“It’s a matter of perspective,”…..

…..Larry Coryell assures me as we discuss my ongoing challenge of self-producing my current recording project Balance. I essentially knew this, but it is re-assuring to hear it from someone of Larry’s stature. I have been fortunate to be able to run things past him over the years and push myself past sticking points with his encouragement.

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I have detailed aspects of this experience on blog postings previously — to update those of you who have followed me in this endeavor, I have most of the recording completed. My greatest obstacle is trusting what I hear — since I do perform as a solo guitarist frequently and I do improvise quite a lot with almost every piece of music I play, songs tend to change and evolve every couple of weeks. I will go back to review a version of a tune from perhaps three months ago and it’s different from the way I played it the night before. I have, somewhat foolishly, gone through the process of recording a new version and, in several instances, deleting the previous one. Of course, in a week or so I end up repeating the same process. At one point I had five versions of a certain piece and each one had a portion I really liked. It took gargantuan control not to begin the dreaded copy / cut / paste of segments and verses and solos (which I immersed myself in too easily for my first two releases) and end up re-titling the release Frankenstein’s Guitar. Digital editing allows me to skirt along the edge of the deep, dark ravine of recording perfection and just jump in with both feet. In fact, after listening to my first CD release Larry inquired how many tracks were first or second takes — I proudly told him how I disassembled and reassembled tracks and mixes. He said “I think you should trust your early takes from now on.” For me, that’s easier said than done……

Larry’s comment that opens this posting was in reply to my explaining my strange habit of disliking a take completely if I listen to it immediately after I record it. When it sits on the hard drive for a week or (ideally) more before I listen to it, all the sonic blemishes, misfired notes, risque ideas that I thought were there are gone. I am aware of this fact, but I still want to check things out immediately, give it a once-over…. at the conclusion of my recent recording sessions I immediately power off the TASCAM recorders and disconnect and put them away, even before breaking down the hardware. I manage to keep away from the files for at least a week before I sit down and begin mixing. To be honest, I do still have takes that don’t make it and after a pass or two I decide if it’s good and worth the next steps. I no longer paste bits and pieces of solos and intros from one take to another, though I do edit false starts and the occasional dead end I play myself into.

It seems Balance is more than just a sound recording — it’s been a growing experience for me, not only in terms of my technical skill in recording, but in my personal understanding of the creative process.  It’s worth the time it’s taking to complete.

I’ll have more soon.

Matt

Now I’m going to figure out what it is I do….

P1010183…and explain to other people. Actually, I’ve been considering how to do this for several months — explain how I create solo guitar arrangements so others can understand what I do.

Before you assume I am acting grandiose or ego-driven (and we have enough of that right now with a certain public figure), after many years of doing what I do, play music and devise ways to re-phrase and re-structure it so it has a unique identity yet remains reasonably musical, the whole process has become second-nature for me. The music theory and harmonic re-organizing are just things I do without consciously detailing the process — I realized I do it while I’m improvising in a live gig.

When I sat down to begin defining my approach, I became aware of the fact that the system that I use is flexible – I can begin with full concepts in some pieces, while other tunes require my going note-by-note and building from the ground up. I had to devise a logical system, a progressive path through the process. At the very least, I wanted in introduce a method that an intermediate player could connect with, that would allow him or her to develop the skills that I’ve been building (often unconsciously) for more than forty years.

Fortunately, I am musically cognizant of how things fit together — I can explain things at face value in clear theoretical terms (i.e., intervals, chord voicings, harmonic relationships, scales) that even some accomplished players aren’t comfortable with. (No names here….) I can also relate to a more guitaristic approach (two frets = 1 whole step, sharps go up the neck, etc.). So, with both aspects necessary to clearly explain things, I’m going forward with Arranging For Solo Guitar and making very sure my instructor’s approach adequately explains my musician’s approach to the topic.

My goal in teaching is for the student to, eventually, develop beyond the point of needing me. While I certainly value everything I’ve gained from my teachers (Tom Giacabetti, Larry Coryell, Steve Khan) and my musical inspiration (too many to list here), I always strove to take what they gave me, whether technical, theoretical or inspirational, and get it into my own playing ASAP. To be honest, it didn’t always work and when it did, it often took months / years. Sometimes, it appeared in my own music and I became aware of it after the fact. But that is how music / art / self-expression works and that’s what I hope to give to my students and my workshops attendees.

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I’ll be sharing more as things develop. Needless to say, I’m learning a lot about myself and even more about how I play music. In either case, that can’t be bad.

See you soon!

Matt

Now, about that CD project….

… which has practically become the stuff of urban legends. I half-expect to see non-reputable newsfeeds begin regular reports of CD box sightings in/around certain geographic areas. In an effort to de-fuse any such rumors, here’s the final version of the cover art:

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I do hope everyone realizes I am joking about the news reports. I am not quite that important in the eyes of the general public and, most certainly, won’t be engaging in Twitter battles with other music celebs (or with a certain presidential candidate…..).

Here’s the update on Balance:

The technical issues have been conquered. Early-on, I was encountering all sorts of electrical interference on the recorded tracks. During sound-checking everything would sound perfect – I’d doff the headphones (which I preferred not to wear while playing) and record for an hour or more. Upon reviewing the tracks afterward (days/weeks…. more about that later) I’d hear either news radio broadcasts or twinkly static that resembled electronic mosquitoes. In either case, filtering, which can eliminate power hum and the like, didn’t solve the problem – the noise was too loud and tweaking removed far too much guitar sound. The source of the interference was my electrical lines picking up the signals from no fewer than nine towers that stand within a half-mile radius of my home. I could a) re-wire my entire house; b) install a highly-insulated A/C circuit just for studio use; or c) get off the grid. The third option cost far less than the first two….. Of course, I utilize condenser mics which require phantom power and, essentially, need to be plugged in. It just so happened that TASCAM was offering a factory rebate on their DR-40 recorder – 4-track recording, battery-powered, with phantom power. The unit records 24bit/48K resolution and, as it happened, was on sale through an online retailer.Need I say more?

The new setup features four mics with the DR-40 with the option of a fifth with my DR-1. As I currently do not have a dedicated studio room where mics can be left in place, I face the issue of having the sound just a bit different for each session. A one-inch difference in mic placement can alter the bass response, affect the midrange…. when an A/B comparison is made between tracks you can hear subtle tonal contrasts. That’s not a bad thing, I’ve come to realize, as there is plenty of tonal variation possible with 4 or 5 mics. In fact, my original goal with the multi-mic setup was to capture as much sound and tonal character as possible then mix the signals to achieve the sound I want. I’ve always ascribed to the theory that having more sound/tone than you need allows you to remove what doesn’t work – if you come up short, tonally, adding/boosting frequencies usually yields lackluster results (at least for me).

The guitar takes a deserved break.

Thus far, I’ve refrained from doing a lot of plug-in processing other than compression/limiting. I want the natural sound of the LaPatrie guitar on the recording – it sounds great and the recording is, after all, a solo acoustic guitar album. I have been able to mix and position the individual mic tracks to create a full, rich sound that conveys the dynamics and the texture of the guitar. I do add reverb (Timeworks) and use Steinberg software for mastering – I do have a favorite reverb setting (which I do tweak for each track) but the mastering is accomplished on a  track-by-track basis. I look to fill the sound out just a  bit while getting the overall mix ‘tight’. I do leave a good deal of dynamic range in the finished product. Essentially, I want to like the sound.

Of course, first and foremost, the playing has to ‘cut it’. I have to like what I played and believe it’s a strong musical performance. This is where I must utilize the most challenging aspect of my recording process: patience. 

I will tell you all about that next time…..

Matt

 

I’ve Got This…

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On May 6th I performed a solo concert at the Dover Public Library in DE for their In Harmony series.

Now this is certainly nothing new – I’ve been featured in library settings and, in fact, I enjoy these performances as the audiences are attentive and open-minded when presented with music that is unique and not the usual fare. In this case, I encountered and managed to overcome bad weather, traffic and detours and play what turned out to be a very satisfying concert (for me and the listeners).

One of the aspects of performing that I have recently been highly focused upon is my determination to connect with listeners. I don’t mean engaging in silly antics or playing down to the audience – I want my music to convey my deepest feelings and touch everyone who is sitting there as I play. I may sound somewhat over the top with that statement, but as an instrumental artist this is something I consider to be an essential part of what I do. My mentor Daisaku Ikeda states “There is probably nothing that speaks as directly to the human heart as music…. It needs no words… Music has the power to cut across all barriers and make our hearts respond mutually to it.” I endeavor to apply this in every performance.

This particular date was a true test. As I inched through what was essentially an endless traffic jam from Philadelphia to Dover and found myself driving down the exit ramp to the library at the exact time I was supposed to be playing my first notes, I deepened my determination to make this situation work and turn poison into medicine.

As I entered the rather large performance space wearing my raincoat and wheeling an amplifier behind me, I heard “Alright everyone, Matt Richards is here! He made it!” and the sixty or so people sitting calmly in rows of chairs applauded. I had to hit the carpet running so I decided to forgo the soundcheck and meticulous setup that was originally planned and engage the audience in a light-hearted account of my traveling dilemma while I doffed the raincoat and quickly plugged in and powered up. Within five minutes I was seated and playing my first notes. I recall thinking, for just a moment, that this wasn’t the best way to begin a performance. Then I played three improvised notes, felt them resonate and began my first tune. While it sounds somewhat silly and cliched, I literally thought to myself “No worries – I got this!” and into the music I went.

My contact at Godin Guitars often says “It’s all good!” and, in fact, it was. I felt I accomplished exactly what I determined to do – engage the listeners and communicate my life through the music. The technical details weren’t an issue. The nerve-wracking drive was behind me. I felt exhilarated throughout the performance and had quite a number of people come up to me afterward to buy CDs, sign onto my emailing list and talk about the music.

Fortunately,the drive back was uneventful, though still a bit wet.  It took the normal 80 or so minutes, which seemed to go rather quickly. I was truly exhausted upon my return home, but felt I had not only performed well, but had proven to myself that my determination was important and valuable no matter what circumstances I faced.

The next day I received an email of appreciation from the librarian who coordinated the event. “Despite the stressful traveling conditions you proved yourself to be a true professional. Your performance was excellent and the audience loved you.”

It’s called Actual Proof.

See you soon.

Matt

When you have too many flavors…..

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This is most definitely a guitar geek posting

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A student recently asked why I have only two nylon strings on my LaPatrie classical guitar rather than the 3 nylon/ 3 metal setup common to most classical-style guitars. I explained that the flatwound metal G string affords better intonation on my guitar (which was explained to me by my repair-person Jack Romano and proved to be coorrect). Of course, in true guitar-geek fashion, I then explained that I also replace the remaining two nylon strings with ‘carbon’ trebles. By the time I revealed that last fact, she was deep in thought, examining her own classical guitar.

“Where can I tell my mother to get those strings?” she asked.

Of course, I then needed to explain how she didn’t really need to string her guitar in the same manner as I did because…….”Well….. your guitar doesn’t need to use these strings… it sounds really great as it is (despite the fact that it’s a $200 student model and mine isn’t)….. and…… the G string alone costs $8!

Of course, she listened and considered my explanation, finally nodding in agreement and continuing with her lesson. I later considered that exchange and also considered my obsession with trying different strings in different combinations. Had I fallen into the Baskin-Robbins syndrome, having too many ‘flavors’ when it came to string options and wanting to try them all?

Well…… of course, I never swapped out strings with my steel-string acoustic – it was a whole set and nothing less. But classical guitars have options….

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Okay – here’s the way things unfolded:

I acquired the LaPatrie classical more than 5 years ago as an interim instrument until the factory made more Multiacs. I needed it for a duo project with flutist Katherine Barbato. As it turns out, I never ordered the multiac and have adopted the LaPatrie as my primary solo guitar. When I first received it I wanted more treble punch than the standard sylon strings offered. I tried ‘titanium’ trebles (not actually metal, but composite of materials). They were more pronounced in volume and brighter in tone and worked great until one day I recorded with my TASCAM DR-1 and heard the brash twang (well, not exactly twanging-ly brash, but it seemed that way at the time). I switched back to standard nylons – the guitar was balanced and even (Lulo Reinhardt thought so, too) but I felt they still lacked something.

Carbon trebles came into my life and for about three years were perfect. (By the way, many classical strings are sold in separate treble and bass sets so it makes the obsessive selection much easier.) They suited my needs quite well until one day…………..

While reviewing tracks for my upcoming release Balance I kept hearing a thinness in the treble strings. From frets 7 through 11 the E string plinked and the B string did something similar (but slightly less). Jack recommended humidifying the guitar even though the weather had begun to warm. It worked… up to a point. Even though the resonance was back I still noticed thinness in those trebles. Then I did something daring….

I put standard nylon B and E strings on.

They sound and feel perfect! Warm and resonant, these were the strings that I had abandoned years ago.

Okay the question is: Did the guitar actually mature and change during the past five+ years and my swapping-out string types provided the best balance for a period of time? OR am I still a guitar geek and just delighted in being different and overly-detailed about my string selection?

I definitely pick the first option……. there was a difference and I have George Lowden on my side: “Matt, the guitars definitely open up as you play them. The tone changes as the sound goes through the wood.”

While I am pleased with the simplicity of ordering complete sets without the added cost of specialty trebles, I will stick with the flatwound metal G string. It does intonate better….. really…..

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I’m getting even better in the studio….

… and I am very pleased.

I have detailed some of the experiences I’ve had while recording (and in some cases attempting to record) my latest album project balance. While I have refined my setup and technical skills for recording, I actually took on the challenge to return to a previously recorded duo version of an original piece and track a new guitar part to replace the original one.

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My composition How Many Times Will We Say Goodbye? was featured in demos for a duo in which I performed with vocalist JayKatz . We had decided to work together several weeks beforehand and needed recorded music to demonstrate the music we were creating together. She and her husband had assembled a recording studio in their home (essentially a personal studio, suited for one or two people, maximum), and she was anxious to get some experience producing product.

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We recorded all of the tracks live, without overdubs. We went through a few tunes, staying at one or two takes each. Very simple approach, one track for her voice, one for the guitar. I then took the raw files and pulled them into my studio setup. My studio is physically wherever I set it up in my house.

We were both pleased with five of the tunes and I proceeded to mix and master the tracks. No overdubs — the take either worked or it didn’t. I did notice in several spots there was some extraneous noise, barely audible on most speakers I previewed on, but these were demos, not to be released for sale. (We did agree that for a release we’d do a completely different session.) I minimized the offending noise for the most part and produced a very professional master.

Recently, I have been submitting the song for repertoire consideration to a number of female vocalists — I considered the track to be fine sonically. However, I had minor issues with my playing and I had included a guitar solo on the original, of course, as it represented our duo. However, I considered the fact that it was the song that should be the focus of a submission, the lyrics, the melody, etc. and not the capability of the guitarist. I decided to edit the solo out and present only the structured part of the tune. When I returned to the track I immediately heard a scratchy presence that, though very subtle, drove me crazy. I pulled up the original takes and attempted to filter the track — no luck. I ended up with a massive impact on the track itself. So the next option: re-record the guitar track from scratch.

Easier said than done…. When two individuals perform as a duo and really connect there are natural tendencies to speed up and slow down. This isn’t a bad thing and it is part of the special magic that makes for fantastic performances and recordings. Here I was, attempting to go back and recreate the guitar part that fit together so beautifully, realizing that we were, indeed, altering tempo subtly in several spots.After two less-than-successful tries I decided to sit down with Jay’s solo vocal track and listen to and internalize the way things stretched or shrank, tempo-wise, and where the accents and musical interactions actually took place. I also wanted to use an acoustic guitar this time.

Third time was the charm! I focused entirely on her voice, her breathing, her phrasing, and got it right. To top it off, I used an AKG D8000M dynamic mic to record the guitar – I was picking up some sort of radio interference with the condenser mics. What a wide-open sound!

I did a bit of EQing and, of course, mixed and balanced things. I liked it. And here it is:

 

Playing live and recording…

…. are, from my perspective, very different situations that require somewhat different mindsets.

I’ve always been aware of this to some extent – however, while recording my upcoming release balance I seem to have gained a better grasp of this fact. Has it made this whole project go smoothly? The simple answer is no.

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Mock-up of the CD cover

I had the opportunity to perform regularly during the Summer of 2015, heading up my two series Solo Guitar on a Saturday Morning and Solo Guitar on a Sunday Morning. While I believe, without a doubt, that I qualify as a seasoned performer, the settings of both series afforded me the chance to work at delivering a quality performance in what many would consider less-than-desirable situations. These were both open-air markets with a broad range of attendees, from infants to seniors, who weren’t all attending to see/hear me. I made it a point on each and every date to zero in and perform at the highest level, even if the crowd was less than enthusiastic in response. I have always maintained that when quality music is performed with technical finesse and sincerity it will communicate no matter what. And, based on my experience, that assumption is correct. With my very first note I would strive to interact with the music, go deeply into whatever I was playing and mine the possibilities without worrying that it would be ‘beyond’ any listener. I gained new listeners and a sparkling reputation as a result.

Live at Ambler Farmers' Market

Ambler Farmers’ Market, Spring 2015

However, when I am sitting in my living room (which I’ve temporarily modified for recording), in front of several microphones with no external connections to the outside world, pushing the music the same way as I did on those early mornings yielded less-than-satisfactory results on the recordings. It’s a change in my attitude and focus that makes the difference between tracks that sound as if I wrestled the guitar to squeeze out something approaching music instead of engaging in the imaginative exploration of musical possibilities.

StudioToGo Early studio set-up

Let me be clear – I’m not pulling back in my efforts to create something highly musical and immediately unique. I’m still pushing into the song form, exploring ideas spontaneously. (I am not attempting to water-down the music to suit a market.) Things seem to work better and the resulting performance quality is satisfying to me – it communicates as well if not, in many cases, even better than the powerhouse approach that works in the great outdoors.

I still have the penchant to second-guess the results, especially if I listen to the tracks within 24 to 48 hours after recording. I want to fix everything -squeaks, finger noise, a buzzed note. This was the pitfall for my first two CD releases – I remixed and re-edited and cut and pasted well beyond what should have been done. Time and money were easily disposed of during the post-production. Then, after all that, when Larry Coryell listened to the first album he commented “You didn’t use many first or second takes did you?” Of course, I was proud of the countless hours spent in the studio to achieve the final product and I proudly told him “No – I did a lot of production afterward”. Then Larry says “In the future you should trust your early takes more and rely less on fixing it later.”

Larry’s words were on my mind throughout the recording process for balance. Especially with a solo guitar recording, tweaking the daylights out of the finished product literally tweaks the soul and substance out of it. There are small rough edges here and there, buzzes, scrapes, imperfect notes – but I’ve finally managed to step back and listen to the music I’ve created rather than the details inside it.

I feel better and the music sounds great.