Original Music!

I wrote and produced my first original song! Well, the first that is going to see the light of day, anyway.

Have a listen:

I won’t be making a blog post for every new piece of music, so if you want to keep getting musical updates, the best way is to subscribe to this RSS feed or just keep an eye on https://ellie.clifford.lol/music.

Producing music is harder than I thought

Trying to make music on your own requires doing several jobs, and I’m only half-decent at one of them. Sure, I can perform, but writing music, recording music, editing, mixing audio, and mastering audio are all surprisingly complex tasks which I have next to zero experience in. So go easy on me!

The creative process

This experience has taught me that creative endeavours do not obey the first law of thermodynamics, i.e. the conservation of energy. (Why should they? They’re not thermodynamical systems). In other words, work in ≠ quality out. Case in point: “Autumn Wind” is actually the second song which I’ve got pretty far through writing. The first I started writing back in the summer, several months ago, and I’m still not happy with it, even after all this time. “Autumn Wind”, on the other hand? I pretty much wrote it in a single day, and I’m much more happy with it. ????! Ok, sure, I had been noodling1 around with like, half of the guitar part for a while, but the rest all got written in that one day.

I wish I could say something interesting about the process I went through to write “Autumn Wind”, but my brain just sort of splatted it out from nowhere. First I had the fingerstyle guitar part that I had been noodling on, then I started humming a melody, and the lyrics just kind of appeared in my head, though there were a few revisions. The one interesting lesson is that sometimes the best writing happens by accident - you go for one chord, but your hand is in the wrong place, and you get an accidental but exciting chord instead. I think sometimes I can fall into a bit of a rut and it takes a little randomness to send me in a new and exciting direction.

A pretty janky recording setup

Would you expect anything less? Here are some highlights:

A mic stand attached unstably to a guitar stand
A phone, being used as a camera, sitting on a fully extended sheet
           music stand, sitting on a small chair/table

Also, ground loops suck (and analog electronics in general sucks). I wanted to record the guitar both directly and through a physical amp, but without an isolated buffer splitter on the guitar output – which is expensive to buy or time consuming to build – connecting to two outputs creates a horrible ground loop between between the two devices, which just kills the audio quality. Oh well.

Wait, Linux is actually great for realtime audio?

It appears audio engineering, at least the realtime part, is different from most other creative professions, in that you actually can have a good time doing it on Linux2. Yay! It makes sense I guess, I mean, have fun trying to get decent latency on Windows when your processor is being hammered by background spyware. Or getting your kernel to do anything in realtime, for that matter.

You’ll hear a lot of people saying “only macOS is usable for audio engineering”, but obviously this is bullshit. What they actually mean is that their favourite programs don’t run on Linux. Linux’s audio subsystems are easily on par with macOS’s: in particular JACK (the JACK Audio Connection Kit) is awesome and versatile and pretty intuitive to work with. As for the rest of the software stack, well, it seems most filters and other processing plugins work on interoperable standards, i.e., on any operating system. There are some proprietary things which are hard to replicate on Linux, e.g., automatic pitch correction (autotune), but I’d rather just sing approximately in-tune in the first place lol.

Mixing? Idk

The internet told me that a little reverb makes things sound better, and I think my ears agree. Other than that, I honestly have no clue. I think it sounds okay, but I’d have a much harder time if there were more tracks than just guitar and voice. Actually my recording setup makes it more difficult than it should be, because the guitar audio spills into the microphone audio and makes it a lot harder to edit and mix e.g. to patch over a tiny guitar fumble. I could just record each track independently, but then the video would either be lip-synced or whatever the guitar equivalent is called or both, which I wouldn’t really vibe with.

Mastering is hard

Until quite recently I didn’t even understand what mastering was. Apparently, the idea is to maximise the apparent loudness of the track, which can be quite low without some work, because the track has to be normalised to its highest peak (usually much higher than the average peak). When mastering, you’re trying to eliminate these peaks so that you can renormalise the track to a higher gain. Basically you do this using compressors (which compress the dynamic range above a certain level) and other peak thresholding magic which sounds better than just clipping the audio. It’s hard, and the confusing thing is that a good master is inverse to a performer’s instinct to use a wide dynamic range for musical effect. To be honest I don’t really get it. My guess is that “quiet” bits aren’t actually meant to be quiet, they’re meant to seem quieter because of the different timbre etc.

You’ll notice that my recording is a little quieter than other music if you listen to them side by side. That’s because I’m bad at mastering :P

  1. noodle, noodled, noodling (verb): to improvise on an instrument in an informal or desultory manner↩︎

  2. Which isn’t really anything to do with Linux, it’s more to do with companies like Adobe managing to gain a stranglehold.↩︎



2023-01-09 11:17:07


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