Transcendental Existentialism

Another journey back in time. I got a late start on today’s track and puttered around for a long time trying to decide what I was going to do. As has been my pattern, it started out ambient, then did something else, then circled back to ambient, and on and on. The vocal samples are what finally gave me an anchor to build around.

My studio’s in pretty good shape, at least operationally. Aesthetically, it’s a huge mess, but that’s an upcoming project. I’ve noticed that I’ve been relying more and more heavily on software, and when I do get a hardware itch, I normally head over to the keyboard synths. But there’s a whole rack of hardware in arms reach, and they just keep getting ignored.

That’s a shame, too, because they really are some lovely pieces of gear. With one exception, all are romplers, and the presets definitely reflect that “sound” that some peple love and some people hate. They’ve been workhorses for me over the years, though.

  1. Transcendental Existentialism Ray Toler 4:20

I’m not sure if I was feeling guilty for not having used them, nostalgic for the old days when I was writing a ton of music but still too afraid to let anyone hear the things I’d written, or just trying to find another “shake things up” scenario to get one more Song-A-Day track out.

The end result is sort of a combination of all of those. I only used two software sources: the choir because I’d already written the part (it was going to be a more complex choral/ambient thing), and the drums, entirely for expediency. Everything else came from the hardware in my console.

Whether it was the sounds, the mindset, or the choral starting point, this track ended up sounding like dozens I did in the 90s/00s, and these were largely the ones that led to my agreement with Mary about never deleting things (see No Molesté for more detail). I’d spend an evening building a track like this, spend an hour or two jamming with it, and then quit without saving. I had enjoyed the time, but didn’t consider these worthy of the hard drive space, which was a bit more dear at the time. I remember spending at least $600 or more on a 9 gigabyte hard drive. I now have single audio projects that come close to that size. Crazy.

So with the exception of the pristine choir samples, this could be a lost song from that era. It has the same vibe, the same sound. I’ll try to dig around and include two of my tracks from the late 90s for comparison.

Composition

As mentioned, I had created this nice choral build, starting with three notes and bringing more and more in over the course of the track. It’s kind of a shame that they become part of the general texture at the end, because some of the chords are really lovely. I may make another attempt at a choral piece, but I really need to learn the mechanics of the library more deeply before doing so.

I bounced around the various hardware units, playing with different sounds, but it was the strange noise sound that got things moving again. I love odd noises and atmospherics, and with this “radio” noise going through a huge reverb, coupled with the choir, it really had a nice sound. I considered posting just that, but thought it wouldn’t be interesting for the full length of the piece.

The next sound is really the one that shifted me out of ambient mode and into… well, frankly I have no idea what to call this stuff. Is it smooth jazz? New Age? Downtempo? Baby-makin’-music? No idea. I suppose that’s for someone else to decide. To me, I guess it’s just a Slow Jam or Slow Groove. Sorry – the sound that shifted me into this mode was the guzheng (a Chinese plucked zither instrument). The opening melody was one of the first things I played, and it just stuck. I heard it as something that would have a long period of repetition, so I copied it out every 16 bars.

At this point, I knew I was going into groove territory, so went to one of my software workhorses, Stylus RMX. I even knew which expansion library I was going to be using (Liquid Grooves). I didn’t bother with my usual customization and glitchy randomizing, this is just a straight preset. Rather than build the arrangement in MIDI, I opted to record each of the individual loops, then repeat those on their own tracks, then create the arrangement more visually.

Unfortunately, the main beat, including kick, snare, and hats, are all in the same loop and I couldn’t break them out. That’s actually closer to 90s accurate for me, though, since if I had used a loop (I was stil fighting that, then), it would have been out of the JV-2080 and I wouldn’t have been able to break that out either. The ensuing years have given me a lot of mixing practice, though, so they don’t sound too bad.

Next came the pedal bass and the resonant funk bass. Simple parts and the worst thing about them was sitting and recording in real time. Offline bounce (the computer records the software audio output as fast as it can) spoils you quickly. This must be what AIs will feel like when dealing with human time scales.

I messed around with several different lead sounds, and almost didn’t even do a lead part. It was just a groove. But when I found the harp patch in the Fantom XR, I liked how it layered with the guzheng, especially when I doubled the hook melody. At that point, it was just a matter of not overplaying and leaving lots of space for the piece to expand into. I even managed not to do my normal funk bass solo through the whole thing. Hooray for restraint!

After a full listen-through, I added a brief sparkly pad behind the hook repetitions and called it done. A few more arrangement edits were made as I was mixing to make the ending a little more interesting and let the radio noise decay naturally most of the way.

There are more small details that could be added to provide additional variety, but the point is made, and that can always be done later with minimal impact to the mix.

Mixing and Mastering

This one gave me a lot of trouble. More trouble than I expected and, frankly, more trouble than it should have. It’s a very quiet piece, and that’s kind of the point of it, but my meters were so low I was worried that the mastering stage might actually expose the noise floor. I typically mix on a K-14 setting, and try to get my mix RMS to sit at 0. This gives up to 14 dB of room to expand into during mastering. Most of the time, I have fairly dynamic mixes, but this one was at the extreme range.

The problem is that bringing some of the sustained parts up (choir, pedal bass), or really anything for that matter, just made it too pushy and loud. I finally got things mixed reasonably well, and ended up having to make four different masters because I couldn’t get the level to sit nicely with everything else I’ve done this month.

One of my plugins gives me some guidance on loudness targets, and this is a perfect example of knowing when to ignore the numbers and use your ears. I may have to do some more practice with this style to get better at mixing it.

Another example of knowing when to use a different tool: At the very end of the track, the last little bit of the harp had this really sharp ringing pitch up around 8k or 9k. It wasn’t as bad as mic feedback, but it did stick out and things like that have bugged me to no end with my older tracks. I’ve been EQing things with the Brainworx SSL 9000 J almost exclusively this month, but this is where a surgical software equalizer is the right tool, and the ones that come with Digital Performer are really, really good.

I’m not sure how this track will age. I know I discounted similar tracks back in the 90s, but they’ve become some of my favorite background music while flying, driving, reading, or just chilling out and thinking. Maybe this one will end up in the same place.

Colophon

  • Drums: Stylus RMX
  • Choir: Spitfire Eric Whitacre Choir
  • Synths:
    • Roland JV-2080, Fantom XR, Integra-7
    • Yamaha FS1R
    • Emu Xtreme Lead 1
    • Access Virus
  • Effects: PanMan, H3000 Factory, Portal, Valhalla Plate and Delay
  • Mixing & Mastering: BX SSL 9000 J, MOTU Masterworks EQ, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2

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