Dakota Swift

Song notes from the studio

Throughout the process of building my studio, designing and making a space where I could create was my focus. With the space finished (as much as any such space can be called “finished”) I shift from space creation to music creation. I’m very excited to start using all of the new gear to write new music and reimagine old songs from when I didn’t have the space, gear or experience to make them sound how I want them to sound.

My intent is to share some of the process and stories from these songs in posts like this one. The first song I’ll discuss is also the first song I created in my studio. Dakota Swift.

Dakota Swift roams the plains where the storms are born and die

Discovering the “Guitorgan”

Like much of my music, Dakota Swift is an instrumental. Like many others, I’m not a big fan of my singing voice (though you’ll hear it soon enough) so I like to create a mood or vibe and explore that in the song. Dakota Swift started with a sound as I was playing my guitar through my Kemper Profiler. My Paul Reed Smith guitar sounded less like a guitar and more like a heavily distorted organ from the ’70s. Like the beginning of Blue Collar Man by Styx. The sound includes a rotating Leslie speaker effect and it has a great stereo effect.

Usually, an interesting sound like that is enough to get going. I fired up Logic Pro X and laid down a quick rock backbeat drum part and then started recording some parts with the Guitorgan sound. A sounds like that, though, is best used in moderation.

To create the next section of the song, I went with a much softer and more ambient patch which comes in after the initial intro with a jazzier chord progression of C#m7 - F#7 - A7 - B7. The big rock drums would not do here so I added a Latin percussion groove behind the airy guitar part. I recorded a lot of variations on that progressions, using plucked chords, picked apreggiation and some different rhythmic options. Logic Pro X is great at letting you create a stack of takes and then use them in different combinations later. Wherever you hear that progression through the first and second verse, you hear different takes that I’ve brought together as multiple parts panned a bit left and right so it’s like there are a couple of guitar players jamming together.

Add the foundation

Next up was the bass part — the foundation of any good sound. I grabbed my trusty Warwick bass and tried a bunch of options on the verse, eventually arriving at a galloping bah-DOO-bah bah-DOO-bah part that I really like. The hard part was keeping the doo on the downbeat and not rushing it to sound more like bah-doo-BAH. Totally different feel. The chorus was much simpler as the bass simply plays eighth notes around the chord progression which actually feels a lot like the lengthy solo progression from Frampton’s classic “Do You Feel Like We Do”. OK, I guess I was in a 70’s mindset throughout this song.

At this point I had two upbeat sections to the song and the mellower part which was originally a bridge but this is where the magic of digital recording comes in. I swapped the parts around to make the airy section the verse, made the first upbeat rock part the chorus and then took the second upbeat part as the bridge and outro. While playing around with the drum parts for what was now the bridge, I hit a double-time rhythm that I thought worked really well so the bridge switches to that half way through and helps the song accelerate into the climactic part.

The song was still missing some glue that holds it all together. I wanted to add a pad or something to fill in space and add a little more motion. For this I turned to Output’s Exhale synthesizer which is a cool plugin that uses vocal samples to create a bunch of different pads or one shot sounds. I started by adding an “Oooh” layer on the verse which worked great. Then for the chorus I added a patch that had a very processed couple of voice sounds that sounded like it was singing “Roy! Roy! Roy!” which really got my Ted Lasso mindset going. I played around a lot with these patches and the Roy part eventually went away but the layered vocal patches stayed.

The part where I mess it all up

I let the song sit for a couple of weeks and opened it up again to play around with some new outboard gear I got. I wanted to set the clock on the outboard gear to sample at 48kHz but this song was recorded at 44.1kHz. I swapped the setting on the song and quickly realized that this was a very bad thing because it started playing back the already recorded audio part about 8% offset from the MIDI parts. Music is really about sychronization so the guitar part going 8% faster than the drums is — well let’s just say it throws off the groove.

After resetting the sample rate to 44.1kHz, everything synced up again and I shut down Logic Pro X for a while but when i came back I discovered that all of my edits in the songs, like track automation and splice points in the different takes were either in the wrong place or gone altogether. Logic Pro X seems to only apply those changes in one direction. So I had to start all over with the splicing of the parts and mixing. This also gave me the opportunity to rethink the Roy! patch on Exhale because it added a very noisy percussion effect that was a bit overpowering in the chorus and this is also when I split the guitar parts to be separate takes played together in stereo.

Overall, I think the process of rebuilding the edits and automation made the overall production better. Plus I learned a great lesson:

Never change the bit rate on an existing track

Mixing it all together

This just leaves the final mixing and mastering of the track. As part of learning about all of the tools I now have at my fingertips, I’m playing with a lot of different techniques and tools. Sometimes, maybe, a bit too much but this is all part of the learning.

I created a set of busses to be able to control the different parts of the song- drums, guitar, bass and Exhale then applied EQ and compression to get the different parts to fit together. It’s particularly tricky with all of the wash sounds in the verses. Guitar and voice tend to be in similar frequency ranges. And the chorus and bridge include three to four concurrent guitar parts in addition to the Exhale parts. There’s a lot going on, but it creates a huge wash of sound and a big energetic build which is what I was going for.

What about the title?

There is a key moment in every new song that I create digitally and that point is when I go to save the Logic Pro X file for the first time. Now it needs a name. Anything called “Jam Idea” or something like that is never revisited. This is the point where the unconscious gets to contribute through word association. I may have a mood that I’m trying to convey which guides me. In this case, I knew I wanted something open and airy but that included the power that the Guitorgan would bring. My mind went to storm chasing in the wide open plains and the jagged channels of the Badlands. Also I was sitting near some coding work I’d been doing in Swift lately.

Hence — Dakota Swift

“Dakota Swift roams the plains where the storms are born and die.”

Let’s listen

So, as they say on Song Exploder, let’s listen to Dakota Swift in its entirety.

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Chris Evans - Audiogust

Chris Evans - Audiogust

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Engineer (Software and Audio), Musician, Producer, Island Dweller