Since the days of being a young toddler music has played a big role in my life. I grew up with a piano in the house, tried and hated taking lessons, very occasionally would mess around with audio editing software and record little things with a cheap radio shack microphone but I didn’t really sit down and start to take recording music seriously until about the later half of 2009 when I was living in Iraq as a civilian contractor. The isolation and limited Internet access made it easier to concentrate on other hobbies. So I started messing around with Propellerhead Reason with the determination to learn how to use it. I bought and shipped myself an Axiom 25 keyboard and began work on songs that would later become Highway of Heroes and Magic Show. I’ve done what I can to keep the ball rolling, slowly but surely.
It didn’t take very long to get the hang of how things worked and for all of 2010 I continued to study tutorial videos, books, watched interviews with experienced engineers who talked about tricks they pull in the studio and I’ve come to feel pretty comfortable with understanding the fundamentals. The basics involve common types of sound equipment and tools used in studio production; stuff like controlling dynamics with compression (as well as knowing when and how to use side-chain or parallel compression), EQ, building complex effects from scratch, tweaking synth presets to reshape the sound to something specific, use of things like arps, CV splitters, sequencers and so on. Reason and the official tutorial videos on YouTube served as a great platform for learning. A year after returning home and working on all this stuff something happened that I did not expect.
Early in 2011 a favorite band of mine (Younger Brother) decided to release a new album of theirs on a site called PledgeMusic. The way it usually works is a band will create a fund drive to raise a certain amount of money to pay for the production of their next release (a portion of which goes to a charity) by selling things like limited edition lyric sheets, signed copies of the album, VIP passes to any show you could make it to, extremely limited lithograph prints signed by the photographer (in this case Storm Thorgerson, best known for his Pink Floyd cover art) and, not lastly, a few seats to participate in a studio workshop with the primary members of the band, Simon Posford and Benji Vaughan who may be better known for their own solo projects Shpongle and Prometheus, respectively.
The workshops were set to take place in London at an unspecified time in the future, and given the number of seats originally made available, the sessions were meant to occur over a string of days (which ended up being scattered widely over the next year). Apparently they overbooked themselves and with a lot of touring coming for Simon and Benji, some sessions had to be postponed indefinably. I slightly regretted telling them “the later the better” when asked when I’d be available to go on such a trip. A whole year went by until they checked back with me and asked if I would be available in early March this year. You bet I was.
I left on a Thursday afternoon at about 2 p.m., arriving in Detroit and departing at about 7:40 p.m.. When I arrived in London it was about 8:15 a.m. local time and I snapped this picture just before we landed in some very thick fog:
Unfortunately I barely managed to get more than 20 or 30 minutes of cumulative sleep on the way. By the time I transited the subway station from Heathrow to Blackhorse Road station and then walked about 8 blocks to the house I was staying in it was about 11 a.m. local time, and I was starting to feel some severe jet lag. Every time I took a step it felt like the ground was bouncing under me. I couldn’t remain awake any longer.
I stayed in a spare room provided by a couple named Jess and Luke, who among many others offer their rooms for rent at a website called airbnb.com. Anybody can use the site to offer up (or find) a place to stay for tourists and it was perfect for me; far far better than the idea of staying in a hostle with a bunch of strangers sharing a dorm filled with bunk beds and one shower or something.
I woke up that evening at about 8 p.m. and really didn’t have much choice when it came to doing any site seeing because it was already dark. After getting some frozen pizzas at a grocery store that seemed to be less than a block away as well as some Jim Beam whiskey for good measure, I sat down trying to decide if I wanted to go out late anyway just to try and see something, anything. After a lot of indecision I decided to try and trek my way back south west and see if I could make it to the Westminister station and see Big Ben at night, before the tube stations closed. I barely made it in time to snap a few pictures and turn right back around to head back to where I came from.
While standing there I ironically used my watch to check the time…
When I got back to the station I started at, the train I got off of just happened to arrive at the same time the last one was departing. That was a close one.
With my sleep schedule royally messed up I couldn’t get back to bed, no matter how much Jim Beam or pizza I consumed. I slept in until noon the next day. I learned that the primary subway line I was planning to use that weekend was going to be shut down for maintenance the entire time. The TFL website suggested I take a bus from the shut down station about half a mile to another train station, but that was because I searched for a route starting there, instead of where I was staying at. Had I put in the actual address I would have discovered there was a train station not more than 3 minutes walk from where I was… A big waste of time to kick the day off but I eventually made it to the famous Portobello market, had breakfast at about 4:30 in the afternoon (a sirloin steak, which was unremarkable by this Kansas boys’ standards) picked up a few souveniors, and then made it to the London Eye.
And from up on top of this thing, I managed to snap some very cool pictures, like this one of the Waterloo train station…
I took several others but there really isn’t any room in here for them. The end of the night involved me going to the wrong address trying to find a night club called The Fabric. The city guide app I was using on my phone to get around had the wrong address cached, so I had to ask directions at a small pub. In retrospect I wish I had just stayed at the pub. Long story short, there was a fair number of very creepy people wandering the streets surrounding that club and by the time I found the place it was almost time to start trying to find my way back home for the night. The subway route I attempted to take to get home was partially down for construction and I had go back to where I started to take a very long way around to find my way back home. Again, I wish I had known about the train stations that aren’t on the standard tube maps. If you ever go to London, use this map.
The next day I woke up extra early because I had a bad dream that I had actually managed to sleep in until 3 PM, which would have meant I had completely missed the studio workshop. I got up, had a traditional english breakfast with Luke and Jill where they made me some toast with marmite on it (which I thought was great) a boiled egg and some cereal, juice and coffee. By 10:30 I was ready to start making my way from the quiet Walthamstow residence and into Ladbroke Grove, giving a beggar some spare change along the way before finally arriving at the Saga Centre and met by Benji Vaughan.
He showed us up to a room on the second floor which was quite small but equipped with all the necessities, including a sound proof booth with a mic inside. We (another gentleman from Norway had, like me, purchased a seat and it was the two of us attending the session today) were given a quick overview of all the outboard equipment Benji had his iMac attached to.
Simon appeared a few minutes later and by that time we had already decided that what we were going to spend our time that day remixing a Younger Brother song (Crystalline) for a yet to be released album. It was either that or try to write a song from scratch and according to Benji the last sessions that opted to go that route kinda went south, so it was nice to know that what we were going to be working on was something that actually needed to be made.
We started off by muting a lot of the original tracks to make space for some new ones. The first thing Benji did was come up with a new drum beat using his new Maschine, which was kind of difficult to do without making it sound exactly the same as the original beat that we had muted. To give it some variety a kind of hollow reverb was applied to the snare and the tone of the reverb itself would slide upward and reset every two measures; just one of many subtle touches that give an electronic atmosphere to the track.
Simon decided to pull out a bass guitar, which proved to be a bit of a crap instrument. If you had your open string tuned correctly but then played the same string on the 12th fret or something it would become slightly flat. But that was fixed later by using the Grammy winning software plugin Melodyne, which was one of the most incredible tools I’d ever seen. We recalled first seeing a video for it years ago; I told them that when I first saw it I thought it looked like a concept pitch to potential investors. Turns out that today it’s quite real and quite awesome!
While recording the bass guitar the sound card crashed partially and recorded the bass as more like a robotic, extremely distorted mess. We decided to KEEP this awful sound and try to turn it into something cool with Melodyne. Then we sent that tuned, slightly cleaned up noise through some effects, and they had a LOT to choose from. I couldn’t remember every one we played with but I did remember using Effectrix, Buffer Override, Buffeater, Automaton and an assortment of effects by Universial Audio. A lesson learned while messing around with all this stuff was that it’s important to just mess around for the fuck of it. We never knew entirely what to expect when playing around with these kinds of effects and it just went on to demonstrate how you can have happy accidents if you just stop thinking about the song itself and just have a go at it.
A lot of the sounds that end up in any given track of theirs start off outside the computer, such as from an analog synth like the classic OSCar in the lower right. Benji played a little melody into Logic which would push MIDI data back out to the synth which then allowed him to go to the mixer and start a feedback loop between the console and his Eventide Harmonizer, which was set up to create a reverb or ping pong echo or something. (Speaking of Eventide, the fellow from Norway reminded us that there’s a shot of an Eventide Harmonizer in the movie Contact and Simon went on to point out that Eventide gets a lot of their dollars by selling specialized sound processors to the US military; quite a weird company). It’s a simple effect Simon demonstrates in this video. You can get a lot of weird stuff to come out a setup like that by very carefully feeding sound back onto itself while looping through an effects processor of some kind. One of a few ways in Reason that this can be achieved using the new Echo rack device and using a high percentage of feedback while playing with the frequency and resonance knobs (you can hear me do this to a bit of flute in the my track Chill Grill).
Simon often helped break dull moments by sharing videos he recorded on his iPhone. What does Simon Posford like to record with his phone you ask? Well in this case, his television screen when he was watching the original Batman and Robin series the previous night at home, which if you’ve not seen Batman in a good thirty years or more you don’t know what you’re missing. That show is over the top hilarious from time to time. He liked it so much he decided to hook his phone up to the mixer and sample an audio clip from the show into the remix. Hard to say what will stay in the final mix but I wouldn’t be surprised if Robin exclaiming “Holy Hi-Fi!” manages to stay in. They joked about telling Ruu Campbell (the vocalist, who wasn’t present) that the remix wouldn’t contain any of his original vocals and that instead the song was now Batman based, saying he would be shocked if told that.
I also got to sneak peak a few very cool things, such as a new unreleased Shpongle track (it was quite good), what the “Shpongletron 2.0″ stage is going to look like, and the Younger Brother Vaccine sketchbook which fans have been waiting on for a long, long time. It is very beautifully laid out and features information about all the audio equipment used in the making of the album, the making of the cover art (which involved throwing tennis balls at Ru to get him to flinch and cover his face), photos from the recording sessions, a picture from Simons backyard in the middle of winter, a picture of Benji and a gypsy working in the studio; it all looked great! Benji is going to try and get an interactive digital version of the book published online for download. They also told me what little they knew about Twisted Records newly signed artist In:terlaken, which was almost next to nothing at all. They’ve never met him. All they know is he’s a perky young buck from Switzerland whose father would of preferred seeing him grow up to become a watch maker.
Day turned into night and the light rain never ceased. What was originally supposed to be a session that was to last 5 hours went on for 7 and a half hours. Most of the time was spent experimenting with plugins, recording different sounds, composting, eating a sandwich Simon shared with me, smoking hand rolled cigarettes and otherwise trying our best to come up with ideas for stuff to put into the remix. Coming at this with a background in Propellerhead Reason most of the hardware we were using weren’t particularly interesting to me, save for the synths themselves; they have a uniquely beautiful quality in their sound and it was nice to have something like that you could just reach over to and grab a knob and start tweaking. But I think the thing I most appreciated seeing were the VST plugins. Being a Reason user, I’d never touched or really had the ability to use VSTs before, but since my return I figured out how to do it with the help of Ableton Live and Rewire and look forward to experimenting with them more while actually using this as an opportunity to become more familiar with Ableton.
Like I said before, I think the best thing I got from the session besides exposure to a lot of cool VST plugins was the message that it’s best to walk into a studio with nothing in particular in mind and just start banging on stuff randomly and accept the fact that you’ll probably produce a lot of rubbish, because rubbish is still a lot better than nothing at all. Also, it’s best to not to over think things or try to plan out a concept for a track in advance or else you’ll likely set yourself up for failure. This coming from a couple dudes who insist they have no idea what they’re doing. Cheers!