I’ve been working on this lockdown-inspired track on and off throughout the year, and I’m releasing it now as a way of saying goodbye to 2020. The video is made up of snippets I’ve taken during the year.
Time passing. A holiday in Wales. Walks with the dog. Looking out of the window. Days drifting by. Waiting for this all to end.
Back in February, just before the lockdown, I did my first ever live performance at Electronic Music Open Mic in Camberwell. My friend Nick filmed the whole thing on his smartphone, but the sound quality wasn’t great, and there was a lot of background chatter.
Recently I’ve been playing around with video editing using Final Cut Pro X, which has an almost magical ability to synchronise audio and video from different clips. This was exactly what I needed to combine the smartphone video with my direct audio recording from Ableton Live. That means we get the nice clean audio straight from my laptop, mixed in with a bit of the feel of the room itself, with a nice background hubbub at a non-overwhelming level.
This week my starting point was a rather terrible “hook” I tried to create in 10 minutes during a Music Composition class.
As part of the assessment for this module at Point Blank, we need to submit a screen capture presentation, so I have been playing with OBS. I recorded a screencast showing what I started from, and how I developed this track.
As I say in the video, I feel there’s something missing here, but there are elements that I like a lot. Another one to add to the list of tracks I may come back to at some point to develop further.
Before the lockdown, there used to be these places you could go, didn’t there? Big gatherings of people. In the dark. Loud music was playing. Yes, I remember… there were “gigs”, where they would have people playing music, right in front of you. Oh, and there was also this thing called a “club”. That would be open at night time, and people would go there and dance. That’s right, isn’t it? It was all such a long time ago.
And there would always be that one guy, wouldn’t there? The one who was letting it all go, the one who had boundless energy, all sweaty, always bumping into you, somehow taking up way more space than everybody else.
The homework was to create something with a bass line adapted from the one I’d chosen in class, and also with another non-bass part adapted from the same thing.
Luckily, Phat Planet has a simple two-note bass line – I was glad I hadn’t chosen anything too complicated. I was able to easily recreate its syncopated rhythm using the notes E and G. I made a couple of variations – one where the notes are simply inverted, and another where I improvised a new bass line using the same two notes and a similar-feeling but different rhythm.
I added a few other parts, using various presets from Massive X. Mostly I improvised using notes E and G, in contrasting patterns, so that everything sounded good together.
I added another couple of parts to carry a bit more of a melody. I took a while over these, as I wanted to figure out a chord progression to go with them that would fit the bass. I had a bit of help from a chord progression diagram, and ended up with Em C Am B. The notes E and G fit everything apart from the B chord, where they can be transposed down a semitone to D# and F#.
I created a sequence which built up the various parts. I had a drum build-up which didn’t quite fit in though, as it didn’t lead anywhere. So I played around with the two-note bass variations in my other instruments, offsetting them, moving and adding notes, so I ended up with some nice variations for those, which I went a little bit nuts with. I moved parts through octaves and found I’d come up with something very dancey.
Now I felt like a cat who had climbed on to a high shelf – how am I going to get down from here? I had a load of high-pitched bleepy melodies going nuts and wasn’t sure how I could calm it all down and get to an ending.
Eventually I found my way there, by taking parts in and out, keeping the dancey bits going for a good long time but alternating back to the calmer earlier part of the track, this time with those parts transposed up one octave. Then back into the nutty bleeps again, and finally exit via the melancholy melody, which gives a feeling that the party is over.
What I found interesting this week was that my nutty bleepy bit doesn’t have a chord progression in it – that’s always on notes E and G. Feels like this gives it a relentlessness which is what I want for this track. I tried making it stick to the same chord progression as the rest of the track, by transposing E and G down to D# and F# for the fourth bar, but it just felt completely wrong. So, there’s contrast between the nutty bleep “chorus” (which is always in Em) and the less nutty “verses” which have the Em C Am B progression.
This is my favourite of the exercises I’ve done so far, and I’ve found myself listening back to it a lot. There are a few little changes I’d like to make to it, and it will definitely need some proper production, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be coming back to this to properly it finish it off at some point.
Ah, the big questions. Do human beings have free will? What is consciousness? And what would happen if Destiny’s Child did a Radiohead cover?
For week 4 of Music Composition, I tried to answer the third question. Spoiler: I don’t think I quite answered it (because R&B is not my usual genre, and also Beyonce isn’t replying to my emails). But I came up with something that sounds a bit different to my usual thing.
To create this, I took elements from “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child – scatty R&B-style drums and arpeggiated strings, and I also wanted to make some kind of homage to the “Oooh-oooh-oooh” bit. I used the same chord progression (Em C B Em), and tempo (about 160 BPM).
I arpeggiated the “Survivor” chords with Ableton’s sampled cello section. It sounds similar but it’s not quite the same arpeggiation as the original. I added an R&B style drum beat. I didn’t try to copy the beat from “Survivor”, because… it’s too hard. The drums are quite complicated and seem to continually change. But I found a drum kit that sounded in the right style, and I made some repeating kicks and a fast hihat pattern with some gaps, and added claps on the third beat of each bar. Sounds close enough to R&B I think?
I searched online for a MIDI file of “Creep”, and copied in the verse and chorus. All of the notes used are in the scale of Em, but of course it doesn’t follow the same chords as “Survivor”, so I moved the notes around so they fitted the chords better.
Then I remembered that I wasn’t actually trying to create a mash-up here – these were just supposed to be my starting points! I discarded the “Creep” verse and edited the chorus. I kept the first and second lines (“I’m a creep”, “I’m a weirdo”), discarded the third (“What the hell am I doing here”) and repeated the fourth twice (“I don’t belong here”). I changed the timings of the notes as I wanted them to fit tightly with this track.
I tried different presets for the “Creep” melody for ages. It felt like it was moving too far away from R&B as I tried a load of synth presets. Eventually I hit upon Ableton’s sampled clarinet, which was much more fitting.
As my homage to the “Oooh-oooh-oooh” bit of “Survivor”, I wanted to add some things in different instruments which repeated parts of the main melody. I added a horn sound, which does a kind of response to what the clarinet is doing – there’s a descending three-note pattern from the “Creep” chorus which it repeats about about a bar after the clarinet does it. I added a bit of new melody just for the horn, and made sure the notes it’s playing fitted with the underlying chords. Then I did a similar thing with another instrument I found in Ableton’s core library, which is supposed to be some kind of lute.
At this point I started to struggle a bit. I was using the “Creep” chorus as a verse, so needed a chorus for this song. I tried to write one, and also added a bass line and a pad sound. I started arranging my Ableton scenes into some kind of structure. But I felt like I was losing the plot. Not for the first time when trying to do these exercises. There’s always a moment where I wonder what the hell I’m doing. I felt like I was trying to assemble some Ikea furniture without instructions. I just had a pile of parts and no idea what to turn them into.
After taking a break, I came back and improvised with various combinations of things. I found that taking the melody out and just using my “response” parts gave a nice mysterious-sounding introduction, so I could build up from that to introducing the “Creep” melody.
I then went through each of my parts. Surprise surprise, I was making the mistake I always make, where I wasn’t being careful about using notes from the underlying chord. I’d improvised an extra backing melody, which was subtly clashing with things because it was just noodling around the key of Em without much care for what else was going on at the same time. I’d made a few other mistakes when trying to fit the “Creep” melody to the chords too. I found out that the B chord in the progression contains notes that are not in the key of Em, so it felt like I needed to be extra careful around that bar. (Edit: Actually, this is because the scale used is the harmonic minor scale, and I had my Push set to the natural minor)
With a bit of tweaking, I eventually found that I could get all of my parts to play nicely together, even if I played all of them at the same time. That suddenly made it much easier to create the structure that was missing.
I jammed a new chorus which contrasted nicely with the “Creep” melody as a verse. It gives us a nice break from the clarinet. Bringing parts in and out gives a structure that seems to work nicely.
I’m semi-pleased with this… it didn’t turn out sounding much like R&B though. I think it sounds like it could be the ending credits to some kind of spy drama. Whatever it is, it sounds different to the kind of thing I’d usually make.
Maybe I’ll come back to it one day and rework the whole thing. I was thinking I’d probably take out the drums that are trying to be R&B, but listening back to it today, I think I quite like them – they just need a bit more variation. Actually all the parts could use a bit more variation. Oh, and I’d change the melody so it wasn’t “Creep” any more. I expect Radiohead’s record label would probably have something to say about that.
Four weeks ago I started studying at Point Blank Music School in London. The coronavirus lockdown has meant the experience has been quite different from what I signed up for – instead of being based at their studios in Shoreditch, all classes are currently being delivered remotely via Zoom. But the transition to online learning has been handled really well, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it all so far.
One of my modules this term is Music Composition, and each week the homework is to write and finish a track from scratch. Nothing focuses my mind quite like a deadline. Normally I would tinker with tracks intermittently over the course of months, or even years, but being forced to come up with something new each week has done wonders for my productivity.
I’ve completed three weeks of this homework so far, and I have three tracks which are “finished” – at least, to some extent. This is the Music Composition module after all, so that’s the focus – which means none of these have been properly mixed or mastered, and they’re all using out-of-the-box presets from either Ableton Live or Massive. I would certainly like to spend more time on all of them to give them some extra polish, and possibly even rework them extensively. I may well do that at some point in the future, but for now, here are three new demos.
Week 1 – The Leader Vanishes
There was not much of a brief for week 1 – simply write and finish a track in about 3 hours.
I kept a little diary as I was writing this, noting down the decisions I was making, and the barriers I was facing. This was instructive, as I’ve never analysed my process for writing music before. Generally my biggest barrier was confidence, because of a lack of knowledge. I felt like I was fudging this together, plonking down a rudimentary chord sequence and bassline. I like the melody, but then I struggled to know what to do with the track so it would “go” somewhere.
I like where this ends up (from about one minute in), but it seems to take a little too long getting there, so that’s something I would rework.
I called this “The Leader Vanishes”, because it sounds like something that could soundtrack a TV drama where the Prime Minister has gone missing.
Week 2 – Killing Time
Again there wasn’t much detail in the brief for week 2 – just take a few starting points (a short rhythm, melody and chord progression) and finish a track.
I quickly created a basic drumbeat, with a few variations taking elements in and out. I used Captain Chords to give me a chord progression (Am, Em, D, C), and chose an ambient Operator patch for the chords, which gave it a weird Boards of Canada vibe. Then I jammed a basic melody on the Push.
I created a bassline by following the root note of the chords, then varying it a little using other notes from the chords. I then adapted the simple melody I’d created so it used more notes from the underlying chords. Something felt a bit weird to me though. The Push was set to the scale of A minor, and I spotted that the D chord which Captain Chords had given me contained an F#, which is not in the scale. I changed that note to a G, which creates a Gsus2 chord.
Aside: As you might be able to tell from that description, I’m still feeling my way around with this stuff, but technology really helps. I use the J74 Chord Detect plugin in Max for Live, which will name any chord it detects from incoming MIDI (I believe Logic can do this out of the box?) – that’s how I knew I’d turned my D chord into a Gsus2.
I felt like I was getting a bit stuck, so I freshened things up by trying a different sound for the chords. I liked this as a progression from the previous sound, so decided I would keep both. Although then I felt that this same chord progression constantly looping round was just making things feel bleak and oppressive.
I played the track to my partner, who pointed out that the “bleak and oppressive” track I’d been talking about was actually quite fast with lots of things going on. I realised that sometimes my ears will just somehow “forget” to hear all of the things that I’ve thrown in, which is a useful lesson.
I decided to slow things down, reducing the tempo and rewriting the melody to be much simpler and slower. Then I created a new chord progression (Dm, F, C, Bb), using Dm as my new tonic chord is it’s next to Am on the Circle of Fifths. I’m pretty clueless about modulations but this seemed to work fine placed right after my initial chord progression. Definitely something for me to spend more time researching and practicing.
With a new melody and a new simple bassline to go with the new chords, I was finished. “Finished”.
I think this would sound really nice with vocals. I tried playing some random acapellas which are in the same key at the same time as the track, and they sound cool. That will be something to play with if I develop this track further.
Week 3 – Untitled Pop
This week, the brief was to use elements from a genre or style you wouldn’t usually use. I chose to experiment with a genre that is somewhat alien to me these days – pop music!
I must admit I’ve not been following the charts for about 20 years now, but since starting at Point Blank I’ve been spending some time listening to chart music, catching up with what the kids are listening to these days. I’ve been looking at Spotify playlists, and occasionally turning on Radio 1 or MTV Hits. Sometimes I will look up an artist who is completely new to me, and I will find out, for example, that they are in fact the second most-streamed artist ever on Spotify. Or that they had a number 1 for 10 weeks last year. I feel so out of touch. But at least I’m getting better. And it turns out that some of this pop music is rather good. It must be popular for a reason…
For my starting points for this exercise, I took a song that has recently been in the charts and studied it closely. I copied the chords – Am F C G, at 145BPM, changing every 2 bars, and made a similar drum beat. I also wanted to try and stick roughly to the same structure as the original song, so we have an intro of 8 bars, a “verse” of 16 bars, a 2-bar breakdown, then a 16-bar “chorus”. After that I’ve changed the structure a bit, as I’ve created a variation of the chorus, and towards the end I have the chorus and verse playing at the same time.
Starting from the chords, I created a bassline which mostly follows the root note of the chord. I initially had more variation within it, which sounded good on its own, but as soon as my melody had its own variations, things started clashing a bit, so I simplified it a lot from what I started out with.
Some of the melodies I created by jamming on the Push, set to the scale of A minor. And some of them I just experimented by drawing in notes into the piano roll in Ableton Live. I then moved notes around so I was mostly using the same notes as the underlying chord. The creative barrier I felt this week was getting a feel for how much to use not-in-the-chord “passing notes” to add interest to the melody without having it clash with the bass, but I think I have a better understanding now of how these fit together (basically I now know not to have passing notes in the other layers at the same time, otherwise that effectively creates a different chord).
I’ve varied the drum pattern (adding and removing hihats) throughout to add interest. The chorus and the verse use different presets, and I’ve also tried to give them a different feel to each other. The verse has two 8-bar sections (one with all long notes, and one with a mixture of short and long notes) which have more melodic movement, whereas the chorus is a simpler hands-in-the-air stabby dance riff. This gives a bit of contrast, and also enables them to be played together towards the end.
I’m quite excited about this track, as it feels like the most “commercial” thing I’ve ever done, but it’s still “me”. It’s definitely one I want to spend some time developing further.