Monday, May 3, 2021

Studio Sessions: Meredith Higgins

Two years ago an amazing singer/songwriter from Cape Breton came to Wild Bill's Studio to record five original songs. Gary Hartley and myself recorded Meredith singing and playing guitar, and were then tasked with the job of putting a band behind her. Not an easy task, given that recording sessions usually start with the band and the vocals are saved till last. However, we were up to the challenge and the result is her debut album/EP: Waves.

Along with Gary on bass and some backing vocals, and myself on Fender Rhodes and synth, we drafted Grant Deachman for his precision drumming skills. There were multiple technical challenges, but all were overcome in time and we're all proud of the work we did, and proud to be a part of this amazing record.

The Fender Rhodes parts were demo'd for Meredith using a Yamaha Reface CP. For the final recording we used the real Fender Rhodes suitcase 73 that resides at Wild Bill's. I recorded the parts for all five songs in a day, having hardly ever touched the Rhodes up until that point. I was not prepared for how heavy the keyboard action is: my arm was sore for days! Having put in a lot more time on that instrument, I can now play it with relative ease.

Meredith Higgins' Waves is on all popular digital distribution and streaming services. You can listen for free on Spotify here.

New Equipment: Korg M1

A decade ago I said I would never buy a Korg M1. My reasoning was that it was digital (at the time I had the misguided view that digital synths were bad), and that Gary Numan overused the M1 presets on everything he recorded from approx. 1988 onwards (since it was released, in other words). I even passed up the opportunity to buy one for $300 around the time I said that.

I've since come to appreciate what digital synthesizers can bring to the table. Interestingly, so have a lot of other people, and the price of these machines has gone up in recent years. Despite that, I still paid just shy of  $300 for this one. It needed a new internal battery and the presets reloaded, and has a few buttons that don't work, but other than that is in good condition. It was way cleaner inside than the DW8000 I had to restore recently, for instance.

So, what are my thoughts now that I own it? I still think it's an ugly machine, and I don't like the keyboard action very much. But overall the sound is decent, if dated. To my surprise, it has an on-board filter. It's more like a brilliance or brightness control (ie. not much depth to it, except in edit mode) but it's a mark in its favour. There are other things you can affect with the same slider control, too, such as the mix between the two digital wavetable oscillators of each sound. This makes it that little bit more endearing to someone like me who likes to create their own sound on a synthesizer, or at the very least change a preset enough that it has a unique flavour. A flip through the manual reveals that the designers expected the end user to program their own sounds with ease and relative quickness, but I wonder about that when there are so few controls on the front-panel.

At present I'm using it in my practice/writing space (along with the Reface DX). The piano sound is halfway decent, and there are other sounds that can inspire new ways of composing.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Video: In the Rushes

In the Rushes, from Music of the Lake. This video is only a year late (haha!). I've combined footage gathered over the last two years at Bouchie Lake, with studio footage and some mimed performance in front of my home-made green screen. Aside from some lighting issues, I think the latter turned out pretty good for a first go. This is one of my favourites from Music of the Lake, so I hope you like it.

It's my goal to publish at least one video per month this year, so I have my work cut out. If you like the song, the video, or both, please share it around on your social media of choice.

May 2021 be a creative year for everybody!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

2020: Year In Review

Out collecting video footage, winter 2020. (photo by Sybille Muschik).

I'm disappointed that I only wrote two blog posts in 2020, but given how busy the year was for me, both in and out of the studio, I can't say I'm surprised. A lot of things I spoke about in the 2019: Year In Review post that I hoped to accomplish in 2020 simply didn't happen.

The year started off with a commission from Johnny Who Entertainments, an independent film company in the UK. I was asked to remake the theme from the 1978 BBC TV show Blake's 7, originally composed for orchestra by Dudley Simpson. It turned into one of the most complicated and multi-layered pieces of music I've ever worked on. My goal was to pay homage to the aesthetic of the original, and improve upon it with some modern touches. In this regard I succeeded, but I just about burned out. I have fond memories of watching the series when I was a kid. As yet, the theme is unreleased.

In March, after much rehearsal, I accompanied my band No More Cries to Vancouver to play at the Roxy Cabaret. This was right at the beginning of the Covid scare, and the show was cancelled the night we made it to the city. So I spent a couple of days wandering the downtown area as anti-pandemic measures were rolled out. It was a surreal experience.

First signs of the end-times, Vancouver, March.

One high-point of the Vancouver trip was getting to see a Moog One with my own eyes at Tom Lee Music, and lo, even try it out. But $10,000 CDN is far beyond my budget, so I came home with a far more sensible Behringer Model D. We also looked at some incredible grand pianos in their showroom, one of which was in the region of $70,000.

A Moog One in all it's glory (and a Subsequent 37 above it).

It was while in Vancouver that I lost contact with my good friend and collaborator JLA, the other half of Disco Antenna. We'd conspired to release the Disco Antenna album 'Disco From The Stars' last year, but for various reasons that never happened. He did, however, give his blessing on the final mixes and artwork, as well as the DFTS video that's waiting in the wings. I miss you, J...

UPDATE: JLA is alive and well! We'll discuss a release date for DFTS in due course.

Throughout the year I composed new music for Sybille Muschik's Shoreline Studio YouTube series (now 20+ episodes strong). As of this post, 55 minutes' worth of music is nearing completion. I'd planned to release it as 'Music of the Lake II', but since only one of the four pieces is to do with the lake specifically, it'll be called 'The Floating Island' instead. Stay tuned for that very soon.

The floating island (photo taken from roughly the middle of the frozen lake).

In October, No More Cries filmed a music video against a giant home-made green screen. It's currently in post-production.

Doing my best to look like I'm in a rock video.

My album, 'Dreams of Sleeping Engines', still hasn't seen the light of day, beyond some physical copies that got handed around in 2020. I need the time to concentrate on promotional videos before I release it digitally. To that end, I've made my own green-screen at home.

August 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of my e.p. 'Let's Build Mecha'. For some time I've wanted to remaster it, and put together the video I filmed (but never edited) for 'Production Line'. So this seemed a good excuse. The remastering part is done, and I'm very happy with it, but the film is still in mothballs. This year for sure (haha!).

Meredith Higgins' five-song CD, 'Waves', which we produced at Wild Bill's Studio, saw a physical release at Christmas. It's set to be released digitally very soon, so watch this space.

Recording sessions for Danny Brickell's second album were also completed late last year, and it's currently at the mixing stage.

What else is new? I now have an instagram account, where I'll post occasional images related to my work.

Friday, April 17, 2020

New Equipment: Behringer Model D

Like them or loathe them, Behringer are making waves recreating synthesizers from the past so that people such as myself, who missed owning the originals, can own brand new iterations of rare classics. The Model D, for the uninitiated, is based on the Moog Minimoog Model D - quite possibly the most famous synthesizer ever made. Most of the musicians who have influenced me used a Minimoog at some time or other. It's appeared on more classic records than you can shake a stick at. So it's no exaggeration to say I've coveted one all my life. The Behringer version promises the same circuit design with some new twists (note the CV input jacks along the top of the unit) at an affordable price. Not having access to an original Minimoog, I can't comment on the authenticity of the sound; suffice to say that it sounds very close to me, and that's what matters.

One of the first things I noticed is that the tuning drifts and is not especially stable. This is what's called a feature, for you can't have the original Minimoog circuitry without the original foibles. The tuning knob provides four semitones of wiggle room. I'm using it strictly in the studio, so tuning it between takes and letting it warm up is not a huge deal to me. It might be an issue in a live setting.

I've owned software emulations of the Minimoog, but never fully understood the architecture until I was able to spend a half hour in front of the hardware. It's all starting to make sense to me now, and it hasn't taken long for certain controls and functions to become second nature.

One thing I still find difficult to get to grips with is what they call legato. In this case, when you play two (or more) notes in a row without lifting your fingers, the amplitude envelope doesn't retrigger. Instead, the first note sounds strong, but the second and subsequent notes sound weak: depending on how your envelope is set. Arturia and Moog's software emulations had a switch to overcome this, but apparently the Behringer D does not. So one has to play the notes with more care in order to retrigger the envelope. That said, the legato nature of the notes can be a desirable effect. The MS-20 also does this, but not as extreme as the Model D.

I'll have to spend some time with the emulations to discover what else is different, control-wise. The CV (Control Voltage) jacks along the top give you patch-points for plugging into modular synths or routing certain functions back to the unit (LFO to filter cutoff, for example). There's also a 440Hz test-tone available at the flip of a switch - handy for tuning - and three separate outputs: line out (1/4"), headphones (1/8"), and main (1/8"). The latter can be routed to Ext-in for the famous Moog overdrive sound.

You'll be hearing this a lot in coming productions. It already features on the first new piece for Music of the Lake II.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

2019: Year In Review

"Welcome to my office"
The picture above doesn't necessarily represent 2019, but you could say that work in the studio was somewhat chaotic. If you look back at my 'year in review' for 2018, you'll note I made some statements about my release schedule that didn't exactly fall into place. The Atmospheres album did eventually see the light of day, but very late in the year because of a busy spring and summer. My magnum opus Dreams of Sleeping Engines is still not out, but on the plus side I took extra time to fix some things I wasn't happy with.

A list of my audio-visual related accomplishments for 2019:

-Collaborated with Disco Antenna on a cover of Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy'.
-Mixed and mastered the 'Seven' EP for No More Cries (on which I also play keyboards and sing backup).
-Filmed a music video for No More Cries (still in post-production).
-Recorded Fender Rhodes and synthesizer for Meredith Higgins' debut EP 'Waves', release date TBA.
-Debuted The Manitou's 2014 album 'Radioatomic' on major download and streaming sites via DistroKid.
-Released The Manitou's album 'Atmospheres' via Bandcamp and DistroKid.
-Composed 11 songs for Sybille Muschik's Shoreline Studio Video Blog, subsequently released as an album titled 'Music of the Lake'. Filmed and edited 7 videos for Sybille's channel.
-Completed work on The Manitou's 'Dreams of Sleeping Engines', release date TBA.

What are my goals for 2020? Certainly to release the things that didn't make it into last year's roster; promote my music better; write a follow-up to Music of the Lake and continue with the filming work for Sybille's show; revisit some material from a 'lost' Manitou album from 2010; start work on some Audio Drama soundtracks I've been asked to compose; remaster portions of my back-catalog for DistroKid release; finish the No More Cries music video (and perhaps film another one). That would be a good start!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Digital Album: Music of the Lake

In April of 2019 I was asked to collaborate on a video blog project with local artist Sybille Muschik. In addition to filming and editing, I was asked to write original music for the series. The initial brief was that it should be upbeat and interesting: nothing that would put people to sleep. As I spent more time at Sybille's lake-shore home, the lake itself became a focus of the music. Over a period of months, sounds that evoke water, and field recordings from the lake itself (and other bodies of water), were woven into instrumental songs that referenced aspects or experiences of the lake and surrounding watershed.

In the few weeks after our initial meeting I created a series of short musical sketches. These consisted of basic drum patterns, chord progressions on virtual Rhodes electric piano or synthesizer, synth or piano melodies, and bass guitar parts. I chose fifteen to present to Sybille, who then whittled them down to eight, including one that would become the theme song. I rejected a further two, finding them uninspiring in the end! Perhaps I'll share some of these sketches in the future.

After developing the initial six songs, I had a clearer idea of Sybille's tastes and the direction the music should go. I presented the remainder of the songs as finished pieces.

We never discussed how many songs there should be, but I tend to think in terms of albums (or EP's at the very least), and inspiration led me to eleven. Each one pushed me creatively in many ways. I played bass guitar on all but one track (the most I've ever used on an album). I strove to make sampled drum machines sound more like real drums: both sonically and in the way that they're programmed. I made synths sound like guitars, and played real guitar when it was within my abilities. I scoured my backlog of field recordings for water and nature sounds and collected more in the field. I even made an orchestral song without an orchestra! But perhaps the biggest challenge was to work in different styles and moods than I have before.

This is my first paying soundtrack job. The entire process has been fun and exciting. There's scope for a 'volume two' after a well-deserved break. The lake continues to inspire through the changing seasons and as my knowledge of its biodiversity expands.

Bandcamp Player:

Track by track commentary:

1. Sunbursts (Shoreline Theme)
Out of four sketches with potential for theme songs, this was the most energetic. The working title was simply 'theme 3, piano'. The twinkly arpeggio suggested the bright sunbursts reflecting off water on a sunny day. The short version of the theme is essentially what I would call the chorus. Coming up with a 'verse' to accompany it was a challenge.

2. Pond Skaters
This changed considerably from my sketch. The signature bubbly bell sound is based on a preset  from a virtual synth called Firebird. There is a random element to the patch, which means it sounds different every time the song plays live in my workstation or is rendered as a mixdown. In order to even come close to how a pivotal mixdown sounded, I had to 'print' multiple takes of the Firebird parts and choose the best passages. The title was inspired by a large swarm of whirligig beetles skating on the water.


3. Blackbird Bend
In March, before I even started on this project, I spent an hour on a frosty morning in a wooded area by the lake, capturing the dawn chorus with my Tascam digital recorder. The principle songbirds I sought were the red-winged blackbirds. A snippet of that recording is the ambient backdrop for this song.

4. In the Rushes
This is the first song I came with up on my own initiative, as it were, having completed the first six Sybille had chosen from my sketches. After hearing Pan's Blessing she expressed a wish that there was more variation to the melody. Rather than rework that song, I wrote this instead. It's also the first piece written with a facet of the lake in mind: the rushes that grow along the shoreline, the water that laps between their stalks, the sound they make in the wind, and the insects and marine-life that live among them.

5. Spawning Beds
I was privileged to see (and film) trout spawning in the creek that runs out of the lake. This song is inspired by them, and the erratic way they swim in the fast-moving water above the weir. It was Sybille's idea to include a recording of the creek itself.

6. Surface Patterns
Since embarking on this project I couldn't help but write a laid-back piece evoking the swirling and undulating nature of water and the varied and mesmerizing patterns on the water's surface.

7. Pan's Blessing 
As it was spring when I started Music of the Lake, I took inspiration from the process of thawing, the return of plant and animal-life to the area, and the warm feeling of celebration it brings. The pan pipe sound was a last-minute addition inspired by the title.

8. Water Lilies (Yellow)
As the soundtrack was nearing completion, Sybille requested I write a piece about the water lilies found in the lake, of which there are two species. We went canoeing to photograph them (the yellow variety graces the album cover), and to check on their health. The yellow water lily is endemic to the lake, and in danger of being choked out by the white (or 'fragrant'), which is introduced. I chose an ethnic instrument akin to a kalimba, some soft Rhodes piano, and mellow synthesizer to represent the yellow species and its vulnerability.

9. Water Lilies (White)
For the white water lily, I chose a bolder palette: harps that evoke an air of royalty, strings that suggest the conquest of the lake by spreading leaves and rhizomes, and isolated twinkles from the synthesizer to represent white blooms breaking through the carpet of green. The chime tree that accompanies both water lily pieces represents motion, in this case the gentle undulation of lily pads upon the water.

10. Damselflies
At the peak of their hatching, you may see hundreds of brilliant blue damselflies hovering at lake's edge. This song is for them and their larger dragonfly cousins. If you detect a similarity in sound and style to 'In the Rushes' it's because both songs were made in tandem. With my Rhodes emulation running through a delay effect, several layers of rhythm and melody were built up to form the backbone of both songs.

11. Paddling
Sybille liked the idea of an orchestral piece, so I put my mind to it. Nothing came to me for about a week, and then I wrote and orchestrated this in about three hours flat (though it took longer to finesse and add finishing touches). The sounds of canoeing and loon calls were recorded on a camping trip with my band-mate, Gary Hartley.

Music of the Lake is available on bandcamp and all major digital distributors except G**gle.

Video - Shoreline Studio Video Blog Episode 1A:

You can check out the rest of Sybille Muschik's Shoreline Studio Video Blog here, and find out more about her work at