Two weeks ago I gave my perspective on the production of Skeptoid #250, The History of Knowledge; which wasn’t perhaps the most insightful because I’m not a musician. I was just the dude standing behind the microphone trying to do what he was told. Some of the comments on the web transcript of the episode were asking for more information about some of the dozen tracks specifically, and so Peter Zachos, who composed and produced the piece, answered. Here are Peter’s remarks, which should interest the musically inclined among you, with [my comments]:
Some people have expressed interest in the behind-the-scenes production of “The History Of Knowledge”. I’m happy to shed some light on how it was done. I work primarily in Pro Tools, using an extensive library of sounds and plug-ins to produce each genre of music. I work out of my studio, ClickClack, in Culver City. This is where we recorded Brian’s vocals, as well as all the guitars and backup vocals.
I’ll go through each track and briefly describe the process:
1. Caveman – This I just made up. Needed to give two feelings here: 1) tribal, and 2) dumb. So I tracked maybe 20 overdubbed takes of me grunting as different characters (I even went so far as to choose certain voices that sounded like more “leaders” of the tribe and others that were the sheepish “followers”.) Native Instruments “Battery” provided the one or two drums. Then it was just a matter of tracking Brian. When Liz came in to record her vocals for the opera and swing, she heard the Caveman track and started laughing, and we put her in the tracking room just for fun; the result is the naive virgin going “yeah!” Total spontaneous addition.
2. Gregorian Chant: I wrote this around an aeolian mode with a sharp-VI scale degree. The half-step really gives it an ancient quality. Brian did all his vocals live with NO AUTOTUNING… I only needed to track his lines with my voice first. He had a much easier time singing to an already existing track than going it alone. I loaded a nice cathedral impulse response into Altiverb 6 to give us a nice sounding hall.
3. Renaissance – I dug into my Norton Anthology of Early Music, listened to a ton of this stuff, and settled on these chords. Very standard for the era. Native Instruments Kontakt has a nice harpsichord, though I eq’ed it a bit to make it sound just right. Also used a soprano and alto recorder.
4. Opera – Most of these orchestral sounds come from The Vienna Symphony Library; Brian provided some great lyrics for this, and I just read them over and over to myself until I began to hear them musically. It starts as Queen Of The Night, from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflot”, and ends with Wagner’s Overture to “Tannhauser”. The recitatives in between is just me messing around with some classical western tonality. [It's cool that this actually includes a perfectly serviceable little libretto, even in its brevity - BD]
5. It is O, Susanna! the original by Stephen Foster, and our first track to feature the amazing and multi-talented Kenton Youngstrom on guitars. I always underestimate Kenton; I ask him to bring three guitars to the session; two acoustic and one electric… and I don’t even think about a banjo. Meanwhile, we get to this track, and he says “Aw, man, I should have brought my banjo!” And I feel like an idiot for not asking him to just go ahead and bring all eight hundred of his guitars. Kenton improvised all the acoustic on this track and lent it a wonderfully authentic flavor.
6. This is an Al Bowlly-type ditty that was most influenced by “You Took Advantage Of Me.” There are dozens of lo-fi, gritty audio emulators, but in the end, the freeware Izotope Vinyl was just what I needed to get that crackling sound of an early 78 platter, though I did need some liberal EQing. Listening to Al Bowlly recordings, it’s amazing how much low frequency remains in spite of the age of the original masters. I used Waves Renaissance EQ to emulate the curve. Brian had the style down from the beginning, and tracked his vocals in just two takes. I found a beautiful celeste in the Vienna Symphony library that fit well into the track. [The "Mammy" tacked onto the end is an homage to a character created by the great Al Jolson, to which Al Bowlly sometimes gave such a nod. I liked it so threw it in there, even though it doesn't mean anything in this context - BD]
7. You can’t do WWII Swing without a nod to the Andrews Sisters, but believe it or not, the inspiration came from this incredible and disturbing video of the Ross Sisters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DJVSP3N5a4 There’s a great misdirection in this production: strip away Elizabeth from the track and it sounds cheap and amateur. Her work is what makes it sound like the real thing. I worked with her to get the unique intonation, note-sliding and bending inherent in this style of singing, and we did each harmony overdub one by one. Izotope Vinyl once again provided the lo-fi sound, though I let more mid-high frequencies in since it’s from a later decade. Brian did his lines in one take. [The part was named "Bing" in the score, but I won't make that claim. This piece poked fun at the martini-swizzling chauvinism of the day, as well as a quick shot at segregation - BD]
8. So… James Taylor? J/K…. This is probably my personal favorite from a production standpoint. Elvis recordings have a really difficult snare drum sound to emulate. This was the best I could do. Abbey Road 60′s drum kit, and the Waves API EQ. I tried every compressor known to man, and in the end realized that it just sounded better without one, but it still wasn’t quite right. Finally and quite by random accident, I placed the digidesign Lo-Fi plug on there and added just a tiny bit of distortion, and it worked. The rest is all Kenton who really shines here and got that classic 50′s guitar tone just right. Brian did a fantastic Elvis as I knew he would. As before, I tracked my own version of the vocal for him to sing to, and erased it later when mixing. But I’d left my “thankyouverymuch” at the end and it sounded more natural. Brian kept querying me about his own “thankyouverymuch”; I think at some point I’ll need to mixdown another mix with his intact. [What some interpreted as "America bashing" in this piece was actually McCarthyism bashing - BD]
9. I can hear some Boston in there; also the four-part harmonies I did are from my love for Crosby, Stills and Nash (as well as America.) This was the only part of the whole episode that I had no initial idea of where to start musically. I love prog rock and I would have liked to explore that territory, but hey, each of these segments had to be around a minute long. Brevity is not one of prog rock’s strong suits. Kenton did a great job with the guitars, though again I wished I’d asked him to bring a sitar. In the end I played a sampled sitar, as well as the Native Instruments B4 organ plug w/Leslie speaker. Brian came up with these great lyrics that mean absolutely nothing, and I muddled through something of a melody and tracked it for him. Then he replaced my vocal with his and I overdubbed all the harmonies.
10. Since I grew up in the 80′s, this came easy to me. This resembles any corporate-80s AOR rock, but I liked the idea of combining Giorgio Morodor’s score to Top Gun with Sisters-of-Mercy-sounding vocals. (think the casino scene from Rain Man.) I found this great drum loop from Zennheiser samples; it sounded like a Phil Collins drum track, all compressed and gated and corporate. Then I layered it with Korg synth stabs and Kenton did a fantastic “Starship” corporate guitar solo. In order to make it as slick and overproduced and annoying as possible, I chorused the guitar and then applied a doubler and then a stereo-spreader. Some of the drum beats come from classic drum machines that were in great use at the time, like the Oberheim DMX and the LinnDrum.
11. I confess. It’s Green Day, though the last couplet line is more Ramones than Green Day. Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig has a built-in preset that’s a dead ringer for Billie Armstrong, so Kenton patched into that and overdubbed two identical guitar tracks, which I panned left and right. The drums are a drum program called BFD, compressed with the Kramer PIE plug. Brian tries hard to sound young, naive and stupid, and as he is none of these things, fails spectacularly. [I dispute that, I think the smell of hemp is palpable in my performance - BD]
12. Energy – I don’t know what I can say, really. This is the easiest music in the world to make. It’s the musical equivalent of making toast or a PB&J sandwich; hard to screw up. I just listened to a few Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga songs and followed suit, which is what those acts are doing anyway. Brian wrote some great lyrics and I kept hearing the word “Energy” in my head and tried to feel its natural rhythm. That’s how I came up with the chorus. From early one when we were brainstorming about the episode, I told him I had to include a part in this song where we list an assortment of woo. So when it came down to it I wrote and performed the mini-rap in the bridge. But Brian jumps back in for the “Baby you balance my CHI”. The delight on Brian’s face when he heard himself autotuned for the first time should have been videotaped.
It was a splendid time all around, and I can only hope to work on some great music with Brian again in the future. I hope this has been an interesting read; if you have even more detailed questions, I love tech talk, so feel free to email me.
The art at the top of this post will soon appear as the cover art for a full single of Energy which will be available on iTunes very soon. We hope you have as much fun listening to it as we had making it.