Another day where participating in this challenge forces me past that inner slacker who convinces me to give up when I have no inspiration or, worse, my initial experiments just aren’t working. I was already in hardcore procrastination mode, finding all sorts of stupid things to do to avoid opening up that blank page. Like what you ask? Like going back and transcribing lyrics to my older Song-A-Day tracks. Not all of them, obviously, but several.
There was some thing in the back of my brain that I was trying to find, and I started poking through these older tracks, and very nearly lost my will to do anything. As I listened to all of this music that I’ve made, especially the “crude” stuff that I was doing in 2016, I was dismayed that it was so much better than anything I’m doing now.
That’s not true, of course. One of the blessings of being human is that we’ve built this defense mechanism into our systems that makes us forget trauma. If we didn’t, no woman would ever have a second child. In the future, I won’t remember how hard this month was to get through, I’ll only hear the music. And I’ll have the same reaction I’m having now listening to my older tracks:
There is no way I did that.
- Quixotic Intent Ray Toler 4:20
Actually, it was kind of a good diversion. While I was marveling at some of the things I’ve pulled off over the last seven years, I then started listening back over this month. I had the same reaction: I can’t believe I came up with that. I don’t even remember how I came up with that.
In addition to listening to past tracks, I started reading some of my older posts that detailed what was going on at the time and found that none of it was fundamentally different than what I’m going through right this very minute. I was just as traumatized, just as insecure as I am now.
Magically, this made me feel better about everything, at least long enough to get me to open up that blank page.
Composition and Production
In the grips of near exhaustion, my eyes were drooping and I kept finding myself zoning out. Finally shaking myself into action, I decided, as I have so many times this month, that I was going to do a nice, easy ambient piece. And as I have also done so many times this month, ended up in an entirely different place.
I opened up Cycles and Pigments, two go-tos this month, and dug around for awhile in presets. The two sounds that were the original bed are that bouncy arpeggio that starts things off and the weird vocal aaaah sound. Those were going to be the foundation of my ambient track. For the arpeggio, I spent some time adjusting the patch so that it was doing more interesting things than the original preset. I didn’t do a lot with the vocal sound other than find interesting intervals. At times, it became similar to a throat singing sound, which I was really digging.
Next, I went to Phobos to find some interesting noise/pad/ticky thing that would sit on top. I clicked around presets for awhile and wasn’t finding anything, so did a relatively uncommon thing and initialized the patch to build something from scratch. I didn’t find that noise/pad/ticky thing – I found the track you now hear. First was the low drone sound, then the beats. While looping around this for awhile, I played the main three-note motif and it was off to the races.
Back in 2015 or so, I was struggling with a song I had been working on for months. My brother, Bryan, told me that when he didn’t know what to do, add more noise, more distortion. And keep adding it. That trick has worked for me a couple of times, so why not?
Opening up Omnisphere, I found a fuzzy distorted sound, which is playing the higher note in the motif during the second half of the track. Not enough distortion. Find more. This is an area where Omnisphere has an identifiable “sound” and I’ve used that sound a lot in the past. I was really trying to do something a little different so I kept looking.
Ultimately, I found a very distorted sound, but it kept squealing into overdrive, and wasn’t very pleasant to hear. I rolled off a lot of the high end, and later ended up putting it through Output Portal to give it a little more variety and movement, as well as pulling out the lower frequencies so it didn’t stomp on everything else. At this point, I had the arrangement and a rough mix in place. Probably good enough. Cool. We’re finished. Yeah, you’re right, we’re not.
Sand in the Mix
Past me often struggled with a really dense mix like this. I just couldn’t figure out why the entire mix sounded like it had sand in it. Literally. The whole mix would sound like I was rubbing a piece of sandpaper on the wall nearby. And I couldn’t get any of the instruments in a place where they had their own “home.”
Most of the time, the arrangement is the first place to start looking – are two instruments in the same frequency range? Move one of them somewhere else. Clear out a space for everything. If you can’t do it with the arrangement, then do it with EQ. This helped a lot, and then I learned about gain staging, which immediately provided a 10,000% improvement to my tracks. Even before I’d mix them, they sounded better.
But I knew while I was writing this one that it was going to be a pain to mix. All of the instruments were big, bold, and distorted, covering a huge frequency range. When I started setting levels, I was pleased to find out that, no, everything’s kind of ok. I made some minor tweaks here and there, EQ, a touch of compression, but I didn’t have to do a lot of surgery.
Ok. Now it’s finished. No it’s not. I went looking for something else to layer on the second half of the track to give it a little more oomph and energy. What ended up being there is a distorted orchestra patch. I’m a little worried that this hybrid-soundtrack sound is going to become the 80s orchestra hit of the 20s, but I’ll be embarrassed by that later.
Some more tweaks, some extra balancing. Let’s get the mastering chain in place. Good. Levels are just about right. Loud track. No problem. 2:45 am. We’re done.
In fact, I was so done, that I bounced what I had and left the studio while it was working. I’d post it in the morning, but I really felt like it was finished.
Just Walk Away
There really is something to be said for taking a break. When I listened to my “finished” track in the morning, it just wasn’t hitting me as hard as it had the night before. In part, this is because I was mixing at too high a level and it sounded good. At normal listening levels, though, it was flat. The problem was with the main drum loop from Phobos. There was a weird, now annoying, crunch on the kick, and I couldn’t EQ it out, and I couldn’t get the meat of the kick to pop through, and it was a mess.
This is the main trouble with using loops as the basis for a track – now that I have a little better idea of what I’m doing, I really need an isolated kick, and prefer to have an isolated snare as well. The rest of it can sit back and relax. I opened up XO, initialized the patch, and found the three drums I needed to make everything pop: the regular kick, an 808 “boom” kick, and the snare. A bit of EQ, and then it was time to remix the entire thing.
The process was less of a hassle than I thought – I just reduced everything but the new drums by about 3-4 dB, and all of a sudden they were punching through like they were supposed to. The best way to make something in a mix loud is to turn everything else down. And then you smack the hell out of the whole thing.
The final result is vaguely familiar to me and, while spot checking the final file, I realized that it’s thematically / emotionally close to a hip-hop beat I made back in the 00s. Bryan used that track (with a speech by Henry Rollins laid over it) as the opening music for his band – it was just long enough to allow them to quickly move their gear onstage, and provided a cool intro to the show. It was pretty cinematic, and I think this one shares that DNA. I could definitely hear it behind a heist, a crew walking in slow motion, or with a bunch of explosions going on.
Sigh, no it’s not. I can hear two little breaks that I really want to do. Some quick soundbite editing and a new swoooosh sound later, and we really are done.
Bounce. Tag. Upload. Done.
- Drums: Phobos, XO
- Synths: Cycles, Pigments, Omnisphere, NI Rise & Hit
- Mastering: Gullfoss > Pro-L 2
Image Credit: John Voo