Saturday, 23 July 2011

So musically speaking...

This last three minutes of music start with the most intensely worked-on minute of the album, (which in the end is OK but not thoroughly impressive considering the work). It is a musical cube, with notes at the vertices (corners)

Oh come on! What kind of spellchecker is this that doesn't recognise "vertices" (or "spellchecker" or "recognise" for that matter)??

So up/down is pitch, left/right is stereo left/right and in/out is volume. The notes are cheated to be an f7 chord. Then there are some transitions, where the note slides from one vertex to another (using a guitar slide to slide the pitch (these are electric guitar notes), and cubase post-production to move the notes in stereo space and volume). There are 21 ways of sliding notes along the edges of the cube from one vertex to an adjacent one without any notes colliding with other notes coming the other way, and I used 18 of them. This was the whole process:
  • work out what notes to use and what stereo spacing and volumes were reasonable
  • draw lots of diagrams of cubes to work out the transition
  • using the diagrams write out the sequences of notes to be played on the guitar, 8 tracks in all showing slides and held notes (it would have been pointless to use musical dots as I cannot sight read to play)
  • Play and record the tracks (with copious editing to get it right)
  • Trawl through the tracks applying the right pan and volume transitions in the right places

As you might imagine this took HOURS. The result - interesting, but needed drums and bass added to make it seem more like music.

So for the last two minutes I went in a more musical direction, showing positive change by a never-ending but always changing set of chords. Starting with F, Faug, F6, F7, then onto Bb for the same sequence, going up a fourth each time (OK so eventually it cycles round). This started with one acoustic guitar picking, then as it works up the strings and the fretboard another starts lower, and another and so on in a barber-pole effect that has a maximum of I think 6 guitars happening. Add some interesting and sporadic drums and the whole thing is interesting, beautiful (in my opinion) and uplifting. Now it just needed a solo line - but in a moment of inspiration - inspired by the fact that the guitars cover a large part of the tone spectrum and , any soloing in the same note areas would struggle to lift above that - the solo is on the bass, beneath all the guitars.

I don't often enough make use of the fact that bass is my strongest instrument.

I love the end result.

The gleaming of the cube

The last three minutes of the music is done. 14 months it has taken, and this is just phase 1. Phases 2 (listening and tweaking) and 3 (mastering) are not very interesting to blog about but I might as well do so anyway, to give you, the probably-non-existant reader the full picture.

This last section has a very personal picture behind it. This section is about what happens spiritually to someone after they make that step of becoming a Christian. There have been books and books written about this, and the theological word is "sanctification" - the process of change.

At one time I worried about this change. Change is never easy and when it is yourself that is changing it's even harder, even when the change is for the better. At this particular time in my life I was struggling with identity issues anyway, and was wondering if this process of change would mean I would stop being really me.

Then I had a picture.

Some Christians talk about "having a picture" as a spiritual experience, I don't know if this was that kind of experience, it was a moment of clarity and understanding that revolved around an image in my mind's eye. The image was of a metal cube, which was dented and battered and tarnished, and the understanding was that this is how I was, but that how I was INTENDED to be was a shining, straight cube. The process of change in fact was not of losing what I was but of gaining what I should be - becoming more me rather than less me.

It's 1 in the morning and I had intended to write about the music, but my son is awake and fussing so that will have to happen another time.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

turn, turn, turn

Well 6 minutes of music still to create before I start the refining process. And here we are at sub-section 3.3.2: and this is inspired by the moment of repentance and the turning around and opening up that this involves.

As a start the crying track continues, but nicely at the start of this section the calming down happens, there is Mummy's gentle voice soothing the situation

And under this a quiet piano sound, a slow 6/8 beat with chords C and Fm repeated. Then the bassline on the piano, which goes down then up. This is a bassline I found about a year ago, and thought it might be nice for a "turning around" section, given that it turns from down to up to down again. This piano is deliberately using a pretty rubbish piano sound (I happen to have a really bad piano rompler) it's in tune but there's no stereo, and the sound is very compressed in the middle of the tone band. Added to that it is deliberately programmed so that is it lifeless and dull. Deliberate dullness is a risky strategy for a recording but there is a point.

There is a point where there is a breaking sound (created with a complex mix of cymbals, gongs and a breaking glass sound) and the music breaks through - introducing drums (brushed snare) and thick deep bass (using my Fender bass) and a MUCH better acoustic piano sound. This is all about that moment when one wakes up spiritually, it's like what giving up smoking does to your sense of taste, except this is to your spiritual senses.

Anyway, this 2-chord trick continues for the rest of the section, with solos first by an acoustic guitar, then an electric. These solos are the bits that took a long time, and my fret fingers now hurt. I've used no tricks but some interesting effect processing. I've worked hard to make it simple but hopefully effective.

So now, just 3 minutes left. What do do? Hmmmm....

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Not nice

It is with a mild but deep sadness that I blog right now. I'm not sure that it counts as "suffering for my art" but this is a deliberately induced sadness.

You see, I have been recording the next section. I'm getting pretty close to the end of the first pass, and I'm back in track 3 "Spirit". After the three sections on the trinity, and the three sections on the temptations common to man, the last three sections are about a human spiritual journey, inspired in part by "A Pilgrim's Progress" but mostly by my own spiritual journey and that of countless Christians around the world and throughout the ages. Phase 1: lost in sin.

Sin is not a very popular word these days, but it's a very evocative shorthand for broken, dysfunctional behaviour and for the inner brokenness which can make this behaviour so compellingly hard to stop, even when one wants to. Sin is born of pain and leads to pain, and is typified in many ways by chaos.

And so this section is deliberately attempting to evoke that brokenness and pain, and is deliberately disturbing, atonal, arhythmic, difficult to listen to. Random sounds and failed takes from previous sections are fed through a series distorting and bizarre effects, with little apparent reason or pattern. It starts with a deliberately discordant chord, Fsus2bmajor7/E and doesn't get much better.

It also breaks the immutable pattern of sections in that is it only 2 minutes long. This is deliberate for two reasons: 3 minutes of this is too much to listen to, but also pragmatically if you have 3 27-minute track the total time is 81mins. The max for a CD is 80 mins...

The other thing that is broken, is the solo-ness of the project. I have had a little help here - mostly from my son Sammy, but a little from my wife. A few months ago while he was having a disturbed evening, and was being left for 5 minutes to see if he could settle himself, I whipped out a microphone and recorded his crying. This also has been processed somewhat, but it is undeniably the crying of a child, and it is the repeated listening to this that has induced my sadness. It's bad enough that we are wired to respond to any child crying, but doubly so because he is mine - that crying voice gently tears me inside.

Well I did deliberately want this to be disturbing.

Quite nicely, I also ended up recording my wife going into him and speaking soothingly, and him calming down in response. This is beautifully timed at two minutes (pure accident) and so I will carry this process into the next section.

Friday, 1 July 2011

frantic strumming and nimble fingers

this post covers the last three music-making sessions, all on this last section of the "mind" track - tack 2 on the new album. As we left the scene last time, we had drums and a guide tune part.

To this I added bass, using my old Fender bass (hitting and shaking it until the buzzing stopped - I have a loose wire somewhere). It was nice to use it again in an un-processed way, it has a nice rich, deep thick bass sound, which on it's own sounds a bit dull, but with the fast folky stuff is just a really nice solid underpinning. I may find myself re-discovering the beauties of this venerable instrument.

Added to that then was the guitar parts - acoustic strumming, one for each ear and mostly done in single long takes (very little editing needed). The tempo gets pretty brutal towards the end and I got into a nice focussed mindstate where I didn't need to think - just to strum and move my chord hand as fast as possible between positions. Very fast. I got aching muscles and sore fingers in the process, but it felt really good. It also sounds pretty good, although the attention is not particularly on it.

I've been blogging this for over a year, so I don't always remember what I've said before, and there's no way I'm going to dredge back over all that stuff just to check if I've already said that I'm learning about listener focus - one of the keys to interesting music is to always give the listener something specific to listen to. In songs this is usually the singer, or solo instruments at points. The rest is there to support that focus, but you pretty much always need a focus, and the stuff that is out of focus doesn't need to be as interesting, just right and good. it can be but it doesn't need to be. In this sections I find I am never really listening to the guitars as I listen through. It needs them there.

And so back to the tunes, which is what this is all about. I have now finished, and it has taken a long, long time. Almost all of the bit of tune are played by me on a keyboard, rather than programmed. I want this to feel very much like the real instruments. And here is what I try to do: although I am not really playing Aolean pipes, I am using a sampler and a keyboard, I am remembering the nuances that pipes use for expression and trying to use those. Similarly with the accordion - I can play one a bit (and have done in public). This isn't a real accordion it's the sampler again, but again I'm remembering what you do - what are the special things about an accordion, and trying to play that way.

Anyway, after lots and lots of takes, I feel like my keyboard fingers have been stretched to the limit of my ability, and yes there has been some editing (mostly tidying up -getting rid of accidental notes, very occasional moving the notes to be better in time, occasional volume changes on individual notes, but about 95% was untouched), and yes I recorded it at a slower speed than it is in the final thing (easier on the fingers, but harder to get the expression feeling right) and the final thing is pretty much done now - maybe it comes to a halt a leeetle too abruptly, I'll have to listen to it a few times and see if I get used to it.