Oh My Darling Quarantine

Strange times we are living in. Many people, being forced to spend more time in their homes, are finding their lives completely disrupted. Some are responding better than others, and many couples are finding out things they may not have necessarily have wanted to know about their relationships.

For my wife and I, perhaps the biggest revelation of the past six weeks is how little our lives have changed. Our income sources are unaffected, we can still get out and walk in our neighborhood, and we usually only went out to restaurants once or twice a month. We’re both retired, and my “paid hobbies” are all done at the computer or sound console in my home office. We have voluntarily spent just about all of our time together over the last eleven years, and are happy to continue to do so. We both read a lot, and we prefer to stream movies at home anyway.

The biggest impact for us, is that we had planned to begin traveling this month. We had a week planned babysitting grandkids at the end of April, two weeks vacation in Virginia in May, and had even begun planning to spend a few months on the Appalachian Trail before leaving for an as-yet-unspecified three-to-five month international trip starting in the late fall.

With all that up in the air we have been working on household projects, setting up flower pots on the back porch, and getting ready to grow some veggies.

This has given me some more time or personal projects. I’m more than halfway through writing a book on how to explore the Galápagos on a budget, and will soon move on to finish a long-planned book on dealing with Survivor’s Guilt. I have been percolating an outline for a sci-fi novel, and have two other writing projects in the wings.

I also am still sending off auditions for voiceover work, and within the next few weeks you should be able to find a new podcast series online that I am hosting for International Living.

The one thing I have had more time for lately is playing around with musical instruments and multi-track recording. As Constant Reader may recall, in the past I have dabbled in local bands, playing clubs and the Animal Circuit (Lions, Eagles, Elks and Moose, oh my!) in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. I’m predominantly a bass player, but I also think of myself as a half-assed Renaissance man. Or rather, a Jackoff-of-All-Trades, since I can do a wide variety of things poorly.

So left to my own devices in a room full of musical instruments, recording equipment, and computers, I continue to entertain myself. A few weeks ago I posted a recent effort on FaceBook, a recording of “Little Sister”. People were kind in containing their laughter and hiding their disdain. In fact, a few people were very interested in the process, and asked some questions about the details, thinking of starting similar projects of their own.

In response to that, here is a little background on my latest crappy effort. I decided to try and record a version of the Van Morrison song, “Brown Eyed Girl”. The two biggest problems to overcome of course were lack of musical or vocal ability, but I try not to let that get in the way of the fun.

What attracted me to this song, was that it would give me an excuse to use my charango to play the little signature lead bits. A charango is an Andean instrument I learned about while living in Ecuador. It sounds similar to a mandolin, and has five pairs of strings, tuned G-D-E-A-E, with the middle pair of E’s an octave apart. Some of you may note that the first four pairs match the tuning for ukuleles (except for baritone). Since ukulele is probably my second most proficient instrument (but there is a BIG step between bass and uke), it gave me a head start on the chording on this unique instrument.

Pair of charangos. The one on the left is a quality instrument I ordered from Bolivia, on the right a decorative one from Otavalo – looks pretty, but is unplayable.

With the song picked out, a copy of the chord chart in one of my Fake Books, and a rough idea of instrumentation in mind, we come to the most important decision for the quarantined solo multi-track performer – what track to record first?

For those new to this, here’s what multi-track recording means in general. The basic idea, is you can record a song and have all of the individual elements – vocals, instruments, what have you – recorded on their own inviolate space, or “track”. This used to mean a portion of a physical tape, which made editing a messy process. There was always some “bleed through” between adjacent tracks unless you used really expensive setups, and editing might mean physically cutting and taping together peices. With digital equipment today, you can either plug each instrument or mic into its own track and record at once, in groups, or solo, with perfect separation of tracks.

This means you can go back and fix mistakes in each track individually, without having to get everyone in the band to start all over.

8-Track studio in a box

If you are doing all of the parts yourself, you can record one track, then play it back over headphones while recording a new track, then play back two while recording a third, and so on. But how do you do all that and have it sound “together”? Again, a big decision is which part to play first, since it will be basically unaccompanied.

One big help in this is the ability to use a “click track”. This is an electronic metronome; you set the speed you want, and you hear a series of clicks in your headphones counting off the beats as you play. This serves the same purpose as a drummer, except the beat does not speed up or get louder, and you do not have to provide drugs, pizza, and underaged women.

Since I can actually play the bass guitar, as opposed to playing with it, I usually start with the bass part. If the bass does not begin the song, you can count off the clicks until it comes in. For this song however, I decided to first record the little charango part before the lyrics start. No reason, except I wanted to see if it would sound like it did in my head.

The first track then sounded like this and covered only 8 bars:

Charango solo

With a foolish grin on my face, I proceeded to record the next track, choosing this time the acoustic guitar. I only have three, so it was an easy choice to go with the Takamine, a decent quality mid-range guitar.

Takamine acoustic

With the guitar part recorded, I could now go back and more easily add the charango leads in the appropriate spots. Then, I decided to use one more track to play a harmony line to that lead on the charango.

Now with the basic form of the song in place, time to get out the microphone, put on the headphones, and sing the main vocal line. Two more passes for backup vocals, and there were now a total of six recorded tracks on the ol’ Zoom-8.

I thought it could use a little more body, so I broke out the charango again, and added a seventh track playing rhythm charango. Now all that was left was to add the bass line, which for some reason I put off until last this time. I went with two basses – my Hohner headless five-string for most of the song, and a fretless S.D. Curlee for the short solo (because why not?)

Hohner 5-string and SD Curlee fretless. Hohner was my go-to live band bass. Very light, and great action on the fretboard.

With all of the basic tracks recorded, now it was time to turn to the DAW – Digital Audio Workstation. The Zoom, which records to an SD card, does support editing, but it is much easier in software designed for that purpose. So the final steps are done by downloading the tracks recorded into my DAW of choice, MixPad.

Putting it all together

This lets me do any needed editing on individual tracks. I can raise or lower the volumes as needed, clean up any noise, and re-record any sections. It is not uncommon for me to decide at this point to just start all over – or at least, re-record an entire track so that it fits the whole more completely.

I could have gone in now and added drums, at the risk of screwing everything up. I have a little Boss electric drum synthesizer, but it is not the easiest thing in the world to use. You play the drums by tapping little pads with your fingers. Usually, I have to use two or three tracks to get anything usable.

In fact, if you are a drummer out there sitting in self-isolation with your drum kit and some recording equipment, feel free to send me some tracks. I’ll be happy to incorporate them and re-post. Set your click track to 140BPM, put on your headphones, and play along with Mitch.

The results? I know you are dying to hear it at this point, so here it is – the somewhat-finished version of “Brown Eyed Girl”.

If nothing else, it makes you look forward to the day we all can emerge from our homes out into whatever is left of society.

Stay healthy, stay safe.

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  • Marilyn Cunningham says:

    Ahhh, Van Morrison, 1967…What memories your piece brought back! In my book Jim, your are WAY more talented than you give yourself credit!
    Enjoyed reading how you made it happen and the final product brought sunshine to to a dull, cold Saturday.
    Thanks for the tune,
    From a browned eyed friend,
    Marilyn Cunningham

  • Gale Ormiston says:

    Nice work, Jim! Enjoyed it. I am also a sometime musician with a cadre of synthesizers and recording equipment. You might find my 1980’s collaborations with Carl Weingarten on youtube..
    Seems that you are riding the virus storm well and with style. Keep it going and enjoy.
    Thanks, Gale Ormiston in St, Louis, MO

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