Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Software Developers Are Like Cats

Software developers are like cats.

  • The like to sit on high perches and look down at you.
  • They'll all gather together, in a hurry, when you have food.
  • Corollary: when you have food, they love you. When you don't, you're just a nuisance to them.
  • They like to play with something until the thing breaks, and then move on to find something new to play with and leave the thing they broke for someone else to clean up.
  • They'll "wrestle" with each other for hours, spending lots of energy but not getting anything accomplished. 
  • They like to think they're in charge. Of everything. And, you're just a necessary annoyance. Until you have food.
  • They love to jump into containers before looking. 

Some software developers are like cats, anyway. But of course I'm not talking about you. Must be talking about somebody else.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Some thoughts on managing teams of engineers and engineering-team leaders.

Give them autonomy and authority to make decisions & execute
 - No micromanaging. Tell them what the product is, and leave it to them to figure out how to get it done. (See below for more on this subject),
 - Teach process, techniques and tools for achieving success, and teach how to be on the lookout to prevent catastrophic and systemic failures,
 - Teach them how to efficiently and effectively recover from general failures (transient bugs, regressions, errors in interpreting product requirements not avoided by normal process & procedures),
 - Let your reports figure out the resourcing needed to execute. Do teach them how to be as efficient as possible, but too few developers on a project is almost as bad as too many.  (The work will get done, eventually; but timelines for delivery will stretch to unacceptable lengths and your too-small team will eventually wear-out).

Ask them to accept accountability for those decisions
 - To themselves,
 - To their product manager,
 - To each other: reports and peers,
 - To you, their manager,
 - Accountability as personal responsibility and pride in the work -- not as an instrument of fear: fear of failure, fear of losing their jobs, etc.

Provide tools with which to be accountable (if they don't have the tools already)
 - Tools for planning of work, tracking of work, measurement of success (as defined by the product team), tools for forensics and for quick and efficient recovery from failure.

Everyone should think and lead with solutions, not problems, especially in communications.
 - Define work caused by change as tasks to be done, and not as problems preventing progress:
    "Moving these systems will cause a whole bunch of tasks, which we'll identify and estimate."
    "There are a lot of problems caused by moving these systems. We don't know what we'll run into."
 - Recognize and teach the difference between proactive and reactive responses to change.

The answer is always "Yes".
 - The answer to (almost) every request for work is "Yes - and it will take [time] and [resources] to deliver by [date]."
 - Create a few options for the stakeholder: split the project into pieces, add or change some resources, etc.
 - It's crucial to provide stakeholders with the information with which to make informed decisions. Don't make the decisions for them by saying "No",
 - You may need to teach your teams (and yourself!) how to more accurately estimate work.  Estimation is a challenge for most developers to get right with regular frequency.

Teach them how to teach others
 - Help find the most effective teaching method that works for them.

Do not micromanage.
 - Find ways to help your staff make better decisions & to execute more efficiently & effectively,
 - Look for opportunities to improve every day,
 - "Make better mistakes tomorrow",
 - Get out of the way and let brilliant people be brilliant. You'll find out very quickly who's not up for the job & you can replace them when necessary,
 - Remove roadblocks, and no "back-seat driving",
 - Tell them what needs to be done. Do not tell them how to do it.
 - Trust your team-mates; start from a position of trust and respect and go from there.

Nothing happens if it is not planned, executed, and measured.  
 - Get the plans from the Product team. Ask questions, discuss, and agree on deliverable(s) and date(s). Plan!
 - Planning is a team sport - it is an ongoing conversation between Product and Engineering,
 - If it's not in a story/on a card in a project-management tool, it doesn't exist,
 - If it isn't assigned to a person, it does not get done,
 - All technical-debt gets a card, and debt-payment is considered for action in subsequent planning,
 - QA (Quality Assurance) is an engaged part of the product development process; "execute" isn't just programming, it's quantitative QA (automated QA testing and automated execution of test-scripts), qualitative QA (testing by human beings), and "UAT" ("User Acceptance Testing") by the representatives of the stakeholders: the product manager(s).
 - Measurement of bugs, regressions, ticket-completion velocity, and other engineering-internal metrics (some are more valuable than others, and YMMV),
 - Measurement of product-related key-performance indicators.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How The Black Cloud Works

I've lost a few friends to The Black Cloud.  Several more of my friends are currently involved with The Black Cloud, against their consent (though they're fighting it).

The Black Cloud is a sneaky bastard. It is insidious.

         causing harm in a way that is gradual or not easily noticed
a :  awaiting a chance to entrap :  treacherous
b :  harmful but enticing :  seductive
a :  having a gradual and cumulative effect :  subtle
b of a disease :  developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent
Life in the Black Cloud can be as normal to you as is water to a fish. It's what you know. It's what you've always known.


Here's one way the Black Cloud works.

Early on, in the beginning of your unwanted relationship with The Black Cloud, sunny colorful days are punctuated with periods where the colors are not as vibrant as they usually should be. A bit of faded gray, everywhere. Feelings are dulled, less interesting, less felt. The first words are whispered in you mind by the faded, gray thing around you: "Oh, who cares?", and "It is what it is...", and "Why bother?".

After a few days, or weeks, perhaps the gray lifts, and colors are as colorful and music is as musical and experiences are as sensual as before.

The Black Cloud returns. A darker shade of gray this time.  And the whispers in the back of your mind become more specific. "Remember that thing you did to your best friend when you were seven? That was a horrible thing to do. Horrible. They can't ever forgive you - who would? What kind of person does such a thing? Well. You. And you're a horrible person".   And, "You're not able to do this. You're not qualified. You suck. Look at these people - they all know what they're doing. And when they find out you don't? That you're faking? You're done. They expect so much more of you, of everyone, and you'll let them down. Why bother? Save them the suffering, and just stop. Stop."

Coffee loses its taste. Sleep is peppered with the Black Cloud, reminding you of everything you haven't done. Everything you can't do. The wrong thing you said at that meeting yesterday. You know they're going to fire you. The book you're writing will never be sold. No one cares about your crappy work. The music you wrote today is crap, no one will listen. The bowl you threw is lopsided, what's the point of completing the mugs? No one will attend the gig on Wednesday. You're not even good enough for a Friday, that's how much you suck.  Those people are lucky. You're not lucky. You're not working hard enough, you're sure they're going to let you go.  That thing you said when you were ten years old? For fuck's sake, no wonder nobody likes you.

For some, wine or beer or whisky or vodka dilutes the voices to a warbling, filtered drone. There's no taste in the stuff.. only an eventual haze.  Until tomorrow, when you feel like someone emptied the contents of a hotel-vacuum-bag into your skull. The Black Cloud whispers, "You suck. You drink when everyone else is living a life, and working. What's wrong with you? By the way, drinks are at 4pm".

For a long time, The Black Cloud varies it's shade of gray. Some days, less gray than others. But the messages are constant: "You suck. You're a terrible person. No one can stand you. You're not talented. You're not funny. You can't write. You can't run a company.  All of those people who buy your music, your books, your art, laugh at your routines, cry at your performance, give you money for your company or your product? What the hell are you going to do when they find out the truth? The truth that you have no idea what you're doing. You're not funny. Your music is terrible. You company will fail. You can't do it.  Why (says the Black Cloud), are you leading these people on?  What the hell is wrong with you?"

"When people compliment you, it's a lie. And you know it. They're just trying to be nice, to be kind. They pity you, really.  The people who criticize you? They're right. They're always right.  They're the honest ones. The know-nothing high-school kid who says you suck as a guitarist despite your 40 years of constant practice, hundreds of thousands of sales and fantastic fans? He's right. You know he's right. He just knows something that everyone else, whom you're fooling, do not."


The Black Cloud keeps at it.  Eventually, its visits are not intermittent. It's hanging around, all of the time.  It says, "You don't need all of these emotions, you greedy asshole.  Keep sadness, anger, frustration, loathing. Those are emotions, what are you complaining about? There's no budget for happiness, joy, ecstasy, or pleasure for you. Libido? What for? Who says you deserve a libido? Like someone will love you enough for you to use it? Please. Go do something amazing, and then maybe you can have a libido. You have to work for it, you have to deserve it. And you do not.  And don't complain. I'm leaving you some emotions, aren't I?"

Eventually, there are no emotions. And then, when this happens, the Black Cloud has you. It's no longer about feeling low, about feeling sad, or feeling angry. It is now: There is no feeling.

All colors are clear.  All sounds are dull. There is no melody. Art has no meaning. Work is futile. There is no emotion. No sadness, no joy, no passion, no anger. Nothing.


"Don't be sad", they say.  You're not sad, you say.

The Black Cloud, no longer the occasional visitor, no longer an increasingly less faded shade of gray, is now here, around you, and it is black.

The voice in your mind (it's your voice. Your one, true, wise and correct voice) is constant: "You suck. You're terrible. Nothing you say is right. You're worthy of nothing but derision. No one can love you. You can't do anything. There is no point. Someone else will just take credit. You can't do it.  You're not ready. You don't work hard enough. You don't practice enough. You missed those notes in your performance. That shade of blue was laughable and wrong.  They are laughing out of pity. No one is telling you the truth, except for the harshest critics. You are a worthless, useless human being. No one will help you, so don't bother asking. You're just getting in their way, being a burden to them."

And one day, sometimes after decades of hanging around unchallenged, it says you're not even worthy of being a human being.

The Black Cloud has you.  It convinces you.  It says, "You don't feel desire because you don't deserve it. You don't deserve a bath with a sexy partner. But a bath with a loaded rifle is a good idea. And it'll make an easier cleanup for your friends. You don't want them to think you were a slob."

It says, "You're not funny. Never were. All those people laughing? What do they know.  This has gone on too long. There's nylon rope in the shed, and the beam in the dining room is strong. Can you think of a reason not to?"

It says a different thing to different people, and eventually narrows their focus to one thing: nothing. The means are all different, but the end is the same. The Black Cloud has won.


If you're struggling with your own Black Cloud, get some help. A psychologist or psychiatrist who's good and who has experience in treating depression is a great start.  The probability is high that you're a creator of some sort: musician, artist, writer, comedian, actor, etc.  Keep creating, keep working, and get help. You didn't ask for this, and it's not your fault any more than it would be getting cancer. If you had cancer, you'd get some professional help! Right? And so with depression.

Note: Before anyone gets worried, I'm fine!  This isn't a cry for help, or some cryptic message. It's just my way of discussing the problem of depression.   Really, we're good here!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

9/10 from Prog Metal Zone

A fantastic review from Prog Metal Zone:

One of the things that I’ve always loved about much of early progressive rock was not only how adventurous it was but also how damned heavy it could be. The music often had as much to do with Jimi Hendrix as it did with classical music. I ain’t talking about Yes’s flights of fancy or the pastoralism of Genesis but more along the lines of King Crimson’s angularity or even the early grittiness of Emerson Lake and Palmer. Yeah, I hear ‘ya, ELP??? Sure, just give a listen to that first album of theirs way back in 1970 and tell me that Knife-Edge, The Barbarian and Tank wasn’t some damned heavy shit! And heavy without being metal and often the heaviness came from the keyboards – mostly just Moog synthesizers and Hammond organs. The Italian bands from that era (remember Goblin?) also relied on keyboards to really knock you on your ass and many hard-core rockers from that era dug ELP as much as they loved Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. So why do I bring this up now? Well giving a listen to keyboardist Jason Rubenstein’s new album (and first in over 10 years), New Metal From Old Boxes has not only struck a heavy prog chord in me but has really made me realize how great it is to hear an all-keyboard album be one hell of a great and totally heavy instrumental experience. 

Read the whole thing.

Also, check out this great review from Progarchy.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Since the launch of the album I've been keeping track of all metrics, statistics, and information as to the efficacy of various advertising.

Here are some interesting statistics from the date range April 1 through July 26, 2014 regarding visits, downloads, and sales from my Bandcamp page as a result of some ad campaigns I've been running.

Visitors (non-unique) who listened to music: 42.5%

Customers per all visits (non-unique visitors): 1.09%

Customers per unique visitors: 2.79%

Customers who also paid for music: 16.75%
(Customers who did not pay for the download: 83.25%)

Increase in the quantity of downloads of NMFOB when price was set to "pay what you want": 25.8%

Sales that were for a "Bundle" rather than a single CD: 33%

A "customer" is defined as someone who either downloads or purchases music from the page. The music can be any one of the releases on offer; as long as the person arrived at my page via one of the ads live at the time, they count.

"NMFOB" is "New Metal From Old Boxes", my most recent album that is available in both digital and physical format.

The goal of my advertising campaigns has been to reach the "right" audience -- music lovers of the progressive rock, heavy rock, instrumental rock and rock/fusion genres.   Some of my music is available for "pay what you want" and starting at $0.  Some of my music is on sale for a fair price, and all of my back catalog is available for free download & "Pay what you want".

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Walking On Hot Sand

The first single of the summer!

This is "Walking On Hot Sand", written by my friend & drummer Tom Hipskind.

Tom plays drums, Shawn Sommer is on bass and Brian Kahanek is on guitar.  I played piano, Moog synthesizer, a screamin' B3 organ, and some synth pads.

This is a bit different from the heavy work of my album; it's still heavy, but it's much more lighthearted. Brian and Tom kick ass on this, and Shawn and I hold down the foundation all the way down to the bottom of the granite.

I love this. I hope you do as well.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Real Musicians and Boxed Musicians

I prefer to hire musicians for productions. Real, live, creative guitarists, bassists, drummers.

Hire someone brilliant, and then get out of their way. They'll be brilliant.

But - when I was creating New Metal From Old Boxes (and This Is Not A Love Letter), the musicians I wanted to hire were busy.  They're professionals! And professionals work.

And so, what to do? I needed to get this music out of my system, and out into the world, as quickly as possible. It'd been too long since my last production, and it was much more important to me to get a great album of music created and shipped than it was to wait until all of the stars aligned and I could get the perfect group of people on the thing.

And so, just me. I had to rely mostly on my technical and programming chops to create tracks that sounded cool. I didn't have a guitarist? Great - that created an opportunity for me to get creative with creating "guitar-like" sounds for the arrangement.  And so, after creating a stack in the Native Instruments amp simulator (Guitar Rig 5 Pro), I dialed-up a few sounds: a sampled guitar, a sampled English Lute, a tone generated by a Korg Mono/Poly.   The solos I played are unlike anything a guitarist would play (which was the point, right?) - they're evocative of a monophonic, distorted solo but very rooted in keyboard technique.

No bass player? Keyboard bass. Sounded good to me, and still does, and the performances are rooted in keyboards.

The drums required a lot of technical work. The software I used creates procedurally-generated drum sections: patterns and fills based on tempo, time signature, and so on. I hand-edited some sections and fills, depending on what I needed, but most of the parts are generated and then played through a sampled, huge drum kit in a beautiful room (Native Instruments again, Abbey Road Modern Drummer).

Although I didn't have access to the source code of the drummer software, I was able to take some educated guesses as to the input parameters I could tweak to get the performance I wanted. I've been around procedural generation of music before (in C and in Python programming languages), and had an idea of how tempo, time signature and key signature would effect the output of the program.

Here's a good example: if I handed a chart to a drummer that had alternating 5/4 and 6/4 measures, the drummer would create a part that fit the feel of 11/4, or 11/8 depending on the overall style of the song. But the software would produce wildly different outcomes based on whether I set the DAW to (5/4, 6/4), or (5/8. 6/8), or 11/8, or 11/4, or even (4/4, 4/4, 3/4).

In the end, I wanted to great music that I loved, and I did that. Would the album be better with live musicians? No.  It would be different, but not better.

And what now? Well, for my next productions, I've hired some incredibly talented musicians. I can't wait until it's ready for the world, and I can't wait for everyone to hear these people.  I'm sure I'll create more music that 100% "me", but it's much more interesting to get a bunch of musicians together and see what happens.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Looping Piano

One of the things I've been working with in the studio is a series of piano-loops that build in intensity.

Here's a working-demo from a few months ago that builds some improvised piano-loops into a heavy rock section.  It's a "sketch" for an idea for my next recording project.

Listening to this, I'm struck with the idea that I might be able to swap out, or double, the guitars with some very heavy piano (piano/bass/drum unison riffing).

I'll also have to play with re-introducing some distortion to the piano. I have an old Tube Screamer I can put in line & mix with the clean piano signal, and I'll try that this weekend.  The trick is to make it sound good without an immediate association with NIN.

We'll see what happens. In the meanwhile, here's that track:

Looped Piano with Rock Band No. 1 ver 2.0 (Updated) by Jason Rubenstein

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Album Review!

Whew, this is a great review.

Thanks, Unsound America, for the insight, commentary, and track-by-track overview.

Unsound America
Now what?  Now, Jason Rubenstein.  He may have his own storied history of making music over the years, but “New Metal From Old Boxes” is a break-through – to my ears, anyway.  As I have described it elsewhere, this album is replete with an articulate viciousness.  This is not an over-the-top mad-dash for the loudest, most obnoxious noise – but rather a calculated aural assault with something to say (clearly, with perfect annunciation) before it bashes your head in.

Read it all here.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Release Day!

My new album, "New Metal From Old Boxes", is available today!

Look for it on Bandcamp, CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and many other places.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

An interview for Prog-Sphere

Friday, May 02, 2014

"Transforma" Progressive Rock Compilation XVIII Is Out Now

The new compilation of progressive rock and metal bands & musicians, from around the world, has just been released. "Transforma", the eighteenth (XVIII'th!) release from Prog-Sphere.

My song "The Blow Off" is the opening track! I'm honored, gang. And thrilled to be included among these bands, who are very, very good.

Seriously, the curation of this series is excellent. I'm not kidding when I say I'm honored, and excited, to have been included.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

And this is what the new album looks and sounds like:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Featured at Prog-Sphere's "Progstravaganza" compilation

This is pretty cool. I've been featured over at, as I have a track that's been included on their XVIII'th compilation.

Their previous compilations are excellent. They're digital albums of some of the best progressive rock, progressive metal, and progressive jazz in the world.  I'm thrilled to be a part of it, and honored to be alongside these excellent musicians.

Visit the Progstravaganza page here. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

More process, more practice

Lately, I've been playing around with Shreddage-2. It's an excellent sample-library for electric guitar and it sounds very, very good. You can hear some of these experiments over at  - that's where I put my various works-in-progress, ideas, demos, experiments, mistakes, and other noises.

I'm not sure how, or whether, I'm going to use this sample library for the next record. On the one hand, it's pretty fun to mess around with and it sounds good; on the other, I might rather hire a guitarist & record their interpretation of the directions I provide. On the other other hand, this is a great opportunity to use the sample library to create something original rather than just imitate the djenty-dude-of-the-week.  For example, say, how about sending the signal through a bunch of Moog signal processing... I don't know.

Anyway, playing with Shreddage-2 isn't really the point, and thus I bury the lede:  I'm in the middle of a process, again. I'm fishing around for new ideas and techniques for the next record. This is basically hours and hours of practice, play, experiments, and feeling around for ideas. At least a half-hour a day during the week, and as many hours as possible on weekends.
Studying the Master

The process is pretty broad at this point in the work: I practice piano exercises just about every day. Mainly the first ten Hanons, over and over and over. And over. I'll start at around 92bpm to warm up the hands, and end up at about 108bpm. It keeps the chops up, and the skills improving every day. Then, time allowing, improvisation until my hands give up or I have to get up & go to the office.

The other part of this process is to play. Fiddle around. Experiment for new textures, ideas. See how they feel, how they fit.  "Hey", I said, "what if I run a medieval lute sample through a Mesa Boogie amp simulator? Or a rectangle wave while I modulate the width?"  I'll pick weird scales & riff on them for a while. Or substitute distorted B3 for double-tracked guitars in a heavy riff.

The goal of all of this is to widen my palette and vocabulary of sound, texture, feeling. When I start working on the tracks for the next album and start answering the questions "What do I want to hear right now? What do I feel right now? And then what happens? And what happens after that?", I'll have a few more creative choices that are quick-at-hand.

Anyway, today I want back to Bach. I dug up a couple of preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier and analyzed the chords & scribbled them down.  Then, played around with the chord progressions in various patterns and time signatures. 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, 6/8. I did a lot of "What if..?" stuff.  Most of what I came up with was terrifically uninteresting. But some of it was pretty cool, and I'll keep it for future consideration.

Process, which most of the time feels like "I have no idea what I'm doing -- but I'm doing it anyway."

Friday, March 21, 2014

My New EP is Finally Here!

Monday, March 10, 2014

How to Create 30 Songs in 30 Days. (or, "What worked for me when I wanted to write 30 songs in 30 days")

I posted this up to reddit /r/wearethemusicmakers a few days ago. 

Caveat Emptor: this worked for me. Will it work for you? YMMV.

OK, how to write a song a day for 30 days:
Read this book.
  1. Read this book: "Becoming a Writer" by Dorothea Brande. I know, it says it is about writing. But really, it's about art. All art, including music.
  2. After reading the book, pay attention to the part where the author advises to separate the creative mind from the critical mind. For the next 30 days, you shall create. No judgement of quality, no analysis or editing. Just. Create.
  3. Every morning, fire up your music-making gear (in my case, my studio), and ask yourself "What do I want to hear?". Start writing what you want to hear.
  4. If you don't know what you want to hear, try this: Pick a scale, at random. Pick a time signature, at random. Play anything. record it.
  5. While you're writing, and have a part, or a section, or a riff, or a phrase down, ask yourself "What happens next?" Write (and record) that.
  6. Keep going until it feels done. How will you know it feels done? You won't, probably - it will just feel.. done.
  7. If you think you don't have time to do this, get up 2 hours earlier. Yeah, the ass-crack of dawn sucks. But awesome coffee and time alone to create music is awesome.
  8. In some cases, especially for some genres, you might need a 2nd day for a song. That's fine. "A song a day" is a guideline, not a rule.
  9. When someone says "You should...", walk away. Create what you want to create. Ignore everyone else.
  10. When you have a song done, move on. Do not listen to it. Do not review it. It's done. Next one!
  11. Borrow from anyone from whom you want to borrow. Led Zeppelin? Steely Dan? Pharrell? Joe Bonamassa? Chopin? Meshuggah? Go for it. Don't worry if you sound like someone else for a while. Just create.
  12. Fuck the nay-sayers. Just create.
  13. Don't let anyone hear what you're working on. It's none of their business until you say it is, and now's not the time. Create.
  14. Keep going. At day 10, at day 20, keep going.
  15. Some days will feel meh. Some days will feel awesome. Keep going.
  16. Finally, at the end of 30 days, you'll have a collection of creations.
  17. Congratulations, you've just written around 30 songs in around 30 days. (I had 27 songs in 30 days). Most probably: a few will suck, a few will be absolutely fantastically great, and most will fall in the middle somewhere. But who knows? Maybe they're all great.
Ultimately, I picked 12 sings from the 27 to put on a new LP.

Last piece of advice: once you play your songs for people, remember this:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” (Neil Gaiman)

Friday, March 07, 2014

A sneak preview of the new EP

All of the music has been mixed and mastered. It's ready to be launched upon the world like some loud, noisy creature with too many sharp teeth, that likes to bite at ankles .

There will be an EP of five songs, followed by a full-length LP.

Here's a preview of a track from the EP.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Some music inspired by cold weather

A little 2-minute mood inspired by 90s King Crimson and the cold weather of the Great Lakes midwest.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The New Music Project: A "Calling Card"

So. My new music project is a bit, shall we say, loud.

My previous projects skirted close to the worlds of heavy sounds, incorporating elements of prog-rock, fusion, and even a hint of 90s-era prog-metal, but were always tempered by the ambient-groove genre. I'm happy with those eclectic, hybrid projects - that's where I was at the time and that was how I was feeling back then. 

Yeah. Now, not so much. The latest stuff is loud. Intense. Angry. 

The very first album I put together in 1986 (with my bandmates at the time) was loud, progressive-rock that was tempered by heavy doses of 80s-era metal, Rush-like arrangements, and Ultravox-synthesizers. Another heavy, proggy project like that has been on my mind for decades. Now, it feels like it's time.

"So, JRub, you getting back to that teenage-rage thing?"  No. That's an uncontrolled bonfire of heat, empty bottles and burnt potatoes.  I don't care for that nonsense. This is older, wiser, and focused like a laser. A really pissed-off laser. With a drum kit. A laser with a drum kit.  Alright, then. Now we can get somewhere.

This is a demo - a "beta test", if you will - of a couple of ideas. It won't make the final album in this state. It's a "calling card" of what's to come.

The title contains a little nod to Michael Moorcock. I imagined a horde, tearing across the Sighing Desert out of the pages of an Elric story... and so...

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Using Software Development/Project Managment Techniques In Your Music Recording Project

There can be great similarity in project management between creating and shipping a new software product, E.g., an app or a website, and creating and shipping a new music project, E.g., a digital album or a CD.

(This is a blog post aimed at musicians, but if you're a developer, engineer, or product/project manager, all of this should look very familiar to you).

"Well, how the hell would you know, JRub?", I hear one of you ask. I apply the tools, techniques, and skills learned from developing and shipping software products to producing music projects (and products). Look, I've been programming and shipping software since Napoleon came back from his winter holiday in Moscow, and producing & publishing music since the antediluvian times-of-old when the 33rpm-vinyl-dinosaurs covered in Roger Dean-colored feathers roamed the prairies. In 7/4 time. Uphill both ways in the snow with 300lb Hammond organs strapped to their necks under spangly purple capes. Or spangled leather ponchos. I don't remember. Whatever.

I know what works for me at least, and perhaps this post will help you. Or not, in which case you took a nice little break from learning how to djent on your ukulele.

The typical stages of a project, whether software or music, at a high level look something like this:

  • Burst of creativity and enthusiasm, hard work, weekends and late nights of programming or tracking,
  • Lots of work, some of it tedious, getting the design & code correct/the tracks ready for mixing and mastering (and, if applicable, manufacture), and the product ready for your fans, the consumers.

So lets talk music project. . .

The Fun Part
Creating the music, recording the tracks, dialing in some great tones. This is what a recording musician lives for, right? Creativity, unbounded. The music just pours out of you, unimpeded, like water through your ceiling that time the toilet upstairs blew a seal at 4am. This is awesome. The music, I mean, not the flood. Soon, you have a collection of a few dozen songs ready for review! Right? Wait, you're not writing music every day? Ah. I see. Yeah. Well, that's a blog post for another time. Fine, then, you have ten songs recorded.  Great!

Now what?

The (partially) Tedious Part
Now, you have to get the tracks ready for mixing, mastering, and digital distribution. And, if applicable, for manufacture. 

This is a lot of work you're facing. For now, let's focus on one part of the work: Either you're mixing it yourself, or you're taking to a professional audio engineer. Either way, there are steps you will need to follow to make sure that at the end of all of this work you have high-quality, ready-to-mix tracks.

And this is where basic project management comes in. 

I know, I know, we're musicians, man, project management crap is, like, a day job. Come on, this is like work. 

Yeah, yeah, cry me a D-minor river. Yes, it's work! If you're not willing to slog it out, put in the time, focus, and attention so that at the end you can enjoy the musical fruits of your inspiration and creative effort, then.. I got nothin' for you. 

Still here? Awesome.. cool. Now look, kid, who says work has to suck? Not me. There are techniques and tools to make this step of your project easier and to decrease the probability of mistakes.  I'll use my personal process for this as an example, in a moment. First, a caveat: This is a process that works, and not the only process that works. I'm certain there are many others that work just fine. This is a process that works for me very well, and it's not static: in other words, it's dynamic. In other other words, it changes over time as I see fit, or as the project demands, or as I find parts of the process that are no longer as useful and other parts of the process... you get the idea. I encourage you to find a process that works for you, whether it's this one or some other one.

Right. So how do I get from the "many tracks of recorded brilliance" to the "ready to be mixed by Monte Genius Audio Engineer and his pal Master Agnes the Mastering Master"? (I made those names up. They're not real people). 

First of all, I borrowed from my experiences building and shipping software products and managing teams of software programmers.  A tool I like is a "kanban" board. At the moment, I use Trello.  What the heck is a Trello? It's a cross between a Trombone and a Cello. Sounds like hell. Wait. Sorry. No. Lemme wikipedia this thing, one sec...
Trello uses a paradigm for managing projects known as kanban, a method that had originally been popularized by Toyota in the 1980s for supply chain management. Projects are represented by boards, which contain lists (corresponding to task lists). Lists contain cards (corresponding to tasks). Cards are supposed to progress from one list to the next (via drag-and-drop), for instance mirroring the flow of a feature from idea to implementation. Users can be assigned to cards. Users and boards can be grouped into organizations.

There ya go. 

How do I use this thing? Well, after creating about 30 tracks of music and editing the list down to about a dozen that were superb, I called the mix engineer and asked how he wanted the tracks prepared. (This is a very important step, and there are no stupid questions: ask exactly how he or she wants the tracks, what format, what resolution, and so on.).  I took notes. In this case, I needed to prepare WAV files at a depth of 24bits, and a bit-rate of at least 48k.  

From the notes, I created a bunch of steps I needed to turn the contents of my DAW into the standard described by Mr. Mixing Guy. 

Here's an example, based on but not exactly the steps I took, because a few of the actual steps I needed to take are very idiosyncratic to my project:
  1. Copy project to new file
  2. Zero the faders
  3. Zero the pan
  4. Insure bit-rate of 96k
  5. Set every track to between -6Db and -3Db -18db and -12db range [edit: oops. Too hot for digital]
  6. Remove plugins to be added at mix-time
  7. Bounce tracks to WAV
  8. Verify that all tracks are bounced, within range, and dry or wet as expected
  9. Copy tracks to new folder
  10. Backup folder to local backup and to offsite backup
  11. Write notes for engineer, if applicable
  12. Done!
Each of these steps now becomes a list in the Trello kanban board, in the order listed above.  And, I add a list which will live all the way to the left called "Track To Prepare". So now I have 13 lists: 

Tracks To Prepare
Copy project to new file
Zero the faders
... and so on. 

Now, I start adding cards to my "Tracks to Prepare" list. Each card is the name of the track I need to prepare for Mighty Ms. Mixer.  Working titles, whatever.. but your list and cards will look something like this:

Tracks to Prepare
Rock Ballad 1
Rock Ballad 2
Alt Rock Thingy 1
Alt Rock Thingy 3
Alt Rock Thingy 11
Stadium Rock 12
Hawaiian Post-Progressive Death Folk Metal 3
... and so on

Now you're ready to work. As you work on a track, drag the card ("Rock Ballad 1") from the "Tracks to Prepare" list to the "Copy project to new file" list. As soon as you have completed that step (and remember, these steps are represented by lists in Trello, you with me?), keep working, dragging that "card" to the next list (the "card" represents the song you're working on.. still with me?). 

I love this. It means that I can easily keep track of where I'm at in the process, I can work on more than one track at a time, and I can keep tabs on the state of each track in the workflow.   Your ass, glue it to your chair. Follow the steps you created for yourself and that are now represented by the kanban board. 

Hell, even create a new board for QA (Quality Assurance). Be your own QA engineer and create a series of steps for you to verify, seriously, that the track are ready for Mr. Mix Audiogenius. This is your workflow!

Another point is: whether or not you use a kanban board tool, create a process for your workflow: for your studio work, or the work necessary when getting ready for a tour, or the work of marketing your new release, and so on. 

Hey, by the way, what if you're not hiring an engineer to do the mix? Just create the steps you want to take, every time, for your own mix.  And remember, you can change these around if you want to - remove some, add others, whatever. Workflow process is a living thing, and it will probably change in increments over time. 
  1. Copy the project to a new file
  2. Zero out all faders and pans
  3. Disable all plugins
  4. Drums
  5. Bass
  6. Piano
  7. Guitar(s)
  8. Djent Ukelele
  9. Vocals (clean)
  10. Vocals (filthy)
  11. ... and so on
  12. Done!

So, in summary: break down the tasks and document them, and then use some tool(s) to keep track of your workflow; especially for the non-creative work in your projects. The goal is quality and consistent outcomes, delivered with speed and accuracy.