Painting Abstracts On Location

192kbps MP3

Notes

Chorus in 7/8 time, verses in 4/4. Pulsing guitars, sustaining keyboards, offbeat bassline, jazzy middle section. Walter and I collaborated on the chorus lyrics, which are perhaps a little too busy. In the last couple of years I threw out the mediocre verses and replaced them with new ones that actually told a real story. Much improved.

I am very proud of the jazzy piano in the middle section, it took a lot of practice. Walter could have played something more interesting in just a few takes, I expect, but he wasn't around to do that.

Instruments

Lyrics

Across the room I saw your face
You caught my eye with a hesitant smile
I took you home, showed you the place
I remember your words, you said:

   I'm painting abstracts, on location
   faking a picture and signing my name
   Painting Abstracts, no salvation
   from the painful pictures that collect in my brain

   Painting Abstracts, my creation
   is the one way I know, and it's never the same
   Painting Abstracts, one solution
   is disolving the memories, and forgetting the shame

Under your sleeve I saw the scars
You told the truth and not the usual lie
a secret wrapped inside the past
a line was drawn, I turned and looked away

Across the years, I lost a friend
Not suicide, but a stupid disease
I should have seen you at the end
Regret is a stone, in my head

   We're painting abstracts, on location
   ignoring reality and enduring the pain
   Painting Abstracts, on probation but 
   we're robbing the bank to keep playing the game 

   Painting Abstracts, our protection is
   the color's so vivid we don't have to explain
   Painting Abstracts, on location
   we're taking a remedy, that is keeping us sane. 

music & lyrics © 1990/2011 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls

From the archives: Early Stages

(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.)  

The first relic features a Roland Jupiter 6 and Korg Polysix. I don't own the Jupiter anymore (stupid, stupid...) but I think Walter has the Polysix in working order still. The second relic demonstrates the power of the Korg M1 sequencer, if not the talents of the guitar player... for dedicated fans only, I'm afraid. The chord sequence of the middle section is the same, yet completely different.

Coming up with the riffs (1989)

Taking Shape (1989):

 

A Sample of One

192kbps MP3

Notes:

This little instrumental was hiding inside my Yamaha nylon-string guitar in 1989, and took shape in 1990 when the relatively new Korg M1 sequencer allowed us to throw some strings, drums, and acoustic bass at it.

For the longest time this piece was "Untitled" but recently one seems to have become appropriate.

Finally last year I re-recorded this track, but I was having trouble settling on which guitar to use. I couldn't record a version that had the same quality of sound that the original demo had. 

Most recently I completed the track this month, using my Ovation Balladeer, recorded using a Zoom H2 portable recorder as a stereo feed into my computer. 

Instruments:

music © 1990 Colin Nicholls

January Update

I had some family stuff to deal with over the last couple of months, but I've been enjoying the new A-80 keyboard. A very comfortable play.

I've completed the tracking on Painting Abstracts some months ago, and moved on to finishing up Untitled (which now has a title - more later) and Solo Flight, which is turning out to be pretty epic.

I feel like I'm on target for an August 2012 completion of volume 1.

Weighty New Arrival

Here's something I've wanted for a while. Having lost my eBay virginity recently, it seemed like a no-brainer to bid on this:

It's a Roland A-80 master MIDI controller keyboard, circa 1989-95, with 88 piano-weighted keys and polyphonic aftertouch. Some cosmetic dings from its earlier life in a smoke-free studio, but all in working order.

One of the other nice features of this board is that it offers both sprung pitch-bend stick, and independent (non-spring) pitch and modulation wheels. For some reason (economy?) it is very rare to find both types of controllers in one instrument, yet there are many situations where you need one or the other. It is impossible to do realistic manual vibrato using a wheel (in my opinion), but on the other hand, some software instruments (Garritan Personal Orchestra for example) the mod wheel is used to control volume. The springy pitch/mod joystick is useless for that. (Clavia/Nord gets this right.)

Having lugged it into my room, minor problem: It was 1.5 inches too wide for my custom-built studio desk, but the nice thing about furniture that you've made yourself is that you have no qualms performing a quick mod to provide a work-around. Here it is newly installed:

Can't even see the joins. 

The feel of the keyboard is pretty good. More resistance than I'm used to, and doesn't really feel like a true piano (the escapement mechanism isn't quite the same) but the keys have a nice solidity and thunk to them, and the OS allows various response curves to be selected and a lot of tweaking options.

I've located a copy of the service manual, which is good to have, because the default aftertouch sensitivity on this board is, well, rather insensitive unless you're the Incredible Hulk. Fortunately, there's a hardware mod you can do to adjust this, and I expect at some point I will give it a go.

Best Update Ever?

I was so excited by the feature set and demo videos of Presonus' Studio One v.2.0 that I went onto the online store and ordered the wrong upgrade package.

Fortunately it is now sorted out...

I'm a long-time Cakewalk SONAR user, but earlier this year I took advantage of a $20 license of the "Artist" edition of Studio One 1.6. After reading about the Project Mastering window in the Pro version, I soon upgraded, and have been using Studio One Pro for mastering my CD compilations for the last few months.

v 2.0 of Studio One, announced a couple of days ago, might just be the best update ever. It seems to address pretty much all the concerns I had about potentially switching to the Studio One platform from SONAR, and the upgrade price was very attractive.

Given my dissatisfaction with the development path of Cakewalk SONAR X1, there's nothing to prevent me from switching except perhaps inertia. I have a new project that I'm ready to start... and no excuses for not giving it a whirl in Studio One 2.0.

September 2011

Painting Abstracts is finished. The L6-S and the Telecaster battled it out and finally agreed to share. Tele on rhythm and "spooky" guitar; L6-S on lead, all the way.

I promise I will get back and finish my series on vocal production as soon as I can. I have to attend to other business for a while, though.

Hearing voices (3)

After completing the "comping and correction" stage, I now have five or so mono tracks of vocals ready for the next stage. I like to apply one last destructive edit before applying any FX or panning or mixing: "normalizing". 

Audio Normalization is generally understood as making a collection of audio clips have the same peak value of 0 db. Many audio tools let you do this at the click of a button, but that's not going to be helpful here. I need to do two or three things:

  • ensure that the average level throughout each of the vocal tracks is constant, i.e it sounds like one consistent take;
  • reduce breath sounds and noise between vocal phrases;
  • make all vocal tracks sound the same volume when set at 0db gain.

I do this by adding a Gain Envelope to each clip, boosting and cutting where appropriate, and comparing across each of the five or so tracks:

on average, I'm generally boosting the tracks 3-6 db, and reducing the "intake breath before each line" by 6 db, and silencing anything else. When I solo these tracks, I can actually hear the bleed-through of the backing music from my headphones being picked up by the vocal microphone, so I make sure to replace those sections with silence.

After a final listen to each complete track to check for things I've missed, we get to the destructive part: For each track, I select all clips for an entire verse or chorus, and "bounce to clip". This replaces the audio data with the new version, with the gain envelope applied:

That screenshot is of backing vocal tracks, showing the last phrase of a verse, followed by the chorus (hence the separate clips on each track).

I know it is unfair of me to talk about this process without providing audio samples, but I'm not quite secure enough for that. Even with pitch correction and gain normalization, these "naked" vocals are pretty unimpressive. Perhaps later.

Next: Mixing, routing, and effects.

Hearing Voices (2)

A couple of days ago I thought I was done with "comping" the vocal takes, but on listening to the track all the way through, I became disatisfied with the melodic repetition in the choruses. A simple tweak to the bass in the second line made enough of a difference, working fine with the existing keyboard chords, but unfortunately the vocals clashed.

So I ended up re-recording the lead and backing vocals for that one line of each chorus. 

This morning I finished that task, so it's on to the next stage.

Hearing voices

With the keyboards complete, it's time to move on to vocals. This is always a tricky process, and it is doubly frustrating this time, because I already have a perfectly servicable set of vocal tracks. It's just that they are in the wrong key, and the lyrics are wrong. In other words, I have to do them all again.

For Abstracts, this is a total of 5 separate tracks: a single voice in the verses, doubled voice for the choruses, and a couple of voices of backing vocals throughout. Then at the end there are a couple more tracks on the final phrase, but we can ignore those for now.

Preparation for this involves setting up about 10 or 12 mono tracks with the input set to the microphone (Echo Layla Analog 1 for what it's worth). Then, over a period of several days, I spend half an hour or so in the morning before work recording several takes of each verse/chorus, until I have at least 4 tracks of each lead and backing melody respectively. It takes me four or five days to get this completed. 

Why does it take so long? I'm not really a singer. I can sing in tune, kind of, but this is fairly high pitch for me and after a few runs through a verse, although I'm not hoarse, the timbre of my voice has changed to the point where it sound forced. So it's time to stop for the day.

(If I had more training; pitched the song into a more comfortable range; and practiced more; I could probably speed this process up. But there's not much chance of that.)

That brings us to the really tedious part: Selecting the "good" takes from each verse. For each take, I split the audio clip into sections, roughly equivalent to each line of the verse or chorus. The idea is that for each line, I now have four or five takes to choose from. 

This requires looping playback around each line, and selecting different takes to SOLO in order to identify the right performance to retain. The final vocal track can be made up of the best parts of each of the takes.

Some producers get quite obsessive about this, taking individual words from different takes. My vocal takes aren't that bad! In the case of selecting a single vocal performance, there's usually one take that stands out from the others. (When in doubt, choose Take 2.)

For doubled or backing vocals, it can get harder, because although there are tools to tweak the performance (more on that later), ideally you want the performances to match as closely as possible in terms of timing, phrasing, etc. Sometimes neither of the two that fit best together are the best take overall. So judgement is required.

Did I mention that I hate the sound of my singing voice? I'm sure I'm not alone in this. It can be a real block to this selection process, because you really need to be critical and listen carefully, and that's hard to do when all you want to do is turn off the computer and go do something else. If you aren't able to pay someone else to do this (and would you trust them if you could?) then you just have to get over it, and buckle down.

Let's talk about AutoTune. The gimic of automatically locking the performance of a mediocre singer to absolute pitch is very distasteful to me. As David McLaughlin puts it, "Artists in the pre-AutoTune era HAD to be good. There wasn't a record deal if you weren't good. [..] Now I have a bunch of talentless clowns invading my ears."

I don't use AutoTune on my vocals. I do, however, apply pitch correction judiciously.

Pitch Correction is something that I can use to save time, turning the odd duff note in my vocal takes into something I can use, without having to go back and record another set of takes. If I didn't have pitch correction tools available, I would have to record more takes, and spend more time cutting and pasting the takes to get an acceptable final result. I have actually done this in previous projects (see first paragraph) but since Cakewalk started bundling V-Vocal with SONAR 5.0, it's been a hell of a lot less work.

The trick is just to not go crazy. It's all about keeping the feel of the performance. On the other hand, some folks want to sound like robots. Whatever.

Despite the addition of pitch correction tools, it is still a long and tedious process. I'm currently halfway through Abstracts and it'll be a few more sessions until I'm done.

Then we can talk about clip preparation, effects, and routing.