I fully intend to do a live-stream at some point (which I may include below if I remember!) specifically detailing some of the production decisions behind Nocturnal Transmission, but I thought in the meantime I’d take this opportunity to write a bit about how I ended up writing & producing it.I mentioned in my previous blog post that I got into a bit of a musical flow-state when writing tracks for this release, so I figured I’d expand a little on what that actually entailed.
One of the best things I find about writing music in general is that, for me, it’s primarily an autotelic process – that there is a newly created piece of music at the other end is one hell of a result but, when it’s something I truly enjoy writing, the process itself is its own reward. This was very much the case for the entirety of Nocturnal Transmission – expanding on some of the necessary restrictions enforced during my live-stream music making sessions, I ended up committing to sound choices very quickly (I’ll get to more on that in a bit). In a way, this in itself would go on to inform the direction of a track – by not spending hours and hours obsessing over individual elements I was able to get ideas down quickly and work with those initial impressions before “unravelling” them accordingly.
There was more of a reliance on established processes with this particular album than pretty much anything else I’ve worked on, which really helped to overcome any creative obstacles that might have cropped up otherwise. It also had the added benefit of totally removing any notion of worrying about how to get ideas down – the first track, Silhouette, worked as a bit of a template in this regard, and one which would form the backbone of things to come.
For most of the tracks I initially focussed on getting a good 16 bar chunk of audio to use as a backbone for the entire track. This typically involved starting with either a synth or sample of some sort, which would invariably end up getting sliced up and re-purposed into something different. Around this I would add drums from a particular palette (in this instance, mostly sourced from Wave Alchemy’s excellent Drumvolution), additional synth flourishes/arps courtesy of an Access Virus Snow Ti or Spire, some synth chord stabs courtesy of Massive, and then I’d just kind of run with whatever worked from there. It was a nice system, and one which helped me get a solid 16 bar frame-work down quite quickly.
From this point I would start to unravel the track from this 16 bar block – again, this is something I tend to do a lot during my streams, so it felt very natural to arrange these tunes in a non-linear fashion here. I’d start with the barest elements from my pre-existing block to use as an intro and work toward the point I had already established, varying elements and letting things take their time just enough to give it a bit of a hypnotic groove – hopefully without getting to boring or repetitive! Along the way I’d inevitably end up adding more parts, but all of the time I was very conscious not to go overboard with the track-count – I’m happy to admit that a lot of my releases rely a lot on creating dense textures though lots of instrumentation, but that was totally not what I wanted to go for with these tracks. This gave me plenty of space to play with really long delays, reverb washes, and so on.
Another one of the key things that differentiated my approach to Nocturnal Transmission as opposed to a lot of my other releases is that I really wasn’t worried about repeating techniques and sounds across tracks. A part of that came about as a result of not really planning on releasing it initially, but also I figured it would help the tunes sit together better as a collection if there were shared elements in there. Despite starting with essentially a blank slate with every single tune, I never felt as though I was re-inventing the wheel for the sake of it.
All of these factors came together in forming what I hesitate to call an almost methodical approach to production – an approach that, given the appropriate mind-set, meant that I could focus on exercising both compositional and arrangement creative muscles sequentially, never exhausting one before moving onto the other. This is essentially what I mean when I talk about being in a musical flow-state – that perfect balance between expression and creativity where you’re not tiring yourself out, but challenged just enough to make it incredibly fun and rewarding to work on. And it was great!
I’ve mentioned that some of these techniques may seem familiar to anyone who’s watched my recent live-stream music making sessions, but what was particularly interesting to me is that I varied my approach just enough that I would consider the resulting music to sound very much distinct from the music produced during those streams. I would imagine that having a general vibe in mind and working intensely over an incredibly tight time-frame played a large part in that – my live-stream tunes tend to go a bit all over the place stylistically, whereas this was very much a more focussed look at a very particular mood.
The “continuous mix” version of the album sort of came about after I’d finished writing the second track, In Motion. I hadn’t planned it, but I was curious as to how these first two tracks would work mixed together so I fired up a separate session to simply mix the two tracks together. It worked really nicely, and as I continued writing tracks I just kept adding them to my “continuous mix” session to see if they would work. My initial plan was to re-order the tracks to help sit better in this mix, but by the time I was finished I figured it already worked as a continuous listen… I didn’t want to overcomplicate things (again, very much the order of the day with this entire album really!), and I really liked that the tracks were just ordered chronologically in the order in which they were written. Gives it a bit more of a sense of directness, if that makes any sense.
In a similar fashion to The Third Space, In Waves began with us both attempting to figure out exactly what sort of mood and tone we wanted to go for with the album. Both myself and Tom settled on a somewhat lighter mood as a counterpoint to the more bleak sound found on The Third Space and, through a series of personal references, we both had a solid aesthetic in mind when it came to actually writing material. It certainly helped that we both share a lot of the same inspirations and influences.
I pencilled in a chunk of time at the end of March/start of April 2019 to spend some time with Tom to actually record the album. Prior to the actual recording sessions, we both started working on a series of loops and ideas to really nail the aesthetic and to get some ideas going. This essentially took the form of Tom putting together a series of reasonably fleshed-out loops using an Elektron Octatrack which he then sent over to me, whereupon I embellished them with my collection of Korg Volcas to round them out and get some sequences ready to roll. After sending several ideas back-and-forth in this fashion, we ended up with eight ideas ready to record – a pretty solid starting point, even if we would eventually drop some of these ideas from the album.
We also decided that, in a first for a Neffle release, we would track the album as a series of multi-track takes – not a revolutionary approach, all things considered, but a change to our usual flat-mix-per-take approach from previous albums. Although this previous approach had been somewhat beneficial from a creative standpoint, it was far more restrictive in terms of what we could change after a single take was recorded; while it’s somewhat freeing to know that, once a take is recorded, you can’t continue to tweak it endlessly after-the-fact, this typically resulted in us spending more time during the recording sessions getting the mix balanced correctly and recording multiple takes. Recording multi-track takes meant that we could separate the mixing process from the recording sessions, and it also meant that minor edits could be made after-the-fact.
As a result of this preparation, as well as the separation of recording & mixing processes, the main bulk of the recording took place over three days. We decided that I would take on mixing duties for the album after recording was wrapped up, though we ended up putting together a series of rough reference mixes along with extensive notes to make that process smoother.
In terms of the performance set-up, we took a similar approach to prior Neffle albums whereby each of us was responsible for a pre-determined selection of devices.
Tom was primarily using the aforementioned Octatrack, which – thanks to its focus on performance and excellent time-stretching capabilities – allowed for a plethora of performance and sample manipulation options: the crossfader functionality in particular proved to be extremely useful, as it allowed for dynamic performance changes during recording without sounding too jarring or out-of-place. The ability to time-stretch elements while preserving transients was also invaluable to the album, and imparts a particular character throughout In Waves that I’m particularly fond of. The Octatrack output consisted of two channels (main stereo output & cue stereo out) which were both fed into stereo inputs on the mixer – one of these channels would typically consist of drums, and the other would typically consist of more melodic elements.
I was using a series of Volcas – namely the FM/Keys/Bass, all of which had been pre-loaded with a series of sequences prepared beforehand. The FM was also pre-loaded with a custom bank of patches; rather than programming the patches from scratch on the Volca FM itself, I decided to use Dexed to export a series of patches to the Volca FM via Sysex transfer. Although patches would sometimes sound rather different on the FM, this gave me a solid starting point from which to further tweak the sounds on the synth itself. I had also brought an Alesis Nanoverb 2 with me which I had fully intended to use, but – alas – I’m an idiot and didn’t bring the correct power supply to use with it. Derp. In lieu of this, I ended up using a BOSS RE-20 as an insert on various Volca devices throughout (as an aside: I ended up using the Nanoverb 2 all over my Bandcamp subscriber albumLiminal last year, and you can hear it in action here).
Everything was recorded using a Zoom LiveTrak 12. This mixer also operates as a multi-track recorder and USB audio interface, and allowed us to record individual multi-track takes and reference mixes with minimal fuss. Tom’s Octatrack was routed to the two stereo inputs on the L-12, and I was typically using between one-to-three mono channels for my parts. The L-12 also features a series of in-built effects, EQ, and compression. The multi-track recordings were recorded pre-EQ & effects processing, which meant that these would not affect the multi-track recordings – perfect for creating reference mixes without baking anything permanently into the multi-tracks. On-board compression was used sparingly as this was baked into to the multi-track recordings.
Thanks to this workflow, we would typically get a rough mix going before recording anything. All of the tracks were recorded live, with each track typically consisting of one or two takes. Once a take was recorded, we would take some time out to listen back and tweak the mix for reference purposes while taking notes. Once we had something we were happy with, we’d record a reference mix with any required tweaks and move onto the next track. For the most part, these reference mixes were pretty rough around the edges, but were more than adequate for the purposes of providing a frame of reference for the actual mixing process. Thanks to this workflow, we were able to maintain a decent sense of spontaneity in the recordings while allowing us a greater deal of flexibility further down the line.
The first day of recording took a while to really get going. The first track on In Waves, “The Shimmer”, was the first track we recorded, and it was the only one of the three or so recorded during the first day to end up on the final album. Having listened back to the other two tracks, I actually like them a lot more than I remembered… but leaving them off of the album was the right call.
The first session served as a bit of a learning experience and a means to familiarise ourselves with the recording setup, and over the course of the next couple of days things progressed smoothly. We hit our stride on the second day, and once we had finished recording our pre-existing ideas we decided to sequence and record two more tracks from scratch. These two tracks would become “Phantom Channels” and “Lands Known”.
It was around this point that we started thinking about where to take the rest of In Waves. What we had so far was eight tracks that flowed satisfyingly, and we started to think about how we were going to order the tracks and what else we could do with it. After listening to the reference mixes a whole bunch we decided that, actually, the order in which we’d recorded the tracks provided a satisfying pace to the album, and because it was recorded in a short space of time it all sat well together.
After recording two short vignettes (“Under The Red Sun” and “Sleeping Machines”), we decided that we had the makings of an album. Our intention was to record a few more ideas and swap tracks in-and-out of the album as we saw fit but, after some thought, we decided that we were happy with the feel, progression, and tone of the album we already had. In total we ended up recording fourteen tracks, four of which ended up on the cutting room floor. With a running time of just over 40 minutes, we both decided that the recording of In Waves was complete.
After a bit of a break (during which time we ended up playing an awful lot of Halo and recorded some cool unrelated stuff) I returned home to sunny Huddersfield and started cracking on with mixing the album. As mentioned previously, Tom’s Octatrack recordings were typically split across two stereo channels, with my parts occupying between one to three mono channels. Doesn’t sound like a whole lot to work with, but this allowed for considerably more breathing room than prior Neffle releases!
In contrast to the recording process, mixing was a strictly in-the-box affair and took place entirely within Reason – which should come as no big shock to anyone familiar with how I generally work! One thing I was keen to do when mixing the album was to maintain a natural, rounded feel to it – I tend to take more of a subtractive approach to mixing generally, so I was careful not to make any unnecessary boosts throughout the album unless it was absolutely necessary. The first track I mixed was “Distant Flame”, as I felt with its vast sense of space and deep bass that it would serve as a perfect blueprint for the rest of the album.
The first thing I decided to do was to set up three aux send effects to roughly correspond with what we were using on the reference mixes – these consisted of a Uhbik-A plate-type reverb, a DR-1 space-y reverb, and an instance of Valhalla Delay. I ended up using this as a bit of a template for the rest of the album. Using these three aux sends across the album and across both the Octatrack and Volca channels helped to lend a sense of coherence that was somewhat lacking on the reference mixes. Additionally, although the L-12s effects are perfectly solid, the jump in quality afforded by these effects alone helped to give the album more of a polished sound.
For the most part, I was using the LP/HP filters on Reason’s mixer to scoop out any unnecessary frequencies on individual channels – this is something I tend to do quite frequently, and the built in channel filters are something that I always miss when I’m using a mixer in another DAW. It’s a quick and easy way to sculpt a mix before getting a little more into it, whether that’s via the mixer’s further built-in effects or (my preferred approach) via additional rack effects.
A little trick I used across the album to smooth out some of the drum tracks while giving them a little bit of punch was to use Kilohearts’s Disperser, which was super useful in this regard. On “Distant Flame” I ended up using Disperser around 60hz to round out the kick a little in the lows while also helping it to pop a little more in the mix. Due to the nature of Disperser, this did not affect the amplitude of the kick – which was pretty damn useful, it must be said!
Additionally, on a lot of the drum channels I ended up applying a very light limiter to tame some of the more errant transients. I figured this would give me a bit of extra headroom without compromising the rest of the mix, and I was careful to make sure I didn’t go in too heavy with it – the last thing I wanted to do was completely squash the drums, but some of the snappier drums on the album needed a bit of taming. For the most part I ended up using Newfangled Audio’s Elevate limiter for this purpose.
I ended up using the DR-1 reverb as an insert across certain parts of the album to help smear some of the more spacey elements, such as a few of the Volca Keys lines. Although I tend to prefer not to rely too heavily on stereo widening plug-ins, I did end up using NUGEN Audio’s Stereoizer Elements to widen a couple of channels here and there as well. All of the mixes were checked for mono compatibility and, thanks to not applying said widening to the entire mix, this was maintained.
One thing I wanted to maintain across the album was a solid low-end presence without the necessity of a sub-woofer – there’s a fair amount going on in the lows throughout the album, but in a couple of places I felt as though the deeper bass parts were getting a bit lost without the presence of a sub-woofer. In these instances I ended up creating a parallel channel for the offending bass part and processing it with some sort of saturation, just to give it a little bit of a crispy touch while rolling off the lows. What this means is that you still have the satisfying subby lows that were present initially while adding a little bit of presence higher up in the spectrum. I was careful to use this effect sparingly, but it helped to give the bass a bit more presence on certain tracks.
On top of being able to help the tracks gel a little better with one another, mixing in Reason also allowed me to add a bit more variety here and there without compromising the original performances. The most obvious example of this is toward the end of “Phantom Channels”, during which I ended up using a DC-2 chorus on the Volca Keys channel to give a bit more of a sense of depth and variety as the track progresses. Another good example is on the title track when the drums drop out, giving rise to a DR-1 focussed filtered reverb insert before everything launches back in again.
I ended up applying a very (very!) light amount of master bus compression on the tracks, just to help glue them together a tad. For this I ended up using Reason’s built-in master bus compressor, which is always a very handy thing to have. If you don’t happen to use Reason, the Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor is a pretty solid alternative.
By the end of this process (and much back-and-forwarding of mix revisions and feedback between Tom and myself) I ended up with a pre-mastered version of the album that we were both happy with. Due to having a pretty good idea of what I wanted from the album in general, the mastering stage was incredibly straight-forward. I ended up mastering the album in Studio One which, thanks to its marvellous project view, is perfect for mastering whole projects.
My “mastering” chain (I feel like a bit of a fraud referring to it as a mastering chain, to be fair) consisted of a bit of EQ and a limiter. And… that’s it. Both myself and Tom had decided that we were keen to master the album with a view to preserving the dynamics as much as possible, so I ended up using a pretty light touch at this point. Due to some forethought during the mix-stage, there was plenty of headroom to play around with and very little need for any heavy-handed processing – just the way I like it.
So, that’s a brief overview of the recording & production process of In Waves! We’re both incredibly happy with how it turned out and, much like The Third Space, really scratched a very particular creative musical itch for both of us. If you have any particular questions about the recording, mixing, or mastering of In Waves then please feel free to get in touch and we’d be happy to explain in a little more detail. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the album and we’d love to know what you think of it!
In Wavesis available to pre-order now – pre-orders will gain immediate access to two tracks from the album. In Waves will be available to download in the format of your choice as a pay-what-you-want release on the 17th May via the Neffle Bandcamp page, and will also be available to stream & download from a wide variety of digital distribution outlets.
What is Neffle? In a nutshell, Neffle is a collaborative project created by myself (Tom Pritchard) and my good friend Adam Fielding. We met on the now defunct Propellerhead forums, way back in 2003, and got to know each other through our shared love of electronic music. Over the years we’d collaborate sporadically on the odd track here and there, typically exchanging Reason files back and forth, working remotely.
One weekend in 2011, Adam happened to be visiting shortly after I’d acquired a pair of Korg Monotribes. If you’re unfamiliar with the Monotribe, it’s a small analogue groovebox that’s great for making squelchy acid techno sounds – a particularly hands-on machine that’s perfect for spontaneous jams. Working together with the Monotribes and an MFB-503 drum machine, we spent a solid afternoon banging out tunes for a laugh (one of which, Cellphone Acid, is included as a secret bonus track with the download of Brain Tub). It was great fun to work together in the studio, so we decided to do the same thing again the next year, and in 2012 recorded a mix on to cassette (MONO Side B, another secret track, this time hidden on the download for Futility Son). These recordings have a certain charm, despite their crude quality, and so we figured perhaps it was time to embark upon a more concerted effort.
The first two albums, Brain Tub & Futility Son, were recorded back to back in a week-long recording session in June 2014. We’d start with a simple idea, maybe a bass line or a drum rhythm, and build on to it bit by bit, arranging the parts on the fly as we recorded. Despite working amidst the mild warmth of the English Summer, these tracks took on a decidedly bleak tone, filled with brooding keys and cavernous reverb, in part owing to the constraints of the equipment we were using, a limited palette of small desktop synths and drum machines. Given the Wintery vibe, we released these tracks in October that year – and so Neffle was born! We returned to these ideas again in the second half of 2015, recording late into the night to produce a set of nocturnal, ambient techno tracks, released as Assistance in early 2016. The Soul Anatomy EP followed later that year, an eerie beast with a deeply sinister tone.
Unfortunately, the Soul Anatomy sessions made for challenging recording: despite our best intentions, it felt as though none of the material we worked on would sit well together. The result is an EP with a distinctly loose, improvisational sound, to put it lightly. When it came to recording The Third Space, we took a different approach, working on material separately before coming together to flesh it out – a method that allowed us to work greater structure and depth into the music without losing the spontaneity of recording in jam sessions. The Third Space felt like a significant step forward for Neffle, an evocative lofi exploration of haunting, melancholy spaces. In the space of six years, our work had grown from sporadic improvised recordings into a coherent project with vivid intention.
Building on the foundations laid for The Third Space, we approached our 2019 recording sessions with an intense focus, resulting in an album that is considerably more refined and detailed than our prior efforts. After five releases of spartan, melancholy music, it felt like the right time to change things up a little. In Waves maintains the enveloping textures that characterise our previous work, but shifts the tone to a warm, psychedelic sound, with rich instrumentation and natural recordings layered in dense soundscapes. If The Third Space sounds like abandoned places and swirling fog, In Waves is the sound of warm evenings and fading sun, that ethereal, liminal atmosphere between light and darkness.
In Wavesis available to pre-order now – pre-orders will gain immediate access to two tracks from the album. In Waves will be available to download in the format of your choice as a pay-what-you-want release on the 17th May via the Neffle Bandcamp page, and will also be available to stream & download from a wide variety of digital distribution outlets.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
Hello, and welcome to a series of articles I’m going to be writing about the creation & release of my compilation album Pieces!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.