Thursday, September 17, 2009

Track One: “THE MUSIC BOX”

Day one on the Music Box number.

I lerrrvvv this song by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. I heard it in a movie years ago and burst into tears about halfway through. It didn't hurt that it was also sung by one of my all time favorite singers, Liz Callaway. 

The thing with this arrangement is because of the movie it was in- the arrangement served more the movie’s dramatic‘montage’ instead of it’s own natural musical line.  It had a rather robust swell in the middle, that’s always struck me as too much too early when just listening to the song alone. My hope is to create an arrangement that serves the song instead- with the swell creeping in, twice instead of once. ‘Earning’ the final climax as opposed to just hitting you between the eyes too early on.

I’m working on this number first because it will possibly be one of the most layered tracks on the album. It’s a ‘memory’ piece and so I can afford to use more synth,  less acoustic, reverb the crap out of it and get away with it not sounding like ass?


While I’ve said it before…

I’ll say it again.

Crappy synth sounds make me throw up a little bit in my mouth. They’re not my favorite thing on a CD and I really despise them in orchestra pits. 

And mine are not awesome.

Not at all.

This has to be addressed because I refuse for my CD to sound like a demo.*

*Demos are CDs of songs that composers put together and then use to shop their show around. I guess I probably record upwards of 15-20 demos a year, and they’re almost always completely synthed.  Even the piano, making the synthed demo a double-edged sword, I think.  On the one hand, it allows potential producers to ‘hear’ what the score might  sound like all fleshed out orchestrally. And that’s good. On the other hand, it screams “I HAVE NO MONEY!” Which is of course is obviously the reason you have a demo in the first place but… as you inevitably can’t avoid that cheap after taste kinda stank in your mouth that bad synths leave…not good.



New main goal.

Avoid the ‘demo factor’ at all costs.

Question is how?

Here are my options for the synthed string situation.

1) Get the Orchestra Jam Pack for MAC ($100)-

Sounds good in theory but when I read the customer reports on it there were a lot of people complaining about the fact that it doesn’t have solo instruments. At least not violin and cello which is really what I need. So, a good idea but not good enough for my budget. 

2) Try to see if my acoustic accordion can be used and finessed through garage band to sound like a cello or a bass (pretty likely).

3) Try to see if my acoustic flute can be used and finessed through garaged band to sound like a violin (less likely).

4) Try to see if I can get my boyfriend to hum cello lines, I can trying humming for upper strings and just finesse the crap out of them?

5) Experiment with patches within garage band that sound more like strings than the string patches. Sounds crazy, but already I’m making headway on this idea. According to Todd Almond (resident Garage Band expert extraordinaire) ‘shimmering flute’ sounds pretty close to a cello when played really low and finessed.

6) Try to bury the synthed strings and avoid chords altogether. I find if you just play one note or clean octaves instead of chords in the string patches and then bury them within the mix…they actually don’t sound so bad. They actually sound....dare i say it...good?

7) Call in a favor with my two buddies from Sweeney Todd (Lauren Molina (cello) and Jessica Wright (violin)) and see if they won’t do a sistah a solid. I would definitely have to use acoustic strings for exposed lines that were not merely holding up another chord. That's a given. If I can't get solo lines acoustically then i won't do them at all.

8) Shoot myself in the head.

So with that all in mind…

Let’s dive into THE MUSIC BOX song.

My plan is for it so start with a music box sound…go on a journey…fill it up in the middle with richer sounds…and then come back to the music sound. As if opening the music box releases a memory, takes you to another place-and then when the song winds down, the memory disappears along with it and you’re back where you started.

That’s my goal anyway.

She said, optimistically.

I start with the obvious ‘music box’ patch in garage band.

Oh dear sweet baby Jesus…that’s HORRIBLE.


It sounds remarkably NOTHING like a music box but more like one of those heinous ‘jack in the box’ things. But all busted and shit. Like it got run over by a truck or something. And then set on fire. And then run over by another truck.


Not an option.

I need a much sweeter sound.

I start investigating other patch categories.

I look for a celeste patch in 'keyboards'. No.

I look for a harpsichord patch I can soften up. No.

How about a ‘pingy’ piano sound way up high? No.

“Synth” sounds? No



No xylophone or glock patch but I do find “Chimes”.



I lay down the main track in chimes.

So far so good.

Then I copy that track and put it in another track underneath it in a guitar patch of ‘steel strings’.


It takes the edge off the chimes, which are really great but after awhile seem to ‘wear’ on the ear a bit. I make a note to try and take them out all together once the songs gets going and let the steel strings take over in the middle.


Now I layer in some climbing strings.


Fucking synthed strings.

I bring them waaaaaayyyyyyyyyyy down in the mix.


I take some reverb out.

Even better.

For the center of the song….i bring in another line of strings but down in the bottom for a nice full feel. Like cello and stand-up bass low. Too much? Don’t know yet.

I listen back to what I have.


Not bad but…not great yet.

The main thing that bugs me is that there are multiple key changes in this thing…and this is where the synthed strings really sound shitty. When a live person is playing a string and there's a juicy modulation up, they'll really play into that new key. They'll nudge it almost, with their bows. I've just got an awkward 'wah/space/wah' thing happening and it won't do at all.

I need to mask these key changes and smooth them out.

I look into the ‘synth’ patches which can get all crazy and fun. We’re talking stuff that sounds like lasers, or aliens, or whatever. I find a patch called “Itzmar Ambience”. I have no idea what that means but it’s awesomely creepy with a nice sort of ‘waaaaahhhhHHHHHhhhhaaa’ effect. I try to use it to cover my key changes and it’s actually really cool. It certainly does the trick of masking the modulating strings but make a note to ask Andy (the bf) if he thinks it’s too X Files-y for a 'music box' number.


Head getting fuzzy.

Almost four hours have gone by in what seems like five minutes. It's almost 3am. That's just nutty. I listen to what I have so far.

I like it.

It’s on the way to being where I might even love it someday.

But it’s time for bed.

I will attack it again tomorrow with fresher ears and eyes.

Until then… g’night my lovelies.




Michael McLean.
Hooray for the wonder that is the blog world and random Google searches.

MIA file officially closed.



Thank you so much to everyone who helped put me in touch with EVERY composer and lyricist on my list save one:


(I have tried to get in touch with him via his website but to no avail)

Anyone with any ideas or possible leads on this guy?

Please let me know.