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).


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).


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).


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).


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

No comments:

Post a Comment