Saturday, September 14, 2013

Just Checking In

Hello blog subscribers.  I don't have anything to promote today, so I'll just say hey!

I'm having a really busy month.  I've been playing a bunch of West Coast gigs with BOC and doing a lot of work in my home studio.  I get a lot of calls and e-mails from people wanting me to contribute to their recordings.  I love doing this kind of work.  I can work from home, it's very creative and fun.  Since I'm working from home, the turnaround time is usually very quick.

I have a lot of ideas in my head for future projects, but I've put them all on hold.  I'm getting married next month and there's a lot of things to be done for the wedding, so that takes priority right now.

I can tell you a few of the cool things I'm in the middle of at the moment.  We're nearly done filming Tiger's Fang 10.  This has been the most challenging one yet because it was our first time using a green screen and we made about every noob mistake possible.  Steve and I have been painstakingly going through every frame of these shots.  Not fun.  The movie is looking really good and it's really really funny.

I'm working on an awesome project with some of my students.  I can't say much yet, except that I'm totally blown away by their talent.  This one is going to be jaw dropping!

I've been working on a lot of new music for myself and my friends.  I have a collection of songs that I'm planning to release as digital singles.  They're all done, I just have to polish them up a bit.  I've also been contributing parts to original music for some of my more well known buddies.  Can't say anything about those projects yet.

On the subject of MorningStarlett, we've been kind of stagnant.  Not by choice though.  There just aren't many places for a band like us to play.  The nice thing though, is that the CD did pretty well for an unknown band release.  I've been reading reviews from all over the world and people really love this album.  I'm very proud of the MorningStarlett CD and it makes me feel great that there are people who really appreciate it.

Now onto the important stuff.  This has been an amazing video game month for me.  I got the new Tomb Raider.  I just finished it.  What an incredible game!  Beautiful, exciting, was right up my alley.  I loved it!

I'm doing the Riddler stuff in Arkham City.  That game is simply incredible.  It's perfect.  Sometimes when I need to unwind, I just put that game on and patrol Gotham.  It's so amazing that I can play it without even touching any of the missions and still enjoy it.

I just picked up Diablo 3.  While the gameplay and the graphics are pretty basic, the multiplayer features make that game great.  Being able to jump in and out of games with your friends whether they're in your living room, or at their own houses makes this a real winner.  It's like a fantasy party game.  Very cool.

I'm also back into comics.  Yes, my nasty habit is back.  I'm currently reading the DC new 52 stuff.  I was resistant at first, but a few story lines piqued my interest.  I'm not current on everything but I've been reading Batman, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, Huntress/Powergirl, and Justice League.  It's great stuff to read on the plane when they make you turn your phone off!


Thursday, August 8, 2013

New Fly-Out Rig!

I just built a new super compact and totally awesome sounding guitar rig for fly out dates where I can only bring a limited amount of gear.  If I had my way, I'd bring my Engl Stack and my big rack o' TC gear to every gig, but on fly out dates, that's simply not possible. 

I got tired of being at the mercy of backline companies' amps.  Usually they're ok, but you do get some poorly maintenanced stinkers every once in a while.  I didn't want to chance it anymore, so that inspired this new rig. 

Here are all the gory and geeky details:

1) My signal obviously starts with the guitar.  I use various Ernie Ball Music Man guitars, all equipped with DiMarzio pickups

2) This goes into an Audio Technica AEW-4110 wireless system.  This is a really great sounding and reliable wireless.  It's probably the oldest piece in my entire rig.  It's almost 10 years old and still works great.  How many pieces of electronic gear can you say that about?

3) The output of the wireless goes into a TC Electronic Poly Tune.  This is the coolest tuner ever.  You can check the tuning of all 6 strings at once.  This makes it really easy to tune during very short song breaks.

4) From the tuner, we go into the input of a Line 6 Pod HD-500.  That's right, a POD!  I used to be a tube amp purist. So why did I start using a Pod?  As I said before, the unpredictable nature of backline tube amps, made it nearly impossible to get a consistent sound.  Also, since we started using in-ear monitors, we've been able to keep the stage volume way down.  This made it easier to make this transition.  It took me a long period of tweaking, but I finally got the Pod sounding just right.  The HD models in there are very nice.  The effects are also cool, but they too require a whole lot of tweaking.  I basically use 4 sounds:

            A) Clean Fender Twin Reverb with Chorus, Delay and Reverb
            B) Slightly overdriven Dr. Z amp with Tube Screamer, Tremolo and Delay

            C) Crunchy Marshal JCM-800 with Chorus and Flanger

            D) Engl Fireball with 2 Delays set to different rhythms and mix levels.

Within each of these presets I have the ability to turn the individual effects on and off as if the were stomp boxes.  I also have the expression pedal set up to control the Delay mix level.  At first I was using the Pod going direct, but I wasn't thrilled with these results.  So, I ended up disabling the cabinet simulation.

5) The Pod's mono output goes into a BBE Sonic Stomp pedal.  One unexpected side effect of turning the cabinet simulation off and only using the Pod as a preamp was the loss of the low end.  Don't get me wrong, the tone was great, but that super low end depth that you get from a real amp, was just not there.  This pedal was the perfect solution to these missing freqencies.

6) From there the signal goes into a Matrix Guitar Amplification G-1000 Stereo Power Amp.  This is a solid state 1000 watt power amp that only weighs 6 pounds!!!  It's stereo, so I run it in mono mode.  I could run my rig in stereo if I wanted, but I find that my being mono is more effective in this particular band.  Buck has a really nice stereo spread on his sound, and I don't want to get in the way of that.  Since I wasn't really loving the sound of the Pod going to direct into my ears, this was a perfect solution.  I got the air moving and I got to have a little bit of stage volume. This power amp isn't as loud as you'd think, but it does give you a pretty respectable stage volume and it's totally fine if you're using in-ears.  I kind of wish the amp had a depth and presence control like other power amps, but the BBE pedal fills that void nicely.

7) The power amp goes into a Marshall 1960 Cabinet. This is the only piece of rental gear I use.  These are usually consistent enough where my sound won't change much from gig to gig.  This gets miked up and then sent to the PA.  I'd say the most important step in getting a good guitar sound through a PA is microphone placement.  Poor placement can totally wreck your sound, no matter how great your gear is.  I place the microphone myself using my in ears to monitor the sound.

So that's my new rig.  It's really small and I'm really enjoying it.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Abbey Road Video

            So, I've lost my damn mind and decided to do another one of these split-screen videos. I have to say that the Bohemian Rhapsody video was more successful than I could have ever imaged while making it.  I'm so honored that so many people have decided to watch it and share it with their friends.  A lot of people have subscribed to my YouTube channel and have been asking me to do another video, so here it is!

            Ok, Bohemian Rhapsody is my favorite song of all time, so to me, doing that was a no-brainer.  Having been fascinated with that song for most of my life, I pretty much knew the entire thing before I went to record it. This time, I had to pick something that was not only equally epic and fun, but also something that was just as meaningful to me.  Before I get into the technical mumbo jumbo, here's a little back story about my relationship with these songs.  (If you just want to get to the tech stuff, scroll down to WARNING: TECH TALK)

            Since I was a kid, movies have had such a strong influence on me. When I saw "La Bamba" in 1987, that made me decide to start taking guitar lessons. Luckily for me, I was really into the music of the 1950's which meant that I could have an entire repertoire of music with only 4 or 5 chords under my belt. The Ritchie Valens music served as a gateway to the early American rockers like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. I was very content just listening to this music and nothing else. That was until I saw the movie "Ferris Beuler's Day Off." There's a parade scene in that movie where Matthew Broderick mimes the Beatles' version of "Twist And Shout."  That blew me away.  It was still 3 chord rock but it was so much heavier than what I was listening to.  I knew my Uncle Phil had all of the Beatles albums in his collection so I asked him if he could make me a cassette of that song. So next time I visited him, he gave me a cassette.  On that cassette he put: Twist and Shout, She Loves You, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand.  Since I was a 50's nut, these songs weren't much of a stretch. However, he also put the entire "Rubber Soul" album on that same cassette. When I listened to that album, it changed my life.  Instantly, my favorite band was the Beatles. I took it upon myself to learn every mundane detail about the Beatles' history and music. My wardrobe consisted of mostly Beatles T-shirts, which were very hard to come by at that time. If you could imagine a time when it wasn't cool to like the Beatles, this was it.  None of the other kids understood the Beatles.  (Just a quick side note: In 1995 when the Beatles Anthology was released, all of the sudden it became cool to like Beatles. Figures.)  My Beatles fanaticism got so intense that I even begged my dad to get me a John Lennon 325 Rickenbacker (which I use in this video.)

            Once I got to High School, the Beatles became standard repertoire in most of my music classes. I was lucky enough to go to Curtis High School which is the unofficial music high school of Staten Island. Our teacher, Lou Mannarino, was also a Beatles nut so he would work a lot of Beatles songs into the curriculum. During my time at Curtis, we got to opportunity to play at Lincoln Center with our school Symphony.  This was a very exciting time. The coolest thing about it was that we were going be doing Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End as the finale song.  Playing it live was one thing, but getting to play it live with a full orchestra was mind blowing!  With rehearsals for our Lincoln Center concert underway, we were all in Beatles-mode.  We found out that Paul McCartney was going to be on the Oprah show and we managed to get tickets. During a commercial break I yelled out to Sir Paul and asked him if he would play with us at Lincoln Center.  He gave a big grin and said, "sure!"  Now we were all going nuts!  We were on cloud 9. This was like a dream come true. The news was covering the story and it was a big deal. Sadly, Paul's wife Linda passed away shortly after that taping and he wasn't able to attend our concert.

            The concert was a huge success. It was kind of bittersweet since Paul wasn't there, but it was still amazing. We all knew that we were part of something special.

            Later on in college, I had a cover band called Hit Me With It.  One day we decided that we wanted to do all of Abbey Road live. I think we had a gig on a Friday in Staten Island and we wanted to have it ready for that gig. So on Thursday, we went to our drummer's house in Westchester and we rehearsed the entire album. That was all we did, one day. That night we walked into a bar in Westchester. We noticed they didn't have any band playing that night.  We asked if we could play and they let us. We set up and did the whole album live as a kind of dress rehearsal. It was a lot of fun. The next night, we did our Staten Island show and that was also great. In fact, I posted the whole show on my YouTube channel if you want to check it out.

            These are songs that keep popping up at times in my life.  They remind me of good times and great moments.  They are really special to me so that was a big part of why I chose to do them for this video.


            Ok, so I picked this medley to do.  Apart from the sentimental reasons, there are also technical reasons.  First, this song is epic and very similar to Bohemian Rhapsody in structure. (I actually think that Bohemian Rhapsody is probably Queen's version of the Abbey Road medley, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who would disagree.) Second, I wanted an excuse to play with some instruments I've never tried before. And lastly I knew it was something I was going to be able to sing without killing myself.

            Before I get into the nitty gritty. I want to give credit where credit is due.  I did not invent this genre of video.  There is an extremely talented guy who did an amazing split-screen video of Chick Corea's "Got A Match." He inspired me to do my split-screen video. I highly recommend watching this video:

            The first thing I did was tempo mapping.  I brought the original song into Pro Tools and mapped out all of the tempo changes. There were a lot of them. This song was not recorded to a click and the tempo fluctuates about anywhere from 2 to 10 BPM from measure to measure. I initially tried to record this to a steady click, but the song just doesn't work that way. I used to think that songs with moving tempos were no good, but after listening to a lot of classic songs more carefully, I realized that many classic songs couldn't exist with a fixed tempo.

            After mapping out the tempo, I tackled the piano. I spent a good amount of time on this. It just wasn't sounding right. Something was missing. I was either playing too much or too little. After a quick internet search, I came across a YouTube video posted by YouTube user, rasboi, contaning the multi-tracks of the Abbey Road sessions.  Needless to say, this was extremely helpful and once I was able to hear the piano isolated, I could figure it out and the part just fell into place.  For the piano I'm using the Mini Grand plug in that comes with Pro Tools.

            The drums were next on my list. This was the next of several roadblocks I would encounter along the way. I called my friend, Damian Scro, and he talked me through the parts. He explained that Ringo is a lefty, so a lot of his fills move in the opposite direction of a righty drummer.  This complicated things for me since my drum skills are not that great. I found this drum part to be much harder than Bohemian Rhapsody. Bohemian Rhapsody was more structured. In this, there's a lot of jamming. I didn't want to wimp out too much on this drum part, so once again, I decided it was best to transcribe the whole thing onto paper. This was really helpful. After many attempts, I finally got a good take of the drum part. I was heartbroken when I went back to check the video footage I recorded during this take and found that it was out of focus. I was so happy with the take that I decided to leave it as is. In the video, you'll notice the drum screen looks weird when compared to the others. This is because I did my best to sharpen it and make it look semi-presentable.  I'm happy to say, that I will not be using this camera anymore after this project.

            The drums were recorded using a Roland TD-6 kit with a Alesis Surge cymbals.  I used this kit as a MIDI controller and recorded that MIDI data into Pro Tools. After that, I sent that data to FXpansion's BFD2 plug in.  To get that Abbey Road tea towel sound, I used very little ambience on the kit.  The room mics were all muted.  I also used BFD2's dampening function to get the drums to sound as close to the record as I could.

            You'll notice there are 2 drum screens. The second screen is a simple kick snare overdub. You can hear it on the original record hard panned to the right.  For that I used Sample Tank.

            Next was the bass track. This was probably the easiest thing to record. I used a Rickenbacker 4001s from the 70s that my uncle and I restored.  There is a long story about the restoration of this particular bass, but I will save that for a future post.  The bass has flat wound strings on it which are crucial to getting that Beatles bass tone.  I plugged that straight into an SSL preamp and used Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 plug in.  I used their SVT model. I used a pick which is also a crucial part of getting the Beatles bass tone.

            Once the rhythm section was done, I was at a crossroads. Should I just use samples for the orchestra, or should I attempt to actually play all these instruments?  Well, in a moment of insanity, I decided to give the real thing a try. I was able to borrow a trumpet, trombone, violin and cello from friends and family.  My plan was to play each part 3 to 6 times to get that nice natural orchestral chorusing.  Then I would blend it all with a nice reverb and it should sound like a real orchestra, right?  WRONG!

            I started with the violin.  I was so bad at the violin that I couldn't stop myself from laughing during takes.  After 3 hours of playing violin, I managed to finish 8 bars of half notes.  That's 16 notes in 3 hours. They all sounded scratchy and horrendous.  I started to record a double of my 16 note triumph to find that 2 wrongs did not make a right. The double track sounded like bad squared.  I just could not get a useable tone from this instrument.

            I was ready to give up, but then I did some more online research and came across a very helpful YouTube video posted by theonlinepianotutor. In her first lesson she teaches how to hold the bow. At first I though that it was stupid, but then I followed her directions as closely as I could and BAM....TONE!  Granted, it wasn't a good tone, but it was useable.  I was able to produce long tones without the notes getting scratchy and that was a good start.

            Recording the violin part was a long an painstaking process involving many many takes, a lot of editing and pitch correction.  I am playing the parts you hear on the video, but I'm getting a lot of help from studio magic. After I saw how long it took to record ONE violin part, I realized there was no way I would be able to double this 6 times.  I moved right onto to violin 2.

            I will admit that as I went through the string parts, it did get a little easier. I also started to find easier ways to finger things so I wouldn't have to do too much string crossing.  I was able to get a nice tone from the lower strings so I avoid the high strings at all costs. Over the next 3 days I finished the entire string quartet. I gotta say cello was my favorite because the note spacing is closer to what I'm used to. I felt like I was smashing my fingers together to get half steps to happen on the violin.

            Once the string quartet was assembled, it sounded OK.  Not great though.  Only having 4 string instruments with no doubling was not giving me the lush sound I was hearing on the original recording.  It sounded kind of thin and harsh.  I did like the sound of real bowing.  The samples never get that right. I decided to layer my real strings with some samples from the Miroslav Philharmonik plug in. When I got the attack from my real strings blended with the sustain of the samples, it was a really great sound.  It was a sound I couldn't have achieved with real strings or samples alone. 

            I was finally satisfied with the string sound.  After a lot of coaxing and some help from layered samples, it sounded good. Now it was time to learn how to play trumpet.  Trumpet is a cruel instrument.  It was completely alien to me.  Being a guitar player, the string instruments made sense to me.  Brass is a different animal.

            If I was giddy from the sound of cats dying produced by my violin playing, then I was downright hysterical from the sound of elephants farting produced by my brass playing.  I did some more online research and found a few more helpful videos on how to play brass. (Please note, I do not recommend learning this way.  I received formal private music lessons for a very long time when I was learning guitar.) 

            What I liked about the brass is that if you could hear the note in your head, and you knew what valves to press, you could kinda sorta get the note out. I found a good trumpet note chart online and I got to work.  I got better as I went along.  My attacks and release were a bit sloppy, but I was able to hold out notes that were in tune.  I though I had trumpet licked until I got to the high parts.

            To play high notes on the trumpet, you need to make your lips as small as possible and push as much air through that tiny opening as possible.  The high notes killed me. My whole face was in pain. I was lightheaded and had to take frequent breaks.  It wasn't going well.
            Finally, something clicked and I just figured out how to do it. I basically let pro tools roll while I played the parts over and over again. When I actually hit the notes, I would use that particular segment and slide that into place.  It's a crummy solution, but it was either that, or no high notes.  In the end, I actually enjoyed the trumpet more than I anticipated.

            Next I moved onto the trombone.  I took a brief crash course online and found a decent slide position chart, compared to the trumpet high notes, this was a walk in the park.  I really enjoyed the simplicity of the trombone's design.  It's a fun instrument.

            I wasn't able to get my hands on a french horn, tuba or a bow for my upright bass, so I had to use samples for those parts,  They're pretty low in the mix anyway.  They mostly act as a pad for filling in the gaps.

            At this point, I was relieved the orchestra parts were done, but due to the nature of how I recorded those parts, there was no useable video footage.  This was a problem I would have to solve later.

            Now the fun part began. Guitars!  For all the guitars with the exception of the Leslie part, I used the following setup.  The guitar straight into an Engl Steve Morse head.  The head was fed into an Engl 4x12 cabinet equipped with Clestion V-60s.  This cabinet was placed in my bathroom and was miked up with a dynamic microphone slightly off axis. The microphone went into the SSL preamp and then into pro tools. The Engl head is very versatile and the EQ works like a studio EQ.  I was able to get pretty close to the tones on the record.  EQ and compression during the mix also got me a lot closer.

            For the Leslie guitar, I once again used Guitar Rig 4.  I used their AC-30 model into their Leslie emulator.  It worked pretty well.

            For guitars I used a custom Ernie Ball Music Man Axis, an Ernie Ball Music Man Silhouette Special, a Rickenbacker 325V59 and an Ibanez AE-30 acoustic.

            Vocals were straight forward.  I used an Audio Technica AT-4033 condensor microphone into the SSL preamp.  On the processing end it's EQ, Compression, De-Esser.  That is sent to a bus that has a frequency selective compressor on it designed to smooth out my voice, which can get harsh in the upper mids. I also put some more compression on it.  I had to put a gate on because I picked up a lot of weird sounds in between words with all the compression. It sounded like I was eating soup between lines.

            The mix was very large and involved. I tried to get as close to the original recording as possible without sacrificing quality. There was a lot of drastic EQ'ing and panning.

            Once the music was done, I had to solve my orchestra problem. With no useful footage recorded, I needed to come up with something. I decided to make a gag out of it and record my own green screen orchestra. This turned out to be another huge challenge.  I really didn't have the right equipment to do this. My room was too small, I was using a green cloth curtain that had a lot of folds and was picking up a lot of shadows, my lights were not the right kind for this and my camera was just not picking up the green correctly. I ended up using an iPhone to record the green screen footage because the green was coming out better on the phone than my lousy camera. My cousin, Phil, helped me with the green screen camera angles. I tried to stay as still as I could while playing along with the track.  If you're a stickler for details and you check all my positions on the orchestral instruments, it should all be correct because I was actually playing along.  (Before anyone jumps down my throat, I know my technique is probably miserable.)

            At first I thought having some HD video from the iPhone would have been a good thing, but I had a hell of a time incorporating this HD footage into my SD session.  I think from now on, I'm going to try to shoot in 100% HD if I can. Once I keyed and masked out all of the green I had to downgrade the quality of the file so I could retain the transparency in my SD session.  By the time I composited all of the musicians over the stage backdrop, the quality was pretty bad.  It also didn't help that my limited skills as a cameraman and light designer produced some very uneven and washy shots. My friend Steve Corn helped me make this footage look as good as possible considering the source material.

            Another big problem I had was that violin 2 kept going out of the frame at it looked like the violin kept disappearing.  I decided to add the conductor to cover up this invisible border.  It covers up the problem spot and I think it's pretty funny too.  I could have just re-shot the violin 2 part, but at that point it was much easier to just stand there and wave my arms around.

            Overall, the lighting was a big problem in this video. In my last videos there wasn't enough light. This one was too bright so I painstakingly tried to match all of the videos in color and brightness as best as I can.  I used Sony Vegas Pro for the video editing.  I really love this program.  It's well laid out and has a lot of powerful tools included.

            All in, the video took about 2 weeks. Although this is much simpler song than Bohemian Rhapsody, this was a much more difficult project. The loose nature of the band tracks actually made it harder to cover.  Plus all of the orchestral stuff was very challenging from a playing and producing perspective. 

            My favorite part of this video was getting to play with instruments I've never tried. I recommend it to all musicians. Especially if you write and arrange music. It gives you a new respect for the people who are great players and it gives you a better understanding when it comes to writing for those instruments.

            My least favorite part was dealing with all of the technical problems that kept happening with the video. Usually the video editing is my favorite part, but because my source material was so inconsistent, it made things really difficult. Next time, I'll spend more time prepping shots. It also wouldn't hurt to learn more about cameras and lighting before my next project.

            In closing, I have to give a huge thanks to my fiancé, Ann Marie. She's had to endure two weeks of horrible violin, trumpet and trombone noises. She's had to hear me listen to this song and watch this video over and over again. She's also been a very good sport about my being completely obsessive over trying to get this thing done. During the scrolling credits at the end, that's her sitting next me.  Thank you Ann Marie!

            I'd also like to thank all of the people who have watched my videos and subscribed to my channel. I am overwhelmed by the positive response I've gotten and I can't say thank you enough.

            Finally, thank you to the Beatles for writing great music and providing a lifetime of inspiration.

-Richie Castellano