Over the course of the day, several ideas came and went for my penultimate track of the month. I get these little snippets of melody all the time, most of them are enjoyed for a few moments and then lost to the dark corners of my memory. Occasionally they resurface, but most of the time, I suppose they just hang out together smoking clove cigarettes, bitching about the system, and wondering what could have been if they’d only gotten their shot.
We were supposed to get three to five inches of snow between Tuesday and Thursday, but instead got a light dusting that cleared out by Wednesday morning, when I woke up with a killer headache. One of my migraine triggers is bad weather approaching. It doesn’t happen all the time, but quite often I’ll get one about six to twelve hours before rain or snow starts. It’s also not always a migraine, sometimes it’s just a run-of-the-mill sinus headache.
So it was a bit odd to wake up with this headache, which hadn’t made up its mind whether it was going to go migraine or stay sinus, with the sun shining and the ice melting. But it stayed with me all day, acting as a bouncer for all of those song ideas trying to sneak into the club.
I finally shambled into the studio around 9:30 or so, without much of an idea and distracted by this headache. It’s interesting what various states of impairment do to my creative process.
- Nubivagant Ray Toler 3:39
Artists from all disciplines throughout history have embraced and even relied on altered forms of consciousness to tap into the art within. Some drink, some use psychedelics, uppers, downers, meditation, fasting… all of these things change the chemistry of the brain, opening up different pathways, shifting associations, changing perspective. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s very rare for me to be impaired in any way while writing or recording. Running the DAW software and staying creative is enough of a challenge when I’m sober, so I can’t imagine keeping it all straight while out of my mind on something. I might have a drink or two, but I’m rarely drunk.
There’s only one track I can remember writing while drunk, which is Cellin, my submission on February 10, for Song-A-Day 2017. Mary and I had gone to the corner bar that features 60+ taps, and I had two high ABV beers. I tend to be a happy/silly drunk when I get to that point, and this night was definitely one of those. I stumbled home with Mary’s help and used the walls to steady myself as I went into the studio, because Song-A-Day is a commitment, dammit! While I wasn’t blackout drunk (I don’t think I’ve ever been blackout drunk), I don’t have any clear memories of recording the track. Listening to it the next day, and even now, I can absolutely hear my state of mind in it. I was happy, and not just because of the beer. I had left my job, was back living in the same state with my wife, and was enjoying having nothing to do but write music every day.
Salvador Dali famously said, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” Mary would probably apply that to me as well. I experience something that I describe as synesthesia, only because that’s the closest thing I can find that comes close. I experience “color” when I listen to music. It’s not like I see the color red, or my vision becomes tinted, but rather that the music itself is red. Or blue. Or a squiggly mishmash of lots of things. I also see patterns and lights when falling asleep that sound very similar to what people describe seeing while on mushrooms or LSD. My brother sees them as well, so maybe it’s a genetic thing.
I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.– Salvador Dali
So I’ve never felt the need to use recreational drugs. I also don’t like feeling out of control of my own body, so I’m not sure I would find it a pleasant experience. Even those rare occasions when I’m overly drunk causes me some mental discomfort unless I’m in safe and familiar surroundings.
Writing the Track
Headaches, on the other hand, are a fairly common impairment for me, though much less so now than in my earlier years. And so it was with this track.
Sitting in the studio, I flipped through sound after sound, hoping to find a quick inspiration that would let me knock out this song and try to go to bed. The pain had gotten progressively worse over the course of the day and shifted to the left side of my head. Light was beginning to be a pain source, so looking at the screen was getting difficult as well.
I found one sound that I played for around 30 minutes – it was almost therapeutic. It was a simple synth sound, but the effects chain on it created a perpetual loop that would be overwritten and changed as additional notes were played. The patterns would shift, sometimes becoming rhythmic, sometimes melodic, sometimes devolving into chaos. It was a wonderful distraction, and I didn’t notice the pain of the headache while I was deep into it. I came very close to just recording about five to ten minutes of this and posting it, since Song-A-Day is also about experimentation for me.
Ultimately, though, I decided that it would be boring for the listener, even me, in isolation without the context and meditative experience. I may go back to it, as there are some interesting possibilities, but I want to learn more about the programming of the sound first.
Switching back over to Omnisphere, I decided to do the equivalent of an artist’s quick-draft pencil sketch. I took the first textural sound I liked (the opening sound of the track), extended it to around the three-minute mark, then searched for the next sound, which is the pulsing chord.
The progression you hear is what I played as I heard it for the first time. I then added the bass note. My first choice was less sharp, so I replaced it with one that would cut through a bit more clearly when I needed it to.
Next was the lead line. I still struggle with improvisational soloing, but was relatively happy with what came out. Again, you’re hearing what I played on the first take. I do like the melody that gets repeated in the center chord section. That would be something that I might go back to later and polish a bit.
The final step was to add a little sonic interest. The second, faster chord progression was an obvious and logical place, even more because it appeared at about the halfway point. I wanted something less “drum beat” and more “percussive impact” – big and slow to offset the 16th note pulses of the chords.
I added a few more high end percussive sounds, the pulsing tick that’s moving back and forth across the sound stage as well as the glitch noises. It still didn’t feel complete, so I added a shimmer effect to the pulse chords. This is such a powerful sonic tool, though it can overtake everything around it if you’re not careful. The way the effect works is that it’s a combination of pitch shifting and delays. The sound is shifted up by an interval, typically an octave, then it echoes and the delayed version is shifted up another octave, and so on and so on. You can hear the shimmer in isolation at the very end of the track after the pulses stop. I just let them decay naturally away.
The total elapsed improvisational recording time was probably around 15-20 minutes. Figure another five to ten for sound selection and effects, and another five or so for final EQ and polish. Listening the following morning (with the headache still with me), I hear some of the same qualities I did in Cellin. Not the happiness, but the desires to be floaty and airy.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the track once I got started was actually naming it. I’ll give one of my secrets away here: The Phrontistery. Enjoy your rabbit hole.
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere
- Spitfire Phobos
Next up: I’m Back (And I’m Backin’ It Up!)