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the lemon, suck the sugar
The glory days of the 12" single were in the eighties, now separated from us by a full decade during which the CD became the primary vehicle for music distribution. Singles havent gone away, but theyre now primarily loss-leading promotional items for mass-market albums. In the clubs, vinyl records are still king, since its easier to manipulate in the DJ booth, but manufacturing is very expensive in comparison with CDs. And theyre a lot heavier.
The downloadable MP3 is the new single in the year 2000. Since the Stereo Society is both studio and online record company (among other things), we can create a piece of music and make it available the day it is finished. The deadline is not as final as when you have to master and manufacture, which can make you lazy about meeting it, but its satisfying to get the music out there immediately. We decided to do two club mixes ourselves, one derived from the original track by James Rosenthal, and the other by me. Being greedy, I asked Alyson, the main writer of the song, whether she had any spare lyrics.
Characteristically, there were reams, with a poetic feel often very different from that of the original song on Carnival. James was doing a club mix using the original rhythm material as a basis. It seemed as if a radical change might be entertaining, so I proposed a techno-oriented rebuild at the energetic 142 beats per minute, compared with the 115 of the original (which still rocks along nicely). The whole instrumental section would be rebuilt with synthesizers, and Alyson would deliver her words in a close, intimate rap over the top.
Thanks to relatively new technology, using samples of vocal material originating at a different tempo is not a problem. Ten years ago, if you shortened a sample to fit with a higher tempo, you could not avoid raising the pitch also, giving the very non-jungular Mickey Mouse vocal effect. You could take it back down by using a pitch shifter, but the quality wasnt satisfactory. We took a small number of original vocal licks and decreased their length in the ratio 115:142 so that they would fit with the new frantic tempo. This contraction is at about the present limit of such computer processing, after which you start to hear scratches and glitches.
The kick drum in techno is pretty easy. It goes thump, thump, thump etc etc. Every four or eight bars you might get an extra thump just before the end of the phrase, which is not wildly exciting. But there is something about this four-on-the-floor that gets you going, and has done since seventies disco and before. Arrangement skill is needed in assembling the rhythmic superstructure.
scream in the trees
the jungle lullaby
Since were in the jungle, the obvious thing was to use samples of African-derived drums, and our Synclavier sample library (collected here over 18 years and presently containing over 9000 sounds instantly accessible in the control room) provided bata drums and congas, including one nice little fill from an old Carmel recording. I wish Johnny Folarin, the originally-Nigerian player, lived closer to my studio than London. Congas have always been a magic bullet for me in drum machine-based music. Other conga, talking drum and tambourine sounds came from the Alesis drum sound module, the ubiquitous D4. With a little fiddling around, a passable Afro-techno groove was established. Its not a widely-known club genre. Fortunately for the cultural exercise, African music often uses four-on-the-floor or a relative of it on another deep drum, emphasizing the downbeat rather than the backbeat. Since the tempo is very high, theres less room for rhythmic subtlety (thats my excuse, anyway). Funk and techno are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
A little keyboard pad stated the chord changes, which are slightly different from the original but compatible with the vocal samples, and then the bass was added. We used a venerable synthesizer, the 20-year old Roland Super Jupiter which continues, like many older analog synths, to have a deeper, richer sound than most contemporary models. The Bass Station, playing the same line, added a buzzy edge to the sound.
Alyson arrived and delivered her lyrics over a track with just these elements. With the higher tempo, they came out very differently from expected, sometimes hilariously. Later, these words were sliced and diced into a structure completely different from her original recording. This is a useful computer technique. At the simplest level, if you have a boring bit you can take it out in the computer. If a new idea intrudes, you can insert additional time. Never hesitate to repeat a good thing. Structure is always fluid. Dance music is on a longer scale than pop singles, and you may be working with a track up to 10 minutes long. Its hard to plan structure right. To treat a club track as a piece of music as well as a groove to enjoy means that editing is crucial. Computer sound storage gives us a flexibility we could only dream about in the eighties.
beasts creep down
The track structure had been defined, the chorus samples stitched in, and the new rap arranged. A moody marimba solo helped, taking poetic license again with what you might find up the Amazon or the great, green greasy Limpopo. Unfortunately, Alysons words aside, the whole track felt dead in the water. This familiar feeling is like that of a writer staring at a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter. Digging the garden is a lot easier. This is when artists and record producers get bad tempered.
Rescue came from an even more antique synthesizer, the Serge Modular. It doesnt look like a synthesizer, more like a wall panel 5 by 3 covered with knobs and sockets. The best analog sounds in the room hide in its battered metal case. You might start Serge up with a particular idea in mind, but it often comes out totally different. But good and different, almost inevitably. You will know the sounds when you hear them in the mix, such as the trombone/bass wobbles in the beginning and the harsh screeching sound a little later. In the middle there are some dripping percussive bloops.
Analog synthesizers never quite deliver the same sound the same way twice, their circuits varying a little each time and giving a distinctly human touch, unlike the identically-sounding rhythm samples you hear. Serge musses up the hair of the track just a bit. A back beat on a snare drum (always identical) was the last thing added, in the bits where the listeners seemed as if they might prefer to be talking among themselves. Not very authentic, but its an old, cheap trick and usually works.
Finally, you can tap your foot, sort of. Its over seven minutes long, so its a longer than the typical download and certainly something to leave cooking while you walk the dog if you dont have a cable or DSL modem, but its on the site immediately and its free. After mixing and arranging spread over days, the MP3 is there in a matter of minutes for all to download free. The sound isnt quite as good as a CD, but its pretty close and sufficient to move the bowels pleasantly (many people cant tell the difference, and the musics the thing anyway, as they say). The delivery speed from production completion to customer stereo is something were still not quite used to. And at just over seven megabytes, it can arrive in your ears in perhaps half an hour even down a phone line, and in minutes if you have broad band internet access.
Confusing, this fancy modern stuff. And the track may end up on vinyl after all that.
My time has come to rise
Señor, por favor, la cuenta
- MT, April 22 2000
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