The official website showcasing the music of Yellowgold, produced by Jason Howell.

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In Detail - Jewels

"Jewels" finished Pro Tools project

"Jewels" finished Pro Tools project

Yello! And welcome to another day where I write about writing the songs on the album Fever Dreamer. Today I’m going to talk about the sixth track on the album called Jewels

This was one of those times where I didn’t have an idea for a song sitting down at the desk one night. I just had a hankerin’ to mess around. So I started messing around with alternate tunings on the guitar, and plugged my mic in with my at-this-point signature vocal chain (the spaced out one I used on almost all songs on the album) and just started messing about.

The main guitar riff for this song literally plays the same dang thing throughout the track’s entirety and was relatively easy to play while spit balling some vocal treatments in real time. On this ruff cut, you can hear my guitar strings through the vocal mic as I’m recording it all live, so you get some cool jittery delays from the strings layered on top of that actual guitar input sound. I had also done a long but relatively quick pass on lyrical structure. I wasn’t certain at this point on keeping the lyrics (which I ultimately did) but having written words on a page makes layering vocal ideas easier.

From there, it was just a matter of setting everything up from scratch and playing through to a gentle click track to keep things on tempo, and then marking within the Pro Tools session where in the track the more instrumental and loud portions come in versus the softer verse’s with the vocal treatments layered in there.

Honestly, there’s very little to say about the production of Jewels because, in the grand scheme of things, it was one of the easiest tracks to produce for the album. It fell together with minimal resistance. Almost every layer I added along the way just… worked, so there wasn’t much editing down or scratching my head. It wrote itself in a matter of less than a week and when that week was over, I had no thoughts that it ever really needed any more work. All the way down to the random strings noises at the very end. So much of it just fell into place in my multiple recording passes, it all stayed in there, and I moved on. After many tracks where I had to beat the song into the ground to complete it, Jewels was a DREAM.

Here’s the final product from the album:

Jewels of carnage sparkle brightly
Neverending twist of lightning
Fighting for the ways foretold
While searching for piles of gold
Faded fight but finding nothing
Nothing matters more than now
The time that’s spent is lost somehow
As it withers away
With forces missed and astray
Mixed and scratched but never lost
The itch it swells from front to back
Always morphing from attraction
Cranium rocks will feast
A modest lack of beast
A modest lack of roasted beast

Refining the drum track

Let's say I have a project, built by a template that follows my work flow, a tempo for my project, a timeline with markers indicating the various points and movements of my song, a scratch guitar track, and scratch vocals. 

Often, it's easier for me to get a good run through on guitars if the click track I am playing to isn't actually a click track at all. Instead of a lifeless robotic click noise denoting the downbeat, I'll replace it with a Battery drum track that drops a kick drum on the down beat. It gives my playing a nice little backbeat to play along with.


Sometimes I already have a good indication in my head as to the basic beat of the song. At this early stage it's about getting the general idea down enough to allow me to continue forward, but not getting bogged down in the details. And I almost always find programming drums to be easier done with live performance as opposed to straight up MIDI note editing.

...which is kind of odd when I consider the years I spent programming house music under the Raygun moniker. Almost every note in that project is created manually editing MIDI piano rolls as opposed to live rhythm performance. It's simply a different approach lending itself to a different sound. House music is by nature electronic and very robotic, so having a human feel can actually be frowned upon. Not in every case, but non-quantized beats can be tough for a DJ to manage during a live set, so it's definitely a consideration that is followed rather closely.

The music I produce as Yellowgold is always far more organic... at least it is in my head. The problem is always the simple fact that A, I am not a drummer.... and B, I don't have a drum set to try to become one. I'd certainly love to be able to do it, but from a space and noise perspective, it's simply not that possible.

So my approach with MIDI drum programming usually follows like so:

1. Click track or very basic 2-4 bar loop of programmed drums. As simple as a kick snare combo with some super light hi hats. I don't want the drums to be too detailed at this early stage, I merely want a backbeat that I can groove to while I play. If I create something too creative, I might end up accenting certain parts of the beat that might clash with the other elements I have in mind that hit the track at a later stage.

2. Once I have this, lay down my scratch tracks that give the track a beginning-to-end structure, the skeleton for my entire song.

3. Once I have a sense of the twists and turns, some fills and a more detailed drum sound start to take shape in my mind. Certain parts seem ripe for a particular tom fill. Suddenly crashes on particular downbeats feel appropriate. Once I have an idea for all of these things, I'll create an entirely new region for Battery and start to perform the foundation, live, with the Keystation Pro-88. I've gotten pretty used to the key mapping for drums on the keyboard, so its become much easier for me to play the kit freestyle.

The thing to realize here is I don't expect this pass to be 100% perfect through to the end of the song. I am hoping to nail, with little need for quantization if possible, the feel of the song for around 16 bars, 32 would be great. I want a long enough block of solid drums  that I can feel comfortable copying that throughout the rest of the track as need be, once I've done what's next.

4. When I have that solid block, I treat the notes, sometimes on an individual basis, with select quantization. I don't blanket quantize unless I'm lazy. (Hey, sometimes it happens.) And quite honestly, the material doesn't always NEED that kind of attention. But I find that it feels alive if you treat it with more precise attention than it does if you throw a straight up 8th or 16th note quantize onto the whole block of drums.  I almost always quantize the downbeat kicks strictly, so the downbeat is always dead on. I usually quantize the hi-hats with a light randomization (somewhere in the 6-8% range) so they don't sound too robotic. Snares usually hit very close to down beat, though I might randomize those around 2-4%. I also take a lot of time refining the velocity of these hits... particularly in the hi-hat line. When hi-hats hit as frequently as they can during a drum session, having them all hitting at the same or nearly the same velocity is a surefire way to spot MIDI drums, so I really try to take some time getting those sounding as natural as possible.

I'm exhausted typing this cause I realize how much time I spend on these things and yes, it's tiring. It's by no means my favorite part of the process, but I feel its essential to producing the kind of sound that I'm looking for. It would be way easier to just do blanket quantization and be done with it, but I'd hear the robotic nature of those drums every time I heard that track and it would eat me up inside.

Up next: What do you do when you've recorded an acoustic guitar as your very first track in a project, to no click track, then later decided you want to make that un-timed track the foundation of a production complete with drums and everything else? I did that for Heavy Bones, and I'll share with you what I did.

Finding that "ah-ha" moment

Sometimes, I have an idea for a song that sounds great in my head. And dammit, if I could just get it to sound that way in Pro Tools, I know I'd be on to something. But try as I might, it never quite matches that vision in my head.

After working on Scan Lines from the upcoming album for nearly two weeks, I hit a point where, though it sounded close to what I envisioned, it still felt like it was missing something to really get me excited about it. I had completed recutting the vocal layers for a third time (13 layers each time) to try and make it all gel together the way I envisioned. I was stumped, and starting to really get down on the song. I'd heard it way too many times at this point and was looking for a new addition to re-spark my interest.

Sometimes, when I'm in this point, I simply create a few new blank audio tracks, hit record and start to freestyle new vocal layers without much thought. I did this with the track, and sure enough, I stumbled across an addition to the chorus that got my heart beating again. It was an ah-ha moment, and something that I was hoping to find.

A few more rehearsals and revisions on that newly created part and I had nailed down what ended up being a key signature to the chorus. What's funny is before that freestyling, I thought I had the signature of the song nailed. But this new inclusion that practically came out of nowhere took the reigns and gave me new vision and inspiration for completing the track. I've since revised the vocals nearly 7 different times and have finally landed on a final version of the track that I can be proud of. Needless to say, I've spent more time on this track than any other on the album, and I simply wasn't ok with letting it die after all that hard work.

Another track from the new album that encountered this resurgent ah-ha moment is Fade Away, my attempt to take a song I wrote nearly 20 years go and make it more current. The risk you take when doing something like this is that, quite simply, you've heard the song a million times over in that old style, and trying to give it new life has you at odds with the fact that the song already has a form that is engrained in your brain. It's so hard to hear a track like that through new ears.

I initially recorded the track with vocal harmonies almost identical to what I had done years before. Given that I now have practically infinite track count versus my trusty four track back in the day, I was able to pile on a few extra harmonies that I had always envisioned in my head over the years. But it simply wasn't enough. The song felt stale to me. Too familiar.

I went back and forth on if the track would even make the album, until one day I had the sense to scrap the vocals and force myself to track them with a different approach. Scrapping the old and forcing something different was just the fire it needed and it took me down a two hour road of rediscovery. I've said it before on this blog. No one idea is sacred and they can ALL be rethought.

I find it's those kinds of ah-ha moments that keep me passionate about producing and recording music. If I'm not excited about where I'm going with a track... if it isn't making my heart race while I work on new ideas for the song... if I'm bored with the track even as I'm writing it, then I'm just not having fun. The quality of the track is assured to suffer as a result.

Ah-ha moments are the kinds of things that can't be forced. And this certainly isn't the only way that they happen. But sometimes, doing something completely unconventional can be a window to something inspiring.

Oblique Strategies

You've probably heard of Oblique Strategies? It's a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt that act as inspiration queues or game changers for your production. Actually, they work for anything creative but were initially created with the recording process in mind. If you get stuck, or run out of ideas, you pull a card from the deck and it poses a rather open ended idea or question for you to answer within your production. Things like "What to increase? What to reduce?" or "Only one element of each kind."

Tools like this force you to evaluate your production through different eyes, and change your normal course of work. That unexpected thought might actually be the defining element your song needs. You simply never know. And that's the beauty of it.

By the way, here's a web version of Oblique Strategies. Or you can download Oblique Strategies for your phone (Android  & iOS)

Finding time to write music

I'll tell you one thing. Being an independent musician with a few other significant full time jobs (father, husband, podcast producer), finding time to sit down and focus on writing music can be a big BIG challenge. I'm certain you know what I'm talking about.

When I've gone too long, it becomes that thing that I have to do, and not necessarily in a good way. "I must sit down and try to work on new music tonight, cause I haven't for so long, I'm afraid I might not know how to do it anymore. And if music is so important to me, then it should be easy, right?"

My experience has told me that writing because I feel like I have to is a recipe for certain disaster. It's like taking that thing you love, and setting a 200lb weight on the top of it, saying "ok, lift for two hours. Go." Doesn't sound like much fun. And creativity is rarely sparked by rules and schedules. You either have something, or you don't. Or you don't, but your mindset is such that you're into the thought of experimentation until you DO in fact have something. In other words, you don't, but you know how to get there.

When I embark on a new album, I consider it a project with an end point. I don't look at it as "oh, I'll wait until the new year and then start a diet and see how it goes" or "I'll quit smoking next week.... Or maybe the week after that, cause I'm going to the bar next weekend." 

If I'm writing material for an album, I've made a decision that the next X amount of time will be full of a lot of time spent doing the things I normally do (father, husband, job), as well as SOMEHOW making time to write, and staying devoted with that effort. Life can get crazy, but if you let yourself slide, who knows when or if anything you write will even see the light of day.

So, I set a goal. I might not know the date on a calendar when this album will see its release, but I know roughly a time at which I'd like to see it happen. Six months from now? A year from now? Doesn't really matter what I pick as long as it's realistic. Make it too short and you set yourself up for certain disaster. And in light of my other jobs in life, I still have to actually find the time in my schedule to allow all of this creative stuff to happen. Nothing wrong with setting a date far out in advance, and then finishing before then.

This next part is what makes setting a lofty goal like this a possibility with everything else I have going on in my life:

Evaluate the times during which you are alone, and the times during which you are in a house full of people. This can guide you in how you plan your sessions. Here's what I mean.

Alone time is tracking time. If I have a song with lyrics that I've finished, and a scratch track foundation for the song in Pro Tools, and I know that Wednesday afternoon from 3-5pm, I'm home alone before my family arrives, this is perfect tracking time. So I set it. And that's all I do during that time, unless I'm incredibly efficient and am suddenly left with extra time to devote to something else. But basically, if it's time by myself at home in the studio, it's the time I get to do the really loud things that are sure to disrupt the other bodies in the house. Or maybe they aren't disrupt-able, necessarily, and don't care when you turn your guitar amp up to 11 to get that nice feedback effect in the song your working on. It's still a distraction to me to think about anyone else around when I'm doing loud things. I consider this the time I do things like track vocals (lot's of layers and multiple takes of each), amped and acoustic guitar, live percussion, and much later in the process, mixing.

Occupied time is editing time. About 3-4 nights a week, I work in my studio from 9-Midnight, late hours that don't constitute my ability to scream a layer of vocals, or record that acoustic guitar track. This time is purely dedicated to arrangement, refinement of already tracked elements (like with vocals, I do a lot of alignment during this time), synth parts, and pretty much anything programmed like drums. All of that can take place without compromise inside headphone land.

Now, if I've played my cards right, I've tracked to my hearts content during those two hours in the afternoon, more than I actually need. (Hence why I recommend you track every vocal part 2-3 times and keep all of those takes) Then, when I get to my evening session, I have an overabundance of options for each part to pick from, based on whatever it is I'm working through. I don't want to think "dang, I didn't get this part today" and then have to wait until my next open slot during the day time to record it. I mean, I will if I have to, but I'm an instant gratification kinda guy. So I want those parts there when I've blocked out time for editing them.

It's all about plotting your open time efficiently to the material you are working with. Boy, this sounds like something you should keep track of to make sure you have stuff to do when you've blocked time for it! Let's talk about that next.

Filling out the track and protecting yourself

At this point, I've spent a lot of time churning an idea through my head, I've created a project from a template that keeps everything organized, and I've laid down some basic scratch tracks and added markers denoting the various movements of my song.

From this point on, I rarely follow one distinct path to filling everything out. I simply follow my inspiration as to which parts speak to me at any given time. Am I particularly in the mood to lay down some guitar tracks? Do I feel like spending some time focused on adding variety and subtlety to the drum track? Should I play around with some keyboard or piano parts to see if something jumps out? Are my vocal chords feeling loose?

So in future posts, I'll try to focus on a piece of the puzzle, not necessarily intending for them to be done in any particular order. Before I do that, let's talk about how you fill out your track while ensuring you don't screw things up for yourself down the line.

First, backups. I have my Pro Tools projects set to backup every 5 minutes, keeping the last 99 backup saves. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've needed to go back in time to an old project for one reason or another. Sometimes you follow down a path of inspiration only to arrive at a dead end, and wish you could revert to an earlier state to restart again. Keeping old backups enables that. And besides, it happens in the background. Rarely are you even aware that it's happening, so WHY NOT. I keep the interval set at 5 minutes because then, at any point, if something really messes up, all I've lost is 5 minutes of my time. 10 minutes might be ok too, but depending on the work you lost within that 10 minutes, sometimes it can be quite disheartening to step backwards and recreate (or remember) all that you did during that time. So, activate backups NOW.

A small sample of Session File Backups

Enable Session File Auto Backup

Enable Session File Auto Backup

Options>Loop Record

Options>Loop Record

Playlists view

Playlists view

Next, something I use all the time when I record new parts is Loop Recording.  This allows me to highlight the section I'm currently working on, and loop it in record mode. Each time it loops back to the start of the loop during record, it creates a brand new region of recorded audio. So, for example, if you are having a hard time nailing that lead, you can highlight the section, activate loop recording, and repeat the part over and over and over again, recording your part until you get it right. Every pass has been saved as its own region.

If you then turn your track view into Playlist mode, you are shown the current active track at the top, and all of the alternate takes immediately below. With those alternate takes, you can solo them in order to play them in the context of your project, allowing you to pick the best take. Or, alternately, you can take the best parts of each take and comp together a perfect take with a combination of them all.

A comp track with multiple playlist takes below it

This is also incredibly handy if you only have certain times during which to record loud things, like your vocals, or amped guitar, or whatever. My time for recording these parts is very limited, so if I utilize loop recording during these stages, I have a wealth of backup recordings to lean on when I'm editing the projects during quiet times in the house. I don't find myself in a situation where an edit or alternate is needed, and my only recourse is to re-record it. I'm SOL in that case, unless I have a ton of backup takes which Loop Recording easily allows.

Organization and rediscovery

Before I dive into starting a new project by creating a session (in my case, using Pro Tools), I want to point out something that has become very important to a component of how I write.

Keep projects organized

First, organization is key. I have a hard drive named Projects and inside, folders for every year. I have folders dating back to 2006 and more unloaded onto backup media outside of my Mac Pro. In each folder, I name a particular project:

"mmddyy name of song"

Easy to find in chronological order. Even if I don't yet know the name of the song I'm about to create a project for, I'll grab some sort of characteristic of it or single word from the limited lyrics and name it that way for easy recall later.

I realize that the best way to name files chronologically is traditionally "yymmdd" so they always sort in order. I choose this different method because I don't want every single project I create to be chosen from one single directory. Too many to select from when I simply want to find something and move on. Instead I've opted for month folders, and within those, files named as I said above. That makes it easy for me to find projects fast without having to sift through EVERYTHING I've ever created. Which is a lot at this point. Just go to the year, and select from a smaller number.

Archiving my projects like this also affords me the ability to step into my little time machine and check out ideas from the past. Often, I do this to mine for old ideas that, though I may have liked where they were headed, either hit a stand still or got sidelined by the start of a new project.

One thing I've found is that, many times, an old idea might stop dead in its tracks and lose steam. For a number of reasons, I simply stop being inspired by an idea. Maybe I just kind of get tired of the idea, and can't muster up the excitement I once had for it. Maybe I've heard it one too many times during production that I simply can't think my way out of a corner. That might mean that I lose interest and move on to the next exciting idea.

But going back in time to some of those ideas later, and taking pieces from them to apply to new projects can be very refreshing. It's like a recycling bin for new material. Taking those pieces that still hold value and applying them to something new. Further, I sometimes go back to an old project and attempt to reinvigorate the idea entirely.

Yamaha MT120S 4-track recorder

Take, for example: "Living Life", a track on the upcoming album. It takes it's main guitar part and programmed drums from a song I had started to scratch out more than 10 years ago, way before I ever produced music on computers. I had a Yamaha MT120S 4-track tape recorder and consequently I have close to 25 cassette tapes filled with hours of recorded material. One track from that large library of material always seemed to have a certain vibe that I really liked, though I never considered it a complete work. Here is a clip from the original 4-track tape and warning, it was only ever a rough idea. Never fully fleshed out, so its pretty raw:

Now flash forward to 2009 when I decided to try and take a stab at recording that idea and turning it into a better sounding, better produced version of that old song.  Here's a clip:

No matter what I did, I just couldn't get the vibe quite right to what I had envisioned in my head. The guitars definitely worked, the drums were OK if not a bit boring, and the vocals just felt too drawn out and stale. It felt like I was trying too hard to make something work that just wasn't going to happen. There were things that I liked and things that I didn't. So I never completed the redux.

Flash forward to January 2013 when I was mining through old recordings and stumbled across that 2009 recording. I muted the vocals, and the guitars and drums immediately got my mind stirring. I had an idea for a revision to the drum part. But even better, I thought to scrap those old vocals entirely and start from scratch. This can be a bit of a challenge when a song has travelled with you for 10 years. It's very hard to hear something like that with different ears. You simply expect that its only life is THAT way.

But I hit record and started to freestyle vocal parts with nonsense lyrics. It all fell together and within five minutes, I had a brand new vocal approach. Within a half hour, the lyrics were written to accomodate. Just that change inspired a continuation of that song that I had practically written off entirely years before. It's almost like finally closing the chapter of a really long book. Here's a small unmastered clip from the track off the upcoming album:

Just that change in lyric and vocal approach completely kicked me back into gear on a project that's more than 10 years old. It's very rewarding.

No one idea is sacred. Stop. Rethink. Start again.

Writing with your dreams (part two)

The second time I wrote a song with my dreams happened a few months ago. And it was incredibly satisfying thanks to the complicated dream scenario. This one gets a little "Inception" so try to keep up.

Photo by  Allie Holzman

Photo by Allie Holzman

I had a dream that I was having a dream that I was playing my guitar for a group of people. It was a complete song, with verse, chorus and bridge all in tact. In retrospect, I'm surprised at how detailed the song was in a dream state. I was sitting with a guitar, playing a song where I was singing the words "Sexy, sexy bones." Yeah, I know, kinda weird. I'll get to that strange lyric in a bit. Hey it was a dream, ok?

After I played the song in what seemed to be its entirety, I then awoke from my dream within my dream. So I'm still asleep, mind you, but now, in my dream, I'm awake from the dream I just had playing guitar. In my dream, I now realize that I just had a lucid dream playing a song and I knew that all I wanted to do was get it recorded before I forgot it. So in this dream I left wherever I was at to head home as fast as I could, looking to get it recorded in any way possible. On the way, I passed person after person, each one slowing me down. Each one talking to me on my way, distracting me from my mission. The entire time, I had the song I'd heard within my dream within a dream looping in my head over and over and over again. I distinctly remember people approaching me, their lips moving and hearing only a faint voice coming from their mouths. Much louder was the song in my head, purposefully cranked up to drown them out. By god, they would NOT get me to lose a grip on this song!

In my dream I made it to the front door of my house, and bam. I stopped dreaming and started to actually awaken. But again, I realized very quickly what had just happened and, with that song still fresh in my mind, I lay in bed for nearly 30 minutes (or so, I think... it was quite a while but, of course, I never opened my eyes so who really knows.) I forced myself to stay in that hazy space as long as I could, letting the song and all of the details that I still recalled etch themselves in my brain and saturate.

I finally allowed myself to open my eyes. I walked to my studio, shut the door, picked up my electric guitar, hit record, and figured out the key. My electric guitar wasn't plugged in cause I didn't want to waste any time. I played what I had, which was a good amount. At one point, you hear my daughter enter the room but dammit, that didn't stop me from getting it all out there. 

Here's that recording:

First, the audio quality is pretty bad. That's thanks to Evernote, my personal note taking app of choice these days. This might be one of my few complaints I have of the service. I love the ease of use, but the quality is very low and I'm sure that's in an effort to allow you to throw more notes into their cloud storage without eating up space. But regardless, it always does the trick as my personal go-to notepad for ideas.

The thought was to get anything and everything associated with my fading memory of the dream out in recorded form before it disappeared completely. It's cool listening to this now, as the track is now already complete and I get a rear-view mirror perspective on what the track became, and where it started. Actually, the final version is pretty close to this bare bones approach. Though the chorus is changed and refined a bit in the final version for the album.  And I added a little instrumental part in the middle with some moody reverb soaked vocals for effect.

Now, the name. Sexy Bones. (sigh) I had a hard time with this one. Normally, I'd operate under the assumption that a song written in a dream is kind of a beacon, saying "this is what you should do, trust me." In this cause, that particular phrase was a little bit of a challenge for me.

Taking a step back a little bit: Lyrics are ALWAYS the hardest part for me when it comes to writing songs. I've never been too fond of writing lyrics, and often, in an effort to speed up the production of a song, I'll record myself playing the song multiple times as I play around with vocal harmonies and out of that ad lib approach, a theme or series of lyrics will appear that is good enough to use in the song. I'll form the song around one of those themes, and that at least gives me a direction where before, I had none lyrically.

I was fine with the idea of writing a song called Sexy Bones, but... what on earth does that mean? Am I writing a song about a necropheliac? No thank you. Maybe something more direct like a song about Karen Carpenter? That wouldn't have been too bad, actually, but what do I really have to say about her? Not a lot, so no. Maybe I was being too literal. So then, what's the abstract reference that a lyric or song title like Sexy Bones implies? Nothing was coming to me.

Ultimately, I looked at alternatives like Lazy Bones, and though I liked what it could be, I was still running a bit dry on lyrics to support that idea. Then I thought of Heavy Bones. Phonetically, heavy sounded close enough to sexy. And Heavy Bones seemed to instantly paint a picture in my mind that fit the sad tone of the music. And so it became Heavy Bones.

Photo by  Veronica Belmont

As for the song, after that initial idea was put to tape, I think the rest of the song wrote itself in recorded form over the course of the next four days. Piece by piece, layer by layer. I also took great care with the lyrics for that song as it ended up being about someone I used to work with at CNET, James Kim. He drove his family into the mountains of Oregon during a family trip, and the GPS got them lost so they found themselves stranded in the dead of winter. You can read about the harrowing story here. 

There's no denying that it's a sad song, befitting for such a tragic story. A man as respected and loved as James Kim deserves a song dedicated to him and his family. It makes it even more special to me to know that a dream inspired the foundation of the track.

I'm setting a lot up without actually giving you a listen to the final track, I realize that. But I suppose its something to anticipate when I release the new album in the coming months.

Next, I will show you some ways that you can take that idea floating around in your brain, and actually get it recorded. I'm not talking about making it a fully realized song quite yet, but taking that idea, and making a note of it so you never lose it again.