Monday, November 21, 2011

The Making of Trees, my collaboration with Curt Smith

Last year was an amazing year of singing and meeting new wonderful people. It was a real dream come true for me to meet Curt Smith. I was introduced to Curt by James Roday (another great person I met last year), who asked me one day if it was ok to show my music to Curt. As if I'd say no! A month or so later, Curt and I had a chance to hang out for a few hours in San Francisco. We probably spent about 2 minutes of that talking about Trees. Curt basically said, "just do what you do" and his only direction was that he wouldn't mind it being a bit darker than the original. I decided to make it haunting and ethereal but drums just kept popping up in my head and over time it naturally evolved into a sort of haunting synth pop dreamscape.

It was an absolute honor to work on this song although it didn't seem real until I heard Curt's vocals on it. And of course I immediately burst into tears when I heard it. Are you serious? That's CURT SMITH'S VOICE and mine- together!! I still find it hard to believe. I still think of myself as an isolated housewife/mother who sits in the soundproof closet singing to herself. (Oh wait, I am.) But lately my voice has had the privilege to travel to places I've never dreamed of thanks to the success of last year's The Smiths Project, and now thanks to the amazing Curt Smith!

How Trees Was Made

I spent about three months on the song from start to finish. All drums, bass, synths, etc. were made from samples of my voice edited to sound a particular way. I generally never stop to document my process (there's just no time, man!) but this week I decided to go back through the track to pull out some of the elements to explain how I did it.

The intro loops were created by singing along with the original song. I'd sing a melody I liked and then turn it off and record a different melody onto a separate track and so on. I purposely turned off each previous loop so that I wouldn't be influenced by it. And because I'm singing so much so fast, I never remember what I've just recorded! When I had several loops recorded, I turned them all on at once to see what it sounded like. It's my small way of following John Cage's principals for music by chance. Here are a few individual loops, then all of them together.

I used layer upon layer of voice, created quickly by singing each line on a loop until I built up an entire choir of sound. There is a separate loop of Oooo sounds the bend up to a higher note. Each melody you hear was layered a minimum of 5 times to create a full sound. As my son says, "That's a lot of mammas."

For Synths, I sang the melody I wanted, but then I took just one small snippet of each note and placed the notes individually. I set each note's volume to include an attack, sustain/decay/release just like you would if creating a sound on a keyboard, then added a fuzz-wah effect and delay. Here is the clean sound, then added fuzz-wah, then added delay for the final sound.

Bass notes are created in a similar way to the synths, except I drop down the melody a few octaves to put it in a bass range.

Drums were created with basic beatboxing and then each sound is chopped into little pieces. I generally cut off the beginning of each sound to give it a strong clean attack. The drums are placed into a pattern that I copy and paste through the whole song. Then I go back and edit volumes, add variations to the pattern, fills, etc... I don't have any sampling gear or trigger pads, so everything is done manually. Here is a sample of drums and the bass guitar sound.

For the break, I wanted to give it an ethereal angelic feeling a la My Bloody Valentine. I created a choir of vocals and turned them on/off every 16th note for rhythm and variation of tones. I then ran allllll of that through reverb like woa. And then ran THAT through distortion to give it a really washed out wall of sound.

With all this in mind, here is the completed track.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Voice as synthesizers

Here is a clip of what one of my vocal synths looks like in ProTools. Just a few of the 30-ish layers that make up a song.

I start by humming a very high, pinched, thin note into a looper which records for 2 seconds and then continuously layers it to form a solid full pitch. I put those pitches into ProTools (shown here) and manually set the volume of each pitch shown in black lines. You can visually see the notes "turn on" as the cursor moves along the timeline. Each track is generally one pitch each, just like on a keyboard, otherwise things get confusing quick! Once I've set the volumes just where I want them, all of these individual tracks get bounced down to one stereo track labeled Synth and is then mixed into the song.

Friday, October 14, 2011

It begins

I'm sitting here drinking my morning coffee from "my spot" on the dining room table as my 4 year old son yells at Dora the Explorer, "The TAKE-AWAY trick! Subtracto!" and I wonder... where to begin this blog? First let me say, I've just realized last night that the far end of this corner booth is going flat. It's been my office chair for months and it seems that I'll soon be sitting on nothing but the hard wood under the sad, sad foam that used to be here. I hope it's all worth it in the end, though. It's getting nearer to the time that will tell.

The new music I've been editing is made entirely of INTENSELY edited vocals (and in a few cases heavily edited piano samples as well). This album is more of a conceptual art piece than 11 pop songs but I wonder on a daily basis if this concept will be lost on many listeners who just think it sounds like odd synthesizers. None of the parts are simply played and recorded. Each note is a sample of my voice, pieced together to form a melody. The attack, sustain, and release of each note, volume, panning left and right... all created by hand. So, I think it's important as the songs are nearing completion, to pick you up in my car and take you along for the ride. You must know, there will be lots of stops along the way, the car is not registered and smells like burnt crayons, and there will be a continuous running commentary from The King of Random in the back seat.

As I edit the music, I will post snippets of tracks and sounds that make up the music and let you hear things as I hear them every day, in pieces, in groupings, all together, singled out. I'll post lyrics, pictures and daily events relevant to making the music. I'll let you in on what it's like to be an unemployed housewife with BIG DREAMS who's raising a 4 year old and attempting to make a unique solo album while keeping the household insanity down to a category-one hurricane.

"Oh OH!! Mom!! Wait, I have a great idea! Let's ARGUE!!!"

Time to pour more coffee, get Jaden his cheerios, and fire up Pro Tools. Same as it ever was...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Want to hear my first release of 2011?

This is a Tom Waits cover, requested by Paul Campbell as his Kickstarter backer reward. Paul has been so amazingly supportive of The Smiths Project Box Set and I was honored to do this song for him. I also thought it was incredibly sweet that he gave the song to his wife for her birthday, which was also the due date for their new baby. Paul is a really admirable man and I'm proud to have him along Curt Smith and James Roday as the main producers of The Smiths Project box set. He helped make the box set a lot more amazing than it would have been. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Paul!

I was also thrilled that it was a Tom Waits cover because I'm a huge fan of his. I love his music, acting, his garage full of weird homemade instruments... Totally my type of guy. I'm not sure he ever imagined his song sounding so upbeat, but if he ever hears it, I do hope he likes it. He actually lives not too far from me. Perhaps I should ask him out for coffee* to see what he thinks? I'm sure we could spend hours talking about our experimental approach to music...

*To be clear, "ask him out for coffee" = stalk him outside the impenetrable fortress that surrounds his home, wither away after a week with no food, and hopefully end up as a human bone xylophone in his music studio.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

First new original song has begun

I have a list of about 25 songs that I would like to do this year. For some reason the very last one on the list called out to me today and so that is where I began. I find that I work much better if I have five songs in rotation at a time. If I get stuck or lose my inspiration on one song, I always have another one to work on. My first priority is the collaboration with Curt Smith, but it's nice to know there are several songs in motion.

These songs have been floating around in my head for years- and some of them have even made it to various stages of recording, but they've never been given the attention they needed to be fully realized. This is finally about to change.

I'm excited to be working on original material this year and I'm curious to see where the music goes now that I am working on my own, without the guidance of fleshed out (and genius!) music as prompts. The melody is now free to go where it pleases...