I am wading into the deep waters of electronic music. I have written one piece 'Hydrogen' which can be heard on my web page. For 100 Days, I am writing my second piece 'Helium' while continuing to teach myself this craft. The music attempts to embody the nature of the elements.
Many posts for the 100 Days project are here. Sound samples are posted to my Patreon page. Please go there for today's show-and-tell. My previous piece had a few sound effects in it and I continue that idea with Helium. Today I created this windy sound. It uses high pass filters rather than the usual low pass humdrum. Follow me through all 100 days on both sites Don't miss the ear candy! Sound sample: https://www.patreon.com/posts/11339098
Yesterday I was pondering the sounds of Helium. This morning I decided I could borrow a few sounds from Hydrogen for continuity. Hydrogen starts and ends with two sounds: Proton and Electron. Today I have been adapting these sounds for Helium and of course making two of each (Helium's atomic number). They time signature is different so some more work needs doing in the guts of the electron synth to make it conform. I may have a sound sample tomorrow.
Here is that proton sound. While the sound is the same as used in Hydrogen, I now use it differently. In this sample you can hear the two protons in Helium converging. In the surround version, the particles share the front center speaker while using others exclusively. Listen here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/11402185
After some critical listening to the sounds I created so far, I decided to alter a few. The electron rhythm was fine on its own but got lost if even one other instrument played. The volume is more even now and the rhythm itself is different to better cut through the mix when I have more going on later. I also fixed the fluttering sweep harmonies to be clearer.
Ok, so I create music in surround. Since my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) doesn't support surround, I use a method calledMulti Stereo Surround. It is essentially many stereo pairs knitted together to form a 5.1 sound field. Very laborious. Today I installed some plugins that are supposed to allow me to do 'real' surround sound. Spent hours. Got nowhere. I'll go back to Helium and tackle the plugins again in a few days. Update: Out of the ashes comes a sound. I managed to pull out some creativity and found a great sound to represent Helium's ethereal quality. This creative discovery had the knock-on effect of totally changing how Helium begins. The piece starts much softer now, not in terms of volume but in how it feels.
My proposed series of element-based music of which Helium is the second all have the song title in the music. I recorded me saying 'Helium' and experimented with running the wav file through a vocoder to embed it in an instrument. The result is lackluster so far but I did have a happy accident that may prove to be useful as an instrumental effect later on.
I did not get anything material done today. There was a power outage most of the day due to a fallen tree somewhere on some backwater lane. As my work is done entirely on this computer, I did a lot of yardwork instead. Sawing away tree limbs 8 meters up is probably not the safest thing for a blind guy to do, but who else is going to do it? While up there I was thinking of how to use my recorded voice as an instrument though. When mapped to a keyboard and played an octave or more above my natural voice, the sound would cease to sound like a voice and sound more like a note.
It's been a few days since I posted here. Had too much on my plate with another project to work on music. Poor time management? Maybe. But then it takes me longer than most to do anything involving sight.
I revisited the Ethereal instrument to get my voice combined with it better. The result is a lot less human and more musical. The challenge was finding a point that leaned to it sounding like notes but still being just intelligible enough to make out if you didn't know the spoken word.
In the music I wished to represent a neutron. The electrons sound light and quick. The protons are full rich sounds that take up a lot of sonic space. In the real world, neutrons dwarf even the rich proton. Today I spent all afternoon and evening fleshing out a sound bigger than my proton sound, which took some doing. At the same time I didn't want to overwhelm the listener. In the end I used a combination of a broad sonic spectrum layered with a second deep bass instrument, and distributing the two instruments among the speakers so that no one speaker equally shares the two instruments that make up the neutron sound. The result is an enveloping wash that yet feels solid.
Tomorrow I will work on an effect that will enhance the overall impact.
Some days I feel like I have nothing to show for the work. Today is one of those days. Been struggling to create a shuddering volume effect to enhance the impact of the neutron sound when it is first heard. Can't get the instruments' level parameters to follow the curve drawn in another device I'm wanting to use to control volume. It all looks good, just no effect on the sound yet.
I've been working on a neutron sound and some effects to make it even more interesting. A day of sound design and two days on effect design (read beating head against wall), and here it is. I have another problem to work out but that's for another post!
Take a listen: https://www.patreon.com/posts/11744035
It's something heard in a lot of electronic dance music (EDM). The kick drum hits or the thumping bass thumps, and everything else gets drowned out. What it really is is the other instruments' levels are being dropped under the drum/bass/noise so it punches through easier. It's called ducking.
Right now, my mighty neutron is competing with the protons for space. Their fundamental frequencies coincide. Basically it sounds like mud. So today I was working on getting the proton instruments to duck. The usual way is to employ sidechaining. It's a pain in the butt to set up for surround and is pretty limited in its effect. I wanted more creative room, so today was about exploring ducking without sidechaining. I just know I've stepped into a rabbit hole.
Now the neutron's in charge. The other instruments duck below it appropriately. I wanted them to be subdued for longer than a traditional sidechain ducking could do and come out of it more smoothly. As a bonus, the ducking can be turned off later when the neutron takes on a different role. For my paying patrons I will go into how it was done. I'll just say here: way too many devices and cabling.
An airy effect I had done earlier doesn't fit the music anymore. Today I remade it to be quicker and more lively. Helium is one of the lightest elements and all sound effects should reflect that. The lighter sound also means it will have to be used differently. Before it was static. Now it will be panned rapidly to keep it from being a stale little sound.
When moving a sound around the speakers I can turn a pan knob, draw out a rough curve for the panner to follow, or have another device control the knob. I've always used the second method since it is repeatable and precise. However, it is very tedious to draw a complex curve. It is really a string of line segments so a lot of segments must be drawn to make a smooth curve. Today I worked on making truly smooth pan curves with the third method. I constructed a custom set of devices to generate a continuous curve and allow me to alter it as needed.
It all looks great ... but it doesn't behave as expected. The problem may not even lie with the custom rig but with another device that depends on it. Need to do some sleuthing tomorrow.
I got the behavior sorted out from yesterday. The panning is being done with control voltage, a kind of signal that audio equipment can use to alter parameters such as filters and panners. Seems just because a CV signal has a negative value it isn't necessarily interpreted as bipolar information. Unipolar signals have only positive values, while bipolar can have negative as well. For panning, negative values push the sound to the left, positive values push to the right.
Anyway, the panning using CV works. Only problem is I cannot mix that with the drawn method I mentioned in yesterday's post. It's either/or. Limiting. I'll look for a way around it. I can always find one.
000but getting nowhere. I am beginning to think this is a futile exercise. I do have a nuclear option though. I can create a parrallel set of mix channels to do manual panning with while leaving the original in place for CV-based panning. It would clutter up the mixer board though and I have enough channel strips already to make me cross-eyed. I'll fight one more day before moving on.
I think I see a way to slide around the issue. Once a CV connection is made to a parameter (panning in this case), it is the only thing the program will listen to. Fine. That's not something that can be gotten around apparantly. So ... I am hatching a plan to convert my manual panning into CV signals before passing on the commands to the pan knob. The program won't care as long as it's CV in the end. To do this I will manually control another device's level knob (this particular device can output CV or audio, not just audio and the level knob affects both). I'll then send that CV signal to the mix channel's pan knob and voila. Tested it today and it works.
Weird thing though; the knob is putting out values on a logarithmic scale, not linear. So center pan isn't center position on the knob. Yet one more thing to iron out.
So many days spent on panning. Who knew making panning both manually and with continuous curves would be so difficult? It all works now.I can now freely switch between manual and curves modes, position the curve where I want it, affect its spread, and even invert its shape to reverse its pan direction(s). Even fixed the logarithmic scale problem with a CV splitter that had its own gain knob to compensate.
A lot got done today. Like a dam broke to wash away all the problems that piled up.
Now what was I doing before this side trip? Oh yes. Music.
Having spent so long on the panning problem, I lost focus on what I was doing musically. So to reset myself, I resumed with the instrument that opens the piece. I continued its chord progression and decided that it should be very slow to ease us into this light and noble element. When the harmony finally changes, you feel an "ah ha" moment. You don't need music theory to sense the shift of tension and you know something interesting is soon to happen.
Take a listen: https://www.patreon.com/posts/11918071
I'm on a sonic roll.
A while back I mentioned having changed the electron's rhythm to suit Helium. Hydrogen's electron dance was in a different meter. Today I wrote out the parts for the new electron pair.
Near the beginning of the piece, two electrons orbit the listener. Here is a sample of the new rhythm they dance to. I don't have them moving in this sample. It is just to show the interplay of their notes while (mostly) sharing the same rhythm. Let me tell you, it's pretty cool hearing them dance through the surround speakers opposite each other.
Take a listen: https://www.patreon.com/posts/11969588
Did some work on the parts that play below the electrons. But it was hard going today. Did not matter what I did with the notes, nothing fit right. I feel I'm going in the wrong direction and trying to force it. It doesn't feel like any headway made today, but I know that realization is progress in some form.
I think I know what the problem is with the lower instruments. The protons are too aggressive after the electron instruments enter. Although the electrons are high pitched and share no frequency space with the protons (a common cause of instruments competing with each other), the protons dominate. I believe this is because the ear is used to hearing them, and what they are doing is still developing when the electrons appear.
So my task is to deemphasise the lower instruments in some way. I tried lowering their volume but that didn't do it. Som sound design is going to be needed.
The protons need to move into the background to get out of the way of the less sturdy electrons. How? Dropping their volume didn't do it as well as I had hoped. Their sound is just too round to be subdued in that way. Today the protons began their diet. I needed to thin out their sound without altering their character. So I experimented with running the sound through a few effects devices, including an equalizer and various distortion machines.
Wait, doesn't distortion add to the sound? Yes, but they can also deemphasise frequencies. Lots of work done today but not yet satisfied. I am closing in on a solution.
After going through quite a few distortion and other effect units it is clear I'm going to have to string a few of them together to mangle the proton sound in layers. No one unit does what I need. So experimenting today with the ordering of a few I like. The result is subtley different depending on whether the distortion is done at the start or end for instance. I'll have something to share tomorrow.
I've got the proton sounds about where I want them. The chain of effect units are as follows:
Proton > Saturation > Retro Transformer > EQ > Reverb
The Saturation unit adds grit and a slight buzzing. Not what I want on its own. The Retro Transformer emulates old speakers and circuitry. I used this to smooth out the buzzing a little and warm up the sound. The EQ (equalizer) was used to narrow the frequencies let through. This thins out the sound. Lastly the Reverb unit adds ambient soft echoes to make the sound more distant.
I have the effects creep in. Take a listen: https://www.patreon.com/posts/12458427
Now, I already do my music in surround. But my workstation doesn't actually do surround. I create the effect through a matrix of 10 stereo pairs carefully routed to six channels at the end of the long signal chain. With mindful crafting of the panning in each pair, and a mental picture of what sound in what pair will be in which speakers in the end, I create surround music, or at least music which should be played back on a surround system.
I acquired some true surround tools yesterday. No luck getting them to work yet (my workstation is not supported), but I continue to plug away at the problem. I'm sure I can get them working and that will open far more possibilities for my music. Hopefully won't take long.
After much work and many emails with the manufacturer, it is determined that the surround tools I've been beating on will not work with my music software. They require a different internal audio routing than my workstation has so I may as well try flying without wings. There is another (thankfully low-cost) workstation that does work but I am not going to spend the time now to learn it. Its interface is horrible for my eyes anyway (I have poor contrast perception). I need to get back to writing music; what 100 Days is about for me.
Today I finished fighting the surround tools and mulled the problem I have with a musical transition. It is just sitting there. Needs more energy before then first theme comes in.
Good music needs a sense of building tension and release. The end of my opening sounds like it's sitting there. No tension, no movement. I was going after a specific effect; a sense of flowing, shapeless, ethereal music. I did it too well as the shapelessness has become shiftlessness! Falling back to my music theory, I know I need a V chord. The progression of V to I is the strongest in Western music. You hear a V (especially a V/7), and your ear cries for a I to come soon after. It feels best and is a release of tension.
Not so much this time.
After doing a few small fixes around the problem spot, I moved notes around to change the IV chord I'd been sitting on for too many measures to a V, played it back, and ... what the hell? It sounded jarring, out of place, horrible. That's not a build up of tension. That was a body slam from a black rhino. Staring hard I see nothing obviously wrong. I'm tired. I'll tackle the rhino tomorrow after I've had some space.
New day. New ears. Same rhino. It still sounds flat wrong. I tried various things to salvage it. I made the chord longer (ugh, more rhino). I moved it earlier (ugh, body slam sooner). I put a 7th on it (oh no, now it has two horns). I altered the voicing (now it's a rhino with lipstick).
And a curious thing happened somewhere along the way. The I chord the furious V was resolving to didn't sound like a I anymore. I thought my ears were playing tricks on me at this point, so I left it for the afternoon. I came back and damned if the progression still sounded incomplete. Great a rhino with an identity crisis! For those not in the theory know, arriving on a I chord sounds like the listener is coming home. Tension is gone, the arrival feels good. Pop music uses V-I all the time in the chorus to make you happy to hear it between the verses. What I'd done was IV-V-I. Perfectly valid. It *sounded* like I-ii/7-V. Ending on that V left my ears demanding a I.
Now I found I was being bit by my own cleverness. What would a I be if the actual 'I' I was arriving at sounded like a 'V'? Horror. The answer: the IV chord I'd been playing for the previous 8 bars. Because the listener had heard that unchanging chord for so long, the ear had decided that must be the new I, the key the music is in. Now I wasn't just battling music theory, I was battling psychology.
Out with the V chord! Now I was back to the lackluster IV-I progression. And you know what? It sounded just right. Sometimes one must take a detour to see how things were working fine before. Still needs a little something though, just not a new harmony.
An idea had been bouncing around in the back of my mind while battling the V rhino. Today I put it into practice. If harmonic change wasn't the fix for musical ennui, then more note movement might be. I spent the day auditioning new sounds for a more quickly moving part I wanted in the background. I found one I could use as a starting point and tweaked it to taste. Sounds a bit like a 70s synth. I still couldn't change the harmony, so I had it arpeggiate through the IV chord with varying volume. It sounded good, but kinda came from nowhere. It needed an introduction before it became a note version of the chord rhino.
I played through the music several times identifying likely spots to place a brief glimpse of the arpeggio, fading in just enough to hear it before fading out. In the end, I show it twice before its grand entrance. I'll render out a stereo sample of the music tomorrow so you can hear everything I've done in context.
Also, I noticed a problem with the orbiting electrons. They sonically collided at a point a few seconds into the long IV chord. Took some time to figure out why they were clashing. Simply; too many notes in each part at once. Took some out, shifted the rest. All good.
Half way through the 100 Days Project. I haven't been posting every day. I haven't been working every day. That's quite a marathon! On the days I don't actually work on music, I think about it, going through the artistic and technical challenges representing an element in music.
Day 50 and here is a sound sample of the opening of Helium! It's a rough stereo mix down that shows all the elements I've shared earlier coming together as music. You can hear two protons approaching each other then joining under the influence of a giant neutron in the amorphous cosmic soup. One electron then another enters orbit, completing the helium atom.
Listen here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/12872584
When a note sounds, when a rest occurs, when an instrument enters can make or break a piece of music. If something doesn't happen at the right time, it sounds out of place or doesn't make sense at all. Frequently, if you don't know music theory, you can't put your finger on it. Still, you just know something's wrong. Or at least could be better.
I felt that with the helium opening I posted yesterday. A few seconds before the protons boom in, a windy sound enters to thicken up the music. It was fine but that was the problem. It was just fine, not good. Today was spent pouring over its proper placement. Moving it just 2 measures, 3 beats made all the difference. Now it fits and makes sense with how the music is building tension.
That windy sound I talked about yesterday; placing it was the first step. It is based on white noise and needed shaping. Two components make a wind sound convincing: volume variation and frequency variation. Today I did both. I found making the frequency variation first to be best, then have the volume rise and fall in kind. When a wind blows harder it tends to sound higher pitched. This went on for 28 measures, so it was quite a lot of laying down control points. These points are where there is a change in direction of the parameter being drawn (volume and frequency in this case). It's never a good idea to have long straight lines. Nothing moves perfectly straight for long.
I have a neat little arpegio that fades in and out. That's great ... for other pieces. Helium is pretty dynamic with four instruments/effects moving freely around the listener. The stationary instruments are also interesting as they are all panned in some way. So, today I worked on changing the wiring of the arpeggio to allow it to move through the surround sound field. Fading in and out is great. Fading while floating through the other sounds is better. And no I'm not doing it as a gimmick. The way I hear it in my head demands the arp move in space, not just time.
Ok so I like things neat. Tidy. My bedroom floor isn't covered in discarded clothing and the sink isn't filled with dishes. Neither do I like redundant tracks/lanes cluttering up my music software. Each instrument and sound needs a track. Each and every parameter I change during the music also needs a lane. Lanes existin tracks so an additional lane could mean just widening a track, or creating a whole new one. Because of my blindness, too many tracks/lanes meansconfusion.
Spent today fighting to reduce the number of lanes required to make the arpeggio from yesterday move about. Usually this takes three (one X-axis, two y-axis panning lanes). But I got ambitious this time and wanted some faux-surround reverb. This doubled the number of lanes so I could pan the reverb in tandem with the instrument. And some of those lanes would have the exact same parameter info. Took a while and went down a dead end or two, but I got those lanes down to just three! Basically I got the surround reverb for free.
Didn't have much time to be at the music today. So I tackled a technical issue instead. I wanted a faster way of moving from surround to stereo. To check my work on two speakers before now, I had to copy my music file, rip out all the surround buses, rewire all the instruments and effects to a single stereo bus, roughly recreate all the panning and feel like it was a waste of time doing all this just to check balance.
It wasn't a simple task, but as with programming and teaching a person to fish, it only has to be done once to reap the benefits again and again. As of today, I now have a two-button switch to move from surround to stereo. One button to silence the extra speakers, and one to activate the stereo bus mixer. No more time being wasted.
I've never been good at melodies. I am more of a ditty writer. I come up with short snippets of melody that might be good to hum and that's about it. So I've been putting off writing a melody for Helium until now. I've had plenty to do anyway, what with deciding on key, meter, tempo, instrumentation, sound design, essential elements, etc. There is still more to address but not having a melody will slow progress so...today was melody day.
I want the neutron to play it, that booming sound that fills the sonic space. Up to now it has played one note, just coming in to bowl over the rest of the sounds. You know how nuetrons like to throw their weight around. My primary problem is that the listener is used to hearing it as a bass accent, not as something that goes anywhere. That, and its very full sound that was so great in its initial role is kind of a hinderance for melodic lines.
Today I poked at the keyboard looking for something that matched its character. Quick lines? I heard a hippo dance more gracefully. Higher up the keyboard? Now its piercing. Poor hippo got its tail caught by an alligator. I made up a dozen melodies today, discarded almost that many. Found one or two that are promising if I squint at them and have a stiff drink. I'll come back to this after letting the survivors bounce around in my head a while.
Doing everything in multi stereo surround can do weird things to one's perception of sound. Overlapping frequencies aren't noticed. Instrument imbalance isn't heard. Clipping and distortion creep in for no apparent reason. The speaker volume keeps being bumped up to hear little things. Why? With more speakers, there is less speaker sharing among sounds, essentially more bandwidth for the frequency spectrum. Just as with broadband Internet, the more bandwidth you've got, the more you tend to use. Unlike with the Internet though, abusing frequency bandwidth isn't a good thing.
Stereo to the rescue.
Just as checking one's stereo work as mono can reveal problems, checking surround as stereo is a great help. Today I switched to stereo and spent a few hours balancing the instruments and sounds. What a mess! Redlining everywhere. Sounds which were supposed to be subtle were up front. That booming neutron I was so proud of almost vanished. Panning obvious in surround simply wasn't in stereo.
After the balancing and frequency re-equalizing was done, the music sounded so much better in both stereo AND surround. Especially in surround. Everything was quieter but counterintuitively the small details came out better. And that neutron wound up more powerful still. No problem holding the atom together now! I'm so glad I took the time a few days ago to hardwire a stereo/surround switch into my rack. I'll be flipping between stereo and surround more frequently going forward and catching trouble like this before it becomes a tangle.
Ok so I said I was pretty happy with how the protons sounded as they drifted into the background. Funny how being happy isn't a permanent state. I feel the protons actually weaken too much and get too buzzy besides. Spent some time today refining the effect and wound up pulling a lot of the manipulations back. Much better.
I also went back to an old bone I've picked with automating panning with control voltage. That's all great, being able to pan and run other effects with a current because it results in such smooth transitions. But to get it to work I had to explicitly trigger the current to flow, and that means extra lanes in my sequencer. In a previous post I mention how I hate excess lanes and tracks. The clutter is visually confusing to a blind guy.
I resumed my search for a better way and had one of those light bulb moments. There IS a device that can eleaviate the need to trigger that control voltage to start. I had been thinking in terms of one unit that puts out a continuous voltage. LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) does this but the output is constantly changing. The answer is two units: one that puts out a constant gate signal (basically a "do your thing" message), and another which receives this and puts out the constant control voltage I'm after.
No more explicit triggering. Fewer lanes. And less chance for mistakes. The first unit in that one-two chain is being used in an unorthodox manner, but the result is what matters in the creative world. Method is incidental.
Helium has been laid back, slow, wandering. Need to build up to the entrance of the first theme! The music can't just go there or the listener will think a new piece just started. So today I tried a few strategies. In the end it came down to a combination of speeding up the arpegio that's heard twice earlier, making it a focus, and going through some rapid (for this music) chord changes. I have a very dusty background in music theory and all I remember is some stuff about 1st-4th species counterpoint (think JS Bach chorales and keyboard inventions). My knowledge of music ends in the 18th century. That level of theory knowledge is fine and goes far but I wasn't getting the excitement and build up I wanted from just I-vi-ii-V7-I (a standard and strong chord progression used in Hydrogen).
I hit Youtube, Google, and theory charts to see what was out there and put to use some new goodies. There's a point where it sounds like it may go off the rails, but then resolves to familiar ground at the right time. You'll hear a sample of it another day when more it written.
The chord progression and accellerated notes from yesterday are great. But the arpeggio felt naked so I gave it some cover by echoing some jiucy notes in the electron instruments. The result is a rising line that underscores the rising tnsion in the arpeggio.
But the electrons were dancing around each other earlier, so I continued that with one answering the other as they rose. I'll sleep on it and see if I still like it tomorrow.
My dad gets the inside scoop on listening to my musical nuggets first by virtue of him frequently walking into my studio. For the past two days he's complained that there are wrong notes in a rapid section. Notes are flying up and down, harmonies changing every second and some of the stuff are purposely non-chord tones. For instance I have a D playing under five harmonies although it belongs in three of them. It's a pedal tone. I just thought he didn't like it. He's used to me writing conventional predictable music.
But yesterday I noticed something did seem a little razzy in there somewhere. I vetted every note several times. Yes every one was what I wanted.
Today I was editing another part two octaves higher than the harmony part and found it. The problem wasn't with the rapid arpegio bit but with the melody above it. Shifted two notes and the raspberry disappeared. Thanks dad.
Here is the rapid chord progression I talked about earlier. Just before this, the music has been sitting on a IV chord for several bars. Long enough to start confusing what the key is. Then I busted out some (relatively) quick harmonic changes to build up a head of steam before giving the listener the first theme. For those curious about music theory, from IV, I went to I, III, ii, V7/V, V11, V7 ... I. Chords played as arpegios and most not in root position. Under all but one is a pedal tone For added arg! as that's the root note it's all heading toward.
The III and V7/V (and the extra notes in the V11) are not in the piece's key. I used them for their brightness and energy. I used the III to immediately lift the music out of the IV duldrums. III moves to a ii which works because chords can frequently resolve down to the next chord well. The V7/V makes the move to V(11 and 7) very strong. V/V should be read as "five of five." V chords always want to move to a chord five notes lower, which would be a I chord. "Five of five" is a chord five notes above a V chord, but not in the music's key. It sounds very bright, energetic, and really wants to get to a regular V chord.
Whew! Didn't mean to go into a music theory monologue. Happy listening!
Today I decided where to go from the harmonic build up I posted yesterday. I'm giving the listener what is expected, almost. I still move toa I chord as the ear wants. I just don't do it right away. It's delayed a measure. Yes I can be mean like that.
To fill in the space, I played with some reverb and delay efects on the last note of the arpegio and electron instrument. Then a bit of traditional electronic music white noise sweeping up. Well, again, almost. Every time I create a new effect I delve into new territory. This sweep has a neat phased character to it. Not your daddy's white noise. It may appear later in the piece. I don't know yet. It's a cool effect as a one-off.
Also did some maintanence on something I broke with CV panning.