Mesmera: The blank canvas

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Geekery, General, Mesmera, Music, Obscurer, Patch design, Pieces, Reason, The Broken Divide, Tom Pritchard

Starting a new personal project is frequently a rather daunting prospect, and in my case is something I tend to fall into rather than something I tend to sit down and consciously decide upon. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I may have written Mesmera’s formative tracks in late 2017, but I certainly didn’t set out with the initial end-goal of creating an album. Sometimes it works to carefully consider everything beforehand, and that’s how I generally approach my production music – but when it comes to solo material, I like to see where it takes me.

…oh boy

So where on earth do you start with that approach? Well – as long time listeners/followers may have noticed, I have a bit of a habit of rotating which instruments and sounds I use on any given project, and how I approach the process of composing and arranging the tracks themselves.

In some instances, these decisions are carefully considered beforehand and are directly informed by the type of music I’m attempting to create. In other instances, these decisions happen quite naturally and, by contrast, directly inform the music I have yet to create. The former approach is generally the one I adopt when I’m working on a particular project to a specific set of guidelines – for example, if someone’s asking for a collection of epic cinematic production tunes then I’m probably not about to bust out my collection of time-stretched wind-chime samples (which totally isn’t a thing but I feel it should be). The latter approach is frequently the one I adopt when I’m staring at a blank canvas and need a place to start – frequently, but not always (see also: Obscurer, where the choice of instrumentation was very deliberate and directly affected the sound and style of the album). Mesmera definitely falls into the latter category.

Following the metaphor of approaching a blank canvas, this selection of instruments and sounds is something I frequently refer to as my “palette” and, while there may be shared elements between projects, they tend to shift about from project-to-project. In the case of Mesmera, I can break down the palette into a selection of very specific elements – some of which I’ll go into here.

Europa in Reason 10

Europa. Lots and lots of Europa: more specifically, Europa patches from Europa Relay. I created this sound-bank shortly after the release of Reason 10, and my heavy use of it had a very direct impact on how my ideas sounded right from the start.

Polysix. This has become a staple of my music since around 2014 or so, and I use it way more than is healthy for things like synth arps and bass drones. It’s straight-forward and always sits nicely with whatever I’m working on. I’ve been considering rotating this out of my palette for bloody years and it still hasn’t happened.

– Acoustic guitars. In this instance, I ended up re-visiting the idea of using lots of simple plucked arps in a similar manner to how I ended up sprinkling acoustic guitar parts all over And All Is As It Should Be. There are a couple of parts where I strum out a few chords, but I really liked adding an extra sense of rhythm with guitar arps, sometimes layered up with other acoustic instruments to vary things up a bit.

– Acoustic percussion. This was something I naturally gravitated towards while working on Mesmera, and is something I used in tandem with the drum sounds from DrumSpillage (below). I realised that I had a habit of relying primarily on electronic kits and traditional acoustic drums in a lot of my music, so I decided to broaden my horizons a bit for Mesmera and ended up bringing in a lot of ensemble percussive elements. This is particularly evident on tracks 1 and 3 (Standing On The Precipice and Everything Felt New, respectively), and runs throughout the album.

DrumSpillage

DrumSpillage. I’ve been using DrumSpillage to roll my own electronic drum hits since I first picked it up a few years ago. I had always struggled to find a really shit-hot drum soft-synth for solid drum hits, and while I have a few favourites that I still use for percussion (namely MicroTonic, love that drum synth!), DrumSpillage was the first where I really thought “woah, this is EXACTLY what I’m after!”. I tend to rotate this into and out of my palette purely because sometimes I just want to drop a sample into a track that I know is going to work without going through the process of rolling my own sounds – but that’s entirely on me and has nothing to do with the instrument.

This is by no means a comprehensive selection of everything I used on Mesmera, but a lot of these particular instruments and sounds find their way across a multitude of tracks. The fun thing about this is that I tend to naturally gravitate toward different instruments and rotate different elements out of my palette almost immediately upon completing a project. Right now I seem to be gravitating towards a different set of sounds, and I have no doubt that this will somehow inform the next personal project I inevitably end up working on.

One thing I like to strive toward when creating an album is a sense of cohesiveness throughout, and gravitating towards a palette in this manner is one way of accomplishing this, even if it tends to happen almost by accident in some cases. Another good example of this is how I ended up creating a lot of the tunes on Pieces – because I was so utterly reliant on the sound-banks of Tom Pritchard Sound Design at the time, the tracks sounded somewhat connected despite some of them being written years apart.

But it’s not necessarily just the sounds that reflect how an album shapes up, but how I get those initial ideas down and arrange them into something resembling a complete song. Going back to Pieces, I ended up using Reason’s Blocks functionality an awful lot to get a semi-complete 8-16 bar loop going, and then work backwards from that. This is a nice approach to take because it means you already have a destination to work toward – from there you can decide how to build towards the destination and, upon reaching it, decide where you want to progress from there. This is also an approach I tend to adopt for a lot of my production music, and it’s an approach I adopted when working on my live-stream music making sessions.

In the case of Mesmera (and The Broken Divide before it), I took a much more linear approach to arrangement – starting from the beginning and going from there. This approach tends to lend itself to a more “progressive” arrangement (in the sense of “things progressing”, not “15-minute prog epic”) in that the journey informs the direction you’re going to take. I tend to follow this approach when working on a lot of my own personal projects because it means I’m less informed by pre-conceived ideas, and it gives me a little more flexibility to go off on a tangent if I decide to explore a different direction.

Mesmera is available NOW through Bandcamp. You can listen to it in its entirety and download it from my Bandcamp page. Bandcamp subscribers also get access to an exclusive audiophile master, along with a beatless arrangement of the album. It’s also available to stream & download from a wide variety of digital distribution outlets.

Mesmera: The past inside the present

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Ambient Project, Geekery, General, Mesmera, Music, Reason

As has become something of a tradition, I thought it would make sense to write a few blog posts regarding my upcoming album, Mesmera, which is due for release on the 8th August. Given that this is the first of several posts, I thought it would make sense to start at the very beginning… but then I had to pause to think, “well… where did it actually start?!”.

As a concept, Mesmera didn’t really start to take form until late 2017. Winter had properly taken hold, and having spent a huge amount of time over the past several years experimenting with different genres and writing production music (most of which focussed on a dynamic range that I can only really describe as “ON ALL THE TIME”), I decided it was time to take a step back and return to what I can best describe as “my creative comfort zone”.

Despite knowing that I should have been in a pretty good place mentally, 2017 was a very trying year in a many regards. I may elaborate on this in a future post, but – suffice to say, by the end of the year I just wanted to be in a comfortable, creative place. I had been listening to a mixture of electronic/acoustic chilled/atmospheric ambient music at the time, and I realised that it had been a very long time since I properly visited that particular domain. In retrospect it all seems incredibly obvious, but the time felt right to venture back into that comfortable space and find some creative perspective… and wow, was it a comfortable space to step back into!

I initially had no plans for these tunes, but it served as a perfect creative outlet for that particular time. It was also a chance to apply some of the creative & technical tricks I had learned over the past few years to something more comfortable. Over the course of several months, I had the makings of six of the tracks that now feature on Mesmera. Once I looked back, I realised “…well, I might be onto something here”.

In many regards I consider Mesmera to be a spiritual successor to And All Is As It Should Be, as they both explore similar moods – though Mesmera definitely has a bit of a dash of Pieces in there as well, which was another record that I found particularly comfortable to work on. In some regards, Pieces and Mesmera share the same accidental beginnings.

All that being said – that wasn’t the true beginning of Mesmera. Two of the tracks featured on the album were written in 2016, one year prior to this creative burst – but there’s one track in particular that has them all beat, hands down. That track is “You Have To Let Go”.

“You Have To Let Go” is based on an idea I first started in 2008. At the time, I ended up writing about 6 minutes of the track in its original form and hit a gigantic creative brick wall. As for why I hit such a brick wall… well, I think it comes down to a combination of changing tastes & intentions (which eventually led to me releasing Distant Activity), and also because I had no idea what to do with the percussion. In my work-in-progress version of the track I actually sampled a drum-loop from Sasha’s “Baja” (which is kind of funny because I’m pretty sure that’s an Autechre sample), which perfectly captured the mood & progression I was going for at the time. (note: that sample is most definitely NOT in the final version of the track!)

In 2018, having realised that this ambient project I had started might have legs, I ended up putting together the skeleton of an album. There was one big problem, though – the ending was totally underwhelming. I struggled with the idea of writing an extra track to use as an ending, but nothing was really sticking. I genuinely believed that the time of Mesmera as my “creative happy place” was well and truly over, and so I decided to leave it as it was for the time being.

Oh boy. This is going to be fun…

One day, I decided to dive into my old archive folder. A couple of years back, I decided to bounce every single unfinished track I had written from 2004 – 2010(ish) as audio, so I could refer to these ideas at a future date without having to open up a bunch of old song files. On this particular day, I came across my original 2008 version of “You Have To Let Go” and had a bit of a Eureka moment – THIS is how I wanted to finish Mesmera! It was so damn rough around the edges, and that Sasha sample absolutely had to go… but I knew I had the makings of something useable here – I just had to beat it into shape.

The problem is that the song was a goddamn mess. Evidently habits don’t change, and my old song files are just as messy as my new ones. After trying to simply extend the existing material, I realised that the only way this was going to work was to rebuild the entire song from scratch. I’d had a little experience of doing something similar with my Archive 01 release, but this was something else entirely. Instruments needed replacing, elements needed swapping, recordings needed re-recording, and I also realised that I wanted to change the key. I used the original as a reference, but I ended up ditching most of it.

Although quite a daunting process, in retrospect it was absolutely the right call – not just because there were a lot of things I wanted to change, but because it also meant that the final version would fit more comfortably alongside the rest of Mesmera as I was approaching it with the same mindset & toolbox. Hearing it all in a new context provided me with the creative push I needed to finish the track, and so it was that “You Have To Let Go” was finally finished after ten years of languishing on my hard drive. And, let me assure you – finding that kind of creative resolution after such a long time was an absolutely incredible feeling.

It seems kind of strange to think that the first and last tracks on Mesmera were borne from ideas written in completely different times, but I think that kind of journey is ultimately quite symbolic of what Mesmera turned out to be for me – a creative journey experienced through a sense of mixing the familiar with a more modern, less familiar frame of mind.

Mesmera is available NOW through Bandcamp. You can listen to it in its entirety and download it from my Bandcamp page. Bandcamp subscribers also get access to an exclusive audiophile master, along with a beatless arrangement of the album. It’s also available to stream & download from a wide variety of digital distribution outlets.

Obscurer: Setting Up & Recording

Posted on 6 CommentsPosted in Geekery, General, Music, Obscurer, Reason

Obscurer was intentionally written using a rather minimal set of instruments. Those instruments and effects include a couple of Volcas, a couple of MFB drum machines, an AKAI drum machine pad/sampler thing, a Mini-KP, a delay pedal, and a Monotribe. One thing I also wanted to avoid with Obscurer was to allow myself to mix everything as part of a separate process, so all of that stuff went through a little mixer.

The mixer itself was a little budget thing that had a whopping single aux send channel. Naturally, this meant I’d have to be careful about what I wanted to use as an aux send – did I want a little bit of reverb, or did I want to use some ping-pong delay to widen the stereo field a little? Or should I record everything I want reverb on first, then switch to delay for other elements? Or should I just use the delay as an insert on one channel? It was always fun figuring out what would work best on a particular song and, while this sounds like it would require a degree of meticulous planning, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t more or less just decide what I was going to do as I went along.

After dialling in some simple EQ settings on the channels and getting a rough mix I could work with, I decided to keep my setup relatively unchanged for the next six months or so while I recorded all of the songs that would comprise Obscurer. Even though I’d recently recorded Neffle material prior to working on Obscurer tracks, I decided pretty early on that in order to get the same full sound and level of control as me & Tom did with Neffle that I would have to bring software into the equation.

As a result, I ended up using Reason to sequence most of the parts. Not only did this help to give me a better idea of what I was going to end up with before hitting record, but it also let me use temporary placeholder synths if I wanted to layer up one or two of the outboard synths. As I mentioned already, though, I was keen to keep the mixing mostly out of the box. Not only would this stop me from obsessing over the final mix, but it also meant I could record several parts at once which was a) way more fun, and b) invited me to be more spontaneous during the recording process.

While some of that sounds like it flies in the face of my more “minimal” approach, there were plenty of occasions where I really wanted to give the song I was working on an extra push which layering synths afforded me. I was still keen to not go too crazy with layering up synths and effects (which, due to the mix I’d already set-up, would have just resulted in a horribly crowded result), but it was nice to have the option of artificially expanding my little set-up if I needed to.

Generally speaking, when it came to recording I would record the different elements in anywhere from two to four passes. So, for example, taking the first track “Renew” as an example – that was recorded in three stages that went something along the lines of…

Lead/Bass/Drums -> Additional Synth/Percussion -> End Synth

So, as you can see, most of the track was recorded during the first pass. You can hear the results of that single pass below.

In this instance, I recorded the first pass and then wrote some additional synth parts over the top of that using a placeholder. When I had something I was happy with, I recorded another pass using the actual synth and would tweak it on the fly – ditto with the third pass. In certain instances I’d record the main percussion as the first pass which would allow me to tweak the drums a little more while recording, and then record the main synth parts as the second pass and, if I wanted to, add more parts during the third pass. That would give me a little bit of flexibility with regards to the final mix, but not too much.

While this was a great approach for the most part, there were definitely times when I’d record what I thought was a good idea only for it to end up sounding out of place or not sitting right with me after the fact. Sometimes, in that situation, I’d go back and re-record everything if I had a good idea of what needed fixing. In other instances, I simply decided to let the idea go and focus on something new. There was only ever really one instance where I thought “nah, this isn’t working” and stopped before I had a complete recording. Here’s an example of one of these complete-yet-rejected recordings – I liked it, but something about it just didn’t sit with the rest of the Obscurer tracks.

Every week I’d set a decent chunk of time aside to record an idea or two, though the way I had everything set-up did mean I could still record material using the built-in step-sequencers on the synths/drum machines I was using, so every now and then I’d record a quick little jam. As I mentioned before, Obscurer was really all about having an extra outlet to get ideas down. It was important to me that it should be enjoyable to work on, and every now and then that meant not staring at a screen and just messing about and jamming live.

This routine continued for about six months, and during that time my external set-up remained relatively untouched. This gave all of my recordings a nice coherence, which is how I was able to compile the results as an album following completion.

…of course, I’ve bought more toys since I finished recording Obscurer

Obscurer: Familiar Unfamiliarity?

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Geekery, Music, Obscurer

One of the things that I enjoyed most about working on Obscurer was the vastly different approach to writing the songs themselves. It was only when I’d put everything together and listened to it completely that I thought not only does it work as a collection of songs, but it really reminded me an awful lot of why I got into writing music in the first place.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate at the moment in the sense that, because I’ve spent such a long time writing complete songs, I’ve got a pretty good technique down in terms of fleshing out ideas and making them sound decent in a relatively short space of time. Pieces is pretty much the perfect demonstration of what I’m talking about – most of the tracks on Pieces were written in an incredibly short period of time, and I got in the habit of rounding them off before they outstayed their welcome. It’s a similar approach I’ve repeated a few times since – trying to get ideas down as quickly as possible, fleshing them out, and leaving them before they outstay their welcome. It’s always interesting to see what pops up as a result. That’s not to say I’m now rushing ideas – I’ve always loved the idea of working with spontaneous ideas, which I guess might be seen as an odd approach for someone whose work relies heavily on computers.

That mentality popped up again to a certain degree with Obscurer and it’s interesting to note that, despite having a completely different flavour and approach to most of my other releases, there is something oddly familiar about it… which got me thinking about something I used to struggle with a lot for an awfully long time. How do you define your own “style” without coming across as sounding like a knock-off of something else? Obviously we’re all inspired by different experiences and musicians, and sometimes it’s hard to get that across in a unique and interesting way. I’ve been through plenty of moments where I’ve thought “oh man, I really want to write a song like X band/musician” and ended up with a soulless copy that doesn’t sound anything like me at all. I still enjoy the challenge of trying to emulate a particular style or artist, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d generally be happy to share as part of a public release.

Anyway – the idea of forming an individual style. This is an issue that genuinely bugged me for the longest time, even after I released my first album Distant Activity – and even that was almost a drastically different album, with my initial rejected idea being released as The Dawn EP instead. But the thing is, despite both releases having a completely different feel to them, I still think they’re both representative of the ideas I was trying to portray at the time, and I’m still incredibly pleased with how they both turned out. And I think that’s the trick to it – once you stop trying to create a particular sound and you’re not comparing yourself to anyone else then your “sound” will naturally follow. For a while now I’ve had people tell me that they’d be able to pick out a song I wrote even if I didn’t tell them that I wrote it, simply because there are things I do that I tend not to be particularly aware of when I’m writing music… it might be something quite major, but I suspect that it’s a collection of multiple little details that make up my song-writing process. And that’s great! I love it. I’m glad to finally be over that particular hurdle.

But what does this have to do with Obscurer? Well, the odd thing about it is that, in a way, Obscurer has a lot more in common with my earlier work than I think I realised when I was actually putting it together. I suspect it’s as a direct result of imposing restrictions on my setup, and maybe the unfamiliarity of working with a new setup just reminded me of when I was starting out with software and didn’t really know what I was doing… obviously less so in this particular instance, but there was definitely an element of re-discovery to play with. It’s hard to quantify the similarities, really, and I’m sure it’s not the result of any one thing. Curiously, it’s that kind of approach that I was really trying to emulate with AdFi, which is perhaps why I tend to associate it more with the sort of thing I would have been listening to in the 90s (which was mainly tracker music) more than anything else.

I think it’s interesting to see how things have come full circle – despite having a much firmer grasp on what I’m actually trying to write and convey these days it’s almost refreshing to be working in a more unfamiliar environment to re-visit that feeling of discovery. It’s also gratifying to know that I’m not completely dependent on any one particular set of tools to write the kind of music I want to be writing.

I always used to be in the habit of saying “this is a bit different from my usual thing” when releasing music, and despite all this talk of finding a particular style and discovery I’m still tempted to say the exact same thing with Obscurer. There’s an air of familiarity to it for me, but it’s still quite different sonically to the kind of music I’ve been releasing over the past year. But, hey, that’s all just part of the fun!

Pieces: The audiophile master

Posted on 6 CommentsPosted in Geekery, General, Pieces

Hello, and welcome to a series of articles I’m going to be writing about the creation & release of my compilation album Pieces!

Pieces Audiophile Master artwork
The audiophile master: is it right for you?
Today I’m going to talk about one of the bonus features for those who pay for the release via my Bandcamp page, and why I decided to release it in the first place. This feature is something I’ve wanted to experiment with for a little while now, and it’s called the “audiophile master”. To explain what that is, we have a bit of ground to cover first. This will serve as more of a primer for the overall concept – if you’re looking for an in-depth look at mastering and the processes involved, I would strongly suggest looking elsewhere.

So: What does the mastering process entail? Generally speaking, the mastering process is the final creative step between an otherwise completed project and the listener. As songs are recorded, produced, and mixed individually, this can result in a collection of tracks which may have some quite wild sonic variations throughout. Naturally, this would not be particularly useful for the average listener – an album should flow naturally with each track sitting comfortably alongside the next. Listeners should not have to ride the volume control while listening to an album to compensate for wild amplitude fluctuations between tracks. It is the job of the mastering engineer to take the final project mix-down, and make sure it all sounds correct as one complete work. It is also the job of the mastering engineer to get the project ready for distribution, which can involve adding ISRC codes and other meta-data to the release.

Why are there two masters in this case, then? Well, this actually goes back to the point I made above about the listener not having to ride the volume control while listening to an album. It has become common practice over the past two decades or so to raise the overall level of a project during the mastering stage, so that the final album will sound satisfyingly loud next to other commercial releases. While this sounds like a reasonable thing to do on paper, this practice involves the use of heavy compression and limiting, which will result in reduced dynamic range and, in some instances, distortion in the form of digital clipping. There is only so far you can push digital audio before this happens and, naturally, this is not a good thing. It is up to the mastering engineer to strike a fine balance between perceived loudness while preserving a project’s natural dynamic range. While a listener should not have to ride the volume control while listening to an album, there should be room for an album to ebb and flow in a satisfying manner if necessary. While listening to an individual song that is AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE might be satisfying at first, this may fatigue the listener over the length of an entire album or with repeated listens. Again, this is not a good thing. An often cited example of an overly compressed record is Metallica’s Death Magnetic. It is compressed to the point of repeated clipping, and – even to the average listener – sounds distorted throughout.

Bad master example
How not to do it.

Soooo… why are there two masters in this case, then?! See, I came across this idea last year with the release of Nine Inch Nails’ rather fantabulous album “Hesitation Marks”. They made a big deal of the fact that copies of the album purchased through the website would feature the regular version of the album, which would be compressed & limited to a commercially viable level, and an “audiophile” version of the album, which would be specifically designed for those wishing to listen in a dedicated listening environment with the dynamics preserved to a much higher standard. This sounded like a fantastic idea to me – a commercially loud master for regular listening, and a dedicated master that eased up on the compression for those who want to kick back and listen to the album in a quality listening environment.

What you’re saying is that, basically, you stole the idea then? Well… yes and no (buuuut… mostly yes!). To be honest, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the NIN audiophile master. It sounded different, and there was definitely a bit more going on in the low-end which was a bonus, but it didn’t preserve the dynamics of the original album mix as well as I’d hoped – especially when compared to the vinyl release. There is no reason for this in my opinion. Vinyl is not a superior format in terms of potential dynamic range, but vinyl masters are often far more dynamic than their digital counterparts. This is a huge issue in my opinion, and is not something that can be solved by releasing albums at a ridiculous sample rate and high bit-depth. This is one reason why I was a bit miffed at the marketing for the Pono player, which seemed to completely skirt the real issue entirely. It is for this reason that I decided to go with a sample rate of 48khz at 24-bit for the audiophile master – the difference in dynamic range comes from the master itself, not from the distribution format.

If the audiophile version is better then, why not just release that? That is an excellent question, and there’s one big thing I want to point out here. The “regular” Pieces master is in no way compromised or inferior to the audiophile version. They are meant for different purposes. Strictly speaking, I wrote the album with the regular master in mind, and it was the first master that I heard in its entirety and was completely happy with. I would never put out a release that I felt was compromised in any way. For everyday listening, the regular master is the way to go, and I imagine it will be the version of choice for the vast majority of listeners. However, for those with a dedicated listening environment with high quality equipment, the audiophile master provides a nice alternative. When I use the word “audiophile”, I am referring to the kind of person who loves listening to albums from start-to-finish in a dedicated listening environment, and not to the kind of person who would spend hundreds of pounds on hi-fi cables because they sound “cleaner”.

Let’s get down to it then: what are the main differences between the two masters? Here goes…

  • The audiophile master is less heavily compressed & limited than the regular master. For those who like to listen out for this kind of thing, this means the audiophile master likely have a bit more of a dynamic feel to it though, having said that, the regular master was designed to have a satisfying ebb and flow to it as well.
  • The equalisation is different throughout. In the regular master, there is slightly more of an emphasis on the high-end. In the audiophile master, the extra headroom means that there is a bit of extra room for the lows and mids, and so the audiophile master capitalises on this. Which one you prefer will purely be a taste thing.
  • The audiophile master is released at a higher sample rate & bit-depth. As I mentioned above though, the difference in sound will come much more from the actual master than the distribution format. That said, I felt it made sense to release the audiophile master in a slightly higher quality format for those that want it. The regular master is released as a CD-quality master at 44khz/16-bit. The audiophile master is released at 48khz/24-bit. If you want me to release it at a higher sample rate then allow me to re-iterate what I’ve said previously – you’re going to be in for a bloody long wait!

In short: The main reason behind the existence of the Pieces audiophile master is to provide some additional choice for those who want it. When I say that “most people will prefer the regular master”, this is not a condescending or disparaging statement. Which version you prefer will likely come down to taste as much as anything, and I would much rather offer the choice to those that want it than offer a one-size-fits-all release with no alternative.

Regardless of which version you prefer, I hope you enjoy Pieces when it’s released on the 8th August!

Some Pono-related rambling

Posted on 4 CommentsPosted in Geekery, General, Music

Over the past week or so, it seems that the internet (or, at least, audiophiles-and-heavy-listener-types) has been going positively nuts over the idea and concept of the Pono. Much has been said about how it will supposedly bring forth a new wave of high-quality digital music in the face of low-quality MP3s and other lossy digital formats. It supports up to 192khz audio files – I mean, more is better, right? Go go, audiophile power!

As you may have gathered from the tone of that first paragraph, I’m not entirely convinced.

Pono
In theory, I should love this thing

In my reasonably humble opinion, distribution formats and their upper-limit specifications have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of modern music masters. Zip. Nothing. For starters (and I apologise to anyone who has a passing interest in this sort of thing for posting a link you have probably seen a zillion times already),  24-bit/192khz files are pointless from a listener’s point of view. Of course, from a music production point of view, there is very much a place for 24-bit audio files and higher sample rates. But from a listener’s point of view? Nope. Needless to say, if you’re expecting me to ever release my music in a sample rate over 48khz then you’re going to be in for a bloody long wait!

So, no, big numbers do not a great music player make. But at least Neil Young’s doing something about the ridiculous proliferation of MP3s, while trying to bring a sense of artistry back to proceedings, right? Well, actually, I take serious issue with some of the stuff being churned out by Mr Young. Here’s a snippet extracted from an article here.

“This vibrant, creative culture started to go away,” Young explained, describing an entire class of musicians, studio employees, clerical workers, even deliverymen whose careers were impacted. “And it was because of the MP3, and the cheapening of the quality to a point where it was practically unrecognizable.”

This is such an absurd point of view to hold, and it’s views like this which, in my opinion, give lovers of music a bad reputation. I love listening to music – after all, I find that to be kind of important if you’re writing and producing music for a living… but there are so many things that I take issue with here.

Firstly – while I tend to listen to most of my music in my studio as 44khz/16-bit FLACs, you know what? I find it genuinely tricky to tell the difference between that and a 320kbps MP3. Heavens above! Shoot me! Before you get your pitchforks ready, I’d like to point out that this is especially true if I’m listening to a 320kbps MP3 in a medium in which it’s best suited – i.e., a situation in which storage may be at more of a premium, and where I might not be listening to my music in the most ideal setting. How about, say, every time I’m not in my studio, or not at a dedicated live venue. Listening to music in a lossy format takes nothing away from my enjoyment when I’m out of the studio, and I would argue that you are doing both yourself and the music you’re listening to a massive dis-service if you’re focussing on nothing but the numbers.

Secondly – and I’m returning to my earlier point here – I believe that the upper limit specifications of digital audio formats are not the real issue here. Curiously, I feel that it’s an issue which the Pono would do well to alleviate were they to focus on this particular issue rather than playing the numbers game. The issue is the continuing state of the loudness war, and the continued pushing of overly loud, overly compressed, not particularly dynamic masters. This is not a fault of the medium, it is a fault in the manner in which the medium is being used. I’ll come back to this in a second, but I can’t overstate the fact that this has very little to do with the current state of available digital audio formats to listeners.

Thirdly – the widespread proliferation of MP3s and other lossy digital formats has very little to do with this “vibrant, creative” culture supposedly going the way of the dodo. This is hyperbole at its most obnoxious. Again, I would argue that this has more to do with music making tools becoming more affordable and much more widespread than anything else. As for whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – that’s a discussion for another time, and has nothing to do with digital music distribution and listening. And labelling the old guard as a “vibrant, creative” culture? Well, that only serves to further the snobbish divide between musicians who choose to work using more limited means. If they’re “vibrant” and “creative”, where does that leave saps like me? Are we lacking in vibrance and creativity? I would argue not, but I guess that’s not really my call to make. (On a totally unrelated note, if you fancy watching a film that does a much better job of highlighting the state of big-budget music making, I’d highly recommend Sound City. I thoroughly enjoyed it)

Finally – this device is doing nothing new. Musicians already have the means with which to get their music directly to their fans in whatever format they choose. Listeners already have plenty of choice regarding what format to purchase their favourite music in, digital or otherwise. You like FLACs? Buy FLACs. You’re ok with MP3s? Buy MP3s. Still prefer physical media? Buy CDs or vinyl. Similarly, listeners already have plenty of choice regarding what environment they choose to listen to their music in. Want to listen to music in a dedicated listening space? Go for it. Want to listen to music on the train? Sure. Want to listen to music in your car? Why not. This is nothing new, and I’m not even going to get started on the weird Toblerone-esque design of the thing.

Going back to another earlier point – if musicians and labels wanted to genuinely release music in a more dynamic, less heavily compressed/limited/clipped (i.e., more listener conscious) manner, they can already do that. There is nothing stopping them besides commercial and competitive concerns. If the Pono can encourage more musicians and labels to do that, then in my view that would be a fantastic outcome. In my mind, a return to more dynamic masters would be of greater benefit to listeners than bumping up the sample rate and bit depth, especially if you’re going to verbally slap genuine music lovers in the face while doing so. I’d also like to point out that while I’d appreciate more choice with regards to released digital masters, I’m definitely not saying that music “used to be better”… because that would be absurd.

As such – until they lay off the hyperbole and stop playing the numbers game, you can count me out.

Propellerhead Reason artist feature

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Distant Activity, Geekery, General, Lightfields, Music, Production music, Reason

As you may or may not know already, I tend to use Reason an awful lot in my own music – whether it’s solo works or production music, Reason pretty much forms the backbone for everything I do these days. In this video I talk a little bit about my background, my Reason use, some of the sounds I use, and I also dissect one of my production tunes, quickly detailing my process when it comes to quickly getting ideas down and fleshed out.

Huge thanks to Ryan and the folks over at Propellerhead Software for putting this together!

There’s a little bit of amusing history behind this video, as well – I’d originally been interviewed by Ryan in late 2010 for an artist feature in 2011 but, unfortunately, this fell through as a result of Record & Reason being merged into one product line. During my original interview I’d made constant references to using Record & Reason together, so my interview was more or less obsolete within a couple of months of me doing it. Whoops! Thankfully, we did a new interview in late 2012, and I made sure to avoid mentioning anything besides Reason… though the temptation to jokingly mention that I’d switched over to Rebirth was pretty tempting.

Tutorial: Creating tribal/cinematic percussion with Kong

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Geekery, Reason, Tutorials

As you may or may not know, a couple of months ago I did a live on-line stream for Propellerhead Software‘s Music Making Month, detailing how to do some quick percussive sequencing in an unusual time signature. Since then I’ve been meaning to get some more tutorials put together, and I finally decided to put something together detailing how to create tribal/cinematic percussion from scratch using Reason‘s Kong device.

The video guides you through creating a multi-layered Kong section featuring some organic sounding cinematic drums, right from setting up the sequencer lanes through to programming the drums & sequencing a short section in about 15 minutes. I’d love to know what you make of it, and I’d be really interested to hear any music written using the principles showed in this video. I’ve got a couple of ideas for some future videos but I’m totally open to suggestions!

If you’d like to check out the finished Kong sequence in Reason 6.5, you can download it from here.

Short update

Posted on 7 CommentsPosted in Album 3, Geekery, General, Music, Remix

I figured it might not be a bad idea to post an actual update here as opposed to a post dedicated solely to me bitching about DPD! (though I do still hate them with a passion)

Album 3 is still coming along nicely, and I’ve now got a few songs in the bag along with a healthy selection of songs that are ready for a bit of fleshing out. Curiously enough, the end of the album is more or less mapped out at the moment – that’s subject to change, but it’s interesting to see how it’s everything’s starting to fit together. I’m hoping for an interesting blend of progressive/synthpop/atmospheric styles with the finished album. For anyone interested in hearing how things are going, I have a habit of posting clips and snippets from time to time on my SoundCloud page. It’s worth checking there regularly as all kinds of bits and pieces have been appearing there lately and… well… sometimes it seems a bit excessive to post an update here for the sake of a song clip. Sometimes.

I spent a bit of time last week re-installing everything and generally cleaning house, and while doing so ended up going through a few older projects to make sure everything was working properly. In doing so I started messing around with some older songs and re-working them into a more ambient style and ended up with a few interesting ideas – one of said ideas you can check out here. I’ve also been working on a few shorter instrumental ideas over the past month or so, sort of reminiscent of my “sketch-a-day” thingy I did a couple of years ago (for the uninitiated, this involved me writing very quick song ideas regardless of quality – surprisingly, I’m really happy with how most of them turned out) but with a bit more of a polished sound overall. I’ve also been tinkering with Reason 6 for a little while now and, I must say, the focus on rhythmic and distortion effects devices is very welcome.

Reconstructed Textures – free Refill for Reason 5 users

Posted on 10 CommentsPosted in Distant Activity, Geekery, Patch design, Reason

Reconstructed Textures is a free Refill available to owners of Reason created using Reason 5. Some of the patches also make use of the ElectroMechanical Refill, which is free to registered users of Reason (if you’re not a registered user, I’m afraid I can’t help you there). You can download Reconstructed Textures here and use it in any of your productions, totally free of charge.

So, what is it? Reconstructed Textures consists of 26 Combinator-based ambient drones, each built using heavily processed samples found in the Factory Sound Bank & ElectroMechanical Refills. But why make a Refill using samples found in the Factory Sound Bank? Well… a little while back I was trying to remember how I created some of the droning sounds featured in one of the tracks on Distant Activity (the track in question being Travelling Light). There are some neat piano drones and reverse effects found in the intro, and – being as I wrote the original version of the track about half a decade ago – I’d forgotten where those sounds came from. After a quick examination, it turned out I’d taken some piano samples from the Factory Sound Bank and processed them. I thought it was a neat idea, so I figured “why not go beyond using just piano samples and see what else I could find in there?”.

All the Combinator patches start with FSB/EM samples – re-mapped, re-pitched, re-looped and layered up in an NN-XT. Then they’re processed with filters, distortion, EQ, compression, reverb, delay or whatever else I fancied doing at the time before being sent to the Combinator’s output where they’re mixed with more layered up, processed NN-XTs. It was an interesting exercise in creating unrecognisable sounds from stock banks as opposed to creating ambient textures from scratch using synths and external devices.

Fancy giving it a go? Download it from here. I’d love to know what you think.