Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Don't Worry (Paul O'Brien)

Song written by Paul O'Brien. Guitar & vocals by Paul O'Brien.
Additional instrument parts written & performed by John Michael Kerr.
Sound production & captioning by John Michael Kerr.

Watch on YouTube


  1. Video - Paul's original iPhone recording (audio not used)
  2. Vocals - Condenser mic through Behringer UMC204HD
  3. Guitar - Fender semi-acoustic
  4. Drums - 64 Pad Kit Rock
  5. Piano - East Village Grand
  6. Violins 1 - BBC SO Discover
  7. Violins 2 - BBC SO Discover
  8. Violas - BBC SO Discover

Production Notes

This was the point where I finally abandoned the idea of combining my two vocal audio sources - iPhone and condenser mic - because of the extreme difficulty in getting them to register after stitching for tempo. Most of the time it would work out well, but just occasionally, due to the differences in ambience, the two signals would contain unmatched transients, and any attempt to bring them into mutual agreement would result in - not just distracting echoes and phase effects, but actually disturbing ring modulations, worthy of a 1960s Dr Who episode. And Paul made it quite clear, he was not standing for this sort of treatment!

Critical Response

From Paul's Facebook page:

  • Nothing yet!

Friday, 30 April 2021

Stations Of The Cross (Paul O'Brien)

Song written by Paul O'Brien. Guitar & vocals by Paul O'Brien.
Additional instrument parts written & performed by John Michael Kerr.
Sound production & captioning by John Michael Kerr.

Watch on YouTube


  1. Video - Paul's original iPhone recording (audio not used due to poor recording quality)
  2. Vocals - Condenser mic through Behringer UMC204HD
  3. Guitar - Fender semi-acoustic
  4. Recorders - Ableton Core "Recorder Keys"
  5. Violins - BBC SO Discover
  6. Double Bass - BBC SO Discover

Production Notes

After the 10-channel extravagance of Union Card (mixing like it's 1969!), we had a chat about our next project, and seemed to agree that a simpler, more restrained production would be appropriate. "Something along the lines of the Stairway To Govan intro, with recorders, flutes, or similar..."

Paul's original iPhone video recording had such poor quality audio, we agreed to bin it. This didn't make life much easier for me, however, as the video still had to be stitched or "warped" to ensure the guitar notes synchronised correctly with the video experience. At the time of writing we still haven't figured out why the iPhone audio has taken such a nosedive recently.

I've boosted Paul's guitar in the beginning and end sections. His fingerpicking work is good here, so I showcased it by increasing its volume and dropping out the double bass in the last 8 bars.

Vocals have a tweaked "Vocal Presence" filter applied, and Guitar uses "Acoustic Git EQ 1".

Critical Response

From Paul's Facebook page:

  • SO beautiful!!! ❤️
  • Hey, Elenor Rigby, where's ur hair shirt? ( good song)

Previously: Midnight Sky Of Blue

Next time: Don't Worry

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Midnight Sky Of Blue (Paul O'Brien)

Song written by Paul O'Brien. Guitar & vocals by Paul O'Brien.
Additional instrument parts written & performed by John Michael Kerr.
Sound production & captioning by John Michael Kerr.


  1. Video - Paul's original iPhone recording
  2. Vocals - Condenser mic through Behringer UMC204HD
  3. Guitar - Fender semi-acoustic
  4. Bass Guitar - Core Library Guitar Bass
  5. Drums - 707 Core Kit
  6. Pedal Steel Guitar, Harmony Mono - Impact Soundworks
  7. Pedal Steel Guitar, Poly Legato - Impact Soundworks

Production Notes

First outing for my shiny new Pedal Steel Guitar! Actually a keyboard instrument, this offering from Impact Soundworks for the Kontakt Player is an absolute joy to play, once you master its two ingenious idiosyncrasies: overlapping notes legato, and a set of left hand keys control harmony generation.

The main design goal was to interleave the "second country voice" of the steel guitar with Paul's vocals, so that it would never get in the way. When it does play through the vocals, it does so at just one note per beat, lending a little strength to the acoustic guitar chords. On this recording I've used two PSG tracks, to take simultaneous advantage of legato and polyphony, particularly in the second half.

Had a disagreement with Paul about the quality of one note in the vocals: the word "blue" around the 3:50 mark would originally glide across four notes, and I thought the third of these was missing its mark. We agreed for me to elide it, and I have bent it like the truth.

Critical Response

From Paul's Facebook page:

  • A beautiful masterpiece Paul.. so full of emotion and fabulous work by John.
  • Can hear this playing on the radio. Wonderful. 👏👏👏👏❤️❤️
  • Such a rich, evocative narrative. Lingers in the mind as all great music does 🎼
  • Previously: Union Card

    Next time: Stations Of The Cross

    Sunday, 25 April 2021

    Lyric Captions

    Praise the Lord and Pass the Microphone

    The Digital Audio Workstation "Ableton Live" works almost as well with full video files as it does with audio samples, but has no native facility to add lyric captions to a musical video, nor to generate the necessary caption format files to upload to video services like YouTube. Having produced a full square sixteen of Paul O'Brien's song recordings, and in the process almost accidentally created an equal number of "live" performance videos, I wanted the ability to add closed captions containing the song lyrics.

    Oh, and it had to be free and quick and easy. There are commercial solutions available, but I didn't want to spend one cent. If you search the intertubes for "Ableton Lyrics" today, most of your results will be from American "worship sites", and a little thought will reveal the reason for that. Obviously this is a bit removed from my particular use case.

    There are also automatic options. The AIs may be coming for all of our jobs, and speech recognition is certainly improving exponentially as we, erm, speak. But it's not quite there yet as far as the singing voice is concerned. I mean, just look at this effort.

    So it has to be accurate too, but within limits. We're not building a karaoke machine complete with bouncing ball. One-second accuracy should be adequate for the display of each line of the lyrics, so the listener can follow along with the performance.

    SubRip File Format

    Most subtitles distributed on the internet, for example those ripped from movie DVDs, use a file format called - for obvious reasons - SubRip. Since this format is one of the two most popular currently supported for videos uploaded to YouTube or Google Drive (the other being SubViewer, support for which was added later) I settled on it initially for this project.

    SubRip is a very simple text format: each text entity (line of dialog or song lyric) is preceded by a header containing its index (line) number and the start and stop times for its display on screen, and followed by a blank line. Obviously any text editor could be used to produce such a file, but look how fiddly it is, even after you've determined the full list of correct values, to incorporate these time marks into the format (the milliseconds separator is a comma because SubRip was originally written in France):

    "Union Card" song lyrics - Copyright © 2021 Paul O'Brien

    That's the little app I ended up with, after two hours in Visual Studio - one hour for the calculation engine, and one for the user interface. Here's the code, and here's how it works: 

    1. Specify the total duration of the video file, by either entering the minutes & seconds at the foot of the form, or selecting the video or associated audio file (via menu or drag & drop) and letting the code read the relevant duration from it. This feature uses the magic of TagLibSharp.
    2. Either drag the lyrics file into the window, or paste the lyrics from the clipboard into the left panel, or right-click and select the lyrics text file to load it.
    3. The captions file appears immediately in the right panel. This text may be copied to the clipboard, or saved with a menu command.
    4. Any alterations to the duration controls, or to the contents of the left lyrics panel, are immediately reflected in the right captions panel, so it's always kept up to date, ready to be copied or saved.

    Tweaking the Timing

    Given the above description of the tool's operation, you probably guessed that it's simply counting the number of lines in the lyrics, and allocating an equal time slice to each out of the total video duration. Sure, this isn't exactly how songs work, and without some degree of tweaking, the lyrics displayed will drift into and out of synchrony with the performance - that's if you're lucky, and they ever enter synchrony at all!

    The one blunt weapon at our disposal is the blank line. It's usually enough to restore an adequate level of synchrony, without introducing complicated user operations, judiciously to insert one or more blank lines into the lyrics. For example, the above song Union Card has a classic 12-bar blues structure. If you don't know what that is, think of Led Zeppelin's Rock And Roll. And if you don't know what that it, get off of my lawn.

    Union Card has a 4-bar instrumental introduction, during which we don't want any lyrics appearing, although we could use this to add the artist's name, song title, copyright notice etc. Assuming we don't want any of that, we just observe that each "line" of the song lyrics occupies two bars, and add two blank lines to the start of the lyrics to account for those four wordless bars.

    Next, observe that here - as often in the 12-bar blues format - the first six bars of a verse are occupied by the first three lines of lyrics; the next two bars are instrumental; the next two hold the fourth "punch" line of the verse; and the last two bars are instrumental once again. Following our guide of one line of text equalling two bars, we see that inserting one blank line after the third and fourth line of each verse should align things very nicely. When my app sees a blank line, it just retains the previously displayed line of text, because why not? There's no advantage in blanking it. Incidentally if you do want to insert a blank line somewhere, just use a line containing only a backslash ('\') instead, and the program will oblige.

    But wait - a glance at the Ableton project reveals there's actually a 5-bar outro after the 9th and final verse. If one blank line represents two bars, how can we add half a blank line to compensate for the final, odd-numbered bar? Well, we can't, at least not without complicating our beautifully simple timing scheme. Easier maybe just to add two blank lines, and truncate the final bar. Looking again at the score we see the tempo is 96bpm, the time signature is 4/4, so one bar is 4/96 minutes, or 2½ seconds. So, just clip 2½ seconds from the file duration using the up/down controls at the foot of the form.

    Och That's Too Complicated

    Okay, how about this then. You can add a half-length line by including an initial period ('.') in the lyrics. If this appears on a line on its own, it's equivalent to a blank line, but of just half the usual duration. If it appears at the start of a lyric line, then that line will occupy just one-half of the usual time for a line; so for example, if each line of lyrics so far has occupied two bars of music, this one will occupy just one bar.

    Inspired by musical notation, I'll expand this a little further. So, a line starting with two consecutive periods ('..') will occupy a further 50% of the duration of the single period line, i.e. three quarters or 75% of the usual line length; while a line starting with a colon (':') will occupy just one quarter.

    These markups can alternatively be appended to the end of a line, extending its duration by the given amount, so for example a period at the end of a line causes it to be displayed for 1½ times the usual interval, a colon 1¼, and so on. With a little thought, this is almost identical in effect to putting the punctuation on its own (otherwise blank) line, after the lyric. The "almost" covers the fact these trailing marks will be ignored if leading marks are also present.

    Handy reminder from the Help menu or F1 key

    But what if my lyrics... end with a haunting ellipsis? If you want to incorporate leading or trailing punctuation in the displayed text of a particular lyric line, no problem, just pad the text with a leading or trailing space, so that your punctuation symbols don't actually appear right at the very start or end of the line. The program strips all leading and trailing markup and whitespace, before adding a single space for legibility to the start and end of each line, so your trailing ellipsis will be preserved without altering the line's display duration.

    More general extensions are possible, but I'll reserve those until the need arises. Paul's written some songs in 3:4 time, so that shouldn't be too far in the future.

    Here's the final result. Note how it changes text precisely on the first beat of the bar throughout. A little distracting of course when Paul's singing anticipates this point, but that's by design, and it's doing just what I asked. Precisely positioned lyric captions with the absolute minimum of time, cost, effort and fuss.

    Thursday, 22 April 2021

    Union Card (Paul O'Brien)

    Song written by Paul O'Brien. Guitar & vocals by Paul O'Brien.
    Additional instrument parts written & performed by John Michael Kerr.
    Sound production & captioning by John Michael Kerr.


    1. Video - Paul's original iPhone recording
    2. Vocals - Condenser mic through Behringer UMC204HD
    3. Guitar - Fender semi-acoustic
    4. Bass - Tension AAS "Pick Bass"
    5. Drum - Mind Flux "Drums Dirty Kick"
    6. Piano - East Village "Grand Piano"
    7. Tubular Bell - BBC SO Discover
    8. Spiccato - BBC SO Discover
    9. Violins - BBC SO Discover
    10. Horns - BBC SO Discover

    My First 10 Channel Mix

    Two weeks after filling out the requisite survey form, I receive my free licence for Spitfire Audio's "BBC Symphony Orchestra - Discovery" in the email. Under the circumstances, you might agree this track shows considerable restraint in the orchestration department.

    Work begins with the now-familiar process of stitching Paul's original YouTube video download, bar by bar, then note by note, to the metronome. Then the separate audio-only file, vox in the left, gtr in the right, is also stitched in the same manual process. Of course the transients don't agree everywhere, this track being distinct from the iPhone microphone feed, so multiple passes are needed to resolve unwanted echoes and phasing effects, if the extra ambience afforded by separate audio signals is to be enjoyed. The very occasional Bob Ross moment yields a happy accidental effect that's actually worth keeping.

    Update: see later articles. Phone audio has been removed at Paul's request. He is the boss! (no, not that Boss, though not for want of trying...)

    Next, the just-stitched audio is split into two tracks, Vocals and Guitar, so that a Mono effect can be applied to each, isolating just their side of the stereo signal and allowing them to be treated independently in Ableton Live. At this stage the iPhone audio and the Guitar are sent off to opposite sides of the sound stage, to think about what they've done. The Vocals-only track is kept central, and as usual, rewarded for good behaviour with a -12dB A-Reverb return track input.


    Bass is the first MIDI channel to be added. First the root notes of the chords are played, then figures are written around these to complement the melody. A single, low kick drum is next, one solemn beat to the bar, with a double kick evoking a heartbeat at the end of each verse (there is no chorus). Then, a piano part to complement the guitar backing. A low tolling tonic tubular bell, bang in the middle of every third bar. Then the rest of the orchestral parts: violins alternating spiccato and long, before finally overlapping with a quartet of French horns.

    Critical Response

    Initial comments from Paul's Facebook page:

    • Beautiful song. Beautiful melody 🎶
    • This is magnificent Paul... completely breathtaking! You’ve told this miner’s story and brought him to life so clearly. Everything about it is perfect.. lyrics, melody, vocal, production and the b&w video is inspired. BRAVO!!! 👏👏👏👏👏❤️❤️
    • Top class
    • Lorretta Lynn, Bryan Ferry
    Okay, the first one was actually from my sister-in-law, but still...

    Previously: Wash Away This Pain

    Next time: Midnight Sky Of Blue

    Sunday, 18 April 2021

    Wash Away This Pain (Paul O'Brien)

    Song written by Paul O'Brien. Guitar & vocals by Paul O'Brien.
    Additional instrument parts written & performed by John Michael Kerr.
    Sound production & captioning by John Michael Kerr.


    1. Video - Paul's original iPhone recording (audio not used)
    2. Vocals - Condenser mic through Behringer UMC204HD
    3. Guitar - Fender semi-acoustic
    4. Piano - Grand
    5. Violins 1 - BBC SO Discover
    6. Violins 2 - BBC SO Discover
    7. Violins Spiccato - BBC SO Discover

    Production Notes

    Revisited to remove phone audio.

    Critical Response

    From Paul's Facebook page:

    • WOW!!! Absolutely STUNNING!! You should SO have a record deal Paul 🙏👏👏👏❤️
    • get it sorted! 🙏

    Next time: Union Card

    Saturday, 3 April 2021

    Man With His Guitar - Paul O'Brien

    My Score Here

    I've dabbled previously with music recording in Audacity, and composing in MuseScore, but if you're ever going to learn some serious Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, then the middle of a pandemic is a good place to start. So when last Christmas my employer, a manufacturer of computerised spectroscopes, found their Chinese order book collapsing, and started applying a LIFO protocol to HR, I found myself in the ideal position finally to scramble up the learning curves of Ableton Live and the Reason Studios (formerly Propellerhead) Reason Rack.

    A Man, A Guitar...

    Let me introduce you to my school friend Paul O'Brien, aka Man With His Guitar. Paul has been singing as a hobby ever since I've known him, stopping only for meal breaks and milkshakes, over the past 45+ years. Last May he started uploading covers to his own YouTube channel, soon to be followed by an increasing number of his own compositions. The format of these videos is as simple as the channel name implies: Paul and his handsome Fender guitar, sitting in front of his phone, singing a wee song.

    Several factors in Paul's setup make him an ideal subject for a case study in learning music production. The most important one is that he can hold a note. I can't hold a note. Paul's talent in this area means there's always something worth preserving, enhancing, bringing out in one of his performances. Not only can he hold notes, he can let them resonate and inflect them with passion, vulnerability, irony, pathos, resignation - an impressive emotional spectrum.

    Paul's choice of covers, and more importantly his own compositions, range from steady rockers to soft ballads. This gives the producer a good breadth of material to work with, trying to find the best opportunities to add subtleties in the service of the song, while remaining resolutely in the background.


    Of course there must be challenges, else what's to produce? Paul's performance philosophy can be summed up as "one take, warts and all". Which I find must be respected. Vocal talent can be an extremely fragile gift, and whatever gets you into the zone, deserves to be treated as indispensable. So if I was to produce his recordings, my source material each time would be that one video performance recorded on his phone, vocals and guitar coming together simultaneously through effectively one (stereo) microphone.

    Siri can be an interfering nuisance. I read last year about one techno DJ who found his recordings unexpectedly blank, because the ghostly AI in his phone had mistaken his music for road works in the street, and helpfully removed it from the conversation. Paul didn't quite disappear from his own videos, but it can't be productive to have such unknown levels of digital processing going on during your recordings. Added to that, Paul's soundtracks often included phone alarm and watch chimes, creaking furniture, a host of extraneous noises. One take, warts and all, indeed. The skill of pasting clips between parts of a song, to cover up a dinner gong, is quickly learned.


    Something Paul adds to his work is an abundance of time variation. This takes many forms. Bars speed up and slow down, acquiring extra beats while a chord is hunted, a note is pecked, or a fingerpick inadvertently adds an extra digit. Emotional content contributes still more wow and flutter. Much of this is artistically valid, and in fact there have been times when I've had to give up trying to achieve any kind of synchronisation with the metronome, and just add instrumental parts playing along in variable tempo as if in live accompaniment. See Forever True below for an example of this.

    Normally however, I'll start by warping the performance to first get the bars into a steady tempo, then if necessary, do the same for individual beats, strums or string picks. This makes it so much easier to add accompanying parts, such as drums, bass, guitars, piano, organ, strings, brass, woodwind - there are examples of all of these in the table below. And if necessary, automation can be used in the final stages of production, to re-apply any tempo variations felt artistically valid and vital.


    Originally I would rip the audio from the video file, then warp that bar-by-bar to obtain the first track. Both Ableton Live and Reason have excellent warping facilities, at once visual and incredibly easy to use. Once I'd added whatever additional instrument parts it called for, I'd have a candidate audio mix, which seemed to be the destination. Then one day I learned Ableton can work with video clips just as easily, and almost as comprehensively, as audio ones, and started about stitching the original video back on to the newly produced audio. After a few times working like this, I got to that "duh" moment where I realised it's possible to skip the audio rip stage altogether, and work directly with the source video file.

    Note: with Ableton Live 10, video import and export was only available in the more expensive Standard and Suite editions. With the recent release of Live 11, it has now been added to the Intro edition too. Good times.

    The Songs

    Here is a list of the songs I've produced so far. For comparison, the originals are still available on Paul's own YouTube channel and Facebook page. Here I have only provided links to the final produced MP3 (audio) and MP4 (video) versions. Unless otherwise stated, these are Paul's own compositions, and his copyright.

    March 2021

    MP3 - MP4 - If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
    MP3 - MP4 - You're My Soul Concern
    MP3 - MP4 - Go Softly Into the Night
    MP3 - MP4 - When I'm Gone
    MP3 - MP4 - This Land
    MP3 - MP4 - Forever True
    MP3 - MP4 - It Has To Be Tonight
    MP3 - MP4 - Case Full of Broken Dreams

    April 2021

    MP3 - MP4 - Forever Young (Bob Dylan cover)
    MP3 - MP4 - Too Much To Say
    MP3 - MP4 - Tomorrow Belongs to Yesterday 
    MP3 - MP4 - Hurt (Trent Reznor / Johnny Cash cover)
    MP3 - MP4Keep A Light On In Your Heart
    MP3 - MP4 - This Road I'm On 
    MP3 - MP4 - Wash Away This Pain 
    MP3 - MP4 - Union Card 
    MP3 - MP4 - Midnight Sky Of Blue
    MP3 - MP4 - Stations Of The Cross

    In Future

    I've literally lost count of the number of times Paul has asked me to boost the vocals, which given the above setup, is of course almost impossible without simultaneously boosting his guitar. Not entirely impossible mind you, some gains can be made with filtering (pun intended), but it's certainly difficult and - at least on my budget - unsatisfactory (there are AI megabuck solutions offering stunning results). I think I might have talked him into giving me a secondary audio source by plugging a condenser mic and his semi-acoustic guitar into the left and right channels of a PC audio interface, and recording these into Audacity at the same time as doing his existing phone camera capture. It's still far from ideal; there will be crosstalk, particularly acoustic guitar pickup in the condenser mic, if not vice-versa; but it should be a great improvement on what we currently have.

    Now, this will obviously involve more work, and seems to signal a return to the process of working with ripped audio and re-stitching with the video component at the end. This will be even more significant should I decide to use the phone audio as an additional source for its ambience, since there will be ample opportunity to introduce unwanted phasing and echo effects - the trick will be to stitch so carefully as to keep only the wanted ones. Will report back here as soon as results are available for examination.

    Update (5 Apr 2021)

    Success! Voice in the left channel, guitar in the centre-right, which is just about as good a separation as I was hoping for, well done us.

    Stitching the warped AV components together has indeed turned out to be rather more difficult and time consuming than before, since the software couples to different sets of transients across the audio sources, due to ambience differences, microphone positions, etc. However the results are well worth the extra effort on both our parts, being at times almost as good as a full, two-take double tracking of the vocals, as well as a three-mic guitar setup - acoustic pickup, phone mic, and leakage through the cardioid condenser mic, contributing three distinct audio sources for the guitar. And when it becomes too difficult to match transients, there's always the option of dropping the audio component of the video down to a faint echo, or muting it completely.