back on schedule with a new song every month, this one started over a year ago as a loop using a couple of vst synths and a few drum samples, took a major diversion about december 2014 and was finished just recently.
I think it is generally acknowledged nowadays that making music is not problematic. I am lucky to be one of the <insert big number guess> with a computer, a guitar or two and a microphone in the spare room. Like all those people, I can make music of my liking, unhindered by annoyances like other people or time or studio dollars, to a quality unimaginable when I started out. I won’t go into what “quality” means in this sense as that is not really the point.
The point is what you do with your music once it is done. From my bedroom studio, I think there are people out there in the ether with a similar musical worldview to me, who I like to think would enjoy The Complex Engine if they got to hear it. How to find and connect with them is the challenge…..
Initially, I naively thought that Facebook would be the best means of promotion. And indeed, it is a useful thing. However, I was shocked – call me stupid – at how few of my FB friends actually got to see my “release”. I had woefully underestimated the speed at which things disappear off the FB timeline. Anecdotal and actual evidence showed that it was not simply that the music was unlistenable, though I am happy to say it is not to everyone’s taste. Many FB friends who I think would be partial to my music never knew it existed.
This really caused me to examine exactly what I was trying to achieve, something musicians probably don’t spend enough time pondering. If they did, they’d probably give up. I had made some music that I was happy with, stuck it on the web. I told my FB friends about it. Those that listened seemed to think it was ok, and a few downloaded it. If that was it, did it matter? Was it enough? Was I successful if I liked it and no-one else did? Or if it was never heard beyond my friends and family? Did it need to be liked or downloaded or played by some undefinable number or type of people to be successful? Given that I am not yet playing live and not part of a scene, what is a reasonable expectation? How long can one be happily lost in the long tail?
I don’t know the answer yet, but this is one of the few moments where I will acknowledge my ego comes into play – I reckon my music is plenty good enough, when compared to other things, to find a niche audience somewhere. And that niche should be big enough to provide sufficient feedback to make me think it is a worthwhile endeavor, over and above entertaining myself as a hobby.
So what am I trying to achieve? Well, I find it really easy to dislike a lot of music. I am unsatisfied and frustrated by most things I hear, so my primary motivation is to fill those holes and make something that I want to hear. I want to hear a guitar that sounds like this, a drum that sounds like that, a structure that is like a building instead of a pop song, a melody that is not a melody, lyrics that are as much about nothing as they are about something. Like a lot of people (so I’m led to believe) this helps one make sense of the world. Certainly it is an odd sense of relief and satisfaction when something is completed and I can sit back and say “yes, that is right, that is how it should be”. It is also a bit of new hobby for me – the nature of a “good song”, what works, what doesn’t, and why that is so. It is a different thing applying such analysis to your own work instead of listening to other people’s songs.
Secondly, I like the idea of making these things as a thank you to those whose music I have enjoyed over the years. Making stuff for others is more satisfying than making them solely for yourself.
Finally, I like building things, and it is fun to use the things I build – guitars, preamps, mixers, amps, fuzz boxes etc.
Note – in case it is not self evident – that making money, or burning cd’s, do not feature on this list. More those another time.
Goddamn I got it wrong again. According to the 2 reviews I read, the War on Drugs gig at the Powerstation in Auckland was pretty awesome. I was ready to go home after 3 songs, but I stuck it out, at least until they went off stage. An encore would have been a step too far, like the awful Cat Power concert a few years ago where after every song I held on – “they’ll hit their straps with the next one”. Never did.
I have to say I was predisposed to not be awed. I have tried 3 War on Drugs cd’s and sort of like some of them. I would like to like them more, much like I would like to like Dinosaur Jnr or Sebadoh. But I have to ‘fess up to the the fact that I don’t. WoD drive me nuts because I have no idea what he is singing about. After the first song at the Powerstation I thought that problem might be solved – vocals seemed a lot more upfront than the cd’s. But either it didn’t last or I
switched off, hard to say which. Actually the first song I enjoyed, and had to laugh when they launched into the guitar solo. Nothing like a complete rock cliche well executed! It was a welcoming statement – this is what we do, this is the page we are on, come on a ride with us. You could see it coming a mile off, but it was so assured it would have been churlish not to join in the fun.
It became less fun when they did it again. And again. And again.
The other thing that bothers me with WoD, and particularly in this gig, was the mid tempo 2 chord strum that seemed to be every song. I felt sorry for the musicians trying to work up a vibe playing C and G all night. Dynamics, either musically or sonically, were horribly lacking, which is why by song 3 I was confident I had seen and heard everything they were going to deliver. Odd that a band with 3 sets of keyboards, a bass sax, a small tuba thing (euphonium – dear god they’re not bringing Don McGlashan on stage are they?), an array of guitar effects that looked like a submarine control station, 6 guitars, electronic drum pads as well as the acoustic set, and a second guitarist, could sound so much the same for an hour and a half. No another guitar solo does not count as variation. I guess at about 3/4 through the set they tried a couple of quieter numbers, but I was underwhelmed, and then it was back to formula #1.
At the risk of getting nerdy, I’m going to comment on the sound. I find sound at the Powerstation to vary wildly depending on where you stand. We started off upstairs to the right, and if I hadn’t had earplugs I would have left. It reminded me of the bad old days with high frequency horns pointing right at your head. Just ear shredding high frequencies, at literally dangerous, deafening levels. I thought modern PA’s, with their wide dispersion arrays, had largely solved this problem? I’m not really up with that tech, so I don’t know what was going on, but I wasn’t hanging around to ponder it. We headed downstairs where thankfully there was a much better balance, at the expense of the view. Lord knows how many years of hearing those upstairs without earplugs have lost.
Back to the band. Dylan and the E Street Band are obvious touchpoints. I didn’t think Dire Staits were so apparent in the live show, though I did on the recent cd. I thought they were like the E Street Band as played by MGMT, the kitchen sink pummeled and smashed into a wall of sound, an exhilarating rush for a few moments but quickly revealing itself as an empty throb. Throb along, folks. How I longed for something to grab a hold of, like a guitar solo not swamped in effects,
or words I could decipher. Or a tune I hadn’t already heard. I wanted to be thrilled by wild, crazy guitar solos, but didn’t find them so. In fact he seemed to do the same one finger wiggle down the fretboard quite a lot. It made me want to listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town, or Gang of Four, or even Black Flag. Something concise, articulate, and not sound proffering itself as meaning.
WoD seem to be at their best when they hit on a magic groove, when the simple, motoring drums coalesce with the layers of guitars, keyboards, echos, and fragments of vocals that hint at a world that is in fact revealed and illuminated by driving, joyous music. They are great at subtle changes that kick this on, like switching from electronic to acoustic drums, or changing to a bigger sounding snare. The vocals come back in at just the right spot, as do the guitar solos.
It’s good, rousing stuff when it works. Some engagement with the audience from stage would be a nice addition though.
WoD seems to be quite prolific, and I’m curious where they (he) goes next. More of the same, or development that gets them onto the stadiums of the world?
Our friend Sam Prebble has died. Sam took his own life, and no-one understands why. We are defenceless in the face of something as utterly incomprehensible as it is true.
Sam was a gifted musician – multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, intrepid and enthusiastic performer and tourer. He played in numerous bands – Bond St Bridge, The Explorers Club:Antarctica, Bitter Years, Mermaid and Mariner, The Broken Heartbreakers, with Reb Fountain and with Dylan Storey, and many variants of each. He was one of the sharpest guys I have ever known.
For Emily, and Sam’s family, we hope that our shared grief will help them. There are no answers here. Together, we stumble on; bewildered, inarticulate and wounded by the world we live in.
The LittleBits modular synth is a great little plaything. It runs from a 9 volt battery, and comes as a dozen or so components – oscillators, mixer, filters, random voltage generator, delay, arpeggiator, keyboard, speaker etc – that are connected by magnetic contacts. These are embedded in the plastic end-blocks you can see in the picture. So to try something different, or reorder modules, you simply pull them apart and snap them together in a different order.
I’ve had it fora wee while, but have only just started fiddling around. Highly recommended, makes a nice change from software VST synths. Should feature on some recordings soon.
and hopefully before the end of 2014, a midi module so it can be played from a keyboard or DAW…..
1st day of the month – new song!
Well, in this instance it came out a few days back in memory of Peter Gutteridge. I’m not so prolific that I can just crank the handle and do another one, so I’ll write a bit about how “a gift of sorts” is pieced together instead.
One thing I have found interesting as I have got my act together with regards to songwriting is how others don’t really write much about their “creative process”. In particular, how you get from great idea to finished product….so many of the former and so few of the latter.
So one thing I will try and do is break down my work and explain how it came to be. In this instance, the song wasn’t created from scratch for Peter. It was something I had already been working on, but it was a very small adjustment to make it my response to his death, and I hope, a tribute to him and his infuence.
Regardless of whether you like it – my stylistic preferences may not be yours – one of my goals is to make something that is coherent within itself.
So it is funereal – it is slow, repetitive, the tonal palette is relatively muted, the drums just march on, the guitar tolls like a bell when there are no vocals, harmonically it is static, the end just fades out. No soaring choruses. Peter had a notion that you should be able to play one note throughout a song, and that is the case here. The organ and lead sounds are a nod to Snapper. The lyrics are both obvious and indirect. There are probably harmonic reasons that make it tick as well – modes and such – but I haven’t looked into that yet.
Here is the song in its entirety:
“a gift of sorts” started out as a very small bass riff:
That was it, and that only came about about because I had just finished building an Altec valve vari-mu limiter and was testing it out. I was noodling away with quite a lot of limiting and it sounded quite good, so I just opened reaper, got the tempo and played about 3 minutes of that with just the metronome going.
Then, as you do, you play along to what you’ve got. A bit of a melody line played up high, and a couple layers of harmonics and palm-mutes, and a low end. It’s G from one end to the other, so the low end is g, b and d in various orders, intentionally mixed up for variation. It ended up sounding quite downbeat, for no particular reason. In the end there are in fact another 4 bass tracks:
bass muted 1:
bass muted 2:
the low end:
and all mixed together:
In digital audio workstations it is easy to move parts around, and as this stage there were no lyrics. So I created a basic structure like melody bit, static bit (verse 1, to have vocals added), melody bit, static bit (verse 2), extended melody bit (to be chorus or middle 8 or something else, lets call it m8), and extended outro section.
Then I added a very simple midi drum track using the free Addictive Drums 2. Its just kick and snare from one end to the other, I had Blue Nile in mind, so didn’t try and make it sound like a drummer with fills and such. Anyhow the whole thing is kind of repetitive and hypnotic so drums where nothing happened seemed about right. The Addictive Drums (which are samples) are doubled with a software VST (free version of drumatic) which has a short reverb and flange on it. This is mixed in under the samples to give a bit more of an electronic, processed sound while still retaining the meat of the samples. I added hi-hats in the “melody” parts, but again they are very simple and machine like. I try to make them sound unnatural by having accents in the wrong places. No toms or cymbals.
During the m8, the drums are fed to another channel with heavy compression (commonly called “smashed”) which is mixed back in to give them a bit more oomph when everything else is going. When that goes off at the end of the m8 the whole thing opens up again.
This technique is also used for the mix in general. All groups (drums, vocals, bass, gutars, keys) are bussed to two seperate compresser tracks, which are mixed in with the uncompressed tracks before going to the stereo mix bus. By knocking off the peaks in these compressed tracks you can increase the average or overall loudness of the mix without it sounding too compressed. Have said that, the mix is a long way off flatlining by today’s practices.
So at this stage I had a semi structured bed in G that was 3-4 minutes long, that I quite liked.
There are three main guitar components.
– a couple of tracks of muted guitars going through the whole thing
– the picked part in the verses and m8
– the lead and outro parts
By muted I mean palm muted, as in damped by the picking hand. That gives the chugging effect, and unmuting every now and then gives a little guitar squark.
The picked parts are notes g-d-g, then g-c-g, played on a 12 string electric, doubled and panned hard left and right.
This came much later, after I had decided to make the song about Peter. So I had his type of sound and style in mind, without wanting to make it a shameless copy – I doubt Peter would have that much activity in one of his lines. It also came before the vocal, which ended up following it in places. The sound is a BC Rich 10 string through an EH Big Muff into a Marshall preamp, then the computer. I initially triple-tracked it, but it was one of those funny things that got smaller as layers were added. I settled on one main track in the center and two doubles mixed much lower and panned hard L/R. No reverb or delay, just a touch of eq to make it fit.
This a copy of the lead part played backwards, with lots of reverb, mixed low. So it is sort of new and sort of familar.
There are four main keyboard parts
– the pulsey thing that goes through the whole track (zebra lite vst)
– a phasey noise that start in verse 3
– sampled violins in the m8 (free sfz string ensemble)
– organ in the m8 (dirtbag vst, one of my favourites)
the pulsey thing:
the phasey noise adds some variation to move things along:
The violins sounded a bit ordinary by themselves so they are more or less doubled by the distorted organ, which is a nod in the direction of the Snapper sound. Like the rest of the song, there is no harmonic development here, it is just layers of G/B/D over which the vocals and lead play.
One thing I like is that the buildup comes in a couple of bars late so throws the expected 4 bar pattern out of kilter. It’s obviously building up to something, but you’re not quite sure what is coming up or when. The guitar squeal before the vocals come back in add to that I think.
violins and organ:
The lyrics went few a few iterations, obviously it is a difficult topic, and I certainly wanted to avoid platitudes and obvious imagery and metaphors. I didn’t think too hard about whether this was right or wrong thing to do, as if I had, I probably wouldn’t have. It felt like the right thing to do and I went with that – an important lesson I (re)learnt from John and Rach in The Broken Heartbreakers.
The first lines are almost literally what I felt as I looked at Facebook and realised what was going on. The “past and present tense” was what I found baffling at the time – the post was talking about having a drink for Peter i.e. now, while alluding to some past reason for it that I was not yet aware of. For a while I actually took out that line because “tense” is such an obvious and hard rhyme with “sense”. I also wasn’t sure whether to develop the first lines or move on to something else (something I haven’t got the hang of yet). In the end I went with the first instinct, thinking be damned.
The m8 was the trickiest to get right – the imagery, the phrasing and the melody (for want of a better word). Many variations on the theme came and went before I hit on this combination, which on paper might be no better or worse that other options, but was much more “singable”. You could argue that the m8 is romantic hogwash, but we need our stories.
The last lines are almost literally a post from Facebook.
Regards “melody” – well I’m a non-singer and probably always will be, so it is what it is. The fourth verse is doubled an octave up, the m8 is doubled, and the outro doubled an octave up. Most of those are mixed fairly low, although I often process them quite heavily – e.g. hi-pass, compress, de-ess, reverb and chorus.
Regards recording the vocals, it a BeesNeez condenser mic (with pop shield) through a homebuilt valve preamp into a homebuilt vari-mu limiter. When mixing, I send it in parallel to another couple of compressors which are mixed back in. There is usually a sweet spot where the compressors beef it up, but pushed much further and the vocal starts sounding harsh. There is a touch of eq pulling out some hi-mids, a short reverb from ValhallaDSP Room, and a little stereo doubling with ValhallaDSP Ubermod delay.
“a gift of sorts”, well the very last thing that happened was the title, and that was only when I was writing about it. Actually it’s about the only thing I’m not happy about – I think its a little clunky.