Ideality - Pre-Release Reflections
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
It's only a few days before the release of my new album Ideality, and with the bulk of my preparation and promotional work in place, I thought it the right time to put down my thoughts on the album's aims, objectives, composition and production techniques, as well as what it means for OSC moving forward.
A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away... (well, about ten years ago)
Whilst these days, I tend to go about music making with a somewhat carefree enjoyment, in my youth I used to dwell, procrastinate and take making music incredibly seriously; too seriously; serious in all the wrong ways. I was intensely obsessed with music, without actually producing the goods to validate the intensity. On reflection, it was likely the combination of youthful, existential angst, coupled with a lack of confidence; knowing deep down that I wasn't as good as I wanted to be (at producing music). I wasn't able to achieve the level of polish that I wanted (due to lack of practice and application) and I used to blame it on not having the right equipment, or software, or access to certain facilities etc.
I observed the YouTube generation (and by extension, SoundCloud, BandCamp and so on), realising there was a wealth of talent, producing high quality music using only the resources they could get their hands on; a thriving DIY community. What differentiated them from me was that they mastered the humble tools at their disposal and finished work, which allowed them to develop, improve and ultimately make positive steps in their career. I, on the other hand, would make excuses for not finishing work such as the lack of having better tools. A bad workman always blames his tools, right...
It dawned on me that procrastinating over not completing my musical ideas simply because I didn't own a DBX160SL compressor or DSI Prophet 6 synthesiser was frankly pathetic. I wanted in on this world of DIY self-releasing musicianship. I needed to grow up and get to work.
I completely changed my ethos towards. I shed all inhibitions and stopped procrastinating; instead outputting music at a frequent rate. I saw every tune I made as a step in my development and so the more I could make, the quicker I'd improve, liberating myself from the trappings of insecurity; a wonderfully freeing experience. I learned the value of completing work and learning from it, and thus I actually was improving with every project I did.
It's all out there for the world to hear, warts and all. You've only got to scroll down to the early OSC releases from 2013 and 2014 on my BandCamp to hear some rather dodgy production and/or cluttered arrangements, but whatever; at least I was having a go, right?!
I distanced myself emotionally from analysis and judgement of the music I was making, meaning if/when (in hindsight) I noticed imperfections, I could view them with objectivity, learning from them, as opposed to feeling embarrassed or ashamed that hundreds or even thousands of people had listened to (my) music that contained imperfections.
Raising the Bar
In late 2017, following the unexpected popularity of Girls On Bikes, I decided to set about making something that would have a production value significantly beyond anything I'd done before; something that would require more time (and devotion) in sound design and production precision. As mentioned above, since beginning OSC, I'd matured (creatively) and felt I had a stronger grasp on my creative process as a whole. I was outputting music regularly. Whilst every release had indeed been a stepping-stone of development, it was time to slow down and craft something in a more measured and conscientious way.
To do this would require me to adopt a more methodical process; setting targets to achieve and pushing myself outside of my comfort zones. This risked a return to the procrastination of old, after all, I still don't own a DBX 160SL or DSI Prophet 6! However, I was now feeling confident enough in my own ability and conviction to avoid negative procrastination and remain objectively decisive.
Over the course of 2018, I spent entire evenings designing synth patches (as opposed to knocking out half a song in an evening); hours (as opposed to minutes) creating chord progressions and melodies; days designing various authentic-sounding acoustic drum kits; days creating orchestral arrangements and learning how to manipulate the realism of acoustic sounds on my Roland Jupiter 50; I could go on...
Furthermore, I would analytically listen to music from all sorts of genres to great depth, taking notes, and attempting to incorporate ideas and elements into what I was composing. I was watching a lot of youtube videos and reading articles about complicated aspects of music theory and sound engineering. Whilst I was familiar with many of the concepts I was studying, I nevertheless wanted different perspectives and interpretations to better acquaint myself with; understanding and using these practices with more confidence and competence.
I realised in mid 2018 that I was approaching this album almost like a thesis for a degree. I had set myself overarching goals and targets, as well as smaller achievements and waypoints for individual songs. On reflection, this is probably what prompted me to start my blog. I was juggling so many concepts and thought processes, that I needed to write some of them down, just to clarify and formalise my own understandings.
So What Were My Goals?
Warmth: Warmth of tone was one of the biggest influencing factors on this record's engineering. Lots of Retrowave/Synthwave is quite pushed (in terms of compression and limiting), not to mention bright and in your face. I'd been listening to a lot 70s and 80s funk and fusion jazz, which was engineered with a more openly dynamic sensibility and softer top end (culminating in a warmer sound). Initially I aimed to achieve this by just changing my approach to EQ and multi-band dynamic control, however it actually required me to address things at the source; designing synth tones that were thicker in the mid-range and not containing as much high-end harmonic detail.
Furthermore, it forced me to focus on arrangement (even more than I already do). For a long time, I've championed the importance of arrangement. I've long believed that if you get the arrangement right, the engineering will take care of itself. I doubled down on this notion and spent longer than I'd ever done before combing through every 24th or 32nd of every beat on this record, ensuring everything was exactly where it needed to be, both rhythmically and harmonically. This was especially tricky on a record that I wanted to feel more human and less automated than my previous work.
A Live Band Experience: before you get excited, no, there's no live band on this record, however, I wanted it to feel like it could be a live band; admittedly, it would be a large live band, with horns, string, and percussion sections, but live nevertheless. This required the drums, primarily to feel much more real than they have on previous records. This is partly achieved through sample choice and engineering, but also in their programming. I didn't shy away from having things slightly off-the-grid as far as quantising is concerned. I didn't take things as far as someone like Pomrad might (in terms of looseness), but this was a marked change in approach for me.
To achieve this, I would work on different instruments on different days, similar to how a band might for example record the drums on one day, the horn section on another and so on. This allowed me to solely focus on each instrument in isolation (as opposed to working on several things at a time).
Furthermore, I unintentionally found myself adopting a split-personality condition of sorts; taking on the role of different musicians depending on what instrument I was working on. For example, when I was working on bass-lines, I'd adopt the creative personality of my imagined bass play. The same is true of my keys, guitar, drums and so on. Obviously, they're all me, but I started asking myself questions like "what would my bassist do" as if he/she was a different person. This might sound silly, I know, as I am my bassist... Nevertheless, adopting different imagined/acted-out personas for each instrument seemed to work in helping shape the character and musicality of my album. I feel it lent a distinctive flavour to each instrumental part, whilst also helping keep a coherent and consistent vibe and character across the album.
Vaporwave-ability: I've become most intrigued by Vaporwave in recent years. To be honest, I don't listen to a lot of it, opting instead to listen to the source material from the Japanese City-Pop era. Furthermore, I have reservations about the dubious legalities of copyright surrounding the genre. Nevertheless the notion of liking old music enough to repackage it and present it to a new audience is nothing short of complimentary (in my opinion). Vaporwave and Future-Funk are genres rooted in appreciation and celebration of yesteryear's music. With Ideality, I wanted to make songs that had the potential to be Vaporwave'd. This would require using strings, horns, guitars, vintage synth tones, old-school drums and most importantly compositional and arrangement tropes of City-Pop.
I'm not actively looking to have anyone ever actually make a Vaporwave song from one of Ideality's tracks and frankly, I'll probably do it myself in the future (as per my Vapor Session EPs). Nevertheless, aligning aspects of the album's style with City-Pop and having the potential for Vaporwave-ability was a core component to the album's sound design.
The Personal Touch: Most, if not all of my music comes from imagined contexts and stories and I don't really offer up insight on my own personal life through my music. I thought I'd change this a little with this album. There are two tracks towards the end of the album that I hope listeners will especially relate to on more personal level.
The first is a track, titled "Nine Years". At the time of making this song, my son was nine (hence the name). I'd recently been organising and backing up our family videos and I decided to lift some of the audio of my son from when he was about 2 years old and set it to some rather sentimental music. The listener might find it a little saccharin, but I was pleased with how it turned out (despite being very sentimental and a little cheesy).
In it, he's not clearly speaking, just jabbering nonsense the way toddlers do. It's a little like how you hear Stevie Wonder talking to his child in Isn't She Lovely. There are also some nice moments of laughter and interaction with his mother too. I sort of think of this tune as being from him to his mother and therefore, at the end of the song, in the fade-out, you'll notice an "arigatou", which is Japanese for "thank you". Mrs OSC is Japanese and so our son uses Japanese words in amongst his English. This is taken from a video from a couple of years later and so is much more coherent. I thought it was a fitting end, given that I was imagining the song to be from him to his mother.
The second is a track titled "Dad's Old Volvo", which is intended to sum up the warmth, nostalgic sentiments of sitting in the back of my Dad's Volvo listening to old music from the 60s, 70s and 80s as a little kid; undoubtedly helping shape my taste and indoctrinating me to certain musical preferences. The song's steeped in 70s-style chord progressions, with lots of 80s production tropes. When I listen back to this song, I can feel the seat fabric, see the very square Volvo-esque interior design choices, even smell the faux-leather door cards of that car. It's a very nostalgically happy song (for me at least).
Jazz Inspired Variety: In the past, I've steered away from being too Jazzy in my own music, believing Jazz to be a complicated minefield that I wasn't yet proficient enough to navigate. Nevertheless, for this album, I started composing with Jazz inspired chord progressions and arrangements that forced me into new territories of musical emotion, colour and technicality. This is most evident on a song titled "Underlit"; a five minute journey through funky melodic and harmonic modulations, modes and quartal voicing, attempting to bridge Jazz characteristics with my Synth-Funk approach.
Going back to my opening discussion, I feel, for the first time, that I've made something that deeply reflects my development and progression as a musician. Within the compositions, arrangements, engineering and production of this album are aspects of my journey with music that harken back to my teens, my twenties and everything I've learned since starting OSC. I can hear the lessons I've learned from my own mistakes as well as those gleamed from musical friends and peers (many of whom I'm fortunate enough to consider more accomplished than me). I've been more emotionally invested in this album than any of my other output and therefore feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that I've not had from any of my other work. I even put my face on the cover, which given my usual lack of personal photos online should speak volumes to my audience about what this album means to me and how confident I feel about its achievements.
Furthermore, this album marks a watershed moment for the OSC brand. I don't think there’s any turning back to the tried and tested Girls On Bikes/Boys On Boards production style that’s been my calling card for the last three years. Ideality ushers in an era of OSC 2.0, an era that's raised the bar of my own expectations; both of what I’m capable of and what people should come to expect of an OSC release.
Ideality has been the vessel with which I've attempted to improve my craft, which I believe I've done. This notion is liberating, as even if it's a total commercial flop and nobody buys it (or even likes it), I can still take solace in the very many lessons this album has taught me about my own craft and creative process. Moreover, whilst I have every intention of continuing with music, were I to quit today, I could do so happily knowing I've given all I have to give with the record, without regret or compromise.
Whether or not it's well received critically and/or commercially only time will tell and I'll wait with cautious optimism that people are receptive to the sound and style of OSC 2.0.
Happy listening :-)