The Eleventh Hour

Musicam novam præsento. This is an original song that was substantially written in about an hour on Armistice Day. It grew out of a search for a sound for another song that’s in the pipeline; that sound ended up being a Farfisa organ and a Solina string machine layered together and slathered in reverb, and these chords were irresistible. Inspiration is a rare and fleeting thing for me, and I found the chords and the sound evocative of not only an abstract feeling, but also (presumably because of the day) the particular foci and feelings that one associates with Armistice Day: War, death, horror, outrage. And so I ended up with not only some music, but also some doggerel. As it happens, I had been listening to U2’s Bad and Pink Floyd’s inspiring new album The Endless River, which, with their indifference to the usual restraints of songwriting formats, encouraged me to just leave well alone: Here are four chords, a feeling, and some words—go with it. (Subsequently, the words were beaten into shape with help from my wife.)

Let’s talk about tracking. I double-tracked a twelve-string acoustic and a Les Paul into a Vox; there’s also a single-tracked acoustic. I DI’d one track of Ibanez RG and then layered two copies of it using different sounds (both Alain Poulin plugins: LeXTAC, and HyBrit on the MCJ channel), panned left and right. 1 The solo is a Strat into the Molot compressor and an Ignite powertrain; the bass is a five-string P with a Phase 90 in the picked sections. (Gee… Where does that sound come from?) And there are obviously a lot of keyboard layers; the only one that I’ll mention specifically is Roberson Audio’s Prophet 5 clone Prophanity, which is a lot of fun and provides some Vangelis-esque curlicues.

Let’s talk about the mix. Going into post, I had just over a hundred tracks, which were winnowed down by consolidation, elimination, and comping to 62 tracks (including busses and returns). 2 I have two go-to mix EQs (VOS’ BootEQmkII and Sonimus’ SonEQ), and a handful of go-to mix compressors (Minimal Systems’ Punch, an 1176-style comp, VOS’ ThrillseekerLA, an LA 2A -style comp, and Modern Plugins’ Apophis as a mix buss compressor); they remained the workhorses here, but I also used, for the first time,  the Modern Plugins Deathcore (a silly name, but in essence a poor-man’s EL8) on the kick drum and bass guitar, and Sonimus’ Britson console emulation. Tape emulation came from Jeroen Breebaart’s Ferox on a few tracks and VOS’ Ferric on the rest; at this point, I have largely abandoned all delays other than the Classic Delay and VOS’ NastyDLA, which do everything that I want. N.b.: Britson, Airwalker, and Punch are the only commercial plugins involved here, and of those, only Britson is truly irreplaceable: While I love Airwalker and Punch, 3 neither does anything for which free substitutes aren’t available. (The Classic Reverb and Modern Seventh Sign will do the job.) 

A word about reverb. 4 I have taken a different tack with this piece; in all my recent efforts, I have used a single reverb send, with the idea in mind to place all the instruments in a common space. Here, though, I shook things up a little by using three different spaces, conceived as “close,” “mid-distance,” and “backdrop,” ending up with VOS’ EpicVerb on the “backdrop” send, Minimal Systems’ Airwalker on the “mid-distance” send,” and a different EpicVerb setting on the “close” send. (Up until the very last minute, the latter used an IR from a Lexicon 480L, but while I liked the sound, it just wasn’t gelling in the mix.) The notion is that in addition to placement across the stereo spectrum by panning, we want to be able to push sounds forward or backward spatially, which is something that I haven’t really played with before.

Final thought. There are a few issues that I notice and will fix if this piece gets used in an album project; the guitars ended up even lower in the mix than I had intended, and there are some ducking issues with the Farfisa/Solina layer, but overall I think this sounds pretty good and I’m happy with it. The vocals are somewhat pitchy and reedy, which is just a limit of my gifts, as I’ve discussed before, but I enjoy the guitar solo, I really love the “Homeland” altro melody, and I liked being able to use those voices as part of a soundscape that is evocative, I hope, of my feelings about that senseless slaughter. And I do also think that it adds some value to have a piece that is brutally-critical of the peculiarities of the Great War (“in rank and in file, and in mud and gas and in trenches they fell, to bayonets and barbed wire, and shrapnel and stupid generals, and artillery and shell”) while being free from the taint of a broader anti-war sentiment. 

Notes:

  1. Cf. Mesa Engineering, Interview with John Petrucci, c. 1995, http://www.mesaboogie.com/US/Artists/Assets/interview.html (last visited 12/1/2014) (“[t]he last album we did, Awake, I used two tracks of the Rectifier, then two tracks of a Mark IIC … and then[,] live[,] I try to emulate that, not by using all the different amps, but just by different effects and stuff like that. At one point I was using four different amps through the Amp Switcher, two Tri’s a Mark IIC and a Rectifier … It was a cool sound, there was a definite cool combination of all these different things going on at the same time”).
  2. Tracks can multiply quickly; for example, the guitar solo was originally improvised whole, but I then learned it and tracked four more takes of it with differing articulations to preserve options going into the mix. So suddenly you have five tracks of nearly-identical lead guitar, which shrink to one mono stem for the mix. The distorted guitars sprawled over four tracks which were then panned and bounced to one stereo stem for the mix.
  3. I am less enthusiastic about Minimal Systems’ Stereo Buss Compressor, which I find a little too “pumpy.”
  4. Cf. Mike Senior, Use Reverb Like A Pro: Part 2, Sound-on-Sound Magazine, Aug. 2008, http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug08/articles/reverbpart2_0808.htm (last visited 12/1/2014).