Ok. Forget what I said yesterday. Today is the day I get two of these done, because I already have a huge headstart on one, and I’m starting around noon, an hour or two after getting up. My plan is to work on this track until about 6 pm, post it, then get tomorrow’s track written (probably another ambient piece) and be in bed by midnight.
Remember when I talked about gremlins yesterday? Well, in typical gremlin fashion, XO works just fine today. Multi-channel out is working. Stem export is working. Holy crap, I might be in bed by 11 pm!!!
- Going Under Ray Toler 4:08
We start off with the main hook: beat, bass, and synth. I looped that for eight bars and then wrote a two-bar turnaround. After funkin’ around with this for a bit, I wrote a section that I thought would either be a chorus or a bridge. While doing this, I had one chord that wasn’t right.
The main hook sound comes from Hive2, and the chord is baked into it. I hold one note, and it plays that chord. That’s what lets me slide the entire chord up and down, but it’s always got the same intervals, and that means that some chords don’t work in whatever key you’re working in.
My way of dealing with this on other synths has typically been to turn off the chord function (or mute/unison the intervals) and then manually play the other chords I need. Wow did that turn out to be a disaster – the way this patch is programmed, the designer didn’t use a chord function but rather tuned the second oscillator to a different note (that’s normal) and then tuned the sub-oscillators on both primaries to different notes. There was a root, a +3, a -7, and a -10. Or thereabouts.
When I tuned it all to the same pitch, it was a completely different sound. Really thick and cool, but definitely not what made it sound so good as a chord. To add insult to injury, I only needed it to change for ONE measure. Now, there is another way to deal with this, but it’s not a typical thing I do: automate tuning parameters in MIDI. In this case, though, it looked like the best way forward, so I dug in. And that, as my friend Adam would say, is when the trouble started.
Hive2 is insane. I don’t know if every parameter is automatable, but most of them are. This is good. Really good. Except for one thing: identical parameters on different oscillators aren’t always named uniquely, or even what I see in the GUI. I spent a decent chunk of time trying to figure out what I needed to change to get the chord right, then battled my lack of music theory to figure out what chord it was in the first place.
The end result is that I only needed to move one parameter by one “note” for that one measure. It took a long time to get there. What time is it? 5 pm. Still doable, but I resign myself to another 3 am bedtime. That’s ok, though, I’ll still be a day ahead.
What Comes First – Music or Lyrics?
One of the most common questions and I’m sure I’ve written about it in the past. The weasley answer, though, is that it depends. For this track, it was definitely music. In fact, even the melody came before the words. Not super-rare, but I think I normally write melodies to lyrics instead of the other way around.
As I was working on the chord automation I had the parts I’d written playing on a loop. The melody and rhythm of the vocals started as random “bah, bah-da do-ba bah-dap bo-doh…” stuff. This slowly morphed into the opening two lines. While I was writing the music, I really didn’t think that the lyrics would end up negative, but that’s where they went when I decided to learn where the story went.
Lyric-writing was relatively painless and quick. I definitely had to consult the rhyming dictionary on a couple of occasions – there are only 14 words that rhyme with “under” – but all of it was mostly natural. I almost got the word “blunder” in there (which is just a funny word to put in a funk track) but couldn’t make the cadence work with the line it was in.
I recorded a quick scratch vocal and then went back to the backing tracks for some polish and clean-up, then started on vocals somewhere around 7 – 8 pm. While this was my first vocal track for 2022, I at least had a head-start on my “I haven’t sung anything in a year” problem, having done that Depeche Mode birthday song at the end of December. I was in a pretty good key, and the lead line was in a good part of my register, so this went pretty quickly. I only had to overdub two short phrases.
Except that the gremlins decided I was getting too much accomplished. When I started singing, I could barely hear myself on playback, and what I could hear sounded really compressed. First suspect is that everything else is too loud (it was) so I turned that down. Didn’t fix it. I won’t go into all of the troubleshooting, but let’s just say that it involved replacement cables, changing routing configurations in software, swapping microphones, swapping them back, having to find a 3/8” to 5/8” mic mount adapter… And remember, this is the SAME MIC using the SAME SETUP that I used to record in December.
In the end, I plugged it into a different, but identical interface and everything was fine. This should not have changed anything, but it did. Fine. I’ve been !@#%ing around with this for over an hour. Get it in gear, Ray, and no, you don’t need to look online to try and figure out why two identical pieces of hardware that were working fine days ago are now different.
Arrangement and Background Vocals
The arrangement is really simple. Drums, bass, that main hook synth, and the synthy string thing that shows up in the chorus sections. This is for two reasons: first, the chord synth is super-broad and covers a huge part of the frequency spectrum. It’s hard to add much without it all turning to mush. The other reason is that I had a feeling I was going to end up with a huge background vocal stack. And I self-fulfilled that prophecy, starting around 10 – 11 pm.
As I’ve written before, I love big background harmonies, and Digital Performer (my DAW) has this killer feature called POLAR, which is a loop recorder. Basically, I set up my loop points and start the playback running, and just sing on every repetition. POLAR automatically creates a new take each time. It’s super-fast and super-easy, at least from the recording engineer side of things.
I pantsed the harmonies, so they’re not as tight as I’d like, and there’s more octave-doubling than it probably needs. That’s the danger of having 15 backup vocalists in the studio. Yeah, that’s right, I triple-tracked each of the five harmony parts. And now I have to mix them. What time is it? Midnight. Sigh.
Fast-forward to 3 am. I’m almost finished. In January I made another on-sale impulse buy and picked up the Brainworx SSL 9000 J – an emulation of the compression and EQ sections of a really nice and extremely expensive mixing console. I don’t know that I’ve ever taken to a plugin of this type so quickly and had it make a massive impact on how good things sound. It’s as close as I’ve gotten to being back in pro studios sitting in front of a giant SSL console and loving life. It’s on every single channel of this mix. I’ll talk more about this later in the month, because there are a couple of important reasons for why I think it’s working for me.
I do want to make special mention of another Song-A-Day participant, David Earl. There’s much to say about him, but let’s just summarize it with this: David is the real deal. Amazing musician. Amazing engineer. Cool dude. If David likes something I’ve done, I know it’s good. On the very first Song-A-Day track I ever posted back in 2016, David made the following comment:
“Ray knows Pop. He is unafraid. I want to sip tea in the rain looking at old photographs.”
I doubt he’ll ever understand how important that was. This track, and dozens of others, might not ever have existed, no… almost certainly would not have existed without those 18 words and the Song-A-Day community.
Back to that “simple” arrangement? Well, it is, but it’s also the highest track count so far this month at 30. Half of those are background vocals, each of which had to be mixed individually. I’m really happy with the results, though. Technically, this is one of my better performances. The vocals aren’t tuned (except for one note, and it probably would have been faster to just re-record it), it’s not quanitized, this is about as good as I get without additional mechanical assistance.
On the negative side, the BG vox are a little sloppy (my voice was giving out on the high parts), I think I need to change the ending note for the chorus vocals, and I can hear all sorts of things I want to do to the arrangement like doing some filter work on the hook synth, adding a muted guitar pick part and cymbals, bringing other synths in and out, etc. And I think it would be amazing to bring in a real drummer for this one. The upside of these negatives is that it means I really like this song because I’m already thinking about what I’m going to do to polish it in the future.
And I only missed that midnight bedtime by four and a half hours.
You say you got it under control But when you hear the playback the music ain’t got no soul And I wonder how did things go wrong Going under But by then I’ll be gone All your friends still believe what you say But they don’t understand you’ve gone a different way It’s all plunder and pretty words ‘till dawn I hear thunder But by then I’ll be gone Chorus Sad that we’ve gone so far from the beginning All in the name of winning And I don’t want to continue to play It’s not me, might be you It’s a hazy situation A crazy combination We’ll just have to go a different way You tell me you don’t want it to end But you treat me like an ATM and not like a friend It’s no wonder things have all gone wrong Going under But by then I’ll be gone Chorus All your friends keep revising the past I don’t understand how they think that can last I wonder why their opinions are all so strong I wonder where do I belong Can you hear the thunder? When it gets here, I’ll be gone Going under But, baby, I am gone Copyright © Ray E. Toler, Jr. All rights reserved.
- Drums: XLN Audio XO
- Bass: Trilian
- Synths: Hive2, Omnisphere
- Effects: PanMan, Eventide H3000 Factory, Valhalla Room
- Processing / Mastering: Brainworx SSL 9000 J, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2