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

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