Zen of Recording

They’re IK, You’re Okay

In the world of music making, there are always those times when you’ve got to knock on more than one door in pursuit of the answers and remedies you seek. In other words, maybe you’ll use more than one program on your computer, dependent upon their particular strengths or weaknesses in achieving certain tasks.

Recently, I referred to a musical I wrote the music for, called Time Away. The story takes place in 2041 and in 1941, which, as you might imagine, made for an interesting stylistic challenge when it came time to compose, arrange, and record the original cast soundtrack album, Songs from Time Away. Further complicating matters was the fact that a few of the songs to be included had been previously released. In the opinion of the show’s writer, Richard Harmetz, a couple of songs needed to be left “as is” or very slightly modified, as when we added glockenspiel and duet vocalist Marie Haddad to the recording of “Fooled” (from 1997!). Another example would be extracting the vocals from “Trickle Down,“ a live-in-the-room performance of three acoustic guitars and vocals by Allied Gardens (Peter Bolland, Michael Tiernan, and myself), replacing them with an amazing vocal performance by John Foltz.

Ultimately it was the song “Hindsight” from 2003’s Upload that provided the sonic palette that would ultimately bridge the 100-year span. Its funky, Wurly-fueled vibe provided an unlikely path back to the music of the early ’40s via the very things besides the human voice that have transcended multiple musical eras: horns. Add in strings for good measure and you’ve got plenty of paint to work with.

Well… sometimes you need different kinds of paint, even.

Case in point: these were pop songs written roughly half-way between these two eras, so the key to achieving our goals lay in capturing the right blend of emotional context performance-wise to be sure, but we also needed our textures to weave the songs together into a single cohesive, dual-period piece.

The first objective was to re-interpret these primarily guitar-borne tunes into a dialect a little more familiar to that in the world of theater, so John Foltz translated several of them into piano-based pieces. Then I began to bring in some brass colors via the Miroslav Philharmonik Orchestra and Choir Workstation ($69.99, VST, RTAS, DXi, AU. Mac OS® X, Windows) from IK Multimedia (http://www.ikmultimedia.com/products/philharmonik/). This virtual instrument (which can also be used in a stand-alone version) is an amazingly realistic-sounding ensemble of voices and instruments, with seven gigs of over 4,200 samples of strings, horns, woodwinds, percussion, even piano, guitar, and harp!

Every element of this set was performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague’s Dvorák Symphony Hall and captured in stunningly beautiful detail, right down to the exact placement of each instrument within the setup of the orchestra. Think 3D, because that’s pretty much what it sounds like. French horns that weep with stately ambience, wistfully mysterious oboes, and a very playable and usable piano sound were the first things that grabbed my attention

Of course, as the saying goes, there’s so much more! There are multiple dynamic articulations provided for most of the instruments, from FF trombones to pizzicato violins, and tremolo cellos, affording even more human feeling to add to your arrangements. Composers desiring to capture the essence of a full orchestra  with a full choir, in a great acoustic environment would do very well to take a close look at this excellent collection. Add in its excellent complement of reverbs, choruses, and other effects and you’re looking at a product that would be worth a lot more than the unheard of price of $69.

There was one problem.

When I brought certain Philharmonik elements into some of the denser pop arrangements, they felt slightly weak and “synthy” at times. This isn’t so much a flaw in the instrument as it is a slightly different use than maybe intended.

To fatten things up and instill a sort-of antique undercurrent into the atmosphere, I turned to yet another IK Multimedia product, The Sampletron ($69), which is also a virtual instrument with a very similar user interface as the Miroslav Philharmonik, but that’s where the comparisons end.

The Sampletron is quite literally a deep and historic library of instruments that were developed around the concept of what we now commonly refer to as “sample playback” technology. Only then, it wasn’t digital, the sounds were provided by racks of tape loops, or mechanical plastic discs, or even 8-track-like cartridges. Some of these products, like the Mellotron, were popular for a time but then faded away with the advent of digital (and much more reliable) synthesizers. Some were crackpot ideas that never really took hold and some, like inventor Harry Chamberlin’s early models, were simply awe-inspiring in their quality and playability.

All of these instruments have enjoyed an increasing amount of rediscovery and allegiance. I admit to being a long-time fan (and player) of the Chamberlin and Mellotron, as well as the wacky Birotron, the Rhythm Master drum loop player, and the Mattel Optigan. The sounds provided here have been used on numerous recordings from the Beatles, Led Zepplin, Fiona Apple, Michael Penn, Tom Waits, and Crowded House. Due to mechanical challenges like tape stretching, dust, and other contributing factors of their times, audio eccentricities were an unwelcome but generally accepted part of the sound. It’s certainly a big part of why folks love them so much!

When I needed violins, cellos, voices, or horns that were a little more animated in terms of vibrato and intonation, I often found myself reaching for their Mellotron counterparts, often blending the Sampletron and Philharmonik sounds to achieve the texture and vibe we were looking for.

Not only are all of the great sounds of this library lovingly restored and presented in here in all their burnished glory, but they have increased functionality and editabilty due to the ability to incorporate those features. This means Mellotron sounds don’t have to cut off after seven seconds to reset the tape loop, making pads and drones easier to achieve.

The amount of sounds, variations, and potential uses for this combination of instruments made the soundtrack much easier to arrange and perform. It also just plain made it sound better, cooler, and united the music’s disparate vistas wonderfully. I’m looking forward to the next time I get to use either of these instruments, because they’re so much fun to troll through and explore!

Way more value at this price than one usually sees. ‘nuff said.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer, and songwriter. www.kaspro.com

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