the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part one

on may 31, 2015, I sat down at my computer, and built an empty folder set for a new music project.  at first, it was named something like “20150531-01-komplete-unknown”, meaning, to work on a piece within the komplete application, content, unknown – but within a few days, it had grown to the point where I amended the name, because it seemed like such an obvious answer to a question that so far, no one had asked, namely, “what is the name of this song?” – obviously, it was – “the complete unknown”.

so the folder got renamed, and now it bears the name “20150531-01-komplete-unknown-thecompleteunknown” and that was it – I was away.

I loaded up komplete with four vintage keyboards – and I officially began my journey – a journey I am still very much on today – into the complete unknown – via “the complete unknown”.

I spent a few days, working out a piece for keyboards, that would work well as a “keys-only” intro to the song, I wanted it to have a fantastical, classically-based and with a serious feel to it, and then, after say, after a minute or two, the bass and drums would enter…I could just about imagine it all.  I could just about hear the song in my head…

I struggled mightily with my serious keyboard intro, overdubbing many different takes of many different keyboard voices playing the notes that I had chosen.  the entire piece was done manually – no sequencers were used, and it meant that I had to play a pretty tricky part, manually, over and over and over again, until it was just right.

Eventually though, I was happy with my little intro composition, and musically – it set the stage for the “song proper” – I was very happy with the way this short piece of quasi-classical keyboard music turned out, and I was extremely thrilled with the sounds of the vintage keyboards, which were all of course, courtesy of komplete.  the intro was complete – and I was thrilled!

note/the details: for the record, there were just four instruments (not six as I erroneously remembered and stated elsewhere – four, not six) used in the creation of the keyboard “intro”, which were:

dave stafford, vintage keyboards quartet:

soniccouture bowed piano X

soniccouture broken wurli – init (my own settings)

soniccouture novachord – novasynth init (my own settings)

soniccouture ondes martenot – poly ondes init (my own settings)

these four tracks were then mixed and mastered, with just reverb added to give it a big room sound – a completely “finished” piece of music which could then just be “dropped in” in front of where the bass and the drums make their grand entrance.

so, with the intro safely under my belt, it was now time for the active “core” of the song to be built, and as tradition has it, it started like all structured pieces in the rock world start – with a drum track, and a bass overdub of that drum track.  but I didn’t want just any rhythm section, I wanted a section with the skill of a powerful but wild drummer, I needed my own Andy Ward on drums, or maybe I’d borrow Marillion’s rhythm section…I wasn’t sure.

then – Chris Squire passed away, during the first few weeks of work on the song, so I thought a lot about Chris, and how Chris played the bass (and what a huge influence his playing had on me as a 15 year old guitarist who loved progressive music in 1973!), and it had a huge influence on the bass part in the song.  so the drums came from me – my own vision of a series of prog beats that run nearly continuously for 14 minutes or so…but when it came time to do the second overdub, the bass, it was all about emulating the God of Prog Bass Playing, the late, great Chris Squire.

If I was very lucky, I could get a sound like Chris’ and maybe “play” as well as Marillion‘s bassist 🙂 because no one, except perhaps Wetton or Lake, can emulate Chris – Chris has an incredible and very unique bass tone and style.

I also spent a lot of time on the drum part, I fleshed it out in the very first session, but it took many more sessions, to really get it into shape, to feel happy with the sounds, to add interesting fills, to use different variations of the beat, and there are even some special sections that I did by hand rather than by sequencer – and by the way, the drums (or drum machine, I should say – komplete again) is the only sequenced instrument in the piece – all others were really played by me – with one odd exception – the bass part, was played by me, but on the keyboard. It was not sequenced, I played every riff, every fill, two different bass solos – I really played those.

The same goes for all of the keyboard parts in the main part of the song, as well as the guitars – all of those are real as well.  I’ve never learned to play the drums, so, the best quality sampled drums in the world, will have to do!

The drum track took a few weeks to perfect, but the bass part – well, I laid down something to begin with, a bit at a time, a section at a time – but then, I was never satisfied, it sounded good, but it didn’t yet sound amazing – so I started doing a lot of work on the bass – I fashioned a quite wild bass solo near the end of the first half of the song, in the key of C major no less, but an awesomely fun solo to write and play.

I worked on the bass for quite a long, long time, and eventually, I felt completely happy with it – and I still do.  Now that I am laying guitars on top of drums, bass, organ, and mellotron – when I add a guitar part, and I hear the bass come up “in between” – I just have to smile, because it’s as if the “bass player” is responding to the guitarist, or, the other way around – and that’s an awesome thing for a piece that isn’t actually played live.

I am extremely pleased with the rhythm section, I spent far too much time on it, but, it was worth it, and the keyboard parts practically played themselves, because the bass and drums were so together.

 

So this is where it began – at least, the active part of the song, back during June and July this year. The first mixes then, were of nothing but the intro, plus the bass and drums – with no other ornamentation whatsoever.  I must have listened to this song, with just intro, bass and drums, dozens of times, whilst first, trying to perfect the drum track, and then later, trying to perfect the bass part.  That took even longer than the drums to perfect – but in the end, I feel truly happy with the results – and I am actually, especially proud of the bass part – it rocks.  It’s full of surprises, and I love where it takes the song – and, later, how it interacts with both the keyboards and the lead guitars – it’s excellent.

note/the details: the rhythm section looks like this:

drums: dave stafford – drum programming and manual playing of drum samples

abbey road modern drummer, alternative rock, “rage” setting changed from 98 bpm – sped up to 140 bpm

bass: dave stafford – performed on keyboard, inspired by the late Chris Squire

scarbee rickenbacker bass – neck pickup DI – direct injection

as the Scottish summer drew quickly to an end, at the end of july, I had a brainstorm – I would bring the introductory keyboard quartet, back in at the VERY END of the piece, to bring complete closure to the piece – no matter where it went during the 14 minutes in the middle, the sound and the melodies at the beginning and the end, were now tied together perfectly – and I was really glad of this decision, because some really good musical events came out of that decision, later.

I faded up the intro “in progress”, during the last long rock section of the drums and bass track, and I managed, after a couple of tries, to sync it up completely with the drum track – and eventually, unintentionally, I played a leslie’d organ solo over the top of it – and soon, it just sounded like it had been there the whole time.

then the time came, to work on the main body of the song, and add in a lot of supporting musical information – bearing in mind, that the drums and bass were complete, including a lot of very in your face, bright, Rickenbacker bass riffs, and, one very avant garde bass solo, and another quasi-solo later on – so those were now reduced, frozen and “carved in stone”.

so atop my finished drum and bass part, I began to add keyboards, beginning with the oldest progressive rock standby, the Hammond organ.  I really felt it was essential, to have chords and melodies on the Hammond, and, solos from the Hammond, because it’s such a very, very “prog” sound – it really cuts through the mix, and when playing chords, it’s so supportive with basses and guitars aloft on top of it.

So I worked on Hammond parts, using just one basic, straight sound, but varying it, by using the mod wheel on my M-Audio keyboard, to “speed up” and “slow down” the leslie effect – which is one of the finest things about sampled organs, done Komplete style – you get truly perfect sounding leslie effects, and I played every part as live as possible, using the mod wheel while I played, to speed up and slow down the effect – I had a blast.  There is one epic solo in the first half, and another accidental one at the end, with the leslie set to “fast” – a sound not usually used that much, but it sounds great, as the song proper fades away, to have this final organ solo with the “fast leslie” sound going – it’s really nice.

after I had added all of the organ parts, where I followed whatever key signature was stated by what the bass player was doing (I had injected several key changes when creating the bass part), and I was happy with both the organ sound, and the content – and the solos – I then moved on to the mellotron parts, which I used sparingly to try and give them more mystique.  I felt that using them throughout would be too obvious, and where the Hammond does sound great playing right through, you really want the occasional swath of a mellotron wandering in when you least expect it – that’s prog to me!

so – two separate mellotron tracks, using very simple, very pure mellotron sounds (nothing fancy, just the very basic strings and flute sounds) most of the time, it’s just mellotron strings, or, just mellotron flute and very, very occasionally – I allowed both – so you get a really full sound there, with drums, bass, Hammond organ, string mellotron and flute mellotron.  The string mellotrons became the backdrop for some really cool guitar sections later on, while the flute mellotrons were more taking on the melody, or in one case, as harmony, so they worked out very, very well indeed.

the mellotron parts went more quickly than the Hammond parts had, in part, because by this time, I knew how the chords went, and I just “knew” what the mellotrons should do – and they did it, beautifully.  Here I sit, several months later, and I am now marvelling at how they sound in support of some of the new guitar overdubs – they provide the perfect backdrop for lead guitars!

note/the details – the keyboard “section”

dave stafford, hammond B3 emulation

Komplete Vintage Organs – classic rock, Hammond B3 tonewheel emulation – preset  “j’taime” – leslie effect applied in real time with mod wheel during performances

dave stafford, mellotron strings

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Mark II Vintage Violins Basic

dave stafford, mellotron flutes

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Flutes Basic

so at this stage, after several months, of slow, patient work, I had a fairly complete song (no pun intended) with a full drum part, a full bass part, organ chords, organ solos, mellotron strings, mellotron flutes, plus the four vintage keyboards that inhabit both the intro and the outro…so, the time had come to deal with the “middle eight”.

the next idea I had, really, really changed things – I decided to cut the piece in half, and create an acoustic guitar interlude – in my mind, something like the live acoustic guitar interludes that Gentle Giant used to have during their concerts in support of the “Octopus” album – but in practice, what I came up with is much more dave stafford / guitar craft than gentle giant.

so – I split the track at a place where the drums were silent anyway (I had intentionally left a blank space in the song, with no bass or drums, knowing ahead of time that I wanted to split it in half), so it was easy to do – and I created an un-timed gap between the end of Part A and the resumption of Part B – with absolutely no idea what was to “go there” except I knew I wanted acoustic guitars.  what eventually ended up there – exceeded my wildest expectations of that time.

I managed to transition from the full song by bringing in two acoustic guitar leads almost simultaneously, playing two melodies which transition the song from “full band” to acoustic guitar duo / trio, and then the acoustic guitar section is off – the whole thing was played on my Ovation Balladeer, which is a not-quite-satisfactory replacement for my ailing Ovation Legend, which is no longer made.  In any case, the Balladeer did well enough, and I managed to get some very nice tones out of it’s pickup – it sounds good on recordings, in any case.

I had just a few notions about what the acoustic guitars should play, I had a little melody that I sub-consciously “borrowed” from Tales From Topographic Oceans, I play that melody a few times, and then suddenly, the rhythm of the piece changes, and there is another tiny section – and then, the magic happens – the third section, completely unrehearsed, came from nowhere – a slow, beautiful, simple chord progression, with a stately, played with the fingers-rather-than-the-plectrum lead part that just surprised the holy shirt out of me.  I am so, so pleased with this little piece of music, it doesn’t last long, but, it’s one of the loveliest melodies I’ve come up with to date, and I am really pleased and proud of this little miniature acoustic suite.

But then – then, a few weeks later, I had an idea – I would add bird songs into the piece, in stereo – during the most moving parts of the guitar solo.  I added several different species, recorded directly from an app on my ipad, some on the right channel, some in mono / centre, and some on the left – little bursts of different birds including the iconic british blackbird (because you know from the Beatles / White Album that they will sound good!)

The end result was astonishing – it made this already excellent part so relaxing, so natural – it just was the perfect little addition to the piece – I was so surprised and so amazed at what something like that can do to a piece of music – it naturalises it – if you know what I mean.

Then – for contrast, I followed the three acoustic guitar sections with some strange TC-11 synth sounds on the iPad – a solo and a looped piece, which worked very nicely as a contrast to the guitars, and leading back towards the song proper.  Several weeks later, I acquired a new synth on my ipad, the Poseidon Synth, and it had this really amazing sound that included the sound of human voices, so I tried replacing my original TC-11 parts with the Poseidon Synth, playing two stereo takes.

It was good, but, even better, when I added the original back in, and I realised that they both sounded good, and they sounded good together – so I left the old parts in, and added in the new synth part care of the Poseidon Synth – a really nice ios synth.

For quite a while, that was then tied to a drum riff, that led back into the second half of the song.  But then, I decided just a few days ago, that I was not happy with that transition, and I wanted something else.  After trying a very thrashy, sort of Steve Howe at his most dissonant Koass Guitar part, I discarded that, and set about making the exact opposite of that – something very, very melodic and beautiful…

This final part of the “middle section” is known as the “Hackett Guitars” section, which was made entirely with one electric guitar and the Eventide H9, two takes of guitar chords strummed finger-style, in a classical or flamenco fashion, but more reminiscent of a piece from the final sections of Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” (the bit just before “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”, I think) so two gently but forcefully finger-strummed “Hackett” guitars, plus one reverse guitar solo – all of them drenched in luscious Eventide reverb. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams, a simple, beautiful section of music. Prog should be a mix of some dissonant and more melodic parts (or so it seems to me).

And with that, that brings us to what I consider to be “Part Two” of the song, which I will (eventually) describe in my next blog, in the New Year.  The “Hackett Guitars” section was the perfect vehicle to bring the middle section to a satisfactory completion, and a perfect way to merge back with the main part of the song – the resumption of the second part where I’d originally cut the piece in half.

Thats where we’ll go next time, then.  I will see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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