The very first track of Color Sky, Dusty Road, is actually a remake of a much older piece I made back in 2005. Back then I was using only physical hardware to make sounds. Here’s what I had:
- My 700mhz PC
- A copy of Cubase SE
- A Korg microKorg
- A Korg ES-1 drum machine
The original Dusty Road was pretty ambitious for me at the time. Up to that point, most of my music was very ambient and abstract. Part of that was because I was really into ambient music at the time, but mostly it was because I had zero understanding of music theory and couldn’t play the keyboard to save my life. Abstract ambient music was simply easier to make.
So anyway, 2005 was the year I really started moving out of my comfort zone. I starting writing more complex pieces, with real structure, melodic lines, and some very basic chords. Dusty Road was one of the first of these. Here it is in all of its amateur glory. Be gentle; this is its first time:
In this article, I’m going to pick apart this track and point out the amateur mistakes I made and what things I could have done better. I’ll also point out what was neat about it and why it was worth remaking. In Part 2, once the album is released, I’ll talk about exactly what I did to change and improve the concept in the remake. Let’s get started!
First and most obvious problem – Way too repetitive in the beginning
For well over a minute (0:00 to 1:18) the track repeats the same 4-bar pattern with very little variation. Everyone who listened to the track said the same thing: that first part is extremely boring. For one thing, the main sonar-thing melody has no context. What do I mean by that? A melody on its own can be decent, but a melody backed by chords can be extremely powerful. The chords provide context. Later in the track, when the main melody is backed by some backup pads, (1:58), it sounds much better.
Anyway, this dullness in the first part of the song could’ve been fixed by shortening the section, adding more instruments to give context, or replacing a good chunk of it with a new part.
Problem – That first drum part is mechanical and unsatisfying
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sounding like a drum machine, but the drum part here really needs some depth and panache. More layers or some delay might have helped. Minimizing it or downplaying it would be another valid approach.
Problem – synth melody is just slightly too indistinct
The main melody is played by a synth that sounds kind of like a sonar ping that I programmed myself in to the microKorg. It’s a great sound, but it doesn’t release quickly enough. When the note is played, it goes on for too long. The consequence of this is that when lots of notes play at once, they kind of muddle together in an indistinct mess. Simply shortening its release time would’ve solved this.
Problem – Rock drums at 2:13 don’t match the frequency range of the previous drum part
This is a subtle thing, but failing at it can leave your listeners with a sense of being underwhelmed. The drum part in the first half of the song may have sounded mechanical, but it was bright and crisp in a satisfying way. The sound hits the higher frequencies of human hearing.
In order to make a musical piece sound nice and full and satisfying, you need to hit pretty much the entire frequency spectrum, from deep basses to the sharp, snappy sounds of cymbals and shakers. This is why orchestras sound so powerful (the entire orchestra has an absolutely massive frequency range, covered with extreme granularity) and why rock bands need so little to sound awesome (bass, guitar, drums and vocals pretty much cover the entire spectrum by themselves).
So what does this have to do with Dusty Road’s transition to rock drums at 2:13? You may have already figured this out. They don’t even come close to hitting the higher pitches like the previous drum part. What was meant to be a cool, surprising transition to a different style becomes kind of flimsy and underwhelming. Those drums should have come out swinging, with a big splash to announce their entrance. The track recovers from it, but that initial impact I was going for was lost.
If you’re replacing one part with another and trying to give the new part a dramatic entrance, make sure it matches or eclipses the previous part in terms of frequency range.
Problem – Overall lack of depth
I didn’t really know much about chords back when I made this track, and the track suffers for it. The main melody works pretty well, but there’s just not enough surrounding it to do it justice. Like most of my early efforts, and most amateur music in general, it’s just begging for a richer sonic palette. When you’re just starting out, it takes an enormous amount of effort just to get a couple instruments sounding good. Practice more and more, though, and adding lots of instruments gets easier. My method these days is often to add lots of instruments and then take things away till I like the sound.
Strength – That melody is actually pretty cool
The strength and dreamlike quality of the front runner melody (first appears at 1:42) is the reason I chose to remake the piece for Color Sky. Of all the music I’ve written, it’s still one of my favorite melodies. Even after almost ten years I still get it stuck in my head every now and then. Also notice how the first sonar melody and the main sonar melody complement each other.
Strength – Those rock drums
Despite its rather flaccid entrance, I really like the concept of the rock drum part. With all that reverb, ample delay, and deliberate compression, they sound huge, which is just what I was going for. To me they are the defining element of the whole piece.
So what did I do in the remake to implement the concept better? You’ll have to wait till December 8th, when I release the whole album. I’ll post part 2 of this article as well, where I analyze the new version.