rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 6: direct ascent

Direct ascent was a proposed method for a mission to the Moon. In the United States, direct ascent proposed using the enormous Nova rocket to launch a spacecraft directly to the Moon, where it would land tail-first and then launch off the Moon back to Earth.”

After a few downtempo tracks, I felt like the album needed perking up around the half-way mark, so I chose this upbeat chiptune as track 6. This was the second track I started on, back on day 2, though I ended up scrapping much of that sketch and using the chord progression from its intro instead. I also kept the bass rhythm and the drum part, though I later embellished both of these a bit.

I started expanding it on day 15 by writing the intro melody, and then used a variation on that as the starting point for the main melody. I also reused the intro bass line as a second melody line in the start of the second loop through verse. There are four lead sounds that move between different roles; one lead sound for each verse, a separate lead part that’s used for the chorus, and an arpeggio part that also acts as a lead in the section just before the first verse.

As with hohmann, the percussion sounds are from the Dirty Dose sample set and LinuxSampler, while the synth sounds are made by TAL NoiseMaker, with the exception of the arpeggio part, which is Calf Monosynth. I did bend the rules a bit, though — the bass is more of a typical electro bass, with a nice punchy envelope on the filter cutoff, and one of the leads uses two oscillators and a delay plugin (Calf Vintage Delay) to add some more variety.

This is one of my favourite tracks on the album. Breaking the rules didn’t diminish the chiptuney feel at all, and with a few different sounds to play with, I was able to jump between them to keep things interesting. About the only thing I wasn’t entirely happy with was the start of the chorus — the chorus lead part has always seemed a little startling. With more time, a better mix may have fixed that, but some musical rearrangement to give the chorus a better lead-in would probably work better.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 5: specific impulse

Specific impulse (usually abbreviated Isp) is a way to describe the efficiency of rocket and jet engines. It represents the derivative of the impulse with respect to amount of propellant used, i.e., the thrust divided by the amount of propellant used per unit time.”

This is definitely the most song-ish track on the album; it could easily work with lyrics, if I’d had time to write them. I started this on day 14, when I was starting to get in to a bit of a rut, but I sat down at the keyboard and started playing around with a Rhodes sound, and eventually got a nice chord progression going. I revisited it a few times after that, but I didn’t end up fleshing it out until days 27 and 28.

Originally I’d planned to make this more of an electronic track, so once I had the chords down (using LinuxSampler and the jRhodes3 soundfont) I added the bass, using a slowly-pulsating patch (more of a slow “whum… whum…” than a clichéd dubstep “wubwubwub”) made in TAL NoiseMaker. Then, the Salamander Drumkit was released, and I was so impressed when I played with it that it inspired me to go with a more acoustic feel.

I had some segments of melody sketched out alongside the chords, but it took some time to flesh it out across the track and then add the solo in the final section. Though I mixed things up a bit by using sustained chords in some sections and more rhythmic chords in others, it was still hard to add enough progression with just the Rhodes, bass, and drums, so I added an organ part, using AZR-3, to fill out the second half of the track.

There’s the start of a good track here, I think, but I wasn’t super-happy with what I was able to do with it within the 29 days. The main problem is with the melody line — I don’t think its arrangement fits well with the rest of the track, and the playing in the solo was a bit rough. The electronic bass doesn’t sit terribly well with the rest of the track, either.

I was surprisingly happy with the drums, though, given their simplicity — all those round-robin samples in the Salamander mean that you still get some natural variation, even when you’re just repeating the same note over and over. If I can come up with some lyrics, or just some better ideas for the instrumental arrangement, it might be worth revisiting this track.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 4: eclipse

    “An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object is temporarily obscured, either by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer.”

This started as a quick experiment at the end of day 3 — taking a recording of Pianoteq’s tubular bells instrument and running it through Loomer Cumulus, a granular synth that lets you vary the pitch and playback speed of a sample, among other things. Playing it slowly through Cumulus revealed some really nice textures, so on day 4 I recorded the output in to Ardour and started arranging it in to a track. By the end of day 4, it was done.

Loomer Cumulus, a granular synth

To flesh things out, I added a piano sound (Pianoteq again), which I recorded, stretched, chopped up, and then ran through some distortions and a compressor, and then a pulsating bass part from the Blofeld. I doubled up the tubular bells part, too, stretching and pitch-shifting it and adding a rotary speaker plugin, which makes it sound almost string-like. TAP TubeWarmth adds a touch of distortion; I automated the drive level to add varying amounts of distortion to different sections.

This track is more of an audio collage than a sequenced track, so unlike the other tracks on the album, there aren’t any MIDI parts. The synth parts were all played live and recorded straight in as audio. I’m really happy with how it turned out — it has some interesting sounds and textures, and a bit of progression. It’s definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 3: free return

“A free return trajectory is one of a very small sub-class of trajectories in which the trajectory of a satellite traveling away from a primary body (for example, the Earth) is modified by the presence of a secondary body (for example, the Moon) causing the satellite to return to the primary body.”

This is perhaps my favourite track on the album, partly because it’s the closest to the direction I want to head in, with chilled-out but downbeat vibe. It was also the first track I worked on, on day 1. It started as a live SooperLooper jam, using a Rhodes sound to play some chords and melodies over some Blofeld drums.

On day 5 I picked up that jam and imported it in to Ardour, though I ended up replacing those recorded loops with MIDI versions almost immediately. I kept the chord progression from the initial jam, but replaced the Rhodes with a pad sound from the Blofeld that uses an LFO synced to the MIDI clock to pulsate up and down in time with the music (in theory, at least). The Rhodes is still there, though, but just for the lead part, using the MDA ePiano plugin.

By day 6 the arrangement was mostly in place, and I added the bass and the synth lead parts, both using TAL NoiseMaker, and several extra drum parts, using the Blofeld. I also used my Behringer VM1 delay pedal on the Rhodes sound, to give it some lo-fi feel. The “snare” in the chorus is from TAL NoiseMaker, too; I was never entirely happy with that sound, but it was the best I could do at the time. I posted it to Soundcloud on day 6, but I ended up tweaking it a bit more after that on day 7.

Even though I really liked this track, I could make a list of all of the things that are wrong with it. In fact, let’s do that:

  • The lead sound is a bit too clean and proggy, and its levels are a bit up-and-down
  • The rise and fall of the pad sound doesn’t always fall in line with the beat
  • The kick drum all-but-disappears sometimes, due to a cancellation problem in the patch that I’m yet to sort out
  • While I initially liked the sound of MDA ePiano, I found myself liking it a lot less by the end of the recording process — some of its limitations had started to shine through
  • That “snare” sound in the chorus needs a rethink, or at least a lot of work

With some work, though, I think this could be a really good track — the basics are definitely there, and none of the above is unfix-able by any means.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 2: hohmann

“In orbital mechanics, the Hohmann transfer orbit is an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes, in the same plane.”

This was one of the quickest recordings on the album — I recorded it all in one night, on day 21, when I was starting to worry that I wasn’t making enough progress to finish on time. The inspiration was actually a modern game — I’d been meaning to make a track based on a Mass Effect-style “spacey” arpeggio for a while — though the actual sound was inspired more by the Metroid title theme.

The arrangement came together very quickly. I started with the bass sound, then added the arpeggio, and then worked on the melody, all using TAL NoiseMaker. There are a few rules you need to follow to create genuinely chiptune-like tracks, and while I bent some of these rules on the album’s other chiptune track, direct ascent, I stuck with them all here:

  • Don’t play more than three notes at once
  • Use only very simple synth sounds: use only one oscillator, and leave the filter wide open
  • Don’t play more than one percussion sound at once
  • Don’t use effects, such as delays (can I really record a track without at least one delay?)

Those self-imposed limitations on synthesis features forced me to use other features to make each sound unique and interesting, so I played more with envelopes and vibrato. I also used a lot of slides in the lead, both using legato in the synth patch and using the pitch bender, to add expressiveness to something that might’ve sounded quite static otherwise.

The percussion sounds are from the Dirty Dose sound set, loaded using LinuxSampler. To create the echoing effect without using a delay plugin, I used an old tracker-style method of simply repeating the note at lower and lower volumes.

While I’m happy with the overall sound of this track, and how chiptuney it sounds in particular, I think it’s one of the weakest tracks on the album; it just drags on for too long, and the lead actually starts to get a bit annoying. In hindsight, cutting off those long held notes in the lead part, and replacing them with some faked echoes, might have worked better. It was a great learning experience, though, and I certainly plan to make more chiptune tracks in future.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 1: periapsis

peri·apsis, noun: the apsis nearest the center of attraction : the low point in an orbit

The aim with this track was to make an ambient techno track, along the lines of Aphex Twin’s work on one of my favourite albums, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. I started this on day 8, and worked straight through on it, finishing on day 11. The pad sound on the Blofeld came first, and once I decided on the chord progression to use, I sequenced it in seq24 and added simple drum patterns, using a 909 kit in Hydrogen (but sequenced from seq24 instead of Hydrogen’s pattern editor).

seq24 was a good sketch tool, but I didn’t want to use it for the final track, so I imported the seq24 MIDI file in to Ardour 3, and to my delight it split it in to its separate patterns, adding a new track for each. I added a bass part, using TAL NoiseMaker, and started arranging things; eventually I added a lead part, too, also using TAL NoiseMaker, and added some cutoff automation on each part to add some variety.

Importing patterns from seq24 in to Ardour 3 works surprisingly well

Importing patterns from seq24 in to Ardour 3

I’d already added TAP TubeWarmth on the bass and lead parts to add some mild distortion, but the overall track still didn’t have quite the lo-fi sound I was after, so I added a TAP TubeWarmth plugin to the master track, too, along with a TAP Vibrato plugin, with quite conservative settings (a rate of about 0.8Hz, and a depth of about 0.7%), to give just a bit of the effect of a warbling tape recording. Another characteristic of tape is its limited high-frequency response; the synths already made good use of their low-pass filters, but the drums benefited from a gentle high EQ cut.

I love the sound of this track; the plugins on the master bus do give it that retro vibe, and while the 909 kit was originally meant as a placeholder, it actually suits that retro vibe quite well. I do think it’s a little bit too repetitive, though — given the time constraints, I stretched it a bit longer and put in less drum variation than I should have.

rpm 2012 post-mortem

Before the process of making my RPM 2012 album becomes a distant memory, I wanted to get down some notes on the album as a whole, and on each track. This post is about the album as a whole; I’ll follow up with separate posts about each track shortly.

The whole album was definitely a rush, and there are plenty of things that could be improved, but overall I’m really happy with how it ended up. Even if it hadn’t produced useful results, the project would’ve been worthwhile in itself — I learned to get things down more quickly, and learned more about what does and doesn’t really matter when working on tracks. Perhaps most importantly, though, I feel inspired to start working on more new material.

I’m also pleased that many of the tracks sound more musical than my earlier work; there’s more of an emphasis on melodies and chord progressions rather than just rhythm and sound. Some of the musical styles forced me to use more melodies (the chiptune tracks in particular), but I think the time constraint helped force me down a more musical path, by limiting the time I could spend on sound design and effects.

General production notes, workflow changes

Though it’s still in beta, I used Ardour 3 for all of the tracks; one used samples, but the other nine were entirely MIDI. I expected a few bugs and crashes, but I didn’t hit any major problems, and didn’t lose any work — the worst problems were with some notes not starting/stopping properly at region boundaries. Over the next week or two I’ll update my Ardour build and try to reproduce those issues so I can report them properly.

The time constraints caused a few modifications of my workflow in the name of simplicity and brevity:

  • I relied much more on synth plugins than usual — in fact, several tracks used only plugins. Being able to whip up a quick synth sound in TAL NoiseMaker, and then apply effects without having to route or bounce anything, was a huge time saver. I still used Hydrogen on some tracks, and my Blofeld of course, but much more sparingly than usual.
  • Mixing work was kept to an absolute minimum — for the most part I just set some reasonable levels and left it at that. I did apply level automation to some tracks, but I didn’t add any compression or EQ, apart from the odd plugin used for creative effect.
  • Keeping the mixing simple let me skip an entire part of my usual workflow: bouncing. In the past I’ve always recorded MIDI parts to audio before mixing, and taken effort to ensure that things like drumkits have separate tracks for their various parts, to give me maximum flexibility during mixing. With the minimal mixing on this project, I didn’t see the need to bounce anything.

To my surprise, the result doesn’t sound terribly under-mixed, at least to my ears. It’s easy to get carried away with minor tweaks while mixing, so it was refreshing to hear how effective a simpler approach can be. This will definitely influence my future work — I can imagine getting a few tracks in to this sort of state and then mixing them all at once, or simply skipping mixing entirely if I don’t think a track is good enough.

Track notes

I want to go in to a bit of detail on each track, so I’ll be adding a separate post about each track, outlining the tools I used and the process I followed to create them. I’ll try to get one of these posts out each day, but with the release of Mass Effect 3 tomorrow I may be a little distracted!

rpm 2012: the final update!

I’ve just posted my RPM 2012 entry off to RPM HQ, so the challenge is officially complete! The album is called “far side of the mün”, in honour of Kerbal Space Program, and you can stream it from Bandcamp right here! If you want to download a copy, just follow the “Download” link below.

While it wasn’t required at all for the challenge, I think the time I put in to the jewel case design paid off; I even took my final design down to the local office store and had it printed on some nice weighty gloss paper. Here’s how the final CD looked:

far side of the mün -- front cover

far side of the mün -- back cover

As you’d expect, it’s all electronic, but it spans the genres a bit, from sombre ambient pieces through to more upbeat electronic, chiptune, and industrial tracks. None of it is perfect, but given the time constraints I’m pretty happy with the overall result; I’ll post a more detailed post-mortem later on. For now, feel free to stream, download, and enjoy!

the salamander drumkit is out!

This is just a quick post to mention that the Salamander Drumkit is now available! As you might expect from the author of the Salamander Grand Piano, the Salamander Drumkit is a sampled acoustic drumkit that’s distributed in SFZ format under a Creative Commons licence. There are a lot of individual samples in there, but instead of using a lot of velocity layers, it instead has many “round-robin” samples — samples of the same drum hit in the same fashion which are used for successive hits.

Having so many round-robin samples adds a tonne of realism, especially for rolls, because you can trigger the same drum multiple times in quick succession without ever hearing the same sample twice. I think it also helps make this a really fun kit to play, too — even with just my MIDI keyboard to play it with, it feels lively and dynamic in a way that sampled kits often don’t.

Being in SFZ format means that you’ll need LinuxSampler from SVN to get it running. If you haven’t used LinuxSampler before, this guide should get you started.

rpm 2012 update: day 26

I’m on the home stretch now! I just completed track 7, and track 8 shouldn’t be far behind — with any luck, I’ll get that done tonight. Track 7 is a pounding industrial track with heavily distorted synths; I’m not entirely happy with it, but it has its moments, and it was definitely fun to try something different.

Track 8 should be a bit more of a success — it’s a bit more like one of my older tracks, with looping bass and pad patterns and 909 drums. It’s hardly going to set the world alight, but once I get a lead part in there and finalise the arrangement it should be a nice enough little track.

If I get that finished tonight, I”ll have two tracks left to complete (both of which I’ve started) and three days to complete them, which is a great position to be in. I’ve left these until last because they’ve caused me some trouble — one of them is a solo piano piece that I’m not sure how to expand past about one minute, for instance — but I’ll just have to get stuck in to them and hope for the best.

Come February 29th I’ll have to burn these tracks to CD, and instead of just using Brasero to burn my exported tracks to disc, I’ve decided to master the CD in Ardour. Within Ardour, you can import your finished tracks in to a new session, arrange them in order, add CD track markers, and then export the entire project as a single CD-length WAV with accompanying TOC/CUE files, which you can then pass along to cdrdao.

The main advantage of working this way is that you can run tracks together with no gaps between them, just like on a “real” CD, but it also gives you a chance to adjust relative volumes and the length of any pauses between tracks, which helps a lot to make the CD flow as a whole.