Today’s song started at a reasonable time. I was reasonably successful in not procrastinating or finding things to distract me. I still went to bed at 2:30 am, but I’m almost adjusted to the shift.
Actually, I really thought this track was going to be ready for final polish and export by around midnight, meaning I’d get to bed by 1, which would have been really nice. In a way, it’s a good example of scope creep, but it’s also a good example of knowing that something’s not quite finished.
The bulk of the day was spent writing entries for February 4-8, a little housework, some dog walking, some more computer clean-up and purging, and only maybe one or two times when some network traffic alert had me chasing down yet another tracking domain to block.
- In Time Ray Toler 4:20
Building the Groove
Another day, another empty page, another empty audio project. Some days, I will sit and just plunk around with lots of things until I can force the issue. Today, however, was a good example of how new sounds can be inspiring.
My first choice was hardware or software as a starting point, and I chose software. Looking over the list, I decided to explore some of my new or lesser-used sample libraries. During all of the holiday sale madness in 2021, I had picked up the complete product bundle from Output, who make three of my go-to effects plugins. They also make samples, primarily geared toward modern pop and hip hop production.
When I loaded all of these last year, they just didn’t spark anything for me. They weren’t bad, just not inspirational. I’m not sure if it’s the interface, the sound, the genre, or something else. But what might be uninspiring one day can turn into a muse the next.
The first sound I stopped on after auditioning a few patches is the main “ohh” vocal sound you hear throughout the track. I noodled for about five minutes and had settled into what would be the main loop. Interestingly, after a few hours of production, I had to remind myself that I had actually played these notes and that they weren’t a canned loop. I definitely use those, but I always feel a smidge of guilt when they end up becoming the hook, because I didn’t really write it.
Hands Tied Behind My Back
That kind of thinking – a weird combination of ethics, puritanism, risk aversion, perfectionism, and iconoclastic grumpiness is the reason I’ll never be a major celebrity. Looking back over my life, I can see this pattern in many things. I didn’t write house music in the late 80s and early 90s, because “that’s too easy….” Other than some very early exploration, I didn’t use samples from records because “that’s illegal, and I’ll get sued and have to give all of my (non-existent) profits to some label.”
What’s funny about the sample thing is that I’m one of those rare artists who thinks that modern copyright law is massively too strong, lasts too long, and a huge boot standing on the neck of creatives. But it’s the law, right? And we follow the law, right? Because laws are always right, right? Right.
In the meantime, De La Soul was laughing their way to the bank and the Beastie Boys created a hip hop masterpiece in Paul’s Boutique. All of that “too easy” house and techno music, that I would have been really good at, has become classic. I stood on the shore, wagging my finger at the boat, and telling all of the folks on it that they’d be sorry! I guess I showed them.
I am getting over this. Sometimes, that pre-programmed arpeggiator pattern is exactly what this song needs and I don’t care if I didn’t program it. A lot of rap careers are now built on trying to fly under the radar of the copyright police, nicking samples and looking forward to the day they get sued because they already got famous and that lawsuit means they’ve made it. Strange times.
None of that is applicable here, though, because I actually wrote and played those notes in, so I’m guilt-free. Back to the track! With the vocal loop repeating, I went looking for a bass sound. Sticking to unused/lesser-used tools, I opened up Thorn, a soft synth from Dmitry Sches. He also makes Tantra which is one of my very favorite effects plugs.
After four of five different basses, I decided on the one you hear in the track. I’m not sure it’s the right one and might change it if I do further work on this song, but it’s kind of cool and I like the digital sound against the vocal samples.
Vocal and bass now going, it was time for drums. I went to XO again and found a good loop preset. I made a couple of minor tweaks, but it’s largely just a factory preset loop. See? I’m getting better.
Now what? After maybe 20 minutes of looking for the next sound, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it might be turning into a song with vocals. While sinking into the loop, I started riffing the “time goes on and on” bit you hear at the end. I really liked the way it was harmonizing with the samples, and opened up my writing environment (the lovely Scrivener from Literature and Latte) . These lyrics didn’t pour out all in one go, but they weren’t torture to find either.
Since the subject of time had already been established, I stuck with it. As usual, I won’t go into exactly what I was thinking about but, in this case, I think it’s not too hard. It’s still up to you, though, to decide what the song means to you.
Production and Mixing
This was a bit of a weird one. My usual workflow for the last year or three has been to write stuff, record stuff, then mix stuff. The “mix stuff” part is where I make choices about things like delays, effects, or maybe some additional arranging. This time, though, I was making those choices early and mixing everything as I went.
A couple of interesting tidbits about production… One of those choices was that I split the high and low vocal parts into two separate tracks. My thought was that I was going to do some interesting things with autopanning or effects to get further distinction between the two parts or provide some variety. A four minute song with a loop that never changes can be a gateway to meditation or boring as hell, and I was already worried it was leaning toward the latter.
In the end, I didn’t do anything with the split tracks other than take out the high part during the verse vocals, and that was a good choice. Somehow, this song ended up becoming far-and-away the most complex of the week in terms of production, which is counterintuitive since it’s so simple. But there are a lot of subtle things going on, multiple effects chains for various parts and automation of several synth parameters. The colophon is a bit long this time.
Initially, I was going to have the verses be in a distant voice, maybe through a radio or some other mild distortion. After recording everything and deciding to sustain the “I’m fine in time” lines, I flip flopped that, and I really like the effect. For most of production, I didn’t tune the vocals. I was pleased to hear that my voice was actually flanging with itself, which means that I was dead on in my intonation, but there were still these little moments where one syllable would be just a hair sharp or flat, and it ruined the moment. Luckily, they were all very minor tweaks here and there, and not the major surgery I’ve had to do on other songs.
Another quick aside – believe it or not, I didn’t sing any harmony on this song. The harmonies you hear at the end come from a cool plugin called Octavox from Eventide, which does both time and pitch manipulation. In this case, it’s automatically creating a minor third harmony part on the beat, as well as a half-note delay on the root. I’m looking forward to playing more with this one.
And… it’s done? I think? Kind of. While doing the tuning work, the loops kept going and I thought it needed something else. Everything was too overpowering, though, and it wasn’t until I found that really weird gritty pad that I realized why: the groove is the thing on this piece, and the groove was good. It just needed a sprinkle of pixie dust to provide a little contrast.
I can’t tell yet if this will become one of the songs I write that I keep going back to, or if it’s one that I’ll forget about until it comes up during a full-album play or on shuffle. Either way, I’m happy with it.
All of this will turn to dust in time All the cities, all my silly rhymes Shake the tree and let the blossoms fall Fill the cracks with gold and hear the call I’m fine In time There’s no need to try and go so fast In the end none of my fears will last There are no monsters underneath the floor Take care of the wolf outside your door I’m fine In time I know Let go Time goes on and on Until we’re all gone Copyright © Ray E. Toler, Jr. All rights reserved.
- Vocal sample loop: Output Exhale
- Bass: DS Thorn
- Pad: Pigments
- Drums: XO
- Mix and Effects:
- Brainworx SSL 9000 J
- Soundtoys PanMan
- Valhalla Delay, Room, and Plate
- Butch Vig Vocals
- FabFilter Pro-C 2
- Eventide H3000 Factory, Octavox