Making the ShopTalk Show theme tune

I’m a regular listener to the ShopTalk Show podcast, a really great show about web design and development hosted by Chris Coyier and Dave Rupert. A couple of years ago, not long after the show started, I offered Chris and Dave a very rough piece of music as a theme tune, and they’ve been using it ever since.

But the time has come to refresh the theme tune, and the guys asked me to record a new version. Specifically they wanted it “rootsier”, and around 20 seconds in length. Here is the new version:

If you’re interested in how I recorded it then read on!

Chris and Dave wanted me to incorporate a recording of a crowd shouting the show motto “Just Build Websites”. I heard in my head exactly how that sample could be used at the end of the tune, so I knew what I was aiming for.

I busked a quick bit of music in the style they wanted. I grabbed my guitar, started strumming an A chord, and very quickly had a chord progression I was happy with, including the ending that could include the “Just Build Websites” sample. I wrote the music down on the back of an envelope (as that’s a traditional thing to do) and added some ideas for an arrangement:

00-music

Now I could start recording. I used the fantastic free Audacity software, as I wouldn’t need any fancy effects. It handles simple multitrack recording, and is really easy to use.

Click track

First I laid down a click track, to ensure I was keeping in time with myself. I recorded enough bars for a lengthy click intro before I start playing, and of course enough bars to go right to the end of the recording. If you’re playing along to a click track like this it’s a good idea to have at least 4 bars before you start playing. It gives your hands time to get from the keyboard to the instrument, and lets you settle into the tempo.

01-click-track

Acoustic 1

Then I grabbed my trusty Line6 Variax 500 and chose the Martin D-28 6-string acoustic guitar sample sound. That’s the main guitar you hear at the beginning.

02-acoustic-1

The Variax is great as it gives a really good impersonation of a real guitar. Yes, anyone with a good ear can hear it’s not a real Martin D-28, but then it didn’t cost ten grand. Plus it comes with a massive range of other stringed instrument samples, a couple of which I talk about below.

The first acoustic took a few takes to get right, but I wasn’t happy with the sound, so decided to add a second acoustic guitar.

Acoustic 2

This time I chose a Gibson J-200 and double-tracked the first acoustic, but using my fingertip instead of a pick. I panned the second acoustic to the left and pulled the levels down. This gave me a nice stereo spread of sound.

Bouzouki

I knew for the main body of the piece I wanted a ringing guitar sound, probably double-stringed and higher than the guitars. I don’t have a bouzouki (although I think that will be my next instrument purchase; Jeremy will be pleased) but by choosing a Martin D 12-28 12-string guitar sample and putting a capo up on (I think) 5th fret it was a reasonable rendition.

This took quite a few takes to get right as my fingers didn’t want to do what I told them. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes. Here are the two acoustics and bouzouki tracks.

04-bouzouki

Bass

The time had come to lay down the Groove Machine. Ahem, I mean record the bass. I’ve got a beautiful 1978 Fender Precision bass, and a couple of takes later I had it done.

05-bass-before

Bass almost always needs come compression to even out the levels. I applied some basic compression to the bass track:

06-bass-compressor

And ended up with something looking much fuller, although a couple of peaks were uncomfortably high:

07-bass-after

Here’s a simple trick. If you see a peak which is really high, like the ones in the red circles above, it’s likely that there are just one or two waves which are high. Zoom right in and select the high waves:

08-zoom-selection

Then pull the levels down by a notch:

09-amplify

This is before:

10-peak-before

And this is after:

11-peak-after

I’ve found that this doesn’t affect the sound in any noticeable way, but help to stop clipping.

Banjo

To round out the “rootsy” nature of the recording I added a banjo part, using the Gibson Mastertone sample in the Variax. It’s pretty low in the mix, and it’s not complicated, as I ain’t a good finger picker. But it’s a nice little addition to the piece, particularly at the beginning.

When I say I’m not a good finger-picker I mean I’m really awful, so getting this banjo part OK was Hard Work. I lost count of how many takes it took, but it was well over 20.

Just Build Websites (JBW)

Now I was ready to add the JBW sample. The problem was the words are said faster than the tempo of the tune. When I was busking the chord progression I tried playing the music fast enough to fit the speed the words are said, but it sounded manic.

You can see here the peaks of the JBW track don’t match with the peaks of the bass track above.

12-jbw-raw

What I needed to do was cut the words apart, so they are spoken at the same tempo as the music. I toyed with stretching the JBW sample, but it sounded awful.

Cutting the JBW sample into parts was easy, but then I got a horrible “clipped” effect after the first two words, because there was artificially-inserted silence. What to do? Add reverb? Nope, that sounded horrible and false. Instead, I copied parts of the sample and shifted it along to mask the gap. Here you can see how I lined the words up with the bass notes, then covered the gap with my fake echo:

13-jbw-echo

I pulled the level of the fake echo down until it was reasonably unobtrusive, but still masked the gap:

Drums

Next I used my Alesis DM5 digital drum kit to lay down a drum line. It’s mostly pretty simple, but I did do a sweet triplet fill before the last two notes:

The drum sound was a bit dry, so I added some small room reverb:

14-drums-reverb

Mixing

As the levels were getting set as I added the tracks there wasn’t much to do in terms of mixing. I did find the bass got lost, particularly in small headphones. By the way, it’s a good idea to check your mix not just on studio monitors, but on headphones. I used Grado SR60 and RHA MA350 (I think) in-ear headphones. A bit of EQ on the bass soon made it pop out again:

15-bass-eq

After exporting my mix to 2 tracks I “topped and tailed” the resulting file to remove empty space at the beginning and fade out nicely at the end. Then I encoded to MP3 and emailed it to Chris and Dave. Job done.

Nearly.

The second acoustic was slightly out of tune one one or two notes, so I re-recorded that. And I wasn’t happy with two of the notes on the bass as well, so I re-recorded that. Dave also made a great suggestion of adding a little banjo intro. My amazing (not) finger-picking skills once again saved the day:

As this banjo was stuck out on its own I added a touch of reverb to beef it up.

Now, listening to the individual parts you may thing “hmm, these are a bit raw”. You’re right, they are. As part of that “rootsy” feel I didn’t want to overall piece to feel too polished – I wanted it to sound like a bunch of guys messing around with some recording gear late one night after a few beers. Hopefully I’ve achieved that, and hopefully the listeners to the ShopTalk Show will like it. I certainly enjoyed recording it.

Wow! Caching is the cure for what ails yer!

I run a site which has been performing very badly recently – lots of crashes, memory exceptions and the like. It’s hosted by the wonderful Dreamhost and I contacted them to see what the problem was. Basically the site was using too much memory. Ho hum.

So I took a quick look around and found this article on improving BuddyPress performance written by my friend Andy Peatling. Basically I just turned on wp_cache in my wp-config.php file and enabled XCache and look:

Caching makes the world faster

If that’s not a fantastic result I don’t know what is.

So if you’re a DJ and you’re looking for free mix hosting, BeatsBase.com is now working again!

I’m also rewriting the site to have some more Web 2.0 Social Networking features (using, you guessed it, BuddyPress) such as cool member profiles, groups and friends, on-site messaging and more. I also aim to get some kind of integration with Facebook and Twitter going, but of quite what nature I’m not sure yet. This is all dependent on time, of course.

New BeatsBase mix widget

I’m currently working on a widget for BeatsBase.com, the social networking and mix hosting site I developed for my friend and client Robbie a couple of years ago. The widget will allow you to have a Radio BeatsBase player on your website, just like this:

That one shows the latest mixes added to the site, but if things go according to plan you’ll also be able to have a player with just one users mixes in as well. If you’re into dance, trance, techno and other styles of “young person” music take a look.

Metro View from inside: Michael Franti on why music deserves to be shared

CD sales are down. Downloading is up. The future is coming. Don’t be afraid. Despite the fact the record industry dinosaur is sucking on its last barrel of oil, the goddess of music is more alive than ever before. I remember a time when an average fan had perhaps 50 CDs in their collection and most were from one genre. Today, nearly every listener has thousands of songs tucked away in their shirt pocket and everyone’s got their chill-out, rock-ou and make-out playlist among them. Did they pay for all of them? Unlikely. Are they inspired by all of them? Definitely. Some songs only inspire us to click delete but even that churns up to delve deeper into the vast sea of supply that is feeding the world’s insatiable desire to move and be moved by music.

So from an artist’s perspective, what good can come from people sharing music? When I turn someone on to new music I’ve discovered, my reputation as a tastemaker is on the line. I recommend a couple of duds and suddenly I’m “DJ non-grata”. The absolute best promotion any band could have is word of mouth and the internet is the music world’s blowhorn.

I cannot count the hundreds of times I have heard from fans after shows say “My friend burned me your disc and that is why I am here tonight.” Playing music on the streets of Baghdad in 2004, one man said: “I have seen you on the computer.” It really was an awakening for me to witness the power of song in the world today and the beauty that it’s reaching more people than ever before.

Michael Franti and Spearhead’s latest album, All Rebel Rockers (Anti), is out now

This was originally published in the Metro free newspaper.

Useful neo-marketing websites

I’ve had a few conversations recently about neo-marketing, an emerging way to communicate between businesses and people (or people and people, businesses and businesses, anyone really). I even twisted it to apply to emerging churches.

After one of these conversations I put together a list of useful neo-marketing online resources. Well, strictly they are really resources about a modern approach to business, as well as marketing, customer service and a lot of other things. I’m a generous sort of chap, so here it is.

Signal vs. Noise by 37signals: http://blogcabin.37signals.com/posts/

37signals were a website design and development company which brought out a couple of their own online applications which have caused a storm on the web due to their ease of use and power. In particular their Basecamp project management system (http://basecamphq.com/) has revolutionised the way many which are deeply involved in the web companies work.

They have a knack of writing good medium length articles about all sorts of things. Plenty of example from other businesses about good (and bad) ways to operate:

They also link to some great articles, videos and other resources:

And they also have regular spots highlighting different things:

All these examples are from just the (sometime in June) front page of their blog, and the archives are full of fantastic things.

Creating passionate users by Kathy Sierra: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/

Kathy is a very well respected author and blogger with a huge range of great articles discussing many aspects of marketing, design, development and customer service. Here’s just a handful of the articles from her:

It’s important to note Kathy isn’t blogging any more, however she’s still active as a speaker and author.

Gapingvoid by Hugh Macleod: http://www.gapingvoid.com/

Hugh is a very well known Scottish cartoonish and marketer, with a particular style both of drawing and writing. Over the last year or so he’s been involved deeply in what has become known as the Blue Monster movement – based on this cartoon which he drew:

On the back of that he’s done work with Microsoft trying to break them out of their age-old marketing quagmire. He’s also involved in a wine company and a Savile Row tailors. But the best thing about Hugh is he’s got a fantastic understanding of what’s wrong with traditional PR, and how the tide is turning:

Church of the customer by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba: http://www.churchofthecustomer.com/

This isn’t one I read regularly, but there’s some good stuff on it anyway:

Global neighbourhoods by Shel Israel: http://redcouch.typepad.com/weblog/ * please see the note below this entry

Shel is an old-school marketer who has really “got” the Internet. Together with Robert Scoble (probably the most famous blogger in the world) he wrote a book called Naked Conversations (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Naked-Conversations-Changing-Businesses-Customers/dp/047174719X) which charts how blogs are changing the face of business. “Global Neighbourhoods” is the name of their follow-up book. If you want some good offline reading you could do a lot worse than buy these.

Shel is fundamentally a business marketer, and he has written some fantastic articles:

Important note: some of the things in this section are factually incorrect. Shel has kindly pointed out the error of my ways in this comment, and for that I thank him. Sorry for not doing my research properly, or indeed paying as much attention as I should!

Shotgun marketing by Chris Houchens: http://shotgunconcepts.blogspot.com/

Chris is a widely known marketing expert with a particular focus on web interactions. Here are some useful recent articles:

Horsepigcow by Tara Hunt: http://www.horsepigcow.com/

Horsepigcow is a blend of observations on online marketing, links to the “happening” things on the web and general observations about web business. Not every article will be of use for businesspeople, but she has written some great stuff:

Extra links:

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds: http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/

Garr is a fantastic presenter, and on his blog he talks about how to make presentations better, and also has lots of example from some of the worlds foremost speakers.

Recommended reading by Hugh Macleod: http://www.gapingvoid.com/Moveable_Type/archives/002039.html

Hugh lists the blogs you should be reading.