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.

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