vern's verbal vibe

 

Thoughts from Toronto singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vern Nicholson. I pontificate mostly on music (of course), with a smattering of sports, language and other fun miscellany.

Mixing Like It's 1965 

So, I'm recording a cover of "Spanish Harlem Incident" by The Byrds. It's really a cover of a cover, as their version is a rearrangement of a Bob Dylan song. With some covers, I like to give the song a little twist or take it in a new direction. Others are so perfect as they are that my goal is to faithfully reproduce them. For me, "Spanish Harlem Incident" falls into the latter camp.
 
Right off the top I was in a bit of trouble, as I don't own a Rickenbacker 360 electric 12-string, which is what Roger McGuinn plays on this track. I put my Takamine acoustic 12 through a Line 6 Pod to create a facsimile, but it's really not the same. (Until I can summon the 3,645 Canadian pesos it takes to purchase my dream guitar, I'll have to live with the electrified acoustic.) Fortunately, I can replicate pretty much everything else. Michael Clarke, especially in his early years, was a very paint-by-numbers sort of drummer and so am I, so programming his parts was easy. For David Crosby's rhythm guitar, I simply had to think 1965. There were no guitar effects yet, and if you wanted a little crunch you just turned your amp up. Crosby, I think, played a Gretsch of some sort; I used an Epiphone Les Paul. I created a custom preset on my Bass Pod to simulate Chris Hillman's tone: very warm and just a bit fuzzy. Chris's bass of choice was a Guild Starfire, and my Epiphone Jack Casady proved to be a perfect substitute.
 
So far, so good. But to really make it sound like 1965, I wanted to simulate the stereo panning they used, which by today's standards is nutty. McGuinn's guitar is alone, hard left. His vocal, along with Crosby's and Gene Clark's harmonies, is in the middle. Everything else is panned hard right: that would be the entire drum kit, bass, rhythm guitar and tambourine.
 
Why would anyone record (and pan) in this way? Well, consider that four-track machines were barely available in 1965. My guess is that The Byrds and producer Terry Melcher recorded the Mr. Tambourine Man LP on a three-track at Columbia Studios, Hollywood, in early 1965. So, the session for this song may have gone down something like this. For the backing track, McGuinn's guitar was recorded on Track 1 with the rest of the band on Track 2, likely all in the same take. That left only one track, Track 3, for the vocals, which would have been sung simultaneously and mixed on the fly. (And in this case "mixing" probably meant, "David, you're too loud. Can you stand back about six feet? No. Make it four. That's good.")
 
Panning in 1965 was also limited. You had your choice of three fixed positions: left, centre and right. Given all these recording and mixing limitations, the wacky panning scheme actually makes sense. You're stuck with all the instruments save McGuinn's guitar on one track not because you want it that way—there was simply no other way to record the whole band at once and give some prominence to the main instrument, the chiming 12-string.
 
Back here in 2020, I live in a world of 24 tracks, my recording studio is about half the size of a pillow and I can record a whole album in my bedroom. Recording 1965-style doesn't come naturally. For this song, I laid down each piece of the drum kit separately, later overdubbing the tambourine, bass and rhythm guitar. Nevertheless, I'm sticking the lot on the right side like The Byrds did, in a spirit of homage and as a fun mixing challenge. And let me tell you: when you've got kick drum, snare, hi-hat, three cymbals, floor tom, bass guitar, rhythm guitar and tambourine all in your right ear, it's quite difficult to tell what's too loud, too quiet and just right. Try it and you'll gain an appreciation for how brilliant some of these '60s producers and engineers really were.

Finger Issues 

So, it's now been three months since I injured my left ring finger in a cycling accident. Getting proper medical attention in the midst of COVID-19 has been a challenge, but to date I've had one in-person doctor's appointment, an x-ray, an ultrasound and several phone appointments with my doctor. Diagnosis is progressing even if treatment isn't.
 
I still don't have an exact diagnosis—the ultrasound revealed some swelling and inflammation of the tendon, and that's it—but we know what it isn't: there's no fracture, dislocation or break. The next step is an appointment with a plastic surgeon to discuss whether or not I should have surgery, and it may take a good while to schedule said appointment.
 
Medical considerations aside, how is my finger? Well, it's bent and swollen, but it looks worse than it feels. There's no pain, and I can type as if nothing happened. (This is very good indeed, because I type for a living.) I've found no discernible impact on any of my daily activities but one, and it's a big one: playing my stringed instruments. Again, there's no pain. The problem is limited mobility. Certain chords, like F#m and any minor barre chord in that position right up the neck, are impossible to play; others, I can play but it takes several seconds to change to and from them. Sort of a "This finger goes here, and that one goes there, and then this one goes over here" approach. Yes, Gsus4, I'm talking 'bout you.
 
Fortunately, I can still record music and am doing so as we speak. I'm not the greatest guitarist to begin with, so I often stitch parts together on different tracks then bounce them to create a composite whole. The damaged finger only means there's more stitching than usual. I recently pieced together a pretty hot solo that sounds like a fluent guitarist who really knows what he's doing. It's all done with mirrors, and even more so than before. But that's okay. What matters is that the final product sounds good. I've yet to encounter anything I cannot play if I break it down into sufficiently small bits.
 
It's performing I'm increasingly concerned about. As it stands, I can't play several songs in my repertoire, including some of my own. At least not without the "Hey, folks, wait for five seconds till I can find the next chord" thing. Capos and alternate fingerings may yet offer viable workarounds, but still, it's disheartening. On the bright side, I suppose this is as good a time as any to be unable to perform, as most venues remain shuttered.
 
Anyway, until I chat with the surgeon I'm not sure what I'll do. Whatever this is, it doesn't seem to be improving on its own. But surgery brings its own concerns, not the least of which is how long I'll have to be the incredible one-handed typist.

Mastering and Deep Editing, or How to Bake a Cake Through Music 

In the course of mixing and mastering my latest creation, a cover of The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action," I realized anew that the Zoom R24's mastering presets are woeful, and only deep editing will salvage them. (See February's post for a full critique.)

As I noted back in February, mastering a song is kind of like icing a cake. To further the analogy, you want to apply the right icing—e.g., chocolate icing on a chocolate cake, not strawberry-peach-mint—in the right amount, and whatever you do should enhance the cake's inherent good qualities, not fundamentally alter them. The R24's presets, without exception, fail on all three counts.

Of the unit's 20 presets, 18 are so abysmal as to be useless even as starting points for editing. Two are marginal. Continuing with the cake metaphor, the built-in presets give you way too much strawberry-peach-mint icing on what was supposed to be a chocolate cake and they'll change your cake into cornbread. You're left with a monstrosity that sounds nothing like your original mix.

I've tried editing the marginal presets (14 Clarify and 20 Maximizr, for the record). Unfortunately, I'm groping in the dark. The parameters are named such that it's impossible to set EQ and compression the way you would in a DAW. I can adjust things like "Mix High," "Sense Mid," "Xover Lo" and so on, but don't know what exactly it is I'm cutting or boosting. I have only my ears as a guide. Anyway, I've toned down Maximizr so it's not quite so crazy with the level boost and squashing, but still haven't achieved the desired result, which is a subtle enhancement of my mix.

Initial experiments with Clarify have been more promising. In its original form, Clarify sucks up your bass and low mids and adds a harsh, brittle high end, almost like a transistor radio. In other words—icky kiwi-fruit icing, too much of it, and it changes your chocolate cake into shepherd's pie. I've dialled down a few settings and subtly boosted others, and after A/B'ing my untreated mix with the modified preset, I think I'm close to what I've been after all along: a subtle enhancement. In other words, a dash of high-quality chocolate icing on a chocolate cake, bringing out le gâteau's chocolatey goodness.

If you own a Zoom R24 and want to try this out yourself, here's precisely what I did. My changed values are in bold, in brackets; if a value isn't listed, I left it as is.

Mastering Preset 14 Clarify - Vern's Modification

3Band Comp

Xover Lo: 200 Hz (125 Hz)
Sense Mid: 5 (8)
Sense Low: 4 (9)
Mix Low: -2 (1)

Normalizer
 
Normalizer: 2 (4)

3Band EQ
 
Bass: -1 (1)
Middle: 0 (1)
Treble: 0 (1)

Dimension/Reso

Type: None (Dimension)
Rise1: Off (6)
Rise2: Off (6)

Total
 
Patch Lvl: 25 (20)
ZNR: 10 (Off)

This edit was then saved as a new preset: 22 V Clear. Further tweaking might be necessary, but now I've got a mastering preset that broadly does what it's supposed to—add a level boost, a little brightness and some subtle compression to my mix. And my chocolate cake is still a chocolate cake!

Life Under Lockdown 

Just a quick update on how I'm coping with the current situation. Overall, I consider myself quite fortunate. As a card-carrying introvert, I'm well equipped to handle social isolation, physical distancing and so on. Like it or not, some version of this has been my reality for years anyway, so it's not been that dramatic an adjustment. I don't miss my full social calendar because I've never had one. I spent huge swaths of time alone before the pandemic, and very little has changed but for the fact that there are no social engagements to turn down.

As far as supporting myself goes, my freelance job, which I've not heretofore perceived as terribly stable, has been rock solid. I work in television broadcasting, and my industry has made the Ontario essential workplaces list, both the original and revised versions. Work has been steady and I've been able to transition quite well to working from home. I was concerned at the prospect of having to upgrade my home computer (i.e., buying a new one), but my only financial outlay was a mouse, full keyboard and wrist rest, which totalled under $40. Again, I'm grateful for my good fortune—which is blind luck, really, when I consider how many people with secure, full-time jobs are glumly sitting at home, hoping the CERB will cover their mortgage and car payments.

Of the adjustments I have had to make, some are rather humorous. I was overdue for a haircut and had booked an appointment just before the big shutdown in mid-March which, in a moment of prescience, my stylist cancelled. I'm not a fan of ponytails, and I abhor man buns. So, between repeated playings of CSNY's "Almost Cut My Hair," I've fashioned a homemade headband out of an old bed sheet. I'll look like a true Woodstock warrior until my next haircut, which will be who knows when. (Hey, Paul Kantner and Jack Casady wore headbands at Woodstock: good enough for me.)

On a more serious note, I had a cycling accident in mid-March. Bad timing. No car was involved; I rode headlong into a curb I did not see and went flying, landing on my face. For a day or two I looked like the Elephant Man, but the cuts on my face healed in short order. More worrisome is the ring finger on my left hand. Five weeks on, it's swollen and slightly bent, though not at all painful. After numerous failed attempts to receive medical attention, I finally got an x-ray this afternoon and am waiting to discuss next steps with my doctor.

Despite this I've managed to devote some time to my old standby, home recording. What better time to lay down some tracks in your home studio, right? Thing is, my finger has made playing any of my stringed instruments difficult. I've devised a couple of alternate-fingering workarounds, and compensated by recording my guitar and bass parts in even more pieces than usual. The finger has slowed me down, but I'm progressing with the cover tunes I set out to record in December. Anyway, I'm now on to mixing the latest, and this one has a lot going on so it'll take a good while. I'm hoping my finger will be back to full strength by the time I'm ready to record the next cover.

What else? Well, we've all had to learn how to video-conference in five minutes or less. My Zoom H1 (handy digital recorder) also works as a USB mic, and it's a significant upgrade over my laptop's built-in model, a pinprick in the front console. I also have a decent USB webcam that provides high-quality visuals. The experiment continues, I guess, as long as COVID-19 keeps spreading. Me, I'm happy to live in a country whose guiding principle is "peace, order and good government." In my estimation our leaders, even those whose political stripes don't jibe with mine, have acted prudently and responsibly. Contrast our prime minister, premiers and mayors with that very stable genius to the south who openly ponders the benefits of shooting Lysol at his press briefings.

Baseball and Slow Travel 

You don't need me to tell you that we suddenly find ourselves living in extraordinary, unprecedented times due to the spread of COVID-19. I've certainly never experienced anything like this, and I've been around a while.

A few weeks back, I was basking in my usual spring ritual: listening to the first baseball games of spring training and eagerly awaiting the regular season, which was due to start on March 26. As of March 13, all spring training activity has ceased and MLB rather optimistically says that opening day will be "delayed." As far as I know, this is the first non-labour suspension of baseball since World War II.

For years now, I've been hoping to pull off a week-long visit to Florida for spring training. (I may be the only Canadian who's never been to Florida.) Thank God I didn't have the means to do it this year, or I'd be stuck in the Sunshine State with no games to see and a 14-day quarantine awaiting me upon return. I'm still quite excited about the trip, which has progressed well beyond dreaming into planning, but my enthusiasm is now tempered. Even if I can afford it, who knows if in a year's time anyone will be able to travel anywhere?

Nevertheless, let's envision a world where COVID-19 has done its business, moved on, and a modicum of normalcy has been reestablished. If I could take in spring training, what might that look like?

The Blue Jays train in Dunedin, a small city in the Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater metro area. A flight from Toronto to Tampa would get me there in under three hours, and I'd be all set, right? Yes, but I dislike flying, the biggest reason for my disdain being that it's like teleportation. You don't get to see what's between here and there, and to me that's the whole point of travelling.

I don't drive, but I toyed with the idea of simulating the well-worn trek down I-75 popular with snowbirds on Greyhound. Like the road-tripper brigade, I'd take it slow and stop along the way, roughly at the end of a day's drive. I even mapped out a six-day itinerary: Toronto-Detroit-Cincinnati-Chattanooga-Macon-Orlando-Tampa. And for variety, a different route back over five days: Tampa-Jacksonville-Raleigh-Baltimore-Albany-Toronto. All well and good but for one consideration—safety. Greyhound's bus depots are often in spotty if not outright scary parts of town, and I soon realized that my fantasy of walking several blocks, in the dark, to the nearest hotel could result in a mugging or worse. And even if I made it to said inner-city hotel, it might not be the kind of place where I'd want to bed down for a night.

Plan B, which didn't last long, is the no-bed-required option, a continuous 41-hour trip on three Greyhound buses, again getting there one way (Toronto-New York-Orlando-Tampa) and returning another (Tampa-Tallahassee-Cincinnati-Detroit). The way there wasn't too severe in terms of layovers, but on the return trip a five-hour layover in Cincinnati (9:00 p.m-2:00 a.m.) didn't exactly thrill me. In any case, I've done this before, 20 years ago, when I took the Greyhound to San Francisco and back. That trip was even longer, and when I straggled back home I vowed I'd never again sleep on a bus ... because I can't sleep on a bus.

I've now landed on Plan C: Amtrak, the USA's passenger rail system. This entails one compromise: I'd have to return the same way I came, and checking the Silver Star timetable, the same part of the country (NC, SC, GA) is in darkness both ways. Boo, hiss! Also, a continuous trip from Toronto isn't possible by rail; the schedules simply don't hook up. I'd have to take the Maple Leaf to New York, stay overnight, then board the Silver Star in the morning. On the plus side, I'd have only one sleep on the train which, though not a proper bed, is far better than the bus. And if I had the cash, I could splurge for a roomette.

As for getting around the Tampa area, public transit will do the trick, though I can see from researching schedules that PSTA and HART aren't exactly the TTC. But with careful planning, one can make it from A to B. It's also dirt cheap. And lucky me, I'd have three teams' games to choose from in the metro area, with the Phillies training in Clearwater and the Yankees in Tampa proper.

The rather pokey way I like to get to and visit new places now has a name: slow travel. I'm not sure I subscribe to or follow all its tenets, but in both my preferred transportation modes and sightseeing predilections (offbeat, weird stuff), I qualify. Anyway, once COVID-19 has run its course and I've saved up sufficiently, I look forward to getting to know Amtrak, seeing a bit of Florida, and taking in some spring training baseball—something any serious fan really should do at least once in their lives.

Adventures in Home Recording 

Well, I've had a month and a half to get acquainted with the Zoom R24, and have two covers completed so far. Recording these has enabled me to appreciate the unit's features, come to terms with its quirks and learn a lot in the process. Once I've done about 12 or so covers, I'll post them as a free mp3 album and you can hear the results for yourselves.

First, the pleasant surprises:

  • The R24 allows for unlimited virtual tracks (as many as your memory card can store).
  • Its built-in mics are excellent and very convenient. I've recorded acoustic guitar and mandolin with them so far, and they sound better than my Apex 430 condenser (which admittedly isn't the crème de la crème of condenser microphones).
  • The R24 has separate outs and volume controls for headphones and studio monitors.
  • You can adjust the ratio of click track to song with the turn of a knob ... without having to dive into sub-menus.
  • Files (tracks, loops, entire songs) can be backed up to a USB key: no computer required!
  • The percussion loops included on the USB stick are high-quality samples that can easily be time-stretched to fit your project's tempo. Adjust the tempo, drop them in, and presto: it's like having your own Ray Cooper in your hip pocket. Very, very handy.
  • You can loop any piece of audio and drop it into your song at various points. If, like me, you find it hard enough to play a part in time once, well, you only have to nail it once. And it doesn't matter where in the song you do that: you record your part to the click and it can be dropped in anywhere. Now, in conventional rock music, consider how many instruments play repetitive parts, though they may vary between sections. So far I've looped backing vocals, guitars, bass, individual drums, even a tin whistle. I can't fingerpick to save my life, yet I created two fingerstyle acoustic guitar parts by looping one chord at a time.
  • My sampled Roland TD-11K drum kit sounds great, and by using a simple workaround I can set things up with, e.g., the snare on three adjacent pads for a better playing experience and more realistic feel. Judicious use of the quantize function helps keep my beats on the beat. Also, using the sampled kit instead of the built-in sounds allows for greater control and flexibility. Because each drum is on its own track, levels can be set independently and each piece of the kit can be panned, EQ'd and processed separately.
  • I've not exhaustively auditioned the unit's effects yet, but some of the patches are terrific, and every patch is editable. (Some aren't so terrific ... see below.) Most of the send reverbs are quite good, and the "clean" section has some tasty guitar effects. A few of the mic preamp effects do wonders for vocals and acoustic instruments.
  • The bounce function allows you to use a multitude of pre- and post-effects over the course of a song, and the unlimited virtual track feature means you can keep the dry tracks if you later decide to reprint the effects. Bounce is also great for stitching together composite parts to form a whole, which I do a lot of.
  • Both hours/minutes/seconds/hundredths and bars/beats/ticks are shown on the display, unlike some units that force you to pick one or the other. And the "mark" function enables you to scroll to strategic points in the song, while the "stop/rewind" shortcut quickly gets you back to the start. Navigating through your tune is quick, easy and painless.
  • The manual is surprisingly readable and useful, though the layout is a bit weird. I ended up creating a customized how-to-do-what index to help me find things more efficiently.

Now, some sources of vexation:

  • Editing, trimming and silencing audio on the R24 is difficult and in some cases, impossible. It's easier to trim silence at the start or end of a song than, say, a stutter in your guitar solo two minutes in. There may be a way of doing that, but it's by no means obvious. I've figured out how to erase, e.g., unwanted amp hum before the guitar enters by recording "nothing" in that spot using the auto-punch feature. It works, but it's awfully cumbersome.
  • You can't normalize the level of your mix using the R24. Nor can you measure peak amplitude, see what the overall waveform looks like, and so on. A crude waveform view is available by using, for instance, File->Divide, but all told it's easier and more accurate to import the audio into Audacity and examine it there.
  • Trying to assign the same sample to multiple pads results in an "Already Exist!" error message. I had to "fool" the R24 into placing the same sample onto adjacent pads by creating duplicates and triplicates. So, I now have SNARE.WAV, SNARE1.WAV, SNARE2.WAV in my sample library, all of which are the same sound. It's a doable workaround and indeed, a necessary one; without it, I couldn't really "play" the drums like a real drummer would. But it's a pain to have to go to such lengths.
  • The built-in drum sounds aren't studio quality. A few were barely passable; the rest sounded like my first drum machine from 1982. If you're going for that retro crappola-drum-machine sound, great! There are only 10 (lousy) kits, not customizable, and you can't mix and match. Worse, the drums are assigned to a stereo pair of tracks, and you can only EQ, pan, level and process the entire kit, not individual drums. This again limits their utility.
  • Many effects aren't usable in their current form. The "distortion" section in particular makes your guitar sound like it's turned up not to 11 but 111. If you're some speed-metal shred-head, the distortion effects are your wet dream, I suppose. But for the rest of us who want just a touch of fuzz on our guitars, they're woeful. Deep editing, which I've yet to do, may yet salvage some of them.
  • Some of the effects are gimmicky and fall into the who-would-ever-use-this category, like the vocal preset "Hangul" which the manual says "makes Japanese sound like Korean."
  • If you want to apply simple stomp-box effectsdelay, tremolo, phaser, wah-wah or compressor, for instance—they do exist, but you have to disentangle them from some patch that uses them in combination. It's hard to find them in isolation. Some quite useful effects, like a Leslie speaker emulation, are missing entirely.
  • The mastering presets are disappointing. They're subtle as a sledgehammer, and 90% of them are useless. See, mastering is supposed to do two things: bring the level of your mix to a professional standard and and give it a glossy sheen by sparingly applying EQ and compression, kind of like the icing on a cake. The R24's presets alter the sound of your mix beyond recognition. I've achieved reasonable results by editing the "Maximzr" preset, which in its pure form adds 7,000 tonnes of compression, to saner levels, but even that has been massively frustrating. Sure, you can edit the parameters, but it's complete trial and error because you don't know what you're editing. Case in point: the aforementioned preset has parameters like "Sense Hi" which the manual says "adjusts high-range compressor sensitivity." Meaning what? Threshold? Ratio? Gain? We'll never know, and there's no way to adjust the compressor via these standard parameters. Similarly, that preset's three-band EQ lets me adjust bass, middle and treble. What specific frequencies I'd be adjusting and at what bandwidth, no idea.

My bottom line? With a modicum of additional equipment and a dash of savvy and patience, you can produce high-quality recordings with the Zoom R24. You'll be the judge when I unveil my "covers" album, but two songs in I'm quite happy with the results. And I haven't yet explored integrating the Zoom with a DAW, specifically the included Cubase LE. I'm about to transition to a new computer and am unsure which one I want to install it on, so I've held off on the download for now. Presumably this will further extend the unit's capabilities once I navigate Cubase's learning curve.

Woodstock: Loose End Tied 

Just a quick wrap-up (for now) on my Woodstock obsession. When we last rapped, man, our hero had compiled a nearly complete set of recordings from the Woodstock Festival, thanks to WPXN's radio broadcast over the 50th anniversary weekend, XPNstock.

As you'll recall, two songs were missing from the Jimi Hendrix set. They weren't broadcast by WXPN because they're not on the 38-CD box, and they're not on the box because the Hendrix Estate won't authorize their release. Enter the good folks at "non-label" (i.e., bootleggers) who've put out a double CD of Hendrix's entire Woodstock set. I took the plunge and now have the missing songs: "Mastermind" and "Gypsy Woman/Aware of Love," both sung by rhythm guitarist Larry Lee. Though the official release's booklet dismisses them as "slow, haggard filler" they sound fine to these ears, and it's a treat to hear Hendrix as an accompanist.

The bootleg brought another pleasant surprise: in addition to the Larry Lee songs, it contains 20 minutes of material absent from Live at Woodstock and the 38-CD box. Much of this consists of Lee solos that were inexplicably cut from the official version. Of course, it is a bootleg, so the sound is somewhat muddy and boxy. But if you tune your ears to it, so to speak, it's perfectly acceptable, and I'm grateful to now have every single note played by Hendrix and his band at Woodstock.

So, what am I still missing? What everyone else is, apparently: the one-and-a-half Sha Na Na songs that weren't recorded back in 1969. I wonder if audience tapes exist, or perhaps the fabled mono soundboard reel that was used as backup when things went awry. In any event, I'm sure that geeks greater than me are on the case, and if there's anything floating around out there it'll turn up someday. When it does, I'll be first in line.

Zooming Towards My Next Album 

Over the past two years, I've been saving my loonies and toonies to get my home studio up to scratch and start recording my next album. Linden Tree near the Water was recorded entirely in Audacity on a creaky Dell desktop running Windows XP. That desktop has since died, and my current computer lacks the firepower needed to run a DAW (digital audio workstation). So, I've gone old school and bought a standalone 24-track recorder. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the Zoom R24.
 

I say "standalone," but really, it's only so if you want it to be. The R24 is also a sampler, drum machine, DAW control surface (a Cubase LE download is included) and computer audio interface. It comes with built-in condenser mics, a metronome and a chromatic tuner. Oh, and it's a powerful effects processor to boot. And did I mention the included USB stick and its 1.5GB of drum loops? That's an incredible array of features packed into a unit that's maybe 15 inches across.

I'd been researching multi-track recorders for well over a year, and I chose the R24 for a few reasons: one, its staggering versatility; two, the number and variety of onboard effects (267, with room for 123 custom patches); and three, I've sampled the Roland TD-11K drums I used for my last project and can play and record this kit on the R24. No other recorder will let me do that save for the Zoom R8, my unit's bare-bones cousin.

The R24's bundle of goodies is, frankly, a steal at $670 Cdn ($500 US). Now, think about that. Especially if, like me, you've been recording at home since the early '80s. My first Tascam 4-track cost well over $800, I believe, and we're talking 1983 dollars. Its recording medium was cassette tape—cutting-edge at the time—and the "effects" section consisted of a few EQ knobs. These days, the quality of recordings you can produce on the cheap is astounding. If your budget is seriously limited, for instance, the R8 retails for $400 Cdn ($300 US) and shares essentially the same architecture as the R24.
 
I bought my unit a couple of weeks ago but am keeping it under wraps till Christmas Day. It's been a tough year, and I want to cap it off with the ultimate present to myself. In the meantime I've been doing my homework, watching online tutorials, reading the manual and generally getting a leg up before I begin in earnest.
 
The plan is to record 10 covers to start with. Covers are more fun, and I've chosen an eclectic bunch that should acquaint me with most of the R24's capabilities. And I figure that by the time I've recorded, mixed and mastered those, I'll (hopefully) have made all the mistakes it's possible to make and can apply that learning to my own material.

Muswell, 2003-2019 

As many of you know, my beloved cat Muswell had been ill with kidney disease for nearly a year, and sadly, he lost his battle on October 23. A memorial service was held on Thursday, November 28 at St. George's Chapel, St. James Cathedral, Toronto, and this is the eulogy I gave:

I'd like to start with a short poem by Christopher Smart that was sung by the Cathedral Choir on Trinity Sunday this year: "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving him. For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness. For he knows that God is his Saviour. For God has bless'd him in the variety of his movements. For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest. For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God."

Welcome, and thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to be here for Muswell and me, and a special thanks to Reverend Andrew and everyone at the cathedral for making this service happen. We're here to honour and celebrate the life of my beloved Muswell, an extraordinary cat and the best friend I've ever had.

In the winter of 2006, I adopted a cute little stray cat. Or more likely, he adopted me. Over the next 13 years, we grew closer through good times and bad, forming a bond that was deep, loving and profoundly healing for us both. He was my boy and I was his human. Muswell was like a dog in a cat's body. He'd follow me around everywhere. When I came home from work he'd greet me at the door, hop onto my desk and lick my face. At night, my furry friend would snuggle into bed with me. I only encountered the term "emotional support animal" recently, but Muswell fit that description perfectly. In short, he brought joy, warmth and comfort to my often challenging life.

As befits a companion like me, Muswell was a quirky boy. When I'd shower, he'd sit at the foot of the tub, meowing and scratching till I emerged safe and sound. Most cats hate getting wet, so I can only assume he wanted to spare his pop this dreadful fate. And when I'd towel off, he'd climb up beside me and stroke me with his paw—always on my left side, never my right. In Muswell's world, pop had a proper side and an improper side. Once he'd gotten situated on my proper side he'd groom himself, as if he were trying to show me the better way to cleanliness.

Muswell was a beautiful soul, inside and out. His orange coat was luxurious, and he had a little crown on his head and light orange stripes that cascaded down his back. The boy was skittish around anyone other than me, but the few lucky people who did interact with him all agree that he was gorgeous, gentle, affectionate and adorable.

It's been said that we grieve because we love, and it follows that the bigger the love, the bigger the grief. Muswell taught me so much about unconditional love, giving and receiving. I mourn so deeply because I've lost so much, because he selflessly gave so much. I used to joke with Muswell that I must be his pet human, because at times it was hard to tell who was taking care of whom.

In my grief, I remind myself that I'm experiencing a temporary separation from Muswell. I truly believe we will be reunited someday. So, where do pets go when they die? I'm no theologian, but what I'm about to present is one possibility that's been circulating since at least the 1980s. I can't tell you that I know this is real, but it sure sounds like the kind of place that a God of infinite love, mercy and compassion would create.

"Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigour; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing: they each miss someone very special to them who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly, he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, gone so long from your life but never absent from your heart. Then you cross Rainbow Bridge, together."

Little buddy, you are forever loved and so profoundly missed. What a bright light you were. Your pop is blessed to have known you, and someday I'll see you at the Rainbow Bridge. Until then, eat, play and scamper, healthy and pain-free, and enjoy the company of your blessed animal friends. This is not goodbye, boy. This is till we meet again.


An audio recording of the full service is available on Muswell's page.

The (Nearly) Complete Woodstock 

This August marked the 50th anniversary of the iconic Woodstock Festival, and though the proposed commemorative concert failed to materialize, Rhino Records put out a nearly complete chronicle of the original this summer.

And I, noted Woodstock obsessive, couldn't afford it. And only 1,969 were made. And it sold out within weeks. And they're not making more. Ever. As stagehand Muskrat intoned on the original triple album, "Hmm. Bummer, bummer!" Want to weep along with me? Here's a glowing review of that 38-CD set.

But! The good Lord intervened just in time. First, I discovered a geeky forum replete with fellow obsessives: some who'd bought the box, others who wished they had. And a few days before the anniversary, some kind soul posted this magic sentence: "Full Woodstock recording to air on WXPN at exact time of original festival."

Like many FM stations, WXPN streams live, 24/7—one of the advantages of living in 2019, not 1969. The advance notice gave me a few days to figure out how to connect my Zoom H1, laptop and speakers. I also did a test to make sure my Zoom would record without shutting off for eight hours, because some sets would be broadcast while I was asleep. I was in it to win it. And on Thursday, August 15, 2019 at 5:07 p.m. EDT, 50 years to the second, my three and a half days of recording began with Richie Havens' opener, "From the Prison."

Variously dubbed "Woodstock as It Happened: 50 Years On" and "XPNstock," the extravaganza preempted much of WXPN's regular programming; they broadcast 37 of the 38 discs. (Disc 38 contains no music, consisting of stage announcements and other ephemera that the producers couldn't place in chronological sequence.) And thanks to WXPN, Rhino Records and whoever else conspired to create this wondrous occurrence, I captured it all. Yes, it's a compressed radio stream, not quite the pristine audio found on the CDs, but for zero dollars, I'll take it. Happily.

Little did I know that my raw recordings would be but the start of my odyssey. At a bare minimum I had to clean up the start and end of each set, having hit "record" early and "stop" late to ensure I got everything. I also brightened the sound a touch with some judicious EQ while rolling off some murk on the bottom end. The stream went down only once, during Arlo Guthrie's "Wheel of Fortune" on Day 1. Thankfully, I was able to patch that song in from my copy of the 40th anniversary box set. There were also numerous instances of stream stutter to fix. No audio was missing, but occasional gaps of silence, lasting anywhere from a tenth of a second to three seconds, needed repair. I stitched these gaps together in Audacity, which took a lot of patience and diligent listening.

Being a good citizen—and wanting to maintain their licence—WXPN silenced any profanity found within the 37 discs. To create an accurate facsimile of the box set, I had to find ways of patching in the dirty words whenever possible. In two instances, this meant finding missing songs: both Country Joe McDonald (solo) and Country Joe & the Fish did the infamous "Fish Cheer," and neither was broadcast on WXPN. (For the uninitiated, the word they spell isn't "fish" but another four-letter word beginning with F.) In addition, I wanted to excise the many station IDs and promos from my recordings, some of which obliterated the first or final few notes of a song. Deleting the IDs/promos was easy, but again, I had to patch in the missing material from other sources. Finally, perhaps because it's such a ramshackle performance, WXPN didn't broadcast Tim Hardin's 16-minute "Snow White Lady." I patched that in from YouTube.

You'll recall that off the top, I said "nearly complete." So, what's missing from the 38-CD box and, by extension, XPNstock? Three and a half songs. Half of Sha Na Na's "Little Darlin'" and all of "Teenager in Love" were not recorded in 1969. Yep, after almost four sleepless days, Eddie Kramer and his onsite team finally screwed up and let the tape run out, and if there's any Woodstock act for which that's forgivable, Sha Na Na gets my vote.

The other two missing songs are from Jimi Hendrix's set. Sung by rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, the Hendrix estate refuses to sanction their release "for aesthetic reasons." Now, I'm not one to lead you into the dark underworld of unauthorized recordings, but if you google "larry lee gypsy woman soundcloud," you might stumble on the rarest Woodstock recording of all. And were you to figure out a way to record that audio, you too would be in possession of a song absent from the 38-CD box. (I'm still hunting for "Mastermind," the other Larry Lee song.)

Words cannot express how grateful I am to WXPN for taking three and a half days out of their regular schedule to give us the gift of XPNstock. Kudos are also, of course, due the box set's producers/engineers Andy Zax, Brian Kehew, Dave Schultz for their yeoman's restoration of the entire festival. The deep dives these boys took knew no bounds: for instance, they sifted through photographic evidence to ensure that their instrument placement in the stereo field was accurate. Much of the music performed at Woodstock was magnificent, and thanks to Messrs. Zax, Kehew and Schultz, it has never sounded better.

In interviews, Andy Zax revealed that some audio material was salvaged by technical marvels that have only recently come into existence. Ever heard of de-mixing? How about polyphonic tuning? Me neither, but the former was used to create a stereo mix of Ravi Shankar's performance from a gritty mono soundboard reel. The latter helped Zax and crew take Blood, Sweat & Tears' horns, which were out of tune in different directions, and "nudge the tonality of the horns to get them back into a sound range that the human ear would prefer to hear." In both cases, the results are miraculous. Or as Zax said, "To me, this is like magic science fiction stuff. It's like the Great Gazoo descended down, waved a magic wand, and suddenly here's this remarkable thing!"

Oh, and while he was at it, the Great Gazoo, or God if you prefer, gave us XPNstock, enabling me to construct a poor man's version of Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. I still wish I'd splurged for the box. But with copies now going for close to $3,500 US, that ship has sailed and in the end, I think I've ended up with something more worthwhile—tasty, cleaned-up recordings that I had a hand in creating. I like to think of my painstaking audio editing as a microcosm of the producers' stellar work.

Now that my work is done, I can sit back and enjoy Woodstock as a listening experience. I know I've babbled on a bit and not discussed the music much. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of these artists were at or near their peak in 1969, and most of this music is great. Some is truly staggering. I point to one stretch from late Saturday night into Sunday afternoon that's jaw-dropping when heard in sequence. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Joe Cocker not only wowed those lucky attendees in 1969, but gave us some of the most iconic moments in rock history. I heartily recommend you seek out their full sets; all but The Who have been officially released (beyond the now-unavailable 38-CD set).