If I had to choose one characteristic of music that I relate to the most, it would be atmosphere. I love playing with musical atmosphere, meaning the ability of music to create a different place for you to inhabit. All of the musical elements – rhythm, melody, harmony, and the sound timbre of each instrument – participate in the creation of a whole new sonic universe. I designed several synth sounds on Nocturnal Signal to help accomplish different flavors of atmosphere. After doing that many times, I decided to build my own sample-based instruments to come up with something more unique.
Since I'm familiar with the interesting atmospheric effects of guitar harmonics, I thought it would be interesting to make some sample-based instruments from electric and acoustic guitars. While I was working on recording harmonic samples, I decided to throw in some ebow. An ebow is a little device you can set on top of guitar strings that subjects the string to a magnetic field, which causes the string to vibrate without the need to strike it. The sound of the ebow can sometimes mimic a bowed string instrument like a violin or viola. It had its heyday in 80’s alternative rock, and it’s still used occasionally in different types of music.
Keep reading for more technical info, skip to the next paragraph if you’re not such a music nerd! I recorded single string harmonics and open ebow notes on both my acoustic and electric guitars to create a new set of instruments. The final result was a collection of seven different sample based instruments created in the Kontakt sampler. I used a round robin sampling technique, which allows multiple versions of the same sample sound to be triggered when the same note is played repeatedly on a keyboard, which creates a much more harmonically diverse and realistic sound. I applied volume envelopes at the beginning of all of the sounds so the initial sound of the strike transient is gone and the notes seem to swell into existence. It also allowed me to have more control of when the sound starts across all of the different instruments. There are commercial sample-based instruments created from very similar guitar harmonics and ebow performance strategies but I wanted it to be my own. I also had some very specific ideas about how I wanted to process the raw sounds to get the effect I wanted.
It was fun work but it was also painstaking; it took me two to three weeks working full time to finish it. I call this collection of instruments the Harmonium, which is playable on a keyboard. I mix the Harmonium in the stereo field in a similar way to a string section in an orchestra. The highest string samples I placed on the left like a violin section, upper middle strings I placed in the viola section, low mids on the right as if they were cellos, and the lowest strings are in the center. On some tunes I will adjust this, but for the most part that's how they are mixed in the stereo field. I’m super pleased with the outcome. There was so much variation in the string oscillations captured by the round robin sampling technique that I can play the same single note across all of the different instruments and it sounds different every time it’s played; very simple harmonic passages can sound very sonically complex and rich.
As far as atmosphere-inducing sounds go, it’s definitely one of my favorite instruments. I used it on two songs on Nocturnal Signal, Undone and Grindstone. I did not create the instruments until I was almost finished with the album, but it will likely be on every song on my new electronic album. It’s very flexible, I can use just a couple of the instruments if I want something light-sounding or all of them if I want some density. It also takes on rhythm from different instruments with ease.
Here’s an example of the Harmonium creating it’s own little universe of sound. The example below is from a new track I’m working on called Prelude to the Fall. Every sound you hear in the Harmonium track is from a guitar, there are no synths used. Enjoy.