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Treasurekeeping 

Photo by Tania Melnyczuk on Unsplash

Tania Melnyczuk

I had a pleasant dream one Saturday morning about an auction. I hadn't been to an auction in a while, even though two fifty-cent La-Z-Boy armchairs in the living room testified of my success. This unexpected dream prompted me to look up the listings, and what would you know, there was an estate auction just across the highway that very morning. 

The quality of an auction is always hard to tell from the pictures. Jacob noticed a pair of over-ear headphones in the listing, but as far as we could tell they were cheap and generic. I had been eyeing ninety-dollar Sennheiser 280 Pros so I could record someone singing into a mic without the accompaniment track bleeding through the monitor headphones. In the end, I crossed the highway because of a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Not our dream car, but what if it was a deal? 

I had to remind myself that estate auctions wouldn't happen if they didn't attract a throng of buyers, so I had better not hope for much of a deal. Indeed, the street was lined with parked cars almost as I soon as I turned into it. In my snow-colored rainjacket I was a white vulture amid the committee; but, we were innocent vultures, meaning no disrespect to the deceased. 

At first I was disappointed. Rows of seeming junk sat on the grass getting wetter every minute under soft drizzle. I might have gone home had I not spotted the pink desk lamp my daughter wanted. I nabbed it for a buck. The more I stayed, the more I saw, and the more I wondered about the man whose estate this was. "Jack," he had been called. Stereos, speakers, microphones, a four-track cassette recorder, synthesizers, an electric guitar, MIDI controller, cables and cables, multimeters, at least one oscillator, radio and telegraph devices, boxes with switches and plugs whose function I didn't understand, and tools upon tools were spread throughout the eclectica. "This guy was quite the hobbyist!" I couldn't help but say.

He was also someone who wanted to take care of his property, judging by the automotive products, trimmers, lawn mowers, seed spreader, and pruners. His movie and music collections had nothing dirty or (in my opinion) poor taste and were found in VHS, DVD, CD, cassette, and vinyl forms. (Oddly he had multiple sets of Anne of Green Gables.) His books ranged from chemistry and math texts to Calvin and Hobbes to Ronald Reagan biographies and piano books and hymnals. "Gladys" was engraved on one of those hymnals. His wife, perhaps? 

And to my slow belief, there was a pair of over-ear headphones that said "SENNHEISER HD 280 pro" on the side. I listened carefully for the auctioneer to get to them, hoping none of the other buyers would pay attention.  


Clyde wasn't a hobbyist like Jack, but he was his own jack-of-all-trades and master of insurance. The latter business laid his nest egg while he also repaired cars, learned Tae Kwon Do, cooked food he liked, piloted his single-engine Cessna - and wrote songs. Some of these songs were sung at his memorial service. Not long afterward, his wife sat in an armchair and sang a few into a tape recorder. 

That cassette lay in a box of mine for years as well as a manila envelope full of Clyde's lyric sheets. In 2015 I finally overdubbed her voice with a piano track and converted the audio to digital. I did this because, of course, they were the songs of my grandfather. Every melody was telltale of when he came of age. They seem to spring from the soil of military marches and mid-century hymns, yet I can see how in another generation they could turn into Maranatha songs. They were all praise songs. And though they sound dated now, they were the sincere, complete, and catchy psalms of a man who came to love Jesus after a mid-life repentance.

 

 

Granddaddy and Grandmama left us in their mere sixties, much too much too soon. My mom gave me his songs in the hopes not just of saving them but of someday notating the melodies and adding harmony. As I bent over the piano working on one of the songs, I suddenly imagined a descendant of mine doing the same for me. Not so much for the merit of my work, maybe, but for the place I would hold in his or her history. The notion was wonderful. Granddaddy has better things to think about right now, but if I could go back and tell him I would keep his songs, I think I understand how he would feel. 


After I got home from the auction, Jack's obituary revealed to me that he had died a childless bachelor. Gladys had been his mother. Not much close family was named, though there were two nephews. Jack's nephews may have preserved mementos I don't know about. In case not, he has an entry in my journal and a blog post here. 

And, I have his Sennheiser 280 Pro headphones. 

They helped me edit one of Granddaddy's songs.

Note: Grandmama never supposed I'd put her voice on the Internet, so I debated whether to do so. She sang with neither accompaniment nor studio conditions to speak of. In the end, I decided that sharing a part of Granddaddy and Grandmama was worth it.

Surprise 

A few weeks ago there were no plans to distribute "Pensée No. 1." 

Surprise! 

Plans have changed. 

It's now on Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube, Spotify, and a number of other platforms. This means you can now follow Vandalia River on Spotify, too. 

Hear on Spotify. 

Get on Apple Music/iTunes. 

Hear on Amazon. 

YouTube (please note, this video is not under Vandalia River's YouTube page, so if you subscribe you won't be subscribing to me):

Becoming Vandalia River 

The Vandalia Room began as an umbrella for a number of pursuits: original music, audiobooks, and a blog. "Vandalia" refers both to home - it was once a contender as the official name of West Virginia - and the woman who bought the piano that is now in my living room.

Since beginning this platform, I've recognized that much home recording is an inefficient use of my time. There won't be more audiobooks anytime soon; and instead of testing and re-testing mic set-ups and mixing techniques I'll focus on writing - and finishing - music to record. New music will be shared under Vandalia River. Why? There are already a couple like-minded groups that use "room" in their name. I like "river" in part because it evokes a sense of natural flow. The creative output of Vandalia River flows from a domestic life. I'm not out to reach some new echelon of brilliant art. My vision is to capture the art that can be distilled from whatever life already is. I guess, in a sense, all creators do just that. But the music teacher in me wants to beat this drum so onlookers can be inspired to produce art in their own way, even if modest. This is why I write about house concerts and classical composers and recipes and how music speaks to us in our circumstances.

So pardon the dust as the site and social get reworked. Vandalia River is now on Instagram, by the way. R. Hall, as a former social media exile, still has some catching up to do, but follow along @vandaliariver!

P.S. How do you listen to music? Pandora? YouTube? Downloads? Getting ready to record some instrumental piano music, and I want to put it where you can get it. Let me know by e-mailing post @ vandaliariver.com.

Pachelbel Rises from Grave and Claims Royalties; Bankrupts ASCAP/BMI for Canon in D 

Furthermore, Beethoven's PRO has sent an elite selection of bouncers to his grave, according to people familiar with the matter. "They're very concerned about 'Ode to Joy' and 'Fur Elise,'" sources said.

Hahaha, I know that's not how it works. In case you feel left out of this half-developed joke, let's start over.

When an artist writes and publishes a song today, he is owed money when the song is performed - such as on the radio, television, at a venue, etc. If he has a publisher for his song other than himself, the publisher is owed 50% and the songwriter is owed 50% for the use of the composition. Lots of songwriters self-publish and can therefore get 100%. Where does the money come from in the first place? The fees those venues pay for the right to broadcast. (So a songwriter wouldn't get performance royalties from, say, a house concert.) To collect what is owed, the songwriter should register with a performing rights organization (PRO). ASCAP and BMI are the best known PROs in the United States. You might have seen those initials in the copyright footnote of a lyric slide at church.

So this post's headline is a joke about composers who aren't around anymore to profit from their runaway hits. But, according to a music distributor, "There is no set rate for performance royalties – they vary quarter-by-quarter depending on variable factors, such as the total amount of license fees collected by the Performing Rights Organization." So even if Pachelbel did a Lazarus and overcame public domain law and showed he'd been registered with a PRO the whole time...no bankruptcy imminent.

Let me continue to guide you, however, into the labyrinth of how recording artists and songwriters get paid. Be warned, we might never emerge. (Please e-mail corrections if you spot errors.) I wanted to move backwards from the song - "When a song is downloaded on iTunes, X gets Y% and T might get V%." If such an analysis is possible, I don't have the time to make it.

[UPDATE: Songtrust has a very clear guide to a lot of this here - check it out.]

So let's put it this way. The songwriter and publisher should get revenue for the composition everywhere, whether streamed, downloaded, played on the radio, licensed to TV, sold on CD, or covered by somebody else. If a songwriter is his own publisher, boo-yah. Whoever owns the recording ("master rights") gets royalties whenever the recording is streamed, bought, or aired. For many big names, that's the record label. Indie artists generally own their own recordings, so they get to keep this share, too. What about the featured performing artist who didn't write or publish the song? He or she gets a cut of streaming license fees and download revenue. There's also a distinction made between interactive platforms (e.g., Spotify) and non-interactive platforms (e.g, regular Pandora).

To collect all these sources of revenue, artists, songwriters, publishers, and labels often use music distributors (such as CD Baby or Distrokid); PROs (ASCAP/BMI); and SoundExchange for Internet radio, depending on their role in the music making process and agreements with other parties. So if you write, perform, and record your own music by yourself, you're due a whopping percentage for your work. Then again, if you write, perform, and record your own music by yourself, it's possible no one knows about you.

Other sources of revenue include licensing to film, TV, and churches. The film-and-TV strategy is known as sync licensing. "The experts" say it can be very rewarding for even obscure artists, but it requires quality, research, and hustle. CCLI partners with songwriters, labels, and publishers to give churches a simpler and legal way to use songs in their worship services. This is why you might have seen a CCLI # on your church lyric slides. By the way, has your conscience ever troubled you about watching unofficial YouTube videos with other artists' songs? Actually, music distributors and YouTube (and Facebook, and Instagram, etc.) have a way of attaching a digital fingerprint to the song so that anywhere it is played on those platforms the rights holders get credit.

Of course, there are all sorts of other ways artists can profit from their music. They can sell CDs at creative prices and work out their own performance opportunities. Because the direct retail connection to their music has been lost, more and more artists are embracing a micro-patronage model in which fans are supporting them with voluntary payments for merchandise, shows, Kickstarter campaigns, or just because they love their work so much. See JJ Heller's breakdown of one of her songs here.

For further information:

All your music revenue sources (and how to collect the money) - CD Baby DIY Musician Blog

How to Get All Your Music Royalties - Ari's Take (may contain foul language)

The TRUTH About Music Licensing with Michael Elsner - Rick Barker podcast

Another Kind of Anniversary 

We tried another piano rig this week that involved lining one mic to the interface with a 1/4" patch cable. I warned the others the cable might give us issues cause I've had it since I was thirteen.

Then I had a moment of reflection. Yes, I've had that cable twenty years. It was twenty years ago this summer that my dad took me to Sam Ash in Cleveland, Ohio, with my piano teacher and two of my friends to buy a keyboard. I only expected something portable with several piano and pad patches for me to start playing at church. My dad as usual was considering more possibilities. We went home with a Roland XP-60, keyboard amp, and accessories. The XP-60 had over 400 programmable patches and an onboard sequencer - so I could lay down different tracks and record my own compositions right in the keyboard. It got saved to a ::drumroll:: floppy disk drive. I asked my dad why he'd get something with a sequencer. "Don't you think you'd enjoy it?" he said.

The whole package may have cost $1300. It felt incredibly extravagant. When we got home, I was a little dizzy with wanting to make the most of such a versatile tool, but not sure how I would learn it all. My dad reassured me he had no expectations for me to produce certain results, just to enjoy it.

I did. Though to this day I feel I only ever used a quarter of that keyboard's potential, numerous ideas got tracked to an orange floppy disk named "Hibiscus," which I still have. I haven't given up on a few of those ideas. The XP-60 was my stage partner at church for about ten years. Its LCD screen was crushed about ten years ago, so only the corners are readable, but by then I could almost navigate the sounds blind.

Someday I hope to have space to keep it set up alongside the 88-key weighted controller I use. For now, it's wedged out of sight. Kind of a big thing not to use in a small house. But not as big as the gratitude I have for the vision and hopefulness of my dad.

Note to parents...there's no need to go buy a $1300 gizmo for your kid, but junior high and high school is a fantastic time to have stuff at home they can explore. They have time to figure out things that could possibility accelerate certain pursuits in the future. If your kid likes tinkering with music and you have a Mac, let him loose in GarageBand - extra points for connecting a cheap keyboard via MIDI. If she likes writing and designing the look of things, you might be surprised what she'll figure out in Word and graphic design apps. Most of all that can be done without the Internet and without paying anybody to teach them.

Bootstrapping Pensée No. 1  

Here's a new little piece written in part to test using three microphones on the idiosyncratic grand piano.

Two problems have haunted previous piano captures: Piano sounds too brittle and distant Too much room noise A warm, close piano sound with resonant bass has eluded me. In the past I was limited to two microphones, but we just got a gizmo that lets us interface with more. So I placed three borrowed mics basically in the three corners of the piano. A large diaphragm condenser mic went into the high end corner; another one was placed above the bass strings at the far back corner of the piano; and a small diaphragm mic was pointed on the left corner toward the low- and mid- range of the piano. I was hoping this would give me more low end flexibility to balance out the brightness of the higher notes. A heavy afghan was placed underneath the piano to diffuse reflections off the hardwood floor. Then a heavy blanket was draped over the lid to reduce some sound escaping from the top.

So, since I used three microphones, I had three audio tracks after recording the raw audio. The ReaFir plug-in in my software reduced some room noise. Then I opened an EQ plug-in. On the track that captured the high end of the piano, I reduced low frequencies; on the low end tracks, I scaled back the higher frequencies. I guessed this would help each track stay in its own lane and enhance clarity. ("Guessed" is a good word; true sound engineers are snickering at me now.) Panning the tracks created some width. What's panning? Well, you know how sometimes you hear sound coming from the left or right on your headphones? There's a knob you can turn on each track to produce that direction. The low end track was panned hard left; high end, hard right; and the low-mid track left in the middle. Maybe I should have used compression, but I didn't want to flatten the dynamics of this piece. The dynamic range, while important, was not that wide any way. I basically used compression in the end by using a limiter plug-in to raise the overall volume. If you ever tried to record something yourself, you probably noticed your recording was quieter than the normal music you listen to. Audiophiles, correct me if I'm wrong - the limiter squashes the loudest parts of the audio so that it can turn up the volume on the whole thing without having parts that are too loud. Here's the track before making any of these changes.

Here's the track now. I think panning made the biggest difference. I have no plans to distribute this piece - it was hurriedly done and the sound isn't where I want it yet.