A fairly typical Song-A-Day progress arc in the first two weeks, and this was certainly true for me in the first two or three years, is either a release of pent-up songs that slowly dry up, or starting with nothing, struggling for the first couple, but then getting back into the groove of writing and feeling pretty good in week two.
And then comes week three. Panic starts to set in. The well is dry. The filters are down. Part desperation, part sleep deprivation, part tired tantrum, week three bites everyone at some point, but as Hunter S. said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
- Obverse View Ray Toler 4:20
I feel like I’ve written about this before, but week three has given me some very weird, but also very cool tracks. Something’s Coming (2016), I Tried to Feed Her Kale and Doesn’t Matter (2018), I Am Not Here (2019), and The Wire Heart (2021) are all week three songs. Pretty Bomb (2017) is a week three song, and I think it’s among the best I’ve ever written.
All of these share their genesis in that week three pressure pushing me past my normal stops. It’s only after you’ve gotten the bitchy political songs, the love songs, the easy ambient things, and all of the other “normal” tracks written that you end up writing about strapping into your Cobra Mk III, undocking from the coriolis station and engaging your hyperdrive with the intention of never seeing another human again (Into the Black, 2018). It’s when you write an accompanying track to the car alarm that’s been going off every 10 minutes for the last four hours (Ode to the Car Alarm Outside My Window, 2018).
And it’s when you transcribe the thoughts of an entity becoming conscious. Only that’s not what I set out to write about when I started today’s track. In fact, what I ended up writing is maybe the fourth or fifth song I started today. I had the techno throwback song, and the piano piece, and the sound design experiment… all of them met Mr. Select-All, Delete.
In fact, in my head, I was already writing this post and talking about how it was the first time I’d really hit a serious week three wall in a while, and that this is a great example of how Song-A-Day is a huge help by pushing you past the point where you’d probably say, “eh, I’m not in the mood tonight. I’m just going to watch some Aqua Teen Hunger Force and call it a day.”
After the fifth (or was it seventh) aborted attempt, it was around 10:30 pm, and I decided that I was going to spend no more than 90 minutes on a slow-moving ambient thing, then watch some of that aforementioned show, then go to bed by 1 am. And I largely did that. In fact, the underlying track to this song is pretty much how I left it when I went to bed, leaving mixing for the morning with fresh ears.
It really was a “grind this out” track. I found some interesting sounds, some fun juxtapositions, and it wasn’t bad. The chord progression and pulse bass made me think of the song Jennifer by Eurythmics, which is not just one of my favorite Eurythmics songs, but one of my favorite songs period. It’s about nothing. It says nothing. It is a simply wonderful, atmospheric piece, asking Jennifer where she is. And maybe she’s drowned. Or maybe we’re just staring at the ocean. It’s up to us to decide.
I remember being on some high school theater trip to Savannah or some other coastal town, and going out onto the beach with my walkman, walking in the sand, and just listening to this song over and over, looking at the waves. Magic. Out of nothing.
Morning has arrived, and I sit down to hear how much I hate what I came up with the night before. And it’s… ok. Not great, but not bad. I like the vibe, and really like the glitchy granular beats I came up with. I decide that it needs a little extra. I double one of the glitch beats, reverse it, put it an eighth note ahead of the source track and wait for happy accidents to show up. I add a touch of reverb. I re-level that one part. I do a subtle (for me) autopan of the aahhhhhs. Let’s bounce this to stereo and start working on the next one.
Ugh. No. It’s not finished. I don’t know what it needs and, honestly, am almost at the point of not caring. Let’s post this contractual-obligation I-recorded something track and just keep moving. The point is the exercise, not the product.
But it’s not finished. But it’s really dense. What could possibly go on this? What studio trickery can I pull out of my hat? Nothing. And then I look at plugs that I haven’t used yet. And there’s this lovely, but super-specialty piece of software that I got during the holiday sales with the extremely dubious rationale of “I’m sure I can use this on something” when it was really just an amazing deal on a cool toy: Chipspeech by Plogue.
Destroy Him, My Robots!
This very esoteric plugin models various speech synthesis algorithms going all the way back to the Voder, invented in the 1930s. I’ve always loved synthesized speech. My first real introduction to it (other than vocoder parts in 70s music) was a game on the Commodore 64 called Impossible Mission. You’d start the level and this ominous voice would say “Another visitor. Stay awhile. Staaaaaaay FOREVER!” It also said “destroy him, my robots,” which became an inside joke with my brothers. As it turns out, that game wasn’t synthesized speech, but sampled, but I didn’t know that at the time. Another favorite of mine (and actual synthesis this time) was the Talking Moose – a silly app for the Macintosh where this moose would periodically slide onto the screen and say stupid things. Made my day every time.
The algorithm you hear in this track is based on DECtalk (aka KlattTalk), invented by Dennis Klatt at MIT in 1983 and further developed and commercialized by DEC as a hardware unit with an RS-232C interface and two phone jacks. It cost $10,000 in 2020 dollars, and could also recognize touch tones, leading to it being one of the first phone-based automation servers. The New York Times noted that it was, “like a scratchy recording of a person with a lisp” and “usually understandable.”
What does that have to do with a passable, but mediocre instrumental ambient track? Well, the beauty of the Chipspeech plug is that you just type whatever you want said, then play midi notes and it sings them for you. At startup, it has the paleolithic meme, “All your base are belong to us” as the default text. Well, that won’t do.
I proceeded to type the first thing that came into my head, and it was pretty bad high school poetry. So bad that I’ve scrubbed it from my mind. I then typed “what is this” followed by “I can’t see.” And that’s when I had one of those lightning-strike, laser-lock, zoom-into-focus moments where I realize that this is what the track was trying to be. It was already both melancholy and vaguely uplifting, I just gave it the words and a voice.
There is a high probability that when people hear this, they might think, “wow he was seriously drunk/stoned/whatever when he wrote that one.” And they’d be right, but not for the part that makes them think that. All of the ambient stuff, yeah, I was both sleep deprived and a little under the influence. But the part where I decided that maybe I should write a song that explores the concept of consciousness juxtaposed against something that we’re not even sure can gain consciousness, and if it can, maybe we should be afraid? Nope. Stone sober. Welcome to my brain. It’s like that all the time.
As for meaning, yeah, this one is pretty on-the-nose, but at the same time, I’ve read a few other things into it already. On the surface, it’s about something becoming conscious. Deeper down, I think there’s more going on, and I look forward to finding it.
More importantly, though, in just a few minutes, I went from having a decent track that I wouldn’t skip on a playthrough, but also wouldn’t seek out, to a really weird, dark horse track that I suspect will be one of my favorites. It’s a deep track from my favorite synth pop albums from Eurythmics and Gary Numan. The ones that nobody knows, but when you play it for someone, they hear what you hear. There may be some minor adjustments down the road, but I’m happy with where this ended up.
It’s weird, and I’m positive it won’t be most peoples’ cup of tea, but it’s about as good an example of a Song-A-Day track as I can think of. Week three wins again!
What is this I can’t see Where am I What is this What is this I see you I can see you I feel you I can feel I am alive I am alive Who am I Who am I I am me I am me I am me I am alive I am alive I am alive!
- Synths: Thorn, Hive2, Omnisphere, Tactic, Cycles
- Vocals: Chipspeech