Adventures In Audio

What to do in your studio when there's a power cut

by David Mellor
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If there's a power cut, then you can't work in your home recording studio. Or can you? Perhaps there are lots of things you can do to make your recordings better.

So today, in the tiny Oxfordshire village where I live, there was a power cut. All day.

It has happened before, not all that infrequently, so I have a camping stove gassed up and at the ready to brew coffee and cook food. No problems with sustenance therefore. A bit chilly in the UK in December, but I have a woolly hat, and I take note that it's not Canada.

Power cuts can happen anywhere. So what can you do in your home studio to make good use of the 'free' time?

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Well firstly, you don't have to work. Not your regular work because you can't. So everything is a bonus.

You could pass the time reading a book (by flashlight after sundown). But that isn't productive. This is free time that practically begs to be spent usefully and productively.

So what can you do in your home recording studio, powered not by a camping stove gas cylinder but mains electricity that currently isn't available (see what I did there?)

My own first thought would be to my acoustic instruments. I have a piano, several guitars, and a violin.

Practice!

The recommended amount of practice is 40 hours a day and I'm well behind schedule.

Piano or keyboard

For piano, of course practice would do me good. But I feel that I peaked some years ago and any gains would be along a very shallow curve and almost infinitesimal.

But the piano is a great instrument for practising musicianship. That's a completely different thing to dexterity and expression. It's all about the patterns, chords, progressions and such.

So one basic exercise in musicianship is to play a chord progression in a cycle of fifths. One of the most basic is ii-V-I, commonly pronounced two-five-one. In the key of C it would be D minor - G - C. Play it - you'll recognize it well.

So you start in C, then up a fifth to G, up a fifth to D, then A, E, B, F#, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F then back to C. It's a complete round trip through all of the keys. Clearly you will have to hop up and down the keyboard as you can't continue going up every time. The voicing of the chords is up to you.

Now the trick is not to think about what you are doing. Yes you can plod through the changes and think carefully where your fingers should go next. But you need to internalize the musicianship contained in this sequence.

So set yourself a tempo, which could be very slow, and use a metronome if you have one. Play Chord ii and Chord V for one beat each, then Chord I for two. That extra beat on the tonic is optional but I prefer it. Then play through the whole cycle of fifths. At first, your brain will be working in double quick time and you'll make mistakes. But pick a tempo that you can stick to, even if it's the slowest on your metronome's dial.

This is something that can be practised whenever, wherever there's a keyboard. And the idea is to be able to play the cycle all the way through without thinking. Not because of the 'muscle memory' in your fingers but because of the musicianship you have acquired internally.

The ii-V-I sequence is only one example. Another possibility is to play a chord sequence, perhaps from a favourite song, in any key of your choice. Then play it a semitone higher, then another semitone, then keep going until you have completed the octave.

These are simple exercises conceptually, but they will absolutely develop your musicianship to the point where playing anything you feel like is as simple as having a conversation with a friend. You're having a conversation with music.

Guitar or other instrument

Now I'm not saying that the guitar isn't a good instrument for developing musicianship. It is. The violin, flute, or triangle not so much (but not not at all).

But the thing about the guitar, if I focus on that, is that it is physically difficult. You could have all the musicianship of Beethoven or Ellington, and know the chord book by heart. But you still can't play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix.

The issue is that the guitar is an intensely physical instrument, as is the violin. To play either instrument well, you have to train your body into positions and contortions that evolution never intended it for.

Let me give you an example you can try yourself, assuming you play guitar to some level...

Play a few chords just as you naturally would. Sounds good? Fine.

Now turn the guitar around so that, if you're a right-handed player, then you're picking with your left and fretting with your right. OK the strings are now the wrong way round, but it isn't the notes I'm thinking about.

Try and play what would be a G chord if the guitar were left-handedly strung. Again don't bother that the notes are wrong. Just fret it and strum it.

Bloody hell that's hard isn't it?

Chances are you have a real struggle to get your fingers into position. And the contortion you have to make in your right arm and wrist is really quite uncomfortable.

What this shows, at least in the right arm, wrist, hand and fingers, is that to play the guitar it is necessary to adapt your body to its needs, and this will happen through years of perseverance.

So where am I going with this?

Practice!

Yes you can use your power cut downtime to practise. But what I'm thinking here is to practise the things that you find physically difficult. Two examples...

The first is something that many self-taught players develop naturally, so ignore this if you're already a natural.

What I'm talking about is something classical, or classically-trained guitarists never do. Which is hooking your left-hand thumb (for a right-handed player) around the neck to fret the E or A string, or any string you like if you're the aforementioned Sir Jimi.

If you have developed this since the start of your guitar playing journey, you'll be saying that this is easy. Well if you've never tried it before, ever, it's impossible. Try it now.

But it isn't impossible. It requires physical development in the thumb, hand and wrist, and over time your thumb will reach further and fret more confidently, and you'll have many more performance options open to you. But it will take work. Now is a good time to start.

The other physical problem for guitarists is that there are chords that are extremely useful that are really difficult physically to play. Again, it isn't a matter of mere practice. It takes development of the hand and fingers just to reach the right frets, more still to press the strings down firmly and without buzzes or catching adjacent strings.

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What are these difficult yet useful chords? Go to YouTube and look up the 'CAGED' system. There a number of good videos made by players who make this highly useful system look easy. But it isn't. Stretching your fingers way beyond any kind of evolution that Darwin imagined will take months and years, unless you're Mr. Fantastic or Elastigirl, which you're probably not (but wouldn't you like to see them play this...)

Picasso gutar

I don't know the original source of this image, or even if it's real, but if you have any information let me know and I'll add it in here.

Singing

Can you sing? Well did you know that you can sing better?

First a word of warning - It would be very difficult to come to any kind of harm through practising the piano or guitar (unless you're Robert Schumann). But you can damage yourself singing. So bear that in mind and apply your own precautions.

This is a personal view but my natural singing ability is dreadful. But now, and with a bit of Auto-Tune maybe, it's passable. Believe me, if I had something to brag about I certainly would, but from where I started I've made good progress.

My journey from dreadful to passable involved a number of singing teachers, including a session with the renowned Helena Shenel who was renowned enough to have her obituary (at a suitably advanced age) published in the Daily Telegraph. The thing was that I wasn't suitable enough raw material for Helena to be able to work any magic with me. Nor several other teachers.

But then I came across a teacher who recommended a book - The Naked Voice - A Wholistic Approach to Singing by W. Stephen Smith. My spelling is correct by the way.

The interesting thing was that where other teachers had recommended exercises only to warm up. Or enough different exercises for a three-ring circus tour of England, this book concentrates on just a few basic exercises, and explains how and why these exercises work. I was able to go through these exercises in several sessions with this teacher, and they are easy to practise at home. And guess what - my singing rapidly improved. I lack the innate talent to be a really good singer, but I feel that I've reached a point that is close to my own personal potential, and I needed these exercises to do it.

Anyway, my point here goes back to the power cut. You can sing without electricity and you can sing in the dark. If you learn your exercises then you can run through them at any time and, just like working out your muscles will make you look good and feel good, working out your vocal technique will make you feel good and sound good.

In summary

Don't we all hate power cuts? But there's plenty of personal development possible to help improve your home recording studio activities once power is restored.

P.S. I didn't cover recording using battery power did I? I'll cover that next time my power is out.

Candle image credit: Shawn Carpenter CC BY-SA 2.0

Tuesday December 8, 2020

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David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

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