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…