We heard a complaint that Scott's photo on the stokers page was pretty old. Well, most of 'em are, but since I got this shot of him today, I've updated it. That guitar he's
holding is by Shelley Park. It's a beauty.
November 28, 2009
The music industry has failed. No, it hasn't failed because its revenues are dropping, it was a failure back when
it was making record (heh) profits. It failed because it failed to provide me and my friends with a way to make
I'll bet you're thinking right now that me and my friends aren't good enough to make a living at it, that what we
do couldn't cut it, that we didn't work hard enough, that we don't deserve it. Maybe that's all true, but I don't think so. I think that if me and my friends had the time to put into it we'd be making music
every bit as good as anything you'd care to name.
Now I don't expect a single thing from the music industry. I used to think that getting played on the radio was the key to
success, but I can see that it's just a certain kind of success. It doesn't last, and usually the deal you must
make to obtain it is highly destructive. We've seen that story many times.
Me and my friends would like to make a living, not a fortune. We'd like to make good music, not be rock stars. Now
can you tell us that we're wrong, that we're not good enough for that? That's where the music industry has failed.
November 27, 2009
This is an amazing photo, I think. Hank Williams, with DJ Biff Collie. It's the late 1940's, and Hank is about to
break big, nation-wide. The radio station looks like it was on a residential street, or maybe this was a location
broadcast. I like the kid peeking out from the right- probably his bike you can see out the window. That thing
in front of Biff is a turntable, on which records were played.
Those days are gone forever. It's funny- the singers came swarming around like bees to soda pop when the Carters showed
them that there was money to be made with this hillbilly music. It didn't have to have the approval of the people
who set the standards of "good taste". Like the race records of the 1920's, this country thing opened up a whole new
world of self expression. People wanted to hear it.
I wish there were such a thing today. Now we have a lot of people repeating the past, shaping it, interpreting it, but
I don't think there's anything out there that is simple and new. I think that there is plenty of good music being made,
but for a number of reasons, I don't think it can ever be again like what it was then. I hope I'm wrong about that.
November 26, 2009
Thanks out to Cheryl, our latest sponsor. Cheryl became a sponsor automatically when she purchased my CD,
Keeping Time. There's a link to a site where you can buy it at the bottom of the right-hand column,
under the heading Steam Powered Swag. Order a CD and you'll become a sponsor too, and get access to all the songs
we've worked on here (currently around 350, but who's counting?).
November 23, 2009
I have been looking into field mills lately. A field mill is a device that can measure changes in the
natural electrostatic lines of force which surround us. I like the fact that this device relies on spinning
mechanical shutters to do its work- sort of old-school physicks!
Who cares, you ask? Well, I dunno, I was captivated lately by how people managed to detect a signal passing
through 2,000 miles of underwater cable (go ahead- try it yourself sometime), and this led to me thinkin' about how,
despite all the genuises out there, we still don't know how this electricity actually works an' shit. I mean, I don't
believe in magic, but on the other hand, how about a little science that holds together for more than 5 minutes?
So I found a simple electrostatic field detector that
you can build!!!. It's awesome. It is currently
sitting on my desk, responding in its special way to my movements. I drink a beer, it goes dim momentarily. I wave
my hand over it, it goes out completely. I wait a bit, it slowly lights up again.
If you care, and I know that's a big if, you can see this thing responding to me dancing the hornpipe on a
carpet down in the studio.
See, I have a dream. Someday I want to build a sculpture, a pile of electrical and
mechanical devices that respond to the sun, the wind, the rotation of the earth... I don't expect to be able to
predict what it will do, exactly, but I want it to make noises, and maybe light up, and basically react to
whatever is happening around it, both large-scale and small. Until then, it's going to be
That train began to leave the rails for a second, but everything ended up fine. I like how the banjo comes in and
gives everything a spacy kind of feel. Next up, we have a cover of the great Hank Williams song- sadly, the first
verse and a half had been stepped on by some of junior's recordings again, so it's a little jumpy. Still
worth it to hear Ron's fiddle work there...
I've just found out who the real father of our country is. Not that Washington, not even Barnum, but an
Austrian named Edward Bernays. Here's a quote:
"The students of perception have found that people see in art what their culture permits them to see."
Bernays was one of the founders of the art of public relations. He wrote some books with interesting titles for the
1920's, such as Crystallizing Public Opinion, but I think my favorite one is This Business of Propaganda.
We owe a lot to this guy- the application of his ideas have made this country what it is today.
I've been thinking about finding a new acoustic guitar. I've played a couple of real nice ones lately. Tonight I
thought I'd give my old one another shot. Here's the result- an older song that I wrote for the Russians when they
left Afghanistan. Seems somehow appropriate now...
Here's the second song in the Ralph Toro sequence. This one has many elements of a classic Toro song. It's
piano-based. The vocal is clear and up front. The timing is tight.
And then there's the Toro strangeness of it all. It isn't a standard song structure. It harkens back
to some of my favorite music from the early 70's. Bands like Gentle Giant were making rock music like this.
Saw this on my way home, couldn't believe it. Invasion.
November 16, 2009
Here's a new featured song. Dave asked me to join a band
sometime back in the 90's, and that band was eventually called The Moonbillies. It was great for me- everyone else
could sing and harmonize well, and they worked very hard at it. I got to be the lead guitarist, mostly, and to sing some
of the easier stuff.
Well, all things must pass. When the band broke up Dave went solo acoustic and produced his own record, Dead in Dog
Years, with one of my songs on it. I feel honored that he chose to cover my odd little song. His production on it is
outstanding- he was working at the time with an 8-track reel-to-reel and not a whole lot else.
Maybe someday I'll make a recording that sounds as good as this. Meanwhile, enjoy.
November 15, 2009
Couldn't be taught
Here's evidence of my first public performance-
I found this among papers from my parents' house. It's a list of the victims (er- I mean, performers) at a music
recital. I clearly remember this event, although I don't know when it happened. I must have been a holy terror, because
I was "permitted" to wait outside until it was my turn to play. I remember the yard at the house where this took place
(there were some woods behind it) and stumbling around the landscaping in my Sunday shoes and good slacks. What
an awful thing to make a kid go through!
I don't remember much about the performance itself. I've probably shut it out, like those other cases of child abuse you
hear about. The piece I played was dreadful- The Elevator, by Schaum.
This isn't exactly the sheet music I had- mine had a cheesier illustration. If I'm not mistaken, it was actually a
drawing of an escalator, not an elevator at all. Sadly, what these well-meaning adults- Schaum, my parents and my
music teacher- didn't understand was that I couldn't be taught. To get through the recital I learned this piece by
memorizing it, and to this day those dots and lines on the paper are as meaningless to me as cuneiform.
Now, I'm not proud of this. I can see that it would be a great advantage to me as a musician and song writer to have
the theory and the ability to read music. I'm not wired for it. It's like algebra. After a full school year I finally
got the idea of what variables are, and I really liked them as a concept, and understood that these things could be
used to solve problems, and after that I've never much thought about them. They're abstractions.
Shortly after this recital I gave up the piano for about ten years. When I took it up again it was because I had heard
a blues record by Memphis Slim and I thought, foolishly, "how hard can that be?" I'm still learning,
nearly 40 years later, because I couldn't be taught. I just learned a new left-hand pattern yesterday that is going to
completely change my style of playing, such as it is. I was listening to Lil Hardin (another Memphis-born pianist) playing with her husband Louis in his hot jass band and had another one of those foolish ideas about how what she was
doing down there on her left was actually pretty easy. Well, it isn't so easy, but it led me to discover a different way
to chord than I've been used to. This is something any music teacher could have showed me in about 3 seconds- but it
probably would not have sunk in.
November 13, 2009
I've got a new pair of field recordings up on Freesound. These were made in a new local park, a place which
had been a big 'ol city dump long ago, but which has now been generously returned to the public. God only knows what's
buried in there! They're leaving most of it wild, and it's a place I've always been curious about, as it's been off limits
for many years. A couple of weeks ago I took a walk there with my portable recorder.
There wasn't a whole lot going on, sonically. For one thing it's only about a quarter mile from a busy interstate, so the
constant traffic noise covers up the more subtle ambience of the place. But I did get some good water sounds- a real
gurgler of a stream runs through there. You can hear that
The place is geo-tagged. It's nice to see what you're listening to sometimes. I've also got some photos
posted up here showing where the samples were recorded.
These audio samples can have a fairly large audience. A sample of factory noise I posted back in August of 2006 has been
downloaded some 1,470 times. That's just from people searching for sounds on the Freesound site. It's
funny though- the most popular downloads are ordinary things: a phone ringing, a heartbeat, thunder. Birdsong.
The stream recording has already drawn its first comment. I think it will be popular, simply
because it's so ordinary. It's like the audio sample called Castle Thunder which was used in movies for many years
whenever they wanted a single thunder stroke. It was (and probably still is) the ultimate thunder sound. Maybe I'll get
lucky and "file0124" will be the next "castle thunder", used whenever a gurgling brook sound is needed!
November 11, 2009
What's that you say, old school rock is not your bag? Well, we have another project that's just coming online
tonight. I transferred some old reel to reel tapes for a guy whose dad played fiddle with some country and
bluegrass groups, out around Waynesboro. Here's a shot near Waynesboro...
Well, these tapes turned out to be a treasure trove- around 32 songs by three or four various groups of players, plus many,
many incidental recordings made by the son- as a kid. Sometimes the kid made his incidental recordings right in the
middle of dads' songs, but I've edited those bits out. Here's what Scott Cook (the son) has to say...
My dad (Ronnie) was the fiddle player on those tapes. Ronnie was taught the fiddle by his grandfather when he was approx 10 or 12 years old. He learned by ear and could not read music. He also taught himself to play guitar. As a kid I remember him practicing every night in the kitchen. He played music with alot of people in the Franklin County area. He played in 2 different bands at the same time. The group of guys in the beginning of the recording are friends just fooling around on the weekends. The banjo player was Armour Long from Chambersburg. I don't know the other guys. The second group of guys that start around track 18 are in the attached picture. This was the band he played bluegrass festivals with. The picture and the recording was from approx 1969-1972. From left to right are Charlie Shaft - mandolin, Tom Rhone - banjo, Ronnie Cook - fiddle, and Bill McCarl - flat top. The picture was taken at Indian Springs campground in western Maryland.
My dad also played in a country-rock band around the same time. That band was called The New Horizons. I wish I had recordings of that group. Ronnie played a homemade 5 string fiddle with a barcus-berry pickup through a fender twin reverb amplifier. Man did that sound good ! The fifth string was the C string from a cello that gave his fiddle a deep rich bass tone. His friend Jan Strock from Chambersburg helped him build it.
On the tape at track 21, Ronnie lays down his version of the Orange Blossum Special. That was my favorite song to hear him play. I think it's the best version I ever heard anyone play. I remember twice Ronnie getting a phone call from another bluegrass band, to play back up fiddle for a gig at the Ryan House (Grand ole Oprey) in Nashville. He was too modest to go, and didn't want to miss work. Ronnie died of a heart attack in 1994 at 55 yrs old. I still have his fiddle.
Well said, Scott! So let's have a listen now to some of his music. This first batch of songs is just a bunch of
guys horsin' around, pretending to be on the radio. It was still something of a novelty in the late 60's-early 70's to
have a tape machine around, even though there were starting to be portable cassette recorders by then. Reel-to-reels sounded better! (and there's a certain smell that a warm reel-to-reel machine gives off that is like chocolate to us
techie dweebs...) The recording machine Ronnie and the boys were using probably looked something like this.
Other than the occasional odd noises (and Scotts edits), the sound is excellent. Here they kick off the "show".
OK, I'm going to begin this Ralph Toro thing... I really couldn't say when I first met Ralph, but somehow I
ended up engineering a recording for him at a place run by Jim Hodgkins, AKA The Wizard. This was a
great little studio. Cold in winter, though. The recording room was upstairs in an addition, the control room downstairs
in the basement of the main house.
Ralph got a special rate by bringing me along to "run the board". I had been recording in my home in Paradise for a
while by then and probably thought I knew something about it. I was unprepared for what I found at the Wizard's studio. He had a custom mixing board, which consisted of some pre-amps, faders and routing- no eq of any kind. There was a
rack mounted graphic eq which he patched in to one of the channels for me out of kindness, I suppose. He explained
that he relied on proper mic selection and placement to achieve the sounds he needed. What an ass, right? I was
a knob-twister back then and just didn't know what he was talking about.
Well, I suppose I did manage to get tracks recorded with minimal distortion. This song might have been among the songs
Ralph recorded there, but I'm not sure. We would do take after take, and spend hours getting in tune in this cold
studio, because Ralph is a perfectionist. Ralph's attitude, and the Wizard's attitude, are two things I have come
to respect over the years, although not so much at the time...
Anyway, this one here is probably caged from a cassette demo. Ralph will have edited out all the parts that he wasn't
completely satisfied with, making it a short little thing. You can hear at the end that it probably went into some kind
of extended jam, but that's been cut off. It sort of sounds like James Gang there at the end- which is just fine
in my book. Before that there's some wild whammy guitar, almost a Van Halen sort of thing, although I think this
might predate them. The thing about Ralph, he has had all the right rock instincts all along.
So here's the first of a series of Toro songs, remixed and eq'd here at the Steam Powered studio-
Drummers are usually interesting people, and Christian here is no exception. His kit is centered around a
26" diameter kick drum. That's a big kick drum! He also likes to keep his cymbals and toms at about the same level,
and level. As you can see on the right the "mounted" tom is really a small floor tom on long legs standing beside
the giant kick. His cymbals are at about that same height as the top of that tom.
We recorded him playing on Montana Song for Summer Thieves last Friday night. It's been a while since I'd
worked with a rock drummer, and Christian's kit was loud, even for rock. That kick basically
shook the house. I used the 4-mic, modified Glyn Johns method, just like last time with Secunda.
November 05, 2009
This has been several years in the making, but now Franco is working to finish his film and release it on the
web. Click the picture to view a trailer.
There are a bunch of Steam Powered songs in the soundtrack, so we're looking forward to seeing how that all works out
in the final mix. And looking forward, of course, to seeing how this story runs. Release information (in several
languages) is available here. Ciao!
November 04, 2009
Pretty Smaart, Lancelot! This is a shot of a software real time analyzer running in the studio. It's the
first time I've had anything like this down here in years (it's a program called Smaart. That name reminds me
of Lancelot Link for some reason). You've all probably seen versions of these graphics, all the bars dancing
up and down? This one is the real deal. It can generate pink noise and save an average of the response over
time, and do lots of other things I haven't figured out how to do yet.
Right now it's showing me a big scoop-out in the mid range response of my monitor speakers. These are the "good" speakers. Oddly enough, the "mediocre" studio speakers deliver a much flatter response. So that's why they always sounded boxy!
And that's why I mix using at least three different monitoring systems, including headphones. Those big studios have the
luxury of only needing to listen through one or two more balanced speakers, mainly because their rooms have more neutral
sound characteristics than mine. Ah well- I'll bet they don't have cool pipes running through like mine has!
November 02, 2009
This guy must be my hero, but I don't think I ever heard of him before today. Stephen Shore, photographer.
He took some of his pictures from inside a car. You can see his shadow there, an arm holding a camera.
I came across his work via the town of Natural Bridge, NY. I saw this town on a map and just had to
pay a Google visit. It hasn't changed much since Stephen
visited it back in '72.
This inspired me to take some more photos on my way home today. It was dark, so mostly I got smeary
lights. This shot of some kids with skateboards in front of a mall is OK.
More sort of LA at night, with those amber lights. Here's a couple I took earlier today, and I guess this is where I
really saw a parallel- the flatness of the colors is something very prominant in Shore's early work. Of course,
he meant to do it and for me it's all just accidental. Some powerlines.
I think it's the low, November light that brings out this flatness. All shot from a (usually moving) car, so the framing
of the subjects is pretty well by chance.
November 01, 2009
OK, a nice fresh month, a nice fresh featured song. This is a version of the Django song from an early configuration
of the Gadjo Playboys.
There's been plenty going on in the studio. Yesterday morning (while the ears are at their best) I worked on encoding
one of Ralph Toro's songs. He's got 12 or so songs we recovered from cassettes a while back and I'm slowly
getting them uploaded. These recordings are classics of an era, in my opinion, and deserve the best treatment I can give
them. I have to consider putting together a page for Ralph, because he's one of those computer-shy folks (he's one of
about three musicians in the world that you won't find on Facebook).
I'm considering a redesign of the website again. This "blog" format is OK, but I keep adding pages that sort of stand
on their own, and I'd like to make sure people can find them easily from here. Maybe some drop-down menus? This leads
me into another level of design that I need to consider carefully...
...because I've got lots to do musically. Yesterday afternoon I began investigating how to use Reaper to create
my Vietnam thing. I've got some original material from vintage tape, and I'm thinking of using it as the basis
for something like a movie soundtrack, only without the movie. So it will be long, and there will be a lot of different sounds in it, not just music. There has to be a lot of good ambience (douce ambience?) to make it interesting and draw you in. My ordinary recorder is best for short songs. Reaper, being a computer-based recorder, is more visually oriented, and should let me compose my soundclips more easily. I'm finding some good material for this on Freesound, of course, as well as great clips of Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon and their advisors discussing various aspects of that war. Powerful stuff.
Later I worked on mixing the new bass intro for the Summer Thieves latest song. We've been getting together
about twice a week to work on their stuff- it's fun and coming along nicely. I've also got a bunch of material restored
from reel-to-reel tape to post. Scott Cook had these old tapes, and he knew his dad played fiddle on them, but he hadn't
heard them for a long time. From two tapes I recovered about 36 songs, from about three different bands. Mostly the
playing is top-rate, bluegrass standards and country and fiddle tunes. It's a treat, and it will also get its own page
A few days ago I remixed Mr Bobby's latest recording, Four Inches and Dreaming, which
features Bill Nork on dobro. Bill recorded his part at his studio up to the west shore and it
blended in perfectly. This internet sure saves a lot of driving! Mr Bobby will be pressing a disk of Christmas songs to
take with him to the NERFA convention next week. Of course, I'll be posting his Christmas songs here next month...
But wait- there's more! Over on the left, below all the links to other sites, you will see the Digg button. If you
are a member (or would like to be), and you find something here at Steam Powered that you think should get widely known
(like maybe that Groucho Moon from last month) just click there and add a "digg". I sure appreciate it!