Where ya been?
Working. That normal day-to-day job that I enjoy, and that pays the proverbial bills has been very workful lately. Too workful. We’ve been on a big project for over a year now and it’s finally in the final stages of being done, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to spend less of my “free time” doing that, and get back to the stuff I love–music. So let’s do that!
The topic at hand
I used to have a very elitist, shitty view of electronic musicians. I still have a very elitist, shitty view of some musicians, but it’s not because of the style of music or instrumentation they choose anymore. Every genre has its goods and its bads. There are lots of bads, but that’s not anything new–it certainly was never better back in my day! At least I’ve yet to suffer that particular shitty viewpoint in terms of music.
Aaaaaanyway…the thought process (flawed as it was) went like this…electronic musicians never learned how to play an instrument–it’s all just pressing buttons and clicking mousethings, etcetera, etcetera. Surely there’s no talent involved in that! You’ve got to learn how to play a physical thing made out of wood or metal or hair or whatthefuckever in order to be a REAL MUSICIAN.
So obviously I was wrong. I mean, not about the instrument part, or the button part, the talent part, or even the hair…about all of it. Because any DAW of any kind, whether it’s a groovebox, a recording program you use on your PC, a scoring program…anything…they’re all instruments. They’re all creative tools you use to make music. Yes, it often involves pressing buttons, but when you get right down to it, that’s like 80% of “real” instruments, isn’t it? A piano is just a giant box of long-ass buttons for you to press. A saxophone? You blow through it, but, buttons. Guitar? Violin? Not really buttons, but if you don’t want to be too pedantic about it…sorta buttons.
The point is, as another tool for making music, software is really no different than any other instrument. It takes time and effort to GIT GUD at using a DAW, regardless of any genre you might be producing. So I say to my former self: wow, what an asshole. And I’m sorry for those that had to listen to me spout off on that self-righteous little attitude.
So why did I change my mind?
It took finding a mainly-electronic group that made music that actually spoke to me, to finally flip the switch for me. The group that did it was Fischerspooner. The first time I’d ever heard them was a late night music video for Emerge–my eyes were assaulted, and the music wasn’t far behind. I’d never seen or heard anything like it at that point, so I went out and bought my first electronic music album; #1. The whole thing–sound and aesthetic–was all about excess, but one of my favorite bands of all time is The Mars Volta, which is about as excessive as it gets musically, so of course it was a goddamn perfect fit.
That’s one answer, but the more important part is that I started using these things. It’s one thing to think about using a piece of software in an abstract way, as something someone else does, without ever touching the software yourself, but anyone who’s ever actually sat down and tried writing a piece of music in a DAW knows full well, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get to the point where you can start making fully-fledged songs…especially good songs with them. That whole 4-bar loop syndrome or whatever…that’s easy. Learn some very basics, load up a couple of instruments and lay some stuff down, and you’ve got a loop. But…
You’ve got to string some shit together to make a song. You’ve got to put some thought into it, and often that means making some hard decisions along the way. How long should this verse be? Does it need a bridge? How do I connect this part to that part? This bit seems too long, but I like the first 3/4 of it…what should I do?
Those are all considerations we have when writing music with any instrument. Those are all definitely considerations when writing music in a DAW. DAWs are all about stringing aforementioned shit together. It’s what they live for. Metaphorically.
Being a musician is about so much more than just physically manipulating a sound-making doohickey. Like all art, at its most fundamental level, being a musician is more about making choices than anything else. And you don’t need a sound-making doohickey for that. Sorta.
In fact, in many ways, if a DAW is your main instrument, it’s actually more difficult an instrument to pick up and get good at than a traditional instrument. There are many more things you need to consider if you’re doing everything inside the box, especially if you’re programming everything with a mouse and keyboard.
People who score and sequence their own orchestral music only using sample-based VST plugins, for example–I’m in awe of that shit. You have to be METICULOUS AS FUCK about everything. Which articulations do you choose, and when? Velocities? Yeah, gotta manage those. Automating parameters to make the performance of a sample sound authentic? Yeesh. That’s an enormous amount of work, and shows superhuman dedication to pull off.
That’s not to say programming a real EDM banger (I don’t know what that phrase means, but maybe it makes sense somehow?) is any less impressive. Getting a song to come to life using a keyboard and mouse is no small task. Timing is a critical piece of crafting a beat that gets your foot tapping, let alone gets you up and out of your seat to wiggle that ass a little. Yeah, I said that. You can fuck around with note velocities all day, but if you don’t get those drums a little off the grid in a human way, your beat will still almost always fall flat (I will die on this particular hill).
Picking up the guitar (my main instrument) by comparison, was free from the need to fret (pun absolutely intended) over such minutiae. Sure, I still have to worry about how hard I’m strumming, or what kinds of shit I’m doing to make all those cool WEE-OOO-WOWW-OOO sounds like Tom Morello does, but that’s a lot more immediate than having to essentially carve all that stuff out of marble by hand-editing stuff in a DAW.
So what does it all mean?
It’s a big endeavor to write music seriously, and nobody should ever disparage anyone else for doing so, because of their choice of genre or the tools they leverage, and I’m sorry I ever did. They’re all just different approaches to what I believe is the most creative and evocative artform out there.
Just make stuff, however you like. But work hard to make it good, no matter what instrument(s) you use. Work hard to make it interesting, and not like everything else out there (that part is actually really easy–but that’s for a later post). Make stuff, and don’t listen to idiots like myself in my youth.
Take good care of yourselves, and your pets.
Hey! Let’s talk about musical transitions. Why, you ask? Because they’re important AF (as “the kids these days” like to say). Seriously–they’re that important. You can’t write a song without some kind of transition. Well, you could, but this hypothetical song would likely be more boring than grandma’s oatmeal recipe. Messing with people’s expectations is a crucial part of writing interesting music, and it’s really tough to do that if you’re not changing anything. So let’s talk about interludes!
There are different kinds of transitions
I know…”duh, Mr. Robot.” Fair point. Anyway, I can think of four broad categories of transitions off the top of my head. I’m probably missing some, but we’re just going to focus on one of them, today, so who cares? I do, but anyway, here are the ones I’ve come up with, in order of complexity:
- Just going for it: This is where you take two parts, and you stick ’em together without doing anything to ease the transition.
- The interlude: Basically, you take two parts, and you stick a gap in between–this often functions as a way to reset people’s ears–a palate cleanse, if you will. That’s what we’re gonna talk about here. It’s also why I made this one all bold and fancy. 🤵🏻
- Tension and release: Here, you take two parts, and you build a sense of tension which reaches a pinnacle at the end of the first part, and then gets released at the start of the second. Risers are a good example, but there are tons of ways to do it.
- Leading the listener: This is probably the most fun and rewarding (IMO), but/because it’s also the most challenging to pull off. Here, you take two parts and use harmony and/or melody and/or rhythm to lead the listener’s ear on a journey that connects the two parts.
Each of these come in different forms, and there can be a lot of overlap between them. We’ll go into more depth in each, but today we’re going to look at interludes. Cleanse that damn palate–that’s what I always say!*
Anyhoo…interludes are super effective and can be as simple or complicated as you like. Let’s break down some of the different kinds of interludes you can use, and look at some examples.
*I never say that.
The cut-out/the fade
Just add a bar or two between two parts, and either stop the music dead in its tracks, or hold out the last note until the next part comes in. Doesn’t get much simpler. You can also add a little bit of spiciness by introducing some other small element to it, like a different drum beat, vocal, or other instrumentation.
Check out this great example from a song I’m certain you’ve never heard before. The last notes fade away to nothing while the kick drum lets you know IT IS NOT OVER YET, before launching into that iconic chorus (not that you would know, since you’ve definitely never heard this song until now).
The unrelated interlude
This is a great way to keep the music moving while still doing that whole palate cleansing thing. Here, you introduce a brand-new element to the song–whether that’s a new melody, rhythm, or instrumentation to temporarily distract listeners from what came before, and keep them guessing about what’s coming next.
Little Dark Age is a fantastic song with some great transitions–but it’s MGMT, so that statement is a little redundant. The end of the main chorus part is a turnaround that naturally tends to lead the listener away from the chorus (here, at about 1:23), and then at around 1:28, it goes into an unrelated interlude. The bass drops out and the instrumentation changes, but the drums keep driving the song forward, before resolving back into the second verse.
Leading the listener: interlude edition
This one is very similar to the transition type–almost identical, in fact.
The difference here is that the transitional part is inserted in between the two parts you want to connect, rather than being included in one or the other.
Like the transition type of the same name, this is the most difficult–and rewarding–to do well, because you’re not really so much cleansing the listener’s palate here, you’re changing it on the fly.
The quintessential example is the pre, or post-chorus. Here you can hear how the verse gives way to a ‘leading the listener’-style interlude into the chorus on my last release–you’ll notice that the main acoustic part remains very similar to the verse, while the vibe of the rest of the part changes quite a bit, preparing you for the chorus.
When does this transition type work?
The interlude is super-versatile and works in almost any musical situation. Here are some of the scenarios where I find myself reaching for this kind of transition:
- The two parts you’re trying to connect don’t play nice with one another. Maybe they’re in drastically different keys, or there might even be a tempo or time signature change involved. Or maybe they do work, technically, but it just isn’t doing it for you. A brief interlude to clear out the listener’s earholes will probably work wonders.
- You’ve got time constraints. If you’ve got a deadline–whether it’s self-imposed, or you need to deliver something on time because you’re getting paid to–this kind of transition is super-easy to pull off quickly, and almost always works.
- You need to break out of a rut. If you’re the type of person who has hundreds or thousands of four or eight bar loops sitting on your hard drive taking up loads of virtual binary space, (and spoiler alert–you are…we all are), this kind of transition is your best friend in the whole wide world. It allows you to chain parts together quickly, and start transforming loops into songs. The real power here is that it’s a great way to get over that terrifying hump of “WAT 2 DO NEXT?? IDK 🤷♂️”. Successfully stringing a couple of parts together provides an incentive to keep pushing to finish a track. It’s sort of like exercise–nobody really wants to start doing that shit, but if you lace up your sneakers, and step out the door, well, you’ve already started, haven’t you? Might as well finish.
When does this transition type not work?
Honestly, it’s kinda difficult to fuck this one up. If you do, you should be upset with yourself. Your family should probably also be disappointed in you. I’m disappointed in you. You are a bad person. 😞
Just kidding–you’re not a bad person, probably. The only thing you should really keep in mind here is not to overuse an interlude the same way too many times. That doesn’t mean you can’t use multiple interludes in the same song. Just be mindful that using the exact same interlude numerous times will start to become obvious and can come off as gimmicky, or even stupid. Once is cool. Twice is usually okay. More than that, you’re skating on thin ice, bucko.
Here’s an example from a new song I’ve been working on called I Used to be an Optimist. The idea is the same for both interludes–they connect the verses to the choruses. Even though they perform the exact same function, they’re obviously handled differently. The first transition is a simple four beat interlude with vocals…
The second is a bit longer, and…you know, different…
How annoying would it be if I used the same “listen, listen” transition twice in the same song? You’d probably say to yourself, “yeah, already heard that one, buddy”, and trust me, nobody wants someone saying that to themselves–not even robots of any speed. The point is, mind your shit–keep it fresh, or something. Whatever the hell that means. 🤷🏻♂️
So you should now have a good idea of just how versatile and useful the humble musical interlude is, and when, and how to apply it in your own music. It’s one of the most important (and easy) types of musical transition to master, and is an incredibly efficient way to get unstuck, if you’re having trouble getting a song moving.
Like I said at the outset, this was mostly off the top of my head, so I’m probably forgetting something. What did I miss? How do you use interludes in your music? And what are some of your favorite examples?
Oh, and take good care of yourselves, and your pets.
It’s like all the stars in all the galaxies have aligned–another new release!
Slow Wave-Part I is the first half of a longer tune my main band, The Great Mistake just released. It’s our first new music release in years, and it’s a safe bet saying this doesn’t sound like anything we’ve released so far. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a good thing or not.
This will be the last new music day for a few weeks, but I’m working on something interesting (maybe?) for the composers out there, which will be published in the next few days. Anyhoo–enjoy, and of course, take good care of yourselves, and your pets.
New track–Before the Trees–out now on all major streaming platforms! I’m pretty excited about this one. Hope you all enjoy!
It’s pretty rare to come across an album that’s so incredible, it fundamentally changes how you think of music. So infrequent, in fact, I can list mine here, without taking too much of your time–so I will. Here they are, in order.
A fundamental change you say–but howwwwww??
I can’t answer that in a small amount of words. I can’t answer much of anything in a small amount of words. So I’ll explain with a large amount of words instead. Sorry.
Act II certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. Even that’s downplaying it, with fifteen songs over a run-time of an hour and seventeen minutes–but the amount of music here is about the least impressive thing about it. The impressive thing is the quality. Just take a listen to the first song–literally within a second, it’s already apparent something different is going on:
At this point, okay, that might’ve been a fluke–that was only 38 seconds of music, after all. It does then kick into what could be an intense, but fairly traditional post-rock tune called The Procession. And yeah, that’s the vibe for much of the song, but really, no it isn’t. For one, I bet you wouldn’t expect xylophone and glockenspiel in the verses. The choruses keep the energy up, but the backing vocals throughout keep the song tethered to some alternate reality that’s somehow simultaneously a combination of turn-of-the-century, circa the 1900s and 2000s.
It goes on like this for however much of the hour and seventeen minutes are left at this point. I don’t know, get off my back, I’m not into math. But really, you can’t boil it down to something so simple. I mean I can’t, since I guess I’m the one who’s doing the boiling in this metaphor.
Here’s the thing about this album…yeah, the thing the title of this blog post inquires about…the vocals. The vocals on Act II are just kind of stupid good. Like, if these vocals were a punch in the dick, I’d respectfully request to be punched in the dick. A lot. The melodies are catchy as fuck, despite staying a minimum of two full rural counties away from trite, at all times. The lyrics are fantastic too. It’s the second concept album in a series of concept albums about a boy (literally called “The Boy”)–Act II is about, well…Wikipedia sums it up better than I ever could…
But yeah, back to the lyrics…they’re great. In Act II the boy is growing up and learning about love, and goddamn if it doesn’t nail what it means to be an emotional adolescent IN LOVE. The album came out during the height of the whole screamo thing in the mid-00’s, and Casey Crescenzo (lead singer and mastermind of the project) channels a lot of that overwrought energy in Act II–but it works really well here. If I’m honest, this is the album that taught me that emo doesn’t have to be utter trash–and I’m honest. Again, there’s scarcely a hint of cliche to be found in the lyrics, even at the most tender moments, or those dealing with intense heartbreak and betrayal. “She wore a summer smile, with winter skin”, or “I was pulling out my heart, so I could pin it to my sleeve…on display for you to see, I’m on display.” Yes, very emo. But also it feels right.
The Bitter Suite 1 and 2: Meeting Ms. Leading and Through The Dime–this track takes two minutes and forty-two seconds to get to the first chorus, but every second to that point is pure fire. And the chorus is super double fire.
By now I’m hoping you’ve clicked the little arrow thingy to play some of these videos, so you should have an idea that it’s not just the lyrics and vocals that make this album so goddamn good. I touched a little on some of the unexpected instrumentation on a rock album. But it’s a progressive rock concept album, so maybe that’s not too surprising. I know the fact that there are guitars, bass, and drums on the album, isn’t. But maybe choo-choo train sounds are?
I grew up on songs that revolved around great riffs, so a strong preference for riff-based rock is sort of hard-wired into my brain…but Act II is…not that. There aren’t many standout guitar riffs on this thing, and it’s better for it. If you’d told me that before I’d ever heard the album, I’d have pointed a finger into your chest and said “fuck you, Carl, stop wasting my time”. I’m glad you didn’t do that. In fact, thank you, Carl. I love this album.
That’s not to say Act II lacks for great guitar work. It is a rock album, after all. It’s just that the guitars here (and all the other instrumentation) are almost always focused on supporting the vocals and the narrative of the story, and they rarely take center stage. There are of course exceptions. Gotta showcase those tasty guitar HOTT LIXX if you want to prove you’re legit ROCKERS, after all.
Vocals and guitars aside, the other thing that gets me about Act II is just how well everything flows. There’s not a single awkward transition to be found, and one could argue the entire album is one enormous transition. That whole choo-choo thing earlier? Perfect example. There’s a natural ebb and flow that injects a sense of life into Act II–it breathes, somehow.
The dynamics and contrast here–crucial support beams for the aforementioned flow–ensure that there’s always something interesting going on. An album of this length isn’t sustainable with anything less. Wall-of-sound rock gives way to tender, sweeping orchestral motifs, with expertly arranged harmonies serving as the anchor that bridges the gap. If you’d never heard about The Dear Hunter, and I told you about a band doing schmaltzy orchestral emo, no one would fault your skepticism. Well, someone might, but I wouldn’t. Carl.
So that’s it–that’s what it is about The Dear Hunter–Act II – The Meaning of, & All Things Regarding Ms. Leading. The melodies are novel, the harmonies are beautiful, the instrumentation will surprise you, the arrangement is dynamic, and basically the whole thing is just fucking bonkers in the best possible way. Okay, I guess this managed to turn itself into a 15-years-too-late album review. Either way, if you like your music the way you like your Jack Handey thoughts, you should check out the whole damn album, instead of just clicking around a bunch of dumb YouTube clips posted in some dumb idiot’s blog.
Oh, don’t forget–take good care of yourselves and your pets.
Let’s answer these important questions…
What the f%k is a ‘Slow Robot’?
Slow Robot is the name of my music project, and now also the name of…whatever the hell this is. 🤷🏻♂️
What’s this all about?
Well, it’s about creativity, first and foremost–specifically, analysis and critique of others’ art, and of my own art, for illustrative purposes (and the critiques will always be constructive…probably). It’s about techniques to improve musical/artistic output, from idea generation, to songwriting, arrangement, and structuring, to audio production.
But what it isn’t about is talking about “rules”, music theory, and so on. Art is subjective, and doesn’t require technical knowledge to either participate in, nor to achieve proficiency. There’s still a hell of a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t, even from a non-technical perspective.
That doesn’t mean learning music theory isn’t valuable, of course–it’s simply a different approach to making art. There are a ton of excellent resources, content creators, etc. out there to help you learn about the technical side of things.
It’s also about music, art, gear, philosophy, and anything else that’s
important to me. If there’s a great new (or old) album, an incredible movie, or
a terrible piece of software that’s worth letting people know about, that’ll
end up here too.
Why should I care?
If you’re interested in learning about how to make great music* but don’t have the time or interest to learn theory. If not, that’s cool–nobody’s going to question you for following a more traditional path to making art, if that’s your jam. Or if the idea of learning a different approach just really inflates your bounce house.
No, really, why should I care?
Okay, I think I get it now…I’ve been writing music for more than 25 years, and recording and producing music for myself (Slow Robot) and my band (The Great Mistake) for more than 20. I still don’t know much music theory, but that much time doing one thing buys a lot of knowledge on the topic. And I’m not looking to get internet famous or any such bullshit–I have a good job which I like (most of the time) that keeps a roof overhead, so you’re not going to see any clickbait, selling creativity ‘programs’, or similar weirdness. I want more people making great art, and it doesn’t make sense to hide that knowledge behind a paywall.
Bonus question: what’s next?
You can expect a gushy analysis of one of my favorite albums in the next few days. Also, Friday, Slow Robot does have a new song coming out, so that will get a brief post.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks for reading, hope y’all enjoy, and most importantly, take good care of yourselves and your pets.