Kaleidoscope Badland

What a difference 24 hours can make. After deciding to post Dad, The Bringer of Age Just Kidding as my track for the 10th, I’m suddenly ahead of schedule. My new branding slogan is Tomorrow’s Music Today!

In most ways, nothing is different. I still need to write a track today. I will, in all likelihood, still be up until 2 or 3 in the morning. But when I get up tomorrow, my song for the day will already be done and I can work on the next day. It’s exactly the same, except I don’t feel like I’m late. Now, I’m early, as most people aren’t posting their tracks at 3 am.

  1. Kaleidoscope Badland Ray Toler 8:40

Most of the benefit here is psychological, but I definitely felt it as I started working on Kaleidoscope Badland. I was more relaxed, not racing the clock. Combined with the trivial epiphany I also had yesterday about  my self-imposed perfectionism destroying much of what was valuable in the Song-A-Day process, and I’m just in a much better place.

Posting Just Kidding was kind of like getting that first rock chip on a new car. Now we can relax about it because the month isn’t “perfect,” whatever that means.

Luxurious or Self-Indulgent?

Why not both? If much of last year’s Song-A-Day work was a love letter to Brian Eno, this track is one to Tangerine Dream and the Berlin School of electronic systems music. My favorite Tangerine Dream era is late-70s to early-80s, up to and including the soundtrack to the movie Thief. Critically panned (it got a Razzie nomination for worst soundtrack), that soundtrack remains one of my favorite albums and is a key influence in a lot of my sound, even when I’m not doing Berlin School electronic. I can’t tell you how many times I desperately tried to get that iconic rolling sequence from Diamond Diary, or that guitar sound from Igneous.

The problem with some of my favorite albums is that they end. There’s no more. Every now and then, an anniversary release will uncover a little more. This happened with the three-disc reissue of the Blade Runner soundtrack, though you still have to go into bootlegs to find everytyhing. I was thrilled to find that Igneous from the Thief Soundtrack was closely related to works like Thru Metamorphic Rocks, so there was more to be had. But even those come to an end.

So how do you get more of music you love if the artist isn’t making that stuff anymore or, worse, no longer with us? If you’re me, you dig in to figure out what they were doing, then make it yourself. It’s pastiche, but I don’t think of it as hacky… more of a personal tribute.

I inadvertantly started down this road with Tyrell’s Balcony from my first album. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this one started off as a response to a forum post asking if people had ever done their own Blade Runner-style tracks. I figured I got pretty close when people asked me if I had taken it from an unreleased tracks bootleg.

Despite all of this, I didn’t set out to make a Tangerine Dream pastiche, though even the title is similar to Thru Metamorphic Rocks. The source of that similarity lies somewhere between pure coincidence (I picked it by randomly flipping through the dictionary) and those dormant little bits of knowledge and influence that live in the dusty corners of my mind (my brain forced me to stop on a “random” word that meant something to me).

I’ve had a couple of those moments this month already – in the middle of writing or, worse, as I’m posting the track, I’ll have this minor panic that I’ve stolen the melody from someone else, or even from my own past tracks. Happily, everything was just close or reminiscent as far as I can tell; nothing has been stolen outright.

Composition and Production

This is another “I’m just going to do a simple electronic thing and be in bed by midnight” evening that stretched out until 3 am. The difference is that I was enjoying it and engaged the whole time. More “time flies” than “deadline approaching.”

I started with the usual suspects looking for a washy pad to build an ambient track around, but then found the pulsing synth that opens the track in the Cycles sample library. In an unusual step, I immediately went in and changed a lot of the parameters and automated some things like tuning, grain length, and timing. This is why that part is sometimes so sharp it can cut you, and other times so sloppy that you want to wipe your ears with a towel.

With that sound running, the entire evening pivoted to a Berlin School approach. To the Moog! I recorded a one-bar ostinato in MIDI, repeated that out to about the ten minute mark, then immediately recorded control movements for the entire length of the track. This isn’t my normal approach, but I was trying to work quickly, still intending to slap some automation curves, letting math and randomization do the heavy lifting.

At this point, I was hanging out in the synth area, so decided to go ahead and start with hardware, only moving to software if I had a specific need. I found a nice fat phat bass on the System-8, and another, phatter bass on the Andromeda. This second one was fun to play because I could use the ribbon to open up the filter. My first passes recording the ribbon movements were really cool until I’d built out the rest of the track, at which point they became suuuuuuper annoying. I later re-recorded this to be a bit more subtle and sedate.

The Fizmo provided the glassy digital pad that sits on top of everything, but it was so sharp that it was in that almost-painful range. I brought up the EQ and chopped off most of the frequencies above 4k, along with some additional extreme EQ settings. This is something that I almost never do anymore, but if it sounds good, it is good.

At this point, the meat of the track was finished, and I moved MIDI parts around until the arrangement wasn’t so empty for long stretches, but also wasn’t too full. I wanted space either for soloing or zoning out.

Veering from my usual mode of recording one part at a time, I decided that I would leave everything I’d done in MIDI, then record all of the tracks at once while either playing some solos or doing controller moves to change the filters. Half-canned, half live. I was mostly successful in this approach, and the two solo parts were recorded live and in a single take. I’m not a great live soloist, so it’s a happy surprise when I capture one of these.

Promise Not to Stop When I Say, “When.”

So it’s finished now, right? Yeah, I think so. Well, wait. What if I panned that thing more slowly? Ooh! I could autopan those two things with different periodic rates so they were chasing each other through the whole track, so let’s do that. Hey, that solo synth sounds pretty guitarish, I wonder if I could get it even more in that direction…

The drums were recorded early in the process, but I didn’t really do anything to them – the groove was good. Then after all of that other creative effects tweaking, I figured we needed to give them some love as well. I wonder if I should put the delay first or the reverb…

This is why I was up until 3, but it was all fun and creative. I did do a lot more manual work on the various automation controls, which ended up working pretty well.

Now I have another Berlin School track to throw in the library. I’m contemplating and album of  these and maybe calling it A Clockwork Tangerine. That’s pretty subtle, right?

Colophon

  • Drums: Vermona DRM1 Mk III
  • Granular Saws: Cycles
  • Bass Synths: System-8, Andromeda, Moog Sub 37
  • Pad: Fizmo
  • Synth Lead: Prophet 12
  • Synth Guitar Lead: Kawai K5000S
  • Guitar Effects Chain: Valhalla Delay > Soundtoys Decapitator
  • General Effects:
    • Brainworx SSL 9000 J
    • Soundtoys PanMan
    • Valhalla Delay, VintageVerb
    • MOTU Masterworks Equalizer
  • Mastering: Gullfoss > Pro-L 2

Image Credit: Lucy Nieto

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