In the pantheon of legendary productions, 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” ranks among the most respected tracks of all time. In fact, it reached a new generation of fans, thanks to its inclusion on the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 1 soundtrack.
Consisting of minimal instrumentation, a lead vocal recorded in one take, and a bass-plus-music-box middle section, its arrangement was incredibly risky for a radio hit, even by modern standards. The element that glues the track together — keeping it transcendentally beautiful even after over forty years — is the song’s centerpiece: A painstakingly multi-tracked set of vocal loops, consisting of 48 tracks of voices per note over the chromatic scale. These multi-tracked vocals were then repeatedly bounced and re-recorded as eight-second tape loops that were then played via the mixing console, as sampling hadn’t even been dreamed up at that time.
Amazingly, production connoisseurs can acquire the original vocals, authorized by the band and formatted for a variety of samplers — from Sampletekk.com — for a mere $50, which is quite a steal for a slice of true music history.
Nowadays, the elaborate production technique for creating these vocals can be replicated much more easily using 21st century tools. All that’s required is a good microphone, a DAW, ample hard drive space, and an endless supply of patience. From there, it's quite straightforward.
RECORDING THE VOICES
Step 1: After setting up your microphone and getting levels, you’ll need to figure out your vocal range (or that of your chosen vocalist). It will be different for everyone. You’ll also need to get a feel for how long you can hold a note without straining. Ideally, you’ll want a chromatic octave, which many non-singers can also achieve.
Step 2: To re-create the effect properly, it’s crucial to not use any digital tuning correction plug-ins. A raw, unprocessed voice is essential on every track. The reason the 10cc vocals appear to be in-tune is due to the fact that each note consists of 48 overdubs, so any pitch inconsistencies are blurred by the average tuning of the tracks. This is also the essence of why we enjoy supersaws so much. Another example of this effect can be found in large string sections, with multiple players that are slightly out of tune with each other. Even with fairly extreme detuning, this average pitch comes through on recordings, blending with other instrumentation.
Step 3: Once you have your vocalist and a good microphone, create a MIDI guide track consisting of a sine wave at a single pitch (Fig. 1). Start with the lowest note you (or your vocalist) can comfortably sustain and add the sine wave softly to your headphones.
This reference note will work wonders for keeping a sustained voice in tune naturally once you find the right monitoring level for the singer. After you’ve tracked a single voice singing this note, review it to ensure there is no distortion. Again, don’t be too self-conscious about any vocal inconsistencies, as they’re essential to this process.
Step 4: With the above steps in place, repeat the process as many times as you can before your vocal cords become fatigued. For the best results — and I’ve actually done this myself — use a minimum of eight tracks. Sixteen tracks are even better. Since you’re working with a DAW, your only real limitations will be stamina and hard drive space.
Step 5: Once you have the first note recorded eight times, mix those tracks together, lowering any out-of-tune performances and raising the best notes, but keeping all voices within the same general volume range (Fig. 2). From there, add a touch of off-center panning to the most in-tune tracks and leave the lesser tunings mono and centered — or go back and re-record them, if you are a perfectionistic.
Once that’s in place, add a touch of compression and a long spacious hall or plate reverb, tailoring the sound so there is ample breath and air. Finally, bounce the vocals to a single stereo mix and label it according to its MIDI note.
Note: Save the original DAW recording file. You may want to revisit and experiment with effects and EQ later.
Step 6: Once you’ve got a single note multi-tracked and mixed, repeat this lengthy process for each additional note in your vocal range until you have a chromatic octave. Make sure each mixed note is labeled correctly when rendered, to make the keymapping process easier (Fig. 3).
CREATING THE SAMPLED CHOIR
Step 1: Add each bounced note to your sampler using one-note keymaps for each. Arrange these chromatically across an octave, based on the file names for each sample (Fig. 4).
Step 2: Now it’s time to loop your recordings at the longest length possible. These loop points will be different for every sample, and it’s unlikely that it will be easy to find click-free start and end times. This is where crossfade looping comes in (Fig. 5). On single instruments, crossfade looping can sound “bumpy,” creating volume changes or other unwanted artifacts as the beginning and end of the samples. However, on layered or unison material, it really helps to create a seamless sound. In some cases, it can even enhance the chorused effect.
Step 3: Once your looped samples cover a full chromatic octave, you can then use 10cc’s approach for adding an additional octave above and below. Here, you copy the entire set of keymaps an octave higher and lower, leaving the sample’s root note intact (Fig. 6).
On “I’m Not In Love” the band accomplished the same result by doubling and halving the tape speed when bouncing. By keeping the root note (original pitch) the same, but copying the entire set of keymaps up and down, you can extend the range to a full three octaves.
Interestingly, this approach, while sounding unnatural out of context, is also the source of the “cellos” in “I’m Not In Love” as the lower octave vocals have a string-like tonal character. It worked so well that 10cc used these vocals for the low-string effects on another track — “Blackmail” — from the same album, 1975's The Original Soundtrack.
Step 4: At this point, you should have your own 3-octave original choir consisting entirely of your own voice. Once you’ve saved the new choir instrument to your library, I’d recommend archiving the original source recording and mix files for safekeeping. Depending on your sample rate and resolution, these files will probably fit on a standard 32 or 64 GB USB drive, so it shouldn’t be too expensive.
With this original multi-sampled choir in your arsenal, you’ll have a unique starting point for further experimentation with filtering, alternate envelopes, and effects processing.