Archive for August, 2009

Change Your Practice Environment to Unintentionally Practice More

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Our habits define us. Not only do they define us now, but also give us a relatively good predictor of our future selves.  If we can intentionally define our habits, we’ll have a much better chance of success.  With only a few changes around the house, and maybe some slight life changes, I think you can dramatically improve your playing skills. A quick example of how our habits define us, and then we’ll get into practical implementation.

Have you noticed how some fat people have a habit of going to Wendy’s or McDonalds on a regular basis? They go and order more than one sandwich, biggie size the combo meal, and get ice cream on the side.  Why? Because they have constructed a daily habit where physical and mental cues in their lives which lead them to the front doors of the restaurant.  Every day it’s the same thing: they receive a mental cue from their bodies (“I’m hungry”), which in turn requires a response to satiate that need.

“Hey, let’s go to Micky D’s!” they say with flabtastic enthusiasm.

And they end up getting fatter, and fatter, and fatter, and wonder why the hack they can’t lose all that weight.  Really all they gotta do is stop going to fast food all the time and eat a decent meal at home.

So we as musicians need to somehow conquer this kind of habit, turn it around, and use it to our advantage.  We all have goals in our lives, and if you are a musician, these probably include practice/writing/performance goals right?  So we need to start building habits in our lives that will (almost) automatically accomplish our goals.  We have got to create triggers in our lives that will, in a similar fashion to fat people going to Wendys, make us better musicians through developing our habits.

Assuming you aren’t where you want to be, you’ll need to make some changes in lifestyle.  Some will need bigger changes than others, but almost everyone requires some kind of change.  I think it’s best to do all of these changes as quickly and dramatically as possible, as one thrust of energy.  In WWII, without the initial charge on the beach of Normandy in 1944, the war might indeed have never been won.  They needed an huge push in order to establish a beach-head, which required thousands of hours of planning, deception, and preparation in order to pull it off.  The allied forces could not have kept up that kind of sustained force for the whole war; it would have simply been impossible.  But the thrust gave them the momentum and the mindset that propelled them toward victory.  Create your own Normandy beach-head.

So here are some things that you can do to Musicize your practice area.  (Yeah I made it up.  I haven’t decided how to pronounce it yet though.  Muze-er-syze, Myoo-zeh-kaize, Myuu-zih-size?  Ideas anyone?)

  • One of the most important things to do is to put all of you instruments out where you can see them.  Many people have more than one, so you want to spread them out around your house.  Doing this will probably result in one “accidental” practice almost every day.  I read an interview with Eddie Van Halen a long time ago, and I remember him mentioning he had set up a guitar and drum machine for his toilet.  That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
  • Put the songs you’ve written on your “The Playlist.  You should obviously be recording your work somewhere so you don’t forget it, so why not put that onto your mp3 player and listen to your own music.
  • Listen to music all the time.  I used to find it hard to study or do work while music was playing, but I really wanted to change that, so I found a solution: play your music at a very low volume while working.  Just loud enough to hear the beat, but quiet enough that you can’t exactly hear the lyrics.  It made my long college study sessions not so stressful.
  • Change your friends.  Do you still hang out with friends that don’t believe in you?  Do you still feel you have to pay homage to people that are always bringing you down?  Find some people who are going the same direction as you so you’ll be reminded constantly about music.  But don’t be a jerk in the process.
  • Buy more music documentaries for your movie collection.  These are a great way to get inspired and learn some things about the music industry.
  • Put up posters on your walls of your favorite artists.  I went to my friend’s apartment yesterday, and realized how stylish music posters can be.  I wish I could show you a photo or something of their place, but it was almost like one of those apartments you see in suave magazines.  It made me want to pick up a guitar and write something.
  • Set up your own mini recording studio.  The idea is to always have this place ready.  You never want to lose a good melody or riff simply because you forgot it.  If you haven’t realized it yet, your mind isn’t that great at remembering stuff for a long time.  Take a few minutes to put your idea into the computer and you’ll thank yourself later.  I’m hoping to write an in depth article about creating a mini recording studio pretty soon, I’ll try to remember to post a link when I do.
  • You want to be able to listen to your music just about anywhere, so buy an mp3 player and the necessary accessories.  And don’t skimp on this one either.  Do your research, save up some cash money, and go buy a nice iPod or a good mp3 player.  Use it in the car too, because you don’t want to be at the whims of the radio hosts, and commercials can be a serious waste of your time.
  • Change the food you eat: beans, beans, the musical fruit…

There are of course a bunch of other things you can do, but the idea is that you are pursuing the habits that will help you improve your playing.

Disclaimer: This is not to say that you’ll become amazing without trying!  Nothing can take the place of intentional and purposeful daily practice and writing.

Apology: I do not mean to offend obese people who have no control over their weight.  I mean no offense to you, and I do my best not to judge people based on outward appearance.  If you are overweight but DO have a degree of control over your weight, I’m trying to offend you a little.  Not in a demeaning way, but it is my hope that you face the reality of your situation and take steps to improve your health.  Remember, your habits define you!


Learn Songs Faster by Creating a Master Playlist

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

For those of you that don’t know, I just got back from a year long foreign exchange program in Japan.  I wanted to learn Japanese super bad, so I decided the best way to do it was to go there.  I found out later that you don’t need to go anywhere to learn a language, but, well, that’s another story altogether.  Using the advice from Khatzumoto, I started making Japanese my life.  I switched Firefox into Japanese, I tried reading stuff on Wikipedia in Japanese, I tossed out almost all of my books that were in English, I stopped hanging out with English speaking people as much as possible, and most of all – I completely quit listening to music in English.  That was really tough for me, because it’s obviously a huge part of my life, and provides the life force for my entire existence. And so I had to find a way to get good Japanese music, get it quick, and get it cheap.  I signed up for an account on imeem, and immediately started building a playlist of music that I liked.  It was free, easy to use, and I could access it anywhere I had a computer.  Since I spent most of my time studying with a memorization program on my computer (Anki if your interested), I listened to that playlist almost every day.  Needless to say, after listening to this playlist almost every day for 10 months, I started memorizing songs that I couldn’t even understand yet. I’d go to karaoke with my friends, and be able to sing a ton of songs in Japanese while my other foreign friends were stuck singing in English.  As you can probably imagine, a thought was sparked in my head, which in turn began an on-going project that I hope will help you in your quest to collect all the pieces of the triforce become a better musician.

“The Playlist”

You can probably see what’s coming next.  You’re going to want to take all of your most favorite music, and build what I like to call “The Playlist”.  Yup, your favorite music.  Now you’re reading this post, and you’re thinking “What the heck John, who hasn’t done that.  I mean seriously, everybody and their aunt’s FedEx delivery-man has a playlist of their favorite music … gosh dang it!” And in saying that, yeah you’re probably right.  The reality is that it’s just that: a playlist. But it’s a collection of the music that fuels your passion, the songs that made you start playing in the first place, the music that is so good that it gives you goose-bumps, the music that you can’t help dancing to – even when other people are around. It’s much more than just a “playlist”.

Constructing The Playlist

To start out, you want to embrace the life of a minimalist for a bit, and make sure that all of your music is in the same place.  Having files spread across computers, different programs, CDs, tapes, and vinyl, and other various places is a nightmare.  You can’t quite immediately get all of your analog media (tapes, vinyl, etc.) onto the computer, but just get everything in the same place.  Use your favorite audio software program to collect all your digital media in one place.  I use Media Monkey, and could rave about it all day, but I certainly can’t tell you which program to use.  If you’re in a band, I suggest you all agree on using the same media player and file format.

So now you’ve got all your files in one place and begin by making a playlist called, well, “The Playlist”, or anything you want I guess. Just make sure it’s not just another playlist on top of all the other “my favs”, “grandma’s music”, and “mix tape for Henrietta” playlists you’ve made. It’s gotta be recognizable instantly by anyone who sees it. Add a zero in front of it if you want it to show up first alphabetically.  Now you want to systematically choose the songs that you like the most.  You need to suppress your feeling a little bit while doing this, mostly because if you’re like me, you have about 500 favorite songs.  Most media players such as iTunes or Windows Media Player keep track of the number of times you listen to each song your own, so let’s start there. iTunes even has an automatic “Top 25 Most Played” playlist, unless you deleted it.  Add the top 25 or so songs to start out, and more if you feel like it.

If you’re like me, some songs with have a ridiculous play count.  Not because you listen to them a lot, but rather because you’ve been practicing them for a long time.  In my playlist for example, Karma by Bump of Chicken has been played 184 times, simply because I had to practice it so many times before I got good at it (it’s boat hard remembering lyrics in a second language).  You can choose to leave those songs in or take them out, depending on how much you actually like them.

Depending on how old you are (yeah, sorry to point it out like this, but it’s pretty obvious), you’re going to have more or less analog media.  Accept the fact that your music is outdated, in an inconvenient package, and that the sound quality is not nearly as good.  I know some people love the vinyl sound, or the tape sound, or the scratchy-overcompressed-radio sound, but for our purposes you need something more portable.  You’re gonna need to get it on your computer somehow.  Since you can’t readily add it like digital media, you have only a few options.  The first thing you wanna do is make a list of the analog songs that you actually like.  To do that, make a pile in the middle of your living room of all your analog stuff, and separate it into two piles – the “really good” pile and the “not as good” pile (you don’t still own all crappy music do you? why?).  Go through the “good” pile and make a list of all your favorite songs.  Choose specific songs and not just whole albums.  Take that list and hold on to it for the next part.

Next we want to choose songs that might have been missed by the play count (or if you don’t listen to music much on your computer). You’ll have to manually go through your entire playlist and find all the songs you consider top notch. These are 5 star songs, the cream of the crop.  Try to eliminate as much “good” music as you can.  This is your favorite music of all time isn’t it?  It might be time consuming depending on how much music you have, and will probably result in some nostalgia too :). But at the same time, don’t get distracted!  After adding these songs you should have a rather sizable list.  It might be upwards of 100 or 150 songs if you have a considerably large music collection, or you were just too generous when choosing your songs. Including your analog songs, this list should be somewhere around 150 songs.  If you have more, take some out; if you have less, don’t worry too much.

At this time, you’re going to want to have your analog songs in your computer somehow.  I’ve never done it, but there are some ways that you can record your tapes and records onto your computer, but I imagine it will seriously be a pain in the butt.  If you’ve had a different experience, tell me about it in the comments.  Rather, my suggestion is to just buy brand new songs online.  Yeah, it’s like buying the song twice, and yeah, you already own it.  But seriously, this music is awesome right?  That probably means the artists spent a lot of time and hard work writing that song.  They deserve to be paid.  You’re gonna want to listen to it everywhere you go, so it’s worth the extra price.  I plan on posting a How To soon about buying songs online, so check that out when it comes, and get those songs into 1’s and 0’s.

Further Notes on your The Playlist

Please realize that this playlist is not static, but rather, it’s very very dynamic.  Adding songs and deleting songs should be a regular occurrence.   It’s also a really great tool for a person pursuing a career in music.  Here are some examples of things I do/could do with my playlist:

  • The 50 songs number is just a target, so don’t be afraid if your playlist is swelling to 75 or more songs.  When I find a new band or album I like, I add all of their music to the playlist.  I find that the list quickly goes back down to 50 or so as I delete songs that aren’t awesome.
  • I add songs that my band is practicing, kind of as an addition to the list.  Meaning I get to listen to them often (very important) because they are in the list, but I don’t include them in the 50 song limit.
  • Show it to your friends or band-members.  They might be inspired to do the same, thus improving the quality of music you end up playing.
  • Like I said before, use it when forming/joining a new band to define the direction you want to go.
  • And the ever so blindingly obvious: to enjoy it.

Upon completion, you’ll have made your very own The Playlist.  It is the best of the best of the best.  Your very own representation of the greatest music on the face of the earth.  You’ve also done something on top of defining greatness, and not only created your very own inspiration tool, but have defined the path that your own music should take.  If this music has changed your life, or constantly brings you pleasure, then you should write music similar to that.  It is your responsibility to start writing that music, and take the step from passive reception into active transcendence, adding richness to the world by passing on inspiration and encouragement to others through your music.



The Difference Between Gain, Volume, Level, and Loudness

Monday, August 17th, 2009

When working with sound amplification equipment, we often misuse these terms. Probably because you’ll see them often, and two or three on the same piece of equipment! That can seriously make your brain want to go flip upside-down and jump into a pool of boiling acoustic particle velocity soup. On top of that, you might have channel volume, master volume, guitar volume, fader levels,  guitar amp gain, mixer board gain … etc. But, it’s pretty important stuff to understand if you want to get a good sound from your equipment.


Gain is one of the harder terms to define, mainly because its used in a lot more places than just the audio world. Quite simply it means an increase in some kind of value. So for example, you can have a power gain, voltage gain, or current gain; and they all increase those respective values. Typically when referring to gain, we refer to transmission gain, which is the increase in the power of the signal. This increase is almost always expressed in dB (decibels). This could be the increase in the raw signal from your guitar or microphone before it goes into any of the other electronic components. For the curious, here’s the equation to calculate gain:

Gain = 10 x log (Power out/Power in)

expressed in dB.

Practical Use of Gain

For all non-rocket scientist purposes, you’re probably going to see a gain control in two places. One of them is on your mixer board or PA, and the other is on a guitar amp. These both mean the same thing as far as electronics go, but serve different purposes in each.

On the mixer board, you’ll see the gain at the top of the board. It’s the first control that the raw mic signal sees, and it will boost the signal to a sufficient level for the rest of the controls to work properly. You’ll want to set this gain level high enough to bring up the level of the signal, but not so high that you’ll get clipping or distortion in the signal. For this purpose, many boards come with a PFL (Pre-Fader Listen) button. This button will let you see the actual signal strength by looking at the LEDs on the board. Use the mic at normal sound levels and set the gain knob so that the peaks in sound don’t send the signal into the red, and you’re good to go.

On a guitar amp, the gain’s main intention is to create distortion (as my blood tingles with ground shaking delight). You already know what it does, so there’s no point in telling you, but I do have a small tip – turn your gain down! Yes, I also love the gut wrenching melodies of face-meltifying solos, but you seriously don’t need your gain sitting on 10 all the time. Novices will go into the recording studio thinking their sound is redonkulously awesome, only to have the sound engineer take their distortion down to a 5 or 6 cause they sound terrible. The distortion shouldn’t hide your skills, but accentuate them. IMHO.


Besides defining three dimensional space, volume can also be used to describe the power level of a signal. So when you turn up the “master volume” knob on your amp, it simply means you’re increasing the amount of power used by the amp to increase the signal. This term is quite ambiguous since it’s used in so many different places, mainly to mean the actual sound you perceive in your ears, which is not exactly true. Use with caution.


This term is used to describe the magnitude of the sound in reference to some arbitrary reference. More specifically we use SPL (sound pressure level) to describe sound waves. SPL is a term calculated from the log of the rms sound pressure of a measured sound related to a reference value. Basically meaning we create a measurement scale with zero starting at the lowest threshold of human hearing. The SPL scale is shown in dB and goes up to 130 dB (well, infinity, but whatever), which is the threshold of pain for the human ear. Now I just need to find a way to rock as loud as Krakatoa (180 dB standing 100 miles away).


Loudness, even though similar to volume and level, is another whol’nother monster. Since human ears are not able to hear each frequency at the same level, perceived loudness is different as we move up and down in frequency. The following graph shows the level that a human ear “thinks” its hearing, which as you can see is not correct most of the time.  The lower frequencies, like the bass guitar at 40-220 Hz, need more sound pressure for us to believe it’s equally as loud as a sound at 1 kHz.

Equal Loudness Contours

Equal Loudness Contours

Here we introduce a term called a “phon“, which is used to describe loudness.  You can see on the graph that the phon contour is different for each dB level.  The 120 phon contour requires less boost in the low frequencies than the 10 phon contour.  Mostly because of the shape of the ear, you can also see from the graph that we hear the 3-4 kHz range the best, which happens to be on the slightly higher end of human speech.  If you lost it, you’d have a hard time understanding people.

In Conclusion

Now the whole point of this article is to get you all learned up about music terminology, and how to use it.  But don’t go around hitting people on the head with your “terminology hammer” and pretending like you own the universe now that you know this stuff. Know-it-alls are annoying. The point is the ideas behind the words, so don’t get so hung up on the specific words unless you have to go writing text someplace.

So that’s it, no more. I was gonna say “As always, yada yada”, but realized that this is only the second article I’ve written so far, so I can’t exactly say “As always”. Well, hold on a sec. Why the heck not? Yeah. There’s no rules for writing blogs right?

As always, stay cool, and hash it up in the comments.


First Post

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Hey guys, this is officially the first post.  Right now it’s 20:52 on August 4, 2009, in Japan anyway.  I’ve been doing quite the sprint in getting the site layout done.  I had to teach myself HTML, php, css, and a bunch of other internet programming languages to get it up.  It was dang fun though.  Its so rewarding to work out all the problems that come up, and and then finally see the results of your hard work.  There are still quite a few buggy spots, and a lot of empty space, which will hopefully get filled in soon.  I’ve just got to hunker down and pump out the text.  I’ve definitely got a lot of things I want to talk about.

At the moment I’m doing a year long foreign exchange program in Japan, where eating sushi and going to karaoke are a regular occurrence.  Actually, my avatar (the pic next to my comments) was taken while during a 6 hour karaoke marathon with my friends.  My voice was so tired I could hardly say “konnichiwa” to any of the beautiful Japanese girls on the way home.  They must have thought I was a wolverine, with my beardy beard and scratchy voice and all.

OK, ok, so on to something relevant.  I’ve joined a band here in Sendai, and I we’ve got a concert coming up in a few days.  We chose three songs to play, and have been practicing those for about three months.  It’s a ridiculously long time to practice for only one event, but my band-mates are too busy with school to practice more than once a week.  Practice room time is also very strict because everything in Japan is so dang small.  I’d like to practice everyday if possible, but it just ain’t gonna happen.  Anyway, we’ll make our debut/final show on the 11th, and I’ll leave for home on the 12th.  I couldn’t think of a better way to end my year here in Japan.

Note: I’m not afraid to write about my personal life, but I do hope to write posts that are useful and intended for a greater audience in the future…  But you can probably read more about that in the About Page.