Today is the day. I’m going to get two of these things done. I started writing about 3pm. Plenty of time. Since yesterday was done entirely in safe, warm, and cozy, Omnisphere I’m going to try some of my newer software hoping to get some of those “new sounds, new songs” moments.
Hive2 from u-He was my starting point. Almost right off the bat I found the really funky chord-stab synth that opens the track, along with a great beat out of a really nice drum sequencer, XO from XLN Audio. Because I needed a “real” bass for what was emerging, I went with one of my favorites, the Studio Funk bass from Trilian/Omnisphere.
- Fluvial Desert Ray Toler 4:20
What’s that you say? You don’t hear any funk? No drums? None of that is in today’s track? That’s right. It’s not. Why? For the same reason that has plagued me this entire week: gremlins. Every day this week, something has gone wrong, and I get completely derailed trying to track it down and fix it. The gremlins are making no discrimination between hardware, software, cables, or configurations, and apparently they found a cocaine dealer because they have been really busy.
This time, the issue was with XO. It has this really cool feature where you can export individual stems for each part (kick, snare, etc.), as well as the MIDI for the pattern, with a single click. You can also set it up so that it’s sending each part out on its own audio channel – something that’s really nice for these types of recordings. Loops are nice, but it can be tricky if you’re only trying to EQ the kick or change the volume of the cymbals.
So what was the issue? When I tried to send multi-channel audio out… silence. Going through the main out worked. Ok, fine. I’ll just export stems and manually drag them in, rather than recording them myself. Except that the stems were also silent. The only thing I could export was the full loop and the MIDI, but without breakouts, I’d be in for a rough time.
Did I mention I started writing around 3pm? Well, by the time I had given up troubleshooting (along with a quick break for a neighbor visit and marionberry pie), it was close to 10pm. Worse, as I kept the main loop and beat going (and to be clear, it was a 2-bar loop just repeating over and over for hours while I was troubleshooting), a vocal… thing… had started forming in my head. No words, not much of a melody, just a hint that there were words and melody. It’s 10pm. Words and melody. Microphones. Singing. Mixing.
I knew that even if I had the lyrics written, the melody dialed in, it would be at least two hours (probably a lot more) before I got to the mixing stage. And XO isn’t working right. And by gum, I’m NOT staying up until 3 am again. Time to pivot.
The little snippet I had was good and, in a way, was kind of like writing an additional song. Sure, it’s not much beyond a sonic hook, but it was a jump start on that blank page tomorrow. I saved it, then opened a new project.
During the holiday season of 2020 I picked up a sample library from Slate + Ash called Cycles. It was a bit of an impulse discount buy, and when I got it all loaded in was kind of disappointed in it because it required way more oomph than my ten-year-old studio computer has. If I tried to play more than one note, and sometimes even with just one note, I got crackles and distortion that indicate the processor has been completely overloaded. It’s not pleasant to hear, and even less pleasant to try and work with compositionally.
It turned out, however, that Cycles became one of my favorite tools during 2021’s Song-A-Day. Even with the very old-school approach of offline rendering every part, it just took me in directions that no other tool was doing. For that reason, I started my pivot off with Cycles, which provides the main orchestralish swell and pulses.
Truth time. Part of my intent during this pivot was to just knock out an easy ambient piece and get to bed by midnight. For this particular piece, I had two repeating three- and four-note motifs, with the variety being provided, in large part, by Cycles. To speed up my compositional process, I set my DAW tempo to 120 beats per minute, twice as fast as my intended tempo, in order to quickly compose the parts. There’s not much reason for me to sit there holding long chords for four minutes when I can speed things up and get them done in two minutes or even one.
Initially, the motif had the first two notes taking up one measure each, and the third note two. For the speed of the swells, as well as the pace of the piece, this ended up being way too short, so I doubled everything to two and four measures respectively.
After playing parts in, I dropped the tempo to 60 and rendered the Cycles part. It sounded wrong. I’m not sure what was wrong, but it wasn’t what I’d been hearing. Suspecting that there was some tempo-based automation in the patch, I doubled the tempo to 120 and the measures to four and eight.
This required me to go in and tweak the arpeggiated analog synth sound (which I love – it reminds me of a couple of tracks on William Orbit’s Pieces in a Modern Style) because they were now twice as fast as they should be. I added in another track for some high end, then added an additional track from Cycles, but an octave or two down, during the last third of the piece. I noticed a cyclical (ha!) static noise showing up and was initially worried that even with offline rendering, my computer just couldn’t deal, but it’s actually part of the patch. After some additional listens, I decided I liked it, though if I ever revisit this piece, I might try to quiet it a bit with EQ.
One of the issues with tracks of this type is that I tend to spend a lot of time just soaking in it while I work. It’s part of why I like to write these, and I’ve gotten feedback from friends that these tracks are really nice for working, on flights, and just chilling out. Since others have let me know they enjoy them, I feel a lot less self-indulgent writing them.
How Loud is Loud? Part Deux
I discussed earlier this week how ambient can be difficult to master when it’s in an album with other, non-ambient, tracks. It it were an all-ambient album, then it doesn’t matter if everything’s at -14 LUFS because the listener is going to set the volume knob where they like it. But up next to a pop or dance track that’s also at -14 LUFS, the ambient track is going to sound louder. A lot louder. In a pop song, you have spaces in the music, and a lot of dynamics.
I try to make a best guess as to where it should sit, and I also have a nice tool that shows me if it’s too loud/quiet for the various streaming services, but the only real way to figure out if I got it right is to finish it, export it, load it into iTunes and see if it fits with the other tracks I’ve done so far. The first track this year, Agnostic Prophet, comes in at a respectable -13.9 LUFS. Just about perfect for pop and dance music on Spotify or YouTube, a little loud for Apple Music, but it’s in the right ballpark. Doxastic Truth (ambient) is -18.2. Clastic Monolith (electronica) is -16. They all sound about the same apparent loudness when listened to in sequence, though.
A great example of a song not fitting in is 2019’s Whatever You Pour, I’ll Drink. It’s sooooo loud. Every time I leap for the volume know when it comes on, I swear I’m going to go back and fix it, but it never seems to make it to the top of the list.
Fluvial Desert is -19.4, and just about correct in context with the rest of the week. While it’s the quietest of all of the tracks so far, it still feels almost too loud, so I may go back and remaster it one more time, but I think I need some time with it before deciding.
Oh yeah, remember when I said I wasn’t going to stay up until 3 am? Remember also when I said I end up sinking into these for long periods while writing? Yeah. The good news is, I didn’t go to bed at 3 am. The bad news is I went to bed at 4 am.
- Synths: Cycles, Pigments
- Effects: Valhalla Delay
- Processing and Mastering: Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
Image credit: Dan