Having finished yesterday’s track relatively early in the day, and with just one song left in the month, I decided to take the night off and enjoy the evening with Mary.1We were down to the last four episodes of Twin Peaks. As a result, this is the first day all month that I’ve woken up and still had a blank slate in front of me.
After asking Mary for any final genre requests, I decided to do the final ambient piece for the Lunar Mare series. I hadn’t planned this series out prior to start of the month, which is obvious when you hear how different the first two are from the rest, but it ended up being a relatively nice and semi-coherent batch of tracks. I’m not sure I’ll turn them into an album, but they’ll definitely have a playlist.
- Mare Tranquillitatis Ray Toler 10:20
I left the blinds down and set the studio lights to a low-purple wash. I’ve used lighting a lot this month, not to set the mood but to reinforce whatever mood I thought I might be in.2The studio’s been a disaster for months and months, so one of my first post-Song-A-Day projects is going to be getting that all sorted. My starting point diverged from the previous Mare tracks for a couple of reasons.
First, I already knew the emotional feel I was going for: Mary likes the soft ambient pieces that she can fall asleep or doze to. I had asked her if she wanted something that was a pure sound wash, something with an overt percussion component, or something in the middle – semi-melodic and with tempo, but without drums. She chose the last option.
Second, I’ve been avoiding the “famous” lunar seas that everyone seems to use (Serenity and Tranquility), and selecting the name after the piece was written based on which seemed most fitting. Mare Frigoris was kind of cold. Mare Imbrium had this “melancholy on a rainy day” feel and so on. Since the emotional content for this one was already chosen, I decided that this one would be Mare Tranquillitatis. As a nerdy bonus, the title shares Mary’s initials. Having the name selected first actually did influence some of my sonic and arrangement choices.
Third, since this was sort of turning into a “track for Mary to make up a tiny bit for not writing a love song this year,” I set the tempo to 94 – the year we got married.3I enjoy putting little details in my music that nobody will ever find, but that have some extra meaning for me. I normally forget about them until looking at the project and seeing a tempo, patch name, or controller data shape that’s clearly “artificial” in some way.
Artisanal, Hand-Crafted Ambient from the Pacific Northwest
Mare Tranquillitatis diverges from the rest of this month’s ambient tracks in that almost everything is an intentional choice. Most of the time, I enjoy the happy accidents and surprises that occur with randomization or the interplay of different periodic cycles, but I had some specific targets in mind. It’s also the longest track of the month, just breaking the ten minute mark. Since it’s the last day, and since the goal is a song to fall asleep to, let’s be luxurious about it.
I started with the opening sound. This is one of the few bits of semi-random in the piece – those surges and pulses are a function of the note velocity (how hard I played it on the keyboard), and change every time a new note is added. It was while playing in the various chords that I decided the track duration needed to be on the long side – those random bits in this patch need time to breathe and decay to nothing.
Next was the soft ostinato that asserts itself around the two minute mark. This reminds me more than a little of the seminal ambient track, A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld by The Orb, a group that profoundly influenced my life’s musical journey. While the choice wasn’t a specific nod to The Orb, I was happy to go with the moment and run with it, layering two more synths into the ostinato to provide some of the sharpness from their track.
Typically, I create these ostinatos by duplicating the MIDI for the chords in the pad track, then sending those notes through an arpeggiator, letting it do most of the work. In this case, though, I wanted very specific patterns, and they change throughout the piece. Arpeggiators typically use a set pattern and, while there are ways to get what I was trying to do by using an “as played” setting that honors note order, it was faster for me to just play in the ostinatos by hand.
The structure is somewhat interesting. Each of the ostinato patterns are eight measures long, and there are four patterns per major chord in the main pads. This provides both the hypnotic effect of repetition, but with a lot more variety to keep things from becoming monotonous.
Long track times allow this luxury, but they also have some drawbacks. It takes a very long time to listen back to things. Also, file sizes get pretty big. All of my stereo masters and individual parts are recorded at 24 bit / 48 kHz rates. The file for the main pad alone is nearly 200 megs, and the project folder is almost 2 gigs.4This is insane when I think back to the early days of digital audio. This one project would be almost 25% of my 9 gig hard drive, and that was a lot of space at the time. Rendering audio also takes a lot longer. Even at faster-than-realtime, it still took at least 2-3 minutes to render each of the parts.
The next addition was a bass part for the pedal notes. I tried using a function in my DAW that lets me split off the lowest note from a chord to a new track – it’s a cool shortcut that can save a ton of time – but sadly the results weren’t great. I had chosen some very wide chord voicings and inversions, so the root of the chord was rarely the lowest note played. 5An aside from later in the production process: when I got near the end of production, I actually had to switch out my bass part for a different sound because the patch I’d chosen wasn’t very strong and kept getting lost. It was at this point that I could finally hear that the notes I’d chosen were now clashing with other arranging choices I’d made in the interim.
After adding the bass part and listening back, everything was nice and soft and warm, but it was also a bit muddy and dark. I started looking for sounds in the higher frequencies and found the patch that brings in the second bit of unpredictability. It’s the occasional three to four note run that pops through, and it happens at differing times. It’s not random, as it’s based on the number of notes in the chord along with a couple of other things, but it’s also not routine.
The other thing I did to brighten up the piece was to add the string pad. It has a prominent chorus/phaser effect added, which provides some additional motion – things slowly pulsing like gentle waves. I think I have it a bit too loud, but that will require some repeated listening to decide.
I tried a different trick this time for setting mastering levels and loudness – I started playback in the loudest sections of this track, then switched over to iTunes and played several of my tracks from the month simultaneously. When I couldn’t really tell if one was louder than the other, I figured I’d gotten to the right general level and bounced the final stereo master. It seemed to work pretty well, and I might use this approach again.
Is It Tranquil?
The irony in all of this is that while I took great care to compose and arrange this piece in a very particular way, I’m not sure I achieved the goal I had set. It’s a little too demanding. It’s relaxing, but I’m not sure I could fall asleep to it. I’m not sure what, if anything, needs to change, but I suspect that there’s just too much variety and motion. The 8-bar ostinato pattern changes might be too frequent. The chord changes in general might be too much. It’s not quite as hypnotic as I think it needs to be.
But don’t get me wrong – I like it very much and am pleased that I was able to more-or-less capture what I had in my head. It was also good to break from my typical Song-A-Day approach of using a lot of shortcuts in the name of time management and efficiency. Sometimes you want to clean up the hedges with pruning shears instead of power clippers.
And with that, we come to the end of another Song-A-Day challenge. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music and the accounts of creating it – thank you for listening! I’ll reflect on the month in a final wrap-up post in another day or two.
Instruments & Samples
Omnisphere, Falcon, Synclavier-V, Auras, Choreographs
Mixing & Mastering
Valhalla Shimmer, Kramer Tape, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
- 1We were down to the last four episodes of Twin Peaks.
- 2The studio’s been a disaster for months and months, so one of my first post-Song-A-Day projects is going to be getting that all sorted.
- 3I enjoy putting little details in my music that nobody will ever find, but that have some extra meaning for me. I normally forget about them until looking at the project and seeing a tempo, patch name, or controller data shape that’s clearly “artificial” in some way.
- 4This is insane when I think back to the early days of digital audio. This one project would be almost 25% of my 9 gig hard drive, and that was a lot of space at the time.
- 5An aside from later in the production process: when I got near the end of production, I actually had to switch out my bass part for a different sound because the patch I’d chosen wasn’t very strong and kept getting lost. It was at this point that I could finally hear that the notes I’d chosen were now clashing with other arranging choices I’d made in the interim.