Billy Joel Was Right!

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 12.14.15 PM.pngI’m not sure how old I was when I heard Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer” for the first time, but I distinctly remember taking note of the part where he sings that it took him years to write his latest song and that although they were the best years of his life, the song ran too long, so they cut the running time down to three minutes and five seconds. At the time, my instinct was to call BS on the idea that it took the guy “years” to write a three-minute pop song, but I was probably only about ten or eleven years old at the time, so what did I know? Not much, it turns out.

My latest recording, “Never Talk Back,” actually took me almost a quarter of a century to write and record. I probably wrote the earliest version somewhere around 1996, tried recording it a few different ways on my Tascam Porta 03 multitrack cassette recorder and then decided to go to graduate school for English. Though I’d play the song on my acoustic guitar once in a while, it mainly lay dormant in the back of my mind for the next decade or so until I started getting back into playing and recording music again.

But even then, I kept experimenting with different ways of arranging and recording the song — different styles, different keys, different melodies — without ever hitting on a version that I liked. Back when I was recording under the Android Invasion name some time ago, I think I may have put out a jazzy instrumental version of the song called “Hotrod,” but I’d have to look into that. I also played a hip-hop-flavored electronic version in a show with my robot friends at Old Haverford Friends Meeting House a couple of years back. And I tried to record a Burt Bacharach-esque version on Thank You for Holding last year, but it just wasn’t working.

This time around, I tried to keep the song as simple as possible. I started with a basic piano riff (that I eventually dropped) and asked my friend Tim Simmons to play drums along with the piano part that I’d written. Then I added a bass and two guitar parts, and that was pretty much it for the backing track, though I did also edit the song down from something like six-and-a-half minutes to just over four, so props to Billy Joel for calling that aspect of the song-writing process, too.

It took me a little while to get a vocal take that I liked, and I decided to sing the song in a fairly low register so I could avoid having to tweak the track to make it sound like I can hit high notes. Also, I’ve been playing out a little more lately, and I realized that it’s a whole lot easier on my voice to sing like Leonard Cohen than John Lennon or even Tom Petty. Not that I ever sounded like either of them, but you get the picture.

All of this is to say that Billy Joel was not bullshitting me when I was ten or eleven years old — that a song can, in fact, take many years to write, and that sometimes it’s in the best interest of a song to cut it down to three-oh-five (or, in my case, four-oh-one). But I’m still kind of mad at him for writing a song about Bethlehem, PA, and calling it “Allentown.” Now that, my friends, is BS.


Where I Work

Big thanks to Matt Porter, Senior Producer and Technical Services Manager at Montgomery County Community College, for filming and editing this short video about my experience as a student in the college’s Sound Recording and Music Technology Program.

It’s an excellent program for anyone interested in learning the art of music production or who is curious about the ins and outs of the music business. Here’s a link if you’d like to learn more: Sound Recording and Music Technology at Montgomery County Community College.

Surprise! 125 Additional Instrument Patches in Alesis Nitro Drum Module

I’ve had my Alesis Nitro electronic drum kit for about a year now, and I recently discovered that it’s more than just a drum kit. It’s also a synth module with 125 different voices.

In case you’re wondering, here’s what the kit looks like:

nitro pic

It’s an entry-level kit without many bells and/or whistles (not even a samba whistle!), which is why I was so surprised to find out that it had so many sounds beyond the expected drum kit sounds. The funny thing is that Alesis makes no mention of these extra sounds in any of the documentation that came with the unit, and I haven’t seen anyone else mention them either. There’s only this slightly mysterious reference to “surprises” on the Alesis website:

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 10.37.39 AMWhat all of this means — and why I’m so excited — is that in addition to being a drum set, the unit also acts as something akin to a full orchestra. I can plug a keyboard into the module and play any one of the 125 instruments built into it.

Though I haven’t systematically explored all of the sounds the unit has to offer, my favorites so far are patches 4, 73, and 93 — an electric piano, a flute, and an organ, respectively. Also, perhaps as a subtle joke on the part of the manufacturer, the final patch sounds like applause. Maybe it’s their way of congratulating users for finding the secret orchestra built into their drum set.

One reason this discovery is a big deal for me is that I was in the market for a synth with a decent electric piano sound, so I’m very happy to find that one was hiding in my drum set all along. Another bonus is that the drums and the synth sounds can be played simultaneously, so I can teach my dog* to play the drums while I play the keyboard. Or vice-versa.

So if you’ve stumbled upon this post because you have an Alesis Nitro or are thinking of getting one, I can assure you that the drum set sounds great for an entry-level electronic drum set and that the synth patches are a pleasant addition to the entire package.

To access the additional sounds, all you have to do is plug your MIDI keyboard controller into the unit’s MIDI-in input. Accessing the various sounds will probably depend on your keyboard’s specifications.

I’m using an Alesis Q-49 (pictured below), which allows me to select different sounds by pressing the MIDI/Select button to the left of the keyboard and then using the numbered keys at the high end of keyboard to select which patch I want. High C is “Enter.”

What I do if I want to play the electric piano, for example, is press the MIDI/Select button, then tap the keys associated with 0 and 4 (C# and F), and the tape high C for “Enter.”

q49_controlador-usbmidi-alesis-q49_2A pleasant discovery to say the least!

*PS: I got a dog last Monday. More on this development later.