Thursday, December 30, 2010

"The Mortal Enemies of Rock and Roll" by Lemurian Congress

Another solo Lemurian Congress song, this one has been in the pipes for a while.

This began as an experiment with Camel Audio's Alchemy, using one of the basic exercises in the manual. I put the closing bars of "Somebody Super Like You" from "The Phantom of the Paradise" into Alchemy, modulated its "location" setting with a Ramp Up LFO, and then modulated that LFO with a bunch of other LFOs to make the playback slide around in a bunch of different ways...

...then, I sent the output through all of my effects processors sequentially, tweaking them as I went along. The result was eleven minutes of howling "DONG!" noises.

I've learned over the years that eleven minutes of howling "DONG!"s does not necessarily become an interesting audio composition. Granted there's value in chill-out ambient or extreme "deep listening," but the flipside is downright tedium.

When I first started making music I was happy to -- literally -- load up two samples into my sampler and then put a lead ingot on one of the keys and let them just play, to find out what sorts of convolutions the samples would get up to. While working with Eli McIlveen at CKMS, however, I became intrigued by his more disciplined approach of cutting longer pieces together to make a single MORE INTERESTING piece.

That's why in "The Mortal Enemies of Rock and Roll" you get a six-minute composition with only NINETY SECONDS of howling dongs, and everything looking like this.

At the same time I was working on the music video for "Sandbar," and I had a bunch of film clips with audio recordings made near a local wastewater facility: crickets, cataracts...and some kids who stumbled upon me crouched in the weeds. Just before the "breakdown" you can hear the kids, a girl who is laughing at a South Park joke her brother just told, then notices me there with my tripod, then yells "Let's GO!" in some sort of complex human response to embarrassment and surprise (afterward one of the kids said "I didn't think old people came down here.")

The source recordings were the hardest to deal with because they were never intended to be used. They were recorded by my crappy little camera and contained a devious bunch of clicks and hums which I struggled to remove...particularly bad were the clicks in the "Let's GO!" sample, which -- typically -- didn't manifest until the project was finished and bounced...I couldn't bring myself to lose the sample but I was unable to get rid of the brain-exploding clicks (like I said, I need a spectral editor), so at the last minute I performed some clumsy level changes. Sigh.

The "Choir" at the beginning was from IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonik, and the high pitch noise was from TAL-U-NO-62's Juno synth emulator, with a notch filter sliding around to make it more interesting.

There are a lot of other odds and ends integrated into the piece, but the most prominent are a series of samples culled with my SP-404 SX sampler. The middle "beat" section is a sample from a Beloved song mutilated with the SP's DJFX looper, and the entire "rock and roll" ending is a bunch of similarly-triggered samples (among them Tim Fuller and Santana) sent through a bunch of filtered auxiliary channels and an auto-wah.

To glue it all together there are some improvised ESQ-1 additions on the last few tracks: the "bomb" noises, the little mouse noises, the "wooooom" noises, and the final guitar-ish accents.

The hardest part of this track by far was the mastering...not so much the ACTUAL mastering, but the WORRYING about the EVENTUAL mastering. I was paralyzed with fear, wondering if an experimental piece like this NEEDED to be mastered. Might the mastering process only be useful for more conventional songs?

My conclusion: no, it's useful for any sort of track, but in a different way. Stereo widening and low-frequency compression can help any song, I think, but loudness processing and harmonic excitation must be used even MORE sparingly than usual.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"End Credits (To A German Film)" by Pico & Alvarado

When I'm not writing I'm usually working on music, and since I rarely updated the blog this month you know what that means: a new "Pico & Alvarado" song! This one is called "End Credits (To A German Film)" and contains piano and music box contributions by Kathryn Jones:

Photography by Patrick!

Here is the usual track postmortem, for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

As so often happens, Kevin Cogliano sent me tracks containing a number of electric guitar variations and a bass guitar. He'd envisaged a "Krautrock" sort of song, and though I'm not sure if we achieved that in the end (my knowledge of that genre is still limited) I think we came up with something sort of special.

After adding a Moog bassline of my own (the same pedigree as the one that showed up in "Scrubland") and some stoic electric drums courtesy of EZDrummer, I found myself playing with some samples that I'd recorded on my SP-404 SX hardware sampler. I added a sampled Bif Naked acoustic guitar and a looped country-style guitar courtesy of The Weepies (which you can barely hear), but "Sweetkraut" really kicked into high gear when I added the "BASH" track: a guitar, drum, and bass slam culled from the same Bif Naked track and DRENCHED in reverb.

By delaying the "BASH" until the melody had played a few times we already had our first big hook. I added an abrasive ARP-style synth (the TAL U-NO-62 plugin) and some extremely atmospheric Camel Audio Alchemy pads, and Kevin sent additional guitar figures, and we got very excited indeed...excited enough to call in Kathryn to improvise some keyboard accents that were far more deft than I could have accomplished.

I arranged Kathryn's work throughout the song (using the beautiful Steinway EXS24 samples and the EVP88 for the "music box" middle)...

...but I started to worry because it just kept repeating, and I couldn't think of a way to break out of the melody, particularly considering the wonderful structure that had already been built. I couldn't just tear it all down, and I wasn't even sure if that was the right direction...maybe the repetitions were part of the song's strength, and I was only getting paranoid because I'd heard it 1000 times already?

Kevin and I decided on the latter opinion, and I decided that all the song needed was a bit more punch and variety. I played a Roy Orbison sample with the SP-404 -- using the hardware's live pitch adjustment to conform to the melody, and then using Melodyne to correct the wildly off results (hence the final oddness) -- and added some distorted Front 242 drum loops and the angsty German samples because I like a nice burst of speech (you can figure them out for yourself!)

All that was left was to use pan and EQ to resolve a crucial problem: the "slowarpdelay" guitar, the punchy guitar, the piano, and the "Moody Bloody" Chamberlain melody all shared similar frequencies...and they all tend to play at the same time. I couldn't bring myself to cut any of them out so I spent a lot of time tweaking, riding virtual faders, and sobbing. This was the best I could do. I also had a terrible time removing sample clicks from the guitar fadeout and eliminating a high-pitched artifact in the Orbison on the list of planned purchases is a good spectral editing program.

Harmonic excitement, a bit of compression, a touch of loudness processing, and...we decided to change the name. "Sweetkraut" suddenly seemed rude when a German woman was shouting during the song. Kevin's new title is much better and adds an evocative touch, I think!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Scrubland" by Lemurian Congress

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.