Sitting in the loft

Ghosts are billowing through the field: rain on wind. I’m sitting on the cushion keeping an eye on myself. The lights are off so the dim Sunday evening light is the same inside as out — grey as a classic movie you might watch on a day like this. Trees sway by the side of the lane like horses hoping to break their reins. Wind rakes the roof: persistent, everywhere, determined to bring you back to this inescapably wet night. Thoughts billow, blow and bluster. Before electric lighting, this is how we lived. Wait. What about candles? The skylights glow ambiguously. Night is merging with treetops imperceptibly as both turn navy, then black. My feet have gone numb.

I’ll Be Your One

I’d forgotten about this song and had to mount an expedition into my digital subconscious to retrieve it. Thanks to the wonders of cloud backup, here it is. The soulful vocals are courtesy of Rebecca C., who also sang on Love in the Time of Cannibals. Drumming and bongo-ing, and a sizzling solo were furnished by Pablo Diablo. Pablo and I will be collaborating on new music soon.

Incoming

When the lighthouse disappears locals say you have ten minutes before the town is lashed with rain. Sure enough, Godrevy was silhouetted against blue-grey vagueness while the bay shone, claustrophobically, with light reflected back onto the water by the clouds. Then outcrop and headland were deleted by mist. We heard it before we felt it: a shimmer in hedgerows and trees like distant cymbals. Then the big timpani came in and to anyone looking we too had disappeared.

The Uffmoor Sound

I was recently asked what kind of gear is used to make the Uffmoor Woods Music Club records. I got a bit carried away in my reply and thought I’d post it here in case it helps budding indietronica producers. The UWMC tracks vary in their aesthetic quite a bit but there are some consistencies when it comes to gear, budget and my own abilities and limitations.

Digital Audio Workstations

I use Cubase SX 6. I’m really used to Cubase now, having learned how to record and mix on an old freeware version. I’ve experimented with the Ableton Live demo but found it difficult to stamp my mark on it. I’ve no doubt Ableton is a great piece of software (all my friends tell me it is) but I’m just not adept with it yet. I might try it out again in the future.

Fruity Loops. I don’t use this that much anymore but it’s simple and useful and cheap. Good for making quick and dirty loops.

Plugins

I make frequent use of Cubase’s Double Delay plugin to thicken tones up and add interest. You can hear it on the ukulele on I Spit on Your Grave. It doesn’t sound much like a uke because there’s so much delay on it.

A fair bit of compression ensures that the instruments come through strongly in the mix. However, in more recent mixes (such as those on Everything I Will Remember When We’re Gone and Romances of the Djinn), I’ve been a bit more careful about not exceeding 3-5db of gain reduction so that the subtlety of the instrument isn’t lost. i.e. so it doesn’t come through really loud all the time and can rise and fade dynamically in response to the song. I use fairly strong ratios like 4:1 to 6:1 quite frequently. Maybe that’s because the mixes are often filled with parts and the background instruments need to be consistent (and slightly quieter) so the main elements can vary in loudness and catch the ear.

SupaTrigga is a great plugin for mashing up parts, especially guitars and ukuleles, on tracks such as Paper Lanterns and The Axe.

PSP Vintage Warmer is useful for warming up mixes, pads, kicks and snares.

Waves Multimaximiser is great for settling a mix. It allows the various frequency ranges of a song to breathe independently of one another. So the hi hats won’t get quieter just because your kick thuds in.

iZotope Vinyl is a free lo-fi plugin I’ve made extensive use of. I’m almost loathe to mention it as you’ll hear it all over every Uffmoor track now!

Mixing

I always roll off frequencies on every instrument under 50hz. These just muddy the mix and can’t be reproduced accurately by most stereos anyway. I sometimes use a visualiser to see where the instruments frequencies are and EQ accordingly. Probably the best method is to create a narrow, very strong boost temporarily and sweep it up and down the frequency range to find out where the various sounds contained within the instrument are. Then you can hear what you want to boost and cut. A goniometer is useful for identifying when frequencies might be interferring with each other.

Synths

I don’t have any expensive synth packages. I just like using some of the ingenious free stuff you can find out there. Such as Tweakbench. My midi keyboard is an M-audio Oxygen 61. It is no doubt heresy in this day and age but I sometimes use the synth packages that came with Cubase. Maybe I’ll invest when I find one that will work for a few songs.

On the early tracks I used a MicroKorg quite a bit.

I like to use synth pad sounds to provide a moving background on tracks like I Spit on Your Grave and Your Smile. On I Spit on Your Grave I recorded the pad into a broken tape recorder and then pressed on one of the spindles with varying pressure to get a warping, tape slowing effect.

Instruments

On most Uffmoor tracks the electric guitar is a Gibson Flying V and the acoustic is an entry-level Fender. I use the rhythm pickups, or both, most often and usually have the tone pot at 10 but sometimes like rolling it off to 0, though I haven’t done this much on record yet.

My amp is a Fender 90 watt thing which sparkles on the clean channel but is fairly grimy on the distortion channel (which I don’t use). For distortion I’ve used a Deucetone Rat pedal into the clean channel. The Deucetone Rat is something I spent far too much money on many kalpas ago when I had a disposable income. It’s two Rat pedals in one unit and you can set them differently and let the signal from the one cascade into the other. I’d just buy one Rat pedal if I had to replace it. It’s pretty good live though as you can still have the Rat sound and get an extra boost for a solo by stomping on the second Rat. You can hear this set up on Darth Vader’s Slowest Dance.

On Everything I Will Remember When We’re Gone, I used an old Line 6 POD for the electric guitar parts, on the fuzz setting. I liked it but miss being able to wail with feedback! I’m thinking about buying a very extreme fuzzbox to get that very electronic sound.

A cheap Danelectro delay pedal serves on a lot of guitar tracks and has been used on Distant Signal songs and live as well as tracks such as The Axe. This is a tape delay sound rather than the icy infinitely receding galacial caverns you can create with digital delays. I use plugins for that kind of sound.

I use a ukulele or a nylon string acoustic on a few tracks. I like the sound of nylon strings and think they chop up well and you can do interesting things with them in your DAW. The Axe has a ukulele that’s been chopped up by SupaTrigga.

I have a little box of toy instruments: bells, xylophones, a harmonica, an plastic accordion. I record these with a microphone and then play with them digitally, adding plugin effects etc. Unexpected sounds can have a big impact.

Drum sounds

I used to download various sample packs people had made and now have a fairly random selection. On Your Smile I recorded my bedroom door closing and EQ’d it to make a kick drum. I want to do this kind of thing more and more.

Sometimes I’ve been known to record with a real live, breathing, drummer (dangerous and not recommended).

Other hardware

I use a Focusrite Scarlett USB interface and a cheap Samson USB condenser mic, which I might upgrade at some point, though it’s served me well. I have an SM-57 for close micing my amp. Sometimes I’ll put it close to the edge of the cone; sometimes far back from the edge of the cone. On Darth Vader’s Slowest Dance I just put the condenser a couple of metres back from my amp, which was raised onto a table.

General wisdom

An atmospheric sample can add a lot of texture to a track. There’ll probably be more of this on future records. It’s also fun to go out and gather the samples just using your phone or whatever you have to hand. You don’t need great audio quality for this as the way its recorded becomes a feature of the sound, making it interesting. That’s probably true of recording as a whole, or at least, that’s the approach I take.

You can never quite get the sound you heard in your head (or on your favourite record) but that’s part of the journey. You get something new. I was trying to do something a bit like M83 with the vocals at the start of Your Smile but I’m happy with it as it is.

A lot of effects can be created out of a limited palette of audio tools. EQ, gating, compression, reverb, delay are all staples of recording and mixing but, used creatively, they can conjure up totally far out sounds, man.

The early tracks, such as those on Forgotten Lore, sound lo-fi and experimental because I didn’t have a lot of kit and didn’t really know how to use what I had. So I played around and improvised until I found something workable. You can always get something from nothing.

I have no problem with using a preset if it’s a shortcut to the sound I want. There’s no point spending a lot of time fiddling with something for the sake of it. There are those who’d burn me at the stake as a witch for saying that.

Ye Olde Minecraft

My son and I took it upon ourselves to play Minecraft the old fashioned way: with wooden blocks. I put the Minecraft Beta soundtrack on the gramophone and the room took on a new aspect, that of a subterranean domain perchance akin to Plato’s fabled cave. I immediately embarked upon an ambitious scale replica of The Tyn in Prague. My son, being an eightmonth babe, cares not for building but instead lifts each individual block in turn, be it red, yellow or blue, and places it in his mouth for further inspection.

As I was about to complete the second spire, a chubby arm reached out and dashed both towers, and nor was my lad content to leave but one brick resting upon another. With my project so thoroughly levelled, the precocious imp looked up at me as if to say, “Father, hast thou not read Solomon? All human endeavour is folly, indeed, vanity”. I had no reply for my young demolisher other than to begin the project again, this time on firmer foundation.

Strange caverns

The most ordinary locations in computer games often take on a life of their own. I’m thinking of the empty school in Silent Hill, rain on the windows in Gone Home, a back alley in The Secret of Monkey Island. There’s an insignificant window in the mansion of the first Resident Evil where text appeared to tell you that a dog could be heard howling in the distance. For some reason, that felt more lonely and vaguely threatening than any realistic sound effect.

Digital hinterlands have our full attention in a way their real world cousins usually don’t. How often do you admire the way rain looks on a window, or consider the unlikely narratives that might burgeon in an unprepossessing alleyway? And of course, intrepid players are rewarded with secrets, and occasionally glimpse the cracks and joins overlooked by developers. Growing up, we’d spin these flaws into the fabric of the game: veering off the road and driving through blurred forest textures; walking for an hour in repeated landscapes; In Quake II, rocket-jumping into the skybox and crawling above the level; In The New Zealand Story spending hours trying to find a way into a void we’d dubbed ‘THE BLACK’.

It’s worth blowing the dust off your old machines to look for the mundane in each extraordinary world. You’ll find these strange caverns eerily unchanged even after many years, when you yourself are outdated and blockier to look at.

It never rains but it paws

Weather here breezes in suddenly, opens the fridge and vanishes again much like a teenager. Rain greyed out the bay in minutes. The headlands disappeared one by one and then, impressive though it is, there was really nothing to look at but a blank wall of water. Even so, my cat has been keeping a watchful eye from the loft and has managed to glimpse a white horse, which he’s growling at. I’ve half a mind to let him after it. The boy has just unsettled in his crib below, but this is probably nothing to do with the rain.