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.

Video:


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 www.sybillemuschik.com.


Saturday, November 9, 2019

Digital Album: Atmospheres


This release has been waiting in the wings since Christmas 2018. I've been busy with various things in the interim, but several events have brought it to the front of my mind, such as the anniversary of the day that inspired 'The Ash Monk': August 17th. More about that in the commentary below.

Ever since I started composing soundtracks, pieces would emerge that are more atmosphere than music. One of my goals has been to create an original album of them. In December of 2015 I released the first handful as an EP (see this post), which have been remastered for the full album.

My ideal was to create dark, moody, and somewhat unobtrusive sound collages that could be played in the background while doing other creative things: much like Brian Eno's masterful 'Ambient 2: On Land'. To say I succeeded in matching the greatness of that album would be a stretch, but most of the tracks lived up to my expectations.

When it came time to master this album, I wanted to record it to 1/4" reel-to-reel tape. Some of the field recordings had background hiss, and my thought was to mask that with the hiss of analog tape. I even went so far as to record a version on my Fostex X26 four-track. The resulting tape sounded fantastic, but re-digitizing it revealed a flaw in my thinking: to get the levels back up to digital standards, the hiss became too obtrusive.

In the end I chose to stay within the digital realm. I spent some extra time carefully taming hiss with EQ's, and auditioned several (free) tape saturation plugins: settling on one called Ferrous. The album sounded good before the Ferrous treatment, but now it sounds great. I decided to sequence the album as a continuous mix, rather than individual tracks with breaks inbetween.

Bandcamp Player:

Here is my usual track-by-track rundown:

1. The Hungry Grass
The bell-like and largely dissonant melody that forms the backbone of ‘The Hungry Grass’ was created by a device called a MIDI Sprout: reading micro-voltages from the leaf of a peace lily that lives in my studio, converting them to MIDI notes and feeding them to an emulation of a Fender Rhodes electric piano, while I worked the sustain pedal. This was captured on cassette tape and played back at half speed. Various field-recordings were similarly pitch-shifted and run through effects over top, and once I’d decided on a title, I rustled a bunch of dried leaves in front of a microphone to simulate the reaching fronds of ‘hungry grass’: a botanical menace from Irish folklore, wont to waylay travellers and spirit them away to the land of the fey.

Instruments: MIDI Sprout + Reface CP Rhodes + Fostex X26 four track, Sampler (ducks, waves, leaves), dried leaves + condenser mic.

2. Night of the Cacti
In 2010 I was fortunate to visit a correspondent of mine, Jay Ellington Lee, at his home in the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Sadly, Jay passed away the following year. Among other things he was a composer for film, radio, and television; had a hand in designing the E-Mu Modular synthesizer, and was an all-round creative boffin. I shall forever be grateful for his friendship, and the opportunity to visit the Sonora Desert. This soundscape is based on recordings I made at his home, and is an attempt to capture my impressions of the desert, which is more alive than one might first imagine.

One evening Jay dug out some LED light boxes, and we both ventured into the night to light and photograph cacti. I was pleased with the eerie and surreal results. I had those photographs in mind when I set about recording.


Instruments: Firebird VST, 'Ambient Synth' VST, Sampler (wind, bird, bird+dogs, seeds, industrial ambience, stalks, mud, cell phone).


Video:


3. Down in the Data Mines - 'Data mining' seems to be the gold rush of the new millenium, with companies like G**gle and FaceB**k collecting and storing data left, right, and centre. ‘Down in the Data Mines’ looks at the concept from the point of view of the virtual robots whizzing around the ethernet and doing the actual 'digging'. A lot of sounds from circuit-bent electronics, and a recording of a particularly noisy fridge, feature on this one.

Instruments: Circuit-bent Concertmate 380, Casio SK2, PSS-140, and VTech Talking Whiz Kid,
Sampler (fridge, typewriter, sewing machine, hot-water-pressure-pump, pipe rattles),
TAL U-No-LX VST, Firebird VST.


4. The Mystery Sound of Fury Strait
When I read an article about a mystery sound – something like a sonar ping – heard in, yes, Fury Strait, I couldn’t help but be inspired by it. I put my mind to what it might sound like, choosing the Novation K-Station to realise it, and tweaking parameters until it sounded suitably eerie. This was set to the treated sound of waves recorded at Foul Bay (Victoria, BC), and some plaintive simulated guitars – chosen because someone was playing a guitar that day on the beach when I made my recording.

Instruments: Novation K-Station, Steel Guitar VST, Roland JV-2080 (12 string), Sampler (waves, hose winder).

5. Towers of Silence
Another title inspired by an article. The ‘Towers of Silence’ exist, but they aren’t perhaps what you might expect them to be. My fanciful imagination pictured vast towering structures that broadcast ‘silence’ in the form of noise-cancelling transmissions, hence my choice of washes of white noise – captured from a car wash in Abbortsford, BC – over richly varied sounds from the greensward beside an MDF plant.

Instruments: Firebird VST, Sampler (MDF plant + woodland ambience, well casing, piledriver, car wash).

6. The Ash Monk
You may have read about, or even experienced, the wildfires that plagued British Columbia for two consecutive summers. The Ash Monk was written during the second wave, having seen red-tinged darkness at two-o’clock in the afternoon and air that you wouldn’t breathe if you had a choice. In an attempt to capture some of that feeling of apocalyptic dread, I called upon the MIDI Sprout: this time sequencing an FM chime sound. Perhaps perversely, I paired the treated result with a pitch-shifted recording of water dripping onto an upturned bath. It surprised me that the drips had a considerable echo when they were slowed down, so I emphasized this effect. My own feelings were added in the form of a very simple but dread-laden improvisation on emulated Rhodes. The title is drawn from Japanese folklore.

Instruments: Yamaha Reface CP (Rhodes), MIDI Sprout + PSS 480, Roland Ju-06, Sampler (bathtub, aspen leaves, amplifier cooling fan).

Video:

7. Landwhales
A synthesizer sequence made with MS-20 Mini and SQ-1 sequencer, rejected from an early version of 'Cacti', became the basis for this track. The concept of landwhales came from a comic by Akira Toriyama. Perhaps this is what you might hear as these vast creatures lumber across the continent.


Instruments: Korg MS-20 Mini + SQ1 Sequencer, TAL U-No-LX VST, iVCS3 VST, Firebird VST, Sampler (mud, snoring dog, diatomite, drill, bolt, gravel, cow, Northern Flicker, foot stomp, horses chewing).


8. A Night in the Big Room
A restless night in an old asphalt testing lab in the industrial zone, marked by the sound of an incessant clock, massive central heating, the constant hum of a server farm, and waking dreams, was the inspiration. Recordings from the actual location were used, along with some stand-ins and a few tape experiments to exaggerate the experience.

Instruments: Korg MS20 Mini (pink noise), Spring Thing mk3, Boss RE-20 Space Echo, Sampler
(wind-up alarm clock, wall clock, server room, gas furnace, road paving machine, heating clunks).



Video:


9. Those Who Haunt the Workhouse
An idling diesel locomotive and some industrial noises, all heavily treated, paint this picture of lingering souls who lost their lives in industrial accidents of times passed.

Instruments: Korg MS20 Mini, TAL U-No-LX VST, Sampler (diesel locomotives, loading bay, voices, door squeak).

10. Well of Souls
The bulk of this soundscape consists of remarkable sounds made by a faulty toilet flusher valve. It also features an out-of-tune piano a kind lady by the name of Cleo allowed me to sample (her wheezing dog also makes an appearance on 'Landwhales').

Instruments: Korg MS20 Mini (drip), Korg MS20 Legacy VST (bass sequence), Sampler (faulty toilet cistern [gurgles, squeal], water drip, multisampled out-of-tune upright piano, toads).

Video:

Atmospheres is available now on bandcamp, and will be available on iTunes, Spotify, etc... within about a week of this post.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Roland JV-2080 Review

The JV-2080, a ROMpler from 1997.
I'm a little late in posting anything about the JV-2080, which I bought a couple of years ago. This is by no means an in-depth review, as I'm never likely to tap into its full potential. I'm not interested in programming it, for instance, as it requires a lot of menu-diving, pressing of buttons, and scrolling with a single encoder knob. For that matter, the kind of sounds I like to make are best made on analog machines. So why do I have this? Quite simply, for immediate access to (fairly) realistic sounds of real-world instruments.

I'm not very good on acoustic guitar, for example, and if I want a nice mellow arpeggiated guitar part for a track, it's obtainable with the JV-2080. It's never going to sound as good as a real acoustic guitar, of course, but as an embellishment for an otherwise electronic track it works very well.

Another example. A recent project required a vibraphone. Now, a vibraphone is a gigantic instrument that I'd never be able to get into the studio, even if I could find one locally. The JV-2080 has an authentic-sounding vibraphone, and all it needed was some vibrato from one of the on-board LFOs to make it sound like the motor was engaged. Small edits of a sound, such as the aforementioned vibrato, or longer/shorter decay are easily accomplished, and on-board effects can be turned on or off via the front panel.

There are an insane amount of sounds on-board (640 presets, 128 user) that cover the basics and even a few instruments you might not think of. There's even a banjo, though it fails to come close to a real one.

I recently wrote an orchestral piece (albeit fake orchestra), and found myself wishing I had a wider range of orchestral sounds in my arsenal. With that in mind, I hunted around online for the Orchestral expansion card: one of many made for this and other Roland units. There are eight slots under the removable panel on top of the unit for these cards. Mine actually has stickers for the Orchestral and Special FX expansions on top, but they were taken out at some point and likely sold individually or kept by a previous owner.

In my online researches, I discovered that Roland issued a 'cease usage' warning for all SR-JV80 expansion cards in 2017, because the electrolyte from the 20 year-old capacitor mounted to each board has a tendency to leak, leading to smoke, fire, and in worst-case scenarios, explosions! What to do? Thankfully replacing the capacitor with a new one is not difficult if you're patient and competent with a soldering iron. Refurbishing two expansion boards took me about 45 minutes. Thanks must go to Don Solaris for his instruction video on how to do this. My JV-2080 is now fitted with the freshly refurbished Orchestral and World expansion boards.

Expansion boards after refurbishment. Note the old capacitors in the foreground.
Since SR-JV80 expansion cards aren't easy to find in brand new condition these days, the two I ordered were both missing the original boxes. I wasn't sure what I needed in order to mount them (screws, for instance). Thankfully, fitting them is straightforward: once you unscrew the panel, you just press the cards into place. Each card fits into a data-port type slot, and is held by three plastic pegs sticking out of the JV-2080's innards.

Orchestral and World boards snug in their new home.