It has been another very long break for Quad Damage, courtesy of Covid-19. Life has been packed as a result, but surprisingly rich and fun at the same time. It probably has something to do with this newfound love in my life, Rebecca aka BB76. We met on NYE in 2019/20, she moved in on Valentines Day, and inadvertently we became the happiest COVID couple on the planet. Lockdown has been a blessing for us, a unique opportunity to get to really really know each other, in-depth, on a 24/7/365 roster, and 2 years after, here we are, ready to celebrate another anniversary at the turn of the year.
On the more prosaic professional front, I have been quite busy working as a CTO for a startup in Queensland. I briefly enjoyed the Gold Coast lifestyle before the borders closed in June, and I became a 100% remote executive. This has meant very long days, paradoxically, with extended hours dealing with teams overseas. Another big hit on any potential creative time. But this has just resolved itself, as I have chosen to quit to take a break, before picking another job closer to my bases. I have toyed again with the idea of resuming my audio-visual explorations on these pages, but as I wrote it in July 2020 I think the time has come to move to something else. And this something will be a passion we share with BB76 about EDM, Electronic Dance Music.
Back in 2020, I invested in a couple of great pieces of hardware from Native Instruments, as discussed here. This has been quietly sleeping in boxes and under a cover, until last week. Lucky to have a spacious house, I have managed to reach a nice set up including 2 iMacs, 2 Komplete Kontrol keyboards, 2 Maschine pads, a Pioneer amp with Jensen speakers, a couple of Sennheiser headsets, a Blue nano mike, an iPad air and a 42” Samsung screen. This is what it looks like as I write these lines!
On the software front, I am currently still toying with three different DAWs (digital audio workstations): Logic Pro, Ableton Live and FL Studio. Time will tell which one gets my preference, likely the Apple one. I am also leveraging the amazing library of sounds and plugins from Native Instruments, Komplete 13 Ultimate. But most importantly I have invested on the software front in some premium audio plug-ins, which we will discover together in the next few weeks, including Izotope, XFer Serum, U-He Zebra, Sylenth, RFX Nexus, Captain plugins, …
Although I have been trained as a classical pianist in my teenage years, I realise that I have some serious gaps and shortcomings in my current knowledge base. For this reason, I am determined to invest time in self-paced training too, to improve my technique with keyboards, but also to revisit the fundamentals of music theory. My best friends in this journey are:
=> Melodics, a highly user-friendly and intuitive online musical academy
=> ADSR Sounds, a publisher of software training offering a vast library
=> Musical U, a free online resource centre to learn music
With all this cutting-edge gear at hand, how and where do I start writing some of this nice EDM I like? The songwriting anxiety strikes, and sends me back to all the familiar inner doubts: Can I do it, am I wasting my time, what if I have no talent, I should do more productive things … However, as I said, I am very determined this time. Songwriting is the next nut I am hoping to crack, and I am going back to the basics of it:
- Write or find lyrics, even if they are minimalistic: At the end of the day music is always telling a story, even if not a verbal one. It sets the general mood and tempo
- Find a nice chord progression, that will fit this storytelling
- Build a melody and a beat over these chords, using simple instruments, the acoustic way
- Source more elaborated sound loops and instruments
- Perform arrangement loops, including intro, verses, chorus, bridges and outro.
- Refine the mix
Sounds simple, eh!?
Step 1 – Pick a few words!
Starting with the lyrics, and as a first exercise, I have looked for inspirations from the poets, on the Poetry Foundation website. I stumbled on some pieces from Maya Angelou, and this one piqued my interest:
Still I Rise
BY MAYA ANGELOU
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I believe this text has an amazing potential to deliver a great contemporary electro-anthem. Obviously, I’ll have to find the right voice to interpret it, but I am placing some hope in my lovely BB76 …. ush! ush! Don’t tell her just yet.
Step 2 – Pick a key, a mood, a tempo
That’s the tricky part. I think this song is a bit sad, but at the same time hopeful. It also has a strong womanly element in it. I am trying to start with an A MINOR key.
How do you make this kind of call? Well here are some cues to consider:
I am also now using this live plugin on my Mac, which allows me to find the key for pretty much any song:
From a tempo perspective, since it is dance music, it should be over the 100 BPM (beat per minute) mark, but I would position it on the slower side, so let’s say maybe 110BPM?
Step 3 – Find a chord sequence for the main verse and the chorus
I have found 2 nice ways to work out chords: The first is using the Garage Band app on iPad on Mac, where there is a smart piano instrument allowing you to play with chord strips. You can set your base key in settings, and then explore your chords in a very intuitive manner. With my first stab at that, I found the following working sequence, which maps nicely with the first verse: Am / Am / F / E, repeated 3 times, with an inversion F / E / Am / Am to resolve it on the 4th phrase.
[Am] You may write me [Am] down in history
[F] With your bitter, [E] and twisted lies,
[Am]You may trod me [Am] in the [F] very dirt [E]
[F]But still, [E] like dust, [Am] I’ll rise. [Am]
The second method is to use the Captain Chords plugin in Logic Pro, which is incredibly user friendly for the creation of chords progression. Placing a sequence of 4 chords on the midi track is a matter of seconds!
In Logic Pro, I then apply to the track a “Violin Fluff” picked in the ZebraHZ. That creates a nice wave of orchestration in the background.
Step 4 – Melodise!
Based on our base chords, time to create a musical phrase for our verse. You can let your inspiration work on the keyboard, and that’s what I did in this case.
But a valid alternative, if you are running out of mojo, is to use another Captain Plugin called Captain Melody. With a bit of parametrisation, you might be lucky and come up with a fine line.
Step 5 – Beat making
There are multiple ways to tackle that, and they are not at all mutually exclusive, actually better working together:
- You can arpeggiate on base chords, using Captain Chords or your preferred arpeggiator
- You can add a bass line, freehandedly or with another plugin Captain Deep
- You can use a beat making plugin: Apple drummers are good enough for a quick job. Otherwise, I have a few options at hand: Izotope Breaktweaker, UJam Beatmaker, Native Instrument Maschine 2
On this occasion, I drop a Kandy BeatMaker on one track, set on the “Spark” preset, and a Captain Deep on another to set a simple baseline:
After a few adjustments, this is what comes out of this first stab. We’ve got an intro, and 2 verses for starters.
I am quite happy with that, and looking forward to the next steps consisting of:
- Finding a chorus, and eventually a pre-chorus and a bridge to go with it
- Sourcing nice instruments and sounds to make a more complex arrangement.
But that will be for next time. I am only left to generate an interesting visual cover for this song, and that would be based on this nifty iPad app I haven’t used yet for creative purposes: So, there you go, thank you to Staella for this inspiration.