After a year away from doing any actual running due to a gammy foot, I focused my efforts on coaching others to run. And on making music. Now that the dust has settled and the album is out in the wild, I thought I’d introduce “The Digital Delusion” and talk a little about each of the tracks.
If you want to hear the album, best way to find it on a service you use is by following this link. (If you don’t use a streaming service, pick the Bandcamp link.)
Preface to the album
Many things happened in 2021 when I was writing the album. The big obvious one was the ongoing elephant in the room that is COVID-19. In many ways the pandemic affected me less during this period of writing because for the most part the UK was coming out of the various lockdowns that had been happening since the spring of 2020. As such my day job was already getting busy again after an 8 month hiatus and whilst things were far from ‘normal’ I was no longer sat around feeling like a spare part, which is where I found myself with writing the previous album.
I’d already had some ideas about writing about the distortion of facts within digital media (for the purpose of agenda, propaganda and profit). Initially I had the concepts of Dark & Light for the album. As if that hasn’t been done by everyone before me!!!!!
Midway through the album I experienced a much more personal impact of digital life on my real life and whilst this initially side-swiped me off my musical feet and into quite a deep writer’s-block, it ultimately gave me focus to try to finish the album.
Much of the new material fulfilled the ‘Dark’ concept and eventually I just went with that and shelved the ‘Light’ concept altogether. It was a weird turn of events; despite having had writer’s block I found myself intentionally leaving out material as it didn’t fit into the project.
Finding the right artwork is always a challenge when you don’t have the skills to create it from scratch. I liked the idea of a picture of destruction but when viewed through a smartphone screen it was distorted into looking like everything was OK. i.e. the digital media showing something that wasn’t the truth. The first attempt involved manipulating a photo of a flooded tube station. Whilst it looked OK, it ended up as more surrealist than I intended. And after adding a canal barge to the scene it was scrapped.
And then I found an artwork by a digital creator that was available for commercial use. Plus the original photograph elsewhere. Which mean that I could create a montage with the combination of the photos. It was definitely a feeling of ‘that’s the one’ as soon as I had assembled it.
Unlike previous releases I wanted The Digital Delusion to be fully visual as well. As such I created videos for each of the tracks – a job that I really underestimated how long that would take! But whilst snippets of those videos were used on the live premiere release, they will each be released onto my YouTube channel in their own time. Otherwise nothing will appear on there until I finish the next project!
The album opener is also the first track completed for the album. There’s something both refreshing and terrifying about finishing an album in that you’re starting from scratch. Great to have something new to play with. But scary that you’re starting again and the fear that inspiration may not be forthcoming.
Most of my tracks are recorded using software-based synths on my iPad. but I have two hardware synths; my old Casio CZ-101 from the 1980s, plus a Behringer clone of the famous minimoog, called a Model D. Having a physic box with buttons and knobs that you can turn makes learning subtractive synthesis much more intuitive as you can see the effect on the sound based on what you’re doing. It’s much harder to get a feel for it when you’re trying to turn virtual knobs by touching the screen of the iPad. the downside is that you can’t save the sounds you’ve created. Aside from taking a photo of the exact positions of each knob!
I decided I wanted to try to create a full track just using the Model D as a sound-source. So every note, every drum sound, everything, had to be created from scratch. I surprised myself how quickly I worked out a) what I wanted, and then b) how to make it happen. And the track came together pretty quickly. Each section of the song was recorded and then assembled and mixed.
Cool for April
I was introduced to internet-based Software Defined Radio via an app called WebSDR. Essentially the SDR software allows radio broadcasts to be made, and the framework allows anyone to listen. We’re not just talking commercial radio though, this also winds into the world of HAM radios, CB etc. i.e. normal people talking to each other across the airwaves. Which is, in itself, a bit strange in the era of mobile phones. However there’s also military broadcasts (often encrypted) and machines bleeping morse code at each other too.
Until this point I’d not really worked with sampling or audio files, but I was interested in using speech or at least some words in a track (The Orb’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ being a big inspiration on me). The problem with live SDR is also its strength; you have no idea what, if anything, you’re going to find. So when I happened upon a conversation between two Brits talking about the weather (yes it’s true, we are obsessed by the weather in the UK) I couldn’t believe my luck.
Initially I had no idea how I was going to use this snippet of gold, but another session with a sound from the Model D, sequenced by the iPad created ‘Cool for April’, just a week after finishing Hardwired. So the two opening tracks to The Digital Delusion were actually the first two to be completed. That wasn’t intentional, but having tried multiple running orders this one felt the best.
My initial pop-music learnings all came from the 1980s. Which was a great period for music. However I was becoming a like irked whenever I wrote something and the community feedback was ‘wow, love the 1980s’. Even when I was trying to not do Synthwave! A good friend from the music community, Russ, spent the 1990s actually releasing dance records and that inspired me to try to create something from that decade. Whilst I was never really into dance or techno back in the day, I do like a bit of trance-music and so decided to try to create something in that style. It felt a bit strange straying out of my usual musical style, which actually has its roots from Jarre, Vangelis, Glass plus the 1980s pop music I grew up with. But I trusted the process I was following to create the track and it definitely had the right vibe.
There’s always one track that has a stupid working title until the final stretch of album production. I started a track wanting to use a very experimental synth called Aparillo as a base, but somewhere along the way the synth was dropped. So calling it ‘Aparillo’ didn’t make sense. Instead it became ‘Arpadillo’ because, well, why not!
The piece was a conceptional one. I wanted a big synth intro, followed by something more guitar driven. Culminating in something else. It was heavily story-boarded……. NOT! The dissonant synths at the beginning were designed to create a foreboding soundscape and the plucked sounds were very much inspired by Vangelis. The middle section is much more rock oriented and ultimately giving that Dark/Light atmosphere that the album was initially following. It’s no real surprise now that it would eventually get a name that would call back to that of the album.
It’s also the longest track on the album at over 6 minutes long.
Release (Flight of the ‘cello)
As previously mentioned, I had the idea of darkness vs light running through the album. I had two tracks (Springtime and Flight of the ‘cello (FOTC)) that were labelled as light. Mostly because they were classical or partly-so. They were all based around the incredible SWAM ‘Cello instrument developed by Audio Modelling.
As the album progressed the dark bits seemed to be heavily outnumbering the light ones and whilst the last two albums both had a classical track included, it quickly became apparent that they just didn’t sit with the rest of the album. I knew they wanted to be part of a trio of tracks but despite adding the third part (The Dream), it wasn’t working for me.
Ironically the trio moved to the dark side. When I put them together as the EP “The Fall & Rise of Reginald Fox” they tell a tale of life, death and after-death. Springtime was renamed “A life well lived” (Life), The Dream became “The deepest Sleep” (Death) and FOTC became “Release”. Except that because I’d been using FOTC everywhere, the original name never went away!
Despite having their own EP, I couldn’t imagine the album not having “Release” on it. It’s definitely more prog-rock than classical and it rounds off side 1 of the (fictional) LP rather majestically.
During the summer there was an upset online which knocked my creativity into the ground. I’d started on a track which would eventually become R.T.C. but I was left staring at 8 bars of music for well over a month without progress.
Some time later, I was still processing the anger that I felt following all that had gone on and started trying to find a way to express those feelings. WebSDR was fired up and amongst the radio noise I found a passive-aggressive man, someone talking about someone else but trying (badly) to avoid spilling detail plus a whole host of other random chatter. Coupled with a digital talkbox from one of Korg’s legacy synths and a whole pile of noise samples I’d created with some of my more esoteric synths, Broken Connections was born.
What was weird in retrospect was the way that the track mirrored some of what had occurred in real life. It’s very subtle and you’d have to know all the detail to be able to spot them. But it did the job and allowed me to process the noise that was created in my head and get it out. I see the track as being quite angry, and the accompanying video reflects this.
If Broken Connections is the angry track, Red Lines is the chill track to follow. Initially it started out as a mess around with a strange sequencer called ‘Fugue Machine’ which takes one line of midi data and interprets it in 4 different ways simultaneously. With the right synths and sequences, the result can be mesmerising. Having created a lush base this way, I then built the track into something much more cohesive. I had Tangerine Dream in mind when I was creating this, with an almost trance-like rhythm underpinning the piece.
Red Lines was the last track to be completed for the album and was written really as an answer to Broken Connections which was finished immediately before it.
I’d never used any Korg synths in my tracks due to the fact they don’t really play well with the rest of the iOS synths. It is doable but it was only buy buying into the Korg Gadget ecosystem that I actually managed to create something that was anything beyond a few noises.
The initial track began at the start of the summer but quickly ran out of steam due to the nonsense going on around me. It was a project that I picked up every day, listened to the 8 bars I’d created and then put back down again. I’m not sure quite where the breakthrough was, but from being 8 bars long it was suddenly a sprawl of nearly 6 minutes. I asked Jade to do an initial master and whilst I was broadly happy with the track, it just wasn’t the finished article (I hate submitting a master if it’s not finished, but sometimes I need to get it out for an initial airing for comment and to really gather my thoughts).
The problem was that it went on a bit and didn’t seem to have any direction. WebSDR was fired up for some inspiration and before-long I was listening to two US guys talking about tanker collisions. I mean you cannot make this stuff up! What sealed the deal for me was that one of them was describing an explosion and made a strange “bang” sound with his voice which I loved, but it just wasn’t right.
Meanwhile, on YouTube, there’s a music-community channel hosted by the Metal Head Hippie. His catchphrase is ‘Boom’. A couple of conversations with him followed by a bit of sampling and suddenly the audio came to life and the track was working.
Fun fact, R.T.C. was original called Tanker Fire. But I didn’t like that as a song title so went with the UK Police term for a traffic collision instead.
Despite actively trying to avoid like 1980-something on the album there has been a big resurgence in “Synthwave” music – i.e. 1980s synth music – within the various YouTube music communities. With seemingly everyone else dropping a Synthwave track it really felt like a time to say ‘hold my beer….’ given that’s the style that I seem to write in if I don’t actively avoid it!
Synthwaverley is a play on two aspects; Synthwave obviously is one, but the two synths used to build the track were Synthmaster Player and Waverley XL. So it’s a bit of a tribute track to Rob Jackson, the developer of Waverley.
It was written as an afterthought having spent most of the week trying to curate Digital Delusions into something that made sense and honestly it didn’t get a lot of thought as I was occupied with the other track. But others seemed to like the track so it was kept in the folder of ideas for the new album and ultimately made it.
In the same week of trying to write 1990s trance music, I decided to have a go at doing a more mainstream 1990s dance track. I studied a number of different tracks I knew and worked out what I’m told is a fairly standard formula for such tracks. Both went off to Jade for mastering at the same time but Carousel just didn’t quite work for me as I listened back to it. Strange given I’d been listening to it all week!
I added an extra synth line in the pre-chorus and found some royalty-free vocal clips that had been distributed on a magazine at some time in the past. Amazingly the clips I liked were in the same key as the track so I didn’t need to do any manipulation. Adding the extra bits and then returning the track for mastering made all the difference and it actually felt like a legitimate dance track, rather than someone trying to imitate the vibe of one!