Many good projects come from scratching your own itch. I like to track thing.
Over the past few years I’ve had on and off bursts of focus on practicing. Practicing guitar, drawing, chess, things like that. And I always find value in quantifying how often I’m practicing. I like to know how many hours per month, week, year, etc. I’ve spent on that skill. I feel like, as long as I’m practicing the right things, I can feel good about the progress if I can see a history of it. Plus wanting to see the numbers can help make sure I stick with things.
In the past I was just writing simple Markdown docs and then ran a small Sinatra app that pulled metadata out of that directory and gave me some historical stats. I called that system Input Coffee.
I figured I could automate things a bit more and build something a bit more reusable, so I decided to build a small command line based tracking app, Trackstar. I recognize that this type of interface only appeals to a very select group of people, but that group includes me, so I built it.
It’s a pretty simple idea. You use the trackstar -n program to create a log directory, then (when you’re in that directory) just use the trackstar command to make a new entry. It will prompt you for a few things; title, time, and some notes, then turn it into a Markdown file. You can get some basic stats by running trackstar -s (again, in the log directory).
It’s pretty bare bones right now and I’d like to iterate a bit on the interface (I do thing command line apps can have nice interfaces). I’d also like to do a lot more around the stats, maybe even pull in the Sinatra app/web based visualizations of the data to get a better history, we’ll see. For now it’s kind of fun to keep it as a purely terminal interface.
The whole thing is just built in Ruby and could probably stand to be optimized a bit, but it was fun to build a gem that was a pure executable thing, rather than a library. You can check out the code and full instructions for how to use it on the GitHub repo.
I’m currently dog fooding it by tracking my guitar practice. So far it’s working pretty well and I’m making tweaks as needed. If this scratches a specific itch you have, try it!
I wrote about some of the songwriting in this post but the recording process for this record was very different from anything else I’ve ever worked on. Since I was playing a lot of the instruments and we were never going to have everybody in the band all together at once it would be a really piecemeal process.
The Rhythm Section
First Dane did some rough recordings of his drum parts using the demos I had created. This let me do my recording over a live drummer rather than programmed drums from Logic Pro. This really helped me get a better feel for the songs and made things feel much more organic. While I was recording over new drum parts I built the “working” versions of the songs from copies of the demos, that way I could just swap out the demo parts for final parts rather than having to build the song again from scratch. It was pretty cool to hear the songs evolve just by swapping in better recordings one instrument at a time.
My first work was laying down guitars. I actually ended up using the same amp model I used in the demos for the clean track but did all of the heavy guitar parts through my Dual Rectifier miced with a SM-57. I ended up double tracking almost all of the rhythm guitar parts (both clean and heavy) and I was really happy with the thickness that gave me. Most of the miced recording was done in my bedroom (which is carpeted) with the amp facing a closet full of clothes. The tracks for Too Ghoul For School were done in the garage (mainly to make it easier to record while Elliot napped) and they ended up having a harsher sound.
The bass work was pretty straightforward. I bough a DI box and recorded all my bass parts through that. I did take my bass (and old Washburn) to get tuned up before I did any of the recording and it really made a big difference. The keyboard work was also pretty cut and dry. I actually used some of the demo keyboard work for the final version (the first arpeggiated organ chord in Grave Danger, for example!).
The horns were a little tricker. The horns in the demos were all done via keyboard and I needed to share the parts with the other horn players. For this I sat down with MuseScore (in awesome piece of free open source software fore creating sheet music) and transcribed all four horn parts. It was really cool to see the sheet music for my arrangements and I think it really helped Margret and Andy lay down the trombone and trumpet parts.
I was doing the tenor and bari sax parts, but I only owned a tenor (which I had bough earlier this year, specifically for this project) so I needed to track down a bari. This was actually harder than I expected. At one point I emailed a local high school band teacher to see if the school could loan me one. Ultimately I had to rent one from a music shop about an hour away. I only had it for a week and that was still pretty expensive.
I recorded the tenor and bari parts and then sent Margret and Andy a mix of the songs with only the rhthym section and my sax parts so that they could record their parts on top of that. Dane set up some mics in his basement and over a few weekends they got all three songs done. I think this was a very new experience for them and it was awesome to hear all four horn parts together on real instruments.
The Drums (for real this time)
After recording the horns, it was time to do the REAL drum parts. After considering a few options we ended up going to Justin at Waysound Studios for the drum tracking. I’ve worked with Justin on a lot of projects when I was in bands back in Chicago and he’s always fantastic. There’s actually a live recording of Dane tracking these songs, if you want to watch about 4 hours of drum recording!
The drums turned out fantastic and added so much depth to the songs. Now it was time to do vocals.
Vocals (and everything else)
Vocals were strange. I had an idea of how they should sort of sound in my head and I did the vocals on the demo, but I knew that Alan was the right person to sing for this record. The problem was that he was in Minnesota and I was in California and we were only communicating through email. He did some rough demos of the vocals and I sent some notes back and then he recorded the final versions. The vocals were by far the weirdest thing to do remotely.
I also wanted Josh and Chris to add harmonies so I just sent them a mix with Al’s vocals and let them just record a bunch of takes and send me whatever they had. I wanted to add a few background vocals parts, too so I set up a mic in the garage and layed down some of my own parts. I ultimately just picked a bunch of stuff that sounded good and pieced it all together.
While I was blindly working with the vocalists, Dane and Emily were recording Emily’s synth and organ parts. I didn’t have these in mind when I was arranging the songs, but there are some synth parts that now seem like they obviously needed to be part of this music. They ended up being great additions.
Finally, I wanted to get my family involved. First I had Eileen do some high harmonies and “oooo”s in Too Ghoul For School (which was ripe for vocal layering), then as I was mixing I heard Elliot repeating the work “ghoul” during the chorus, so I recording him and added his vocals into a few sections of Too Ghoul. It was really fun to be able to give him his first record credit before his second birthday.
Putting It All Together
Now I was sitting in front of three enormous Logic Pro projects with up to 60 tracks a piece. I was not remotely qualified to mix what would probably be a 9 or 10 piece band so again we turned to Justin at Waysound. After fooling around with some clever exporting techniques, I ended up just removing any EQ and effects from all the tracks and exporting them all to WAV files and then sending those over to him so he could work his magic.
The whole recording, mixing, and mastering process took almost a year (with my “solo” recording using up the bulk of that time) but we had a finished product before our self imposed deadline of Halloween.
Recording the record in this way had its advantages. I liked being able to work at my own pace and on my own schedule (which was really important with a kid). The process of migrating the demo into a final version piece by piece made it easier to work on my own, since I never had to bootstrap the songs from scratch.
It was really hard to work in isolation though. I’m used to being in the studio with other people who can provide feedback and keep me from getting in my own head about guitar tone. I missed the comradery of hanging out in the studio with friends. I augmented this by texting Dane a lot during the process. Technically, if I did this again, I’d be more diligent about making sure EVERYTHING lined up with a click track from day one. When pulling in parts from many different sources, having one source of truth for timing is really important.
I can’t overstate how much fun I had making these three goofy songs with a bunch of friends. Even though they’re ridiculous in subject, they really mean a lot to me and I loved the process working on them. I already have the seeds for several more Grave Danger songs and I’m excited to work on new material!
If you haven’t heard the record yet, please take a listen:
Last May I got a txt out of the blue from Dane, a good buddy, great drummer, and former bandmate:
“Ok dude. Let’s do it: Let’s write a couple of skath songs.”
Dane and I used to play in a ska band called Captain Supreme back in college. After Captain Supreme broke up we joked around about forming a new ska band, dressing up like skeletons, and writing songs about graveyards and monsters and ghosts and stuff. It would be skath!
It was a fun idea, but I assumed it would be like all of the other hilarious band ideas I’d had with friends: fun to talk about but we’d never write anything. Well, for whatever reason this was different. I got really excited and we started trading song name ideas: “Grave Danger”, “Escape From Skull City”, “Hearse Chorus Hearse Chorus”, “Spider!? I Barely Know ‘er!”. In a fit of inspiration I wrote the lyrics to “Grave Danger” on the spot and we started talking about who else we could get involved. That weekend I started writing some music and it seemed like a project that we could really get off the ground.
Eventually I realized that if we wanted to have some actual songs to record, I’d have to get serious about writing. Inspired by Dane’s participation in #5amwritersclub I decided that I could get up a little early every morning and actually get some creative work done. While I’m not crazy enough to wake up at 5am, I did get up before 7:00 and found 30 minutes to an hour almost every day to make progress on these songs.
It felt really good.
I felt like a musician again and I felt like a songwriter again. Most of the songwriting I had done since leaving The American Autumn was done in single sessions. If I could get a full song out in a night, it didn’t get done. This was different. I struggled through false starts that just wouldn’t come together. I had to figure out how to connect parts that were cool on their own but needed to sound cohesive. I had to arrange a four part horn section without overwriting things. It felt good to put in the work on a creative project.
About six months later I now have three songs demoed: Grave Danger, Escape From Skull City, and Too Ghoul For School. I recorded all the music and vocals myself, using a keyboard for horns and Logic Pro’s drums. Now I’m ready to do real recordings of this. I’ll still play a lot of the instruments, Dane will be doing the drums, and we’ll be getting other people involved to do vocals and other horn parts.
Six months may seem like a long time to write about 10 minutes of music, but I’m really proud that I was able to get these songs written and demoed while having a new baby and a busy job. What are we going to do with this recording? I’m not sure. I don’t know if the world is clambering for ska songs about ghosts, so I might not quit my day job but that’s ok. I really just want to see these songs exist.
If one listens to enough Ruby related blogs and talks and podcasts they are likely to run in to Crystal. Have you every thought, “I like Ruby, but I wish is were fast and compiled on LLVM”? Well, that’s Crystal. It’s a fast language with Ruby inspired syntax. If the performance benchmarks shown on the Crystal site are even remotely accurate, it’s worth checking out.
I enjoy writing Ruby and I like things that are fast, so I’ve been trying it out. While it is still pre-1.0 it’s been pretty nice to work with. And since it’s a new language, there’s an opportunity to write new libraries (known as “Shards” in Crystal).
My first Crystal Shard has been a money handling library, inspired by Ruby Money, that I call Moola. It gives uses the ability to define Money objects and do basic operations and conversions with them. Here are a few examples:
I don’t have much to say other than it seems like a great language if you like writing Ruby. For a newer language it’s been a joy to work with and it’s fun to build some basic libraries.
If you every find yourself writing Ruby and dealing with money, I encourage you to try out Moola.
So once again I participated in Inktober this year, trying to do a drawing every day of October based on the provided prompts. I only got 12 days in this year but I was pretty happy with the results. I felt like they turned out better than last year’s drawings and I guess that’s always the goal.
I think my favorites from this group are the lonely space man, the tired dad, and the girl with her lizard.
The prompts for the drawings I did (in order) are: hungry, sad, hidden, jump, worried, scared, wet, escape, squeeze, tired, box, and friend.
I also posted these to Mount Saint Awesome, just so I don’t completely forget that I have a comic.
To prepare for this life-changing event we’ve been trying to read up on lots of things as well as asking lots of people for advice on both pregnancy and parenthood. We knew, even before we got pregnant, that we’d wanted to digest this info and experience and share it with other people and we wanted to do that with a podcast. We actually talked a bit about doing a podcast back when we were both in improv and considered the possibility that we might be hilarious.
Whether or not we’re all that clever, we did manage to start a podcast! It’s called Don’t Screw It Up and as of this blog post we’ve done 5 episodes. In each episode talk about different topic such as telling other people that you’re pregnant or traveling with a belly full of baby, trying to actually site some legitimate research while still being entertaining. We’re trying to take a less reverent, you-are-gia-mother-earth, everything is beautiful and magical attitude towards the whole processes of procreation which is in contrast to a lot of the blogs and other podcasts we’ve come across geared at future baby owners.
This is my first foray into recording a podcast and it’s been a lot of fun to do the audio side of things. We’re just recording with my Shure 57 and the MXL condenser mic with some pop screens. Once we start having remote guests, I think I’m going to need to work with this software I found called Looback that lets you create pass audio from one application (like Skype) to another (like Logic Pro X).
By the way, if you want to be a guest, let me know!
Doing this podcast has been really fun so far and it’s cool to work with a new medium like this.
On May 25th of last year I started keeping track of my focused practice time for a few things I wanted to get better at. As mentioned in this post, I was motivated by reading Make It Stick and the idea that getting better at something didn’t always feel like progress simply because it should be hard.
I built a really basic time tracking tool, which turned out to be a really strong motivator. Seeing a graph of my practice time each week made me want to keep focused. Here’s the graph from the past year:
I didn’t do as much as I had hoped but I feel like I made some decent progress. My final numbers were:
guitar: 81 hours (128 posts)
art: 21 hours (39 posts)
chess: 5 hours (10 posts)
vocals: 1 hour (2 posts)
Obviously I wasn’t that focused on vocals and I kind of gave up on chess pretty quickly, but I made a decent showing for guitar work.
I didn’t let myself count noodling while watching TV or going to band practice. This had to be focused practice where I was really trying to learn something new or fix something sloppy or work on a skill I was lacking. I would have liked to hit 100 hours but 81 is still a lot more than I’ve put in any year prior.
Art was a mild success. I did count my time doing Inktober because a lot of that was drawing novel subjects, but a lot of the other work was fundamental practice and sketchbook work. I also spent some time ramping up with drawing digitally, which I now use a lot for Look At Me I’m a Racecar comics.
This Input Coffee project has really been helpful in getting me to work on skills that I actually care about. Over the next year I’d like to hit 100 hours of guitar and branch out a bit to some under-practiced skills I’d like to have.
Once again I received a Build Your Own Clone pedal kit for Xmas, this year it was the Classic Compressor. I’ve been playing a lot more guitar these days and I seemed like it would be fun to tighten up my sound a bit, so a compressor pedal seemed like a fun project.
The build itself was pretty simple and straightforward. Soldier all the pieces together. Don’t burn myself. Don’t burn anything important. I’m actually getting pretty decent at soldiering, if I do say so myself! What I wanted to do differently with this build was the visual look of the pedal.
The enclosure that comes with the kit is… utilitarian, to say the least. This time I wanted to not only paint the enclosure, but also design and print my own decals for the pedal. The painting was pretty simple, I just sanded down the enclosure, put down a coat of primer, and then used several coats of spray paint.
To do the design decals I ended up drawing some stuff using my Wacom tablet and then doing a layout in Photoshop and finally printing everything onto waterslide decals. For the design I ended up just drawing a simple coffee mug with the word “compresso” on it because it sort of sounds like espresso. Meh… it kinda works! The waterslide decals were pretty cool, you just print onto them, spray them with a clear sealant, wet them and then slide them onto the surface. Once it dried, I sprayed the whole thing with a few layers of clear sealant so the decal would chip or peal off as I stomped on it.
Last, but not least, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the nobs that came with the kit. I wanted something a bit more retro looking so I bought some oven nob style nobs on Amazon to use. They didn’t quite fit the pots on the pedal so I had to Dremel them out a bit before I could put them on the pedal. It’s always fun to have an excuse to play with a Dremel.
The end result looks pretty cool (and sounds pretty good too!) I actually took apart the first pedal I built, an overdrive, with the intention of painting and adding a decal to it as well. The stuff I learned doing this pedal will be very helpful.
So this year I participated in Inktober, which is basically a month long event where artist attempt to produce an inked drawing every day in October. Obviously I didn’t have the time/focus to do all 31 days, but I did manage to produce 16 drawings and post them to Instagram.
As I’ve been sadly neglecting Mount Saint Awesome these days, it was really nice to get back to drawing regularly. Doing this project really helped me explore other styles and techniques and also draw things that I might not have drawn for comics (like armadillos and astronauts). It was also good to work in just black and white. I’ve struggled with shading and shadows in black and white drawings in the past and it really helped to be constrained by this medium. There were a few drawings I wasn’t very happy with, like the Gameboy, but all in all I was pleased with most of the work.
Hopefully this rejuvenates my art as I’d really like to get back to making comics regularly.
One of the first posts I wrote on the new version of this blog was about my genetic algorithm Ruby gem, Darwinning. I actually started building the library back in December of 2012 when I was first learning Ruby and it’s gone through several updates and periods of inactivity. Usually I’ll just add some tests or make a small update when I have some free time. It’s been a pretty casual project. I just didn’t think that there was that much of a need for a Ruby GA library, I just thought it would be fun to make.
Recently I’ve seen a steady stream of people starring and forking the Darwinning repo on Github and I’ve received some really thoughtful and helpful pull requests from people, so I wanted to give the library a bit more attention. I had some free time this weekend and used it to finish off a major feature that I had been working on and finally published the 0.1.0 version of the gem!
The major feature I added was the ability to use Darwinning in existing Ruby models via include. This lets you utilize the library in projects that might not be specifically about genetic algorithms.
Here’s my dumb, contrived example:
Then you can use some nice built in methods to generate a population of these objects and evolve them towards a fitness goal:
I’ve been having fun working on this project and it’s really cool to see some other people contribute to the project. If you want to play around with the library or have an interest in genetic algorithms just gem install darwinning or check out the Darwinning Github repo. There are always more updates to do, but it felt good to make some progress on this project.