After a lovely day that provided one of the first hints of Spring-to-come, Mary and I headed over to the neighbors to hang out, have dinner, watch a movie, and just get generally silly. I’ll say nothing more other than I laughed so much that there was no chance I’d be doing a song with vocals, even if one had manifested itself in my brain.
Getting a relatively late start around 10 pm, but with my new “I’m working ahead” mindset, I’d guess I spent around two hours on false starts. There was the random granular IDM techno weird thing that was going to be about 145 bpm or higher, the total noise wash thing that was more sound design than songwriting, and some mid-tempo combinations of those.
Each of these explorations were pretty cool, and I was really enjoying just jamming out with them, but none of them really had legs – they were just cool to vibe to for awhile. I realized, though, that none of them were working as something I wanted to record.
- Lambent Memory Ray Toler 4:20
Opening up Omnisphere, I went to the pads section and clicked on one of the first patches in the list, “Agape Warmth,” which was one of my go-to big string pads prior to investing in several high-end orchestral sample libraries. It reminds me of a few of my favorite string sounds from the JV-2080, which are on a ton of my recordings from the 90s and 00s. They still sit really well in a mix, even though they’re augmented and electronic.
Edited reality can become more real than real – just look at almost any Instagram photo. We take these authentic, real moments, blur the edges, saturate the colors a little more, remove the blemishes, and create a false memory of something that did actually happen, but not as the only official record of it reflects.
This is going somewhere, I promise.
So back to the Agape strings. I wrote the two bar motif that opens this track almost immediately and, because it was already midnight, went ahead and recorded it, repeated it out for four minutes, and let it run while I looked for another sound. My instinct was that I wanted to go acoustic / orchestral, and the first thing that came to mind was a clarinet. I played in that entire part, let things keep looping for awhile and thought that it might actually be finished.
As beautiful a sound as it is, Agape Warmth isn’t really designed to stand on its own (or rather, I’ve never used it that way) and I wanted to do something a little more radical to it. Maybe a flange or some interesting pitch / time / delay things. It does have these crispy high end crackly bits, so maybe splitting those off and doing something to them?
Poking through the effects drawer, I came across one of my impulse-buys from the recent holiday sales season, Wires by AudioThing. According to the PR, this is an accurate model of a 1970s Soviet wire recorder (the modeled unit coming from East Germany), used primarily by the military and intelligence communities. Rather than tape, it records onto a very thin strand of wire, and it sounds every bit as good as you think a thin strand of wire would sound.
When I picked this up, my vague “need” for it would be for radically degrading spoken samples, or maybe creating another numbers station track like 42403. On a whim, I threw it onto the beautiful Agape strings. It destroyed them; it also made them beautiful in a different way.
What does it all mean?
As a general practice, I no longer tell people what I wrote the song about, or what I was thinking while I wrote it. I’ve gotten too many really amazing interpretations from other people, things I would never have thought of, so I think it’s up to the listener to decide. This is one of the reasons many of my tracks are named with $3 obscure words – they impart almost no context, other than (hopefully) sounding cool.
But every now and then, the work deserves or requires something a little more up front. I hadn’t thought about all of that Instagram stuff while I was writing the track, but the wire recorder effect immediately gave me the story that this piece was going to tell.
Spoiler Alert – If you do not want my interpretation to color your interpretation, skip on down to the Production and Mixing section now.
Do electric sheep dream of real grass?
Author Phillip K. Dick has been an enormous influence on my perception of the world, even though I didn’t know his name for many years, except as a bit of trivia attached to a movie. But then his name kept popping up as a bit of trivia for other movies. And more and more. Here are some of the movies that were based on his short stories and novels:
- Blade Runner
- Total Recall
- Minority Report
- The Man in the High Castle
- A Scanner Darkly
Dick’s writing was largely concerned with the frailty of what we call reality. How do you know that what you know is real. How do you know that you are actually reading this right now? How do you know that you’re not part of a computer simulation and, if you were, wouldn’t it be impossible for you to tell unless you had been programmed to be able to tell?
Yeah, that rabbit hole goes a long, dark way down. Let me know if you’d like to visit and have some tea.
It’s been demonstrated that not only is human memory fallible (ask any lawyer about the reliability of eye witnesses), but every human on the planet has memories of things that did not actually happen. You have memories from you childhood, and they are as real as anything else in your life, but they do not reflect exactly what happened. They’ve been molded and shaped over your life. Some of them aren’t your memories, but your parents’, and you only have that “memory” because the story of the moment was told to you, probably multiple times.
As an introvert and someone who lives the vast majority of his life inside his brain, dementia is one of the most frightening things in the world. Most of us have known someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia; it’s heartbreaking and tragic, and functionally equivalent to death in key respects.
No, seriously, this is going somewhere
So… I was talking about the strings getting destroyed. I was playing around a bit with the Mix setting in the wire recorder – this establishes the ratio between the original, beautiful strings, and the damaged, broken strings. As I moved between the two extremes, it was like opening a door to a moment long forgotten.
My description of this moment took some time to work out in terms that I could convey. In my brain, all of this happened instantaneously and at an instictive level that I cannot really explain to other people.
It was the same during my career. I’d see the answer – gloriously full and complete – but be unable to say why it was the answer until much later. I almost wrote that this was as frustrating to others as it was to me, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s more accurate to say that people generally discounted my solutions and my abilities, until time proved me right. Even with a history of correct answers behind me, people still have difficulty trusting something that can’t be explained.
Ok, that was a bit of a digression, but it’s all related. As the strings opened up, the entire story of this moment formed in my head. This is a person later in life, maybe with dementia, maybe just woolgathering. Sitting quietly. A fragment of a memory is triggered, flickering like a candle, and that memory opens up into the rich, overly-saturated, world of the mind where all the blemishes are gone and the light is indescribably bright, almost tangible, but without hurting your eyes.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the other way around.
Production and Mixing
After recording the clarinet and automating the wire recorder mix settings, I knew I wasn’t going to stop there. Next came the oboe, then the flute, then a bass clarinet. In my normal approach, each of these parts was improvised, and then I went back and fixed a the occasional flubbed note, adjusted the interplay a bit between parts to make it sound like what was in my head and not what my fingers played, or just tightened up the timing a bit.
Sample libraries are amazing, but they’re recordings of humans and the attack time of the notes varies a bit, even on the same instrument playing the exact same note. It’s like learning to drive your car, where you know that second gear is just a little bit finicky, so you have to shift a little more slowly. In 20 years of using Digital Performer, I’ve only started using the MIDI Shift Time plugin in the last two years to deal with this variety.
Mixing was fairly straightforward, and I only applied EQ to the Agape Warmth patch to tame those crispy bits that no longer helped the piece but made it sound poorly engineered. I almost posted at this point, but wanted just a tiny bit more of something.
That ended up being those massive warm strings that show up midway. I included an additional section of basses to really anchor the low end, got everything reasonably balanced and went to work on… wait, no. It’s finished.
Setting levels was a bit tricky – again, here’s a “quiet” piece but how quiet is quiet? What’s the balance point going to be. I’ve been using the Loudness Penalty plugin from Meterplugs on every track this month, and I think it’s helped quite a bit. It more accurately (again, according to the PR), addresses what’s going on behind the scenes at the various streaming services, because the algorithms they use are more involved than just an integrated LUFS value.
It’s always disconcerting to raise the volume level of the track by several dB, but as I click through everything in iTunes, everything is pretty well balanced against everything else, and that’s the whole point of me mastering these at all.
This is a pretty piece and carries quite a bit of gravitas for me as a tone poem. But maybe your interpretation is different. Maybe it’s just a pretty improvisation by a bedroom producer wannabe who tarted it up with a crazy effect.
And you are the only one who can know that.
If you can know anything.
- Synth Strings: Omnisphere
- All other parts: Spitfire Masse, Spitfire Symphonic Strings and Woodwinds
- Effects and EQ: AudioThing Wires, Brainworx SSL 9000 J, MOTU Masterworks EQ
- Mastering: Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
Image features an 1862 wood engraving by Émile Crépaux