Making an ambient techno bootleg pop remix

I’ve been enjoying doing remixes lately. Here’s one using a pop song by Taylor Swift as the basis:

This is a completely unofficial, unauthorized bootleg remix, so if Taylor Swift’s label ever objects I’ll have to take it down. The label have put the acapella for this song on YouTube though, so I thought I’d give it a go. You can download it for free from SoundCloud, and it’s also on YouTube.

On the surface this song is a story about a holiday love affair, but there’s something a bit deeper in there for me. It evokes the tension people often feel between their ties to the place where they grew up as a child, and their desire as an adult to make a life elsewhere. A sense of leaving but never quite being able to fully escape.

So making the remix I was guided in an intuitive way by this mix of belonging and not-belonging expressed in the vocal – a kind of torn, heartbroken feeling. I wonder whether this initial process, of establishing some sort of relationship to the material, is the most important part of doing a remix. It gives you, not a sense of direction exactly, but some kind of initial orientation to inform the aesthetic and technical aspects of crafting the track.

Having recorded the acapella into Logic, the next task was to adjust the tempo of the vocal. The melacholy in the lyrics suggested an ambient / atmospheric techno rework to accentuate that mood. The original song is 146bpm, which might have worked well for a dubstep / bass type remix but would be way too fast for what I was after. Half time would be 73bpm, which would be too slow for techno. So I did a timestretch on the vocal to slow it down a bit.

One cool aspect of remixing is you can use the parts that resonate and leave out the rest. So the next stage was to cut up the vocal and edit it down to some key fragments. For example, the main line from the title, tis the damn season, seemed too obvious to use, so that got cut. I ended up removing some parts that narrated the details of the love affair (e.g. the lines about “you could call me babe for the weekend” and “I’ll be missing your smile”) and keeping phrases that were resonant with that tension of leaving, loss and being pulled back.

Alongside editing the vocal I also wrote a new chord sequence and drums on my Digitakt, and then shifted the vocal fragments around in Logic to find the right arrangement. The chords came from a polysynth, chopped up to give them more of a rhythmic pulse using my modular synth. The polysynth went as a stereo signal into an AJH Gemini 2412 dual filter (this is a really lush sounding SEM style, 12 dB/octave state variable filter), and an Intellijel dual VCA (a basic, clean amplifier). The VCA level was modulated by an envelope from Make Noise Maths, triggered with a MIDI sequence from the Digitakt running through a MIDI to CV converter. I did a couple of versions with different types of modulation (e.g. using Pamela’s New Workout to do a sample and hold pattern on the filter cutoff), and some fx dubs on these parts.

The bassline was made using another Digitakt sequence of triggers, with the pitches created generatively in the modular using a stepped random generator run through a quantizer. The sound came from a straightforward analogue VCO-filter-VCA setup. After recording, I edited it heavily to keep the good bits and remove pitch sequences that sounded a bit off.

I designed and recorded in a couple more parts from the modular to add texture, e.g a fizzy high frequency rhythmic thing, and a sort of mutating pitched burst noise that works as a kind of punctuation at the end of every 4 bars.

This is typical of how I like to work at the moment, patching up sounds a small Eurorack modular system, and tracking them into the DAW as long takes, with fx dubs and tweaks to the patch all committed to audio. I’ll build up in layers like this, then once everything is recorded it becomes an editing and mixing job. So it’s quite a traditional workflow: sound design in the hardware domain, tracking each part with live dubs, then mixing everything at the end.

Obviously that’s a very simplified account – there was a lot of trial and error with the sound design and the mix, including various little tricks I’ve developed over the years.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you want to learn more about any of the production techniques used in this remix, I offer tuition via video calls. Or if you’d like to hire me to do remixing, mixing, mastering or other production work, just drop me a line using the form on my contact page.

The failure of voice

I’ve been writing a paper about the sounds of the voice. Thinking about the topic reminded me of a brilliant gaffe from BBC Radio 4 presenter Jim Naughtie a few years ago. I’m not sure if this will make it into the final paper, but here’s a bit lifted from my current draft, with a YouTube clip of the memorable moment.

Voices are machinic from the very beginning. They arise from vibrational systems, as lungs, vocal cords, throats, tongues and ears get hooked up to architectural spaces, bodies of air, microphones and amplifiers, telephones and answerphones, audio and video recording, headsets, headphones and loudspeakers, scripts and autocues. From the first moment that Bell spoke to Watson on the telephone, from the earliest etchings of Edison’s words into phonograph foil, sound machines have pulled apart the humanist subject, reminding the voice of its humble origins amongst vibrating body parts. Not only does listening to the technologized voice tell us as much about contemporary existence as the classic interpersonal interview encounter, but that encounter itself must be rethought to recognize the voice recorder as a key actant.

In its restless movements through multiple machines, voice can never completely express the self as a conscious, contained, definable identity. It may present an illusion of rational self-possession and self-presence; it may be eloquent, articulate and clipped, with received pronunciation; the machines may black box its body out of sight and out of mind; and yet still the voice fails.

Take the Scottish radio presenter Jim Naughtie. For over two decades his voice was a regular feature of the Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs show. Naughtie’s voice, like most official BBC voices, produces a sense of effortless rationality. It’s male Scottish accent achieves perfect clarity of enunciation, authoritative without ever being overbearing. Vocal apparatus combines with large diaphragm condenser microphones, pre-prepared scripts, acoustically treated studios and carefully optimised dynamic range compression to produce the most articulate and comprehensible of utterances. Phonemes roll out fully formed. Cadences rise and fall properly. And yet on one memorable occasion in 2010, when introducing Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary, Naughtie’s voice accidentally swapped the ‘H’ of Hunt and the ‘C’ of Culture to shocking and hilarious effect.

Whether this incident was simple Spoonerism or Freudian slip was of less interest to me than how Naughtie’s voice broke down in the immediate aftermath, like a tower block crumbling following the dynamite blast of demolition. Valiantly continuing to read out the headlines, the voice starts choking on its words, beset by dry coughs and awkward pauses. Utterances are spat out, forced through hoarseness, vocal cords seizing up. In this thickened, viscous tone, veering between laughter and tears, mundane lines about high speed broadband networks and Egyptian shark attacks take on a strangely gasping, almost morbid quality. The rational voice-from-the-ether suddenly acquires a body, which intrudes noisily, all-too-human in its frailty and fallibility. “Excuse me,” Naughtie eventually splutters, “coughing fit” – an excuse whose obvious inadequacy compounds matters. Such is the desperation of a man struggling with his own mouth, or words struggling to be voiced.

Such incidents, where the body trips up the voice, are not uncommon. Broadcasters, presenters, actors and singers routinely experience voices misfiring, script lines being forgotten, communication lines going dead, bouts of laryngitis, guests who say too much or not enough. There is a whole programme genre based on outtakes and bloopers, exploiting the humour that bubbles out when gaffes and fluffed lines puncture the performance of voice. If vocal breakdown can happen to trained, experienced, rehearsed voices surrounded by sophisticated technologies, it can happen to anyone.