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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.

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.

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.

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.