Starting From Scratch

The past few months have been almost like a breaking of a creative plateau for me with music. I had been dabbling with producing EDM/house music for some time, but now I’ve gone from dabbling to actually making legit compositions. What’s funny is that I’m doing it with the bare minimum of equipment: a refurbished laptop I purchased for $200, a budget tablet I purchased for $40, and software that didn’t even put a dent in my wallet.

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A shot of part of a composition I’m working on using Caustic.

For over a decade, I’ve been doing hip-hop instrumentals on my laptop. For copyright reasons, I never released them for commercial purposes. My beats were sample-based, and I’ve heard about the high price tags of sample clearance in recent years. However, along with the hip-hop instrumentals, I had started dabbling in dance music, most notably trance and house. I was able to use the same production program on my laptop that I used for producing hip-hop beats, Linux MultiMedia Studio, or LMMS for short. Using the program’s stock instrument sounds, and even importing drum and instrument wav files of my own, I was able to churn out a few rough drafts to upload to my SoundCloud profile. It got some positive feedback. Yet I felt I could do much better. Also, I could only spend so much time on my laptop at time.

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Using the PCMSynth plugin on Caustic.

My luck turned around when I purchased my first tablet a year ago, an iRulu X7 tablet, for $45. (I also purchased a compatible case with built-in keyboard for $7.99.)  Being that the tablet was an Android tablet, running on the KitKat OS, I had access to Google Play and all of it’s apps. Finding the right production app was a trial-by-error process. I went through drum machine apps that were garbage that I ended up deleting. I tried G-Stomper, but the interface was too hard to learn. In the end, I settled on a popular production app that would not only help me make music, but challenge me as a composer and musician:
Caustic.

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Using the soundboard.

What first caught my eye was the keyboard interface. I was teaching myself piano, so I gravitated towards playing different chords on Caustic rather than just programming them. It was like playing a portable piano on my tablet. Once I started importing different sounds through Google Play, that’s when I truly began to experiment, using different sounds and filters, playing harmonies before I programmed them, and combining them with drums. I was finally making the music I was aching to create.

The past three months was a prime time for me. Being that my 7 inch tablet and case are as portable as can be, I’m able to work on my music anywhere. And I mean ANYWHERE. I’m able to touch up drum patterns coming home from work. I’m able to play melodies on my lunch break at work. I even took my tablet with me on Thanksgiving weekend to show my cousins what I’d been working on. On top of that, I went from having four rough drafts on my SoundCloud account to having an album’s worth of material that I’m ready to master and copyright.

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Putting the final touches on a project in Magix Music Studio.

I’m sharing this not to brag, but to let people know that you don’t need to bleed your pocket to make good music, and even if your options are limited, you can do some damn good work. Along with my laptop and tablet being on the cheap side, the programs I’ve used cost a fraction of what most expensive music programs cost. My mastering program, Magix Music Studio, only cost me $60 on sale at a Best Buy before tax. Caustic on my tablet only cost me $10 on Google Play, if I remember correctly. And the first program I used, LMMS? That program was FREE. And no, it’s not pirated. It was made as a free Linux-based alternative to FL Studio (aka Fruity Loops). So whenever a peer told me that I needed a more expensive program that cost anywhere from $200 to $600 and up, I’d look them dead in the eye and tell them, “What for? I’m making magic with the stuff I’m using now!”

So, if you’re aching to make music, but you’re on a tight budget, take heart, and remember my story. If I can do it, you can do it. As for my album, after I finish mastering all of my tracks, I’ll be ready to distribute my first album. If you’re curious about my work thus far, come check out my SoundCloud profile.

https://m.soundcloud.com/5g-the-elemental

Tales From The Bargain Bin: Jamiroquai, Traveling Without Moving

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Okay, this was a long time coming. Hurdles aside, reviewing this album was actually easier than the others, being that this album has a feel of being composed and produced with a commercial intent, but stays true to the band’s roots in spite of its mainstream aim. As with a lot of Jamiroquai fans, this album was the first one I ever bought, and this album remains the band’s most famous and remembered. This is Traveling Without Moving.

Kicking off the album is the band’s most famous song, “Virtual Insanity”. The song is a smooth commentary about society’s obsession with technological advancement and the side effects that come with it (i.e., isolation, tampering with nature, etc.). Nineteen years after this song debuted, the lyrics are as relevant as ever, and the music is still catchy as ever. It’s no wonder the song and it’s accompanying video won so many accolades in it’s day.

The rest of the album is a must for the years. While “Cosmic Girl” and “Alright” are standard dance fair, “Use The Force” is a catchy, upbeat motivational track, an anthem for believing in yourself. “Everyday” is a slow groove, very reminiscent of The Isley Brothers’ slow jams, from it’s smooth bass lines to the violins in the background.

As the album progresses, Jamiroquai manages to merge their preachy side with their disco side with “High Times”, a narrative of how a disco junkie, both in the dance sense and the drugs sense, is so immersed in the high life that it’s killing her.

One especially catchy track is Jay Kay’s dabbling in reggae with the easy going “Drifting Along”. It’s the perfect song for a lazy afternoon, laying wherever you’re laying. The title track is a brief, but catchy and upbeat groove that stays with you. Something else that stands out with this Jamiroquai album compared to their others is the presence of not one, but two Didgeridoo instrumentals, with “Didjerama” and “Didjital Vibrations”. This can easily solidify the comparison between Jamiroquai’s use of the Didgeridoo, and Earth, Wind, & Fire’s use of the Kalimba, in that both bands are fond of using exotic and traditional instruments to enhance the respective bands’ modern sounds; the didgeridoo originating from Australia’s Aboriginal tribes, and the Kalimba originating from Africa.

Overall, Traveling Without Moving is an album that hasn’t aged one bit since 1996, and is an easy pick for any music lover. Anyone looking to get into Jamiroquai will have no trouble enjoying this album.

Tales From The Bargain Bin: Jamiroquai, The Return of the Space Cowboy

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The same day I purchased Jamiroquai’s 1993 album, Emergency on Planet Earth, I also had the fortune of purchasing their 1994 follow-up, The Return Of The Space Cowboy. Amazingly, the first time I had heard of Jamiroquai was when this album debuted. I had the fortune of catching the music video of the album’s first single, “Space Cowboy”, on BET when I was 12 years old. Even then, I was hooked on the band’s sound, well before they eventually found massive success with their hit music video, “Virtual Insanity”, from their 1996 album, Traveling Without Moving. And while everyone has heard that album since that year, it can be said that only true Jamiroquai fans can say they’ve traveled with the “Space Cowboy”.

The band’s performance caliber had stepped up quite a bit compared to Emergency on Planet Earth. It could be said that the collective of vocalist/producer Jay Kay, keyboardist Toby Smith, bassist Stuart Zender, Drummer Derrick McKenzie, and Wallis Buchanan on the didgeridoo, had learned and matured  a bit between the two albums. The first single, “Space Cowboy”, an ode to weed (“at the speed of cheeba”), is a smooth, feel-good song to zone out to. The vibe smoothly transitions into a state of self-reflection with the second track, “Stillness in Time”, and revisits that self-reflection with “Light Years”, the latter track offering an uplifting hook to boot. (“Now I’ve got that sunshine in my life.”) Another change compared to Emergency is the presence of more love and relationship-themed songs, such as the broken heart anthem “Half The Man”, which reflects a man feeling that he’s missing his other half of himself after a breakup, and “Mr. Moon,” a lyrical plea to find that special someone, using the moon as a confidante for heartbreak.

The album does have it’s share of preaching, with tracks such as “Scam”, highlighting the common man’s economic struggle and the government’s efforts to tax the working class dry, “Manifest Destiny”, a somber reflection of the plight of the indigenous peoples of the world driven from their homes, and “Just Another Story”, a tale of a young man caught up in the drug game. The last song is as potent as Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City”. Much like Emergency, even the preachy tracks on Space Cowboy are catchy and infectious.

The Return Of The Space Cowboy is a great follow-up to Emergency on Planet Earth, and it’s a must for any true Jamiroquai fan. Of course, the strength of this album was dwarfed by the massive success of its successor, 1996’s Traveling Without Moving. Stay tuned for my review of that album.

Tales From The Bargain Bin: Jamiroquai, Emergency on Planet Earth

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About a month ago, I hit up my favorite thrift shop and managed to purchase not one, but two Jamiroquai CDs, their first album, Emergency on Planet Earth, and their second album, Return of the Space Cowboy, for the low price of $2 per CD. I couldn’t wait to start listening. Of the two albums, Emergency was the one I gravitated to immediately. I was familiar with the album’s pro-environmental stance, and I had glimpsed at the music video for the title track, which was a montage of environmental clips, from oil spills to endangered animals. Preachy, yet catchy.

Songs like “When You Gonna Learn (Digeridoo)”, “Too Young To Die”, and the title track, “Emergency on Planet Earth”, are the prime examples of the album’s preachy side. Even as heavy handed as the messages are, the groove of the music makes it impossible to stop listening. The band borrows influence from everyone from Earth, Wind, & Fire to The Brand New Heavies.

If you feel the need to skip the Captain Planet-caliber environmental and anti-destruction messages, you can always check out tracks such as “Hooked Up”, which offers the track’s music as a sound opiate/anti-depressant, or “If I Like It, I Do It”, a catchy song about anti-conformity. The instrumental piece, “Music of the Mind”, is so peaceful, it can be used for meditation, which I suspect was the purpose of the composition. Getting back on the up-tempo groove, the James Brown-esqe “Whatever It Is, I Just Can’t Stop” is a first-person observation of the struggles of alcoholism and addiction. The music is so catchy, you’ll have to read the lyrics to pick up on the message. Amazingly, with so much funk on this album, there’s only one track that comes close to a love song, the smooth, “Blow Your Mind”, a cross between an Earth, Wind, & Fire ballad and a roller rink jam.

Overall, this debut album is a good place to get your feet wet if you want to check out Jamiroquai. Yes, it’s got “Message” written all over it, but I’d be a fool to ignore how good the music is.

Tales From The Bargain Bin: Jamiroquai (Prologue)

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Looking through my CD collection, I just lately realized how many great and classic albums I have in my possession. Many of these albums, I’ve bought for less than $10, a lot of them I bought for $2 from my favorite thrift shop, and in  one case, one album I bought for 99 cents!  So, amazingly, without having to bleed my wallet, I’ve managed to satisfy my need for good music. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy paying full price for a new album too (Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet was worth the $13.99 I spent on it), but you’d be amazed with the classic albums you can find in the bargain bin. I’ve found everything from Norah Jones to classic Chick Corea. My most prized finds in recent months, however, have been of a beloved U.K. funk/dance band that thrived in the 90’s, during my teen years: Jamiroquai.

In the past 2 1/2 months, with random but regular trips to a local thrift shop, I’ve managed to purchase five Jamiroquai albums, helping me rediscover the band that I heard so much of in high school. These five albums are (in order of release): 1993’s Emergency on Planet Earth, 1995’s Return of the Space Cowboy, 1996’s Traveling Without Moving, 1999’s Synkronized, and 2001’s A Funk Odyssey. These five albums have not only been my biggest treasure from the bargain bin, but they’ve helped me look beyond the band’s biggest hit single, “Virtual Insanity”. As such, I’ll be reviewing these albums in chronological order, and I hope that I’m able to paint a picture for you the appeal of this band. Keep watch for my review of Jamiroquai’s first album for Sony, Emergency on Planet Earth.