Song for Evelyn

Here is my latest track for the Lost and Found album, an instrumental piece which I wrote for my baby girl Evelyn who died in March 2019. (Download: mp3 | tablature)

About the Song

450x600-IMG_20190325_154418019Evelyn died unexpectedly at 4 months gestation. The cause was uncertain, but presumed to be placental failure. I wrote about the experience on my medicine blog.

I had been picking out this melody on the guitar through February and March 2019, and when she died in late March I decided to dedicate the song to her and to record it for my album. The piece fits well with the album’s theme of loss, and through the experience of losing a child I also found great strength and peace through my faith in Jesus Christ.

I imagine that the synthesizer represents Evelyn’s spirit, which runs through the whole song just as her spirit will live forever. The guitars represent the physical world, including her little body that was growing. After the second repetition of the verse there is a short bridge, and the sudden appearance of the only minor chord in the song represents her death. But through the grace of Christ we find peace, work back to a major chord, and continue on with life through the last repetition of the verse. The second guitar starts improvising at the bridge and continues to improvise for the rest of the song, indicating that life doesn’t always turn out how you planned it. As the song fades out, I imagine my happy reunion with Evelyn in God’s Kingdom some day, where we will live together forever in love.

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About the Recording

My Linux studio is getting better and better with every track. This recording was made on Linux Mint 19.1 using Ardour 5.1 and the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. The synth track uses ZynAddSubFX, and this was my first track to use this very powerful software synthesizer. I also used the AVL Drumkit LV2 plugin for the first time, and I really liked it. Kudos to Glen MacArthur and Robin Gareus for making such a useful and powerful tool.

I think the main guitar part is the most difficult fingerstyle piece I have ever tried to record, but I am overall pleased with how it turned out.

About the Album

Even with this unscheduled addition to the track list, I still think there is time to record the title track and finish remastering the previous tracks before the end of this year. I have learned a lot about mixing and mastering in the past few months, and I want to apply what I have learned to some of the older tracks on the album. These remastered tracks will be posted together when the whole album is released. I also need to get working on the album artwork. Stay tuned!

What I Did Wrong

Here is the latest track from my album-in-progress, called “If You Remember (What I Did Wrong).” (Download: mp3 | lyrics & chords | tablature)

If You Remember (What I Did Wrong)

(words and music by Alan Sanderson)

It’s really forever, this life that we live
And if you remember, then I hope you forgive

You said it’s forever, but time proved you wrong
And if you remember, it didn’t take long

But memories live on
They tell me what I did wrong

It’s really forever, this life that we live
And if you remember me, then I hope you forgive
Forgive me

About the Song

Alan - wide hallway to the garageDuring the fall of 1994, when this song was written, I was a moody teenager who had been playing guitar for just less than a year. Songwriting was an outlet for the intense and raw but very private emotions that seemed to be clawing me apart from the inside. Back then the focus of the song was on the guilt I felt (the original title was simply “What I Did Wrong”).

The song was more or less forgotten until about 2002, when I was listening to a lot of Chet Atkins and trying to work out my own fingerstyle guitar technique. I found that I could play the vocal melody at the same time that I played an arpeggio on the chords, so this song was added back to my repertoire as an instrumental.

For this recording I decided to bring back the lyrics, in a slightly altered form. Rather than focusing on the guilt of past actions, the revised words focus on reconciliation and forgiveness, which are the last steps in the process of being Lost and then Found. I had several specific people in mind as I recorded this song, and if they remember, then I hope they forgive.

While working on this recording the thought struck me that my 15-year old self is a great songwriting collaborator. He has some good musical ideas, and he doesn’t complain at all when the direction I want to take them isn’t exactly what he had in mind. I think the collaboration works better spanning across the years than it would in real time; I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like what I’ve done to his song.

About the Recording

I originally intended a hybrid guitar/synth fusion sound for this recording (think New Order), but a few things made me stray off of this intended course.

First, I discovered Guitarix, a software guitar amplifier for Linux systems, and I think this piece of software will change my life forever! All of the electric guitars (including the bass) used Guitarix plugins, and it was so fun that I just wanted to add more and more guitar to the sound and less and less synth. Eventually I took all of the synthesizers out, with the exception of the drum samples (which were sequenced using Hydrogen).

Second (and related to the first), I got thinking about some other songs which use the same or similar chord progressions, which tend to be guitar-based songs. (The chords are I – vi – ii – V; actually, these chords are also used in “My Abode!”) “Earth Angel” has a similar progression (I – vi – IV – V), and the tremolo guitar in the verse kept reminding me of the scene from “Back to the Future.” Adding too much techno to that sound just didn’t seem right.

Alan with guitarThe resulting arrangement became something of a sonic retelling of the song’s history: The opening chords on acoustic guitar are largely as I would have played them as a beginner in 1994; the body of the song salutes a few of my early guitar influences: Peter Buck, Robert Smith, Simon Gallup; the fingerstyle acoustic version I worked out in about 2002 forms the coda. The result is very satisfying for me personally, as an homage to where I have come from musically, and where I have gone. I also think it harmonizes well with the evolution of the song’s meaning.

This recording was done entirely on Linux Mint using Ardour and Hydrogen, with Guitarix plugins, and the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface. With each new recording I discover more useful features of Ardour, and new plugins. Desktop Linux has turned into a wonderful, rich environment for audio recording.

About the Album

I am getting really close to finally finishing the album I started nearly 15 years ago! There are just one or two more songs to record, and I am also working on remastering some of the previous tracks. It is still my goal to finish it by the end of this year, so stay tuned for updates.

U-Turn

Here is another track for the Lost and Found album.

download: mp3, tablature, lyrics &  guitar chords

U-Turn

words and music by Alan Sanderson

I was lost on a lonely highway
Trying to find my place in the sun
And when I thought I’d found my destination
I found my journey had just begun

I wasn’t looking for adventure, oh no
I was just looking for a place to live my life
But I didn’t know which way was home anymore
I didn’t know which way was home

So I turned myself around
I did a U-turn on that highway
And I said to myself,
“Where are the mountains that I love?
Where’s the smell of rain in the desert?
And where are the people that I call my own?
Where are the people that I call my own?”
So I said to myself,

“I’m gonna find my way back home
I’m gonna find my way back home
I’m gonna find my way back home
I’m gonna find my way back home
Here I come!

“I’m gonna find those mountains that I love
I’m gonna find those people that I call my own
I’m gonna find my way back home”

About the Song

The guitar riff that that this song is based on was literally lost and found. I recorded a sketch of it on a cassette tape and mailed it to my cousin before I left on my mission, and then forgot all about it. After I got home my cousin sent the old recording back to me, and I relearned how to play it. (Thanks, Tom!) Here is that old recording, if you would like to hear it:

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Seeing mountains again! Picture taken on my move from the Midwest to Utah in 2015.

I had a basic idea of what the song was about, and had the second verse mostly worked out years ago, but I made a big breakthrough on the lyrics in 2015 when I was moving back home to Utah after living in the Midwest for 11 years. The first verse came to me at a rest stop west of Indianapolis. The lyrics capture a lot of how I felt at the time, but they don’t quite express how much I felt that I was guided by God to move when and where I did.

About the Recording

This was the quickest recording of the album so far, taking a little over a month from start to finish. I had initially planned for more aggressive drums and an electric lead guitar, but opted for the lighter acoustic sound.

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In my new studio!

The recording was done in Ardour on Linux Mint, in a downstairs room of my house that I recently claimed as my studio. The drums were programmed using Hydrogen, and a brush kit sound bank. This song was my first attempt to use Ardour’s MIDI function, which took a bit of time to figure out, but I am pleased with the result. I used the “rock organ” sound from Christian Collins’ GeneralUser GS soundfont.

About the Album

Only two more songs to record for this album! Here is my goal: Finish it during 2019!

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Here is our musical Christmas greeting this year, a recording of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

(Download mp3)

This is an American song written in 1868, with the beautiful text written by Phillips Brooks (1825-1893), an Episcopal priest. The original tune was composed by Lewis Redner (1831-1908), who was organist at Brooks’ church. In England the song is more commonly sung to an English folk melody arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) in about 1903. Our recording follows the English tune.

We hope you enjoy our song. Merry Christmas from our family to yours!

FP A-20

 

Healing Heart

I just finished another recording for the Lost and Found album, a song called “Healing Heart.”  (Download the mp3)

Look within your own heart
There is always another open part
This burden, can you forgive?
Oh, please forgive!
I sing for you and your healing heart

Deep within my own heart
Can I open another broken part?
This burden, I will forgive
I will forgive!
Oh, pray for me and my healing heart

(Dedicated to the memory of John M. Stang, MD)

About the Recording

This recording is based on a song which I have enjoyed since I first heard it in 2004. It was written by Andrew Vavrek, who recorded a sketch of the song in 2002:

Andrew Vavrek is a major proponent of the Free Music movement, and this song was released under a Creative Commons license which specifically allows redistribution and even derivative works. One of the rules of this license is that derivative works also use the same or equivalent license, and so my recording is licensed using the same. Feel free to share, redistribute, and make derivative works, as long as you give appropriate attribution.

My idea to record this song dates back to about 2007-2008, when I was reflecting on the healing power of forgiveness because of a few personal experiences. I took the liberty of altering the song’s lyrics to reflect this. (For more info, read my story about Dr. Stang.)

This song was next on the list for recording in 2008, but my music hobby was derailed and all but extinguished by my busy schedule that year (and for the next several years). I did program the drum part in 2008 using Hydrogen, and when I decided to recommence work on the recording in 2017 I found the old Hydrogen file in my archive, dusted it off, and used it with only minor changes. This was my first recording which used Ardour from start to finish, and I learned a lot about the software during the recording. The more I use Ardour, the more I like it.

About the Album

While working on this recording I also struggled with a decision about the album, which had the working title of “Moldy Oldies.” This is not the most attractive name, so I toyed with some other options. Eventually it dawned on me that I could simply re-open work on the Lost and Found album, and finish the project I gave up on so long ago.

I reorganized the website to merge “Moldy Oldies” with “Lost and Found” and I have updated the mp3 tags for Alpha, Lullabye, and Omega to reflect this. The track list is currently in flux, but is starting to take shape. Right now it looks something like this:

  1. Alpha
  2. [TBA]
  3. [TBA]
  4. Rising Sun
  5. Something Wrong
  6. [TBA]
  7. Lullabye
  8. [TBA]
  9. [TBA]
  10. Standing On High
  11. Healing Heart
  12. Omega

Check back here for updates or follow the blog to hear new songs as they are finished!

A First Look at LMMS

In 2012 I found a keyboard midi controller at a yard sale for $10, and I couldn’t pass it up even though I’m not much of a keyboardist. Once I brought it home I had to find a way to use it, and that search led me to LMMS. There are many good tutorials and other documentation which cover every aspect of installing, configuring, and using LMMS, and I’m not trying to duplicate any of those efforts. This article is meant more as a review and a memoir than as a how-to guide.

LMMS is an obsolete acronym for “Linux Multimedia Studio,” which made for an awkward name when it became a cross-platform application. The website currently says “Let’s Make Music” in the top banner, which would work for the acronym if we could think of a word that starts with “S” to add to it. (Any suggestions? How about: “Let’s Make Music, Sonny?” Yeah, nevermind.)

Actually, I did a bit of reading before I settled on LMMS. The other option was to use JACK to connect Rosegarden or some other midi sequencer to a software synthesizer. But I didn’t want to mess around with different applications held together with duct tape and chewing gum in some MacGyver-ish Linux audio setup; I just wanted to plug in my new toy and play with it. So I opted for the all-in-one approach of a single application which acts as a sequencer and a synthesizer, which is LMMS.

As I have said before, this approach differs somewhat from the traditional Unix philosophy of connecting together small, modular tools. But the Unix philosophy applies to the design of a software application, not necessarily to the preferred behavior of its end users. The web browser you are using to read this article may or may not have a modular design under the hood, but you probably use it as an all-in-one solution and its modularity is transparent to you as the user. Would you rather open a terminal and use wget to retrieve the html document, then pipe it to some html rendering engine? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Anyway, as I was saying, LMMS is a really nice environment for composing electronic music. I was impressed with it from the first time I used it, and I am still pleased at what a capable synthesizer it is. I am not an LMMS guru, or a sound engineer, or even a music theory expert, but let me give you a quick description of its tools and how I used them to make a few songs. When you first launch LMMS you are greeted with an empty project which has one each of the four possible track types: instrument, sample, beat+bassline, and automation. In the following sections we will review three of these four; I haven’t used sample tracks in a song yet, so I’ll revisit that topic in a future post.

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An empty project in LMMS, showing the four track types: Instrument (TripleOscillator), Sample Track, Beat+Bassline, and Automation track.

WARNING: This article is for geeks only. You may have noticed that already. Proceed at your own risk. I do recommend that you download the LMMS song project files from the links below and open them in the program as you read my descriptions.

Lullabye

LMMS file: Alan Sanderson – Lullabye.mppz [14.3 kB]

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Lullabye in the Song-Editor window

This was the first song I sketched out on LMMS, cutting my teeth on how to organize a project, edit the piano roll, make a drumbeat, and shape the waveform and envelope of the sounds. The tune was a fingerstyle guitar piece that really lent itself to decomposition into melody and arpeggio parts, and I felt like a kid in a candy store designing the sounds to use in the verse and chorus for those two parts. The Triple Oscillator synthesizer in LMMS is based on the manual controls of an old analog synthesizer (like the Mini Moog), and it is easy to recreate classic old-school sounds. I am an old fan of Kraftwerk and Switched-On Bach, so these old sounds take me to a happy place. Every sound in this song, including the percussion sounds, was produced with the Triple Oscillator.

LMMS-Lullabye-verse-melody-envelope-LFO
Envelope and low frequency oscillator settings for the Verse Melody sound

I settled on a percussive buzzy sound for the arpeggios and a softer, more sustained sound for the melodies. My favorite sound was the verse melody, which used a low frequency oscillator to produce a delayed vibrato effect. The most versatile sound is the chorus arpeggio, which is also used to make the echo chords during the intro and adds to the bass texture during the song’s interlude. A fifth sound was added for the bass, and once I had the five voices I arranged the piece as a sort of instrumental folk song, with every voice taking a solo on the different melodies.

I have two quick tips for the beginning electronic composer, which are both illustrated in this song. They are both subtle things but they make a huge difference to the listener. First, separate your sounds in stereo space. Notice how the two arpeggio voices are sonically similar, but separating them into the left and right speakers makes them more discernible. Second, adjust the volume of individual notes to make the phrasing more expressive. I can’t overstate how much this helps the listener connect with your song. This phrasing is done naturally by trained musicians on an instrument, but must be done manually and intentionally when you are programming events in a piano roll editor. This tip applies equally to percussion sounds.

LMMS-Lullabye-verse-argeggio-phrasing
An example of phrasing by adjusting the individual note volumes.

LMMS-Lullabye-Rattle-envelope-LFOAnd speaking of percussion, I had a lot of fun shaping the drum sounds on this song. Two in particular are worth mentioning: The Rattle sound used on the backbeat was made using a low frequency oscillator, and I thought it sounded like a guiro or washboard sound. I stumbled upon the Ride sound by playing with different ways to combine the oscillators, and then I ran it through a HiPass filter to remove the lower frequencies from the sound. It sounds a bit like a tambourine to me.

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The Beat+Bassline Editor window

Here is where we talk about the Beat+Bassline editor, which is the place to program your drum patterns. Notice that all of the drum sounds are here, and not in the Song-Editor window. Each pattern you create in the Beat+Bassline Editor appears as a separate track in the Song Editor window, where you simply control where each Beat+Bassline pattern appears in the composition, as you can see in the Song Editor window screenshot above. Sounds can be copied from the Song Editor window to the Beat+Bassline Editor window by holding the Ctrl button and dragging the handle on the far left of the track, so if you start making a sound in the wrong place you can move it later.

LMMS-Lullabye-copy-sound
Copying a sound from the Song Editor to the Beat+Bassline Editor using a Ctrl-drag on the track handle.

Alpha

 

LMMS file: Alan Sanderson – Alpha.mppz [16 kB]

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Alpha in the Song-Editor window

Once I felt a bit comfortable with using LMMS I had the idea to revisit this old song of mine that was never recorded very well in the past. The bass, organ, and guitar are very similar to the old recordings, but I added two sounds to this arrangement which I think added a lot of interesting  texture and I will describe how I made them here.

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Effect settings for the Zap sound.

The Zap sound was inspired by an echo effect used by Jason Hissong on the song “Perfect Machine.” With just a few notes you can fill the audio canvas with sound. The Triple Oscillator uses a square wave, and I used the Feedback Delay Line effect.

The bassvibe sound demonstrates a subtle stereo panning effect where the pitch of the note determines the stereo position of the note. This is the kind of ear candy that is easier to do in electronic music than in other types of recordings, and which acts as a little love note that only your audiophile listeners will appreciate. (Sometimes when I hear the opening sequence of Kraftwerk’s “Electric Cafe” on nice headphones I say, with tears in my eyes, “I love you too, Florian!”)

LMMS-Alpha-bassvibe-stereo
Stereo panning as a function of note pitch.

A final point about Alpha is the obvious fact that there is an organic instrument mixed in with the synthesizers. I did not record the guitar with LMMS, and as far as I can tell there is no way of doing that (although this song by Jens Hochapfel is an interesting approach to work around the same limitation). So I took a mixdown of the song from LMMS and imported it into Ardour to record the guitar and do the final mixdown. There was a bit of back and forth because recording the guitar part led to some changes in the overall composition and I went back to LMMS several times to revise my work. This made for an awkward workflow at times, especially as I found that LMMS didn’t play very well with JACK on my system, so I may try a different approach the next time I do a composition with mixed electronic and organic instruments.

Omega

LMMS file: Alan Sanderson – Omega.mppz [9.2 kB]LMMS-Omega_Song-Editor

This song came together quickly because the composition needed less work than the others, and because I knew my way around LMMS better by the time I started working on this. There are a few techniques I want to point out in this song project.

First, the Beat+Bassline function can be really useful for any sound sequence which repeats unchanged. I used it here for the drum pattern, and also for the Duck and Reverse sounds. I could have used it for the bass and flute sounds, which also repeat themselves, but it turned out to be easier to just copy/paste a pattern in the song editor in that case because they repeat with changes. The bass track on “Alpha” was a bit of a mess for that reason, which is why I took this approach on “Omega.”

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Envelope settings for the Flute and Reverse sounds, showing the softened attack.

Second, the Flute sound was produced by softening the attack on the sound envelope. A similar but more extreme technique produced the fade-in of the Reverse sound. When you are shaping sounds in your synthesizer, make sure you play with the envelope to see what it does to your sound, and you will be pleasantly surprised with how much you can do.

 

I also played with some different synthesizers on this project, branching out a bit from the Triple Oscillator. The Duck sound was made using the BitInvader plugin, which allows you to graphically draw the waveform you want with the mouse pointer. I actually used the “pluck.xpf” preset, and added the C* AutoWah effect. (Just for the record, I wasn’t trying to make this track sound like a duck. I named it the duck sound only after my wife pointed out the resemblance.) The Harp sound was made with the Opulenz plugin, which produces very clean and pleasing sounds. I will surely revisit that plugin in other projects.

Finally, I used automation to produce a fadeout at the end of the song. To do this I created an automation track, then clicked in that track to define the desired region. Then I found the control slider for the master volume and held the Ctrl key while click-dragging that control to the region in the automation track. Then I double-clicked on the region to draw the volume envelope I wanted for the fadeout. You can use discreet, linear, or cubic Hermite (curved) progression. A volume fadeout is a trivial use of automation, but it can be used to produce any dynamic change to any control in LMMS. (As Zombo.com says, “The only limit is yourself.”) Also, different regions in an automation track can be attached to different controls, and you can have as many regions as you want in a single automation track.

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Dragging the master volume control to the automation track region.
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Programming the volume envelope in the Automation Editor

Final Thoughts

LMMS is a great tool for shaping electronic sounds, and allows you to get as granular and geeky as you want. There are a lot of preset sounds, and the library gets better with every release, but you are by no means limited to using the presets. The interface is easy enough for kids to use, although I will admit that my kids are kind of geeky. I have never had so much fun with sound engineering as I have since I started working with LMMS. It is not a general-purpose tool, and there are some important things that it can’t do, but it is very good at what it does do.

The overall verdict: Two thumbs up for LMMS, which has become a permanent fixture in my Linux home studio. I offer a big congratulations and thanks to the developers for making such a fantastic tool.

P.S. Please feel free to play with my songs, remix them, rewrite them, or whatever else you want to do. Please post a comment below with a link to your derivative work!


I also blog about medicine and religion and about trail running.