rpm 2012 post-mortem: track order, making the CD

With all of my tracks completed, only one step remained before I could submit my work to RPM Headquarters: turning my collection of tracks in to an album and burning it to CD. A good album can be more than the sum of its tracks, so it was important for me to do what I could within the time limit to bring the tracks together as a cohesive whole and then present that within a proper CD case.

Track order

I started thinking about track ordering about half-way through the challenge, though I didn’t put much time in to it until I finished all of the tracks. Some of them fell in to place: I knew I wanted to finish with escape velocity and magnificent desolation, and periapsis seemed like a good opener, while I placed free return at track 3 (the “lead single” slot), and I saved track 6 for the upbeat direct ascent, to start the second half of the album with a bang.

For the other tracks, I used a bit of trial and error, slotting them in where I thought they’d fit. The end result is that the first half is generally a bit more relaxed and downbeat, while the second half is a bit more lively and upbeat.

Burning the CD

Despite the time constraints, I did spend some time on the final CD contents. I had planned to just burn each track to CD, using Brasero, but when I played the tracks back-to-back, they didn’t flow together well: the volume levels jumped around from track to track, and the pauses between tracks were too short. I figured the best way to tackle this was to import my finished tracks in to a new Ardour session and make use of Ardour’s CD mastering features.

Within Ardour, it was easy to adjust the timing and volume levels between tracks to make them all flow together; I then just had to add CD track markers at the start of each track. I used my ears to adjust those relative volumes, and I had no time (and no real desire, either) to use compression to bring up the baseline loudness, so some of the tracks look much quieter than others if you look at the CD’s waveform; the chiptune tracks, for instance, seemed much louder than their waveforms suggested, so I turned those down quite a bit.

A waveform display of the entire album

Adjusting the tracks' volumes to match by ear meant that some of the tracks looked much quieter than others on a waveform display

Another advantage to mastering a CD in Ardour is the ease with which you can run tracks together without a pause in between. I couldn’t resist the urge to try this, so I brought the start of eclipse up to just before the end of free return. It’s great to hear that seamless transition between the two tracks while listening to the CD (or to the FLACs, in a player like Aqualung).

The CD master in Ardour 3

The CD master project in Ardour 3, complete with track markers

Turning the Ardour session in to a CD was a matter of exporting it in just the right format — 44.1Khz, 16-bit, WAV, with TOC/CUE files enabled — and then feeding the WAV and TOC file to cdrdao, a specialised “disk-at-once” CD burning tool. The TOC and CUE files are both simple text files that describe the layout of a CD; TOC is specific to cdrdao, while CUE is more generic. Burning the CD with cdrdao took just one command:

cdrdao write Session.wav.toc

The final step was to upload the CD to Bandcamp. I wanted Bandcamp downloads to sound the same as the CD, so I used bchunk to split CD image in to separate tracks. based on the CUE file. The “-w” option instructs bchunk to write the tracks in WAV format:

bchunk -w Session.wav Session.wav.cue track

Cover design

It was important to me to have an attractive CD cover design, and that design started with the cover art itself. The “far side of the mün” concept came the downtime I’d spent playing Kerbal Space Program and listening to MOON8, a brilliant NES reinterpretation of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. A KSP screenshot seemed fitting as a cover, so I fired it up, flew in to Münar orbit, disabled the HUD, and started grabbing shots until I got one I was happy with.

Album cover template

The completed CD jewel case templates: front (with liner notes) and back

To turn that in to a CD jewel case cover, I used Inkscape, along with some excellent SVG templates. Inkscape’s a vector drawing package, so it’s well suited to this sort of design and layout work, and having a template made it easy to size everything correctly. I exported the completed templates to PDF files, and then had them printed on gloss paper and cut to size at an office supply shop.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do for the CD itself — that was just a standard blank CD-R, with “far side of the mün” scrawled on it in black Sharpie!

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.