Saturday, April 09, 2011

"Big King Thief"

I'm going through a furious stage of musical experimentation: techniques, tricks, plugins, the world of digital audio is a huge one and I've only just scratched the surface.

Hopefully all future experiments turn out as well as "Big King Thief!"

This song was, from beginning to end, a test of iZotope's "pHATmatik PRO" plugin. I created five separate instances of it, and mutilated five bars of a George Clinton song, and the inevitable result was something that just CRIED funky.

But before we get to that, here's a quick evaluation of pHATmatik PRO: like many of iZotope's acquisitions from other software companies, it's buggy and dated and wonderful. The GUI obviously hasn't been touched since 2002 and the simple movement of MIDI items can result in all your samples being transposed in pitch. It's also easy to find yourself with sample-clicks that cannot be easily removed; the volume envelopes and the filters are coarse and clumsy, which highlights a basic shortcoming of the plugin: it's for extreme sample mangling, not for subtle effects.

Also, WARNING: pHATmatik is NOT fully compatible with Logic 8. You can't drag MIDI information out of the plugin and into Logic (though you can drag the MIDI to your desktop and import it from there), and -- more damning -- you cannot instantiate a multi-output pHATmatik under any circumstances, which is TERRIBLE and is not mentioned ANYWHERE on the iZotope site. You need to create a multi-instance in a version of Logic 7, then save it as a channel strip which you can use in Logic 8.

If you don't have a copy of Logic 7 around, here's a multi pHATmatik channel strip I made allows the plugin to actually live up to its "Pro" name!

All that said, you can hear the results in this song. Other than a simple Ultrabeat kick/snare and some recurring iDrum hats (and cowbell!), the spectacular beats are all courtesy of pHATmatik. It's an amazing just needs to be updated (or price-reduced to compensate for the migraines it might cause).

Here's the "Big King Thief" project (click for a larger version):

So what else is going on in the song? Some string machine from the awesome Loomer String, a Moog-style bassline from IKMultimedia's SampleMoog (a patch I find myself using over and over in these songs), a lead and a pulse from Logic's own ES1 and ES2, a funky bassline that is really a funk piano run through CamelPhat and a bass amp, a bit of Nusofting's daHornet for the deliberately sparse bridge...

...and a lot of samples (including an oboe) that I'll leave for trivia buffs to figure out. I can't get over my love of tremolo!

This was also the first time I've worked really strategically with compression. I put sidechain compression across the pads to allow the samples to cut through, and also used a tip from a recent copy of Computer Music: a copy of Audio Damage's free RoughRider compressor on an effects send, with all the drums sent to dramatically increased the "sludgy" sound of the beat (though maybe too much?)

Then I was ready to mix it and master it...and everything went to hell. All sort of melodic conflicts started showing up in the second verse, and in desperation I began shuffling bits and pieces around until I was hopelessly confused. I eventually tracked the problem down to my IKMultimedia SampleTank plugin, which had deauthorized itself FOR THE SECOND TIME and was behaving in mono mode, playing only the highest note in every chord. I've spent a week with their tech support and they still haven't resolved the issue, but I worked around the problem by recreating the patch in SampleMoog.

Next I started noticing the sample clicks...funny how you don't hear these things until they're so integrated in the song that you can't really fix them. Many of them were due to truncated samples in pHATmatik PRO, but the others -- which you can hear in the garbled speech during the bridge -- are actually from a soft ambient noise in the sample itself which turns into a harsh click when sent through a tremolo effect. By rearranging the tremolo a bit I managed to minimize it, but it's still there...I decided it was minor enough to not worry about.

Some light mastering, some agonizing, a photograph of a lusty dwarf by Patrick, and the song was done! "Big King Thief," not suitable for 17th Century workplaces.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

"Against the Day" by Thomas Pynchon

I've spent over a month reading Thomas Pynchon's massive novel "Against the Day." I have lugged it from home, to work, to lunch counter, with little regard to the damage it was causing to my shoulder. I've gotten lost in it and become frustrated with it, I've gone back and forth to reread parts that I'd missed, I've visited Wikipedia to learn about Iceland Spar and the quaternions, I have struggled to stay awake and I have struggled to put it down, and I have thought "I am spending far too much effort on this goddamn book."

Now that I've finished it, I can sum it up by saying...well, it's certainly "Pynchonesque," and it's as complicated and annoying as everybody says it is -- an endless parade of major characters, diversions into dozens of apparently unrelated topics, too much movement from place to place, no real thread to hold it all together -- but it also has a greater proportion of Pynchon-gentleness and enlightenment than I've come to expect. The payoffs -- oblique as they can be -- are so bittersweet and human that you don't mind the coldly scientific obsessions so much.

Unfortunately, these "human" moments are all bundled together during the last 150 pages, and the more interesting and clear-headed moments are in the first 500. The 400 middle pages are somewhat tiresome, when you realize that MORE subplots are being introduced, one of which -- the onset of the first world war -- is a non-stop machine-gun of politics, places, and personages. It's simply too much to handle after the mathematics, strikebreaking, and empire-busting that you've already been through. The characters start to seem like bits of leaves thrown into world events and just blowing around, to Venice and back, to Venice and back, to Venice and back again.

All these criticisms could perhaps be applied to "Gravity's Rainbow," and I'm not sure if my less enthusiastic reception of "Against the Day" is due to the fact that Pynchon "already did it once before," or that "Against the Day" feels like a "Gravity's Rainbow" in which everything -- the paranoia, the dark-mystery-which-cannot-be-comprehended, the sexual escapades, the slapstick -- has been duplicated several times over to fill out an excessive page length, with all these things happening to multiple characters in sequence instead of just to Tyrone Slothrop.

Basically, my impression is that "Against the Day" is five or six novels that Pynchon started writing years ago, all subsequently linked together by unions, WWI, the drift from Victorianism to modernism, explosions, light, and the Tunguska event.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Against the Day" is FULL of wonderful detail and characterization, and -- as I said earlier -- there's a growing gentleness to Pynchon's writing that is absolutely welcome. Whereas "Gravity's Rainbow" culminated in uncertainty and confusion, the characters in "Against the Day" seem to find comfort in companionship, children, and purpose, and the novel doesn't judge them; they did wild things and struggled for noble causes when they were young, and now they're settled down and are raising their children and getting a bit mellower. And that's pretty much The End.

When I was wallowing through 400 Pages of People Just Running Around Europe, I felt like I was reading a really crappy book. Now that I've finished it, however, I look forward to reading it again someday, so I can get a feel for what REALLY matters in the novel: the little moments like Cyprian's trajectory from hedonist to (I won't spoil it for you), the complex interweaving of the Webb and Rideout families, and -- floating high above it all -- the aging airship children who are struggling to find meaning when the "Boys Adventure Story" days are gone.