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Ten Years of Delay

2020 January 95 min read

It's been ten years now since I first began making video games in Scratch, a cute drag-and-drop programming interface for kids. It was in making my own soundtracks for these games that, in 2010, I experimented with synthesized music for the very first time. For my software, I used the easiest option available to me: the free version of Finale, where I would write sheet music and output it as MIDI data using the 128 General MIDI instruments available in the program. And - fair warning for the audiophiles out there - this is pretty noticeable.

Although most of my meagre output from back then has been lost to time, I went on a little scavenger hunt back in 2015 and found a few of these old tracks still lying around in various places. One of them was a standalone song called Jazz Blast Blues, which I later turned into a piano piece. I distinctly remember the day I wrote that song in August 2010; my grandmother was visiting, and she watched me as I did it all on my computer in one sitting, working off of musical ideas I had previously come up with while improvising. I tried, in 2015, to remake this song in GarageBand using better instruments, but results were unsatisfying to say the least.

Which brings me to another 2010 track - the one that I did end up remaking and publishing in 2015. In its original version, it didn't have a name, and I used it as soundtrack for a video game (the one in the picture). I remember having the vague idea, while writing the opening 16-bar theme, of using the fast building chords in the melody to mimic a delay effect (which I would sometimes fool around with in Audacity). In the first half (bars 1-8), the quick successive "phrases" are three eighth-notes long, and each one feeds into the next, almost like a fugue / canon on the unison - or, in modern terms, a simulated dotted-quarter-note tape delay. In bars 11-12, the fake delay quickens to a regular quarter-note, before returning to its original length as the original phrases are called back in bar 15. You can listen to the whole track here, in all its 2010 glory.

I got my copy of GarageBand '11 about a year after it came out, marking the end of my Finale days and giving me a whole new composition environment with a much better selection of samples to use. It took a while, and a lot of trial-and-error, for me to teach myself the ins and outs of the program, but over the next few years I would use it to make over a dozen short tracks for various purposes; not just game music, but jingles, hip hop beats, and soundtracks for video presentations.

When I decided, in 2015, to gather and upload some of these to SoundCloud, I took the time to do a quick remake of that old Finale track which was already showing its age. I called the result Syncopated Echoes, and it was one of the first electronic tracks I ever made without any specific purpose in mind. Most of the song is just a straight re-instrumentation, but with a different ending section using a cool lead guitar instrument with tape delay that I had never found a use for before. Of course, it fit perfectly in a remake of a song that already used the same "tape delay" idea years prior.

But now, after five more years, dozens more tracks, and another upgrade in software, this song too began to show its age. And with 2020 just around the corner, I thought, what better time to go back and try out these ideas yet one more time?

This time, I decided to take the "fake tape delay" idea to its extreme. The name Without Delay is accurate: amazingly enough, there is no actual tape delay effect anywhere in the song, but all the instruments, including the percussion, mimic this effect through the consistent use of softer notes echoing louder ones across different time intervals. The specific time interval switches from dotted-quarter-notes to regular quarter-notes (and, near the end, to half-notes), and these switches are announced in each case by the cymbals in the percussion.

Why didn't I just use actual tape delay effects? Only because (1) I wanted to ensure the rapid switches between time intervals were crisp and in the right places, and (2) many of the delayed notes are intentionally louder, to emphasize their harmonic relation with successive notes. And why did I change the key down from C# to B? Because the dang violin instrument refuses to play notes above the high B you hear at 1:20. I didn't want to have to do what I did at 2:47 in Resolution.

When I was a small child just learning how to play and compose music, Bach was my first real musical influence. I was amazed at the intricate patterns he created using fugue and transposition, where simple lines feed off of themselves into extravagant structures. His music has a pleasant sound, but there's always these patterns hiding in plain sight, like nice little cookies that you get for being an attentive listener. I like to think that his influence survives in my music today, all of which is filled with those same kinds of moments, to reward those who care enough to pay close attention and to ensure that every time you come back to one of my songs, you find something new. This is definitely the case for Without Delay, so... don't delay, give it a listen! ;)

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