“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:

 

Bass

“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.

Drums

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.

Guitars

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.

Keyboards
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:

Vocals
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.

in memory of peter gutteridge

I have added a song for Peter Gutteridge, a Dunedin musician who died on Monday September 15 2014.

I knew Peter over a period of about 15 years when I lived in Dunedin. His music has been quite influential on mine. In particular, you should be able to spot drones, repeating riffs, simple fuzzy leads and distorted organs laced throughout my songs. Peter had a view that you should always be able to sustain a single note throughout a song, and that everything could revolve around that.

On they surface of it these are characteristics of many bands but they combine in a unique and visionary way with Peter’s most well known band Snapper, one of those never-heard-by-the-populace but enormously-influential-across-the-world bands.

I chose to say my piece in a song, others are better writers:

Honor Harger – Farewell Peter Gutteridge

Grant McDougall – In Tribute: Peter Gutteridge and the Hypnotic Groove

Ian Henderson – Universe of Love by Peter Gutteridge

Andrew Geddis – He’s just one of those people born in the wrong time

hamptone tube mic pre

This was one of my first “proper” DIY projects, the valve (or tube) mic pre designed by Scott Hamptone and kindly made public. I built two channels with my own layout – part of the fun is turning the schematic into a physical design – and even forked out for an expensive Jensen input transformer on one side. I built this some years ago, and have rescued the pictures from the void known as google sites, used back in the day before the complex engine got going.

 

My vocal mic is pretty much permanently patched into this then a DIY vari-mu limiter. I can’t really give a meaningful description of how it sounds – my goal was to build something that would be good and then use it, not to obsess over whether it was “better” than say the solid state variant of the circuit, which is known as the FetBoy. There is more to be had from improving my singing than improving the preamp.

 

Like most of these things, it is not difficult to build if you have accumulated a bit of experience on simpler projects and you are careful. Not for beginners though – life threatening electricity etc.

In progress, the small vertical pcb is similar to the JLM Go-between, and provides phantom, pad and polarity.

diy hamptone insides

Another view, one channel completed. The green wire ensures that there is always a good connection between the faceplate and the rest of the chassis. The faceplate is not actually screwed in, it just sits in a couple of slots. Without this wire I got a lot of intermittent buzz type problems.

hamptone tube pre 3b

As specified by Scott, all the power comes from an external PSU. The heaters are DC in series.

hamptone tube pre 4b

 

 

there must be better things to do

Lord help me now I need to spend my time making & integrating a facebook page. To say nothing of twitter, reverbnation, tunecore etc etc

diabolical mastering

ok, so I’m showing my age here – I bought the new Echo and the Bunnymen cd “Meteorites” – and have a new addition to the “worst mastering ever” list. Not compression from hell this time (as was the case with their last one, The Fountain).

 

This time it is ear shredding upper mids. It is like at mastering they have run a parallel feed, boosted the hell out of 4k +/ 3k and mixed it back in. It is unlistenable. In Foobar2000, I have had to make an eq that dips between 3-7k by up to 3dB. Then it sounds ok!

 

Madness. Do they think this will help with iPod listening…y’know, where it is already bandwidth restricted and mostly mids..?!

aiming for the stage

Well, I know that throwing music out there to be swept away by the long tail is a pretty pointless exercise, and I miss the smell of stale beer on the stage floor. So, to follow up on my groundbreaking solo performance to 6 people 4 years ago (it was groundbreaking for me), I have roped a friend into playing bass and we have started working on performing these things. Drummer and keyboard player required….else we’ll just have to use loops.

 

Initial goals are simple – 4 or 5 songs at UFO, and we’ll take it from there. Past experience tells us to manage expectations. Downwards!

EP #1 nearly done

It has always been my intention to make a series of 4-song EP’s. The inspiration for this is “Fourth Drawer Down”, a collection of singles and oddments by The Associates. It is one of my favourite things.

 

In the 80’s there were numerous local (NZ) releases that were near perfect in that format but would have been spoiled by attempts to stretch out to an LP. It is a “size” that is manageable for a bedroom/hobby musician – I can and do spend plenty of time on it to get everything to a point where I am happy, but I imagine if I put that effort into 12 songs I would go mad.

 

So I like EP’s.

A Good Week For Music in Auckland

First up we had the Jack Body “tribute” evening at the Auckland University Music Department, which was a varied and enjoyable night out. Then a couple of days later the NZSO with a newly commissioned Jack Body piece, Sculthorpe’s Memento Mori, and Gorecki’s Symphony 3 (the strangely popular Symphony of Sorrowful Souls) – a decent program for a change, no fur-brigade pleasers! Perhaps we are the new  fur brigade.

 

Then tonight, Peter Brotzmann playing at Silo 6, which is a literally a collection of concrete grain silos. Not great from a viewing perspective but we managed to have a good view of the man for most of the performance, and the  lengthy reverb made a nice change. About an hour of pretty enjoyable stuff and 10 minutes of utterly astonishing slow intensity, where he seemed to find what he had previously been searching for.

 

And next week, more NZSO, with Lyell Cresswell, I imagine as with Jack Body, for his 70th birthday.

In The Box Vocal Processing

I’ve been getting good results lately with multiple parallel compression on vocals. Quite possibly I am getting better at singing too, but that is still pretty debatable.

 

My current thinking for In-The-Box (i.e. in software, not using hardware) vocal processing is to run about 4 compressors in parallel, fed prefader, from a single vocal track (BV’s I treat separately). These are all part of a group, and in general I apply echo and/or reverb to the group bus – which is the mult of the parallel compressor outputs – rather that individual tracks. However that isn’t a hard and fast rule; sometimes I might run the echo and reverb in a similar manner to the compressors – either prefade from the uncompressed original track, or maybe fed from one of the compressed tracks. A case of whatever works, do that.

 

Typically I start off with the main vocal feeding some combination of these:

  • Waves LA2A
  • Waves 1176
  • Slate Digital Vari-Mu
  • House of Kush UBK-1 (possibly a couple, on different settings)
  • Variety of Sound Thrillseeker VBL (though I haven’t really got to grips with this one yet) (freeware)
  • Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Feedback Compressor II (freeware)

Don’t forget to reduce these from unity gain otherwise you get an extra few db with each additional track.

 

This seems to be a good way of getting a solid vocal without sounding badly compressed. It is surprising how much you can slam these and it still sounds fine – in fact I often take the original vocal right out and just use a mix of the compressor outputs. The UBK-1 is particularly handy here as it can get quite dirty, so if the overall thing is a bit nice, you just crank the drive on the UBK-1 track.

 

On the vocal bus I typically have either a transparent limiter like TDR Feedback II, or another LA2A in limiter mode if it needs more pumping, and the FabFilter de-esser.

 

I sort of think this is all crazy over-the-top and shouldn’t be needed….it’s nuts right……but it’s working for me. Here I’ll also insert the required comment that it is no substitute for well recorded tracks to start with, and the better you are with that the more likely you are to benefit form this type of processing. Also obligatory – although you can, you don’t have to hammer every compressor – just a touch may well be enough.

 

My goto delay and verbs are Valhalla Ubermod delay and ValhallaRoom reverb, and the Liquidsonics Reverberate convolution reverb. On the question of whether delays and reverbs are best pre or post compression, I tend to favour having short/bright/dense reverb or delays compressed (I might chorus that too) and the longer ones  uncompressed.

 

I usually find it sufficient to de-ess on the group bus, prior to echo or reverb, rather than each track. If it is a problem I’ll try some variation of de-essing some or all of the compressor tracks,  or ducking the offending ss’s on the bus using  track volume automation. Another option is to de-ess the main vocals before it goes to the parallel compressors. Obviously with lots of compression there is a risk of the ss’s (and t’s) getting out of hand.

 

I haven’t found much need to EQ at all. I do apply a high pass filter on the main vocal before it goes to the parallel compressors, because if there is low frequency rubbish there  you don’t want it multiplying through or interfering with all the compression, and making its way back to the bus and echo/reverb. I just use the built-in ReaEQ in Reaper, or maybe the freeware Brainworx BX_Cleansweep.

 

Note that I have actually bought these plugins, and the freeware ones I use are well regarded. With some things I think you get what you pay for, and it is worth getting good software where it matters.

 

DIY Valve Vari-Mu Adventures

I’ve recently been working on a point-to-point build of a vari-mu compressor. Unlike a lot of DIY, the circuit is the work of local professional and so not publicly available and I can’t share it. I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to have a go at building it.

 

It has however been sitting on my workbench barely started for probably 3 years. I had wasted an inordinate amount of time creating a 19″ 2u case for it out of bits from other cases. Metalwork is not my strongpoint and this was an epic waste of effort. God knows how many hours I spent hacksawing, filing, drilling, threading. By the time I was done I had long lost interest in the fun part, hence it sat on the bench. Lesson – just pay the f^&kin’ money, buy a case and get building!
As is often the case, for no apparent reason I suddenly resolved to get stuck into it. The first hurdle was the external power supply – a lot of fiddling about to find a good case for the transformer, make and connect the umbilical cord, and find appropriate connectors to safely get the high voltage and heater supplies into the case (I eventually found the excellent 7 pin Bulgin connectors from RS Components).

 

Once the power supply was built and connected to the case, I still had more metalwork to do –  holes for the XLR connectors, pots and VU meter…and what to attach the valves to? They had to go horizontally to fit into the 2u height, so that was 2 sets of 90 degree brackets to be drilled for 5 valves, and safely mounted in the case. Finally with those and the input and output transformers bolted in, I was under way with the hook up.

 

I had decided largely to wing the hookup. I didn’t plan it other than I decided what valve was going where, where the I/O was, where the knobs would go, where the audio transformers were, and where the power supply caps were going. I rotated the valves so the heater supply would have the shortest, most direct path to their tags without having to go around the other pins (as per the advice in “Building Valve Amplifiers” by Morgan Jones). Once I had checked that the heaters were all receiving their 6.3v I just started at one end of the schematic and started soldering.

 

Here is what I did wrong:

  • I soldered the heater wires directly to the Bulgin connector. I should have taken them off to a tag strip and run from there, as later on there was some fiddling around with the center tap and voltage divider. It was hard to get to it to solder/unsolder, whereas a tag strip would have been easy.
  • I didn’t leave enough room around the power supply caps and dropping resistors to allow me to experiment later. I crammed it all into the corner where later on it was hard to get to to change out components.
  • I connected the circuit earth to the chassis near the PS caps. The place to make this key connection is as close to the most sensitive input stage as possible. I thought you were supposed to connect it where the heaviest currents were flowing – apparently not! (note that the actual safety earth from the mains has its own dedicated connection straight to the chassis, right by the plug).
  • I wired up the amplifier tubes incorrectly. Pretty stupid mistake – in the schematic (and any similar one) the two halves of a dual-triode are shown horizontally mirrored, ie the anode is always on the outside and the cathode on the inside. I wired the top half ok then continued as though they were not mirrored, i.e. I had the anode and cathode reversed for the second half. Luckily I figured this out before power was applied – a good demonstration of why you do your idiot check a day after wiring, not immediately after. However, because I had the tubes mounted horizontally and was doing p2p instead of using tagstrips, this was hellish to undo and fix. The result is even more of a rats nest than it needed to be, and difficult to get to to troubleshoot. Lesson – anything more complex than say an Altec 436, give yourself plenty of room or use tagstrips.
  • I should have used more tagstrips in general…bit of a theme here….sturdier, tidier, easier to follow, orders of magnitude easier to troubleshoot and change.
  • I wired a couple of pots backwards. Not sure I’ll ever get the hang of that one.
  • The case…as explained, just buy one.

Things I did well:

 

  • The heaters – I found some nice solid core mains wire at the local hardware shop (Mitre 10 for NZ locals) that was red and black and twisted nicely with the drill. I used heavy gauge for the first part of the run then split it out to lighter gauge to each valve. Tagstrips would have made that easier too but I wanted to keep it all close to the chassis. I kept the windings tight and out of the way of everything. By raising the valve mounting brackets off the case floor the only point at which the heaters are close to other other components is where they come off the case and up to the pins. Heater noise is not a problem.
  • By using p2p pretty much all circuit interconnects are very short – in particular, as I understand it, the very high impedance (and therefore susceptible to noise) connections to the grids.

Power up.
With the assistance of Clary Schollum, who to my great benefit lives nearby, it was powered up bit by bit with a variac. Nothing exploded, voltages were near enough. However it was pretty noisy and hummy, so back to the the troubleshooting bench. Well, first mistake I found was putting an ecc83 in instead of an ecc82. No comment. Changing that out got me into the “its working ok” ballpark. However I couldn’t get the second B+ into the 90-100v range, and consequently the threshold wasn’t working properly. It was doing a better job as a overdrive box than a limiter.
After exchanging a couple of emails with the circuit designer, it was off for a troubleshooting visit. I came back with a few things to do:

  • add a resistor across the powersupply to give a load to the dropping resistor, so we can get the 90-100v required
  • change the input pad – too much level going in
  • redo the voltage divider for heater elevation – it was too high at 50v, needed to get down to 40v
  • redo the grounding as discussed above
  • attach the input transformer shield and valve shields to the chassis

I am still fiddling around with the input (and output) pads, but apart from that the only problem left is motorboating on the two fastest release settings.

new songs released very occasionally - keep up with the play by signing up to my (spartan) newsletter.
also on Twitter @MikeStoodleyTCE
* = required field

powered by MailChimp!