Thursday, July 05, 2018

Theatre of July (2006)

Recording "Theatre of July" in July 2006, was one of those special experiences that I wish would happen more often.

I have recorded dozens of pieces of music, sounds and ideas.  99% of them are incomplete, gathering virtual dust waiting for me to get to the process of finishing them.  This piece is one of those gems that sort of emerged, fully formed, and is nearly unique among my work as being relatively untouched since its original mix.

To those asking "Where have those deep dub-grooves and crazy synths gone?", the response is that this is the closest I ever came to writing a real melodic piece with a pop-song structure.  My "Here Comes Your Man", if you will.  It has a wistful, sad nostalgia to it; the AM-radio style sound to the production, which I realise now was common to a lot of my music written in this period, reminds me of listening to radio as a child, and the chord progression feels warm but sad.  To alleviate this, the final coda shuffles the chords around so that it travels upward to a more optimistic fade out.  This piece was written as a rhythm section for a vocal that never actually happened, which makes it sound both lacking and spacious, as the mix itself isn't too cluttered with sound, despite having a lot of harmonic density.

"Theatre of July" came about while living in Scarborough, Queensland, and caring for my two young kids.  We lived two blocks from the sea, and I would spend each day between day care, play dates, the Kippa Ring supermarkets and the playground by the sea, where both of my kids, at the time not even two or three, would hog the swings at the local playground.

I remember doing the vacuuming one day, and hearing a fundamental pitch coming from the resonance of the vacuum itself in the room.  Once I could identify the pitch in my head, I could hum a melody that progressed with it, and from that emerged a bassline, key changes and instrumentation.

I used to be afraid of losing inspiration, and my memory of this occasion is that I dropped the vacuum and ran downstairs to lay down tracks as quickly as possible.  The beginning was a combination of pads and strings from my Korg N-Synth, and mixed to sound a bit like a vacuum moving backwards and forwards.  All of the bass, keyboards and guitar were recorded in a series of live takes over a rough drum beat, which was a combination of freeware synths and my Korg.

The drums were the most complex aspect of the mix, but the result is a pleasing, deep, shuffling beat.  When mixing, I accidentally set up the drums incorrectly in one take and got a wild, phasing mess of about 30 kick drums.  Not to be deterred (I was on a roll, after all), I went through them all and pulled out the most obvious problematic sounds.  From there, following up with an over-complicated idea never repeated to that extent, I EQd and processed the remaining dozen or so drums and mixed them together to get what I think is a perfectly weighted kick for this song.  It feels live, without the loud click of a synthetic drum, and the tail is like a deep exhalation of cool bass air.  Through some quirk of the process, only picked up listening to it recently, over 12 years later, do I realise that the very first kick (at about 29 seconds) is missing its transient, and sounds like an echo of a far away impact.

This mix is relatively untouched.  The original was heavily compressed and has a very boomy, dominant low end, which starts phasing with the electronic piano in a way that tended to the dischordant.  The made here was to sacrifice some of the low end body and allow the mid level instruments to shine through, in particular the piano and rhythm guitars.

Again, this is quite a special tune for me, given its "miraculous" birth and the sense that somewhere there is a vocalist who never helped me finish it.  I hope others will enjoy this as well.

To finish with fair warning - the next episode will be back to more familiar territory.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Blunted and One Dropped

Sticking with the dub vibe from the last post, this week's release is a rework of a recorded idea for a reggae rhythm section that I put together in 2008.

This was originally just a 2 minute progression, layering instrumentation over an eight bar loop.  It didn't get further at the time, but I always felt it was a solid sound with a bit of potential.  I have cleaned up a very beefy low end and added a bit of detail, in keeping with my love of cinematic sounds.  I have also added a 2 minute dub at the half way mark with all manner of crazy echoes, feedback and reverbs.

This tune came about from a series of sessions I did after reading an interview with UK band Doves, with their release of "Kingdom of Rust".  Supposedly, they had read a book for overcoming writer's block and had adapted the method for the recording of the album.  The technique involved taking the time to set up a studio environment with instruments, recording gear and software templates, and then scheduling a single day where the aim was to record one song, every hour, for ten hours.  My understanding is that many of the fruits of this experiment made it on to the final cut.

(At the time of writing, a pretty quick search of google can't turn up the article, nor the book they were talking about.  This could therefore be complete nonsense, but at least it makes for an interesting backstory).

I never had ten hours to commit to such a task, but in the spirit of experimenting, I set up a recording template and a bunch of instruments, and decided to spend one hour, five days a week, for two weeks, recording a single song every hour.  The results were of enormous variety, and on re-listening ten years later I can hear the tension between my need to experiment and also the need to contain that experiment within some kind of structure.  With luck I'll release more of these in a future edition.

The original sounds came again from my Korg N synth, a Roland XP synthesiser, my old imitation SG bass, all recorded into Cubase SX.  For the re-mix I recorded a new pad part, then sampled a few sections to create a loop, and the dub version was a hybrid of performance and editing.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Message from the Future (May 2018 remaster) - Gillies & Ogden

This track was produced with my good friend and collaborator Richard Ogden at some point in early 2006. There are in total about 6 or 7 tracks that came out of this partnership, which I will refer to as “The G&O Sessions”.

Richard and I met in 2005 and very soon thereafter decided to hold recording sessions without a particular plan or genre in mind. What began with unstructured Jams on bass, guitar, keyboards and synthesisers very quickly evolved into something a bit more sophisticated as we developed a working method.

In order to maintain the fun and spontaneity of just improvising together, I would set up and record the sessions in their entirety. Then I would spend the week combing through the various takes to find little moments of inspiration, and re-edit these into a framework for our next jam. Richard and I would begin the following session by listening to and discussing these ideas, and then overdub them with live performances. Then the process would continue again while we built up more complete tracks.

I have a strong memory of Richard, who - as a reasonably accomplished bass player, playing very busy lines - felt he wasn’t contributing enough to the tracks. This was probably not helped by the fact that I would find little improvised hooks in the recordings, and get him to play them over and over so I could capture minute variations in his tone and timing. His patience with my “method” can’t be overstated.

Production Notes

This brings me to the core of these recordings: as simple as the basslines sound, I built all of the G&O tracks around Richard’s bass sound, from multiple DI and microphone takes of his Yamaha Bass and Marshall Amp in the spare room of our house at Scarborough. I hope that this is evident in the finished product, with the bass sitting front and centre at all times.

I did multiple takes of Richard’s bass amp, with two mics placed at varying distances, and ran a DI straight into the mixer as well. This was how I got the booming sound, and this also taught me how to selectively eq the separate tracks to make them sit together.

The original recording was very minimal, limited as it was by technology at the time. The sounds were recorded into Cubase SX via a much-loved Mackie Mixer, and processed with very little in the way of effects, as VST instruments were still in their fledgling state (and somewhat limited by processing power at the time). Most of the source electronic sounds came from my ever-faithful Korg N series synth, which to this day remains both the most frustrating instrument I own (as it’s an absolute dog to programme) and the synth most capable of beautiful, sweeping, textured soundscapes. I was also using a freeware soft synth called Pyramid (I think?) which was a fantastic moog-y sounding instrument, and another modular soft synth called Crystal, which did all manner of unpredictable things that added to the fun. I’m certain that my minimal arrangement style was based on a realisation that many of the artists I liked at the time used the editing and mixing process to introduce timbral and rhythmic complexity into the finished product.

The process of re-mastering was done by converting the 16 Bit stereo recording into the 32 Bit realm in Pro Tools. I created three parallel tracks and applied a variety of eq’s and through some fiddly trickery with gates and filters, managed to send off different parts of the spectrum to some emulations of tape delay and analog saturation. Balancing all of the competing levels from the original recording was a huge challenge for me, and I can see the need to address this more in the mixing stage in future. The final master ended up being a dynamic edit between three stereo versions of the track, with a hint of compression to gel the peak moments together, and a tiny bit of limiting to bring up the quieter sections without crushing an already very compressed sound.