Why and How I Made My Supernatural Synthwave Album

Brian Hazard
Lucky Ago cover design by Sam Todhunter

The following nine chapters were released over the course of five months beginning in October of 2018.

Chapter One: Inspiration

Today marks the beginning of the eleventh Color Theory album, tentatively entitled Lucky Ago. I’ll be sharing the origin story as it happens, as a sort of diary slash manifesto.

One of my favorite things to do in my late teens/early 20s was to lie in bed and listen to music. Listening in the car didn’t allow me to grant my full attention. Sitting in a chair and staring at the stereo was too intentional and serious. Lying down was the perfect compromise. My mind wandered as I drifted in and out of sleep.

Some music was better suited than others. Depeche Mode’s Stripped single was a favorite. An alternate take on the title track called “Breathing in Fumes” has a blaring siren that alternately plays at triple the volume, eliminating the need to set an alarm.

The record that got the most play, behind Depeche’s A Broken Frame (“Shouldn’t Have Done That” gave me nightmares), was The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds. It’s the first thing I purchased on CD, and without a doubt the album I’ve listened to the most in my life.

Released in 1980, Seventeen Seconds is The Cure’s second album, recorded in eight beer-soaked days. Robert Smith described it to Rolling Stone thusly:

During Seventeen Seconds, we honestly felt that we were creating something no one else had done. From this point on, I thought that every album was going to be the last Cure album, so I always tried to make it something that would be kind of a milestone. I feel Seventeen Seconds is one of few albums that genuinely achieved that.

Maybe it’s just because I associate it with sleep, but the entire album has a dark dreamlike quality to me. Yesterday I listened through and took notes (sitting up!), in an attempt to put my finger on what makes this collection of songs so hypnotic.

What stands out to me is how far from the spotlight the vocals are. They’re injected sparingly into a mostly instrumental landscape. When they do appear, they’re thin, barely audible, and panned off-center. It’s like Robert Smith is whispering in your ear, forcing you to lean in and listen intently.

The lyrics themselves are secondary. I know the words to plenty of 80s albums by heart, but not this one. It’s just not a sing-a-long sort of record. The vocal melodies aren’t particularly catchy; they just sort of blend into the texture. The only real hook I can point to on the whole album is the opening guitar lick in “A Forest”.

The tracks themselves tend to bleed into one another, without any stark contrasts or character foils. The instrumentation is mostly the same throughout, broken up by piano interludes. A smattering of synths and white noise samples, accompanied by varied use of delay and flange effects, adds just enough color to distinguish one track from the next.

I’ve always wanted to make a record with a similar sort of feel, but within my own sonic universe. Conceptually though, I have much grander ambitions. More on that soon.

Today I’m setting out to create something no one else has done, minus the beer and guitars. Wish me luck!

Chapter Two: Research

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of luck. What does it mean to be lucky?

The first place my mind goes is video games. I’ve played dozens of RPGs over the years where luck is a stat. Typically a higher luck stat will increase your odds of landing a critical hit or getting rare treasure. It’s a modifier that tilts a “random” roll in your favor. How that might correlate with real life is beyond me.

My rationalist self tends to view luck as a fallacy, and those who believe in it ignorant of the rules of probability. Coincidences happen, even against one in a million odds. What are the chances that you will win the lottery? Not so good. What are the chances that someonewill win the lottery? I’d bet on that.

When a person claims that something influenced their luck, they commit the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” logical fallacy. Just because one thing happened after another, doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second.

… but that’s no fun.

What truly fascinates me is the idea that people actually believe that carrying a lucky charm or making sacrifices to a deity can grant them good luck.

I guess what I’m actually interested in is superstition — the magical dimension of luck.

To help solidify my thinking, I did a little research on ye old Google, to discover that there are many definitions of luck.

The simplest one that appeals to me is “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.”

Luck has three aspects:

  1. Luck is good or bad
  2. Luck is the result of chance
  3. Luck applies to a sentient being

The aspect of luck that I want to focus on in this album is the lack of control. In this light, superstitious behaviors are an attempt to wrestle some degree of influence from an indifferent universe. To tilt the odds, however slightly, in your favor. RPG style!

Lucky Ago may not end up being the title, but to me that little two-word phrase drips with longing and nostalgia. Perhaps it refers back to a time where you used to be lucky, before it ran out. The good old days.

Hopefully over the course of writing the lyrics I’ll stumble on a phrase that captures that feeling even more poignantly. If I’m lucky.

Chapter Three: Lyrics

Writing lyrics is, when it comes down to it, a search for truth. Not the literal truth — that would be autobiography, which in my case would be dull. I’m seeking an emotional truth. In other words, how do the words make me feel?

I started, as always, with titles. With a good song title, you’re halfway there. So I compiled about thirty of them, having to do with luck and superstition. To give you an idea, here are some of my rejects:

White Lighter
New Moon Left Shoulder
666
All Red Lights
The Winning Numbers, Two Days Late
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Fortune Cookie
Knock on Wood
The Curse of the Ninth

Mostly I opted for concepts with a supernatural bent. One exception is Beginner’s Luck, which I likely won’t finish unless I can come up with some sort of dark twist.

Once I narrowed it down to ten titles, I spent about twenty minutes on each of them, jotting down whatever came into my head. When I hit a dead end, I googled the title for inspiration until I had a decent sized chunk of text to jumpstart the actual lyric. During the process, I built up a bank of key words and phrases that could work for any of the songs. Here’s a representative sample:

superstition omen voodoo grey rough cracks dispel shaman witchcraft fortune numbers astrology stars psychic calming magic prophecy destiny ritual urban legend folklore curse hex jinx fortune teller talisman myth coincidence

Now I’m writing the actual songs at the piano. So far I’ve completed two: Shatterproof and Triskaidekaphobiac, which I may retitle, because dear god that’s a mouthful. Believe it or not, it’s easier to sing than it is to read.

The former tangentially explores the superstition around breaking a mirror, and the latter the number 13. Here’s the most “on the nose” excerpt from the two:

I gathered up all the pieces
A suicide in reverse
To bury them in the moonlight
And nullify the curse

My plan is to complete all ten songs at the piano, and if time permits, produce them concurrently. Realistically though, I’ll need to cut the process short and finish at least a song or two for patrons.

One thing’s for sure — it’s much easier to work on the album as a whole, rather than one song at a time.

Chapter Four: Consolidation

For the first time in my life, I wrote ten songs in just under a month. Normally the writing and recording happens concurrently, with perhaps a day away from the studio to come up with lyrics. It’s been nearly twenty years since I separated those two processes for my Something Beautiful album, which required me to write out parts for the performers. Writing at the piano every day made me feel like a professional songwriter, if only for a few weeks.

The beauty of having all the songs provisionally complete is that I can fit the pieces of the puzzle to my liking to create the best possible album. As you can see from the photo above, I printed each lyric on a separate page so that I could compare and contrast them side by side.

My goal is to ensure a coherent tone and storyline, without any obvious repetition. I don’t like using the same phrase or metaphor twice in an album. In the old days when nearly every song was a love song, I had a rule that I could only use the word “heart” once per song. Come to think of it, I only used that word once on this entire album, and I’m not convinced I’ll keep it.

One change I already made for consistency’s sake was to reduce each song title to a single word, preferably a short one. So instead of Triskaidekaphobiac, now it’s just Phobiac, which may or may not be an actual word, but I know you’ll let that slide.

My hope is that one can read through the song titles and get a reliable feel for the album. Let’s try it:

Unsigned, Hand, Fingers, Dismembered, Shatterproof, Backward, Feral, Sniper, Phobiac, Avian

Dark, right? And purposely vague. I could’ve just as easily titled each song after its underlying superstition, but that’s a little too on the nose for my tastes:

Chain Letter, The Dead Man’s Hand, Fingers Crossed, Rabbit’s Foot, Breaking the Mirror, Under the Ladder, Black Cat’s Path, Third Light on a Match, The Number Thirteen, Saluting Magpies

Typically one can glean the titles of my songs by listening, but in this case, the title itself may only appear once in a verse. It’s not the smartest way to title songs marketing-wise, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. My overriding concern is how these songs serve the album as a whole.

Next up, I’d like to produce the drums and bass for the entire album.

Chapter Five: Foundation

At this point, I could just record vocals and call it done.

You’ll recall my plan was to lay down the drums and bass for the entire album. Turns out that’s easier said than done.

Those early Cure tracks tend to have one groove throughout the entire track, which is part of why I find them so hypnotizing. Many of these songs, on the other hand, have a different feel for the chorus. Which means a new groove, perhaps with new samples, and maybe a different bass patch, with more sustain for example.

But new drum and bass parts alone aren’t enough to convince me that the section is going to work, so I had to add in some parts around them: arpeggios, pads, supporting keys.

Beyond that, every track has some sort of ambient background noise, plus a variety of samples. Those samples are often one-hits, essentially more drum parts. So after all was said and done, I ended up with drums, bass, sound effects, samples, and the majority of lead and supporting synth elements.

While some of the tracks are a little rough around the edges, and lack variety, they are already “good enough” right now. The challenge is to push myself to make them even better.

Next up, I need to figure out how to sing these songs, and flesh out harmonies. I’d also like to allocate parts for Reidun to sing, even though female backing vocals doesn’t mesh with my early Cure concept. What do you think? Should I ask her to sing on one song? A few? All of them?

After that I can start recording vocals concurrently with:

  • Coming up with the rest of the synth parts
  • Composing intros, endings, bridges, and solos
  • Smoothing out the edges: fills and transitions
  • Experimenting with early 80s style vocal effects
  • A Surprise Every Minute (deserving of its own chapter)

I started this album a little over two months ago, and it feels like it’s already halfway done! Lately I’ve felt like a full-time recording artist who does a little work for other artists on the side, rather than the other way around.

That’s a good feeling!

Chapter Six: Structure

It’s been nearly a month and a half since I posted Chapter Five. In the meantime, I completed four of the ten songs! While it would’ve been nice to finish the entire set as a single batch, it wasn’t practical to go another two months without anything new to release.

Now I’m ready to take up where I left off (i.e. here) with the remaining six songs.

As I mentioned in the last chapter, at this point, I could just record vocals and call it done.

That is, if I was okay with every song starting at the first verse and ending after the last chorus. I wasn’t.

So for each song, I devoted a block of time to composing an intro and ending, plus instrumental breaks with or without solos.

My inspiration, The Cure, isn’t exactly known for their catchy intros. In fact, they tend to stretch out intros for minutes before the vocal enters.

In the Spotify era, that won’t cut it. Song intros continue to get shorter and shorter, lest the listener skip to another track. The average intro is down from 20 seconds in the 80s, to 5 seconds today. The reasoning? We only get paid for the stream if the listener makes it past the 30-second mark.

I seriously considered expanding each of the songs with extended instrumental sections, Disintegration-style. I planned to put the long versions on the album and release the short versions as singles.

But in the end, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk or the extra work. The four completed tracks clock in at 4:23, 4:19, 3:34, and 4:15. That feels right to me.

I’ve got the perverse idea to start one of the songs with a “one, two, three, four” count-in, clicking drumsticks and all. Is that the cheesiest cliché in recorded music history? Maybe, but I know one of the Cure songs does it and it feels like a tribute of sorts. Please, talk me out of it!

Next up, the hardest part: vocals.

Chapter Seven: Finding My Voice

Singing is acting on pitch.

I hate that definition, because it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t consider myself an actor. I hardly consider myself a singer! It feels safer to just sing the notes and not get tooemotional.

But I can’t very well create a Cure-inspired record while singing deadpan, now can I? Robert Smith is known for going over the top, and then another mile or so past that. Which is about a hundred miles outside of my comfort zone.

I can’t remember which album it was, but I remember reading about the rest of the band laughing during the recording session as Smith sang his heart-rending lyrics. Even his bandmates couldn’t take it seriously! I dunno… maybe laughter is the healthiest option. Taking those lyrics at face value could be depressing, to say the least.

To my credit, I’m at least sure to ask myself… what’s the emotion? I don’t have a whole lot of range, but at least I can avoid contradicting the tone of the lyric. There’s passion for sure, but it may come off as a bit understated.

Historically I don’t even practice before I record. Which is silly, because if anyone should practice singing, it’s me. To compensate, I record lots and lots of takes. After a half dozen or so, my ideas about what direction to take start to solidify. Occasionally, there are happy accidents. Rarely, my voice locks in and just effortlessly works.

I ended up re-recording all the vocals for my last album, The Majesty of Our Broken Past. I have no intention of doing that again. If I’m not happy with a vocal, I may try again the next day, but beyond that is too perfectionistic for this project. A little rough around the edges is okay — if I can allow that to happen.

I’m not doubling any of the vocals on this album, but I do have some harmonies, often in fourths. I consider that one of the key thematic elements of the set.

At this point, I’m leaning towards doing all the vocals myself.

Boring? Not so far, because I’ve got a distinct processing chain for each song.

On Majesty, most of the tracks had a the same medium-heavy reverb and wide delay. This time around, we’ve got ourselves some bona fide weirdness.

“Backward” has a lingering echo with a doppler effect that descends in pitch as it repeats. It’s vaguely unsettling.

“Dismembered” has different treatments for the verse, prechorus, and chorus — from a thick cloud of echoes to overdriven pedal distortion. I mean, not like metal or anything. Just a touch of grit. This is Color Theory after all.

Will I be able to come up with six more effect chains? I’m sure I could, but I’ll probably borrow from previous tracks for consistency’s sake. One can only reinvent the wheel so many times…

Chapter Eight: Details

The songs are written, the arrangements fleshed out, the structures finalized, and the vocals recorded. I mix as I work, so everything is sounding pretty close.

What’s left?

Arguably, nothing. At this point, everything I do feels like extra credit. Half the time I end up changing my mind and reverting.

Growing up with Wilder-era Depeche Mode as my primary inspiration, I have a tendency to keep adding parts as the song progresses. The first verse might just be drums, bass, and vocals. The second adds a syncopated synth part to fill in rhythmic gaps in the bassline. The third adds another synth part in counterpoint with the previous one.

It can easily amount to a huge mess by the end of the track, unless you deliberately keep the parts simple. “Lie to Me” is a shining example.

Except, it doesn’t have to be this way. Not all bands do this. The Cure, my primary inspiration for this album, certainly doesn’t.

So this time around, I didn’t either. You can call it laziness, but I consider it personal growth.

Still, I couldn’t allow every verse and every chorus to be identical. As much as I love symmetry and pattern-based composition, I demand at least a slight degree of variety.

Instead of layering synths, I shortened and lengthened sections, adding or taking away lines of the lyric. In defiance of pop music norms, the chorus is typically the most varied. This is going to be a tricky album to sing along to!

And of course I added transitions between sections to overlap the seams, from horror-tinged sound effects to simple drum fills.

I’ve got one more trick up my sleeve to keep the arrangements from growing boring, which I’ll detail in our final installment.

Chapter Nine: A Surprise Every Minute

I love patterns. One of the things I love about The Cure is the repetition of a signature drum pattern and bass riff throughout the entire song, starting around the Kiss Me³ period. Hypnotic.

It makes it so easily to get lost in the song, because there’s no obvious forward progression — just continual drifting. Maybe that’s why I find it so easy to fall asleep to those albums, especially Disintegration with its longer track lengths.

It’s easy for me to do the same with my own music. In fact, over time as I’m working on a song, it becomes harder and harder for me to break the pattern because I’ve already heard it hundreds of times before I even think of changing things up.

As I explained in the previous chapter, I’m forsaking my usual habit of layering synths over the course of the track. I keep things fresh mostly through structural variation, but that wasn’t quite enough, so I implemented a new rule:

A surprise every minute.

What does that mean? It depends, but the basic idea is to deviate from the status quo at least once every sixty seconds.

Typically the change is subtle and not something the average listener will notice unless it’s pointed out to them. For example, I might bring a few notes of the bassline up or down an octave, switch up the hi-hat pattern, add a sound effect, or tweak the delay on the vocal.

I’ve marked each of these “surprises” in the project files, and I challenge you to identify them! That could prove impossible or laughably easy; I wouldn’t know. Perhaps a contest is in order?

Once the requisite number of surprises were inserted into the tracks, they were officially completed. Well, beyond mastering and mix tweaks, but I have nothing novel or interesting to say about that, so we’ll leave it to the imagination.

Now that you’ve read this far, our pact is sealed. Listening to the album will grant you luck — the more you listen, the better the luck!

It goes without saying that something terrible will befall you if you ignore this warning and choose not to listen.

This bond is the only power that remains of one who was once lucky, long ago.

Stream or download “Feral” here.

Brian Hazard

Written by

Electronic musician recording under the name Color Theory. Blogger at Passive Promotion. Head mastering engineer at Resonance Mastering in Huntington Beach, CA.

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