The Commuter Challenge

1 August 2011

The August 2011 Challenge

by CC @ 04:04

Select a song — any song, though preferably one that you like — and record a cover of it. Perform as much of it yourself as you can. You may enlist the aid of friends and/or machinery to help you create some bits (particularly parts for which you lack ability and/or necessary equipment), but the lion’s share of the final recording should be your own product. You are not limited in the nature of your cover, but as a rule of thumb you should aim for being faithful to the spirit of the original.

The Results

Ryan Finholm

Elvis Costello: Invisible Man

Brian Raiter

Daniel Johnston: Walking the Cow


  1. This may well have been the most difficult challenge I have ever completed. I’m not sure. There were a couple others that were time-consuming, but nothing I’ve done felt anywhere near as exhausting. And I really didn’t expect the end result of so much work to still sound like it was carelessly slapped together in an afternoon. (So to speak. I know plenty of people who could have slapped together a much, much better submission than mine at the end of an entire afternoon.) I rather underestimated my ability to compensate for a lack of basic skills, I think. At least I had the foresight to pick a piece of music where a lack of skill can support the song’s aesthetic, instead of undermine it.

    I actually wanted to record a completely different Daniel Johnston song, but I couldn’t find the notes for it anywhere online, so I had to go with the songs that were available. A year or two ago I had found the music for “Walking the Cow” online, and luckily it wasn’t just a list of chords (which is of limited use to someone like me), but more or less all of the actual notes. I took that information and used a program called GNU Lilypond to turn it into good old sheet music, which is something I can read. Lilypond can also do MIDI output, it turns out, so I could also listen to a computer performance of the music. Not only did this let me identify egregiously incorrect notes in my sheet music and fix them until I had something that was actually fairly accurate, I ultimately wound up using the MIDI version as a sort of souped-up click track while recording my own performances.

    I don’t own a keyboard instrument (piano or otherwise), but fortunately the public library does have some electronic keyboard instruments installed in music practice rooms, available to the public. One can reserve them for only an hour a day max, though (and the library was closed during the last few days of August), so in the end I only got a few hours’ worth of practice time in before I had to make the actual recording. By then I was nowhere near being able to really play the piece; it’s mostly very easy, but there are a few difficult spots. So I performed the left and right hands separately, and then mixed the tracks together afterwards. That’s part of the reason for the rhythmic irregularities in the final result. Or actually, I should say that’s the reason for the specific types of rhythmic irregularities. Had I played both hands directly, there would still have been rhythmic irregularities, but of a far more serious nature. I’ve long known that I have a really hard time playing anything even slightly off-beat (literally, not figuratively), but I didn’t expect to have so much trouble with the brief and rather tame dotted rhythms in “Walking the Cow”. The plain fact is that I really don’t have the ability to play along with other music and keep time. Not even a metronome, I’ve learned. I’m sure it’s something I could learn how to do with sufficient practice, but right now it’s just not one of my abilities. I used bits and piece from three or four recordings of each hand to piece together the final result, taking the best sections from each one. In a couple of places I went so far as to manually nudge the position of individual notes to bring them into rhythmic synch. Fortunately, that was easy to do with all these staccato notes. (Not so easy with the legato phrases, which is partly why they’re more uneven.)

    The solo in the middle (and the final coda) was played on a melodica. (I had originally wanted to perform the entire piece on the melodica, but that would have been a much more difficult task. Plus I would have had to transpose the entire song to another key to get all the notes. And without a soundproof studio to record in, I’m sure my neighbors would have killed me long before I was done.) Since it’s a solo, I didn’t worry nearly as much about rhythmic idiosyncrasies. I did about a dozen takes, and used the best one as-is, with no editing. Likewise with the vocals — I did about a dozen takes, and picked one to use as-is. Sadly, my ear is almost as bad as my voice: I can sometimes sort of tell when I’ve hit a note correctly, but when I haven’t I can’t really tell by how much, or even in which direction. (Although I’m told that off-key singing is always flat, and almost never sharp. I have no idea why that is.) All of my takes sounded pretty much the same as each other to me, though, so I don’t think that doing any editing would have helped.

    This is something I’ve often wanted to do, and I’m glad I finally did it. It was a surprisingly humbling experience though, and as I said I really expected the final product to better reflect the amount of effort that went into it. But one’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, no?

    by Brian — 31 August 2011 @ 18:45

  2. Here are links to the originals, for reference-

    Walking the Cow by Daniel Johnston:

    Invisible Man by Elvis Costello:

    by RyanF — 1 September 2011 @ 10:13

  3. I played in crummy rock and roll cover bands in high school and college, and I’ve always had a bit of a musical drive. So if you had told me when I graduated from college in 1991 that I wouldn’t record another piece of music for 20 years, I’m sure it would have come as quite a shock to me. Also, five years ago I switched from PC to Mac, and my primary reason for doing so was to start using Garageband to make music. But then I didn’t do anything with Garageband until now, five years later. I probably never would have gotten around to doing any music again ever if I hadn’t insisted that Brian unilaterally choose August’s Commuter Challenge, with no input from me. Also, it’s likely that I would have flaked out on this Challenge if it weren’t for our mutual extortion pact.

    It was difficult to decide on a song. It had to be a song I enjoyed, to keep my interest in the project, but it couldn’t be a song that I was extremely passionate about or I’d feel disappointed that I wasn’t doing the song justice. Early on I had actually considered doing “Walking the Cow” too, and I can’t remember why I crossed it off my short list. I am a fan of Elvis Costello, and I’m very fond of “Invisible Man”, but I felt like I could still approach the song without being sacrilegious.

    This was my first real Garageband project ever. There was an October Commuter Challenge a few years back where I poked around in Garageband for a while, trying this and that and shuffling some loops around, but the snippets I produced sounded extra-hokey so nothing ever came of it. For this project I limited myself to guitar and voice, which made things a lot easier. I’m sure it would have been more impressive to try to wrangle a drum kit, piano, and horn section out of Garageband, but it would have taken too much time, and more talent and musical arrangement knowledge than I have. Now I also realize that my processor wouldn’t have been able to handle the dozens of simultaneous tracks all of that would have used, too (it had enough trouble with the comparably small number of tracks I threw at it).

    Are you wondering how to replicate the interesting tone I got from my guitar? It’s simple: just don’t ever change your guitar strings, don’t clean them, and play your guitar only once every three or four months for two decades; it really gives the oil from your fingers ample time to settle in and muffle all the treble out. Seriously though, I should have re-strung my guitar before starting this project. I don’t know what I was thinking.

    This cover was completed in three long sittings. The actual music tracks were recorded in two separate sittings, and then I worked on ‘engineering’ it during a third sitting. I got much more proficient over the course of the project, and I believe that if I were to re-do the entire thing right now, the song would sound noticeably different, noticeably better. I bought a decent, inexpensive USB microphone for this project, and it made all the difference. I was worried about background noise, and in particular the hum of the fan in my Mac (which is impossible to escape because that’s where Garageband is), but the microphone was apparently directional enough to make it less of a problem than I was expecting.

    Some of the guitar bits are sloppy, but at the end I just got lazy. While ‘engineering’ the song I would remove some of the individual sour notes, but I couldn’t fix the many, many bits that were off-beat. Some of those tracks really needed to be completely re-done, but my fingers were blistering and I was running out of time, so I decided to let it slide. I also know that I am not a singer, so I was really nervous about the vocal tracks. I found that I could mask how bad my singing voice is by singing the same vocal track twice and layering the tracks on top of each other, and then adding harmonies wherever I could cram them in. My singing improved slightly over the course of the project and I should have re-done all of the initial vocal tracks, but I got lazy. Listening to it now, I can hear harmony vocal tracks going longer than the lead vocals, which is sloppy, and bad notes, and I should have mixed it better, etc etc etc, but it’s done, and even with all of its flaws it still turned out better than I expected. And the project just might have been the sort of push I needed to do more music. I’m even considering submitting to…

    by RyanF — 1 September 2011 @ 11:43

  4. A big motivation for this Commuter Challenge was to try my hand at performing and recording actual music (as I mentioned above). The other big motivation for this Challenge was to force Ryan to do the same. In particular, this is a pretty rare occasion of Ryan singing, something he always avoid doing since I’ve known him, even though he has a better voice than most people he would defer to.

    Unfortunately I wasn’t familiar with the Elvis Costello song Ryan picked, so I don’t have an opinion of how his version compares to the original specifically. But I think his cover is great, and sounds wonderful, and I’m unjustifiably pleased that I can take an iota of credit in having brought about its existence.

    by Brian — 1 September 2011 @ 13:28

  5. Brian trying to limit his responsibility to only ‘an iota of credit’ is a shabby attempt at mitigating his culpability. That Invisible Man cover would never have been created if it weren’t for his deviousness.

    I was glad to hear Brian’s cover of Walking the Cow. I am more familiar with Kathy McCarty’s cover version than the actual original, and I think that Brian’s cover is truer to the original than McCarty’s. I really enjoyed some of the little touches, too, like the “Hi, how are you” at the beginning (missing from McCarty’s version). I like his choice of instruments, and the melodica work. Before this, the bulk of music that I’d ever heard Brian perform was what most of us might call ‘avant-garde’, so the philistine in me is happy to see him nod towards a somewhat more conventional song structure. It also reminds me a little of Laurie Anderson.

    by RyanF — 1 September 2011 @ 14:29

  6. Fucking amazing!! Both of you still make people happy. Miss you both.

    by Smith — 22 October 2011 @ 05:19

  7. Right back atcha, Smith.

    by Brian — 25 October 2011 @ 03:43