Modus Operandi

At the start of a session, I switch on the kit, run up Sonar, plug in the headphones and I am away. I like to able to get going quickly.

My modus operandi is to start with a default template I have created. This resets the various modules to my defaults, select the right performance on the Roland, gets the Yamaha into XG mode, sets up some basic FX and initialises the clock distribution. I use this so I know the state of everything is reset on opening the file in future. I configure Sonar to only allow one file open at a time, so as I move from one piece to another I automatically reset the hardware each time. Another gripe with the Emu stuff is that it doesn't support MIDI Reset or any other easy way to reset the module to its power on state. This is all kept in the Sonar "Normal" template and so becomes part of every piece I write. It would be nicer if Sonar referenced this file rather than copying it into each new piece, so that if I have to change anything, I only have to do it once. But it doesn't, so I do.

For a piece, I write each track in the staff editor, selecting instruments as I go. Sometimes, the instruments I select are just there to approximate the sound I am looking for and I come back later to fine tune it. Sometimes, pieces start out by a process of discovery and other times I know exactly what I want. Sometimes, I start with the overall structure of the piece and other times with a sound or a tune. Usually, things don't finish up quite the way I planned them.

For me, music works structurally like an argument or an essay. I don't mean in the Cicero "Tell 'em what you're going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them" sense. I mean more like the notion of starting with a basic statement (chord sequence, theme, sound) and developing that "idea" during the course of piece often concluding with a enhanced repeat of the opening idea. The repeat is given the extra context of what has gone before and is usually completely "re-scored". Consequently, most of my pieces are in a ternary form (being-middle-beginning again). I also enjoy the kind of Debussy-esque technique of repeating and extending ideas. If you don't know what I mean, try listening to something like "La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin". Listen for the technique that has "phrase B is an extended version of phrase A and phrase C is B extended again" and so on. You hear it in "La Mer", "Nuages", "Reverie" and a host of other things. I find it satisfying, both on an intellectual and an emotional level. It has a way of breaking up the development and giving the music much more of a sense of organic growth. It also helps make the music more accessible because the pattern of repetition helps the listener remember the ideas as they are created. You'll find it in "Prelude L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" as well. I think form is very important to me, though I am not always very successful at it in my music.

Sometimes, I just listen to the current set of pieces I am working on and make few, if any, changes. Other times, I make sweeping changes to a particular piece. Typically, I will be working on three or four at a time. Obviously, not all of them make it to the CD stage. I try to keep in mind that they need to go together on the same CD, not always successfully.

Drums are always hard to do. I spend ages on them because, for a lot of pieces, they are the framework that glues the rest together. I like having a good quantity of non-electronic sounding instruments, especially percussion. But, I also love a good solid electronic sounding kit. I like noises in my kits too. Something that can just be used as a percussive sound. Non-western music is still a, largely, untapped source of inspiration as well. And cross-rhythms interest me too. Philip Glass is a favourite, though more the chamber pieces than the operas. On the other hand, I like Orbital and Eat Static for the same reason. Microtonal is not something I experiment with too much, it's such a pain to set up on a synthesiser, but I have a suspicion that you can't really do Blues without microtonal instruments.

My pieces tend to fall in one of three or four categories. First, there are the orchestral sounding pieces. Sometimes, this is just the combinations of synthesised sounds give an orchestral feel to the piece and, at other times, because I am using orchestral sounds. Then there are those pieces that seem to be taking ideas from Jazz. I was very into Jazz in my early twenties and I think something rubbed off. Some of the pieces are just mood music, wallpaper for the senses. Then there are the "four to the floor" stomps - the fun pieces. Music should be fun. Well, most of the time, at least. I don't expect everyone to like all of them. Actually, now I come to think about it, I don't expect anyone to like any of them, that's up to you. It is always nice when people tell they like something, but not necessary. It's not going to stop me enjoying myself. I have favorites, one or two on each CD, and others I like less. When I am writing them, I have in mind specific things I am trying to capture. You could say that some have special meanings for me though that would be way too precise. It's more that they remind me of something, even some of the older ones. I still like some of those, by the way, though the quality of the sound is not very good.

I don't use external keyboards or other controllers. I have a few CAL programs I have written or downloaded to aid the process, but mainly, I do it manually, note by note. I tend to work iteratively on each track and across tracks changing, adding and deleting things, refining the sounds and so on. This is often over a period of weeks or even months. Each CD takes me about two years to do. A lot of time is spent listening and adjusting the velocity and position of each note as well as entering controllers in the piano roll. I use a lot of controllers for Modulation, Expression, Pan, Filters and FX. The effort makes the music more organic and less manufactured. However, I always keep the overall volume set by the main track sliders. This allows me to control the final mix from Sonar. In my perfect world, everything would be controlled from Sonar. In reality, I have to go to the modules from time to time, either to create new adaptations of existing patches or simply to work out what is going on in an existing patch. Frequently, I adapt patches by simply turning the volume of some of the extraneous voices to zero, especially on the Roland. What I find takes so much time is trying to deal with phrasing and intonation. I suspect it would all be a lot easier, if I went for using a keyboard, but my first instrument was classical guitar and my keyboard skills are just not that good. I am also getting a bit old to relearn.

I never really got into the idea of just using loops and combinations of pre-recorded audio in my music. I don't have a prejudice about these things being not "proper music" or anything. There is stuff by Varese that I find really impressive. It's just that it's not really for me. I did a project at college that involved mixing recordings I had made of various people saying the letter 'P'. I spent some days cutting it about (literally) and running it at various speeds and things. It does give you a sense of how plastic sound can be - how it can be moulded into things. Then, I inflicted it on an examiner. I think thats enough for one lifetime.

From time to time, I exit Sonar and play with a patch editor on one of the synths. Usually, it is when I am looking for an idea or a particular sound, or simply when I am bored. Sometimes, I just come across something interesting. I store these away for future reference in little "clip" files. I think discovery is a fundamental part of the creative process - the "found thing". I also tend to think that the more you practice, the "luckier" you get finding things like this. And it certainly helps getting used to what the various modules do. Sometimes the clip files just contain a short sequence. Sometimes, they come in handy later and other times, not. I have a lot of these now. I suspect most will never see the light of day again.

The hardest bit is finding titles for the CDs and the individual tracks. For the first CD, I gave up and just numbered them, but that seemed a cop out. I could take the Satie approach, I suppose, and call them things like "Theses on Shoes" or something. But I don't. These days, I wait until the track is nearly finished, then I just try and think what they make me think of and call it by that name, however unrelated to the piece. For instance, "Pavane" from "Echoes" is not, in any sense, a pavane. As you can see, the names are not too important to me except as handles on the piece.

I try to give myself deadlines for each CD, though the actual date is not significant in any way. I find this helps me get things finished. There is more of the artisan about me than the artist, I think. Once I have the pieces finished or as finished as they will ever be, I do a production run. As I said, this is about once every couple of years or so. I conciously stop starting new projects at this time. Otherwise, I know I won't get round to the production bit. There is usually one or two on the go that I haven't quite decided about or I have deferred to the next round.

I use Sound Forge to record them and save them as Wave files at 24-bit/44.1Khz. I then do post production using CoolEdit. This is usually just getting the levels right, cropping the files and so on. Unlike most, I avoid the temptation to compress the life out of the thing. I suppose if I was writing for radio, I might be tempted to "hot up" the piece, but I like the idea that music has a "natural" dynamic that compression destroys. I burn the ROMs with Nero. I have a lot of difficulty getting the right CD to use. I am using TEAC gold ones at the moment and they are best the I have found. I record at 1x using a Plextor BURN-proof CD writer. I still lose one in ten though. I have to check each CD in turn and, obviously, this takes me hours.

Then my better half takes over. She designs and prints the covers, the CD labels and so on. Beautiful work. We do a small run of ten or so and we give them to friends and family as presents. But, I am sure I get significantly more joy out of this than they do, so I won't be giving up the day job just yet. About this time, I generate MPEGs and that is what you will find elsewhere on this site.

After I have released the CD, I spend a month or so going back over the pieces before starting a new one. I can't resist it. Of course, that's when the best ideas happen, when it's too late.