Thursday, 19 December 2013

The longest post ever

That's just a prediction, it might not be.

Well, my dearest reader, it feels like generally these post start with "I've had a bit of a break and I've come back". This post is exceptional, I have not really had a break, I've been beavering away, but I've been uninclined to blog about what I've done. Partly because I've had a tendency to work in short bursts, and partly because I didn't feel like it.  Anyway, I ahve just finished a short session and now I feel like like because I think I have done some slightly interesting stuff, at least things I have not really done before.

When I left you I was working on the first section of what will probably be the third track. The track is about church and the section is based on a praise song I wrote a couple of years ago, which did actually get used in church a few times. At the end of last blogging I had done the long intro, a first verse and chorous.

I have added to this with a second verse (broken down and tune on a synth) anothe bridge section with acoustic guitars, introducing a synth bass, some tambourine over that, and a final chorus, with guitars, synth tune, etc. Then finally it breaks down again into a quiet repeated chorus. It's all a bit rough around the edges and needs mixing properly, but it has a good energy to it. I have not often used this many synths in one track together.  Anyway, I'm happy with it.

I then spent quite a bit of time thinking about the order of sections, and what they should be musically. I tried passing straight from this first section to what I thought would be the third section, which was the first I recorded, a treatment of "When I survey" to the tune "Waily Waily". To my surprise the transition worked well. It does mean I have two tune-based sections in a row. So I was contemplating doing this. In order to try it I was using a cubase project which also had the last section in. Now this last section is the one which I was most unhappy about when I had a listen through everything that was done back in november, and I had determined that I was going to completely rethink this section.

The problem I had was that when I listen to it in context of the previous (now second section), it made sense and didn't seem as bad as it was in isolation. This gave me a problem, because I like good transitions.

So I have effectively spent a couple of weeks trying to knock this section into shape. The structure if it is "refrains" which have a simple repeated chord sequence, and "verses" which have flute solos by my mother-in-law Kathy. Each verse has a different chord sequence, and is a different length

The first thing I was not happy with was the flute, so I spent quite a while messing with it. I had originally thought it weak so had heavily added effects - particularly phasing, echo, tone and reverb. One thing I didn't like was that at times it was too loud and at others too quiet. Adding a compresssor was the answer to that, and with a bit of tweaking, taking out the phasing and playing with the tone I got it to sound warmer and fuller, and I started to like it.

The second thing, when I listened closely, was the drums. It was very pedestrian. Now the drums for the previous two sections is also pretty standard, but seems fine because it seems to playt more of a supporting role. So I wondered if changing the samples used would help. I messed about qith the drum sets I ahve and eventually got intrigued by a sort of bangra set. Secondly, maybe the actual drum pattern was dull and unhelpful, so I completely revised that. Suddenly the whole section had a different feel, and instead of feeling lifeless and porridgey, it had a life of it's own.

For a long time I have tried to work on the principle of "don't be aftraid to ditch something if it doesn't work". There are two sections on the second album which I sincerely wish I had done that to. (Although bizarrely, when someobody at a prog rock site reviewed my albums recently, one of those was one of his favourite sections. Go figure!" Anyway, I feel like I have somewhat betrayed that principle - but maybe I've added to it. If something doesn't work, don't be afraid to ditch it, but if the idea is sound, you may be able to rescue it with reworking. I'm kind of happy to have got to this phase.

I cannot remember why I was also messing about with a synth, but I found a nice wibbly synth pad sound which sounded quite nice in context of the refrains, so I added it. Oh and I found that taking things out in the verses made nice contrasts.

So musically it was sorted, the final ingredient was to add sound clips from sermons at my church, JPC. Thankfully there is a large repository of recorded sermons available online. Thankfully also I found a good sequence of clips that I wanted to use in the first three sermons I listened to. Each by a different person, so that gives a contrast of voices. They form a pattern which roughly speaking explore faith, hope, suffering and the place of Jesus in all that, also with a little about the history of the church building. I also have the vicar saying "I must conclude" which is the closest he has to a catch-phrase.

So overall I think, no I'm sure the section is rescued. It sounds good, it's musical balance and interest is good, and it is well-paced and lays out some ideas as well. I guess having the section redeemed is quite appropriate in context.

So because of the shuffling around, that section is no longer the last section of the track, and having a section on praise (section 1), a section on the cross and in the setting of "church" on the communion (section 2), and a section on sermons (section 3), it seems obvious that the last section should be on prayer.

How does one represent prayer in sound/musical form?

Especially I wanted to de-emphasise ritual prayer, and evoke personal prayer - prayer is a very personal thing, and this is meant to be a largely personal album. I've thought about it a lot, and I'm finding that I really want to not over-think it, but rather to feel it. I wanted a short part exploring that experience when praying is hard and it feels like you are trying to break through a wall. This led to one of the more interesting things I've done in the name of music - set up a couple of microphones to record myself hitting a wall in increasing desparation. I tried to feel the frustration as I hit and pushed at the wall, and barged it with my shoulder. I got a little pain as a result.

Along with that I wanted a deep, sweeping and slightly disturbing ambience. I found, quite quickly, a lovely sound in FM8 (a NI soft-synth) which felt right. After the wall-slapping I wanted some tinkly noises - very high up in the frequency spectrum, random, quiet and stereo spread. I think musically the equivalent of sparks before the eyes when standing up too fast, or of sparks from a sparkler.  I searched absynth for an appropriate sound but couldn't find one. I recorded the sound of a key being struck by another key, which is a nice high-pitched "tink" and tried to mess about with it, multiple copies with pitch shifting, and stereo placement. It sounded truly underwhelming, too much background hiss, too much work and not really tinkly enough anyway.

I had a good think about what might give the right sort of sound. I wondered about using a triangle and pitch-shifting it up quite a lot (I wanted it up towards the limit of human hearing). I wondered about glass, and think that tiny glass bells would have the right tonal texture. Finally I thought about wind chimes.

I went to the garden centre and bought the smallest (and therefore highest pitch) wind chimes I could find. I did a stereo recording of them, quite a long one. I cut in legthways into three and put them in parallel so they play together. I put two of them over to the ears (left and right) to get a good spread of tinkles. Each one was pitch-shifted up by about an octave, but different amounts, and then time-stretched to thin out the tinkles, which gave a tremulous quality to them too. I fed the three tracks into a group track so I could add effects that would affect all three. I did some severe tone control to drop out background noise and only leave the top end, a stereo enhancer to widen the sound, and some reverb to make it feel mosre spacey.

Finally I have pretty much got the tinkling I wanted.

Sometimes I just explore with sounds and find things I like, But I do enjoy having a vision (for want of a better word) of a sound and trying to work out how to create it. It takes time, but is fun, and after all this is all about having fun with the process.

And so I have stopped.  I'm trying to get hold of a congregational recital of the Lord's Prayer to put in - it feels like the right thing to do. I have asked somebody at church for a recording and am waiting for that.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Seven-and-a-half months later

Wow, that's been quite a hiatus, and there are a number of reasons for that. The first and biggest reason is that like many creative people I lost confidence. And then I lost inertia. And then I lost all my energy in a bout of illness. I'm back, I don't know for how long.

I lost confidence for a couple of reasons. Firstly I was working on a section - that I have blogged about before, that will have sermon snippets in it, and I was not happy with it. I then got unhappy with some other sections. The second was a small round of reviewing of my previous albums, which to be honest were reasonable reviews, but somebody made a sarcastic comment about my drum sounds and that was it, I was lost in feeling like I needed to reinvent the drums. And search for more sermon sections, which is dull.

So I'm back, and the confidence is coming back. It has helped that I have made a fundamental re-decision, in that I have reminded myself of a much earlier fundamental decision, that if something isn't working, and I cannot seem to fix it, I need to change it. This can include abandoning the whole musical idea. I have had a listen through, and there are sections where there are things I am unhappy with, and so will change in due course. The section I was last working on, the sermon section, will have a major change in that the musical idea for it is going to be abandoned. Bye-bye idea, I liked you in concept, but when it came down to it you were not up to standard. This will probably be replaced by a rockier, more upbeat idea.

And so there is also a new decision - so far I have worked on sections more or less randomly, and that is changing, I am going to focus on one of the four tracks at a time, and work on not only getting the sections to work, but getting the tracks to work as tracks too.  This is actually different in some ways to previous albums, and I think is a feature of the fact that the tracks are shorter than ever, at 16 minutes each, and with only 4 sections each. In this way, I hope that each track holds together, and flows through better than in previous albums.

I am sticking with the concept that this album is in general more "straight" than the other albums, more accessible and less progressive, but I'm looking for interesting things to do, interesting sounds and instrument combinations, because I think I am getting a little samey with that and was losing something as a result.  I am attempting to make it more personal, and therefore more emotional, which in itself is quite a challenge for fundamentally instrumental music.

So after all of these decisions and resolve, I have thrown myself back into it, I am working on what probably will be track 3, an exploration of my church life. This has one section recorded already (the first to be recorded for the album) which I THINK will be the third section in the track. I have now started work on the first section which is about the start of a service and the usual start with some loudish hymns or songs, and it is based on a song I wrote for church (which was used a couple of times before being forgotten), an up-beat, rocky song called "Alle, Alleluja". The opening is an ambient recording I made of the congregation chatting before the service starts, with music slowly getting louder underneath, an organ, drums, piano and an "ahh"-ing choir - using the first two chords of the song but at half speed. it's a kind of tribute to the start of the song "let's talk about me" by the Alan Parson's Project, and the song "Brother Where You Bound" by Supertramp. It is working well.  We then have the vicar welcoming people and rocky guitars come in with the song, the tune, drums come in, bass will come in, and we are into a verse, then a bridge. The tune for the chorus is done on a nice ballsy analogue synth. And that's as far as I have got in the last two evenings.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Still alive

So the last two sessions have been working on the Still Alive section, my version of the song from the Portal credits.

In the first of these sessions I went back and re-recorded the guitar parts - quite fast for the rhythm, quite slow and fiddly for the lead lines, but I incorporated some twiddles which I'm quite pleased with, with no speeding-up tricks and my patented sound which I like. That took a long time, and the use of a handkerchief on the neck of the guitar. When I;m playing stuff high up the neck I have found it helpful to have the strings muted rather than able to ring as open strings, so this time I tried tying a hanky around the neck near the head and it seemed to work.

And then I listened through and thought about what other things should be in the mix. Well some bass of course, so I did that. I tend to find that bass lines get recorded really fast, probably it's my best instrument. (actually there's no probably about it, it is my main instrument although I took it up after guitars).  What else? How about a nice wide synthy pad sound? Yes OK. So I did that with one-handed chords. I think that's everything.

Which brings us to tonight.  One of the consequences of the rather odd way I work is that I want sections of precise lengths. This has generally turned out to be easier than you might think when using the cubase software to keep precise time, as I can easily get it to an exact number of bars.  It becomes a bit more tricky when I have a tune I want to do at a specific speed, because run-throughs then take a specific length of time. I have found with this section that I wanted to run through 3 times, and with the right lengths for intros and so on this didn't quite come to the 4 minutes I am aiming for. I have 8 bars spare.

So I did a "bridge" after the second "chorus" and before the 3rd run-through.

And I wanted it to be a free-form weirdy bit. For a start I held a B chord, which the last note can be held over, but is not the normal chord. I have had some time to think about what I might like here and had some ideas.

For a start I wanted a cymbal that didn't fade, just went on with a really long crash. So I played a cymbal on the drum samples, rendered it and brought it in as a sound file. I chopped it off before it finished and made a reversed copy which I stuck on the end. I chopped off the end of that (which because it was backwards was what used to be the beginning), made another copy and re-reversed that, sticking it on the end. I then stuck on backwards and forwards copies until it was a long "shhhhhhhhhhhhhh" sound, albeit waxing and waning. I then used the volume control to make the quiet bits louder and vice versa so that it was more or less constant volume. The tone changes interestingly and it finishes with the backwards beginning.

The next thing I wanted to do was with the hanging guitar chord, which I edited into fragments, and extended the fragmentedness by copying some fragments and reusing them. I then went through and did  pitch changes to the fragments, scattering them across the stereo image. It finishes with the chord going backwards and ending exactly where the music box notes start.

This was a good start, I then went hunting for sounds on the internet. I found a strange site where you enter a sentence and they turn it into a GlaDos style spoken sound. (This is the voice of the artificial intelligence in the game that the song comes from) They warned on the site that it takes a while for each one to be created and that there was a queue in getting your sentence made. I don't know how long they have been running but the current queue length is measured in several months!  However, they did have all of the previous sentences created available for download, so amongst the obvious dross and filth I found some sentences that either are from the game, or could be, including the first few lyrics for the song.

So I took 6 of these, and put them in the bridge, with some overlappiing, stereo placing, a bit of pitch tweaking and different levels of reverb and volume. It ends with a coundtdown to the music box sounds.

Finally I wanted to fill out the background a bit, so I found a little softsynth I have with good spatial atmospheric sounds, and added two different ones. Finally after a bit of listening, tweaking and rough mixing I'm relatively happy to let people hear the results. Here it is:

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Using a flute as a Q-tip

So I've done a reasonable amount of work since I last blogged, in several sessions. Let's see how much I can remember

I worked on the section I was talking about last time, slow chords, a refrain and some weird chords inbetween. I finished off the organ, did guitars and bass - hey presto the backing trak was done. That was the longest ago and I cannot really remember if anything interesting happened.

The next session was quite interesting. After a bit of guitar fiddling for teh weird chord sections I decided that what I really wanted was a flute. I felt truly uninspired about writing the solo so I called on a flautist and asked her if she felt like improvising to weird chords.  It turned out she did. Her name is Kathy and she is my Mother-In-Law.

So we had an interesting session. I've got very used to recording myself, so recording someone else was a refreshing change. Most of the session was spent giving her the chords and her working out the stuff to do. In the end we managed 2 of the four "verses" and she went away with promises to work the rest out and practice.

Now I knew that there was another section I would want flute in - so I thought, if that section was ready enough for her to flute into it, we could tackle that as well when she came back. One of the four tracks is all about my gaming life, and for this section I really wanted to do the tune from the song "Still Alive" from the end of the seminal game "Portal". You can see it here if you are interested: . Anyway I wanted to do it slowed down a bit and with a flute doing the melody for the first and last sections.I didn't have time to create the whole of the rest of the track, but I focussed on the bits the flute was to be in. I did acoustic guitar picking and a soft, tremelo electric guitar on the other ear for the first run through. The second run through is to be electric guitars and more rocky, and I recorded the rythmn guitar and the lead lines, with a nice compressed sound. Unfortunately the sound was quite "dirty" between notes (hums and clicks) so I did some volume editing. I have found this seems to be a common problem when I want a compressed sound, when no note is playing the hum from the synthesized amp is amplified to loud levels.

I ignored the 8-bar "break" in the middle except to decide the starting chord would be a B, which is different from the other stuff, but fits with the final F# note of the tune played by the lead guitar. I have some interesting ideas for that break but we'll have to see if I can achieve them.

Then for the 3rd and final time through I did like a tinkly music box sound using Absynth, breaking it right down to just that and the proposed flute. There is a harmony line in the middle of a runthrough and while in the first run that fill be flute, in the second it is electric guitar, in the third I introduced a mandolin, played with little extended note trills. The backing builds up with the guitars coming back in and at teh end there is an outroduction with flute playing tune and mandolin playing harmonies.

So that was all hunky and dory. Kathy came back and we recorded her created lines for sections C and D of the other section, and then ploughed into the Still alive tune.

Kathy is a classical kind of musician, who does things with music paper and dots that I kind of theoretically undersand but find hard to use in anger. I'm more of a "playing by ear" kinde of person, which is helped  by the fact that I seem to pick up lines, riffs and tunes quite fast that way. I had recorded a fake flute version of teh tune with a simple flute sample and played it to her and she attempted to transcribe what I assumed as a simple tune, but turned out to be heavily syncopated. Her bars were twice as long as mine were in my head, and her bar lines were in a different place.

We eventually found a really simple solution, doing something with Cubase that I had never done before. I took the MIDI part for the fake flute and opened a "score view" which showed it in musical dots. Now of course I had not programmed it exactly styraight, I had played it quite fluidly on a keyboard, and Cubase attempted to reproduce that fluidity - the music was a nightmare!

So we had a little race, while Kathy tried to transcribe the silly music score into a reasonable and sensible one, I went back into teh cubase editor and straightened the notes out until they were exactly starting on the beats, and exactly finishing in the right places too, and printed out a "corect version" of the music. I won but only just.

So we recorded the tune for the first pass, and again for the second pass (I have a strong resistance now to just copying and pasting, especially with real instruments, it should sound like it was played subtly differently each time). Then the outro and finally the harmony for the first time through. Thanks Kathy, we'll see how it sounds when I get chance to produce the sound and make it shiny.

So tonight I have come back to the middle iteration, the rocky one. I programmed the drums and have developed a new rule - if you are going to have drums DO THEM FIRST! My timkeeping is much better to drums than to a click track, and all of what I had previously done was far too rubbish in terms of timing to keep. I rerecorded teh rocky rythmn guitar, and then actually spent the rest of the session with Guitar rig, trying to create a better lead sound. It took quite a while, but I'm pretty happy with it. It is high and compressed but much cleaner than the first one, and it has a gentle subtle stereo phase and a quiet stereo echo delay (called a "ping-pong" echo because it bounces from ear to ear). Most importantly, I have found out how to use a "noise reducer" which gets rid of the annoying sounds between notes. What I haven't done is re-record the actual tunes though because I got bored after a while and wanted to stop. Then I thought I could blog. So I did. Now it's supper time.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A little bitty bit

Hello all you readers of my blog, it's been a while.This seems a recurring theme at the moment.

So I've started work on another section. This one follows straight on from the "waily waily" section I did way back (first section done I think) and keeps the chords and pace, and drum sound, and probably guitar sounds.

There is a "refrain", a sequence returned to several times, which cycles D and Bm four times. It's inspied by a worship song called "day by day" (which is actually in A not D). There are then "verse" passages between them, each of different lenght and with differing chord sequences.  There are four of thes and I will bore you with the chords:

Em, Faug, D/F#, G7, E7/G#, A7

G, D/F#, Bb/F, C/E, Cm/Eb, D7, Fmaj7, Cmaj7, A2(no3rd), A7

C, B7, Em, A7, Am, Adim, Aaug, Bbaug, G, C, A7, D, B7, Em, Am7, A7

Ebdim, Em, A7, D, Ebdim, Em, G, A7

To be honest most of my time was spent creaing those chord sequences which I hope will be satisfying (to me). I mapped out the structure with markers, and have adapted the drums from the previous section. I also did about 50% of the section with a nice hammond organ sound. To follow: more organ, 2x acoustic guitar and Bass. And then some decision about solos and lead instruments.

I'm off sick at the moment, and meant to be mostly relaxing, so while I want to get into doing more of the music again, it should be short sessions. To he honest, I might have done guitar, but after messing about on the guitar so much trying chord sequences, my fingers were hurting which is why I tackled the organ.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Gannin' section finished!

Well you know, "Finished" is not the right word really, first pass of recording done.

First of all, I never explained the name of the section: "Gannin' Down The Scotswood Road". This is, of course a line from teh folk song "The Blaydon Races", the unofficial anthem of Geordies everywhere. Well this section is about my commute home, which takes me down the Scotswood Road, across the Blaydon Bridge,  through Blaydon and then up the Tyne Valley to home.

So back to the music: What has been added. Should I write this chronologically, in the order I added stuff, or in the order things appear in teh track? Well given this is supposed to be an insight into the recording process, I'll do it chronologically. There are at least 4 individual sessions since I last posted. The first was finishing up the trio of lead guitar work. There was a slower bit at the beginning of the "verse", followed by the fast stuff already done, and then everything else breaks while the guitars arpeggiate down in harmony.

Next I tackled the piano. I usd a nice sampled acoustic piano, and it appears in three verses. The first is a rocky verse with soloing. For the backing (left hand) I used my MIDI guitar (first time used in anger in recording) because it's identical to the guitar backing. For the right hand I used a keyboard and some direct-note-placement editing. I edited it all to get rid of small mistakes etc.

The second verse of piano is even more rocky and features the "tune" such as it is. Again left hand with MIDI guitar, right hand with keyboard.

The third piano verse is a jazz verse - a bit of a breakdown with quite a bit of ambiguity over the chords. Left hand was done with the keyboard, the right hand was mostly keyboard, but with some editing.

Then I decided that the background needed something fuller - a pad sound. I spent quite a while playing with synth sounds, including mellotron, until I found what I wanted. This was added to most of the section, except the jazz verse and the guitar arpeggios.

Finally: Trumpet. This was done with a solo trumpet sound (sample) and a trumpet section sound (also sample). I have spent quite a while tweaking the sounds to try and get to a stage where I am happy with them. The trouble is, it's almost, but not quite convincing as trumpets, and sounds really like a trumpet sound I used nearly 20 years ago when recording christmas carols with an early sampler. Anyway, there's a tune verse, and a breakdown soloing verse. They also join back in with the piano tune verse.

And finally finally, some sounds recorded of cars crossing the Ovingham Bridge have been added. The same sounds are used right at the beginning of track one of the album, and I am bookending with it - this will be the last section of the album. Technically, if I commute up the scotswood road I don't cross the Ovingham Bridge, but hey, who cares.

The whole thing sounds quite rough to me as a mix, especially quite bassy, but hey, I'm not meant to be mastering yet.

You can hear it through the widget at the top of this post.