Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ancient Violence

I wrote this piece of music 20 years ago when the news was all about Tienanmen Square. I was deeply affected by the images and stories being shown in the media, and I was of course appalled by the Chinese government's response to the pro-democracy protests. As a young man, the whole idea of this kind of basic lack of freedom was incredibly alien to me. As an older man, I'm appalled at the lack of progress made towards democracy and human rights in many parts of the world. I can only pray that the next 20 years will see more progress toward peace and freedom in China, not to mention Korea, Palestine, Iran...I guess the list could be long indeed.

I started this track a couple of months ago in Reaper, making heavy use of Native Instrument's very unique True Strike Tension Kore soundpack and EZDrummer's Latin Percussion Expansion. The main melody line, a rather haunting vocal synth, was produced with Tone2's Gladiator 2 synth. Today after I installed Cubase 5 Studio, I imported the MIDI file and reassigned the same virtual instruments and got to cutting, pasting and tracking some new overdubs. I worked probably 5 hours on this track in Cubase today without a single crash, hiccup, glitch or unexplained behavior. Those clever German software developers, I gotta hand it to them...this is one smooth and slick program!

I didn't expect to finish this tonight, but I did. Wow....two blog posts in one night, that is a first for me.

Warning: This song is NOT pretty. But then Ancient Violence never is.

here is a direct link to the mp3 for non-shockwave environments

***EDIT: remixed in Pro Tools 9 on the iMac in July 2011, using many different sounds, including some African drums at the end:

here is a direct link to the mp3 for non-shockwave environments

Friday, August 28, 2009


This track is a recently completed, all new recording of a very old composition. It will be 30 years old this fall, in fact. This was my very first "serious composition", written when I was a freshman music major at Belmont College and blogged about previously right here.

Some of the many definitions of "Passage" include:
a short section of a musical composition
a way through or along which someone or something may pass
the act of passing from one state or place to the next

If memory serves, I believe I was thinking of the first two definitions above when I originally wrote the piece. But over time, this piece of music has become somewhat representative of the "life passages" I have experienced over the last 30 years.

I suppose life is all about Passages, isn't it.

I still remember how insecure and out-of-place I felt as a music major at Belmont. I just didn't fit in, I knew it, everyone knew it. I knew I wasn't there for the long haul, and I didn't even last 2 years. After three semesters the "call of the road" was too strong (not mention the call of making money playing music) so I joined a "show band" and embarked on the "Holiday Inn Circuit". I saw 24 states in 2.5 years, playing in 3 main bands over this period.

While the first passage of this three-part piece was written as an assignment for that freshman music composition class at Belmont, the 2nd and 3rd passages of this three-part song were actually written about a year later, in late 1980, during a band stay-over in Vermont at a ski resort. The first day of our week-long stay there, I dislocated my shoulder skiing, so for the rest of the week I took painkillers and played my keyboards. This was long before I had any kind of portable recording apparatus, so I actually wrote down the new sections of music, along with the old, on staff paper. I still have that document somewhere!

I probably have played this piece (at least the first passage) at nearly every "sound-check" I have ever every music store where I sit down and try a new a test piece when I try out a new piano-emulating piece of software. It seems like this piece is always there. Burned into my brain to a degree far exceeding anything else I've composed. It's like a familiar old friend, and I always feel a sense of peace when I play it.

In the late eighties, I recorded this piece for the first time on a borrowed 4-track cassette "Portastudio" (a term invented by Tascam) using only my old Fender Rhodes 88 Suitcase Electric Piano and my Moog "The Source" synthesizer (which are, incidentally, the only instruments from my road days that I still own). Having only four tracks made me really think about which melodies I wanted to augment with the Moog. Somewhere along the way, I decided to use the Moog's "arpeggiator" function at the end of the track as an effect. I liked that effect so much I copied/emulated it for this recording.

I won't go into too much detail about the VST instruments used on this new recording, but suffice to say that in the first part of the song I was trying to emulate the kind of keyboards you heard in the 70's....Fender Rhodes, Arp String Machine, Mellotron (flutes), Moog synth and Moog Taurus bass pedals, etc. Then in the 2nd part, the main keyboard sound advances to a very 80's sounding emulation of the Yamaha CP-80 Electric/Acoustic Piano. And for the ending, the instruments once again seem to morph into a more modern-sounding blend, carried forth by the pounding drums (once again created with EZDrummer running the Drumkit from Hell expansion, using some awesome 5/4 MIDI patterns from

Which brings me to tonight, since a major technological "Passage" is happening here at Hybernation Studio. Today I purchased a new DAW software package, Cubase 5 Studio from Steinberg. I have been a Cakewalk/Sonar user since Cakewalk for Windows was released for Windows 3.1...sometime in the early 90's. More than 15 years! I've seen this product mature and morph into today's "Sonar 8 Producer" product. It's robust, feature laden, and visually it has a beautiful user interface.

But it's just not stable. At least not for me. I've reached a point of nearly zero-tolerance for crashes, unexpected errors, flaky and inconsistent behavior and the dreaded BSOD, and believe me, I see them ALL with Sonar. Frequently!

In the PC DAW market, Sonar has always played 2nd fiddle to Cubase. Cubase is cross-platform, but the PC version alone has many more users than Sonar. It's supposed to be more stable and consistent, with much better support for the VST standard (well, it should, since Steinberg, who was acquired by Yamaha a few years back, invented the VST standard). Today I installed it and imported a track I've been working on in Reaper for a couple of months. I worked with it non-stop for several hours without a single hiccup or glitch. So far, so good. I hope to post that track soon.

This recording of "Passage" will most likely be the last one I do using Sonar.

here is a direct link to the mp3 for non-shockwave environments

Friday, August 14, 2009

White Rock

I just finished a new track that I call "White Rock". I call it that for no particular reason whatsoever, other than that's just what the melody invokes in my mind's eye.

This is the first track I have ever composed, recorded and mixed in Pro Tools. I recently purchased a copy of Pro Tools 8 M-Powered, which for the money is really a very good deal...when it works. I wasn't sure if I wanted this blog post to be about the music, or about the technology. Well, remembering what my Granny used to always say ("If you can't say something nice, then just don't say anything"), I think it best that this post be mostly about the music.

Mostly. Ok, so I've spent the better part of probably 60 hours using Pro Tools, most of that composing, recording and mixing this track. I've read large portions of the generous and well-written documentation. I've read most of Mike Collins' excellent book "Pro Tools 8: Music Production, Recording, Editing and Mixing" on my Kindle. All in all, it's been a very good learning experience, but it's also been quite frustrating. The program offers excellent work-flow and well-engineered tools (I suppose that is why it's the industry standard) but the stability...well, let's just say I've had some issues and leave it at that. I'll probably stick with Cakewalk Sonar for most of my future projects.

As I began to dabble about I had in my mind the idea for a very simple "Yes-like" kind of groove in D major, with all the Wakeman arsenal: Piano, Organ, Mellotron, Synths, Harpsichord and so on. I spent several days, a few hours each day, working on the "A" section, and at some point my son Jonathan wanted to hear it. What was really interesting was how much he LOVED the melody. He started humming along almost instantly, and would continue singing it for a long time after listening. It was really quite funny to hear a five-year-old humming along with the synthesizer! Every time he would come into the studio he would insist on hearing it, and he kept asking me "can we listen to this in the car?", to which I would have to reply "not yet, it's not finished"!

I had a bit of a struggle coming up with a good solid "B" section. Often times my "A" sections seem inspired, but my "B" sections feel contrived. But once I hit on it, I felt good about it. The next morning, I woke up singing the "B" section in my head, which is for me a good indication that it's a keeper. Though I wrote the chords for the "B" section on the strings, I ended up orchestrating that section using mostly harpsichord and Mellotron "flutes". I really enjoy the dynamics of the orchestration switching to these instruments from multiple synthesizers playing melody and harmony.

I remember reading something that electronic music composer Jean-Michael Jarre said once about his famous recording "Oxygène". Though there is a fair amount of repetition involved in this and all of his music, he mentioned that from an orchestration standpoint he tries to never do the same thing twice the same way in a track. So, part of the brain is hearing the repeated melody in the "A" section, and getting that sense of familiarity, while another part of the brain is noticing that each time it sounds slightly different, thus generating more drama and keeping the interest of the listener. Well, at least that's the idea, and it's what I tried to do here. So, while the "A" section repeats a total of three times (the last time after the "C" section, or bridge, and after having modulated from D to E Major), each time the choice of synthesizers changes and grows, as does the accompanying instruments.

Speaking of synths, Pro Tools 8 comes bundled with several, and I used two instances of the excellent "Vacuum" virtual analog synth for the initial melody lines, which I then later doubled and tripled using the Korg Mono-Poly and Arturia MiniMoogV synths.

For the organ, I tried out another Pro Tools bundled offering, the DB-33, a virtual Hammond organ and rotating speaker emulation. The piano is also another Pro Tools instrument, their Mini-Grand piano instrument. I must say that originally, I used my old stand-by's from Native Instruments, the B4 and Akoustic Piano for piano and organ, but then I decided to give the Pro Tools instruments and try, and they really stand up well in a track...the other benefit being that they are stable, which is more than I can say for many RTAS plug-ins not made by the Pro Tools people.

The strings and harpsichord are from IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonik.

The Mellotron flute sound comes from GForce Software's M-Tron Pro.

The Bass Guitar samples are a custom sound I constructed in Kontakt3 using the DirectBass product from

The drums sounds you are hearing are from Toontrack's Superior Drummer 2.0, while the patterns themselves are from a company called "Odd Grooves" who sells MIDI drum patterns in all kinds of crazy odd time signatures (perfect for progressive rock), these being from their more tame "FourFour Drummer 2" product.

Hope you like this track! Don't forget to leave your comments (and remember what Granny used to say...)

here is a direct link to the mp3 for non-shockwave environments