Friday, February 16, 2007

Breathing and Support 2

As promised, here is my rap on breathing. If you think you know anything or If you have had lessons, step into the way-back machine and degauss your brain. Remember rule number two, It's always simpler than it seems. A good way to maintain a receptive state of mind is to assume that everything I have to say is the truth. The information can be filtered or rejected based on your own criteria at a later time.

Let's start with that misunderstood bugger, the diaphragm. If you could imagine your torso to be a bi-level apartment building, tenant A lives upstairs and tenant B lives downstairs. Your lungs are tenant A and your stomach is tenant B. The diaphragm is the structure that serves as A's floor and B's ceiling. I would define a diaphragm as a membrane that serves to separate or divide two areas. In the case of your torso, the chest cavity is separated from the abdominal cavity by the diaphragm.

Touch your diaphragm...move it, feel it, tell it to do something...breathe into it. You can't, can you. Your diaphragm responds to the needs of your body on an involuntary basis. That's why a statement like, "Breathe into/from your diaphragm" is an absurdity. If a teacher ever says those words to you, ask for an explanation. You'll very likely get something similar to an auto mechanic explaining how a faulty muffler has worn out your tires...double-talk!

However, you can and must have control over the actions of your diaphragm if you want to sing. So let's use another analogy to describe the mechanics of breathing. Think of a syringe. A syringe has an opening through which things can go in or out of the reservoir. The diaphragm of the syringe is inside, you can't touch it. in order to draw something into or push something out of the syringe, the diaphragm is controlled by pushing in or pulling out the plunger.

Let's define the parts of our syringe in terms of our body parts:

Syringe opening = mouth and nose

Syringe reservoir = lungs

Syringe diaphragm = your diaphragm

Syringe plunger = the Abdominal Muscles

AHA!! This is the key to the whole shootin' match. You cannot control the diaphragm directly, but you can control the actions of your diaphragm by training and controlling the muscles of the abdomen. In order to accomplish this, you must first pinpoint the proper muscle group and learn to exercise that group without introducing tension or strain to any other area of the instrument otherwise known as your body. The following exercise will seem very simple but try it. It won't take much time or thought, and it won't hurt.

1. Find an object that you can balance on your stomach. A phone book, dictionary or any large book will do.

2. Lie down on your back and put the object on your stomach at just about the belt line.

3. Exhale as fully as possible without collapsing your rib-cage. All of the movement should be south of the solar-plexus and will be visible by virtue of the book on your stomach.

4. Inhale slowly and deeply, again, without involving the rib-cage. Picture the book rising toward the ceiling.

5. Hold the breath and count to four out loud. This will prevent you from holding the air by closing the throat muscles.

Repeat the exercise ten times. Then think about the benefits. In a few short minutes, you have relaxed and cleared you head. You have oxygenated your body to a higher degree than usual. And by mentally getting out of the way, you have allowed your body to practice efficient breathing in a controlled manner. The more you do this very simple exercise, the more benefits you will discover, and the more you will want to repeat it. Be good to yourself. Give yourself five minutes in the morning and five at night.

I once sat in a backstage dressing room discussing singing with Gary Puckett and the late great Brook Benton. Brook passed in early 1988 so this was one of the last shows that he did. Gary had asked Brook what he does to warm up. You had to be there to appreciate the charm and simplicity of Brook's answer. He stood up, looked at Gary and said, "Well Gary, first I breathe in...(takes in a huge breath and holds it)...and then I breathe out ( exhales fully). I do a few of those and I'm pretty much good to go."

If it's good enough for Brook Benton, It's good enough for me. Breathe.

Breathing and Support

My years of teaching have lead me to arrive at a handful of what can be characterized as valid assumptions based on experience. At the top of my list of assumptions is that the most misunderstood area of singing technique involves breathing and support. I find this to be interesting because breathing is so basic to living. Everyone breathes. We start when we are born and keep it up until we die. We do it without thought or plan. And yet, for some unknown reason, the moment we begin to study singing, we get confused.

When I begin with a new student, I ask a few pertinent questions to find out what the student may or may not know. This gives me a better idea of how to best address the needs of the student. My first question is, "What do you know about breathing and support?" The answers vary to some degree but I have yet to start with a new student, no matter what their educational or performance level, who knows enough about anatomy to have a clear idea as to how we breath.

A new student recently answered my question by stating that he had been told that he was supposed to breathe into his diaphragm. I asked him if he knew where his diaphragm was or what it looked like. The answer consisted of a few "um"s, and some inaccurate pointing. This was someone who had studied for over six months with a "reputable" teacher. Both the teacher and the student had been breathing all their lives, and yet the subject of breathing had not been covered in depth during six months of lessons.

I don't think that this entry can possibly address the subject as effectively as can be done on a personal level. But I will try to lay a foundation that may be helpful. The first thing that must be addressed is the absolute need for a student of singing to have a basic knowledge of the anatomy and function of those body parts directly involved in the singing process. My job is to make this interesting and to help the student develop an appreciation for the subject. If a student isn't interested in how or why things work, I don't think that I can be of much help.

The next concept for the student to understand is what I call my second rule, "It's always simpler than it seems." Breathing for singing is just not that much different than breathing to stay alive. My students have ranged from the totally un-studied, to gold and platinum award winning recording artists. And in every case, taking a breath before singing an exercise usually involved some sort of process. The un-studied are easier to deal with because they have a relatively clean slate and a minimum of bad habits. The simple truth is that the whole thing is very uncomplicated.

In my next entry I will go into a bit of detail and discuss some of the exercises that may help to simplify the concept of breathing and support. Just don't hold your breath!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Having Fun With the Podxt

Well, I've been playing around with this Line6 Podxt for a bit and I have to say that the fun factor is looming large. I really love the sound of a good guitar and great amp so most of my tweaking has been in the way of pretending that the Pod is what the display says it is, and tweaking the knobs accordingly. Consequently, I have a few thoughts.

First off, there isn't a piece of gear that will make a crap guitar sound like Jimi Hendrix. And sadly, there are plenty of young players with crap guitars out there who are misleading themselves into thinking that the Pod, or something like it, will turn their crap guitar into something that it is not. Given the choice between spending my dollar on a Pod or a decent guitar, I would start with the guitar. I'm playing an Mark Knopfler signature Strat,, a masterbuilt '54 Strat and a Gibson ES 135 with killer pick-ups. For bass I usually play old Fenders. I know that what I'm putting into the Podxt is the right shit, so If the result is crap, I would know where the fault would be.

Attempting to compare the Podxt head to head with a vintage amp is Fruitless and doesn't serve any purpose that I can think of. The first thing that comes to mind is that if you have a vintage Vox AC30 to compare it with, throw the fucking Pod in the corner and rock the AC30 for chrissakes! No, the pod can't compare with the dynamic tactile sensation of standing face to face with a vintage half-stack or a pair of well-oiled SVT cabinets. But that isn't really the point, is it.

There is a huge difference between playing a gig that requires the pantleg-flapping, intense volume and sound pressure of a pair of Acoustic 360 bass rigs on the one hand, and a session where an accurate bass sound that sinks right down into the mix is what is needed. The first can be physically exciting although sonically inaccurate. The value is a matter of the moment. The second has to be right...forever. What the Podxt does for me is put a sound into my computer that gets pretty damned close to what an amp and a mic in a room would deliver to a recording console. It is, after all, a simulator.

But now, back to the fun factor. I have been very lucky. I have had my hands on a shit-load of great amps...and I mean GREAT amps. I know how they work and I know how to turn a knob ever so slightly to make a good Tweed Bassman sound amazing. I know that a Blackface Deluxe sounds different on the floor than it does on a chair. And I know that no two Vox AC 30s sound exactly alike although I have yet to hear one I didn't like. I love to tweak amp knobs to get that extra little magic.

And thats what I dig about the Podxt. If you know the amp that is being modeled, you can really have some fun. The Pod actually reacts to very subtle knob movements much like the amps we all worship. It also responds surprisingly well in two other areas that are difficult for many younger players to grasp. Many players step on some kind of pedal to play a solo without ever taking advantage of the controls on the guitar. I like to dial in a nice, aggressive sound and then roll back the guitar volume to clean up the sound. It just sounds more naturally dynamic and I think the guitar sounds better when you let it do some of the work.

The other thing that the Podxt does quite well for a simulator is respond to playing dynamics. A great amp will allow you to caress a gentle part and then jump on a chunky rhythm riff without any knob twisting. The Pod does a pretty good job of simulating these player controlled dynamics.

I'm having fun with this thing. It's different, that's for sure. But in a small room with a Mac and NHT powered monitors, getting a guitar sound could be a whole lot worse. Now if they could just make it smell like a '65 Twin...yeah, YOU know what I'm talking about.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

PreSonus Inspire GT

Let me just start by saying that I couldn't win a medal in the Special Olympics of Digital Recording. I've been an analog dog for my entire musical life. My experience with trouble-shooting has always consisted of following cables, shaking non-responsive units, tapping, hitting or throwing, re-seating connections and as a last resort, drinking huge amounts of coffee while a qualified tech fixes the combination of original and "Pete-induced" issues. I find the virtual world of technology daunting to say the very least.

Having recently begun to set up a home studio recording environment, I have inundated myself in literature, reviews and manuals concerning all aspects of hardware and software. I've found that trying to keep up with the incredible rate of updates can easily rob me of valuable creative time, so my efforts have been to research and make hardware decisions based primarily on two factors. First, How does a piece of gear SOUND?, and second, Will an Idiot like me be able to figure it out?

I have been fighting tooth and nail with a usb audio interface that shall remain nameless. For some reason, input/output assignments were difficult and the bus assignments just wouldn't line up the same way twice. I'm more that willing to concede that the technical issues rested squarely on my inept shoulders. But as to the sound quality, I was not happy. Therefore my criteria had not been met. It sounded bad, and an Idiot like me was not able to figure it out. What to do? I started by putting it back in the box. The second step will involve a Craig's list posting.

I work on a 24" intel iMac which has 3 usb ports. With one port for the computer keyboard, one for the Cubase key and one for a Radium keyboard, using a usb interface required plugging and unplugging usb wires. Using hubs and bluetooth devices had proven less than satisfactory in my experience at Shangri La, so I decided to try a firewire interface. What I wanted was a box with holes in it that I could stick wires into so the signal would get to where it belonged. I was looking for a knobless, idiot-proof piece that would get plugged in, put on the desk and do it's job without tapping me on the shoulder every five minutes with stupid questions like, "Where do you want me to send this guitar part?"

I found my solution in the PreSonus Inspire GT. This little baby is a five-and-a-half inch square with holes in it that fit the right wires. There are no knobs. I'm used to turning knobs on real gear and have always thought that the knobs on most home-recording devices felt like repairs waiting to happen so this feature of the Inspire GT was welcome by virtue of its absence. The simplicity of the physical design is very similar to the Mac Mini in that there is nothing outside the box that can get you into trouble.

The installation happened so effortlessly and was completed so quickly that I really don't remember what I did, if anything. Re-reading the manual, you simply connect to the computer via firewire, insert the driver cd, drag the icon to the hard drive, click, and the bugger shows up on the screen and ready for business! A quick look through the audio preference pane on the iMac showed that the Inspire GT had already checked in to the computer. Cubase set-up was equally as idiot proof.

I plugged the audio output of the Podxt into the Inspire GT, and after a few level tweaks, I was recording. Just as simple as that. My second requirement for gear had been met with flying colors...Yes, an idiot like me could figure it out.

As to my first requirement, how does it sound, I can only say this. Once I started to record, I never gave it another thought. I'm in the process of learning my recording/sequencing software and have enough to think about. With the other box, I found myself constantly distracted with sound issues. After working for about two hours, I realized that I hadn't thought about anything but the task at hand. The guitar sounded like a guitar and that was simply it. The Inspire GT took care of getting the guitar to the recorder and the sound to my powered speakers. I was free to get confused about all the other things that tend to confuse me, chief among them, why couldn't I hear my fucking click track?!

But that safari is for another day. In the meantime, I love this box. It has really cut down on my shoe-throwing.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Tech Support? We Don't Need No Stinking Tech Support!

Ah, another day spent trying to install Cubase 4 into my iMac...FUCK!!

I should add that I'm a total friggin' ineptasaurus as far as computer recording goes. The good news is that I figured it out and all's well at Studio Pete...for now. But if this were twenty years ago, the only sound my computer would be making right now would be crunching noises as the cars going by my building run over the chunks I hurled through the window.

My journey toward techno-enlightenment started less than three years ago when Guy Fletcher convinced me that the Mac was superior to a PC. I had someone show me how to turn it on and proceeded to bluff my way through the learning process over the course of time. To make a long story short, I'm all over it a point.

I recently decided that I would like to do some writing and recording at home so I invested in a 24" iMac and bought Cubase 4 which is a highly regarded sequencing and recording software program from Steinberg. I installed it without a hitch (I thought) and curled up with the tutorials. To get audio to the computer I used an M-audio Fast-track usb interface. I followed all of the instructions and set up my vst devices, made the appropriate buses, opened a new project in cubase, added an audio track, pushed record and...nothing, nada, nix.

The meter on the transport window was seeing the guitar signal but I couldn't hear it. Double checked my buses, inputs etc. Everything looked correct. Wait a minute! This is a new Intel Mac. Maybe the M-Audio driver wouldn't work with the mac. So I went to the M-audio website and learned that the unit should work with all OSX machines. There was a driver update but was only required to run Protools. Fuck it, I updated the driver anyway and voila! Now I could see and hear the signal. But I still wasn't getting the audio to the recording channel. Man, In the old days, you just started following cables til the problem presented itself. I had visions of the crew from "Fantastic Voyage" cruising through the routing system on my hard drive and searching out the problem on a molecular level. That not being an option, I had to think...and throw something relatively inexpensive across the room. Shoes are good as long as I don't hit anything...I wear 15s.

I decided that there had to be an issue with Cubase so I went to the Steinberg website. Nothing there but circles and I went around all of them. I did find an update to Cubase 4.0.some fucking shit so I downloaded it and installed it. When I chose my hard drive as the destination, I got the message that the was "no previous installation"...the shoe just missed the lamp. I closed everything, restarted and by a fluke, hit "apple i" as I clicked the application. Hmmm, I opened the ownership pane and for some reason, the "read and write" button wasn't active and there was no owner. I clicked on the owner button and a drop down menu displayed a list of weird names, none of which was mine. At the bottom, was the word "other." I clicked it and another menu displayed a longer list of coded names. Halfway down the list, there it was! The user name that I registered the product under. I clicked it and everything in the ownership pane became active. I plugged in, played and recorded actual music into Cubase!

Nowhere in the manual, the tutorials, the installation documents, the online forums...nowhere could I find the solution. It makes me feel really stupid to think that everyone using Cubase knew this but me. Well, fuck it, I know it now. Tech support? We don't need no stinking tech support!

I just need plenty of shoes.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Superbowl VII

The Superbowl...I remember when the Superbowl was a football game, a game played to decide the championship of the National Football League. But in recent years it has become a week-long media event complete with up-close and personal "news" features concerning personalities who may or may not have anything to do with football. The television audience for this year's edition of the event will probably be split evenly between real football fans and those of the gentler gender who will be breathing hard in anticipation of a Prince "wardrobe malfunction."

As for me, I've grown relatively weary of the circus that surrounds Superbowl week. Yes, there will be new commercials and yes, I'm sure that they will be witty and innovative. But I can't get too excited about new, witty and innovative ways to convince me to use the same crap in a new box. Think about it. The football game is the free toy in the box. The real deal is to get us all to think that we can't live without seeing all the new commercials. We will watch them and talk about them at work and school on Monday. And somewhere in the back of our pea-brains, we will remember which soda to buy on our next trip to the convenience store. Why? Because the ad-men not only got us to look at the shiny watch, they also made us look forward to the therapy as if it were something we couldn't live without. Can you say, "Baaa?"

The last time I got excited about a Superbowl game was a long time ago...Superbowl 7, or VII for my Roman readers. I was excited about that game for a few reasons. First off, Billy Kilmer, the washington quarterback, visited his old alma mater which was also the school I was attending at the time. He convinced us that the Redskins would beat the Dolphins with no difficulty, so I did the sensible thing and put down fifty bucks for the Redskins to win. It never dawned on me that Miami had just finished the first ever undefeated season in NFL history. DOLT!

My second reason to be excited about the game was that I was to sing back-up vocals during the halftime show behind Andy Williams. Originally, the scheduled entertainer was to be Sammy Davis Jr., but supposedly he bowed out in some form of protest. I don't know if he was protesting the war, civil rights policies or just the fee he was to receive, my guess is the latter. I was eagerly looking forward to being on the floor of the stadium for the halftime show because there were no seats available to the singers and we were simply to stay on the sidelines during the game. Personally, I didn't care if I was singing behind Mr. Ed. I was going to see, hear and smell this game at ground zero!

I actually had hopes of winning my bet up until the end of the third quarter. After that, I just hoped that Kilmer would be maimed everytime he touched the ball. Fifty bucks was a lot for me to lose then...bragging prick! I have to admit that halftime was a thrill. There were ninety thousand in the Coliseum and millions watching on television...watching the game, that is. Andy's voice at halftime wasn't nearly as loud as the flushing of toilets and the ordering of beer that rings through every self-respecting football stadium during intermission. And as for the people at home, If anyone can tell me what song Andy sang that day, well you can't, so I don't even have to think of a prize.

No, the real fun that day was the dress rehearsal. As a bit of background, I had discovered a strobe tuner in the band room at school some weeks before. I used to take it into a practice room and sing long falsetto notes while staring at the tuner, trying to line up the wheels. As a result, I had become proficient at making sounds that mimicked mid-range feed-back. The sound system at the coliseum was primitive by today's standards and I'm certain that no-one had bothered to address the time delay issue regarding amplification of singers in a cement bowl. If I remember, we sang into RCA ribbon mics which were fed into speaker cabinets that were placed around the perimeter and at the top of the stadium. Sound travels at about seven hundred feet per second so as a result, whatever we sang would come back to bite us in the ass and feed back into the open mics. When my mic was on, I would emit my falsetto "ooooooh" with no vibrato and the entire coliseum rang as if there were massive feedback. The sound techs scrambled to make the "feedback" go away. As soon as the mics were on again I repeated the prank and once again they would scramble. God, what a prick I was, and how much time I wasted. But the set up was never going to work anyway and was fun.

So this year, I intend to enjoy the game and I'll try to keep the manipulation of my buying habits under my own control. I'm sure that Prince will sound great at halftime, given the advances made in concert sound equipment over the years. But sometimes you just have more fun when you're dealt a shitty hand. Remember, " It is a poor craftsman who blames his tools."

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