rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 9: escape velocity

“In physics, escape velocity is the speed at which the kinetic energy plus the gravitational potential energy of an object is zero. It is the speed needed to “break free” from a gravitational field without further propulsion.”

I had no intention of putting an industrial track on this album — or of ever writing one, to be honest — but serendipity is a funny thing sometimes. While working on oberth I took some time out to play with some patches on the Blofeld, and I found a nice arpeggiated lead patch that went mad when I started playing with the filter cutoff and resonance. It became a thumping kick drum, with higher notes giving a more subdued sound, and lower notes sounding brighter, so playing arpeggios resulted in some crazy, but interesting, kick drum patterns.

With some drums recorded, I wasn’t sure what to do next, but a distorted bass (TAL NoiseMaker with TAP TubeWarmth) seemed like a good idea. I then added an arpeggio part (TAL NoiseMaker with TAP TubeWarmth again), which was initially continuous, and then tried to add some progression by adding some cutoff automation and a breakdown toward the end. However, I wasn’t pleased with the results (that’s putting it mildly, in fact!), and I came very close to scrapping it and hoping that I’d have time to come up with something better to replace it.

Eventually, it occurred to me that adopting a two-bars-on, two-bars-off pattern for the arpeggio would help a lot. That pattern fit in well with the existing bass line, and it opened up some space that I could fill with random crazyness from the Blofeld. I created a patch featuring heavy distortion (almost to the point of atonality), and then just played a few notes that fit in with the bass and arpeggio, flipping the modwheel (mapped to the filter cutoff) back and forth to go from low, rumbling gurgles through to crazy screams.

I did like the breakdown in my initial cut, but I thought it needed something extra, so I tried a trick that I used on texel — I added a Decimator plugin and used automation to bring the “bits” value right down in some places, which causes some really wild, crunchy distortion. The final touch was to add some extra drums, and I went for the easiest, most cliched option — a 909 kit — but with an Invada Tube Distortion to give it some edge.

After the overhaul, I still wasn’t completely happy with this track, but it was definitely in much better shape, and good enough to go on the album. It was fun creating such distorted sounds, but I’m not sure if I’ll be in a hurry to follow up with more industrial tracks.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 8: lagrange

“The Lagrange points are the five positions in an orbital configuration where a small object affected only by gravity can theoretically be stationary relative to two larger objects (such as a satellite with respect to the Earth and Moon).”

Though it’s a close-run competition with hohmann, I think this was the fastest of all the tracks to record — I sat down on day 11 and within a couple of hours, it was finished. This was really just an excuse to play with Argotlunar, a real-time granular processor that runs as a native VST plugin. While Loomer Cumulus works on pre-recorded samples, Argotlunar works in real-time on whatever audio you run through it, so it’s great for adding glitchy, cloudy, distorted granular effects to instruments.

In this case, I created a suitable pad sound using TAL NoiseMaker, recorded some improvised chords in to Ardour, and then tweaked Argotlunar’s settings to see what effects I could produce. Most of the time I spent working on this track was in automating Argotlunar’s settings, shifting through different ranges of settings to create different effects. I also added a Calf Vintage Delay, mainly toward the end, to give things a little more space.

Argotlunar automation

Four separate Argotlunar parameters were automated to produce different effects; the fifth automation lane here is for the Calf Vintage Delay

There’s not a lot more to say about this; it’s a simple track, but it does its job. Argotlunar was great fun to play with, and it creates some interesting sounds, but I don’t think there’s quite enough variation on it to really justify its length — it could easily be a minute shorter without losing anything. It does at least work well as a change of pace before heading in to escape velocity.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 7: oberth

“In astronautics, the Oberth effect is where the use of a rocket engine when travelling at high speed generates much more useful energy than one at low speed.”

I’d been wanting to write something in 6/8 for a while, and RPM seemed like as good a time as any to give it a go. I started this track by creating a simple triplet beat in Ardour, using the Hydrogen 909 kit, and then playing with ideas for a looping bassline using TAL NoiseMaker. Once I had a bassline, I added a simple pad part. Initially, I used presets for the bass and pad sounds, but they didn’t quite fit the sound I was after, so I soon replaced them with my own patches.

Even though I used a Hydrogen kit, I didn’t use Hydrogen to load it at first — instead, I used a new LV2 synth called DrMr, which works with Hydrogen drum kits. It’s early days for DrMr, and it’s promising, but I ended up swapping back to Hydrogen when I discovered that DrMr doesn’t yet respond properly to velocity information.

With the bass and pad in place (with some cutoff automation to spice them up), and the drums fleshed out a bit, I added the arpeggio part, using a TAL NoiseMaker preset, and then the lead, using a proggy patch on the Blofeld. After my experiences on tracks like hohmann, I wasn’t shy about using the pitch bender here, but I think it helps breathe some life in to the lead part, and makes the whole thing sound a bit like a Jean Michel Jarre track.

This was one of the last tracks I worked on; I started it on day 22, and wrapped it up at the start of my final sprint, on day 27. I wasn’t quite happy with the drums (I don’t think that 909 kit works as well here as it did on periapsis), but everything else came together pretty well. It’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s a good, solid track.

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 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 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: 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 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.

sketchbook: sooperlooping the rhodes

I’m starting the new year the right way this year — with a sketch! It’s just a rough, simple, improvised jam, captured using SooperLooper, but I love the mood that the sound of the Rhodes imparts, especially as more note sustain over the top of each other and intermingle. I put the Rhodes sound through a rotary speaker emulation (Calf’s, in this case), and the melody part went my VM1 delay pedal, but it’s otherwise free of processing. It doesn’t really need much, anyway — those high notes sustaining that are left at the end are just magic.

SooperLooper is great for capturing new track ideas, especially for the kind of music I make, which is often driven by repeating patterns. In the past I’ve started with a drum beat and recorded loops on top of that, but this time I went freestyle. The nanoKONTROL is great for controlling it — I was able to add a bunch of empty loops, and map a separate fader and record button to each of them, making it easy to both record your loops and control their playback afterward. Once I had some appropriate loops I just played them all at the same time, using the faders to control their relative volumes while recording the output straight in to JACK Timemachine.

I don’t know if this sketch will go any further than this, but with some glitchy drums, some additional synth parts, and a bit more complexity (like, more than two chords), I think it could work as a track.

mp3 | vorbis | 2:51