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November 29, 2009


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

Another Rant

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 a living.

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 dancin' monkeys.

November 22, 2009

Alright now, let's get back to our radio program.

Here we have the guest portion of the show....

Ronnie Cook The Wildwood Flower.mp3

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...

Ronnie Cook Your Cold, Cold Heart.mp3

And then the bandleader takes over the vocal chores as they move into a sentimental favorite.

Ronnie Cook Please Remember That I Love You.mp3

November 20, 2009

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...

Back From The Borders.mp3

November 17, 2009

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.

Ralph Toro Good Times.mp3

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 here.

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.

Ronnie Cook Band

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.

tape recorder

Other than the occasional odd noises (and Scotts edits), the sound is excellent. Here they kick off the "show".

Ronnie Cook Intro.mp3

This next one, Bill Cheetham, had a couple of junior's "ad-libs" in the middle, so it winds up pretty short...

Ronnie Cook Bill Cheetham.mp3

Finally, Armour chooses a banjo tune- after some joshing by the band leader (be he Roy, LeRoy, or Ron!)

Ronnie Cook Grandfather's Clock.mp3

More to come.

November 09, 2009

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-

Ralph Toro Good For You.mp3

November 08, 2009

Christian and his 26

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

waiting for each other

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

real time analyzer

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

street shot

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.

skate creeps

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.

country powerlines

A washline.

wash line

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 someday.

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!

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Simple, Isn't It?

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