Anchor Blog Series: Entry # 2
Here’s the video I made for the song using electron and light microscopes (I used to be an analytical chemist in an art conservation lab years ago, and it was nice to revisit the old scopes in the lab.)
I’ll write more about the making of the video later.
A general note:
I feel like I need to be alone to do my best work, especially given the endless looping and trial and error that goes into producing this kind of music. I feel like some people HAVE music in them and it pours out of them complete and perfect, and all you need to do is press record. I am not one of those people. I’m introverted and self-conscious, and moments of FLOW come few and far between. I think I’m more of a scientist at my core, and I’ve set up my studio so that it feels like a microscope for sound. I love detail and I love clarity of texture. For me it’s the fine detail that carries the emotional weight of a track and my ears are always traveling to the periphery and the spaces between sounds to find meaning. For me, the unintentional quality of the ‘edges’ of sound provides an organic support for the more intentional central elements of the track, so one can find deep sound and deep structure simultaneously.
Notes on Great Equator:
When I was in middle school, I started going to the public library in the town where I grew up to borrow vinyl records. They had a good collection. I was pretty voracious about trying new music. It was my first exposure to Bach, Kraftwerk, Ornett Coleman, Weather Report etc. and I also listened to all the sound effects records in the collection (that had little snippets of airplanes and applause etc.). There was no automatic return on my parents turntable, so at the end of each side the music would end and the needle would spiral in and slide into the circular ‘locked-groove’ at the center. I would always wait for that sound and listen to the thump and crackle of that run-out groove, each like a fingerprint for that record. It made me realize that ‘silence’ isn’t silence. It’s just the taste of your own tounge.
That little loop of silence seemed like a gift. A little negative space to work in. It wasn’t long before I tried purposefully scratching across it. Using thumb-tacks, razor blades, sand paper etc, I started making marks there to see what they sounded like. The thumb tack produced a nice bassy thump. The razor blade produced a quick snap. The sand paper sounded like a maraca. If I scratched inward the sound would appear on the left speaker of the stereo. Scratching outward made it sound more on the right. Using a protractor I measured out different angles that corresponded to rhythms. Working at 90 or 45 degrees was in 4/4. Other integer divisions of 360 produced other time signatures.
I finally perfected the technique last year with the ‘Scratch Edition’ which includes a template for 5 different time signatures with divisions for 8ths, 16ths, and triplets. Here’s a video I made about it.
I’ve made hundreds of these loops and recorded all of the loops and compiled them into a collection. maybe someday i’ll make them public. Last year I took some electron microscope images of the scratches at a local college which you can view here: http://zammutosound.com/galleries/147175/electron-micrographs-of-record-scratches.
this became the idea for the Great Equator video.
My very favorite of the rhythms I scratched is the one that opens this track. It’s in a quick 9/8. As a composer, I get very frustrated with 4/4 because of its ubiquity and its squareness. By pure repetition, our ears have become hard-wired for the tension and release of 4/4, and every genre of it has idioms, tropes, and conventions that, as a composer, are very difficult to transcend. Not so with 9/8. In fact, all of the tropes of 4/4 work to 9/8’s advantage because it feels like there’s a tiny space where the one should be, refreshing expectations every time around.
9/8 also suggests some wonderful polyrhythms. You’ll find it’s as easy to count this track in sixes as in nines, which creates a very natural 2 over 3 relationship… the three feels waltzy, while the two feels marchy… a great contradiction. So the opening seconds of the track are clean illustration of how the gears of 9/8 intermesh, with the final gear coming in as the snare sound about halfway through the first verse. The kick, hi-hat, and snare sounds are sampled directly from a tr-808, a classic vintage drum machine, by Surachai in Asheville, NC, who generously made them available for download here. I also treated the scratched rhythm in a few different ways with the Lexicon PCM81 so I could change the texture of it here and there throughout the track.
Next came the chord progression for the verse/chorus structure which is where the primary idea for the key change between verse and chorus was born along with the 3 measure figure of the verses (a 27 beat loop that makes perfect sense, who knew). The main synth sound comes from the Polyevolver, which has a unique built-in distortion circuit and really comes to life when squashed a bit by a compressor… in this case it’s the ART Pro VLA2 (the best kept secret in cheap analog compressors along with the FMR RNC). Mikey (my brother) improvised the bass line very early on in the process, which wonderfully counteracts the stiff staccato of the electronic drums. Sean Dixon recorded drums over the loop with some amazing performances, but after working with them they didn’t fit with the clean metronomic style of the rhythm, so I’m saving those recordings for another track. The great thing about drums and percussion is that they are un-pitched and therefore unconstrained by key or scale (and to a large degree, tempo) so they are easily transplanted to other tracks. Sean’s playing is so creative that it often happens that new ideas are sparked, and the original context for the recordings are left behind.
After settling on the chord structure, I needed a WRENCH to throw in the works in the form of a bridge/breakdown/outro. I wanted something bright, vertical, and extremely syncopated to counter the long horizontal decay tails of the verse/choruses. The solution came from the Nord Electro 3, the red keyboard that we (and countless others) tour with. It has great emulations of classic organs with harmonics that can be fine-tuned with virtual drawbars, and in this case I found the punch I was looking for in a ‘Vox’ organ sound with a bit of room reverb on it. I wrote the notes out in MIDI (within the Acid DAW) always striving for the gnarliest, most unexpected places to place the hits. I’m a terrible keyboard player, so MIDI is a good friend of mine when working on key parts. Then I recorded the same part with a heavy hall reverb on it and placed it in a separate layer below the Vox-room recording. Using Acid’s built in volume envelopes I pulled up the hall reverb sound between random notes to give that sense of space expanding and contracting. Also, you’ll notice that the kick and snare sounds switch roles now and then, to further shift the gears in these sections. It became one of my favorite moments on the record. I feel like whenever a radical texture can enter a composition in an unexpected but strangely perfect way, it becomes a MOMENT that is unforgettable. It’s a somewhat risky way of writing since it usually doesn’t work out, but so worth it when it does. I suppose this is true in any medium… if you can get a crazy idea to work, its pure gold.
Next I added guitar during the second and third verses, to help push the development forward. I did a session with my Fender Stratocaster recorded ‘direct’ through a Sans Amp and Vermona Retroverb. Guitar riffs, like 4/4, are another ubiquitous thing that is almost too stale and worn out to attempt, but I landed on a unique riff by capo-ing up high so that fingers land on the 3rd and 4th of the root simultaneously, creating a dissonance that works in unexpected ways against the chords. It’s as if the 3rd and 4th are duking it out for dominance as the riff decays. It creates a cloud of uncertainty in the mood of the track, which is extended by the key change in choruses. In January, Nick Oddy, our guitarist and keyboard player extraordinaire, came up and we recorded the hanging washed-out guitar chords that support the verses. Synth pads would have felt cheesy, but these guitar chords felt just right to subtly fill the spaces in the track. They were recorded through an Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal > a volume pedal > an eventide ‘space’ pedal with a randomized volume mod.
All that was left was the lyrics, which are the hardest part of the process for me. The words that come naturally to my head are truly insipid, and I hate myself for it. I need to employ massive amounts of self-trickery to deceive my non-verbal brain into writing worthwhile songs. Outright theft works well, as in the first track. This one was more slippery. While working on the lyrics for this track I became obsessed with reading the wiki tvtropes.org. As they say on their front page “Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” It’s literally a catalog of all of the tricks and conventions of fiction writing, backed by thousands of examples. Right off, I got a few great lines from it. The kind of lines that invoke an entire world in just a few words. That was enough to get me started. I also re-read a book we have here at home called ‘The Home Planet’ which is made entirely of quotes from people who have left earth to live in space. Eventually the song coalesced:
Oh, my love
It’s been more than fun.
We’ve been around the sun,
The moves we made were radical.
Gravity is only a theory,
In need of revisions.
And we’ll keep on rising to better see,
Where we’re from.
Why have become,
So afraid of change,
Why can’t deserts handle rain.
We go around the sun.
Now life’s a kind of condensation,
A certain type of rust.
Bad vibrations shake the coins across the table,
Oh, here it comes.
I try to hold the reins,
With these folded paper hands,
And plan on shifting sands.
Oh, Great Equator,
City of sound.
All we have in a single frame,
For the first time.
Oh, my loves, I wish you could see,
What I’ve seen.
Or should I spend my days,
In empty pyramids,
And do what the echo-chamber says.
I recorded the song in two vocal layers in tight harmony throughout, with no clear lead voice, like a mutant Simon and Garfunkle (we used to call ourselves ‘Simon and Glitchfunkle’ back in the Books days). I also recorded at low volume in my lowest register so that the vocal stayed within the ‘pocket’ of the track instead of soaring out on top. I carefully matched the volume of the two voices and sent them both through the gentle analog distortion circuit of the Vermona Retroverb, which sonically glued them together into more of a single sound, and mixed them mono in the center of the track. I recorded a thick spring reverb of the vocals to another stereo track, and lifted them more and more in the mix as track develops. I love the way ‘ducked’ reverb blossoms in the space between lines, so I left a lot of space in this song to leave the tails exposed.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Tomorrow: 3) Hegemony.
And (sorry to repeat myself but for the good of my children I must) please remember there are three ways you can help keep this crazy thing alive:
1). Pick up something from our online store where you’ll find:(zammuto/thebooks/soundsculpture)
3). Most importantly! SPREAD THE WORD. We need to grow a bit more to survive. Share this post, tweet, facebook, whatever. If all of you turned just one person on to our music, we’d be golden, totally independent and in the black.
Starting on Oct 26 we’ll be heading through New York - Philly - DC - Durham - Atlanta - Asheville - Nashville - Louisville - Cincinnati - Columbus - Buffalo - Boston - North Adams, MA (a special home town finale). We hope to see you out there.