Grant Muller

RPM 2012: Year Of King Richard

2188404253-1Occasionally, between the software, traveling, work and more work, I get a rare opportunity to play the drums. The call usually comes at the end of January, and has become the most welcome distraction in February in years.

It’s The RPM Challenge

In February 2011, Tim Alexander asked me to "play on a few tracks" for his Letter Seventeen album. I hadn’t had a chance to record in over a year, so I eagerly accepted and contributed a few tracks. It was fun as hell.

This year, when Tim again asked me to "play on a few tracks", I unknowingly agreed to play on almost all of them. With an additional wrinkle, I would only be here half the month. It would turn into a whirlwind two weeks as I raced to record drums for eight of the ten songs (nine if you count the one I failed on), prepare to leave the country and grow another year older. Cutting it a little close for comfort, I uploaded the last of the tracks from my lodgings in Quito over a frustratingly slow internet connection.

Two weeks later Tim mailed the final cut of The Year of King Richard to Portsmouth, NH and another RPM challenge was complete.

Let’s Talk about the tracks:

YOKR opens with So Social, the signature track of the album and easily the most tiring to play. Sprinting in with a 16th note roll and an easy to spot homage to "The Knack", the energy of this song was an exciting way to kick things off. I’d obviously taken a year off from the drums as I approached the end of this song out of breath, and it goes without saying that it took more than one take.

With the warm up out of the way, we move into Dancing Machine, a post-disco inspired open-hat affair. It’s tragic that most drummers, rythm aside, can’t dance to save their lives. Throwing a tom roll into the middle of the chorus was wacky at first, but turned out great in retrospect. Keep your ears open for the 16th note open-hat beat in the bridge; that machine-gun hat pattern once peppered the entire song but proved to be too distracting.

Tired from dancing, Tim takes a step back with Time Bomb. "Think R.E.M." Tim told me when he first introduced the song. I went back and listened to some Dead Letter Office and gave him my spin on it. As usual, I took things too far and played the heavily syncopated beat you hear at the end throughout the entire song. Tim reeled me in though, and the album is better for it.

Year of King Richard, the title track, would be the song that got away. After hearing it once I was desperate to play on it, and after several takes of what I thought was a good beat, I simply couldn’t get the sound I was looking for. After turning in a few disappointing scratch tracks to Tim, I had to admit the song did not need me. I made a few suggestions and took a back seat on this one. Still, it’s my favorite song on the album.

YOKR behind us, Tim sidesteps any notion of being locked into a genre or era and we find ourselves back in the 80’s. Law of Motion is another open-hat dance number, this time with a significant synthesizer presence. The arpeggiated line in the bridge is classic. I almost never do splices, preferring to do one or two takes of a track all the way through and just get it right. I was made to play Laws of Motion it seems, as I did exactly one take of the song.

Next is Deep Hole, a song that any project manager I know can relate to, and certainly anyone who’s ever "bitten off more than they can chew" will understand. At first, the drum track on this song was a busy double-time beat that seemed a bit too cheery. I miced my toms and took the song into a deeper hole, preferring the ominous half-time gloom to set the mood. That and I really wanted to play my 16" tom like a hi-hat.

If you want me to go is primarily Tim and his guitar. At first I intended to play on it, but Tim looked at me like I had an elbow growing from my face when I mentioned it, so I went off and did some more failed takes of Year of King Richard.

"Can you play a Motown beat?", Tim asked me when he introduced Number Q. "Sure," I answered while googling "Motown beat" to figure out what it was. What came out was somewhere between Beast of Burden and swamp rock. So I didn’t exactly nail the Detroit thing, but Number Q did turn out to be one of my favorites on the album. You’ll wanna come out and see this one live when I can talk Tim out of the safety of the studio.

On Summer Nights I couldn’t help myself. I had to throw a rolling tom beat into this easy going, California pop number. I intentionally dropped in and out of the song to draw the listener into the simple strumming of the guitar and de-emphasize the presence of the drums. Did I mention the toms?

"Just go listen to Tomorrow Never Dies on Revolver." Tim told me after a few failed attempts at the last song on the album, Lavender Haze. After the Beatles’ refresher, I approached this song with a bit more freedom, a lot more ride, and enough ghost notes to fill a haunted house. Of, um, snare drums. The addition of Amit Chabukswar’s tabla rhythms and Gary’s sitar really made the point. It was an open end.

So that’s the album. It still amazes me how much you can accomplish in less than a month. Someday we’ll be as good as Beck and record it all in 48 hours. So go buy Year of King Richard on iTunes, CD Baby, or download it from bandcamp. Oh, and visit the Letter Seventeen site and tell us what you thought, or like Letter Seventeen on Facebook.

The RPM Challenge and The Power of Constrained Creativity

rpm_11_tshirt_webIt seems like there is a time-boxed challenge for everything out there on the internet. For writers there is NaNoWriMo, for moustache growers there is Movember. Game programmers have Dream.Build.Play. If you do it, there is a challenge for it, and if there isn’t, you can create one. I’ve always wanted to get involved with one of these little challenges, but find myself unwilling (or unable) to commit the time. It’s either work, running, or remodeling a kitchen that gets in the way. When Tim Alexander asked me to play drums for a few tracks on the RPM Challenge this February, I jumped at the chance.

After that I asked him what the RPM challenge was, and what kind of music he was writing.

The RPM Challenge

The RPM Challenge gives the recording artist a month (in this case the shortest month) to record an entire album start to finish. 10 Songs or 30 minutes. Go. No recording before February 1, recordings must be submitted February 28. Or 29 in a leap year I guess.

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Tim described his music to me as “Big, dumb pop songs”, but that doesn’t really do them justice. Sure, they’re pop, but in the hilarious way that They Might Be Giants are considered pop. The songs are catchy and original, and the subject matter is usually off the wall. This is Tim’s second year with the RPM Challenge, he successfully recorded Backstage Stories in 2010.

The music sounded like a lot of fun, but I had a secret motive for wanting to get involved. Besides the desire to get into one of these creative challenges for the first time, I hadn’t played my drums in damn near a year. I had let my brand new Peavey Radial Pro 1000’s languish due to life’s little setbacks for months. This was the motivation I needed to get my new kit record-ready and my butt back behind the set. I slapped some new heads on the kit, rearranged things a bit, and by the end of January I was miced up and ready to go.

The challenge was a breeze, but of course, I was only committed to playing a few songs. Tim would put the files I needed in a shared Dropbox folder, I would load them up in my DAW of choice, bang out a couple of takes, then send the wavs back to Tim for inclusion in his mixes. Toward the end we had worked out a system that involved me providing a stereo reference mix plus all the unmixed tracks that Tim could use to really dial in the sound he was looking for. It went great, and I got the chance to live a creative challenge vicariously through Tim. Not to mention play my new drums. You can hear the results on the Letter Seventeen Bandcamp site.

Embrace Creative Constraints

I see a lot of potential in these time-boxed challenges. First, they absolutely require focus. I know in my daily routine I bounce back and forth between working, coding, writing, training, reading, and in general not focusing on any one thing day in and day out. For people like me, these challenges are the creative constraint we need to force us to focus on one thing for a short period of time, whether it be a day, a week or a month, and let the other stuff wait for a while. This allows the unfocused among us to continue “unfocusing” most of the time, then really apply our energies at intervals in a concentrated effort to finish just one thing. To borrow an analogy, “Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale”. The same can be said of listening and writing music. If I consider all of my unfocused time as inhaling, gathering information, listening and really forming ideas, I can focus all the data I’ve gathered into one concentrated exhale. Then maybe breathe normally for a while. It’s a bit like Agile software development, you set yourself up to sprint for a very short period of time, concentrate on that and that alone, and come out the other end with something complete.

These challenges also force you to organize your brainstorms into something finished. Sure, with some of the challenges like NaNoWriMo there is a premium on getting as many words on the page as possible, but at the end of the day those words have to mean something for them to be worthwhile to you. You could go all month, typing a dictionary into your word processor, or stringing together 500 disparate riffs into 10 songs and calling it a finished piece, but you wouldn’t really be doing yourself justice. The point is to have a finished work that you can show off at the end. You’ll be proud for having finished, but you’ll be prouder for having finished something worthwhile.

Lastly, there is an emphasis on “shipping” with these challenges. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Steve Job’s, “Real artists ship”, and these challenges have a built-in way of separating the “real artists” from the twiddlers: a deadline. Much has been said about artificial deadlines, but the presence of a community around you, working toward the same goal, in many ways competing with one another to be “real artists” creates some kind of unique motivational magic. From Tim’s RPM page:

2578047960-1I wrote 5 songs in 25 years. Thanks to RPM 2010, I wrote 13 more in 15 days and used 11 of them for my album. My wife had heard me sing maybe 3 times in 17 years. Then I released an album. So I basically went from zero to 60 in a month.

Powerful stuff.

You can check out the fruits of Tim’s labors, Snowbound, at the Letter Seventeen Bancamp site.

The Hybrid Drum Kit

NewDrumSetup-15 Back in June, I wrote a short piece on changing my music studio environment. At the close of that piece I mentioned a buddy of mine was selling an old Alesis DM-5 kit, and that I would soon be incorporating that into my setup. Although 6 months isn’t exactly soon, I managed to tackle the task thanks to a well-timed Christmas gift and an extended vacation.

For years I’ve been trying to create a fully hybrid drum kit consisting of both electronic and acoustic elements. I took a step in that direction with the Mandala (which is playing in even larger role in the latest kit iteration), but to complete the project I needed multiple surfaces, not just multiple zones on one surface to realize what I was looking for. I reasoned that buying a simple electronic drum kit and integrating it into my acoustic kit would do that job. I would of course need something that translated the trigger inputs into MIDI (I just can’t tolerate the stock drum brain sounds), and the Alesis DM-5 kit would do it on the cheap.

I bought the used DM-5 kit not long after my last post, but ran into a hurdle. I use a Pearl rack, but the triggers all use fairly typical 1 1/2” tube clamps. I could have just bought all new clamps for the square rack, but that’s almost as expensive as buying a new rack in the first place, plus I was angling for a more universal Gibraltar rack instead (for mounting a number of other new things in the near future). So, when the wife asked what I wanted for Christmas, I sent her a link to a Gibraltar GRS-850DBL. For those with two kick drums this is a rack that will span both, for guys like me who don’t want to tune two kick drums to each other, this is a curved rack with a left side expansion.

In a matter of hours the new rack was up with the additional triggers. Everything was wired and ready to go. I created a quick drum kit in Battery with the most irritating glitch sounds I could find in five minutes, and recorded a quick and dirty test of the system that sounds a little like this:

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All technique and mixing aside, not a bad first outing with the hybrid drum kit. I have a few loose ends to tie up:

  • Mount my laptop directly to the rack for stability (parts on the way)
  • 5 pedals is not enough, two more will complete my feet.
  • Devise a way of “patching” triggers around, sort of like a trigger rather than audio patch bay.

For those with picture lust, here are some more images:

Mandala Meets Drumset

Mandala

I’ve had several chances to play my new setup now, including the Mandala. I played a live gig (recording to come) on Friday of last week, and learned a few lessons. Now that I’ve got things under control, I started to create some basic kits in Battery for my Mandala.

The Mandala is capable of subdividing into 7 zones. For a 10 inch surface that’s a lot. It’s really great for emulating snare sounds, and extremely realistic percussion (you can effectively assign any number of samples to these zones, velocity map them, and have a “real” drum). But I don’t need that. I have plenty of drums.

My first little attempt at a custom kit for the Mandala is a riff off of the tabla kit released a while ago. I found that 3 zones per pad is my ideal number, so this little snippet features about 30 samples mapped over 3 zones. Each zone is actually only one “instrument” of course, but velocity mapping dictates that I have more than one sample per zone for a more realistic implementation. Here’s a little sample of my drums and the Mandala working together.

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New Music Setup

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When we bought our house a few years back, I finally had enough space to consolidate all my music gear into one space. I had big plans for my basement studio. Mix desk over on one side. Wall-mounted monitors. Jute coffee sack sound baffles and just the right location for recording the drums. Later I found a place for my pump organ, and of course a myriad of other instruments strewn here and there. Over a year or so, I managed to make all that happen. The result has been rather…terrible.

After I spread everything out, it became clear that recording with just little-old-me was slow if not impossible. If I wanted to record drums, I had to press record, and walk over to my drums to do it. Not a big deal if I’m just going to cut it all in post, but what about punch-ins? I’m also lazy. If it takes me more than 2-3 minutes to setup and tear down to make some sound happen, I just won’t do it. I’m not into setting up, tuning and perfecting the timbre for an hour dammit, I’ve got a melody in my head now.

I thought about my past work, stuff I’d done for an EP and a full-length a few years back and realized everything I have ever recorded I’ve done in a tight space, with just a few things, without a big setup. As a lone wolf in the studio, I don’t have a team to put things together for me, press record and punch when I need, and patch up my instruments. If I was going to continue doing it myself, I was going to have to make some changes. So I did.

I started by ditching my Digi001. This was an old recording platform released by Digidesign about a decade ago. I loved this thing, but it was really starting to age, not to mention it only had 2 mic preamps. I traded it for my Presonus FP-10…which I’m so far very impressed with. 8 Mic preamps, and I can use it with any software I want (previously I was tied to Pro Tools). All in one rack unit. Done.

Next was the mixer and cabinet. With 8 Mic preamps in the FP-10, why do I need a mixer? I ditched it (eBay style), and the rack I had it mounted in (which I had built many years ago…it’s ok to destroy the things you create). This freed up a lot of space, and of course, freed up my hands.

After that it was bye-bye desktop. It required a monitor, keyboard, mouse, blah blah blah. Gone. As of now I’m doing everything with a laptop. Yeah, I know Kid606 and other people cooler than me have been doing this for years. I don’t care. I’m old school or something.

So, down to a laptop, FP-10, mics, drums, a controller keyboard, and a bunch of random instruments. Now what? Round ’em up:

I set up in the round so that everything would be right at arms length. I’m primarily a drummer, anything else I do is purely piddling around, so I made the drums the focus by setting up the mics (Recorderman Style) specifically for recording them and my Mandala. Couple overheads (Samson C02’s), Kick, 2 on the snare (Shure SM57), and some crappy tom mics. To my left I threw together a keyboard stand with the FP-10 and a place for the laptop. Right behind me is a controller keyboard, so if I want to throw together a cheesy bassline for the rad beat in 25/8 time I just wrote, I can do it immediately. I just spin around to make music. Mostly.

So the idea is that I’ll write here, and when I feel pretty comfortable everything is ready, I’ll take it to the mix desk, where those coffee sack baffles will really help out.

What’s next? I just got word that a friend is selling an old electronic kit. Since I’m basically a drum machine, I’ll pick that up and include it in my little round here…maybe right in with my current drum kit. We’ll see if this works…I played this silly little drum lick to test the mics:

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Christmas Time is Tabla Time

tabla-5I’ve had Christmas surprises in the past, but my wife pulled a fast one this year that is particularly noteworthy. As many of you know, I’ve been taking tabla lessons for the last few months, and having a lot of fun at it. I had been borrowing a pair of my teacher’s to practice on, all the while looking at getting a pair for myself.

If you’re in the market for a tabla set in the U.S., your options are limited. There is a college in California called Ali Akbar that sells them, but they can get pretty pricey. Getting them from India is much cheaper, the downside of course being that shipping can get dicey, and of course I would have to go through someone to get them. A month ago I found out that a Ganesh, a co-worker of mine, was going to be coming in from India and asked if he’d kindly bring a set back for me. My teacher Amit offered a while ago to broker something for me, and was able to get the name of a shop to Ganesh. Little did I know that I was throwing a wrench into Cary’s plans.

As far back as October Cary had started working with Amit to get me a set for Christmas. If she were to tell me that she already got a set that would ruin the surprise, so when she was informed that I was trying to acquire a set, she had to get everyone to play along with a little ruse. Amit gave a fake shop name to my Ganesh, who in turn claimed to visit the shop and let me know that that the set would be ready in time. I was really looking forward to getting the set, but was a little disappointed when Ganesh arrived and convincingly told me that “the set wasn’t quite finished in time, but it should be done my the beginning of January, and he could send it out with someone else”. I could wait a few more weeks I guess, but I was really looking forward the them.

Christmas arrived and a great big box was put in front of me, which I didn’t expect. I usually have some idea of what I might get for Christmas, so when I unwrapped the box (a toilet paper box), and saw the same round hard case that Amit brings his tabla over in, I was completely shocked. Here is the shipping label, which I thought was very cool:

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Notice the “new Zaibaba Temple”, I wish mail addressed to me was labeled “near something-or-other”. I’ve played the new set a few times, but I’m going to hold off until I can show the set to Amit and make sure everything is kosher with them. not to mention I still don’t really know how to tune them. Here is the baya, and detail of the copper which is pitted really nicely:

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Here is a detail of the stabilizer ring that the drums sit on, and the wooden pegs for the tabla:

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