I was catching the train home one night, a little drunk and in a maudlin state of mind I suppose, and a tune and a fragment of lyrics came into my head. There’s a voice memo function on my phone, so I hum-slurred it into that. (Very useful for idea capture, the mobile phone).
Separately to that, I’d looked though a Beatles songbook and was astounded to discover that a couple of my favourite songs are based around one chord: Tomorrow Never Knows (all in C), and Paperback Writer (all in G with a dip into C). This got me thinking about writing a song based on a single chord, or even a single note.
The song is recorded in the key of A major
I recorded the drums, hi-hats and handclaps first, using the iKaossilator on the iPhone, then the arpeggiated bass with the microKORG (this is just A, throughout the entire song). The first synth (using the mK again) is A in the verses, and A D G A in the chorus. This is the basic track.
Adding vocals: this was tricky, as I couldn’t really sing it how I wanted. Also, I was using the microphone that came with RockBand for Wii(!), not a great mic.
There are 4 separate vocal tracks – verse, chorus#1 (“let it out”), chorus#2 (whisper), chorus#3 (“let it in”) – and I really hammered the effects, with both the DAW and the Mini KaossPad, to get the vocals as close as I could to how I wanted them. This bit me on the bum when it came to the mix. (see below).
Using the mK, I created a second synth sound which comes in after the first chorus, in counterpoint to the first synth: A G D A. There was still something missing though, and this had me blocked for a while. I made a third synth sound (A again!), beginning on the second verse and gradually getting louder, punctuated by dipping the pitch periodically with the pitch bend wheel on the mK. But this still wasn’t enough!
If in doubt, reach for the DS. Programmed a synth in and recorded it twice; once ‘straight’ and again using the Kaoss pad to screw with the Peak/Cutoff parameters. I then mixed the two sounds in varying proportions, peaking with the final outro.
What I like:
- Panning. I was really pleased with the panning; it’s the first song I’ve tried to pan and I put a lot of effort into it. Especially like the automated panning for the outro.
- That 80s sound! Some of the synth sounds on the microKORG really forced my hand: it would have been an affront not to write an 80s inspired song. Particularly like the synth that comes in after the chorus.
- The handclaps. I love handclaps, and these come in at the perfect moment.
- The mood. I managed to get the mood I was aiming for; a relentlessness, urging, driving, quickening intensity.
- The end. The zap that kills off the song. I did it like this.
What I dislike:
- Could be tighter. My poor musicianship is evident in places, even though it’s a simple song to play. I need more patience in waiting for the perfect take, not the settling for the one that’s ‘good enough’.
- Over-manipulated vocals. I like the vocals, but after recording them on a poor mic and subjecting them to all kinds of effects (doubling, phasing, chorusing, reverb etc) and feeding them through more effects via the Mini KP, they couldn’t stand much amplification without distortion, so I couldn’t get them loud enough in the mix for the outro.
- Not loud enough! Try as I might, I couldn’t get the mix as loud as I wanted: on a music player it’s noticeably quieter than the neighbouring songs.
- Muddy mix. Even though I spent a hell of a long time mixing, the mix still sounds muddy to me (this feeds into the problem of volume above). There are some parts I could have recorded better (eg, the vocals). But I’m putting this down to experience – live and learn!
Lots of 80s music, but in particular Depeche Mode, and in particular Behind The Wheel. Also The Sound of Music by Joy Division (the mood if not the sound exactly); likewise Hound On My Heel by Steve Mason (formerly of the Beta Band), which is one of the best and truest songs ever written about depression. I’ve mentioned the Beatles already, but they almost go without saying.
The lyrics are intended to create a vibe, they’re not literal, but the song is about temptation, or temptation’s dark mirror: when you’re tempted not by good (or at least pleasurable) things, but by the things you know will do you harm. I had depression in mind, but it could be anything: an addiction, a behaviour, a person.
Lyrics & Addenda
Dry your eyes
Save your skin
Let it in
Close your eyes
Free your skin
Let it in
Blind your eyes
Break the skin
Let it in
Holes for eyes
Shed your skin
Let it in
Let it out
Let it in