“ghost birds” deconstructed

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 “ghost birds” 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 influence.

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:



“ghost birds” 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 “tune”:

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.

sampled drums:

software drums:

mixed together:

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, guitars, keys) are bussed to two separate compressor 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.

Guitar lead
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.

Guitar outro
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.

I originally called this song “a gift of sorts”, it was the very last thing that happened, and that was only when I was writing about it. I was never happy with it so changed it to “ghost birds” which I think is somewhat more evocative.

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