Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Studio Move

Hello!

As you may or may not know, I recently moved to Manchester, and this meant that I had to move my studio with me. What fun that was! Luckily, it’s all set up again now, and I have a bigger studio space than before. What’s in there? Take a look:

Custom desk, studio equipment and a “Send Help” picture given to my by my brother Dan and his wife – apt when there’s a tight deadline and the computer isn’t cooperating!

Let me take you through the setup. I work in a programme (known as a digital audio workstation, or DAW) called Pro Tools, which you can see on my screens. This handles the video, audio and MIDI (the signals from my master keyboard), and allows me to record real instruments or use virtual instruments and sample libraries.

Pro Tools on my 20-inch Apple Cinema displays

Pro Tools has two windows: Mix and Edit. They make it quite simple to use – one reason I love the programme. The Edit window is where you input all the data – like MIDI and audio files, time signatures, and tempi – and then edit it as needed.

Pro Tools Edit window

The Mix window is where you can, well, mix the music (more on that later). It is also the window you use to put virtual instruments and effects (like delays or compressors) onto tracks.

Pro Tools Mix window

Next to my computer screens, I have my monitor speakers. I use a set of Genelec 8020As, which I love. They’re great for writing and doing rough mixes, which is exactly why I need them. They’re real workhorses – I got them in 2005 and they’re still going strong!

Graeme sitting on top of a Genelec 2080A

Under my screens, I have an Arturia Beatstep Pro, which I use mostly for drum programming (by playing the grey pads in different patterns). There are all sorts of twiddly knobs and buttons on it that I’m yet to get fully to grips with, but it’s a great bit of kit.

Arturia Beatstep Pro controller and sequencer

Next to the Beatstep Pro, I have my Avid Artist Mix. This is a mixing desk made by the same company that makes Pro Tools. This allows me to mix with actual faders, which have a much nicer feel (and are much easier) than using a mouse to move the virtual faders in Pro Tools.

Avid Artist Mix

My screens, the Artist Mix, and the Beatstep Pro all sit on top of a rack unit holding my outboard gear (anything external to the computer, like amplifiers or modular synths). What’s in mine?

On the right, I have an M-Audio Midisport 8x8 and a UAD Apollo audio interface.The Midisport 8x8 is connected to my master keyboard (see below) via MIDI and to the computer via USB, so that I can record straight into Pro Tools. The Apollo is connected to the computer via Firewire and lets me hear what Pro Tools is playing, as well as plug in microphones and record real instruments. You’ll notice that there’s a gap in the right-hand rack; that’s where there should be an Eventide Eclipse, a great effects unit that adds all sorts of delays and reverbs. (GIVE ME BACK MY ECLIPSE, DAN!) I used it heavily on my score for Stormhouse.

Top to bottom: M-Audio Midisport 8x8/s; UAD Apollo Quad; gap for my Eventide Eclipse (seriously, Dan, give it back).

On the left I have a Focusrite OctoPre MkII Dynamic preamp and an Avid Digi 002 Rack. You plug microphones into the OctoPre so that you can record instruments. (“Isn’t that what you said the Apollo does?” Well, yes – the OctoPre is mostly a backup nowadays.) The Digi 002 is the first audio interface I ever owned. Made by Avid, it was linked into Pro Tools when I got it, but now it’s another emergency backup.

Top to Bottom: Focusrite OctoPre MkII Dynamic, Avid Digi 002 Rack.

In front of the rack unit is my Kensington trackball mouse and an EditorsKeys keyboard. I use the keyboard because it has all the shortcuts for Pro Tools marked on it. It’s very handy if I have a memory blank and can’t remember what to press for a certain command. Below that, I have my master keyboard. I use a Casio PX-5S stage piano. The keys are fully weighted so it feels like playing a real piano – great for getting proper expression into the music.

Editor Keys keyboard, Kensington trackball mouse and Casio PX-5S stage piano

Right at the bottom, I have the computers. I currently run a 2009 Mac Pro with 32 GB of RAM and 18 TB of hard drives (half of which which is just for samples). I use OS X El Capitan (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). And, speaking of not fixing what ain’t broke, I also have a PC linked to the Mac using Vienna Ensemble Pro, a networking programme specifically designed for studios. That still runs Windows 7!

Mac Pro

Custom PC with its little monitor hidden under the desk. In case you were worried that 8 TB wasn’t enough samples, almost all of the PC’s 6.5 TB of hard drive space is… guess what…

Finally, it all sits on (and in) a custom desk made by my brother Joe. There’s a lot more furniture (drawers and cupboards) that is spread around the studio now, rather than all connected as it was in my old studio space – you can see it all in a blog post from when I first got it, many moons ago. It’s gorgeous and works much better than adapting a shop-bought desk. I haven’t got any acoustic treatment up yet; that will have to wait a bit.

So, there you go. That’s my studio. I might go into more depth about things in a future post (I’ve already promised one about sample libraries and virtual instruments… must get on that…).

TTFN,

Sam x

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Recomposing

Hello, me again!

Just a quick post this time. I'm currently reworking the Dracula score for a library album. For this, I'm having to either edit down or expand existing tracks to fit the library album format (yes, I know – I keep mentioning library albums and not explaining them. I promise I'll write a post about them soon!). Here's a little video of me adding a few extra bars of piano to one track. Enjoy!



See you soon.

Sam x

Monday, 21 May 2018

Decoding Cypher

Good morning/afternoon/evening*!

Well, I’m back with another blog post. This time, I’ll be talking a little about how I composed some of my latest album, Cypher. I’m going to look at the first track on the album, “Tetralogy I”, and deconstruct a section of it. In the press release for the album, I talked about how Cypher was never intended to be an album. It started out as a trial of a new virtual instrument (VI). Every time I buy a new sample library or VI (which I’ll explain in a later post), I write a track or two just to get to know it – but with Keyscape by Spectrasonics, those one or two tracks turned into eight. It’s such a great library of keyboard instruments that I couldn’t help using it to explore a more minimalist, contemporary style. I was so inspired that the entire album took just two weeks to write, record, mix and master.

As the title suggests, the album explores the idea of numbers and codes. I wanted to use those concepts to show the wide variety of moods and sounds keyboard instruments can create. The tracks are titled by the number of instruments they use; each track is composed of blocks of musical ideas that are repeated, moved around, and manipulated, or of a single idea or repeating chord pattern that I explore through texture and rhythm. “Tetralogy I” and “II” also explore how multiple instruments can combine to create patterns – many of the “heard” melodies and basslines are actually a combination of several instruments. This is what I’m going to talk about in this post.

“Tetralogy I” is a piece for four pianos. I used Keyscape’s LA Custom C7 grand piano for the recording – and I used the VI tools to customise each one to sound slightly different, so that it feels like there are four different pianos playing. (I’ll talk about manipulating instruments in a future post, too!)


I started by coming up with an idea for one piano – a riff, if you like. These were short ideas (two or four bars long) that I then repeated to make an eight-bar section. I wanted building blocks of music, so that each piano could be layered on top of the first to fill out a pattern. I could then change one or two of the patterns to change the sound slightly – or change all of the patterns for a more prominent shift in the music. After writing a few patterns for one piano, I built the next ones around the first, so that a bassline or melodic pattern appeared across two or three of the instruments. I might make Piano II and Piano IV, share a bassline, for instance, by making their patterns run up and down the keyboard in opposite directions.


I kept going, layering corresponding patterns (for Piano II, then III, then IV) on top of one another until I’d written the whole piece. It was a challenge to fit all the parts together without it sounding too muddy or cluttered – but it was a fun challenge, like a really tough jigsaw puzzle.

So that there was a bit of structure to the piece, I sometimes returned to previous patterns, rather than constantly creating new ones. Occasionally, I kept a pattern in two or three of the pianos and added something a little different on top to stop it from being too repetitive – a difficult task when the whole concept is repeating patterns!

Here’s a closer look at the ending of the piece. Firstly, take a look and a listen to what Piano I is doing (don’t worry if you don’t read music; that’s what the audio clips are for!):






Piano II sounds like this:







Piano III is having fun playing this:






And Piano IV returns to playing the opening pattern (but where that was in a minor key, this part is transposed into the major to give the ending an uplifting feeling):







What do they all sound like when put together? Like this:







Hopefully, that explains a little about the process of writing Cypher. It was a lot of fun, even if pieces like “Tetralogy I” were challenging at times. I’ll be back soon with another post, probably something a little easier on the brain!

Sam x

Like what you hear? You can stream Cypher on Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer, Napster and many other platforms, or buy it on iTunes, Amazon, Pro Studio Masters and more!


*delete as applicable

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Top Trips


Hello, all!

Sorry I’ve been a little quiet. I’ve been away seeing my family and enjoying the sun. Sun! Actual, like, summer-style sun. On the coast. It was lovely.


(I’m back in the studio now, though, and there’s much less sun in here.)

I was staying with my brother, Dan (pictured below pulling his most alluring of faces) – the man responsible for mixing my music. The normal process is that I write, make sure everything is as close as possible to how I’d like the finished product to sound, and then I hand it to Dan. He waves his magic wand and says a spell (or something – I don’t know how it works – mixing is an ancient, mystic art) and sends it back to me sounding all sparkly and great. I’ll go into our working relationship more in a later post. Who knows – I might even get him to write a guest post about the process of mixing on here!


We didn’t set foot in his studio this time, though – although I did leave him with a hard drive full of work. Instead, we enjoyed a barbecue with the rest of our family. It’s such a hard life. I think Eddie enjoyed himself, too.



Anyway, I’ll return soon with some chat about my latest album, Cypher.

TTFN,

Sam x

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Fang You For the Music

Hello. Me again!

You may be aware that I recently scored a theatrical adaptation of Dracula, penned by the one and only Phil Ford (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Wizards vs Aliens) and directed by Chris Finney (Wizards vs Aliens’ very own Caractacus Crowe!).

By necessity, I worked entirely from script – I didn’t even see the play until closing night! Normally, I’d go in during rehearsals and sculpt the music around what was being done on stage, timing scene changes and the like. That wasn’t possible this time, so I just had to use past experience and Phil’s script to guide me. Even though it was a little “seat of the pants”, it was a lot of fun to do. And luckily, it all worked well.



Phil’s adaptation stuck very closely to Bram Stoker’s novel so it was nice and dark. Chris and I tried out a few different ideas, but settled on a modern-sounding, synth-based score despite the play’s being set in the Victorian era. Here’s a little excerpt:



I used a lot of dark drones backed up with a bowed piano (one played by running a bow across the strings, rather than by hitting them in the usual way) and some ebow electric guitar (which I recorded with my own fair hands, despite not having practiced the guitar in… some time…). What’s an ebow? Pretty much exactly what it sounds like: an electric bow. It uses a feedback circuit (among other things) to create string vibrations when placed near the guitar’s pickups, so that instead of a “plucked” sound, you get an eerie, bowed sound.



There were a few times that I used sul ponticello strings to eerie effect. That’s a technique where the players play close to the bridge of the instrument to create a glassy, unstable sound; in fact, dependent on how hard and how close to the bridge the player plays, sometimes the notes actually jump entire octaves. I also used a grand piano and an upright piano, which I put through a number of delays to create a disorienting effect, and a harmonium, which I mangled a bit with various plugins so that it was both familiar and alien-sounding. (I’ll talk more about plugins, including using delays, later on).

Chris also wanted to explore the idea of a heartbeat – appropriate enough for a vampire story! – so I used a kick drum and two synths to create a musical approximation of a heartbeat that I could play in or out of time with the music, dependent on what effect we wanted to create. I also got the chance to write some Victorian parlour music – a nice little waltz for string quartet for the scene set in Lucy’s engagement party. Not something you get to do every day!



Overall the music, lighting, sound design, direction, and acting created a great show, and one I was really proud to have been a part of. And the music will live on – I’m currently reworking it slightly, and it will be released in time for Halloween as a library album – one of many I’ll tell you about in a future post!

Sam x

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Hunter – No, Not the Gladiator!


Hello again…

Yes, I know. So soon! I wanted to share a little clip from The Forest after telling you all about it in my last post. I chose a section of the track “Hunter.” I think you can guess the general idea behind it – some predatory animal searching out its prey – but, as I said, I don’t want to say too much about what I was thinking when I wrote it. I want the music to spark your imagination!

I chose this track because it’s a good example of how I used live strings in combination with synths and virtual instruments (VIs), which is what I did on most tracks of the album. Why? The strings drive the music; underlying them, a drum pattern and various synths and VIs lend harmonic support and textural interest*. I’ll talk more about the process of creating the music and blending (or not blending, depending on what you’re going for) live musicians with electronic elements in a future blog.

The drums on this track were programmed by my brother Dan. (“You mean played, right?”) No, actually! Drum programming is where you build up the layers of beats using samples to design your own drum pattern, as opposed to using a drum synthesiser or, budget permitting, a real drummer (or drummers). Although, in this case, there are very few actual drums – but there are lots of plastic containers and interesting things. Keep an ear out for them!

Like what you hear? You can stream The Forest on Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer, Napster and many other platforms, or buy it on iTunes, Amazon, Pro Studio Masters and more!


Sam x


Friday, 13 April 2018

Long Time No (Middle) C

Hi, I know. Sorry. I’m so good at blogging that I haven’t done it in a literal age – I think the animated He-Man was still on its original airing the last time I wrote one! Anyway, I’m back and this time, I will be blogging regularly (yes, really – I mean it this time!).

I should really tell you about everything that’s happened since last *mumble*… So:

To start with, those albums I was banging on about. Well, two of them are available to buy and stream RIGHT NOW! The Forest and Cypher can both be found on all your favourite platforms. I’ll start by telling you a little about the first release, The Forest.

(Find it on iTunes/Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, and Google Play.)

The Forest


I blogged a little about it when I recorded the album, but let me refresh your memories. This album, released last August, was inspired by my dog walks through the local woodland. Written over the course of half a year, it’s sort of a concept album; the idea is that each track tells a story that might happen through the course of a single day (and night) in a forest. It starts at dawn and ends up at a moonlit pool, making its journey via a babbling brook and all sorts of plants and creatures going about their business. Could I be more specific about what I see in my head for each track? Yes – but I don’t want to. I want the music to do that for itself.

How it’s made

I did all the initial composition for The Forest in my studio. Then, because I wanted to create music that sounded different to anything I had done before, I went to my brother’s studio to avail myself of his synth collection (and also his skills as a producer. We often use each other as sounding boards for our respective work – more on that later!). Dan and I mucked about with a Roland Juno 6, a Roland SH-101, and an Arturia Minibrute. He also showed me how to use his Arturia Beatstep Pro to do some drum programming – which was so cool, I bought one as soon as I got back into my own studio!

The Forest was recorded at Script Studios in London. The fabulous musicians who played on it are Sara Wolstenholme, Kirsty Mangan, Laurie Anderson and Peter Gregson (with some piano and Hammond organ played by me). I was lucky enough to have Joe Rubel to engineer and mix the album and John Webber at Air Studios to master it. It sounds great – and that’s really thanks to the quality of players and to Joe and John’s amazing work. People often forget how much creativity mix and mastering engineers bring to a project, not to mention the giant leap in quality the players bring with their interpretations of your music.

So there you have it. A little about The Forest. Next time, I’ll tell you all about my second album, Cypher. But for now, TTFN.

Sam x