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.

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

 

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, almost certainly 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

Mommy Likes Wine & Chocolate

Last week, a friend posted two home videos to Facebook of “family performance night.” Kids are natural hams and there just happened to be a great sample in it that instantly put some music in my head. The main hooks were done in less than 30 minutes, and it took me another couple of hours to find the right drums, loops, and synth sounds.

 

 

Our star vocalist, Lady E., came up with the following impromptu song: “Melinda and Daddy like beer! Mommy likes…” She wasn’t sure what Mommy liked. Mommy prompted from off-camera, “wine and chocolate.” And the lyrics were complete.

Of more technical interest, this is the first track where I’ve worked using the “gain staging” approach to digital recording. From the very early days, the conventional wisdom has been to record signals as loudly as possible (peaks hitting just under 0 dB). The current manual for MOTU Digital Performer says this:

When recording, get as high a level as possible without any clipping. Before you record, always sample the entire range of the audio input you will be recording and adjust the input level accordingly. Ideally, the loudest part of the signal should peak just below zero dB.

After reading several threads on Gearslutz.com that mentioned gain staging as a way to get less muddy sound, I did some research on what that meant. In a nutshell, you record at a much lower volume (peaks averaging -16 to -12 dB or so) so that the DAW and plugins have sufficient headroom to do their jobs without introducing a lot of distortion. I always heard this in my mixes as a sort of fuzzy granularity. For lack of a better phrase, it sounded like there was sand in the mix.

I’m pleased with the way this one turned out. I didn’t have to do a lot of fader work, even to get a usable scratch mix. There’s some light compression on the master, but if you look at the waveform, it’s the kick that’s popping to 0 while the rest of the mix sits nicely just below it. In my studio, at least, that means that the kick keeps thumping nicely without squashing everything else.

Additionally, this is my first use of the highly regarded Valhalla DSP plugins. This isn’t the best track to show off what they’re capable of, but they did add some nice juju to everything, especially the tape echo effect. It is also the first track I’ve done in years without any Waves plugins on it. I haven’t upgraded to the 64 bit versions and am seeing how much I miss them. The jury’s still out on that.

This was a really fun track to do, and I hope you enjoy it.

Colophon:

  • MOTU Model 12 (kick, snare, claps)
  • Access Virus TI (bass)
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (Main hook, bells, drops, effects)
  • Korg Legacy Collection (Drone synth, main hook double)
  • Spectrasonics Stylus RMX (loops)
  • Valhalla DSP UberMod, Vintage Verb, Room (vocals, claps, synths)
  • Apple iPhone (source video for samples)
  • MOTU Digital Performer 8 (DAW, compression, EQ, etc.)