An area of sound that I’ve been really enjoying for several years now are “broken” things. Normally, I do this with distortion or granular synthesis, or sometimes by adding randomness to some element of a sound. A few years ago, I bought an expansion pack called “Beautifully Broken” and many of those sounds capture exactly the character I’m talking about, even if I haven’t used the patches in many tracks that have gone beyond the sketch stage.
- The Wire Heart Ray Toler 4:45
The broken electric piano in The Wire Heart is the sound that really defined what this piece became, even though it wasn’t my starting point. That was the main repeating theme you hear at the beginning. I named that sound “piano” in my project, though it isn’t really a piano – it was filling that space, but it’s a synth of some sort or other and I was either trying to move quickly or being lazy. But I know that it’s almost always a good idea to try layering an electric piano along with a piano-ish sound, so I went on the hunt for some patches.
The electric piano comes in at measure 9 and has those metallic prangs, zings, and sometimes out of tune notes that appear from time to time. I didn’t really have any control over them, and occastionally they’d jump out in an unpleasant way. I considered whether or not this was something I wanted to fix (or should fix), and in the end decided it was exactly that messiness I was drawn to.
So… modern weird ambient checklist:
- Warbly Boards Of Canada pad sound – check!
- Hypnotically repeating synth bit – check!
- Interesting “wrong” sound in the middle of everything – check!
- Pulsey synth pad to give the illusion of beat – check!
Huh. Lots of checks, but it’s not finished. I don’t know what it needs, but it’s not finished. Then I realize that it needs something else underneath in a couple of places, and maybe a rise and fall of some sort, but I don’t know if it’s an emotional rise and fall or a sonic one.
And as I started scrolling through sample libraries looking for something to throw in the soup, the orchestras started beckoning to me. At first I thought I was just going to add some double bass and cello, but I couldn’t stop. I kept adding more… viola, first and second violins… they’re serving the same function that I would normally use a nice synth pad for, but they’re beautiful and rich.
It was at this point that this track stopped being a modern weird ambient thing and started becoming just another one of my weird things that I have no idea what to do with. It’s not orchestral. It’s not ambient. It’s not anything, really. But it’s pretty, and I want more.
I took the arrangement out a bit more so that I could bring that nice, chordal rise and fall in one more time. I thought about adding some sprinkles of woodwinds from the Spitfire British Drama Toolkit (see February 2 for a track that features that library), but decided that I would rather have more control over what they were doing.
Woodwinds are sort of out of favor in a lot of modern orchestral (mostly film) compositions, but I’ve always loved them. Growing up with a concert band conductor for a father, I almost never heard strings. In concert band arrangements, the woodwinds often take the parts that the violins and violas would have, and I love when they’re arranged so that there are little solos and conversations happening.
I used small sections, typically 2 players, for each of the woodwind tracks, which feature flutes, cor anglais, clarinets, and bass clarinets. I’m particularly happy with the moments when the clarinets come forward and take focus, then move back into the chorus.
I don’t find orchestral arranging to be an insurmountable challenge, despite my relative lack of experience. I’m positive that’s from being exposed to so much concert and orchestral music growing up, and just absorbing a lot of that technique from my parents. The challenge now is that I have to be more than just an arranger, I have to learn how to “perform” these instruments as they exist in sample libraries. What’s trivial to accomplish on an actual clarinet may require multiple hands, passes, and tracks in the sample world. It’s definitely possible, but there’s a lot more “programming” than playing involved and that can be both tedious and challenging to get correct. But, oh, does it sound lovely when I do!
Sometimes when I’m writing, I have a title or theme in mind. In those cases, the song is written to the title, even though what that means can be very abstract or loose. Other times, I just pick some word that has no real emotional content (or is intentionally obscure) because I don’t want to prejudice the listener with whatever I thought the piece was about when I had to name it. This time, though, the name just seemed right when I thought of it. The piece is sweet, vaguely nostalgic or melancholic without being sad, and has a rhythm, both in the pulse-sense as well as in the peaks and valleys sense of the overall arrangement. And it celebrates its imperfection. The word “wire” may be a bit too literal, but it was such a great mental image for me that I had to go with it.
Beyond that, what “The Wire Heart” actually means is up to you.
- Broken Electric Piano, Other Synths: Omnisphere
- Flutes, Cor Anglais, Clarinets, Bass Clarinet: Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds
- Strings: Spitfire Symphonic Strings
- Effects: FabFilter Pro-R
- Mastering: Ozone 9
Image Credit: Silvo