A Jazz-Prog-Rock Fusion Band’s Early Beginnings

Since going for anything musical full time in a professional capacity, I decided to form my very own jazz-prog-rock band with two guys from graduate school, namely Diamond Manuel on trombone and Jeffrey Abanto on guitar, bassist RJ Sy (Karl Roy Band, Kastigo, etc.), and drumming virtuoso and chef KC Puerto. Together, we’re Hi-5! Nah, just kidding. We’re an unnamed jazz-prog-rock fusion band that is currently in its infancy. The video above is an excerpt from our two-hour first rehearsal session together where we had the audacity to take a crack at Alan Pasqua’s “Proto Cosmos” (popularized by the Tony Williams’ Lifetime band and Allan Holdsworth). I am quite pleased with our first session together as we were able to go through a somewhat tricky piece and survive it, hahaha! Other than this piece, we also had loads of fun with a free improvisation session. Hopefully, we’ll start working on original music as well as a couple of covers to spice things up.

The spark of it, all, however, was this free improv session with Diamond:

The Search for Christian Progressive Rock

About 9 years ago, when I was looking for progressive rock bands that were Christian in orientation, I first found out about Kerry Livgren’s work both with Kansas and then with Proto-Kaw and his solo work:

Afterwards, I discovered Ajalon:

Then I discovered Glass Hammer:

A few years after that, progressive rock giant Neal Morse became Christian (although he kind of misunderstands what the Trinity is all about; his views sound like a mix of tritheism and modalism):

It doesn’t really do any justice by just watching these clips. Keep in mind that Christian progressive rock (like secular prog) is known for suites and concepts albums so it’s always best to listen to entire albums to understand the big picture i.e. the love of God manifested through Jesus Christ.

Is Jazz Dead?

Is Jazz dead? Depends on where you live. In the Philippines, it’s barely surviving, no thanks to local mass media, many of which are hell bent on keeping people stupid with anti-neuron “music” and TV shows. However, artists like Johnny Alegre and the Tomodachi Trio along with places like Tiendesitas try as much as they can to keep it alive. In the place where I serve, I’m the only guy who’s seriously into jazz, my bandmates know of it on a superficial level, and the rest of the folks attending the services have little idea of it. The way things go with the music industry nowadays, it is probably hanging on for dear life even in its birthplace, the U.S. of A. although because of its cultural value it might continue to live on. In places like the university where I attend, some semblance of it still lives through the popular music courses being offered. Unfortunately, we don’t do jazz in graduate school. I asked the dean numerous times if we had a jazz major or elective since I was interested. The reply was negative.

If you ask Wynton Marsalis the question “Is Jazz Dead?”, here’s his reply:

Maybe we could try asking Frank Zappa that question. He said, “Jazz is not dead. It just smells funny.” Perhaps you can take the word from someone who can be inspired by some of the most profound things on earth down to the most mundane of things like fried chicken:

Prog/Dream Theater Fan Humor with PSMS and Devin Townsend @ Sea

I’m a Dream Theater fan. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I like every Dream Theater album, and that includes the much reviled “Falling Into Infinity”. This is the band that got me into prog in the first place. Though largely known for extremely lengthy complex prog metal masterpieces like “Scenes From a Memory”, they do have good short tunes too, like this one:

This, my readers, is “Burning My Soul”, a rather serious hate/rant song with lyrics by Mike Portnoy. It was originally a lengthy song with a slower tempo instrumental section (which became, through executive meddling and producer manipulation, a separate instrumental called “Hell’s Kitchen”). Anyway, enough of that history. It’s a pretty serious sounding song, right? The video above demonstrates a fragment of Dream Theater’s impeccable musicianship skills. However, my new favorite version of this song is this bootleg video from “Progressive Nation at Sea 2014”, performed by ex-DT members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian (Keys) with Tony MacAlpine (Guitar), Billy Sheehan (Bass). and Devin Townsend on vocals and stand-up comedy antics:

One comment posted said that this is a train wreck done in style. I’d say in great humourous style. It’s as if Frank Zappa came to life with Devin Townsend’s vocal cords. If you’re a musician and a fan of Dream Theater and Devin Townsend, I would bet that you will find this to be funny. If you’re not enjoying and laughing at this then I feel very sorry for you.

Dealing with the Six-String Bass Guitar

The electric bass guitar certainly has a very interesting history. If it were a person, you would know that one of its ancestors was the orchestral double bass and from the other side is the electric guitar. Most people would know a bass guitar to be a four-stringed instrument, but as bass players wanted to extend the range of their instruments, instruments with more than four strings have been developed, the five-stringed version with the low B being very popular. However, I have chosen to go one string further with a six-string bass.

I started playing a four-string bass when I was a teen and then I went up to five, and then more recently the six-string bass. While there are those who hate the six-string bass by being too much to handle, I personally love the instruments flexibility and range. I’m assuming people didn’t realize that the six-string bass was supposed to make people’s lives easier. If you’re surprised that I’m saying that, try playing a two-octave arpeggio over a four string. I’m quite sure that it’s a stretch. On a six-string bass, you can play the same arpeggio over just a span of six frets. If I use the four-string technique on the six-string, I could cover three octaves.

The way I chose my tuning is a matter of convenience. For a while I was playing my six-string bass in the standard fashion: all fourths from B to C. It was wonderful at first. But being a guitarist as well, the C at the 1st string can sometimes be off putting. I could manage with that C well, but I wanted my guitar technique to translate into my bass playing. This is why I decided to tune my bass like a baritone guitar (an octave lower of course) and so the tuning is (from 6th to 1st string) is B, E, A, D, F#, B. It’s a step higher than the Guitarron Mexicano. The great thing about this tuning is that I could use my guitar techniques, one of the most important is the CAGED system. I could also use certain techniques I’ve learned from fingerstyle guitar i.e. classical/flamenco-style tremolo, barre chords, etc. Rather than putting energy into learning techniques specific to the standard six-string bass tuning, I’d like to concentrate more on writing and making music and so the baritone guitar tuning helps a lot by saving up my neurons for something else. It’s just more efficient for me that way.

Given the size of the neck, the six-string bass guitar can be unwieldy. Thus I am not surprised why John Myung wants his six-string bass guitar to have a neck width comparable to just a five-string. At this point, I really can’t have a choice on that matter. It’s rather difficult to find a six-string bass guitar in the Philippines unless you have one crafted for yourself, so I’m very fortunate to have found one at a budget price. All in all, the six-string bass guitar has been of great help for my music.

How to Prepare a Project and Record Audio in a DAW

Hello dear readers. It’s Mark A. Galang again in another installment of audio production tutorials. This tutorial was written in compliance to the peer review assignment requirement of the Berklee Course “Introduction to Music Production” being hosted by Coursera. I do hope that you all find this tutorial to be informative.

This tutorial features the way how I prepare a project in my DAW for recording. It also gives some insight into how I compose and record music. I use Cakewalk Sonar X1 as my DAW software. Let’s get started.

1. Sequencing the Drums

01 Sequencing the Drums

Before I actually create a project in Sonar, I usually write drum parts, orchestral parts, etc. using Sibelius 6. In this case, I just wrote the drum part for this project.

2. Exporting to MIDI

02 Exporting to MIDI

After writing the drum part in Sibelius, I would then save my work and then export it as a MIDI file to the folder of my choosing.

3. Creating a New Project

03 Creating a New Project

After opening Sonar X1, I make use of an atypical method of creating a project. I close the project creation wizard and then just drag the MIDI file I created into Sonar. Sonar will automatically open the MIDI file as a project.

4. Creating an Instrument Track

04 Creating an Instrument Track

Once the MIDI file has opened, I would then create an instrument track that would play back the MIDI data in the project. In this case, I’m using a VST instrument called EZDrummer. An instrument track is a combination of a MIDI and Audio track. The data displayed is MIDI but the playback comes from an audio source, usually a software instrument.

5. Transferring MIDI data to Instrument Track

05 Transfering MIDI Track to Instrument Track

Instead of assigning EZDrummer as the output for my MIDI track, I just simply drag the MIDI data into the instrument track and then delete the resulting empty MIDI track. The instrument track can read MIDI data anyway so I have no further use for the empty MIDI track.

6. Creating an Audio Track

06 Creating an Audio Track

I would then create an audio track next by right clicking on the empty space where the channels are supposed to be in Track View and then selecting the “Insert Audio Track” command.

7. Labeling Audio Track and Setting Up for Recording

07 Labeling Audio Track and Setting Up Channel for Recording

After creating the audio track, I would then label the audio track. In this instance, I’m recording a bass guitar track so I simply label it “Bass”. Afterwards, I select the appropriate input source for my audio track. In this case, my bass is connected to the left instrument input of my audio interface and so I select the left one in my DAW. If I select it this way, I will be able to record my bass part in mono.

8. Saving as a Project File

08 Saving as a Project File

Because Sonar opened my project as a MIDI file, it cannot save audio data yet. I would then save the project as a “Normal” CWP (Cakewalk Project) file with the “Copy All Audio With Project” option ticked so that I can assign the project and audio data folders for easier file management.

9. Arming the Audio Track for Recording

09 Arming the Audio Track for Recording

Before I begin recording, I then click on the red button in my audio track so that it would be “armed” for recording. Once the audio track is armed, I check my instrument’s recording levels on my audio interface and on the DAW. I am now ready to record my bass parts.

10. Setting up Metronome/Click and Countoff

10 Setting up Metronome or Click and Countoff

Before I start recording, I check my metronome/click and then see if I have the correct settings. I prefer using an audio click rather than MIDI and I set up the record count in to just “1”. Since the time signature in my project is 7/8 with a tempo of 100 bpm (in quarter notes), I expect to hear seven fast clicks before the DAW starts recording my audio.

11. Recording an Audio Track

11 Recording Audio

Once the levels are set and the audio track is armed, I start recording by pressing “R” on my computer keyboard. I count along to the count-in clicks (one, two, three, four, five, six, sev) and then start playing my bass parts. Once I’m done recording, I press the space bar to stop.

12. Cloning an Audio Track for a Second Take

12 Cloning an Audio Track for Second Take

Because I need to have a couple of recorded options, I record a number of takes. To do this, I just clone the audio channel where my bass is recorded. To do this, I just right-click on my audio track and select the option “Clone Track”. Sonar will then duplicate the audio track in its entirety.

13. Setting up Cloned Audio Track for a Second Take

13 Setting Up Cloned Audio Track for Second Take

The cloned audio track contains all of the data from the previous audio track, including recorded audio. Therefore, I would delete the recorded audio from the cloned track in order to empty it so I can begin recording a second take. To lessen distractions, I would then mute the original audio track before I record my second take.

14. Recording a Second Take

14 Recording a Second Take

Once my cloned audio track is ready, I would then record a second take following the steps mentioned a while ago.

After completing all of these steps, I think the entire effort went well. I was able to set up a project and record an audio track. Upon reviewing the project, I think that I should have saved the project immediately as a normal DAW project before setting up the audio track so that I wouldn’t run into a problem later should the application crash. Some of the steps I took to create the DAW project are atypical. However, this fits my usual workflow which involves composing and notating music first before recording audio.

For those who are interested, here’s the track I recorded for this particular tutorial:

I hope that you all have enjoyed reading and learning about recording audio in a DAW through this post. Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you. If you have any feedback, comments, or constructive criticism, please feel free to let me know as I would love to learn new things as well.

The Kurzweil PC88: My Present-Day Gig Instrument

Today I’d like to talk about my present band practice and gig instrument, the Kurzweil PC88 Performance Controller Keyboard. Why would I do so? Because I like this instrument very much, plain and simple. For any of you out there looking for a review of this fine instrument, read on.

Before I discuss the ins and outs of this instrument, I’d like to tell a brief history about how I stumbled across this “portable” stage piano and eventually became its owner. I was looking for a portable 88-key replacement for a Yamaha SY-77 I had sold a few years back. In July 2012, I browsed through the Philmusic classifieds and found a seller who was selling a PC88. The price seemed reasonable, and then I thought to myself I could use something a bit similar to Jordan Rudess’s Kurzweil K2600. To cut the long story short, I bought it and have been using it since then.

The Kurzweil PC88 was exactly what I was looking for, a keyboard with a pianistic range and some very good sounds. My favorite patches in it are “Classical Piano”, “Suitcase E. Piano”, a number of organ sounds and the “Slow Digital Pad”. In my mind, these sounds should serve as my bread and butter presets. My particular unit is the “MX” variety so it also has a general MIDI bank and a generous 64-note polyphony. Because it’s not a synth, its selection of sounds is limited but it has powerful layering capabilities via the “MIDI Setup” mode where you can layer four sounds, each of which has its individual volume slider. In a limited way, you can create some fantastic patches with real-time control over each sound. Whether I’m playing progressive rock, praise and worship music, or jazz, I can pretty much cover good ground.

I’m not really doing multitrack orchestral stuff with it so 64 notes is pretty generous for my purpose. The feel or touch of its key bed is definitely weighted, similar to the feel of a Yamaha grand I had used about 4 years ago in a company Christmas party, but has a bit of a springy bounce that you will never find in an acoustic piano. How would I know? It’s because it feels very different from the acoustic upright piano I use at home. The rugged metal casing provides me with confidence that it would withstand the rigors of playing out.

As much as I love this instrument, it is not without its faults. I bought this particular PC88 used, and so some of the lead weights were loose. I had to hire a technician to have all the weights of the key bed fixed with a stronger adhesive. My technician said that the original adhesive used doesn’t hold up well to tropical weather, and that’s why they would become loose as the instrument ages. Given the fact that it’s not a synth, I could not use the sort of analog-ish lead sounds I enjoyed in my former Yamaha SY-77, and so I have to stick to organ or piano sounds for my leads.  Lastly, the PC88 is heavy! You will not enjoy climbing up stairs lugging this keyboard on your own. When I set this up in the church (UCCP-MCCD) where I occasionally play, I usually have to ask for assistance from friend and bandmate Pastor Chaz to carry it inside the church. Yes, Kurzweil didn’t lie when it said that the PC88 was portable. They forgot to write down a caveat that it’s only portable if you have a car, if a buddy to help you carry it, or strength comparable to a well-trained athlete. If you plan on carrying it around while commuting, I’d probably laugh at you.

So, in summary, other than the initial key bed lead weight issue, the lack of decent synth lead sounds, and the weight of the instrument, the Kurzweil PC88 is a great piano analog and an impressive MIDI controller.

Reviving the Band, Part III

There’s a side of me that feels like a parrot when playing cover songs. It’s not my voice and it’s not my art. The art aspect of it only falls into place with my playing, and that aspect even suffers. My bandmates and Pastor Xiaui had noted my playing to be very mechanical and emotionless. I could nail the songs without a hitch. It’s just that as a composer, it’s really hard to try and put some emotion into performing a song I never had a hand in writing. I will still try to put on my game face to sort of “own” those songs, even if it’s just for a day.

I’m still very thankful that this opportunity came. Nothing could ever beat performing with a band regardless of whether you’re playing originals or covers. The energy between each musician is something you can never experience jamming with a MIDI file, audio track or sequence. You can expect me to perform at my best at our scheduled performance. Since we’re playing as a worship band at this point and NOT a prog band, you can’t expect me to pull out stuff like crazy synth solos. However, you can expect some piano and organ playing from me, maybe some occasional strings here and there, perhaps a harpsichord sound even.

Because of this event, talks between us band members about rehearsing for a PROG album are underway. We have two songs that we will be rehearsing and recording over the next coming months, and then I’ll continue to write music for the band as usual. I hope that this new project would push through.

We are currently rehearsing for a special performance on October 21, 2012, 6 p.m. at UCCP J.P. Rizal, Makati City. We will be performing a very short set with three songs. For those of you who are in the area interested in supporting a growing church, I’d like to invite you for that special evening of praise and worship.

Reviving the Band, Part II

Going back to our rehearsals, most of them have commenced with one or two members being absent due to scheduling difficulties. Some of the rehearsals have been in my home facility with Chaz and Rodell. During the times when I was unavailable, they were rehearsing with Archie and Mike. We were rehearsing and trying to polish original prog compositions here at home while at some sessions we were rehearsing some alternative plus praise and worship songs. This week was the closest I got to having a rehearsal with only one member not present. Yesterday, I was able to rehearse with Chaz, Rodell and Mike. Just this evening, I finally got the opportunity to rehearse with Archie along with Chaz and Rodell (Mike was away because of work).

This evening we were able to play a couple of alternative songs and then we tried working on our prog compositions, namely a rearranged “Ignite Your Fire” and a new one tentatively entitled “I Have Seen the Light”. The church’s administrative pastor, Chaz’s wife whom the band affectionately calls Xiaui, was rather quick to point out that there doesn’t seem to be any point at playing some prog songs for a Sunday evening praise and worship event. She said it would be very difficult for many churchgoers to have any appreciation for those songs. She remarked that the music would be too heavy and too aggressive for the crowd (take note that the heavy and aggressive aspects of the song are important for the points being described in the lyrics I wrote).

I am somewhat disappointed that the band gave in to the suggestion that we play some praise and worship songs instead (even though our prog songs have very overt Christian themes). However, she was also very much keen on telling us that at this stage, the church is still trying to win over the conservative crowd towards giving merit to songs involving contemporary instrumentation. After all, we’re playing a benefit gig, and (as they say) we need to try and pull in more members to our cause. I am still happy about the fact that I still got an opportunity to play with my band even though we’re no longer playing any of our originals. It seems like circumstances are pulling us towards playing praise and worship music a la Jacob’s Ladder rather than all-out prog a la Blue Fusion. It’s two sides of the same coin except that the face with the praise and worship set in 4/4 and 3/4 won in the coin toss rather than the prog face in 7/8, 5/4, 13/8 and all of those crazy time signatures.

Reviving the Band, Part I

Since the last week of September, I have once again started rehearsing with humans. Away from the metronomic precision of robots, I feel very alive as a musician. The last time that I was able to perform music with my band was back in 2000. It took another 12 years before I got the opportunity to make all of this happen.

It seemed like everything fell into place nicely for my group, the band formerly known as Jacob’s Ladder inside church walls and Blue Fusion outside of it. There are some people who would believe that it’s God’s will that it should happen. Some would say that the stars have aligned for us to start playing again. After having rehearsed with an almost complete lineup (as far as instrumentalists are concerned), I feel very excited.

If you wish to kind of look into the beginnings of the band, you can click on this link. It describes an abridged history of the band from 1995 to 2000 highlighting the band’s experiences and struggles. It appears that our history as a band has just opened a new chapter. The newly revived band consists of myself on piano/keyboards and vocals, Pastor Chaz Romero on lead guitar, Rodell Tolentino on bass, and Archie Padolina on drums. We’ll also be introducing Mike, a new lead singer for the group as I wish to concentrate on the keys rather than having split duties singing lead as well.

As much as we’d like to have him play along, Erick, our (now former) rhythm guitarist and drummer, has not kept in touch with us. It’s sad really that he isn’t returning any of our band’s messages. He even seemed to have ignored the invitation to Rodell’s wedding. I really do not understand what’s going on with him. As much as I don’t want make an assumption, it seems like he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the band anymore.