CD comments – Tubular Bells

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here about synth or electronic music. I’ve received, as presents, several CDs that I like over the last year, and I want to talk about them a bit from the technical side. I’ve written before that I’m not a musician, and that I just like messing with synths because they amuse me. I look at synth music from the viewpoint of a beginner – what does a particular control on the box do? Or, how can I get a particular effect out of any given application? So, rather than discuss the artistic merits, or emotional quality of the songs on each album, I’ll just approach this as a “what can I learn by listening to this disc”?

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only)

First up, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973, Virgin Records).
Per se, Tubular Bells isn’t a synth or electronic album. Instead, this is a prime example of multi-track recording. Oldfield, 19 at the time of the release, had worked with a multi-track magnetic tape recording system at the Virgin studios, playing each instrument himself one at a time, and then synching up the tracks, or doing various edits with the help of the studio engineer to get specific effects. (One example is the “Piltdown Man” section on track two.)

Multi-track recording had been used in a similar way previously, in David Seville’s Witch Doctor (1958), his later Alvin and the Chipmunks works (starting with “The Chipmunk Song” (1958)), and The In Sound from Way Out! (Perrey and Kingsley, 1966). In fact, Jean-Jacques Perrey used taped loops very extensively to produce several of the songs on “Way Out”. However, the idea was still treated as a kind of unmarketable novelty concept when Oldfield tried approaching the big record companies.

According to the main wiki article, one of the more distinctive elements in Tubular Bells, Pt. 2, the Piltdown Man (now called the “Caveman”), came from an argument between Oldfield and then Virgin Records president Richard Branson. Branson wanted lyrics on at least part of the album, and Oldfield didn’t think that was necessary. Eventually Mike got angry, drank half a bottle of whiskey, and went into the studio to shout into the microphone for 10 minutes. The thing that concerns us right here is that the engineer ran the tape at double speed, and then played it back at normal, stretching the sounds out and dropping the pitch by half. The resulting grunts and shouts were then edited in to the final mix at intervals to match the rhythm of the rest of the song.

A lot of modern composition software, like Sonar, and even Vocaloid’s Singer-Song Writer, make single-performer multi-track songwriting fairly simple. With SSW, the tutorials even tell you to cut and paste sound samples throughout the song to build up “wall of sound” productions. And with programs like Audacity, you can record anything you want, stretch or compress it, reverse or invert it, and then apply other effects before saving to a .wav file that can be imported into the composition program. On top of this, machines like the Micro Korg, and the Kaossilator, are designed to record short (i.e. – 4-second) loops that can be used for creating House music. So, yeah, multi-track and tape-loops are commonplace now. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to take them for granted.

What makes Tubular Bells stand out is that it doesn’t SOUND like one guy and a tape recorder. There are a few places where some of the instruments seem to be sliding out of synch, and one specific section is dedicated to literally introducing each instrument to the listener as it is added to the mix. But otherwise, TB as an album sounds like it could have been made using a full orchestra.

The original album has two tracks, Tubular Bells, Pt. 1 (25 minutes) and Pt. 2 (23 minutes). Both tracks are largely instrumentals (with the exception of the Piltdown Man on Pt. 2, and the “announcer” introducing the instruments on Pt. 1. The musical themes vary throughout both songs, and the titular tubular bells feature in just a few places. If you’ve only heard the Exorcist theme song then you’re going to be disappointed, because that was just taken from an excerpt at the beginning of Pt. 1.

I don’t consider Tubular Bells to be something that I’d listen to all the time. I like the first minute or two of Pt. 1, and the Piltdown Man section on Pt. 2. Everything else is either repetitive or interrupted by the announcer. But, the point of this blog entry is to look at the technical side as a learning tool. And from that aspect TB, Pt. 2 especially is fun in trying to dissect the various sounds to see how to put them back together using more modern techniques. And on that basis, I’d recommend this album to synth students as a learning exercise.

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