01. It’s about 2pm on Monday. The first thing to do is to decide what project I’m going to work on. I’m trying to focus on a new Dntel related project. The last album, Dumb Luck, had a quirky, poppy feel and I’ve been missing the more atmospheric, melancholic stuff from previous albums, so I want to aim in that direction. That’s about as far as I get with pre-musicmaking thinking – actually a lot of times I don’t even start a song with a project in mind.
02. I plug an Elektron drum machine into an old semi-broken Tascam mixer and then out of the mixer into a Sherman filterbank. Both of these machines I’m sending the signal through are unpredictable (the Tascam because it’s broken and the filterbank because it’s got so many knobs and I don’t really know how to use it correctly). I go through a few drum patterns until I find one that sounds good, adjust the tempo until it feels right and then start turning knobs on the filterbank and mixer. Once I get some idea of how the knobs are affecting the sound, I hit record on the computer and let the beat play for about 10 minutes, turning knobs and altering the drum pattern and seeing what happens. Listening back there are definitely some things I did that don’t work, but for now I’ll leave this jam unedited and start trying things on top of it. It’s good not to get too stuck on details too early in the process.
03. Now I turn on the MicroKorg synthesizer, find a sound, and play random melodies on top of the beat until I stumble on something I like. Then I record myself playing the melody and trying slight variations for about 8 minutes.
04. Even though I was calling what I did in step 2 the beat, it was really more of a noisy, blippy loop. At this point I want to start getting a more substantial beat going. I usually start with a kick drum so that’s what I do here, using a Vermona drum machine. Each drum sound on the machine has its own strip of parameter knobs so I set up an easy techno four-on-the-floor kick pattern and record it for around 8 minutes, twisting knobs, especially riding the attack and decay knobs (attack changes the initial impact of the kick, while the decay affects how long the sound lasts).
05. With the same drum machine I work on a snare sound and pattern and record it the same way, riding similar knobs to change each hit. I try to not just do a snare hit on the 2nd and 4th beat, which would be the most common solution, but I’m not totally happy with the pattern I choose.
06. I have two different little egg-shaped shakers, I record a minute or two of each, then listen back and pick the one I like best, then find a tiny moment where I actually stayed on beat and cut and paste that through the whole song. Then I add some reverb to it. I don’t know it yet, but this will be the only live instrument on the track.
07. Right now I only have one melodic element (from step 3) so I decide to add a little harmony part using the MiniMoog Voyager. I find a sound that’s super bright and piercing and record myself playing it manually. I would have used MIDI and programmed a more elaborate part but for some reason I can’t get the Moog to respond to my computer today. Once I record my clumsy manual performance, I edit it down to the bits that worked and then add some long delay to it. I mostly use a Line 6 delay pedal for delay effects and I record it onto a separate track from the dry signal so I have more control over it later.
08. As the song builds I feel like it needs to have something reinforce the snare, I find a weird clap sound on the JoMox drum machine and record myself playing it manually along with the existing snare. As I’m recording I start hitting other drum sound buttons besides the clap and it evolves into a sloppy percussion jam track. I add some reverb afterwards but resist editing it for now, I leave it sloppy.
09. I’m really sick of hearing the blippy loop (from step 2) so I start looking for places in the song where it’s not needed and fade it out of a few parts. I also cut out some parts of it that I don’t like as much and replace them with better sections from the initial recording.
10. I work on the ending, fading out the snares and shakers and cutting the original blippy loop so it comes to an end at the right time.
11. Then I go back and work on transitions and little rhythmic details, moving drums around, fading stuff in and out…this part usually uses up a lot of time, I can spend 10 minutes moving one snare sound back and forth or adjusting the speed of a fade-in.
12. I add a closed hi-hat pattern for when the track’s at its peak.
13. That snare pattern I was iffy about gets to me. I end up only keeping it in for a small part of the song and then move the snare to the 2 & 4.
14. I keep starting the track over and listening until I hear something that needs adjusting. After a while of this I’m sick of hearing it so I burn a cd and leave the house. It’s about 5:30pm.
15. I listen to it in the car a few times. Usually I’m mostly looking for mixing issues when I listen in the car, like if the kick drums are too loud or the hi-hats are harsh, but with this one I notice more issues with the structure. It feels awkward and way too long (around 8 ½ minutes). I also realize I haven’t added a bassline. Also the main melody repeats way too many times.
16. I spend a few hours away from the song, then around 10:30pm I turn the computer back on. I plan on doing some drastic editing so I save a new version of the track. That way if my big changes totally ruin it I can go back to the old version and try again.
17. I cut out a lot of the beginning of the song. I had realized in the car that I was already growing tired of the melody by the time the beat kicked in. It’s easy to get too precious about every little sound you make and want to keep everything in. I find it especially tempting in intros and outros to get too wanky.
18. I add a bassline finally. Lately I’ve been using the Nord Modular for most of my bass sounds. My first recording of the bass doesn’t feel right, the sound is too squelchy, it doesn’t feel like it fits the song. So I adjust the sound a little and re-record.
19. I spend some more time adding drum fills and little beat variations. I also cave and decide to refine the sloppy percussion jam (from step 8). I don’t make it perfectly quantized but I adjust the more off-beat parts and cut out certain weird hits.
20. I cut out some more sections. In total I get rid of about 3 minutes of the original track.
21. I add some delay to the original synth sound. Having a sound trail off slowly instead of just cutting off is an easy solution to an awkward transition sometimes. In a couple transitional places I also add an overlapped copy of the delayed synth that’s been pitched up a 7th and have it fade in to create a swell that’s a little disorienting.
22. It’s about 12:30am and I feel like I’m getting impatient so I burn the new mix to cd and quit for the night.
23. The next morning I bring it in the car again and feel like it’s really close to done. I pick up a friend and force her to listen to it and make suggestions. Not only is this helpful because you get input from someone who hasn’t listened to it a hundred times already, but also I tend to listen extra critically when there’s an audience. Kind of like if you really like a movie and then you show it to a friend and all of a sudden you notice all sorts of flaws and are embarrassed you built it up so much. At least that’s how it works for me. She suggests having a part where the bassline cuts out and comes back in. Also I notice this one swooshing sound is too loud.
24. It’s 2:30pm on Tuesday. I turn down the swooshing sound and use my friend’s suggestion to adjust the transition into the outro, fading out a bunch of the sounds and then having them reintroduced. It makes it feel more like a new section.
25. I think I’m done, at least for this Modyfier entry. Eventually if I use this for an album it will be adjusted to fit into the context of the album and maybe there will be vocals added and the track will be mastered professionally so it sounds better. But for now I just use a software plug-in to do my own bad mastering job, mostly just so it’ll sound a little louder. I finish at around 3:30pm. The file was saved as “Process” so that’ll be the song title for now, but just a working title. There are probably enough electronic tracks called Process already.
Here’s a list of all the audio tracks that make up the song:
01. Blippy Sherman loop
02. Main synth
03. Main synth delay
04. Main synth transitional pitch change
05. Kick drum
09. Moog harmony
10. Moog delay
11. Sloppy percussion
12. Closed hi-hat