One Year

Well, this year has been the longest two weeks of my life. I’m guessing it probably has been for you as well. Back on March 7 of 2020 I went out to see a friend of mine (Mr. Andrew Geano – shown rocking out at right here) debut in a video he had shot (in which I had a cameo as a street preacher). We were in a bar full of people. There was laughing and singing and hugging.   

It felt very different getting on a plane to fly to Edmonton just two days later. I’d been following the plight of some of my colleagues in Shanghai – they had already gone through a very scary time. A virus that was actively killing people was spreading, so they had been given orders to shut the office and stay at home for at least two weeks. And now it all seemed to be coming here. Logan Airport was absolutely empty. So was Pearson when I connected through Toronto. I got the distinct feeling that life was about to change significantly.

And it did. 

Even the stop in Edmonton was different. There were no handshakes, only elbow bumps. I actually did an open mic (my last live performance to date) at Duggan’s Boundary. Duff Robison (the emcee) had brought covers for the mic in an attempt to keep things safe. He handed them out with barbecue tongs and kept wiping things down as we went. I did my three songs and caught up with a few local friends.

Through the week, I also kept getting emails from my son’s college, keeping us in the loop on how they were going to respond to the events. Their updates got more and more dire until word came on Thursday that we needed to get to Montreal ASAP and help him move his things out.  So, that Friday I got in the car, drove up, and helped him get everything cleared out in about 45 minutes (there’s a longer story about this trip, and it involves exactly the right border control officer for the situation – but I’ll tell that tale another time).

And then we came home. And home is where we have stayed for the past 365 days.

I’m not gonna lie: I’d been traveling too much, and I know that I had been bargaining with myself about my need to stay home a little bit more. But I did not envision this, and I doubt that anybody else did either. I have learned a lot about myself, and also learned a lot about how much I value the company of friends and family. I have learned a lot about how people respond to stress in different ways. I have learned a great deal of respect for some people in my life. And weirdly, I have also made new friends and had some friendships grow even deeper than they were before.

I didn’t even mention any of the music that I have written, performed, or recorded during this period. It has been an incredibly creatively fruitful time, both because of the emotional turmoil and because of the chance to focus.

But all I really wanted to do at this moment was to take a moment to remember getting on that plane on March 9 last year, and to consider the year that has passed. I hope that you, your friends, and your family are safe, healthy, and as happy as possible. And more than anything, I cannot possibly express how much I am looking forward to seeing you and playing music for you live as soon as possible. When that happens, we’ll share a hug, a drink, and a song in community once again.

Be well.

-Chris

Zooming Through Life (and a livestream!)

This past Tuesday was a relatively normal day for me, meaning I engaged in somewhere on the order of 5 to 8 Zoom calls of various lengths. I’m using “Zoom calls” loosely – some of those calls were on Zoom, some were on Microsoft Teams, and there may even have been one on Google. That evening I had a live stream for the Apocalyptic Open Mic.

One of the things that has been particularly challenging during these livestream-only days is that technology platforms are both fickle and also not all that easy to monitor during one’s own livestream performance. When you’re performing in front of a crowd, you know pretty quickly if a cord is broken or if the fuse on the PA system has tripped. You don’t have that same level of feedback on a livestream as – by definition – the audience is experiencing the show somewhere else. 

On Tuesday, my performance went fairly smoothly. Unfortunately, the broadcast did not. In the course of a webinar I had participated in earlier in the day, I adjusted my microphone setting; then later, during my performance, the microphone level did exactly what I had set it to do. Zoom is not an intelligent program: it interpreted the dynamics of my performance as being either too loud or too soft and kept adjusting the microphone volume accordingly. As a result, a significant portion of the audio from the performance is too low to be heard.

So, first let me show you what it’s supposed to look/sound like, and then I’ll step you through the checklist:

We all have mental checklists for when we set up for live performance. So, here is my checklist for setting up for a livestream. I offer this to you both in hopes of sharing best practices, and also to remind myself that this is the list that I need to go through myself each and every time!

Days leading to the performance

Set up the set list. This is usually done by thinking through songs I haven’t played in a while and want to add back in. I may also have an idea for a cover song that I would like to include. Usually I try and do that two or three shows out so I get a chance to learn or relearn the song.

Morning of the performance

Pick out the songs that I know the least well, or are the most either technically or vocally challenging. Play them at least three times through in any particular setting (often between meetings when there’s not enough time to do anything else). 

Approximately one hour before going live.

This is when we transform a normal living space into a broadcast studio. The first things to come out are the mixer, microphone and mic stand, camera stand, and the lighting rig. All of these are of course quite modest, but they are things that were not, strictly speaking, part of the equipment closet before March 2020.

I’m using an old Dell laptop as my broadcast computer. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) It was available. 2) It has a CAT 5 jack on it that allows me to hardwire the computer to the router. I’ve found that no matter how good the WiFi is, it is not robust nor reliable enough for livestreaming, especially for music.

The microphone I’m using is an AudioTechnica AT 2020. It’s a condenser, which allows for better capture of sound around the room and allows me to move around a little bit. It is the third or fourth microphone that I have tried, and seems to be working pretty well. The guitar goes straight into the board thanks very much to a piezo contact pickup I have stuck just past the bridge.

Both of these signals go into an Alesis MultiMix 4 mixer, a relatively recent addition to my rig. Before this, I used a Studio One direct box, and before that I simply went directly into the computer via the same condenser mic I used for Zoom and Teams calls. 

My current webcam is probably also the next thing to be replaced. As a standard video-conferencing camera, it is designed to be optimal for broadcasting groups of people from a conference room. As a result it has a slightly fisheye quality which is not exactly perfect for livestreams. Nonetheless, that’s what I use for now.

The lighting rig is another fairly recent addition. The lighting that we typically use in our living spaces tends to be tinted a little warm, or slightly orange or yellow. While the ambiance this creates is certainly soothing in person, human subjects viewed through a computer screen in this light tend to look as though they have a slight liver problem. So, about a month ago I invested in a Pixel G1s with a variable LED color spectrum, and that has helped considerably. 

Once the hardware is set up, then the magic of getting Zoom and Facebook Live to talk to each other nicely begins.

First, start a new meeting in Zoom and ensure that everything is in frame. Next comes the part where I have been known to miss a step or two: audio settings. 

So….. It should be recognized that neither Facebook Live nor Zoom was ever designed for how we are using them. They were designed basically for video chats and conference calls. They were not intended to be high fidelity broadcast systems for music. However, they can be tricked into doing things that kind-of-sort-of work.

Step 1: Make sure you are using the correct audio input in Zoom.  Look for the mute button on the bottom left part of the screen and you’ll notice there is a caret just to its right. Click this, and then select a microphone from the list provided. If you, like me, are using a USB bus, make sure you select that one. It is important that you check this every time if you use Zoom for other purposes, as it is likely to search around and find other audio sources that you were not expecting. 

Step 2: Configure and test the audio input to ensure audio levels and balance are correct.  In that same menu next to the mute button is a selection for “Audio Settings.”  Click this and look for “Music and Professional Audio” in the Settings box.  Then select a few items as I’ve done here: check “Show in-meeting option to “Turn On Original Sound””, enable “High fidelity music mode”, and enable “Stereo audio”.  This is where we get just a little closer to being a music platform instead of a glorified conference call.

Step 3: Test. Go to that same menu again and click “Test Speaker and Microphone” (before you do, look at the top left of your screen, and click “Turn on Original Sound” before you do). Here, you’ll be able to record and then play back a few seconds of what you’re doing.  Whatever you thought the balance was, this is where you’ll know what your listeners are likely to hear.  

Step 4: Set up the connection into Facebook Live or YouTube.  I’m going to use the specific process for Facebook Live here as it’s the one that I use most frequently. However, the beginning steps are very similar for YouTube.  Before going to the next step, ensure “Turn on Original Sound” is on.  It will likely (and bewilderingly) have turned itself back off after you tested.

OK, look at the bottom right of your Zoom screen for a button labelled “More.”  Click that and you’ll see an option to go Live on Facebook.  Clicking that will then open Facebook on your browser.

Now Facebook will ask where you want to post your live video. You can choose your own page, a page you manage (like the one for your band), or for a group you’re a part of.  Once you select and hit Next, Facebook will take you to a page where you can enter a title for the session (I’ve put “Chris Steele 2/26/21” in this one, and then a description.  You can put all kinds of neat things in the description, including links back to other facebook pages or external links.  You can also choose “Crosspost to More Pages” if you have more than one page you want to post to.

On that same page, check to the right to make sure that Zoom is sending over the right video and audio signals (you’ll see the video and will note audio data rate on the screen).

Step 5: Go live.  Once you hit Go Live on the bottom of the Facebook menu here, you’ll enter a few seconds of limbo while the linkage is established and then you’ll be broadcasting.  (Note that there is a lag of a few seconds between what you do on camera and what Facebook puts out, so you may want to be slightly mindful of what you’re doing before you hit go live – your audience will see).

And that’s it!  When you’re done, terminate the broadcast by going back to Zoom and clicking “End Meeting” (which is Zoomspeak for “Goodnight Cleveland! You’ve been really great and we look forward to seeing you again real soon!”)

When it all works, it comes out reasonably well – not perfect, not like live, but reasonably well.  Hope you enjoy, and please, please, please share in the comments any other tricks you’ve learned or ideas for me to try.

Thanks, and also thanks for being on this ride with me.

-Chris

(And don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list! Sign up below, and link to the February edition here)

Music was in this place and I, I did not know

So, a short post today, but I came across something that I really wanted to share with you. You may know about my fascination with lost studios, particularly those that produce music that’s important to me – this is one of those. 

Up until fairly recently, I worked at a shared office space at 359 Newbury St. in Boston. Just a couple of doors down the road is 331 Newbury St.  I’m pretty sure it’s a hair salon of some kind now, but 30 years ago it went by a different name: Syncro Sound

I’ll let the article from the Boston Globe magazine tell its tale. For my own part, however, I think it’s amazing that just a couple of doors down from where I worked for three years was the building where The Cars put together some incredible music (and so did Yes, Aimee Mann, Ministry, and more).

Before it was owned by The Cars, the studio was owned by Intermedia, and this is where Aerosmith cut their first album.

Keep your eyes and ears open, kids. Music is in these places. 

-Chris

100 Virtual Shows

My goodness, we have been locked up a long time, haven’t we? I was just sitting here planning the songs I’ll be playing for next week’s show, and the little chart that I use to make sure that I mix things up song-wise also helps me to track how many shows I’ve played and where. Turns out this coming Friday’s appearance at the Eagles Nest Revisited Open Mic will be my one hundredth virtual appearance since we went into lockdown last March.

I miss people. And by that, I mean specifically that I miss the company of friends, and I really miss both hearing and playing live music. I miss playing along with other people. I am counting the days until I can find out when I can have the vaccine. Both of my parents have already gotten their first dose, so there are definitely signs of a sunrise on the horizon. 

But wow, this has been long. 

Of course, so many people have done so much to give people a place to play and listen to music, and I am so incredibly thankful for the community of people that I have met even during the lockdown. Linda Marks, who I met at an open mic in person in December 2019, introduced me to the Apocalyptic Open Mic and CJ Jewer. Through that experience, I got to meet Jay Singing Spirit Cunningham, and then Ric Page, Art Grossman, Richard Hopkinson, and a whole other slew of musicians I would not otherwise have run into.

And of course through the Virtual Necessity Open Mic I started up in March I’ve also spent more time online with my dear friends and compatriots Bob Greenman, Andrew Geano, Danielle Pinals, Terrance Reeves, Audrey Rose Hughes, Kat Brooks, Miriam B-A, Tim Ko, Ethan Mackler, Sara Beth, and more. 

We’ve been able to support each other, push each other in our songwriting and performance, share technology tricks, and teach each other how to wrestle zoom into doing what we want it to do. 

Along the way, these fine people also introduced me to John McArthur and Brad Myrick of the Greenhouse recording studio. John and Brad have been fabulous about coaching me on performance and on putting on a good show. They are also helping me with strategies for getting some of my recorded music out to you.

Never waste a good crisis, they say. While the opportunity has not been wasted, I miss you all very very much. Join me Friday for virtual show 100, and maybe we’ll talk about it a little bit and dream about what we will do next. 

-Chris

A Little Taste

Hi everyone!

I’ve been doing a lot of these livestreams lately, but I thought it might be cool to go ahead and do something that was very specifically about the relatively new songs I’ve been writing and that will eventually come out and singles this spring and then on the new EP (which seems to be growing in size past the point of “E”) at a time to be determined.

It’s been taking longer than I’d planned, but, well…. I am now in the process of changing jobs and that has taken a little bit of my attention over the past few weeks (months).

In the meantime, here’s a stream I recorded over the weekend that includes:

  • In a Minor Key
  • Home
  • Pulling Nails
  • Clouds

I know not everyone is on Facebook these days, so I went ahead and also saved it up to YouTube. The input into the computer was a little “hot” so it’s not completely as clean I’d like, but I hope you still enjoy.

Have a great weekend!

-Chris

New Years Eve 2020 to 21

(Subtitle, “WTF was that?”)

So I know that this is coming a little late.  It had been intended as a New Years message, but… 

I’ve been on vacation.

Seriously.  No schedule.  In my case this means my panic attacks have very little structure upon which to hang themselves, so… there’s that.  But I have more time to sleep (though the actual sleeping remains an elusive goal) and my achievements in Sea of Thieves are through the roof!  

And then I wasn’t on vacation anymore and I needed to re-enter everyday life. I should mention that I also let my present employer know that I’ll be leaving my position at the end of January so that I can go ahead into the studio to cut a new album and then do a North American tour in the late summer once the vaccine is fully distributed and we can do such things again.

And while the second part of that statement is a lie, the first part is accurate.  I have decided to change day jobs, and that may affect the amount and type of travel I do (again, once such things are safe again).  I also will be (and have been) recording songs for singles that will be released individually and eventually collected into an album.

My Music at Work

But, let’s do the things I’d originally intended to do. Here’s what’s been accomplished in 2020:

94 live performances

  • 8 in person
  • 86 as livestream

9 new songs fully written and tracked in the studio

  • 4 fully recorded and mixed
  • 4 in process
  • 1 discarded after initial recording (it was a fun song, but not really something I wanted to hold onto)

28 blog posts (not including this one, because 2021)

A name change (now using my own name, rather than my old Tunnel 18 band name)

A revised website (cleaned up, and it’ll be even a bit cleaner later in 2021)

Going live in 3… 2….

More cooking, baking, and home improvement than I thought possible (recipe swaps available).

Also a few new pedals on the board.  Built two myself to add to the long list of effects I’ve built: a new boost and then my eighth Tube Screamer replica*. 

And I know I keep promising you all a blog post about my pedal board – and I will do that, but not today.  I will include some nice video about how all these neat pedals affect how the guitar sounds, but let’s keep this to itself for now.

I do want to tease out a few songs that I have neither posted to Spotify, nor put in CD projects, but that I’ve been playing live a lot (acoustically).  I regard all of these as demos, but have lately been thinking that they might be good additions to my current polishing, mixing, and release projects.  

I’d love for you to take a listen to these and for you to let me know what you think – what works and maybe what doesn’t.  While I love songwriting and playing, I love it even more when this music finds its audience.  

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy.

-Chris

*General Guitar Gadgets does a great kit for a Tube Screamer, and their latest iteration has a great option for selecting a variety of diode pairs (and hence distorted tones).  The one I did this Summer went to my friend Lee McIntyre. We’d spent a few weeks at the beginning of the year (pre-covid) jamming and helping him keep his mind off some upcoming events.  The man plays a great version of “Here Comes the Sun” and is a hell of a novelist/philosopher as well.  Hence, Lee has the first ever (and only) Post-Truth Screamer.

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New Music for the Holidays

Hey. Wanna hear something I haven’t shared with anyone else yet? I mean, it’s not quite done and I might change the whole thing around. But still, maybe let’s call it my little early present for you – a song still in process.

This song had its inspiration a few years ago. My friend Mark is originally from Newfoundland, and while he has since moved to Alberta, he is still very much a Newfie at heart. One of the things he brought with him – and has instilled in his friend, a Jersey boy transplanted to New England – is the spirit and celebration of St. Tibb’s Eve. 

Tibb’s Eve itself has Irish roots. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a day that never comes (“I’ll get to it on Tibb’s Eve”) or a holiday for the patron saint of those of questionable morals.  

On coming to the Western Hemisphere, the Newfoundlanders (who did not become proper Canadians until 1949, remaining a British Commonwealth until then) brought the Irish tradition with them, but assigned it to a day where they could party it up. Advent supposedly being an austere time, the local citizens decided that December 23 was a perfectly acceptable time to end this dry spell and party it up – as Tibb’s Eve.

The tradition has tamed (a little) and is now, in the words of one local wit, “the day where you go and have dinner and fun with the people you want to, before you spend time with the people you have to.”

So, there’s a warm home in Fort Saskatchewan, AB where every December 23 there is a circle of people with guitars, beers, and good food, laughing and singing. 

Now, it’s worth noting that December 23 also just happens to be my birthday.  So of course, I commandeered the holiday. 

That having been accomplished, I needed to write a song. So I did. Much of the song was done last year, and there’s a video of the original version being played at Devlin’s in Brighton on the day it was written (ah, the times we used to gather in physical proximity!).

But this year I had a listen and decided that the song needed a little more and also needed to be changed around to work. This is the result so far.  

So, please enjoy “Holiday’s Rest (Tibb’s Eve)

I hope you enjoy. I wish you a great Tibb’s Eve, and a wonderful holiday rest, and on my heart I wish you a much better 2021.

-Chris

Home (a song is born)

Wishing a very happy December to you all in this very strange year! Times have been hard all over. The regular challenges of life are even more trying in isolation, and with the regular remedies made more difficult or unavailable. 

Nonetheless, even in these odd times there are things that bring a little joy and light into life. For me, that’s been an unusually productive period of songwriting. In fact, I have three songs in development right now: “Careful What You Wish For,” “I Am Not Well,” and “Home.”  (This is of course in addition to the four songs I just finished recording and mixing for an upcoming EP.)

Each of the songs is in its own way a product of the times we’re living in, and of some of the moods I’ve found myself in because of these times. Each of them came to me almost fully-formed, taking very little time to write as a first draft. I’ve been playing each regularly in my recent livestreams, and each is finding its way towards its final form with each performance. 

That last song, “Home,” is the first one that I’m actually trying to record. I think its origin story is pretty interesting: a good friend of mine took on the challenge of finding a different cover version of the Talking Heads’ “Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)” to play every day before the election this year. It’s a great song, and there are so many incredible versions of it. However, after hearing it every day for a few weeks straight, the song got stuck in my head, as you might imagine.

So I lay there the Friday night before the election, completely unable to sleep and with the song going through my head. This was somehow mixed up with my thoughts and anxieties about not being able to see my family for the upcoming holidays. I started to think about the concept of home, and of hope; about the things we long for in life, but which are very often undefinable and therefore unattainable.  And yet, these same things are those that if we only change our focus a little, we realize we already have and that we should appreciate and cherish.

So, what if home is where we cannot go, because we’re already there…?

And then the rest of the song came in a flood.  All on the same theme, with a middle break that came to me from worries I have for some people very close to me.  I got up and walked to the other room to tap out the whole lyric, fully-formed, into my phone.  

And eventually I did get to sleep.

The music for the song came a little later. I’d written the lyric with the rhythm of “This Must Be The Place” in my head, so I knew I wanted something with a strong repetitive rhythm in the verse, but that I also wanted it to open up in the chorus and bridge.  Arpeggiated chords do the trick in the verse, as do strums in the other parts of the song.  The song also starts and ends on an F#m7, giving the first impression of being in a minor key, but with major elements throughout, adding to the ambiguous, but hopeful feel of the song.

(I don’t usually have this level of thought going on when I write a song, by the way.  But I do see the elements afterwards on the songs I write that I end up really liking.)

I’ve now played this quite a few times for friends and at virtual open mics, and I’m thinking that it will have at least two recorded versions.  One will be a full-production layered, electric version (snippet here in process).  The other… well, “Home” also really works with just guitar and voice.  Both versions breathe really nicely, and I think they might speak differently to different people.

Here’s the acoustic version.  I hope it brings good meaning and thoughts to you. If it does, I’d love it if you shared it with your friends.

-Chris

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A New Era – Launching the Chris Steele music page.

Hi, everyone. I hope you are all well and are finding some light in these interesting times. 

Here in Massachusetts, we just had our first snowfall, preceding Halloween by a day. Really, nothing about 2020 surprises me anymore.

At the same time, I do have to say that 2020 has given me plenty of time to think and reflect and plan.  

You may notice that the domain name on this website is now completely different. I have decided to embrace the fact that I am performing and writing on my own – so www.chrissteeleband.com and the new Facebook page officially launch today! 

I’ve been working with some really great people over the past couple of weeks to put together plans to provide you with more and better content over the coming months, including new songs, some enhanced live streams, and even that long-rumored EP. 

I intend to keep this blog going, but I also want to be able to reach out more directly to all of you who have been so incredibly encouraging, and who I hope are enjoying the work I’ve been sharing. To that end, I’ll be sending out regular newsletters and notices to my friends and fans. If you’d like me to keep you up to date on all the goings-on here, you can use the sign-up form below.

Benefit show for GLASS

Times aren’t easy for anyone right now, but but we’re going to do a little something to support some really great people here in the community.

Join us this Tuesday, Oct 13 at 8pm EDT for a virtual benefit concert to support GLASS, a local Framingham non-profit providing community and mental health services to LGBTQ+ youth of color. Your donation will support:

HIV/STI Testing
STI Treatment
PrEP and PEP – Prevention for HIV
Safe Sex Supplies
Syringe Services
Individual and Group Therapy

(I’ve had great interactions with JRI – the non-profit that runs GLASS – through another of their youth support organizations for special education and am really happy to have the chance to help out here.)

Please join us here

All donations can be made via Venmo to @breakitdownvocals