Most of my music is a struggle to reconcile heady, electronic music and popular music,” says Brad Derrick of Washington, DC, band Plink. Derrick, a drummer and sound designer, formed Plink with longtime collaborator Scott Evans and vocalist Kate Cronin. Plink's debut album, The Sleeping Lines (Wordclock Records, 2003), offers ambient electronic pop-rock compositions with homespun sonic landscapes.
Derrick's and Evans's PC-based personal studios are located 100 miles apart, so they exchanged MIDI, WAV, and MP3 files on an FTP server. “We have a machine at a big ISP, so we have as much space as we need,” says Evans, a computer programmer by day. “But it just takes enough disk space to temporarily hold the files before the other guy downloads them. We create hundreds or thousands of files for every song. With each file we had a naming convention that specified the bar lines included — for example, ‘melodyWidget_032-048.wav.’”
They began by creating a library of drum loops, sometimes using found objects as drums. “In my basement we made up all these wacky drum kits with cardboard boxes and paint buckets — stuff like that — and miked them in all kinds of ways,” says Evans. “For example, we attached Brad's kick drum pedal to a big cardboard box and miked it with a [Shure] KSM32 capsule barely inside the box, and a broken Radio Shack PZM inside the box. It sounded very cool.”
Evans sculpted drum parts using a handful of tools, including Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro (now Adobe Audition), Zero-X Beat Creator, and Bram Bos's Tuareg.
“Brad played the ‘Mary Antonita’ drum part,” Evans says, “but I used Tuareg to change its tempo, distort it, swap a few drum hits, and add a nice delay. I also reinforced the loop with some electronic drum sounds.” Derrick used Ross Bencina's AudioMulch modular soft synth and Cool Edit Pro to create his own “bizarre” instrument sets. “I'll create a sound-design algorithm and then spit out three or four octaves' worth of notes from it.” Although hardware synths appear on The Sleeping Lines, software instruments such as Dr. Sync's SynC Modular figure more prominently.
Evans recorded all of Cronin's vocal tracks in his living room using an Oktava MC319 large-diaphragm condenser mic and a mic preamp on a Speck M72 mixing console. “I sat at the computer, she stood right next to me, and we both wore headphones,” Evans says. “I had to throw packing blankets over the computer to control fan noise. I happened to live half a mile from a hospital, so there were helicopters flying over and ambulances driving by. There was no getting around it.” Evans processed Cronin's vocals with Waves Renaissance plug-ins.
Evans and Derrick brought in guest musicians to play cello and violin, building ensemble parts using overdubbed individual performances. “In hindsight, that wasn't a great idea,” Evans says. “Even though our players had previous takes in their headphone mix, we ended up with a lot of pitch problems when I mixed the overdubbed parts together. I guess most string players aren't used to headphones. In the end we got great results, but next time we'll bring in an actual ensemble.”
“The craft of digital audio is that you can always go back and muck with it some more,” says Derrick. “I would still be playing with Kate's vocals today if somebody hadn't yanked me away from my computer. You can never be satisfied; you just have to know when to say when.”