Monday, November 23, 2009

Mega-Project: Transcribing My Entire Set into Encore

Five years ago this September just passed, after seven years away from the guitar, I decided to pick it up again with the idea that I'd prefer making less money performing and teaching, than making lots of it and just composing on the side. Since I found myself at 45 with no wife, kids, pets, or girlfriends, why not? My goal was very specific - get 3.5 hours of music memorized so that I could perform a four hour gig with a 30 minute break - and I didn't want to waste any time on anything that wouldn't get me to that goal.

Well, there aren't any books on how to do this, so I was on my own, which is fine by me. I knew I could figure it out by experimentation, and I had many years of playing under my belt previously, so I just went to it. The first thing I did was to re-memorize all of my own compositions for solo guitar, which number over 40 now, and while I was doing that, I broke the monotony by re-memorizing all of the classical standards I'd known previously. All I was doing was memorizing and playing the music, nothing else: No exercises, no scales, nothing.

I took my first gig exactly six months after I got started with the project, which was probably too soon, but it was a friend's art opening, so it was a zero-pressure first gig. A month later, I took my first restaurant background music gig, and did that for a few months and got comfortable in front of an audience again.

Then I got the idea to re-learn some more contemporary pieces that I used to play on steel string, as well as to make my own arrangements of other "crowd pleasers," to broaden my appeal and increase my marketability. Within two years after I started, I was getting into some complex syncopated stuff, so I realized I'd have to do more than just memorize and play the tunes, I'd have to practice them slowly with a metronome as well. That's when I first got back into some technical work.

I realized at that point that I'd learned too much music too fast, and in a haphazard manner, so I eventually had some memory failures and had to go back and re-learn sections. As my set got larger and larger, this started to happen more and more, and I was unable to memorize new pieces as fast as before. So, I started getting my practice routine more and more organized and efficient, and I also got to the point where I realized I needed some regular scale practice to improve my right hand accuracy for some pieces, so I added that in too.

Well, by the end of last year, when I moved, I had over 60 pieces memorized, so my pace was more than one per month, but I was constantly consulting many different sources - books, compilations, &c. - when I wanted to refresh my memory on some pieces. Then it hit me: I should put every piece in my set into Encore so that I have everything in my four computers - two laptops and two desktops - and can access them at any time whether I'm home or on the road.

Of course, as I got more and more into the contemporary crowd pleaser thing, I was putting my arrangements into Encore anyway, but when I actually looked at my set, I was amazed by how many of the pieces existed only in my memory: Stairway to Heaven, Classical Gas, Desert Song, and Spanish Fly. I actually learned Desert Song from an ASCII TAB I found online.

Needless to say, I can't do anything half way, and so I decided to make fresh copies of all of my own pieces as well. Some of those files date from the late 90's, and Encore has been through several major revisions since then, so some corruptions have crept into the files as the program's parameters have been redefined (Especially as regards to MIDI playback). By doing this from scratch - as a virtuoso Encore user now - I can finally get all of my music into a publishable form. I actually have some guitarist friends bugging me to do this now, so there you have it: I'm making fresh files of over 70 pieces of music.

I'm doing several stages of each as well: An Urtext version of the notation only, a second version with the notation and r/l hand fingerings, a third version that ads the position and string indications, and then a fourth and final version with expressions. This is a monumental task that will take months, but at the end of it I will have rebuilt my set from the beginning better than ever, and when I do metronome practice I'll be able to play along with the MIDI file. I actually exclaimed, "Woah!" when that realization hit me.

So, the technology that I've picked up gradually over the past years is now going to be completely involved in my new practice method, just as it has been in my composition method for many years. And, I might add, when I decided to master counterpoint back in 1986, it took me exactly seven years to get to what I considered a virtuoso level with it: I could compose a J.S. Bach Art of Fugue style piece by 1993. When I got to that point, by the way, was when I was using my first version of Encore. Well, I figure two more years and I'll consider myself a virtuoso performer as well. It's a good feeling, because I now know and have control of all of the elements I have to master to accomplish my original goal: To have 3.5 hours of music residing perfectly in my memory, and the ability to efficiently maintain that, and to be able to play it all with a solid level of technical mastery.

BTW: I've worn out my old Kensington Orbit Optical Trackball, and so I've had to replace it.

I've used trackballs exclusively since 1993, when I got my first version of Encore and was trying to enter notation with a mouse. Total insanity. I had an early Logitech then, and got an Orbit mechanical version when I switched to Macs, but this is the best trackball ever made for music notation entry. You don't need a dozen little buttons, just two big ones, and it fits my hand perfectly. Plus, the optical tracking with the Mouseworks utility software is adjustable to an amazing level of fineness, all very intuitively. The old one on the left lasted about four years. You can see that the paint has been worn off by my fingers! Eventually, the clicking got spotty, so it had to go. Not bad for a device that costs less than $25.00! yes, I've tried more expensive ones. They suck because there are too many buttons and they are too small. This is the most perfect trackball ever made, IMO.

Georgia agrees.

As of now, I've completed the Urtext and Fingering versions for 31 pieces, so I'm ripping through it, but after I have all of the first two versions in for all of the pieces, I'll go back and do the final two versions for each piece. What I'm doing is, I'm reading the music as I practice for the completed pieces as I go through my four-day practice routine, and each time through I'm adding the new ones I complete. I really only need the fingerings, so that's why I'm not worrying about the position and string indicators or the expressions at this time. Of course, I'm also catching and correcting errors. I found a notation error in a fifteen year old piece the other day! Fingering errors I can understand, but how that wrong note survived for so long is beyond me. By the time I get the music entered, I will have re-memorized my entire set. Tres cool, non?

One of the readers I communicalte with via email set me a missive the other day with the title, define: virtuoso. That's what I'm working on for my next post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Last Word on the Blackbird Rider and ErgoPlay (Promise!)

A quick look at the sidebar, "Hucbald Endorses" section will tell regular readers all they need to know: I have deleted Godin and added Blackbird.

As far as the guitar support - and playing the Rider Nylon while seated without one is virtually impossible - I first tried the regular sized model and found that the Rider's sound chamber was too shallow for both front suction cups to adhere. Then, I got the idea to try the "Kid Size" unit and it worked much better, since both front suction cups stuck, but the shorter frame, though seemingly inconsequential, made more difference than I though it would.

Well, while I was looking at the two units, I thought, "Hey, there's nothing keeping me from putting the "Kid Size" front slider piece on the adult sized frame!" So, that's what I did.

The "Kid Size" slider piece is dark blue, and the regular frame is black, so they don't match, but the difference is subtle enough that I don't really care. The main thing is that it works perfectly, and I'm a ruthless perfectionist... If you don't believe me, I can get you in contact with my ex-wife. LOL!

Of course, most people wouldn't spend almost $80.00 to get this setup, but since I am a perfectionist, I bought two of each size so both of my guitars feel the same. Yeah, my gear addiction factored into the divorce too, I'm sure. LOL!

My roving eye probably factored in there somewhere as well.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Going "All In" With the Blackbird Rider Nylon/RMC

This is an interesting moment for me - probably of no interest at all to others, however - because after exactly thirty years of experience with electric nylon string guitars, I've finally found one that is above the magical (to me) 90% satisfaction point. If you've hit this blog in the past month, you know that the guitar in question is, the Blackbird Rider Nylon with the optional RMC Polydrive II hexaphonic pickup system (Which is Roland 13-pin synth compatible).

In the beginning, I tried one of the first Ovation nylon string guitars that could be amplified back in 1979. I didn't like it at all, but I was admittedly ignorant about how to amplify a nylon string: I plugged it into my MESA/Boogie Mk I and couldn't understand why the tone sucked and there was monstrous feedback. LOL! That was the last time I tried an electric nylon string for ten years.

Then in 1989 I decided to try again with the Gibson Chet Atkins CE and CEC guitars. I had put my rock band days behind me by this time, and was playing only solo acoustic nylon string. I'm just not an acoustic guitarist, and that's all there is to it. When I quit my last rock band to go solo in 1988, I was playing a Steinberger GL2T-GR guitar through a pair of MESA/Boogie Mk III's - in stereo thanks to two 10U racks worth of gear - and a Synclavier! I got bored without my effects and synth in a hurry.

Well, I wasn't that interested in playing the Synclavier with electric nylon string guitars, but I was interested in trying to get beautiful clean sounds like I had with my high tech - for then - rock rig. I was also interested in downsizing: Hauling two Simul-Class Boogie combos, two 10U racks, and a Synclavier around - which pretty much filled up an 8' bed in my old Chevy pickup - was really, really old by this time.

The first piece of 19" rack gear I ever bought was a Lexicon PCM-41 back in 1981. Over the next 8 years I went from all pedals to all rack gear. By 1989, there was a 1U Marshall Valvestate power amp, MIDI-Verbs, and even a MESA preamp that was rack mountable, so I went that way. I did better with the Chet and that rig, but it still wasn't good enough sounding for me. I knew I was missing some essential understanding, but I also wasn't going to waste any more time on the project, because the gear wasn't up to my standards anyway.

I tried again in 1999. This time with a 6U rack with a MESA Stereo Simul-Class 2: Ninety power amp, a MESA/Boogie Tri-Axis preamp, and a then-new Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects processor (And a Furman AR-1215 with a blank vent panel), but still with the Chet. I was getting somewhere, but I was still draging around my old electric steel-string guitar mentality, especially concerning cabinets.

Then the breakthrough came in 2004: Ditch the guitar cabinets, ditch the guitar preamp, and go with a mini-PA. The Simul 2: Ninety weighed a ton and had the annoying habit of burning up tubes at the worst moment, so I replaced that with a solid state Bryston 2B-LP. The Tri-Axis was also problematic, being as it was EQ biased for steel string guitars, so I ditched that too and went to using the MPX-G2 in stand-alone mode. With the Furman and a vent panel, that got me down to a manageable 4U. I still use that rack to this day, but there's now a Behringer BTR-2000 RackTuner in the former vent space.

I was using MESA 1-10" cabinets with EV 10M's at that time, so I replaced those with a pair of Yamaha AS-108 Series II mini PA speakers. Eureka! Then the old Chet went to eBay and was replaced with a Godin Grand Concert Duet. This was the first electric nylon string rig I gigged with, starting in 2005: It was finally "good enough."

At this point, I realized that the Baggs system in the GC Duet was holding me back from getting the sound I wanted, because the sound system was working great and sounding excellent. A good friend in the guitar biz suggested I try the Grand Concert SA with the Polydrive IV. I had dismissed that option because I wasn't interested in running a synth at the time, but he said the sound was clear and neutral, so I tried it. I upgraded the Yamaha monitors to Turbosound TXD-081's, but from 2005 to 2009 that became my main gig rig.

The Godin wasn't a... "magical guitar" from a player's standpoint, so I was still in search of the primo ultimo ax. As regular readers know, I then found a Parker Nylon Fly, and spent another grand getting a Polydrive put into it. It played like a Stradivarius, but didn't have the "openness" of a semi-acoustic, so it really wasn't a viable main gig ax.

Enter the Blackbird Rider Nylon: The openness of an acoustic, the sustain of the Parker, and a playing feel right smack dab in between the Godin and the Parker. I'd say it's 92.5% of what I'm looking for. The only major technical flaw is that the fingerboard has a positive radius, whereas a classical guitar ought to have an infinite radius (It ought to be billiard-table flat, IOW). The reason this is the case is that classical guitarists make lots of big stretches, putting lateral pressure on the fretted strings. A radius makes having the high and low E strings slip off the fingerboard more likely: This is still vexatious, after a month of playing the Rider exclusively. I've gotten much better with it, but if Blackbird only flattened the fingerboard, we'd be talking about a 95% satisfaction level.

Nevertheless, I've eBayed off all of my other electric nylon string guitars to go with twin Rider Nylons.

They look identical, but they're not: The original on the right has an action 1/64" higher than a traditional Flamenco guitar, while the "new" one on the left has an action 1/64" lower than a standard Classical. I figure the higher action will give better synth tracking, but I haven't tried it out yet. The lower action tracks magnificently compared to my old Roland GR compatible axes, mind you, but I have to be easy on the dynamic range to avoid string rattle, which causes tracking errors (I like to dig in hard, though, so most probably wouldn't ever notice what I do).

Lastly, I find it interesting that my steel string electric guitar evolution started with a Gibson Les Paul - a traditional wooden electric guitar - and ended with the Steinberger GL2T-GR - so far as I know, the first composite electric guitar in history - while my nylon string evolution really started with the Gibson Chet Atkins and ended with the Rider, also a composite guitar. I've come to the conclusion that wood is bad.

BTW, I fell into the "new" one because a dealer was going out of business, so I got it cheap and had Blackbird install the Polydrive II and still saved a few hundred dollars. Somebody up there likes me.

there's the angel who likes me, right there.