Creating The Pajamas Media Podcast Theme Song
For those musicians in the audience--or those laypersons interested in home recording in general, I thought I’d explain how I put the Pajamas Podcast theme song together.
The first step was booting up Cakewalk Sonar, my primary recording program. I then began to fire up various software synth applets and started experimenting.
A couple of months ago, Cakewalk introduced their Rapture software synthesizer, which contained a variety of sequencer patterns. These are pre-programmed riffs designed to unfold as the musician holds the key or keys down. Play one note and get ten--or a hundred. That certainly appeals to me!
Apparently, one of the programmers at Cakewalk is a big Blade Runner fan, as both Rapture and Project 5 Rev 2 have contained patches strongly reminiscent of the sound Vangelis invented for that seminal movie. In the case of Rapture, there was a sequence patch inspired by the Vangelis’ sequencer on the film’s end titles. I knew I wanted to start with that as the “music concrete” to build the theme around, so the first step was experimenting to find a tempo that the patch sounded best at (about 110 beats per minute).
The next was to find a drum pattern that sounded nice against the sequencer. I have a collection of various drum loops, mostly from Sony’s Acid Loops series. One of their more offbeat (heh) drum collections is called “Zero Gravity Beats”, and a pattern from that disc matched up nicely with the Blade Runner sequencer.
I knew the theme wasn’t going to be much longer than 30 second at most, so I laid down 30 seconds of the Blade Runner sequencer in A--which meant programming one long A note, and the sequencer would automatically chug up and down in its pattern, always returning to that note.
I then decided to craft a simple chord sequence in that key, and found another sequencer pattern in Rapture that sounds great as a sustained chord. It would hold the chord for almost a bar, and then play a sequence of notes as it trailed it off. So I played a series of simple acending chords in the key of A: A major, B major, C#minor, D major, E major, returning to A.
With two layers of synths burbling away, I figured some electric guitar would sound great for contrast, so I dusted off my Gibson 1959 Les Paul reissue, and fired up Line6’s aging but still very functional GuitarPort, which allows me to plug in an electric guitar’s standard quarter-inch guitar cable via its floor pedal into the computer’s USB port.
I chose GuitarPort’s “Brit Hi-Gain” patch, which convincingly models a late 1960s Marshall stack--the perfect amp for a fluid, lightly distorted Les Paul lead sound.
I then improvised a few melody ideas on the Les Paul and eventually, started recording them. The final lead line is the best of two takes spliced seamlessly together.
I then edited the drum loops, pasting in various drum rolls and cymbal crashes to the give the aural impression of a drummer reacting in sympathy with the lead guitarist.
Sometimes ideas that are clichés are useful because they just can’t be beat, so I launched Zero-G’s Nostalgia software synthesizer and found its recreation of the infamous Fairlight “Orchestra 5” patch. I say “infamous” because it seemed that every recording MTV ran in the mid-1980s had one or twenty orchestra hits from this patch. Frankie Goes To Hollywood seemed to have based their career on it.
But that was twenty years ago, and orchestra hits seemed like a useful way to kick off and end the song, so I dropped in a few hits: one at the start, and a couple at the end.
Then I added a simple Fender bass part using another software synthesizer. I chose a very conventional bass sound to contrast with all of the non-conventional synth sounds in the frequencies above it.
Since it was the lead instrument and would feature prominently in the mix, I wanted to give the Les Paul a slightly more fluid, modern sound, so I fired up Izotope’s Spectron processing applet, and ran the guitar their “Sweet & Sour” patch, which processed the guitar with a light combination of delay, filtering and smearing, that’s a tad more exotic than the typical chorus or flanger patch.
Izotope’s effects typically sound great, but are very processor-intensive. So a track with one of their treatments on it usually won’t play in time with the rest of instruments. To offset this, I first cloned the original Les Paul track and then muted its original version. Next I processed the cloned track with Spectron. I used the original track as a guide to visually slide the new version backwards in time so that it lined up with the old track.
The song was beginning to take shape, but it didn’t seem quite done yet.
the chord sequencer part served as a nice counterpoint to the start of the lead guitar part. But as the piece progressed, I decided to introduce a second guitar part to add a little additional excitement. So I took off the Les Paul and plugged my Fender 1952 Telecaster reissue into the same GuitarPort patch and played some simple licks, in a higher register than the Les Paul’s lines. It was also on the Tele that I played the bent, heavily vibrato-ed A note that i mixed in under the first orchestra hit.
After listening to the track as it stood, I wanted some interesting noise or effect to subtly begin the tune before the first orchestra hit went “boom!”. I rifled through my collection of Acid Loops from Bill Laswell’s collections, and found a nifty tape rewinding effect--it was part of a collection of DJs scratching records and creating other hip-hop/techno licks. The symbolism of the podcast starting with a tape rewinding seemed irresistible, and even if nobody “got” the effect, it at least added some subliminal ambient weirdness to create some subtle initial tension, resolved when the actual instruments enter.
Finally, I mixed everything down to a stereo .Wav file adding some subtle reverb on most of the instruments to bind them together, and processed the entire track with Izotope’s Ozone mastering applet, to give it all a nice professional sheen.
If that sounds like a lot of work, well, a lot of it is based on tried and true techniques I’ve either learned or developed over several years. The whole thing from start to finish took an evening--a very pleasant evening indeed, as I find music recording to be an extremely rewarding hobby.
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Ed Driscoll knows small business, financial planning, career counseling, home theater, technology, markets, double-breasted suits, and blue hats. But what he really likes to do is produce the "Blog Week In Review"--Pajamas Media ad, 7/06
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