“I can transform, I’m a transformer” – Gnarls Barkly
An open-minded music fan knows that a good song is a good song regardless of the style it is presented in. Before Miracle Of Sound the biggest problem I always had was fitting into a genre. Most of you have probably noticed by now that I like all kinds of music and enjoy experimenting with many genres and styles. When I was involved with bands, record labels and the mainstream music business, this was quite a headache for all involved.
Fast forward to today and things are very different. When I asked you guys to leave feedback on which songs you’d like to hear about, there were two songs that completely dominated the responses – “Sweet L.A.” and “Little Sister.”
t makes me glad to know that my audience appreciates when I do something a little different, a little more adventurous and dynamic. Not many musicians have that luxury. You guys celebrate the variety and lack of a defining genre, rather than oppose it like everyone in my past did. For that I am extremely grateful.
I also got some interesting questions from you all, so let’s begin with those.
What gear do you have/use?
This often surprises people but I have very minimal, cheap gear. Some of this may sound alien to the non-music people, so I will try not to get too into the jargon. My list is as follows:
- Shure SM58 Microphone – this is the only mic I have! Pretty standard microphone for doing vocals, but I use it for everything.
- Fender Squire guitar (basically a cheap Stratocaster knockoff)
- Tanglewood Rebel 4K bass guitar (90 Euros in the music shop downtown)
- Ancient, dilapidated tiny Samick amplifier, held together with sticky tape and hope
- Yamaha children’s keyboard from the mid 90s
And that’s it. That’s all my music gear. To record and mix, I use a software called Cubase, and to do synths/programming I use Ableton Live.
My drums/beats are created with “drum hits.” That is, I have a library of single drum sounds, like “BAM” or “THWACK,” (which I have gathered over the years from various music tech magazines) which I literally copy and paste into the patterns I need using Cubase.
All my effects/compressors etc., are done in Cubase.
I am hoping to save up for some proper gear soon; I am wary about tackling a game like Skyrim without a nice, epic sounding orchestral simulator. So you may hear some new styles yet again over the next year, depending on how many albums I sell, ha!
What would you do if you inherited an elephant?
Sell it and use the money for decent recording gear.
How do you make the songs sound so big and full when it’s just you?
By layering. I record each part separately and the computer plays it all back together. For example, for vocals I will almost always sing the main lead lines twice or three times, add in harmonies two or three times each, then have the whole lot play back at once. It adds a feeling of a group of people singing, which on a primal level is meant to hit our group mentality instinct and make people more likely to want to join in and sing along. Usually in the choruses of my songs there are 7 to 15 vocal tracks going at once, for the verses I try to leave it more sparse. (“Sweet L.A.” was an exception to this rule, most of the song has just one lone vocal, with some extras coming in now and again).
I’ll explain more about the layering process in the “Little Sister” section, as that song has tons of it.
This is, to date, the only MOS song with other musicians on it. LA Noire had such a definite, distinctive sound and I cannot play sax or any jazz instruments and my piano skills are laughable at the best of times. So I called up a couple of buddies and asked if they’d be interested in contributing: Jack O’Rourke, a wonderful pianist, singer songwriter and good friend of mine; , and Gary Baus, a well-known local sax player and DJ and a hugely respected name in the local Jazz/music scene.
I emailed them both a very rough version of the song, with a 4-bar loop of some very simple piano chords and an electric drumbeat, with a rough vocal on top. When these two musicians who I looked up to and admired responded, telling me they were blown away by the song in this skeletal, fetal form, I knew I was onto a good thing.
The saxophone is such a sexy instrument. It’s one of the few that can sound almost like singing when played well. Gary had a great feel for the song and came up with these amazing jazz runs in just a few minutes. The solos are gorgeous, delicate and perfect, but my favorite thing he did was putting the harmonies in over the louder part. You can hear them at 1.48, panned left and right to each headphone. To me the sax made the song feel genuine, capturing the 40s/50s vibe of the song.
Jack then took the skeleton of the song and fleshed it out. Having a real pianist is invaluable in a song like this, as they can add dynamics, soul and a wonderful, fluid humanity to it. Listen to how the piano in the verses is quieter, with twinkling little arpeggios punctuating the parts with no vocal, before hammering down the jazz chords for the louder parts. Beautiful.
Vocals aren’t something I talk about much as I have always felt they were the weakest link in my music but I’m very proud of them in this song. I wanted them to sound slightly melancholy but also kinda soulful. The lyrics are about Cole’s struggle to deal with the troubles of his past (and present) and make sense of the dark, twisted LA underbelly he was discovering. LA Noire is a very sad, tragic story and that’s what inspired the song. This was the first time I ever tried this kind of jazzy or soul singing, but due to the great response I will surely attempt it again at some stage.
Speaking of which – this is a perfect example of why sometimes with vocals less is more and how your limitations and flaws can be good things. I think my voice sounds broken, cracked and imperfect in many parts of this song but in a way that adds to the emotional punch of the piece. The “like” at 1.39 is slightly sharp and wavers out of tune a little, but I left it in as I felt it added some humanity and emotion to the line. My favorite part vocally is the line “I long for atonement’s arms” – I like the unforced gravelly husk in that line. That just happens sometimes when I’m singing, I don’t really know how to control it or make it happen, as I have never had vocal training. It just happens sometimes.
My favorite lyric in the song is, “The reel keeps on spinning lose and the screen is fading to black.” Anyone who played the game will know it’s a reference to the various plot points involving film reels, while also describing Cole’s downward spiral into turmoil and trouble.
When I first listened back to the full song, I got shivers down my spine. I was standing there almost slack jawed; I had never heard my voice sound so good, all because of the way the guys complimented and supported it with the backing. I just couldn’t believe what we had created and hoped that others would be as blown away as I was. Sure enough, you guys loved it to bits.
Love this song, but I think I’d like to hear someone else sing it. No offense to Gavin, his voice just isn’t bluesy enough for me.
Like I mentioned above, this was my first time ever attempting this kind of singing, so yeah, I’m not the best at it, nor do I have a natural blues voice. But I’m still pretty happy with what I managed to do with my pretty limited vocal range.
Totally getting a Faith No More vibe from this. Which is good.
Glad you noticed. I love FNM and wanted the backing vocals in this song to be Mike Patton-esque.
i get the feeling that your songs are a bit alike in structure
Well, yeah, they are. I tend to write in simple, pop structures as that’s what I like and it’s accessible for people and proven to work. That said, there is a certain song that breaks that rule, which brings me to….
I love this song. Just putting that out there. I love it because it’s different and was fun to make. I really tried to be adventurous with the structure and production in this one and again, you guys loved it, so that felt awesome. Do me (and yourself) a favor if you’re listening to this song while reading this – listen on headphones, as certain things I’m talking about will be much easier to hear that way and you’ll get a better feel for the dynamics of the song and how they build.
When writing/recording this song I had a few keywords for what I wanted it to sound like: “child”, “water,” and “tension.”
At the beginning and end of the song, you can hear children playing. This was a wonderful unplanned moment where something that should have been annoying became something amazing that added to the song.
I live in the city and there is a lot of noise outside. Sometimes it inevitably makes its way into the recordings. There were some kids playing outside in the street below so I stuck the microphone out the window and recorded a few minutes of it. I added an echo to it to make it sound sinister and distant and was surprised how well it suited the song so I left it in. Some of it also got onto the vocal tracks too, as they were there a good hour or so, but that is pretty much inaudible behind the layers of music. So those kids you hear in the distance at the very beginning and at 4.30 are in fact, real kids who have no idea they’re in a song!
Most of the main music in the verses is meant to imply a child-like innocence with something slightly sinister bubbling underneath. Hence the gentle, delicate music box, glockenspiel, plucked strings and almost nursery rhyme-like vocal melody. All of these were meant to conjure the twisted innocence of the Little Sisters. If you listen at 1.53 or so, after the first chorus, you can hear (in the left side of your headphones) an almost merry little melody on plucked strings – to me this sounds like one of the Little Sisters skipping and dancing down the dark corridors.
Most of the sounds and synths I used in this song are meant to imply water, obviously due to BioShock being set in an underwater city. At the very beginning there is a wave sound as the synths fade in. There are also various reverb-drenched, liquid atmospheric sounds in the background all through the song which are difficult to distinguish without headphones but all add up to something bigger.
At 1.53, a guitar comes in on the right headphone drenched in a wobbly chorus effect. I like the watery feel it has. The vocals have quite a heavy reverb which added to the deep, sea-like feel.
Now, listen carefully at 2.33. As the vocal dreams of the sea, you will hear the synths move up and down in volume as the lone drumbeat kicks in, creating an effect like waves. Hear how it builds and pulses as the chorus goes on? This effect was created using a compressor called a “sidechain,” which links instruments together, then sucks one track down in volume as another hits in. So every time the drum goes “thump,” the rest of the music gets sucked back for a split second, creating that rhythmical, dancing, wavey sound. This effect is often used in dubstep and dance music.
You’ll also notice the synth in this section is filtered – it starts muffled and muddy and gradually opens up, allowing the high, more energetic frequencies to spread out over the mix. This is a very commonly-used trick in dance music because it excites the ears and makes the song feel like it is spreading out and coming alive. It is most apparent from 2.43 to 2.56. The guitars come in at this point too, first barely audible and building to a noisy, almost metal-esque crescendo at 3.38 and then falling into a long, distorted note for the outro. All of this is meant to imply the tension and barely-contained fury and violence of the Big Daddies – after all, the song was written from their point of view.
The lyrics in this song are about how the Big Daddy sees the world. The “Little Sister” title, then, is because she is the only meaning in his life, pretty much all he is certain of, or knows. My favorite line is, “I walk through the water with my only friend” – this to me encapsulates the lonely, sad life of those big hulking leviathans.
As the song builds into its climax, I added in loads of vocal overdubs. This is what layering sounds like at its extreme – it’s like there are 25-30 of me singing to you all together, doing harmonies, counter harmonies, melodies and counter melodies. It’s quite a difficult thing to mix this without the whole thing becoming a cluttered, confused mess. It took a while to get it right. Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails was a huge influence on the way I put this part together.
I love the song and lyrics, but only critic is that you should have lowered the echo a bit, kinda made it hard to watch the video and hear the lyrics
Yeah, I realize echo and reverb can make the words hard to hear when used liberally, but I wanted to make the sacrifice just this once because the song was all about the atmosphere.
There was a nice build up in this one, tho I was hoping for a big(er) ending.
That was something I was torn on, too. The temptation was there to just let the song erupt and take off after that long build, and I actually did two versions. I felt in the end that this one worked better though, as the implied danger and feeling of barely constrained, repressed violence was, to me, a better and more accurate representation of the Big Daddy. The song is about his relationship with the Sister, not about his murderous rage – that aspect is meant to be subtle in the song and I like that it didn’t dominate it.
I’m sorry I am just not seeing it … this guys crap. If it were not related to games people would not give him a 2nd look
Thanks for contributing. I can definitely improve in the future by listening to well thought out criticisms like that.
I love the songs, but honest does anyone else feel and urge to slap the splash picture for these videos?
I’ve been getting that a lot. We’re changing the picture soon.
sounds like Nine Inch Nails
It’s supposed to.
Let me know in the comments which songs you’d like to hear about next month and ask me any questions you like. Was there too much technical stuff in this month’s article? Let me know if some of it seemed a little obtuse or boring. I also want to say thanks to you guys for loving the songs that I also love and for constantly encouraging me to make more adventurous and interesting music.