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.