Track titles -> field recordings -> modular synth -> laptop.
by Dave Skipper.
In this series of posts I give background information and details regarding my new concept noise album release אֵלִיָּהוּ/ELIJAH. Check the series page HERE for basic intro and info.
Previous post: Album Notes 1: Project Origin, Album Title, “Christian Noise?”
Preparation (track titles and field recordings)
Once the Bible text for the album theme was decided, I actually spent many weeks reading and re-reading it and thinking through the narrative (mainly 1 Kings 18-19, but also sifting through 1 Kings 16-17 for relevant background context) to figure out how I wanted to break it down for the album structure. I split up the story into distinct scenes that I thought would lend themselves well to individual sonic treatment. Sometimes I can’t help myself alliterate (probably the maths-centric part of my brain getting to work?), so you will notice that all the track titles start with ‘s’ (except for ‘Cyclonic!’ which nevertheless starts with an ‘s’ sound)! I really liked how the titles sounded from the first, so I ended up keeping what were initially just working titles as the finalised track names. My favourite titles are Slashing Flesh While Deities Slumber (track 3) and Susurrations of the Almighty (track 13). The story is naturally divided into two distinct episodes, each of which take place on a different mountain; therefore the album is in two parts – Part 1: Sacrifice! [Mount Carmel] and Part 2: Salvo of the Elements [Mount Horeb]. I will give an overview of the whole album and the story itself in the next post.
More than just divvying up the narrative, I was paying attention to the sounds and noises which occur through the events, some of which are explicitly mentioned in the text. This gave me direction to some of the textures and dynamics that I knew I wanted to use, while other sonic contours were suggested by the mood and drama of the events and speech themselves. Armed with these ideas, I proceeded to sift through various field recordings I had made in recent years, and also went on the lookout for new field recordings that I wanted to integrate. No fancy equipment, these were all recorded as voice memos on my iPhone SE.
Once the time came to actually record the album, several months after starting preparations, the next step was to select and edit which field recordings to use. I just checked now, and altogether I sifted through 57 field recordings, totalling 2 hrs, 6 mins, 25 sec. First I assigned each recording to which album track it would potentially fit with. Then I imported the files into Ableton Live on my laptop, and edited them into 2-3-minute stereo files, one file per album track (for most but not all of the tracks). I made them stereo by hard panning different recordings, or different parts of the same recordings, left and right – this gives good stereo variation. These stereo files were then for processing and manipulating in my modular system for the actual recording process (see below). I will give a bit more detail about some of the field recordings in the track-by-track notes later in this series, though maybe not everything as I think the charm of some of the sounds might be lost if you knew what the source material was!
Recording (modular synth)
I loaded the prepared stereo files into my Make Noise Morphagene Eurorack module, each as a separate Reel (i.e. one file accessible at a time). This module allows for sample playback but with a lot of control, somewhat emulating tape machine techniques developed and advanced by such composers/artists/experimenters as Pierre Schaefer, John Cage, and Curtis Roads in musique concrète and the exploration of sound samples in granular synthesis: splicing, rearranging splices, reverse playback, changing playback speed, overdubbing, adjusting the length of sample playback down to microsound level, etc. Being a Eurorack module, all these parameters and possibilities can be controlled by incoming voltages, giving extraordinary power over the manipulation of any audio sample.
So how did I proceed? Track by track, though not in order, I loaded up the Reel (prepared stereo file) for said track, then patched up a different setting in the rest of my modular system in order to process the Morphagene’s stereo outputs, alongside additional modulated oscillator sounds for extra sounds, noise, and atmospheres. This took some experimenting and testing for each track to find the right sounds and effects and patching ideas. I was trying to achieve two things with each patch: 1) sounds and changes that captured the vibe of the scene in the story, and 2) sounds and changes that I liked! When ready, I hit record and jammed on the patch. There was always a strong improvisatory element, as always for me on the modular, as well as some planned aspects (certain knob twiddlings, anticipated setting shifts, add more of that particular distortion/delay at this point, randomly cut the field recording into many short splices on the fly, etc etc). On a few tracks I recorded specific sounds with a small mic directly into the Morphagene for integration and processing into the track, and a small number of spoken voice parts which appear on the album were also recorded direct into the modular. Altogether I took 50 recordings towards the album, totalling 1 hr, 36 min, 45 sec, although the patching and testing time took significantly longer than that. The entire recording process took place over several evenings when all my kids were tucked up in bed, across a 1-2 week period. This was quick in the scheme of things, but was only possible after several months of preparation (and years of playing modular synths and becoming familiar with my ever-evolving instrument).
I didn’t take any patch notes along the way, but I did note all the modules that I used, so I have put them all in one image here (courtesy of the indispensable Modular Grid):
Here are some comments on (most of) these modules (if these details are not of interest you can skip to the next section below):
- Livewire Dual Cyclotron. This the very first module I bought, ten years ago. It’s very hands-on and can yield some very tasty modulation when you find its sweet spots.
- Happy Nerding TriTone. Basically a 3-channel EQ/filter, but with lots of gain. Cascade the 3 channels and it destroys any incoming signal, with a sweet band pass filter in the middle.
- Befaco Crush Delay v3, Pittsburgh Analog Delay Unit. These both sound nice and dirty in self/oscillation.
- Happy Nerding FX Aid. There are countless FX algorithms that can be loaded onto this module, I just used it for reverbs on this album.
- Random*Source Resonant EQ. Fantastic sounding module (big props to Chris Goudreau for demoing this for me – that convinced me to build a DIY kit). The gain on the inputs sounds great too. Having comb outputs (basically this splits the alternating filter bands between these two outputs) makes it great for converting incoming signals from mono into stereo.
- 4ms WAV Recorder. Indispensable. It’s so convenient to have in-the-rack high quality recording right there; I use this to record all my jams and live gigs, straight onto the micro-SD card.
- Make Noise Mimeophon. Versatile and clean stereo delay. Featured quite a lot on the album.
- Ieaskul F. Mobenthey modules. Crazy, unpredictable modules, awesome for noise. Fourses is a unique quad cross-modulating noise oscillator. Denum is a straight-up VCO that just sounds brilliant and fat when modulated by anything. Mr.Grassi is fun to play with its touchplates, I only used it sparingly though as it can make annoying modem sounds too!
- Noise Engineering Ruinas. Great set of distortions, used in pairs for stereo action. I used them in different combinations on different tracks to shake things up a bit. I think Pura Ruina is the most interesting of all the Ruinas (I didn’t use Kith or Terci on this album).
- Noise Engineering Sinc Bucina. I used these in some patches to gate unwanted noise/hiss from the piled-on distortions in the signal chain when the initial audio from the Morphagene was particularly dynamic.
The final phase was editing down those recordings into the best set of tracks possible. This was actually the most painstaking part of the whole process. You can see from the Ableton Live screenshot below that different colours represent different recordings from the modular. As far as possible I didn’t want to overlay/mix parts together, but you can see that for some tracks this was vital to give the results and depth that I needed. You can also see lots of places where the files are chopped into parts – this was where I cut up the best sounds/sections together, recombining them to create the best flow, transitions, and contrasts that I could. Even where I did this, though, I almost always left the parts in chronological order, so rearranging order-wise was kept to an absolute minimum. All of the tracks apart from two are between 2-4 minutes long, which keeps the story moving along fast enough so that things never get repetitive or boring, but also gives each track enough space to develop its own sounds and trajectory to my satisfaction. You can see that the final track stands out as exceptional both in its length (by far and away the longest track on the album) and as it has not been edited at all.
And so I ended up with the 14 album tracks, totalling 50 min, 0 sec. Each track has a tale to tell (literally!), so look out for the track-by-track notes coming up later in this series…
My goal was to make a coherent and compelling album that would stand up on its own sonic merits, but the storyline and my approach to creating the album guaranteed a diverse and engaging set of pieces that together generate a good trajectory. My approach to the sounds and structure of this album was intentionally driven by the text of the story. This is in sharp contrast to all my other noise recordings and live performances in which I let the sounds themselves be the starting point and the guide to how the noise shifts and develops. However, it remained a top priority for me that the sounds I recorded and jammed on had free rein to ‘be themselves,’ to suggest and direct the course that they then took. Right from my very first album (I recorded ‘Essence’ back in 2003) people have commented that my music often sounds like a film soundtrack – well I guess now I finally did make a soundtrack!
One other point about this whole process, which may seem a strange or insignificant detail, is that at many times I prayed that God would help me and bless this project. He is the One who created me, the One who created the world with all its technological and artistic and sonic possibilities, the One who breathed out his Word the Bible that has driven this album concept from start to finish. I believe that devoting my labours to Him in acknowledgment, gratitude, dependence, and worship is what it means to be most truly human, and I think that doing this (however falteringly and feebly) enabled me to complete what I set out to do (however imperfectly). It has certainly given me a lot of inspiration to delve into more studio noise projects (I’ll say a bit more about this in the final post of this series).
Next post: Album Notes 3: Album Overview