I did research for the Airship album cover artwork, today, and I was reminded of Willard Morgan‘s photographs of the Hindenburg. Are they not incredibly good? He expertly captures the elegance and enormousness of the airship. The abstract shapes, the high contrast, the way there’s just enough visual information for you to picture the rest of the giant… I fall in love with these photographs, every time!
I listened to my mixes on two different sound systems, today. Both had powerful subwoofers. I had no idea just how much I had overcompensated on lower frequencies. At times, the bass was so powerful that things were rattling! I have since made some adjustments and I think I have dealt with the overpowering bass issue.
I finished mixing the last track for the Airship album, today. I worked on each track in the order it appears in the tracklist. I do this because it gives me a feel for the final album, how it will sound and how it will develop for the listener. I can tentatively say that I’m pretty happy with the mixes and the tracklist as they are, right now, but that will probably change, as the listening game begins. I have exported the mixes to audio files, so I can play the tracks in their proper order. This way, I can listen for any inconsistencies or issues with the tracklist or the tracks themselves. I will go through this process, again and again, listening to the tracks on different speakers and headphones, looking for weaknesses in my mixes, testing them to see how well they hold up in different sound environments. By the time the album is released, I will have listened to it more than a hundred times, I’m sure!
My mixing process, briefly
I do my first mixes through my iPad speakers, at fairly low volumes. Because the speakers are limited in their capacity, it requires me to listen very carefully. I manage to create a pretty good preliminary mix this way. Because I can only hear the major parts of the track (hardly any of the subtleties are translated by the speakers), I usually end up with a simple, straightforward mix. When I then move to my desktop monitors (nothing fancy, just midrange Logitech speakers that are nearly a decade old), I can begin to pick out subtleties in the music. For about a week, I’ll mix and listen, mix and listen, moving between the desktop monitors and a pair of fairly decent Sennheiser headphones. The headphones let me know if anything is seriously wrong with the mix. They also help me refine panning levels. Panning is basically sending a sound to the left or right speaker, like a swoosh sound moving from your left ear to your right ear. It gives a track a spacial dimension, as if you’re “in” the music. Headphones translate this best, in my experience.
The final mixdown
I am now in the final mixing phase. I’ll be listening for how well the tracks perform on speakers other than the ones I use, primarily. I’ll be playing the tracks in cars, on small headphones, on laptop speakers, etc. I’ll also check how well the tracks work together as an album. If I’ve done my work right, there won’t be any major edits required, but there’s no guarantee. Sometimes a track sounds great on your headphones, but terrible on someone else’s, or the tracklist might need to be reordered (but, I’m confident that won’t happen). Once this phase is done, the tracks will be sent to the mastering house for final touches. As I write this, I am nervous and excited. I cannot wait to put this out into the world!
I love the vibrant colours of the Impressionists. Looking at the works of Claude Monet fills me with a genuine feeling of warmth and joy. I don’t pretend for a moment that my picture is anything as splendid as Monet’s (in fact, looking at it now, it’s rather dark and dull), but when I saw Hummelstein’s images of Fürth city park (Germany, 2014), I had to try a little digital impasto. (I used the Sketches app for iPad.)
Flowers, poetry, music and I
Images of flowers remind me of Robert Schumann’s art song, “Du bist wie eine Blume” (“You Are So Like A Flower”). I first heard it sung by Angela Gheorghiu. What a beautiful song, delicately sung by her, as if her voice was a flower itself. The words, a poem by Heinrich Heine, are achingly beautiful:
Du bist wie eine Blume
Du bist wie eine Blume,
So hold und schön und rein;
Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmut
Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.
Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
Betend, daß Gott dich erhalte
So rein und schön und hold.
You Are So Like A Flower
You are so like a flower,
So fair and pure and fine;
I gaze on you, and sadness
Steals through the heart of mine.
It is, as though I should gently
Lay hands upon your hair,
Praying to God, that He keep you
So fine and pure and fair.
We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.
It was natural, for me, to substitute “movies” with “music”. I am a graphic designer by profession. I like to think of it as making shapes by day and sounds by night. In many ways, graphic design is like music, but instead of manipulating sound to communicate a message, you manipulate visuals to do so. I find both disciplines satisfying because they allow me to make things that add beauty to the lives of others. To create beauty, one must often begin with the not so beautiful. I was never one for getting dirty, but creativity is very messy, at least, in its early stages. There are scribbled notes and cutouts, rough sketches and experiments, a host of silly solutions and obvious ideas easily exposed for their unoriginality. But, as the process develops, workable solutions emerge, a good idea crystalises, and order slowly imposes itself on the chaos.
Like most creative folk, I tend to think my first idea is my best idea. (This is especially true if you’ve been around for a while). I have to learn, again and again, that this is rarely the case. Almost every first idea can be improved upon. In art school, I learned to love this process of development and improvement, of looking at an idea from different perspectives and getting feedback from others. (For the best feedback, Paul Arden (I think) brilliantly suggests that we don’t ask people if they like our idea, but that we ask them what they would change about our idea—I can report that this works, every time.) Sometimes, an idea must be totally abandoned in favour of a better one, or it must be abandoned temporarily and returned to later with fresh eyes and ears. This is how one goes beyond the obvious and arrives at something new and even unique. But, ideas are only part of creating beauty. Finding the right medium in which to develop those ideas can be a challenge.
Finding a medium
When I began specialising in graphic design at art school, I needed a medium with which to hash out ideas. Something that was inspiring to work with, but still suited to the precision necessary for the discipline. During my first year, I had developed a way of working with watercolours that met these requirements, perfectly. Watercolours became my trademark medium for preliminary designs and I think my work was better as a result of having found the right medium to explore in. A lot of my early final pieces of design were not rendered on the computer and printed. Instead, I painstakingly produced them in watercolours. Working with watercolours gave me an opportunity to master something that seemed to defy mastery. It gave me a sense of power and control, something I have always felt I lacked inwardly. A similar quest for a suitable medium of exploration took place for me in music. (Of course, the struggle to master that medium is ongoing.)
My early training in music was classical. I composed precise little pieces for the piano, but they were so structured I couldn’t stand them. I loosened up a little when I learned to play the guitar. I wrote lots of folk songs, but they were forced and embarrassingly pretentious. For a long time after that, I experimented with different genres, looking for a music style that felt natural and honest. Stories High was my most recent attempt in this quest. But, I found working with lyrics to be restrictive. I wanted to be liberated from them—besides, I felt ambivalent about singing. What I needed was the musical equivalent of watercolours. When I couldn’t find it, I stopped making music, for a while.
Finding a Muse
Then, a few months ago, I heard Sketches From New Brighton by Loscil. The album described Scott Morgan’s fascination with an oceanside park in Vancouver. I was captivated by both the concept and the execution of this idea. Scott Morgan was doing what I had subconsciously wanted to do, all this time. It’s baffling, but even though I’d listened to ambient electronic music for years, I’d never seriously considered composing in that genre. Somehow, having so clear an example in Scott Morgan was just the catalyst I needed. Here was a musician telling a story in abstract soundscapes. He did this by building layers of musical loops, creating a kind of sonic chaos. From this, he extracted musical phrases. At least, this was how I interpreted his work. To me, it was a revelation. I had found my watercolours of sound! Suddenly, I had a medium from which to draw my own melodies and meaning. It was only a matter of time before Forgotten Fields was born. There’s another quote involving Disney:
Disney movies touch the heart, but Studio Ghibli films touch the soul.
Scott Morgan’s Sketches From New Brighton had the Studio Ghibli effect on me. One day, I’ll write him a letter of thanks. Even if no one ever reads this blog or listens to a single track, I have him to thank for giving me a new medium and a new love for musicmaking. And here I am, putting together my first album, composing my first story in music. There is an incredible amount about making instrumental music I am in the process of learning, but what better way to do so than by making instrumental music? I feel a tremendous sense of relief finally being able to make the music I want to listen to.
Finding a message
As for the subject and theme, the very childhood demons I have been wrestling with in recent times have provided them. I never understood what people meant when they said that a curse can become a blessing (or something to that effect), but I think I know what they mean. All my life, I have struggled with abandonment issues. It would not be an exaggeration on my part to call it a curse. But in music, I can work through these issues, expressing the grief, loss and loneliness, but also the beauty, wonder and adventure of childhood as experienced by adult children of dysfunctional families. Perhaps in my music I can give myself and others a place of refuge and release. That would be my curse turned into a blessing. It is an exciting time for me. I am eager to see what happens next.
Hayao Miyazaki’s worlds are filled with weird and wonderful things and places. In them, there must be countless fields for one to lie and dream in. When I was a boy, I had an illustrated children’s book, now long lost. One of the illustrations was of a boy lying in a field of tall grass, staring up at the clouds. A few weeks ago, I discovered that the book is still in print. I ordered a copy, right away, because I want to see if the picture is anything like what I remember. That image was the beginning of my love for fields and the reason I now think of them as places of serenity. To my young mind, the boy in the field seemed at home in the world and I longed for that sense of belonging, as a child. Perhaps subconciously, I had done what Alice did in creating Wonderland. Though my wonderland didn’t need any fantastical creatures, a dragonfly was more than enough. In the opening scene of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), Alice sings about her imaginary world in a field of daisies. The song ends with the words:
I could listen to a babbling brook
And hear a song that I could understand
I keep wishing it could be that way
Because my world would be a wonderland
In Forgotten Fields, I wish to create a wonderland in music: sometimes idyllic, sometimes terrifying, but always, I hope, honest.
I’ve been trying out various handwritten logos for Forgotten Fields. My handwriting ranges from painfully precise to completely illegible (at times, even to myself). I’ve tried quite a few times. Here is one of many attempts:
I worked on preliminary mixes for the last two tracks of the Airship album, today. They are “The View From Above” and “The Return”. “The View From Above” started out as a sketch and eventually turned into a full track. (There is a rough version on SoundCloud, called “Recording I”). At first, I didn’t think of it as part of the Airship idea. My inspiration was radio towers, the sound waves passing between them, hence the voice recording. But, once I started work on Airship, the lightness of the music came to remind me of flight, and so I inducted it into the tracklist. It’s a gentle, precarious track; there are these dissonant notes that I rather like. You could never tell with airships in the early days, they could come tumbling down, at any moment. The uneasiness of the track reminds me of that uncertainty. For the Airship version, I’ve removed the voice recording and made it much more fluid. After the changes, I think it suits the album. “The Return” is last on the tracklist. Not long ago, I considered it done and dusted, but I think it needs more work. It has a repeating guitar, strings and drum theme describing the return flight of the airship. It’s rather tense, but it brings everything to a neat end. I am still wrestling with it, but that’s the three-hour bit I love.