Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Strange Environs

Strange Environs, my 12th studio ambient album, was composed in entirety between November 2014 and August 2015 in San Diego CA USA.


The concept and creative process for the album was influenced by my personal experiences exploring the desert and mountain regions of Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert and surrounding areas. This region is characterized by strange, beautiful, and sometimes dangerous environs that provided me with an escape from the stresses of urban life. Examples of these environs include craggy peaks and ridges a mile above the desert floor; the shores of the Salton Sea, a strange sea in the desert with remnants of a bygone city and dead fish everywhere; Palomar Mountain, where the famous Hale telescope peers toward the firmament; and the barren desert plains and dunes, where by day the terrain is scorched by the sun and by night the sky reveals star clusters and syzygy of planets that are not visible under the blanket of city lights. 

Compositional approach:

With this album, I once again make use of the interplay between light and dark, tension and repose. I focused on having heavy drones in the bass frequencies with flowing synth and string pads and melodies over the top. The underlying drones are dark, while the use of string pads and minimal melodies provide a since of lift and light. Unlike traditional classical or other modern styles of music, Ambient electronic music provides the freedom of unconventional of sounds and composition; the genre is not bound by any creative restrictions.

Production Notes:

I used a combination of virtual synthesizers and hardware synthesizers, particularly virtual analogue synths from Alesis and Korg. Most all of lead melodic parts were tracked as live performances with out sequencing. I used Steinberg Cubase for my DAW. I painstakingly mixed and mastered the album in September of 2015 in my studio in Olympia Washington (home to Wayfarer Records label). The album artwork was done by the extraordinary Michal Karcz. And yes, that is me standing on the ridge.

 The album is to be listened to from beginning to end as one listening experience (how, in my opinion, albums should be listened to). I hope that those who enjoy this style of music will take pleasure in the exploration of moods and soundscapes of this album. Strange Environs is available now from iTunes, CDBaby, Amazon, Bandcamp, and other download/streaming sources.

Read a review here.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Using the EBow in Ambient Music

The EBow (or “electronic bow”) is a hand-held, 9-volt battery-powered electronic device that is used for playing the electric guitar. Gregory S. Heet invented the EBow in the late 1960s. The EBow has been used by guitarists on countless albums across genres such as Genesis, Radiohead and Depeche Mode on the track “Walking in My Shoes”.

How it works

The EBow produces an electromagnetic field that when held over a metal electric guitar string produces a sustained sound that mimics a violin bow played across the strings. These sounds are created by a string driver that gets its input signal by an internal pickup, which works like a guitar pickup (composed of a Alinco-5 magnet). When the string is struck, the input coil senses its vibration. This movement causes a magnetic field to occur, and it induces a current in the input coil. Its output signal is amplified and drives a second coil, which creates a feedback loop that amplifies and sustains the string vibration at its resonant frequency (thus sustaining the note indefinitely).

The more recent versions of the ebow (Plus EBow) have a switch that enables use of a different mode, which produces a higher harmonic overtone. This effect provides a somewhat “nasally” yet musical tone which adds another dimension to the sound of the EBow. It is similar to reverse phasing a coil in a humbucking guitar pickup.

Making it Musical

The ebow allows for vibrating just one string at a time, thus, it is most typical to play single string scales up and down the neck of the guitar. You can switch from one string to another but this sometimes requires plucking and moving the string to get it vibrating. By varying the height of the EBow over a sting, players can create an interesting fading in and out effect.

Here is a live concert video of me playing the ebow on the track “Beneath the Surface” lives at The Gatherings Concert Series. I simply played the EBow in regular mode through the clean channel of an preamp direct into the PA system. I ran the signal through a Boss GT-10 to add some delay and reverb. I am play in the Dorian mode to create a mysterious, otherworldly mood.

Getting creative with the eBow

There are several ways to make the ebow sound more interesting and unique. For the track Imaginary Borders, I played the ebow in harmonic mode on my Gibson Les Paul Special yet I ran the signal into a virtual Korg MS-20 to signal process the sound. I layered this with another EBow track straight. I added a touch of digital delay and reverb to give each track some atmosphere. The results were an interesting interplay of textures.

You may also want to try running the signal through other processors and synths, and trying new playing techniques such as alternate guitar tunings, partial capos, and hybrid picking using regular string plucks and using the EBow in hand. You can also use the EBow on other metal stringed instruments such as the banjo, a 12 string guitar, or the Chapman Stick.

The EBow is most definitely a tool to have in the ambient artists (who plays guitar) arsenal. Its use over the last fifty plus year on countless recordings does render it its sound familiar. Its use can easily be cliché’, that said I challenge you to try new creating things with the EBow. Ambient music is all about sonic experimentation. So what are you waiting for? Experiment!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Space Music and Tips for Composing It

The Wikipedia entry for “space music” defines it as a style of music that is categorized under New Age Music and Ambient Music (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_music).  What makes this style unique is it's specific sound that brings to mind spatial imagery and feelings of floating, flying, etc.  This definition may include ambient music that simply evokes imagery and feelings associated with expansive spaces or space-themed music which is any music (from any genre) that specifically relates to outer space.

The style of music that I most often compose and release on albums is a hybrid of ambient, space music, and other instrumental styles.  However, many of my previous releases do indeed fall under the space-themed music genre (give Music from The Firmament a listen). 

My overarching goal in composition is to create dynamic music that both expresses emotion and facilitates imagery in the mind’s eye.  One way to create the sense of movement and visual imagary in space music is by using particular sounds and production techniques. For example, the use of filter sweeps on analog pads as well as panning and pitch bending techniques can create the perception of movement that is characteristic of this style of music.  And of course, the addition of plenty of reverb and stereo panning is a necessity!

Space music can also have a lot of emotion and dramatic expression in it. I achieve that by drawing on my background in classical music – particularly Baroque music (I previously studied classical guitar and J.S. Bach and Vivaldi are my two favorite classical composers). The use of tension and resolve via chord resolution, major, minor key transitions, and counterpoint are all compositional techniques that I use. I also often use a melodic motif in my compositions to provide a memorable expressive voice as well as ornamentation. 

I have composed by writing out chord progressions and melodies in musical notation, but I seldom do that when composing ambient music. I find that what works for me is to compose based on intuition and experimentation.  Sometimes, when the conditions are right, I find that the music just “flows” and seems to create itself.  

Here are a few tips that may help you to immediately improve your compositions, whether in space music or any other ambient or electronic style:

1.      In a previous blog I discussed how to overcome “composer’s block”. One of the tips was to listen to other styles of music. This applies too when you are simply trying to come up with new musical themes for space music. Listen to some music (any style) and then break it down into elements to see what musical structures you can pull from it and modify  (don’t plagiarize it!).

2.      If you love music, then I’m willing to bet that you have music floating around in your head throughout the day (whether it is someone else’s music or your own).  Sometimes, if you are lucky, you will find that a melody just seems to show up and you are unable to get it out of your mind.  Listen to that inner music and try humming it or singing it – this will make the melody or harmonic structure more concrete for you.  Then, get to your audio workstation, guitar, keyboard or some other instrument and play it!  Once you have the phrasing and theme figured out, you can get down to recording/producing it.

3.      Anyone can find an interesting atmosphereic synth patch, put their finger on the keyboard, and call it “ambient music”.  That said, I recommend that you stretch yourself to do something more interesting!  Add melodic themes and variation!  Play with different contrasts and textures to create interesting soundscapes. Don’t get me wrong, playing out single note drones in ambient music has its place; it can be a great technique to set a mood but it is not necessarily unique or memorable music composition in and of itself.

Ultimately, remember that music is magic and you are the magician. You must draw from the formulas of the masters, prepare and make sure the conditions are right, invoke the appropriate energies, and cast a spell on your listening audience!

I'd love to hear from you so feel free to post your comments. Also, be sure to visit my facebook site.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Singularity in Sound

Singularity in Sound is my eighth solo ambient instrumental studio release. As with many of my previous albums, an overarching, although often non-specific concept or interest was the impetus for writing. The theme for this one involves a conglomeration of futurism and general philosophical/technology themes. I’m a huge fan of Ray Kurzweils’s writing – there is the obvious influence there. It is the year 2012 after all, and a futurism theme just seems to make sense up against a possible technological dystopia and the whole Mayan calendar Doomsday backdrop. I doubt that I would have bothered to produce an album this year if I actually believed that the end of the world would be here before Christmas. I do find this site from NASA to be quite interesting about the matter though...NASA

My main goal with this album was to push my own capabilities as far as sound production goes within the ambient electronic genre. My intent was to use software based synthesizers as well as hardware synthesizers. During the later part of 2011, I purchased several vintage hardware synths from the late 80’s early 90s to augment my existing collection. As far as hardware synths, I used the Korg Wavestation, Ensoniq SD1, and some sounds from the E-MU Proteus series on the album. I have more than 50 soft synths available and a few of my favorites that I used on this album were the Spectrasonics Omnisphere and the Korg Legacy Cell.  You can hear the Wavestation on the track "Threshold" and on a few others.  I also used some field recordings (highly signal processed) here and there, an Alesis AirSynth on the track “In Through the Wires”, and an eBow and Gibson Les Paul Special on the track “Imaginary Borders”.

From a compositional standpoint, the album has an ambient space music feel that is both uplifting as well as somewhat darker (the dystopian theme). I’m a firm believer that a good ambient album is one that flows smoothly from beginning to end but also consists of interesting contrasts. That said, I did not want to make an album that was too dark or consist of sonic elements that would be perceived as harsh by the listener. I spent a lot of time mixing and mastering Singularity in Sound in order to make it an interesting sonic experience. I made this album for both lovers of ambient music aswell as for sound design fanatics like myself. I hope that you will check it out!
Singularity in Sound is set for worldwide release on May 8, 2012 and is available from CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon and all other major digital download services.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Virtual Instruments vs. Classic Hardware Synthesizers

Virtual Studio Technology (VST) instruments, or simply "virtual instruments", are software based sound generators. Many of which are emulators of classic hardware synthesizers.

Many electronic musicians that I know or have read about attest to the sonic superiority of hardware based synthesizers compared to their software based counterparts. Some people think that hardware oscillators and amps sound “warmer” or “fatter”.  I tend to agree with this analysis based on my own experience. There are, however, a number of VST instruments on the market that simply sound fantastic. One of my personal favorites is Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere. It is computer resource intensive but you can’t beat the diversity and capability of the sounds it has built in.

I started to record electronic music during the early 1990s and I have owned and currently own several hardware synths produced in that era that were made by Roland, E-mu, Ensoniq, and Korg. I’ve recently begun to integrate them back into my electronic music productions. My motivation in doing so is three fold. First, I like the way that they sound (it’s that “warm” “fat” thing). Second, some of them have really great sounding patches that I’ve rediscovered and that I want to tweak and use again. Third, it is geeky fun!

I control my hardware synth with a midi keyboard controller through Steinberg Cubase and a MOTU MIDI interface. I simply run the analog stereo outs of each synth through a Mackie mixer and then to my sound card. I typically record the audio in stereo 16bit wav format in Cubase, and will sometimes process the audio within the software (such as adding software based effects, etc).

I’m currently working on a new ambient album called “Singularity in Sound”. I’m using a variety of sound generation techniques to include VST instruments, hardware synths, acoustic instruments (processed guitar), and field recordings/audio samples. My goal is to create the best ambient music album that I can that balances excellent musical composition with interesting sound design. Lately, I’ve been snatching up used hardware synths to add to my collection and for use specifically with this project.

It strikes me that the youngest generation of electronic musicians may have very little if any exposure to classic hardware synths. I encourage you to explore the world of them, or to rediscover them. If you are really courageous, you might consider delving into the world of hardware modular synthesizers. These will enable you to build from the basic elements of sound synthesis.

Ultimately, there is no real turning back to the days of MIDI controlled hardware synths. Software based sound generation is way more flexible and easy for the musician and less expensive for the manufacturer to make and sell. Nonetheless, classic hardware synths are another tool to have in the electronic musician’s studio. Call me nostalgic but I, like Mr. Numan, still “dream of wires”.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Electronic Music Collaboration Via The Internet

One of the greatest things to arise from the advancement of the Internet in recent years is the ability to compose and produce music with collaborators no matter where they are located in the world. Musical collaborators can be found via the Internet and digital audio files can be instantaneously exchanged between composers and producers with ease.  With this blog, I hope to provide you with some inspiration for doing Internet collaboration by sharing some of my experiences with it.

I’m currently producing an album with my Electronic band called EchoHALO. Our vocalist, Tresza, lives in the Midwest while I live in the Pacific Northwest.  We each have our own project studios and digital work stations (DAWs). Tresza and I have adopted a simple process for producing an album together. The steps of our process are as follows:
  1.  I compose and record instrumental tracks in my studio on my DAW (Steinberg Cubase 5 for PC).
  2.  I mix down a given song to 16 bit (44.1khz) stereo and then send the file to Tresza via a file transfer service (we use either yousendit.com or wetransfer.com).
  3.  Tresza imports the stereo file into her Apple Mac based DAW, she then writes lyrics and records individual vocals tracks on her DAW.
  4. Tresza then creates stem files (individual audio tracks with the same beginning at a zero starting point) so that I can open them all up in my DAW in the correct arrangement in time. She records the stem files in .wav format (typically stereo 16 bit 44.1khz) so that the audio is cross compatible with my PC based DAW software. Tresza also creates a stereo mix down version with effects (such as reverb, stereo delay, etc.) so that I can get an understanding of what she has in mind for vocal effects.
  5.  I then mix and master with her dry no effect version stem files and add desired signal processing effects such as compression and EQ. Tresza will also send me alternate takes (stem files and stereo mixdown versions) so that I can compare (comp) and select the best performance.
  6.  I’ll send Tresza a premastered mixdown version for her approval.
The process works great! The only drawback that I have experienced is that, as a producer, I’d prefer to be in the room with her to discuss the actual vocal performance. That is, how we might take alternate takes on the spot or decide together on a particular style for the musical performance.

Another way to collaborate is to send DAW project files to collaborators who are using the same DAW software. Audio, midi, plug-in effects parameters, fades, arrangements and other information can be embedded in DAW project files so if compatible software is used, the files can be opened within each collaborator’s DAW software. 

I have also done a similar process when doing remix work. For example, I produced a remix for the band Halo Effect a couple years ago. The band sent me the stem files for each track and I then reassembled them, added new sections of synthesizers that I recorded in my studio, replaced the snare drum track, kicked up the kick drum, and re-arranged the entire track to make it a bit longer. This was a lot of fun to do!
As a producer and audio engineer for Wayfarer Records, I receive unmastered audio files from our signed artists around the world. We typically master with 16bit 44.1khz wav format. Sometimes I will ask the artists to send me stem files so that I can EQ or add compression to particular tracks before mastering as a stereo file.

You might be interested in a number of services out there to help facilitate Internet based sharing of music composition/production. Some of these include the longstanding acidplanet (www.acidplanet.com) and the popular soundcloud (http://soundcloud.com).  These are great sites to make your tracks available for immediate download, editing, and then upload to share.

If you are looking for other musicians to collaborate with, I invite you to check out the Facebook page Ambient Hub http://www.facebook.com/groups/ambienthub/ . The intent of Ambient Hub is to foster an international community of Ambient music composers, musicians, producers, record labels, and fans. Artists are encouraged to post links to their music (i.e. Sound Cloud, YouTube, etc.) to share with the group.

I’d like to learn more about what processes you have found useful for collaborating with other artists via the Internet. I hope that you will share!

Keep up with my latest musical updates on my Facebook page.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Creativity and the Electronic Musician

The possibilities for creating interesting music are almost endless with all of the technological tools that are available today. Nonetheless, all musicians know what it is like to have “composers block” – that state of being “stuck” during the creation process. I know this state from my own experience as a composer and producer.

The experience of composer’s block for the electronic musician typically presents itself in one of the following forms: 1) spending hours looking for the appropriate sound patch that if found would enable you to compose the track. 2). playing the same sequence over and over but can’t seem to add anything substantial to the track as a whole. 3). or, relatedly, you have composed twenty intros to songs but have no idea how to finish any of them. 4). on average, you spend more time looking at gear online than actually composing and recording anything with the gear you have. 5) Worst of all, you have a plan to compose, you are focused but nothing, absolutely nothing gets tracked. Any of these situations can be quite frustrating, especially if you are a professional musician who must finish a project to get paid.

Much of the experience of composer’s block comes from the lack of inspiration and musical ideas. However, a lack of focus, distractions, and technical problems with gear can also hamper the creative process. I hope to provide you, the electronic musician and producer, with some useful tips for overcoming barriers to the creative process and “finding your muse”. Although much of this blog will be universal to all types of composers, there are creative aspects of electronic music composition and production that are unique to this art form. In particular, electronic musicians must rely on high technology to do what we do. The virtual instruments (e.g., software synthesizers, plug-ins, etc.) available on the market today, provide a plethora of built-in sounds and sound generating capabilities. Thus, whether you are hobbyist or professional, you must consider how technology influences your creative process as well as your ability to work efficiently. I hope that after reading this you will not only be inspired, but will also share your thoughts and experiences as they relate to this topic.

Here are a few of the primary ways that I find inspiration as well improve my focus that I recommend you try.

1. Listen to other people’s music. You probably do this already; however, do you pay close attention to what is going on in the compositions/productions of other artists’ music? Try listening to music from different genres. Listen carefully to how the composers use particular chord progressions or melodies to communicate something in their music. Also, try to focus on one instrument or part, such as the bass line. Be careful not to copy what you hear. Sometimes this can happen subconsciously though (which can be good or bad).

2. Expose yourself to other forms of art. Visit an art gallery or look at an art book. Perhaps read a novel or some poetry. I have been inspired by some of Salvador Dali art books – strange stuff but perfect for the electronic musician! Also, I often find inspiration from the titles of pieces of art or literature. Sometime I will compose a piece of music with a title as the starting point!

3. Pay attention to your own emotional states. Sometimes our ability to be creative will be driven from our inner states. Our emotions can both hamper our ability to be creative but can also drive us to new creative heights. Learn to work with your emotions. For example, sometimes beautiful and powerful musical compositions can come naturally after intense emotional experiences. In other words, capitalize on this when these states occur.

4. Travel. Exposure to novel things can inspire creativity. Maybe this is a walk in the woods, a mountain climb, or trip overseas, or simply a stroll in the big city.

5. Doodle in the studio. One of the most common recommendations for writers who are experiencing writer’s block is “to write, write anything”. Sometimes a great composition will rise like a phoenix out of a little doodling.

6. If doodling does not help, take a break! If you find yourself experiencing “composers block” deliberately take a break from the studio! That’s right, take a few hours or even a week or two off from it. Don’t panic – it will come back to you!

7. Try playing other instruments or manipulating the sound they make. This follows from my recommendation to try novel things. For example, I am a guitarist by training and occasionally work the instrument into my synth-based ambient compositions. One technique that I have done in the past is to play a basic chord progression or long sustained notes on the guitar and record direct without effects. I will then chop up the audio files based on each chord or note and then subject the audio files to a lot of signal processing to completely abstract the sound. I will then reassemble the “parts” into a progression. You can hear this technique on the track “Ascension” on my album The Divided Line and on “The Sands of Time” on the album When the World Was Young.

Also, get creative with synthesizers and effects signal processing. I challenge you to try to customize patches to make them unique. I will often play around with filters, attack and decay to customize the sounds. Effects are also a great way to make your own sounds. Try adding in a flanger, chorus or long reverb delays, or even a step filter. For example, you can hear my use of the step filter on the track “Walking in the White Light” from the album The Divided Line.

8. Remove the distractions. One of the most significant distractions for the electronic musician is the Internet. Ever find yourself surfing the Web on monitor #2 to read up on a piece of studio gear or scanning EBay for that one piece of equipment you “need”? Unplug your network connection for an hour and compose!

9. A little competition won’t hurt you. Enter a music composition or remix contest. This will give you a reason to compose and with a little time pressure, can motivate you to get something done. Uploading your tracks to sites such as sound cloud for others to comment on can help too. Knowing that others will be listening to what you create, you might be motivated to stretch to new heights. This phenomenon is called the “social facilitation effect” in the world of social psychology.

10. If your studio is not broke, don’t fix it. In other words, get your production studio in basic operating mode to facilitate the production process and keep it that way! If you have to rewire a bunch of gear every time you sit down to compose, or feel compelled to constantly tweek hard drive performance, you will likely hamper your creative process.

I hope that these recommendations will be helpful in your creative process. Again, I look forward to hearing what works (or does not work) for you. Happy composing!

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