even the time after I would stop and remind myself there's no forever in some people's we. It took me three more kicks at the cat and the realization that 'some people' might include me.

Thom's Journal -- What Will You Do

When you're with someone for a significant period of time, you inevitably end up going through all the stages of grief, no matter how badly it ends. This song represented my acceptance that both of us had moved on. I couldn't help wondering, though, where her life would take her and whether she would also look back fondly on all the positive aspects of our relationship.

Reviewers have sometimes called my music bittersweet. So be it. Isn't life?

Thom's Journal -- The Quiet In Us

Life is full of highs and lows, but moments of perfect bliss are rare. One such moment for me was a weekend in Northern California in 1996. We were so perfectly in love, the outside world was non-existent for three glorious days. We danced naked on the beach in Santa Cruz, drove with the top down through the wine country and strolled among redwoods. We made love everywhere and simply got lost in each other. The 'quiet' is our innate capacity to live in the moment, consummately happy and content. It exists in us always although it is not always present and it rarely presents itself when we're striving for it.

Sometimes when I play this song, it can conjure up that blissful state.

Thom's Journal -- Don't Try

Some people are pleasers, bound by a sense of duty to make everybody around them happy, thus sacrificing themselves in the process. The pursuit of perfection in the eyes of a disparate circle of friends, family, employers, employees, clients etc. must be a very daunting prospect. I was looking for a metaphor, ostensibly to help a friend/lover, but ultimately self-serving. I imagined Jesus, the man, and the enormous pressure he must have been under in his latter days. I thought about what advice deposed gods might have for him. I thought about how he might translate that to his hopes for his disciples' futures. I thought about how he might have viewed the predicament Pilate faced in sentencing him. The chorus just flowed naturally from those musings. It seems somewhat incongruent with at least what we're taught about Jesus' actions and philosophy, but I imagine his actual life was much more complicated and subject to internal conflict as all of our lives are in trying to balance duty and commitment with happiness and personal fulfillment.

Interestingly, I wrote this song as an exercise for a songwriting group in Ottawa. The group was really critical of it. Some didn't like the way it doesn't deviate from its basic patterns. One guy said it needed a bridge. Others were offended by the license I took with the Jesus story. One woman didn't get the use of terms like preacher, colleagues and lawyer. I was pretty headstrong in those days and dismissed all the criticism. Good thing too, because the general listening public has been much more accepting of the tune.

Piano 101: I Need a Piano

Luckily, it's pretty easy for me to get my hands on practice pianos. The School of Music at the University has something like 75 practice cubes with grands. So I can leave my office at lunch, put on my student disguise, walk over to the SoM and sneak into a cube. I'd say the majority are Steinway Ms, with a few Baldwins, Mason&Hamlins, etc. thrown in. Most of them are pretty small, but a few of the cubes have bigger pianos (6'-7'+). Unfortunately, all of the pianos are fairly beat-up, and many of the Steinways have problems with the sostenuto pedal. There's one Baldwin that's probably the best sounding/playing piano there, and I can usually snag it if I go at the right time. I think it must be an SF10, since I'm sure it's bigger than an L1 (the longest Artist Baldwin).

My friends Bruce and Claudia have a C3 that they're happy to let me play. So I've started bringing my music bag whenever I go over there. I'm really impressed with the way that C3 sounds in their spacious living room. It's really sweet and warm.

Of course, what I really want is a piano of my own, so I've started doing a little research. As luck would have it, the Steinway Piano Gallery is just minutes from my house, and I've been spending some time there. I told my wife I'm having an affair, because if she found out I've been going to the piano store, she'd kill me. They have a huge selection: all the Steinways (including a D in their recital hall!), some Baldwins, a few Yamahas, Bostons, Petrofs, etc. They also have various brands of PSO*. It's great to be able to play all of these side-by-side to compare tone, touch, etc. It's also kind of dangerous, because after playing a nicely set up Steinway, it's hard to get excited about some of the others. I've pretty much accepted the fact that I'll never be able to afford one, but it's nice to dream. And there are some nice pianos out there that cost less than a house.
*Piano-Shaped Object

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Piano 101: The Next Project

I used to play the piano a lot. Then came the usual combination of distractions: school, work, life. I always made time for music, but the Big Hand and Twice the Usual recording commitments ate up my whole music time budget. In August this year, I finally convinced myself to call the Twice the Usual album "finished", and was starting to wonder what musical pursuit would take its place. The Antonini family reunion would give me the answer.

The Antoninis are a very musical family, my uncle Marty the most conspicuously so. At any gathering someone will eventually say "Hey Marty, go get your piano!", and he'll show up 15 minutes later with a PA. He's probably the most entertaining entertainer I've ever seen. His ability to perform on demand is inspiring, and I realized that I regretted not being able to play when asked. In spite of all the time I've spent in the studio over the last ten years, I didn't have a single thing on any instrument that I could sit down and play from beginning to end. So I vowed to "learn how to play the piano again."

In this next part of the Art Facts blog I'll write about my reintroduction to the piano, and the path back to playing in public. And I'll post some recordings along the way, too.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

2x: 11. Say Goodnight

So here we are at the end already. Last song. So sad.

Track 11: Say Goodnight
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Say Goodnight

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • K.B.: rhythm electric guitar
  • E.G.: lead electric guitar
  • D.P.: drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (BEADGC), drum programming, background vocal
  • Christian Chénier: electric guitars

It may be kind of obvious, but we always used to do "Say Goodnight" as the last song of the night when we were playing live, so that's how I always think of this song: live and last. Making it the last was easy: put it after all the other songs. Making it "live" required a few tricks. The biggest issue was trying to make it different from the other tracks but still fit with the sound of the album.
  • The most obvious "live" trick is the bar noises at the beginning and end. Even without any other tricks, this primes the listener into thinking "live".
  • Another fairly obvious trick is the extra effects on the lead vocal. I put a short echo and extra reverb to sound like a loud PA system in a closed space.
  • The drums are also quite different from the other tracks. I was out at Cedar Street one night listening to a great funk band, trying to put my finger on what made the drums sound so "live". The combination of mics, eq, amps, speakers and gobs of compression make them sound much more artificial. I tried reproducing that signal path virtually, but the Yellow Tools drums I used on the album are so acoustic sounding that it was a real struggle to color them enough. I needed to start from a more artificial source. If found some sampled drums on my Roland XP-50 keyboard that were just right. So I replaced the kick, snare and toms with the XP-50 samples. I kept the natural sounding hats, ride and cymbals from Yellow Tools -- the XP-50 metals were just too fake. I think the result sounds pretty close to a kit through a live PA.
  • There's a spot near the end where it sounds like the guitar feeds back for a second (around 5:14). I'm not sure what's causing this sonic effect, but it adds to the live sound, so I left it in.
  • The sparse applause at the end is reminiscent of some of the shows we did with... uh... "modest" attendance. I remember one show at The Pit in Ottawa during a snow storm in December. Beyond the barstaff and significant others, I'm not sure anyone else was there. Sure... we can laugh about it now.
  • Light dimmers and questionable electrical at bars is always causing something to buzz. I recorded the amp buzz at the end by running my bass amp through the system while holding the free end of the patch cord in my fingers. I had to record the amp shutting off separately because it's such a loud pop that everything downstream in the signal path has to be trimmed.
Another great electric part from Chénier here. At one point he emailed me to say he was having trouble coming up with ideas: "Say Goodnight is giving me fits. How do you add lead to a 'cowboy on a horse' country song? It can't be done I tell ya. So expect very low key stuff." I'm not sure that what he came up with could be called "very low key"... you be the judge! (And I'm not going to dignify the "cowboy on a horse" comment).

In many places on the album I already had ideas for electric parts. For those, I'd email Chris trying to "textify" my idea. Somehow, no matter how ridiculous my instructions, he'd always lay down exactly what I had in mind. Here were my instructions for Say Goodnight:
buh-Changuk... buh-ChangGannnnnnnng

The yelling in the chorus was also something we used to do live. So for the album I recorded myself about ten times yelling "I" and "SAY". But when I mixed the yells in with the music, for some reason it sounded like "Oy... Soy". When I played back the yells in isolation they were fine. So some weird interaction, frequency masking, reverb artifact, or combination of these was messing with the harmonic content. I ended up having to put on a high-pass filter, remove all the reverb and replace half of the "I... Say" parts with "Ah-ee... Sah-ee". Strange but true.

Coming Soon: 2x: Appendices

Saturday, December 1, 2007

2x: 10. Not A Setting Sun

Track 10: Not A Setting Sun
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Not A Setting Sun

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal

There was no question that this track had to be a guitar/vocal solo. The recording is a single performance, with Thom doing vocals and guitar together. Careful microphone position allows some separation, but there is still plenty of guitar in the vocal track and vocal in the guitar track. That makes it very difficult to edit one without messing up the other. So I did almost no editing of the tracks... a little compression, a little bit of volume riding on the vocal track and plenty of eq and reverb. But really what you hear is the raw performance.

When we recorded the song, I left Thom alone in the studio with the system recording. After a few false starts, he nailed a good take end-to-end. I did a quick mix, and since there was so little editing and no other instruments, the track was finished pretty early in the project. I'd go back to it every once in a while and tweak the sound a little, and then leave it again. But I never listened to anything recorded in the room before that final take. Then one day very near the end of the project, I went back and listened to the rest of the recording from that day. That's when I found the "For Louis" that Thom speaks to open the song. He didn't say it before the final take, so I didn't know it was there. I don't know why I decided to go back and listen to the rest of the recording, but I'm glad I did.

Next: 2x: 11. Say Goodnight

Sunday, November 25, 2007

2x: 9. No Forever

Finally cowbell.

Track 9: No Forever
Thom's songwriting journal entry for No Forever

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • E.G.: electric guitar
  • K.B.: organ
  • D.P.: drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (BEADGC), organ, drum programming, background vocal
  • Christian Chénier: electric guitars

No Forever almost didn't make it on to the album (along with Don't Try). Here is the actual email conversation (with minor edits to clean up the language):
  • TB: dude, do you remember why we're not doing no forever on this CD?
  • KB: On your original list it was in the "maybe" section. When I created my list from your list you told me not to put it on. There was some question whether it fit musically with the rest of the songs. I don't really see why it wouldn't. But if we're going to add songs from the "maybe" section, I'm definitely going to have to vote for "Don't Try". That trak rawks! (Honestly, I think it's a mistake to leave it off).
  • TB: what was i thinking? why don't you tell me these things ... it's not like i know what i'm doing or anything!
  • KB: I think I would have mentioned them eventually. So do you want to add both No Forever and Don't Try?
  • TB: yeah, let's add 'em, it's not like we've got a big record company breathing down our necks or anything
This is really one of the few "radio-friendly" tracks on the album. It comes in at just under 3 minutes. That's because this version is much faster than we used to play it. We first recorded this song about ten years ago with the Thom Barker Band at Sound of One Hand Studio in Ottawa. That recording was way slower. I bet it was almost 4 minutes. I recently found a tape of it, and while the sound quality is way warmer and more professional (recorded through a vintage Neve desk to 2-inch tape), the new recording sports much better performances. Would I trade the new performances for the old sound quality? No. But I wish I could have both.

The cowbell at the beginning and near the end was a very late addition. The single hit cowbell-as-intro is stolen from the Rush song Superconductor.* Believe it or don't. The fast, one-beat intro is a lot more sudden than a four-beat count-in, which adds to the urgent feel of the song. But it's not as cold as no count-in at all. The cowbell intro also prevents the cowbell at the end from sounding isolated and out of context. The three-beat cowbell break at the end comes from a mid-life version of the song. About six years ago we were playing this song with a guitarist and drummer in Austin. We always left that bar empty at the end for the drummer to fill it with some snare/kick fill. One day at rehearsal our drummer threw in this three-beat cowbell, just wailing on the bell. We laughed and laughed until I thought I might pass out. I'm not sure why it was so funny to us, but it obviously affected me. Long after I finished recording the parts for this song, when I was almost ready to close the book on it, I remembered that cowbell and decided to replace whatever boring drum fill I had in its place. Then it was inevitable that I had to replace whatever intro I had (probably a four-beat hats count-in) with the Superconductor ripoff.
*The Superconductor count-in is a cowbell on beat 6 followed by a snare flam on beat 7. So I really only stole half of the intro.

The electric guitar solo is pure, undiluted Chénier at his funniest. I sent him the bed tracks with the instruction "make sure you play that funny solo you used to play." Of course, he didn't know what solo I was talking about. So I sent him a version with the solo (as closely as I could remember it) played on electric piano. Man, did it sound lame. But it was enough to remind him how he played the original. The variety of articulations is what kills me in this short solo: staccato, hammer-ons, bends, slurs, half-harmonics.... It's the whole rock-n-roll bag of tricks emptied out onto the floor and scarfed until our bellies ache.

Next: 2x: 10. Not A Setting Sun

Sunday, November 18, 2007

2x: 8. What Will You Do

Track 8: What Will You Do
Thom's songwriting journal entry for What Will You Do

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • K.B.: piano
  • D.P.: drums, pandiero
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (BEADGC), piano, drum programming, background vocals

This is another one of the "mood" songs. I find this to be one of the sadder songs on the album and I was going for a pretty dark sound.

The bass in the second and third verses may sound a little busy, hitting with the kick, somewhat portato. But it propels the song a little better in this somewhat dead position on the album. Or maybe I'm just hijacking the album for my own amusement.

Piano appears starting in the second chorus, but more as a percussion instrument to brighten things up. It just pongs out octaves (with a little 9-8 resolution at phrase ends).
During the repetition of the chorus at the end it adds a third/sixth to the resolution notes, making it almost overly sweet.
I thought about adding a ninth to the final chord (as in It Goes On). In a completely uncharacteristic exercise in constraint, I left it out. Once is just right.

Next: 2x: 9. No Forever

Monday, November 12, 2007

2x: 7. The Quiet In Us

Track 7: The Quiet In Us
Thom's songwriting journal entry for The Quiet In Us

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • K.B.: piano, background vocal
  • D.P.: shaker, deerskin drum
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted (BEADGC) and fretless basses (EGADGC and BEADGC), piano, cat toy, deerskin drum, background vocals

This is probably the "pleasantest" song on the album, and many of the arrangement choices try to highlight that. In particular, the piano, fretless bass, cat toy shaker and deerskin drum contribute to the nice mood.

As with many of the songs on the album, I wanted fretless on this one, but couldn't get a decent recording of the Alembic. Unlike the others, though, I couldn't live without it here. So the bass track is a mix of fretted and fretless. I played the entire song on both fretted and fretless, EQing the fretless to remove most of its bottom end (which is where I've had the most trouble with the Alembic's recording). I then set a compressor+gate to bring in the fretless with a slow attack only when the high end is strong enough to trigger it. Unless you're listening closely, the result is that the song sounds like the bass is a single fretless track. In reality, the fundamental and low end is almost entirely fretted, with the fretless supplying mid-high frequency on sustained notes.

I've always heard piano in my head on this song. So I finally sat down and just played along with the guitar. What you hear is what came out. I think it fits nicely. I would have liked to play more piano on the album, but most of the songs just didn't seem to want it.

I've also always heard some big-ole drum on the low-G accents. I found an appropriate sample, but had to tune it to G and EQ the heck out of it so its boom didn't dominate the mix. Does it work? Dunno. I think I EQd it out of existence.

The background vocals really needed to blend smoothly to work here. I removed much of their attack (say 20-50ms) so that their entrance is smooth as can be.

The bass progresses from the beginning of the song to the end, as with other tracks on the album. The first verse plays roots, sitting on the G, moving up to C on accents:

The second verse drops down to the third of IV (C):

The third verse combines the two (one C, one E):

Near the end of the third verse, the bass FINALLY walks from the low E up to the G -- something we've been waiting for all song long:
We also have to wait until the final chorus for the bass to finally drop down to the low B. The E-F#-G walk reappears here too.

You have to listen carefully, but the bass plays the five notes preceding the final V7-I cadence as harmonics (C-D-F#-D-A). The harmonics are all natural, but some of them are pretty far up there.

Next: 2x: 8. What Will You Do

Sunday, November 4, 2007

2x: 6. Don't Try

This is the one song where I completely abandoned the small virtual ensemble, adding many more parts than the five virtual musicians could produce. Maybe the ensemble was sitting around the living room and 16 people dropped by to say hello.

Track 6: Don't Try
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Don't Try

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass
  • K.B.: organ
  • E.G.: acoustic guitar
  • D.P.: drums
  • guest: acoustic guitar
  • guest: pipe organ
  • guest: choir
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (C#EADGC), organs, acoustic guitars (EADGBD# and EADG#CE), drum programming, background vocals

The organ intro explicitly acknowledges the influence of Jesus Christ Superstar on the lyrics: it's the main theme from The Last Supper. The B3 organ sound is also reminiscent of the B3 that pervades that song. I knew quite early on in the recording that I wanted to quote Last Supper, but it posed a bit of a problem: Last Supper is in 4/4, but this song is in 6/8. Matching the eighth-note tempo and then unambiguously stating the new time signature with the drums alone for two bars seemed to smooth the transition ok.

The organ melody following the chorus is again a brand new theme. It's only suggestive of the Last Supper theme, but the simple melody and the tonewheel sound remind us of the intro and keep it from feeling abandoned and irrelevant.

Of course the song needed a gospel choir for the chorus. I don't know a gospel choir, so I sang the parts myself. The main choir has eight voices singing standard four-part harmony. After the break I gradually bring in three more wordless parts (two voices each) moving among the main worded parts, giving a total of seven parts, fourteen voices. It would have been nice to have real singers.

This song is kind of unique in that it's in pure Strophic form: it has a single two-bar phrase (I-V-VI-IV) repeated over the entire length of the song. The lyrics break into verses and choruses, but the music repeats the same two-bar pattern in both. To distract from the repetition, the arrangement divides the song into three parts. It builds from the outset to the break, where it gets completely stripped down to acoustic and vocals. After the break it quickly builds up to where it left off and gets bigger and more complex through to the end. The instrumentation builds throughout the entire song. It starts with just organ, then one-at-a-time adds drums, acoustic guitar, bass, lead vocal, choir, two more acoustic guitars, three more choir parts and the pipe organ from the Notre Dame de Budapest Cathedral.

The bass arrangement includes a trick that breaks up the verses and keeps them from feeling too long. The bass theme progresses through successively lower inversions. But the change from one inversion to the next lower inversion occurs half-way through each verse, not between verses. This splits each verse into two shorter verses. After the break, the bass goes back to the highest inversion, but progresses quickly down to where it left off before the break. It then moves to its lowest variation, anchored on the low C#, where it hangs out, bouncing off fills with the drums to the end of the song.

In the verse after the break I needed to fill out the arrangement just a little. The organ comes in half way through the verse, and I really like it there, so I didn't want to bring it in at the beginning of the verse. Instead, I added two more acoustic guitar parts. The altered tunings allowed me to play different voicings of the chords in the same octave, filling things out. The guitars continue through to the end of the song, adding to the building arrangement.

The bass also reminds us of the album's delayed chorus accent thing by overshooting beat one on its downward fills (5:40, 5:51, etc.). The most obvious example is at 6:13, where instead of continuing down, the bass fill turns back upward at beat one, and the drums follow by ignoring the downbeat as well, cymbal-accenting the eighth note following beat one (6:15). This particular "deletion of the bar line" is one of my favorite time tricks on the album.

The plagal (IV-I) cadence at the end is a final nod to the religious theme of the lyrics. It's not an exact plagal cadence, because the bass (electric, organ and choir) hits V-I. I'm sure there's a name for a plagal cadence over a V-I bass, but I searched for it everywhere. Please, if you know the name of this cadence, speak up. It's killing me.

Next: 2x: 7. The Quiet In Us

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

2x: 5. Body Of Mine

This track turned out to be one of my favorite recordings. The deep bass and electric piano give it a really dark mood for me.

Track 5: Body Of Mine
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Body Of Mine

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass
  • K.B.: electric piano
  • D.P.: drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (BEADGC), electric piano, drum programming

This was probably the most difficult song to match the timing to the existing acoustic guitar and vocal tracks. There are 49 tempo changes in the sequencer file, and it's still not quite locked. But I'm not too bothered by the looseness -- it still seems to have some feel.

I'm really happy with the way the noodling on the piano turned out. Its movement, ornaments and chromatic passing notes here and there add real spice, I think.

There's a double quote of Take the A Train at 3:09 under the lyrics "Underneath my feet the rumble of the A Street Train"*. In the first quote the bass echoes the main A Train theme ("You... must take the A Train"), but in root position of the I-minor of this song, as opposed to the second inversion position of I-major in A Train. At the same time, the second quote has the piano playing the standard first bar comping chords of A Train (third inversion of the VIm7 in A Train, which is Im7 here) but with a rhythm that fits here. Sounds kind of like a train horn, too.
*Of course, after working on the album for five years, I finally realized that the real lyric is "the 8th Street train", not "A Street". Haha. Oh well. Extra clever to quote A Train under "8th Street Train", then.

The bass and drums are pretty much rhythmically locked throughout this track. But as they play the same rhythmic figures, the piano has most of its rhythmic interest in the spaces the bass and drums leave.

There's a twist on the "delayed chorus accent", here -- an "anticipated chorus accent". The main chorus accent comes on the "and" of four of the bar preceding the first chorus group bar (and other chorus bars, too, with lesser emphasis).

Next: 2x: 6. Don't Try

Thom's Journal -- Body Of Mine

In the fall of 1996, it had started to sink in that one relationship was truly over and the new one might be a dead end. I was living in the Glebe, in downtown Ottawa, and working for Nortel (then Bell Northern Research) way out in the west end of Nepean. The long bike commute every morning and evening provided ample fodder for lyrics writing.

It was a moody time for me and I tossed a lot of lyrics around, bits and pieces that never really gelled into a fully formed composition. It finally all came together on a trip to New York City to visit my distant and mostly absent love.

There was no going back and, at times, I felt like there was no going forward and I just couldn't fathom being happily single because so much of my identity and self-esteem was wrapped up in other people.

Fortuitously, Ferron happened to have a show at New York University, which I went to, alone. The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I got the majority of the song together in a hotel room in Newark, New Jersey and polished it up when I got back to Ottawa.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

2x: 4. Life Is A Circle

Time to slow things down a little...

Track 4: Life Is A Circle
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Life Is A Circle

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • K.B.: organ, synthesizer, background vocal
  • D.P.: congas
  • E.G.: shaker
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretless bass (BEADGC), organ, synthesizer, cat toy, drum programming, background vocals

Listening to the transparent, finger-picked acoustic and the somewhat spastic congas, I decided this track needed some kind of constant ground rhythm. It needed shaker! Johanne had recently bought a new toy for the cats: two balls wrapped in and joined together with twine. I remember thinking how great they sounded. So I set up a mic at head-height, figured out how to hold the balls and move them to get an even recording, and hit the big red button. But I'd forgotten that this song is six minutes long, and by the end my arm was about ready to fall off. Of course I could have stopped at any time and just copied what I had to the rest of the track... but I had such a great take going!

This arrangement has another brand new theme on the organ. The first entry (1:17) is a simple legato statement, with one subtle grace note embellishment. The second statement (1:55) adds a harmony note or two, has some staccato and glisses up to a higher note toward the end. The third (final) statement (3:25) adds more harmony notes and embellishes the melody with more runs, including a nice parallel thirds run at 3:29.

This was the only song I was able to get a decent standalone recording of my Alembic fretless. On all the other songs the recording (not the playing, honestly) sounded like krep. Breaks my heart.

Did we really need that blues fill on the bass at 4:43? Probably not. Too bad, it's my recording.

Two organ parts appear right at the end. They're variations of the original organ theme, played in different octaves and offset in time. The time offset is intended to be suggestive of a Simple Canon (aka a Round, like Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat), but I made the repetitions imperfect in various ways. That is, "the ending is a round, but not very circular", a kind of bad musical pun on the lyrics.

The organ parts at the end also have their reverb sends pre-fader. So as the volume of the organs fades, their reverb doesn't (making it sound like they're moving farther away). I didn't actually intend to do this, but I ended up starting to like it before I got around to fixing it.

Next: 2x: 5. Body Of Mine

Thom's Journal -- Life Is A Circle

In the summer of 1997, I packed up my little Ford Escort station wagon with all my earthly possessions -- save a few boxes of memorabilia I left at my parents' house -- and my sons Bryen and Patrick and we headed south.

I had no idea where I would end up or what I would do when I got there, but I knew Ottawa wasn't working for me. The lyrics for this song started to gel as we made our way across Tennessee. I finished it that same night in a campground in Louisiana while my boys slept.

I never really thought of myself as an unhappy person, but I was definitely chasing something that would turn out to be unattainable until I straightened out my own twisted psyche. The idea that life was roughly circular, but irregularly so, even as I was just setting out on what would end up being a six-year adventure, was perhaps my very first inkling that there is no such thing as a geographic cure for what ails you. No matter where you are or what you do, there can be no peace as long as it is the same old you who is there and doing it. That is a song for the next CD, however.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

2x: 3. It Goes On

This song is the first on the album to feature electric guitar. We were lucky enough to get my favorite guitarist of all time to contribute tracks: please welcome Christian Chénier.

Track 3: It Goes On
Thom's songwriting journal entry for It Goes On

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B. -- bass, background vocal
  • D.P. -- drums, background vocal
  • E.G. -- lead electric guitar, background vocal
  • K.B. -- rhythm electric guitar1, background vocal
  • guest -- rhythm electric guitar2, background vocal
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker -- fretted bass (CEADGC), drum programming, background vocals, acoustic guitar note
  • Christian Chénier -- electric guitars

This song has a simple, common verse form (I-VI-III-VII in A-minor) stated simply on the acoustic. Chris came up with a really nice melodic rhythm electric theme which, along with the walking bass, provides movement and interest over top of the acoustic ground.

The guitar solo in this song is one of my favorites. It overlaps the end of the bridge, climbing to the official start of the solo section where it just soars. Lots of classic Chénier double/triple-stops and varied articulations throughout. More opposite motion between the bass and solo at 02:22 (guitar down, bass up) and 02:38 (guitar up, bass bottoming out to low C). There's more subtle rhythmic interplay among the drums, bass and guitar throughout, as well (for example, at 2:19 the snare's eighth+sixteenths figure is echoed quickly in the solo and then bass). Finally, instead of ending the solo at the final reprise of the chorus, Chris just keeps noodling right through the end. Very artsy.

With all the mids in this arrangement, the acoustic has been eq'd out almost to the point of being a percussion instrument. This lets the acoustic speak (great example at 01:03) without it taking up space in the mix.

I always heard an A-minor-ninth instead of A-minor on the last chord, but we didn't think of it when we were recording the acoustic. Over time I decided I couldn't live without the ninth at the end. So long after all the other tracks were recorded, I finally mic'd up my own acoustic and added one note: the open B string.

Rhythmic gimmick:
  • 01:25 (bass + drums + vox)
  • 02:54 (bass + drums)
  • 03:12 (bass + drums)
  • 03:22 (bass + drums)
The delayed chorus accent is similar to We Cherish Our Scars: The chorus is again grouped 2+2+2(+2), with the delayed accent coming on the "and" of two in the second bar of the first three groups. The delay is itself delayed in the fourth group -- you expect it on the "and" of two after the eighth notes on 1, 1-and and 2, but the eighth notes keep chugging over 2-and right through to the one of the next bar. The 2-and accents are given by snare, bass octave and electric guitar.

Next: 2x: 4. Life Is A Circle

Thom's Journal -- It Goes On

As long as I've been self-aware, I have struggled with the impossibility of my own existence. Most of the time, it's simply a nagging doubt easily set aside in the busy activities of daily life. However, there have been times when it has become an almost frantic, paralyzing obsession.

The worst of these periods was a 1996 episode in Boston, Massachusetts. I was quite sick, but even worse, I couldn't get it out of my head that the existence of anything, much less sentient thought, is simply not possible. I spent three days in a hotel room. I did not move from the bed. It was so overwhelming I started trying to will myself out of existence.

When it was time to go home and I still existed, I got up and started writing this song. It would sit on the shelf, however, until the next episode hit me on Christmas Eve 1998. I had popped by a favourite pub where watching the patrons and bartender, I developed a longing for female companionship. That was not to be. Later, in my empty Austin apartment, I was quite enjoying cultivating a lovely, bittersweet melancholy and a hangover for Christmas morning. It was, I think, the first time in my 35 years I was alone Christmas Eve. Then I crashed into that manic spiral of existential doubt.

I woke up Christmas morning and finished the song before going to the airport in Dallas to pick up my sons.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Thom's Journal -- We Cherish Our Scars

Perhaps the best line I've ever come up with.

The first time I ever felt vulnerable in the world was an incident that happened when I could not have been more than four years old. An older boy threatened me while I was playing in the park at Deshaye Elementary School across the street from our house on Cameron Crescent in Regina, Saskatchewan. He was wearing a ring that he said shot lightning bolts and he would use it on me. I ran back to the house where my mom gave me an elastic band to wear on my finger that would deflect the lightning bolt back at him. I went back to the park and told him about my defence against his potential lightning attack and he punched me in the face.

Life is a collection of victories and defeats. For me, the good and the bad can be equally compelling. I was told several years before I wrote this song, during a particularly devastating break-up, there was a sadness in me she just couldn't abide any more. For a long time, I thought it was something that needed fixing, but after grappling with it extensively, I realized it is a part of me I really like and a significant part of who I am.

I don't know how universal the feeling is, but I suspect I am far from alone in cherishing my scars.


2x: 2. We Cherish Our Scars

Track 2: We Cherish Our Scars
Thom's songwriting journal entry for We Cherish Our Scars

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B. -- bass, background vocal
  • K.B. -- organ
  • D.P. -- drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker -- fretted bass (DEADGC), organ, drum programming, background vocal

The organ on the post-chorus breaks is a new theme for this arrangement. The motion opposite the bass is straight out of the tertian harmony textbook, and it works like a charm.

The bass in the verses and chorus is much simplified in rhythm from older arrangements. The plain rhythms in the bass and organ are an attempt to reign in the busy acoustic rhythm. The drums are still probably too busy. Oh well. The bass rhythm in the verses also fore-echoes the accent delay in the choruses, with sustained high harmony notes accenting the "and" of beat two.

This arrangement also introduces a gimmick common to the up-tempo songs on the album. Drums and bass (and sometimes organ or guitar) come together to reinforce the rhythm on fills. It's almost overdone here, occurring at:
  • 00:21 (bass + drums)
  • 00:37 (bass + drums)
  • 01:08 (bass + drums)
  • 01:53 (bass + drums)
  • 02:20 (organ + bass + drums)
  • 03:18 (bass fill + drum accents)
The delayed chorus accent here is even more syncopated than in Even After All This Time. The chorus is 8 bars, grouped 2+2+2(+2). The drums are again responsible for the syncopation, this time delaying the accent to the "and" of beat two in the second bar of each of the first three groups. The first bar of each group houses snare and tom flailing but the drums mostly ignore beat one of the second bar. The accent (cymbals) is delayed until the and of beat two (right after the words "time" and "heart"). The fourth 2-bar group is a walk (bass and organ) up to the post-chorus section.

Next: 2x: 3. It Goes On

Thom's Journal -- Even After All This Time

In the fall of 2001, I was driving back from Houston to Austin. I had been living in Texas for three years, but still marvelled at how different the sky looked after having spent most of my life in Canada. I stopped at a roadside pullout to take in the familiar constellations tilted in their southern way above the scrubby chaparral landscape.

As I contemplated the universe, my thoughts turned to a long-term, long-distance relationship that I still viewed as current although we hadn't seen each other and had barely even talked in more than a year. We never really broke up, per se, but on that lonely stretch of road I started coming to terms with the fact that it was ending nonetheless.

Most of the lyrics came together by the time I could see the glow of Austin on the horizon. As soon as I got home, I pulled out my guitar. The music came just as easily because the mood was so sweetly melancholic.

She remained the love of my life until I met my present wife and it is still the only failed relationship I can look back on in only positive terms.


Thom's Journal -- Twice the Usual

In the summer of 1996, I was out at Jim Albert's cabin in Québec for a long weekend. My friends Paul and Laura and I went out for a paddle in Paul's canoe. The passage of the boat through the water felt a little sluggish and I commented on it. Paul came back with: "Well, you're twice the usual amount of baggage we normally carry."

Twice the Usual instantly became the working title for a new collection of songs I had started writing while my last CD, The Forest for the Trees, 1995, was in production.

I half expected the title would change by the time we got around to producing the new album, but as my personal baggage continued to increase over the years, Twice the Usual became all the more appropriate.

During and since we recorded my acoustic guitar and vocal parts for this album in 2002, through much internal strife, a self-imposed three-and-a-half years of solitude and a complete overhaul of my emotional, spiritual and professional well-being, I have finally managed to slough off all that old baggage.

This collection of songs, a.k.a. 2x, as my brother Ken likes to abbreviate it, now serves as a poignant cautionary tale.


Monday, October 8, 2007

2x: 1. Even After All This Time

This is the first track on the album, so let me describe how I see this playing out. Each track gets its own post, which starts with a link to a downloadable .wma of the track and a link to Thom's journal for the song. The recordings are unmastered, so you might need to ride the volume knob. And you might have to play with the eq on your system to tame the bass or treble. You can just listen to the song and leave it at that. Or if you're interested in obscure minutiae, you can read further for a description of what went into the arrangement and recording of the track.

Oh, and comments are open, so have at it!

Track 1: Even After All This Time
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Even After All This Time

Virtual Ensemble

  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B. -- bass, background vocal
  • K.B. -- organ, background vocal
  • D.P. -- drums, background vocal
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker -- fretted bass (DEADGC), organ, drum programming, background vocals

I wanted to start the album with just Thom on acoustic and vocal (ok, there's hats in there too). The "band" comes in after the first verse.

I didn't plan on putting so much organ on the album, but I couldn't help myself.

I also didn't plan on using a delayed accent in the chorus of so many songs, but it just happened. And I think the syncopated chorus turns out to be a bit of a unifying theme on the album (though not really obvious, I guess). Here, the chorus is already unusual: 8 bars grouped 3+3+2. The big accents are delayed by the drums to beat three of the first bar of each group. They start with a toms fill around beat two of the preceding bar. The toms fill completely ignores beat one of the first bar of the chorus group, playing through beats one and two to land the accent (cymbals) on beat three.

And yes, the "blue" C-natural (flat 7) on the bass at 2:45 and 2:53 is intentional; how can you not like it? It's sour.

Next: 2x: 2. We Cherish Our Scars

Saturday, October 6, 2007

2x: The Recording

As I mentioned earlier, we recorded the main acoustic guitar tracks and lead vocals for the album in my apartment in Austin. Christian Chénier recorded the electric guitar tracks in Ottawa and transfered them by ftp. I recorded everything else at Art Facts Studio, a.k.a. the attic of my house.

I recorded either direct or with the large-diaphragm AKG C3000B through a Mackie LM3204 into an M-Audio Audiophile 2496 at 24 bits, 44.1kHz. I used n-Track Studio for both tracking and sequencing, and Tascam Gigastudio 3 Orchestra for most of the virtual instruments. My controllers were a Yamaha KX88 and an Evolution UC33e. I monitored through Yamaha NS-10 and Event ALP 5 nearfields.

Eventually I'll do a separate post for the full list of instruments and libraries.

Next: 2x: 1. Even After All This Time

2x: The Album

All the songs on Twice the Usual (2x) were written for voice and acoustic guitar by Thom. But he left me free to arrange them however I wanted. I didn't want to deviate too far from the singer/songwriter thing, so I tried to arrange them for a small ensemble playing together. The "musicians" would trade tasks, pick up loose instruments, but the arrangements would not go beyond the available musicians in the ensemble.

This virtual ensemble consisted of five musicians:
  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocals
  • B.B. -- electric basses
  • K.B. -- keyboards
  • D.P. -- drums and percussion
  • E.G. -- electric guitars
As many of the five could sing background vocals as needed. Most of the cases that seem to be violations of the ensemble can be accounted for by K.B. playing acoustic on songs without keyboards, E.G. playing bass, etc. The two exceptions are the song It Goes On (with three electric guitar parts) and Don't Try (where I completely abandoned trying to stick to the ensemble).

Next: 2x: The Recording

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Twice the Usual

Twice the Usual is my brother Thom’s fourth album. The first was Planet for Sale which we recorded in our parents’ basement on my Vesta Fire 4-track tape machine. It was all Thom on acoustic and vocals, with a few parts added by me. The second album, Regent Street, was recorded at the old Sound of One Hand studio in Ottawa. I had very little to do with that album, though I seem to remember adding a keyboard part or two. Thom had a few other guests on the album. The third album (the first CD) was Forest for the Trees, also recorded at the old Sound of One Hand. Forest was almost entirely Thom and me, with a guest guitar here and there.

2x is by far the most ambitious recording and yet is a return to the “basement studio”. We started the recording in the spare bedroom of my apartment in Austin in the Spring of 2002. I recorded Thom’s Taylor acoustic to two tracks (microphone and direct from the Taylor’s pickups) through an M-Audio Audiophile 24/96 at 24-bits, 44.1 kHz. The earliest recordings used an AKG C535EB condensor, but we switched to the large-diaphragm AKG C3000. I don’t remember if any of the 535 tracks survived. I don’t think so. The early months were kind of experimental, recording Thom’s guitar and then adding a few throwaway bass and vocal tracks trying to get a feel for the setup.

In the Fall of 2002, Thom decided to leave Austin to move back to Ottawa. We had to cram all of the remaining acoustic and vocal recording in before he left. We ended up with twelve songs. Eleven survived. The Night Brings is the only one I dropped. I expect to arrange and produce it eventually. Probably for the Borders Bookstore special edition.

I continued recording the album in the attic studio at my new house in Austin: four years of arranging, recording, mixing, erasing, re-recording, listening, reading, purchasing, burning, cursing and starting over. There were some droughts: I completely abandoned the project for several months while I finished the even-longer-ignored soundtrack for Jean-Guy Brin’s short film Let’s Give Him a Big Hand.

Over the next several weeks I plan to post each track and blog its details. And Thom will be posting a songwriting journal in parallel.

Next: 2x: The Album

Monday, September 10, 2007

Open for Blogness


I've avoided the blogosphere long enough. Time to foray, eh.

I guess it's been about twenty years that I've been lumping my "artistic" exercises under the name Art Facts; has been alive for the last seven (though "alive" may be a stretch).


I hope to post here irregularly to document my musical projects. It's self-indulgent, but I expect the site to go unnoticed. Does that make it a wash?