Hunter H. Keegan
Essays, news, etc.
All Indie Electronica Sucks Except for “Nocturnal”
Last Known Images released our first full-length album (“LP”) “Nocturnal” on 10/19/19 (click for link). I really wanted to do something that was Halloween themed and initially intended for it to come out on Friday the 13th back in September.
Unfortunately life intervened and I wasn’t able to get the album to where I wanted it production and mixing-wise until mid-October so we missed the cool Friday the 13th deadline but I think it was for the better. Certain tracks, especially “Hitcher” needed to be extensively reworked and the extra time really benefited the final version of the LP.
“Nocturnal” is primarily based around 8-step synthesizer sequences from a pair of Moog DFAMs that I connected to each other and ran through a couple of Moogerfooger synth modules. I also used a 16-step Korg Volca Beats drum machine to lay down more traditional percussive sounds and add variety to the shorter 8-step sequences. We’d pretty much spend a couple of hours creating patches (pre-made synth settings) in the DFAMs and then record them directly through a mixer into my recording/editing software (technically called a DAW).
We’d let them run for 10-15 minutes making small adjustments to the DFAM settings as they played. For example, the undulating “warped” sounds on the title track were created by me physically changing the modulation settings on one of the synth modules (an MF-108m flanger for whoever is curious) in real-time.
The Korg Volca Beats were also added in real time as the DFAM sequences played throughout. We would store preset beats on the Korg and time it up with the DFAM so we could cycle back and forth between the preset Korg beats/sequences. We’d then edit things down to take out the shitty parts and make 8-10 minute long percussive foundations that other sounds could be added to, which is basically the same writing process you’d use with any recording (starting with percussion and then working up to the rest of the instrumental stuff).
A huge limitation of the Moog DFAM is that it cannot store presets and does not have a digital display or MIDI connection that allows you to save the exact settings that were used to create a patch. Because the DFAM is a fairly complex analog sequencer it is almost impossible to perfectly recreate sounds after you begin altering its settings. We had to decide on a sequence that we were happy with and then move on to the next 10-minute sequence that we wanted to use for the next song. Overall though the DFAM is a great instrument that has a lot of personality and a seemingly endless plethora of unique sounds that can be created.
We threw audio clips pulled from horror movies and an educational video about echolocation and bats onto each of the tracks based off of their overall vibe and what type of sonic landscape they implied. A clip of Sigourney Weaver in the film Aliens basically telling everyone they’re fucking idiots was used for the first (aptly titled) track, “Ripley.” The intro to “Hitcher” includes excerpts from the opening scene of Texas Chainsaw Massacre where the kids decide to pick up a sketchy hitchhiker and then bad things start to happen.
The topic of both real and fictional horror comes up a lot in the music that I write independently as well as the music I write for Last Known Images. I love weird, creepy music, and especially atmospheric music so that’s something I’ve really tried to capture in a lot of my works over the last few years. I think that the genre of horror is interesting because of the paradoxically negative appeal that it has (it’s entertaining but also stressful and disturbing). I could write a full article just about how effective Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as a film and also a piece of art in general … it’s just so fucked up and touches on all these different elements of the failed American dream and seedy underbelly of small town life and takes them to the absolute extreme. I love these themes, even going back to my second EP, “Strange Americana” which came out around a year and a half ago reflects these types of themes and anyhow… that’s why “Hitcher” is my favorite track off of “Nocturnal.”
Speaking of “Hitcher,” that song is the only track that features a guitar. I used my Jackson RR-24, which is equipped with an EMG-81 and Floyd Rose tremolo system and put it through ~5 different “gain stages,” which is essentially when you make the guitar signal go through a light overdrive, then through a moderate overdrive, then through a heavy distortion, through another overdrive to clean up the signal a bit but also boost the distorted signal and then through an Electro Harmonix DMM1100tt delay pedal through a clean Mesa Boogie TA-15 amplifier. I think a Boss RV-6 reverb pedal on the “Shimmer” setting may also have been used but I honestly can’t remember because it’s hard to tell with all of the other delay/reverb that was used.
I recorded the guitar parts using a really basic portable microphone positioned about 12 inches in front of the amp’s speaker cabinet and recorded a ton of really textured feedback that I edited down and incorporated into the song. I also used a lot of digital reverb (Valhalla Room) from my DAW that was added after the initial recording to really, really, flesh out the sustain and delay… not that the Jackson RR-24 really needs additional help in the sustain department, I always think of that clip from the film, Spinal Tap, where Nigel Tufnel is holding up an unplugged Les Paul and gloating about how great the sustain … “Just listen to the sustain – uh, you could hear it, if it was plugged in, though.”
The RR-24 is a sharkfin-style flying V that looks absolutely insane and over-the-top but is also crazy comfortable to play on because the neck shape rules and the flying V design lets you position the guitar right up against your body as you play which, for me, helps with playing more technical stuff. It’s a Japanese-built neck-through design meaning that the guitar’s neck actually continues all the way through the body instead of simply being connected to a neck joint. [Some would argue] This makes the guitar resonate much more. The active EMG-81 pickup is really the true source of the sustain though, I believe. And the Floyd Rose bridge is what allows the crazy dive-bombing feedback and harmonic content. It’s about 12 years old now and is no longer in production as far as I am aware. You can find used ones for like $900 which is actually pretty crazy because they were like $1200 new back in 2007 which means that this particular model has held its value really well over the years… which is pretty unusual for guitars that aren’t like … vintage … super old school stuff.
Anyway, this album features mostly analog equipment. All synth sounds are analog. All the guitar stuff used is analog. The only digital stuff would be the audio clips we pulled from those horror movies and the reverb and compression that were used throughout the album. There’s really no practical way to get around digital reverb, to use natural reverb requires a lot of extra equipment and space and it cannot be specifically modified after being recorded the way that digital reverb allows you to do. I really like the Valhalla Room DAW plugin because it can create quite dark reverb effects, has a lot of modulation options and also extremely long (like 45+ second) reverb trails that you can really play with when it comes to dynamic volume and panning effects.
There are around 40 different individual audio tracks on “Hitcher.” Going through and mixing it was fairly complicated and time consuming although not nearly as much as earlier songs I’ve done such as “Drought” off of my solo album, “Dark Little Eyes.“ It is difficult to create a layered sound without it getting too muddy and when I sent it to be mastered by this audio engineer who I’ve been working with for about 2 years now he actually spent a lot of time increasing the brightness of the song so that the multi-tracked synths and guitar feedback stood out from each other. Though I would also say that my (improving) mixing skills played a big part in allowing the brightness to be increased without simply amplifying shitty qualities of the original mix.
Toward the end of the editing process when I was putting together the final pieces of the album, cover art, final mixing, reviewing masters, etc. I decided to throw two bonus tracks on the album, “Annapurna” and an instrumental version of the first single LKI released called, “RAINBOW.”
“Annapurna” is a song that I wrote and recorded back in February - March 2019 that I really, really, really like but that I didn’t really have any standalone projects that it could be attached to. It utilizes bass guitar as a lead instrument and also incorporates slide-bass (glass slide + reverb to create the trippy middle-eastern sounds that start appearing toward the second half of the song), which is pretty cool. I got the slide-bass idea from this ultra-1990s sounding jazz goth (?) band called Morphine.
“RAINBOW” was simply rereleased as an instrumental track. Rainbow is the most guitar heavy track on this album and despite the stripped down aesthetic the guitar tone was achieved using a pretty complicated live stereo-recording process that was done in a single take. (I don’t want to go into too much detail but it involves a Mesa Boogie TA-15 and Mesa Boogie Lone Star Special and a lot of different overdrive effects).
We are all very happy with how “Nocturnal” came out. It’s the first full length LP I’ve ever worked on, everything I’ve previously done has been EPs and singles. The recording process was a lot more relaxed and natural than with previous projects I’ve done. I rarely found myself getting frustrated while we were recording the instrumental tracks and the production quality (by which I mainly mean the type of equipment we used to record and the mixing process) overall is really strong. As with any project that I do, I listen back through it and identify various things that I would have done differently or maybe approached from a different angle but that’s just the way it goes and I don’t subscribe to the perfectionist philosophy that you need to go all Brian Eno-status and meticulously go through every individual note of a song to make sure it sounds immaculate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love Eno, it’s just not my creative style. I like organic, slightly more lo-fi sounding stuff that sounds real and visceral and where tasteful human errors actually add to the authenticity and emotional aspect of the songs. This is why stuff like The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, etc. still sound great, their recordings are not locked into technology to quantize, pitch correct, etc. in the way that many people now do with the advances of digital recording technology and digital instruments. The performances you hear on those albums are more like live performances than a modern studio performance. Case in point: The first Black Sabbath album was recorded in 1 day and people continue to reference it as one of the greatest heavy metal albums ever created.
Also, before I wrap this up, a huge shout out to the band, Boris, a Japanese heavy metal / doom metal / progressive metal group that has been around for like 30 years but is somehow still fairly underground. Their song “Love” (off of their album “Love and Evol” that recently came out) is amazing and really helped me find ways to incorporate insane but nuanced guitar feedback into the track “Hitcher,” especially after seeing them perform it live.
If you actually read this entire article, thank you. I hope you enjoy “Nocturnal” and it enhances your life in some capacity. Also the title of this is a complete sarcastic joke, obviously not all indie electronica sucks.
(c.) 2020 Hunter H. Keegan