This is far and away the most complex and involved track I’ve done this month, and I doubt I’ll top it in the remaining three days. There are 20 tracks for the drums alone, and another 13 for the synths and samples. With all of the additional control faders, submasters, and effects sends, it would fill up a 48 channel SSL console.
- You Betta Ray Toler 4:20
It is also another great example of music that I love, but never tried to write. I’ll leave it to the musicologists to classify, but it has elements of breakbeat, jungle, techno, house, rave, gabba, and trance. Had I produced this in the early 90s, it might actually have been over the top. When I was auditioning a few reference tracks before starting, I was surprised at how sparse, and often much slower, they were than I remember.
If I had produced this in the 90s, I absolutely would not have done it in a day. In fact, just getting the samples set up would have taken a few hours, depending on whether I was baking the effects into the sample or doing that later. And the reason those older mixes sound sparse to me is that most people producing this stuff had one or two keyboards, maybe a sampler or two.
Ever ask a five year old what his favorite toy is and within 10 minutes the room is filled with every toy in the box? That’s kind of how I felt each time I added a track for another synth, but it’s also the key to making this style work.
Total working time from concept to bouncing the final stereo mix is probably in the 10 hour range, give or take. I was working fairly efficiently, but still doing a fair amount of just listening to a 16-bar section on a loop and chair dancing or jamming with the samples.
I was a bit of a productivity junkie during my corporate days, and found myself falling into something along the lines of the Getting Things Done methodology – if it was a small thing that would take just a few seconds to fix, I’d stop playback and fix it right then.
A good example would be making fine adjustments to the timing on the samples. Even if I was working on a synth part, if I heard some sloppy timing, I’d go fix it right then. This can lead to never getting anything done, but I seemed to have a fairly focused approach, probably because I knew how complex everything was going to end up. Stay organized, or the project will eat you.
It’s also a good thing that Mary was on a work trip, because hardcore techno at 3:30 am is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
There is something magical about seeing a giant mix bouncing on the meters. It’s one of the most satisfying “blinky light” things you’ll come across, especially if it’s your track. These days, I can look at the arrangement of the various soundbites to get a visual feel for my arrangement, but back in the old days, it was seeing which faders were jumping that provided that feedback.
This is a key to the style – there’s a lot going on. A lot. But not as much as it might seem. While the drums are rarely less than 75% full force, there are normally only one or two synths playing. This provides both variety in the arrangement and leaves room for the beat, which shares equal billing with anything else.
There are six “beats” in the track. The first two are from XO, because I knew I’d need to be able to EQ the kick and snare and didn’t want to spend any time chopping up a full-mix loop. The additional four beats are from Phobos, and I used those because by playing at this tempo, they were naturally sped up, which is a big part of the sound.
I also used the old production rule that if you’re going to add or remove anything, you have to add or remove at least two things. Unless it’s a very sparse arrangement (e.g., Worlds Apart from two days ago) anything less that two won’t be noticed or make an impact.
The main synth sound is the (in)famous Hoover sound, originally from the Roland AlphaJuno. Made famous in Human Resource’s track, Dominator, this was a staple of the techno and rave scenes. It’s also one of those sounds that early-20s Ray would have turned his nose at because it was popular. Silly iconoclasm getting in the way of a good time.
Time and Samples
Initially, I was looking through some of my old sample CDs, but was pretty surprised at just how much of it was obviously taken from commercial recordings. It’s strange that I can hear a 0.5 second sample and tell you it’s from Let’s Go All the Way by Sly Fox, but if I can do it, there are a lot more people who can also do it, and some of them are copyright lawyers. Would anyone notice a lifted sample in this obscure track in the middle of Song-A-Day? No. But those AIs that are starting to crawl the web hear everything. Ask anyone who’s had their YouTube video taken down because of some commercial track playing in the background.
Instead, I decided to use “safe” samples. The safest path is to sample my own stuff, which I did, but I also wanted to give a nod to Paul Ivey’s awesome track, “Madman~Mastermind.” Paul’s sampled me before, so I didn’t think he’d mind if I returned the favor.
Here’s where Song-A-Day is a double-edged sword: I could have spent an entire day doing much more detailed production work on just the samples. The time constraint, however, meant that I had to use some automation cheats to make it sound produced. Most of it works, but I still hear a lot of fun stuff in my head.
The majority of the mix work was done in the arrangement. Again, back in the day, I would have been frantically hitting mute buttons and moving faders. Given the number of tracks, I’d probably need three or four people at the board to get the mix done, and we’d need to practice it multiple times before getting it right. Now it’s all done in a day on a laptop. Miraculous!
I did use a few musical shortcuts from old tracks of mine, like the high arpeggio that comes in around the three minute mark. It changes the chords under the hook, and I know I’ve used that exact chord pattern before, but it worked. Also, it may not be obvious, but the main hook melody is from the first five notes of the major theme in Mars: the Bringer of War by Holst – another nod to a track from earlier this month. I almost didn’t put in the sub-bass drop at 3:30. It’s kind of trite and overused, but as I was thinking that, I was also thinking that I used to think the same thing about the hoover. So screw it. This isn’t art, it’s dance music. We want people to put their hands in the air. And if we’re lucky, they’ll wave them like they just don’t care.
This is one of the best technical mixes I’ve gotten done this month, which is kind of surprising to me. I struggle with dense mixes but, once again, that SSL 9000 J plug is such a natural workflow. I throw a copy on almost every channel, and then work my way across the board doing EQ shaping and compression. The mix is so close to “stream perfect” in fact, that I only had to add 5 dB of level on the master fader, and there are only a couple of places where the limiter kicks in, normally by less than 2 dB. Other tracks this month have had peaks pulled back as much as 10! Most importantly, you can hear everything that I put in the mix. It might require critical listening to hear it, but it’s all there – nothing is buried.
Once the basic mix was set, I started automating volume changes (I missed one at the beginning), adding some additional effects chains for the samples, and a bit of other trickery. Lack of time kept me from being a little more creative with the instrument tracks, but that’s another beauty of modern life – a lot of what I would have had to do through external effects in the 90s is all handled directly in the synth itself.
The end of the process snuck up on me again. I was looking for whatever else needed adjusting and couldn’t find anything, so bounced, saved, and called it finished. For now…
- Drums: XO, Phobos
- u-He Hive2, Diva
- Korg MonoPoly
- TAL Sampler
- DS Audio Tantra
- SoundToys Devil-Loc
- Polyverse Infected Mushroom Manipulator
- Valhalla VintageVerb
- AudioThings The Orb
- Mixing & Mastering:
- MOTU Dynamics, Masterworks EQ, and SubKick
- Brainworx SSL 9000 J
- FabFilter Pro-L 2
- Includes samples from Madman~Mastermind by Paul Ivey, and Let Go of Your Mind by Ray Toler
Image credit: Nicolas DeSarno