A history of bedroom production – Part 3

2007: Returned

Kit list: Apple Mac G5, Garageband, Reason 4, Logic Pro, Korg Triton

Apple Mac G5Eagle-eyed readers of the previous part of this series will have spotted a somewhat seismic gap in the noted period. Eleven years to be exact, for those too lazy to check.

If truth be told, I continued to make music between 1996 and 2000. This coincided with me reaching my late teens and, as confused as anyone is at that stage in their lives, I gave in to many a distraction. Going out, drink, girls… Work, even. Once you’re unleashed from the shackles of being a kid and suddenly in possession of the keys to your own car, you’re inclined to make the most of it. And more often than not, that usually involves leaving the house.

Consequently, my music suffered and eventually died a complete (albeit unmourned) death in 2001 when I met Lindsey Allen. Lindsey was the beautiful, blonde-haired girl who would become my soulmate and, in ten years time, accept my nervous, sweaty request of marriage on a sweltering day in Kefalonia. Back then, however, we were just happy to bask in all the glories of newfound romance. All of a sudden, making music was of little interest.

Skip forward to 2007. We own a house and have stable jobs. We’ve even shopped at a garden centre. Basically, we’ve grown up a bit.

Before the house purchase, we lived in a couple of tiny places. They were far too small for any kind of studio to exist, however I did, on occasion, dust off the Triton and remind myself of what I was missing. It was only now, with our own bricks and mortar, that I could seriously consider getting back into it. For days, I eyed up the then empty spare bedroom. It was perfect.

So, with little trepidation I began researching the required gear. I didn’t want to go back to the PC, having torn out my hair multiple times in the past building – and consequently fixing – them. No, I decided to turn to Apple.

Initially, a G4 sounded like a safe bet; cheap yet still capable of running some form of midi sequencer. It harked back to the days of the Atari (something I also briefly considered investing in).

Then, I noticed that a G5 could be had for a small premium. And with that, I bought a dual 1.8ghz variant through eBay, from a guy who worked at the Planet Rock radio station (the machine clearly had relevant roots).

My first experience of the G5 was Garageband, which came handily ready-installed. Bearing in mind I’d not properly worked with

Garageband
Garageband

any kind of DAW or sequencer for several years, I was entering almost unchartered territory. However, what I discovered was jaw-dropping.

 

Instantly, Garageband let me back into my midi-driven roots. But along with that was the sheer power of the thing. Bearing in mind this was essentially a free piece of software which came with any new Apple Mac, it was actually a very respectable standalone DAW with plenty of useable sounds. I couldn’t quite believe just how far things had come on. Back in the 90s, you had to be a real geek to have any idea of how electronic music was sequenced, let alone be so easily exposed to the tools used for doing so.

This got me a little excited. If this is what mass-market fodder like Garageband is like…

ReasonThe next step was Reason 4 and having dabbled with earlier variants and it’s often forgotten ancestor Rebirth some time ago, I was instantly familiar with its self-contained loveliness and addictive tab switching to reveal dangly virtual cables. It was obviously a huge step up from Garageband but it also fully reignited my passion for making music. The sounds you could create were a world away from anything I’d used in the past.

There was only one stop left: Logic. It had been a long time. Would we still get on? Would we recognise each other? What if it had gone a bit weird, met new friends and consequently become a pretentious sod?

It hadn’t. Logic Pro sealed the fate of our spare bedroom. I was back.Logic Studio

I’m not going to dwell too much on why, or go into any detailed discussion on the reason I love Logic (if you’ve kept reading this far, you’re doing well, I wouldn’t want to lose you now), but I’d never have thought after my brief and underwhelming dabblings with it on the PC in the late 90s, that it would become such a staple in later life.

I instantly got to work. Any new piece of software I can lay my hands on, whether it be a DAW, soft synth or effects plug-in, seems to inspire me instantly and Logic was no different. Within a couple of days I’d written a full-length track, the first for about ten years. Listening back, it resembles much of what I’ve described in the last few paragraphs; someone getting reaqauinted with music making. Someone experimenting with a new set of toys. It’s therefore a bit paint-by-numbers and by no means a masterpiece but I do at least have it to hand, which is more than can be said for my earlier works.

So, here it is, the aptly named Returned. I can only apologise for the dreadfully contrived intro:

p.s. My blogging buddy Chris has been charting his own history of bedroom production. It’s quite different to mine and I really recommend a read. His third and final part can be found here.

A history of bedroom production – Part 2

1996: Discovery of Logic

Kit list: PC, Logic 4, Korg Triton

Korg TritonAlone in a York hotel, I put down a simple gated pad melody. Realising it wasn’t quite biting through, I treated it to a dose of compression. The standard logic unit was grabbed, as always, and my favourite ‘Acoustic Guitar 1’ preset did wonders.

A dash of stereo delay made it stand out yet further over the bed of bit-crushed, arpeggiated strings I’d bounced to audio moments before.

I would have gladly handed over an important body part to have been able to do that back in 1996. But to do it with such ease? On a laptop? In a hotel room? Without spaghetti cabling? Well, said body part would have come with a free member of the Ellis family.

It’s a boring cliche, but it is astounding just how quickly technology moves on, particularly in the world of audio and midi production. I can do anything I need to on my laptop. Aside from a tiny contoller keyboard, I don’t need anything else. Samples, synths and effects are all a few clicks away and putting them all together is an unbridled joy.

I’m in York on business, yet I’ve been able to bring my studio with me, hidden safely between tomorrow’s suit trousers and pants.

Such portability wasn’t really present back in the mid-nineties when I made my first significant jump into what could be described as ‘serious’ gear. Living at home and working a well paid weekend job with dad’s band, I had plenty of disposable income. It was therefore only natural that I started what was to be a long-running addiction to buying studio equipment with my first big purchase: the Korg Triton.

I’ve never been as excited as I was in the days leading up to it’s delivery. Having played it’s predecessor, the Trinity, at a trade show a year or so previous, I knew very well what this thing would be capable of. And I wasn’t dissapointed.

The  flagship workstation sounded like nothing else I’d experienced. A world away from the TG300, it offered a lush sound palette and complex onboard effects. Add to that a sampler and a little ribbon you could rub to make everything sound even more wonderful and I was quite literally in geek heaven. It’s also worth highlighting its continued presence today both in commercial studios and, more predominantly, on the road, where its workhorse capabilities are still relied upon by some of the most skilled professional keyboard players in the world.

One moment stands out for me during my early days with the Triton. I had finally mastered the art of sampling and had successfully captured a beautifully played Gilmour solo from Pink Floyd’s live album, Pulse. Then I found the reverse button. Within a day or so, I’d built a track around the now ethereal sound which resembled anything but an electric guitar. I clearly remember saying to myself, “wow, I can do anything now“; there was finally sense of the freedom I’d yearned for which would allow me to create the music I had in my head. As much as I still hold an affection for the days of the Atari and TG300, they were limited and as I reached my teens, I became increasingly frustrated with what I wasn’t able to do.

It wasn’t all down to the Triton, however. It was around the same time that I made the switch to Logic, developed as it was back then by Emagic. It wasn’t love at first sight, but as I was to find out, it would become something of a staple…

Any excuse would have done, Sky

Eventually, it took a bit of male chauvinist banter. An off-guard comment. Pub talk between two members of a generation which isn’t quite as forgotten as people clearly believe it is.

Whatever. Andy Gray will no longer be presenting football on Sky Sports and that can only be a good thing.

Yes, it was a daft thing to say. Unfair, too, in what is a society desperately trying to make equality a thing of reality. Although, as a friend on Facebook rightly pointed out, such a society is a bit of a con when you’ve got male-bashing/ridiculing garbage such as Loose Women and Take Me Out on the box.

So, I won’t be praising the sensationalist headlines we’ll see tomorrow, nor will I comment any further on the reason Sky Sports’ face of football will forever be absent from future Super Sundays. No, I’ll simply be glad to see the back of him.

Regularly occupying more audio space than the commentator, he sensationalised every minor display of skill and invented new words for free kicks sent successfully goalwards. It was needless and dull beyond belief. I would often pray for just a few seconds of silence. Enough to hear the THUCK of boot meeting turf and ball. Maybe a crowd chant or two. But no, this guy could silence the Kop.

And, if we hadn’t already had enough of him during the game, he continued to bore and patronised us all to death with his increasingly complex touch screens and match analysis technofoolery (who’ll get to use that now? Is there even an instruction manual?).

His style had changed little since the early 90s but his massive air of self importance had grown every season. He WAS Sky Sports. I’m sure he thought he WAS football, too.

In reality, he was dead wood. The type of old furniture you find intrinsically woven into the upper echelons of any organisation.

Bye, Andy. Don’t bother taking a bow.

A sound opportunity… lost.

Alesis PalmtrackCold, quiet air whipped past my ears in fits and starts, adding to the already eery atmosphere surround Northampton’s Racecourse park. Unsafe in the knowledge that some poor guy had been stabbed in the very same location last night, I continued apace, towards the adjacent road.

I’m over indulging a bit here. It was a rather pleasant dog walk and, having used the Racecourse on a daily basis for the last eighteen months, I’m certainly not going to be deterred by one sickening act of violence (the guy survived, you’ll be glad to hear).

As I trundled back towards the park entrance, the wind dropped to a whisper and it was then I realised I’d forgotten something essential.

My Alesis Palmtrack.

For the evening air was now soundtracked gently by piano, leaking through the half-opened window of the college that sat opposite the park.

The player was hammering through a rather stilted classical piece. I liked it. It was played strictly in chords, no frills and to a non-existent 4/4 beat.

That sound, teamed with the wide atmosphere created by the sprawling Racecourse would have been a fantastic recording and something that would have sat very nicely at the start of a track. Alas, my Alesis was sat at home, in the studio.

I bought it for this very reason; to capture sound while away from the comfort of a warm studio and condenser mic. So far, I’ve recorded myself making silly noises with my mouth (most of which I’ve successfully found uses for as hi hats and percussion), a door closing, my car starting and the dog barking. I think I also farted into it once (you’ve got to, haven’t you?) but it’s not really received the use for which it was intended.

Lesson learned. It shall now travel with me.

A history of bedroom production – Part 1

It occurred to me the other day that I’ve been making music for over fifteen years. That’s quite a long time for what has (typically) been a solitary and (always) non-profitable affair.

I have therefore decided to document a brief history of my bedroom studio, foccusing both on its contents and my creative journey (ouch, sorry). This may only interest those with a similar passion, but it’s just something I’d like to put into words. My dad’ll like it, anyway.

So, partly to assist me with the postaweek challenge, but also to avoid hitting you with a mammoth blog post, I’ll be posting the whole story in parts over the next two or three weeks.

1992: Enter the Atari

Kit list: Atari ST, Cubase v1, Roland D5

Atari ST
The peerless Atari ST

“This is amazing. I don’t need an Amiga now,” I exclaimed as I fired up my second ever game of Brick Breaker on dad’s shiny new Atari ST.

The exact year escapes me, but it would have been some time around the early 90s when the Amiga 500 was the dour grey box that dominated my daily thoughts. It was the one thing I needed in my life. But then, suddenly, my imagination was captured by the unscheduled arrival of it’s weaker opponent (and I’m sure much to the delight of my Amiga’d-out parents).

Of course, this post isn’t one of gaming history therefore I digress. The real reason the Atari was sitting in front of me was for dad’s foray into the world of midi and production. At the time, his band, Gold, were all conquering on the wedding and club circuit and along with Geoff, the band’s guitarist, dad had decided to begin producing their own backing tracks, having previously relied on the adequate yet fiddly services of a Roland TR505 drum machine and an even more fiddly and complicated bass player.

The Atari was the perfect centrepiece for what would become our home’s first studio of sorts. Unlike anything else at the time, the Atari came with built-in midi ports, allowing you to easily connect your external sound sources. Unbelievably, this type of connectivity has only really been recently matched with the increased adoption of midi-over-USB on modern synths. Atari’s decision to include a midi port was as brave as Apple’s to get rid of the floppy disc drive. Shame it wasn’t as successful, as I think it’s reasonable to suggest we could have had built-in audio interfaces in desktop PCs if Atari had been as influential as Apple…

Initially, the sound sources in question consisted of a Roland D5 synth. The budget version of the D50 was absolutely nothing to write home about, but it provided the bare bones of drums, percussion, bass and strings that a band like Gold required.

CubaseThe Atari ran Cubase (version 1, I think), and proved to be my first ever experience of a computer-based sequencer.

I have no recollection of the first time I laid eyes on it, but I remember Geoff and dad spending countless hours inputting drum parts and bass lines. Their attention to detail was incredible and every part was note perfect (after a fair amount of swearing, they even managed to reproduce the over-indulged intro to Gloria Estefan’s Rhythm Is Gonna Get You) and not once did they fall back onto the lift music styled services of midi files.

Their enthusiasm obviously caught my eye and I soon asked to have a go myself. The very moment I first laid a hand on that awkwardly square mouse, I was hooked.

The D5 provided little sonic inspiration, as mentioned. But as a young boy I didn’t notice. I was just happy to bash keys, input my own drum loops by randomly entering notes on the drum grid and experiment with the exciting discovery of maximum pitch bend adjustment.

I can remember little of this early time and can only imagine the racket I must have been making, but it’s where it all started and I’ve not looked back since.

1994: Yamaha Inspires

Kit list: Atari ST, Cubase v1, Yamaha TG300, Roland D5

Yamaha TG300By the time I reached my teens, while I hadn’t yet learned to play an instrument (something I still regret to this day), I had developed a new found love for making music and continued to grab any chance I could on the Atari.

It wasn’t always a solitary affair, either. Recruiting the services of a couple of friends, we set about recording a ‘live album’. Of course, this wasn’t Woodstock. No, it was simply the trusty D5, a guitar amp and a tape recorder set up haphazardly in one of our garages, but the resulting song, Church Live, is fondly remembered, if not for it’s chorus of manically played, tuneless organ over the crushing sonic backdrop of aeroplane sound effects, but for the laugh we had making it. Another track, Irene Abbot, was also committed to tape at the same ‘session’. Inspired by a local MP who’s name and leaflet campaign gave us enough reason to record what I can only recall as, well… noise, it too rests soundly in the memories of our childhoods.

Just a shame we lost the tapes. Or maybe it isn’t, actually.

Meanwhile, in the world of Gold, the now seasoned production team of dad and Geoff were on the hunt for a better sonic palette. The D5 had served its course. 1994 was a golden era for synth modules with a flood of them appearing on the market. A few were tried and discarded before they eventually settled on the Yamaha TG300 (pictured). Almost the sole reason for its employment was a demo track which featured an entirely real-sounding acoustic guitar which wowed real-life guitarist Geoff particularly.

Of course, with midi-driven Cubase at the helm, they would only have access to the general midi sounds and not the program bank said guitar sat within. However, it was still a supersonic leap from the D5 and offered some very useable sounds along with internal effects such as reverb, chorus and flanger. It even had an onboard mixer with graphical display. It was like something out of Star Trek.

It was also an incredible workhorse. Not only was it the  primary sound source in the studio, it was also heavily gigged for years. An MDF (midi data filer) on stage sent the TG300 the duo’s hard work and it duly played it back without breaking a sweat. Smoky clubs, raucous weddings and yet more smoky clubs didn’t faze it and neither did my fiddling as sound man, regularly changing levels for the drum and bass parts via the LCD display. It never failed. Once.

Over the next couple of years, I continued to beat the thing to within an inch of its life. GM sounds are fairly unforgiving and of course can’t be messed with… unless you get creative with the effects and start doubling up tracks, which I set  about doing every moment I could get my hands on it.

It was during this period that I started to become what could loosely be described as ‘creative’, putting together relatively complex (for me) drum and rhythm tracks and constructing entire songs as opposed to a few bars of experimentation. My only regret is that I have no trace of these early works; committing anything to tape or CD in those days was ball achingly complicated. Well, ok, it wasn’t, but I did have to see my mates and play football occasionally.

Cubase continued to be centre stage and I’m yet to experience a sequencer or DAW which offers the same stability and ease of use that those early versions afforded. It was rock solid and even included features that are oddly absent from modern software. For example, the way you could turn your mouse pointer into a boot and ‘kick’ midi notes around was inspired and something I still wish I had access to today. Also, I’m yet to come across a better drum pattern arranger in any modern DAW.

Experimenting yet further, I even managed to successfully hook up a second midi device (a piano module neither dad or I can remember the name of) via the Alice In Wonderland-like world of midi thru. Suddenly, I had two boxes to make noises from. I felt like Trevor Horn.

Of course, in reality, setting this up for each track was about as enjoyable as knitting and I quickly abandoned. The dream of expanding beyond one sounce source seemed purely a fantasy back then…

Freshly Impressed

My inbox is rarely bombarded, but it received the hammering of its life yesterday, as I suddenly began to receive what seemed like hundreds of emails from WordPress informing me people had liked or commented on a post. Every device I have connected to my email account (there’s a worrying number) beeped, pinged, vibrated and tinkled all afternoon and evening.

This never happens. Surely I haven’t written anything that interesting? Or offensive?

It was only when I spotted one of the comments congratulating me on becoming Freshly Pressed that I realised what was happening. Somehow, my blog post regarding blogging buddies had made it onto the homepage of WordPress.com.

For those that don’t have a blog, this might seem trivial… dull, even. But for fellow users of WordPress, its quite a bit deal. I just didn’t realise how much of a big deal…

In one day, I received nearly 1200 page views, 37 comments, 28 ‘likes’ and 8 new subscribers. A single day’s activity increased my total page views of all time by around 30%. Now, that might not sound like much in these days of statistical prowess but for TheBoyEllis Blog, it pretty much smashed my admittedly pathetic previous records. I think the busiest day before yesterday was around 26 visits and two comments. I was pretty happy with that.

The post that got pressed was written fairly hurriedly and wasn’t something I wasn’t hugely happy with technically, but it goes to show that it’s the content that interests people. Content is king here and I hope lots more fellow WordPressers get to experience the rush of interest I received (which is showing little sign of abating) as a result of WordPress noticing an interesting post. If you have something you want to put down – just do it. Don’t be afraid to hit that big blue publish button. You never know who’s reading and where it might end up!

Get writing.

N…n…n…n…new plug-in courtesy of BT and iZotope

It’s taken it’s time. 15 years, if you believe what Mr BT (Brian Transeau) says.

Now, for the first time, you too can smash up, stutter, pan bounce and generally ear candy-ify your own musical creations, just like the king of show off dance himself.

Of course, BT almost single-handedly created the art of stutter, originally manipulating audio by hand; looping, crunching and warping wave forms to almost impossible 1/1024th note values and beyond.

It’s impressive stuff, if a little flashy and over indulged in some of his tracks (if you’ve reached this point and wonder what the hell I’m talking about, listen to the start of Suddenly for an example of these effects in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6XAtIjBCdg). That said, I occasionally reach certain stages of my own productions and think a nice little kick drum stutter or wildly panning and pitch bending string sound could spice things up a bit. I’ve tried – and failed – to manipulate the audio myself but it is, if truth be told, the kind of thing you’d only achieve if you had the patience of a saint and exactly zero friends.

So, it was with some excitement that I was directed (via Twitter, obviously) to iZotope’s newest addition to their product lineup.

Yes, for $149 you can become a bedroom BT.

They’ve teamed up with the man himself to finally bring his creation to life in an attractive plug-in format.

I’ve downloaded the trial and had a very brief play. The plug-in works in Logic as a midi-controlled AU. Insert it into an instrument channel, choose the piece of audio you wish to screw with via the side chain input and you’re away. Stutter Edit responds to key presses on your controller keyboard and gives you full control over what looks like ever parameter you could hope for.

In a quick thirty minute test, the results were indeed very impressive but it goes without saying that I need to spend more time with it. Due to it’s nature of relying on midi input and therefore recording key presses in order to trigger the effects, one minor criticism is that it could prove a little cumbersome and fiddly. We’ll see.

One thing it is sure to do, however, is work its way into the mainstream. I think this is inevitable. While it won’t be on par with the Autotune bandwagon, it’s apparent ease of use, instant gloss and low price means producers will quickly latch onto it. Mark my words, you’ll be hearing it stuttering away on Radio 1 in no time.