Sunday, March 20, 2016

The making of "Hyboid - Terrör of the Üniverse"

It has been quite a while since I last posted on this blog, for a simple reason: I was totally caught up in making music! Between June 26 and September 25 I locked myself up in my studio and recorded like a maniac, track after track. I spent 58 days in the studio, ending up with 14 pieces, 12 of which made it on my new album: "Terrör of the Üniverse"!

Here is the story:

I have a friend in Spain, he is a fellow electronic musician called Tvnel. In May he asked me if he could record his new album in my studio in Berlin. It would take about one week and we would be recording 9 or 10 songs during that week. It sounded like fun, so I invited him over. He stayed in my studio for a week and we arranged and recorded like crazy. We actually managed to lay down 9 tracks during that week. So, what was so extraordinary about this session? Well, up until then my workflow would be like this: Record MIDI data into a DAW, edit the data, quantize it where necessary, trigger my synths, drummachines and samplers with this MIDI data and record the resulting audio as a stereo sum or separate stems.

Tvnel working his Machinedrum. Astro Chicken Studio, June 2015

My friend Tvnel had a completely different approach. All he brought to the recording session was his Elektron Machinedrum. It had all the patterns stored inside that he needed to record the album. The rest would be hand-played keyboards and real-time arpeggiated stuff, as well as my drum boxes running on their internal sequencers. We also used my Roland CSQ-600 sequencer to provide the sequences that we needed. All sequencers, all the live-playing, hands-on arpeggiator experience and drummachine programming was so much fun. Much more fun and more inspiring than I had ever expected.
Don't get me wrong. Of course I have worked with hardware sequencers, arpeggiators and built-in sequencers before (I have a modular system that I like to play with). However, when it comes to "serious" track making and producing I always felt I had to rely on my DAW and MIDI software sequencers to be the core of my setup.

I had wanted to make a new album for ages. My first two albums were released in 2010 (Aliens ate my Synthesizer!) and 2011 (Where Androids come to die) so it was about time I released something new on vinyl. However, during the last 3 years I made a lot of tracks that I think are pretty good but way too diverse and not coherent enough to make an album.

Well, here I was. After an intense week of recording sessions Tvnel went back to Spain. I had my studio all for myself and was all pumped up, inspired and motivated to make some tracks! I started to incorporate the new workflow into my own music making. What exactly did I do? First of all I decided to do away with software MIDI sequencing altogether. All that pushing around MIDI events, quantizing and fine-tuning with my mouse really had me fed up. I wanted to get my hands dirty, play and arpeggiate my synths live as much as possible. I started by declaring my Oberheim DMX drummachine master MIDI clock generator for all the other machines involved. I multiplied the DMX's MIDI clock signal and converted it to analog triggers via my Doepfer A-190-8 MIDI sync interface. I also converted it to DIN Sync 24 to synchronize my Roland TR-606.
I used the analog trigger signals from the Doepfer module (usually 8th or 16th notes) to sync the built-in sequencers and arpeggiators of my Korg Mono/Poly and Polysix (both modded and equipped with the awesome ModyPoly modifications by Sometimes I would also arpeggiate my Juno-60 using these analog trigger signals. Last not least my trusty old Roland CSQ-600 sequencer would get its sync signals either via these analog triggers or from the TR-606's trigger outs.
When starting a new track, I would simply run my DMX and 606 in sync and start fiddling with basslines and arpeggios all in synced to the master clock as well. As soon as I got a musically pleasing idea I would record it to my DAW running Ableton Live 8 via my Marian Adcon ADAT interface (using an old RME Digi96/8 interface card). I would then record my audio tracks one after another and slowly build up a track in my DAW. However, I soon realized that the DMX's internal clock was all but stable. It would drift out of sync for several milliseconds over the course of a couple of minutes, making it very hard to keep all my audio tracks in sync. So I recorded a 606 trigger signal serving as a "click track" whenever I recorded an audio track, later using this click track to align the recorded audio tracks with each other. This workflow slowed me down quite a bit so after three tracks I decided to use my DAW's MIDI clock as the master clock source. Now MIDI clock and audio tracks were sample-locked together, making overdubs and editing a 1000 times easier. No looking back ever since!
All the effects you hear on my album are hardware effects from the 80s. In some cases I recorded the effects signal mixed with the dry signal when I was confident that it sounded good. Sometimes I recorded dry and wet signals separately, giving me the option to balance dry levels against wet levels later in the mixing process. All tracks were then mixed "in the box" in my DAW (Ableton Live 8) and rendered to stereo tracks for mastering.

Astro Chicken Studio, July 2015

A word about my signal chain: All drums go through my old Ibanez RM-80 rack mixer with pretty hot levels to get that nice punchy mixer compression. A Roland SRV-2000 reverb processor and a Korg SDD-1000 digital delay were patched to the RM-80 mixer's aux send and returns, so the effects also profited from that punchy crunchy RM-80 sound. I then recorded the RM-80s tape output directly into my DAW via ADAT interface.
I had all other synths and effects run through my Soundcraft Spirit M12 mixer for monitoring and routing purposes. From there everything went straight into my DAW via the mixer´s direct out.
During the recording sessions 2 of my 8 ADAT inputs died on me, making it a little cumbersome to record stereo pairs, but hardships are meant to be overcome, right?
Let me give you a run-down of the instruments I used during the production of my "Terrör of the Üniverse" album:

Roland CSQ-600

Roland CSQ-600

An old CV / Gate sequencer from the early 80s. It has 4 memory slots that can each store a maximum of 150 notes. The CSQ-600 is insanely easy and intuitive to use and very reliable at that. I used it with the Octave Kitten for ALL bassline sequencing duties, as well as for some additional sequencer lines. I programmed the CSQ-600 using my Roland SH-09 since they are conveniently located right next to each other. So I basically used SH-09 as the master keyboard for the CSQ-600! The CSQ would get its trigger (sync) signals from my modular Doepfer MIDI-to-clock converter or from one of the 606's trigger outputs.
Only 4 memory slots in the CSQ-600 and you wonder how I managed to make proper tracks like this? Well, to tell you the truth, 4 memory slots WAS actually enough for me to lay down all basslines for all the tracks. Keep in mind though that this required some clever programming at times (pat my own shoulder, ahem...). Also, during the recording process I would have to manually switch between the 4 memory slots to play the sequences in their desired order. At the same time I would then tweak the Kitten's filter cutoff so this method often took me quite a number of attempts to get everything right. To stop the CSQ-600 at the right time (at the end of a track, for instance) I would frequently have to pull out the trigger cable at the right moment (sometimes between 16th notes!). So there was some crazy perfectionist business going on at Astro Chicken studio at times. To sum up, the CSQ-600 was an essential workhorse for my album.

Oberheim DMX

Oberheim DMX

A legendary early digital drummachine. My DMX is fitted with Electrongate's MIDI interface. Running on its own clock the DMX has a tendency to drift away over time, giving away that its clock generator is not very stable. Running in slave mode synced to MIDI clock, however, the DMX is as tight as you could ever wish for! I simply adore this drummachine. Its samples sound crisp and punchy, the sequencer is super easy to use, the timing is right on and it looks amazing! The DMX is featured on many tracks on my album. On some tracks I would use the song mode to actually chain individual sequences to make a complete track. Sometimes I would simply record individual sequences and cut them up on my DAW later to arrange the final drum track. Check out the track "High-Gloss Üniverse" for some funky DMX drum action!

Roland TR-606

Roland TR-606

Another legendary drummachine. I only got my 606 this year so it is a fairly new addition to my setup. I don't know what took me so long to get one?! I love it. So easy to use, very simple yet effective layout, and the sound of course... Classical punchy analog drum sounds, can sound very 808-like, hence the nickname "poor man's 808". I used it on most of the tracks. Sometimes I recorded the sum (the 606 does not have individual outputs, only a mono sum output), sometimes individual instruments one after another to different audio tracks. Check out "Flight of the Astro Kitten" for a pure 606 experience!

Octave Kitten (Revision 1)

Octave Kitten

My bass machine number one at the moment. The Kitten is the little brother to the Octave Cat (as the Arp Axxe is to the Arp Odyssey). It's a 1-VCO synth but don't let this technical detail fool you. The Kitten sounds HUGE and has major balls. Its super-fat sounding discrete VCO with 2 (yes, TWO!) sub-oscillators plus its SSM2040 filter give it a great, classic 70s vintage sound that is up there with other more famous 70s monosynths. The Kitten is super-rare here in Europe. I got it from a music shop in Germany for a very acceptable price. A synth to fall in love with and a definite keeper in my studio. All basslines on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album were done with the Octave Kitten, sequenced via Roland CSQ-600 sequencer. "Flight of the Astro Kitten" sports quite some Kitten for example, including hand-played lead sounds at 1:38 min and 2:59 min.

Roland Juno-60

Roland Juno-60

My workhorse polysynth. Not much to say about the Juno-60´s qualities that hasn't been said a 1000 times before. I hand-played many, many, MANY parts on the Juno-60 for my album: Strings, chords, some leads, arpeggios... Totally essential instrument. Keeper! The Juno-60 is all over my album, there is no particular track to highlight this synth. Simply listen to the entire album. OK, wait... To give you an example: On "Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)" all pads are from the Juno-60.

Roland SH-09

Roland SH-09

I got my SH-09 from a friend of mine, the man who is behind the legendary syntheticmachines series of vintage synth demos on youtube. It is the very machine demoed in this youtube clip:
I love the SH-09 for its classy, late-70s tone. A very simple 1-VCO synth, but BOY does it sound good! A perfect example of a simple design that ended up as an awesome synthesizer. I hand-played most of the SH-09 stuff on the album (with the exception of a few percussion and effects sounds that I sequenced using the 606's trigger outputs). For hand-playing the SH-09 I sometimes resorted to using the Mono/Poly as a remote (master) keyboard for the SH-09 (using Mono/Poly´s CV and Gate outputs) as the Mono/Poly has a keyboard with a wider range plus less issues with double-triggering keys (which my SH-09 does have, unfortunately). Check out the track "Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)" for some hand-played lead sounds starting at 0:44 min or "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space" for the bass-sound that kicks in at 3:22 min.

Korg Polysix (with Tubbutec ModyPoly modification)

Korg Polysix

I bought my Polysix from my friend Tubbu-Tobi who is the man behind the company Tubbu-Tobi is a real expert (dare I say "guru") on the Polysix and the Mono/Poly and is well-experienced in repairing and modding these old synths. The Polysix is infamous for its leaking-battery problem which fortunately can be resolved in most of the cases. I got my Polysix repaired and fitted with Tubbutec's ModyPoly modification which adds MIDI in and out connectors as well as many useful features. For example there is the Power Arp which adds an SH-101-style step sequencer or the Poly Chord feature adding the capability to store individual chords to each key of the Polysix's keys (all of the above holds true for the Mono/Poly, too, which can be fitted with the ModyPoly mod as well). I made heavy use of both features mentioned above (Power Arp and Poly Chord) during the process of making the album. The Power Arp is insanely useful and dead-easy on top of that! I used the Poly Chord mode for the chord progression on the track "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space" (kicking in at 0:14 min). I also used it for some of the chords on "High-Gloss Üniverse" and "Lament for My Eta Carinae", where I remote-controlled my Juno-60 via the Polysix´s MIDI out, using the Polysix´s Poly Chord mode. I know this is quite a convoluted way of working with synths, but hey, what ever works... It's the result that counts.
I also hand-played lots of stuff on the Polysix, for example the squarewave bell sound on "Cosmo Speedrun" starting at 2:57 min.

Korg Mono/Poly (with Tubbutec ModyPoly modification)

Korg Mono/Poly
My Mono/Poly is fitted with Tubbutec´s Mody/Poly modification which adds MIDI in / out functionality, a step sequencer called Power Arp, Poly Chord mode and other useful features. During the making of my "Terrör of the Üniverse" album I re-discovered how widely useful the Mono/Poly really is. In the recent years I had been using the Mono/Poly for bass duties mostly so I had really been neglecting its other timbres (which there are a lot of!). Now, with the bass part being covered by my Octave Kitten, the Mono/Poly was freed up to do whatever I pleased. So I used it mostly for arpeggios, sequencer lines and lead sounds. The Mono/Poly has super-snappy envelopes that let it do great punchy sequencer lines. On top of that, its SSM2044 filter makes for some really smooth filter action when used as a lead synth. For example, on the track "Starfighter Romance" I hand-played the lead line starting at 1:45 min using only one of the Mono/Poly's VCOs (PWM via LFO). Not really a trademark use of the Mono/Poly's 4 VCOs and crazy modulation possibilites, but a great example of what the Mono/Poly can deliver in terms of bread-and-butter sounds. 
For the track "High-Gloss Üniverse" I made good use of the ModyPoly mod's Poly Chord feature. I programmed a row of 4-note chords and mapped these chords across different keys on the Mono/Poly´s keyboard. I then hand-played and recorded 2 solos using the Poly Chord mode, so each key that is pressed plays a chord of 4 notes. You can make some crazy shit happen with this feature. Listen to "High-Gloss Üniverse" (starting at 1:20 min and 3:43 min respectively) and you will know what I am talking about.

Arp Axxe (Mk. III with Timothy Smith filter modification)

Arp Axxe

I bought my Axxe a while ago from a colleague who told me he had a broken Axxe lying around at home. I picked it up for a decent price and had my friend Risk Risk repair it. A week later or so it was up and running again! I think the Axxe is still an underrated synth. It is a stripped-down 1-VCO version of the Odyssey (very much stripped-down, that is!). Still it is capable of delivering earth-shattering lows and soft, elegant lead sounds (and pretty much everything in between, including awesome FX sounds!). It is a synth begging to be played (I mean hand-played). A very expressive instrument. There is quite nothing that comes close to its PWM sound, it really is outstanding! I used the Axxe for lots of FX and percussive stuff like noise bursts or toms, but also for additional basses and lead lines. "Kingdom of the Laser Dwarves" sports hand-played Axxe leads making use of its PPC modulation button for vibrato (1:08 min and 2:51 min). Or check out "Flight of the Astro Kitten" for that deep PWM sound at 1:54 min and 3:16 min.

These are the effects processors I used:

Roland SRV-2000

Nice early digital reverb by Roland (wasn't this actually the first digital reverb by Roland?). Great for drums. That's why I used this box entirely and completely for drums on my album. So: All drum reverbs on "Terrör of the Üniverse": Roland SRV-2000. Simple as that!

Dynacord DRP-20

I bought this German reverb processor from my friend Risk Risk a couple of years ago. When it was released in 1989 it was supposedly intended as a direct competitor to the Lexicon PCM 70. I can testify that the DRP-20 is a superb reverb processor. It has some very interesting algorithms and allows for some deep editing. I really dig the long reverbs that you can get out of this box.

Korg SDD-1000

Dead-easy to use early digital delay. Simple interface, great sound (negative feedback = great for flanging effects). I used it as a flanger for drums on some tracks.

Korg SDD-1200

The SDD-1200 is basically two SDD-1000s in one box (I say "basically" as there ARE differences, but of very technical nature). The SDD-1200 played a major role on my album: I used it as a stereo delay on every track. Whatever signal needs space and stereo width, I send it through the SDD-1200 and it sounds awesome. You have to be very careful about setting the input gain pots as they are very sensitive. There is a very nice feature on the SDD-1200 that deserves mention: You can modulate delay times with 2 individual built-in analog LFOs or you can set the first LFO to modulate delay time for both channels. Hell, you can even have the second delay channel´s time to be modulated by a phase-inverted version of the master LFO! That´s what I did at the end of "Flight of the Astro Kitten". Can you hear how both delays change their pitch periodically in reverse directions?

Deltalab Effectron JR 1050

Great early American-built digital delay. Pretty no-frills but very good sounding. I used it as a static (= non-modulated) delay on some basslines and many sequences and arpeggios.

Aria DEX-1000

Obscure digital delay from the Japanese guitar maker Aria. Built around 1983 I think. It has 2 features that deserve special mention. The first feature is a very practical one: The DEX-1000 has input and output jacks on the back and on the front! A very practical and strangely pretty rare feature.
The second feature: It has a CV input that can modulate delay time. This is a great feature if you have a modular system. You can throw any CV signal at it (as long as it is positive voltage, I suppose) and modulate to your heart's content. I made good use of this feature on the track "Toxic Avenger vs. Marshmallow Man". I used the DEX-1000 for a subtle flanging effect on the bassline. In order to modulate the DEX-1000´s delay time I used the Mono/Poly´s Power Arp (clocked with 16th triggers) to send CV data to the DEX-1000´s CV input. If you listen closely, you can hear the periodic timbre changes on the bassline.

Lexicon LXP-1

Neat little box that can be had for really cheap. Nothing spectacular about this box. It is very easy to use and what is really practical about the LXP-1 is that it has knobs for input level and dry/wet level. I used it as a delay effect on one or two tracks of the album.

Vermona Phaser 80

East German all-analog effects box from the late 70s or early 80s. I think it sounds more like a flanger, though. Apparently there is a version of the Phaser 80 that has adjustable effect depth and input sensitivity. Mine does not have this feature. I have used the Phaser 80 on a couple of tracks on my album. Great sounding little unit.

Let me give you a few notes about a couple of tracks on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album.

Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)

This was the last track I recorded. I wanted to do the intro last as I felt it was going to play a key role and I was really looking forward to making a track with no drums at all. A kind of orchestral overture. I knew it was going to feature a Berlin school bassline and some thick Juno-60 pads. The Oxygen-style glissando was quite easy to do. I simply let my right-hand index finger slide up along the black keys of my Arp Axxe. The piece being in E flat helped here, of course. The sequencer line that emerges at around 1:01 min is the Mono/Poly. I recorded it just as a sketch while fiddling around with its oscillator mix, noise and filter cutoff. It ended up in the final mix. Another example of random byproduct being the final take! Note to self: Always record your takes, even if they are just rehearsals.

High-Gloss Üniverse

This track was quite tough to do. First of all, I wanted to do something different for a change. Not my usual 8th or 16th octave bass (admittedly a perennial Hyboid trademark). High-Gloss Üniverse is about as funky as I could ever get. I wanted to hand-play as many parts as possible. The only things that are sequenced are the drums (Oberheim DMX), Disco Toms (Arp Axxe) and the bassline (Octave Kitten). All other parts are hand-played. That includes chords, pads and square wave lead (Juno-60) and Mono/Poly (Poly Chord lead). The Mono/Poly lead was especially tricky to do. I wanted to play it with a set (composed) beginning and then improvise as I go. It took me a lot of attempts to end up with a satisfactory result. I played the Mono/Poly using its Poly Chord mode (see Mono/Poly section above) and twiddled the cutoff knob as I was playing. I routed the Mono/Poly´s output through the Vermona Phaser 80 to give it that nice funky sizzling top-end modulation. I also added some short Korg SDD-1200 stereo delay, giving a nice slap-echo, almost room reverb type of effect.
The Juno-60 chords were also real fiddly to do but I will spare you the messy details here. Oberheim DMX and Roland CSQ-600 sequencer driving the Octave Kitten (bassline) were fun to program. They make a really nice rhythm section with precise and tight timing. Great combo.

Flight of the Astro Kitten

This was the first track I recorded for the album. I still had lots of creative energy from the recording sessions with Tvnel when I started recording the track. A couple of days prior to my first solo day in the studio a synthesizer that I had just bought online was shipped to me: The Octave Kitten! It took ages to arrive due to the postal service and DHL strike in Germany at the time. Originally I had intended to use the Kitten for the Tvnel sessions but as fate had it, it arrived right when Tvnel left! Anyway, after fixing a minor keyboard issue (J-wires gone loose during shipment), the little Kitten was all ready to go and willing to spit out some nice ballsy synth sounds for my Astro Chicken studio. The first track I recorded was all inspired by the newly acquired Kitten (yes, new gear IS an inspiration to me!). The Kitten also gave this track its name, which is: "Flight of the Astro Kitten"!
I used the Kitten for the sequence in the beginning and end, for the lead sound that pops up twice during the track, and for the bassline. In fact, I was so blown away by the quality of the Kitten´s bass sound that I used it for ALL the basslines on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album. Yes, all basses are Octave Kitten basses.

Lament for My Eta Carine

This one was quite challenging. "Lament for My Eta Carinae" is based on an older track that was originally a demo for a drum sample pack. You can still find it online if you try. It took me a lot of work to get the Rhodes-style E-Piano sound right on the Juno-60. Wanting to hand-play the chords added another level of difficulty. In the first part of the track I played the chords live, as I wanted to get these little arpeggiated chords and irregularities that make up a lively piano performance. The later E-piano parts in the track were too complicated to play the way they sound, so I used a trick: I took the Korg Polysix and programmed the chords I wanted to play into its Poly Chord mode. I then routed the Polysix´s MIDI out to my Juno-60´s MIDI in and remote-played the Juno via the Polysix. So, on the Polysix I only had to play single notes, and the Juno-60 played triads! This way I was able to hand-play the difficult parts on the Juno-60 with some help of her brother: The Polysix!

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