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!

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.

rpm 2012 update: day 19

Just a brief update this time — my rate of progress has slowed a bit this week, so I’ve just finished one extra track. The new track is pure chiptuney goodness; I used TAL-NoiseMaker and Calf Monosynth to make suitably retro synth sounds, and some genuine vintage sampled drums. Melodies are something I tend to struggle a bit with, so writing chiptunes, where you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) play more than two or three notes at once, is great practice.

I’ve also spent some time on cover art this week. With 10 days to go and 5 tracks left to finish, it’s going to be a rush to get things done, but I’m still confident that I’ll finish, and when I do, I want the finished product to look great, too. To submit the album to RPM I’ll have to burn it to CD and post it in, and if I’m going to burn it to CD, I want to do it properly, with proper jewel case cover art and some brief liner notes. The cover work is all done, so now I just need to finish the music!

rpm 2012 update: day 12

Just a quick update on my progress: I’m up to four completed tracks, though I currently only have a couple of ideas ready to expand upon. After finishing the track that I had in-progress on day 5, I started on an old-school ambient techno track, which I wrapped up yesterday, and today I recorded another ambient experimental track, using Argotlunar and TAL-NoiseMaker.

The ambient techno track was good fun. It started with loops in seq24, but with seq24 having poor support for JACK transport, I moved the work in to Ardour. As it turned out, that was pretty easy — seq24 saves its sessions in standard MIDI format, and when I imported the seq24 file in to Ardour, it imported each loop as a separate region on a new track, so I just had to do a bunch of copying and pasting to get the basic structure in place.

17 days and 6 tracks to go! I’ve been posting tracks to Soundcloud as I go; you can check them out here. I’ve been uploading them to Bandcamp too, of course, but hidden — if all goes well I’ll have a finished RPM album there, ready to reveal, on March 1st.

rpm 2012 update: day 5

It’s the end of day 5 of the RPM Challenge, and I think I’m making good progress! I may have to pick up the pace a little to finish by the deadline, but I’m still fairly confident that I’ll manage it. The strategy that’s been working for me is to brainstorm and come up with demo ideas of a weeknight after work, and then flesh out those ideas on the weekend when I have more time to work with.

So far, I have one finished track (an ambient experimental piece), one half-finished track (a lo-fi downtempo track a la Texel), and two short demos (a chiptune and a solo piano piece). I’ll try to finish the track I have in progress tomorrow, so with any luck by this time next week I’ll have three or four finished tracks, and four or five demos ready to be expanded upon.

Some random things I’ve learned so far:

  • Plugin soft-synths are super, super handy when you’re in a hurry — just drop them in a MIDI track, load up a preset, and you’re good to go, without worrying about routing signals or configuring external software or hardware.
  • Speaking of soft-synths, the TAL-NoiseMaker native VST synth is my new go-to synth. It’s a standard analog-style synth, but it sounds great and has a straightforward UI and a solid feature set.
  • Ardour 3 is still a bit crashy while working with MIDI, but it’s made some nice improvements recently, like being able to double-click to enter or leave note edit mode, and the addition of a drop-down list of synth plugins in the “new track” dialog, so you can start composing more quickly. I could switch back to Qtractor, but even with the crashes I think I’m more productive in Ardour, just because I’m more familiar with it.
  • Sound design is fun! It’s hard not to have a good time when I fire up the Blofeld and start twiddling knobs. I should do it more often!
  • In fact, I should do this whole music thing more often. I might not come up with something interesting every time I sit in front of the keyboard, but definitely won’t come up with anything if I don’t try.

rpm challenge 2012

I’ve long been a fan of the RPM Challenge, a NaNoWriMo-style challenge for musicians to record an album in February, and this year, I’ll be attempting the challenge myself! The rules are fairly simple: record at least 10 tracks or at least 35 minutes of original music by March 1st. I’ll be writing everything from scratch in February, too, but pre-written tracks are okay as long as you haven’t previously recorded or released them.

I actually attempted it back in 2008, but that was before I’d really started making music again, and it was a bit of a disaster — I didn’t manage to record anything. I fully expect to have more done by the end of my first day than I managed in that attempt.

What are my goals? I’d like to try a few different tracks — some downtempo stuff, some more melodic chiptune-ish stuff, and likely some droney ambient stuff — and while I expect it all to be quite rough, I hope there are some ideas in there that I can polish in to complete tracks after the challenge.

More importantly, though, I’d like to learn to be more spontaneous and to get my ideas recorded more quickly. I spend a lot of time working on each track, and if I can learn ways to reduce that workload, and hence increase my output, I’ll be very happy.

I’ll try to post some updates here throughout the month, but if you want to track my progress more closely, I’ll be posting to Twitter, too. Wish me luck!