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Making New Age Music (Part 2)

In part two of this short series, David Etheridge looks at the role of effects and unusual chords in New Age music.

In the concluding part of this short series, David Etheridge discusses the role of effects in New Age music, and presents some intriguing musical structures for you to try out.

When making New Age music, the processing of the basic sounds is almost as important as the sound itself — if not more so, on occasion; with this type of music, the more imaginative you can be, the better the sounds will appear. The most effective New Age effects treatments tend to be delay based — reverbs, phasers, flangers, harmonisers... the idea is to add space to the overall sound.

Effect Types

New Age music uses a good deal of reverb, longer settings being in the eight to 20-second range, with a 50-70ms predelay and a degree of HF damping. This gives at minimum a large hall or cathedral setting, but for the true 'deep space' feel, you might want to try an even longer reverb time. If you're lucky enough to be in the market for some Lexicon gear, a PCM70 (Clannad swear by this unit, and by Roland's DEP5), Prime Time or 224 model delay are amongst the best you can get.

With the more sophisticated reverbs and delays, there are various types of infinite reverb to allow you to freeze sounds and layer others on top. This facility is perfect for vocal sounds, making them seem to hang in the air behind a lead vocal or instrument. But what if you don't have access to such sophistication? Even the old tape delays or mechanical reverbs like AKG and the Great British Spring can be pressed into service to create a multi-layered sound. Indeed, you'll often find that you're not looking for digital sparkle in a reverb, but more a kind of fuzzy warmth. Sometimes the delayed or reflective sound fits better if it is a trifle indistinct! With a little care, tape delays and analogue delays record to multitrack quite nicely, and with only about the same amount of noise that you'll get from a budget digital effects unit.

For delays, you'll need as many DDLs as possible. Multi-effects units are fine, but you'll often need separate effects settings on different instruments in a mix. Roland's RSP550 could be an ideal unit if you can run to it — it recreates the sounds of many of Roland's own classic effects which are highly sought after on the second-hand market today. Roland's own Dimension D unit is another all-time classic that adds life and movement to textures.

Delay treatments can be as diverse as slapback, repeating, reverse, and multitap. Repeating and multitap delays can add a full stereo ambience to a mono sound, and can also give the impression of an instrument being played in an unnatural environment.

A simple DDL with a 'hold' facility can be used to sample an arpeggio and repeat it ad infinitum, but you can take the idea a step further and alter the speed in real time (knob twiddling) to get both the speed and pitch to go up and down. The resulting cascade of notes can always be recorded onto tape. You could also feed the output from one DDL into another and add some doubling or flanging delay to it.

When mixing, either try an autopanner to move the sound across the stereo image, or pan it manually for that vintage Tangerine Dream sound. Even the old 16-step analogue sequencer can be put to use if you still have one or can buy one cheaply. You could connect it up to an analogue synth and alter filter cutoff settings in real time as it cycles through your chosen arpeggio. This old technique can work particularly well with modern sounds, and don't worry about getting the analogue sequencer in sync with the track — it'll sound fine if it's only being used to control filter settings.

Different types of phasing and flanging effects will also add life to an otherwise flat sound. Japanese synth wizard Isao Tomita transformed the sound of a late '70s string synth using two separate rates of flanging on the stereo sound. While the flange sweep is going up in the left channel, the sweep is going down in the right channel, and vice versa. While you can get this effect with a genuine stereo flanger (Roland used to make a stereo version), you can get a similar effect with two DDLs. The secret lies in not getting them to run in sync, which adds a constantly shifting dimension to the sound. Use this on a string or other pad part and you'll notice that it seems to move through the stereo image in a remarkable way.

If you haven't got enough DDLs, experiment with guitar effects pedals. Electro-Harmonix's Electric Mistress flanger might have been a touch noisy, but it still sounds better than any modern digital flanger. Harmonisers can also be great fun, not only for harmonies above and below a note, but also for the feedback facilities, which can be used to make the pitch spiral up or down in a fountain of delay. Fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will recognise the effect immediately.

To create a wide stereo sound, try two treatments panned hard left and right, with the original sound in the middle. With careful balancing, it can sound huge.

(Click image for higher resolution version)

Musical Structure

There has been a fair amount of pedestrian chord usage in New Age music, and a half-hour solo over a sustained chord of C major is not doing justice to the genre. While the instrumental sounds can alter through time, so can the chord changes. Here are a few musical ideas you might like to try:

- While a major chord can set a scene very well, and even an open fifth (no third to the chord), Figure 1 shows a slightly less obvious approach. Here I've changed the third to a second. This gives a very 'open' sound to the chord that leaves space for another texture to decide whether the chord is major or minor. The chord voicing here can be altered to suit yourself.

"To create a wide stereo sound, try two treatments panned hard left and right, with the original sound in the middle. With careful balancing, it can sound huge."

- Placing the D an octave up technically changes the chord into a C9 (no 3rd). Figure 2 is a standard C6 chord. The upper four notes can be used on their own as a string wash in a high register. Again experiment with chord voicing to see which order of notes sound best to you. With an octave string setting, try opening the voicing by dropping some of the inner voices by an octave, as in Figure 3.

- Figure 4 is my patent 'Radio 2' chord: C6+9. Yes, it can sound a bit like 'Music through the Night', but it can also work well in New Age music. It's richer than a straight major chord, and implies extra tones for solo lines over the top.

- Figures 5 and 6 are C diminished and C augmented chords. In chord shorthand, they're written as Co and C+. With both chords, you can ascend or descend using different inversions very effectively. A climbing chord sequence in semitones using the C dim chord (C dim, C sharp dim, D dim, E flat Dim, and so on.) can sound quite effective.

- Figure 7 is a different beast altogether. Though New Age music is, by its very nature, positive in outlook, there's no reason why it shouldn't have its sadder moments. So minor chords can be used, and here we have a C minor chord, but with a major 7th. Try it with fast attack strings for a tragic feel.

- While on the subject of minor chords, you can add movement to such a chord by adding overtones to the chord and moving them up and down — Figure 8 will show you what I mean; C minor with a flattened 6th, then a natural 6th, then a flattened 7th, then a major 7th. Try the sequence forwards and backwards and you'll see how it sounds. The same thing can be used over a C min 9 chord, and is shown in Figure 9. In fact, as a general principle, try moving individual notes of a chord to keep the flow going.

Now let's look at suspensions in chords, and take it further with unrelated chords over pedal notes.

- Figure 10 is an example: C sus4, giving the impression that it wants to resolve to another chord. An improved sounding version is shown in Figure 11: C7 sus4. You can also add the 9th to the chord, as in Figure 12, in which case we now have C7+9 sus 4, or, if that seems too complicated to work out, call it Gm7 over C.

- You can experiment with one chord over a different pedal note. Try F over C, E major over C (C maj7 aug5), E flat over C (Cm7), D major (or indeed D minor) over C, D flat over C, and so on.

Experimenting with chords in this way can provide you with an interesting chord sequence to complement your lead lines. Always keep in mind the element of surprise in your chord changes, and see how an unexpected modulation can add interest and emotion to a phrase.

- Figure 13 is an oddity: a tone cluster made up of perfect fifths. It starts off as a C6+9+7, but if you go up far enough, you'll get back to C having used all the semitones of the scale. Try using this for either a drone, or notes for an arpeggio or sequence.

- With Figure 14, we enter a new field altogether: Polychords, or chords made up of notes from two (seemingly unrelated) keys. This chord is F sharp major over C major (or, for the really pedantic, C major flat7, flat9, aug11!). The upper (F sharp) part of the chord can be extended up the octaves to the limit of your keyboard and/or polyphony, if you wish; the result can sound massive. Curiously enough, it's quite easy to solo over the top of Figure 14 as well. Any combinations of C, D flat, E, G flat, G natural and B flat will give you a good starting point.The whole point of a chord like this is the inherent tension in the sound, that sets up an atmosphere like no other. You can also voice different parts of the chord with different sounds. Try the C major part with strings, and play the F sharp part with a slow attack sound like voices, so that the upper tones fade in behind the string sound.

"There has been a fair amount of pedestrian chord usage in New Age Music, and to solo over a sustained chord of C major for half an hour is not doing justice to the genre."

- Figure 15 shows a cadence: two chords that end a phrase or section of music, but with a difference. Figure 15a is a C7+9+11 chord, which resolves nicely to the G major voicing shown in 15b. Transposed down a major 3rd (A flat 7 and so on to E flat), you'll find this at the end of classical composer Herbert Howells' work 'Hymnus Para-disi', for solo voices, chorus and orchestra.

- Figure 16 is also from the classics: Alexander Scriabin's 'Prometheus, Poem Of Fire'. The notes are A, E flat, G, C sharp, F sharp, and B. (A7 flat5, 6+9).

Scriabin found links between pitch, colour and planetary influences (which in fact can be found in mystic teachings dating back thousands of years). One of his ideas was that certain chords had a magical quality, and this one is a good example of what he was trying to achieve. Again, try different inversions of this chord to see what sounds best to you.

If you read music, orchestral scores can offer up amazing amounts of ideas as to chords and sound layering. Most of the 19th and 20th century romantic composers have much to offer, but also check out the 'impressionist' composers ike Debussy and Ravel, who are an object lesson in economy of sound. As Tomita has proven beyond all doubt, they lend themselves admirably to synthesised and sampled sounds.


One final section about quantisation in New Age music: when in doubt, don't bother. Above all, the music should flow. At times this will mean giving the impression of no beats or bars in a section. Try recording a section without a click track and with the quantisation off. Leave the feel as loose as you like. If you hit a chord slightly off the beat, you can always edit the placing later on. Also, the 'Force Legato' feature in C-Lab's Notator (presumably other sequencers have a similar feature) is invaluable in making sure that held chords go right to the end of each bar for a smooth, legato feel.

Suggested Listening

This obviously is a subjective list, but suitable works for aspiring New Agers to listen to include:

Vaughan Williams' 'Fantasy On A Theme By Thomas Tallis'.
Pachelbel's 'Canon In D Major' (of which, at least three different New Age versions exist).
Debussy's Nocturnes.
Holst's Planet Suite.
Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 and 'Tapiola'.
Most works by Delius, but particularly 'In A Summer Garden', 'Song Before Sunrise', 'On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring' and 'Summer Night On The River'.

Anything by Isao Tomita, Kitaro, Andreas Vollenweider, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Aeoliah, Clare Hammill's Yokes. Later albums by the Enid, particularly their sampler cassettes Inner Visions and Inner Pieces. Pat Metheny's 'As falls Wichita, So Wichita Falls' is a surprising, but magnificent, New Age influenced jazz track.

Virgin Books' Guide to New Musk is a definitive guide to the whole New Age music field, with good surveys of artists and albums.

Series - "Making New Age Music"

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Recording Musician - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Recording Musician - Mar 1993

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Composing / Art


Making New Age Music

Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)

Feature by David Etheridge

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