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)

 

ABEND

Last night I was finishing up production on a song when I loaded up a sound that took me in a completely different direction. I closed the song project (which I hope to finish this weekend) and did something amazingly unusual for me…

I started recording without having any clue what was going to come out.

This is unusual for two reasons. First, I have a big mental hurdle to overcome before pressing record just about any time. Second, I’m a huge control freak about my music and normally like to know exactly what something is and where it’s going before I commit anything. This was sort of a cross between improvisation and stream-of-consciousness. More than a noodle, but less than a song.

It took me twenty minutes to record it, probably a personal record. Each part was done on the fly and in one take. This is probably as close as it gets to sitting in the studio with me while I rummage around on the keyboard.

My mental image of the piece is also right in line with my nebulous “Technology Album” idea. It’s sad, vaguely nostalgic, and made me think of technologies that were abandoned prematurely. I did a quick search and found the perfect term: ABEND. That’s an old IBM System 360 error message meaning “Abnormal End of Task.” An unexpected termination; a crash. It made me think of old technologies that should have hit their prime but were surpassed or simply forgotten. A walk through an abandoned missle silo, a darkened data center.

Four raves from the production:

  1. Valhalla DSP plugins make me happy. Forget about the (super-fantastic) audio quality for a minute, they’re just flat-out easy to program and manipulate. It’s easy mode for reverbs, delays, and other sonic shellacking.
  2. Digital Performer’s POLAR feature makes massive multi-vocal recording quick, easy, fun, and inspirational rather than an exercise in madness.
  3. Proper gain staging is the best thing I’ve learned for audio in the last ten years. The noise issues that were plaguing me are just gone.
  4. Omnisphere is an amazing synth and production tool.

Colophon:

  • MOTU Digital Performer 8 (POLAR, Masterworks plugs)
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (All instruments)
  • Neumann TLM-103
  • Focusrite Voicebox Mk II (Vocal signal chain)
  • Valhalla DSP Vintage Verb (Vocal reverbs)

Open API

This is a great example of one of those pieces that I’m not quite sure what to do with. When I wrote the initial sketch, I envisioned a series of tracks celebrating technology and our electronic world. The primary ostinato brought to mind all of those great 70s and 80s tv shows and school films that were trying to sound like the future. It also reminded me a bit of Vangelis’ Soil Festivities, one of my favorites.

Next came the giant phase sweepy string lead line which just screams Jean Michele Jarré to me. A dash of motion via Omnisphere and my sketch was done, and there it sat for many months.

I dusted it off today, added a kick drum and lead line, some simple fades, a dash of reverb, and the debut of the Valhalla DSP Shimmer plug. That put a little extra mojo on the CS-80 and provided those brilliant crystalline highs that are just underneath your conscious listening attention threshold.

This isn’t really meant to be a standalone piece, but part of a collection. We’ll see what pops up next in that regard. I do like that it’s a mix of modern digital and 70s analog. A bit of détente in the seemingly never-ending “this versus that” tribal battles that are apparently part of being human.

Colophon:

  • MOTU Digital Performer 8
  • Kurzweil K2600XS (Primary ostinato, strings)
  • Access Virus TI (70s string lead)
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (Pulsing synth bass)
  • Roland TR-808 (Kick drum)
  • Yamaha CS-80 (Lead synth)
  • Valhalla DSP Shimmer and Vintage Verb