Monday, November 21, 2011

Beckstrom Holiday Extravaganza! "Liner Notes"

The "studio" (aka second bedroom) - Just outside the frame are piles of instruments, papers, and fishing lure-making supplies

If I remember what it was like to purchase real life CD's, back in the day known as compact disks, I think they usually came with some kind of explanation about what was recorded on the plastic disc. With digital internet downloads, it's easy to lose that kind of explanation about what you're hearing... I suppose I could have put this stuff in a PDF that you download with the audio files from, but I think this way works too. In fact, maybe better! If you just want to hear the music, you don't have to worry about all these technical details.

If you want to know what that weird sound was, read on!

Frosty the Snowman

Last week I discovered Herbie Hancock had a disco phase. This blew my mind, because not only do I love Herbie Hancock, but I also love disco. Not only does Herbie have some disco albums, he uses vocoder extensively on these tracks! After listening to "I Thought it was You" continuously for about 48 hours, I knew what I had to do.

I recorded the live drums with only my Edirol R-09 recorder (2 condenser mics) and mixed it in with some more of my favorite TR-808. The Korg M1 patch "Piano 16" (preset #01") supplies the extremely 80's piano hook. I kept thinking I stole the hook from somewhere; after polling my wife and Facebook, it is kind of from "Hill Street Blues," "Greatest American Hero," "Family Ties," and Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now." Kind of, but not exactly from any of those things. The incredibly awesome "Fretless" (#06") M1 sound provides the baseline. The CS-80 makes another appearance with some wobbly string pads.

For the bridge, I did my best Daft Punk impression- I am a huge Daft Punk fan, which might be obvious by my extensive use of 808's, vocoders, and chord changes like A minor to E minor. Somebody once said disco never died, it just went underground! There really is a huge connection between disco like Herbie's "Sunlight" album and anything Daft Punk has done…

After another set of hooks, I head back to Daft Punk groove land and put in a requisite 80's style sax solo. I remember going to the dentist as a kid, and always hearing these 80's and 90's classics like "Careless Whisper," which always seemed to have a smooth and growling sax solo. Always seemed like the sax player had to be shirtless for it to sound like that. When I recorded the solo, I was fully clothed, although I did go through my tube preamp to get some fatness to the sound.

Little Drummer Boy

This is another Christmas tune I've never especially liked. I've avoided it at all costs having never heard a version I particularly liked. What changed my mind? My good friend Beth Caucci requested it.

The first thing I thought of was a whole mess'o funky drums. It is called drummer boy, after all. I didn't think samples would do the trick- I needed REAL drums. Turns out I had some perfect drums already! Early in the summer I was working on a funk EP that never got realized (I mostly lost interest and went fishing instead). After hours at work, I found a drum practice room, set up a bunch of mics, and laid down some drum tracks. I don't remember exactly what micas I used, but I was incredibly happy with the sound! That was the first time I'd put a mic UNDER the snare drum, which is now pretty much my favorite thing ever. Makes them SNAP.

The original drums track was supposed to accompany an original funk tune, which hits and fills that corresponded to the tune's baseline. No matter, I figured I'd just plop them into Ableton live and make them work. Although they were recorded at one tempo, it was easy to make them a little faster in Live. Once they were in, I laid down tons of tracks on top of them. My main inspiration was the amazing Herbie Hancock tune "Spank-a-lee."

I put in some congas that I recorded earlier as well, and layered on piles and piles of other stuff. I put my Korg Monotron- my one and only analog synthesizer - to good use, punctuating the track with futuristic synth explosions. It's a very fun instrument to play.

For the saxophone solo, I duplicated the track, took it down an octave, completely ripping off the technique from Joshua Redman's album "Elastic." The lick at the end of the tune is almost wholesale stolen from a repeating lick on "Spank-a-lee," which might be my favorite lick of all time! I've been working on my own virtual modular synthesizer (the Becktone 3000), and I found plenty of places to stick that in the track. The buzzy baseline, some of the synth explosions, some of the melody lines; that's all Becktone 3000!

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

A couple years ago, my friend Victor Chaga introduced me to the kuduro music of Buraka Som Sistema. Basically it's TR-808 informed portugeuse-african dance music. It's super funky, super energetic, and at times relatively abstract. I wanted to try and do my version of kuduro for this track.

Working on the Becktone 3000, I discovered a way to make a bell-like sound. Using a sine wave LFO to modulate the pitch of another sine wave oscillator, I turned up the LFO frequency to the human hearing range. In other words, there was vibrato happening extremely quickly- instead of a few times per second, it was happening around 10,000 times per second (i.e. 10kHz). For some reason, this sounds kind of like metallic bells. (The technical term for this is Frequency Modulation, or FM synthesis. Famous synths like the Yamaha DX7 use this type of synthesis.) It's a common thing on a Christmas album to have the classic tubular bell sound, so I figured I'd do my version. That's what you hear at the beginning and end of the track.

Ring mod by chrisbeckstrom

The drums are from the summer session, originally destined for a completely different track. Does that count as sampling? I put some Nord Electro wurlitzer on top, and things were coming together! I originally tried using shouted vocals for the melody (kind of like some kuduro) but ended up using the vocoder. (That's the robotic sound I use so often.) That's me singing, kind of. As I worked on the track, it reminded me a little of Keith Jarrett's "Spiral Dance" (but Keith's is way awesome…) Probably good I kept it so short, as you can only take a vamp for so long!

White Christmas

My new favorite band is Little Dragon. Thanks to Taylor O'Donnel and Ryan Andrews, I am now aware they exist, and am completely in love with their sound. A lot of their stuff has a big digital synth vibe to it, which I've never been too interested in.. However, hearing how awesome and funky old school digital sounds can be, I was determined to attempt my own 80's pop/electro arrangement.

My "tape machine"
I've been playing around with the Korg M1, one of the most popular and widely used digital synthesizers. It came out in the late 80's (or 90's?) and has a very digital sound. In the past I've avoided this type of sound at all costs, but for this track I decided to embrace it! The opening sound of the track is a combination of the "Bell Ring" patch (#35 on the M1) and the amazing "Lore" patch (#30) recorded and reversed. The strings that come in is a patch I came up with on the virtual Yamaha CS-80 made by Arturia. In keeping with my attempt at 80's electro, for the drums I dug up some samples of the classic LinnDrum drum machine. This was one of the first drum machines to use samples instead of synthesizing sounds. I recorded the drums onto cassette tape to get some more punch (and tape hiss), and the track was almost done! The vocoder makes yet another appearance here.

The final step was a synth solo at the end, played on the Becktone 3000. I was thinking of Geoff Keezer's synth solos on the Christian McBride album "Live at Tonic," where he manipulates the filter cutoff as he plays what I think is a Moog. I don't have a Moog, but I do have a Becktone.

Feliz Navidad

I'm going to be honest here, I very much dislike the original "Feliz Navidad." Although I like that it's in both English and Spanish, I never cared for the song much. I thought maybe I could do a 30 second 8-bit version of it, just because. As I started working on it, I tried out some reharmonizations- keeping the melody the same but changing the chords underneath. Instead of the normal D major, I made it B minor. Instead of using premade 8-bit sounds (like the amazing YMCK Magical 8-Bit plug VST plugin or the equally awesome Chipsounds plugin) I loaded up about 15 tracks of Ableton's Operator synthesizer, chose digital waves, made them monophonic, turned off the anti-aliasing feature, and put MIDI arpeggiators in the signal path. Since I couldn't modulate the pulse-width of square waves in Operator (technically, changing the length of the duty cycle, in case you're interested) I loaded up some instances of Ableton's Analog, where I could change this. I heavily quantized everything, so every 16th note fell exactly into the 16th note slot, which is something I don't do very often.

All of this was to emulate the way vintage video game sounds sounded. Although I have none of the technological limitations those original composers had, I wanted to limit myself so it would sound more "video-gamey." I created some drum sounds with looped noise oscillators, and used some short LinnDrum samples (heavily bitcrushed) for snare sounds. I also added some effects that change the bit depth and sample rate: basically making things sound less good, which as you may notice is something I really like.

What was originally going to be a 30 second interlude turned into a 4-minute 8-bit jam! After playing a few verses and choruses, I wasn't ready to end the song… I was so in love with the groove and the sounds, I decided to try to make one of those 8-bit solos that sounds kind of improvised and kind of programmed. I tried playing in a solo, but it just sounded wrong- it sounded like somebody trying to improvise a synth solo.

I turned the tempo down to 50 bpm, hit the record button, and played in a solo. My original tempo was 150, so this was 1/3 the speed! For a moment I almost changed the whole tempo down to 50 bpm, it sounded so groovy. I recorded a few passes, then brought the tempo back up to hear the results. Amazing! Maybe not the best solo in the history of improvisation, but it sounded a lot more idiomatic to this style of music! The pitch bends sounded especially cool, so I made sure to add a lot more of those.

The Christmas Song

This is by far my favorite Christmas tune of all time. I remember playing this in high school with the band for our annual Christmas concerts (along with "White Christmas"). I remember loving the harmony of these tunes; to my young ears it was so refreshing to play such harmonically rich music. Not that I don't like some of the other things we played, but this stuff sounded so exotic to me.

The past two years I wanted to do an arrangement of this song, but nothing I came up with seemed to do it justice. I didn't want to destroy the original harmony too much, as it was so great. After a few different ideas, I was about to give up hope for this year. In an inspired suggestion, Claire said I should do a "crazy strings Chris Beckstrom-style-arrangement." At first I thought that was a bad idea… But then after some brainstorming on my Nord Electro, I was convinced it was a great idea! Also, I rarely write for anything even close to strings or orchestra, and this would be a good challenge. I tell my students all the time how to make their virtual orchestras sound better, it would be interesting to see if I could actually make a fake orchestra sound realistic.

I opened up Logic (every other track was done in Ableton Live) and loaded up 20 or so tracks of Vienna Symphonic Library. Vienna is a fancy sample library, which basically allows you to emulate each instrument in an orchestra. Piece by piece, I recorded each part of the orchestra, strangely starting at the top with the first violins. Usually with a piece like this I'd open up Sibelius and *actually* arrange it with notes and chords and everything. Not this time- I had an idea what kind of orchestration I wanted, so I just played in each part one at a time, putting together chords from the top down. It's amazing how much more epic everything sounds with some strings on it… As I added more strings, I turned up my reverb more and more, trying to create a bigger space for orchestra as it grew.

The beginning would be a mostly-normal arrangement of the song, with rhodes, bass, and drums. I was thinking about how Brad Mehldau might arrange this song (a la the album "Largo" or something, if Brad Mehldau weren't that great at playing piano). The second section would be have the vamp I came up with on the Nord, with the melody superimposed on top of the unrelated harmony. After a few hours going late into the night, I had what kind of sounded like an orchestra in my computer, and I was pretty satisfied.

Recording drums in the garage
The next day I set up the drums in the garage so I could add them to the track. I recorded the drums at tempo, listening to the track in headphones. I imagined the drummer from John Zorn's "free jazz" band (the Masada quartet with Dave Douglas) and how he might approach an arrangement like this. I hoped my crazy drum playing would disguise my lack of chops! I was pretty happy with the sound of the drums- I used all the mics I have at home for the drums. A put an SM57 very close to the snare (to get the brushes sound), a Rode NT1 a few inches above the hit, my Edirol R-09 recorder (condenser mic pair) about 3 feet away from the drums, and my homemade sub-bass (a speaker used as a mic) right next to the bass drum. I didn't mic the floor tom at all, and I absolutely LOVE the sound of it in this mix- it sounds far away and reverby- you can hear the garage, but in a good way! For the second part of the song, I put the SM57 underneath the snare to get more SNAP. I also made sure to reverse the phase: otherwise I would lose the snare in my mix! I would get plenty of the top snare from the NT1, so I wasn't worried. Listening back through my headphones, I was immensely happy with the way the drums sounded. With my bare-bones and rag-tag selection of microphones, I liked the sound of my drums a lot. I recorded a few takes into Ableton Live, and that was that.

The final step was adding the tenor saxophone, which I chose to play the melody in the second half. I recorded it in using my NT1, and ran that through my Art MP tube preamp for some more fatness. The tenor still wasn't doing it for me, so I added a little bit (maybe too much) ring modulation. (That's the strange sound you hear when the tenor plays.)

My favorite part is the bridge, when everything stops and the strings play the melody. As I was playing the strings in, to my ears it sounded surprisingly Bernard Herrmann-esque. Especially with the vibes! Except for the TR-808 drum machine samples and funky acoustic drums. And the TR-303 acid bass that accompanies the entire second half….

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

This was the first track I worked on, and I basically throw the kitchen sink at it: sampled TR-808 drum machine (my favorite drum sounds), the Korg Monotron (my favorite noise-maker), the Stylophone Beatbox, and heavy usage of the amazingly insane Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb (it's actually delay). This was the only track where I used sampled vocals- the part at the beginning is the Mac speech voice reading back the lyrics, put through the Ableton Live resonator plugin to make it pitched. I found the vocals at the end somewhere on YouTube, pitch shifted to fit my key. The little vamp in between sections is another homage to Herbie Hancock, but in a much, much weirder way.

O Come O Come Emmanuel

I am completely taken with the rhythm known as cumbia. As I understand it, the style comes from Columbia, and is a synthesis of native south american, spanish, and african rhythms. The first time I ever heard this rhythm was in Mexico, when my friend Victor Hernandez-Stumpfhauser invited me to Morelia, Michoacán to play for his brother's wedding. (Michigan - where I'm from, and Michoacán, where he's from, actually have the same linguistic origin. They both refer to a place with a big lake.) Anyway, we played jazz tunes for the wedding, but suddenly every song we played had this particular rhythm, with a heavy emphasis on 1 and 3 (well, really 1 and 2). I asked "Que ritmo estamos tocando?" and they said "Cumbia!!"

And so began my love affair with cumbia- the Columbian rhythm that is so popular in Mexico. Friday I was listening to an album by puertorican rapper Calle 13, heard some cumber, and decided I HAD to put some on my album.

I recorded a few takes of Korg Monotron bass, carefully played in at half speed with a sharpie (the monotron has a ribbon controller for a keyboard, so it's difficult to play it in tune!). The monotron also provided the bubbly hooks, which I panned hard left and right. You can hear the high noise floor of the monotron! But I like it.

The Korg Monotron
All the track needed was more cowbell, some cheesy organ (dialed in on the Nord Electro), and some vocal accompaniment. That's me singing on there, right into the NT1, not pitch shifted at all. I was going for an old "exotica"-style vibe, like Les Baxter or Esquivel. After seeing this youtube video earlier in the day, I completely unintentionally played "the lick" during the organ part...!

Auld Lang Syne

In high school one year around Christmas I got an album of jazz christmas arrangements, I think it was in the checkout lane at Target or something. Most of the arrangements were pretty standard, but at the time it was a complete revelation to me- that you could take such popular and widely-known songs and completely rearrange them into something new. Although the playing wasn't amazing, and the arrangements were less than inspired, I was taken with the idea. In some ways that album may have been the impetus for all these Christmas albums I keep making; perhaps it even inspired my entire approach to arranging existing songs (let's be honest, more like "de-arranging" or "re-arranging").

I recently realized that nowhere on my website ( is there a track of me playing straight up medium swing jazz. Originally I was going to do a chiptune/8-bit version of "Auld Lang Syne", but after doing that with "Feliz Navidad," I decided something else was in order for the happy new year song.

I put an arrangement together in my head; jazz organ version, medium swing, tenor solo- all doing my best impression of Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack" (strangely-panned and out-of-tune tenor solo and all). But that would be too normal… I wondered what it would sound like to write a traditional-style saxophone soli, but instead of alto or soprano saxophone on the top, put an accordion. Saxophones already sound kind of like accordions, it's not THAT much of a stretch. I also thought of a movie I'd seen about Benny Goodman, where he put clarinet on top and totally changed the sound of his band.

The drums for this track were almost the only drums on the album I recorded at the actual tempo. All the other ones I recorded at half speed or faster (I'm not a very good drummer!). After some serious accordion shedding (practicing) I hit the big red record button and laid down some jazz accordion. As I recorded each saxophone part underneath, my soli began to take shape. I was surprised how normal it actually sounded- I thought the accordion would stick out like a sore thumb, but to my ears it fit right in. Maybe I have a strange bias for accordions… So there you have it- there is now an almost straight-ahead jazz tune on my website, where I am not only playing swinging jazz saxophone and organ, but accordion.


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