This track is largely a continuation of yesterday with two significant distinctions. First, I had at least some nebulous idea of where I was going and how I was going to get there. Second, where everything in Agnostic Prophet came from software, Blue Saffron comes entirely from hardware synths and drum machines.
That’s getting to be a pretty blurred distinction, though. Many modern hardware synths are little more than dedicated computers that run software synths. Where you draw the line is subjective, and the online arguments about one vs the other are as predictable as they are pointless. I’ve never been a purist about either side, and have long applied the adage about mixing: if it sounds good, it is good.
- Blue Saffron Ray Toler 4:20
One key advantage for hardware, at least for my workflow, is having all of those knobs and sliders providing immediate, tactile control over nearly everything in the sound. Software provides precision and infinite choice, while hardware provides a more involved compositional experience.
As noted yesterday, over the years I have started giving at least passing consideration to what my output for the month will sound like as an album. It’s not an overriding concern, and it certainly won’t stop me from following a muse who shows up, but it was part of my decision tree. I wanted to keep the energy upt, and I knew I wanted to dust off the synths that I largely ignored during my recent film score work. And, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “that’s when the trouble started.”
Early Start, Late Finish
“The trouble” has actually been going on since the first week of January. That’s when I decided to migrate my studio computer, now 10 years old, to what will be its final operating system, MacOS 10.14 Mojave. I’m “freezing” this machine on that OS, and may talk about that more later in the month, but the short of it is that I’m building a new system drive from scratch, and only installing software as I need it.
There were some USB drivers needed, so those went in. Then some other stuff. Then some more other stuff.Then some cable gremlins needed to be chased down. Then my DAW template needed updating. Then I had to remember or look up how to send MIDI clock to seven different pieces of hardware. And so on, and so on, and so on.
So while I actually did get started in the studio in the early afternoon, I didn’t start noodling until after dinner. And then our neighbors invited us over for a visit, and I didn’t end up doing anything in earnest until after what most sane people would call bedtime.
Now, over the course of the day, I was randomly plunking around on the synths, got a lot of the patch selection and ideation done along the way. I’d come up with a couple of riffs and had a general sense of what I was going for. Somewhere in between pantsing and a fully formed plan.
When writing and recording, I do try to be at least somewhat organized and efficient with hard drive space. If a synth is playing the same ostinato for 32 measures with no variation, there’s no use writing all of that to disk. Instead, I’ll record one measure and repeat it 31 more times.
My typical process for recording that loop is also maybe a little overkill, but it’s served me well over the years. If I have a one measure loop, I actually record three measures of it with enough silence at the end to catch the tail of the sound. This approach gives me a starting measure for when it comes in, a “loop” measure that repeats as long as I need it to, and an ending measure that decays naturally.
This sounds more complicated than it is in practice. But all of the drums for this entire track came from just three measures of a single 909 pattern, with each sound broken out to its own track. With the drums in place and rougly arranged, I recorded a basic MIDI part for the main bass ostinato, then went in and manually changed things as needed, like the pattern change that comes in around the 1:00 mark.
There was one… it wasn’t a happy accident, but a target of opportunity, I suppose. When I recorded the squelchy acid line on the Moog Sub 37, it actually sent the notes from the synth’s arpeggiator as they were being played, rather than sending a single note and letting the arpeggiator do its own thing. This resulted in a similar, but different sounding ostinato. I decided to record this “new” part, then re-recorded with some one and two beat shifts for a second part. These then snake around each other using various panning and filter automation. It wasn’t an entirely successful experiment, but sounded pretty cool.
As strange as it sounds, getting back in the groove of that three-measure recording approach took me a lot longer than I would have expected. It’s pretty simple conceptually, but it took a bit for everything to come back from those dusty mental corners.
Late Night With Ray
One danger of tracks like these is that I often get caught up just listening over and over, making tiny adjustments along the way. The track is only four minutes long, but that adds up with each repeated listen-through. This time, that added up to not getting in bed until 3:45 AM. I do really like the groove of it all, though, especially when my brain has locked in on one bass pattern, but shifts when the drums come in.
Compounding things, because I started so late, I recorded and mixed the entire thing on headphones so as not to keep Mary up. And as it turns out, this was a mistake. My initial upload isn’t loud enough, punchy enough, clear enough. Not doing speaker checks is the primary reason for this, compounded by the time restriction, fatigue, ear fatigue, and all of the other things that make this month so compelling.
Unless you’re listening to the track on February 3, I’ve already gone back to fix all of these things and posted a remixed/remastered track, so you won’t hear the things that bugged me. Of course, doing those fixes also kept me from writing the next song.
I’m also starting to think that I might need to install Ozone again. I feel like I’m capable of getting decent results on my own, but the time pressure of Song-A-Day makes that an unneeded stress. I may spend the next couple of tracks doing my own approach, then running Ozone to see how close it and I are.
Mary’s out of town for the next week or so, so I’ll be doing my best to get my schedule shifted forward enough that I’m writing in the morning/afternoon, and mixing in the evenings when I won’t be disturbing her sleep or work. I’m also going to do my best to get a two-a-day in so I’ll be working a day ahead like I’ve always dreamed.
- Bass Synths: Alesis Andromeda A6, Roland SYSTEM-8
- Acid Synth: Moog Sub37
- Digital Pad: Ensoniq Fizmo
- Bells: DSI Prophet 12
- Strings: Kawaii K5000S
- Effects: Valhalla Plate / Delay / Supermassive, Eventide OctaVox, Output Thermal, Soundtoys PanMan, Klanghelm DC8C3
- Mastering: Gullfoss, FabFilter Pro-L 2