Yearly Archives: 2008

The Macaroni Experiment

I’ve been experimenting in the kitchen. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t cook; if ever a chance came up to cook, and I actually took it, I’d be the first to brag about myself and my culinary activities. That’s because it’s a once-in-a-while thing for me. Most of the people on this earth cook every single day, but each time I cook, it’s so rare…it’s a special event.

Tonight, I went by a suggestion from a coworker. We were talking about our holiday exploits and the kind of stuff we cooked up (I made pork chops one night and pot roast for xmas day — like woah). I mentioned that I was thinking about taking a half pound of ground beef and fixing it with macaroni and cheese. What he suggested was twelve orders of magnitude better than the bachelor-chow I was planning. I’m sure most of you know this dish, hell it may even be comfort food in your family, but it’s shit-simple and incredibly good.

Beefy Macaroni and Veggies
This is a single-skillet meal; makes 2 servings. Scale up to fit your needs or tastes.

  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 cup elbow macaroni
  • 2/3 cup diced tomatos, canned or fresh-chopped like mine
  • 1/3 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1/4 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 can tomato paste (or a few squirts of ketchup if your cupboard is barren like mine)
  • shredded parmesan

Brown the beef in a large skillet; season as desired. Set it to the side to drain like I did or scoot it to the edge of the skillet. Then dump the macaroni and a cup of water in the skillet to begin boiling. Then add everything else: diced tomatos, tomato paste (or ketchup, tsk-tsk), peppers, onions, garlic. Stir everything, then let that simmer, stirring occasionally for 7 to 10 minutes or so until the macaroni is done, the veggies are soft and semi-translucent, and the water is absorbed. Pull off a serving and top with shredded parmesan cheese. Serve with a side salad for a crunchy alternation.

I completely surprised myself. Tons better than Hamburger Helper(tm), and a heap better than my unoriginal bachelor meal plan. Another meal to my repertoire!

To Feel Love

I’m going to write about a dream. This morning, I had a fucked-up dream. I was in love; this girl and I were hanging out. Something small was in bloom. As dreams go, she dropped out of the plot as I went elsewhere.

I was in a big house, ostensibly a place I lived in. It was clean, the light was cold, the walls were white. Found a needle full of heroin. Someone told me to not inject it, but that’s exactly what I did. I walked off, found a vein in my left elbow, and shot up. Like it was nothing. Felt the cold warmth in my arm as it spread. Felt it take over. Felt it take control. I disposed of the needle and stumbled into my bedroom, fell into bed. Felt everything that’s ever been described to me: mental calm, inner peace, warmth, a sense of belonging, a feeling of love.

Maybe my life is so cold and lonesome that there’s an excess of the neurochemicals associated with belonging to something and being loved; that they manifest themselves in dreams. Sounds plausible. I also watched a movie last night with similar themes to the dream, so there’s that. Things like movies and shows always reassemble themselves into the plots of my dreams.

Everything is explained…except for the fact that I’d willingly shoot up heroin in a dream. Like it was natural. It’s a dream, so no consequences, I guess. Not something I’d like to do, ever, mostly out of the fear of sliding downhill, like I did with cigarettes. The first smoke came naturally, flourished in an environment of friendship and solidarity with other people, and slid down into a lonely 2-pack daily habit.

I never want to play with that kind of fire ever again. I want to feel loved, to feel like I belong, but not at that price. Never at that price.

Who Reads the Watchmen

I picked up a copy of The Watchmen a few weeks ago. Finished it tonight. I’m at once troubled and equally satisfied. The story; it’s an incredible story. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did an incredible job. Incredible. They have an ability to weave parallel threads seamlessly with the same overlapping dialog and artwork. It’s breathtaking. What comes to mind is a particular scene where two protagonists are in a room having a conversation; that conversation is echoed by the people at a newsstand, and illustrated by a comic book being read by a kid at the stand. All three threads promote and illuminate each other.

Gibbons’ artwork borders on the sublime in his transitions, where a character in that comic book about pirates is standing at the shore having an internal monologue, and the next panel is one of the story’s protagonists standing at the edge of a pool, continuing the monologue. I’m sure it’s de rigueur for comics, but it blew me away. One panel is a graffiti outline of two lovers in an embrace, next panel is two heroes making amends with a hug. Woah.

Breathtaking.

But the ending. The ending. It’s all wrong. I’m blown away, but it’s all wrong. There is no justice. I was expecting a descension into deus ex machina at the least, but no. Moore threw a left hook. The conspiracy of silence! There is no justice, only silence! And salvation. It goes against my western storytelling sensibilities!

I’ll spend some time digesting.

I can’t begin to figure out how this story can be crammed into a movie. This story, the artwork, the threads, everything is so dense and rich with information. To boil it all down, to render the fat away and leave the muscle and sinew and bone, I have no idea. I have the highest hopes, but this is Hollywood; we’ve been let down time and again. All I can hope for, really, is the basic plot, and to be satisfied with that. I’m not sure when the movie is planned for release; apparently it’s tied up in legal tangles. The usual copyrights issues.

So. I’m sitting back and sighing, completely satisfied. If you want to read, I have a copy to loan.

MIDI In the Window

My song is done. I did it. I finished a project. I won.

It’s called “Stars In the Window”, and you can’t hear it until Wires 6 comes out. It’s in the electronica phylum, naturally, just like all the rest of my music. But this song is an evolution from the rest. The methods are different. The tools are different. I have a drum machine. I’m using softsynths. I’m using MIDI. With enough outboard gear, I could record the entire song, all instruments and parts, in one take, if I wanted to. That’s the beauty of MIDI. Once you record audio data, the content (patch, notes, and arrangement) is mostly fixed; once you record MIDI, you can edit and rearrange with no loss of sound quality. It’s just note data, and it’s up to the synths to figure it out on playback. It’s beautiful.

So, like I’ve said before, I sat up at a coffeeshop, started the sequencer with a clicktrack, and used MIDI-Ox to turn my computer keyboard into a MIDI controller which I played like a piano. I just played ad lib, and let the song flow where it went. When I felt like I was done, I stopped recording, saved the MIDI data, and played back what I had just done. Spent the next week or two in the editing phase, playing it back a thousand times until I figured out the best note spacing, song arrangement, note volumes. When I was satisfied, I wrote a bass track to counterpoint the melody. Polished that.

And then during that process, figured out a basic drum rhythm with kick and snare. The idea that stuck with me the most was a shuffling rhythm with a sound halfway between a jazz brush and a soft-rock snap. It’s not your usual 4/4 kick snare electronic combo, and I’m happy with that. This gave me ample opportunity to learn my drum machine, learn the basic rules on programming a rhythm phrase, how to make different phrases and string them together into a song which I could play back in realtime along with the rest of the song’s audio. MIDI timecode is a beautiful thing.

Then, the cymbals. I wanted the cymbals to be more lively, more, I dunno, freeform than could be afforded with the limitations of the 16-beat rhythm phrases I had built. So I went to the aide of my MIDI-controller, used that to hammer out the basic cymbals track, with the drum machine as the sound module. Got that data down and spent the better part of a weekend fine-tuning it, editing cymbal events, working on velocities. Nearly made myself deaf from the high-frequency snaps while editing because I had my headphones on and the sound was too loud while doing so…for hours on end. Ears fatigued, I had to take a few days’ break; they’re still not 100% back to their 70% capacity, but I’m fairing well. The cymbals got done. They moved iteratively. The whole process was iterative. They were accidental in how they appear to be not formulaic and how they sound like the work of an improvisationalist drummer. That surprised me.

The writing phase was over. Time to render everything into seperate sound files and deal with the mix and effects. The basic mix was good; my first time listening to everything put together, my first chance to hear all the work of my hands put together and as one solid piece, it gave me an eargasm. I wept.

Spent about a week working on the mix, trying to get it louder. It sounded great on its own, but it needed to stand up volume-wise to other music of the genre. This is when I learned about audio compression and what has been dubbed The Loudness War. It is good to be loud enough, but not too loud. I noticed that the louder I got it, the more distorted and “tinny” it got, the more it lost its gorgeous dynamic range. The distance between soft parts and loud parts is very, very important, and it’s a thing overlooked by today’s music, which is a travesty.

Compression is a cold, uncaring bitch. I’ve learned that. She gives you great and swelling promises of volume and clarity, and then destroys your dreams by breathing on you. Pumping. Distorting. Clipping. I learned that hard-knee limiting is a dangerous thing, and only to be used as a last resort. It crunches the tips of your waveform until they’re flat, and each flat spot spews clipped overtones all over your clear sound. I tried various compressor recipes and found that putting mild compression on your melody tracks, punchy compression on your bass tracks, and using a series of 3:1 -6dB compression followed by hard-knee ∞:1 -3dB compression on the master was the best mix. The best decay time is short; this prevents breathing. Overall, this gives the effect of singling out each track for their unique properties into something that meshes into a master mix which is then itself put through a soft-knee compressor. I’m so happy with the mix.

Having good sources was most important. This time around, I’m using real synths, not canned loops like the rest of my music (even if I made those loops). This is the real thing. If you start with something that’s full and rich, you end up with something that’s full and rich. Matter of fact, until the end of the writing, before I added the sounds of crickets and frogs on the ends of the track, nothing was a canned loop. Yeah, like woah. A vast departure from my traditional tools and methods. About time, too.

All in all, the sound of the track is as if Bill Laswell had a love-child with Enya Ryan who then gave it up to Toby Marks of Banco de Gaia for adoption, who raised it in the tradition of techno (all major chords). The love-child then looked in the past and tried to track down its ancestors and instead found something more rewarding: itself.

Once I played back the initial melody I had pecked out on the keyboard, with the patch I had recorded with, the image I drew in my mind was that of staring out the window of a dark van or car, like I had done so many times in my youth, looking out at the stars flying over us as we flew down the southeast Arkansas highways. Quite often, those stars were my solace; they were my sign that there is something out there, that I was not alone, that we are not alone. Those same stars I gazed at in my college years. Those same stars I see on my drives out of town. Those same stars are over us now. Bigger than I, more numerous than we, more permanent than everything. There. They are there. In the window.

Unbroken Glass

This time marks a pivotal period. I’ve done something good: I have resurrected Glass Door. My friends over at Anal0g.org are putting out another Wires compilation soon, and the deadline is this friday. So, instead of digging up, rehashing, and remastering old shit that I wrote seven years ago, I’ve decided to actually write new material.

I got Acid, Reaktor, and MIDI-OX working on my laptop and a week ago I sat at Genuine Joe’s Coffee and pecked out a slow melody. It was then that I decided to commit to it and to actually get some hardware so I wasn’t so reliant on the “limitless limitations” of software (the one-mouse one-keyboard interface is a major limit), so I bought a drum machine (an Alesis SR18) and a USB audio interface (Lexicon Lambda). I pulled out my long folding table and set it up in my bedroom; all my equipment’s splayed out and wired up. MIDI controller keyboard, drum machine, audio and MIDI interfaces, speakers, laptop, lamp, and an all-important notepad. Now I have a usable setup. Once it’s all physical, then it makes sense, and I’m motivated.

I am once again a bedroom musician.

So I wake up to the sight of that. Its presence in my room is soothing and pushes me forward into motion. It’s something tangible, evidence of the work of my own hands. The song’s coming together. Tentatively titled “Stars in the Window.” I’ve been doing some reworking and rearranging of the melody; can’t proceed with the other parts until the song structure is right. The whole thing’s been a learning process (re-learning shall we say). Learning how to deal with sound drivers and softsynths and MIDI. Learning about musical structure, phrases, chords, keys, crescendos, glissandos, and so on. It’s almost like work, and at times it can get quite unfun (especially when trying to manipulate MIDI controller messages in Acid). But I’m going to keep at it. I’ve got to finish. I’ve got to win.

In about another month, you can hear for yourself when Wires 6 is freely released to the masses. I also have material on Wires 4 and Wires 5. If you don’t have any of releases in the Wires series, do yourself a favor and grab them from Anal0g.org like you’re stealing. (Wires 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)