Anecdotes #5 – September 27, 2020 – The Queenmaker

I put out this song ‘The Queenmaker’ a few years ago, but was never happy with the recording. It’s a bit amateur, you know? Recorded a new version that didn’t make the cut for Bunkerland, since it was a bit on the pop side.

Today I replaced all the digital-recorded guitars with versions recorded through my new amp, then remixed the vocals and holy shit – it’s probably, soundwise, the best thing I’ve ever done. The song is catchy as hell – that’s apparent in the old version – but was never gonna be a ‘hit’ recorded that way.

Pretty stoked with how this new version’s come out…

Also did a bit more mixing on ‘Perimeter’. The drums were just too clean in yesterday’s mix, so listened to the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Quiet’ then got to work.

Anecdotes #4: September 25, 2020 – Perimeter

Spent the past couple of days (outside of work, parenting, real-life) working on a Big – yes, capital B big – Rock Song. I figure if I’m gonna record with a real-life amp now, rather than modelling, might as well go all in.

The song I chose was ‘Perimeter’, which I wrote in 2014. The demo is over the top – everything as loud as everything else, huge drums, big riffs, blazing (yet rudimentary) synth parts, huge loud/quiet shifts. Perfect for what I wanna do.

Spent most of Thursday’s free time transcribing/programming the drum parts, then the bass. Today I worked from home to give myself some extra time (not commuting) and worked out what kind of guitar sound to use – settled on Big Muff Pi through the Marshall setting on the amp, in other words the classic Pumpkins, with some Orange amp straight distortion to cut through the mix.

Drums, well… I was gonna go something a bit natural and dry, but realised the song is meant to sound ***huge*** – and the muddy/fuzzy guitars needed drums that would cut through. Turned to the CLA kits I bought and never thought I’d actually use, only to find they were exactly what was needed. Swapped out the toms for some others from the Steven Slate set, ran it through some tape emulation and EQ, and bam. Somehow it all fits.

Synthesizers, used a mix of the Oberheim emulator OP-X II, a PolyMoog and Solina strings – the only catch is I haven’t done the vocals yet. God only knows if it’ll hold together after that.

Anecdotes #3: September 21, 2020 – Awake as the Sun, Endeavour, The Gatekeeper, Apathy, Star-Off Machine

 

Whoops. I know I said I was – and I quote – “document what I’m writing and recording in real-time, on this here part of the website”, that’s not quite happened yet, has it? So here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to over the past month.

I bought an amp! Yes, a real-life amp that makes amazing horrible loud noises and needs a microphone to record. I’ve been experimenting with sounds and mic positions, and eventually ended up with what you see on the right of this entry. You know, the standard off-centre position an inch or two from the front of the amp.

Despite the lack of control over the sound once it’s laid down on ‘tape’, I’m finding it does tend to sound a lot better generally in the mix – it has an edge to it, a weightiness the software modelling amps are missing. I’m not sure how else to describe it.

Anyway, so I’ve been laying down guitar parts on a few unfinished songs – sometimes replacing otherwise fully-done guitar tracks using software. They include ‘Apathy’ – a track I released years ago under a different name, but a really shitty version, honestly; and ‘Endeavour’, a song I wrote no less than 20 years ago. That one used to get played in a band I was in at the time, which turned an otherwise short punky tune into an extended drone of noise and Sonic Youth excessiveness. Hopefully capture a little bit of that in this new recording. Remains to be seen whether I can hit the high notes – perhaps I should have transposed it down a few semitones…

I’ve also added a lead guitar part to a slower tune, ‘Awake as the Sun’ – did that today! Left the original modelling rhythm tracks on that one – they have a nice lo-fi grunge to them that suits the tune, and there are some improvised/noise parts I’m loathe to try and reproduce. Took out the big-sounding Albini-style drums and replaced them with a flatter close-miced kit – really adds to the claustrophobic closet-sound of the tune, which bursts out when the lead guitar starts. Did the vocals today too – it’s always terrifying mixing a relatively clean vocal, so added some flange to hide my insecurities.

As for another tune I’ve been working on, ‘Star-Off Machine’ (every parent with a collection of Dr Seuss books in the house knows what this is about), same deal with the guitars as above – it’s not meant to be a well-produced rock monster, and the modelled amps (using Overloud software) will do the trick. Spent today doing the vocals, then the usual endless mixing and remixing to try and get them to fit… only to land on a relatively clean mix with little processing. As you do.

Last but certainly not least, worked on a tune called ‘The Gatekeeper’. It was on contention for the Bunkerland album, but was left off as falling on the ‘poppier’ end of the spectrum. That record was more about the grunge. Just as well though – I replaced the modelled guitars with some amped takes, and it sounds much, much better. Different style – the original had the Big Muff Pi all over them, the new takes are more stripped back with just a bit of light distortion.

There were some modelled lead parts in the background of the synth solo which I’ve left in – they’ve got all these weird effects on them and aren’t the main focus, so left them alone. Might do that vocal next week!

Finished the day off mastering ‘Awake as the Sun’ and ‘Star-Off Machine’ – I guess that’s the next single?

Anecdotes #2: August 11, 2020 – Wheel in Rain

Was gonna record the vocals for the track I recorded last week, ‘Reversal’, but decided instead to lay down another song in a similar vein, ‘Wheel in Rain’.

Written around the same time, I figured if the mix I’ve got for ‘Reversal’ works, it would too for this one! So used the same drum mix and acoustic guitar mix, and in place of the electric guitar I added to the right channel last week, instead threw in a tambourine loop.

The melody for this one’s a little more complex than ‘Reversal’, so to beef up whatever weak vocals I lay down, added a simple Moog synth line doubling the melody.

As for the bass, while I like the McCartney-style palm-mute sound, I needed a bit more sustain on this one – so ran it through the Big Muff Deluxe on a light distortion setting. Gave it a slightly more muffled sound, but filled the bottom end out nicely.

I decided the piano sound I got last week wasn’t cutting through, so replaced it with a sharper upright piano. Then for ‘Wheel in Rain’, found a more experimental preset which added a nice subtle psychedelic feel to the tune.

While the piano ran right through ‘Reversal’, it doesn’t in ‘Wheel in Rain’ – so I added a little Polymoog synth hit with a lot of reverb at certain points.

Just when I thought I was finished, I noticed a particularly clumsy chord change from F to Dm7 – so went to re-record it, but my headphones were playing up! Recorded it with the rest of the track playing through the monitors… so if the track ever gets released and you have the kind of ears to hear that kind of stuff…

Songs vs albums

Been thinking recently I might not bother with albums for a bit. You do all these songs, make sure they work as a set, put in so much effort – and no one cares. It sometimes feels like you’ve just thrown 13 great songs to the wolves, on the fire, into a black hole. Wouldn’t it be better to lose just one at a time?

Might just do singles. I have a few hundred songs yet to see the light of day, dozens of others I’ve put out in the past before I really knew how to mix things properly that could do with being redone entirely. Seriously, I could almost do one song a week for the next decade without running out.

I keep spreadsheets of my songs. One is all of them ranked by quality – of the top 10, I’ve only ever released two, and neither in forms I’d consider satisfactory. Perhaps that’s an album. Amongst the rest are about three dozen allocated to a concept triple album.

The rest are grouped according to style/genre, but who really cares about that anymore?

 

Anecdotes #1: August 4, 2020 – Reversal

This is gonna sound real pretentious, especially considering no one’s likely to read it, but I’ve decided to document what I’m writing and recording in real-time, on this here part of the website.

Background: I’ve got this spreadsheet with every song I’ve ever written (at least those I have documentation for), and a folder of demos dating back to the 1990s. I can’t always remember what I was thinking when I wrote and recorded them, which kind of sucks. Firstly, it’s easier to reproduce a song where you know what the bloody chords are, or how it was done… Secondly, lyrics can become impenetrable with the passage of time removing your state of mind from the context they were written.

I’ve got this new bunch of songs coming out in a couple of days, and it might surprise you I have little memory of how most of them were written – even though the majority were penned in the last few years. I tend to write in bursts – usually in late summer – and haven’t used pen and paper for a few years now.

I like looking at the old songs I wrote the old way, seeing lyrics and chord progressions crossed out and replaced with (usually) better parts. But for a few years now I’ve written pretty much exclusively on the computer – so bad (well, even worse) lyrics are purged forever, and all the chords and melodies are written down in MIDI rather than paper.

It’s certainly much more efficient, but makes it hard to piece together exactly what was going through my mind when it happened! This writing is as much for me as it anyone else – probably even more so!

So with that in mind, here goes. I’ll start with what I did today – August 4, 2020.

Recording ‘Reversal’

After spending the first few months of the year – pre-lockdown – working on the 99 percent electronic Battle Thru Time, and the post-lockdown months on the heavy grunge Bunkerland, I decided to restring my acoustic guitars and chill out a bit.

I’ve got two – one is a steel-string axe I bought in about 2001, covered in nearly two decades of stickers in a layer probably half an inch thick; the other a cheap nylon string guitar I think we bought to let the kids play with.

I went through my spreadsheet and pulled out a song called ‘Reversal’ I wrote in 2013. Around that time I had started writing more using the keyboard to figure out chords and melodies, having written pretty much exclusively on the guitar until 2010 or so. This is a strumalong acoustic song, but with a piano lead part and a tricky melody obviously written on the keyboard, rather than vocally.

I kept the song’s brisk structure largely intact, changing the opening chord to whatever it is when you play an F, but leave the G string open – matching the opening bass note, before hitting the F.

The chords used in the song – F, Am, G, C and Em – frustrated my guitar, which refused to play them all in tune at the same time. I had to do two different takes for each track – one where the guitar was tuned to C, G and Em, and the other to F and Am – then carefully join them together so each sounded like a single take. Worked out quite well. I’ve set up my condenser mic on a kind of extendable mechanical arm thing which can be whipped out when it’s needed and hidden when it’s not. I bet this is just how the Beatles did it…

The nylon guitar had no such tuning issues but didn’t sound as nice, so I ran it through a fuzz pedal VST and panned it hard right (I’m trying to do an L-C-R mixing type thing with acoustic tracks in particular – simplifies things a lot, and definitely adds to the Beatles feel!)

Reversal - Anecdata

The two main acoustic tracks were run through a bit of a Harmonizer, one panned left and the other centred. In the right channel I added a clean electric guitar (the Grungemaster) doing a fingerpicking thing – very rare for me, since I suck at it! But it worked here, kind of murky and buried.

On the past few Anecdata albums the bass parts have been largely programmed – both synth and bass guitar – but wanting a looser feel on this, I played the bass part this time. Good old palm-muting to get that extra McCartney feel of course.

As for the drums, used the ‘tea towel’ setting on Toontrack’s ‘UK Pop’ sample set – for obvious reasons – with some better cymbals from another set. Put the overheads in mono to keep the soundstage clear, lots of tape and compression too.

Later in the afternoon I came back to the mix and decided it needed something else in the middle eight, so turned down the piano in that bit to make way for a bit of fuzz guitar – a lead part mostly following the piano melody, but with a few flourishes. Nice and direct sound, nothing fancy.

Haven’t done the vocals yet. Gotta go over the melody from the demo and simplify it a bit – it has some rather ambitious leaps I know I used software to fix in that recording, and I’d rather not do that anymore! Also, might see if I can jazz up the lyric a bit.

So, that’s today – August 4, 2020. I have no idea if I’ll persist with this nonsense, but I hope I do – even if no one else reads it, I might be interested in it myself one day?

Behind the songs: Until the End

Another old one, at least musically. 

I first uploaded a (very bad) version of it to the internet in 2006 or so. That one was more space-rock – it had acoustic guitars, vocals, the works. Funnily enough, you could also hear crickets in the background – it was the height of summer when I recorded it, I had no soundproofing at all, and I was terrible at mixing. 

Another version a few years later took that template and improved the arrangement, but this one’s all electronic and has so many new parts it’s almost unrecognisable from its early forms.

And it has no words, ’cause I couldn’t get them to fit this time. Standards have risen and all that.

Behind the songs: Phantom Time

No, this is not a song about being ready for the Phantom. It’s inspired by one of the wildest and grandest conspiracy theories I think I’ve ever come across – that HUNDREDS of years of history are missing.

Yep, the middle ages literally never happened. Supposedly. 

This is an old song too. I wrote it in 2012, and only just got around to polishing it off. Seriously, it’s almost unchanged from the original demo! Just improved the mix, got better at singing, added an intro part so it could merge into the song before it. 

Most of the instruments are literally from the original demo! So in a way, this album’s literally been in the recording phase for eight years… IF THEY ACTUALLY HAPPENED! 

Behind the songs: You’re Not Alone

I’m not the kind of guy who writes ‘love’ songs. This is about as close as it gets… and it’s all of about six lines long. 

There was a second verse, but I decided in mixing it didn’t fit sonically, so chucked in a synth. Love them synths. 

I was gonna chuck in more of a solo part before the last chorus, but isn’t that tambourine enough? I thought so after about the 500th listen. 

The huge drums are a bit lo-fi – I liked the sound of them on the demo, but lost the original programming/stems, so just took them as they were, beefed ’em up and there they are.

Behind the songs: Hardly Angels

Each year, I seem to end up writing at least one darkly humorous pseudo-disco song. 

This one was originally penned in 2017, and it’s about how everyone here thinks Asians are bad drivers – when seriously, as a guy who’s spent decades on two wheels (pedal and motor), I know for a fact it’s your basic white dudes who are the country’ biggest menace.

The original title was ‘Death Disco’, but I decided that was a little too on-the-nose, even for me. 

Musically, it relies heavily on the old LM-1 drum machine made famous by Prince. I bought this ridiculously detailed emulation that’s not just a sample set, but replicates the original ’70s hardware in great detail.

Behind the songs: Super VHS

This little musical interlude has its roots in a seven-minute electronic instrumental I recorded almost 20 fucking years ago called ‘Advice Like This’. 

Believe it or not, the original demo was programmed on a PlayStation (an original, not a PS2 or PS1 – the original bulky PlayStation), and I still have the recording. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to the whole thing since the day I finished it.

There were some words to the song, they weren’t very good and the melody was dull, so cutting it back to its bare essentials – the chords and bass, essentially – and using it as a musical bridge was a no-brainer.