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)

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 led 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.

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 set the stage for so much that came after it.

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.

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)