Given the shelter-at-home quarantine we've all been faced with, I finally got around to remastering my rock opera Underground Radio. Mastering is distinct from mixing and is a separate phase of production during which a talented audio engineer listens to your album and makes adjustments to the overall sound, as opposed to the individual instruments or vocal tracks.
It turns out that at least some of the mastering process can be automated through the use of artificial intelligence. So I used a nifty automatic service called LANDR. I think the songs came out punchier and louder. I also fixed two niggling things that bothered me in the title track and adjusted the album artwork to better show the "ring wear" of an old vinyl album. You can listen to the remastered songs at rock-opera.com, SoundCloud or download them free from Box.
In early 2014, I moved to Michigan where my wife's family is from. I started working for an Ann Arbor based software company, Duo Security, which has been a lot of fun. But I really missed playing music with my tech buddy Rob, who remained in California.
So the original idea was for us to each write ten songs, then pick the best and record them. But somehow it spun out of control. Why not a concept album? Why not... A ROCK OPERA?
The oddest part about all of this is that neither Rob nor I have ever written songs or recorded before. Our only qualification is a combined 50 years of listening to classic rock. And if we might not hit the heights of The Who's "Tommy" or Greenday's "American Idiot" perhaps we could do better than KISS’s "Music from the Elder."
I mean, how hard could it be? It was, of course, an absurd idea. How could two rookies possibly scale the heights of rockdom? I don’t even think Rob had ever listened to a rock opera before. (I mean who has in recent years, amiright?) But much like a software startup that aims to make the world a better place, the audacity of our goal inspired us.
Next thing you know I’m recording some creepy bass riffs in GarageBand and overlaying drums and guitars. Our first song, “The Creeper,” was the embodiment of an evil surveillance government. And it sparked the whole story: 50 years of winter, a dystopian future, rock music is illegal, yada yada yada. This is pretty much the plot of every rock opera. But it's a darn good one.
Since Rob and I were in different cities, we did most of the collaboration over the interweb using Skype, iMessage, and Box for sharing files. (Box is the official cloud content management system of leading rock operas everywhere, don’t ya know?) Every few months I'd get back to California, goad Rob into singing or recording some guitar parts, and then continue editing in GarageBand.
As positive as I’d try to be during these recording sessions (“That was great, Rob. But let’s do one more take…”) the next day I’d listen to what we’d recorded and I’d be overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. I had this vision in my head of an epic rock opera but all I had was a handful of recordings of two guys failing. This feeling of hopelessness occurred at least as often as the feeling of elation throughout the entire course of the project.
They say every startup is a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and lows. That matches my feeling on writing a rock opera. Whether it was writing melodies, drafting lyrics, recording solos, mixing, or working on videos, there were countless times where I thought the most expedient solution was to delete all the files and give up. There’s no blueprint (or at least none I could find) on “The 7 Steps to Writing a Rock Opera.”
Every time I faced this situation, I simply moved on to another part of the project. If one song proved to be a dead-end, there’s no reason I couldn’t make progress elsewhere. When I put something aside for a few days or weeks and came back to it, I had a kind of unwarranted optimism: maybe I can improve this. A leap of faith was required at every milestone. I wasn’t aiming for perfection, but a more basic "Can I make this suck less?"
I won’t say that the work was easy. It takes many more hours to edit a song than it takes to record it. But I found that by gradually chipping away at something I could improve it. Often the results were surprising: a song I’d given up on now sounded pretty cool. Better than I hoped for. In my book, brute force perseverance is an under-rated skill.
Rob and I brought a startup attitude to the project: just keep working at it and let's see how far we can get. Lyrics got written, story lines developed, solos recorded and re-recorded. Occasionally we’d share songs with our beta testers. Their feedback was often the only motivation we needed to keep on going. And we did all this while holding down full-time jobs and managing family obligations.
Other songs were written weekends, evenings, on airplanes. If Rob had recorded his solos in a more timely fashion I might have stopped writing new songs. But eventually we got to 20 songs and I wondered: what the hell happened here? We’ve actually written a rock opera!
But there was one thing missing. All the songs were pretty basic: me and Rob with bass, guitar, drums and a few keyboard parts and a couple of friends adding vocals. It wasn’t quite grand enough. Then I came across an interesting item on Kickstarter: the $99 orchestra. Wait —what? Yep, for $99 per minute, we could get a 30 piece symphony orchestra to record one of our songs. For another $100 they’d create the score. I sure as hell didn’t have a score for them. I’m just a 3 chord rock guy.
We had one song where I’d weaved together multiple guitar parts that Rob and I had recorded separately. It epitomized our collaboration on the project. It was just some overdriven guitar parts, but in my mind it always sounded like a symphony: I heard strings, horns, piccolos. I don’t know what instruments are in an actual 30 piece orchestra, but it must be something like that, right?
Long story short, we got the Western European Symphony Orchestra to record it. And we got to watch a live video stream of the recording. It felt pretty amazing to hear someone else’s interpretation of our music.
So we finally put the album up on Kickstarter after Thanksgiving, partly to defray the final mixing costs and partly to develop an audience. It was fully funded fairly quickly (never underestimate the power of email to VCs, especially if you helped them make a lot of money.) Kickstarter prohibits raising money for charity, so since we’ve hit our goal we’ll either mix some bonus instrumental tracks or get some videos made. Either that or we’ll spend the money on hookers and blow.
I hope you'll go to the skills section of my Linkedin profile and click on Rock Opera to show your endorsement.
Update: The project overachieved on its funding target by 150% and was completed on time. All of the music, the bonus tracks and the Libretto are available for free download at www.rock-opera.com. You can also listen for free at SoundCloud. The music is published under an open source Creative Commons attribution license and can be used, copied, shared and re-mixed freely.
Zack Urlocker is a software executive living his rock and roll fantasy in Traverse City, Michigan.
My buddy Rob and I are almost finished with our epic '70s homage rock opera Underground Radio. It's been nearly two years in the making. It includes 20 original songs, 4 vocalists, a slew of vintage amp simulations, guitar effects, hammond b3 organ, handclaps, cowbells, backwards guitars and more.
We even got a 30 piece symphony orchestra! And it's the first rock opera to include sound effects from Mars, courtesy of NASA and the US taxpayers at a cost of $18 billion. NASA also does some other cool things besides supporting rock operas. As far as we know, this is also the first rock opera to be recorded entirely in GarageBand.
Underground Radio is inspired by music of The Pretty Things, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, The Jam, The Stranglers, Television, Pink Floyd and others. It's set in a dystopian future under an evil surveillance government, 50 years of winter, rock music is illegal. But these two guys try to jam the government's systems with rock and roll, yada yada yada.
All of the songs will be published under a Creative Commons license so they can be used royalty free by anyone in their own creative projects, like films, games, you name it. If anyone wants to re-mix the songs, we're happy to share the GarageBand or LogicPro files.
The project is now fully funded on Kickstarter but if we can raise more money towards defraying the mixing and mastering costs, that is appreciated. We're looking for input about what else we should provide backers in return for hitting our "stretch goals". For example, we could provide more bonus instrumental tracks, chord charts to the songs, higher quality loss-less audio files, a digital tour booklet, tour poster, album covers etc. Let us know your input in comments or on the kickstarter page.
My other other band, "After Hours Blues Machine" had a successful gig last night at Redhouse Studios in Walnut Creek. It was a showcase for half a dozen bands and things went pretty well. We did a short set with some straight ahead rock songs, and hopefully it came across with a lot of energy. I think things sounded pretty good. There were a couple of minor mistakes, but I'm not sure how obvious they were to the audience.
It's been great playing together with Dave, Jeff and Marc at Redhouse. And we were fortunate to have Assaf sit in on keyboards with just a few rehearsals.
If you're in the east bay area, I highly recommend Redhouse Studios' workshops. They've got a wide range of workshops they run for rock, jazz, Beatles, Stones, metal and more as well as lessons and regular concerts. I'm gonna miss this place.
My "other" band "Numbers Stations" played a gig on Sunday at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco. The set list was pretty varied including songs by Weezer, Al Green, Lou Reed (of course), The Stranglers, Queens of The Stone Age, Santana and more. I played bass and covered vocals on two songs. This was part of a showcase for the non-profit Blue Bear School of Music. Here's a video from the show.
Here are a couple of videos from our final rehearsal at Lennon Studios.
I've posted a few sample MP3 songs below. You can listen to more over at SoundCloud.
My band, Soul Crush, played a gig last night at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. Our group came together through the non-profit Blue Bear School of Music. There was a good crowd and the sound system was great. Vocals came through loud and clear, but oddly enough, the guitars probably could have been louder! (How often do you hear that?) We covered a range of R&B, blues, rock and indie tunes including "Respect", "Oh Darling", "Valerie", "I'll Play The Blues For You" and more. I sang vocals on "Sweet Jane" and we were able to pull off some nice drum hits during the song along with a great guitar solo.
This was my first time playing bass in a band, and other than a few minor hiccups, everything went well. Here are a few photos from the gig:
And for die hard fans, here's a higher quality MP3 version of Sweet Jane:
I've never been a guy with a lot of natural rhythm; it's always been something I've struggled with. Unfortunately, both bass players I play with have left their respective bands --one due to, ah, creative differences, and the other has gone back to his home of Australia. So I decided to throw my hand in and attempt to learn to play bass. I figured it would be good for me as a way to improve my rhythm. And for some of the rock and blues songs we've been playing ("Come together", "Day Tripper", "Sunshine of your Love", "Killing Floor", "Early in the Morning") the bass line is pretty much the same as one of the guitar parts. So how hard can it be, right? I mean, it's only got four strings!
So I picked up a couple of used short scale basses and Roland cube amps on Craigslist and GuitarCenter. One bass and amp are kept where I rehearse with my guitar buddy Rob, so I don't have to schlep gear every time we play, and the other set is at home.
Jay Turser Violin Bass ($150 w/case) A Hofner "Beatle bass" clone with a 30" scale that I picked up in white as seen in the photo above. I've never seen another Beatle Bass in white, so I'm pretty chuffed about this.
Roland Cube 20XL Bass ($150) A solid practice amp, with built-in amp emulation and loud enough you can play with a drummer
Roland Cube 100 Bass ($200) This is a discontinued model, loud enough to play a gig, but still only 35 lbs. Lots of built-in effects so you can go from smooth Motown sound to Stranglers growl. At $200 this was a steal.
I decided to go with a short scale bass which would be easier to transition from guitar. It's still a bit of a stretch, but not too bad. That makes it a different sound than the classic rock Fender P-Bass, but I figure with the effects and amp emulation, I can boost the low-end if I really need to. For guitar players interested in picking up bass, a short scale bass makes a pretty easy transition. The Ibanez Mikro is about the same size as a Fender Strat, so it fits nicely in the trunk of my convertible. Alas, the Beatle Bass has to ride in the passenger seat.
I'm not giving up on guitar, but I'm going to see what I can do to learn some proper bass skills. Heaven knows you always seem to have more guitar players than bass players, so I figure it's a good skill to have. It's certainly different from guitar. But it's a cool feeling when you get a groove going with the drummer. And so far, no pressure to do a bass solo.
Any other bass players coming from guitar who want to provide advice? Let me know in the comments below. And if anyone has another short scale bass (Ibanez ARTB100, Eastwood, Gibson EB0 etc) in white they'd like to sell, I'm all ears.
One of the best things about the National Guitar Workshop is that you get to work on songs during the day and then get up on stage in the evenings and play something. While skill levels and musical genres vary widely, it's nonetheless a nervewracking experience when you're live in front of an audience. There's no do-overs, no mulligans. You make mistakes, you just keep going. And believe me, we made plenty. But we were definitely less nervous than in prior years.
Here are some videos including our performance of "Mustang Sally" and "All Your Love." (Note there's a minute of intros before "All Your Love" gets underway.) While we were a long way from playing flawlessly, it was fun and it occasionaly even sounds like music. There are also plenty of other more talented students who got up and did their thing. Special thanks to Pete Weise, Lynn Daniels and Ernie Durawa our instructors in this year's Blues class. Also kudos to Ted Hall and John Horne for giving us a great musical foundation.
The photo above is with my NGW buddies Philippe and Bruce. Cheers to Pete who couldn't make it this year, but was with us in spirit. Or at least via interweb.
Apologies that it's taken me a while to post this write up on last month's blues gig. Somehow the videos were hard to get hold of and some of the footage shot on iPhone rather than my usual Canon G9 left something to be desired. Nonetheless, I've posted video of most of the songs. (We had one near train wreck, which no one in the group wanted to see again.)
The gig was heled at Red House studios in Walnut Creek, where we practice on Monday evenings in a Blues workshop. I think everyone was less nervous this time, but still a few things went awry. In some ways it was a miracle that we even pulled off the gig as we had one person recovering from surgery and two others who earlier in the day were borderline as to whether they would be able to make it at all due to respitory ailments. For reasons I cannot fully explain, we substituted one song about 20 minutes before going on stage. In retrospect, that might not have been the best idea, since we had not played it together in many months.
Nonetheless most of the gig worked out well. We started with the 1977 Stranglers song "Hanging Around" which is about as far away from the blues as you can get. Although the video doesn't show our awesome intro, it does a pretty good job capturing the energy of this song, especially the tremendous drums & bass from "the rhythm chicks" Holly & Lynn. I'm singing vocals (occasionally off-key), James does a fantastic solo, and we started and ended together, so that was pretty cool. I was more relaxed for my solo than the last gig, though I should have had more volume, as usual.
I played on a few other songs ("Shakin' All Over," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Ain't no Sunshine") but to me the standout songs were "Messin' with the Kid," "Hurt so Bad," and "Juke Joint Jump," the latter featuring our ever-inspiring blues instructor Jeff Magidson.
It's been fantastic to play with so many awesome musicians: Lisa is phenomenal on vocals (and guitar), Val is a brilliant guitar player, James is a superb showman, Tom has made major strides in the last few months. Best of all, the whole crew are great to work with. There's no doubt that playing at Redhouse has helped me improve my own abilities. I don't know when our next gig will be, but we will continue to make progress gradually, week after week, gig after gig.
A couple of nights ago I had my second live gig with a local Blues Workshop group. We played at Red House studios in Walnut Creek, where we practice on Monday evenings. Even though we played on the same stage we rehearse on, I was still way too nervous. In fact, I was more nervous for this gig than I was for my first gig a few months back. Maybe because I've not had as much time to practice since taking a new job or maybe because as a second gig my expectations were higher.
The set consisted of ten songs, four of which I played on. We always have a surplus of guitar players, so we swap in and out of songs as necessary. I played on the second song of the evening, "Early in the Morning," an old Louis Jordan Rumba. The room was quite cold and I messed up my timing a bit on that one. James, the singer (and a superb guitarist), was very gracious and we traded some licks at about 4 minutes into the song, which was fun, despite my nervousness. We'd never done that before and I think James was trying to make things more interesting. I wish I'd been able to venture a little bit further out of my comfort zone on that, but I was so afraid I'd screw up that I just stuck with first position Pentatonics. "Bring Down the Curtain" (JJ Cale) was the next song. Val, one of the other guitar players sings on this one and he developed a great rock arrangement of the song. I was off stage for a while and came back up for "Give me One Reason" (Tracy Chapman) which came out quite good, due to some awesome vocals by Lisa. We finished the evening with the classic "Sweet Home Chicago"(Robert Johnson). The idea was to get everyone from the workshop up on stage and just have some fun with it. I had a beer by that point and figured as long as things were noisy and chaotic everything would be ok.
There's some video below from YouTube. I'm the guy on the right hand side in the dark shirt. I also included our workshop's version of "Chain of Fools" which I think came out exceptionally well, though I don't play on it. (And maybe that's why it sounds so good!)
But I also recognize this is a long journey. I couldn't have played this well on stage a year ago if I dared. And I know I'll sound better a year from now, especially if I continue playing every week with this group and every day on my own. But it's still a bit frustrating to feel like I didn't play as well as I could have. But I guess if I can get another 100 gigs under my belt, then maybe I'll learn to relax more and be more confident. Either that, or I'll get some liquid courage with a 24 oz tallboy.
For the past few months, I've been part of a Blues Essentials workshop at Red House Studio in Walnut Creek. We get together every Monday evening and work on a new song. Our workshop includes a range of guitar players, bass players and drummers of various skill levels. This past Saturday morning we played our first ever live gig at a local wine & arts festival in Lafayette. Although the set was quite short, a group of us rehearsed quite a bit over the last few weeks and it paid off.
I'm an occasional runner and I can't help but compare this first gig to running your first serious 10k race. You gotta respect any such event with your taining; you don't just show up and wing it. And like a race, there's a million things that could go wrong. Will anyone show up? Can I find parking? What if it rains? Will our vocalist make it on time? Where are the bathrooms? Just like a race.
Luckily, everyone did make it. And I think we sounded pretty darned good. There's some video below that I've posted on YouTube. The camera is a bit shaky in parts, but it captures the sound quite well. I've also included the song "Love Me Like a Man" by some other folks in our workshop and a nice solo by Tom on "Tore Down."
Astute viewers will notice a minor slip up in the second song, JJ Cale's "Bring Down the Curtain." James and I are soloing at the same time and stepping all over eachother. Had I been paying more attention I would have just reverted back to rhythm and given James the space he deserved. But there were 100 things I was trying to keep straight in my head (What key are we in? Can anyone hear my amp? Where's the 17th fret? Don't play too many notes! Relax. Is this in B?) and by the time I figured out what was going on we were back to the vocals. No doubt it sounds like we were giving the song an unwarranted prog-rock treatment.
Even with this rough spot, I think we did as good a job as we could have done. James and Val were awesome both on their vocals and on guitar. Holly and Lynn kept the rhythm locked in for us. I was happy that I was in the right key at all times and didn't totally lose the plot.
They say that the difference between a jogger and a runner is a race entry form. Perhaps we did the same thing today moving from wannabe's to musicians by playing what was the first live gig for most of us. Playing in front of an audience is different from a basement jam or rehearsal. You're out there without a safety net, exposing yourself to whatever might go wrong. And that's part of why you rehearse, so that even if things go wrong, or rather, when things go wrong, you can still make it work. Just like running a race. I have no doubt there are thousands (millions?) of better players out there in the bay area alone, but we did something together on stage and put it in front of the audience and I could not be more proud of our performance.
If you're an amateur musician or wannabe in the SF East Bay, I strongly recommend you check out Red House Studio. They have group and private instruction, rehearsal space, recording facilities, jams, shows, you name it and cover all range of music, skills and age groups. Special thanks to everyone who helped get us on stage, especially Jeff Magidson the musical director and our blues instructor. Jeff, we couldn't have done it without you.