I’m actually live blogging this track as I write it, and I could not have asked for a better starting scenario. Opened up Digital Performer, decided I was starting with soft synths, and opted for Serum, a fairly popular wavetable synth, especially with the dub step and EDM crowd.
I typically go straight for either arpeggiated sounds or pads. For those who don’t speak synthnerd, arpeggiators automatically play patterns of notes or do some other type of rhythmic effect, and pads are the big washes of sounds that are normally held for a long time.
- Henotic Cryptography Ray Toler 4:20
As I scrolled through them, one patch name, “Oddity,” caught my attention. Gotta start somewhere. Put my hands on the keyboard. Hit an A. Started laughing. Out of the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of sounds I have at my disposal, I randomly selected the main sound that I used in Canardic Cacatopia, my Song-A-Day entry for February 10, 2018.
Or was it random? Something about the word is what drew my attention. Space Oddity? MTV’s Oddities animated series? The game Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee? No idea. And it doesn’t really matter much (unless you’re procrastinating by writing a blog entry about it) because Canardic Cacatopia was not one of my finer moments in Song-A-Day history.
The good news about finding that sound is that I get to fill in another row on the spreadsheet I’ve been building to inventory what sounds and loops I lost on tracks that were lost in the great hard drive crash of ’18. This isn’t a track I would redo, and I’ve found that as time goes on that list grows shorter and shorter. It helps me know, though, what synths I was using at the time, which may lead to other patches that were used.
The two projects that I would really like to be able to recreate are the initial tracks for the videogame score I’m working on, and my second album, Phage. Sadly, neither one is likely to be easy to recreate because so much of what I did with them was in the effects, not the synths. I don’t typically track what I used and I definitely don’t capture all of the settings. So those original multi-tracks are almost certainly lost to the mists of time.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, I’m live blogging today’s song. Which I haven’t started. Because I’ve been blogging. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. I’ll be right back.
Samplers to Romplers to Samples
This is the kind of track I used to do a lot more of. Starting with the Ensoniq EPS and later with romplers (remember those from yesterday’s post?), it was inspirational to have access to orchestral instruments, even though they were crude by today’s standards.
Now, we have sample libraries that are so good that they’ve been used in movie and game scores with only experts being able to tell that it’s not a real orchestra. Interestingly, the sounds have gotten better, but also more demanding. It’s similar to what a human does when playing an acoustic instrument – there are idiosyncrasies to accommodate and techniques that make the difference between sounding like your neice’s junior high school orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
On my JV-2080, when I play a note, the attack is on time, the volume is balanced, and so on. But it’s pretty static and lifeless when compared to the real thing, because the recordings have been chopped and cut and programmed and squashed to fit in an infinitesimally small amount of RAM.
My sample libraries, on the other hand, are full-quality, multiple-take recordings of professional musicians that have been chopped and sliced and programmed, but this time to provide realism and quality. And realism isn’t often neat and tidy. Imperfections are what make things sound “real.” With these sample libraries, some sounds start more slowly than others, tuning and intonation can vary.
Composition and Production
After stumbling across that pad sound, I dabbled with a couple of other pads in Serum, but didn’t really find anything that floated my boat. I decided to poke around in some of these aforementioned sample libraries, especially some of the new ones that I haven’t explored in-depth yet.
The kalimba sound that opens this track was the first sound I loaded, and it was immediately inspirational. The opening line is the first thing I played. For once, I was smart enough to immediately record that bit and see if it took me somewhere. Then I started layering two more kalimbas, starting with the lower part. When I played in the higher part, the main motif slowly evolved over the course of the track, repeating more and more often.
I almost posted it at this point, but it was just over two minutes long. Part of me just call it a night and go to bed, but I kept feeling like it wasn’t complete, so I started looking for some texture. Those lovely, delicate, icy high strings that come in midway were the first thing I found, so I doubled the length of the track, recorded a new, full length, high kalimba part and added the violins.
The pizzicato basses were next. They gave me a little trouble because this library has some of those inconsistencies in recording that you just have to dig in and fix. Every now and then you’ll hear one note jump out at a much louder volume than the others. I do need to go in and see if I just hit the key harder, but some of it is definitely inherent in the library.
Once again, I almost stopped at this point, but knew there was more. I’d gotten the high and low strings in, so it was time to go to my favorite: the cello. I’d played the melody line on the kalimba enough that the scale was now feeling natural and I was able to riff that part in relatively quickly. Most of the repeated takes were more about playing the library correctly than getting the right notes.
It still wasn’t finished, so I went for another favorite, the cor anglais, or English horn. As an aside, I think it’s hilarious that, outside the US, the most common name for an English horn is in French. Regardless, it’s absolutely one of my very favorite instruments. Recording this part took a few more takes than the others because I was now trying to fit into a conversation between the kalimba and the celli. The final parts aren’t a round, but they definitely echo each other like a round does. I’m not sure if there’s an official compositional term for this or not.
At 2 am, I decided that I was at a place where doing more would require a lot more work, and I was pretty happy with what was there. So the Song-A-Day version of this was finished. Mastering was relatively easy – just a touch of EQ, with the limiter only there to bring up the overall volume to match other tracks for the month. Unsurprisingly, this is the “quietest” of my tracks so far, at -21.5 LUFS, but when I play it back, it’s at the same decibel level as the others without sounding like it’s attacking you.
There is still more, and I need to go in and clean up some of the programming so the samples sound more natural, but I’m pleased with this one. I have no idea what genre this is. Pseudo-classical? Cinematic? Other than tagging my MP3s (I chose “Soundtrack”), I suppose that’s a problem for someone else to decide.
- Kalimba: Spitfire Olafur Arnald’s Composer Toolkit
- Violin and Bass: Spitfire Albion Neo
- Cello: Spitfire Apassionata Strings
- Cor Anglais: Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds.