My My Hey Hey: Using Harmonica as a Vocoder Device

You don’t have to have awesome cutting-edge gear to make interesting sounds. Nor do you have to settle with calling up some preset from a tone bank or soundcard. Sometimes common everyday acoustic instruments can help you approximate a sound/texture that you’re after; and for many musicians, soundmakers and writers, coming up with stuff is half of the fun.

Back when I was making the transition from recording-only, sound collage maker guy to futurist space-folk performer, I was looking for a way to maximize the sounds I could make with the smallest ammount of extra gear to lug along to coffeehouses. In addition to the core elements of guitar, slide and voice, I settled on two items: my two-second Digitech delay/looper and a harmonica.

I tracked down some Hohners and one of those neckholder contraptions at the big music store downtown at Mass Ave and Newbury St, and set about the task of learning to play them while strumming the guitar. I’d messed around with kazoos and wooden flutes and harmonicas before in my recording exploits, but usually just as non-melodic sonic ephemera put through guitar effects units, and never while trying to simultaneously play the guitar.

After I got the hang of it, I started incorporating my noisemaking era’s techniques of vowel-shaping, talking and adding undertones by humming notes through the harp that were different from the notes I was playing on it. The harmonica was transformed into a kind of poorman’s acoustic vocoder/talkbox and it immediately got used in one of my sci-fi folk numbers called ‘Visited A Farm’, opening and closing the retro-future tale like a robot narrator trying to speak.

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Swervedriver: Never Lose That Feeling

Almost fourteen years after the mighty guitar band Swervedriver was put ‘up on the blocks’, here they were again in 2012; plying their stomp-box enabled brand of space travel rock and roll, debuting a new song, digging deep into their catalogue for some live rarities, and actually even appearing on national television.

It seems that more of the world is finally finding out about, and acknowledging, this great undiscovered treasure of the 1990’s a full two decades after their Creation Records debut. As formulaic rock and machine-generated beats continue their dominance of the airwaves, and ‘professional’ entertainment and contest shows (along with rock schools and “Glee”) reduce the performing arts to confident calesthenics and TV-ready sanitized deliveries, it’s nice to be reminded how potent a force untrammeled guitar rock is for your inner under-nourished soul.

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Experiments in Writing and Recording Music: Using Limits, pt. 1

As noted in the intro to this series, there are a plethora of ways to tackle an impasse in the writing and recording process. I tend to advocate for an experimental solution rather than a ‘standard’ (read: boring and safe) solution. Try something that you or your band haven’t tried; not for the sake of novelty, but for the things you can run into during the discovery process.

The benefit of thinking outside the box is exactly just that; you learn to approach problems and solutions from a different angle. And with the pace of today’s technological advancements, there seem to be an infinite number of options at your fingertips. Getting used to considering all the possibilities on how to finish that song or find that one neat sound that makes the record come to life can help you overcome musical impasses more quickly in the future the more you get used to doing it.

Once you’ve allowed yourself to be open to all the directions that that song or sound search could go in though, there also arises the conundrum of sifting through the myriad of choices you’ve dutifully considered. How do you select the best idea out of a hundred? It can be overwhelming if you’ve really done your homework and truly considered all the options available. So my first rule of action when confronting these kinds of problems has always been the one that almost seems counter-intuitive (at first): use limits.

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The Lyrics Slowly Enter the Fray…

After a bit of a delay this month, I’ve finally made a template that I’m satisfied with for displaying the lyrics/prose that will slowly be making their way onboard. There are a dozen or so on the lyrics page now and soon there’ll be a slider carousel so you can flip through them a little quicker. There will be some lyrics posted for songs or spoken pieces which I don’t have a good recording of, but still may yet find. And in some cases, it might be more fun anyways to just read the lyrics; especially if a certain unnamed someone may have sung a tad out of tune on a particular selection  ;-). I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Here’s “Wire to the Sky” and “Engineering Our Escape” to start things off:

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Video: “All Blues/Set the Controls….”

Cover tunes are a great way to improve your chops and timing, learn how songs are put together, and can be a fun inclusion into a live set or album. During periods where I’m not writing and practicing my own stuff, I always have a song or two in mind to play along with so I can get out of my set patterns on the fretboard and maybe commit some new chord shapes or finger patterns to muscle memory. Many times those newly learned chord patterns can give you some ideas for your next batch of tunes. Other times, it can be a comical act of futility (“Siberian Khatru” from Yessongs, anyone?) where you’re just left flabbergast at the level of talent and genius in some people’s playing.

Since I started writing and performing my own stuff 20+ years ago, I’ve only done around seven or so cover tunes live or in the studio; and most of those were only done once. All but one of those (June’s “Lena Champagne”) got recorded and will be in the online sound files. The only two that got played more than once were two that I paired together into a medley to end the set with; kind of a ‘chaser’/treat for the audience, lol, after having survived an hour of fractured pop and no holds barred space rock/noise. It was fun to play, and I think we put our stamp on it as well; turning Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from a multi-verse song in 4/4 time (a 3/3/2 feel) into a 1.5 verse abbreviation with pitch-shifted and echoed vocals done in 3/4 time which still retained a heavy psychedelic impact. Then we nestled it in between a rock-flavored impression of Miles Davis’ “All Blues”, already in a 3-based time signature (6/8), transposed to the key of A to start and end the number. Although not the best version we did (I had mis-set the vocal effects knobs in the dark and had to fix them mid-song), one night it was caught on video, seen above. Cover tunes are always a good option to keep in mind; whether for that extra song in the set, or as a learning tool to help you improve your playing and arranging skills.

You might not get back…to the Muse

Some writers and lyricists have a muse; others just go solo or have a co-writer to bounce things off of and consider the process a much more practical and grounded affair than do the muse-poets. Some only write when inspiration strikes or they feel compelled to do so; others adhere to a schedule. For myself, I’ve found that the writing music bit has worked well using just about any method, but the writing of many lyrics and spoken word pieces has actually been a muse-assisted process, and I’ve never really been certain how much of it to attribute to the relationships first described by Robert Graves. But by sticking to the habit of writing lyrics and poems only when inspired, I didn’t burn out; forcing words or turning it into a rote process.

Sure, I would always jot down good ideas or lines when they appeared, and could obviously finish up a piece that was mostly done when not feeling the ‘connection’ to an external source. But for what felt like more serious endeavors, especially multi-hour writing sessions once or twice a year, there did seem to be someone or something that would kind of ‘hold the door open’ across the Arch for my imagination. Then it was all up to my felt-tip pen to madly scribble it all down before the curtain closed.

Many times the inspiration, or fuel, was my earthly muse; and that (devotional?) mindset combined with the poet’s sharp eye in some kind of intense primitive or pre-Bakti ritual. It was pretty amazing; some of those days I cranked out four or five completed song lyrics and three or four spoken pieces in their entirety in one sitting. It really felt like a not-just-me experience, and many of those songs ended up being among my best ever, without having to add or edit a single word. Other days, you’d struggle just to get a decent verse or song title. So I don’t think people can just dismiss the muse-poet theory out of hand, but it’s obviously not how everybody works.

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The music and noise arrive…

November 22-30, 2011. While construction continues in the music room, there are music players in the sidebar to allow you to quickly grab-n-go with a pop-out music player and get back to surfin’ the web. The playlists let you choose between five styles of Jeff C Radio to listen to; each is a 30 minute mini-set, except for the Slow Space one (17:00), and you can easily scroll thru tracks to go back or skip ahead. There is also a new musicplayer at the bottom of the list which will allow you to scroll through a random ordering of all the tracks onsite if you would prefer an index-by-surprise approach.

Keep an eye out for improvements as we tweak the music players, normalize track volumes and bring more material on board from disparate sources together into a cohesive blend of new and old. We’re very happy to get to this stage of the ‘construction’, and hope you’ll give a curious listen while you’re here. Now there’s more than just a quiet front porch to hang out on; we have a front door and a hallway and we have tunes-to-go. The kitchen and couch can’t be far behind. So like the song says, “Come on in, pull up a chair. Talk to me, thanks for stoppin’ by.” Cheers!

Pen and Ink doodles

Over the years I’ve done a number of doodles in a variety of mediums (pen and ink, paint, felt tip pens), on a variety of surfaces (graph or notebook paper, art pads, napkins) and in a variety of states (-erm, like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, etc…or is it too late to go there?). Here’s an interesting one, recently found and dutifully scanned. No idea where/when it was done or if it’s even right-side up!  To see a larger version of the image, which is a little more fun to look at, you can click on it to open it in a new window. That pair of horned creatures with their happy silent smiles and the Alice Cooper mascara’d eyes sure are endearing!

Bienvenue, welcome, namaste!

                             “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,                                                                             To turn back your clocks by one hour”                                                                                                                                      -unknown

November 5th, 2011.  Hey there, welcome to the front porch. Hope to have the door open soon. There’ll be sound environments, songs, videos, musings on experimental recording and more, plus a monthly featured-friend’s musical projects. Please check back; it would be great to have you and your musical observations along for the ride!         -Jeff Creamer