June 23, 2014

floats on air...

by Chris Randall

Well, it's finally done. floats on air, my new album of electronic meanderings, is now available on Bandcamp. It will be exclusive to that site until July 7th, where it will go live on all the other services.

This is my first "produced" album in some years; my last five-odd releases are EP-sized collections of various experiments and research, but floats on air is a cohesive whole, planned that way from the start. Since this is Analog Industries, a few process notes for those interested in that sort of thing (which is, I assume, most everyone that reads this site.)

1. Shoeboxen. For most (but not all) of the tracks on this album, the root rhythm comes from a rather strange source. I initially purchased a small shoebox tapedeck with the intent of finding something interesting to do with it, but not having an idea exactly what. What I ended up doing was using its little included mic to just record random semi-rhythmic sounds around my neighborhood, then taking the recordings, physically cutting out small lengths, and looping them in a different cassette body. I'd then record these short loops in to Live, and have my way with them with the various DSP tools that came to hand. The tracks sunderverl and fader in have the most obvious pieces of this sort of thing, but almost every track has at least two of these little loops in it. Once you know what you're listening for, they're easy to pick out.

2. Nagra. I used the Nagra a lot on some of the tracks. fader in has the best example. I asked Don Gunn to send me a few minutes of jazzy drumming; once I'd received his mixed stem, I summed it to mono, then recorded it to the Nagra. I then spent an hour or so slicing out half-measure chunks. (And I mean with a razor blade.) I then took these chunks, mixed them up, and spliced them all back together. I then made a continuous loop of the result. There are 4 other tracks in all in that song, and each one is a looped cassette. I fed them all in to Live on individual tracks simultaneously, and recorded the level automation on the way in with a Korg nanoKontrol. So fader in is named what it is: a live recording of tape loops that I "performed" on a nanoKontrol. I obviously added enough insert effects to stun an ox, for the final result. Most of the cassette loops are recordings (again, with the little mic that came with the shoebox deck) of the speakers in my living room system as I played Daphne Oram vinyl. Those of you that follow me on Twitter may have seen my synth -> tape -> vinyl -> tape -> synth palindrome tweet. This track is what I was referring to.

3. Modules. I don't have a hugely high opinion of the modular synth in my own particular writing process, but I figured "fuck it, the damn thing is sitting here." One of the little leitmotifs I use throughout the album to tie all the songs together is a little acid line breakdown, and I used the modular for this in all cases. It appears here and there elsewhere, but that was its main task in this project.

4. Other Gear. I used the Analog Four quite a bit. Notably in porch_field, where it creates most of the sounds. I also used [redacted] quite a bit, for about half the basslines. The other main synth I used was Monark, which got a lot of mileage on this album. For effects, VallhallaVintageVerb is the two-buss verb throughout the album, with occasional appearances by Eos as an insert "effect" verb; delay is about equal parts Dubstation and the H3000 Factory from Eventide. I used several other Eventide products for insert and compressor duties; most of the sidechain pumping (and fuck it, but there's quite a bit. There's no zealot like a convert!) is done with Glue. Obviously, heavy use of AD products throughout. I mixed 8 of the 9 tracks in Live 9 Suite; the exception is dawn, which was mixed in Bitwig Studio.

Anyhow, I'll field any specific production questions you might have in this thread, but the above is the general gist of things.


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Jun.25.2014 @ 7:46 AM
Chris Randall
Instead of using a splicing block and tape (which is damn nigh impossible for 1/8", come to find out) I just used a pair of scissors. I pre-cut a bunch of little pieces of Scotch tape. I did straight cuts instead of at an angle, so there's jumps, but most of the material was rhythmic in nature, so it wasn't a big deal, and the artifacts from the process were kind of cool.

It is fiddly, no matter how you do it, though. My main trouble was getting 'em back in the chassis. I have _one_ chassis that opens and closes without screws. (It is an old TEAC model, essentially a reel-to-reel in cassette form factor) so that was fine when I was only using one deck. But in "fader in" where I used four, I had to build three other chassis, and that was a pain in the ass.

EDIT: One thing I should note is that you can only realistically make loops of a couple different lengths, because without the tension on the takeup reel, the loop won't actually move. I have a whole bunch of the cheap unlabeled cassettes you used to get for board roughs or whatever at studios, and they have two little plastic standoffs inside them. I could make shorter loops (about 2.5 seconds long) that went over the top standoff or longer 4-ish second ones that went around both standoffs.

One could conceivably put some sort of little tensioner that held the tape against the takeup reel and do arbitrary lengths (like is done in endless answering machine tapes.) However, if you wanted longer loops, I would suggest that using answering machine tapes, and opening them up and splicing out that little metal piece that caused them to tell the machine where the endpoint was would be the better way to go.

One final point, and this is important: you need to record the material before you make the loop. In a cassette deck, there is about half an inch between the record head and the erase head. A cassette moves at 1 7/8ths IPS. So you have almost a quarter second of silence because the erase head erased it but it hasn't got to the record head yet. I used this "feature" to good effect on the last song on the album, but by and large, it prevents one from getting useful loops. The answering machine tape method will _always_ have a glitch.


Jun.25.2014 @ 1:16 PM
sounds like the old "for the benefit of mr.kite" work! Painful and long, but cool stuff happens! I had an old shire sm55 modded with a micro cassette recorder, where the signal would come off the playback head, made some great crap sounds....

one of my favorite tricks is recording a track to cassette, pulling the tape out, wrinkling it all up, then spooling it back in with a pencil, and warbled crap ensues.... i guess now there are plugins for that, but was effective in the day.... still do it once in awhile... also makes just great parallel compression/processing.

But interesting takes into your workflow Chris, nice to see people still doing it the hard way...

Jun.25.2014 @ 1:45 PM
It was really exciting to hear what you did with my drums and also to hear about the process.

Extra points for the Brian Regan reference in Point 1.

Jun.25.2014 @ 9:07 PM
Chris, I'm interested to know what's the euro module for the "little acid line breakdown" that appears in the album, thanks.

Jun.25.2014 @ 9:22 PM
Chris Randall
They're about equal parts Wiard Oscillator II -> Borg II -> other jank and WMD PDO II -> uHC -> other jank. That's generally what's pre-patched for testing modules, so it's generally what's up when the mood strikes me.


Jun.26.2014 @ 12:42 AM
I ran into the tension problem too. Where the loop wouldn't get pulled around.

I cut a rubberband with just the right width, and wrapped it around the takeup reel in the cassette. Pulled it around nicely.

My process is to run the tape loop away from the erase head, in order to improvise noise buildups via layer on layer.

Not tried the answering machine tapes yet.

Jun.26.2014 @ 7:12 AM
Chris Randall
Yeah, I saw a YouTube video where that was done; didn't try it myself, though, as I found a method that worked for me, and I was working with short little snippets anyhow.


Jun.26.2014 @ 2:04 PM
Jan Alsaker
Really thrilling work! Care to tell what makes the guitar-istic sound at the start of 'cottbus'?

Jun.26.2014 @ 2:51 PM
Chris Randall
A guitar. :-)


Jun.26.2014 @ 3:06 PM
Jan Alsaker
Who'da thunk it? Thanks, it sounds utterly gorgeous.

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