Sunday, 10 July 2011

Singing Practice

I'm writing to tell you how incredible singing practice can be. On the condition that you have an ear for music, that is, you can differentiate one note from another, you can IMPROVE your voice. I don't know if everybody realizes that. I think we all believe in the gym and how it can build muscle, well, singing can build your voice. It can make it more precise, it can make it louder and it can make it expand your range. I know because I have done all those things. I could sing to begin with, but I always had the mistaken belief that I was a "backup" singer. I have a really good ear and could always play music just by listening to a song, and I could always sing harmony with no effort at all. But, to sing lead, I always thought I was missing that important property, voice strength!

First, try singing with considerable focus and effort. This is not a "sing-along". You are the lead singer, act like it! Work to make your voice precise and tone perfect. Stop and repeat, 10 or 20 times until you are satisfied with that line. Sing loudly, belt it out. But, be careful that you have a nice tone, not a yell. Copy every singer you can, try to sound like them as much as possible. It's great training! I am shocked how much improvement I have seen in my voice. I have added two full notes to my upper range! I push myself to sing EXACTLY like Elvis, or exactly like Bobby Darin. I copy every singer and my playcount is in the hundreds for most of my repertoire songs. I sing in the car where nobody can hear me and I am an audience of one. Try it, you'll like it!!!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Software - Band in a Box

This is a Windows answer to Garage Band for the Mac, I guess, but I have PCs. I like this software a lot! I like the fact that you can import an MP3 song and it will create a track for it with all the chords for the song. It will tell you the beat but I am finding that I have to massage the locations of the bars. I am probably doing something wrong. Every time I call PG Music, I get a real person that always seems to be willing to talk to me. Try that with Microsoft!

A while ago, they took their digital recording software and renamed it Real Band. They added pretty much all the Band in a Box features and started doing this Real tracks thing. They created real digital pieces of drums and base and created a patchwork system to create a great track which ended up being more or less a real drum recording, not a simulated drum sound. The trick is that you have to pick a "style" to determine the flavour of the drums and I expect that will come with experimentation. You buy drum style libraries individually or in groups. If you upgrade your software of course, you can pack in all their latest libraries. I haven't actually done much of this yet, but I'm looking forward to having great drum and base tracks for all my songs. They have other real track instruments but these are the two that I need the most and that I will be depending on.

It bugs me though to be constantly paying for upgrades. I paid $408 for the Omnipak version initially. Then I upgraded to Omnipak 2009 for $227. I still haven't really got going with this software because it is taking me so long to get my hardware set up and built. So now, I am looking at another upgrade, probably another couple of hundred dollars. So, I will have paid about $835 for a product which I could buy right now for $400. You know what I'm saying? If you're USING it, I think that's fair, but in my case, it's very frustrating. I guess the rule is, don't buy software until you are ready to use it right now!

If you want to look it up, it's a super product and has so many features, it's hard to wrap your head around all it can do. You just have to buy it and start playing around with it. Hopefully as soon as you get it downloaded!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Software - B3 Simulator

I'd like to talk about his software. It recreates the sound of the Hammond B3. It actually can do some other famous organs but I wanted it for the awesome B3 sounds. You can hear some really good sounds on the Native Instruments website. Look for B4 II, the name of the software. I like the fact that it uses drawbars exactly like the original and you can turn on and off the whirling Leslie speakers, a very important tool in the B3 player's bag of tricks. You can also say how noisy you want the keys to be. I think this is a good feature because sometimes you just want that old-fashioned beat-up B3 sound. Another must-have is the percussion. It works with a velocity sensitive keyboard and you can hear it in a lot of B3 music and it's a really important part of Jimmy Smith recordings. I plan on using these sounds a lot on my left hand keyboard for softer accompaniment-type stuff.

Check out these samples

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Digital Recording Workstation

I have a Yamaha AW4416 Digital Audio Workstation. It is described as "take(s) the all-in-one portable recording workstation to new heights, marrying a fully featured digital mixer with a 16-track hard disk recorder and sampling facilities. The published feature list promises a breathtaking specification at a highly competitive price, offering 16 tracks of uncompressed 24-bit audio, with a further 114 virtual tracks, along with comprehensive I/O and backup options, including an optional built-in SCSI CD writer. The mixer section is closely derived from that of Yamaha's existing 'O-series' digital mixers, and includes a large display with dedicated metering, two effects processors and full moving-fader automation. The built-in polyphonic sampler really is the icing on the cake." It was originally $4000 so I saw one used and grabbed it at $450. I have 7 channels in my system, two for audio and five for instruments. The nice thing for me is to be able to play back my 7 channels into my amps and, theoretically, it should sound just like me playing. I should be able to go into the audience area and check out and adjust my amp volumes. Also, I will use this to produce my CDs and to create the song samples for my website

I am going to try and upgrade the hard drive. I read that it will take up to a 64 gig drive so I should be able to get a 60 gig fairly cheaply. Apparently, it will format the drive for you once it is inserted. There are also optional cards that you can get for more inputs but they are very expensive and I think I can do without. They are also not that plentiful. I am looking forward to messing around with this thing. I plan on building a box for it with a flip top and fold down legs. I will position it behind my seat so that I can reach the controls. I want to record live performances as well and I was thinking of recording the ambient noise to track 8. Then, I might decide to mix that in if I want to release "live" tracks because eventually, I want to produce some recordings.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Breath Controller

I have a Yamaha BC3 breath controller. It is very simple and only sends breath information. Some controllers also send note info, like a clarinet or a saxophone would, and those are really like playing a self-contained instrument. I am not interested in that because I am keyboard player and my hands are 100% occupied. I don't have any limbs left over to do anything, but I can put a breath controller on my head and flip it into my mouth for a saxophone break, which is very cool! Only a few keyboards have breath controller inputs. You can also get a little box that will take your breath controller info and pass it on. In my case, I bought keyboards with those inputs, my CME UF5 and UF6. They are obsolete now which is a slightly annoying thing about technology. They still do what they did when I bought them, so I guess I can't complain.

A breath controller is somewhat like a pitch bend or a mod wheel; it sends a variable signal to whatever parameter you assign it to. The unique thing about it is how the signal comes out because you blow into it like you would a horn. That's pretty hard to duplicate with your left hand on a mod wheel. So, that's why it's special. Also, you don't really have to think about it the way it would be trying to control a mod wheel.

The Yamaha VL70m ($800) is geared up specifically for a breath controller. Believe it or not, you can use breath to modify a guitar or a base guitar sound as well, and it's awesome. Of course, I'm only talking about the VL70 with Patchman Turbo chip which you have to buy separately for $310. If you are in the US, you can buy one from with the chip installed. If you are in Canada, Yamaha finds it too confusing to let one cross over the border and maybe, oh, I don't know, just transfer the warranty?! Anyway, my pet peeve, as you can tell. So much for free trade (NAFTA)! Patchman has samples online for most of the 256 sounds available on this box. I particular like the sax sounds but the flutes are also awesome. Check them out.  

Saturday, 9 April 2011


I read an article on stage lighting intended more for an orchestra. But, it did bring something to my attention, I needed side lights. I originally thought that one good light up front would be ok, but finally decided to buy two side lights to round out my lighting. All my lights are LEDs. They run cool, take less power and I think they stand up better to handling. My front lights are the Chauvet LED 4Bar which cost me $525. It is 4 large RGB LEDs and came with a nice tripod and a bag. I can adjust the four lights to give a nice wash of light over my whole stage. My side lights are 2 Chauvet LED Rain56 lights for $375, again, on stands. I found some great generic stands for only $16 a pair. I bought these TVMP adaptors for $36 so that I could put the lights right on the top of the stand. I also bought a bag for these two stands for $35. I am starting to think that I might buy another bag and pack one light on its stand into each bag, therefore saving setup and takedown time.

I bought tree 25 foot DMX cables for $85 to connect these three lights to my lighting computer. The DMX cables daisy chain, that is, one cable from my computer to light 1, one cable from light 1 to light 2 and the third cable from light 2 to light 3. The computer needs an interface and I bought a simple and cheap one from Enttec called the Open DMX USB Interface. As you can see by the name, I will hook it to my computer with a USB cable. The software on my computer will be a free download called DMX Control.

DMX is another type of interface. It is designed to talk to lights. It can get quite exotic but for my purposes, I only need to turn lights on and off and maybe fade a bit here and there during a song. I want to create a MIDI track from RealBand and send it to DMX Control to tell it what to do with my lights. I hope that works ok, I haven't tried it yet. The software says it can understand incoming MIDI signals so I am not expecting any problems with that. Each DMX instruction has a light address with it, so the light you want to change will be the only one to actually get the message.

Sunday, 3 April 2011


I have two mics in front of me when sitting at my MIDI console. One is a Shure SM57. I did a lot of reading on mics and I chose that because everybody seemed to agree that it was a decent mic for the price. I wasn't spending more than $200 on a mic. This one cost me $125 and it feeds directly into my TC Helicon Voicemaster to provide harmony voices. The TC can do a lot of stuff. It can mute your input voice and only output the harmonies. A harmony can be one octave up or down so you can up your voice one octave and give it different characteristics, like a female voice. Your harmonies can follow various rules of harmony set out by the Voicemaster but, in my case, the feature I will be using is the MIDI track input. You can assign three midi channels and use the incoming notes to determine the harmony voice. This is pretty bulletproof. I don't want to take a chance that the harmony voice will come out differently than the original recording.

My main mic is the Sennheiser e835, again a really good lower cost mic according to my research. It cost me $135 for a mic/stand package. Since my other boom mic stand cost me $40, that means the mic was less than $100. I bought a second mic when I bought my Yamaha KX8 88 key piano. I wanted it to do piano-oriented songs like those by Jerry Lee Lewis and piano instrumentals. Both my e835s feed into my M-Audio M400 Firewire interface. It has two mic inputs with front panel switches where I can turn one off and the other one on very quickly to move from my console to my piano for a song. These mic channels are routed to computer no 3, inside a custom made case for my KX8. It runs Cubase software which I have in the monitor mode. Then, I assign effects to a voice track and that track is then routed to an M-Audio Audiophile 2496 interface on computer 3 which then sends my voice to my mixer front panel into one of the lead voice inputs. That gets mixed out into one audio signal and goes from there into the DI8 mixer and so onto the amp and speakers.

Saturday, 2 April 2011


MIDI is an interface for musicians It does a good job of broadcasting what note was pressed and when it was let go. It also may tell how hard it was pressed and if the mod wheel or the pitch bend was tweaked and how much. It does tons more than that but you probably get the idea. This is important because you can now feed this info into something that produces sound, maybe a keyboard or a sound box of some kind like my Yamaha VL70m. You can record MIDI and play it back to more than one place or to a box with a variety of settings to hear what that might sound like. Also, it is sound independant, that is, MIDI has nothing to do with audio... yet. So, MIDI has to be conveyed from place to place, from your MIDI controller to a sound maker then to an amp and finally to the speaker. If you record a piano performance, there's no way to change the sound of the piano. If you record a piano performance in MIDI, you can play it on a Yamaha Grand or a Hammond Organ, it's just where you route the MIDI signal. So, you have to deal with the logistics of having three keyboards, three computers with a dozen sound-producing pieces of software or hardware like the Yamaha VL70m. Instruments have a MIDI in and a MIDI out. Many have a MIDI Thru but not all. The Thru just passes the info on. Lots of times, you want your main keyboard to go to several places and what might work better is a One In-Four Out box. If you don't have MIDI thru on something, you pretty much need to do that sort of thing. MIDI Out is what THAT piece of hardware is producing in the way of a MIDI signal. In my case, my MIDI console "black box" has two keyboards that I want to go everywhere. If I can merge them, then I am now dealing with only a single MIDI cable that I can feed into my main computer. But, I have two computers in my black box console so I bought a Midiman merge box with 2 ins and 2 outs. Now I plug my two CME keyboards into my two computers with only four short cables and this box. My computer with Real Band on it has to output MIDI too. I have a MIDI track with my harmony notes on it and I feed that into my TC Helicon Voicemaster. Other recorded tracks will be actual old-fashioned audio and will go directly to the mixer.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Speaker Wiring

There are two types of wiring used with speakers in my situation, balanced and unbalanced. Balanced wiring basically can travel long distances without being affected by electrical noise, meaning disturbances. It's very interesting to know about these two types of wiring because it might come up in Trivial Pursuit or in a party conversation. What I did was buy a SM Pro Audio DI8 mixer. It basically takes your unbalanced audio and outputs it as balanced. Also, it can mix all your eight channels to a stereo output. There are volume controls on all the channels as well as the stereo mix, very cool. I paid $154 but the list was quite a bit more than that. So, all my audio goes into my own 3->1 mixer which has 8 channels. It is actually 8 individual mixers in one box, each with 3 ins and 1 out with volume on each channel and on the output. From there, the eight outs go into the DI8. Then, I use my balanced wiring to go to my amps and then to my speakers. I have one pair of speakers where I use a return signal feature. These are my base and drums speakers. These have a base bin and a higher range speaker on a stand. So, the signal comes back out of the base bin and into a smaller amp and then to the smaller speakers. I also have an extra output on two mixers in my eight mixer box. I use these for my lead vocal and my harmony vocal tracks. I need to join those together into a new channel and send that new channel feed to a base speaker I use for all my vocals. Base is very non-directional so it will just give all my vocals that deeper sound. I talk about this on my website if you would like to read more.

Thursday, 31 March 2011


My music comes out of my three computers from software like Real Band, RealGuitar and RealStrat, B4II, Gigastudio, Garritan Personal Orchestra and Sonivox Muse. One piece of hardware creates sounds, the Yamaha VL70m. A mixer box takes all sounds from wherever and merges them they way I want them. They then go to amps and then to speakers. I group sounds into seven channels, 1) Drums, 2) Base Guitar, 3) Keyboards/Strings/Misc lead sounds, 4) Horns, 5) Guitar 6) Lead Voice, and 7) Harmonizer Voices. The Base and Drums each feed into one side of a Cerwin Vega CV1800 and then into two Wharfedale Pro EVPx 18B speakers and re-feed into a CV900 powering two Wharfedale Pro VS 12x speakers on stands. The keyboards/strings and the horns feed into a second Cerwin Vega CV1800 and then into huge Wharfedale Pro EVPx215 speakers. The Guitar sounds go into a Realistic 100 watt amp and a pair of home-built 12" speakers. Both vocal tracks share a self-powered base speaker, a Wharfedale Pro SVP 15PB and then each have their own self-powered Wharfedale Pro SVP 15P speakers on stands. All the tracks use one side of a stereo amp. I have a stage plan on my site at showing these speakers and their locations.   

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Basic Hardware

My core hardware is two CME keyboards, a UF5 and a UF6 with 49 and 61 keys respectively. They cost me $760 but they were velocity sensitive and had breath controller inputs. I took them all apart and cut up the case quite a bit to make a Hammond B3 kind of console. In between the two keyboard pieces and the slider controls, I built downward facing holes for two full width rack mounts. In there, I immediately was thinking of putting a TC Helicon Voiceworks ($750) for my harmony voices. On the other side, I put an M-Audio M400 Firewire interface with 4 in and 10 outs. That cost me $410. Later on, I filled up the rest of that space with a very special Yamaha VL70m Acoustic Tone Generator which was $840. It uses physical modeling technology which seems to do a phenominal job on saxophone, one of the main reasons I wanted it. It also has independent reverb, chorus, variation and distortion effects. It's important to remember though, it's monophonic, meaning it will only produce one solo instrument. What made this awesome is that I coughed up an extra $340 to get a custom chip from Patchman. This makes a huge improvement in the fairly ordinary sounds that come from this piece. Finally, I stuck a Korg Nanopad in the far right corner which I hope to put to good use.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Square One

I hope this might be useful to somebody out there and I hope it's not too boring. I absolutely love this music thing and am super excited to be on the brink of this experience. Still in front of me though is the creation of every single music track in these 250 songs as well as setting up the effects for all those instrument tracks as well as all my vocals. Obviously, there will be a lot recorded into Real Band, especially base and drums. Otherwise, I will be creating as much as possible live. Background voices will always be recorded but will be created by me but most harmony voices will be created live by my Voicemaster box. Almost all Beatle songs will use this technique. If a background voice occurs at a different time than the lead voice and if I can possibly sing it myself, I will do that. I have two mics going into different equipment and effects processors so that I can move over two inches and sing into the other mic.
I will be recording all my songs for my website on a Yamaha AW4416 using 8 tracks. I expect to be able to feed these 8 tracks into my equipment for sound checks and adjusting the placement of my equipment in different venues. I have 12 speakers for 5 music channels and 2 voice channels. Four of these are huge at over 100 pounds each. My first gig will undoubtedly take two hours to deliver and set up my stuff. Hopefully, it will get faster as I go. I built a 10'x16' studio in my back yard to simulate my stage and I hope that helps me to get used to where everything goes. I want this blog to chronicle my progress and maybe drive me a little. My last task is to finish building my mixer. You can look on my website Photo page if you want to know more about it.


Hi, I'm Brian. I have been working for the past few years on building equipment and a decent repertoire of 50s and 60s music for what I call Black Box Band. I got the idea because my main midi console is a big black box when it is packed up for transport. I have two computers inside of it running software like Real Band by PG Music which is very similar to Band in a Box, also by PG. Lots of other software produces very realistic sounds like Real Guitar by Music Lab, B4II (Hammond B3 sounds) by Native Instruments, Gigastudio 3 by Tascam (now sold) and Garritan Personal Orchestra 4 (who bought the Gigastudio rights).

I created a website a while back called but I also have the name It's pretty low key, since I'm only doing this for the enjoyment and maybe I can bring some joy to others with my music. I have assembled pretty well everything that I need to make my music and have learned 250 songs so far, mostly 50s and 60s songs that I really like.

I have decided to create this blog to document my journey from here.