Song Sifting: Loud Pipes

What is Sound Sifting you ask? Here’s what it’s all about.

Artist: Ratatat
Album: Classics
Year: 2006 
Is there a more aptly named album than Classics? It’s hit after hit. Montanita comes on and I think “this song embodies the Ratatat sound.” Then Lex comes on and I think “no this song embodies the Ratatat sound.” And so on. 
The arrangements are sparse. Each instrument is right up in your face. Nothing comes between the listener and the music. The album is remarkably consistent and cohesive in terms of quality and sound. When I listen to these songs, I recall the following quote, attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.“
Loud Pipes exemplifies this ideal. 
When listening, I ask myself: What element would you take away? I have a hard time coming up with one. Every element of Loud Pipes is essential. And when each instrument carries such weight, just switching one for another within the arrangement is a dramatic act. For example, at 1:25, the bass drops out and is replaced by a light, high register keyboard. Dynamic variation is one of the hallmarks of these compositions. We’ll explore more examples of this nature in the final section of this post. 
I wouldn’t describe Loud Pipes as fancy, flashy, or advanced. And that’s the beauty of it. Mastery of the fundamentals.
Their debut, self-titled album sounds slightly less refined in comparison. For example, I love the guitar riff in Desert Eagle. But the song lacks the command in dynamics demonstrated on Classics. The sections last longer than necessary and lack enough variation to keep them fresh. Desert Eagle would have more impact if it were shorter. There isn’t a single song on Classics that makes me feel that way. 
In a Reddit AMA, Ratatat member Evan Mast mentioned how the duo has “been figuring things out as we go since the beginning. Our first album was recorded VERY simply and we’ve slowly expanded things with each album. The best way to learn is by putting in work. Sometimes people with the least amount of technical knowledge make the coolest sounding records.1” 
Comparing Desert Eagle to Loud Pipes highlights this progression. It’s satisfying to see their work become more dialed in over time. Their production techniques continue to advance with each album after Classics. Later songs show stylistic flair where there was once only practical utility. This is an observation. Not critique. Not praise. Each listener has their own preference. But Classics remains a hallmark example of how much can be accomplished with a bare minimum setup. 
Well maybe not bare minimum. When recording their debut album, they didn’t even have guitar amps. The guitars were recorded directly into their laptop through a distortion pedal. 
“For Classics we upgraded to amps and microphones.2
Still pretty minimal, I’d say. 
There’s hardly any effects processing to speak of either. The clap has some reverb on it. And it stands out because everything else is so dry. If you focus on the quiet gaps between notes you can hear a hint of reverb across other instruments. This reverb is probably just the sound of the room they recorded in rather than any significant post processing.
Each instrument in Loud Pipes has a pleasing saturation to it rather than a clean tone. This helps blend them together to form one cohesive sound. Nothing sounds sterile or out of place. Then again, the extra distortion and noise may not please everyone. But as Evan points out, imperfections add “a certain character to the track. [I’m] generally not a fan of overly clean and polished recordings.3
With that in mind, consider the tone of the bass. It’s somewhat flappy and blown out. If played in solo, the sound probably wouldn’t be desirable. But it’s never heard in solo. The bass is always supported by other instruments. Those guitars, keyboards, etc fill the sides of the mix and leave plenty of room in the middle. That allows the big booming bass to be the uncontested centerpiece of the mix. It’s tonal character is complimentary and fitting to the whole.
It can be a challenge in instrumental music to keep the song sounding interesting and complete without a vocal present. People expect to hear singing. Ratatat is the standard for those looking to take on that challenge. As described above, Ratatat’s careful song production gives each element it’s own space. When one of these spaces is left empty, it builds anticipation. When they are all occupied, the sound is satisfyingly complete.  Just because a song lacks a vocal doesn’t mean it lacks a focal point.
Sometimes, people feel compelled to add vocals to instrumental songs. In most cases, I assume, this is just for fun. Adding personal flair to a song they love. Otherwise, it’s missing the point.
“I’m flattered that people are inspired to record vocals on our tracks, but honestly I never really like what I hear. The songs are designed to be instrumental so it always sounds messy to me when there’s another layer in the foreground.4
And we’ve come full circle back to the Exupery quote. Nothing to add. Nothing to take away. That’s how you know when your work is complete.
Continue reading below for a more granular analysis of Loud Pipes:

Instrument overview and opening impressions:
  • Center panned: Bass, Kick, Snare
  • Left: Organ
  • Right: Guitar
  • Claps have some special information, roughly back left
Just about everything in this mix is hard panned. Doing so leaves the center clear for the big, loose toned bass. That sets up an opportunity for dynamic contrast. When the bass drops out at 1:25, it leaves a wide hole to fill.  A high key part takes its place at 1:27. One switch takes the mix from dense to spacious. These skillful swaps are key to keeping forward momentum in a song with a relatively sparse instrumentation.
Structural overview:
Anything less would be incomplete. Anything more would risk becoming repetitive. 
Section A
  • The intro is two complete cycles of section A, without guitar. This lasts 8 bars.
    • The guitars enter and repeat the main riff over 16 bars
    • A matching guitar comes in on the left. But, the right guitar is louder which shades the overall guitar sound right of center. This leaves space on the left for the organ to play along with the guitars.
Section B
  • A gliding synth lead enters. Reversed guitar chords too, swelling each chord of the progression. The combination of the two creates a swirling sensation. It’s immersive. It feels like you’re being swept up and surrounded by sound. The structure here works in tandem with the instrumentation to provide a dynamic transition into section C.
  • The gliding synth is doubled on the left for the second cycle
Section C
  • Starting at 1:27, this section calls back to the intro. It’s sparse and open. The heaviness of the bass now replaces with a feather light piano. Soft flutes take over the backing chord duties. They are helped by muted guitar plucks placed hard left and right. These guitars are the polar opposite of the distorted strumming heard previously.
    • When the strumming returns, it is just one mono, hard panned right guitar. The distortion is reduced. It sounds like reminiscing. Recalling the earlier high energy sections, but enjoying a break for now.
  • This section ends at 2:09 with a brilliant pause, as if taking a breath before diving back in. The lone guitar on the right is briefly doubled on the left. All other instruments drop out for two counts. Then, bam. The chorus lands like an on time arrival. Satisfying.
  • A shaker is introduced in this section. It bounces left and right each beat, punctuating the guitar plucks.
Section A 2
  • There’s a couple additions to this section for its second pass but they are subtle
    • A lead tone guitar enters on the left, covering the organ. The harmony raises during the second 4-bar cycle, suggesting the song is reaching its apex
  • There is a tambourine on the 2 and 4 that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else in the song
Section B 2 – 2:32
  • Nearly identical to first B section, but the gliding synth is doubled from the outset of the first cycle. It appears to again add a layer for the second cycle, perhaps going from 2 to 3. This is the most densely orchestrated moment of the song.
Section C 2
  • No plucking guitars this time. The organ is on chord duty now, panned right for the first time all song. 
  • Unlike C1, we have bass this time. But, its played an octave higher to keep things light.
  • No strumming guitar comes in this time, instead the section fades out, completing the song.

Parting thought:
“Ending the day with a song that didn’t exist that morning is the best feeling in the world.5

Final Dungeon [Demo]

This song is the direct result of my recent field recording adventures with my brother Derek.

The sounds we recorded at the historic quarry and sculpture park have now been reorganized into music. It may well be my favorite song to date.

Take a listen to the full track below. Then, we’ll walk through a few examples of everyday sounds that were transformed to create the unique texture of this song. 

Main sound: Airplane Flyover

Derek recorded this sound sample while we were eating lunch. Check out the unedited sample in clip A, below.

Clip B is the airplane track from my demo in solo. The original sample is loaded into Cubase’s stock granular synthesizer*, Padshop.

I spread the sample across my keyboard and used a tuner to approach true pitch. However, plane flyby is characterized by ever changing pitch. So, the longer the note is held the more the pitch varies, and the more it sounds like a plane. Short notes can be tuned more accurately, and therefore sound more like an instrument. Let’s hear a few examples:

0:00: a quick arpeggio run to set the mood, a la this classic boss theme 

0:04 – 0:15: The one place the note is held long enough to recognize the original airplane sample. Compare to…

0:16 – 1:06:  These arpeggiated chords are unrecognizable from the original sample. They sound more like a haunting old keyboard.

1:06 – 1:28: Here the sound morphs into a menacing melody. It’s possible to recognize the original sample in this part now that you have heard it.

Art OMI lunch spot

*Granular synthesis can use any provided sound and turn it into something completely new. It does so by breaking down a sound into many microscopic segments. Then, these segments can be played back in varying order, speed, pitch, etc. Click here to learn more about the basics of granular synthesis.

Sound first heard at 0:06
A scraping texture, as seen recorded at Art OMI in video 3 of this post. Triggered with Padshop.

Sound first heard at 0:20
A metallic hit on an old rusty truck at the quarry (pictured, right). Triggered with Padshop. Alternate pitches can be heard starting at 1:07. A deeper pitched section starts at 1:27.

Sound first heard at 0:27
This is a sample of metal spoke hits, triggered with Padshop. Hear the original sound in videos 1 and 4 of the quarry post. Now is a good time to mention that all of these sounds have additional reverb added, but no further effects processing. Nonetheless, the result is otherworldly

C. Final Dungeon – quarry/sculpture park percusions

Experimental techniques: 

My high excitement level for this song seems to correlate directly to the amount of brand new techniques it contains. 

  • Padshop
    • My first time using this synth. Awed by the endless possibilities it presents. Will have to dig deeper, but having several instances of it in this project proved a successful start.
  • Unusually high percentage of “non-musical” sounds
    • I almost always use some oddball sample somewhere in a song. And yes, there are a couple traditional synth and tracks that come in later in the track. But, I can’t think of another song that got so much mileage out of everyday sound samples. 
  • Breakbeats in 15/8
    • A challenge if there ever was one. Drum break sliced, one hit per pad. Then drummed out on the pads, recorded in real time to the track. 
    • The decision on 15/8 timing was made at the outset of the writing process. This song just came out. It sounded cool and I was inspired to take on the challenge of an unusual time signature. 
    • The decision to add a breakbeat section came at the end. The odd timed drum breaks in this song continue to mesmerize me. Final Dungeon had already become a catch-all for my many inspirations of the moment, so why not go all in. 

Takeaway lessons: 

The challenge of using unusual sounds can be inspirational in itself. Multiply the effect by recording some new sounds yourself. Your music can’t help but be unique if you create it’s base components from scratch. 

Your satisfaction with the end result will be proportional to the amount of risks you take while writing. Of course, every additional risk you take increases the chance you won’t finish the song, or it won’t be any good by the time you do. Striking the right balance is the result of luck as much as anything. 

Writing in 15/8 is a risk. The result may sound too academic to be enjoyable. Or, you might get bogged down by the unusual rhythm and not be able to complete the song. 

Using oddball sounds is a risk. The more sounds you add, the more a song can grow apart instead of come together. Cohesion will be tested. Use of harmony will be tested. It’s often difficult bordering on impossible to tune random sounds musically. These limitations can dictate the path of your song so that it practically writes itself. They can also be so restrictive that you never get off the starting blocks. 

Again, fortune is mostly to thank. Most of the time, these things don’t fall so neatly into place. On the off chance they do, enjoy the satisfaction that follows. 

Read more about the article Listening to a sculpture park
Beverly Pepper, Paraclete, 1973 Cor-Ten steel, 192" x 108" x 342" Photograph by Aislinn Wilde.

Listening to a sculpture park

Beverly Pepper, Paraclete, 1973 Cor-Ten steel, 192" x 108" x 342" Photograph by Aislinn Wilde.

My inspiration to buy a field recorder can be traced back to the moment I saw Beverly Pepper’s, Paraclete sculpture at Art Omi five years ago. 

The steel structure bellows deep, rich tones from the slightest tap. Once inside the pyramid, it’s irregular shape warps any sound you make. The tight, resonant reverberations evolve as often as you move your ears. 

A rush of ideas and sonic possibilities came upon me. I pictured myself with a portable recorder, exploring unusual spaces, and experimenting with the unique sound characteristics within. I learned from this missed opportunity by purchasing a handheld Zoom recorder when I got home. 

Fast forward five years. My brother Derek just got a new Zoom recorder in an unrelated purchase of his own. It came on our hike last week.

This week, we learned Art Omi is open despite the pandemic (thanks for this info to Chelsea, who also planned my first trip to the park). A walk through the sculpture park sounded like a nice break from the trails. 

It wasn’t until this moment that I made the full circle realization that Omi was the last place I went without a Zoom recorder and one of the first Derek went with his. 

Atelier Van Lieshout, Blast Furnace, 2013 708,7” x 393,7” x 413,4”, Steel and Wood Photo by Derek Romejko
Play Video

Derek and I collecting a few sound samples to future use. 

Revealing the sounds of a historic quarry

“When the quarry was abandoned, much of the equipment and structures were left just as it was (as if the quarrymen had gone for lunch and never returned). The site has stayed the same, plus some rust, until now.”

Derek brought his trusty Zoom recorder on our hike through the defunct Chester-Hudson Quarry. We stocked up on rusty metallic samples that I can’t wait to try out. 

In the clips below, you will see us tapping away at the rusty old machine parts. Even better, you’ll hear the sounds they emit as if echoing back through time. 

Play Video

So, that's all for now...

No more pages to load