Nova: Acoustic Instruments, part 1

This week’s post can be enjoyed by anyone! – Hitomi

Creative musicians seem to have a hard time defining their music in words.  When faced with the task of describing it in a concise manner, “original”, “unique-sounding”, and “cross-genre” are common results.  And I empathize with that!  Exposed to musical genres varying over time and cultures, most musicians, being music-lovers as well, draw from a rich array of musical backgrounds.  And unless an individual is being hired to create music evocative of a specific genre, it seems like most individuals are out to create their own sound.

However, when potential listeners are exposed to musicians not through the music itself first, but through some form of information (name, site, reference, search, etc), verbal descriptions and implications are helpful (or at times crucial??) in deciding whether or not to pursue it.  With no idea of what to expect, many people will not get to the, “just listen to the music” stage.  So, from a practical standpoint, being able to verbalize can help the music’s existence in the world of humans (most of whom use words), though so many of us are reluctant to use the word “genre.”

After much deliberation, Nova’s musical description was decided upon as:  progressive electro-acoustic pop.

On first listen, the “acoustic” aspect may not come to mind immediately, but this is a very important part of Nova’s music.  So (after a long intro!), today’s post will be introducing some of our many acoustic instruments that were used on Periapsis (with pictures!).

According to Nick, real guitar is irreplaceable and crucial to the music (and I agree!!), so he pulled out the Strat and practiced several strumming passages over and over again until he had guitarists’ calluses.  The subtleties in attacks, inflections, and sustains of guitar always evoke a raw realness for me.  And yes, the short guitar fills are all by him too!  Go Nick!

Nick says:

There is so much to say about the modern concept of electric guitar.  The first real distorted guitar sounds occurred by sheer accident as a result of broken amps.  Most musicians of the time were not into it at first, but some producers saw the potential of the new sound and started putting it in everything!  And now, there is hardly a secular guitarist on the planet who doesn’t turn up the drive once and a while.  And some who never turn it down.

The pure sound coming out of the instrument is violently destroyed.  What does that mean in the music on a subconscious level? You can put the pieces together. Hendrix set his guitar on fire…because it logicially followed what was already going on.

I am a terrible guitar player.  But it’s not hard to fool around and find a few little things that sound good.

The most varied and fun of the acoustic instruments were the many percussive instruments we used.  These ranged from objects made for music-making purposes, to household and more obscure objects that we tested and experimented with.  Some of the resulting sounds were achieved by experimentation and we used the ones we loved.  Others were created after deliberately searching for a sound we already had in mind and/or needed in a specific part of a song.  I foresee much more fun in the future with such experiments!

The goat-hoof shaker and maracas above, and the percussion frogs below, are examples of “instruments” we had and fit well within our songs.  I really love these frogs.  Normally, they sit by my door and I sometimes play them as I pass by.  They never fail to uplift!

Our wide array of non-traditional percussion instruments included the pipes above.  Hand-selected for their pitches and timbral capacities, these were used to fill a sound we heard in our heads, knew we wanted, and were trying to create.  Each pipe is able to produce a wide variety of sounds, depending on where and how it’s played, and we achieved some personally satisfactory ones.

Nick says:

I’m hoping that Nova gets a Home Depot endorsement deal because it’s one of my favorite music stores.

Another fun set of percussive experiments were conducted with a collection of wine bottles set aside for music-making purposes. Not to worry; we did not consume the wine in one sitting.  They were collected over a long period of time J.  The picture above illustrates a segment of all of the empty bottles ordered by pitch.

We then constructed a cave to record the bottles in.  The “Rabbit Ridge” bottles were a favorite; we filled them with water to attain desired pitches and then sampled (recorded) each of them being hit in six different ways (varying the strengths and speeds at which they were struck with two different “mallets”).

Nick Says:

We made a few EXS24 sample patches from these.  Some mapped a ton of differently pitched wine bottles out across a few octaves, and some pitch mapped a single sample across the entire range.  Each was more appropriate for different situations.  Any ideas which two songs they are on?

Bottle and “mallets” at home in the “cave.”

I regret recording this with a large diaphragm condenser.  Small would have been the way to go, but it wasn’t immediately available at the moment we were formulating these ideas.  The result from this were sounds that needed to be EQ’d all the way to Kalamazoo, and ended up sounding stuffier because of it.

Sidenote:  My favorite ridiculously huge reverb on Logic’s Space Designer is “Big Cave,” and many of my friends make fun of me for it.  So we made a little cave.

Back to the traditional instruments!  We were fortunate enough to be able to record on a freshly-tuned baby grand piano for one of our songs.  The experimenting that went on with the piano had to do entirely with the micing.  We thought we knew how we wanted it done beforehand, but there was still much finagling and readjusting that had to be done.  I’m happy to say that my mother recognized my piano playing upon first listening to the finished track!  That itself says a lot about recording acoustically!

Nick Says:

My friends make fun of me for this too, but I love a really close mic’d ultra compressed and dry soundboard-heavy piano sound.  I think it’s from my silly loyalty to some of my favorite modern jazz pianists, and from always sticking my head in the piano when I was a kid.  I didn’t have the gear needed to get that sound, but I tried nonetheless.

By titling this article “Part 1”, I hope to relay that there will be more posts on our acoustic instruments (partially because I have more photos I want to share).  If you caught that, it will have been an successful example of verbal implications!  Instruments to be discussed in the following “Instrument” posts include but are not limited to the following: plastic action figures, stacks of books, tubs of mud, badminton rackets, tennis balls, and saxophone.

Question of the week:  Electric and acoustic instruments…on their honeymoon or filing for divorce?

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Nova: Rhythmic Elements of “Red-Handed”

This week’s post will most likely be enjoyed by musicians interested in the technical inner-workings of “Periapsis,” however please don’t get scared off!  Over the next year we will post a wide variety of conversation-starters for music lovers of any knowledge level and will begin each post with our modest guess of what demographic might enjoy it most.  So here it is again for this week: “This week’s post will most likely be enjoyed by musicians interested in the technical inner-workings of ‘Periapsis.’” – Nick

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Of all of the songs on our album, “Red-Handed” certainly wins the award for “most rhythmically intricate.”  For the most part, while the rhythmic component of the song is extremely involved and syncopated, its skeletal structure is actually quite repetitive, and can most easily be witnessed in the bass as a series of rhythmic values, the most common of which is [five] (sixteenth-notes).  The first half of the repeating form is as follows:

5 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 3 – 3 – 6 – 3 – 4 – 4 – 6

And the second half, quite similar but mussed up a bit in the middle:

5 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 6 – [2 – 5] – 5 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 6

These rhythms fall into surprisingly simple metering:

Taking this rhythmic skeleton and “muting” certain values during the verses created some breathing room in the arrangement to divert attention to the vocals while preserving the syncopated style of the music. Below, the numerical values in parentheses are muted, however still present:

5 – (5 – 5) – 5 – (6) – 7 – 3 – (3 – 6 – 3) – 4 – (4) – 6

5 – (5 – 5) – 5 – (6) – 2 – 5 – 5 – (5 – 5) – 4 – (4) – 6

That’s it for the numbers, don’t worry.  Translated into written music:

There are a number of textural and orchestral layers added on during the chorus, so the continuation of the rhythmic sequence is not all that apparent.  It is quite similar to the structure preceding it, but eventually departs as most developmental music inevitably does.  You can hear it most explicitly in the modulating electric piano hits.  Most of the changes and development upon the base rhythm were simply consequential from the stretching of the structure over a (gasp!) backbeat.  This thread of musical material exists alongside the primary elements of the chorus as an interlocking yet independent element rather than an orchestrational or complementary one.  Its inclusion was crucial to a feeling of continuity between the chorus and verse both because of the striking stylistic differences and the very different key areas of each section.  Even though “Red-Handed” is quite section-al, the continuation of the layer helps to mask this potentially unsavory characteristic by creating the illusion of a continuous flow.

The section after the chorus, which we so appropriately refer to as the “post-chorus,” undergoes a slightly more rigid and note-worthy development.  Here is the first portion of our skeletal structure depicted as a rhythmic grid (TUBS., anyone?):

We took the entire rhythm, copied it, moved it two 16th’s later, and dropped it back on top of the original (figuratively, of course).

...structure copied...

...shifted...

...and pasted back on top.

At the beginning of the post chorus, this rhythmic counterpoint takes place largely between the voice and the bass.

As you’ll notice, in the second half of the post-chorus, the counterpoint exists between two layers of vocals separated by an octave, but the lyrics flow continuously over it:

“the MEANS, the MO – tive, AND the, OP – por – TU – ni-ty

E – ven MORE – so IF you RE – fuse to deny!”

Yes, it’s a bit hard to make out the lyrics in this section if you don’t have them sitting in front of you.  But it sounds wild and kind of cool, right?

So the big question remaining is, “Why did Nova go to the trouble of weaving these patterns and development into the music in the first place?”  The answer is quite simple: Because we wanted to!  But to avoid a complete cop-out, here are some other things that we were not thinking at the time, but are nonetheless true:

  1. Human intellect recognizes patterns and complex development both consciously and subconsciously, so it doesn’t really matter if you actually “hear” the rhythmic development.
  2. We want the rhythmic aspect of our music to be a living, breathing, and growing element rather than an obligatory layer so often taken for granted in popular music.
  3. The complex, albeit organized rhythmic structure of the verses highlights the novelty of the backbeat in the chorus.
  4. The relatively complex rhythms make the music inherently different than a lot of other music that sounds sonically similar.
  5. It posed a challenge to record, which kept us interested, to say the least.

Question of the week:  From a distance, “Red-Handed” appears to be dance music, and we have always pictured it as such.  What do you think?  Please comment and give us your thoughts…or talk about something completely different if you wish!

Nova: Nova Proudly Presents “Periapsis!”

We are excited to announce that Nova’s debut album, “Periapsis,” is now available for purchase and download on iTunes!

The first small scraps of material for this album revealed themselves in the Spring of 2008 and slowly cooked for three years in “Macintosh HD>Users>Nick DePinna>Music>Logic>Nova,” until we committed to finishing the project in May of 2011. Well over a thousand combined work hours later, and here it is!  While iTunes classifies “Periapsis” as an EP, we’ve always considered it a short album.  Besides, six songs and twenty-five minutes of music seems to be a defensible size.

“Periapsis” is, for the most part, very heavily orchestrated, and the rhythmic structures in most of the songs are quite complex.  The intention of both of these aspects was to stretch the mind and focus the attention of the listener while still evoking a familiar sound and intensity that he or she could grab onto.  We wanted people to feel like they wanted to dance to the music despite the foreign nature of some of the other aspects.  Encouraging and not-so-surprising fact in support of music that has some mystery:  Challenging your brain is good for you!

Overall, we ended up using the same amount of acoustic instruments as we did software instruments.  The only song on the album that is entirely acoustic is “Solaris,” which we had not planned on including in the album until the very last minute!  Blending the acoustic and synthetic elements of the music in the remainder of the album was certainly a challenge, as well as a fascinating topic of conversation that we’ll save for a later date.

Credits and lyrics for “Periapsis” can be found under the “Periapsis,” tab of our website.