I haven't been blogging lately for two reasons: I'm trying to write some previews for the upcoming Open Ears festival, and I've been working on "Scrubland." It's the first thing I've finished under the "Lemurian Congress" name!
(Thanks to Justin Mathews for the photograph, which I have shamefully cropped)
This started as an experiment in sidechain gating. I'm frequently reading articles about the endless power of a well-chosen sidechain gate, but obviously I didn't choose mine well because you can't even hear it in the song. By the time I'd added a pair of looped drum tracks (one from Front 242, another from EZ Drummer), sent them through some parallel auxiliaries with odd effects preceded by bandpass filters, and tapped out the first few chords with Camel Audio Alchemy, I was already in love. The sidechain stuff wasn't necessary. Something more interesting was taking shape: a minimal trance journey from somewhere to somewhere else.
Two other things inspired this track, and they were both new plugins: Replicant from Audio Damage (which is most obviously used to stutter the drum loops, but is more subtly used elsewhere for various glitchiness) and Melodyne from Celemony. I mostly bought it to correct vocals (hopefully performed by other people) but its "Direct Note Access" feature allows you to meticulously alter (or completely remove) the sensible elements WITHIN a sample.
You see, originally the "Oooooooo" sound was part of the "Doo-doo-doo" vocals that you hear at the end of the track (from a Lyda Husik song, by the way). While using Melodyne to remove the guitar elements from the vocals, I also stripped out the "Oooooooo" and made it another element altogether. I had to timestretch it in Logic (because Melodyne's timestretch is inexcusably bad) but the implications are pretty amazing. You can turn a sample into something totally different if you're willing to play with it enough, which lends itself to the sort of endless possibilities that paralyze me with choice.
Anyway, some of the other samples were taken from quiet bits of Jane Siberry's "The Bird in the Gravel, with the looped oboe going through the DOD effects processor for human-style tweaking. The choir at the end (from IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonic) was a totally unsubtle touch but seemed necessary.
The problem was that something ELSE seemed necessary: a payoff. Transitioning from floaty ambience to the grounded nature of the "Doo-doo-doo" vocals required the song to get off its butt at some point. I dipped my toe into Logic's Ultrabeat for the drums (why did I never explore this before?), added an Alchemy arpeggio...and then had a hell of a time with the bass.
Bass is difficult, especially for those of us without a subwoofer. Some bass sounds have a nice low-mid grunt to them, and some have a punchy sub to them, but few have both. You often need to mix the two together...but WHICH two?
For the "grunty" part of the bass I mixed Taurus I and Minimoog samples (with IK Multimedia's amazing SampleMoog), then -- at a loss for a matching sub -- I bought the Alchemy "Electronic Bass" expansion. Some overdrive and compression and I was there. And incidentally, the recurring echo keyboard notes are from Logic's ES2 synth.
I've had enough mastering experience to know that a GOOD MIX is essential before mastering can even begin. This means stuff like getting your levels and your frequency usage to a pleasant spot, but a really PRACTICAL step is to remove sample-pops before mastering turns them into painful "TICK!" noises. Fade, crossfade, notch filters, and waveform editing (to BOTH stereo channels) can save you lots of grief before harmonic enhancement turns your beautiful mix into the sound of celophane getting hit with a bubble-wrap hammer.
The "Doo-doo-doo" stuff was particularly bad for this, especially because it dwelled in the same frequency that sample-pops tend to so I couldn't just add a highpass filter.
A quick pass through iZotrope's Ozone 4 for loudness, stereo enhancement, and final EQ...and voila! To me, the song is about the day in the life of a bunch of scrubwomen...gearing up for work, washing down, relaxing, listening to the sound of the mudbath (or wherever it is they work), then really getting to it at the end. "The Bird in the Gravel" had this sort of approach as well and I think I adopted it subconsciously.
Oh, and the drips and drops in the middle portion? Not actually drips or drops, but that's a secret for another post.