Saturday, May 17, 2014

This is why I always do this...

First, something I read recently that struck me. From Zenhabits blogger Leo Babauta (post here):

Build something small - Most people fritter their time away on things that don’t matter, like TV, video games, social media, reading news. A year of that and you have nothing to show for it. But if you did a sketch every day, or started writing web app, or created a blog or a video channel that you update regularly, or started building a cookie business … at the end of a year you’ll have something great. And some new skills. Something you can point to and say, “I built that.” Which most people can’t do.

Start small, and build it every day if possible. It’s like putting your money in investments: it grows in value over time.

It's no real secret that I'm, at least lately, a lazy slacker. Going back over the posts I did last month (!), it struck me how much I got done between March 1998 and November 2001, and even in the few years from 2002 through 2006. It would really be easy to blame having kids on the slowdown, but I was still working on music AND running a shop and two labels when they were youngest.  Looking back now, I think I let that be my cover excuse to just... slow down, stop, whatever.

It also didn't help that I started isolating myself from musical immersion. Cutting out the shop, then a label, then dropping off most of the boards and other timewasters I spent a good deal of (read: way too fucking much) time was good in other ways, but just being immersed in music, listening to it, talking about it, kept it at the forefront of my thinking. I actually spent time thinking about changes I wanted to make to how I do things, musically speaking - I gained a clearer vision of what I want.

However, even those modest changes came with a deal of fear, uncertainty, and doubt - could I do what I wanted? Would it work the way I wanted it to? One of the themes that Leo blogs about constantly is that people let these fears delay them, encouraging avoidance and procrastination - and it's only recently that I've noticed that. I want the next Death Beast album to be a monster, a juggernaut that crushes the first one - but I'm afraid it won't work, so as long as I don't start on it I won't be faced with failing it.

However, my video game skills have improved greatly. Which is where the quote above hit me like a sledgehammer.

I've been reading Zenhabits for a few months, working on small and larger changes in my personal life and at work, and thinking about how to bring it to my music - but, again, never quite starting.  When I posted a few blog posts last month I was trying to get some kind of habit going - at least staying connected to music. The dates of the last few posts and this one show you how well that worked out. So, when I read the quote above, I figured it's time to really get to work.

So, every day, I'll spend ten minutes on music. Programming something, or noodling on the guitar, or writing down lyrics, or at least contributing to this blog or putting more of the UHR archive up on the Internet Archive site. I can defend the last two because, for the biggest part of my more creative musical years, the music I wrote and recorded fit into this larger context of Unsung Heroes Records, and later Barbarian Wrath - since I retreated from music I've been largely unengaged with the public. I'm not entirely sure that the one will help the other as it did in the past, but doing something is still better than doing nothing.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Tech Creep and the Death of History, Part 2: The Dell Dimension

In December 2000 we moved from our first house to our current one, an upgrade in every way. It was inevitable, and necessary, that my computer get an upgrade as well.  In something like 3 years PC processors had gone from the 'blazing fast' 166 MHz to pushing something near 1GHz. Video was improving, hard drives were doubling and quadrupling in size, memory prices were falling like a rock... well, not really on the last one - what was happening was that the same dollar was buying you 2 to 4 times the RAM than it was just a few years before. So, after crunching taxes at the start of the new year we got a decent refund and a good chunk of that went to buying my second desktop machine, a Dell Dimension 4100.

The Dell was a major step up in every department:

1) Processor - P1-166 MHz to P3-966 MHz
2) Memory - 96MB (2x32, 2x16) to 256 MB (2x128)
3) Hard Drive - 2.5GB to 20GB (and later to 120GB+20GB when I invested in a second physical drive)

It also had some of those newfangled USB ports and a much better video card - which was nice, since the computer package also came with a nice 19" CRT monitor.  I think I upgraded the video card anyway, an nVidia GeForce TI4200. The stock soundcard was crap, but that was okay since I transplanted the Soundblaster. Some would say the only downside was the OS. It happened to be that this computer was built for me during the few months between Windows 98SE (well-regarded) and Windows XP (well-regarded), when Microsoft was bridging the gap with Windows ME.  For all the troubles people reported with it (including my father-in-law, whose upgrade from 98SE to ME was a mother of a headache that went on for months), I actually never had any problems with it.

This one upgrade ended up causing me to upgrade a lot more, as the newer, faster processor with more memory ended up showing the flaws in my old soundcard, my old recording software, and my old drum program. Magix, my midi programmer and multitrack recording software, wouldn't synchronize the files properly when playing back, so I had to switch to Cakewalk 7. While that fixed my sync problem, the drum program would lag intermittently when using soundfonts on my old Soundblaster sound card, and so I needed a new way to render drums.  After trying a program called WaveMaker, hacking the .ini file to use my own samples from the demo version, I ended up using TiMIDIty, which is a dos-based renderer that nevertheless worked wonderfully, especially with Gravis Ultrasound patches.

My drum-sync problems were a thing of the past, but I would still hit the occasional snag with recording file synchronizations. Nothing sucks worse than ripping out a great guitar track, doubling it up, and then having to trash the second track because latency caused the whole thing to be out of time. In particular this messed up one entire song from the Death Beast demo in 2002. Again, I had to go back to the drawing board, and after some research (and input from ChorazaiM, who was going through the same studio-upgrade issues I was), I settled on the AudioTrak Maya44 recording card.

This was from a time just before soundcards with plug-in external modules became all the rage. The Maya44 was built with an ultra-low latency and very good signal:noise ratio, and it ended up being by far the best card I ever recorded with. At the time it was state-of-the-art, so much so that when I moved from Cakewalk 7 up to Sonar 2 (not because of anything being outdated, but rather just for the newer features), I had no issues at all with it. This was the setup I used for Displeasures and Crimson Frost, which ended up being the most pain-free and quickest recordings I've ever done at home.  The first Death Beast album was also done on this, and while that session did have some share of problems, none were really from the hardware I was using.

So, for the itemized list of what I recorded on this machine:

1) Rampage - New World Blasphemy split (CW7 with WaveMaker)
2) Rampage - Tracks for the Venom split tribute (CW7 with TiMIDIty)
3) Rampage - Monolith to an Abandoned Past (CW7 and CW9, with TiMIDIty)
4) Rampage - "tireheB/Salomon's Gate" from the Beherit tribute (first thing recorded on Sonar 2)
5) Death Beast - Apocalypse Metal demo (CW9, mixed for final on Sonar 2)
6) Death Beast - The Wakening - Some of the tracks that were common on the demo translated from CW9 to Sonar 2, the rest were started on Sonar 2. I also threw away some earlier versions of songs new to the album on CW9 when I decided to make the change - the demo tracks with me on vocals (on the demo compilation) are these versions.
7) Rampage - Displeasures of the Flesh EP (on Sonar 2)
8) Rampage - Crimson Frost EP (on Sonar 2)
9) Rampage - Ticket to Hell websingle (on Sonar 2)

If memory serves me correctly, I also recorded the last of the Rampage unreleased tracks on this old machine before building my current machine, but that leads to part 3, which we'll have to get to on another day. Suffice it to say that history did not die, yet...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Errata/Addendum to Tech Creep Pt. 1

Some days it's good to be the pack rat.

After my last post I spent a few hours racking my brains and digging through old paperwork to see exactly when I got the next studio PC (a future post - stay tuned!), and it turns out that I had written about this before, but long enough ago that I'd forgotten I'd written it.  Weird, huh?  Anyway, back when I was still actively maintaining a website for Rampage I wrote a few articles detailing my past working setups and it turns out I had that first Pavilion PC longer than I thought.  It actually survived the move to our new house, but was quickly replaced by a new machine just after we moved.  To the previous list of items I listed as recorded on it, I can add:

7) Festering Sore - Chlorine for the Gene Pool
8) Rampage's half of the Megiddo/Rampage split Hellhammer tribute album

As it happens, I upgraded drums not by tech-force, but voluntarily, as I was in search of better sounds all along. The story is told on a now defunct website, but I'm working on bringing it back online, and the sonic evolution of Rampage and Bloody Leg Studios in general is a theme I've been planning to write about here for a while, so the story will come out one way or another.

Note - I really don't want to sound like I'm just patting myself on the back here, but it's weird how in a little under two years I managed to write/record/release eight separate albums and EPs while also turning UHR into something a little more than just a glorified tape-trading outfit.When did the days have that many hours to get things done in? The cynic in me wants to say Global Warming is just increasing friction because of the planet spinning faster and making the days shorter.  Scientific literacy tells me otherwise, of course...

Friday, March 21, 2014

Tech Creep and the Death of History, Part 1: The HP Pavilion Desktop

On April 8, 2014, Microsoft ends support for Windows XP. This sad fact has killed a big chunk of my musical history.

It's not that this hasn't happened before, of course.  I'm just noticing it now because it's happening now, but once I get all of the refinements on my new studio PC (which is largely still my OLD PC, just with a new OS and some more memory) I'll have to deal with the updates and translations that I've done when I've upgraded machines in the past, and then deal with the files and archives that will not translate.  Being a natural packrat, and someone who likes thumbing through all of those old things that are road markers for my past, it makes me sad that some things will now only exist in my memory or in the stories I tell here.

When I finally quit my last bands to go solo in 1996 I was still operating in the mindset of what home studios were at the time.  I suppose there was the odd very rich person who could afford a computer-based studio, but for the most part when you heard 'home studio' you thought drum machine, a few mics, and a 4-track or 8-track tape machine.  I thought that was the way I'd go as well, and so I was looking into various pieces of equipment that would have cost me $200-$300 or so each at the time.  Also, having seen drum machines and their horrible user interfaces, I wasn't looking forward to programming some of the drum things I was writing in my head.  Somehow I got the bright idea (probably by looking at the back of my computer and seeing a 'MIDI port') that I could use some kind of computer software to program sequences and then plug into a drum machine to make the sounds.

This was right after I got married, and a few months after we did we got our first family computer - a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion desktop with a blazing-fast Pentium 166 chip inside. It was not that far off from the one in the upper left of the pic here, actually. That old thing ran Windows 95. I remember having to get the floppy drive replaced - an actual service call to a tech who came out and opened it up and did it himself.  When I saw how easy it was to open those things and swap parts I decided to do future maintenance myself - which came in handy pretty quickly, as it turned out.

I searched various software stores (remember those?) looking for MIDI programming applications and found some place online who made a nice, simple little thing called Drumz Wizard.  It programmed MIDI through a simplified, dumbed-down user interface that made it not feel like you were programming MIDI.  You set tempo and beats per bar, then created a pattern of 'x' bars, then used your mouse to fill in colored blocks for each drum on a grid - drums/cymbals on the Y axis, beat subdivisions on the X.  Then you used a song builder to connect your patterns end-to-end to create full songs, which you could then export as MIDI files.  "Great," I thought, "now all I have to do is find a drum machine and 4-track" - which meant finding about $500 or so in our newlywed budget while also trying to save for a house (and after a few months a new car).

In the meantime I tried hacking around, seeing if I could pseudo-multitrack by piping my audio out and plugging my guitar into a Y-cable and recording onto our stereo tape deck.  This was early to mid 1997, so I had been writing songs with my old high school friend and drummer Paul in Savannah - every few months we'd get together and boombox-tape us playing through whatever I'd written and some pisstake covers.  I was also getting into black metal at the time, and was figuring out riffs here and there.  I remember trying to do some layered-guitar recording of an early version of Wanderlust, and I did manage to get a single-guitar-and-drums version of Mayhem's "Deathcrush" on tape.  Those tapes are long-gone now, and sounded pretty bad anyway, but it just underscored my need for that studio setup, and that $500 price tag loomed larger and larger as I wrote more and more music with no way to get it recorded.

Until my wife saw a tech catalog that was getting passed around her office, that is.  She brought it home and said, "You know all that money you want to spend on a 4-track? Why wouldn't this work? It's cheaper."  She had marked a program on one of the pages named Magix Music Studio.  "Turn your home computer into a complete recording studio!" read the bold boast beside the picture.  At something like $40 it was cheaper, but in reading the fine print it said it required a 'full duplex soundcard'.  At the time I didn't know what that meant, but I did some reading online and found out the built-in soundcard on my computer didn't qualify.  The "Sound Blaster AWE 64" a few pages earlier in the same catalog did, though, and at only about $60 it certainly fit the budget.  A couple of weeks later I had my stuff, and I got to work installing software and hardware.

It's the decay of years that prevents me from remembering completely the order of things, but I'm pretty sure this was early 1998.  I know for sure that I didn't start recording in earnest until May 1998 (the earliest date listed in the recording window for the first Rampage EP), and I know we moved from our crappy apartment into our first house (a.k.a. the first Bloody Leg Studios) in March 1998.  I don't know if I did any preliminary recordings in the old apartment, but I don't think so.  Anyway, once the house (and consequently the studio room) and PC and software were set up I didn't waste any time getting the songs set, planning, and then recording that first EP.  The computer worked well enough - horribly, in retrospect, but at the time it was amazing just being able to multitrack guitars.  I'll go into the horrible details of home recording in the days before DirectX and straight-wave exports later.  But, suffice it to say that I knocked that first EP out in short order.

And then I had the problem of how to do the next album - on a computer whose hard drive was completely full.

It may be hard to remember, and like the Four Yorkshire Men if I tell the kids today they'd never believe me, but there was a time before CD burners and USB drives, and backing up mass amounts of data was a Herculean task, only undertaken by the most brave who had some means figured out, the necessary equipment, and the fortitude to persevere knowing that all they hoped to save may be lost anyway.  Anyone remember the ZIP drive?  The Jaz Drive?  These are the days I was talking about.  The now-long-lost avenue I tried was the Sparq drive.  And, long story short, about $200 and a year later I lost the master tapes to everything I'd ever done from that first EP up through Cummin Atcha Live.  Not the first mass data or musical loss I've suffered, and not the last either.  Oh well - such is life.

Anyway, that first Pavilion computer served me pretty well.  Going back, what I recorded on it was:
1) Rampage - Misogyny, Thy Name is Woman EP
2) Rampage - This End Up
3) Rampage - Doom Metal Single
4) Festering Sore - Fucked Demo
5) Rampage - Cummin' Atcha Live 
6) Rampage - Bellum Infinitum

I also did my half of the Hellhammer tribute and the Festering Sore "Chlorine..." album in that old house, but based on the drums used I think I had my second PC by that time.  That, of course, would be the next part of the story...


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"It was twenty years ago today..."

It's really only the big, important days in your life that you can say "I remember exactly where I was (10, 20, 30, whatever) years ago today."  Well, today that number is 20 years, and I can safely say that Rampage and Death Beast would not exist, certainly not as they are, without the experience I had 20 years ago today, on February 28, 1992.  On that day, late at night, I sat in the little broadcast studio of WREK studios in Atlanta GA and watched as Disjecta Membra rewrote everything I thought I knew about metal.

I've mentioned before in an interview some time ago how that came to pass.  But I don't think what I describe there really set the stage for what that night meant to me.  Let's put it into context.  At 16 I got my first bass.  I bought tab magazines and books, figured stuff out by ear, and could pretty much play my way through a good deal of Metallica's first four albums.  I spent hours in my room trying to figure things out, trying to cop those bass lead licks from Anesthesia, even goofing with friends trying to write and record stuff.  Those recordings became the artistic and inspirational genesis of Rampage, but at the time I was indulging in fantasy as well.  I didn't just want to play, I wanted to play live, in front of people, with songs that I wrote, watching them go 'wow' the way I did when I threw on Leprosy or Ride the Lightning.

For two years I was a bedroom rock star, and so when I finally got to college I started searching for other people to try to make it happen.  A few months of searching put together the embryonic version of Early Warning, who played exactly one gig for a bar crowd before we took an extended break.  It was a taste, but it wasn't enough - it was a bunch of guys who knew each other playing a shitload of covers and a couple of songs that Frank wrote.  It wasn't the kind of thing that would set the world on fire.

But by the end of the summer of 1991 we finally got the full lineup together.  We had two writers. We had drive.  We had time and space to practice.  We had some gig connections.  It looked like it could really happen.

But, they were still the other guys' songs.

Now, don't get me wrong - I loved what we were doing, and I had a hand in arranging my own parts, but it's different when it's YOUR song idea running down the spine of what you're playing, and I wanted to wow people with what I could do.  And while I liked the proggish touches to our music, I wanted something faster, meaner, heavier - something that make me feel like I did three years before when I was blasting thrash and death metal nonstop.

And that's where Disjecta Membra came in.  As I described in the interview above, we met them before our first gig on Feb. 9, 1992, at a short radio interview at WREK.  But seeing them didn't prepare me for what I heard that night when they played after us.  It was so fucking loud and heavy that it blew my mind.  These guys should have been huge.  They had the sound and the style and the talent.  And, what was the kicker - I could see it happening in front of me.  It wasn't sounds on some CD or tape that was blowing me away - it was the guys with guitars standing three feet in front of me, flooring me with "Earth and Stone" and "RYMOT".  That was the first time I realized that all this music I loved comes from real people, and if that's the case then it's possible for ME to make that, too.  I don't have to be a superstar - I just have to be good, and true to what I liked, and the sounds would come.

And so, of course, through the good luck of my friend Selbie at the radio station telling me about their gig on "Live at WREK", I got in.  I remember helping them set up, and I was flattered that they remembered me from the gig almost 3 weeks before.  They even said they liked our stuff, which was cool.

The lights went down, and then they blew my mind again.  Without having the whole jostling crowd to contend with, I just got to focus on watching them and hearing them, and it floored me.  Imagine being a Sabbath fan who got to see them at the Star Club in Hamburg during that month-long stint they did there - that's about what it felt like.

Again, I've told before how the tape I had of that night was stolen, and then how a few years later I managed to get myself another copy from the same sound engineer when my own band (Skiptoe, at that time) did a "Live at WREK" gig.  It was the best stroke of luck I've ever had, and so I put it out through UHR for a while, then just started giving dubs away free.  Everyone I've given it to loved it.  It just goes to show it's who you know, because they blow away most of the shit I've heard in the 20 years since that night.  It was just so honest and raw, but so polished and, for lack of a better word, BIG.  It was big songs about big ideas, and they were good at tapping into their love for the style and making it come out as something mean, ferocious, and heavy.  They weren't thrash, or death, or black, and they were far more than just power or heavy metal.  They really had their own sound, and THAT inspiration, while it took a lot longer to realize, is what I've been chasing with my own music.  Not making something that sounds like X, or Y, or Z. Making something that sounds like me.

I've rocked "Electric Satan" and "Neptune's Realm" hundreds of times in my life, but it never gets old.  My only wish is that something I've written (or will write) touches someone even half this deeply.  Because when it comes to art, if you're not changing hearts and minds you're just wasting your time.

And Disjecta Membra was most certainly not a waste of time.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

News and Updates for a New Year

In previous years I always put up some kind of a "New Year's Resolution" post explaining what I planned to get accomplished that year - putting semi-reasonable goals of getting X, Y, and Z done before the next 365 days are up.

And I usually failed.

This year I didn't do that, but for some reason after the xmas holidays, with the extra time and buoyed by the recent relaxation I started getting done a lot of shit I'd been meaning to do.  So, I'm not resolving anything, but just telling you all (all 3 of you) what I've been up to.

1) Ever since the demise (let's not bullshit ourselves) of UHR I've been wanting to revitalize it in some way.  Influenced by some life-changing moves of a friend and co-conspirator of mine, and thinking about how to keep evolving the label along with the evolution of what music has become in the face of the Internet, I've been trying to convert UHR to a digital-only online netlabel.  This involves getting properly indexed archives of everything I've released set up and organized, and then going through the bits that I have rights to and aren't cover songs and uploading them to the Internet Archive, thus transitioning UHR completely to a netlabel.

Well, I'm about 90% done with the musical file organization.  I have to arrange proper graphics files to go with these, so that I have a removable hard drive that contains the totality of UHR's output.  Then I plan to make a copy and share with a friend off-site so that I have a proper backup plan.  Second, I plan to go through what I am okay with uploading and do it, and for the parts that I'm not I will secure the rights or permission if I can.

2) Just this week I've finally got all of the Rampage recordings I completed in 2006 into Aerik's hands so that he can finish them off and we can see about finally getting some new Rampage out there.

3) I finally completed the re-assembly and mixing of Death Beast's live gig from a couple of months ago after the horrendous nightmare of the gig itself and its aftermath.  That will see some kind of release soon.  A few samples are on Death Beast's Facebook page - http://listn.to/deathbeast

4) As some of you may have seen by now, Death Beast is now label-less, as Black Goat has decided to call it a day with Barbarian Wrath.  I will not let this mean the end of Death Beast, and so we will most likely just move over to UHR for the release of our next album "The Onslaught".

5) Speaking of which, I'll be honest, "The Onslaught" only has 3 finished songs now, but I'm working on more.  Slowly, but working on it.  It's not like setting hard deadlines has gotten me anywhere in past years, so let's see what a softer approach yields.

I think that's enough for now.  Let's see what goes on from here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

No, really, this time...

Look at the first post of this blog, and notice that it's almost exactly two years ago, and I was saying exactly the same thing as I am now.  I really need to work on this thing, as with so many other things, and so I decide to try to regularly do SOMETHING, hoping against hope that building any sort of structure of creativity will spread to other areas.

After all, only one live gig and a few demo tracks after six years is unconscionable.

So, stay tuned here.  More is coming, both here and elsewhere.