Sunday, November 29, 2015

#ALittleThunder Has Revolutionized Four-Chord Rock (and Other Genres)

After all these years, decades really, I think I've figured out my signature sound.

Let's back up a bit.

There's a relatively old joke that makes the observation that every new AC/DC album was basically the same as previous albums. Once upon a time, I thought it was a bad thing. It's not. An easily-identifiable signature sound is a hallmark of badassery.

Modern-day country music is basically pop songwriting with twangy vocals and miscellaneous fiddles. Once upon a time, I thought it was a bad thing. It's not. Genre conventions are an interesting study in cultural traditions.

I've encountered my share of genre snobs, who denigrate one form of music while elevating the one they happen to like the most. Once upon a time, I thought it was a bad thing. Well ... it still is a bad thing to be a genre snob. Even though you might not end up playing a specific style of music ever, it is important to keep an open ear and an open mind when it comes to music. Don't knock it until you understand it.

Four-chord rock music really caters to two specific musicians: The vocalist and the guitarist(s). It does few favors to bassists and drummers, unless the music gets more complex.  Drummers must be slightly masochistic because they basically lug around about five drums, about five cymbals, hardware, a throne, and sticks wherever they go. They set up the drum kit, play for a bit, take down the drum kit, then transport everything again and again.

An electronic drum pad coupled with a couple of foot pedals -- theoretically -- can solve this problem, especially when playing shows wherever. Maybe one day electronic drum pads will be the go-to instrument in four-chord popular music, especially four-chord rock -- maybe four-chord post-rock with the electronics. Then again, maybe most non-famous drummers enjoy being their own drum tech and road crew.

I've neglected to define my idea of "four-chord" rock. It's basically sloppy, garage-style, punk-ish rock 'n roll. Guitars are distorted, and vocals are competent enough to stay in key and cut through the band. The meter of a song will either be four-four time or six-eight (three-four) time. Songwriting follows the popular music structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus, and the like. It's as basic as it gets, with some potential for epicness.

Bass players in this now-defined four-chord rock genre have the disadvantage whenever they play with heavy guitars or vocalists with lower vocal ranges. Whenever two instruments occupy the same frequencies, the sound gets -- for lack of a better word -- muddy. A heavily-distorted guitar, as opposed to a fuzzy guitar or an overdriven guitar, will encroach on bass guitar territory. A baritone vocalist might not even cut through the band. The overall muddiness of the sound might render fancy walking basslines inaudible. The four-chord structure of songs will just render the bassist to play the root note of each chord as simply as possible.

Perhaps the concept of the bass player is better in jazz, funk, or progressive rock music. With a pickup called A Little Thunder, the rhythm guitarist can also be the bass player. After all, the rhythm guitarist is usually responsible for much of the tone decisions that muddy up a band's sound.

Hopefully more and more four-chord rock bands will embrace the idea of the rhythm guitarist/ALT bassist. (The electronic pad touring drummer is an unlikely pipe dream.) There are bass players who have learned the low-note craft, but they are not given the opportunity to be Flea or Geddy Lee while thumping low end in a four-chord rock band. Let them find other bands and genres that allow such an opportunity. There are guitarists who, by necessity due to genre conventions, play bass but can't hear themselves because the muddy mess of a four-chord rock band. Let them play both with A Little Thunder, and everyone can learn why heavy bands might sound muddy.

As I've written in a few earlier blog posts, I have created a reasonable one-man live band setup for myself. I have a guitar with A Little Thunder, and another guitar with a single-string pickup that I rigged up before I learned about A Little Thunder. I have a drum machine that also triggers a couple of LED light units -- one for low frequencies, and one for high frequencies. I sing through a vocal harmonizer, in order to actually sound decent as a vocalist.

Here's the basic recipe for my four-chord rock, one-man live band. The guitar is slightly distorted with an emulator pedal that tries to sound like a Vox AC30, but not too heavy, as to muddy up the bass. The tone of the ALT bass -- same guitar -- is tweaked with a bass overdrive pedal. Basslines, played either on the Low E or A strings of the same guitar, are kept quite simple. I'm either going to play with the kick drum, straight eighth notes, or do a simple groove, whenever possible.

My drum machine is programmed with a bunch of generic patterns, as well as song-specific ones. The generic patterns are usually 4/4 backbeats, 4/4 snare on 3, and 6/8 beats with the snare on 4. I can start and stop a pattern with a foot pedal, and I can tell the pattern to go into a fill and another pattern with that same pedal. I can adjust the beats per minute to however fast or slow I want. The big downside to using a drum machine is that I'm missing cymbal hits and other fancy techniques that only a human drummer can provide. Since I'm using a drum machine, perhaps I should think like an EDM DJ and try to make the patterns dance-friendly.

I try to sing head voice almost exclusively, so that the vocals can cut through the band. My natural chest voice doesn't cut through the instruments without mixing help. Perhaps a sound engineer could EQ my chest voice to cut through the band, but my goal is for a simple, one-man band setup! I usually get my vocal harmonizer to go a 3rd above the melody, to thicken and sweeten the sound. The Boss VE-2 is smart enough most of the time to figure out what key I'm singing in, referencing the chords I play on the guitar.

A video posted by Ryan DeRamos (@ryan_deramos) on

I'm also trying to incorporate more Ebow into my music, but it's kind of unwieldy to hold the Ebow while plucking a decent bassline and singing. I'm currently working on a solution!

A video posted by Ryan DeRamos (@ryan_deramos) on

With an electric guitar, simple basslines, a drum machine, and harmonized vocals -- I'm basically playing the one-man version of an '80s new wave band or something!

A video posted by Ryan DeRamos (@ryan_deramos) on

There's always room for an extra musician to play a sweet guitar solo, though.

I usually record all my performances, good and bad, with a Zoom H1 audio recorder. While I've figured out my signature sound for now, there's still room for adjustments.

That's blog post five out of six for the end of November! The marathon writing session is almost over! Cheers!

Bought or Sold: The Difference Between #Netflix/#AmazonPrime and TV/Film

There's a difference between audiovisual works produced for subscription services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.) and for traditional mass media (movie theaters and broadcast TV). I could go the "social justice warrior" route and critique demographics of actors and content or whatever, but I'll only briefly touch on that, if at all. The difference between Netflix/Amazon Prime and TV/film really has to do with one thing: Money.

I recently finished watching the first season Aziz Ansari's Master of None on Netflix. It is an endearing show that deals with sort of serious topics in a non-cynical, humorous way. It tries to make the audience want to be kinder to one another, and perhaps it will have success in that manner. I personally enjoyed all 10 episodes of the show.

There's little chance that this sort of sitcom-dramedy could survive on network or commercial-filled cable TV. Dev Shah's (Aziz Ansari's character) anti-Seinfeld band of non-stereotypical friends wouldn't survive in a TV environment that thrives on conventional tropes. TV producers rely on stereotypes for content, as well as target audiences that -- consciously or subconsciously -- accept and expect stereotypes. TV producers want target audiences to feel entitled to this sort of status quo.

Master of None is basically a 30-something sitcom, and a typical 30-something-related sitcom on network TV has commercials, like any other TV show. Those commercials want to sell stuff, like cell phone data plans, lawn mowers, and eye makeup, to the target audience. If the ratings are low for a show, then the commercials won't have an audience, stuff isn't sold, and the show gets cancelled. To minimize the risk of wasted airtime on a probably-soon-to-be-cancelled show, producers have to rely on audience-friendly, stereotypical, genre-adhering tropes -- in content and in casting. In other words, a network TV show probably won't have two South Asian-descent guys with North American accents interacting with one another anytime soon, let alone three or more -- unless stereotypes are involved.

TV producers tend to be apprehensive whether that scenario can sell the latest mid-priced Toyota to audiences.

Netflix, on the other hand, already has $7.99 per month from a lot of people, so they could produce whatever they want, on top of the streaming movies from years ago. This model will probably hold, as long as they have enough subscribers already in the system. If there is a crisis in that subscriber model, then Netflix will probably reduce its original content and rely on stereotypical tropes like network TV. That would be an awful fate.

I also binge-watched the first season of the Marvel superhero show Jessica Jones. It is a dark, heavy show, in the same vein as Daredevil, which is also on Netflix. Unlike Disney-Marvel's movies, this Disney-Marvel Netflix show has the time to develop characters, especially villains. I had no regrets watching all 13 episodes.

It's a bit strange that Disney-Marvel's first female leads were on network TV (Agent Peggy Carter) and Netflix (Jessica Jones), but Black Widow is still a supporting character or part of an ensemble in the movies. Like TV's reliance on commercials, the movies need their target audiences to purchase movie tickets, and in the case of family-friendly franchises, toys and related merchandise.

While it is likely that the darker, grittier Jessica Jones won't sell Happy Meals anytime soon, it's pretty weird that we're still waiting for a female-lead Marvel movie. I think there's a Captain Marvel movie in the works (Marvel's Captain Marvel is a woman, where DC's male Captain Marvel was re-branded as Shazam!). There is no reported Black Widow movie in the works. It's obvious that Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow has the fanbase to sell movie tickets and toys, but there is no solo movie and cheap action figures are few and far-between.

I suspect that movie producers and other executives, especially those who deal with big budgets, tend to not take risks. They rely on safe routes in order to get money from target audiences. The sad thing in all of this is that target audiences tend to accept the artificial world and limitations created by producers, who just want their money.

Netflix already has subscribers' money. Amazon has an advantage over Netflix, in which Amazon Prime's main purpose is for free shipping. All the subscription-based music, movies, and shows are just icing on the cake. Amazon, like Netflix, is mostly free to produce whatever it wants -- trope-reliant or not. Amazon is already selling stuff to people; it really doesn't need shows to do the advertising.

Then we have cable TV. Premium cable, like HBO, doesn't rely on advertisers, so it can produce whatever it wants. Regular cable is kind of weird because it has subscribers and relies on advertising. Cable is kind of a crap shoot: For every rare Breaking Bad, there's a bunch of crap that ultimately just wants to sell stuff to people via commercials.

As far as YouTube goes, there is a wealth of good content, mediocre content, and a variety of popular content of varying quality. It seems apparent that YouTube stars who try to crossover to traditional media are somewhat molded to fit into something more conventional -- but you be the judge of that.

Here's to not believing what producers have to say about you!

Four down, two more to go in this end of November blogging marathon. Cheers!