Barn Jazz Vol. 3 Released

Just in time for the holidays, my latest CD project, Barn Jazz Vol. 3, “High Fiddility”, is now available for purchase on CD Baby. You can buy individual tunes or the entire album, as well as audition clips of each of the tracks.
This collection of original fiddle tunes and songs completes the Barn Jazz trilogy, which began back in 2001 in my original Oracle, Arizona studio. Given the recent political seismic shift, think of this as a metaphorical “high” to help put it all aside while we endure the next 4 years. The photos were taken at over 11,000 feet at Boreas Pass, near Breckinridge, Colorado.
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Album Notes

I believe music, particularly instrumental music, should be all about imagery and imagination. High Fiddility is a collection of mostly original instrumental tunes and a few quirky songs guaranteed to take you into the highlands of your imagination. This is the third in the “Barn Jazz” series of albums, beginning with Barn Jazz Vol. 1, in 2003, Barn Jazz Vol. 2, The Night of the Dancing Vegetables in 2012, and finally Vol. 3, High Fiddility.

“Barn Jazz” is my term for bluegrass in a tuxedo, or jazz in hip boots played at night when the cows have gone to bed. In essence this music knows no firm boundaries, has no walls, and requires only that you listen again and again for the details, for the sounds of the crossing the high country, or marching along the Grand Valley canals of Grand Junction. You may remember lost friends like Banjo Joe, and others who are no longer with you, while you wonder where they have gone. Maybe you had a first waltz, when you awkwardly held that young lady or gentleman, or shuffled off to the stars in sidereal time. Please enjoy this music when you work, when you play or travel, or when the lights are down low and the music is turned up. Please let me know what you think, I am always curious to find out if any of these tunes touch you in certain ways.

New Directions

Barn Jazz has relocated to Littleton, Colorado. The wonderful studio space in Grand Junction has been decommissioned, while we are seeking better economic opportunities in the greater Denver area.
I am no longer accepting recording work for the near future, as I will be undertaking an intensive 5 month course in cybersecurity, beginning in mid-January. I will, however, be setting up a small composing and mixing studio in our new domicile, and will continue to accept small projects for mixing and post. I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to all of those wonderful musicians in the GJ area with whom I have had the privilege to work.

New Iso-Room Completed at Barn Jazz

After about 2 months work by myself and 2 local, talented workers, the isolation room is now finished. The area will serve as a drum room, vocal booth for voice-overs and singer-song writers, isolation for electric guitar cab recordings, etc.

The 9′ x 9′ x 8′ high room is (according to the experts) probably the worst shape you can have acoustically speaking (a cube), but with some good treatment from GIK and ATS, the sound inside is what I would describe as “neutral” for vocal and instrument work.  It is not overly dead, nor is it reverberant. Hopefully it will sound good as a drum room as well.

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The acoustic treatment consists of four GIK tri-traps (bass traps) in the back corners, four ATS 2″ rigid rock wool panels, 2′ x 4′, on the back and side walls, and an additional GIK 2′  x 4′ x  2″ panel (white) on the right side wall. The ceiling has a 5′ x 5′ cloud of  1′ Auralex foam wedges, fastened using 2 tubes of Auralex adhesive.

The area was originally a corner alcove that was open on one side. The left and rear interior walls back up to the house stem walls (as this is in a walkout basement), and the right wall is adjacent to the bathroom.  We added a layer of 5/8″ Soundbreak board over the existing drywall to all three walls and the ceiling, using RC-1 resilient channel and soundproofing foam tape from SoundProofingSale.com to provide a buffer and air gap between the new and existing drywall.

A new front wall was constructed for the window, door, and patch panel, using wood frame and Soundbreak on both the interior and exterior of the frame, with sound proofing foam tape between the drywall and wood.  We used 2″ rock wool fiberglass from Home Depot for insulation. Mike Miller constructed the wall and put up the drywall.

Soundbreak is very heavy gypsum board that is used as a replacement for standard drywall for sound studios, apartments, etc. It weighs about 86 lbs. per sheet, and is quite expensive ($70.00). It has an excellent STC (Sound Transmission Class) rating of 53 – 60 when installed over both sides of a wood frame. We obtained this material, along with oodles of sound-proofing caulk, from a local Grand Junction vendor, Pioneer Materials.   The floor is simple utility carpet and pad from Home Depot, over vinyl and concrete.

The window consists of two panes of laminated glass, one 1/4″, and one 3/8″, set into a shallow V-shape, with about a 3/4″ to 1″ air gap between them. We used Rod Gervais’ book, “Home Recording Studio – Build It Like The Pros” for guidance on door and window construction.

The door itself is a very heavy solid core, 1 and 3/4″ thick, from Home Depot, with a door seal kit and threshold drop seal from Acoustical Solutions. Ron Standing made the window, built the door jamb, and installed the door and sealing kit. Because of the precise specifications needed for sound attenuation, this was a lengthy process covering several weeks.When the door is closed, the drop seal falls into place to seal the threshold and door bottom so that sound cannot leak under the door. The door jamb has rubber seal material attached to an aluminum backing. You know its pretty air tight when you close the door because you can hear the air squeezing out. It takes a bit of effort to close the door, which is good.

The patch panel is a through-the-wall set of jacks for 8 XLR microphone input/outputs and 4 TRS line input/outputs mounted in a black metal panel. I obtained the custom built and labeled panels from Redco.com, and then made a wood mounting box. I soldered up each side of the panel to their respective jacks, requiring 72 connections. I am really glad I had the proper tools for this (hint: resistance soldering station).The edges of the box were sealed with acoustic caulk, and the box interior stuffed with rock wool fiberglass insulation. Ron had special metal trim plates made locally for both sides of the box, to help hold it in place and provide a nice border. He then cut a hole next to the door and attached the box to a stud, and sealed the edges.

The total cost of construction was about $7200, with $4470 for materials and $2730 for labor, spread out over 2 primary work men (Mike Miller and Ron Standing), as well as two assistants and a carpet person. In addition to being the general contractor, I built the patch panel and did all of the painting (the easy stuff!).

Given that a similar-sized pre-fab isolation booth from WhisperRoom.com can cost from $10,000 to $20,000 plus shipping, this is a pretty good cost savings. The only thing missing is ventilation. Smaller booths require this, but given that the talent will be recording for short durations for the most part, the door does not have to remain closed for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Adding a vent system similar to that found in the DawBox.com design still may happen, but I did not want to risk compromising the sound isolation unless absolutely necessary.

The iso-room will help cut down on street and aircraft noise, which occasionally is an issue here. There is no such thing as “sound-proofing”, but with the ability to attenuate sudden rumbles or loud jet noises will improve our recordings and cut down on re-takes.

Next up, I will be doing some SPL measurements inside and outside of the booth to chart just how well we are doing at sound attenuation.
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Landslide! demo completed

We just finished a short 3-song project for the local Grand Junction band, Landslide, with Rick Cohee on electric guitar, Gary Schwark on drums, Theresa De Rush on keys, and Craig Kovalcik on bass.

This is a great example of a cover band doing it “live in the studio” for demo CD, something to give out to venue owners and booking agents.  This very affordable project took  only 8 hours to complete from recording setup to finished master. The final product was manufactured in house, with a full color printed CD in a clear plastic jewel case. Ready to rock a landslide!

Gary On Drums Live in the studio Theresa De RushCD cover art

Jim interviewed by the Business Times in Grand Junction

Read the interview here
Not my best picture though! 

Is Vinyl Better than Digital?

A recent NY Times article, Digital Culture, Meet Analog Fever discusses the recent fascination with more retro analog devices and media, in particular vinyl records. There is an ongoing dialog on the gear forums about the superior of one format or the other, which is really not the point. Vinyl, as an example, is a trend that is the result of a new generation discovering the sound and superior physicality of a record album. For us boomers that is not news, but one may ask what is behind this resurgence? Vinyl manufacturing plants, like United Record Pressing in Nashville, which I have visited twice, are running 24 x 7 these days.
United Record Pressing

United Record Pressing

So is analog vinyl really superior to digital music files?  In the case of mp3’s the compressed audio format degrades audio fidelity to a degree, although not many users can tell the difference between a compressed and lossless file format. Vinyl requires some roll-off  of the low end frequencies to avoid the needle jumping out of the groove on loud passages. What remains is somewhat band limited but faithful to the frequencies in a way that digital can come very close to and in many ways exceeds.  So why do some people prefer vinyl?
  1. To many it sounds better. If you grew up with it you know THAT sound, and prefer it over the exacting and sometimes overly clinical digital recordings.
  2. If you did not grow up with it, its a new thing that offers a tangible product, something you can show off if you are in a band. And it sounds better than MP3’s played through ear-buds.
  3. There is more room for liner notes and info about the band or recording that you can typically get onto a CD jacket.
  4. It’s cool, trendy.
The downsides:
  1. More expensive to manufacture, typically, 3-4X more costly than doing CD’s
  2. Somewhat limited frequency response, especially in the bass region
  3. Tendency for pops, ticks, hiss, and of course the dreaded skip when a groove is damaged. Some people like this so much that plugins have been devised that simulate bad vinyl!  Really, and I have one…
  4. LP’s in particular store fewer tracks than CD’s, typically no more than about 40 minutes total. CD’s can get up to 70+ minutes.
  5. Difficult to get into digital form unless a download card is included in the packaging (you see this more often now)
  6. Requires an old school stereo system and turntable with a RIAA balanced input, or a turntable with RIAA built in.

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Disc Cutter at Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville.


RIAA equalization is a little known aspect of vinyl, explained here in a Wikipedia article:

RIAA equalization is a form of pre-emphasis on recording and de-emphasis on playback. A recording is made with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The net result is a flat frequency response, but with attenuation of high frequency noise such as hiss and clicks that arise from the recording medium. Reducing the low frequencies also limits the excursions the cutter needs to make when cutting a groove. Groove width is thus reduced, allowing more grooves to fit into a given surface area, permitting longer recording times. This also reduces physical stresses on the stylus which might otherwise cause distortion or groove damage during playback.

A potential drawback of the system is that rumble from the playback turntable‘s drive mechanism is amplified by the low frequency boost that occurs on playback. Players must therefore be designed to limit rumble, more so than if RIAA equalization did not occur.”

There is an even more “trendy” approach of doing studio recording direct to vinyl, without any digital intervention. That requires taking the stereo mix from the mixer or console, directly to a vinyl cutting machine, in real time.  Each master disc costs around $150.00, versus $< $1.00 for a CD. The band has to play perfectly, and there are no re-takes or editing. I would call this “extreme recording”, not for the faint of heart or the lesser of chops.

So really the issue comes down not vinyl versus CD, as each has their pros and cons.  Unless you really want to spend the extra money, you will stop at the CD level, maybe with some MP3’s thrown in for your web site.

Instead, how can we best integrate analog sound into digital recordings to get the best sound out of digital, regardless if the final product is vinyl or CD?  The answer for many audio engineers today is a “hybrid” studio setup, which I have discussed before in an earlier blog post. A professional hybrid setup offers the following:
  1. Really high quality microphones recording into high quality preamps and other outboard gear such as compressors and EQ’s.  Tube preamps are often preferred here, depending on the sound source, voice timbre, etc. The idea here is to capture it in the best analog sound up front.
  2. High quality analog to digital conversion going into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, AKA the computer), so that the sound is not degraded. This is not hard to do these days as the cost of A-D conversion has come down significantly. Some would argue that typical computer sound cards such as the Sound Blaster are sufficient, but I disagree mostly because they are very limited in what they offer for inputs, in addition to having inferior clocking which can influence the sound to a degree.
  3. Mixing tracks via an outboard analog “mix bus” or chain of, again, high quality tube or solid state EQ’s and compressors before doing one more D-A back into the master stereo track. This involves both analog “summing” of the individual digital tracks using a console or some other outboard device that takes however many tracks are in the recording and sums them down electrically to a stereo master track. Some engineers would say that staying ITB (In the Box, i.e. no round trip to the analog domain during mixing) is better.  It really depends on how you work, but I prefer the outboard mixing approach before applying any plugins ITB, if at all. I just prefer what my analog outboard gear brings to the mixing process, and it’s often easier and more consistent than using plugins (albeit more expensive initially).
If the final product will be produced on CD we will master using 24 bit files for headroom. For CD we will need the master to be at the Red Book standard 44.1 KHz sample rate, dithered down to 16 bits as the last step. Often engineers will mix and make the analog round trip at high sample rates such as 96.1 KHz and then down-sample for CD. This requires a very fast computer and lots of disk space, but fortunately that is much easier to obtain these days.

If the final product will be on vinyl, an extra mastering step is required to attenuate the extreme highs and lows, as needed, before sending the master disk to the cutting engineer. This takes much skill, and there is a small but growing cadre of young, professional vinyl mastering engineers that are servicing the trendy LP market.

So the take away is, not all digital is created equal! Adding a bit of analog spice makes the final dish taste better, to mix my metaphors (pun intended).


Telluride Rag using Notion

Telluride from Gondola in Winter
I recently completed my first tune in the Scott Joplin ragtime style, Telluride Rag. Say what? Well I was inspired by the purchase of a new “old” violin from Telluride Music, and wanted to create something that would show off this fiddle. I have always wanted to do a ragtime style tune, so I just decided to write one, but how? The music notation program, Notion 5, was the ticket. I had the basic tune in my head and could pick out the melody notes using my mandolin.

Creating a piano part in Notion was a piece of pie. This is a great composition tool, one used by my good friend and local (nationally known) composer, Gary Smith. When I saw how Gary had created multi part scores for his jazz and orchestral compositions, I decided to give it a whack. I entered the notes using a mouse click, after selecting the note type (quarter note, half note, etc.). Notion lets you create ties, slurs, add key changes, and best of all, you get to select from some fine, real (sampled) instruments from the London Symphony Orchestra. I liked the stock piano sounds, so I went with that, and then created both the melody line and left hand chords. Now bear in mind that I am in no way a trained piano player, so I was constructing this simply by picking out the notes and chords from what I wanted to hear.

Once I had the piano part to where I liked it, I exported the stereo .wav file played by Notion, and dropped that into a Cubase stereo track for my new Telluride Rag project. Then I recorded a couple of fiddle overdubs of the melody line, using both “Telluride” (the name of my new “old” fiddle), and my go-to violin, “Reno”.

After tweaking these parts I then let Lynn (wifey) critique it. The tune consists of an A, B1 and B2 parts, then repeated again A-B1-B2. I let the piano play all the way through these parts once, then again with the fiddle overdubs. Lynn said I should have the fiddle parts come in sooner. Well I had originally recorded them from the beginning, but took out the first set of A-B parts so the listener could hear just the piano part establish the tune and rhythm. So we decided to bring the fiddles in during the first B part, then have them play the rest of the way. That sounded good, but then what to do to the second go round to make it build interest?

Bring on the horns! OK I could have really used some actual horns here, but did not have the time or inclination to bring someone into the studio. I was hearing some pumping tuba, and jazzy slide trombone. So I found something that worked using the Garritan Personal Orchestra patches for trombone and tuba. These are played on the keyboard, of course, with the mod wheel on the trombone to simulate the slide. The sounds are pretty good as they are, like the piano part, samples of real instruments, not synthesized.

After some final mixing here is the result: Telluride Rag on Soundcloud I have received some nice comments after posting to Facebook. Here are a few:
  • “It sounds like- what a nice warm autumn day in Telluride feels like. Jim’s music feels like he is happy!” Teresa, Grand Junction, CO.
  • “Very cute tune Jim. I like it and think I’ll give it a try” Sarah, Oracle, AZ.
  • “Great traditional rag with the ‘diamond jim’ twist!” Kate, Oracle, AZ
  • “Makes me wanna put on a white linen suit, stroll out to my home’s wrap-around porch, while entertaining my guests as I sip my mint julip, and act all genteel.”  Mike, California.

Fixing a hole in the ocean

Mixing songs with bass content has always been problematic for me. Often when I do a mix where I thought I had hit the sweet spot with a bass guitar or bass synth pad, once I listened on my home or car stereo it was boomy. I recently put in some high end speakers, Meyer HD-1’s to replace my bass light Genelec 8040a’s, thinking that might fix the problem. Well they helped certainly, but in the process I unplugged my sub-woofer thinking I would not need it any more. So hear I am again, chasing the gear tiger, trying to get my mixes tight in the low end.
So it was with great interest that I read an article by Carl Tatz in the Nov. 2015 Sound-On-Sound, one of my favorite recording magazines. I have been following Carl’s newsletters about his Phantom Focus system with some interest, but felt that this level of acoustic treatment was way beyond my budge or needs. What caught my attention in this article was the simple fix for a hole in the bass response that is due not to speakers, but to the cancellations that occur when speakers are mounted on stands near the mixing desk. In my instance I have the Meyer’s on acoustic isolated stands positioned for near field monitoring, as shown here.

Studio with Meyers and REW setup3 Looking at the frequency plot in Carl’s article I saw the big dip in the bass response from around 63-125 Hz, which is a critical range for low bass frequencies. What is happening is cancellation of frequencies due to the bouncing around of the low bass from the floor, ceiling, mixing desk, basically a chaotic environment at the critical listening position and very difficult if not impossible to fix using acoustic treatment without spending big bucks. I had already invested around $4000 in bass traps, absorbers on the walls and ceilings, and diffusors for the live end of my long, narrow studio space. I was hoping to find an easier fix, and this article provides it. The secret to fixing the hole in the ocean of audio is, SUB-WOOFERS. The rationale is that a sub can “fill in” those problematic frequency areas when set correctly for sufficient loudness and frequency crossover. That being the clue I was looking for, I pulled out my lap top with the free Room EQ Wizard program, set up and calibrated by Galaxy CM-140 SPL meter which has an output that can be fed into the computer for measurement purposes, and because taking measurements. I was mainly interested in sweeping the low end, so I accepted the default range of 200 Hz and below. Here is what I got without a sub-woofer.  The red arrow shows clearly the “hole” in the bass response from about 90 – 120 Hz, very similar to what Carl talked about in his article. no sub
This can be visualized nicely as a waterfall plot. The “hole in the ocean” is pretty obvious above 90 Hz. That is what has been messing with my mixes!  Time to fill it in. no sub waterfall So next I dug out my trusty KRK Sub-Woofer, hooked it up in line with the Meyers using a high pass filter set at 80 Hz. That means that the sub will put out the majority of the bass frequencies below 80 Hz, effectively bolstering the low end. I did not want to set the cross-over too high because the Meyers have a pretty decent bass response as well, and I am not looking to shake the room. After experimenting I set the relative level on the sub to +3 dB, and ran some tests, playing around with the cross-over and sub level. The results are shown here: sub 80 hz xver sub 80 hz xver waterfall Looks like most of the hole is filled in now. I will continue to experiment with the best settings for the sub, but for now I am excited this solution actually worked. Thanks to Carl Tatz for his great and very useful article.

New free library studio in GJ will likely benefit, not hurt, local recording businesses

I was at first very concerned when hearing, second hand, about a free studio that is being built by the Mesa County Library in downtown Grand Junction, CO.  I was so concerned that I wrote a letter to the editor after reading this article in the local Sentinel. My biggest issue was the impact it would have on new bands looking for a place to record. Local, government funded agency completes with local businesses?  That’s a headline for sure.

After speaking with both a library foundation board members and the library head, Joseph Sanchez, I have pretty much decided that this is not necessarily going to take away business, and in fact it may increase it.

  1. The library studio will focus more on video technology than audio recording, at least for now. That may change but the perception of this as an audio recording facility is inaccurate; a better description is a “multi-media” facility.
  2. Use of the studio for bands who have a local library card will be free, based on availability. While that may entice some bands to use the space in lieu of paying to record, my feeling is that it will draw more people into the process of making a record, and they will discover just how difficult it is.
  3. Complete production services may or may not be included, but based on the mission and focus of the library, it looks more like an entry level space, or “Maker-Space” in the words of Mr. Sanchez. Bands seeking more complete production services will still use local studios based on their needs for better gear and professional skill sets.
  4. The library will offer archiving of projects, and local musicians will be able to provide copies of their work to be placed in the collection “in perpetuity”. That means, 50 years from now, someone may just discover some music that would have otherwise died out much sooner.  With the permission of the artists, streaming of music will be offered on their web site, which will provide a way to get the word out for musicians seeking local recognition. It is still not certain if the library will pay a license fee for the use of the music, but that remains a possibility, according to Mr. Sanchez.
  5. Finally, the opportunities for networking among both musicians, private studios, and the public will be greatly enhanced. What that means to me is the possibility of referrals from musicians needing a more professional treatment of their tracks. While the library cannot formally endorse specific businesses, they can make available information on other services available locally.

So I am taking a wait and see attitude. Mr. Sanchez has asked me keep him informed if I find any specific instances of lost business for my studio. That shows me the library is taking an active role in promoting music production in the community, while at the same time treading carefully where they might come into competition.

I am counting on this as being a Win-Win for everyone. The studio will open in early January, 2016.

When is enough “enough”?

HighlineCanalWinter

I took a long morning walk with Willie (Little Red Dog, avid watcher of TV commercials with animals) listening again to my latest creation, Rivers of the Sky, through my BOSE noise cancelling headphones. I know you have to be careful when walking near streets with these kinds of headphones, so I headed for the High Line Canal that borders our subdivision. While technically off limits, everyone walks and rides their bikes along this stretch of water, one that strives to make Grand Junction the Venice of Colorado. So other than the occasional “other dog on leash” to deal with, I could focus on the details of these recordings.

And of course I notice the little flaws, the low frequency imbalance here, the slight off beat keyboard hit there. When I mix I try to catch every little thing, and I think I get most of it the way I want, but there is always more to do. When is enough enough? I guess that depends on what you think too. If you have a copy of the CD Rivers of the Sky, drop me a line via my contact form and let me know what you think.

I am already at work on my next collection, Hi Fiddility, so enough about the past, let’s get on with making more music!