Made In Japan Retrospective-Track 4 “Shrine”

“Shrine” came about as an experiment; just how much could I create with the smallest sample possible?

I had recorded a 1 minute sample of a young boy ringing a bell in a shrine in central Kyoto. The boy ran up and rang the bell for prayer before running back to his mom shouting with glee at the noise.

I thought this may have enough elements that had both interesting textures but also tones that I could turn into melodies.

I went through this small sample multiple times and sliced mini clips out of it, with the intention to turn some into percussion and some into melody. I processed them using different synthesis techniques and effects to produce almost the whole track.

It was a long process to turn it into the track here but I was proving to myself that I could get a lot out of very small samples with the application of some creative techniques. Techniques I develop further on other tracks.

The work of Burial was the main inspiration on the opening of this track. He always uses interesting elements in his percussion to create a pallet of sound that sets the listener into a world he creates. I knew I wanted to use some of those techniques on a track, and I felt that the slithers of audio I had managed to extract from the original field recording would be perfect for this aim.

Originally the track was only percussive and ran closer to two minutes of play time, but it lacked a progression. The early ambience created by the soundscapes quickly fell flat to me, when I returned to it after a break working on other music.

I realised that using the foundations of the piece, but adding a more melodic element to it, could create something that would work over a longer play time.

Finding the melodic element from the original recording was the main problem though. Unfortunately the melodic elements of the boys voice of glee and the bell ringing varied rapidly in pitch and putting them straight into a sampler to play out created an atonal mess. It got worse the more you tried to wrangle it into something that worked.

This had stumped me for several weeks. How could I create a melody that was controllable from a sample with such varying pitches.

I attempted to use melodine (a software a little like Autotune) to force the bell and the boy into a more fixed pitch. But this always ended up sounding robotic, as the pitch correction overworked to try and force a pitch out of chaos. I then tried the PaulXStretch plugin as used on the track “Locks,” but it again created a texture that didn’t fit with the rest of the track.

Luckily I had been developing a technique that was working on the track “Airport Pianos,” which I thought could apply to this one.

If I pitched very small snippets of the sample (all under a second in length) and then fed them all into a fully wet reverb, it would create a sound that was both reminiscent of the original audio and the reverbs used inside the piece, whilst still being fixed in a pitch. I could then turn it into chords and melody. It worked!

I did this with both the boys voice (which became the background chords) and the bell sound (which became the step sequenced rhythm).

I developed the sequenced bell sound out of a desire to replicate the style of the famous Roland bass synth; the TB-303. I thought a 303 would be perfect as a lead for the more melodic track that was developing.

My knowledge of this particular synth was that a lot of its character derives from its filter rather than the fairly simple oscillator. So as long as I used a small sample of audio that was close to a square or sawtooth wave with a squelchy filter with a ringing resonance, I could create a similar effect.

I put the bell sound into Ableton’s sampler and triggered it with a step sequencer and played the filter and a send to a reverb live to create the sound you hear on the track. This technique was certainly influenced by the work of Aphex Twin.

Sadly I had to make one exception to the rule of making the whole track with a single sample, and that was the repeating kick drum sound.

Attempts to replicate a decent thud for the kick from elements of the sample never quite achieved the sound I was looking for. Eventually I gave in and layered one sample of a kick drum along with layers from the field recording to create the kick you hear on the finished track.

Apart from that sample (which is under half a second long), every other piece of audio in this track comes from the aforementioned 1 minute of field recording.

For those who are interested in the original field recording the majority of the track was built from I will add it to youtube as a curiosity. You can hear on this link Shrine original recording:

Made In Japan Retrospective-Track 3 “Locks”

“Locks” was one of the later tracks I made on the album. As the pool of available recordings from the trip became smaller, I started to rely on more creative processing of fewer bits of recordings to make each track.

The vast majority of “Locks” comes from a recording of a Geisha performance that involved dancing, singing and an orchestra of eastern instruments. I sampled very small sections of this 90minute recording using Izotopes RX software to isolate individual instruments, before moving into samplers to make new instruments I could play myself.

This process resulted in a large collection of instruments that worked well in very small frequency ranges before they started to lose any semblance of organic texture.

This limitation in instrumentation and the octaves available to me really helped solidify the scale, tempo and style of the piece, as it was a very fine line before they would quickly fall apart.

Listening back, the only instrumentation that wasn’t from the 90minute field recording comes in the second half of the piece; the bass line programmed on a Prophet 05 and the drums in the second half taken from a sample library of a Simmons drum machine.

A highlight from the track for me is the pad like collection of chords that comes into the track from 2:19 to it’s conclusion. This was made using PaulXstrech; a piece of software that pulls even the smallest parts of audio outwards into cavernous elongated pieces. It turned a single note played by the woodwind section of the orchestra into the sound you hear on the album, processed with some audio degradation tools to smooth out the sound.

It is a great example of the creative use of processing to completely warp the original signal into something new but also how the ability of the technology forced me to keep it within this particular note range.

Made In Japan Retrospective-Track 2 “Tokudawara”

After returning to the UK, “Tokudawara” was the first track that came together on the album.

There were several tracks that I was playing with and testing at the time from the recordings of the OP-1. However, I was struggling to find something that worked.

The easiest tracks to go to from my recordings were the melodies and chord sequences I had created. They provided great bases to build the rest of a track on. However, many of these experiments only ended up making it to the record after some major alterations. All except “Tokudawara” and the final track “Leaving.”

The main collection of chords/melody on “Tokudawara” was played straight into the Tascam from the OP-1 and had an evolving pattern that I decided to strip back to selection as an 8 bar loop. I layered these and treated them with different FX, EQ and panning to turn a mono collection of chords into a larger stereo image.

One of my favorite tracks of all time is the “Telefon Tel Aviv” track “Fahrenheit Fair Enough,” and I especially love the way that the main melody/chord progression stays the same throughout large sections of the track, whilst the other instrumentation and percussion shifts underneath. This was certainly an influence when starting to make this track, but after many attempts at iterating the other instrumentation, I ran into a bit of a cul-de-sac with the piece as a whole. It stalled for a few weeks whilst I worked on other tracks.

The breakthrough came when I started to use a sample library of organic drums on other tracks in the album. I wondered what it would be like to re-create the electronic instrumentation at the beginning of “Tokudawara” with traditional instruments. The piano seemed to me like an obvious choice, and when I re-recorded the chords on a piano and added it to the sound of a real drum kit, I knew I had a complete track.

The field recordings on the piece came from two different events.

I first added the vocal shouts, which came from a Gyōji at a sumo wrestling match. I wanted to use samples from the sumo match because I recorded the OP-1 synth after returning from this match. I thought it would be great to link it in.

The second recording of birdsong was a continuous recording of the garden at the Okouchi-Sansou Villa. Field recordings of birds happen several times on the album.

I find blending these larger soundscapes of wildlife has a stronger effect when mixed with electronics. It was also referencing of one of my Favorite albums “Fin” by “John Talabot,” whose opening track “Depak Ine” features a background of jungle calls.

Perhaps because Tokudawara was the first track I finished, it set up a sound and a style that influenced the rest of the album. It also felt to me like something that was the closest thing to a “single” on the album, being easy to understand on first listen. Both of these reasons made me move it to the front of the track listing.

Made In Japan Retrospective-Track 1 “Made In Japan”

This track is rather simple compared to others on the album, so I am also going to include the background to how the album came to be in this article.

I have always been a fan of albums over singles. The act of creating a theme, motif and textural world that a collection of tracks inhabit interests me more than individual tracks. For me, it is the purest artistic form for a musician. 

The journeys I have gone on by listening and re-listening to albums have shown to me music at the peak of its powers. And in turn, making an album was always my grand aim over writing individual tracks. 

My love for a long play record and my respect for music has been a blessing as a listener but has hampered me as a musician. My attempts to create an album have always weighed me down with many near complete but failed attempts due to the weight of importance I give to my favorite medium.

This is probably why the album Made In Japan never started with the idea that it would become an album. 

I knew from a young age that I wanted to visit Japan. In high school, I would play video games and watch films and anime from Japan, and knew that they came from a culture that was so alien to the one I was used to growing up in. I wanted to see it for myself.

In my mid 20’s I decided to set myself the goal of saving to visit Japan before I turned 30, and finally arranged to do it with a group of friends and my sister just under the wire for my 30th birthday.

My main passion in life is audio, and after university it became both a hobby and a job.  Whilst I’m out and about, instead of taking photographs, I have always drifted towards recording interesting sounds. I tend to make field recordings on holidays for my own interest. 

So, going to Japan and making recordings were always going to be linked. As I got closer to the holiday and I realised its importance, I started to formulate a plan to make a deeper collection of recordings whilst in Japan to form a more complete audio “scrap book” of experiences. 

Although I have a Sound Devices field recorder that allows me to record very high quality audio, I decided that I would need a smaller device to get these recordings whilst I was there. A device that could fit into my pocket whilst not in use. I picked up a Tascam DR7mk2 for both its stereo mics that could be switched into different positions and its Line In connector, which would allow me to record my other main piece of equipment; the Teenage Engineering OP-1 synthesiser.

I had been using the OP-1 as an instrument for several years to make music on my hour and a half commute to work between Leigh and Liverpool. This has made me very competent in its abilities, quirks and systems. However, its one weak point is its recorder. 

The OP-1 allows you to record 4 mono tracks of audio, each 6 minutes long. To circumnavigate this, in the past I would move those tracks to a hard drive on a PC and then bounce them down back onto a single track in the OP-1. This allows me another 3 mono tracks to continue to build up compositions inside the unit. 

However, in Japan I realised that I would have little to no access to a computer throughout. This meant, another method of recording the tracks would be essential. The DR7 was a perfect way to save ideas for future use when I returned back to the UK.

So in summary, my initial thought process was to make several field recordings for an audio “scrap book” as well as have the ability to record any musical ideas from my OP-1 onto my DR7 during the time I was in Japan. The idea of interweaving these two things together only started to come into my mind towards the end of the holiday. 

It was when I returned home that I started to realise just how many recordings I had been able to achieve. Even then, I only believed it would be enough music for a smaller EP.

When I did get home and realised there was more potential in the recordings to turn it into a larger work, I decided to set myself some rules to stick to when creating the album. 

I decided to create rules because in the modern music production world, limitless possibilities are stifling. Forcing myself into boundaries is the only way I have found to ever get anything done.

The core rules were basic and fairly simple. Although I could embellish and move away from it, the core idea of each track needed to come from/be built from the recordings made in Japan. 

This limitation meant that only a few of tracks on the album were made completely in Japan, as many needed to be created later with samplers and heavy processing of the recordings. 

The first track, “Made In Japan,” is one of the few that features content exclusively from Japan.

Although the start of the album, the track “Made In Japan” marks both the beginning and end of the journey to create this record. It’s the first field recording I did when arriving in Japan, but also the last track myself and Mark finished when working on the album, which gives it – for me – an overarching story for the complete work.

The original recordings on this track were taken from our first night in Japan. 

After arriving in Tokyo mid afternoon and finding our accommodation, we walked through Ikebukuro in the evening to see the nightlife. I made one long recording walking through the crowds and past the shops and arcades. The one English voice you hear in the track is my sister’s now husband Ben signaling our friend Stephanie to come over to him. The rest is other people sharing the street with us.

The whole recording was close to 10 minutes originally and was one of several longer recordings of the streets in cities throughout Japan. I wanted to open the album with one of these pieces as a way to immerse the listener into the way I felt on the first night in Japan, with a my jetlag being barraged with the sensory information of the Tokyo streets and the emotions of completing a life goal. 

During the final mixing process, Mark turned the 10 minutes into a shorter 2 minute collage that highlighted certain moments, and added a more frenetic pace that works its way to the first piece of music, “Tokudawara,” which I will talk about tomorrow:

Made In Japan Retrospective- Intro

It’s been almost a year since I finished all of the compositional work on Made In Japan. Followed by several months mixing and Mastering with Mark Chadwick. Over that time I put so much focus on how the record sounds that the how I composed the record became quite cloudy in my memory, a memory I continued to loose after the albums release.

I felt burned out by the music I had spent nearly 3 years of my life on. The idea of going back and thinking analytically about how I made it was just not on the cards 6 months ago.

However with some time away from the work I thought it would be great to go back to it, remember how I made it and what I learned from the experience for future work.

As I’m putting the whole album on Youtube over the next two months I thought now would be the perfect time to go back and offer a retrospective on the album. What I remember about the technical processes of making it and the thoughts and influences I had whilst composing particular tracks.

I’m doing this for anyone who is interested but also as a collection of diary entries for my future self. As I get further away from its creation and my memories get foggier it’s starting to feel like it was made by someone else altogether! Hopefully by writing this I will leave myself a record of what I was thinking and how I made it for future analysis.

Hopefully you will enjoy my thoughts on each track and maybe even learn something about my process that you could apply to your own creative endeavors. If anyone does please let me know as I’d love to know this work has been useful for more than just myself.

So, from tomorrow, each Tuesday and Friday I will be releasing a track from the album in order and writing a post about it on the blog. I will write down what I remember about the process, including thought processes and influences I had whilst composing particular tracks. 

Tomorrow will start with the opening and title track “Made In Japan”. 

Made In Japan- Live Performance

It looks like a long time before live music will be up and running in any normal way. So In the meantime I thought I would film and put up where I’m up to with the live performance for Made In Japan.

The visuals were made from a collection of videos I’ve recorded over the years and processed using Cycling 74′ Max.

Watch the video and give me your thoughts below:

ConfettiTsunami – Made In Japan

My first full length album is finally here! Made In Japan has taken several years of hard work and is available on Bandcamp now: