Saturday, June 30, 2012

Field Recordings: Industrial Junk

A lot of inspiration for the electronic music I make comes from entropy. Specifically, the interaction between nature and man-made objects that have been left to decay, such as wrecked cars and industrial equipment. For example, several years ago I discovered some massive industrial 'Maloney transformers,' in a thicket of alders. I used them in the artwork for my album 'Circuit Zero':

Over the years I've collected field recordings of industrial junk being struck, scraped, kicked, etc... for use in my music. Unfortunately the Maloney transformers have long-since been scrapped, but they live on in photographs and some VHS-C footage.

I live in an area which used to be a gold-mining town, so it's rich with old relics lurking in the woods if you know where to look. There are also countless abandoned cars and pickup trucks that have been vandalised, crushed, or reduced to burnt-out shells.

Mid-June I discovered a long-abandoned industrial site. Not only was it littered with a collection of wrecked cars, but also remnants of industrial equipment of unknown purpose, concrete footings, and a shipping-container that had once been an operations shack. The site has yielded some interesting photographs and film, and a plethora of great sounds as well.

These striking objects appear to be furnace boxes. The bottom halves are lined with firebrick. The upper halves must have been used to heat some kind of liquid. Note the white material peeling away from the exterior: I'm fairly sure it's asbestos, so I didn't want to get too close to these things! The white marks on the lower-halves are paintball splatters.

This contraption is lying sideways. Inside is a cylindrical sieve-like contrivance, and just out of shot on the left is a large sprocket and chain assembly for rotating the cylinder. As you can see there are various openings through which reverb can be recorded. I expect I'll spend more time with this on future visits.

One of at least ten gutted cars dotted about the property. The charred remnants of anything flammable, including batteries, were found strewn about. These wrecks yield great sounds as well. The bonnet of this one still opens and closes (if not to factory spec!), and things like filler caps, leaf springs, loose bits of metal, etc... are always worth investigating. In the background you can see part of the truck container.

 Here's the interior of the container. Great reverb possibilities here too.

This is some kind of loading bay, set into the hillside. The opening in the top is at ground level beside a giant pile of white clay-like soil. It's wide enough to park a truck inside which I presume would have been loaded from the top. The alcove at the back is tall enough to stand up in, and produces nice shallow echoes. The sound varies depending where you stand within the structure. Hand-claps sound amazing. Lots of possibilities for this as well!

I have to wonder if this hopper used to stand on top of the loading bay. It's hollow and open at the wide end. In the lip of the part that touches the ground, one of the i-beams is partly severed at both ends. When struck, it produces a wonderful metallic ringing sound which reverberates inside the space.

I've shot some very basic HD footage here, which I hope to compile into a promo video for an upcoming single. More on that as things develop.

Monday, June 18, 2012

New Equipment: Roland HS-60

The Roland HS-60 is an analogue synthesizer with digitally-controlled oscillators (meaning they aren't prone to drifting out of tune like fully analogue oscillators have been known to). In effect, this is the same synthesizer as the Juno 106 (in Japan this model was marketed as the Juno 106S), but with built-in stereo speakers and an amplifier to drive them

This example was rescued from a thrift store, and works surprisingly well considering it was made in 1984 and doesn't appear to have ever been serviced. All six voices (which equate to the number of notes you can play at once) work, and the patch storage memory is intact. Two sliders were bent and the cap was missing from one, some lint and other gunge had built-up inside the end-cheeks, and there was some goo resembling congealed cola on the casing here and there. All this cleaned up nicely.

There's still an issue with the wiring inside: one of the connectors refuses to remain seated, and it affects the speakers and outputs. For now I have mono output, so I can't make full use of the chorus effect (which is stereo). Also, the Decay slider in the ADSR envelope is only 50% functional.

I've already made use of it on a track. There'll be more about that later in the week. For those interested in a look at the maintenance work, you can find the pictures and write-up on my website: (Zone 2, in the 'Studio' section), or follow this direct link.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cover song: My Brother's Time

I finished something? Wonders will never cease. This project was started January 31st and completed May 30th, but it's not like I worked on it full-time over the four-month period. It was done in fits and starts and sometimes languished for weeks at a time. But I'm very pleased with the end result. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what went into it.

When I learned there was to be a fan tribute to Gary Numan's 1981 album 'Dance,' compiled for the website, I thought it would be great to participate. The entire album, including b-sides and demos, would be recreated by fans from around the globe. I decided early on that the song 'My Brother's Time' inspired me the most to create a cover version (although my favourite from the album is actually 'A Subway Called You').

For those of you who haven't heard it, here's Gary Numan's original:

And here's my version, The Manitou featuring Jimmy Aaron:

My Brother's Time by themanitou

After formulating some ideas, I started recording the various parts as MIDI data. This was initially linked to the EastWest Orchestra plugin's Steinway piano, and Shortcircuit sampler loaded with a music box sample. The concept was to replace the piano and music box by degrees using custom-made synthesizer sounds. The distinctive melody on the chorus was added right away. This, like most of the other synthesized sounds, was realised on the Novation K-Station.

Percussion elements were also added early on. I decided on a bass drum and snare combo I came up with for my (as yet unreleased) soundtrack project. The bass drum came from my Alesis SR-16 drum machine, and the snare from my Yamaha MR-10 rhythm box. All percussion was loaded into instances of Shortcircuit so I could create a complete drum track for the song within the Sonar workstation software. Ride and crash cymbals and some massive tom-toms also came from the SR-16.

In Numan's original, there are percussive sounds which mimic the ticking of a clock. I believe they were produced by recording claves through an effects pedal. I opted to keep the clock motif but use sounds from a real clock, in this case an all-metal alarm clock I recently acquired (I used to dismantle them when I was a kid!) Another percussion element, which punctuates the breaks between vocals, is actually the sound of ice shattering. As a bonus it happened to sound clock-like.

Again dipping into my recent soundtrack experience, I called upon an effect I'm fond of, which involves running an electric guitar through the Roland SP-404's 'lo-fi' effect. This effect mimics lowering the audio bitrate. If you've ever heard a really badly-encoded mp3 you'll know what that's all about. For the layman: high quality digital audio is generally recorded at 24- or 16-bit. Old Atari game systems etc... used 8-bit audio, and a fair few of us 'children of the 80s' understandably have a penchant for that kind of sound, hence the invention of the 'lo-fi' effect. You can dial in as much lo-fi as you want until all you hear is bubbly white noise. Needless to say, I go for somewhere about middle. The result is a strange, buzzy, almost chime-like sound somewhat like a grandfather clock chiming in a rusty shed.

Next to go on was a simple square-wave lead made on the Yamaha CS01 synthesizer. I played a solo of my own devising in place of the saxophone which plays out the original song. The solo proved problematic when interacting with other elements: it clashed with some notes I came up with to accompany the original piano parts. I decided to leave the solo intact and remove a few of the offending notes from the accompaniment. Creating an almost atonal synthesizer patch also helped the sounds 'play nice' with each other, as much as that sounds counter-intuitive.

A descending melody, played on Crumar Performer string synthesizer, was initially going to accompany the choruses. They were busy enough as they were, so I saved the strings to follow the solo which ends the original version. Once the tom-toms were added, it quickly built up to a powerful send off for the song.

Next was bass guitar. The original features the inimitable talents of the late Mick Karn on fretless bass. The only part of his performance I hinted at was a piece of melody on the chorus, played on synthesizer. Aside from a couple of notes during the verses, my bass parts were saved for the outro. I wanted a little more bottom end without competing too much with the piano. Throughout the track I left the piano bass notes in. The music box is also still present where I thought it sounded good.

Early on, I envisioned my friend Jimmy Aaron singing harmony with his distinctive voice on the chorus. I asked him if he was up for it and he said he'd give it a go. Jimmy is one for experimenting with vocal ideas and improvising. Not only did he sing on the chorus for me, but he came up with a simply incredible vocal track for the outro as well. My intention was to leave that part instrumental, but after adding the vocals it didn't sound the same without them. We also toyed with the idea of singing 'aahs' to accompany the solo, but decided against it in the end.

In Jimmy's words: "I'm glad you liked that outro idea, I like it too! :-)) Those bells and the word innocence go so good together. And then 'what's done is done,' a reminder it's the end of the song..." A little glimpse into his thought process when choosing the lyrics. Having worked on a track together in the past, I know my voice compliments Jimmy's best if I sing low. But when it came to following his melody, I realised I couldn't quite hit the low notes if I stayed in key with the first line. I toyed with the idea of singing higher and pitch-shifting the result, and even leaving the first line out altogether, before coming up with a vocal melody I could manage while staying in the lower register. Usually my vocals require a lot of editing: I choose the best parts from the best takes. In this case, the two takes you hear on the outro are unedited.

Rather than follow Numan's original vocal melody for the verses, I decided to wing it. The odd line came out much the same, simply from being ingrained in my memory, but the bulk of it is my own spin on the words. The line that proved trickiest was the first line of verse 2. No matter how you look at it on the lyric sheet, it doesn't fit the music! My vocals are far from perfect but I'm happy with the overall result.

I'm still waiting to hear whether this will be included on the compilation, but as soon as I know, I'll post the details here. Until then, enjoy the song. If you click through to the Soundcloud page, you can download the high-quality mp3 (it's free!) and also check out two remixes I did last year. One is another Gary Numan song, the other by John Foxx - two artists who've been highly influential to me.