RPM 2009

They picked the shortest month of the year.

They assured us it was possible, and encouraged us along the path.

I had never participated in an event like this before, and I was excited to see and hear the results.

The challenge: to create an album, starting with nothing on February 1st, and completed, ready for submission by February 28th.

I had heard about this challenge last year, but I think it was already February, and I made a few excuses and forgot about it. But this year, I was a part of a group that was already meeting for musical endeavors on a weekly basis. We just finished an album (recorded entirely with the microphones that ship with Rock Band) in December. With a fancy pair new of mics in my arsenal, and two other musicians as crazy as myself, we were ready to take this challenge on.

We used the last week of January to discuss our participation, and spent it having no idea how the album would shape up. Would it have a theme? Would it be a string of unrelated improvisatory odysseys? Maybe, but who knows? All we really know is, we've got 28 days to do this, and that broke down nicely into four recording sessions with our existing weekly schedule.

February was mostly a blur. Looking back on it, it seems it was a few Wednesdays mixed in with a bunch of other days that weren't used for recording.

The first of February arrived, and as soon as I woke up, I had lyrics and a tune for Drew Carey Ruined The Price Is Right jumping around in my head. Couldn't have seen that one coming. I also had an idea involving shouting disparaging remarks about the state of New Jersey, but that was where the idea stopped. A few days later, I scribbled out a short swing number with a happy flute melody. Well, at least I know writing the material wouldn't be so hard.

Meanwhile, the other musicians had their own ideas brewing: an epic, multi-movement chess reenactment, a prose incantation, and a improvisation based on tarot cards: brilliance in its simplicity.

Okay, I guess that was the easy part. Let's get to recording!

And maybe this is where I made my mistake. I decided to add another limitation to this project: All the recording was to be done within Linux. Audacity seemed to play nice with my audio interface, so I figured there wouldn't be any major hangups and shoved those thoughts to the back of my mind.

On the evening of the first recording session, we ran through the swing piece a few times (adding a few unexpected elements that I know I can rely on my colleagues to provide), then let the tape roll. A decent take, but it would need some polishing before we ship it. We moved on to a spoken-word piece that would end up being titled A Pomegranate in the Underworld. This was the only time this piece has been performed, and it made it to the final album.

To finish the session, we played a series of short improvised emotions, roughly 30 seconds apiece. We studied a sketch, played it, and moved on to the next one. That took roughly 50 minutes in realtime and we decided to keep the computer recording during the full duration. Evidently this was a mistake. After we parted ways that evening, I discovered the the entire 50-minute recording had been distorted, and was therefore unusable.

Okay, so we got some practice in, and I can still post the untitled swing piece to the RPM website and at least get some feedback on it. While only one piece of all the material we laid down will make it to the album, at least we made some progress (and learned a few things about my hardware limitations).

Feedback from the RPM website was constructive and useful. I tweaked the arrangement for the swing piece, accounting for the changes made during the first session, and slapped a title on it: It's All Champagne and Cupcakes Until Someone Sprains a Llama. Bring on the next recording session!

On the second Wednesday of February, we laid down the final take of ...Champagne and Cupcakes..., and finally experienced what it was like to reenact a chess match: the first of three. Both recordings went well and both ended up on the final album. We also tried our first shot at hurling insults at the Great State of New Jersey, after some delightfully nauseating sounds were programmed into one of our many synthesizers. It was good, but it wasn't great. I knew we'd be going back over that one, but I posted it to the RPM site anyway.

We were slowly pulling things together for the album, but the next two sessions were going to have to be much more productive. There were still several pieces we had yet to look at as a group.

Recording session #3 rolls around, and I'm finally ready for us to lay down Drew Carey. It was going to use a different recording approach than the other pieces: we decided to multi-track the vocals on it. You know, like the professionals do. So we dug in and got the whole thing tracked in an hour and change. There were some shining moments of fast-thinking that really helped the track. I didn't think it was too shabby until I listened to the playback. Some hardware glitch introduced pops in each and every track we had laid down that night.

We played through the second chess movement too, but evidently only half of the sound we were making made it into the mixer.

Panic sets in.

We used that entire recording session on two tracks and neither is even usable. 25% of our month of Wednesdays were wasted.

An emergency Thursday meeting was required.

That day, we tried to re-track the vocals for Drew, but after listening to playback, there were still pops present. Under Linux, under Windows, and in both the stable and beta releases of Audacity. What do we do?!

In a moment of desperation, I take a stab in the dark: What if we make it sound like an old-timey record? Run a high-pass filter on last night's track, add some vinyl pops, and see if it works then. That should cover up the glitches in the audio capture.

And sure enough, it works. Yeah, the song's about an event that took place in 2007, but I think the barber shop quartet sound of the piece works well with simulated vinyl pops. And that's the version of Drew that ended up on the album.

Crap. One Wednesday left, and we've got two chess movements to cover, a do-over on Jersey, and those pesky sketches from way back on the first week. This is going to be the busiest recording session of the month!

When it rolled around, there was a surprise piece (that was still being written as we started laying down other tracks) that we also had to squeeze in. Let's get to work!

Jersey had improved, thanks to an elusive stereo audio cable and the twittersphere inspiring additional material. The two remaining chess movements were covered without difficulty, and then the Tarot piece, Arcana Major was presented to us. We draw a card, play what that card represents (as detailed in the score) and move on until a piece-ending card is drawn. Sounds simple enough, but the performance would reveal its true brilliance.

All of those tracks were album ready. We ordered our ceremonial pizza and started work on the sketches. You know, those throw-away sound nuggets I was sure we could knock out in the first session so we wouldn't have to worry about them at the last minute.

Well, it was the last minute indeed. This time we made sure to stop and start each 30-second clip instead of capturing the whole hour-long performance in realtime, and it worked just fine.

And by the time we stopped recording, we had over an hour's worth of material, and 21 tracks. The challenge required 35 minutes and 10 tracks, but I think those guidelines are for more traditional musicians who deal with lyrics and verse/chorus structure.

Once we trimmed out the fat, we came up with 59 minutes and sixteen tracks, arranged into a surprisingly cohesive unit that we lovingly call Jersey.

There were moments of giddiness, satisfaction and joy, along with moments of despair, panic and defeat, but that's how life (and working on an album) is on a wider scale. We managed to squeeze all of that into a four-week period.

Sure, some of it isn't polished. In fact, most of it isn't. Our style is raw and unfiltered in the first place. But it's still a fun listen, and it's a work that all of us poured our souls into; a work each of us are proud of.

Maybe we shouldn't have named it after the worst place on the planet.

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