A bit about analog synthesizers, improv music and my relationship with horror genre and anxiety. Looking back at my 2-track 40-minute long dark/horror ambient album from 2017.https://jukiokallio.com/blog/?post=2020-12-08
Today's soundtrack, if you'd like:
I love horror. But I can't really watch horror movies or play horror games. The images linger with me way too vividly. I am way scared of the dark. I'm the type of person who hides under a blanket and tries not to look anywhere when lights are off. Instead of, you know, acting against "the monsters" there like a real adult would probably do.
Still, horror as a concept fascinates me. Probably more than any other genre. I think specifically: building an atmosphere that has such a strong effect on human beings. There are different kinds of horror but I'm very into art that builds an atmosphere that lingers even after the experience. I mean, if I manage to experience it in the first place. I don't like jump scares. I feel like those are a cheap trick that ruin horror, and is not really horror, but just a scare. Those two are very different things in my opinion.
Like someone telling a good long joke about a bucket. And getting a bucket dropped on your head from top of a door as a prank. (Uhh, I don't know about this metaphor...)
I love to create horror art, but somehow the genre feels "precious" to me so I don't make horror art often. I've released some, though. 'The Tower', which I'm talking about in this post and then there's the horror/mystery short film 'The Station' we filmed in one weekend with my friends Rudolf Westerholm and Jouni Valjakka.
I said I can't stand watching/playing horror, but there's an exception. Some years back I experienced long waves of deep anxiety. The kind that keeps you awake every night till 5 a.m. for weeks at a time. At some point I got so exhausted at sleeping through the days (winters are dark in Finland, so there's precious little sun time in the day) that I somehow ended up playing Silent Hill 2. At night. In the dark. Alone.
The beautiful scary atmosphere filled my mind. I was so scared being alone in the dark it felt like my mind and my heart had no room for the anxiety. It didn't help with not sleeping. But it gave me a tiny bit of a break.
It doesn't fix anything, but I still use this "trick" when things in my head get bad and I really need a break. Gladly not as often as back then.
(Caution: this is not medical advice. You should definitely see a doctor if you have bad anxiety. I did and that's what helped me, not some horror movie!)
OK, that got kind of dark. But I see it as a happy story. Helping myself a tiny bit, while getting to enjoy things I love. Isn't that a happy story? Let's talk about music for a bit!
One evening I was hanging out in my studio. Back then I often just hanged out at the studio after the day's work was done. (My life was literally: work on music in the day, make music as a hobby in the evening.)
I had bought Korg's 2015 remake of the Arp Odyssey analog synthesizer recently. And also gotten this beautiful vintage-sounding plate reverb plugin from Soundtoys, called Little Plate. I wanted to see how the Odyssey would sound like with the huge reverb Little Plate could do. So, I hooked the synth into my DAW, Ableton Live, and put it through the plugin.
My Korg Arp Odyssey, or "Karp Odyssey" as some say
This might just be my memory making this up but I think I accidentally had the oscillators on the Odyssey on a very low frequency, and this amazing low growl in an enormous cave shot out of my speakers. It immediately had a great dark ambient feel. I started fiddling with Odyssey's sliders (it has sliders instead of the usual knobs) and it was just so much fun!
I added a delay effect (Ableton Live's own 'Delay' plugin) to make the "cave" even bigger and a little bit of saturation (Softube's great free plugin 'Saturation Knob'). Then "rehearsed" for a few minutes, aka. tried out what settings could work for a dark ambient piece on the synth.
And then I just, uh, hit the record button.
After 15 minutes of playing straight, no cuts or retakes, I had the first track on the album ready. Some tweaking on the equalizer to take out some annoying frequencies, and I called it done.
Low-pass filter, with a high resonance, also known as high Q.
Here's where we get a bit more technical. But I hope I can explain it in a way that not just synth nerds get. There are a few key things I played with on the Odyssey:
- Whatever note I'd play on the synth, I had it set up so it would endlessly play that note. (Aka. "gate open.") This meant I could take my time with the sliders, instead of playing something on the keys like you would usually do on a synthesizer.
- For the pitch (or "melody"), I rarely changed the note on the keys. I played with the two oscillators' pitch sliders. (Oscillator: part of the synth that generates the tone.) You can control their pitch separately and steplessly. Most of the time I had one oscillator doing this lower continuous drone sound, while I changed the pitch on the other, to make a "melody". But!
- But a lot of the time, I didn't change the actual pitch of the oscillators. I had the low-pass filter's resonance set to very high and then changed the frequency of the filter. Which makes the filter "sing". It's a prominent sound on The Tower. It's hard to explain but try it sometime if you have a chance!
- About the low drone sound: the pitch could be set so low that it would become this repeating "click" sound, which sounds amazing.
Then it was essentially just finding combinations of these settings that sounded great! While the recording was on. I didn't do any retakes or fixing, so what you hear is what I played.
For this kind of live ambient playing where the feeling while playing was important, the sliders of the Odyssey were really nice. They allowed me to do fast and precise changes seamlessly.
For the next trick, I will be making this album almost thrice as long without using almost any time.
I really liked what I had recorded and I wanted to listen to it for longer. I enjoy listening to my own creations (why would I be doing this work if I didn't?) and this was no different. But it was also getting late.
So, uh, I pitched the whole recording down making it longer, and reversed it so it played from end to start. And put that version through the reverb and delay.
And now I had the second track of the album done. A 25 minute track.
Well, not exactly. I added a non-reversed, longer version on top of it and effected it a little. Ableton Live's Frequency Shifter and Overdrive, then cut the low end on an equalizer. Made it real crisp. Put the volume down so there's just a tiny bit of it adding to the main track.
Some mastering to make it all sound coherent volume-wise. Tiny bit of saturation there, to bind it all together (loved to use PSP VintageWarmer on the master track back then).
And we had a 40 minute long dark ambient album ready.
View of the finished session file from Ableton Live. Not much to it when you're working on a sparse soundscape, on a single analog synthesizer... I didn't even name the audio tracks?
I had been reading Stephen King's 'The Dark Tower' series around when I recorded this album. So that's where the name comes from, straight up. I decided on the name 'The Tower' for the release and the first track.
For the second track I wanted something to juxtapose the idea of a tower, so I came up with 'The Depths Of'. The track was literally a low reversed version of the first track, so I felt like the name fit nicely. This was also the reason the track names are in reverse order.
There wasn't much to the naming on this. They just kind of popped up pretty quickly under the influence of the book series I was reading, hah.
Alternative view of 'The Tower' at San Francisco's Land's End. Taken on the same trip in 2016.
The photo I used for the cover art I took a year before while visiting San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference 2016. It was from a building somewhere near the Land's End. The final cover photo has a nice sparse industrial feel, and the framing makes it play with negative space, which I like. A photo of an empty space that implies a tower.
I think that's it for this one! Went a bit more technical this time. And dark? Sorry! Hey here's some takeaways for this post:
- Jamming on an analog synthesizer with physical knobs and buttons is really really fun! Versus clicking with a mouse on a virtual synthesizer on screen.
- With a simple slow-down-reverse trick I tripled the length of the pleasure I got from this one recording. For this kind of music, it worked really well I think.
- Let me work on a horror game. Thanks.
Thank you for reading!
(P.S. Should've left more lights on. I think there's someone watching me at the end of the corridor.)