Sunday, 8 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 10


Phew, that's the last one!

The concept to this piece was one of the very first ones to hit me, and the very last one to be finished. I purposefully left the writing and recording of this song for last, because I figured it wouldn't be easy at all to make. I wasn't wrong. It wasn't hard, but it's a song that needed quite a bit of care and attention to detail. Writing solos is a bit of a problem I have. After all, it's not easy writing and programming something that should sound immediate and spontaneous. The notes you're laying down might not have the same effect as what you have on your head -- and with me, for some reason, sitting down and opening the piano roll seems to make the ideas vanish from my head. I can make pretty cool sounding solos in my head, but I can hardly cling on to those ideas. And since this song was about 70% a solo, things wouldn't be easy. But it was a challenge to myself.

I guess this is the song that most literally translates the character. Noisy has a trumpet for a noise and often carries a drum around, and even her voice is naturally loud and rough. So, you get the drift. The idea was pretty much the first thing that hit me: Noisy's drum playing immediately evoked a marching band, and from there, it was a matter of finding the the way of making the most noise with a few instruments. My first idea was to have only a guitar solo, but then, the ideas I was having for solos started to become more suited for a violin, so I decided to include both. The chord progression is a slight deviation from the more cliché C → B♭ → G progression, by making it into a C → Bdim → G. It sounds a little more grating and sort of grabs your attention more. The recipe for the song is very simple: you have the percussion, the bass, a piano and a guitar. The problem: how the heck would I create the sound of a marching band?

See, I had the sound of the snare drum, but it had to sound bigger, larger, like dozens of drums being played together. Same thing with the kick drum, which should be turned into a large bass drum. The solution was the application of a chorus effect, with a few tweaks to make it change slightly over time. This makes some snare hits sound "tighter", and others "looser". The bass drum also has a bit of chorus applied, and only the splash cymbal is "dry". Too much chorus would add an undesired "phasing" effect, so it needed a bit of balance. Also, there are two different snare sounds and two different kick sounds used at the same time.

Another problem with the percussion is that the snare drums shouldn't repeat themselves too much. So, pretty much every bar is different from the ones close to it. There are triplets, quintuplets, rolls and other things going on to keep things constantly fresh. The same problem also plagued the rhythm guitar -- and if you're curious, the rhythm guitar was the last part to be written in the entire album. It was a slow, boring process that took several sittings.

The instruments are added gradually, until the solos end, and then this massive ensemble kicks in with a melody with north-eastern Brazilian overtones. This wasn't the first time I used that kind of music as influence: Thunders uses it as a rhythm in certain places of the second half. The melody was pretty much made up on the spot, using a few motifs as "building blocks" for the larger thing. As for the instrumentation playing the melody, there's brasses (trumpet and trombone, as well as alto, tenor and baritone sax), guitar, violin and piano. I wanted it to really come from nowhere, and keep up the heat until the final crashing chord. Initially, I envisaged it erupting into sonic hell, a wash of loud noise which would be jarringly cut short -- but I ended up opting for a simple echo effect which took a few resonant frequencies and made them louder and louder over time. Then, it's abruptly sped down, and seguéd into Sporty. That's the way I liked it better.

So all's good: but what with that weird intro? Once again, I thought of kicking in with a haze of weird, unrecognisable noise, but the idea I had made things a little bit more welcoming. And there couldn't be anything more simple than that: it's all ten tracks played at the same time. First, played at very slow speed, then pushed up to normal speed, and then into ludicrous speed. The metallic "twannng!" is, once again, the endless echo. I REALLY went overboard with it, didn't I? But to make it fun, I added a really strange effect -- I don't even remember what it's called -- that transformed the boring metallic hum into something that almost sounds like something out of an early Residents album. It was pretty fun coming across that effect, because I hadn't even imagined it, and even if I had, I wouldn't have had any clue of how to produce it. I reached it by accident. Poof: there I got it. Cool. So, I played with the speed a little more, and laid the song over an echoed, twisted, slowed down snippet of all ten tracks playing at the same time at hyper-speed. Is that EXPERIMENTAL enough?? Nah, it's not really experimental. It's just weird, and fun. Like the whole album! Ha!

Finishing this song was a great relief to me, and it meant that, FINALLY, I could listen to the album that lived in my head for more than two years. What a thrill! Never, I repeat, never did I have such a fixed and clear vision of what I wanted, and never did I expect to get so close to it. I had gotten attached to the album even before I started doing it, and there I had it, before me. Complete. I was genuinely satisfied with myself, not because I thought I had made an "awesome" album, but because I had beaten all the challenges I had set myself. After that, I took a little break, and started working on my next album, which was ALREADY living in my head.

Also, a small curiosity: the album is exactly 42 minutes and 2 seconds long, and each side (i.e. tracks 1-5 and 6-10) are exactly 21 minutes and 1 second long. I managed to split it exactly in half, and that wasn't planned beforehand. It was just something I realised upon having all tracks recorded. I noticed I had gotten very close to having a perfect 50/50 division, so I tweaked the noise bits a little here and there and settled it. Of course I could have further reduced it to 42 minutes exactly, but there's a special charm to that extra second per side... yep, it's an idea taken from Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, in case you're wondering. What can I do? It was just too good to pass up, you know.

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