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From The Boiler Room – December Update

ezkeys_uprightYou may have noticed that it’s been a bit quiet on the Boiler Room front.  That’s because I’d got through the stage of defining my thought processes – very wordy, not a lot of action – and moved on to the stage of starting to build the arrangements – lot of action, not a lot of words. Despite my best intentions, I’ve struggled to get away from building an arrangement from the drum parts up.  Where I was able to find a set of parts in EZDrummer’s library that inspired me, I was able to construct the drum track reasonably quickly and then start to build on that, but where I was unsure just how “drummy” I wanted the track to be, I tried to start with something else and that’s where the trouble started and progress stopped.

Chords & Korg

I had set out a starting arrangement for each song using the Chord Track in Cubase and this has proved to be very useful in auditioning ideas for keyboard parts.  For a couple of songs, I’ve now added several keyboard sections, just using the chords pulled out from the chord track to create parts that are block MIDI chords.  These have mostly used sounds that have inherent movement, (step forward, the Korg Wavestation), but where I’d envisaged piano parts, that wasn’t working so well.  I’d tried recording from my MIDI keyboard, but my keyboard skills, (which weren’t that good to start with), are rusty and, even so, I’m good enough to comp out an accompaniment when I’m writing, but the parts would have been limited.  I did try using the Media Bay content, but that wasn’t inspiring me.  What I needed was a professional pianist…

Saved by Black Friday

I have a wish list of software that I’d like to acquire, but that I would struggle to justify paying the asking price for.  Nice, but not essential, so they remain firmly on the wish list.  One of these was Toontrack’s EZKeys; I’d tried the demo of the first version and felt there was room for improvement, but so must a lot of other people, as the current version fixes the real snags as I saw them.  However, when Black Friday came around, Toontrack decided to offer a 50% discount if you bought the Upright Piano version from them, but I could get 70% off by buying the same package from UK distributor Time & Space.

I can take a hint.

As a piano player, I’m a good guitarist.  It’s chastening to compare your own performances with someone who can get two hands and ten fingers all working with confidence playing a keyboard.  My chord sequences took on a whole new life listening to them played back in EZKeys.  The upright piano we had when I was growing up never sounded that good.  As I write this, it’s less than a week since I plunged into the world of EZKeys, but one thing I quickly recognised was that, for where I want piano that sounds better than I can play, I needed more than the stock library that comes with the package, so I opted for the Ballads MIDI pack, which was the right move and has opened up lots of choice.  So far, I’ve put together a piano part for one song, “Later”.  (I’m going to start talking about the songs in these posts as if you know them.  As their emerging arrangements will feature one way or another in the videos I’ll be posting in the coming months, if you put up with my ramblings long enough, eventually you will.)

One of the interesting things about “Later” is that it was written on guitar, when I was experimenting with chords and progressions that aren’t necessarily common in everyday rock’n’roll.  As such, I’d always viewed it as an example of getting in touch with my inner jazzman, but there was no way I would play it comfortably on a piano.  Listening to the song played on piano allowed me to break away from the soft jazz trio I always heard in my head and listen to the song afresh, from “outside the box”.  If for no other reason than that, EZKeys has immediately shown its potential contribution to achieving my aims for this album.

Working twice as fast at half speed

Another of the interesting things about “Later” is that it’s not as fast as I thought it was.  And it’s not the only song in the collection that has turned out to be that way.  I sketched out the arrangement in the Chord Track as I had written them down, (bar of Em, bar of G, that sort of thing), and then set the tempo accordingly, either with a fixed tempo, (for now), or using the tempo track for those songs with varying time signatures.

When I came to start adding drum parts, I got a shock.  Some of the songs, those that had a slower feel, such as “Autumn”, were at completely the wrong tempo – by a factor of 2.  I’d often looked at the ½X|1X|2X set of buttons in EZDrummer that allowed you to add the parts at half or double speed and wondered why they were needed; now, I was grateful they were there.  There are no drums in “Later” at this point, but the piano parts were again added from EZKeys using the |½X| button.  Without them, I’d have ended up having to try to edit the parts to length.  Yes, I could have rewritten the chord track at the slower tempo, but then I’d have had to change my time signatures and that would have added a further layer of complication.

I’ve written before about how I don’t follow the normal patterns in songwriting and how the odd bar of 2/4 is not uncommon.  I don’t feel obliged to stay with an even number of bars either, so e.g. 11 bar sequences are nothing to worry about.  Changing the tempo of the underlying song would mean halving the number of bars, which would mean a lot more time signature changes to accommodate my 11 bar parts becoming 5½ bar parts.

State Of Play

As of today, (6th December 2013), all of the songs have a Chord Track providing an outline arrangement.  Most of them have a drum track and a few have some keyboard parts as well – “A Winter’s Blues” and “Autumn” are leading the charge here, as both have quite a few synth parts added in.  The exceptions are the slowest songs, the ballads “Time For Me To Go” and “The Rest Of Your Life”, (but I’m hoping that EZKeys will give them the same lift as it did to “Later”), and the out-and-out rocker “Love You Just A Little Bit More”.

I’ve written before about experimenting with bass lines generated from Broomstick Bass and next week’s video will actually look at the mechanics of capturing the MIDI output from a VST instrument.  However, I have to say I’m not happy with the results and will probably record the basslines for all of the songs by playing them in myself from a keyboard.  I still intend to use the Jazz Bass voice from Broomstick Bass, but the bass styles it has aren’t giving me what I want. As yet, I haven’t recorded any guitar parts or considered where any additional voicings such as strings or horns will fit in.  I’m still looking to get a clear idea of where the song is going before I add too many layers, but with some of them, that’s become a lot easier than with others.

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