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Category: Studio Diary (Page 1 of 23)

Circles: Diary #3

It’s past time for an update on Studio activity for album#3, I think. I haven’t settled on a final name, yet, but the working title of the album is “Circles”.

As described in the last diary update, I had lyrics for five or so songs, and some melodic ideas. Lyric notebook in hand, I took a couple of long walks up the local hill to find some solitude away from the studio equipment and distractions, and tried singing the verses and choruses at various tempos and pitches, until I found something comfortable that “worked”. Then I recorded them into my iPhone voice memo recorder, for reference. In the process I re-wrote a lot of the lyrics to fit the “right” meter.

Back in the studio, I listened to the results and translated them into a simple piano arrangement with two or three tracks for chords, bass, and some melody. I find a Rhodes electric piano patch is best for this process.

(Okay, I realize as I review what I just wrote, that this is not particularly insightful. It’s not Rocket Science, and represents a typical songwriting process. I’m not special, I get that.)

For the last two months I’ve been working solely on one specific track, taking it from the linear “Idea Bucket” project and building it out to a full sixteen minute epic, with four or five movements. The piece is called “Annulus” and it is based on a 2017 trip we took with a friend to Oregon, to view the total solar eclipse.

At the risk of getting way too conceptual, the five movements map to the five phases of a total eclipse: First and Second contact; Totality; followed by Third and Fourth contact, as the Moon’s disc passes and overlaps the Sun.

The corresponding musical sections are: Departure I; Arrival; Aperture; Circles; and Departure II.

These sections were all sketched out and re-arranged in the form of pure MIDI tracks of bass, piano, and percussion. Using MIDI instead of trying to record audio allowed me to play around with tempo and arrangements, and even some transposition, as I prepared to record the vocals.

Happy with the arrangement, tempo, and pitch, I recorded all the vocals, lead and harmony. Done!

(This is so different to how I used to create. I would spend hours and hours on the music before ever getting near the microphone to record vocals, only to discover that much of what I’d done had to be removed, or replaced, or rearranged to make space for the vocal lines. I’m going to try and avoid that way of working, in the future.)

To be honest, prior to recording the vocals, I had spent a lot of time with various piano patches and a LOT of reverb, working on some of the instrumental sections.

With the vocals done, I practiced and recorded fretless bass and chapman stick. Then, having built up both a familiarity with the music and also some callouses on my fingers, I wiped what I’d recorded and re-recorded the bass parts, better.

Next, drums. I find that bass followed by drums is best, because I’m much more likely to develop an interesting rhythm part as the bass part is refined, and then if I’ve already invested time in the drum tracks, I have to go back and re-do. So, bass comes first.

And now we’re caught up, because I “finished” the drum tracks this weekend. I solo’d the Bass and Drum buses and it all sounds pretty locked up.

I have a tendency to overplay (really?!?!) and so I know there will still be some refinement required, mostly removing unnecessary rhythm parts. But it’s a good place to stop for now.

Just for fun I took the Cakewalk project and shrunk it down to show the full extent of the project in full-screen:

The 64-track project in Cakewalk, with non-content tracks hidden

There’s no guitars, and not much in the way of synths or other fairy-dust adornments. Just Vocals, Bass, Drums, and half-finished Piano tracks.

Next Steps:

I’m thinking seriously about breaking up that 16 minute monolith into separate projects, for safety and simplicity and speed. I’m not sure where the breaks go – there are short instrumental bridges between each of the major slabs of composition and so I’d have to allocate them appropriately. Some thought required.

I think I’ll move on to recording guitars. Some of music currently realized as piano notes will have to come out to make room. There are some parts I hear as “hammond organ” in my head, so that’s coming up at some point. And definitely some more synth-y fairy dust.

Onwards!

Diary #2 for Album #3

After completing the WestPac Bolero, I decided to produce a cover version of Simple Minds’ “New Gold Dream”, originally released in 1983. I’ve always wanted to do this, and the recent state of the world inspired me to update it for the ’20s. I temporarily uploaded my version to SoundCloud earlier this month – since removed – but now I’ve released it on BandCamp:

I could write a whole blog post about the trick needed to get the OBXa strings slap-back to sound right. (Shorter version: the 4th triplet delay on the synth is not synchronized to the BPM of the song – it’s slightly slower, 114 bpm instead of 123.)

I wasn’t originally planning to include it in Album #3, but it might end up as a bonus track or something, because I am quite proud of it. One thing I did was to make sure that I pitched the backing tracks to my voice before attempting to sing it, and somewhat to my amazement, I was able to lay down all the vocal tracks in two short sessions. Clearly there’s a “pro tip” in here somewhere.

But that’s enough about old music…

I’ve mentioned before about how this next album is going to be a blank slate, with nothing pulled out of the archives and re-worked, and as of now, this is still more-or-less true.

For the songs on Steel Tree and the Inevitable sequel, the music has typically always come first. A lot of work then went into refactoring the existing music to accommodate the lyrics, applied retroactively. Hopefully that effort paid off, and the results weren’t too awkward.

In the case of Album #3, however, almost the opposite is true: I have lyrics for five songs, and although I hear proto-melodies and harmonic changes in my head, I didn’t have any music committed to a project that directly corresponded to these five compositions. So where does the music come from?

Shortly after I acquired the Novation PEAK synthesizer, I started creating custom patch after patch. Pretty soon I realized I needed somewhere to store musical ideas that developed as I played around with each sound. So I created a Cakewalk project called PEAK_Patch_Demos, with a separate MIDI track for each patch slot, with musical phrases and text notes. Some of these ideas show promise.

In the past, when I’ve experimented with a new piece of software (VST instrument or effect) I’ve create a project to host the plug-in, and save any musical ideas that developed as I experimented. Some of these are pretty interesting.

For some time, I’ve also had a single project containing piano improvisations, where each track is its own little melodic idea, collated and built up over time. I expanded on this and started trawling through the other projects to bring all the ideas into one big “idea bucket” project.

Each idea has its own track, and a choice of instruments to play back on – either strings or a type of piano. Only one track is un-muted at any one time – the tracks are not related to each other.

The Idea_Bucket project made a great starting point for identifying similar ideas that might work together in a single composition.

The next step is to create a second type of “idea bucket”, this one for linear composition: I have instrument tracks set up, with drums, bass, piano, rhodes, and strings. My drum instrument is comprised of just a Cajon and Hi-Hat, in order to limit distractions: I can create a simple beat, but not get carried away with elaborate percussion fills before basic arrangement things like key and time signatures are decided on. This stage is all about finding the right vocal melody, pitch, and correct meter and tempo, using only just enough instrumentation to establish the feel.

At this point it’s a bit of a dance: The lyrics have to come together with rhythm and melody – there’s some give-and-take there. I have to practice singing the melody against the music – and now the tempo and pitch might have to be adjusted to suit my voice. Choices such as, do I sing that an octave higher? In which case I have to transpose that section down a fifth for comfort. Now I have a problem getting section B to follow section A… etc.

And at the back of my mind, I have this fear that I’m actually ripping off some other artist subconsciously, and if so, will it be too blatant? I’m pretty sure this is all normal creative angst. When it gets too intense, it’s time to go out on the bike with the mp3 player on shuffle and listen to some different artists.

A review from DPRP

Theo Verstrael of The Dutch Progressive Rock Page has given us a fair review of the latest album. As usual, we are amongst good company, with all the other recent releases reviewed this week.

You can read the review here:

https://www.dprp.net/reviews/2020-067#prodigal-sounds

Alas, they don’t really like the cover, but generally it is a good review and I appreciate the thoroughness of Theo’s research and informed evaluation of our offering.

A couple of comments on the review:

I don’t get the similarity between Paradigm Shift and Painting Abstracts, but perhaps I’m too close to the music. Theo’s entitled to his opinion. They are both have 7/8 riffs and have similar tempos but apart from that… I’m proud of both pieces.

(Update: I might now understand where Theo’s coming from. The opening statement or phrase in the chorus in both songs is a rising 5th interval, and I acknowledge the similarity, but I am not embarrassed by it. If self-plagiarism were a crime, Neal Morse would be put away for 10 years.)

He’s also not a fan of the Spoken Word verses in The God Program. I respect that. I did try other things early on but kept coming back to it. It’s pretty close to how I heard it in my head, originally, and I just have to plead my lack of ability to realize it in a way that resonates for everyone. I’ve used the growly, pitch-dropped vocal technique before, in the previous album. There’s some continuity in it, but hopefully it is not a “signature”! I don’t intend to use it again.

My brother and I aren’t actively writing together because we live in different parts of the world and have done so for many years. Long-distance collaboration is not something we’ve been able to do. There wasn’t a “falling out” or anything. There’s still music that we wrote together that may see the “light of day”, but I also have more ideas of my own. Hopefully album #3 will happen.

The Blank Slate

I have this fantasy that Album #3 is a blank slate, with no material left over from previous sessions or unfinished projects.

In reality, I have lyrics and musical fragments that I’ve been working off-and-on over the last few years. I usually get my ideas while out cycling, and it is no trouble to pull over, whip out the iPhone and record the fragment into the Voice Memo app. Later, back in the studio, I transcribe the lyric into my notebook. Sometimes I’ll open my Scrapbook project and add another piano track with the melody.

That’s cool. On the plus side, these new songs will hopefully start out being actually sing-able in my comfortable range, as opposed to many projects in the past where the music came first and the melody second and was almost always not pitched comfortably for my voice. So that’s a good thing.

Outside of these lyric and melody fragments – some of which have expanded into pretty complete stand-alone song ideas – I still have a comprehensive library of musical ideas that date back to those Grey Lynn flat jam sessions in the 90’s, converted to mp3 from C60 tape cassette.

I still feel that this situation qualifies as a “blank slate”, as far as Album #3 is concerned. Every track is going to start with a new empty project, and not an existing one, worked on in years past and put on the back-burner due to lack of time, interest, energy, ideas, whatever.

Even “The God Program” from our current release was conceived back in 2003 and much of it laid down in 2007. (And consequently re-recorded, but that’s par for the course.)

So, I’m looking forward to never again having to sit back and listen to a newly recorded section of music, and say “dammit it just doesn’t have the magic of that older demo”.

*Record Scratch*

…Yeah. That was nice while it lasted.

Back in 2002 I didn’t have any plans to resurrect “The Prodigal Sounds” as a music-releasing entity, and instead explored some other new music ideas with the tentative goal of putting it out under another band name. I had three longish instrumental thematically-related pieces recorded in “pretty complete demo” form, but only titles for the other three or four pieces.

I’ve related elsewhere the story of how I got back on track with Prodigal Sounds and the “Fruit of the Steel Tree”, and consequent to that, this other project was shelved.

Long story short, I think I’m going to incorporate the music from this old project into the songs of Album #3, or one of them anyway. The music seems to fit. It’s worth a try.

So, will it be a concept album?

A better question, should it be an “album” at all? CDs are not selling much these days, it’s all about streaming and playlists and bullshit like that.

Personally, I prefer the idea of a curated collection of songs, rather than emitting the occasional single on some indeterminate schedule like a chunk of U-238.

So, yes, there will be an Album #3, unless I give up or expire before it is released.

And I do have a concept for it, although it is of a subtle nature. Tangential, even.

Better Late than Never

Well, at long last, album #2 has been released.

My previous release, Fruit of the Steel Tree, was my best effort to realize the music that Walter and I wrote back in the 1990’s.

This new release, The Inevitable Obscenity of Autonomous Weaponry, includes a few tracks from that same period. I’ve perhaps taken more liberties with them this time, relying on my own vision.

The other tracks are all “new” in the sense that they are based on material I wrote since Walter and I stopped collaborating on music, from 2003 to 2019.

You can find out more at the album-specific pages I created (see the The Inevitable Obscenity link in the blog top menu above).

I used CD Baby as my manufacturer/distributer and due to COVID-19 related circumstances, I’m not sure exactly when and how this will be made available to purchase. It *should* appear on Amazon at some point, and although CD Baby has closed their online store, they do have copies in their warehouse for distribution.

The physical package is nice: an eco-sensitive cardboard wallet:

image

The artwork came out nicely but I acknowledge I used a sub-optimal font point size on the smallest text. It seemed ok in the PDF but I should have realized that white-on-black in print would be harder to read. Oh well, no big deal. The information (and more!) is all available online (see link above).

Digitally, the album is now up on Spotify and probably other streaming services as well. Yay!

Okay, so the timing for this release isn’t great: as I write this, we are still under a County Public Health “Stay At Home Order” due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the economy is taking a nose-dive. Folks just aren’t going to have the disposable income (or the will to spend it) that they did a couple months ago.

Originally I’d planned for this to be out in 2019 which would have been nice, but it didn’t happen.

Since the last blog post, “Final polishing” of the tracks took longer than expected because I kept finding little things I wasn’t totally happy with. This is actually an infinite process because there will *always* be things that I think I could improve, and my tastes change over time so it’s a moving target. The trick is to apply the law of diminishing returns and identify when it is time to Let It Go.

At this point, I think I chose appropriately. It’s out there now, anyway.

What’s Next

I’ve uploaded two videos on YouTube to accompany the release: A studio “play-through” for Paradigm Shift and a second one for Cathedral with “behind the scenes” text captions.

I intend to create a third video for The Toks Invade before putting the project to bed.

I’m going to be preparing a Bonus CD (well, EP maybe) with alternative versions of some of the tracks. I’ll make this available digitally via BandCamp, no physical CD for this.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been working on new lyrics and some musical ideas and it really does look like there will be an Album #3. But that’s for later.

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