September went fast

I'm so close, I can taste it. After finishing up Into The Shade, I moved on to Interlude #1, re-recording all the guitars and replacing the string pad with a string quartet (thanks to Dimension Pro).

I've left Slaying The Dragon as-is for now - but it is only 70% complete so I will have to come back to it eventually - and have jumped into Future Imperfect, re-recording the bass; revising the "trumpet" synth with CS80V goodness; and re-doing the drums with my current SPD-20 + Addictive Drums combo.

Oh, and Cakewalk released a new version of their flagship digital audio workstation software, SONAR X2. I didn't expect to adopt it (because I hated the X1 release) but I've been impressed with the changes - look out for my review/criticism write up in the near future.

One other thing: I've decided to give Strange But True another look. I think I rushed the process of review earlier this year, and when I hear it in context of other work I've finished recently, it's not holding its own. That's depressing for me (see the first sentence in this post) but I think it is worth the extra effort.

Into The Shade

[mp3:http://spacefold.com/colin/ps/mp3/Into_The_Shade/Into_The_Shade.mp3] 192kbps MP3

Notes

The verses of this song are based around a simple fingerstyle guitar riff that I came up with years ago. We had a clear idea about the structure of the song; and we had a melody for the choruses; and Walter came up with a wonderful chord progression for the "middle-eight" break and guitar solo. But that was all we had. I guess we could have just left it in the vault, unfinished and un-realized, except for the fact that it is a vital component of the Strange But True suite: the verse chord sequence is a 180 degree flip of the verse chord sequence from a later song in the suite (Future Imperfect, if you must know). And the symmetry  is just too cool to discard.

So earlier this year I sat down with my lyric book and worked up a set of lyrics that suited the mood of the piece, and started to record. Over these last two months, the song has really come together faster than is typical; indeed, I am currently listening to "final" mixes in the car and I'm still not totally sick of the music, which unfortunately is the norm at this stage.

Instruments

Lyrics

Feel the need to learn and test our self-reliance
Push the limits of the land and who we are
Put our minds to solving mysteries with Science
Sending probes to the nearest star

Gas emissions feeding ozone deconstruction
Grain belt slipping up the belly of the beast
Commerce engines driving tubes of mass seduction
Siphon payday to the priest

   Long ago we stamped our feet to the rain-maker's melody
   Felt the beat and electric heat of the thundercloud parade
   Stretch a hand to the medicine man, taste the latest remedy
   Every nervous reflex reeling us into the shade

Emotional wrecks at security checks for our protection
Iron curtain rising in the final act
Product placement in the pay-per-view election
Faith is trending over Fact

   In the flickering shade of a Steel Tree, in the battle field's sterility
   Feel the sweet electric beat of a sixty hertz crusade
   Purple pills from the Pharma Girl; tickets to tranquility
   Tuning in to the scorpion dancing into the shade

Is it right for you? Ask your Doctor; Drink the magic potion
Join the ranks of the no-think tank; blinded by the Right
We are reflected in the plastic-covered ocean
Toxic soil on sacred sites

   Too much noise, too much information
   Unfiltered data feel a vague sensation
   Century overload; can't tune out the station
   Solving every problem with the wrong equations  

       under the flickering steel tree
       where I bombed you and you bombed me

music © 1989 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls  
Lyrics © 2012 Colin Nicholls

Lose a little, gain a lot

Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that things aren't working out. For whatever reason, I could not get the drum, bass, and acoustic guitar tracks to gel. I got tired of tweaking to no effect, and decided it was time to shake things up.

  • Mute the drums and the Chapman Stick.
  • Activate the click track.
  • And break out the Carvin BK5 and lay down an alternative bass track.

In my head I'd always heard the bass lines played on a Stick, and almost instantly, the feel of the piece changed, but in a good way. The change in feel is inevitable: a normal bass guitar lends itself to a completely different vibe than the Stick, but suddenly I was thinking of alternative cool riffs and laying them down in places where, before, magic was missing. This was a good thing. Sure, that one particular riff that kinda wanted to be a Stick riff didn't sound so cool anymore, but this was offset by all sorts of good stuff coming in elsewhere.

Once I had a good, clean, complete take, I moved to the acoustic guitar, and re-did any part where it wasn't locked in to the new bass line. Yeah. 

Now it's back to the drums for the same treatment. There's some places that need tidying up, and the second half of the track never had anything more than guide drums on it anyway. So... it's progress. I wish it was faster, but at least I'm happy with the results.

Here's a teaser:

[mp3:http://spacefold.com/colin/ps/mp3/Into_The_Shade/shade_teaser.mp3] 256kbps MP3

Time Locking

Chapman Stick is all recorded.

The timing was getting a little sloppy with all the "guide" tracks, so I went back and created click track that was locked into the acoustic guitar, because that's a track I'm least likely to want to re-do... then recorded the Stick bass to the timing of the click.

Now, of course, I need to tweak the drums into line, and re-do a couple of places where I need to complement bass flourishes. Progress is good.

Tracking in July

Yes, it's tracking time. "Into The Shade" has crystalized at 110 bpm after all, and the key signature resolved down a 4th from E to B.

For various guitar-related reasons, the middle-8 bridge section really wanted to stay in D (originally the same root as the choruses). I've compromised: it stayed in D. So now we have a nice little key signature change from the second chorus in C into the bridge in D, and then we stay up a 4th for the last verse and outro in E. This actually works really well, and makes the piece more interesting harmonically.

A side-effect of dropping the main body of the song by a 4th is dealing with the finger-picked acoustic guitar part. Obvious in hind-sight: Switching to Lute Tuning means that I can play with exactly the same fingering, one string down, and in the appropriate key. Also, it gives me an extra string at the top for added embellishment.

I've also learned my lesson: The first serious track recording has been the acoustic guitar followed by the vocals. So next up: lock in those drums and bass (Chapman Stick).

June Update

Yup, it's been quiet around here. That doesn't mean nothing's happening, but it does indicate a certain lack of progress. See, I'm working on "Into The Shade" which is a track we haven't recorded before, and didn't really have lyrics. What we did have was a great instrumental middle eight, and a rough idea about what the song might sound like.

Since the great reset, I've been working through the tracks on Album #1 sequentially, and now there is no excuse. This track has gotta get done.

One thing: I've written the lyrics and I'm almost happy with them. This is important, because although we all like working on the music and the arrangement, it doesn't mean a thing if you can't sing the words in the same rhythm and key as the music. So, having the lyrics ahead of time? Useful.

Which brings me to now. I tried 100 bpm and the drum track seems too sluggish, so I tried again in 110 and it sounded better. Then I sketched out a full backing track (and yes, spent a little too much time on that infamous middle eight) and burned it on to CD so I could play it repeatedly in the car on the way to work. This lets me sing the lyrics in private and figure out melodies.

I thought it was going to work, but this weekend I tried recording a take and two things became clear that didn't reveal themselves in The Car Sessions: 1) 110 bpm is too fast for the lyric, drums or no; and 2) I have to lower the key by about a fifth.

For now, I've given up on trying to sing in the car. Apparently, I only find out the cold hard reality when the little red light is on. (I mean the one on the sequencer, not the dashboard.) 

Strange But True

[mp3:http://spacefold.com/colin/ps/mp3/Strange/Strange_But_True.mp3] 196kbps MP3

Notes

This song opens "side two" of the album, and provides an introduction to the suite of thematically related songs and instrumentals that follow. Well, they are musically related, if not lyrically.

The main concept here is to have the second half of the track be much more natural, acoustic and "organic" in nature, after the heavily electronic reverberating introduction. As such, I added "real" shaker, tamborine, and doumbek to the percussion track. 

For those of you who may be familiar with the second compilation CD from the alt.music.yes newsgroup, Second Attention, you may recognise an earlier version of this track as the opener. I think this new version is much improved!

Instruments

Lyrics

You stare into the mirror, it's
a window on a world you can't define
wishing you could get away, but 
wondering how you'll ever find the time

    Reach into the strange but true
    a secret deep inside of you
    a dream of past experiences
    memories that you can not remember

You learn of myths and mysteries, 
moving through forbidden zones you find
of how to make the great escape and 
face the worm that hides inside your mind

    Listen to the strange but true
    the truth is almost clear to you
    written out upon the pages
    realise that nothing lasts forever...

music & lyrics © 1990 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls

From the archives: The Evolution of a Track

(These tracks have been taken from a series of very old cassette tapes on which we used to record all our ideas, many years ago.)  

Early Stages 1989

[mp3:http://spacefold.com/colin/ps/mp3/Strange/early-stages-1989-theme.mp3] 96kbs mp3

Walter came up with the main keyboard riff for the verses, then a bit later on I used the awesome power of the M1 sequencer to create the intro section. The first "early stages" keyboard sound is actually an Akai X-7000 sampler loaded with a few seconds of a sustained violin note from a Nigel Kennedy's Let Loose CD. Alas, we no longer own the Akai which is a shame, because easy-to-use 8-bit samplers are coming into their own these days.

Strange But True 1990

[mp3:http://spacefold.com/colin/ps/mp3/Strange/early-stages-1990-intro.mp3] 96kbs mp3

Enter the Korg M1. The fast, repeating piano riff in the second track was a complete accident - I think we accidentally set the playback tempo of the sequencer on 300%, and realised it sounded cool. I love the sounds of the old Korg Polysix in part two, as it fades out...

Retro-activity

Last weekend I did what I promised myself I wouldn't do, and went back and tweaked a previously "finished" song:

The clavinet in Playing with the Big Boys now shares time with a Rhodes electic piano. 
Both instruments are provided by the superb PianoTeq Play v.3 VST. 

[mp3:http://spacefold.com/colin/ps/mp3/BigBoys/playing_with_the_big_boys_hifi.mp3] 196kbps MP3