July Update

I've finished the instrument tracking for Slaying the Dragon, including figuring out the solo section. Downside: I currently hate this tune, I'm hearing it in my sleep for crying out loud. I need an earworm pill.

I've decided to re-do the vocals, the guide vox just ain't good enough, and I have some ideas for tweaking the lyrics.

This means that the August deadline probably isn't going to be achieved. Oh well. It won't be the first time I've blown a deadline.

July 14, 2013 18:44 by colin


June Tunes

Work continues on Slaying The Dragon. In the last month I've:

  • re-recorded all of the acoustic guitar, and added some strummed chords in selected sections;
  • re-recorded the Chapman Stick bass line
  • re-recorded the drums
  • laid down a new E-Piano track

Still to do:

  • I have to decide whether the "guide" vocals are O.K. as they stand, or whether I should re-record. I'm leaning towards re-doing them.
  • Re-record parts of the Hammond organ track (some parts of the guide track are perfect as-is).
  • Figure out what the solo/bridge is doing

Over the last week I've mostly been tweaking the Chapman Stick track, and reworking some of the drum fills to get a nice, tight rhythm section.

Not perfect yet

As a break, I went back to Future Imperfect and decided that most of the L6-S lead guitar needs to be benched in favor of the BlueShifter, so that basically all of the guitar is performed on the same instrument. I've retained the L6-S on the outro, which is fine because it seques into the Finale which is all L6-S anyway.

I know: No-one but me cares about these things. It's all just guitar, right? Wrong. These different instruments have character - even if it is only in my own head - which instruct the performances that end up in the track. 

It is easy for me to be infatuated with the sound of the L6-S, but on reflection I could tell that there were two "characters" of guitar in the song when really there should only have been one.

And since the BlueShifter only shows up on one track on this album, it should have that track mostly to itself, I think.

June 23, 2013 12:50 by colin


May 2013

Since finishing up "Future Imperfect" in February, I've been going back over the other components in the "Strange But True Steel Tree" suite and tidying up a few loose ends in the Prologue, Interludes, and Finale sections.

The song "Strange but True" became a problem, because I want to re-write the lyrics and re-title it "The Steel Tree". In the process of doing that, I decided I needed to re-record the drums, guitar, and bass. Now it's just waiting for me to finish up the lyrics and get the vocal re-recorded.

I also decided "Head in the Game" needed a third go-over, with some tweaks to the drums and a more aggressive bass. Then I went crazy and re-recorded all the guitars, using the Ibanez 540s instead of the telecaster. It's sounding better, I think.

Now it's time to return to the last remaining song on the album: Slaying The Dragon. I'm currently in the middle of re-recording the Chapman Stick and acoustic guitar.

I really think I have a shot at finishing this project up this year. (I mean the album, not the song, cheeky!)

May 5, 2013 12:22 by colin


Future Imperfect

192kbps MP3

Notes

So here's our attempt to be Rush.

Interesting factoid: Originally written in 1990, the second verse lyric has always wanted to go: "We live in the 21st century" which was always chronologically incorrect until recently! I never thought the song would remain unfinished until around 2006.

This project has been so long in the working that it features many different guitars, one of which I don't even own anymore.

The most recent changes in this new "release candidate" version, is the completely re-recorded drums and bass.

Early Stages

This piece emerged on the scene pretty well fully-formed, complete with lyrics. Actually if I recall correctly the basic lyrics may have come first and the music written around them. It wasn't until much much later that I found myself in a position to try and sing them... The earliest version in the archives dates from the latter half of 1990, produced with a Fostex 4-track cassette recorder, and features a Korg Vocoder (the DVP-1) that I borrowed from the local music store. I don't think I had any real intention of purchasing it but the guys behind the counter were so used to seeing me (and they had sold me a Korg M1 the year before) that they just told me to take it home and have fun with it, and to not break it if I could help it. That version was recorded 23 years ago. (Yikes!)

Instruments

Lyrics

We live in a world of inequity
Where some die of hunger, and some learn to fly
We welcome tomorrow, and look to a future
Safe and secure, in cities that reach for the sky

  It's tense in the present
  The future's imperfect
  Our vision obscured by the stars in our eyes.
  We enter the Race, advance with technology
  Listening to voices of reason, telling us why 

We live in the 21st Century
Sometimes I feel that we shouldn't have tried
Every day we get to live with our legacy
Reflecting in windows of buildings and blinding our eyes

*

Mixing the media, framing the news
the picture they're painting says everything's fine
but look through the cracks, to the fault of society
the closer you look the more puppets on strings that you find

Wake up from a dream, and we're back to reality
The state wants to know if we wish to complain?
They've got our description and left us with memories
Spies in our bedroom, pushing at things in our brains

   It's tense in the present
   The future's imperfect
   Our vision obscured by the stars in our eyes
   We stay in the race, enslaved in technology
   Silencing voices of reason, questioning why?

Music © 1990 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls;  
Lyrics © 1990 Colin Nicholls

Track Breakdown

Just for fun, I've written some notes about each interesting section of the song.

0:00 - 0:12 "Intro" theme
The first thing you hear is the chords of the Carvin Bolt+ "Blueshifter", recorded direct through the Line6 POD amp simulator, a nice crunchy amplifer setting. 
I recorded the guitar twice, the two tracks panned hard left and right, with some aggressive EQ notches applied to each track at different frequencies, adding some subtle differences to each side of the stereo spread. Additionally, I've made a severe roll-off on anything under 200Hz, removing most of the bass frequencies from the guitar.
 
Accompanying the guitar is XLN Addictive drums (performed using the SPD-20 8-pad controller) and the Carvin BK5 bass, recorded through a different patch on the Line6 POD. 
 
In the past I've had trouble getting a good bass sound - I've tried the POD before and failed; and I've tried virtual effects like Guitar Rig, and Amplitude, but this time, something clicked in a good way, and the POD is victorious with a patch with some drive and mid-frequency scooping, and a lot of treble for grit. 
 
The bass sounds just great on its own, but in the mix I applied a couple of tricks: 
  • I applied some EQ roll-off at frequencies above 2 kHz because there's other instruments that need that frequency space. There's still sufficient volume on the remaining signal that you can hear the grit and squeak and pop from the bass, but it is pulled down so as to not get in the way of the guitar.
  • Anything below 100 Hz got -12db to free up the drums.
  • Finally, I unabashedly cut the track into segments and applied aggressive volume enveloping so that the note transitions are staccato and crisp, muting things like muffled string vibration, bass resonance, etc. When the bass it supposed to be quiet, its now dead quiet. Without this inter-note muting, although you don't hear the extra fluff directly, it can muffle up the mix. You can sure notice the difference when its removed. 
The second time through the chord sequence, we're joined by a lead guitar (the Gibson L6-S), plus a mixture of "Hammond Organ" - the Roland VK8 - and "Trumpet Synth", as realized by a nice "GX-1"- type sound on the CS-80v virtual instrument from Arturia. (This combined Hammond+GX1 sound is, of course, a total steal/homage to Keith Emerson's tone palette from '77.)
 
The organ and synth together give a nice statement of the main theme.  
 
Let's get something out of the way: It's often that composers hear a riff or chord sequence that sounds great, and only later on do they realize they've ripped it off some other famous song or composition by another artist. Sometimes it's tolerable, and sometimes not. Shortly after Walter and I jammed around and came up with this set of chords, we thought we'd lifted it from Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Rage Hard" from their excellent sophomore album "Liverpool", but now I think a more direct influence would be the iconic phrase from "Who Are You" by The Who.
 
Earlier versions of the composition had this sequence in 4/4 time signature, but I think it works better in 7/8. This also helps reduce the similarity with the inspirational sources.
 
Either way, I'm comfortable with it.
 
0:25 - 0:33  "Pre-verse"
In the pre-verse section, we hear a gentle minimoog-style repetitive synth motif - that's a patch on the Roland Fantom keyboard, "Soaring Lead" or similar.
 
0:33 - 0:47  "Verse 1" 
The arpeggiated ostinato guitar behind the verses and choruses is primarily the Carvin DC127, nick-named "Woody". I'm using the piezo pickup which yields a nice, "pseudo-acoustic" sound but it is really its own thing. Panned over on the other side, at low volumne, the same notes are duplicated by the Bolt+, to add a little gritty complexity to the sound. 
 
For extra nerd points, realise that the verse chord sequence is actually the same chord sequence as the verses in "Into the Shade", only backwards.
 
Vocal-wise, the verses are a single take, panned center. I also made a duplicate of the verse vocal track, and applied a "Guitar Amp Distortion" FX plugin to it and reduced the volume, so what you hear in each verse is the natural tone plus just a hint of the distorted version, giving the verses a slight gritty edge.
 
0:47 - 0:53  "the B-C pause" 
The primary players in this sweet 4/4 - 7/8 motif are the "Hammond" and the "trumpet synth".
The Dimension Pro VST synth adds some strings in the upper registers for some extra  sustaining sweetness.
 
The B note is reinforced with a virtual stomp on the "Moog Taurus pedals" to really punch out that low note.
 
The Moog Taurus pedal bass synth was a mainstay of 70's prog bands - particularly Rush, Yes and Genesis - and it is notable for being felt rather than heard. It has a very distinctive "sound" and can only be emulated, not replaced. (It has to sound right, not any bass synth note will do.) I am very grateful to Antti's re-creation of the Taurus synth in VST form, which I am using here.
 
0:53 - 1:08  "Chorus" 
And on the subject of ripping off other artist's music, the guitar arpeggios here in the chorus are yeah-kinda-sorta-like Bryan Adam's "Run To You" but I swear I didn't notice until much later.
 
For the chorus vocals I panned two takes 25% left and right for a "double-tracked" sound. 
I have duplicated certain select phrases from the chorus, and placed them into a separate track, using the Pentagon I virtual synth as an FX plugin to get the vocoder effect (the technique is explained here). I've used a custom saw wave patch for this, one with a wide frequency range that works well with the vocoder.
 
1:20 - 1:34 "Verse 2" 
Here I lower the guitar arpeggios by 3 db and bring in some strings, courtesy of the Dimension Pro VST from Cakewalk. This multi-timbral synth allows patches to have multiple instruments, each responding to separate MIDI channel. I've set up a four part patch with Violin 1, 2, Viola and Cello parts, which I then orchestrate with four independent MIDI tracks in SONAR, recorded in separate takes. This gets a nice result - you can hear each "voice" of the string section playing their own dedicated melody, rather than just block chords - a much more realistic effect.
 
Of course, here, it's barely noticeable. The strings are mixed pretty low.
 
I particularly like the drum-bass shuffle/harmonic at 1:26 behind "shouldn't have tried".
 
1:41 - 2:22   "A-D-A Floating Ambiance"
Here, I'm trying to evoke the sensation of floating underwater, peacefully, with the bright sun flickering down through the gentle undulations of the ocean surface.
 
Six or seven tracks of heavily delayed/reverberated guitar are combined into a wash of sound. I recorded the guitar years ago when I still had the Carvin TL60, running  the piezo pickup through my old Digitech GSP 21 effect unit. It may be an rather antiquated device, but it has a really nice reverberation algorithm inside it.
 
The Dimension Pro string section adds some sustaining chord harmonic movement in the background.
 
Also, I'm doing some deep breathing exercises.
 
At 2:02 we move from A to D and our little friend the Fantom monosynth leaf comes in with a reprise of the "Strange But True" motif, followed by somebody stepping on the Taurus' D pedal again.  Now back to A, leading up to... 
 
2:22 - 3:10  "Guitar Solo" 
With the mix stripped back to Drums, Bass, and 'Hammond" backing up the lead guitar, the Carvin Bolt+ takes off on a solo that is tons of fun to play. This is actually the only lead guitar part performed on the Bolt+. Everything else is the Gibson L6-S, but I needed the Floyd tremelo on the Bolt+ for the swoops and dives of the Solo. 
You can hear the "hard-tailed" Gibson come in at 2:31 with a high counterpoint melody.
 
At 2:53, the string section joins in for some high sustained notes, followed closely by chiming chords from the DC127, as the solo winds up.
 
3:22 - 3:43 Verse 3 / BC pause 
At 3:42 there's a deliberate deviation from script as the rhythm guitar plays on alternating beats, giving an automatic hard left-right panning effect. 
 
4:12 - 4:37 The big finish 
A slight variation on the opening theme, in A then back to D. At 4:36 there's a sudden and deliberate modulation from D to E, so the song finishes up, ready to segue seemlessly into the next track, "Strange Finale".
 
I did it for technical reasons, but musically, I really like the last minute change. If the rest of the song is proclaiming, "something's gotta give", then this is the shifting of the foundations.
 
4:37 - 5:26  "Outro" 
I love the Taurus pedal note at 4:40. The song closes out with twin Gibson L6-S melodies dancing around the Fantom monosynth line. 

Technique: Vocals

I don't consider this track to have weird vocals or anything but after listening to it, Eldest Brother asked me what I'd done to my voice. So here's the process:

First, I recorded 6 or 7 takes of the vocals. I use a nice cardoid condenser microphone with a pop screen but no additional FX, accepting the natural reverberation of my studio room.

I cut the tracks into separate clips for each contiguous lyric phrase, and selected the best to construct a single best take for each verse, and two best takes for the choruses. Not surprisingly, usually I ended up selecting from take 2 or take 3. 

After assembling the vocal tracks, I use the Tools menu in SONAR to run Adobe Audition 1.5 as an external wave editor, and clean up each clip - removing any obvious spikes and reducing "breath" sounds, not to eliminate but just to reduce them a bit. This step could have been done using a compressor FX during the recording, but I've tried doing that, and I prefer to do it manually. (I probably just don't know what I'm doing with the compressor parameters.) 

At this point I cheated very slightly and used a pitch correction tool to fix the worst vocal glitches. It was usually just two or three slightly flat notes per verse. The tool in SONAR is called V-Vocal and although it has an 'auto-tune' mode, I don't use it. I fix the flat notes manually, basically just moving them enough so that you no longer notice the flatness, rather than making them perfect. Subtle is best for this sort of thing. It's easy to inadvertently introduce noticeable pitch artifacts so I always listen carefully to keep it natural.

For the choruses I panned the two takes 25% left and right for a "double-tracked" sound. 

The verses are the single take, panned center. I also made a duplicate of the verse vocal track, and applied a "Guitar Amp Distortion" FX plugin to it and reduced the volume, so what you hear in each verse is the natural tone plus just a hint of the distorted version, giving the verses a slight gritty edge.

I have separate busses for the vocal reverb and vocal delay effects, and I use buss send envelopes on the vocal tracks so that I can be precise about what parts of the track have reverb and delay applied. That's why only certain words in the phrase are accented with echo delay, and only certain parts of certain words get reverb'd. The effect is to make the lyric flow and sound good without drowning it.

Finally, and most obviously, in this track I have duplicated certain select phrases from the chorus and placed them into a separate track, using the Pentagon I virtual synth as an FX plugin to get the vocoder effect (the technique is explained here). I've used a custom saw wave patch for this, one with a wide frequency range that works well with the vocoder.

 
February 18, 2013 14:51 by colin


Drums are done... and the bass I think

Well, that trick worked, mostly. I copied the nice, tight drum track from the 120bpm project into the original, 135bpm project, and started re-recording the bass, locking in to the new timing.

Here's a teaser, from the end of the guitar solo where everything is getting quite excitable:

 160kbps MP3

Just listening to this, I can hear some places where the drum velocity levels should be tweaked a bit. The toms are a bit loud and brash, and could do with a little less reverb.

Still... it's much better. Now to adjust all the other instruments to fit!

February 16, 2013 21:38 by colin


Breaking the Block

It's February, already. Dammit.

I've been stuck on the drums in Future Imperfect for ages, succeeding only in making tiny incremental advances. Not working. 

I'm not a drummer, but when I flail wildly with the sticks on the old rubber pads, sometimes great stuff happens that couldn't have been done on the step programming/pressing the keys on the synth technique. And I'm greedy. I want the coolness, all the way.

But this incremental thing isn't working. There's some drum fills and hihat stuff that I can't do at 135bpm.

Therefore, I'm trying something slightly different. I've copied the entire project's timeline and dropped the time sig to 120 bpm, and I've got a simple guide click track that follows all the 4/4 : 7/8 changes with beat hints, and I've replaced the new bass track (which rocks, by the way, no problem playing that in time) with a cloned MIDI version and dropped that into the new project - instant 120bpm guide bass to play along with (I know, I could stretch the original audio track using tools like Audition or even the built-in tech in SONAR, whatever it's called, to get it to 120bpm, but this quantized MIDI bass track is working better for me, so there.)

If it breaks the block, it'll be worth it.Now I'm trying to record the drums again, but at 120 bpm instead of 135. When I'm done, I'll just copy the MIDI notes back into the original project, and hopefully we'll have an excellent drum track, at the right tempo, that meshes with the existing bass audio and other instruments.

February 3, 2013 13:39 by colin


A new Head in the Game

I've refreshed the Head in the Game mp3 on this site. The Chapman Stick has been retired in favor of the Carvin 5 string bass, processed using Amplitude 3 the Line6 POD 2.0.

I think it is much improved. While I was mixing the bass I improved the balance of some of the other instruments (most notably turning down the jangly rhythm guitar in some places).

Updated 14.April 2013:

Also re-did some of the drums. And re-recorded the bass. And all the guitars. And the lead monosynth. Then I remixed it.

January 2, 2013 09:56 by colin


Heading into the new year with the bass-ics

For the last twelve months or so, I've been riding this big rig of musical energy that just kept moving forward, but it seems to have run out of steam. Future Imperfect sits on the hard drive, begging for me to finish up the drums which are only half-done, and I'm not able to push myself to do it.

My experience has been that if the muse isn't there, don't bother. I'm never happy with the results. So, as the new year looms on the horizon, I'm coming to terms with the fact that the revised schedule for completing album #1 is going to have to be, um, revised.

Still, that's what plans are for. Revising.

All is not lost, however. I've recently picked up the Bass again, partly because I discovered my nephew was getting into the instrument and I wanted to review some reference material I was planning on sending him.

Then I started playing with Guitar Rig 4, trying to emulate the famous Chris Squire bass sound from the Fragile era. Some success, too. After running through some classic riffs, I loaded up the Head in the Game project in SONAR and started playing along...

Hmm.

As you know, I hate re-doing material that is supposedly finished and complete (/sarcasm) but I think the muse might be telling me that I need to put a little bit of work in on this.

Oh, and the Tone is in the Fingers, people.

December 27, 2012 08:01 by colin


Recent past: working on Future

November was eaten up by being sick and taking a couple of weeks in New Zealand for a family visit. Then I got sick again.

Now it's back to working on Future Imperfect, re-recording the drums.

December 2, 2012 12:43 by colin


SONAR X2 Producer

My "review" is now available:

Open Letter to Cakewalk Software on SONAR X2 Producer - my thoughts and recommendations

October 6, 2012 08:37 by colin


The Prodigal Sounds: Fruit of the Steel Tree

About

Our debut collection of songs is now available on CD Baby!

Melodic progressive rock songs and instrumental interludes, a touch of 70's influence but a product of the dystopian Now.

 

"Very smooth, hi-tech sounding delivery..."
- Chris Jemmett, alt.music.yes

"This guy is awesome."
- Dazed, on the Carvin Forum.

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