Anchor Blog Series: Entry #6
Don’t Be a Tool (Instrumental)
Here’s a picture of the studio my brother, Mikey, took in February and carefully labeled. I set it up so that I stand while I work, which I find keeps my mind more active and less stuck in loops. I started hanging stuff from the ceiling last year so that I can reach all of the knobs in the whole setup while standing in the center of the stereo field. The main compressor/EQ/preamps are located right above my head so I can do detailed trim work with my head in the sweet-spot between my monitors. The drum kit is in the same space, 180 degrees from this shot.
Once again, the guiding principal while working on Anchor was ‘less-is-more’. These days, given the ease of multi-track production, it’s way too easy to throw a million sounds and ideas into a track. I consciously wanted to open the tracks up and let them breath by removing unnecessary layers. By limiting the number of active layers to just three or four, I could focus more attention on what I truly love about sound: nuance, clarity, and peripheral detail. I think it takes an adjustment of expectations to appreciate this approach, but for me it’s the difference between listening ‘to’ music and listening ‘through’ music: the first being passive consumption, and the second being more of an active investment of concentration. Over the last few years, especially being the father of three very energetic boys, I want music to help me stay centered and focused. Given the frenetic pace and shortening attention span of our culture, being more centered and focused seems more and more important.
Don’t Be a Tool
This track was an exercise in using a mono synth to maximum effect in a single take. The main synth sound in this track is the Moog Slim Phatty, recorded through the Vermona Retroverb and Lexicon PCM81. I wrote the line entirely with midi and set the low pass filter envelope to be extremely velocity sensitive. This means that the harder a key is struck, the brighter the note will be. I carefully entered in velocity data for each note so that texture changes and gains complexity as the track develops. The Slim Phatty is a mono synth, meaning it can only play one note a time, but I made it my mission with this track to jump around octaves as much as possible to transcend the mono-ness, which yielded some very strange non-idiomatic riffs. I was particularly impressed by the Slim for its ability to give huge bass notes and piercingly clean high-notes in a single patch. A digital or virtual synth would have trouble here. The second layer of synth is the Polyevolver, which I improvised over the Moog layer, using the same ‘fifths’ patch from ‘Good Graces’ but with a quick attack time, and medium release.
Until recently I’ve shied away from reverb. All of the Books tracks were bone dry (with a few exceptions). Being stuck ‘in the box’ gave me access only to the most rudimentary digital reverbs, and they rubbed me the wrong way since they tended to obscure the fine detail of the samples I was working with. But recently I’ve had a reverb epiphany. I feel like a lot of the technical methods I’ve learned over the last year involve using reverb as compositional tool, and as a way to create space, either a realistic one or a super-natural one. I recently heard a great interview with a sound recordist that experimented with firing guns inside of anechoic chambers. The sound is shocking, in a very unimpressive way… it makes you realize that reflected sound plays a huge (and largely subliminal) role in creating the context of a sound. Mushing sound out in space and time, either as reverb or delay, is a FINE art that I haven’t fully appreciated until recently.
The drums came from a brush session I had recorded with Sean last summer for another track. We recorded it at a much faster tempo and I pitched it down about 7 semitones which gives it THAT sound… dark and loose. I pitched individual brush hits slightly differently to give each one its own timbre. I applied a wet Lexicon stage reverb and recorded it to a different stereo track so I could lift it here and there to change the space of the drum track. Towards the end, I applied a circular pan, which makes the drums move left to right and forward to back simultaneously. There are other details in there too, like a bit of scratch rhythm and a sweet orchestral sample I got from the end of a song on an old record.
The rumbling sound at the end came from very low notes played on the Slim through the Electrix Filter Factory and massive amounts of reverb. The airplane like sound at the end comes from a recording that voyager II made of the ionosphere of Jupiter’s innermost moon, Io. More on this later…