Saturday, January 20, 2024

Digital Album: Let's Build Mecha (Remastered)


Let’s Build Mecha (Remastered)

2020 marked the 10th anniversary of Let’s Build Mecha! so it seemed like a good excuse to revisit it. I’ve always been happy with the sound quality, and I found the mix reasonable considering my lack of studio headphones or near-field monitors when I made it in 2010. At that time I was using a Logitech 5.1 system with a very clean – but thin – sound, and some Sony earbuds. It was also early days for mastering on my part. I believe I’d discovered the wavehammer compressor in Sound Forge by then, but none of the multi-tracks were summed to a master bus, and the title track was mixed-down with hard clipping instead of compression.

In 2012 I made some alterations – Clockwork Robots was made to run seamlessly into Autonomic, for example – but no real ‘remastering’ was done. The biggest hurdle, ten years later, was accessing the original multi-track files. They were recorded in Sonar 2 and 4 and saved as bundle files: single files containing all the data. Newer versions of Sonar don't play well with bundle files and prefer a project file pointing to a folder containing all the stems. A good comparison would be a zip file vs a folder. So I had to open the files on my old Windows XP machine, ensure all the samples and plug-ins were present, and export them.

A couple of songs needed no tinkering whatsoever, beyond clean mix-downs on a superior DAC and some mastering compression. Others required more care. The e.p. has always sounded clean and crisp to me, but I had to wonder why I'd chosen to EQ so many bass frequencies out. I’ll put it down to inexperience.

The songs that required the most attention were the title track - the most layered song on the album - and the other full vocal track: Production Line. The latter has always fallen a little flat, so I wanted to address that. Another challenging piece was Rust and Bones. The bass guitar always had a ground hum that stuck out like a sore thumb. Having some new tricks up my sleeve, I was able to address it. Another issue with that piece was the sampler I was using at the time, a clunky old horse called VSampler, which I could not resurrect. Each instance had to be replaced with Grace, my current sampler of choice, and the attack/release settings carefully tweaked by ear to match the original.

In most cases, the generic Cakewalk EQ plug-in was replaced with the superior Sonitus Equalizer. Heretofore unnoticed digital hiss on certain samples was carefully tamed. Vocals were brightened, and suppressed bass frequencies were restored. One tiny edit was made on the vocals of Production Line, where a slightly off-key word was replaced by an alternate take from the original session. The final step was to check the dynamic range of each track and adjust as necessary.


A little history. In 2010 my good friend Stevie K. Farnaby was producing a Doctor Who audio drama for He had an upcoming episode called Mechalution, which featured a race of sentient machines. He’d heard the music I’d been making with circuit-bent Speak and Spells, etc... and thought the sounds would be perfect for the show: both as music and sound effects. It just so happened that I had a song called Let’s Build Mecha, inspired by Japanese anime, and it fit the concept perfectly. With the script for Mechalution to hand, I set about writing the rest. 

 I don’t recall any difficulty or writer’s block. The subject matter was so in tune with my aesthetic that I could easily have carried on. In fact the Mechalution storyline was intended to carry on for the rest of the season, but for various reasons Stevie had to halt production. I wrote four more pieces for subsequent episodes (three of which can be found on The Mechanicals e.p.) and two more demos for what would've been the season finale. As of this writing, Stevie is upgrading his studio: so there’s a very real chance there’ll be more Mecha-inspired music forthcoming.

To coincide with the remaster, I've released a promo video for Production Line that was filmed in 2014 but never completed until now.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Digital Album: The Floating Island

It's been almost two years, but I've finally completed a follow-up to Music of the Lake, my soundtrack to Sybille Muschik's ongoing Shoreline Studio series on YouTube. Originally it was to be "Music of the Lake II", but as the pieces aren't directly lake-related, it's named after the main suite on the album: The Floating Island.

Bandcamp player:

The artwork is a combination of photography and gell-plate art combined in Photoshop, and features the floating island itself. It might not be obvious that the photo was taken in the middle of the lake: in the winter of 2019, when the floating island became frozen there. The photo was taken on my first snow-shoeing pilgrimage to it with Sybille, when it was still intact. In very short order someone set fire to it and drove a snowmobile over it, and it became rather sorry looking. When spring came, its journey continued and we lost track of it. We took several canoe trips in search of it, but never discovered its ultimate fate. It became such a point of interest to us that it made sense to write something musical about it for Sybille's show. I didn't realise just how monstrous an undertaking that would become...

As work progressed on Music of the Lake, my release from 2019, the songs shifted from short simple pieces to longer ones with more variation. Good examples would be Damselflies and the two Waterlily pieces. This was to avoid too much repetition when used for scoring: some of the Shoreline Studio episodes can run upwards of 40 minutes, and a thematic piece might be repeated several times throughout. So when it came time to create new music, I had two things in mind: to make the pieces longer and more dynamic, and to incorporate more of a world music flavour.

The Floating Island - official audio:

The Floating Island (suite) was the ultimate result of my efforts. It began simply as the first movement, and evolved into three more plus a reprise to tie things together. Some worldly instruments such as zither, udu, and log drums (all sounds from the Roland JV-2080 synthesizer) sit with the usual staples of bass guitar, analog and digital synthesizers, virtual piano & orchestra, and programmed drums. Electric and acoustic guitar also feature, as well as Behringer Model D for most of the lead parts. Field recordings from the lake and elsewhere were incorporated: including some ambiences from the lake in midwinter, and a massive thump made by the ice settling in spring.

Slide Zone - Not far from Bouchie Lake, in fact you have to drive over it to get there, is an area known as Knickerbocker hill, which used to be a rubbish dump and is now an active slide zone. The road surface is constantly shifting, and more and more of the supporting bank is disappearing into the river. If left to its own devices, the entire section of road will eventually disappear. This piece is about that.

Mining Relics - After the twenty-minute Floating Island suite was behind me, it wasn't my intention to write another piece that long. Then Sybille and I took a day trip to Wells, BC, to view and photograph a site where relics from the long-abandoned gold mine were unceremoniously dumped over the tailings pile (itself an imposing and interesting relic of the era). We spent perhaps three or four hours there all told, but I was inspired to write a piece of music that captured the essence of all I saw and felt there. So I set to work writing musical sketches, never quite putting my finger on the mood with any one piece. Thus it became another suite. As with The Floating Island, it was all compiled in a single multitrack project, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it allows you to have unifying elements across the entire project, on the other it becomes an organisational mess. Of the songs on this album, this was the most difficult to realise. Given the limited time on-site, I wasn't able to capture as many field recordings as I'd have liked, so I used what little I did gather and drew from my archive to provide metallic clangs and thumps. Style-wise, I drew heavily from Pink Floyd: for which I make no apologies. There ended up being a lot of electric guitar on this, and more Model D for the solos.

The Old Cabin (Golden Windows) - On the shore of Bouchie Lake sits a Victorian cabin. Around the time of the winter equinox, the setting sun illuminates the windows with golden light. I wrote this song about that, and my memory is that it came together quickly: almost as if channeled from somewhere. I chose instruments that reflect a sense of rural habitation, parlour dancing, and the ethereal nature of things left over from bygone days.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

New Equipment: DTronics DT-RDX + Yamaha Reface DX


DT-RDX (top), Reface DX (bottom), my cat Pinot (top right).

About two years ago I acquired a second-hand Yamaha Reface DX four-operator FM synthesizer. I believe I've only used it on one song: it provides the main sequenced part on Blackbird Bend from Music of the Lake. I also use the very handy looper function for sketching ideas. As FM synthesizers go it's relatively easy to program your own sounds. But everything is done from one four-parameter touch-pad thingamajig and a series of push-buttons.

When the Korg OpSix was announced last year, a six-operator FM synth that promised even more user-friendly programmability, it went straight on my wish-list. Recently I got to try one in-store, and while I was able to get some interesting sounds out of it quickly, I wasn't impressed with the feel of the keyboard. I couldn't quite justify the price-tag, either.

So, as I already had the Reface DX and wasn't getting the most out of it, I looked into buying the DT-RDX MIDI programmer. DTronics' distributor is based in the Netherlands, and ordering from them was quick and simple. Synth and programmer combined still worked out cheaper than an OpSix, and to be honest, until I get used to how FM works, two fewer operators is probably a good thing.

Some minor gripes. Neither the DX or RTDX have very thorough manuals. Some infographics detailing the eccentricities of the envelopes, for example, would be handy. Another oddity is how the programmer attaches to the synth; ie. it slots loosely into the screw-holes underneath but doesn't actually screw in. For that you'd need to get hold of some longer screws with the correct thread. The other issue, with the DX itself, is patch storage, which is limited to 32. I can see myself filling that up in no time flat, and having to dump the sounds to hard-drive.

Aside from those few issues, having knob-per-function access to the programming parameters will make this a far more useful piece of kit.

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.