Touch My Booty

Pop songs that become hits and move millions of people are a miracle, even for singer as talented as Mariah Carey. It’s even more miraculous when a pop song that has had its way with the earholes of millions (and their money) not only makes it onto the playlist of a recovering jazzaholic like me, but then gets repeatment treatment. Mariah Carey has had an edge (curves, actually) in gaining access to both of my earholes since I was twelve years old, and saw her posing wearing a black mini dress all over Tower Records in Manhattan. So I have always hoped to hear a song good enough to justify getting that 12″ vinyl full of those pictures, or even just to sit through one of her videos with audio not muted.

Ultimately, it finally took a cover by a Japanese artist to take her music seriously. There’s nothing sexy about row of guys at a local bar complaining about their (ex)wives, so I was easily distracted from the conversation when I heard a girl sing, “Touch My Body/Throw me on the floor.”  Of course, I found the original first, and eventually paid crApple $2.50 for the single. Now I am not a man who can rest if he suspects that he’s just been the victim of a ear-fuck, so I started to use my musical training to speculate about how this song put me under its spell. Latent preteen lust for MC? Nah, bro…

Besides the lyrics which are impossible to ignore, I like the chord changes/voicings (G/E-A-Bm7-F#m7-Bm7). I like the space between the kick drum’s pulse and finger snaps and hand-claps instead of the usual snare sound. I like the simple chimes and strings ornamenting the arrangement. I like the clean and intimate production.  The melodic and harmonic content is so simple that it seems like a children’s song for adults, but that’s a particular asset in a pop song. The whole track is so accessible, and does nothing to distract from MC’s vocal technique and the sexuality she clearly articulates.

So I became curious about who could make such a minimalist masterpiece, and found a surprising amount of information and misinformation (chord changes) on Wikipedia about such a short and simple song. Writer credits show that it took no less than FOUR people to compose! My first guess was that each of them wrote a part for each octave in MC’s range, but after accepting that that joke was neither funny nor accurate, I started to draw a picture in my mind of what writer’s credit really means in a  recording environment. Wrote the chorus? Credit. Wrote a verse, or changed one word? Credit. Programmed the beat? Credit. Played keyboard parts critical to completing the arrangement? CREDIT, MUTHAFUCKA.

The old model of copywriting a song’s melody has been inadequate since sheet music stopped being the best medium for popular songs to reach the population. (That’s why we have now have bebop.) The people at the very highest levels of the music industry working with artists like Mariah Carey got where they are today at least partly due to big ambitions that include business savvy. So they must have realized now that ANYONE can be included in a writing credit, and are smart enough to demand it, even if they didn’t contribute to writing the melody. Hell, the melody is barely more than two notes.

No one in at that level of the music industry is getting screwed out of royalties for contributing some small but crucial  element of a song that makes it a hit. Drummer Ginger Baker, singer Clare Tory or arranger Johny Pate are just a few of the skilled artists who later had to sue in order to get their slice of cheddar from the hits they were literally instrumental in creating. The real content (and work) of the Touch My Body is the lyrics, the production and especially the singer’s improvising. I would like this song if almost any female vocalist had done it, but I probably wouldn’t have obsessed over it without MC’s riffing at the end.

After listening to the tune for fuckteenth time, I realized that have I always liked her singing on tunes like Dream Weaver, Emotions, All I Want for Christmas is You, and others. Not the track. Not the high notes. It’s the riffing (or melisma if you ain’t got soul.) That’s the same kind of shit I love to do with my own limited vocal and guitar skills to give it flavor. I believe that singing like that is a model for me to aspire, which in turn helps me to connect with people like the drunken old hipster, sweet Irishman, and curious 9-year old girl in Topper’s bar last night through music.


Parallels: It’s Not the Water that Kills You, It’s the Voltage.

My little Behringer XENYX 502 mixer surprised me last week: It passed an audio signal WITHOUT POWER!

Recently I decided to finally get a set of powered monitors after discovering the affordable Fostex Personal Monitor series. The white PM0.3 look like glorified PC speakers, but they fit perfectly on my shelf and are not over powered for my small space. They don’t have TRS inputs or a built-in power supply and heatsinks like the PM0.4s I initially spotted in a recycle (2nd hand) shop in Cheeba, but sound clear, balanced and hum-free driven by the Xenyx. What’s this have to do with passive mixing?

Having a pair of powered monitors seemed to finally fully actualize the function of this mixer that until now I’d mainly been using as a headphone amplifier. Now I can finally listen to records again while doing dishes and nap on the couch without cans pinching my ears or hair, or getting tangled up in the cable and yanking the mixer off the shelf and then breaking something. Best of all, I can plug in and power up much faster to jam with my music. They even did a good job monitoring the wet signal from my TC Electronic HOF Reverb in an LRC tri-amp setup with the Little Lanilei dry. What’s this got to do with electronics?

As a bonus, I discovered that they will also work just as well driven directly by the little Audio Technica AT-PEQ3 I got with my Technics 1200 from an old friend. This was a happy discovery resulting from a connection fail: I mistakenly plugged the output of the phono amp/eq into the main output of the mixer (next to channel 4/5 where it should have been). When I tried to adjust the levels and got no response. That got me thinking.

Then I noticed the blue LED was dim, yet didn’t assume it was broken because I heard the music coming out of the speakers clealy. Powering up the mixer stopped the music. However powering up requires me going across the hall into the bathroom to plug in my Furman power conditioner into the only grounded outlet in the apartment, normally reserved for the washing machine. So discovering that I could listen to music without this step was a joyful one.

According to the manual the main outs are in parallel with CD/TAPE which I have connected to the Fostex personal monitors. This means that they are directly hardwired together, and so actually completed the signal path between the audio source and the monitor inputs. So why did powering up STOP the music moving from one output to the other? Intuitively, I knew the answer. Academically, I think this fail helped me understand the difference between electrical voltage and current.

Electronics textbooks often compare voltage to water pressure. Maybe because of this, I pay attention when playing with water. For example, I was playing in the park with my kids over the weekend, and came across a water fountain/faucet. Our thermos was empty, so I tried to fill it up but the lower faucet (pointing to the ground/earth*) wasn’t working. Not to be denied, I put the thermos over the fountain, and tried to fill it upside down, figuring the water pressure coming out of the spout would be enough to fill it up. We’ve all seen this in a plastic water bottle somewhere. This didn’t happen though, and water started spraying everywhere but inside the thermos. Some water did make it into the narrow thermos, maybe about a 1/4 of its volume. Unfortunately this was just enough to stop anymore from getting in because the pressure from weight of the water inside was greater than the projectile force of the water coming out of the tiny hole.

This is exactly what I imagined was happening with my mixer. The AT PEQ is designed to put out a strong enough signal to drive powered power speakers, same as the mixer. So even if there are any other solid state components connected in parallel to the outputs, the load is not enough to impede the line-level signal. However powering up the mixer from the washing machine outlet in the bathroom, stronger voltages must now be present in the circuit which resist the audio signal (voltage) from the turntable preamp. The components in the (probably resistors) are designed so that the signal flows only one way: OUT. So in conclusion, solid state components like resistors, diodes and transistors can stop the flow signals, but so can other electrons with a more voltage flowing in the opposite direction or polarity.

I’ve been trying to get my head around electronics for three decades, but haven’t learnt much from textbooks because I don’t get dirty and dangerous experimenting. It’s just the fear of ruining something or hurting myself or just wasting time with things I don’t really understand, which is a stupid shame because this is really the only way I can learn how this stuff works.

Vegas Hot Dogs (produced by Pizza-La)

Vegas Hot Dogs (produced by Pizza-La)

Next time I’m in Akihabara, it’s hotdogs and french fries instead of the usual kebab.

Permission to Express Myself Granted

Green Eggs & Ham is my favorite Dr. Seuss book (because The Lorax ends on such a downer). Each time I try to read it a little differently, the same as I would approach music. That doesn’t mean I change the words, though. Maybe I’ll repeat a phrase or two, which is ok because a lot of phrases get repeated in that book, and that’s the writer’s intention. Occasionally I’m tempted to add a word or two, but I don’t  because the vocabulary is intentionally limited. That leaves me with tone, pitch, rhythm, space and foley to improvise each time I read it. Sounds like music doesn’t, it? Those five elements actually a lot of offer a lot of room to express yourself.

But…how did I learn to use those elements to express myself? I didn’t. You don’t. You just do it. But…how do you know what to do, then?  I don’t know how to answer that, except to say that those questions are wrong questions for the answer I do have to give. I wasn’t taught to express myself. I was given permission to express myself, and at an early age. When I was in the 1st grade, I brought home a massive reading textbook every night for homework. One night, my Mom sat with me as I read aloud from the page. Suddenly she stopped me and said, “Stop reading like a machine. Read like you’re talking naturally. Make it interesting and exciting.”

That was all I needed to hear to start reading expressively, taking my pitch up and down, adding dramatic pauses, altering the tone of my voice. I had always been a noisy and talkative kid so you could say it came naturally to me, but LOTS of little kids are talkative. Humans, even the shy ones, are expressive creatures from the time we’re born. That’s what all the crying is about. However, we’re usually given incentives NOT to use the first means of expression we have available to us. 

The same goes for music. All kids will start making a noise which is pleasing to them the first time they touch a musical instrument. Then someone tells them to stop making noise, and start reading what’s on the page. Only after we can do that do we start receiving instructions on how to express ourselves. How terribly backward, inefficient, tyrannical and sterile that is. When I was 11-years old, I got my first electric guitar. That week, my teacher told me to take a solo over a 12-bar blues in A.

At that moment, I was confused. I didn’t think I could do it without extensive study of technique, harmony, rhythm, etc. But my teacher was saying I could. Less than a minute later, I was improvising for the first time using the technique (string bends), melodic (A-minor pentatonic!) and and rhythmic devices (syncopation) I had inside me, and even more which I didn’t realize I had. What changed in that minute? My teacher had told me, “Use the pentatonic scale (a 5-note scale) to play a guitar solo.”

“You mean I can use it and just play my own thing?”, I confirmed. For weeks leading up to that moment, I had been practiced that scale up and down the neck until I fell a sleep, never having any idea what powerful tool I had in my hands.  Another six years passed, and I was playing in my school jazz band, a combo of NYU students, a party cover band, and alternative/grunge band with classmates. At one especially productive rehearsal in my friend’s basement, the alternative/grunge band wrote two brand new songs consecutively. The singer said to me, “Wow! You’re just pulling them out of your ass today.”

That comment sounded cool at that moment, but something about the image of what he said caused some cognitive dissonance in me. First of all, the title he gave the new song was, “Ejaculation.” Second, the guitar riff and chords changes didn’t come from my any part of my digestive tract. It was already there in musical energy flowing through us and around us. I just gave it permission to use my guitar/amp as a channel to be heard. Anyone can do this. Other people occasionally tell me I am a creative person without using my anal cavity as a waypoint. I tell them that all people can be creative…if they can get permission. 

False Memories – False Music – False Facsism

False memories of music start to playback in my mind after I’ve been working on a particular piece of music for a long time. After hearing it over and over again, it starts to sound slow, monotonous, square…retarted, even. It’s as if I’m hearing my favourite song on a walkman with dying batteries as while starting to fade into unconsciousness during a bad acid trip. (And no, I’ve never actually had this exact experience. Have you?)

Until last night I simply interpreted these false music memories as a warning sign to move on and find new music to enjoy. However, last night as I stood in the shower waiting the full five minutes recommended by the Body Shop for their hair treatment to take effect on my unruly curls, a different realisation appeared a few centimetres below somewhere inside my cerebrum. What if this were more than a warning, but an defence mechanism against brainwashing? In other words, the false music memories are actually false music rendered harmless by heuristic antibodies.

What I am really trying to say with those $100/hour words is  simply that I am in the habit of being wary of the difference between music that is familiar and that I genuinely enjoy. I savour the latter so much that I avoid repeated listening to preserve the magic of music I love, like Stevie Wonder’s Innervsions album. Unfortunately, an occupational hazard of being a musician is the having to listen and/or perform a piece a sickening amount of times for the sake of transcription and study. This is exactly what I was doing before last night’s shower and hair treatment.

What I think my mind is really doing, is isolating the emotional content from the more tangible linguistic and academic elements. Even a jingle made for soda commercial has some emotional content which makes it appealing to the listener. However that comes from the creator’s love for their work, rather than the the contractor’s love of sugar-water profits. Once I asked a  session musician friend how he could tolerate having to play terrible music devoid of any integrity?

His answer was that his sincere performance as a musician would gives it the integrity missing in the concept, if only just a little bit. So while the performance contains sincere emotional content, the actually message in the musical concept is something entirely different. Obviously, in the case of a soda jingle, the message is, “Buy THIS soda!” Repeating this message as often as possible is a crude attempt at mind control. Hence, my mind is rejecting the music because of the intrusive nature of the message, and process is to strip the message of emotional power of the music. That’s why I seldom drink soda pop, and then only Pepsi. (Better taste, better logo, better commercials.)

I’ve always been paranoid about some cabal of DJs and record producers crafting the music they think everyone should like, and then conspiring to saturate the media with it until enough people buy it to recover their investment. As a fiercely individualistic individual who rarely tolerates sameness, it makes sense that my mind would have defences against similar attempts at such behaviour programming by the free market, government, school or even my own workplace. It’s so extreme that I even question whether this compulsive rejection itself is not the effect of some liberal education I’ve received from watching so much PBS.

Case-in-point, the tune I was working on last night was an arrangement of the old pinball number count from Sesame Street for my band. The objective of this song’s non-musical content is teaching kids (like mine) to count to twelve. After hearing it maybe hundreds of times in my life; first on channel 13 as a kid, then on Youtube, my iPod, my sheet music software’s GM sounds, and played on my own guitar/bass; my own version of the song in progress my old TiPBG4 has passed the repetition threshold. My mind’s response is to conjure Patrick Stewart, commanding, “Halt! Come ye no further! You’re educational message shall not penetrate the sacred inner sanctum of Adam’s mind!”

Captain Picard then sets phasers to stun and bathes the mnemonic sound analogues in pure energy, rendering them an impotent stream of integers. This time, the reaction is in error, though. I can already count to twelve. I embrace the message of educational content,  and this song has already penetrated the inner sanctum (the soul) long ago…aeons ago…from the beginning of time even because music is timeless. The music that moves us is merely a code releasing something trapped inside us that has existed from the beginning of creation so it can reconnect with its source. Every time I hear this song, and think about the people who made it (including the creators of Sesame Street who contracted them), I marvel at the creativity. The results of their efforts probably totally surpassed everyone’s expectations for what was supposed to be a little ditty for teaching kids to count.

Another Soul Funk Session

Two soul/funk sessions in a week reinforced why I don’t like jam session anymore. There was plenty to compare for both sessions, but little to contrast. The cost was about the same. The access was about the same. The level of the players was about the same, and that is very good but also very redundant. Three of the seven guitarists could probably outplay me. I’d recommend them for a professional gig before I’d recommend myself, but they all sounded just like each other. They all even played strats. Two more were trying to play outside their genre of specialisation, but very nice guys. One of them played a strat. One more kid played a nice bossa nova on a strat, but missed the ending. So I was glad I brought my modded GB-10 instead of my G&L. All strat players were a bit envious of the fat and round tones I got out of those little practice amps. 

This time, I brought charts I made for my old band. The one of the session hosts saw my charts, and offered to take them to the convenience store to make copies for everyone for which I was very grateful. Of the five or so tunes, he chose Valdez in the Country. It went ok until the other guitarist (another session host) started to play a strange vamp to end the song. Was he playing the George Benson version? Eventually I got his attention, and shook my head. That didn’t stop him, but my cutting did. When the drummer stopped, I simply played louder and stronger, thus turning the ending into a break, and we vamped out over the correct changes. So twice this week, a tune I called was derailed by a house band musician who should have some idea about how a classic tune from the soul/funk/R&B cannon of the 70s should sound, but didn’t.

The sax player on the stand asked me about my chart afterwards, so I gave him a copy. Meanwhile, the little guitarist on the stand stayed behind to tell everyone how to play the next song. Spending as much time as he did explaining how to play a tune almost seems like a necessary evil, but not not really in the spirit of a jam session. But then again, these aren’t really jam session — not in a classic sense, anyway. These are close to the college clubs/circles at a Japanese university, which makes sense since most of the participants are students, and that also explains why they’re so good, yet so clueless about fundamentals like dynamics, space and listening. For example, there was a great singer named Minori, but you couldn’t hear her tribute to Alicia Keys because the kid playing alto was playing over her. I told the session host about the mic volume, but he did nothing. So I did something.

Besides Minori, there were some really good piano players and bassists. I hit it off  with one of them who is closer to me age, speaks fluent English, and has some mutual friends. On the stand, he started to play Chameleon, so I showed him my chart for the second part of that tune, of which I’m very proud of my transcription.  He asked to see the other charts my little folder of charts, and recognised some of the tunes like In My Wildest Dreams and Lady Day & John Coltrane. So he gave me his business card, and agreed to playing a gig this spring/summer, though he might have just been trying to get rid of me. I’ll probably go back to both sessions, but I really need to get my shit together, starting with really learning how to play The Chicken. The reason Valdez survived running aground is because I can play the tune in my sleep…almost. Still room for improvement!

Mo’ Betta Wanking

The urge to do some serious wanking on my G&L Legacy has raised the age-old problem of keeping the guitar in tune, specifically the low-E and G-strings, without resorting to a locking nut. Here’s a list of possible modifications I’m considering, and will post about in the future:

  1. String-windings: Not what most usually comes to mind when you say “modification” but the strings are actually the most important component(s) of the guitar. Before I invest any money into the parts below, I’m going to use my cutter, string-winder and collection of old strings to see if the number of windings around the tuning post has any affect on tuning stability. It occurred to me that I’m wrapping it too many times, resulting in a sharp angle across the nut, OR perhaps I’m not wrapping it enough. To quote Vernon Reid, “Guitars are funny beasts,” so instead of following any one repair guy’s advice, I just have to see what works with my somewhat unique setup.
  2. Tremolo Springs: To improve tuning stability, I wanted to add another spring or two. However one of the unique things about G&L guitars is the tremolo claw which only has hooks for three springs. (see photo below) The spacing between the holes for the mounting screws is only about 27 millimeters which make it impossible to replace it with standard OEM strat parts without drilling new holes. F’K that…I found something called Gotoh Power Springs which are thicker and should provide more tension. They’re only about $7 so I went ahead and ordered a set of three.
  3. Teflon tape trick: According to the G&L discussion page, wrapping the bridge studs with teflon tape improves tuning stability. If you don’t know what this is (like I didn’t), it looks like plumbers probably use this to wrap metal pipe joints so the don’t leak, so I’m going to take a trip to my local hardware store. I wonder how this will affect tone and sustain, though?
  4. New nut: Replacing the stock plastic nut is something I’ve been considering since before I even bought the guitar 20 years ago, but every repair guy has talked me out of it. I’ve since had it replaced and slotted with a new plastic nut by a professional, so I don’t think this is going to make much difference in terms of tuning stability, but it might improve the tone of the upper strings. Graphtech TUSQ nuts with pre-cut slots is a cheap mod I might even be able to do myself, though it could make things worse. G&L is putting bone nuts on their guitars now, so it’s probably worth it to have it cut by a pro.
  5. Schaller Locking Tuners: These are offered as an upgrade by G&L, and will probably do more to improve stability than any of the mods above, so it should be my first mod, but a set of these is about $100, and the G&L compatible type (M6 6-inline Left Pin) is not easy to find here in Japan.Image