I record and release ambient music as Under Shaded Trees.
I recorded this EP in early 2023. While writing I landed on some common motifs - Morse-code like beeps and call and response patterns. In my mind, these came to represent the short messages we send to one another everyday and how these messages help maintain relationships and form new ones.
On a trip to the Science Museum in London I discovered the new information age gallery and an exhibit about the very first trans-Atlantic telegraph (which became operational in 1858). The gallery inspired the EP’s title and track names.
Each track was recorded quite quickly. I have a young family so my music making sessions tend to happen after the kids are in bed, between 8pm and 11pm or so (I’m not really a night person). Each track was usually completed in one or two sessions. In the first session I composed the track, and often recorded a quick performance. I’d then listen to this performance the next day as I travelled to work and then in the second session recorded some more performances until I got a take I was pleased with. I recorded all the performances as single stereo tracks.
The project was based around a small setup of an Elektron Digitakt, a Vermona Mono Lancet and a monome norns shield. Right at the start, I created a sample library of droning oscillator sounds using VCV Rack and the Instruo modules. Depending on the track I then recorded additional samples from the Lancet or I added acoustic instruments. I liked the idea of having a “pallete” of sounds to draw from to try to give all the tracks in the project a coherence.
I used a small mixer to submix the Lancet and a microphone into the Digitakt’s inputs. I used the Digitakt to mix those external sounds and its own 8 tracks. The Digitakt provided delay and reverb. The norns shield was connected to the Digitakt over USB, and I configured the norns to use the Digitakt as its sound card. This really improved the noise performance of my norns shield, particularly when sampling into it.
Here’s a diagram:
At the beginning of the project I enjoyed the sound when I recorded but I was very disappointed when I listened back. I think this might be something to do with how good the headphone output of the Digitakt sounds compared to recording the outs of the Digitakt via my interface. I watched a couple of YouTube videos on mastering and developed a simple rough mastering chain in Reaper that I could apply to each recording (specifically Arturia’s Tape MELLO-FI tape simulator, followed by Geraint’s Spectrum Matcher plugin to quickly EQ the track to match a reference and then a limiter). This dramatically improved how my recordings sounded on earbuds the next day and gave me a lot more confidence to continue.
I recorded around 15 tracks this way over the course of about 6 weeks. I then culled them down to 7 that I’ve included on the EP. I booked a few hours at Pirate studios in Camden to give them a final mix over speakers in a decently-treated room. I sent them to the lovely Al Gold at quiet details studios and they came back sounding better than I deserve. Thanks mate!
I used ambalek’s fall script to generate the high and low notes (from a D major pentatonic scale). I also sampled the sounds into the Digitakt and processed them to create the melodic instruments. The call and response across the stereo field stuck with me and started me thinking about the theme for the whole project. I enjoyed created the wavering higher melodic notes that arrives later in the track using the Digitakt’s LFOs to modulate the pitch and amplitude of a looping triangle-based drone. This one came together in a single session.
I modified the awake script to use a custom supercollider engine I made that wraps the Mutable Instruments Rings UGen. Gradually changing the probability of notes playing gives some variation to the melody, and I used some piano samples to create most of the rest of the textures.
The bed of this track was created by recording loops of various samples and Lancet sounds into the oooooo script, modulating the panning and amplitude with the LFOs and then recording the result to the norns tape for a few minutes. I then played the tape back through the otis script to add some noise, flips and skips.
A technique I learned from Jogging House’s wonderful Patreon videos is to assign the same sample to several tracks of the Digitakt. By adjusting the pitch of each track and applying some subtle variations in panning, filtering and so on you can create an “instrument” to play. I used this technique to resample the melodic line, and also to improvise some occasional notes during the performance of the track.
I sequenced the Lancent using one of the Digitakt’s MIDI tracks and tweaked some knobs during the performance for some additional bass variation.
The brushed snare sound in this track comes from the Vermona Lancet. Having a noise option for oscillator 2 is very handy. There’s a little bit of my awake/rings norns script in the background. The “trumpet”-like sound was created from a saw-tooth sample on the Digitakt, I love how versitile its envelopes and filters are.
I wrote most of this track on a long train ride using just the Digitakt. The power on the train would occasionally disconnet and reboot the ‘takt. A battery pack would be nice. I added some fall and a field recording when I got home.
I probably over-cooked the bass on this one, but Al did a great repair-job on it. I was keen to save it because I do like the little sine-wave melody/beep that comes in after a minute or so. For the pad sounds I routed a couple of Digitakt tracks directly to the reverb and not the main out. I wish the ‘takt had pre-fader send option.
This was one of the first tracks I wrote in this project and I didn’t keep very good notes. It sounded like an “end of EP” track somehow, so here it is.