Many voices, but only me in the room

There’s an interview with Annie Clark and David Byrne in which they describe their working relationship for Love This Giant:

DB: This was a more intertwined collaboration than most I’ve done. In many ways it was more democratic — we were constantly bouncing what we were doing off one another. Which is creatively great, but also slow — democracy is slow. [laughs]

AC: The tech-y stuff was a headache, honestly. We’d send files back and forth in [music program] Logic, and because I had an older version of the software, I would have to reassign a bunch of David’s tracks that he had painstakingly assigned, and then send it back to him with an apology….One of the earliest songs we worked on was called “The Forest Awakes” and it started as this 6/8, hockety horn thing that I sent to David. I had been kicking that idea around for a while, but I could never figure out how to sing over it. What melody would even fit over this that wouldn’t feel like a distraction? David sent it back with a melody, and I was like, “Yes! Thank god!” It was a puzzle I couldn’t finish, and he put the right piece in.

DB: Most of the excitement for me is when I could see things getting to a point where I’d go, “This is nothing like anything I would’ve come up with alone.” It’s the whole point of collaboration.

This challenge has stayed with me for some reason. Making music with others is incredibly satisfying, but not only is it hard by default — it’s even harder trying to wrangle people who aren’t nearby. When we moved to Salem, I knew this was going to be a challenge — I had made a bunch of friends & connections down in New York but only knew a few people on the quiet North Shore of MA that played music. You can obviously connect with these people, but I wanted to maintain creative relationships with people I knew I could work well with:

James, a sound engineer and friend from high school who has been mixing/mastering Sophomores tracks with me for the past two years; and

Mary, a singer I met in 2014 at a house music showcase and I’ve been writing dark bluesy rock music with for a few months

One lives in Bushwick Brooklyn, the other lives in Astoria Queens. It was convenient to play and record with them in NYC, but the new distance presented its challenges. Mary and I had discussed traveling to record and perform but that requires weeks of notice and planning. So, I had to figure out my own working system for remote collaboration.

Managing the work

Since I’m a project management nut, this was naturally the first thing that I worried about. Fortunately, I had already found a love in Trello that led to project planning issues being resolved quickly.

I created a Sophomores organization in Trello that contains all my projects. Each project (an album, EP or collaborative project) gets its own board — for instance, I have a board for sessions with Mary, another for my current album in progress, and another collecting ideas for a music video I’ll eventually have made.

For a given project, each song has 3 cards representing it (songwriting, my own mix, James’ mix). There are also supplementary cards for other related tasks — transition notes, metadata, file structure, etc.

All official progress updates are made as comments via Trello. Whenever James has a new mix of one of my songs, he posts the URL to listen on his S3 server, and we can easily do rudimentary version tracking via the comments on a particular card.

We use checklists to collect and respond to feedback. Sometimes James and I will get a little carried away and add silly comments here and there, but it’s for fun.

Making the music

Now to the actual music making. I’ve been using Logic Pro X and Reason primarily to make music for a while now with some great results; James works on a PC and Mary doesn’t have a recording rig at all. So we needed a way to easily send each other ideas, bounced mixes and sometimes full sessions.

Amazon S3 largely solves James’ and my issues for file sharing. I can upload an entire Reason file and bounced tracks in a few minutes, and he can pull this into his own rig easily. We both use Presonus’ Studio One for mastering and metadata, and sharing full sessions via an S3 bucket is easy. On the list: start versioning these things.

Sending audio to/from Mary is a bit trickier since she doesn’t have a recording rig of her own. Thanks to iOS and GarageBand, however, this is starting to become easier. I can record basic guitar, piano and scratch vocal tracks via my iPad and Apogee Duet, and send them to her to review — she can even do the same on her phone. Then I can import these into Logic for more nuanced work. Vocals are a bit tricky still — I have a decent space for recording (to be detailed in a future blog post) but Mary and I are working to figure out a working setup for her to record her own vocals. Fortunately, Mary’s got a voice that sounds great via even a basic dynamic mic — so an SM58 should work fine for her.

This is all a work in progress, but I’ve enjoyed being able to make music in such a modular manner while still collaborating with some of my close friends. I’ll continue to post updates on my recording projects both here and on my own site — those who are interested, please share your own ideas on this stuff.

NYC, then back (for good)

I maintain a theory that the happiest people in New York City are bartenders. They are decently paid, have flexible hours, can usually find work right near home, and pride themselves on being a friendly savior to those who so desperately need their service at the end of another punishing day. Those people, pretty much every other resident of NYC, is either miserable, tired or both. Even the rich ones.

NYC is great if you can embrace chaos, the kind of chaos where as soon as you leave your house you’re wondering how long it’ll take before you get hit in the face by something or someone, metaphorically or physically. It’s terrifyingly unpredictable and we found it difficult (at best) to enjoy much of anything, let alone exercising any free will or creativity. We went to dance parties because peer pressure. We went to dinner because we needed to get out of our (admittedly well-decorated) railroad car of an apartment. I performed in NYC…playing bass behind a house DJ (my friend Rich, he’s actually a really good house producer) shoved into a corner because the club needed to make room for more people to dance — far from my ideal gig.

Sometime in April Alicia was really worked up about some job prospect and I told her:

“You know, you don’t NEED to look for jobs in New York, in case something cool comes up somewhere else.”

The joy on her face when she looked up was something I hadn’t seen in months. We started rattling off companies, positions, cities…suddenly MA was back in the cards.

She started tearing up. For me, being close to family was nice but not a priority; for her, it was the reassurance that everything could turn out OK. If we found a place just north of Boston, we could work in and outside the city and be 30 minutes or less from parents, siblings, best friends. A work opportunity came up. Then 2 friends got engaged, another pregnant — Alicia suddenly had photography gigs. Only 1 of those, as a glorified intern shooter, actually panned out.

In June I got a job offer through some weird circumstances, with the caveat that I’d have to work on-site in Boston. The timing worked, and we were out by July. We looked around for a place for a bit; with very little effort we found a HUGE duplex right near Salem Common. 2 minutes to walk to a huge park; walk 2 minutes in the other direction and you’re at a cute little beach. It’s not even far from the city compared to how far away everything is from Ridgewood, Queens.

So we came here, and we’re both happy again.

So what’s Salem like for a bunch of young creative professionals?

I never thought it would affect me that much, but the prevalence of nature has really started to inspire both of us. We both love going outside again — I’ve got my Zoom H4 unpacked and for the first time in almost 2 years I’m excited to record the sounds around me. Alicia’s started to take pictures just for the sake of taking pictures. We’re eating healthy. (We can afford to again, thanks Market Basket.) We have space in our apartment to fully realize our creative ideas without stepping all over each other.

How is it in town? You know how everyone says that Bostonians are mean, sort of like New Yorkers but with a harsher accent and a perverse love of their sports team? Salem residents couldn’t be further from that stereotype — everyone is amazingly nice, humble, inviting. I really think that part of the inspiration of all Brooklyn musicians is their interactions with the city’s chaotic meanness (which coincidentally is what’s causing the homogenization of Brooklyn music, since the chaos is becoming so materialistic and almost predictable); in Salem, we’re being inspired by the town’s whimsy and warmth.

So instead of starting a blog and not touching it for months, I’ll write more.