Cable Hell

The physical placement of gear and furniture is complete and I’m now starting to wire everything up. This is where my studio ceases to be a lovely catalog photo and becomes the cable equivalent of the paperwork monster from Brazil that swallows Robert De Niro whole.

It would probably be easier if I didn’t have this neat-freak-anal-retentive-OCD desire to keep everything looking nice and neat. Worse, I’m not able to do everything at once this time around. The new layout is going to require additional cable purchases, different power distribution, more line level shifting from -10 to +4, a couple of long midi runs, and tying together two different sections of the room so everything lands in the computer.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with music gear, most of what’s in my studio has the following things to connect and route:

  • Audio (anywhere from two to 16+ cables)
  • MIDI (typically two cables)
  • Power (one cable)

On the surface, not so bad, but multiply that by 40 or 50, then add in wiring patch bays so that things can be routed to different places and the computer interfaces and it starts getting a little overwhelming. The cherry on top is that it’s really best to keep all of the power cables physically separated from the others. That might not be so bad if power was always in the same place on each piece of gear, but of course it is not.

It’s kind of like playing Tetris with cooked spaghetti.

Today, I’ve been learning that some of my gear that I thought had unbalanced outputs actually is balanced. Ordinarily, that would be great, but it screws up the patch plan I had already worked out in Excel. To make it worse, some of the units don’t have anything definitive in their specs, so I’m relying on Internet knowledge for some of my decisions.

I’m kind of at the point where I’m saying, “screw it,” and just hooking a couple of things up. My goal for today is to have the master keyboard and left side of the composition station hooked up, the computer running, and sound coming out the mains. I’m going to try working without a subwoofer for a few weeks and see if that helps with mix translation.

One additional thing I’ve decided to do is start creating pages on my site for key pieces of gear. This will mostly be my personal reference area where I put all of the links and documents I’ve found useful, but if it helps others, great! I’m considering using the pages as homes for my “isolated gear” music experiments, where I focus on only writing and recording with a single synth. As I’ve written before, I want to get to know my equipment much better than I do now, partly to stave off gear acquisition syndrome, and partly because I think that may help with my instrumental work.

The Studio Version 11.0

This is the eleventh major time I’ve set up my studio after a move. I’ve come a long way from Version 1.0 which consisted of an Ensoniq EPS and an HR-16 drum machine, run through a Radio Shack mixer into a cassette deck. (The alpha version was a Korg Poly-800 and a two cassette decks where I’d overdub by using one channel for the previous dub and the other for the new synth part… how different things are now…)

These days, I’m trying to wrangle multiple synths, effects units, midi, power management… I haven’t added it up yet, but I’m fairly certain I have over a kilometer of cables waiting to be connected.

MIDI Madness

 

Just laying out what gear is going to go where in the room was a headache this time. I recently moved into a much smaller house (46% smaller) and, while I like the new house very much, moving equipment that had been in a room the size of a two car garage into a typical suburban bedroom was a bit of a challenge. Additionally, over the last few years, I’ve purchased a few more pieces of gear, and decided to start using my 32 channel mixer again – there’s something inspiring to me about having faders under my fingers. And while it’s mostly a style over substance thing, but there’s nothing like a dimly lit studio with a gazillion blinky lights showing the music to your eyes.

So my secret weapon for the last four or five studio overhauls has been Excel. I have a workbook that includes a database of all my gear (including inputs, outputs, serial numbers, replacement value, etc.), all of my available rack spaces for deciding what gear sits where, and separate sheets for audio, midi, and power distribution. While it might seem like overkill, I have a worst-case possibility of over 100 channels of computer audio i/o and 64 midi cables alone. When you add in patch bays, multi-channel snakes, balancers and line level shifters, power strips, and foot pedals, it can get overwhelming quickly.

Additionally, my time in IT has taught me that spending a few days mapping out exactly what’s going to happen (like, say, 900 ethernet cables and patch bays for the 3rd floor offices and data closets) can save you massive amounts of time and money. You don’t buy things you don’t need and, if you’ve done a halfway decent job of labeling your cables, it becomes trivial to know what cable goes where. No more digging through spaghetti trying to wiggle that one midi cable to figure out which port it came out of.

Here’s part of the Version 11 audio patching plan:

Excel Madness

Even though this room is smaller, the restriction I have on where things go actually makes some of the cable runs longer. Rather than having one big blob of a studio, I now have two discrete areas. I didn’t want giant audio snakes running across the doorway, and have figured out a way to place the computer, midi, and audio interfaces so that I think I’m only going to need to run one firewire and one USB cable. The downside to this is that I knew I’d need to buy some more patch bays and level shifters. I was figuring six or seven new patch bays and at least 5 level shifters to get everything smooth and happy.

Excel to the rescue! First, it helped me figure out that I didn’t have enough rack spaces in the studio furniture to even start down that path. Then, I realized that I was making things overly complicated (surprise!). In the end, I only need three patch bays and two level shifters. There are three pieces of gear that aren’t in the wiring plan, but only because I’m not sure if they’re going physically fit anywhere. But once I figure that out, I’ll know exactly what patch points are available.

I haven’t started on the power supplies or specific midi routing, and I know I’ll need to buy some additional audio cables, but the hard part is over.

Over the Hill

The needle going into my shoulder was the easy part. For the next minute or two, I was desperately trying to think of song lyrics, counting floor tiles, examining my shirt laying on the chair three feet away, Hello Kitty… pretty much anything but the pressure and pain as I got the first cortisone injection of my life for my first rotator cuff issue. And that turned out to be nothing compared to having Andre the Giant twisting a vise grip on my arm for the next twelve hours.

Getting older sucks in a lot of ways. Yeah, yeah, yeah… it beats the alternative, yada yada. It still sucks.

 

And yet, I’m in a strangely great place. In my teens I was trying to get laid. In my twenties, I was trying to get famous. In my thirties I was trying to get rich and buy stuff. Then around 40 I started not wanting all of that stuff. Maybe some different stuff. Better stuff, but less stuff. And what was I doing here? What did anything matter? It was an angsty time. Well, more angsty than usual, anyway.

I’m still technically in my mid-40s, but not for long. Soon, I’ll arrive at the “almost 50″ stage. And as a friend of mine recently put it, I have to face the realization that “there are more miles in the rear view mirror than out the windshield.” And as I start accepting that, I’ve looked around and noted that even though I’m the hermity type, the guy who’s never in the picture but taking it, I’ve become more and more appreciative of the people in my life.

This song is one of the “Ray talking to himself” variety. It’s written to me. It’s also written to you. You may have already gotten the point. You may have to get the point for yourself years from now, and you’ll then say, “Damn, Ray was a freaking prophet.”

It’s for Mary who probably figured all of this out many years ago and has been patiently waiting for me to catch up. It’s for Danny and Richard who are floating along with us. It’s for  my brothers, my father, their families, Mary’s family and their families. It’s for everyone who’s in a tube on the river and has figured out that the map isn’t as important as it used to be.

I have had a love/hate relationship with this song since I started it. I described it to someone as the song I was currently fighting. I like almost every individual thing about it… the lyrics, the hook, the harmonies… but the complete thing just didn’t ever feel right.

And yet, I can’t think of anything that I want to change. My friend Vern suggested a more 70s Chicago-style horn-heavy arrangement, and I can definitely hear that as a possibility, but that’s for another version later on. I’ve finally just decided to say “it’s done” and release it into the wild to see what it grows up to be. I may make some minor tweaks to the mix, but I think it’s pretty much as baked as it’s going to get.

Once again, I’m a sucker for giant vocal arrangements. Call it a byproduct of growing up listening to The Carpenters and Queen. The verses are solo, the chorus lead vocal is four-part, and the background vocals are three-part with four voices each. Digital Performer’s POLAR loop recording feature makes it almost too easy to do this type of arrangement.

Instrumentation is pretty simple, three synth patches, drums, and a live bass part. I took my time with the drum programming and am pretty happy with the results, but would like to hear what a talented drummer could do recording it live.

There’s almost zero signal processing in this one. Some EQ and verb on the vocals, compression on the kick and snare, and a master limiter to get the overall volume up a bit on the final.

Lyrics

Colophon:

  • MOTU Digital Performer 8 (sequencing, EQ, compression)
  • Kurzweil K2600XS (giant verby pizzicato strings)
  • Oberheim Xpander (warbly synth)
  • DSI Tetra (synth bass)
  • Ibanez Ergodyne Bass —> Rocktron Chameleon (electric bass)
  • Roland Fantom XR (drums)
  • Valhalla DSP Vintage Verb (lead vocals)
  • Valhalla DSP Room (background vocals)
  • Waves L3 (master limiter)

Tyrell’s Balcony

My “quick and dirty” challenge for tonight came from a thread over on Gearslutz. The original poster asked if anyone had done any Blade Runner tributes or “in the style of” pieces. I thought that sounded like fun, so I whipped this up.

 

 

Probably the most interesting part of this was actually playing some chord changes that Vangelis used. Ever since I got the CS-80, I’ve been trying my best to not imitate him when playing it; that’s a huge challenge since the sound of that synth is so inextricably linked to some of his major works. The Horn I and II presets, in particular, are pretty much tied to him at the hip.

This time, I was actively playing things as closely as I could without just straight out lifting entire bits. I’ve listened to the Blade Runner soundtrack hundreds of times and know it extremely well, but I’ve never tried to play anything but the main melody line from the opening titles. Working out the chord progressions and voicings, the electric piano pointillism… it was illuminating in many ways.

It was also somewhat disheartening. There’s nothing like emulating a master to shine a harsh light on your own weaknesses. Still, I had a lot of fun with this. I might go back and add some atmospherics and noise, as well as tighten up a few loose transitions that are bugging me. Part of the magic of the CS-80 is that you play more than just the keys. You have to treat pretty much every controller as part of the performance, and there’s no MIDI to fall back on to fix little mistakes. I probably spent twice as much time getting the lead part worked out and recorded as I did on every other thing you hear.

But that’s all part of why Vangelis was (and continues to be) such an inspiration to me.

Colophon

  • Kurzweil K2600XS (electric piano)
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (VP-330 strings)
  • Yamaha CS-80 (bass and lead line)
  • Valhalla DSP Vintage Reverb & Übermod (strings and bass)
  • Eventide H3000 (lead line reverb)

Let’s Try That One More Time

2013 was a forgettable year. While there were a few personal high points, for the most part it was either neutral or negative and I’m not all that sad to see it go. I do have some resolutions for the coming year, but they consist more of objectives and goals than planned behavioral changes.

Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.

In a sign of the times, many of them (if not most) are aimed squarely at my social media presence and habits. When I looked back at the year, social media had taken the place of “old media” as the source of much of my unhappiness. As Louis C.K. once said, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” I’ve been part of that problem, primarily because I provide the audience and demand for it.

So… here are some of the things I’m going to work toward:

 

Publish an album and charge money for it

I’m not sure what will be on it, but I’ve said I was going to do this for years and years. Time to make it happen before CDs go away entirely. It may amount to nothing more than a vanity project, but I’ve heard far worse vanity projects in the past, so I’m not afraid of it any more. I may even do a micro-run of vinyl just because.

 

Significant reduction in Facebook presence

Facebook has kept raising the temperature of the pot… no change is enough to make me just drop it altogether, but I realized that I’ve been spending a lot of my time being unhappy about things. The advertising, the video auto-play, the snooping, the app spam… I’m tired of it. I’ll still check in and post things that I think friends will find interesting or helpful, but this will no longer be a primary platform for me.

 

Significant increase in blog presence

I’ve said this many times in the past, and it goes in fits and starts. I’m not holding myself to any specific metric like “post every week,” but many of the things I want to say now violate some rule or anger the social media etiquette security forces. Am I stealing? Do I need to tip my hat? Did I just cross the picket lines of the “curators” union? We used to call putting a link on your page… uh… putting a link on your page. Now it’s big business and everyone’s out for this ephemeral cred because they shared it from someone else first. So to hell with it – I’ll write about it here. A corollary to this is that I want to write good content , not just the ramblings I’ve ended up with in the past. In this regard, I’ll be working on patience… more editing, less immediate posting.

 

Near-fanatical adherence to my 2013 “No Negative Comments” rule

I’m pretty happy with my performance in this regard during 2013, though I slipped a few times with some irresistible snark or reaction. This year, I’m not even going to start to write a comment and delete it before pressing “submit.”

 

Less overall online consumption

I spend too much time online that I later think of as being wasted. It’s a bad habit, so I’m going to try and drop that, focusing instead on content that helps me do or create something. I can best sum this up with a line from Wayne’s World:

Turn it off, man! Turn it off! It’s sucking my will to live!

There are some specific article types that I’m going out of my way to avoid in the future, notably anything that has a linkbait headline along the lines of “13 Weird Things Robots Do” or “Her husband died in a fire. You won’t believe what she did next!” I’m tired of the manipulation and the story is never as interesting as you hoped it would be.

 

Ruthless dropping, uncircling, defriending and more stringent categorization

A big part of my unhappiness in 2013 came from other people being unhappy and doing little more than venting about it. So why am I so eager to read it? It’s like eating junk food… it’s a quick high, but has bad long-term ramifications. My Google+ circles have gotten a bit wooly, so it’s time for some clean up. I don’t plan on these purges and shifts to be entirely online, either.

Also, anyone using played out phrases in their posts or comments ( ‘Murica! or “curated by” ) are fast tracked to the chopping block. It was funny three years ago (or annoying as in the case of “curated by”) but now it just sets me off and… you know… ain’t nobody got time for that.

 

Make more stuff

I like making things. Mostly music, but other things as well. This year, I want to get myself set up to do more video work, maybe try painting, write some tips & tricks for things I know about, and so on. I did make an attempt at some creative writing this year and while it was more enjoyable to write it than it is to read it, I’m keeping Ira Glass’ “working through the suck” comments in the back of my mind. If you’re curious about that, please see my Walking Long Enough post from back in 2008 (which was an even worse year than 2013).

 

So. Those are the important things… or at least the important things that I could think of before finishing this first cup of coffee. I may come back and add to this post later if I decide something else is worth posting for all the world to see.

I wish everyone, and I mean everyone, a joyous, safe, peaceful, productive, and prosperous 2014.

NAND Gate

Likely the last piece I’ll finish and post in 2013, this is another entry in my technology series. This is one of those pieces where I had an anchor sound (the pulsing synth present from the beginning) and just started layering things on top of it.

 

The kick drum was added almost immediately, as was the pair of pizzicato string patches. After that, it was a day or two of coming back to it and noodling around with sounds until something seemed to fit. This is definitely not a “flash of inspiration” work, but more like sculpture or whittling – I know the piece is in there somewhere, and I just have to keep chipping away at it until I find it.

The mood is an interesting one. It could really have gone in any emotional direction, but sort of ended up in this calm, tranquil place – not happy or sad or angry. It just sort of… is. I think it will end up being a transitional sort of piece when I start arranging the various tracks into album format, similar to Nightvision or Veridis Quo from Daft Punk’s album Discovery. On its own, it’s ok, but it’s better appreciated as part of the overall work.

I do like the “vocals” from the FS1R. I toyed with the idea of using them as the carrier for a vocoder set of lyrics, but decided that I like it being up to the listener to interpret what’s being sung.

There’s a definite (and grateful) nod to Berlin school electronic with the addition of the sawtooth arpeggios. When I was in high school, I was far more into Kraftwerk’s Computer World and its mechanical funk and electro, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really embraced the simplicity of their earlier albums, especially The Man Machine, Trans-Europe Express, and, of course, Autobahn.

Colophon

  • MOTU Digital Performer 8
  • Access Virus TI Desktop (Pulse synth)
  • Kurzweil K2600XS (Pizzicato bass string)
  • Roland JV-2080 (Pizzicato strings)
  • Yamaha FS1R (“Vocals”)
  • Roland Fantom XR (Sawtooth arpeggios)
  • MOTU Model 12 (808 kick, snare, and hat)
  • Valhalla DSP Übermod (Triplet Delays)

Deck The Halls

A quick last-minute present from the vaults. This may be the cheesiest, 90siest, bad sampled guitarsiest version you’ll ever hear of a holiday classic.

Back in the 90s, I did some arrangements for a regional department store chain. They put out a video every year to introduce the holiday product line to employees. I did a fourteen minute long one in 1991, and a seven minute long one in 1992. This piece was the finale of the 92 version. They were fun to do and I got a lot better at my arranging. Listening to it now brings simultaneous joy, amusement, and embarrassment. At the time, though, I know I thought it was nothing but awesome.

Another great example of how constraints can actually be inspirational. Everything you hear in this track is coming straight out of an Ensoniq EPS 16+ (I clearly relied a bit too much on the factory distorted guitar instrument, but it was groundbreaking to me at the time). If you had an EPS back in the day, you’ll recognize all of the sounds.

Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings! Fa la la la laaaa la laaa laaa laaaaaaa!

Colophon:

  • Ensoniq EPS 16+
  • Ratty old cassette tape for authentic analog feel
  • Eggnog

Integrated Circuit

If Lave Approach was one of the hardest tracks I’ve ever tried to name, this was one of the easiest. I’d been out of town for a while and was really missing my studio. When I got back and fired up the keyboards, the first patch I started messing around with was named “Integratd circut.” It’s the big fat ring-mod pad playing throughout.

Much of my recent musical output has been focused on this nebulous concept of an electronic album about our electronic world – mostly computers, software, and the benefits and pitfalls we’re up against as we adapt nearly every aspect of life. This track easily fits in. It’s been very helpful to have that guiding theme, even if the tracks bear little resemblance to each other.

While the last few have had a more analog feel, this one is unashamedly digital.

Composition (including noodling and sound selection) took place in fits and starts over a three or four day period, but I didn’t really over think it or tweak too much. After listening to it several times through, I still felt something was missing, which lead to the massive boom/snap kick and snare. The kick is straight out of the Fantom with just a touch of EQ, while the snare (also from the Fantom) gets a lot of breath from Valhalla Room.

I hope it all translates to other systems as nicely as it sounds in my room with the sub. I still struggle with compression and mastering, but this one seems ok for an initial version. Gain staging continues to be extremely helpful, but I think I need to spend some hands-on time with someone who knows what they’re doing in this regard. I recently saw an interview with Vince Clarke and was surprised how he really didn’t seem to know or care all that much about the specific synths, he just knew which stuff to tweak to get the sound he wanted. I’d love to have the luxury of an engineer who could translate what I’m going for into reality.

Enjoy!

Colophon:

  • MOTU Digital Performer 8 (Sequencing, EQ, compression, other effects)
  • Kurzweil K2600XS (Ring mod pad)
  • Yamaha FS1R (Gate patterned break filter swell)
  • Roland Fantom XR (Kick and Snare)
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (All other synths)
  • Spectrasonics Stylus RMX (Glitch loop)
  • Valhalla DSP ÜberMod and Room

 

Lave Approach

Final approach to the coriolis station orbiting Lave. Please ensure rotational vector match.

Yes, I just nerded out big time, and if you understand the title or first sentence before reading this (fairly lengthy) post, you have no place to talk.

This is another “noodle of the day” that I went ahead and recorded. It is the public debut of my new Oberheim Xpander, which gets the first 1:30 all to itself. If I were being ruthless about the composition, it’s too long and needs to have some kind of bridge. The track is an overly decadent long build, but I’m writing more for me these days and I’ve been enjoying it.

It’s also one of those pieces where someone will undoubtedly say, “wow, listening to a little too much Vangelis when you wrote this, eh?” to which I say, “there’s no such thing as too much Vangelis.” Of course, pulling in the CS-80′s Guitar 1 patch (with a hint of initial pitch bend) at the end puts it all a bit over the top. But again, I like it.

So what’s with the title? This was perhaps the most difficult piece I’ve ever tried to name. It’s a bit melancholy, a bit peaceful, sad, lonely, happy, delicate, and contemplative. I’m at a somewhat weird emotional place lately – typical mid-life wallowing coupled with a disconnectedness that would take far too long to even try to describe. Call it a weird equillibrium between depression and the zen state that precedes incredible activity.

The track was on repeat for about an hour while I tried on different titles for size. Most came out too depressing, and I didn’t want to unduly color the listener’s perception – I think the piece is a bit of a chameleon and will affect you differently depending on your mood. The mental image I kept coming back to was a solitary journey of some sort. Oddly, a spaceship with an exhaust trail and ice crystals streaming off the outermost points kept popping into my head. I didn’t really want an obvious space name, though, as that’s way too trite for new age stuff like this.

Then it hit me… what I was envisioning was a high-def mental recreation of what I would see in my head when playing one of the best videogames of all time: Elite. I played that game regularly for over 6 years. It was one of the very first “sandbox” games that didn’t really have an end. In the game, you’re the captain of a one-person ship and can be a trader, a pirate, a pirate hunter, fend off alien invasions, refuel by skimming solar energy, and even deal with tribbles. It was glorious.

All trading took place at space stations in orbit around the various planets. In a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the stations rotated and you had to match that rotation while moving into the bay. During this docking sequence, as in the Kubrick film, the music was Strauss’ By the Beautiful Blue Danube. Unlike the sequence shown in the video, when you were just starting out and still poor, you had no docking computers and had to do all of that manually.

If you watch that docking video, especially if you were born after 1985, you may involuntarily shudder at the crudeness of the graphics, though they were pretty state of the art at the time… hidden surfaces were kind of pricey to calculate. But while my eyes were seeing jittery black and white lines and dots, what was going on in my head was nothing short of what you’d see in any big budget movie these days. While trying to name this, I also had periodic mental glimpses of Eve Online, and X3 – both games that owe much of their pedigree to Elite.

So when I finally thought about that docking sequence that I performed thousands of times, I immediately realized that this music would have fit it nicely, especially if you added in the system approach after a hyperspace jump.

And the name of the first planet you reach in Elite? Lave.

Colophon:

  • MOTU Digital Performer 8 (Sequencing, EQ, compression)
  • Oberheim Xpander (Main theme)
  • Roland JV-2080 (Strings)
  • Kurzweil K2600XS (Harp)
  • Access Virus TI (Synth violin lead)
  • Yamaha CS-80 (Lead harmony)
  • Valhalla DSP ÜberMod, VintageVerb, and Shimmer

By the way, I whipped up the artwork in Illustrator and Photoshop… I started with something a little more photorealistic, but it felt wrong. I decided instead that it should be more line-drawing in nature and cryptic unless you got the reference.

Ghosts

The basis for this piece, consisting of the pad sound and the drum track, was a quick scribble written the day before my birthday. Earlier this week I opened up the project in my “Sketches and Ideas” folder and a melody showed up in my head in short order. Some muted bell tones provided a little counterpoint and it was time to write lyrics.

Fired up BBEdit and had the words finished up about 30 minutes later. Interestingly, I thought I was writing about one thing, but after singing it for awhile, I discovered that there was a completely separate and maybe even more appropriate interpretation. For that reason, I’m not going to explain it – I’d like to know what other people think it’s about, and this is one that will probably mean more to people if they have their own explanation and aren’t saddled with mine.

When I’d sing through it, there seemed to be something missing in the overall sound. I wanted something that would provide that slightly jarring, teeth-on-edge sound that you get from electronic devices. The patch I found combines some electrical noise with some mechanical scrapings that were just what I was looking for. In a way, I think I was subconsciously emulating the radio sounds in “Airwaves” by Thomas Dolby, one of my all-time favorites.

Last night, I put down a scratch vocal track and went to bed. This morning, I started to do a second take and decided instead to do punch-ins on the phrases that I wasn’t happy with. This is a weird range for me – not quite falsetto, but it might as well be since it’s sung so quietly and up on the mic.

After I posted this, I got a Facebook comment from a long-time friend who recalled a recording we made of a song of mine back around 1990 (my first studio sessions ever). Whenever he pushed my vocal up in the mix I was “horrified,” which is certainly an apt description. Call it artist angst or lack of confidence, it’s always something I’ve struggled with. But this is part of my new music approach – don’t fiddle too long, write what I enjoy, and tackle the demons head on.

Lyrics copyright Ray E. Toler, Jr. All rights reserved.

Colophon:

  • MOTU Digital Performer 8 (EQ, compression)
  • Kurzweil K2600XS (Pad)
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (Muted bells, electric noise)
  • MOTU Model 12 (Drums)
  • Neumann TLM-103
  • Focusrite Voicebox Mk II (Signal chain)
  • Valhalla DSP Room (Vocal reverb)
  • Valhalla DSP Vintage Verb (Synth and noise washes)