Archive for tbajoras

Better Mixing by Panning Instrument Reverbs

Typically when mixing an ensemble of instruments, regardless of whether it’s a rock band, a big band, a salsa band, a barbershop quartet, or even just three guys banging on metal cans, you’ll want to place the ensemble into some sort of acoustic space. The space might be a scoring stage, a club, a church, a cave, or even a parking garage. The most common way of doing this is to create an aux channel, insert a reverb plugin on that channel, and then send various amounts of the other channels to the aux channel’s input bus.

Also typically in this kind of mix, each of the instruments will be panned to a position in the left-right stereo image to arrange their order on an imaginary stage. For example, with a four-piece rock band (lead singer, guitar, bass player, and drummer) you might pan them to place the lead singer and drummer in the center, the guitarist more toward the left side of the stage, and the bass player more toward the right side of the stage. If -50 is “hard left” and +50 is “hard right,” then this could be accomplished by setting the leader singer’s and drummer’s pan to 0 (center), the guitarist’s pan to -30, and the bass player’s to +30.

If you stop there, however, the stereo imaging is incomplete. You also need to set the panning of each channel’s send to the reverb bus. It is a common mistake to make the reverb panning match the channel’s panning. It is actually more accurate to pan the reverb the opposite of the channel. For example, with our hypothetical rock band example, you would pan the guitarist’s reverb to +30 and the bass player’s reverb to -30.

Why is this more accurate? Think about what causes reverb. Reverb is caused by the reflection of sound from the surfaces in the room. Instruments on the left side of the room have reverb from the surfaces on the right of the room, and vice versa.

How much of a difference does this make? It’s hard to say. I suggest comparing two mixes, one with the reverbs panned the same as the instruments, and the other with the reverbs panned the opposite. Listen to both and see which sounds better. Play the mixes for some other people and see which one they prefer. It’s been my experience that good mixing is often the sum of many small decisions. Any one of those decisions on its own probably won’t make or break the mix, but over the course of mixing a song, you can accumulate things that add up to a good mix. Reverb panning is one of those things!

Prog Rock Bingo

Progressive rock (aka “prog rock” or “art rock”) lyrics have a somewhat different distribution of vocabulary than typical pop songs. Instead of words like “baby, “girl,” and “love,” prog rock lyrics have “epitaph” (“confusion will be my epitaph”), “undinal” (“undinal songs urge the sailors on”), and “love” (“dawn of love sent within us colours of awakening among the many”, not “Yeah, I will love you baby, always”).

So I invented a little game based on this: Prog Rock Bingo.


prog rock bingo


You probably know how to play traditional Bingo, but it’s pretty simple, so I’ll review the rules. Each player has a card with numbers randomly distributed in a 5×5 grid. The “caller” draws numbers randomly and calls them out. If your card has the number that has just been called, you mark that number. The central number is a freebie; everyone gets to mark that one. As soon as you have five in a row (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally), you call out “bingo.” The first person to do so wins.

Prog Rock Bingo puts a little twist on the game. First of all, every player has the same card. Each space on the card contains a word that you might hear in a prog rock song. Each player constructs a playlist ahead of time. The players don’t need to be in the same physical location; they just need to agree on the length of the playlist and to start at the same time. I find that 30-40 minutes is a good length, i.e. 3 or 4 songs. As you listen to your playlist, you mark the words that you hear in the lyrics. The first person to mark five in a row, just like in traditional Bingo, wins. If you’re not all playing in the same location, you may have to agree to notify the other players via email.

The point of the game then becomes to construct the right playlist. Whereas in traditional Bingo all players listen to the same numbers being called out but have different cards, in this version of the game all have the same card but listen to different words being called out. The strategy of the game is to choose the best playlist based on the words on the card.

I’ve chosen words that are fairly generic; it would be too easy to design a winning playlist if the words were too specific like “epitaph” or “undinal.” By tweaking the words on the card, we could create versions of this game for other musical genres; e.g. I can easily imagine a hip hop or country version.

Challenge your prog rock friends across the miles. Have fun!


Here’s something you might not know about me: I write poetry. A lot of it. Like a new poem almost every week. About once a year I write something that’s not terrible.

Here’s something else you might not know about me: Early this year I had surgery. I was on some pretty serious drugs for a period of time after that, and I don’t remember much of it (except for the part where I was being chased by the Korean mafia, but I can’t be sure of the accuracy of that). I was flipping through my poetry notebook, and I found something I’d written during that period of time. I swear I have zero recollection of writing this. But it’s in my notebook, in my own handwriting, so I don’t doubt its authenticity. It’s oddly lucid for something scribbled in a hurry while on the run from the Korean mafia.

A House Made of Poems

Everyone lives in a house made of poems.

It might be
A house of brick,
with lots of grass,
And black iron gates
through which guests pass.

Or it might be
A city penthouse,
A j ig sa wpu zzle of concrete and steel.
Each room with a 360 view.

A shack in a row
where me and my bro
walk down the street
in search of our beats

My house is is barely a poem:
A sleeping bag
with stars above me.
Only punctuation marks
between me and God.

Are We Running Out of Melodies?

First warning: This article contains math.

Second warning: I’m not very good at math.

I don’t know why, but tonight I found myself pondering the question “How many melodies are there?” Maybe I was worried that we’re running out of them. (A quick survey of recent pop music might suggest this.)

Human beings have been writing songs for as long as there have been human beings. The oldest written song is the Hurrian Song to Nikkal, written around 1400 BC, but even in prehistoric times there were no doubt songwriters, whose melodies are now lost to us.

There are now more than 7 billion people in the world, so there must be more songwriters living now than at any other time in history. Heck, there are probably more songwriters now than there were people at some point in the past.

And all those songwriters are using up melodies. Not always of course, since imitation and blatant thievery are well-established parts of the creative process. But unless we’re all just endlessly recycling the same melodies, some of us must be inventing new ones and therefore depleting the supply of melodies not heard before.

How long until there are no new melodies?

OK, here’s where the math comes in. For the sake of this discussion, let’s limit ourselves to the Western chromatic scale, i.e. all the keys on a piano. But two melodies that are different only by shifting some of the notes to a different octave aren’t going to be heard as different melodies. For example, consider these two melodies:

melody 1


melody 2



If you tried to claim that the second melody is original, I’m afraid people would laugh at you, and if you took it too far, Mozart might sue you.

So we’re really only dealing with 12 notes, because every other note is just one of those notes shifted to a different octave.

How many melodies can we make with 12 notes? It depends on how long the melody is. If our melody is only one note long, then obviously there are only 12 possible melodies. If our melody is two notes long, then there are 12×12, or 144, possible melodies. Here are the first 36 of them; you can probably figure out the rest:

two-note melodies





Now, what about a melody that’s 3 notes long? There are 12x12x12, or 1728 possibilites. Similarly, there are 12x12x12x12 (­20736) 4-note melodies, 12x12x12x12x12 (248832) 5-note melodies, and so on. The formula to calculate the number of possible melodies using N notes is 12^N, meaning 12 multiplied by itself N times. So if we want to know how many possible 20-note melodies there are, we just multiple 12 by itself 20 times. The result of that calculation is 3,833,759,992,447,500,000,000.

Now we’re getting into some big numbers, and I’m starting to feel a little better about the remaining supply of melodies. In fact, the number of possible 22-note melodies is roughly the same as the number of stars in the universe. Now I’m feeling safe.

But so far we haven’t tried to draw any distinctions between good and bad melodies. Those 144 two-note melodies, for example, are probably not very interesting. And a random collection of 22 notes generated by a computer program might be a melody but is not likely to be a good melody.

So even though on a theoretical level we’ll never run out of melodies, the more important question is “will we ever run out of good melodies?” I don’t know. But here’s a melody, which I think is a pretty good one:

22-note melody



It has 22 notes, so it’s like one out of all the stars in the universe. And if you hum it, there’s a good chance that you and I and other readers of this article are the only human beings who have ever lived who have ever heard this melody.

That’s pretty cool.


On Self-Reflection

Look at yourself in the mirror. What do you see? Now… what do you really see?

When was the last time you held a mirror up to your inner artist and tried to give honest answers to questions like these?

  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What do I like doing?
  • What do I not like doing?
  • What do other people like about my art?
  • What do other people not like about my art?

You can take this as far as you want to. It can be as simple as “what are my best songs / what are my worst?” or, at the opposite extreme, it can be “what do/don’t you like about me?”

Now comes the even harder part: Find a mirror. By that I mean a couple close friends. Really close friends. I don’t just mean the people you like to have a few drinks with, watch some TV, or go to an occasional sporting event with.

I mean someone you’ve known for at least half your life, someone who has stayed your friend despite the two of you having grown as artists and as human beings, someone with whom you’ve had arguments and disagreements, perhaps even temporary periods of not being on speaking terms. Someone who has stood with you in your darkest hour, and someone for whom you’ve done the same.

For the purposes of this exercise, someone other than your spouse.

Now ask those close friends to answer the same questions about you and be brutally honest. The exercise can be reciprocal (but only if the other person agrees). Make a verbal contract ahead of time that you will not be offended and that this will not hurt your friendship; in fact, if done in the right spirit, it can strengthen your friendship. But you’ll need to be prepared to hear things like “I think your songs are great, but you’re not a very good singer.”

Now on to the next part. All the self-reflection in the world isn’t much good without subsequent action. For example, “you’re not a very good singer” can lead to actions like (1) not singing, (2) teaming up with a good singer, or (3) taking voice lessons. Or “your piano instrumentals are your best work” might prompt you to start working on a new collection of piano instrumentals. But if you’ve chosen to go to a deeper level with this self-reflection exercise, then comments like “sometimes you say things that seem like gossip” might lead to a healthy habit of double-checking what you’re about to say before deciding whether to say it. Or “you have always been a faithful friend” might simply mean “keep doing that; that’s worth more than art.”


Project Stages

The stages that every project goes through…

  • “I’m a creative genius. This new thing I’m working on is going to take over the world.”
  • “This is crap. No one is going to like this. I’m an idiot.”
  • Persevere anyway. There’s some value in finishing it, even if it’s not very good.
  • A friends tells you that they like it. Attend a three-hour congratulation party; guest list: yourself.
  • Another friend tells you that they don’t like it. Three nights of insomnia and self-loathing.
  • Procrastinate for one week. Watch YouTube videos about cats. Listen to music. Read poetry. Eat ice cream.
  • Complete rewrite.  Previous friend says that they still don’t like it.  Achieve peace and self-confidence independent of all other people’s opinions.
  • “I LOVE THIS! I could work on this 24/7 and never be tired of it. This is what heaven must be like.”
  • “I HATE THIS! This is hell. Why didn’t I pursue that career in tax accounting?”
  • There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there. One more edit. No, just one more.
  • “Get this thing away from me. Push it out the door; I don’t care if it’s finished. I never want to do another project like this as long as I live.”
  • “Hey, I have an idea for another project…”

Start over from the beginning.

The Art of Listening (Part 1: Instrumentation)

I deliberately used the word “instrumentation” instead of “orchestration” because I thought the latter might be too limiting. One immediately thinks of Beethoven, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and a whole lot of other European guys (let’s face it; they’re mostly guys). Even “instrumentation” might be a bit limiting, because not all sounds that make up music are necessarily instruments in their own right, but let’s go with “instrumentation” in the sense of “a combination of sounds.”

I had a good friend, an accomplished musician, with whom I used to sit and listen to classical music while reading scores. One day he arrived at my house, a Wu-Tang Clan CD in hand, and excitedly said “you’ve got to hear this!” He popped the CD into the player, and my cat, still somewhat shaken by a recent high volume listening of King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic,” sensed danger and quickly left the room. Gun shots! Shouting! Sirens! My friend hit pause and said “what do you hear?” ” I hear gun shots and sirens,” I answered. “And what else?” He paused for dramatic effect and then said joyously “Sleigh bells… Gun shots, sirens, and sleigh bells. The instrumentation is pure genius.”

I could write many pages about instrumentation, and I can’t imagine how many pages it would take to say what I don’t know yet about it. We could look at recording different instruments, balancing between them, placing them in a stereo or surround image, how these change over time, what sorts of EQ and reverb settings are used, and so on. We could look at the bigger question of what the instruments are actually playing, but this of course quickly gets into theories about harmony and counterpoint, which would take up even more pages.

But let’s just focus on one thing: listening to music intentionally, trying to know what sounds are happening at any given moment in a piece of music. Try to be able to answer the question “what were you just hearing?” if someone were to press the pause button. You can do this with pretty much any piece of music, whether it be Beethoven, Beatles, Beastie Boys, Bajoras, or The Band Whose Hit Song You Are Mixing Right Now.

One technique that I’ve found useful is to pretend to be a bandpass filter, ignoring fequencies outside of a range, then gradually adjust that range until there’s something that you’re not ignoring. Try listening to just the bass. Then listen to just the high frequencies. Lastly, try the middle frequencies. For most kinds of music the middle is likekly to be most difficult, because it will have the most instruments wandering in and out or living entirely within that range.

You can also separate sounds by listening to the stereo domain: Hear only the sounds in your left ear; then hear only the sounds in your right ear, etc.

Then do the same thing in the amplitude domain: Hear only the loudest sounds, then hear only the softest sounds.

This sort of “selective hearing” takes practice. Start with simple instrumentation. Listen to a piano and violin piece and hear only the violin. Then listen again and hear only the piano. Once you can do this, try a piece of music that has three instruments, maybe piano, bass, and drums. Move on to various kinds of quartets. It can help to ignore the melodic and harmonic content of the music, e.g. don’t start humming along with the melody; listen to it as sound, not music.

Over time you’ll be able to mentally “de-orchestrate” increasingly complex music.

You can also learn to ignore groups of related instruments. For example, listen to a song and ignore all the vocals. Then listen to it and ignore all the instruments.

If you have a digital audio workstation, try loading a piece of music into it, select a part of the music, then set that part to play in a loop. As it loops, write down all the instruments that you are hearing. Even if you don’t know the name of the instrument, write down a brief description of it: oboe, female lead vocal, guitar, gun shots, sirens, sleigh bells, or just “weird shimmery thing.”

These are exercises, not to be confused with actually enjoying music. The theory though is that if you do these exercises, you’ll increase your ability to distinguish between different instruments, and you’ll be able to hear subtle nuances that you couldn’t hear before. And the better you can listen, the more you can enjoy.

You’ll also be able to understand how to make kinds of sounds, and you can construct a pallette from which you can paint your own collections of sounds. You might even keep a notebook or a folder of audio samples illustrating techniques. This can become a life-long obsession. Some people collect stamps; other people collect comic books. Why not collect sounds?

Techniques for Synchronizing Lead and Background Vocals

Here are some techniques that I use for synchronizing backup and lead vocals.

These techniques only work in sections of a song where background vocals are accompanying a lead vocal in unison or harmony. In other words, one of the vocal tracks has to be clearly the lead vocal, and the others have to be clearly background vocals.  These approaches won’t work for a duet, where both of the vocals are sharing the lead.  They all also won’t work for a choir, where none of the vocals is the lead. And, lastly, the vocals have to be some sort of parallel harmony; these techniques won’t work for contrapuntal parts.

Imagine that the lyric is “happy birthday to you,” and imagine that you have a single background vocal track singing a harmony with the lead vocal track. Solo just the vocal tracks and listen carefully.  Chances are, the “hard” consonants in the two vocal tracks don’t line up perfectly.  In this example, the consonants that potentially cause problems are p, b, d, and t:  “haPPy BirthDay To you.”  Linguists called these “plosives.” If you listen carefully you may here something like this:  “haPPPy BBirthDDay TTo you.”  The background vocal may be a little behind or a little ahead of the lead vocal, but in either case you’ll hear the plosives doubled because the lead and background vocals are out of sync.

Here’s my first technique.  Just remove the plosives from the background vocal!  In whatever digital audio editor you’re using, you probably have a tool for drawing volume curves.  Find the offending plosives in the background vocal and draw a steep notch in the volume curve around each of those plosives.  Now if you were to listen to the background vocal by itself you’d hear something like “ha-y -irth-ay  -o you.” Of course that would be unacceptable for the lead vocal, but the background vocal, since it’s a harmony part, will probably be lower in the mix, and if there are enough other instruments playing at the same time (maybe this is a symphonic metal arrange of “Happy Birthday”) no one will notice the missing plosives.  That’s the funny thing about the ear: It’s really good at hearing that something is in the wrong place, but it’s not very good at hearing that something’s missing.

That’s not the only way to solve this problem.  The second way is to use time stretching (such as Pro Tools’ “elastic audio”) feature to get the plosives to line up by squeezing and stretching the background vocals (without pitch shifting) between the plosives.

Now, you might be asking “what if the vowels also don’t line up?”  You can fade out a background vocal vowel at the end of a word to make it the same length as the corresponding vowel in the lead vocal track.  You can time stretch (without pitch shifting) a vowel to make it longer.  But these two techniques only work if the vowel is at the end of a word.

What if a vowel in the middle of a word is out of sync, or what if non-plosive consonants aren’t lined up?  Well, then there’s the third technique to solve the problem: Re-record the background vocals.

That’s the funny thing about all these cool software tools we have.  Sometimes we reach for exotic plugins or complicated sequences of editing commands, when really we should just be pressing the record button.

Two Approaches to Creative Projects

It seems to me that there are two approaches to creative projects, both equally valid, but each having its own risks.

In the first approach, a creative genius has the whole project already finished in their mind, and they just need to communicate it to the other people on the team. The first risk in this case is whether the so-called genius really is a genius; i.e., is their vision worth pursuing? But also, can they communicate it to the team? Too often, envisioning and communicating don’t go hand-in-hand. Lastly, can the team members embrace the idea? Even if it’s a great idea, and it’s been communicated clearly, the team still needs to be able to work together effectively to bring it to fruition.

In the second approach, a creative person has an idea in rough form, and the team collaborates to finish it. In this case, the “genius” of the original idea is less important; there are certainly some ideas which weren’t great initially but led to great things by collaboration with a great tream. But the main risk with this approach is whether the team is the right group of people, each with the right talents.  If so, the genius of the person who initiates the idea is not so much in coming up with an idea as in their ability to recognize which team contributions do and don’t belong in the finished product.

Over the years, I’ve realized I’m more the second kind of person. I enjoy working with other creative people and welcoming their input. I’m not afraid to change directions, even if the new direction isn’t where I was initially headed.

But I’ve also met people who have the amazing gift of envisioning a finished project in all its details.  Sometimes I wish I could be like that, but usually I’m just content to be the guy who needs the help of other people to find out whether my ideas are good.

Hair Color

I find it odd that “race” is mostly defined by the darkness of a person’s skin. This seems like an arbitrary distinction, because there are so many other parameters of the human body, any one of which could be used to create categories.

For example, imagine what the world would be like if we had decided to define “race” by hair color instead of skin color…

– Cities divided into neighborhoods, each one having a particular color hair.

– People with a particular hair color would be more likely to be wealthy, educated, employed, and owning their own home.

– Certain professions would be mostly the same hair color.

– People would have insulting slang terms for people with different hair colors.

– People with different hair colors would listen to different kinds of music, have their own TV channels, and would be eligible for hair color specific scholarship programs.

– Some marriages that are currently interracial would no longer be, and vice versa.

– You’d hear someone say “You wouldn’t understand; it’s a brunette thing.”

– You could be in danger for having the wrong hair color in a particular place or situation. You might even lose your life for it.

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