Thursday 20 October 2011

Remixing Glitterball - Short story made long

I love to tinker about with music stuff…a chord here, a riff there, the occasional noodle when you least expect it (matron) and so on…

This mostly results in a hard disk stuffed full of project files each containing fragments of ideas with decidedly unhelpful names like “Idea8”, “Saturday” and “DayAfterBackup”.

Sometimes, I’ll have a purpose to what I am doing and, typically, this will be either to make a mash-up (two or more tunes flung mercilessly together) or to take materials provided by a band or artist and use them to produce a “remix”.

Hark at me! Sounds like I’ve done hundreds of such things…but in fact, I have only done a small number and this is largely because it takes me forever!

The trouble is, I can’t play piano/keyboard, guitar/bass or drums *properly*. Sure, I can pick-out a tune, play a chord or two and pelt out a basic rhythm…but in terms of performances, I don’t have the chops. So pretty much everything I do, when it comes to actual finished pieces, is programmed, note by note, on a piano-roll grid, using the mouse. Sometimes I’ll hit record and play a few notes, but only to get tricky timing right or for a more “human” feel.

This way, three minutes of music can take up to 3 months(!) to produce (obviously not working on it 24/7…just in the evenings and at weekends). It’s like building a model of the Cutty Sark out of matchsticks, having cut the individual matchsticks from a large tree. Inefficient…but I can do it…and it seems to work.

For followers of small (but perfectly formed) Prog bands, remix opportunities are quite rare so I was delighted when Magenta’s Rob Reed declared that the first track of their Chameleon Project, “Glitterball” would be available in multi-track form.

With Christina’s lead vocal loaded into Sonar and on a repeat loop, I noodled along for a long time, trying different patterns and chords. Eventually, a pattern seemed to fit, but it really worked better as a bass-line, which had a “swing” feel to it and the idea of a “big band” treatment started to emerge.

Using the “V-Vocal” tool in Sonar, I was able to take Christina’s vocals and re-time them to fit the “swing” feel and move a note here and there just to make a better match to my bass-line. It was fiddly work, but after a while I had both verses worked-out and sounding pretty good.

Working out what to do for the rest of the track came next and I figured it would help to research some examples of the genre for inspiration.

I plundered my CD collection for Big Band examples….erm, not much there, except for Robbie William’s “Swing When You’re Winning” which contains a track that was used in the “Bridget Jones” soundtrack. The song, “Have you met Miss Jones” is a wonderfully crafted piece with all the elements I was thinking of, huge brass contrasted with lighter accompaniment for the verses….a stencil to follow, as it were.

So I needed a big brassy intro and thought I’d resort to my previous habit of finding other Magenta melodies that could be “re-purposed”. The solution was to use the riff from the intro of “Children of the Sun”, the first track on “Reflections”. With a bit of tweaking it soon started to work as a brass lead so when I added counter-melodies on saxophones, a solid bass part and some full-on drums, it started to give a slightly similar feel to the “stencil” I was following.

With the intro and two verses completed (in demo form at least) I reached a point where I wasn’t quite sure where to go next. Probably a bit pretentious for me to call it “writer’s block” but I kept coming back to it and trying things that just didn’t work.

My “stencil” called for a return of the full-on brass to repeat the verse melody but I couldn’t decide on a good key-change. For a long time I had the “care” of Tina’s second “we don’t care” pitched two semi-tones up, which led to a higher middle section that proved hard to “get back from” at the other end.

Eventually, I undid the pitch change and it slowly fell into place, as you can hear it now, and the “route” from there to the ending was pretty straight-forward, pulling back to the accompaniment behind the vocal to allow for a build-up to the finish.

Then I started trying to improve the sounds, the mix and the arrangement to stand alongside my “stencil” of Mr. Williams’ song.

I found the mix and arrangement to be a lot of fun, adding “references” into the parts so that the “as we run” melody and the “Children of the Sun” pattern kept returning. I also found that I could take Rob’s Moog intro from the original Glitterball and re-time it to fit as a muted trumpet “solo” behind the second verse.

The biggest hurdle to getting close to the stencil was the brass sounds. The presets on the Korg Triton aren’t bad, but they lack some expression and variation. Trying to match real brass played by real players in a real and perfect studio was never going to happen.

So I figured I’d ask Rob Reed if he had any suggestions/tips for getting closer to the target; and I sent him snippets from the Williams’ track and my work-in-progress.

He kindly replied with some helpful advice on how to make the sound bigger, but his most amazing suggestion was that I should take my files down to meet him in his studio where he could apply the tippiest-toppiest-bestest brass sample libraries (3 to 4-figure price-tag stuff) to the project.

I was stunned and quite a bit over-awed to be honest. My in-built reflex to offers like these is “oh no, thanks, I couldn’t possibly ask you to do that, etc.” but, completely out of character, I decided to go for it and accept Rob’s very generous offer.

With the deadline for the DVD going to press looming, a little bit of additional pressure was added when Chris Jones suggested making a video diary of the go on the DVD!

So, early on a Saturday morning, I rigged-up a mount to hold a borrowed Smartphone in the windscreen of our car and filmed the three and a half hour drive down to Porth in South Wales.

To be continued…

Sunday 17 April 2011

Nice weekend!!

Quick trip to Kent (as you do) this to see Daughter the First (and only, as it goes) cos it's her Birthday tomorrow, Monday.

It was also Mrs Pedro's birthday today (Sunday) so we celebrated two birthdays in the Garden of England....and it was very nice too.

Mucho technology around too since Mrs P had a Nintendo 3DS which is, frankly, jaw-droppingly brilliant. It looks terrible when viewed from out of the sweet-spot but in the right place you get a surprisingly effective image. Quite how well this will end up being used by games writers in the future remains to be seen but it could be amazing.

Miss Pedro had a Sat Nav which is whizzier than mine (in many ways) and I spent some time with her working out how to get her car's voice recognition system to drive her iPhone.

So, int tecnology billiant! :o)

Plus, this weekend saw the return of the genius Jem Godfrey to the virtual realms - marvellous to read his blog and hear that he is working on new music, not Frost* - but that doesn't matter, that chap is a natural crotchet charmer and I look forward to whatever he does with much interest.

Right, I think there's 40 winks around here somewhere with my name on them.


Thursday 30 December 2010

...the hinges on this thing have rusted up...

I've not been in here much at time really. Crikey look at the dust...
Reading absolutely everything on 5 forums and keeping up to date with Twitter and Facebook kind of does for all my free time really.
Daft really....could be doing so much more.

Anyway, what has been happening?

A lovely Christmas was had by all here. The lovely Mrs Pedro tried to sate my gear lust by ordering the Sonar X1 Producer upgrade and the Spectrasonics Trilogy to Trilian upgrade for me as Chrimbo pressies. Neither arrived in time, sadly.

The Dolphins at Dolphin Music appear to be dragging their flippers a bit - blaming the weather - but I'm not sure the weather is much of an excuse now. The Trilian upgrade order got a bit lost (not their fault) but once correctly placed the discs made it all the way from Las Vegas to here in Nottingham in just 3 days so, unless Sonar is coming via a pretty torturous route, I reckon the weather has helped to excuse some supply chain issues here and there.

Anyway, gr8gonzo's radio show "Experiments in Mass Appeal" on The Dividing Line Broadcast Network this Saturday (9pm-Midnight) is a Frost*ie special and will include some contributions from Frost* forum inhabitants. I've submitted a little audio "cartoon" which might (hopefully) raise a smile.

Right, must go back and help Trilian to shovel its 35GB of sample data into my PC!

Saturday 10 July 2010

Ah, Blender, how I loathe thee...

It was a total, total head-feck to learn how to use it and I was just about getting good results with it when the bomb-shell of the threat of redundancy hit in the middle of last year. Then I lost interest in the project for some reason...

Now, with the threat of redundancy lifted (as much as it can be these days), I am desperately trying to pick the flippin' thing back up again...but it's not proving to be easy. The interface is so counter-intuitive...I mean, right-mouse-button to select things?? Jeez...

Anyway, that's what I am wasting my time on at the moment....

Monday 21 June 2010

Genre Bending....again

Inspired by Mouse's orchestral take on a Tinyfish song I re-visited an earlier idea to see if I could pull off a string-quartet re-imagining of some of Milliontown, the track.

The biggest hurdle was finding a string sound that wasn't obviously meant to sound like multiple players but in doing so didn't sound like a cheap kazoo!

The Korg Triton contains a patch called "Few Bows Here" which was the closest fit but it was quite light on realistic articulations and rather heavy on vibrato but it was the best I had.

So I set about trying to devise an arrangement that carried the main themes but didn't sound too dull and samey. I did all this by ear and from memory/imagination, I didn't play along with the track because, as it transpired, I'd got it a semi-tone or two lower than the original! I'd worked out the opening section on the keyboard without bothering to start it on the right note!

So after much fumbling around trying to trim bits to flow together the structure settled down and I began to balance the four parts so that it was "believable" in terms of what real players might be able to play (and not trying to keep up with Jem's fingers!).

I was quite surprised to find the Black Light Machine "Big banana" section slotted in to the piece where it did...just felt right.

Anyway, it can be played or downloaded from

Enjoy! :o)

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Is collaborating really a team game?

So, the notion of a Frost*ie collaboration (that went cold 3 years ago) has de-frost*ed again.
When Milliontown shook me from my musical slumbers in 2006 and as part of the euphoric period in which many remixes of The Other Me were made, I figured it might be cool to pick-up on the little piano outro at the amend of the album and see if it a further song could be made using it.
A few of the Frost*ies declared an interest in having a go at playing some parts so I figured I try to pull it together.
I made a little demo of it and apart from some cheesy arrangement (and shonky playing) it seemed to work. The mighty Sawtooth was the only other person to hear it back then and we figured the next step was for me to make a framework for people to use to record their own parts....and now, three years on, that's still the next step!
An independent question to Jem about that same outro made me realise the ball was still in my court so I posted a link to the original demo and there's a new, small, wave of interest again.
It's an idea fraught with logistical problems but I hope we can get it to go somewhere this time...unless I get distrac-...ooh, is that a cup of tea?
Getting the framework right is the hard part, it's not easy to compose an interesting, coherent piece without hearing it all.
Already, some of the feedback suggests that it could easily turn into something like one of the 300 collaborative limericks we have on the forum; i.e. You think you know where it might go and in single step it's something different.
The other problem is getting people to hear ideas and not think it's a finished thought - hard enough when everyone is in the same room.
Could be interesting. Could be troublesome.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Oooh...this looks very interesting...

It seems that MediaMolecule, them geniuses wot made Little Big Planet are at it again...

...and, it seems that pretty much everything I asked them to add to LBP (and waaay more) is going to be there (I'm not saying it's anything to do with my request but I'm chuffed anyway) so that is going to be one absolutely essential pre-order and a whole sink full of time lost to having some fun pushing the boundaries with that. Now if only there was a piece of music that I already have an idea for...oh, yes, so there is... :o)