2017 RPM Challenge

Written by Barry Warsaw in music on Sun 05 March 2017. Tags: music,

Although I've been signed up for 8 years, 2017 is the first time I've completed the RPM Challenge. The challenge is deceptively simple: record an album in February that's 10 songs or 35 minutes long. All the material must be previously unreleased, and it's encouraged to write the music in February too.

The second question of the FAQ is key: "Is it cheating...?" and the answer is "Why are you asking?".

RPM is not a contest. There are no winners (except for everyone who loves music) and no prizes. I viewed it as a personal creative challenge, and it certainly was that! As the days wound down, I had 9 songs that I liked, but I was struggling with number 10. I was also about 4 minutes short. I'd recorded a bunch of ideas that weren't panning out, and then on the last Saturday of February, I happened to be free from gigs and other commitments. Yet I was kind of dreading staring at an empty project (the modern musician's proverbial empty page), when one of my best friends in the world, Torro Gamble called me up and asked what I was doing. Torro's a great drummer (and guitar player, and bass player...) so he came over and we laid down a bunch of very cool ideas. One of them was perfect for song number 10.

The great thing about this challenge is the deadline. When you have a home studio, there's little to stop you from obsessing about every little detail. I can't tell you how many mixes I made, tweaking the vocals up a bit, then bringing them back down. Or adding a little guitar embellishment only to bury it later. And you don't even want to look at the comps of the dozens of bass and vocal tracks I laid down for some songs. With a home studio, you're never really done with anything.

But the thing is, you have to upload your album by March 1st. It's like booking your CD release party before the album is done. It gives you a hard deadline to force you to stop futzing with it! Of course, it's obvious you will be futzing with things up to the last minute, but that's just the nature of it.

It also means that, at least for me, the recordings aren't perfect. There are mistakes in the playing, and rough spots in the comping or mixing. I think those are okay too. It makes the music more human in a way, more accessible. I'm a big fan of "record it and move on" without trying to achieve perfection. Even if I don't always live up to the "move on" part.

I'm proud of the accomplishment of finishing my RPM album for 2017. Even more though, I'm just so thankful for the friends who contributed, by their writing, performing, and technical support. I truly believe that the parts that are good are infinitely better because of their contributions. The parts that suck are all on me.

That's the other thing. I learned a huge amount, both about the technology I'm using, about the creative process, and about my own biases, fears, obsessions, strengths, and weaknesses.

By far, the hardest part is hitting "submit".

The album

So here's some information about the album. Consider this my liner notes. Unless otherwise noted, the words, music, and performances are mine.

Here's the album in the (regrettably Flash-based) RPM player.

pumpichank's player:

or listen to it on Soundcloud.

Shade And Light

  1. Bring The Truth
  2. Die For Trying
  3. Shade And Light
  4. MJP
  5. Rise
  6. Thunderstorm
  7. Comanche Heart
  8. Big Bend River
  9. Songs From The Melodic Fortress
  10. 1978
  • Die For Trying - Words by Rob Fisher and Barry Warsaw. Lead vocals by Jessica Lake. Additional guitars by Mike Lessin.
  • Shade And Light - Words by Rob Fisher. Lead Vocals by Rob Fisher. Additional vocals by Jessica Lake.
  • MJP - Music by Jessica Lake and Barry Warsaw. Words by Jessica Lake. Vocals by Jessica Lake.
  • Rise - Words by Rob Fisher and Barry Warsaw. Lead vocals by Rob Fisher. Additional vocals by Jessica Lake.
  • Comanche Heart - Words by Rob Fisher and Barry Warsaw.
  • 1978 - Music by El Torro Gamble and Barry Warsaw.

Special thanks to John Penovich for his technical assistance!

The technology

Almost the entire album was written and recorded on Cubase 8.5 on macOS 10.12. I used a hackintosh built by my son Max Warsaw. One track started out on GarageBand.

My main audio interface is a Focusrite 18i8, and my main mic is an MXL V67. I use KRK Rockit 5 powered studio monitors, and Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones.

I used a 2000's era American Fender Strat, my trusty old Alvarez acoustic, and a Novation LaunchKey 25. I used lots of different basses, including my 1969 Fender Precision, 1972 Fender Jazz, 1997 Noel Redding Jazz (a very cool reissue of his '67 Jazz), and my '90s era Engelhardt upright.

I used lots of plugins, both stock Cubase and various add-ons. EZDrummer, EZMix, and Superior Drummer from Toontrack with many different drum packs were indispensable, and I used a few clips from Groove Agent 4. A shout out to my trusty ancient BOSS Super Overdrive SD-1 pedal and Yamaha RX 11 drum machine.

Thanks to JP for the loan of his api Lunchbox and WARM Audio WA12, which really complimented Jess's vocals beautifully, and gave some extra punch to the Fenders. Also for the loaner extra set of Sound Direct headphones.

My iPhone along with its iOS Music Memos app, and the Steinberg Smart Click app where pretty useful for those late night random idea captures. Dropbox was a wonderful way to share tracks.


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