Good Neighbors Mix and the AFX003 tuning file

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I wrote Good Neighbors in May of 2018. I only had one goal when I started this fresh Cubase project: Figure out how to load .tun files into my U-He Zebra synthesizer in order to make microtonal music. Or at least I thought I was making microtonal music.
I downloaded this Aphex Twin custom tunings pack. I tried out each of 6 tunings to see what they had to offer. AFX003 yielded some great sounds right away. Before long, I’d created the original Good Neighbors loop, which you can hear below.
At the time it didn’t feel long enough to be a proper song. Occasionally, I’d open the project and try to add a new section. Then I’d close the project, unsatisfied with the results. Whenever I go back and listen to the original loop, I appreciate how straight to the point it is. It begins, makes it’s case, then ends. No fluff.
Today I finally decided it was time to mix this song. To finalize it the way it is. Except the project was still a mess from the last time I tried moving sections around. There were a bunch of scrap parts interspersed that needed to be deleted. Sorting that out created a delay, opening an opportunity for me to try a couple new ideas. Maybe I could replace these old junky ideas with a fresh new one. It didn’t take long to realize this was a bad idea. The song is good the way it is. Stop forgetting that!
But when I was trying new parts with the harp patch something occurred to me. This tuning I thought was my first foray into exotic microtonal music sounded an awful lot like, well, the regular old minor scale. Ironic. I was so focused on playing in a way I never had before I didn’t notice how regular the notes really were.

Testing the nature of the AFX003 tuning:
The D3 key in the AFX003 tuning equals the D3 on a regular keyboard.  On a regular keyboard, start on D3 and play only the white keys until you reach D4 an octave up.
D E F G A Bb C D
This is the D minor scale. It’s also the 7 notes in the AFX003 tuning. Except in AFX003, these notes are mapped onto on 7 consecutive keys. Activate the AFX003 tuning. Start on D3. Play every key, including the black ones, until you reach A3.
D E F G A Bb C D
It’s D minor, although in the space of 7 piano keys instead of the usual 12. 
Now play only the white keys from D3 to D4.
D F G Bb D F G Bb D

I can’t help but notice these letters are all in order on my computer keyboard. Does this mean something? Probably not. But I am curious about the inspiration of this tuning. If you were only going to use the 7 notes of the minor scale, it would be easier to play if you mapped them to only the white keys and left the black keys unmapped.

So, this tuning ended up being more regular than I’d hoped for. And yet, it yielded a song that sounds different than something I’d usually make. I can think of a few reasons why that may be.
  1. I was focused on playing it in a way I never had before.
Musicians, and perhaps especially guitarists, can get stuck playing the same old patterns. Consider these two composing mindsets:
“Today I’ll write a song in D minor.”
“Today I’ll write a song in a new, unknown tuning. One that I’ve never used before. One that I’ve never even heard the sound of.”
You probably have preconceived notions about the sonic possibilities of D minor. You may start thinking about chord progressions in the key. Or about which harmonies to use. Conversely, the second mindset is more childlike. Here’s a tuning I’ve never encountered before. I don’t know anything about the harmonic relationships. Therefore, I must rely on only what sounds good as I play. The more music theory you understand, the harder it is to play with this type of carefree creativity. To do so is rare and valuable. As they say, you’re unlikely to discover anything new by following the same old road map. 
  1. Although the notes are ordinary, their mapping to the keyboard is not.
Again, old habits die hard. Common patterns ingrain themselves through muscle memory. Your fingers probably have a tendency to land on all the usual intervals. Major thirds. Perfect fifths. And of course, octaves.  The AFX003 tuning condenses the 7 scale tones down to 7 consecutive keys. This almost guarantees you will play wider intervals than normal. Notes that would have been a stretch are now close by. Notes that were too distant to ever be considered are now in reach. Even if your fingers fall in all the usual places, you’ll still be playing different notes than usual. 
  1. There might actually be a slight microtonal quality to these notes. 
I’m leaving this one up to you to decide. I played the AFX003 notes along side the D minor scale over and over. Most of the notes sounded identical. But a couple of them sounded the slightest bit out of tune. Or maybe I entered a state of delirium and was only imagining a difference. We may need to consult the World’s Greatest Ear to confirm or deny this claim.

The following is a summary of the changes I made to the original Good Neighbors demo during the mixing stage:
Expand track some to give the composition more dynamic. Keep punchy in and out feel of original short demo.
Heavily compress droning bass synth. All flutters all over the place and needs to be tamed.
Slight widening to snare. EQ to brighten a touch.
Light short reverb on the drums to create a room feel
Swap pan sides for harp and strings
Build intro out of recycled harp line
Eq work on the vocal lines to get them to sit properly/remove mud for clarity
Add delay fx tails to the ends of vocal lines
Spice up transition between main section of song and outro
  • Stutter fx on Stereo out bus
  • Tight BP filter on repeat of vocal line
  • Have bottom drop out of the drum 

Mix Journal: Suspended Animation

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This song sounds cold and desolate. As if frozen in time. Like a body paused by cryonics, awaiting revival. Can their thoughts, memories, and personal information be recovered?
Or, how about a more contemporary example. A body sustains mortal injuries, but the brain remains intact. Using a brain-machine interface, an image of the brain is created. Like backing up computer data to a server. The collection is successful. Neatly packaged, the full contents of the brain await redeployment into a new body. What is the nature of consciousness in this state?
That’s what I mean by Suspended Animation.
In terms of the mix, this song is fairly minimal. Most of the instruments already had a little reverb on them from the writing stage. I added some light delay to a few tracks toward the end. But for the most part, they fill the space without needing additional fx processing. 

Step by step actions:

Balance static mix
Add light distortion to drum group
Compress drum group
both of these steps helped glue the kit together into one cohesive unit
Eq Bass to remove some of the nasally low mids.
Compress bass
Eq Kick to sit just above fundamental bass frequency
Eq Snare: just one small cut out of the low mids
Eq pulse synth
Compress pulse synth
Eq Keys for more hi clarity
Add spice into drum patterns for middle section
Add phaser to drums during section starting @1:30
Use volume automation to
  1. Lower drum volume during less dense sections
  2. bring forward the main element whenever there’s a shift in focus. For example, at 0:30 the volume of the harp-like instrument is raised. It says up until 0:52, then ducks below the icy key lead that enters.
  3. Fade in/out the top layer of the bass synth. it comes in gradually until 0:30 then drops out. Where else do you hear it in the track?

Mix Journal: Labeled

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This song presents my first opportunity to give a shout out to Sevish. I have a whole stack of new songs that would not exist without him. I’ll go into more detail in a future post. For now, check out his latest album, Horixens

Here’s a list of changes between the original demo and the version 1 mix of Labeled. Below that, you can compare the two tracks side by side. 

  • Removed kick drum from intro
  • Had the plucked synth drop out at 1:11. Creates anticipation and room for the voices to come in.
  • Chopped each voice onto its own track for individual processing. Each one has its own compression, panning, EQ, panning, effects. Mostly light reverb and delay.
    • Goal was to blend them into the texture of the song a little more instead of having them feel as though sitting on top, separate from it
    • Used automation to further balance dynamic range of the phrases. A couple of them really trailed off in volume at the end.
  • The bass part in the first section is a 3-layer synth stack. Used EQ to give each a more defined space in the frequency spectrum. Hi passed 2/3, kept the deepest for dedicated sub bass duty.
    • Put some light compression and distortion on the group to meld them together.
    • Raised volume on the mid range layer
  • Added some slight drum glitches around the word “schizoid” for effect
  • Automated drum volume down for sparser sections
    • Added filter ~0:55 to open space, allow more clarity for the voice to enter
    • Dropped the drums out after “he reads.” Had to highlight that alarming symptom of mental illness.
  • Some thinning to voice layers in final section

Mix Update: Irruption [m2]

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If you missed the notes from version 1, click here

Updates for version 2: 

  • Saturation added to lo mids of the sub bass tracks. They didn’t have enough above 200hz to achieve proper presence on smaller speakers.
  • Electric keys come in a little more gradually now
  • Brought in a reference track to tune lows. Really should have done this sooner. Indicated that my highs were much lower than expected.
    • Raised synth lead at 1:43 by a few dbs since there was still plenty of room in that area of the spectrum
    • Used multiband imager on master bus to narrow the stereo image of the low end a bit
  • Allowed more treble to come through on main piano sample track

Irruption [Mix]

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90% of mixing is levels, EQ, and compression. Here’s some specifics used to hone the final 10% of this track. 
Weak spots identified with corresponding enhancements listed below:
Important sub bass elements not cutting through mix
  • duplicated each sub bass track into an original version and hi copy
    • used high pass filter on hi copy to cut out all bass frequencies
    • added distortion and stereo widening to hi copy track and blended it back in with original sub
    • This move helped make the center of the mix feel less claustrophobic throughout
The initial writing stage left some areas of this song thin
  • Additional instrument layering
    • Added new keyboard melody ~0:50
    • Replaced drum break ~1:32 new one, kept a few slices of the old one to pop through at times
      • I didnt change the tempo from from 76 bpm to 52 for the double time parts. This became a problem when trying to audition drum breaks in real time. The align beats to project function stretched everything out slower when they really needed to be sped up. Not sure if there’s a double time preview button but I can’t find one.
Phase issues with main piano sample, also sounds panned left by default
  • used a multiband imager to pull low frequencies back toward the center
  • Using a stereo distortion plug in with the mix knob kept around 15%. Just enough to add some harmonics that balanced the sound without changing its character

So, that's all for now...

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