Portland Recording Debrief - Doing More With Less

Posted January 24, 2010

Five days. It seems like a lot of time going in. So many things I imagined doing: two or more big hikes, field recording, meditation groups, exercise, music, movies, record stores, etc... We probably had time for half of that.

For all intents and purposes it felt like music boot camp. Traveling without keyboards meant relying on the laptop for most things. John was working with a new computer with Cubase for the first time as well. So by circumstance and design we were both trying to find a new vocabulary.

Day 1 - was spent figuring out how we were going to approach writing and recording and what was missing. I found that I had left the Kaoss Pad behind in another bag. Oh well... not critical. After hooking up our rigs, we felt we needed a couple of keyboard stands and a decent MIDI controller. So, we picked up an Edirol controller with a pretty decent set of knobs, sliders and pads and unusually nice action. After setting up, we focused on using our computers as samplers. I've had Camel Audio's Alchemy for some time so John downloaded a demo and we recorded an idea that first night - nothing spectacular - just something to test our environment.

Day 2 - we went to the Columbia River gorge and hiked the Horsetail falls trail. We brought portable recorders and captured the sounds of water in various situations. From a previous trip, I remembered the sound of Montinuma falls and hoped to record it on this trip. Up close, it sounds like it's coming down in massive sheets of waters instead of one long continuous roar. The only problem is that it generates massive amounts of spray and moisture. So, we brought plastic bags to put our recorders in. As you might imagine, recording this way blocks a lot of the high end from the spectrum, but for our purposes that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Our goal was to simply capture interesting sounds to sample and manipulate, not necessarily to reproduce them with total clarity. We spent about five hours hiking and recording. By time we left, we hiked 5 1/2 miles and were both sore, tired and hungry. By nightfall we started manipulating found objects and samples from our hike. This continued throughout day 3.

Day 3 - We gathered bowls, marbles, rocks, drums, a guitar and recorded objects being spun, bowed and rocked; marbles rolling, rocks vibrating on metal; dragging objects across drum heads, etc... I was surprised to find that I could manipulate samples almost as easily using Live's sampler as I could with my old Ensoniq ASR10. John took samples of his heater making strange noises, marbles spun in a bowl and some other odd things and loaded them into Alchemy and set it to morph between all four. I created a drum track using the back of a guitar as the kick and a rattle as periodic punctuation, then added a rolling metallic sound, water sounds from the gorge, and the reverse pluck of a sitar like instrument for additional interest. We set up some loops and experimented with trial runthroughs. Once we hit record I was amazed at the sounds John was generating with Alchemy morphing between his four samples. At times it sounded like a didgeridoo, a low rumble, a choir and industrial machinery.

I tried sweetening the track by adding chords on my version of Alchemy but we kept having problems with dropouts. We were using my computer to record, generate loops, and for me playing chords on top. My machine just couldn't handle it. We will likely have to patch some of the dropouts since the audio was interrupted on numerous occasions. It's too bad. I'm not sure if I need more memory, a faster drive, or a faster machine. My feeling lately is that I want a hybrid setup where I use a combination of the latest software and hardware together. I appreciate the ease with which I can generate ideas and compose with Live and am amazed at the power we have when mastering with plugins and couldn't live without either now. But when programming sounds and performing, I'd much rather reach for a knob or slider than a mouse. Problems and all, by the end of day 3, we had recorded what we considered to be the more "musical" version of our song.

Day 4 - We started day 4 with more sound creation and sample manipulation and decided we should record a drone oriented version of our song. We decided to skip the pretty chords and use a modified sound set to create something interesting. Again, I was blown away by John's sounds in Alchemy. He rode the knobs, adjusted filters, and morphed the sound throughout the performance. There's no way we could have done that with a conventional sampler and I'm convinced this software will find its way onto more of our recordings. By late afternoon, we felt certain that we'd captured the last song for our next release. We rewarded ourselves with a trip to the record store and some food, then came back and listened to our tracks. We were pleasantly surprised. We spent the rest of the evening listening to other tracks from the album to see how things might fit.

Day 5 - I had roughly three hours for music before catching an afternoon flight, but in that time we worked with a recording I made in a cave many years ago. We're considering including two short environmental tracks on this album and this may be one of them. We experimented with convolultion reverb to make the source recording sound wetter and deeper. In a short amount of time we were able to vastly improve the recording. We'll see what happens with this as time progresses.

So, that's it... somewhat difficult at times learning how to use new software and hardware, but I see the potential and opportunities that a new working process could present. Additionally, it was great working on new material.

My plans after returning home are to sell a few things on ebay, try to improve the performance of my laptop and eventually pick up a small desktop synth like the Access Virus or Waldorf Blofeld. I think having a smaller hybrid setup will lend itself well to this new reality and also satisfy my desire to do more with less.

Brian McWilliams

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