We’re in the home stretch. Less than a week left, and I’m tired, but also generally pleased with the month’s progress to date. The danger now is running out of steam, either in the form of ideas or just the energy to hit the record button.
The energy of this track reflects my energy level as I sat down to write. Cover day, with all of its own odd stresses, drained my reserves to some degree, and I really was planning on a nice quiet piece. I don’t necessarily try to make the sequence of songs have an emotional/energy arc, but it is in the back of my mind sometimes. After the bombastic exuberance of Villa Green, I felt like a hard snap to ambient might be just the ticket.
I’m also at the point where I’m reaching into the bag of tricks and constraints to help focus my efforts. My other self-imposed constraints have done a decent job this month, but I needed a little extra something. Once again, I decided to use only synths/software I hadn’t used yet this month, but then went even further: this track will use a synth I’ve never used and further, it will be the only synth used on the entire track.
- Worlds Apart Ray Toler 4:20
Now if the first condition weren’t there, Omnisphere would be the obvious choice. It’s such a Swiss Army knife that using it really wouldn’t be much of a constraint at all, just an efficiency hack. I wasn’t thinking this explicitly, but I was actually staying away from all of the romplers for the same reason – they’re just too capable and broad.
Scanning over the plugin list, I went to the u-He section. I’ve used a few of these this month, but I’ve never used their well-regarded Diva, which models old analog circuitry, other than to plunk around a bit. It sounds amazing, but it’s a relatively new addition to the kit and just hasn’t made it beyond the glitzier options.
The first sound that jarred me awake and into action is the beautiful piano-type sound that plays throughout the track. It’s made only of sine waves, and has this purity to it, but also an insane amount of “warmth” whatever that is. I found the chords fairly quickly, and then noodled the melody that appears in the chorus in only a minute or two.
This is the point where I had the first inklings that this one might actually be a song, so I found a chill beat, looped it, and started pondering. The opening line was the first thing I came up with, followed by the rest of the opening verse, but I don’t remember the order in which I wrote the rest. I only had the first verse and the first chorus after the initial bout of writing, so I was thinking that maybe this would just be a quick sketch – get the idea down and maybe come back to it later in the year (or decade).
That changed when I started recording vocals, though, and I came up with the rest of the lyrics on the fly. Again, no idea what order things happened in – this was one where I had some nice rhymes, and some nice images, and it just required a little puzzle-solving to put the right pieces in the right places. There was a little word-smithing, but not much beyond what I originally wrote. The opening verse is very strong, and I’m happy that the rest of the lyrics keep up reasonably well.
Guilty admission: While mixing, I toyed with the idea of changing the line “so give the dice another roll” to “so give the dice another role.” On the one hand, it creates another interesting batch of interpretive possibilities. It’s also a pretty good pun, at which I shudder, but celebrate at the same time. But ultimately, it’s the kind of kitschy precociousness that people mistake for “deep.” It’s a high school poetry line.
After recording the vocals, I added the bass and the warm pad. I did a rough mix and then saved for the night. I wasn’t overjoyed with what I had, but I also didn’t hate it. I figured fresh ears and some sleep would do a world of good.
Morning Has Broken
In the morning, I added the bell sound and the high pad, and I wasn’t unhappy with the vocals, though I did end up re-recording both choruses. I had done a quick tuning the night before, and was debating whether or not I was going to undo all of that; it seems somehow wrong to have perfect vocals on a song this introspective.
At the same time, older Ray has finally understood that there are times for pure authenticity, but more often, the song is the most important thing. If the vocals are out of tune and that’s distracting, then it’s not authentic, just sloppy.
I decided to take the middle-road and do it old school: I sang a bunch of takes then picked the best parts out of each one and “comped” a good take together. This is how pretty much every record you’ve heard was done until tuning software like Melodyne and Autotune got really good.
Happily, my pitch wasn’t really much of the issue, though it’s amazing how a minor deviation that would be perfectly acceptable by itself become a big problem when doubling. There are a few left in that I would tackle if this weren’t a one-day project, but I’m generally happy with the vocals.
As an aside, it’s funny how you forget things. When I was acting and doing a lot of musicals, I often had hot water with lemon or hot tea somewhere nearby while warming up. This morning while I was re-recording the vocals, I had my coffee and things just worked better. I was also a little stuffed up (you can really hear it on the verses) – more than usual.
The mix was easy and quick. You’d think I’d learn by now that if I keep the arrangement simple, the music will sound better all on its own. Some light compression on the kick and bass, a bit of EQ here or there, my normal vocal effects, along with an extra delay.
This is a hard track to classify from a quality standpoint. I’m very happy with the lyrics – they’re poetic, dramatic, and I didn’t have to struggle and force rhymes. Arrangement-wise, it’s a little dull. I did what I could bringing things in and out, but I think it would need a few more sprinkles of something to really sound interesting. Songs like Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Street and Don’t Give Up are the kinds of thing I hear in my head – maybe some more shakers, an additional beat or elements… just the small subtle details that make it rich and deep instead of long and boring.
(Important note: I’m not saying that some extra percussion is what separates this song from Mercy Street – it is an amazing song in every way I can think of and just on another level entirely.)
One effect that I hadn’t planned on was the slightly radio-sound of the verses… I was setting my low-cut level and had maxed it, then decided I liked it as an extra dimension. I almost sets up the verses as internal and choruses as external.
While I never know what will resonate with people, I’m pretty sure this will end up as one of my “almost” tracks. Good lyrics, bad melody. Good melody, bad arrangement. Good arrangement, bad performance. Good performance bad lyrics. Around and around we go. Every now and then everything lands at once, and those are happy days.
That’s not to say, however, that I don’t like this song. As with many of my “almost” songs (e.g., Cascade, , I like it, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy listening to it. It’s just not one of the ones I would pick if someone new asked to hear some of my music. It’s a deeper track in my catalog, and maybe it will become something more in the future, but even if it doesn’t, I enjoyed making it and like listening to it.
Done. Print. Next.
Additional Technical Detail
I haven’t been wowed with my vocals this year – they’ve been ok, but I keep hearing a lot of fuzz on sibilants and there’s something going on back there where I have a… I don’t know how to describe it. Sounds like I have something caught in my throat, but it’s not overt. I decided to switch to my old AKG C3000 instead of the Neumann TLM 103. The TLM is objectively a better microphone, but I fortunate in that my voice sounds decent through the C3000. I have the original model and it didn’t get great reviews. Later versions corrected some issues, but I’ve always found the sound to be fine. I had to add just a little top end to brighten it and add some breath.
This is a delicate shoegazer song, so a soft voice was called for, and I was singing really close to the mic – like less than an inch. This requires some additional technique, especially with plosives and sibilants. I have a pop-filter, but at that range you still have to be very conscious not to overdo the Ps and Ss, but it’s nice for picking up those softer Ks and glottal stops.
The overall mix was warm, but also a tad dark, so I brought the brightness up a hair in Gullfoss at the mastering stage. The sub-bass, thankfully, wasn’t fighting with anything, so I was able to get it audible without the levels going totally wonky. There’s so much energy in the bass notes, it can be hard to tame everything, but my final mix was perfect from a dynamics point of view, and only needed a little bit of compression and level raising at the end. Sonically, I’m pretty happy with this one.
I am crushing me, but I see the person I could be. Behind the smile… I guess I’ve faked it for a while. If I can’t find me, how will you find me? Worlds apart. Space between us. All is static, automatic, No one changes, time demeans us. I am watching me through another set of eyes that I can’t see. No control, so give the dice another roll. If I can’t find me, how will you find me? Worlds apart. Space between us. All is static, automatic, No one changes, time demeans us. If I can’t find me, how will you find me? Pull the thread. Let it unravel. All is waning, none remaining. Even mountains turn to gravel. If I am not me, I can choose the person I will be. But who to choose? And what do I do when I lose? Chorus I am crushing me. I see the person I could be, but I am bound To watch imposters claim the higher ground. Chorus Copyright © Ray E. Toler, Jr. All rights reserved.
- Drums: XO
- All other instruments: u-He Diva
- Effects: H3000 Factory, Valhalla Plate and Delay
- Mixing and Mastering: SSL 9000 J, Pro-C 2, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2