While veering a bit into dark ambient territory, this track is pretty chill and downtempo. You would never think that it was the result of panic and desperation. With only one or two exceptions this month, I once again had no real ideas going into the studio, and I found myself in the same procrastination habits I was exhibiting in the first week.
The composition session started in earnest around 11 pm, which hasn’t been an issue too many times, as my bedtime simply shifted for the month to somewhere in the 2 to 3 am range. But the cumulative lack of sleep, the exhaustion of tricks and ideas, and just a general grumpiness and “I don’t wanna do it!” mindset were working hard against me.
- Adescential Biolith Ray Toler 4:20
This is the fourth track I wrote during this session. I started off with a kind of cool funky thing. Fun beat, lots of space, a bit of modeled guitar, and a bass holding the pocket down. And it just wasn’t going to go anywhere.
The next two were variations of the same process, one sort of was in pop territory, the other ambient, and both of them bogged down about 40 minutes into the process. Either they weren’t inspiring me, I wasn’t playing well, or they just weren’t good. I did save them off, just in case I hear something later after the trauma of the month is forgotten.
When I abandoned the third sketch, it was 1:30 am, and I was this close to saying, “well, it was a good run, but I’m not going to make it today.” And as soon as I thought it, I got that twinge of panic, the fear of “failure.”
It’s difficult to call producing 26 songs in 26 days a failure, but the completionist in me would not tolerate giving up. I’ve been awake until 4 am several times this month, and March is now less than 48 hours away. It can be done. It should be done. It shall be done.
But as the mild panic subsided, satiated by my internal commitment to doing something, anything, desperation quickly took its place. Fine. I’m doing something. What? What something is in there? Screw it, slow dark ambient it is. I’m less worried about boring my fellow participants at this point in the month. Plus, I’ve had some interesting and quality last-week tracks show up before, so who knows?
Curse of the Rompler
I have been trying all month to do a track featuring some pads out of my classic 90s / 00s romplers, whether hardware or software, because I really was trying to capture those slightly grainy, oddly looping textures. There’s a quality to ambient produced in that time frame that I just keep coming back to, and I’ve been trying to capture it. Also, I’m using a really wide definition of ambient right now – could be Eno, Oophoi, Future Sound of London, or Orb.
But every single time I’ve tried to work toward that goal, it’s been a disaster. I suspect I need to spend a bit more time this year rediscovering these treasures. They’re not as sexy as software, but there’s a lot going on in there that I’ve forgotten how to access effectively.
Once again, I opted for synths I haven’t used yet this month. In this case, it’s a synth I’ve never used on a track at all: the Korg Triton. I always wanted one of these back in the day (it was the trendy choice for hip hop production) and have been tempted several times to try and find an old Triton Rack for the collection, but I picked up Korg’s software reissue of it last year and have had a blast playing with it.
I found the pad sound that opens the track relatively quickly, which was a good thing, because part of my internal negotiations between panic, desperation, and exhaustion was to see if I could get the whole thing written in an hour and go to bed no later than 2:45. This sound was exactly what I was thinking of – you can hear the sample loop get faster and slower as it goes up and down in pitch and while I’m sure it sounds a little more hi-fi than the hardware unit does, was suitably grainy to scratch that itch.
At this point, I really was still thinking this was going to be a tempo-less, slow sound wash of pretty chords. I really enjoy writing and sculpting them, but I’ve got a ticking clock and am a little worried about a problem I have every now and then when I’m all into dreamy writing time: I forget what I’m doing in the middle of recording. What’s the next chord? How long do I hold this one? I have no idea!
So here’s a trick I use, that is both helpful compositionally and from an efficiency point of view: double or triple the tempo. I was targeting somewhere in the 80-90 bpm range, so I set my DAW to 170 bpm and improvised the entire track. At its final tempo of 89, this track clocks in at a little over 4 minutes, but I composed it in two. (I used the same trick on Fluvial Desert earlier this month.)
This insanely fast tempo also helps with both pacing and variety. You get a more natural feel for the structure of the pace, when to pick it up, when to slow it down. That’s very hard to do when writing at 60 bpm, because there’s just too much time to get the overall sense of it. 170 bpm is like zooming way out to frame everything, and then zooming back in for the detail work.
My improvisation took me in a direction I hadn’t been expecting, and with the relatively short chord changes in the “chorus” sections, I now thought that maybe it needed a soft beat of some sort to provide additional structure. I liked how it felt, so kept it.
Moving quickly, I selected a bass that would cut through the thick pad. This bass sound is very reminiscent of the super-digital sound that the Synclavier made popular in the mid-80s. It reminds me a lot of the bass sounds in the 2010 film soundtrack. Fine. Good. Keep moving.
Next came the whistle-ish sound that sings the melody in the choruses. Quick improvisation of that, duplicate it to the other two. Good. Fine. Keep moving.
With the addition of the melody, I wanted a little more elevation for those sections, so I added another beat. That beat ended up being the glue that really carried the track (the previous beat was great, but not enough drive in it). I added a third loop in the second chorus, and a fourth loop in the third. It’s a little busy, but I’ll play with that during mixing. Awesome. Cool. Keep moving.
With the choruses sounding pretty full, the “verse” sections were now flat. I decided that I’d use different sounds for the 2nd and 3rd verses. The broken pad in the 2nd verse was perfect – it had both the warbly pitch thing going on, as well as a rhythmic pulse on the first beat that was like getting two parts in one.
The other verse part is the vocal pulse sound, and it’s a great example of a happy accident. When I’m speed-writing like this, I most often just drag a midi part from another track (the opening pad in this case) and then make whatever adjustments are needed. This keeps me from having to learn exactly what I did when, keeps all of the timing intact, and is a jumping off point for harmonies if needed. The happy accident is that when I was copying it, I accidentally dragged the mouse a bit to the left, so that it all landed one measure earlier than the pad. That’s why the voices lead the chord changes by a measure, which I ended up really liking. Cool. Don’t fix it. Sounds good. Keep moving.
Wait… do I need to keep moving or is it finished? I’m not sure. But it sounds pretty good at this point. Might need something. I dunno. What time is it? 2:30 am. Wow, this is perfect, and I think it’s finished. Save. Quit. Goodnight, Gracie.
The Ears Have It
I woke up at 11:00 am. An actual eight hours of solid sleep, which I don’t think has happened yet this month. Fresh ears, fresh coffee. Back to work. Upon listening to the entire track again, I got the inkling that this might actually be a song, words and all. As I have mentioned before, when this tickle in my brain happens, I listen.
There may still be a song in it somewhere, but I couldn’t find a melody, rhythm, or subject that took off, so after maybe 30 minutes of messing around in that direction, decided that it did need a melody, but that I’d be staying instrumental for this version of whatever this is.
With a bit more time in front of me, I took a bit to find the lead synth sound, which feels both Asian and tribal at the same time to me. That’s largely because of the notes I played, but it suited them nicely.
I was still in “work fast” mode apparently, because the entire lead line was done in about 20 minutes – no sense overworking the dough – so I printed audio for all of the tracks and moved on to mixing.
The mix was pretty straight-forward. A bit of emphasis on the kick, most everything got a touch of high end, mud cuts here, mid-range boost there. Compression on that quiet loop to bring it out a little more, EQ to quiet the stick hits… This was less of a creative mix and more of a clean-up. I did reduce the volume of the lead line and pan it back and forth during the choruses to make the whistle stay more prominent, but everything else is static for the whole mix.
In a minor departure, I actually darkened this mix a bit at the mastering stage to take a bit of the high end sheen off of it. It still sounds good to me, but the highs didn’t fit the overall mood of the piece.
Writing the lead line, printing audio, and mixing and mastering took four hours. Four times what it took to write everything else. As Douglas Adams said, “Time is relative. Lunch time doubly so.”
Five hours is probably two and half hours more than this piece deserves, but I’ve had similar tracks become favorites down the road, so I don’t think it was wasted.
Then again, I now have to start writing tomorrow’s song, so ask me if I still feel that way when I’m in a panic at 1:30 am.
- Drums: Phobos, Stylus RMX
- Synths: Korg Triton, Hive2, Diva, Zebra, Omnisphere, Pigments
- Effects: Valhalla Delay
- Mixing & Mastering: Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
Image Credit: James St. John