Cobalt Dendrite

The last day, the last track. Looking back, it’s one of those “it seems like I’ve been doing this forever / where did the time go?” conundrums. This year has felt like more work than previous years, though spot-reading through past entries indicates that may not be accurate, just that I’ve forgotten the bad parts – only the music remains.

While it wasn’t intentional, the last few tracks have definitely reflected my depleting energy and idea reserves. It’s tempting to look at each piece as a reflection of my emotional state at the moment of writing, but that’s not accurate either. I’ve gotten better over the years of letting the music go where it will. All that said, this one was certainly in the right region… it is calm, occasionally dissonant, and moves in ebbs and flows.

  1. Cobalt Dendrite Ray Toler 4:20

True to the last few days, this was not the first song I wrote. In a fit of bitter irony, however, this is the second song I completed. After trying desperately for the first ten days to have a two-a-day session to get in front of the schedule, I finally did it when I no longer needed it. I didn’t post that one because it’s both a more personal moment of exploration and would be a bit of a downer ending to an otherwise solid month. Sadly, I’m certain it will debut on this site all too soon, and I’m not looking forward to that.

After the minor catharsis I experienced after realizing what I had written, there was a newfound sense of calm resignation. That sounds like a euphemism for “giving up” or “settling” but it was a much more positive state of mind. Perhaps I just don’t have the right words for it. Maybe “contentment” is slightly closer. Throw all of those together in a blender.

Riding the Waves

The opening sound is the first one I found, and the white noise pulses, while maybe a little too overtly ocean-ish, was mesmerizing and the first four chords you hear are the first four I played. The bad news is that I wasn’t recording when I played them (and all too often, I don’t remember how I did the first chord by the time I get to the third, then have to relearn something that is often still just a tenuous wisp in my brain).

The good news is that my DAW, Digital Performer, has this nifty function called Retroactive Record. And it does exactly that – it’s always listening to any track that I have record-enabled, which a MIDI track already has to be for me to hear what I’m playing. This saved my bacon, because when I selected the option, everything I had just played dropped right into place.

Officially, the tempo of this piece is 57, but in the actual project it’s 114. I work with doubled tempos like this normally to get better control of arpeggiators or drum patterns that would be far too slow otherwise. This was a good thing for the piano, flute, and clarinet parts, but I actually ended up having to put a 0.5 multiplier on the actual arpeggiated patch because it was too fast. I’ve gotten a lot better about making these adjustments on the fly rather than trying to pre-plan every detail before anything gets started.

I think the order of track writing / sound addition was synth pad, strings (except bass), the dull piano droplets, the more strident arpeggio, the bass strings, and finally the clarinets and flutes. I spent as much time writing the chord progression as I did on the rest of the note arrangement in the other parts combined.

In a departure from how I’ve worked most of the month, I decided to leave final overall arrangement for the mixing process instead of while composing. These slow fade/pulse pieces do better with things gradually and quietly coming in and out. Interestingly, while this piece makes a lot of use of computational algorithms and randomization, it’s far more hand-crafted than others I’ve done this month. I let the patches do some initial work, but then went in and hand edited the majority of what was going on.

There are two bits of automation that really helped – first I put a gentle sine wave on the arpeggio. Because it’s such a sharp sound in the midst of a gentle wash, bringing it in and leaving it in one place would have had it grabbing the spotlight or disappearing entirely. Instead, it slowly comes in and out on a roughly 12 to 14 measure cycle. Second, I created two additional sine waves of controller data and assigned one to the probability that the instrument would play 5ths in addition to octaves and the other to which octave ranges were sounding. Those controller patterns create a much nicer level of permutation and variety, especially when combined with the volume changes.

Mixing and Mastering

There are no additional effects on this one. There’s already a decent amount of stereo movement happening in the sounds, and anything extra would have detracted. The mixing process was really just setting initial levels, going through each track and making some minor EQ and compression adjustments, resetting the levels, and then creating the final arrangement with fader moves. For this, I wasn’t overly precise, I just looked at the overall piece and brought things in an out in broad strokes. I don’t know that being any more careful with these selections would result in a fundamentally better piece, but sometimes I hear that after a few weeks or when hearing the piece in a different environment, normally the car.

No compression (L) vs light compression (R).

Mastering was, once again, a little tricky. There’s already the issue of mastering an quiet ambient track to fit alongside a techno song or a string quartet. Compounding that this time, it’s a very dynamic composition. When I put Dynameter on my master fader, it was pretty far outside the recommendations. That’s not a huge problem for me, as I like somewhat more dynamic music, but I have been learning that compressing things a little more than I usually do does result in a more consistent listening experience across environments.

The answer in this case ended up being the addition of the excellent Klanghelm MJUC compressor as the first part of the mastering chain. It was perfect for bringing the low parts up a bit without crushing the louder moments. This also resulted in the final limiter not working quite so hard.

One downside to this type of composition is that I can’t just go to the loudest part of the track to set levels like I can in a pop or dance track. For this one, I had to play the entire track every time I wanted to get a new measurement of loudness levels and how much normalization would be applied by the main streaming services. This isn’t wasted time, because each run through is another chance to audition the mix before sending it out into the world, but it does add up.

I again experienced that moment where I was looking for things to fix and realized that it was finished. And with that realization I had the larger realization that the same thing had happened with Song-A-Day; after keeping my head down for 28 days, I’ve looked up and found myself at the finish line, with a combined sense of relief, pride, exhaustion, and sadness that it’s all over for another year.

Colophon

  • Synths & Samples: 
    • Hive2
    • Cycles
    • Stratus
    • Olafur Arnalds Chamber Evolutions
    • British Drama Toolkit
  • Mixing & Mastering: BX SSL 9000 J, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2

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