Made in Renoise with a Monologue sample, the same Cheetah drumkit I used for BattleMETAL, and an Ob-Xd. Mastered in Reason.
I wrote the melody in Reason (sequenced on some ABL-3s, played on Manis Iteritas), exported each measure as a separate file, then imported them all into Renoise and painstakingly sequenced them back in order so I could write drums on top. Then I exported the tracks, put the drums back into Reason, and finished the track. This took quite a bit of time but the results speak for themselves.
Sequenced entirely in reason, with mouse-edited drums and mostly ABL-3’d synths (starring the TAL-Bassline 101).
ABL-3s driving Manis Iteritas again, except this time the sequences where random! I let the machines go and automated the whole thing in one epic train ride into Boston.
MELT is an anthology, and as such each track is pretty distinctive. It really pays to listen to each track closely here, as each individual artist has done a lot to make tracks memorable. The overall impression is an IDM treat with lots of delicious drum machine rolls and synths you can really sink your teeth into.
Dracul starts off the album on a strong note with metallic beats and an iconic synth melody.
This track has a couple of particularly well-executed change-up. It plays in a bunch of space that you usually wouldn’t hear in an IDM track. Lots of different sounds playing short sections of a melody in turn, chopped vocals, and other excitement.
Not only is this track great, but it introduced me to Iconic Black Suit who has a deep catalog, including Bionic Eyes Won’t Cry.
Ridebreak absolutely nails the Hangable Auto Bulb drums, but just as you think that’s all it’s going to be, it launches into this awesome soaring videogamey melody that carries the rest of the track. It took me a few listens to get into it.
BattleMETAL, the big-stompy-robot game was recently (finally) released! It’s been in development for quite a while now, and most of my involvement (beyond repeated testing and sharing opinions about gameplay) has been doing the soundtrack, so here are some fun behind the scenes facts. I wrote these tracks between 2016 and 2019 starting with Predator and ending with The Matock. Unless otherwise noted, I did the tracks in Reason.
This is probably the best track on here, owing to something resembling a coherent melody. Sort of reminds me of something The Knife would write (not that it’s as good as theirs!) That line is one of the few places where I actually used a bitcrusher… under all of that, it’s a u-he Tyrell. I never did get that synth to work properly in linux, and you have to download it from a German magazine to get it, but it’s nice. The rest (and by that I mean the phaser’d Monopoly, the default synth for this project) are heavily influenced by Frank Klepacki’s classic Bigfoot.
This track was written in a fairly meandering way, I had a pretty good idea the opening (the initial delay’d up drumbeat and bass) and ended up just sort of adding pads and sequences to the end of it until it was long enough. The lack of music theory really shows on this one. Like most of the tracks here, it uses Cheetah MD16 samples and (believe it or not) the 3rd demo preset for Reason’s builtin convolution reverb.
This is my first attempt at a synthwave track (if you don’t count Conniver, which I don’t, because that was more of an industrial thing.) There are a lot of preset arps going on here, and it’s the only track that isn’t using the signature drum palette. A version got re-purposed from its original form to serve as the trailer track when BattleMETAL was in its early stages (complete with samples of the EarthSiege trailer boasting of “Exquisite Texture Mapping.”)
I know this track isn’t the most musically challenging, but I actually still find it pretty compelling. It’s one of the early ones. The lead is a Charlatan, which was one of the synths I was most excited to explore when Reason finally added VST support. You can hear me tweak the settings over the course of the track-I love doing that sort of thing. Unfortunately, this was the only track I’ve managed to complete with the synth, because it keeps crashing now. For the pad, which I think I did an especially good job on, I used eXpanse which was the first wavetable synth available in Reason as a Rack Extension (about a year before we got VST support) and enabled a whole new world of sound design for us Reason diehards.
One of the more recent tracks. It’s using Viking for the bass again (which means, oddly, it sometimes skips a beat… listen for it, you’ll hear it in Predator too) but reflects my newfound confidence in making melodies in step sequencers. In fact, I think I did most of the sequencing in this track with the ABL3. The funky sequence that comes in at the end is especially fun. The Balakett is all about speed and the Monitor is all about raw power, to win with the Matock you need to dance. I also want to call out the ES-01 rack extension as an extremely underrated and great sounding softsynth. Love that thing.
I’d like to say that the lack of a melody in this track is meant to reflect the soulless nature of the PSC character and its total monomania around the extinction of the planet, but then I’d be giving myself way too much credit. This track is “meh” and I should feel “meh” about writing it.
The patch for this started out as the “Acres Of Glass” preset for Europa. I’ll always enjoy tracks that are just me playing chords for five minutes, really puts you in a good place, even if the chords are gloomy. The voice talents here include Pete (“Punching out!”), Sabrina, The Conet Project, and Techno Ejay (if you can find that one, I owe you a cookie.)
The Balakett (Bonus, so no embed apparently)
This didn’t make it into the game, so it stays as a bonus track. It’s also the only track I made with Renoise (you can probably tell from the drum wankery in the middle.) It was intended for the post-mission screen, but it’s altogether too cheerful for the apocalyptic tone of BattleMETAL. It’s using the ob-xd synth, which I’ve found to be excellent. Also, in classic Renoise beginner fashion, it ends with an extra block of the last note just stretched out forever. oops.
Overall, the experience was a fun one, and I expect I’ll do something similar again someday.
End of the decade which we never did agree on a good name for. Time for some reminiscing through the lens of music! A millennial coming of age story.
2010: Arcade Fire – Deep Blue
One of the first bands I learned about from friends in college. One of the first albums I burned to a disc and blasted while driving around on my own for the first time. When I feel like listening to a single song from it, more and more I’ve been drawn to this track. I think it shows off the melancholy and nostalgia of the record best. Arcade fire often sings like something very bad is about to happen, and this track is a great example.
2011: Power Glove – Nightforce
While the EP was released in 2013, this track was definitely out in 2011. It was my introduction to the neon-drenched world of Synthwave, and really holds up in a way that I’m not sure a lot of early Synthwave does as far as production goes.
2012: Carpenter Brut – Escape from Midwitch Valley
For me, this is what took Synthwave to the next level. The EDM/Dubstep noises, including that heavy bass, made it feel fresh while staying in the realm of retro. I ended up seeing Carpenter Brut in concert in Cambridge at some point, and it was a wild show. The first three EPs by CB are a different style though – more studio-y, less band-y. Notice the use of samples in this and the Power Glove track.
2013: Megadrive – I Am The Program
I was well into Synthwave at this point, so in this period I was listening to a lot of Mega Drive et al. I probably spin 198XAD more, but that was partly informed by how much I listened to Mega Drive in 2013! However, after I graduated and found myself in a quiet office and needing more tracks to spin, I found myself reaching out to find something new.
2014: Aphex Twin – XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)
I got into Aphex Twin shortly before this record was announced.* His cannon was established and all we could hope for where maybe old tracks (like Caustic Window) being dropped someday. 2007 was the end date, the pinnacle of the artist’s career. So imagine the hype when you’re not only getting into IDM but now the big name is going to drop something new and bizarre? The hype was matched only by how good the actual record was. The whole thing is brilliant, but when I reach for one that exemplifies it, I tend to pick Xmas Event. The way it progresses through different melodies and moods really shows off RDJ’s skill as a composer.
2015: Squarepusher – Exjag Nives
Squarepusher spent most of the ’10s mixing modern EDM electro and dubstep sounds into his jazzy dnb. Some of it can be challenging to listen to, but in Exjag Nives he hits it way out of the park. The intricate layers over a simple melody, the epic feel, and of course the really cool use of breaks (befitting a longtime break-master like Squarepusher) make this track stand out over similar works. Also, 2015 is when I started my ongoing game project, flythrough.space, though I didn’t publicly post about it until 2019. I started the thing with babel so I could use ES6, but now browsers have caught up. How long is too long for a dream?
Back in 2015, Aphex started posting a bunch of tracks on Soundcloud. Like crazy IDM dominoes, this brought people out of the woodwork to post there too, and that continued for a while afterward. One account that ended up getting posted on WATMM threads was one Brainwaltzera, and that’s where I heard this absolute gem of a track. It’s emotional and quiet and enigmatic without sacrificing the cool factor of a big fat synth line cutting right through the middle of it. 2016 was an exhausting year, and this was the perfect track to unwind to.
2017: Rognvald – R.O.G.N.V.A.L.D
I’ve been listening to Jungle/DnB since I was introduced to Pendulum back in the 00s, so this tickled my fancy. It’s got less of a modern Methlab type sensibility though, and more of an IDM sensibility. Plus it just jams really, really hard. It was a favorite for spinning at the gym back when I would walk all of the way from the Kew office in Cambridge on the river to Watertown. A few times I even walked all of the way home to Brookline. We took one last walk there, up down Beacon street, all the way from Cambridge, through Boston, to Brookline. It was bittersweet.
2018: The Sword – Deadly Nightshade
This one takes me back to making night trips from our apartment, carrying a wagon-full of stuff down to Millis when we left the city. I spun this in the car and even one time in a U-Haul Pickup which had bluetooth and a speed governor of some sort. Sabrina surprised me by driving us down to a concert by these guys without saying who was playing. They absolutely rocked it!
Bonus: 2018 is when I released Axe Factory, here’s my favorite track from that:
2019: Ruby My Dear – Babil (Alternate Take)
This is one of my most played tracks of 2019, and with good reason. After an ep of mostly spooky ambience and the occasional jump scare, this track takes you for a ride with its driving bass almost immediately. When selecting a track for 2019 though, I found myself asking “what did Analogical force release this year? Analogical force has been absolutely killing it with a string of releases in ’18, ’19, and now even one in ’20. The same can be said for Ruby, My Dear – top notch stuff on Altair and Basic as well as Phlgem. This track is heavy and dancable, but contains plenty of the fiddly little details that I love so much, so I’d call it my overall pick from RMD’s ’19 releases. Maybe the focus on labels and artists I already know is a sign that I’m becoming set in my ways, that I’ve narrowed my focus to variations on similar themes. I sure hope not. Happy new year!
* my first exposure was Flim as used by the WNPR show Where We Live. I probably watched CTD and Windowlicker when I googled that, but those didn’t make such a big impression. That would have been sometime in the early 00s, so out of scope for this article! I listened to WNPR quite a bit back then so it was deeply embedded in my head. I’m sad to hear that John Dankowski recently left the station.
We’ve now had synthwave for longer than the 80s actually lasted, so it’s fitting that MegaDrive’s latest release looks a bit further forward into the past. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed MegaDrive’s ascent into ever-denser industrial depravity, but the sound is a bit different this time around-lusher, brighter, and more of a mechanical edge.
Some tracks are specific callous to moments in ‘8X though-the abrupt drop from Operator into Gun Hag recalls the drop from Infiltration into Acid Spit (still one of the top five drops in Retrowave.) Unlike Acid Spit, though, Gun Hag keeps on delivering after the shock of the initial drop wears off-the melodic section really carries it’s weight here.
I could swear that H.exe is The Reducer but with more of a pluck sound and a more progressive beat.
The most 90s-flavored track has got to be SKULJammer, which hits hard with orchestra hit samples (think Mortal Kombat) over a blend of glassy pop synths and distorted beats. And like several other tracks, it challenges you to play “synth or guitar” as the heavy sounds come in.
Another callback is Crypt Diver, which has elements of Memory Dealer, but replaces the utter darkness of the latter with an almost chiptuney swagger, and a very cool glitchy breakdown at the end.
What stands out most is the way MegaDrive chooses to end each track. Rather than a period-accurate fade-out, here he opts more often for a twist ending, changing up the beat and making you listen all the way to the end every time, in a way that few dance tracks (most synthwave included) do.