Now that every Morana’s Breath release is available from online stores like iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Music as well as streaming services like Spotify, I decided it would probably be a good idea to resume work on the next album. I’d composed two tracks for it last spring, but set the project aside for some reason I can’t remember and never quite got back around to it. Working on a new Morana’s Breath album is a very consuming process for me. Once I get started, I have difficulty focusing on anything else.
I thought it might be interesting to provide a bit of a behind the scenes look at how I put these songs together. In many cases, the songs develop organically with a lot of trial and error. While I can play the guitar, I don’t actually know how to play piano. I have a decent sense of timing and pitch, so if I bang things out enough times on a keyboard I can generally identify what sounds right for a song. Sometimes I have a sound or a melody in my head that I work out over time. Other times, I flail about in the dark for a while until I stumble upon something that sounds decent and I work from there. The song I’m dissecting here, “Dirge,” falls into the latter category. It’s a song that took shape only after several fits and starts with little more than a very loose idea of what a song called “Dirge” should sound like.
The workhorse instrument for Morana’s Breath is a KORG Taktile 25 MIDI controller. It plugs directly into my laptop via USB and interfaces directly with the Apple GarageBand recording software. Very inexpensive and easy to use (albeit discontinued), the Taktile unlocked a whole new world of music for me and is probably the best music-related purchase I ever made in terms of getting more than what I expected out if it.
Ironically, however, the song I’m going to talk about here doesn’t actually use the Taktile. In fact, it doesn’t use any instrument other than the recording software. “Dirge” wasn’t so much recorded as it was arranged. When I started working on “Dirge,” I didn’t want to take the time to set up the keyboard, so I took a sample MIDI recording from another song and dumped it into a new project file. The cool thing about working with MIDI recordings is that you can manipulate pretty much every aspect of them. You can take individual notes and move them, stretch them, condense them, and duplicate them. Just by using the GarageBand software, I can take a single recorded note and turn it into an entire song. While I wouldn’t want to make every song using this process, it’s a good challenge that often produces very unique results you might not have ended up with if you recorded everything on the keyboard. I’ve used this technique to arrange an entire song only once before (the Beyond the Nebula track “Event Horizon”), but manipulating MIDI recordings to shape a song is a key part of my editing process.
“Dirge” is a classic example of what I call a “structure” song. In a Morana’s Breath context, this means the song follows a very rigid pattern that makes it very easy to add or subtract new elements. Although the song has as many as eight distinct instrument tracks playing at one time, each one usually lasts only four or eight measures before repeating. These tracks are like building blocks that can be stacked atop one another to form a much larger building. A “structure” song is by nature repetitive, but it holds your interest by adding new elements to the song in a predictable pattern. As the song progresses, you get a sense for when a new track is coming and you subconsciously anticipate how it will alter your impression of the song. There are some limitations to this technique, but we’ll get to those in a moment.
The song fades in with a single, droning note on a synthesizer that reaches full volume after four measures and then sustains for another four before any new elements are added. This single note will sustain throughout the entire song, providing a “floor” for the rest of the structure to sit upon. The next element comes in at the 00:16 mark, a series of four throbbing, bassy synth notes that last for eight measures. Bass drum hits start at 00:32, each one drenched in reverb and echo. For eight measures, the drum hits fall only on the first beat of the measure, but at 00:48, a second hit is added, this one on the third beat of the measure (although the echo makes it sound like more). The song’s tempo remains unchanged, but the added drum beat makes it feel like the song is building towards something.
A bass synth progression comes in at 01:04, followed after eight measures by another drum track that injects a sense of movement into the song. Up to this point, the song has a very static feel to it. The added drums loosen things up a bit, but they aren’t dynamic enough to change the overall character of the song. A simple progression of ascending piano notes starts eight measures later at 01:36, which is mirrored by a second progression descending piano notes at 01:52. At 02:08, another series of synth whole notes caps off the structure as the eighth and final track.
It’s at this point, however, that all “structure” songs run into a problem. You can’t keep adding elements forever. Sooner or later, you reach a limit on how many separate instrument tracks a song can handle before they start washing out or clashing with one another. Unfortunately, since the tracks are repetitive by their very nature, you’re left with a song that will get very boring very quickly once you stop changing it. While you could introduce change by stripping tracks away, that doesn’t really work. Adding a track to a song is interesting because the listener has to think about how it fits in with everything else. When you take a track away, the listener notices something is missing and now thinks the song sounds empty. So you can’t just make a song by adding a bunch of tracks and then taking them away. You have to make the song do something else.
At the 02:24 mark, then, the song changes. The bass drum track reverts to a single beat per measure, the dynamic drum track alters slightly, and the synth bass line changes. Both piano tracks drop out, but the synth tracks that came in at 00:16 and 02:08 remain. It’s not a drastic change, but the dynamics shift enough to effectively “reset” the structure. By dropping out tracks during the shift, it’s now possible to start adding blocks to the structure again.
The process begins again at the 02:40 mark, this time adding a series of overlapping piano progressions of ascending and descending notes that last for sixteen measures. Listeners have already heard this piano track so its reintroduction here sounds natural, but the length and arrangement of the progression is different than anything they’ve heard before. By extending for sixteen measures, it breaks with the previously established “structure” rules. An inverted version of the progression comes in at 03:12, but this time on a noisy synth rather than a piano. It’s a grating sound that signals the song is pushing towards a conclusion.
That conclusion comes at 03:44 when the bottom falls out of everything. The song drops down to the bass drum and the two bass synth tracks set against the droning synth note from the intro (which the listener probably forgot about during the rest of the song, but now remembers). One of the bass synths drops out eight measures later and a series of four piano notes provide an outro for the song (this piano track is actually doubled for a bit more punch). At 04:16, the final bass and piano notes ring out and fade into silence, leaving nothing but a droning synth note that begins to fade out at 04:32 until the song concludes at 04:40.
So that’s a pretty detailed overview of the way the song was arranged. The story of how it came to be structured that way is a bit more complicated and harder to explain. In simple terms, though, I assembled each track one by one and stacked them together. For most of this process, then, the song was only eight measures long. Once I knew all the parts would fit together, I had to decide how to break them apart, figuring out through trial and error when each section should be introduced. The latter half of the song took shape after this point, when I had to find a way to change things up to keep the song interesting after the “structure” was built.
I could talk a bit about how and why I went about choosing which instruments to use on which tracks, but I think I’ll save that sort of analysis for another song. “Dirge” is more interesting from an arrangement standpoint than an instrumentation standpoint because of the way it was assembled in the computer. The entire process probably took somewhere between six to eight hours over the course of about three days. That’s a fairly typical timetable for me to record a Morana’s Breath song regardless of the process used to conceive it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview. “Dirge” will be included on the next Morana’s Breath album, Dust, which will probably be finished by December. Until then, be sure to check out the first six albums on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Music as well as streaming services like Spotify.