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Dog Spiral Essay

My obsession for a very long time has been to do things live, or all at once, so to speak. At the end of the day, however, the average DOT track is over 100 channels of meticulous overdubs and edits— I’m often proud of these creations, though they are antithetical to the musical philosophy I grew up with. My background is in improvisation and hardware electronics— I especially love the kind of gear that you can set up to spit out unpredictable results, but within a predictable range. I suppose in some sense I wish to “channel” something, without getting in the way too much with my mortal ego.

So about four years ago (2011 I wanna say), I obtained what was then the newest piece of Elektron kit, the Octatrack. This black box had a profound influence on my style and production workflow. I began trying over and over to make a so called “live set” with this box— often paired with some modular synthesizer or other tabletop gear for accompaniment. The idea was to present a pattern based live set with the ability to change and mutate things on the fly, in response to a dancefloor or my own personal volition. It’s friggin’ hard, though! I ran into a number of obstacles over the years, namely—
—sound quality. It’s extremely difficult to do a live mix under pressure, especially with little set up time and no sound check (always the case at psytrance events). The material would often not pair up loudness­-wise with my properly mastered tracks.
—crowd reaction. Sometimes people aren’t dancing and it becomes very difficult to perform when there are no reactions to base a response or change upon.
—PITA­-factor. By the peak of this whole obsession (described further on) I was carrying around a 12U SKB pop up mixer case loaded with 2 Elektron boxes, a row of modular, and a pre amp velcro’d to the bottom. It weighed 20 kg and was worth more than 3 Apple laptops. I had to get special cabling to make it all fit and have it “conveniently” prewired for performance.

I probably assembled about 4 or 5 different pattern based live psytrance sets over the years. Those who have followed my Soundcloud over this time period might remember a number of live jam uploads, all with different material. I performed these sets at parties with varying results. I was determined to figure out how to make it perfect.

February/March 2014 rolls around— I decide to make yet another live set for my upcoming Spring Equinox party, an event I throw annually in the Mojave desert. “This time, it’s going to be perfect,” I say to myself. I had made some serious investments in my studio by this point, including the addition of quality Antelope converters and some outboard analog EQ and saturation. The idea was to record a large collection of one­shot samples, assemble them into sample chains by category (bass, kick, hihat, noisey thing, snare thing, blasts, etc), then load them into the OT and use this as the fodder for my patterns. Only this time, instead of sampling directly through the OT, I would anally record each sample individually through my Antelope interface, with the proper EQ and other settings. All the samples (kick, bass, percussion, and some synth hits), were created on my large­ish Bugbrand modular synthesizer system. Many of the patches used for percussion synthesis are based on the models found here—


I also had a TR­606 on loan at the time, which I processed through the modular and sampled as well (classic drum machine enthusiasts will find it apparent in certain parts of ds1). The recording chain was as follows:

Bug modular or 606 into bug modular ——> Overstayer Instrument
Driver with or without saturation turned on ——> Bugbrand PEQ
parametric EQ w/ HPF/LPF ——> Antelope Orion ADC, no clipping

There is absolutely no digital processing of the samples whatsoever, except for the ADC. The most anal part by far was the construction of the kick­-kits and bassline­-kits... all one shot based, and on the bass kits for example I would ever so slightly re­adjust the EQ for each note in a scale, so they all had the same spectral profile and level. Once loaded in the Octatrack, I had a lot of control over how to manipulate and cycle through the samples, not to mention a load of crazy effects I could run them through. I found that one­-shot based material was much more effective and malleable than loop-­based material, allowed for a cleaner sound and more potential for live manipulation, especially in regards to the Octatrack.

The next part of the equation was some live modular sounds. I have a deep running obsession with modular gear and have always tried to incorporate it into my livesets, even if just for a simple FM drone or filter sweep effect. With this set I wanted to provide most of the leads with the modular. I had made some sample kits for leads, but didn’t feel it was enough, especially after starting to put the patterns together. Around this time, the venerable Tom Bugs released his awesome DRM­ 1 module, a device meant for the synthesis of percussion sounds (and used a lot in the sample kits) but also capable of a wide range of other analog timbres. I obtained two of these red beauties and assembled a 1­row mini system to be sequenced by the Octatrack’s midi sequencer tracks. This required the use of a midi to CV converter. The modular signal would come back in through the OT’s inputs to be processed with beat sync’d effects and mixed with the other parts effectively. I had separate 2­-channel sequences written for every pattern (I was pulling 2 voices out of the mini rack), and a couple of modules in the rack to manipulate that sequence data even further.

Okay, so we’ve got an Octatrack with a modular running into and being sequenced by it. What else? The next part turned out to be surprisingly crucial. See, the OT, for all it’s glory, does not output a healthy line level volume. It’s a ­10 dB instrument, sort of like a lot of Clavia gear. This had been an issue in live sets since I got the OT, I would often have to crank the DJ mixer gain setting close to maximum to get something resembling a healthy level. From a gainstaging point of view, it was “all wrong”... and it drove me nuts inside. I had been using this wonderful box by Overstayer, called the Instrument Driver, for a lot of tracking and buss work in the studio. I thought “what if I just run the set through that— no saturation or special settings, just some clean gain” ????

It was brilliant. Yes, I got all the gain I needed, but I also got just the perfect amount of high end transformer coloration/glue I needed to really bring things home. “This is better than a compressor!!” I thought. I played out with this setup and recorded a jam with it— I got mixed results dancefloor wise, but it *sounded* incredible. It just needed more stuff— more accompaniment! The leads from the modular weren’t enough, I needed more leads, and atmospheres, and more effects. I had borrowed a friend’s Elektron A4 previously and had been thinking about obtaining one for permanent use in the studio, This helped to stabilize that decision. With the A4 I was able to ditch the midi to CV converter, since it provides built in CV/gate sequencing (we live in a unique era for analog gear, I must say). I also got 4 more sounds to add into the set, since the A4 is a 4 part analog monosynth. I added 2 leads, another percussion part, and a big ol’ warm pad/atmo. The A4 also gave me the ability to cascade patterns between the two Elektron machines, making transitions between patterns and parts more seamless (I don’t do any of this live resampling stuff— absolutely no tracks left on the OT for that sort of thing, and it eats my brain alive in a performance situation).

Now it was complete. From March until the end of summer 2014 I performed with this setup and got great results. I toured Europe with this rig, which was one of the hugest PITAs of my entire life— I seriously racked my brain to figure out how to fit it all in a 12U SKB case, I needed a dolly to take it around, and although it was all precabled it was still quite a mind fuck to set up properly and manipulate under pressure. Although I got very positive feedback, I was a bit annoyed by how much attention the damn GEAR was drawing in. I mean, I don’t want people to think I’m special because of the gear I use, I honestly do all that mainly for my own personal edification, and not to “impress” people or make them think I’m extra kick­ass or whatever. I care more about the sound coming out of the speakers. If I could be totally invisible when I perform, it would be ideal. I love Autechre’s idiosyncratic approach of turning out all the lights in the club (“we want to change the identity of the space”)— now that’s what I call good visuals.

When I got home from Europe, I thought, what am I doing?! This was all way too much of a pain to drag around the world, and although it sounds killer, it’s giving the audience the wrong (or at least unintended) impression. At the same time I had really only performed the thing in all it’s glory about 4 times.

Perhaps I should make it into an album.

I was jetlagged, The day after returning from Europe I woke up at about 4 am— and I felt great. I looked in the studio. A fucking mess—cables unplugged everywhere, patchbay all a jumble, all the gear not in it’s right place from having dragged it all out for the tour. I pulled apart the tour rig and re­assembled it all in an ergonomically pleasing fashion in the studio. And I started recording.

3 days later, dogspiral1 was *finished*.

Here’s what I did:
I went through each pattern on the OT and matched it with an A4 pattern I thought it worked well with. There were less A4 patterns than OT patterns, so the attentive listener will notice recurrences of certain melodies throughout the album. The OT patterns were split into BPM-based “sections”— so for example patterns 1­3 used the same bass and kick kits which were all written specifically for a 150 bpm grid (I’m anal, remember?)... 4­-7, another b/k kit, 151 bpm. I had patterns written up to 155 bpm. I had at least 3 new patterns that had never even made it into a live set yet. I had my chain set up, going through the Instrument Driver, but I also added a new addition to the chain­ a DUAL Bugbrand PEQ, for stereo EQ processing of the entire mix. I made unique EQ settings for each BPM section. The combination of the Overstayer ID and the dual PEQ provided excellent “2buss” style processing that gave the recorded results an incredibly finished and fat sound (see the “unmastered” album sample above). Each pattern setup was recorded live to one stereo channel in Logic, via the Antelope Orion. In between recording each pattern, I would spend some time working on the transition point to make the album flow seamlessly— so to be clear, I was arranging this all in one Logic arrange window, each stereo recording was a “track” for the album and I worked in Logic to make the transitions flow seamlessly. Some tracks have slight macro edits in them— meaning I cut out a chunk of the recording to tie the best parts together. I wanted to have some straight up 2 and 3 minute tracks. As I got to about track 8 things really started clicking and almost all the tracks from that point on have no macro edits — what you hear is exactly what I recorded live. There are a handful of micro­-edits through out the album, mostly placed to cover up a small “fuck up” or to enunciate an especially important build up. There is only ONE overdub on this album, on some tracks I added an atmospheric bit from the Ciat Lonbarde Sidrax organ (loaned to me for the dogspiral sessions by Matt Aethersprite). This really tied the room together. Additionally, I will admit to the use of some insert fx processing for certain transitions or build ups, mostly accomplished with plug ins made by Michael Norris, ++Audio, and Soundhack. The feedback at the end of the album was made with ++Audio’s “Smear” plug in, an obscure granular delay made by a college buddy of mine that I have used constantly for nearly a decade.

There were a few fairly specific inspirations that influenced the structure and recording of the album, namely—
—The later era work of Muslimgauze... this really influenced the 2buss sound I went for in the recording, and the idea of doing loop based structures that are a bit contrary to common psytrance idioms.
—The Autechre album, “Quaristice”... I wanted the album to have the “vignette” feeling that Quaristice has. I also wanted it to have lots of tracks, more on that below.
—A soundboard recording of a 2005 Autechre live set, which you can download here— http://xexify.com/hermetech/Autechre%20-%202005-04-05%20-%20Glasgow%20Art%20School/
This incredible recording is simply one of the finest “EDM” live sets I have ever heard. It is accomplished entirely with hardware (no computer). I’ve made direct structural references to it on dogspiral1.

As I began recording, and started successfully putting together these shorter pieces, I became obsessed with the idea of having a lot of tracks on the album. Basically part of my artistic goal with this whole thing was to create some sort of rule­-bending psytrance that, despite breaking many of the idioms of the genre, would still present itself as being unabashedly infectious and fun to listen to. A challenge without the challenge, so to speak. There are no freak out sections on this album, no long arpeggiated bits evolving over 32 bars, no long tracks, the straight beats are widely interspersed with more polyrhythmic drum parts taking there place in between— the list goes on and on of all the unorthodox things I did. I looked at two of my favorite old psytrance albums— Quasar’s “One Day,” and CPC’s “Uber Den Angst,” which I think have the most tracks of “any” trance album ever. The latter is 18 tracks, and the former is 19 tracks. Therefore, I had to have 20!

The final step of the process was mastering. Now, my thoughts on mastering, assembling mixes for mastering, et cetera, are worthy of their own essay, or even collection of essays, but my point here is to discuss the unique aspects of this specific mastering job. There was no lack of loudness in my recordings— on the contrary, the raw files were registering RMS readings as high as ­-8 dbfs, and the normalized/unmastered mixes were enough to rattle the plastic in my Honda even at only moderately loud volume levels. I had basically packed the audio full of “information” and “density” with my 2buss processing. The analogy I like to use is photography— when working with color or black and white negative film, the goal is to overexpose slightly and produce a negative with a wide degree of latitude, so that you have a big range of versatility in printing. The same goes with audio— always better to have too much than too little (that is actually not 100% true at all, but in this case it was the philosophy I was working with). So although the unmastered results had a fair bit “too much” bass in the 60 hz area, it also had plenty of density in the mid range and high end, so I knew that if we reduced the bass as transparently as possible, it would really make the 3 dimensional qualities of the mid range jump out. And it worked; beautifully, I am proud to say that I am probably one of the only psytrance producers who ever had the bass *reduced* in mastering. We even had to do a 2nd revision for some of the tracks to bring it down some more. Despite this bass reduction, there is little to no limiting in the entirety of the album. If you feel so compelled (hell, you’ve made it this far, you must be pretty curious), open some of the wave files up in an audio editor. Many of the tracks average below peak.

So that’s how I made dogspiral1. And why the “1,” you ask? Because someday, there will be a dogspiral2, it won’t be the next DOT album, but some time in the future I will present another chapter of this story. The structure of dogspiral is exactly like the title says— most trance spirals in, over and over, but keeps spitting you back out to the edge of the spiral every time a new track starts. The philosophy behind dogspiral is to *keep spiraling* and never stop. You can’t actually reach the center of a spiral, but as you get closer you spin faster and faster. Therefore, although I have provided an “ending” for dogspiral1, in the form of the piece entitled “Rust,” technically the album should continue forever, and perhaps in someone’s secret Hell it will.

The artwork is its own story, but needless to say, I made that all myself too, and it’s a very important part of the experience. Please, if you decide to purchase a copy of dogspiral1, make some effort to preserve the condition of the packaging, so it doesn’t end up like my copy of the Coil “Live Box” set (don’t ask).

For questions, contact, bookings, whatever— dog@xexify.com
Bom and thank you for reading this diatribe
-­David Chaim Cohen / the Dog of Tears / A.C. Lyon / D.C. Offset
northern kalifornya, December 2014