Last week I released an album exclusively to Bandcamp subscribers called Archive 01: 2003 – 2004 which, as the name would suggest, is a collection of tunes originally written and produced between 2003 and 2004. However, me being me I decided to give them some much needed love and attention before giving them a proper release, and I figured I’d write a bit about why I decided to release these tunes now and the process involved in putting the album together.
Although I’ve been writing music since the mid-90s, I wouldn’t really say I “properly” got into writing music until 2002 when I purchased my first bit of music software. Up until that point I’d been using free software pretty much exclusively, along with one or two sample discs I purchased along the way. In 2002 I picked up Propellerhead Reason, and spent the next few years trying to find my musical voice, so to speak.
2003 was a particularly interesting year for me to revisit as it was a time when a lot of things changed in my life. My friends had started heading off to university, and I had come to the conclusion that my own future lie somewhere with music. I had originally planned to go to university to study music production of some sort, but after some arguably rash thinking I decided to put off my plans for university in an attempt to get a better grasp on what exactly I wanted to do. While I ended up working a couple of jobs in this time, I was in a bit of a personal limbo.
Up until this point I had been working almost exclusively with samples, so while I had a really firm grasp on the fundamentals of digital sampling and audio manipulation, it’s not much of a stretch to say I didn’t have much of a handle on synthesis techniques, effects processing, or even mixing, really. I had already started messing around with VST effects – and it didn’t take long to get to grips with the fundamentals of subtractive synthesis (thank you, Subtractor!) – but I was still much more focussed on getting ideas down than sound design at this stage.
It’s also worth mentioning that, prior to this period in time, I hadn’t been particularly interested in a whole lot of commercially available electronic music. The furthest I had delved up until then was in listening to a ton of video game music, and picking up a couple of albums by Frontline Assembly & The Alpha Conspiracy (Epitaph and Cipher, respectively). I listened to these albums endlessly. I was getting more into select film soundtracks as well. I wasn’t really sure how to categorise the music I was writing at the time, I just knew that I was having fun writing it.
During this time, I started posting more and more of my music online – specifically, to the now defunct Propellerhead Music Forum. This was awesome because not only was it a place for musicians to share their music, but they could also share read-only versions of the actual song documents for listeners to check out. Through this forum I got a ton of amazing feedback, learned a ridiculous amount by dissecting other peoples’ tunes, and even made a few friends along the way.
One such friend, whose music I also had a huge amount of respect for, introduced me to the likes of Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Biosphere, Freeland, Cliff Martinez, Massive Attack… well, the list goes on. This was a HUGE “holy shit!” moment for me as I started to realise that not only was there was this huge world of music that I had previously ignored or even shunned (I was very much a “dance music suxx!” kid at school), but it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to focus on. Now… I feel I should probably mention that I’m certainly NOT comparing my music to these hugely influential artists, but this was really the first time I started listening to music and thinking “just how the hell did they put this together?”. I heard so much music and listened to so many sounds that, up until this point, were pretty much alien to my ears. It was amazingly inspirational. I still attribute my love of fusing organic instrumentation with electronics to my pre-existing tastes of the time and this sudden infusion of electronic music.
I still jokingly refer to material from this time as a bit of a “golden era” for me – not necessarily because of the actual music I was writing, but more because I was just starting to find my feet through experimentation, and I was really starting to expand my horizons as a result.
More recently, one of the things I had really wanted to do with the whole Bandcamp subscriber thing was to start releasing some of this old, forgotten material. I’d actually been toying with the idea of putting together a collection of old tunes for quite a while, and I figured that I now finally had a “proper” outlet for it. I decided to focus on re-mixing tunes from specific time periods for my archive releases, and 2003 – 2004 seemed a logical starting point. Anything before this point would have been pretty cringe-worthy I think, and I figured starting with a time period that I held such a strong personal attachment to would be quite interesting.
So… in late March 2017, I started putting together playlist ideas of tunes from 2003 – 2004 to release as an EP. I had settled on an EP as I thought any more and the whole thing wouldn’t really work as a coherent collection of tunes… but I started running into problems with this approach. No matter which songs I picked, I’d always end up changing my mind a day or two later, or think of something else I wanted to include. I figured the only way forward would be to just sink my teeth in and start working with these tunes. I knew with absolute certainty that I was going to include Contact (written in 2004), so I opened up the old song file and had a look.
Now, the great thing about Reason is that it has amazing backwards compatibility. Contact – like many of the tracks here – was written in Reason 2.5. I still had my old sample collection with the 2004 folder structure intact, so opening up these tunes in Reason 9 was as simple as finding the old song files, opening them up, and Reason would take care of the rest. As soon as I opened up Contact, I knew I was going to have to properly re-mix these tunes. Just to clarify – when I say “re-mix”, I mean that in a very literal sense – not in the typical re-interpretive meaning of the word remix, but in the “I need to break this mix down and start again” meaning of the word. At the same time, I wanted to preserve the old feel of these tracks. So… where to start?
The first thing I did was to disable all post-mix processing in these tracks. A common mistake (which I still come across these days with great regularity!) is that people tend to think they can fix the deficiencies in a mix by applying crazy effects to an entire mix. This is generally a bad idea. A lot of these tunes had heavy EQ/compression/distortion effects placed on the entire mix. In some cases, simply turning these effects off had a huge impact on the overall sound. The reason I make such a big deal of encouraging people to get the mix right before even thinking about “mastering” is because I’ve been down the road of thinking you can fix anything in mastering, that mastering was the one thing stopping my tunes from sounding great. With a good mix, yeah, that sort of makes sense. With a bad mix? It’s a bad idea. Don’t do it. You can make a great mix shine with a light touch at the mastering stage, but you can’t fix a broken mix with tons of effects.
One of the major differences between newer versions of Reason and the older “classic” versions (as I like to refer to them as) is that Reason 6 onwards has a really, really nice mixer. When you open up old tunes in these newer versions of Reason, this new mixer remains unused as the original rack devices perform that function. As such, the first thing I needed to do was to figure out what each track in each song file corresponded to (not easy when you consider that my labelling system was pretty much non-existent so you’d end up with tons of tracks with names like “PEQ-15”, “Malstrom 3” and so on), and to route it to this new mixer along with all the appropriate aux send effects intact. Essentially, what this meant was that the first thing I did with each of these tunes was to re-route each individual channel to a new mixer and try to re-create the original mix in the new mixer. This was oddly cathartic.
Once I’d re-routed everything, I started to re-EQ certain instruments and tweak certain effects. I wanted to do this with a light touch as I didn’t want to totally change the feel of the music. At the same time, there were some tunes that had masses of mud for no good reason, painful highs, drums that would disappear under the rest of the mix… you know, fun stuff like that. A lot of the time this was easily rectified by utilising the filters on the new Reason mixer – carving out space for bass and kicks in certain tracks was generally pretty straight-forward. In certain tracks, rolling off the lows on the main reverb aux-send made a huge difference. Dialing back the release time on certain synths made little discernible difference to the feel of a song, but had a huge impact on the space available for the rest of the mix. Carving out space was very much the name of the game here.
In a couple of instances, I ended up layering some additional drum hits over the top of the existing drums. This was generally a last resort, and usually happened in tracks where I’d relied on a single heavily compressed REX loop for the drums or something equally silly. It’s hard to stop the drums in a mix from disappearing if you’re relying on something that sounds completely flat at the source. Thankfully I only had to do this a couple of times, and in each instance I was able to match the new drums quite closely with the feel of the original track.
The final part of this process was mastering. This was done with a light touch – I ended up just using a single limiter on each tune and leaving it at that. The bulk of the work had already been done at the re-mixing stage, so I didn’t want to jeopardise that. This was more about level consistency than anything else, and I really didn’t want to over-cook this release.
I repeated this process a few times and started thinking “well, I’ve got a good process going, I’ll just keep working on tunes from this era and worry about the track-list later!”. After a while I ended up with a selection of about ten tunes. I took these tunes out of the studio and listened to them in a variety of environments, and I was really pleasantly surprised with how well they sat together. The feeling of the era was intact and, thanks to the re-mixing and light mastering process, they sat really nicely together. Without really realising it, I had started to put together a decent collection of the music I wrote during this time period. At this point the EP idea went totally out of the window.
A few more re-mixes later and I had a collection of music from 2003 – 2004 that I was happy to release, a definitive album of works collected from this particular time period. Now all I had to do was figure out what to do about the cover art.
I played with a couple of ideas, mostly based on photography from time spent in Alaska in 2004. Visiting Alaska was a hugely inspirational time for me – I’d spent some time in 2003 & 2004 working in a small village pub to save up for this trip, and it truly is an awe inspiring place. It made sense to use artwork from such an inspirational place, especially given that a lot of the music on the album was written after returning from said trip. I ended up with two main ideas – one was a photo from Talkeetna lakes (which is what I ended up using), and another was a night shot that ended up looking like something from a dark ambient album. I fully intend to use the latter at some point!
All this said, returning from Alaska was the start of a more lonely time as my friends had found some stability in either university or work, and I was unemployed and pretty much broke without a clear plan for the future. I ended up coasting for longer than I really should have before getting a full time job and figuring out what I wanted to do with my future… but, during this time of lessened responsibility, I ended up sinking my teeth more into writing music and discovering new sounds. I ended up writing tunes like Contact, Neon, and Where Do I Go From Here during this time, most of which I’d say lie on the more introspective/atmospheric end of the spectrum than some of the other tunes on the album.
The last tune I wrote in 2004 was Aeroplanes & Fireflies, which I figured would make for a fitting opener as I felt it really captured a sense of things to come, which provided a nice warm-up and contrast to some of the more introspective tracks throughout the rest of the album.
It’s a wonderful feeling to finally have these tracks out there. It’s an incredibly personal collection of tunes from a defining point in my life, with several tunes having never truly seen the light of day up until this point.
Archive 01: 2003 – 2004 is available exclusively to Bandcamp subscribers in the format of your choice, along with a whole host of other subscriber exclusive content including October Sessions, Apparitions, Traces, and Call Of The Void.