Monday, 2 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 1


We're starting with this song because it was the starting point for the album's recording. It started here because it was the opening of side B, and it didn't have a direct link to the previous track. The same was true for Scary, but I figured that one would take much longer to write and record.

This track, as odd as it may seem, has one of the strongest links with its corresponding character on the Little Robots cartoon. The Sparky Twins are these two sisters who look pretty much identical and whose preferred activity is to cause mischief. What greatly helps their plans is their ability to silently communicated through antennae on their heads, represented to us by crackling, visible lightning connecting them. The idea, thus, was to make a "twin song", which would be a very simple arrangement which would be played by different instruments, at the same time, on each speaker (that's why it's indexed as tracks 6/7 on the album's official page).

Musically, however, the link is not too strong. I decided on having this electronic "improvisation" with two synthesizer parts, doubled with slightly different synthesized sounds. It's entirely on Phrygrian G -- that means, it's played with the same notes that form the Eb Major scale, but it's rooted on G instead. This gives the song a faintly ominous feeling; and adding to that, I always envisioned the song to be slowly swallowed by a sort of haze; windy, spiralling waves of sound that I was unsure on how to do. The final piece of the puzzle were slices of noise of different kinds, which would form a dialogue between the two channels. So, the bits that ping-pong around your ears represent the Sparkies communicating. Clever, huh? The noises were created mostly with manipulation of different "colours" of noise, either by changing the speed or saturating them, and applying the same ideas to little bits of other songs. It was a quite slow process, actually, and it was important to find the balance to slowly increase their intensity until, by the end of the track, the noise would be constant.

The "haze" of sound was created with two layers of noise. The first of them was a copy of the track itself (sans noise dialogue) with a heavy dose of reverb, and then amplified until it saturated. This created a distorted "echo" of the song, which was buried under the mix and surfaced at the right points. The second layer was far more interesting: it was another noiseless copy of the song, played backwards, with a heavy dose of echo applied (which emphasised the lower frequencies and made them echo very quickly over a LONG period of time). The speed of the track was then heavily distorted, making the eerie "up and down" humming drone, with occasional hints of the melody line. This was also placed low on the mix and occasionally pumped up. Eventually, that track takes over when the instruments fade out. The cool thing is that the echo effect accidentally caused a VERY strange feedback-like effect at the end, which I decided to use as the segué with the following track. So, yeah, that sound was produced by accident, just like a lot of cool things in life.

The final detail is that, on the final months of recording, I had the passing idea to radically transform the song into a piece for piano and harpsichord. I'd make it into a jaunty, mischievous, atonal piece to be played by the piano in one channel and on the harpsichord on the other. But eventually that idea morphed into something else, and Sparkies remained to be what it is now. In my opinion it's not a standout song, but it gave the start to the whole process -- and in that sense, it was extremely important. Thank you, Sparky Twins!

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