Be Home Before the Streetlights Come On

It’s hard to believe the month is nearly over. I mentioned at the beginning that this year felt somewhat like a treadmill. And similar to the experience of an actual treadmill session, I started out with energy, settled into the pace, and all of a sudden am almost finished. I’m tired and my energy is flagging, but I’m also happy with both my effort and progress.

I began writing today’s track, as I have all this month, the night before. I was a bit intoxicated, but got a decent groove set. There was a slim chance of lyrics to create a song, but I was so exhausted that I saved the project and closed shop around 1:00 AM; this was a luxury given my average February bedtime of 2:30 – 3:00.

  1. Be Home Before the Streetlights Come On Ray Toler 3:08

So when I sat down in the studio and opened up the project, it was a bit of a surprise that what I’d done was completely wrong. Not in any technical sense. It was played correctly, no wrong notes or strange doo dads going on, it was just completely not what I wanted to write. The initial sketch was a kind of dance-club-something and, while perfectly adequate, nothing special.

I’ve pivoted a few times this month in similar situations, but I nearly always at least tried to work with my initial direction. Not this time. I listened to the 16 bars I’d written, stopped playback, and closed the project.

After immediately creating a new one, I felt a strange sense of direction. There was no waffling or screwing around with auditioning sounds, I opened up the folk instrument library that comprises nearly everything you hear in this track. The library features a small ensemble including a guitar, violin, cello, banjo, dulcimer, oud, and violin. All of these feature a couple of pattern loops, but also single plucks, strums, and brushed techniques.

You Go Ahead, I’ll Catch Up

My computer is starting to struggle with newer libraries, and this was no exception. The ensemble patch that uses samples from all seven instruments immediately started spiking my CPU. Thankfully, loading each instrument into a separate instance of Kontakt spread the load across multiple threads and the crackles disappeared, so I was able to move forward without getting frustrated.

The little red-headed girl next door.

I’ve had to do a lot more of this type of trickery over the last year or two and, sadly, will most likely have to purchase a new computer for the studio later this year. Equipment failures are one of the most infuriating things that happen to me when trying to write – they can take me from being inspired and grooving to storming out of the studio in only a few minutes. They’re much rarer these days, and using a ten-year-old computer isn’t really a “failure,” but the result can be similar.

There are plenty of workarounds that I’ve incorporated into my process. I’ll work out parts, either dealing with the CPU crackles and slowdowns or moving over to a piano to work out the notes, then render the parts offline. The downside to this is that I’m sometimes having to commit to a song structure or direction earlier than I otherwise would. 

This isn’t a problem most of the time, but some of my tracks have suffered; they might have become a bit more interesting or varied if I weren’t semi-locked in already. Well, I’m never actually locked in, but rendering takes time, often more time than the real-time playback would be, and in February, I’m always on a deadline.

We Dodged That Bullet

Thankfully, splitting the instruments out made the crackle gremlins go back to sleep and I started exploring this new library. I have an appreciation for good bluegrass and folk1I recommend Steve Martin’s albums from the last several years, and I’m also a Fleet Foxes fan if that helps with what I mean by “folk.” and I’ve used most of these instruments in other styles, but I’ve never really attempted something like this.

One of the really nice features of the library is that each instrument’s patterns are slightly different, just like an actual ensemble would play. There’s a decided looseness to it, and it’s the interplay that makes the sound what it is. The downside, is that it’s a very range-limited library, and some instruments don’t quite go where I’d like them to. What’s there is very nice, though.

Listening critically, I think I overdid everything. Being excited to use the new library, I used all of the new library. All of the instruments are playing almost all of the time, and it’s just too dense for some spots. If I were to revisit this one in the future, I’d be pulling things out, especially on the verses.

Despite the density, it still needed something. The final ingredient was the pedal steel-type sound. My technique wasn’t great, but the intent shines through. This sound is a variant of one of my very favorite sounds in Omnisphere, used the track ABEND from my first album. It has a beautiful and melancholy feel to it. Wistful, but not sad.

While writing, I heard snippets of vocal harmonies, and maybe even a lyric here or there, though nothing emerged from the mist in solid-enough form to make the attempt. Maybe those will show up as I listen to it in the future, but for now, I’m pleased with this initial experiment.

In My Day…

As I was getting the last parts played in, I started having a lot of nostalgic images of long-ago summers. Little puddles next to the creek full of tadpoles, riding my bike for hours, sneaking into the corn field behind our house, getting scared and running back out, feeding weeds to the cows through the electric fence at the end of one cul-de-sac…

Those long summer days provided my generation, and many before it, with an early sense of independence and responsibility. We were the last of the free-range kids. Whether the world actually changed or we just became more informed about the darker side of things, I’m not sure. I used to wait for the bus by myself before the sun came up. Now I see parents waiting with their high-school kids, everyone staring at a phone.

We’ve gained a lot with the advent of the Internet, but we’ve also lost some things that I don’t think will be fully appreciated or recovered for a very long time. Then again, there are probably a lot of folk musicians who would see what I’ve just created in complete isolation, without engaging a single other musician, as an abomination of everything folk music is and another example of how technology has ruined something.

I’ll end this post with one of my all-time favorite jokes:

Q: How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: All of them. One to change the bulb, and the rest to bitch about it being electric in the first place.


Instruments & Samples

Spitfire Hearth & Hollow, Omnisphere


Gullfoss, Pro-L 2


  • 1
    I recommend Steve Martin’s albums from the last several years, and I’m also a Fleet Foxes fan if that helps with what I mean by “folk.”

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