guitar

Back to classical guitar

It’s been many, many years since I’ve played classical guitar. I learned in high school, from a lovely teacher called Ms. Dunlop, but aside from romancing my wife with some classical numbers when we were courting, I haven’t really played it much in the past couple of decades.

Domenico Scarlatti (pic from Wikipedia)

Domenico Scarlatti (pic from Wikipedia)

Added to that, my classical guitar had its bridge lift off on me many years ago, so I haven’t really had a nylon stringed guitar around the house for a very long time now (Hmm - perhaps it is time to go guitar shopping?) :)

But just this month, I was motivated to dig up some of my old favourite pieces and give them a go again. It was surprising how much I had forgotten, but also surprising was how the muscle memory in my fingers seemed to go back to how I played 20 years ago. While re-learning and practicing, sometimes my mind would wander, and when I snapped back to what I was doing, I realised that my fingers were automatically going to the right frets like they did two decades ago. Over thinking and forcing myself to remember was actually detrimental to that process.

I have a particular affinity for Baroque era pieces. Most of my friends love the Bach Lute Suites, but for me, my favourite composer of the era is Domenico Scarlatti (and to a lesser extent, his father Alessandro). Something about Scarlatti’s pieces are more uplifting that others of that time. The fact that most of them were written as love songs for the countess he was infatuated with probably helps!

Here is my attempt at his Sonata in A minor (K.322) after about a week’s practice. I don’t think Ms. Dunlop would be too happy with my sloppy technique, but I am going to keep practicing to try and get better and smoother.


Regaining my timing

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Like most musicians, I usually struggled to ‘keep time’ especially when playing solo compositions. But a few years ago, events which resulted in a stress induced condition (which I won’t bore you with here) has resulted in further degradation in my ability to keep time, even in a band situation where there is a drummer doing all the hard work.

I am determined to improve that though, and have been going back to basics and working on scales using a metronome to reduce that neural disconnect between my brain and my fingers. Over the weekend, I decided to challenge myself even further.

I’ve been a fan of The Police for a long time. There was something about their reggae infused punk beats that captured my imagination, and I admire all three musicians for their eclectic ability. I’ve never really played any of their songs on stage (mainly because I’ve never really had the chance to play with a drummer as talented or frenetic as Stewart Copeland), but I found a drum backing track online over the weekend for one of my most favourite songs of theirs and decided to give it a shot.

“Walking On The Moon” - As far as Sting’s bass work, this is actually one of the easiest ones to play, as the bass riff pretty much starts on the first beat of the bar (as opposed to a lot of other songs where the bass starts mid bar (e.g. Roxanne)). The guitar parts though, were the challenge. The chimey, chorus washed bits that come in every second bar is actually on beat four of the bar. It is a huge challenge to sit back and wait for the right timing to hit that Gmajsus4 chord, and then letting the delay slapback echo it for the first beat of the following bar! Even the staccato chord whips later in the verse are on the 2 and 4 - and every music teacher in the world always tells you to emphasise beats 1 and 3, NOT 2 and 4. Yet, this song is made by the choked chords on the 2 and 4. By far, the biggest challenge though, was playing along to Copeland’s frenzied thrashing. I had to keep time outside of his syncopated fills - a further testament to the skill of the original band.

Playing this was a great exercise in freeing up my mind from the usual constraints, and also to reduce those milliseconds of delay that had infused my neural system after that incident all those years ago. Breaking up my usual ‘straight timing’ with offbeat work like this really has seemed to reprogram the synapses in my brain. Time to go learn more Police numbers.

Recording acoustic guitar with a ribbon mic

My new recording setup

My new recording setup

Ok, I am finally getting back into recording my guitar playing, and this weekend past, I made a recording of my acoustic guitar with a ribbon microphone.

This was a replica of a Blumlien stereo ribbon microphone, and it is made by Nude Microphones.  I bought this particular mic late last year, but hadn't had the chance to use it until now.  One of the things holding me back was the fact that because this is a stereo ribbon mic, it takes up two channels on my audio interface.  I normally record with a mic and blend it with the signal from the internal guitar pickup, but that would mean I needed 3 inputs into my audio interface, and until I could upgrade my current 2 channel system to a 4 channel or greater, I kept putting it off.

Nevertheless, after attending a great music production workshop this week held by local artist Broadwing, where he espoused the benefits and technique of pure mic recording for an acoustic guitar, I decided to try the recording just with the ribbon mic.

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The basic setup is as the picture above and to the right.  I placed the ribbon mic upright on a short floor stand, and positioned it at the point where the guitar neck meets the body.  I found that I had to position the mic closer to the guitar than my usual condenser mics - probably around 10 to 15 cm in order to get the best signal.

Because the stereo imaging was pointing approximately 45 degrees towards the sound hole and the 9th fret from that location, I noticed that the right channel was significantly louder than the left.  Makes sense of course, as the right channel was pointing towards the soundboard where all the actual tone is generated, and the left channel was merely pointing towards my left hand on the neck.  I actually wanted to keep it that way so that the left channel picked up the fret noises and string squeaks as I moved around, while the right channel would pick up my right hand picking noises.  I simply boosted the input signal on my audio interface for the left channel until they matched.

The audio interface I was using was a Yamaha/Steinberg UR-22 that I 'borrowed' from my son.  Not my usual Apogee Duet because I now have a new iMac without Firewire.  I am on the lookout for a 4+ channel Thunderbolt audio interface.

As per usual, I recorded the track in Logic X, which has become my DAW of choice.  I simply set up two tracks - one for each side of the mic, and hit record.

This was also the first time I used Logic's multi take feature.  Normally I will do a single take and then manually 'punch in' any corrections over any mistakes I may (and usually do) make.  However, this time I did 3 consecutive ordinary takes, and used the 'sweep' method to pick the best bits of each take and comp them together into one decent take.

The way this works is that you will see the three takes all under each other, and as you are playing back, you can simply use the mouse cursor to 'sweep' an area on track 1, 2 or 3 in order to make that the 'active' block that is merged into the final track.  I could not believe how quick and easy this process was.  My old method was so tedious and resulted in many pops and clicks where I meshed the takes together badly, however this technique does a smooth fade in/fade out of the takes to eliminate all that.

Of course, you have to be absolutely spot on with the timing, and record everything to a metronome and stay on the beat for this to work.  At least it gave me a lot of practice in playing in perfect time!

Once I put together the three takes into one, I noted that the audio levels were still really low, though they had a nice character, so in post processing, I decided to use ONLY the Slate Digital plugins to tweak the EQ and add compression.  I used the Slate Virtual Mix Rack plugin on each track to EQ out some boomy bass and add some high end sparkle.  Then I used their Virtual Buss Compressor plugin to boost the volumes and even out the levels.  Finally, I used their Virtual Tape Machine plugin to add some good old tape warmth to the track.

The song here is "Growing Up" by Masaaki Kishibe.  I have really come to enjoy the pure melodic qualities of Kishibe's compositions, and intend to learn quite a few more of his songs in the future.

Here is the final result.  Hope you like it.

 

I must say I enjoyed recording on my new iMac - I had this one spec'd out with the 4GHz Core i7 processor and 3GB of RAM as well as an SSD drive.  It didn't miss a beat unlike my poor 8 year old ancient MacBook Pro.

For this recording, I used my beautiful Taylor BTO guitar, with a brand new set of Elixir Nanoweb strings on it.  The song is played with a capo on the second fret, and with the slightly shorter scale of this guitar, I think it gives it a nice bright sound.

Building a $20 "Prince" guitar

The past weekend was the ANZAC day long weekend, and seeing as I am a little burned out with programming work at the moment, I decided to take a little break from the keyboard and screen, and to tackle a project that I have been thinking about for years now - building a "cigar box" style guitar.

I've seen many people build these online, but never actually tried myself, so I looked around the house this weekend and decided that I had enough scrap material lying around to give it a go.

I don't actually have any cigar boxes lying around, but my wife did have an old art supply carry case that she no longer used, which was sitting in the back of the shed going mouldy, so she said I could have that.  Great.  I found a nice long piece of Merbau timber that was perfect for the neck.  80% there!  Collecting some old tuners from a dismantled Squier Strat, and cutting up some threaded rod and buying an ornate bracket, and we pretty much had all the parts for the guitar.  No excuses.

I posted about this build 'nearly live' on my Instagram account.  When I started posting, I had no idea whether the project would come to fruition or not, so I was taking a risk, but also, I was putting in place some accountability, because I knew I had an audience following along with me.

I also had no plans - just a rough idea of how to go about this from a blog post I had seen many months ago.  Never mind - I actually built a real acoustic guitar 3 years ago, so this couldn't be any more difficult, could it?

As it turns out, the process was fairly straightforward, and I managed to accomplish the build using rudimentary tools, and some very journeyman carpentry skills.  As you can see from the progress photos, I decided to put frets on the neck of this guitar, although that was a moot point, as I was going to set it up as a very high action slide guitar.

Once I had assembled the guitar proper (with some able assistance from my older son), I handed the project off to my wife, and asked her to paint anything she liked on it.

Given the current loss to the music world, she decided to paint a portrait of Prince on the guitar, and I think she did a fabulous job of it.

That was a really fun build, and kept most of the family occupied and creative, and we ended up with a great tribute to a superb artist that left us all too soon.