Saturday, October 31, 2009

Extreme Reality Halloween Party (10.30.09)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the biggest resource of Second Life is the people. There's something about SL that seems to be a magnet for the kind of people I enjoy being around. The creative. The weird. The fun-loving. Well, we had all that and more at the 2009 Extreme Reality Halloween party. And even with all the great costumes, decorations and activities there, the main event was the collection of fun and cool people.

Hell, you didn't even have to look past the stage to find the coolness. Two of SL's absolute most talented and fun DJ/remix artists, Slim Warrior and Doubledown Tandino, had the crowd rocking at their respective time slots at 6pm and 7pm. Then at 8pm, I took over the stage to mix things up a bit with my live acoustic set. I decided to actually dress up for the event this year, which is why you see me in my Count Zakula outfit (along with Kat in her excellent Maleficent costume).

The shows were all great. Slim did a very tasty set of mostly her own originals, and Doubledown did his extraordinarily funky mixes on the fly. I would have enjoyed hanging out and dancing all night to their stuff had I not a set to do of my own.

My Halloween set list...
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Mary Jane's Last Dance (Tom Petty)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Tribute (Tenacious D)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)

Huge Halloween thanks to the friends who rocked with me at Extreme Reality!
AgileBill Firehawk, Triana Caldera, Diana Renoir, Kat Claxton, Slim Warrior, Harrie Skjellerup, Kaklick Martin, jsmn Yao, Jordan Hazlitt, hexx Triskaidekaphobia, Doubledown Tandino, Mystical Demina, and Bevan Whitfield!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The making of a new song (Part 1)

I've had a lot of people over the years ask me about my songwriting process, and I never feel like I have a good answer for them. I'm also not at all sure that my process of writing a song is like anyone else's. Songwriting is kind of a private affair, and it seems to me that even in the great collaborative teams (Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Rodgers/Hammerstein and so on), you have one guy who's the lyricist and another guy that does the music. In cases where both people do both jobs, they rarely do them together. I know it's neat to imagine multiple people assembling this audible work of art, but even in those Beatles tunes that John and Paul actually worked on together, almost all of them had Paul writing the verse and chorus, and John contributing the bridge, or vice-versa. It's not like they were sitting together saying, "Ooh, make the next chord a G minor!" and so on. Ultimately, creativity is a solo gig, at least in the initial stage... a one-person deal.

Anyway, since I'm in the process of writing songs for the next album (even though the first one hasn't hit the streets yet), I thought I'd share what my version of songwriting is all about. By the way, while I hate the fact that I have to write this, everything you hear here is copyrighted by me, Zak Claxton. This blog post is date/time stamped, obviously, so don't get any funny ideas about borrowing this little tune. I do like to share; I don't like to get ripped off. Enough said.

1. The Idea
Since the beginning of recorded history (and probably long before that), creative people have wondered where their creations come from. While many forms of art and sculpture can be seen to represent something that exists, music is a very nebulous thing, where you find yourself pulling chords and notes and rhythms seemingly out of nowhere. Well, I can tell you, it's not "out of nowhere". Using myself as an example, I've spent years and years being immersed in the music of western civilization that goes back centuries... even millennia. So when I (and most other artists) write a "new" song, what we're often doing is drawing upon the sounds that came before us. There are transitions between chords that sound "right" because they're based on patterns that were developed long ago. Especially in the milieu of pop/rock that comprises my musical output, there are rhythms that have been imprinted in our collective unconsciousness long before we were born. My "new" songs merely reflect everything I've heard over the course of my life. I can't claim it to be any more mystical than that.

Another note on ideas: I've never been successful at forcing myself to write new music. I can't designate a time and sit down and write a song. It's not like, "3:00: do laundry, 4:00: call Joe, 5:00: take out trash, 6:00: write new song." It doesn't happen that way for me. Every time I've successfully written something I feel is worthwhile, it goes more like this.

- I find myself in a creatively open space, where I don't have a lot of other things pulling my attention away.
- I pick up a guitar and strum around aimlessly for awhile.
- Eventually, I find my hands doing things that I hadn't planned.
- At some point, I kind of snap back into regular consciousness, and realize that what I'm playing isn't something that I've done before, nor does it seem to be something that someone else has done. It seems to be something like a new song. Voila.

So at that point, we have an idea. It's not quite a song yet. But maybe it's just a few chords that sound good together, and inspire me to continue on it. Side note: I can't tell you how many times I've gotten to this point, and then decided what I had wasn't that great, or got distracted and did something else for awhile and then forgot what I was doing earlier. You need to make a point to try and get something fleshed out a little more at this point, if it seems worthwhile.

2. The Process
I feel a need to once again say that while this is my process, it isn't THE process. Some people go about this an entirely different way. I'm only telling you my way, which may or may not be congruous with your way. Okay. Glad we cleared that up.

As mentioned earlier, I tend to write on an acoustic guitar. Why? First, I'm most comfortable with that instrument, so there's no delays while I try and figure out how to play what I'm hearing in my head. Second, my personal opinion is that if I can play it through on just an acoustic guitar and voice, it has good potential to be a decent song.

So, I have a couple sets of chords, and in typical pop/rock format, one set will end up as the verse, and the other the chorus. Note that in my case, lyrics aren't even in the picture yet. Some writers (Elton John, for instance) take existing lyrics and write music to them. I can't do that. To me, the song is the music, and hopefully my lyrics fit the mood of the music, rather than the other way around. However, part of the music is melody, so at this stage I might start humming along with my verse/chorus chords, seeing what happens. I need to be careful here, because I really don't want to lock myself into a melody. I kind of let it flow, playing through the chords over and over again, trying different variations on the melody.

3. The Addendums
Let's say I now have these chords for a verse and chorus, and a rather amorphous melody that I've been humming. Not gonna worry about words for awhile. But I am aware that in most cases, I want something more than these two musical motifs to repeat throughout the song, to avoid repetitive boredom (generally not something good in music, to me anyway). Now, there's no preset template that I fill in here. Sometimes, I do another musical theme and it becomes the song's bridge. Sometimes that bridge is also an area for the instrument solo (which is the case in my songs "This Afternoon", "You're Like a Cloud" and others). Sometimes I add yet another theme which becomes the coda (aka outro) of a song, which you hear in my song "Fade Away", for example. Remember, there are no rules here, okay? I do what I feel like for that song at that time. The next song might be very different.

In the as-yet-untitled song I'm writing now, the first addendum that came to me was the outro. In fact, the very first time I played it all the way through, I found that I just did the outro naturally, without even thinking about it... a good sign. The song also seemed to want a bridge, and I tried a couple of things that were okay, but didn't slay me. But right at the moment I decided to record a quick demo (see below), I just let go and allowed my hands to do as they wanted on the bridge, and I liked what they did.

Anyway, as I just mentioned, the next step is...

4. The Demo
People have different meanings for the word "demo" as it relates to songwriting. Some people make their demos very fleshed out, with drum parts and other arranging ideas. For me, there's a simple reason to do a quick demo at this stage; I don't want to forget what I've written! Granted, I do occasionally write music with a pen and paper in front of me, jotting down chord charts and so on. However, there mere act of putting down the guitar pick and picking up the pen can cause me to lose my mojo, or whatever you want to call it. What I prefer doing is playing the song over and over while I write it so the chord changes become internalized. Then, I simply record it live, which I do the very moment I can play it all the way through.

I really don't want anything distracting me at that stage... even the act of recording can interrupt the flow, if it involves a lot of setup. Stopping and setting up mics, prepping the computer to record -- I don't like that stuff at that point. So, I usually grab the closest thing to me that will record audio with one button push. In the case of "Demo Song 10.26.09", it was the digital camera sitting on my desk. I put it on the other chair in my office/studio, pointed it toward me, and hit "record". Is the audio quality great? No. Is the performance perfect? No. Will I use this actual recording on the album? No. Does it suffice to capture the idea immediately so I can start thinking about other stuff without fear of abandoning the song's vibe? Yes!

Sometimes, I hum along while I record the demo, but more often I don't. The melody is often still congealing in my brain at this stage, and the minute I record something, I'm mostly locked into it from that point onward. But even at this very early stage, I can tell you where everything goes... where the verses are, where the choruses are, where the solos will fit and so on.

That's where we're leaving off for now, because that's all I've got. Some songs actually die at this stage. After a few days of listening, I may decide that I'm just not that into it. Or, I may realize that it's too derivative of some other artist's work, and I'm pretty careful about making sure my original music is actually mine. However, in Part 2 of this topic, I'll tell you about the next stage, which will likely be the writing of lyrics.

For the time being, here's the very rough demo of "Song 10.26.09". Enjoy.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Glance Pink Ball (10.24.09)

A couple of weeks ago, I had kind of an odd experience. A gal I wasn't really familiar with asked if I could perform at a place I'd never been before. Well, that isn't odd in and of itself; that happens all the time. But as I started to talk to her about the details of the show -- where, when, my standard fee and so on -- she became elusive. Asked me to come see the place (I did), told me about it (I listened), but seemed to have trouble committing to hiring me. I came very close to telling her, "Thanks but no thanks."

As it turned out, the reason for her reluctance to give me more details was that it was a show for charity... a very worthwhile charity, "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer". She wanted me to play for free, and was hesitant to ask me to do so. Here's a word of advice for folks: many musicians are happy to be able to help lend a hand for charity shows, but the best way to do it is to come right out and tell them what it is you're doing! You don't need to sell them on the idea. Either they're going to be into it, or not, and it's based on the performer's own priorities as to whether or not they want to donate their time and money to the cause. So, while I probably wouldn't do a free show to "Save the Wombats" or something, there wasn't a moment of hesitation once I understood this was a show to fight breast cancer.

Before I go on to the details of the show, there's no better time than the present to give you a few facts...

• The American Cancer Society says there are 192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer in 2009, along with 40,170 deaths.

• Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.

• The chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer some time during her life is a little less 1 in 8.

• As a result of more awareness (leading to earlier discovery) and better treatments, breast cancer death rates have been going down. Right now there are more than 2½ million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

Nearly all of us will know someone who will be affected by breast cancer, either directly or indirectly. It's a cause I certainly believe in, and I was glad to lend a hand in my small way to fight this disease!

So, on to the show.

Glance International Agency is one of SL's premiere fashion and modeling businesses. The show I did on Saturday is at their main headquarters in SL, a kind of mall with a large room for fashion shows. So, there at the head of the runway (cue Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy"), I set up and did my usual Zak Show. As you blog readers know, it's important to me to get new listeners for my music, so performing before a good-sized crowd of folks who'd never heard me before was a good opportunity on a personal basis. And, as I said, all proceeds for the day -- which included a fashion show as well as my gig -- were donated directly to the ACS. There was a large kiosk next to me as opposed to my usual tip jar, and hopefully we raised some good funds during the hour I was onstage doing originals and covers.

The Set List...
Wonderwall (Oasis)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Rikki Don't Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Jane (Barenaked Ladies)

Thanks to the folks who came out to the show and helped fight breast cancer!
Rhonda Pennell, Veronica Krasner, Herradura Baar, Kat Claxton, Wicca Merlin, Nefertiti Kimagawa, Arisia Ashmoot, ladysunfire Erin, Aurelie Chenaux, Sanders Beaumont, Dunia Moulliez, Trance Mistwallow, Sibilla Peccable, Antuanet Forcella, Triana Caldera, Darzian Silverfall, morgynn Hancroft, Miaa Rebane, nathalie Ember, and GIA owner Patty Cortes!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Crystal Gardens (10.18.09)

Sometime last week, my IM box popped up, and it was Ictus Belford. Back when I was first starting out playing in SL, I had a weekly Monday night show at a venue then known as Crystal Sands, and for well over a year, Ictus and I had adjoining time slots there. I'd play at 5:00PM, and Ictus would follow me at 6:00 back then.

Anyway, Ictus rang me up and let me know that for his third rezday, he was having a party at the place now called Crystal Gardens, still run by our pal Sandi Benelli. I told him I'd love to come by. A couple of days later, he told me he needed someone to fill a time slot at the all-day show, and I let him know that I'd be happy to take the space.

That's how I ended up playing at Crystal Gardens today, for a short half-hour show. It was really fun; my spot was toward the end of the show, but everyone there still seemed to be enthusiastic and fun. That is, except the Rezday Boy himself, who may or may not have been passed out on the couch during my set. No matter; the crowd was fun and I had a good time.

Set list...
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)

Thanks to Ictus and everyone at Crystal Gardens today!
Shannyn Fall, Kim Seifert, Mikal Beaumont, Haroldthe Burrel, Rebel Verrazzano, Amanda Steadham, Gavin MacKay, Gretchen Capalini, Triana Caldera, BuffaloMike Hammerer, Diana Renoir, Aurelie Chenaux, Zed Essex, Gracie Serendipity, Tommy Dannitza, bobby1 Tremor, Leabros Memel, Ashara Arabello, and Sandi Benelli!

Fall 2009 Zak Podcast


I had the realization yesterday that it was no longer summer (despite the recent mini-heat wave we've had in So Cal in the last couple of days), and that my "Summer 2009 Zak Podcast" was getting a bit stale. So, we whipped out a new one, which you can hear by clicking the link above. It's also playing at the parcels Kat and I own in SL.

What's in the Fall 2009 Podcast? Well, you get nine of my rough mixes from the studio, as well as me pretending to be a radio DJ, and informing you about what's happening with the album and so on. I'd recommend clicking the link above and letting it play while you go about your usual activities, much like a little radio show. Enjoy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Rastafairy Beach (10.16.09)

I have to say, it's been a sweet series of good shows lately. Perhaps having the album in the can is allowing me to focus more on the music at hand, or maybe it's just been luck of the draw with some great crowds. Today at Rastafairy Beach was most definitely a fun, fun show, so the streak continues.

It had been far too long, since January 3rd of this year, since I last did a show at hexx and jsmn's home venue. Pity, because I've invariably had fun performing at their place. Today, we managed to summon up a good sized, very enthusiastic audience, and one thing stood out for me: they seemed hungry for the originals. I threw in a couple of covers, both for time filler and to keep myself on my toes, but I also did a couple of originals that I don't play very often... "Waiting for This" and "Lines on your Eyes". Why don't I play these songs much? I certainly like both of them a lot, but they involve detuning my guitar, and I only feel comfortable doing that at certain places. The mellow vibe of Rastafairy Beach gave me the motivation to try the quick retune and jump into these songs.

Today's set list...
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Alabama (Neil Young)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Waiting for This (Zak Claxton)
Lines on your Eyes (Zak Claxton)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
Peace Song (This Guitar is my Weapon) (Zak Claxton)
Ziggy Stardust (Zak Claxton)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)

Big thanks to all the folks who came, especially those who supported the show!
Sid Slade, Diana Renoir, Alazarin Mondrian, Dewran Wopat, Persia Bravin, Life Charron, RastaMan Sorbet, and today's terrific hosts, jsmn Yao and hexx Triskaidekaphobia!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fibber Magees (10.14.09)

I don't know if I mentioned this or not, but somehow I ended up having shows scheduled every other day. On 10/12 it was my debut at Z's. Today (10/14) was a show at Fibber Magees. Friday 10/16, I'm rocking over at Rastafairy Beach. Finally, I'll do a half hour set for Ictus Belford's birthday party at Crystal Gardens on Sunday 10/18. Whew! glad I made that commitment to "stop playing so often". I'm glad that's working out for me.

Regardless, I find myself enjoying each show in a different way. Today was at Fibber Magees, and I invariably have such a fun time playing there. For one thing, it was nice to get back to doing some more covers in my set. I know, I'm supposed to be promoting my original music for the pending album release, right? But any musician who plays the same songs over and over -- even his or her own -- will tell you that it's fun to perform something you haven't done in the last few days. Or weeks. Or possibly months.

Another thing that makes Fibber Magees a great place to play is the vibe of the crowd. Maybe it's me, maybe it's them, but in any case, I find myself laughing a lot during my shows there. Today was no exception. Anyway, I'm always glad to have the chance to play at any of the Dublin venues, mostly due to the great efforts of Cher Harrington and the hosting staff. They not only bring in a cool crowd, but make sure everyone (including the artist) feels welcome and enjoys themselves. A lot of places could learn a thing or two from watching Cher in action. Just saying.

Today's set list at Fibber Magees...
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Bertha (Grateful Dead)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Just Like Starting Over (John Lennon)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Rock and Roll Woman (Buffalo Springfield)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Tea on the Sahara (The Police)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Soul Kitchen (The Doors)

Thanks to everyone who helped make it a great show!
Diana Renoir, Mac McLeod, Steven Hynes, MaryJoanne Sideways, Archangel Maruti, Aurelie Chenaux, hexx Triskaidekaphobia, Isobela Capalini, today's hostess Phooka Heron, and the effervescent Cher Harrington!

Z's Music Club (10.12.09)

I know things are getting busy when I start falling behind on my show reports. But that's alright; I'd rather have too much to talk about than not enough. That's a good sign.

Monday 10.12.09 was the first time I performed at Z's Music Club. It's a cool place, and it seems that quality music is definitely the focus there. On Monday evenings, Z's hosts an all-original showcase, so all the artists there are playing only their own original compositions. I welcomed the opportunity and had a nice turnout, both of my Zaksters and a bunch of people I'm pretty sure had never seen me play before.

The show also marked mine and Kat's third rezday in SL, as I mentioned before. We had a nice turnout of friends who came to wish us well on the equivalent of our birthday in Second Life.

All-Zak Set List...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Triana (Zak Claxton)
Peace Song (This Guitar is my Weapon) (Zak Claxton)

Thanks to everyone who supported this show!
Kat Claxton, Aurelie Chenaux, Triana Caldera, Siobban Smythe, Xerxes Ninetails, Aeriona Bartavelle, Ictus Belford, Rey Tardis, Horizon Darkstone, Jason Burroughs, Diana Renoir, Reeper Serpente, Lisbet Lane, Talbot Nutan, and Z's owner Zelema Wigglesworth!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making the album part 1492: what is mastering?

I've spent quite a bit of time here on the Zak Blog discussing the creation of my album. Most people are at least somewhat aware that there are quite a few steps in making an album of music. To condense the process, you basically have the following things to do:

1. Write a bunch of songs (duh)
2. Arrange the songs for multiple instruments (drums, guitars, bass, vocals, backing vocals and so on)
3. Record the songs
4. Mix the songs
5. Master the album
6. Replicate the CDs (or whatever you want the playback medium to be) and upload the songs for digital download sales

Pretty simple, eh? Well, due to my not being a rock star (and hence not being able to do this stuff full time), it's taken me close to three years to go through steps 1-4. But now, we're past the tough stuff... my album is completely recorded and mixed, as I've blathered about incessantly. Now, it's time for step 5: mastering. On this rainy day in Los Angeles, it seems like a good time to tell you all about it.

What is this mastering of which you speak?
Let's turn to the Wikipedia definition of mastering for a start...

Mastering, a form of audio post-production, is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device (the master); the source from which all copies will be produced (via methods such as pressing, duplication or replication).

But what does that actually mean, and why do you need to do it? The easiest explanation is this: you want things to sound as good as they possibly can before you press a bunch of discs (or LP vinyl records, or whatever you're making). The mastering engineer is a person who has specialized equipment that's all designed for two basic functions: to make the "volume" (level of perceived loudness) and "tone" (balance of treble and bass) of each song consistent across all the songs on an album.

More than the equipment, you hire a mastering engineer (ME) for his or her ears. An experienced ME can tell right away from listening to your music whether there will be any problems. For example, perhaps your music was mixed on a system that has a lot of bass, but when it's played through an iPod, it sounds tinny and weak. Or, perhaps your mix was done by someone who didn't have a good knowledge of loudness levels, and your mixes are so quiet that they won't sound good on the radio. In reality, the job of the ME is much more detailed that the broad examples I've given here. With their ears and their gear, they do a complete spectral analysis of the music, fine tuning every aspect of it to make sure it sounds great.

So mastering is only needed to fix a bad mix?
No, no, no, no. See, I knew I'd screw this up. I've made mastering seem like a process that's only required if your mixing engineer is a moron. Even the best mixes in the world go through a mastering process. Granted, the ME's job is easier when he or she starts with a great mix. I am very confident in the quality level of all 11 mixes for the Zak Claxton album, as is everyone who's heard the final mixes. But it still needs mastering, like all professional recordings.

The tasks that are common to almost all mastering jobs include equalization and compression, among others. Back in the days of analog recording, the ME would also be responsible for any noise reduction needed, but since most modern recording is done digitally, that's rarely an issue anymore. Equalization is the process of working with the songs' tone. You don't want one song sounding muffled and bassy, and the next sound sounding thin and trebly. The ME will make sure that the spectral balance is even throughout the album. Dynamic range compression is the act of making sure nothing is too loud or too quiet on the album. Like the last example, you don't want people diving for the volume control when one song is extremely loud and the next is far too quiet.

But even within a single song, these processes are important. When you listen to a song from your favorite band, note that the music seems to sit in a comfortable level of loudness that's consistent throughout the song. Note that no particular instrument or voice sounds too shrill, or too muffled. That's often the result of good mastering. One of the biggest points of frustration for people who do home-based recording of their music is why their stuff never seems to sound as polished as what they hear from major artists, and much of this final sheen in the audio happens in the mastering process.

Getting it ready for listening
Another thing that happens during the mastering phase is the sequencing of songs for the album. This is the order of tracks on a disc. Sometimes, you'll want to give the ME special instructions, such as one song starting while the last one is fading out, or leaving a certain amount of silence between different songs, and so on.

The ME must also take into consideration what the playback format will be. There are aspects to mastering for Compact Disc release that are quite different from mastering a vinyl release. Sometimes, major artists will have a different master that's just for radio play, since radio has its own set of audio considerations.

In any case, the last step is a transfer to the delivery medium. For my album, this medium will be a master CD that will be sent to a company that will create a glass master that's used to replicate 1,000 CDs, which will then be packaged and made available for sale. The same mastered digital files will be sent to me, and I will convert them to files that can be uploaded for digital distribution on online stores like iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, and eMusic.

So, as I seem to keep repeating, mastering is that last step to make your music sound great. As I also mentioned earlier, a great mastering engineer is one who has the experience to know what works and what doesn't, and why. While my album was recorded and mixed by a terrific engineer named Phil O'Keefe, my mastering is going to be done by a guy named Bill Plummer.

Who is Bill and why is he doing the mastering?
I met Bill close to a decade ago, when I was working for a company called TASCAM who made audio recording gear. Bill was one of the outside beta testers for our high-end recording tools. Later on, I got to know Bill better during our mutual participation on a few online forums for the audio engineering community. One thing I noted about him was that we seemed to share a lot of the same opinions about what comprised great recordings. While Bill is well known for his skills in mixing live sound, he's also a very accomplished mixing and mastering engineer for studio work.

I'm not the only one who has recognized Bill's talents. In 2003, a recording he made (BeBe Winans' “Live And Up Close”) was nominated for a Grammy. The range of well-known artists and bands he's mixed includes The Cure, Maroon 5, Carlos Santana, Diana Krall, Audioslave, Toni Braxton, Anita Baker, BeyoncĂ©, Whitney Houston, Herbie Hancock, and George Duke. And, of course, Bill has countless other credits mixing and mastering lesser-known artists (people more like me, in other words).

Could Phil and I have mastered the album on our own? Sure, absolutely. But I also believe that inviting a new set of fresh ears into the process at this stage will help bring in some clean objectivity that neither Phil nor I might be able to provide, given that we've been messing with these songs in some cases for upwards of a year and a half.

So, my final mixes are on their way to Bill. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to getting them back and hearing them in all their mastered glory.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy 3rd Rezday to me and Kat

It's October 12 today, a gloomy and overcast Monday in Southern California, and I am sitting in The Bean Counter, which is also known as "that little coffee house across the street from me". While I do enjoy being over here, I am actually not here by choice on this occasion. The power company is doing maintenance work in my neighborhood, and they started a scheduled outage at about 9am today. The power should be out until about 4pm, so in order to do something other than stare at a blank (and dimly lit) wall, I ventured out of my shell and am here having some coffee and a croissant. Hey, things could be way worse.

So the reason for today's post is that today is the third rezday of both Kat and I. For those of you not familiar with Second Life terminology, a "rezday" is similar to a birthday, except it commemorates the day you first signed up in SL. It was October 12, 2006 when Kat and I simultaneously registered in Second Life, and so it remains a day to celebrate for us. Much like our real-life birthdays (which we also share on the same day, coincidentally), we tend not to make a very big deal out of it. However, today I happen to also have a pretty cool gig lined up: it's a solid hour of all-original music at Z's Music Club. So, we'll combine both things, and tonight at 7:00pm, I'll perform my own songs and celebrate three years of fun and good friends in SL.


In other news, as I mentioned in my last post, we did indeed wrap up the album on Saturday, and today the final mix files will be on their way to my mastering engineer, Bill Plummer. Mastering is an audio science unto itself, and Bill is very good at what he does. In fact, not that I make this fact the be-all-end-all aspect of judging someone's talent, Bill's engineering skills have been recognized with a Grammy nomination (for BeBe Winans' album "Live and Up Close", in the "Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album" category in 2003).

If you need some more resume-like items for Bill, he's been entrusted to mix artists including The Cure, Maroon 5, Carlos Santana, Diana Krall, Audioslave, Toni Braxton, Anita Baker, Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, Herbie Hancock, George Duke and many others. Trust me that I get a giant "I'm not worthy!" feel to know I'm having a guy of his caliber working with these little old Zak Claxton tracks.

As I mentioned, the final mixes will be shipped to Bill today. I'm not sure of the method of transfer, which is either via physical delivery or via upload of many large files. I really don't care; my focus is on the end result, and I am really looking forward to hearing the whole thing after Bill works his magic.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Final Album Mix: Done


We had a goal for our return to Sound Sanctuary Studios yesterday, and that goal was simple: listen to all the rough mixes of my songs, and give my co-producer/engineer Phil O'Keefe instructions on any remaining changes required. Then, we expected to leave, and for Phil to make those changes sometime over the following week before having them ready to send off to my mastering engineer.

Seems easy enough, right? Well, I did what I should never do, which is to underestimate the ninja-like engineering skills of Phil. Not only did we accomplish the task above, but we actually finished the entire final mixes of all eleven songs. Yes. You read correctly. Phil made all changes on the spot. The mixing of the album is done. Done. Done, I tell you. Done.

Phil will be packaging all mixes in the next day or so and getting them over to Bill Plummer, mastering guy of the gods. This means that despite the tightness of our schedule in getting the album out by our official release date of December 11, we got some added bonus time in wrapping up the album's final mixes in a single day.

More importantly, the mixes sound... I don't even have words to describe how they sound, or how happy I am with the result of all the effort. I can only assume that after going through mastering, I'll have zero doubt that this album could not have gone better in any aspect. I love every single song we did. For the sake of historical accuracy (that no one probably gives a shit about except me), here's the order of songs we chose for the final mix, based on what we estimated would be the easiest through the most difficult.

1. Waxing Gibbous
2. Come Around
3. Always Tomorrow
4. You're Like a Cloud
5. The Sand of Redondo
6. Falling Down
7. Thanks Anyway
8. This Afternoon
9. Fade Away
10. Waiting for This
11. Lines on your Eyes

What actually ended up happening was that most of the final changes were much easier than we thought they'd be, but that's only a testament to how great Phil's original "rough" mixes were. In every case, there were really only a few small but important details to go through. By 11:00PM, Kat and I were getting in our car to head back home, tired but excited as hell at how well the day went.

Next step: the mastering. My hopes are high.

Friday, October 9, 2009 on Zak and the SL music scene

Zak Claxton and the Business of Music in the Metaverse

I awoke today to a nice surprise, in the form of a note in my Facebook account telling me I'd been written about in, a somewhat new but pretty impressive blog on "studying how virtual worlds change our politics, policy, and culture." the writer, Max Burns, is young but obviously is drawing a serious journalistic background. It's safe to say that his writing quality is a head or two above the typical virtual blog creator.

I happened to run into Max on Facebook, and when I heard the theme of his blog, I mentioned conversationally that what I was doing in my music career seemed to be in the vein of his blog, in that my music career integrates aspects of both my real life and my Second Life. He seemed interested in this, and after a couple of back-and-forth notes, he put together the article linked above.

It's exciting for me to get some coverage on the way that I'm going about building my base of fans, and taking advantage of tools that were inconceivable to an independent musician less than a decade ago. There's no proof that what I'm doing is working just yet, but I think it's at least interesting enough to make for a compelling story.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

End of the line: "Waiting for This"

LISTEN NOW! "Waiting for This" (Zak Claxton)

No more waiting. As of yesterday, all of the rough mixes for the Zak Claxton album have been delivered, fresh and steaming hot to my email inbox by the inimitable mixer extraordinaire Phil O'Keefe. As has been mentioned several times recently, we're going into Phil's studio on Saturday to make the final mixing adjustments to all eleven tunes. But I'm happy to say that at least I'll have had a couple of days to familiarize with the last couple of them, especially this one.

Who did what now?
"Waiting for This" is perhaps the most collaborative song on the album. Not in the writing of the tune itself; I started this one two years ago and wrapped it up last December. I did it alone, like everything else on the album. But in the recording of the tune was an extravaganza of help of my friends!

Due to the wonderful magic of overdubbing and multitracking, we started as usual with my pal Bunny Knutson on drums. Important note: Bunny did the drum track on this 6-1/2 minute song perfectly on the very first take. It was... awesome is too trite a word for it. More like mindblowing. Later on in the process, Bunny joined me on the lead vocals. This song is the only lead vocal that's not focused entirely on me, and it was great having Bunny come up with his counter-melody and sing along with me. But wait, there's more: Bunny also added his skills on guitar during the long middle section of guitar solos. More on that in a moment.

Ken Lee also joined us on this tune. You hear Ken at the beginning of the solo section, playing the electric piano and channelling John Paul Jones. Ken's done a great job stepping in on a few tunes and adding some tasty touches.

Now, I did my usual complement of stuff on this song. I played the acoustic guitar parts, the electric rhythm guitar, and the bass is as typical on much of this album. But I really enjoyed hooking up with my pals Bunny and Phil on the lead guitar solos in the long middle section. The way it's mixed, you'll hear some of all of us in there, and it's probably hard to tell us apart, especially not knowing our respective playing styles. Here's the easiest way to tell: Bunny's on the left, Phil's on the right, and the Zak Man is in the center.

Aaaaaaarrrrrrggghhh!!! Aaaaaaarrrrrrggghhh!!!
At 3:52 into the tune, in the middle of the solo sections, you get a special cameo from my darling Kat Claxton, who I managed to get to come into the studio and let out a bloodcurdling double scream. That's one of my favorite parts of this whole song. Actually, I really like the whole thing, and I'll tell you why: growing up and listening to album-oriented rock from bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young gave me the jones to do at least one song where I could stretch out and not worry about sticking to a short time frame, or a pop structure. This song probably exemplifies that vibe more than any other on the album.

Enjoy it. The next time we post new music, it will be links to places where you can purchase the finished product. Wish us luck down the home stretch.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

New studio track: Always Tomorrow

LISTEN NOW! "Always Tomorrow" (Zak Claxton)

Here's one of the final songs for my upcoming album. It's called "Always Tomorrow", and unlike most of my music, this one was written about something specific, and it has some meaning to me. For those who don't already know...

For a couple of years, my ladyfriend Kat and I dealt with the dreaded long-distance relationship. She was in Seattle, being a code slave for Microsoft. I was here in LA, 1,000 miles south of her, living la vida loca (or not). We'd make trips to see each other... we'd go to places like San Francisco and Vegas, or we'd meet in Seattle or in LA. Each of these trips was for 3-4 days, and then we'd be apart again for another month or two. Or more.

So, inevitably, on the last day of the trip, try as we'd might to enjoy ourselves, we'd be sad, knowing that it would be awhile before we saw each other again. That was the muse that inspired me to write this, and it's the feeling I invoke when I perform it. The happy ending: a year ago, she moved to be with me in LA, so "tomorrow" eventually came around. When I play this live, I pre-announce it as a song about keeping a promise.

As usual, you can hear all the mixes from the upcoming album (including "Always Tomorrow") on the music page of my official website.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Making the album part 783: final mixes

The word "final" can be simultaneously reassuring and terrifying. It has that "finality" thing going for it, which is good if you're looking to get something finished, and bad if you're not 100% sure it should be finished. But to coin a particularly overwrought cliche, all good things must come to an end, and let there be no doubt: the creation of my album has been beyond a good thing. It's been great. Absolutely fantastic, the whole thing, from writing the songs, to proving their mettle in live performance, to staying up into the wee hours getting that background vocal recorded the way it should be. Most of all, it's been the enjoyment of my great friends and musical collaborators who accompanied me on the journey.

So, what's the deal with "final mixes"? It's pretty simple. As those of you know who have followed along in the creation of my album, you first record a bunch of songs, and then you mix the songs. Are you done? No, not really. What we have so far is a bunch of "rough mixes". Now, the definition of a "rough" mix is really dependent on how good you (or your mixing engineer) is. Mine is terrific... it's Phil O'Keefe, and the guy is not only blessed with amazing ears, but also blinding speed in working with music. The end result is that his so-called rough mixes are, in my opinion, 90% or more perfect in each case. Any music you've heard from my studio sessions are these rough mixes, and very few people would find fault in them, other than a few subjective details.

Thus bringing us to the point of why I'm typing away at you right now. This coming Saturday, October 10, we head back to Phil's studio (Sound Sanctuary in Riverside, CA) one more time. We're not going to record anything... that part's done. Instead of appearing at the studio armed with guitars and drums and keyboards, we're going in with notebooks full of info about all the rough mixes.

What kind of info? Well, let's just say that musicians can get pretty ridiculous in their level of detail in how they analyze music... sometimes, too much so. Overanalysis can actually make it worse, rather than better. But in any case, it's better to give yourself the opportunity to make any (ulp) final changes to a mix of a song before you send it off for mastering. Once it's mastered, it's done, and that's the version that's going to go out and be replicated onto a lot of CDs, and uploaded for sale on iTunes and Amazon and so on. In other words, you'd better be happy with it before then, because there's no putting the genie back in the bottle afterwards.

Who's job is it to make the final decisions on this stuff? Ultimately, it's mine, but there's a pecking order which has been set up to allow for the fact that I sure as hell don't know everything, nor do I represent all tastes. I named Phil as the co-producer of the album, meaning that in addition to his work recording and mixing, he's also been welcomed to make independent creative decisions, and be a major opinion-holder in terms of the final mix. Who else? There's Bunny and Ken, who directly contributed their musical talents to the recordings and do have a say in how the stuff comes out in the end.

Then, on a bigger picture, there's the input I've received from all over the various online music communities of which I'm a part. Both privately and publicly, I've sent out these rough mixes and solicited opinions from people who seem to appreciate music in a similar manner as me; I've taken their voices into account as we move toward making the (here's that word again) final mixes.

What, exactly, happens on Saturday? Again, it's pretty simple. We walk in with our notes from having listened to the rough mixes (about a thousand times each, in my case). Then, we sit down and listen to the songs yet again, comparing our notes to what we hear, and confirming with each other that something requires changing at this stage. It's important to again note that the majority of what you've heard on the rough mixes will be very similar to what you'll hear on the album (except in higher quality and cleaned up a bit). Phil has done a simply fantastic job so far. Anyway, we'll compile our final notes as we listen to each song, and then hand these off to Phil. Some changes will be so minor that he'll be able to fix them on the spot; others will require a bit of work. The intended result of this is that we'll be ready to sign-off on the whole album about a week later, and then off it goes to mastering.

I'll save the novel about mastering for then. :)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sydney's Live Music (10.03.09)

Sydney's is a beautiful new live music venue in SL, and when I visited there during the grand opening a couple of weeks ago, I let the owner, Sydney Baddingham, know that I'd like to play there sometime. As I've mentioned on this blog before, it's pretty important for me to keep seeking out new folks who can hear my music, and playing at new venues is a good way to do that.

No matter where you play, in real life or SL, there's always the possibility that you run into some technical headaches, and unfortunately, that's exactly what happened at the start of my show at Sydney's. Here's the weird thing: half of my audience could hear me just fine. The other half got a whole lot of nothing. After about four songs of having some people be sad because they were standing in a silent room, we finally did something I rarely do: I stopped, and changed over to a different stream. Sure, it took a couple of minutes, but the result was worth it; everyone could then hear me. Whew! Truth be told, I've been lucky in that I've had very few problems with SL or my stream in the last year or so, but the secret when they inevitably do happen from time to time: don't panic, fix what you can, and just keep on rolling through.

Getting past the technical issues, the show itself went very well. I thought my playing and singing were both behaving nicely, and the crowd seemed to be having fun. I even took a rare request at the end, but only because it came from Cher Harrington and at that point I was relived that people were hearing me at all.

Set list from Sydney's
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Court & Spark (Joni Mitchell)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash)

Thanks to those who helped support my show! Thanks!
Cher Harrington, Kat Claxton, Soundcircel Flanagan, Aurelie Chenaux, Diana Renoir, and Syd Baddingham!