Monday, October 19, 2009

Scary, my elbow is giving me song ideas

Scary things happen in the studio sometimes. Usually it's late at night, but this time it was Saturday afternoon. I was messing around with Ultra Analog VA-1, which I raved about in an earlier blog post. I was diligently trying to get it's sounds to load up in Native Instruments Kore2, and not having much luck. While Kore2 was doing an exhausting and subsequently futile scan of my whole hard drive, I leaned forward and rested my elbow on the keyboard, and my chin on my hand (you know, the famous pose of "The Thinker" statue, only in front of a keyboard (the kind with 88 black and white keys) and two 24 inch monitors...

Well, my elbow held down three simple notes, the A, B, and C right there at middle-C on the keys, and VA-1 was on the initial sound, an arpeggiated sound that was the starting point for the song in that other post mentioned above. What emanated from my headphones was a mesmerizing little figure in 9/8, actualy A-B-C repeated as eight notes in three ascending octaves. Well, it immediately sounded like something in the key of A minor to me, so I reached over to my hardware keyboards and started jamming. Yes, I still have some of those hardware keyboards around, the kind that make sound all on their own without being hooked up to a computer: an Alesis QS 8.1 and a Roland VR-760 (which incidentally, Neal Morse plays live).

Later that afternoon, I couldn't get that little figure out of my head, so I fired up Pro Tools and recorded a bit of it. Then I started playing with the Boom drum machine plugin, or "dumb machine" as drumming legend Chester Thompson once referred to them in a clinic appearance I attended. Rather than using any canned patterns in Boom, I wanted to play some things in real-time and loop them, and I actually created three separate instrument tracks with three different Boom sounds on them. Then I realized just how hard it is to play along to something in 9/8 when each eighth note has the same accent amount. Impossible. There is no meter. Where the heck is the downbeat?

Actually, the effect I got was kind of cool, in an Alan Parsons sort of way. I love the way "I Robot" can't figure out "where one is" until the drums finally kick in. I sort of recreated this effect by playing several drum patterns at the beginning that were definitely NOT in 9/8, and then after a few bars it all comes together and syncs up.

The track rundown showing plugins used looks like this:
  1. Ultra Analog VA-1 - Arpeggios
  2. Boom - basic rhythm
  3. Boom - "Urban" fills
  4. Boom - kick/clap sound ala Peter Gabriel
  5. EZDrummer Latin Percussion - shakers
  6. EZDrummer Latin Percussion - wind chimes and fills
  7. Vacuum Synth - Bass
  8. Ultra Analog VA-1 - spooky lead sound
  9. Structure - String sound, a mix of real and synthesized
  10. Xpand!2 - Electric Guitar
  11. Rob Papen's Blue - Phased Synth Pad
As usual lately, I played this track for my son Jonathan first, just this afternoon, and ask him to help me name it. After he heard the whole song, I soloed the "spooky lead synth" sound and said "doesn't that sound kind of spooky". He said "let's call it Haunted House". Alright then, just in time for Halloween, here is "Haunted House".

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

Friday, October 02, 2009

Winter Dream

Yes, I know it's not winter fact it's turning into a beautiful fall here in Middle Tennessee, and I'm in no hurry for winter to get here! But I continue to let my son Jonathan name my tracks as I finish them and audition the early mixes in the car with him. He decided this one was to be called "Winter Dream", so who am I to argue?

I started this track using Reason 4.0 in "Studio B" about a year ago. After laying out the initial parts and the haunting piano melody, I thought it had a striking resemblance to something that Patrick O'Hearn might have been doing in about 1989. So my working title was "O'Hurt Me". Often my working titles make no sense at all to anyone but me.

Recently the final version of Propellerhead's Record 1.0 software, which I raved about in an earlier post, arrived in my mailbox and so the last few weeks I've been having a bit of a "battle of the DAW's" here in Hybernation Studio. I seem to be rotating projects between Pro Tools, Cubase and Record! This track I finished in Record, since importing the Reason 4.0 file and converting to Record's format is so easy. In fact "easy" is the one word that perfectly describes Propellerhead's new product. Anything I want to do, for the most part, I can figure out within a couple of minutes without ever looking at the manual. With Pro Tools and Cubase, I am continually referencing the copious documentation (granted they are both deeper programs than Record). But with Record, they really went out of their way to make the software incredibly easy to use and intuitive. And it still manages to be a very powerful and professional tool.

So, this is officially the first track that I have completed using Record. This is also another first....the first track I have ever actually PLAYED all of the drums on...on my Roland V-Drum kit, triggering drums sounds from the Reason Drum Kit Refill 2.0. I'm not talking about the many percussion tracks, just the "rock drums" that come in the "B section" and again at the end of the song. Ok, so it's primarily just the kick and snare, and some cymbals, but it really is "all me" playing them. Alright, I admit I did quantize the part later to clean up the timing, and I edited a few mistakes, but other than that...

Alright granted, Alan White and Bill Bruford don't have anything to worry about. Learning to play drums is hard, they say especially so for keyboard players. I've only been at it for about four years. Really makes me miss Alan, trying to pound it out myself.

Record is different from Cubase and Sonar in one large way: everything happens in just three windows. I usually put the "track" window on the left monitor:

And then I put the "rack" and "mixer" windows side by side on the right monitor:

As I explained previously, the "virtual mixer" in Record is quite awesome, it being modeled after the classic Solid State Logic XL 9000 K Series, a piece of kit that will run you in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I'm not really an audiophile with "golden ears" but I can tell you that this mixer sounds very good for what it is. The only thing I can't really come to grips with is the "master buss compression". I just couldn't make it do what I wanted on the final mix. So I ended up exporting out a 24-bit WAV file (uncompressed) of the final mix, importing this into Sonar and using the excellent Voxengo Elephant plugin to "master" the song, adding compression and limiting. This plugin is amazingly transparent, giving you that "loud" sound without colorizing the mix in any way.

I should also mention that this track resembles the one I call "Ancient Violence" in several ways. I believe I actually had that 20 year old composition in mind when I started this one, intentionally going for the same kind of vibe. I guess there is no law against ripping off oneself is there!

Here is "Winter Dream". Enjoy...and stay warm.

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