Monday, 10 August 2015

Summer of Music - Signal Cartel



The Making of "Scout"

After finishing the Nova Haven project, Scout posed very different challenges. The hard part of Nova Haven was finding the right inspiration. Once I get the idea that works, the execution is pretty straightforward. Not so with Scout. Because it is a parody of an existing well known song, it will always be measured against that. The vocals have to be clear because it is a parody and the backing music needs to be a credible representation of the original. What could possibly go wrong?

Background

This all started when Mynxee (CEO of Signal Cartel) got bullied into singing "Shout" by Tears for Fears on mumble. In a frankly uncredo like fashion this was recorded and put into the public domain. I put a musical backing to her dulcet tones and sent it back her. Surprisingly, she liked it so the idea was born to do a parody version of Shout - Scout. Mynxee wrote some excellent lyrics and I had to come up with a guide track for her victims to sing against.

Backing Track

The first decision was identify which version of Shout to work with. The Bristish release was nearly 6 minutes long, the German/Japanese releases are 5 minutes long and it was 4 minutes in the US. I opted to work with the UK version but cut two sections of instrumental bridge mainly because I never liked those parts anyway.

The second decision was to consider whether to use the original track and doctor it or construct my own version. I opted for the latter. The original track was recorded around 1984 onto tape. The quality is actually quite poor. If you listen to beginning of the original on YouTube, there is a lot of his and noise and the mix is quite muddy. Nostalgia gives us a clarity that never really existed. Most of my vinyl records (showing age here) were scratched. But I don't remember the jumps and scratches - just the songs. Unfortunately we are no so tolerant now in the digital age.

The original song was also mixed aggressively resulting in a very powerful sound. This worked well because the singers had strong voices, belting out the vocals with gusto and could compete with the powerful backing. The capsuleers of Signal Cartel however don't have time to train Music and Singing to Level V. So it was evident that more control on the backing would be needed so that their voices would not be overwhelmed. In the end, the only part of the original song I used was the opening triangle and detuned bottle percussion loop at the beginning and this runs all through the song as it does in the original.

Constructing the backing track from scratch was a bit of a detective story in itself but I think I managed to capture most of it. The percussion track was the most interesting. The original starts with a drum machine which is later augmented with a real drummer playing on top. So essentially I had to try and make it sound less like a human in the beginning and more like a human in the end, but not overwhelm the vocals as the original would have done (and was intended to do as part of the climax) Stuff like this messes with your head.

Vocals

The vocals were always going to be challenging. Each were recorded locally on Audacity by the singers concerned. From a technical and sound quality perspective, people obviously use different quality microphones and had different background acoustics (including a barking dog!). Then came the musical interpretation. This included different phrasing, tuning, tempo and lyrics. So I spent a bit of time editing these to blend them together. What I must say is that everyone's contribution was invaluable and added to the overall sound. So well done for having the guts to sing (or bark)!

Mixing

When bringing the music and the vocals together, you tend to know already what is and isn't working. Novices tend to boost something they like to fix a problem. While that might work, more often I use a subtractive approach. If you can't hear something clearly the it is likely that some other sound frequency is clashing with it. The power chords on the guitars where the biggest offenders in that regard and had to be toned down (but kept the same volume). The vocals needed to be beefed up using a mixture of compression, reverb, delay and a light unison effect.

Mastering

Similar to mixing but takes the viewpoint of the to device or format the final mix is going to be listened on. What might sound great on my earbuds my sound terrible on someone elses headphones. And Mp3 format degrades the sound as part of the compression. It is my weakest area to be honest. I don't have a set of neutral sounding monitors and I suffer from tinnitus in one ear anyway. So I compromise. I do have a set of really cheap and bad earbuds so I use them as a reference set. If it sounds half decent on those it usually sounds pretty good on more reasonable speakers.

As I have said before, the software I use is Reason 8.3. It's an acquired taste but I have always found it flexible and allows you to concentrate on the music rather than worrying about how to make something work . The main difficulty I experienced was with my laptop dying (motherboard failure) and the drama around getting it fixed which took about three weeks.


Anyway, I am really pleased with the result and hopefully Signal Cartel are too. It could not have been done without them and they deserve all the credit because at the end of the day, it was their performance and ideas that made it what it is. Well done.

2 comments:

  1. It all sounds like some kind of wizardry to me! Thanks so much for all your hard work on this project. I'm very pleased with the results, too :) The best part is that it has inspired at least one other Signaleer to do their own parody song!

    https://soundcloud.com/smoony30/ill-follow-isk-into-the-dark

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  2. You are welcome and its was a pleasure. And Smoony(?) has written a lovely song and sung it well. Please give him my compliments. I look forward to hearing more from him.

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