Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Early Soviet Synthesizer and the Occult

You don't play the ANS synthesizer with a keyboard. Instead you etch images onto glass sheets covered in black putty and feed them into a machine that shines light through the etchings, trigging a wide range of tones. Etchings made low on the sheets make low tones. High etchings make high tones. The sound is generated in real-time and the tempo depends on how fast you insert the sheets.

Pretty fascinating, considering it was created in 1938. It was also used in the score for Tarkovsky's film Solyaris, and the band Coil travelled to Russia specifically to use this old instrument for an album. (The sheets in the image above are from their sessions with it.)

More Information at Wikipedia: ANS Synthesizer and Audio Sample

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sampling The Blues

I linked to Nicolas Jaar's work a few posts back, and his style kind of knocked me on my ass. Not just because I like it so much, but because I got a few ideas and techniques out of listening to his work that helped me remember why I liked making music. So, a few things popped out at me that I wanted to apply to future tracks.

- Use found sounds and samplers for building kits and other rhythmic components
- Shift my guitar work into electronic frameworks
- Pull back, and allow the space in-between sounds to breathe a bit

Since I was taking a break from the Yeti track, I was looking for a core idea for a new track. I had already been noodling on the guitar again, and had de-tuned my acoustic for slide blues, so that's where my brain was at.

I worked out some basic riffs, and tried to concentrate, with a metronome, on a combination of rhythmic tightness, and feeling. Blues is a very shifty, expressive style of music, and doesn't lend itself well to static tempos - it tends to shift gears, both slowly and quickly, a lot.

So I spent a few hours doing many takes of a variety of riffs, trying to stick to two basic variations. Then I did some takes of rattling, sliding, plucking, clicking, tapping, thumping, and a variety of other noises. Not only did I want to layer some these sounds in with the riffs, but I also wanted to see if I could build a simple rhythm kit out of those sounds.

What I ended up with were some good, usable basic riffs to hang the song structure on, but I definitely got a kit out of it. It felt good to not have to think about digging through sample libraries or spending hours on a drum synth trying to find the "right" kick or snare for the song, and instead building the drums out of the instrument I was playing, and my desk, and a brass slide.

After getting some of the initial tracking done, I realized I could do a separate recording of a little blues intro - that way I could do something expressive and melancholy without worrying about the tempo, as it was a lead-in. And that went pretty well, I think, although I probably would have recorded it differently - I should have double-mic'd or balanced it with a direct-in pickup channel. But hey, I think it was a good take anyway.

The general concept was to meld some emotional blues with a robotic - but organic/analog - percussion kit, which evolved into the idea that the song would be about someone's mind trapped in a computer, like Tron. It would give me the opportunity to create a semi-organic computer "environment" for the song to live in, while a frustrated, emotional blues thread ran through it.

The version posted at Soundcloud isn't completely current, as I already have some vocal tracks and some other changes in my master version, and I'll be layering some choruses and looping some harmonica riffs. But this is the last good mix I'll probably post until I complete the song.

I had jumped back into making music, mostly with synths, and wasn't exploring the one instrument that was in almost everything I'd made back in the day. So I'm going to keep trying to blur these lines, as it's fun.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Weeks of the Yeti, Part 2

Next I wanted to handle the transition from the Temple sequence to the Chase sequence.

Basically, after the Yeti encounters the temple, some Yeti hunters / adventurers will be encountered, who shoot and wound the Yeti and give chase. This would involve a number of elements in the sequence:

- Drifting out of the Temple sequence, we hear an airplane travelling across the stereo field.
- The airplane sound "lands" into an old-timey record player that starts playing a jazz/dixieland loop.
- The context has changed, and we're at the adventurer's camp.
- A Teddy Roosevelt-type voice spots the Yeti, gets his rifle and shoots the Yeti.
- The Yeti howls, and the main beat kicks in, incorporating the jazz loop.

First I had to work on the jazz loop. I don't have a bunch of jazz horns laying around, and I didn't want to clutter my main Reaper project, so I had to create a new project at the same BPM, so I could work on the jazz loop without disturbing everything else.

So, I made up a simple drum/shuffle beat, and pulled it back, as I didn't really want any percussion up front in the loop to avoid conflicts with the main beat later. Then I started adding separate melodies for trumpets, trombones, tuba, and piano. Edirol's Orchestral was really helpful with this, even though it had a tendency to crash in Reaper, and was kind of a resource hog. I just kept plugging away, trying to find some good variations. I used the tuba as sort of a subtle polka with an alternating rhythm, added some swooping with the trumpets and trombones, alternating between the two, and the piano was just some ragtime-style tinkling - but I think it came together okay.

Then I exported the jazz loop and pulled it into the main project, and laid it over the main kick/snare beat, and it fit pretty damn well. I also added some wobbly vinyl sounds on it using iZotope's Vinyl plugin - love the sound of this free plugin, although it continues playing constantly, depending on where you are on the Reaper timeline, which I found annoying. But a combination of EQ and compression and Vinyl gave a good impression of an old 78rpm gramophone player. (I did have to recompose the jazz loop twice, as the horns and piano weren't balanced properly once it was compressed.)

Next, I did a little bit of cheating. I haven't had a record player or my old record collection in ages, so I needed to find a free "needle scratch" sound, so I could give the impression of the gramophone player being bumped. I found this, and added it in, for the moment the airplane "lands", when the Yeti gets shot, and to kick off the chase sequence.

Then I needed to work on an airplane sound. This I knew I could replicate synthetically, so I researched various ways to do this with oscillators. That was kind of a fun process, as I wasn't looking for a jet engine, but an old-school propeller style sound - and I wanted it to fit into the "arctic" soundscape and have a little bit of a 3d presence as it moved across the stereo field.

After a while of monkeying around I got the synth to a point where it was a good single-propeller sound, which I could waver slightly by going up and down on the keyboard. But I wanted a two-prop plane, so I took two takes of that and basically overlapped them, barely separated. Then I also added a Leslie speaker effect on top of those, so in addition to the pulsing of the two "propellers", there was a slightly mismatched rotating sound on top of them, to give it a little more dimension in the stereo field. And then I placed them inside the arctic reverb "room", and automated a slow panning "flight" of the whole group across the stereo field. It's not exactly where I want yet, as the "sputtering" I tried to imitate as the plane descends didn't quite come out right.

But the overall effect is of an old prop plane, flying from left to right, and as it reaches the right side, it abruptly "crashes" into the old gramophone player, which starts playing, and the listener is in the adventurer's camp.

So, a bunch of work for about 15 seconds of sounds/music, but I like how it's coming out. Just needs some tweaking. And now I need to do the voice work and foley, and flesh out the breaks and drops in the chase/jazz sequence.

What else is left? Lots. I have the feeling this is going to stretch to 20 minutes at this point. But who's counting?


- Add "Ice" sequence before the Temple sequence. This is where the sounds of ice cracking get incorporated into the main beat, there's a pause, and the ice cracks under the Yeti and he falls into the water. I've already done some samples of ice popping and cracking, but it didn't come out that well. Think I'm going to experiment with crushing and snapping styrofoam with time-stretching to see if I can't get some better quality sounds there. And part of that transition will be filter sweep and underwater sounds, as the Yeti struggles to get back onto the surface and dry off.

- Finish "Chase" sequence. Keep playing with the Jazz loop. Pick up the apparent tempo by adding more rhythm into the pockets, to kick up the pace. Near the end, do some complete sound dives and pauses, as the Yeti loses strength and collapses.

- Add the "Green Tara" sequence. Here, an old wandering monk will come upon the Yeti in the snow, and begin to pray over him. This is where Green Tara appears and heals the Yeti. The music here will build gradually as she appears - lots of synth and new age sparkly goodness. Going to be using stereo filter sweeps in stages, like the listener is "punching through" layers as it builds. Think is going to be a good sonic sequence, and possibly frustrating. But we'll see.

- Add a final Yeti sequence, using the main beat/bassline, and really mangle the hell the hell out it.

But for now, I'm leaving the Yeti project alone. While I had some great momentum at first, my ideas got more complex, and I realized I needed to get some chops in order to get the sounds I wanted. So, for the moment, I'm exploring other sounds and songs - I can experiment with some of the techniques I want to use for Yeti without cluttering that project up, and then come back to it soon.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Originality and My Own Post-Hipster Snobbery

Recently, on the Reaper forums, a discussion was started about the workflow of electronic music producers, and this checklist was posted, which made me think about my current (and past) process:

This is a template for my own work and not intended to be a definitive formula for writing music, either by me or by other people.

1. The use of sounds that exist already is not allowed. Subject to article 2. In particular:
- No drum machines.
- No synthesizers.
- No presets.
2. Only sounds that are generated at the start of the compositional process or taken from the artist's own previously unused archive are available for sampling.
3. The sampling of other people's music is strictly forbidden.
4. No replication of traditional acoustic instruments is allowed where the financial and physical possibility of using the real ones exists.
5. The inclusion, development, propagation, existence, replication, acknowledgement, rights, patterns and beauty of what are commonly known as accidents, is encouraged. Furthermore, they have equal rights within the composition as deliberate, conscious, or premeditated compositional actions or decisions.
6. The mixing desk is not to be reset before the start of a new track in order to apply a random eq and fx setting across the new sounds. Once the ordering and recording of new music has begun, the desk may be used as normal.
7. All fx settings must be edited: no factory preset or pre-programmed patches are allowed.
8. Samples themselves are not to be truncated from the rear. Revealing parts of the recording are invariably stored there.
9. A notation of sounds used to be taken and made public.
10. A list of technical equipment used to be made public.
11. Optional: Remixes should be completed using only the sounds provided by the original artist.

Matthew Herbert (2005)

revisited 2011

The above checklist feels not only constricting, but is also a little too academic for my tastes, and I can't follow it to the letter. (By "no synthesizers", I'm hoping he meant "no preloaded factory synth patches".)

But it gave me some mental relief that I wasn't the only one concerned with originality in composition and sound design, trying to avoid being derivative wherever possible.

I've been using drum samples from some nice clean sample kits, but then I'm tweaking the hell out of them. And I may start with a preset synth sound, but it's usually just to get the juices flowing, and I'll either alter that until it's something unrecognizable, or restart at the bottom, from the oscillators on up. And sometimes I come across a sound that's not mine, but fits perfectly with what I'm doing, and then I may just alter it out of spite anyway.

I feel like a work is not "mine" unless it's all self-generated somehow. I assume this is a mixture of ego and some kind of hyperintellectualism about art, but it was nice to see someone spelling out a similar feeling about originality and music creation.

Simply cutting and pasting blobs from commercially available sound libraries doesn't feel like artistry to me. (Before you go off on me, I know there is an art to it, and I'm not knocking DJs and remix artists, etc. because that's a craft unto itself.) But personally, I need to know that something I create wasn't just me moving someone else's puzzle pieces around, and calling myself a "musician". There has to be more to it than that, at least there has to be for me, in order to feel like it's worth spending my time on it.

So I'm going to work on my own set of rules, which I hope will: give me enough freedom to create whatever the hell pops into my head; is constrictive enough to force me to be more creative and resourceful when I need to be; and original enough that I don't feel like a blob-pusher, mimicking the work of others.

That way, when I present something for others to listen to later, saying "Look what I can do!", I can say it with a certain amount of pride, because I know I wasn't just rearranging furniture - I made the furniture too.

Weeks of the Yeti

Since I've had experience recording from days past, and knew most of the basics, I knew I could jump right in and start recording, but I needed to pick a DAW that I would want to work with for a while.

I've never really had first-hand experience with Pro Tools, and the cost has always been prohibitive, so I was in the market for some consumer DIY recording tools.  I'd already done a previous scoring project using N-Track, which I liked - a good home-spun DAW maintained by a small team at a cheap price, and they seemed to love their product. Plus, there was a fairly active user community.

But since I was going to focus on electro, I decided to try Frooty Loops instead, which, by all accounts, is pretty good for techno and other electronica. And I did like how easy it was to program patterns at first. But beyond that... I got lost. The rest of it just wasn't intuitive to me. I don't have a lot of previous experience with sequencers (unless Cakewalk on DOS counts), so maybe that was it. But recording audio and automation in FL Studio was really giving me a headache. It's much more focused on sequencing and sampling than recording straight audio. Not the hybrid I was looking for.

And then I found Reaper, and new I'd found what I needed. A wildly configurable, affordable, "a track can be anything plugged into anything" DAW with a fairly intuitive interface; that had a bunch of in-house and community developers working on it; and a big user base, developing all kinds of music. So I dove in.

At first, I started working on a straight, 4x4 "rock/pop" song, just to get my legs. I needed to learn some drum sequencing, how to get good audio into my machine with my new setup, and to play around with a bunch of new VSTi synths I'd found.

(If the above doesn't load, it may have been deleted, and/or there is a newer edit or a final version.)

However, the song kind of flagged, as I really hadn't had a plan with it, or even lyrical ideas, so it stalled, and I realized I needed to pull back a little bit, and plan something out conceptually. Plus, I didn't want to do rock/psychedelia at first - I wanted to do something more physical, like dubstep. (Yes, I know. But it's fun.)

So, I started to work on some basic rhythms. And then I was monkeying around with a synth and found a fairly good wind sound, and then the idea for a song about a yeti having a bad day sprung into my head, and it just kind of went from there.

After a while I realized I could combine a whole bunch of aspects into this song: writing, voice work, foley, sound design, and hone my skills at creating something possibly danceable. Plus, the idea was to have 4-5 separate "movements" in it, which would each have a different musical style, while keeping to the same main beat.

Current version:

(If the above doesn't load, it may have been deleted, and/or there is a newer edit or a final version.)

The main drum samples are from EZDrummer, which is great and has some very nice clean kits in it, but which I think I'll grow out of fairly soon. It has a bunch of nice patterns, but I've mostly sequenced my own at this point. Then I put together a nice bass line that felt "yeti-like" to me and threw it together. At this point, I needed to start telling the story.

The footsteps in the snow were just me punching and scrunching a bag of rice, and pitch-shifted down and re-EQd. The yeti's voice was pitch-shifted down, with a tiny layer of an octave up as well. I think it came out pretty well.

After introducing the "character", I needed to move on to the Temple sequence, where the yeti encounters a Buddhist temple in which monks are chanting. Lots of fun to make this transition, and to layer my chants a number of times and have it sound fairly large. Since this is mostly a cartoon, I didn't get much more complicated than "Om Mani Padme Hum", but I think it sounds good. Most of the sequences in this project are going to be more representative than authentic, and slightly cartoony, anyway.

I had originally thought I would use recorders, pennywhistles, or simple flutes to add some melody to the Temple sequence (which I have a bunch of), but none of them sounded right. I knew the Tibetans had some reed instruments, but didn't know their name. Well, they're called gyalings, and they sound like a cross between a clarinet and bagpipes. But I couldn't find a synth instrument for the gyaling, so I set out to imitate it using a crappy oboe sound I'd found on one of the synth plugins I had. Five hours later, I had a pretty good facsimile in place. Still need to fine-tune the performance itself, but I think the sound works.

To be continued...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Setting Up The Ambient Garage

I'd been using the elevated side wing of my living room as my working office, and unfortunately, as a freelancer, I've shackled myself to that desktop for ages. I finally got a laptop, and my work patterns changed. I could now work at a coffeeshop, on the couch, or on the toilet - this freed my "office" up a bit, and I could devote my desktop to multimedia.

So, I reconfigured the desk, computers, mixer and instruments a few times, and I think I've got it into a good configuration. However, as I'm right-handed, the only thing that's bothering me right now is that my MIDI keyboard is to my left. I'll figure this out later, but it's worth noting what you're going to be doing more of with your dominant hand - controlling your DAW with a mouse/tablet, or plinking the keyboard to test samples or synth sounds. Right now I'm doing a mix between the two and it feels weird - eventually I'll find the right workflow.

I even got crazy and unbolted the armrests from my desk chair, because armrests are nice for typing or napping, but terrible for holding a guitar or playing keyboards.

The Ambient Garage

- 2.8ghz AMD Phenom, 4g RAM
- Windows XP (This should change to 7 soon.)
- M-Audio Delta 1010 A/D interface

- Reaper DAW
- Audacity
- Tons of VSTs and VSTis

- Mackie 1604 VLZ Pro mixer
- Behringer 502 minimixer for handling monitoring
- KRK Rokit 5s
- SM57 mic

- Roland A-80
- Ibanez electric with Floyd Rose
- Washburn 6-string acoustic
- Alvarez Goldfinch 12-string acoustic
- Peavey fretless bass
- Assortment of simple flutes, whistles, harmonicas, and recorders

More on my first projects later. For now, let's listen to Butch Clancy remix an old Ella Fitzgerald tune.