My experiences in how to learn and record your own music
On This Page:
These are very rough! Don't expect much. See below for more info.
[Jan. 2010, time: 2:11]
An instrumental with piano, bells, a rockin' organ, a little saxophone, and a hi-hat cymbal from the basement! More info on my blog.
[July '99, time: 1:45]
A simple tune with a nice feel and groovy bass.
[May '99, time: 0:38]
A rhythmic application of sounds of the telephone.
[Mar. '99, time: 2:10]
Layers of happy keyboard melodies, but a little too disorganized.
Bring It On Home
[Oct. '98, time: 1:30]
My version of the intro to Led Zeppelin's tune.
Come A Long Way
[Aug. '99, time: 2:20]
My first song with lyrics!
[Jan. '99, time: 1:30]
A soft, swirling acoustic guitar instrumental.
[Sept. '98, time: 1:12]
My very first guitar recording, using an old microphone.
[Aug. '99, time: 1:45]
Dual harmonica instrumental (imagine a big wide open praire).
How to Learn Music - advice on how to start out
About Me - my musical aspirations
My Music - my compositions
Recording Equipment - home recording shop talk
This page is very old and out of date! However, I still maintain the list of songs I've recorded in the right sidebar. Check some out!
How to Learn Music
The best way I've learned to play instruments is by just trying to play music I like that's popular for that instrument. I taught myself from recordings and from transcriptions and got advice from my friends. This allowed me to focus on whatever songs I truly wanted to; however once you decide what direction you'd like to head in, lessons can squash bad habits and help you progress faster.
To learn an instrument on your own, focus for a while on a few musicians and try to reproduce their licks. Listen to lots of music you like. Listen critically to how your favorite professional musician plays each and every note. There's probably a reason for every note, and if you listen closely, you can hear whether each note comes out right and if it makes sense to your ears
Choose a few songs you like which sound somewhat easy to play. Listen closely to the recording, and pick out your instrument. Try to feel what it's playing and then play it yourself, note for note (eventually), busting through it from beginning to end.
Don't try to get it perfectly right at first. Start with the first few notes. Imagine how they're supposed to sound. Then play them yourself and try to match what's coming out of your instrument with how you imagine it should sound. The important thing is to concentrate totally on getting your mind and body to work together and produce the sound you're imagining. If it's not coming out right, go back and try a simpler song. Don't obsess over any one skill that you're having problems with (though you may want to go in a closet and work on some of the more obvious knots in your coordination). Keep your mind positive, get inspired by the professional recording you're listening to, and allow your mind and body to work together to blow through the music, maybe at a slower speed, but at least with the same feeling and meaning that you can hear in the recording. Keep doing that, until what you're playing starts coming out sounding right to your ears!
Figuring songs out by ear gets easier the more you try it. Just keep in mind how badly you want to play that song on your own! If you have trouble figuring out a song, there's a good chance that someone else has already transcribed it for you. Search the OLGA database (see my links page) to get free guitar transcriptions of songs by almost any band. Or check for books at a music storeall the albums by Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, for example, have been fully transcribed for guitar, piano, bass, drums, etc. There's more out there than you'll ever need.
Led Zeppelin and old Van Morrison music have something for almost any beginning rock musician. These bands produce great music with lots of important fundamentals. The guitar lines of Led Zeppelin use common blues devices and span the whole genre of rock during that time period. The vocals are lots of fun, and man, these guys really know how to sing. If you want to play a little bass, there are plenty of good lines to study here. And there's lots of great piano lines to focus on, too. Pianists should also check out old music from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
For me it was important to have friends who also played guitar and piano and were interested in similar music. My friends Andy and Frank taught me barre chords, major and minor scales, the pentatonic scale, and other bits of guitar theory that make you say "Oh, that helps! That makes sense." (You can also find a lot of essential information in a book or two at your local music store.) While we were too amateurish to successfully coordinate playing songs together, we were always there to encourage each other to improve individually. As one person learned something new, they'd be happy to pass it on to others.
My main instruments are the acoustic guitar, piano, and alto saxophone. I've also played around a little with bass guitar, harmonica, and even violin. The artists who I've learned the most from are Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Led Zeppelin. I've also learned a lot from the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. And I'm pretty big fans of Bob Dylan, Beck, Radiohead, Bob Marley, and John Prine. (Old standby's include Janis Joplin, The Who, Pink Floyd, and the Moody Blues.) I really liike some types of jazz and blues, and I'm also into bluegrass a little.
I grew up taking piano lessons and playing alto sax in school bands. In high school I quit piano lessons but continued casually playing keyboard with my friends. I currently play alto sax in a community big band, but I can't improvise on it.
It wasn't until the summer of 1998, after moving to Illinois for grad school, that I finally decided to learn acoustic guitar. I'd always been charmed by its sound but never had the courage to start learning it all from scratch. Try to play something on it, and you'll feel how awkward it is! It can be both incredibly invigorating and incredibly frustrating learning to play an instrument. You may know what you'd like to sound like, but you can't seem to attain it. However, the advantage to being a beginner is you make noticeable progress every time you practice. Soon enough, I was happily strumming the most often-used chords and playing songs I could sing along to.
Learning a new instrument had the effect of opening my mind to new possibilities. I let go of the confines of my older instruments and was no longer mired in my old habits. This time I'd be learning an instrument exactly the way I want to. The guitar is a great instrument for creativity, since you can play a lot of music without studying too much music theory. The longer you do it the more you will realize how well-spent your time has been.
See the sidebar above for what I've been able to compose so far that's barely listenable (they're not really here for general consumption). I know there's more in my head; I just need to find it, and learn how to play the instruments. I think what will be hardest for me is trying to get in touch with and express a real feeling or truthtrying to write lyrics.
Here are a few pointers for playing these songs yourself on guitar. The first section of Mexico Beach starts out on frets 0, 7, 7, and 5 on the D, G, B, and high E strings, respectively, and you alternate between 5 and 7 on the high E string. Then you play G and A barre chords. Repeat all that a few times. Then the second section is a G barre chord, then a D, then a G barre, then a C chord, and you repeat that and go back to the first section. The bass line is a lot of fun too!
Come A Long Way is simply just a bunch of strumming on G-C-D chords. Here are the lyrics:
Come A Long Way
You've come a long way, Jane
I'll tell you again
You've come a long way, Jane
You've got a friend
You've got things worked out in your mind
You know the dark clouds in the sky
Sometimes part their ways
Turnin' orange come the end of the day
Leavin' something beautiful
For anyone who made it through!
You're going down south to make it on your own
This country's different now, you're not at home
And that old dusty road
You see it always seemed to point the way
To where you had wanted to go
Into the sunlight of a brand new day
I wrote that during one week when my friend Andy and I challenged each other to write a song a day, with lyrics. Andy had no problem. I came up with two or three other songs, but they're pretty painful to listen to!
Bring It On Home is just a simple E-A-B blues progression. You start out by just playing the low E and A strings together, while alternating between frets 2 and 4 on the A string (and adding a little fill every couple times). Then you do the same thing but on the A and D strings. Finally, do the same thing on the A and D strings again, except move all the notes up two frets. Start singing and get out your A harmonica, man!
Apple Sessions is such a mess I'm not going to try to describe it. I borrowed Frank's digital piano to add intertwining piano, organ, and harpsichord parts on top of the rhythm guitar. It's another G-C-D song... easy. Amazing what a guitar can do with just three chords.
NOTE: This section is very out of date! I currently record with GarageBand on a MacBook Pro and use its built-effects and sound patches. GarageBand is a really intuitive program that handles everything from start to finish for basic multi-track recording. The only other hardware I use is a Yamaha YPG-635 digital piano with nicely weighted keys and a great piano sound (though any keyboard with a USB plug will work) and a Blue Icicle XLR-to-USB converter, plugged into an AKG C1000S condenser microphone.
I do my recording on an old Power Mac 8600, using the multi-track program ProTools by Digidesign (free 8-track version available). For the Windows PC, Syntrillium's CoolEdit is an awesome program, very versatile, and very cheap. (You may need to buy the optional Studio Plug-in to allow 4-track mixing.) I used to use a Fostex 4-track recorder in high school and actually much prefer its "interface" over clicking with a mouse on a computer. However, ProTools adds flexibility to a recording as far as adding effects, visually cutting and pasting, mixing down, and maintaining a decent level of sound quality.
I have a very bare bones home recording studio. It's centered around the computer, which does the actual recording through its single stereo audio input. I also have an effects unit (the Lexicon MPX 100, $200), a compressor (the dbx 266XL, $150), a dinky little mixer to control the input levels (the Boss BX-8, no longer sold) with 1/4" plugs, an even cheaper mixer for the headphone levels (a Fostex MN04, $50) and a good low-end condenser microphone (the AKG C1000S, $180, more info here). A condenser microphone is usually powered (I use the Rolls PB23 phantom power adapter, $30) and picks up a wider dynamic range than any dynamic mic can (typical mics with a ball shape are all dynamic). I didn't buy the industry-standard dynamic mic, the Shure SM58 ($80-$90), as it is really only suitable for vocals, drums, and woodwinds. So my condenser is great for the acoustic guitar, and it seems to work fine for vocals too (make sure you get a pop filter). That mic was one of the best things I ever bought! Side-by-side, it sounds so much clearer than the other cheap mics I used to use.
I split the cost of buying most of this stuff with a friend of mine. While this set-up is pretty bare bones, it's quite adequate for making something that sounds halfway professional. You don't need any fancy equipment to start making music, though. You can simply start out with a cheap 4-track for $150-$200 (or use your home computer; see below) and a sensitive microphone (try Radio Shack?) and then expand from there if you want to.
Why exactly is all this equipment necessary? A good test of your home studio (and your ears) is can you record your instrument and produce exactly the sound you want? Can you record the same sounds of your favorite artists? If not, some basic equipment can help. A good mic is essential for capturing the true sound of your instruments. Of course, good instruments are necessary for a good sound, too; a cheap instrument will sound like one. The ambience of your room will be picked up by the mic during recording, also. If you can produce the desired ambience naturally, great! That makes for much less work when you decide to process the sound later. However, if you don't have access to a room with some nice reverb, then that's where an effects processor comes in. It can be used to add whatever reverb you want, and give your recording more "presence"make it sound like you're playing in a pleasant natural environment, instead of in a tight, padded recording studio.
What about the compressor? What did I buy that for? Well, I'm not sure now, since I like the compressor that's built into ProTools on my computer. I can tell you what it's useful for, though. A compressor keeps your sound within a desired dynamic rangeit discreetly and rather instantaneously lowers the volume when it gets too loud and raises the volume when it gets too quiet (a built-in "gate" will keep all the background noise and hiss from being amplified too). For example, this can be used to keep a singer's voice at a consistent volume above the rest of the song, limiting the unwanted effects of the singer's varying distance from the mic and accidental changes in volume. In effect, a compressor squashes the dynamic range of an audio track so that no part gets too loud or too soft. It has its place. Incidentally, radio stations compress all the music they play on the airways. That way if you're listening in a noisy environment, like in a car or at a party, you'll be bombarded by the music at a more-or-less constant level.
So once you know how to play an instrument, all this equipment will help you produce a polished final product... that is, if you can learn how to work all the dials and controls! You can find tons more information about home recording at HomeRecording.com. They're the ones that tipped me off to the AKG C1000S condenser mic and gave me an explanation for what phantom power is. I make most of my small purchases from Musician's Friend (mail order) and make occasional trips to the local Guitar Center, where I eventually bought the effects units and microphone.