Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 2


Spotty is, on her own words, "large and round and covered in spots". She's a robot with a strong attitude, likes being in control, and has the ability to retract her limbs and roll around for fast locomotion. On the album, I decided to emphasize her character with this pounding, spherical rhythm, sprinkled with "spots" of sound. The puzzle was how to create that. The melody problem was solved very quickly: it turned out to be a perfect opportunity to recycle a very old reggae melody, written in 1999 or so, which I always liked but wasn't able to use adequately. A reggae tune was pretty much a perfect fit, and I just needed to find the right arrangement.

The ingredients used to concoct that arrangement were, firstly, a "bopping" staccato synthesized chord, with a phasing effect applied to give it a sense of motion of sorts. The second piece was a loop of hi-hat like sounds played at the same rhythm, with a bit of syncopation added to give it a certain "jitter", or something. Finally, the "pound" of the sound is a brutally banal drum rhythm played backwards. Throwing in a stupidly simple reggae rhythm (staccato guitar, organ chord and a two-note bass) and the main melody played on a sawtooth synth, the song's ready. You don't need to listen to it closely to see how simple it is. That was, in fact, one of the big steps I took to understand how important it is to give the sound an interesting shape. Even though those first two minutes or so sound absolutely mechanical, with all the instruments playing in near-perfect sync, the little effects add a certain roundness to it, and a hint of something tricky going on. But in the end, it's very simple stuff.

Of course, halfway through, the song sort of "comes alive", with drums playing on the right direction, a guitar riff also lifted from the 1999 song, and finally a synth solo that breaks the song free from the same two chords and leads it into a crazy direction. The chords were chosen almost arbitrarily, and the synth plays entirely on whole tone scales. All in the name of quirkiness. Personally, I think the track as a whole is quite effective. Even though it's a bit "buried" under the lengthier, heavier songs, it sums up the spirit of the album as a whole in but three minutes. The quirky mood, the crinkly mechanical sounds, the lighthearted melody and the simple arrangement aren't supposed to be a "break" from the heavier stuff, but actually the "rule" that some of the tracks deviate from -- and the deviation happens soon afterwards.

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