As of last night, the primary writing for The Mechanics of Mysticism is finished! When I started writing this album in May of 2023, the plan was to complete the primary writing in 6 weeks, then shift to production and polish. That, uh, didn’t quite work out. But now, just a week shy of a year after the original deadline, it is done! So, what took so long?

Well, from the start this was a bit of a tortured writing process. The first track came together in a reasonable amount of time, but the second quickly bogged down. Looking back at my notes, I see my original pass at it took almost two weeks, which is something like 4 times as long as it was “supposed” to take based on how long I had budgeted for writing, and to make it worse, I felt like what I was left with at that point was still barely more than a sketch of an idea. Based on how frustrating the experience was, I knew it was time for shift in process.

At that point, I had been working in what had become my typical mode: come up with some basic starting points like the key, tempo and maybe a chord progression, then just put pieces together and try things until something clicked. More than 2/3 of my previous proper album, Psychedelic Ghost Stories, was made that way and I was happy with how it had come out, but the process just wasn’t working for me this time around.

To mix things up, I turned to the other process I used on that album, most notably on the title track “Psychedelic Ghost Story” (not to mention nearly the entirety of my 2021 album Oneirogen Codex) which was to sync three or four synths and some kind of drum machine and just jam until something cool came out, then cut the results into pieces and build the song around it. (Yes, I know it’s arguably not “jamming’ when it’s just one person, so you can call it solo improvisation if that sits better with you.)

I settled on a combination of Strega, 0-Coast, Hydrasynth and the DrumBrute Impact (with a Launchpad Pro on sequencing duty, and the MPC One acting as a hub keeping everything in sync) as my core setup (typically supplemented with maybe one other synth per track, though toward the end I varied it up a bit more) and just started going HAM. And all of a sudden, things were flowing!

I quickly came up with 11 jams, each of which I recorded 2 versions of, and was really happy with the results. In stark contrast to the feeling of being stuck I’d had before, I felt like I was breaking new ground and was really excited to work with this material. Then I ran into my next major snag… getting the jams into the MPC to turn them from rough sketches to finished tracks.

The details aren’t likely of much interest to anyone else who isn’t themselves trying to produce entirely on the MPC platform, but in brief, it was a pain in the ass to cut all the long-ass meandering jams into usable chunks and then resequence and rearrange those chunks in the MPC. I had done it with one track on PGS but doing it with 11 was a whole other level of commitment. It was painfully slow going and it really killed my momentum. By the time it was done I was already a fair bit over my original deadline for writing.

At that point, for a variety of reasons, I made a decision to work on this material essentially as long as it took to get it “right’ (as nebulous as that concept can be). As I mentioned in my previous Mechanics of Mysticism production diary, all of my previous albums had been created on strict deadlines, largely out of perceived necessity (ADHD is a motherfucker) but I felt I had earned a bit of grace, so I granted myself permission.

I also decided at that time not to worry so much about a strict delineation between writing and production. At that point, all of the songs were between 60-80% finished in terms of writing, and while some of what was necessary to finish them was obvious to me, a lot of it wasn’t. I am an iterative composer (my all-time guiding light of an Oblique Strategy is “Gardening, not architecture”) so I would simply mix in production sessions (e.g layering, arrangement, sound design, etc) whenever I wasn’t sure what direction to take to finish the actual writing (structure, melody/harmony decisions, etc).

This kept things from stagnating and bogging down entirely, but it also was a great source of distraction. Hey, let’s play with this synth we borrowed and add some string lines to this track! What if we layer the chords here? Let’s play with some effects and make this a little more lively! And so on and so on.

I was also extra busy outside of music during this period. Without delving into the not-interesting details of my personal life too much, I was doing my regular dad duties, working and job hunting, moving across the country and dealing with a myriad other things that took a tremendous amount of my time and energy. So, things moved slow! Days went by where I didn’t do anything at all. More days where I did little more than listen to a track a few times, shift a few things around, and then not even save. Then my studio was packed up for a few weeks. Then I had to rebuild the studio in a new, smaller location, and so on and so on.

Once I had settled in to my new home in California, I had a pleasantly productive period for a short while and then life threw me a curveball. My old (and boy do I mean OLD) PC was dying and for a variety of reasons I landed on a Mac Mini to replace it. A Mac Mini which would supposedly run Ableton Live like a champ… Without getting into the reasons (perhaps another post at some point), I had been considering returning to traditional DAW-based production at some point, after three+ years and several albums produced in a DAWLess setup (okay, the MPC is a DAW in a box, but it’s still a different beast). After some equivocation, I decided to port my works in progress to Ableton and finish the album there.

That slowed me down briefly, but once I had them moved over and shook off the rust from not using a DAW (except to teach it to someone else) in 3+ years, I hit an even better stride. The speedy computer let me load tracks in seconds and facilitated a very fluid, ADHD-friendly method of working where I would load a track, listen to it, make every change, addition or tweak that seemed obvious, then immediately move to the next when I bogged down. After a while it became apparent which tracks were furthest from being done and I began to focus on those until one night (last night, specifically) I realized, shit! These are actually done!

Not done done as in ready to put in the world, but done in terms of being written. And, since I’d been incorporating plenty of production with the writing, they’re all reasonably close to being actually done. There’s still a fair amount of production and polish I’m looking at, not to mention mixing and mastering, but the hardest work is behind me and what remains is pretty straightforward and mostly fun, so it should go fast.

And that’s it for this rather long-winded production diary! If you made it this far, thanks for sticking it out. If you have any questions, or things you’d like me to go into in a future installment, by all means leave me a comment or find me online somewhere and ask me there.

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