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:

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

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

96kbps 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

96kbps 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. 

Yamaha GC172SF "Bianca"

Satin finish, flamenco-style classical guitar. Sounds great, records well, very happy with this one. One day, if I get really excited about playing flamenco, I may find I need something higher quality, but for now, this satisfies.

Strange April Update

Time for an update. Since finishing up Solo Flight, I've turned my attention to the next track, "Strange But True". There's not a lot I wanted to change in this piece. As per my usual habit, it's already been re-recorded a couple of times, but in accordance with my master plan, I wanted to replace the electric guitar with the Gibson L6-S, and go over the acoustic guitar tracks to see if there were any glitches I wanted to clean up. Oh, and also I wanted to replace the sampled Doumbek with a "live" recorded track, and the drum loops with XLN Addictive drums, again played "live" on my SPD-20, with sticks.

So, actually quite a lot of work needed doing.

Whilst re-recording the nylon acoustic guitar tracks, I noticed an unexpected problem. Since I've started using Dad's Zoom H2 for recording the Ovation steel, I've realized that I am not happy with the sound of the Godin. I can no longer get a recorded sound that I'm happy with, either from a microphone or from the piezo pickups, or in any combination. I guess my tastes have changed.

Well that brings me to the next post. A new addition to the arsenal comes to the rescue! 

Solo Flight

192kbps MP3

Notes

This peice evolved out of a jam session we had, many years ago. We've tried rebooting it several times - see below for a complete evolutionary tree.

For the longest time, this remained an instrumental, but recently I noticed when I played it in the car on my way to work, I was humming a different melody and lyrics started coming to mind. So, it got revamped, and I think it's the best thing I've done so far. 

I think this marks the 50% complete point of the album. Yay!

Instruments

 

Lyrics

It was the day that Terry took me flying
Drive the Great South Road to Drury field
Outside the car we stand and watch the gliders
See a flash of sunlight from the keel

A month ago, I tried, but could not end it
Howard Jones was on the stereo
Bailing out before the song was over
She trusted me to never let her go

Feel the vector from the tow-rope's tension
The cockpit lurches with the winch release
Cast aloft in limbo, wind suspension
The breath of God above, the scars beneath

Indicates a left and checks the rear-view
The white Ford changes lanes, the traffic passes
Hands fixed to the wheel, at 10 and 2
Tears refract the light behind her glasses

   Stop! Let's roll the backup tape, restore the memories
   That's it; the moment that I broke her heart

And for a while, we share the ride with angels
See them smile, and think we've found a home
Dragging at our feet, the Earth is calling
No wings to hold us up, we're falling down

Falling
Falling Down
Falling
Falling Down 

music © 1989-1993 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls, lyrics © 2011 Colin 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.)  

Solo Flight 1989

96kbps MP3

I don't know where the rhythm sample came from. Possibly an Icehouse or Mr Mister track. In delicious 12-bit resolution, looping on the Akai X7000 sampler by taping down the low C key. The bass is definitely another sample, I'll assume a note from one of my acoustic guitars. Ethereal pad from the Korg Polysix; drones from the Roland Jupiter 6. Then we jammed for 8 minutes. And then we did it again, only this time we pressed RECORD on the tape deck. It was impossible to stay in time with the looping sample... but somehow, it didn't matter.

I have nothing around today that can emulate those luscious tones from the Polysix... I really should invest in the Korg Legacy VST collection.

Solo Flight 1990

96kbps MP3

Once the Korg M1 showed up, we gave it another go, using the sequencer and multi-timbral features to best effect. The Roland D-50 lent it's unbeatable "Glass Vox" patch to the mix. But somehow, something was lost in translation. On the plus side, the piece gained a new middle section.

Solo Flight 1993

96kbps MP3

With multi-track recording at our disposal, I gave this piece another try, using Chapman Stick, guitars, and sequenced drums to push it in a new direction. 

And here it stayed for 15 years.

Solo Flight 2008

96kbps MP3

I remember loading up the TruePianos VST, and experimenting with digital delay effects, playing around, and suddenly I was playing the Solo Flight chords... and sometimes that's all it takes for inspiration to hit. 

Changes

In a fit of energy I re-arranged the layout of the studio slightly. Keyboard against the wall; desk facing the window. The custom-designed-and-built studio furniture unit is unchanged positionally except for sliding a foot to the right.

Reflections from the window are reduced. Mission accomplished. On the other hand, when I'm working at home in day-job-mode I now have my back to the door which is not great. On the gripping hand, I can look out the window as I daydream work.