02 Jan

All Tech No Brains – Little Pebble

Well…we’ve come to the end of our little revisit to my misspent youth. Only one little track left, and we can get back to more important things. Whatever those may be. 🙂 Like some of those DOSBox articles I promised so long ago…


I actually went on this little journey for a number of reasons. First, as I think I already stated, a blog is something of a painfully open little journal. And because of this, all current interests and activities are fodder. But the root cause of all of this springs from my desire to return to the world of audio. This case in particular is some self-flagellating (and induced) training on audio mastering techniques. You will admit, as I do, that I still have much to learn!


And if I had had access to software like Ardour (www.ardour.org) fifteen years ago, who knows what we would have created. Maybe nothing–maybe all the goofiness of tracking boom-boxes back and fourth through a Radio Shack mixer was a necessary part of the process.

The evening that I showed up at Tom’s house armed with the “drums” from “The Phone Bill”, I found that he had done little planning ahead too. He had been out and about that day and picked up a “Relaxation” CD from some bargain bin. It was entitled something like, “Seashore with Cello and Gulls.” It was a real thing of beauty. Over 75 unadulterated minutes of white noise for only $3.95!!! It was cheap at half the price…I mean, twice the price!

The drums distracted him initially, and in reality, after we were done with phone bill, I was ready to go. However, Tom seemed a touch put out that we had not used his new CD for anything yet.


I’m glad I stayed though, or the world might never know about being “sturdy and strong.”

There were two parts to this one. The ocean noises and…well, that part in the middle. We simply ran a microphone into a quadraverb and turned the reverb up to eleven (a major mistake when you don’t have a true monitoring system) and played the CD. Tom did what Tom always did–wrote a funny little bit and spoke with alacrity.

But, we discovered that it needed something. That certain je ne sais quoi. By this time it’s really really really early in the morning. So, we kinda went back to defaults:

  1. We randomly detuned his guitar to a truly janglely degree, put some massive distortion on my bass, and sampled about a 3 second loop into the effects processor. This loop was put on infinite repeat and fed back into the mixer with the analog synth. We rolled tape while I completely improvised some crazy “dance of the baby elephants” melody line. We just filled up a few minutes and ended the cacophony. The length didn’t matter, we knew it was going to be faded in and then back out.
  2. Next we loaded that target tape up into one of the source decks and gave Tom a mic full of tube distortion. He tracked those fateful words so rich with meaning and portent, “Suddenly, a giant octopus…”
  3. Step Three: Smile at a job well done.

With a little manual timing to start cassette players and quasi-deft hand at the faders, we mixed the two tapes together.

Now to clean this up, I followed the same procedure as before with one deviation. The source audio I sampled with the Extigy had two problems. To get a good level on the ocean waves part would cause the middle bit to clip badly and come in waaaaay too hot. The final product still has a defect on one or two of the peaks (it sounds like clipping), but unfortunately it was recorded that way; so GIGO rules apply.

The second problem stems from the fact that–back then–I was monitoring with really bad headphones two feet away from the input (Tom). I didn’t find out that the voice over was COMPLETELY UNINTELLIGIBLE until riding home in my truck that morning. I had cranked the wet/dry mix on the reverb to the place that one could barely hear what he was saying. Oh, sure, there were plenty of reverb reflections, but the words themselves where buried in them. Enough of the live sound was leaking into my headphones sitting across the table from Tom that I didn’t hear the problem going to tape until too late.

Gee…perhaps we should have invested in some real monitoring headphones?


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Ouch. Before I could post it here, I would have to fix all of this. I tried a couple of ways to treat the entire track, but didn’t get too far. So, I eventually sampled the tape into two tracks in my studio software. That way, I could apply different filters on the ocean part and the crazy part. The first part cleaned up amazingly–a dynamic expander and more than a little noise reduction killed the lion’s share of the reverb and brought the vocal back to the front of the mix.

The crazy octopus part was more labor-intensive. I created a custom volume envelope for each peak so that I could automate “ducking” the bad spots. Then I compressed it and equalized the fire out of it.

Mixing these two tracks back together, I nudged the waveforms around a little which probably shortened the length some, but no biggie. I think I learned more about mastering with this one then I did on the others. Have a listen and tell me if you disagree.

Title: Little Pebble
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: Self-Help Tapes

Ok, that is all. However, not a final all. My brother Brad gave me one of our old band’s “professional” tapes. It sounded horrible. I intend to remaster all eight songs as a favor for him. Of these I may post a sample as a before and after with screen shots on the entire process.

We’ll see how it turns out. Until then, thanks for stopping by, see you soon!