Song: The Engineer

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The Engineer Demo (2009) [Download]

The seeds for this song, and the entire album, were planted almost a year ago. My experimentation at the time was tending toward dense, heavily electronic and synthesized music. I was writing most of my songs at the console, piece-by-piece inside of Cakewalk Sonar, and starting to feel tapped out creatively. The music was missing something. It all just felt so…cold and synthetic…and though that fit the nature of the lyrics I was writing, I didn’t find it all that interesting to listen to.

It was time for a change in direction. Time to strip it down and get back to what I knew best, using the guitar as my primary songwriting tool.

I’d restrung my acoustic 6-string after a long period of disuse and started strumming the open strings. There’s something about the drone of an open E-string that I’ve always loved. A hypnotic quality that I adore despite the repetitive nature inherent in a droning sound. Something organic, like a pulse.

Fooling around with open strings and some arpeggios in 6/8 time (I think), I came up with 3 different parts that felt like they fit together nicely. The first trickle of lyrics and melody flowed quickly and easily soon afterward.

The Engineer Demo – Deconstructed (2009) [Download]

She was made of polymers
She came along and broke my heart

Her icicle stare turned my blood cold
It tore me apart

Just let me have a crack at it
Oh, let me into your skull

A silly proposition;
That emotions come from the heart

She’s a fountain of life
Sprung from the minds of men
She’s a real work of art
She belongs in a museum

(Round Two. Fight!)

It’s a barometer of our relationship, girl
That we should contantly cuss and fight
For the world

Knowing is half of the battle, like GI Joe says
Let’s get together and conquer the world

Songs usually start out as music for me. Rarely with a melody, more often with the chords, the rhythm, and the changes, and almost never with the lyrics. After I get a skeleton of the song, I’ll start working on a melody and lyrics, filling in the blanks with nonsense words and whatever stream-of-consciousness profanities might dribble out.

Sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth fitting words to music. This one was different. The words came easy. I can’t say that I understood them, but that seems the case with almost everything I write. It starts with instinct, and flows with feeling. To realize any sort of meaning, that must wait until I go back and edit With Intent.

I had already been in a sci-fi headspace, slinging robots and spaceships like a bad episode of The Outer Limits. At first blush, this song seemed to be exploring a similar space.

I put the song down, incomplete, and wrote more music over the next 6 – 8 months.

Now, with some distance, I can see how this one song marked a definite change in direction for me, both musically and lyrically. All of the songs that were to follow seem to have grown naturally from this single starting point.

The Engineer – as I came to call it – was cut from a different cloth than the songs before it, though it shared certain thematic elements with those dense and tedious sci-fi expeditions I’d been lost on. The music had an earthier, folky quality and the lyrics, while still rooted in some far-off future, conveyed a very distinct humanistic perspective that had been missing.

I’d rather not over-explain any particular meaning or concept behind a song because a) it just sounds pretentious and b) it undermines any potential emotional connection I might have with the song. I find it dangerous to know too much about the song when I haven’t yet finished the lyrics. Things may just get a bit too literal, as they have for another song I’m nursing and will write about soon.

The important thing for me to take away is that The Engineer is the prototype for the album, Transhuman Highway.

Next steps are to finalize the structure of the song and finish the lyrics. After that I will find an acceptable metronomic drum beat and start tracking the guitar parts.

Session Notes

Since this is just a demo, there’s nothing particularly exciting going on here. The chorus vocals get a little bit pitchy, but I’m OK with that right now. Let it serve as a lesson that you must know precisely which notes you’re trying to sing before the noise leaves your throat. This sounds like common sense, but I struggle with it daily.

I recorded 2 tracks live, one each for the vocals and guitar, so there will be some bleed-through on the mics. Most of the time I prefer this as long as the signals are kept in-phase. The vibe on the vocals is usually much better for me if I can play my main instrument while I’m singing. My time-keeping sometimes suffers, though, so it’s a tradeoff and really depends on the song.

The microphones were run directly into a Firewire 410 audio interface. No compression or any effects were applied beyond a low-shelf EQ on the vocals to roll-off some boom from the low-end.

  • Track 1: Rhythm Guitar – Tacoma 6-String Acoustic via M-Audio Aries condenser mic – panned 35% left
  • Track 2: Vocals via Audio Technica AT4040 Cardioid Condenser mic – panned 5% right
  • Track 3: Guitar Fills (overdub) – Tacoma 6-String Acoustic via M-Audio Aries condenser mic – panned 35% right

The Deconstruction track was recorded with the same setup, except I used my girlfriend’s Little Martin LXM for the guitar track. It’s a fine instrument made for cute little girl hands. I like to strum around on it when I’m sitting on the couch or out on the front porch. This will be used frequently for quick and dirty demos, I predict.

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6 Responses to “Song: The Engineer”

  1. corbyanderson Says:

    Griggs – stupendous accounting of the creative spasm done here…Very Rush like to me (Tom Sawyer, not Limbawl), or maybe slightly Floydian…Anyways, you gotta get me inn the Transhuman cages and give me a crack at the BA DA DA DA DA parts!

    Excellence is wist

    • Jonathan Griggs Says:

      BA DA DA DA DA is probably some mix of bass and guitar. Two fingers somewhere on the D and G strings, A string open. Maybe a mic will make it to Springdale with my geetar, and the cages are UP!

  2. thefamilysimpson Says:

    Really loved reading about the workings of another songwriter. Keep it up, I think you’ve inspired me to write down what I did with my most recent track!
    You’ve got a really nice acoustic guitar sound there – was much playing around with mic positioning required?

    • Jonathan Griggs Says:

      Thanks for the comments! I was hoping that, even if my music wasn’t necessarily someone’s cup-of-tea, that there may be some value in just writing about the process. One of my favorite books of all-time is Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting. I don’t think there’s another volume so chalk full of details on the pure mechanics of songwriting. And from the masters themselves.

      If you ever post those notes of yours somewhere public, I hope you’ll let me know!

      Re: The acoustic, I didn’t much play with the mic at all, but probably because I just leave it in the same position for almost everything and scootch up next to it.

      I used the M-Audio Aries condenser mic positioned at a 45° angle to the area where the fretboard meets the body. I mic it fairly close, maybe 1 foot away, because my room is acoustically disgusting and I want as little of that as possible. Usually, I’d throw my AT4040 condenser behind my picking hand near the bridge (also around 1 ft. and a little more than 45 degrees), but I was using it for live vocals on this demo take.

  3. Best Sounding Guitar Strings Says:

    I do not generally remark relating to personal blogs along the lines of this but in this circumstance and in keeping together with the comments earlier on I might take this chance to point out just how much I really enjoyed your write-up. Definitely enlightening and also well written – many thanks for sharing this with us!

  4. Replacing Guitar Strings: Six Steps to Becoming a Highly Effective Guitar Player Says:

    […] st_type='wordpress3.4.1';Daniel LehrmanTranshuman HighwayTranshuman […]

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