Reptoid (Oakland, CA)

Dark Satellites played with this dude, Reptoid, Friday night.

Opinions will vary on the music but if you can get through four minutes, I think you’ll respect what he’s doing creatively, physically, and technically.  I’ve never seen or heard anyone doing anything quite like it, and the man/machine collaboration/conflict is pretty compelling.

The key to it all is how the drums trigger the synths.  It’s live and not on a grid, which is what gives it that combination of super-tight (drums and synths hitting at the same time) and human feel (no grid).  There’s almost a jazz or tribal drumming undercurrent to the harsh industrial noise.  (Saying this out loud seems pretty weak but I want to give those of you who won’t like this something to listen for to understand what’s happening here and why it’s cool.)

Pedal Molarity

Poorly pictured below is my Sunn 4×10 cab, which I’ve re-wired for stereo in order to play both of my Mars Lights amps through it.  (This way I don’t have to haul the Music Man’s cabinet to gigs.  This may also work for h&s, Sneaky Sneaky Snakes, etc.; any situation where I’m using the GK pickup on my guitar.)

Not quite doing a full stack right…

I want the cab’s speakers to all be in phase (all pushing or all pulling simultaneously, not one side pushing while the other side pulls).  Sometimes pedals change the phase via latency, or flip its polarity* 180 degrees, so yesterday I tested all of my pedals to see what’s good to use when both amps are running through the Sunn cab.  “Good,” in this case, means the pedal does not flip polarity in either bypassed or engaged mode.

* Polarity is whether, starting from silence, the first half-cycle of the sound wave is positive (pushes the speaker) or negative (pulls)

It felt a bit like making molar solutions in chemistry class; for whatever reason, the straightforward task doesn’t mesh with the normally-strong intuitive area of my brain, and completing it is a real challenge.

The whole process was a bit of overkill.  There’s less of a phase relationship than I expected between the octave separation between the signals, the different distortion in each signal path, and the latency of the octave down signal.  Still, the whole rig sounds slightly better (again, less than I expected but noticeable) when the polarity matches.

Results are that for most pedals, 80-85%, input and output polarity match and I can use them indiscriminately.  (In retrospect, this is a good engineering practice generally.)  I didn’t find any that change polarity in bypass mode.  A handful change polarity when engaged; something like a one-transistor (MXR Micro Amp, Rangemasters, etc.) or three-transistor (Tone Bender family) is just going to do that in their normal configuration (each transistor gain stage flips the polarity of the signal) unless the engineer adds an amplifier stage to flip it back.

But because the rig as a whole needs one polarity flip to sound its best, I want to find an always-on polarity-flipping pedal for one of the signal paths.  I have a couple candidates – my Falcon Heavy prototype’s second channel, a Basic Audio Scarab Deluxe fuzz – or I could build a simple high-headroom unity-gain single-JFET pedal for this specific use case.  Probably would not have any controls or even a footswitch; just in and out jacks and power input.  I plug it in, it does its thing.

I will probably do this.  Maybe even today.  Ack, I guess I need to prep a box first.  Maybe I’ll do *that* today.

tl;dr – Bunch of pedal-geeky stuff, now I don’t have to haul a 2nd cab to Mars Lights and other gigs where I’m using my octave-down guitar thing, spent a few hours working on stuff only recording engineers will notice.

Bigger Sounds’ 4-Track

In the course of writing a yet-to-be-published post about sonic connections between V For Voice songs and older stuff, I got stuck listening to most of Bigger Sounds From Fewer Folks a weekend or two ago.

My memories of hunkering under my bunk in Frees Hall, recording those first songs to 4-track, are pretty clear.  (For my own parts, anyway; I have no memory of recording Scott’s!)  But it struck me; I didn’t own a 4-track at the time, so it must have been borrowed.  Cory helped me narrow the suspects down to Josh O, Wisecarver, and Lupo.

Pretty sure it wasn’t Lupo’s; that just doesn’t ring any bells at all.  I feel like it was Josh’s, but a passionate advocate could probably convince me it was Matt’s.

It doesn’t matter at all, it’s just a bit weird to think back to how for the first couple years I was working with borrowed gear (the 4-track for Bigger…, then Fred Ritter’s digital 8-track for Near and Far, etc.).  I could have afforded a system like either of those, and I wonder why it took two records plus a doing bunch of other less-official recording to go ahead and buy something.

No real point here; idle observation only.

You Will Be Surprised…

… with some of the sounds we used a bunch on the h&s record. I’ve noticed this week as I’ve been able to step back and listen to the whole thing, not focusing on crossing off the last to-do items for each individual song.

Some of these are:

  • Bass fuzz!  I don’t mean a little color or grind; I mean full-on fuzz to take song sections over the top
  • Hammond.  Unfortunately this had to be done with a plugin – for all our gear, we don’t have a six-thousand-dollar organ and rotary speaker cabinet lying around – but it’s a very good-sounding one and it shows up in a lot of tunes
  • Winds (beyond sax and flute); trumpet, clarinet, and bass clarinet add a lot to one song in particular.  Hearing what Scottie did with the clarinets whet my appetite for more of that
  • Guitar feedback, for transitions, live-in-the-studio leave-it-in vibes, and in one case as a massive, many-voiced choir of soft-ish feedback
  • Analog synthesizer including Korg MS-20, Akai AX-60, and Korg Volca Bass.  The polyphonic AX-60 was the workhorse here, for pads and arpeggios; the others make special guest appearances
  • Guitar modulation effects; phaser, flanger, and filter (with modulated cutoff frequency).  Sometimes these are used conventionally, sometimes… not

All in all we’re probably just short of pocket symphony / “lush” territory, but squarely in full-band, kitchen-sink mode.  In other words, remember the end of “Blues or Astroblue?”

Almost every song gets there :)

Why I Buy Music

When you buy a movie on iTunes, it’s yours forever, until such a time as when Apple maybe loses the rights to distribute it, and then it will disappear from your library without a trace. This is what happened to Anders G. da Silva, who goes by @drandersgs on Twitter, and who tweeted about losing three movies bought on the iTunes Store …

Update 9/17/2018 2:50PM: By way of explanation, an Apple PR representative sent me this link, which explains that the reason da Silva can’t access the movies he paid real dollars for is that they are stuck on a different region of the iTunes Store (Canada vs. Australia); to access the movies, he simply needs to relinquish his Australian iTunes Store subscriptions and credits, obtain a Canadian billing address and a Canadian credit card, switch back over to the store, hope the movies are still available, redownload them in a secure location and locally store them when Apple claims you don’t need to do this, and then undo all of the settings so he can go back to his new native iTunes Store of Australia. Apple, appearing to have finally realized some elements of this are absolutely ridiculous, is “promising to send him a workaround.”

I care about the music I love far too much to entrust a tech company to maintain my ability to listen to it in perpetuity. Maybe you do, too.

Snare Doctoring

I recorded h&s drums at the library’s studio across two sessions, and I didn’t love the snare sound from the first session.  (Matt loaned me a few snares for the second session, which sounded fantastic.)

The plan had been to mix in a sample of a good snare hit along with the original track, but a couple weeks ago I realized I could try another technique; re-amping the snare.  The advantage here is that a re-amped snare will have the same soft-to-loud dynamics and variations among individual hits as the original, where the sample is the same every time (and can therefore sound a bit artificial).

Here’s what it looks like:

Amp: VHT Special 6 Ultra, snare: Ludwig Vistalite 13×9″ tom, adapted for snares with custom hardware by Matt Pluff, top mic: Peavey 520i, bottom mic: EV RE320, room mic: MXL R144 (and note: I’m out of mic stands!)

The signal path:

  1. In the computer I’ve solo’d the snare track, and used a gate plugin set so only the snare hits come through (hi-hat and other bleed from the original drum performance is muted)
  2. That signal runs to the amp
  3. When the amp plays the snare hits, they excite the drum, almost like striking it with a stick
  4. The three mics are recorded as each song plays through, and I’ll mix them in with the original drum sounds

Short of going back in time and getting a better snare sound, this technique is working pretty well – the snare sounds from the first library drum session are drastically improved, and even the ones from the second session are benefitting a touch – and I’ve learned some things about it:

  • (Obviously, in retrospect) the amplified version of the original snare sound bleeds into the mics along with the live drum resonance.  Finding the right level of the amp to excite the drum but not dominate what the mics pick up takes some tweaking
  • The drum is very responsive to EQ changes in the original snare track.  Experimentation is encouraged
  • (There was a third thing but I got sidetracked on Blue Dream‘s and Primal Rite‘s bandcamp pages…)

Long story short, if you find yourself in need of a different snare sound after a recording is done, try this one cool trick!

Another Wild MS-20 Patch

For another Night Mode 90s cover, to be revealed upon release!

I went monophonic this time, and again with an oscillating HPF drone and a ESP feedback drone.  The ESP drone goes through the Small Stone, through an alligator-clipped voltage divider pot (to cut the level back a touch) and into the EXT SIGNAL IN.

The output goes through the VFE Triumvirate (in bypass; it’s only there as an 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter) to the EHX PitchFork (used for the intro), Boss RC-20 (grabs a loop in the intro for playback at the end), DOD Gunslinger (distortion; you’ll hear where it enters :-), and my custom build of the 1776 Effects MultiPlex delay.  The MultiPlex’s Space Echo mode is key to the feel of the piece, with a long pre-delay (quarter note) followed by shorter (eighth note) repeats.

In the course of setting up this patch I discovered a variation on the Gattobus paraphonic patch that I will definitely use in the future :-)

It’s been a lot of fun to build entire soundscapes and sonic narratives out of nothing but one instrument, one take, and one note at a time.

The Most Important Parts of a Recording

As Mixing For Dumb Idiots expands (most recently with a page on composition, and there’s more to come), writing it has helped me clarify what I think the most important elements of recordings are.  I’ll talk about my top three here.  I recommend spending a good amount of your time and energy on these, especially if you’re starting to make your own recordings (HAI CORY).

#1 – The composition itself; its melodies, chords, rhythms, lyrics, and so on.  This could go without saying, and I can’t help you much here (see MFDI), except that I think of recording’s arrangement as an element of the composition and that we can talk about.

The best raw musical material in the world can end up an interesting failure if the arrangement doesn’t present it in a dynamic way (almost like telling a good story).  In what order are ideas (hooks, verses, choruses, bridges, solos) introduced?  What elements repeat, and for how long?  How many and which instruments are used?  Does the introduction attention-grabbing?  Is the ending satisfying?

Great answers to these questions will elevate any material.  Poor answers will undermine even the greatest melodies.  The good news is that I can give you the questions in a blog post (I can’t do the same with writing melodies, chords, and the rest) and you can start applying them right away like people with years of experience; just experiment with different answers on your material until you find ones you like.  Shorten and lengthen a verse.  Instead of opening with the chord progression four times, start with an acapella verse vocal.  Use a piano instead of a guitar.  Use household objects instead of drums.

#2 – The vocal performance.  Is it compelling?  (Note; not technically or conventionally “good.”)  Does it draw and hold attention?  The vocal is most listeners’ way into the song, and it’s a make-or-break element.

Record the best vocal performance possible, whatever it takes.  That might mean catering to the artists’ preferences for space, time of day, substances available, and so on, or it might mean pushing the artist enough to create some healthy, constructive stress.  Whatever compromises are made in terms of mic technique or other technical aspects of the recording will be more than made up for if it improves the artist’s performance.

#3 – Match the recording fidelity with the conventional goodness of the performances.

Let me explain.

Low-fidelity (4-track tape, for example) recordings sound conventionally “right” no matter how professional and tight or mistake-filled and loose the performances are.  The highest-fidelity recordings only sound “right” if the performances are also error-free and precise.

Does that make sense?  Try this:

Plan and execute your recording project’s fidelity and level of performance to end up in the starry area of wonder and happiness!

The Cool Drugs EP was a bit in the zone of deathy frustration, and was hard to mix as a result.  That’s the experience that drove this home for me, and now I hear it in everything.  High-fidelity, loose-performance recordings can be awkward for me to listen to.

I can’t stress enough that matching these aspects of recording continues to challenge me.  In today’s recording world, where affordable, high-fidelity digital interfaces are the default for most of us, especially when we’re starting out, hearing our shortcomings in perfect detail can be really frustrating.  Never underestimate the power of background noise, bleed, tape hiss, analog distortion, and all the rest of it to present less-than-Steely-Dan level performances in a context that flatters them.

Wildest. Patch. Ever.

Check this out; I’m getting pseudo-4-voice paraphony from a two-oscillator monosynth!

The patch includes Gattobus’ 2-voice paraphonic patch, an oscillating high-pass filter, and feedback oscillation from the external signal processor (ESP).  The ESP drone is going through tremolo and flanger pedals, and the entire output is going through a delay pedal.

I’ve used it to record a cover of My Bloody Valentine’s “Come In Alone,” live, in one take/pass. That means no overdubbing, editing, or trickey; I set up the patch and played everything you hear.  MFR email friends can log in to download a rough master of the song at the link below for the next 7 days. Become a MFR email list friend here!