I've finally completed one of the many tracks I've been working on these past few weeks. I'm particularly excited about this, not only because it's the longest and more complex I've published so far (about 9 minutes), but also because it's the first one that also features some vocals (contributed by my youngest sister).
It tells the story of the last night of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, up to her execution. Her story is quite tragic, and definitely controversial as well: if you want to learn more, you better start digging on Wikipedia or some history book, as everyone has a different opinion on her life and actions, and her troubled relationship with her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. That's why what I decided to focus on in this track was only her last night (after 18 years of imprisonment, she was sentenced to death and executed), with no judgement on anything before that.
If you're curious on the "why" of all this, at the cost of sounding "mystical", the idea to write a song about her came to me in a dream many years ago... In that dream, a boat carrying a woman sitting on a chair and a few men around her was traversing a river in the night, torches all across the shores; on one of the shores, a kid asked "who is that woman?", and his grandfather answered "that's the Queen of Scotland", and immediately after that the dream filled with a beautiful and loud choir, and I woke up. Unfortunately I forgot the choir harmony and notes right away, but I was left impressed: I didn't know about Mary I of Scotland at the time, so when I started reading about her (she obviously was the first Google result for "Queen of Scotland"! ), the memory of the dream stayed with me up to this day, when I realized some of the themes I was composing could fit her story nicely.
I structured the track in different parts:
- At the beginning, an orchestra choir sketches one of the main themes, soon followed by a strings section. As you can guess, this is my "homage" to the dream I was mentioning before.
- Then, a more "traditional" folk ballad starts, which is where I added the first vocal parts to have Mary share some of her thoughts: a nyckelharpa (I would have preferred a hurdy gurdy, but couldn't find a good soundfont for that) and harpsichord start painting the picture, and are soon joined by bass, drums and an acoustic guitar. I guess my lyrics for the vocals are a bit naive (writing those was not as easy as I thought), but I think my sister did a great job bringing them to life! The tiny bell/glockenspiel arpeggio you can hear in a couple of parts is a homage to "Elizabeth" by Kamelot (incidentally about Elizabeth Bathory, not Queen Elizabeth I, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mzFjClstLA), a track I have always been fascinated by and that has a similar part.
- Night ends and dawn arrives, which means death is on its way: the bell is joined by some eerie strings, that turn in a short, painful strings theme.
- The theme leads to a more atmospheric section of the track: multiple sound effects (mostly collected on FreeSound.org) try to describe the guards coming to pick Mary from her cell to bring her to the scaffold, her walk towards the execution scene, an angry mob shouting at her every step of the way. A sad theme, introduced by a quiet pad, is repeated and built upon by different instruments to accompany all that.
- As soon as Mary is executed, the track changes completely, and a brass section introduces the final, and main, theme. It's the same theme the choir sketched initially, but celebratory now, since (as some more vocals in this section soon start to tell) she may be dead, but her memory is alive forever. The theme becomes more and more heavy and "noisy" (sorry, can't really ever put my metal soul to rest! ), up until the "triumphant" ending.
- Now, the song may have ended there, but I decided to still have it followed by a simple acoustic guitar playing the sad theme of part 4. in front of a fireplace; this small epilogue was meant to symbolise how her sad story would be still told over the centuries in books and songs. The approach used in this section also is partly a homage, specifically to the acoustic outro of "The Prophecy" by Iron Maiden (https://youtu.be/xwmB_bIJUHw?t=240).
- As usual, I used Lilypond to write all the MIDI parts for all the instruments; I already explained on the Eurydice page why I didn't (and still don't) use Ardour directly for that, apart from tiny fixes. This time, though, I made use of a tool called "qmidiroute" to allow Frescobaldi (the Lilypond editor I use for composing) to take advantage of LinuxSampler, QSynth, ZynAddSubFx and other tools at the same time to render the MIDI generated by Lilypond during the composition process. It's a fantastic tool, as it allows you to route messages for different channels to different MIDI ports, and optionally rewrite parts of them; this way, I could tell Frescobaldi to send everything there (as opposed to, e.g., send everything to QSynth to the same soundfont as before), and let qmidiroute pass, e.g., strings to a channel in LinuxSampler, and the pad to ZynAddSubFx. This made the process much more organic, as now I could have a much more realistic preview of how it all needed to sound like right away, where before I would have needed to wait until importing the MIDI in Ardour and configure the MIDI tracks to get the same result with the right renderer. This allowed me to focus on the composition part up until the very end, and only then, when I was basically happy with the result, import the MIDI file in Ardour.
- Mixing, fine tuning of the MIDI parts and recording of everything else was, as usual, done in Ardour. The orchestral instruments (choirs, strings, glockenspiel and brass section) were done via the "Virtual Playing Orchestra" SFZ, using LinuxSampler; the sustained nyckelharpa is also a SFZ, from the brilliant "Early Music Ensemble" library; the harpsichord is from the standard Fluidsynth soundfont, mostly because, weirdly enough, I couldn't get anything I liked more in any of the other libraries; the eerie strings you can hear briefly at the end of the ballad come from the free and excellent "Scary Strings" Windows VST by Spitfire Labs; finally, the pad in the atmospheric section is the amazing "Fantasy choir" from ZynAddSubFx.
- Drums were, as usual, done with the sensational DrumGizmo and the Muldjord kit. Preparing the "quieter" drums in the first part was a bit of a challenge, since this kit is mostly for metal, but I think that playing with velocities it came out nicely.
- Bass was, for the first time, a real bass (yeah, I finally bought one!).
- For guitars, this time I used both an amplified acoustic guitar (ballad, outro) and electric guitars (atmospheric part, finale); acoustic guitars were recorded as-is, while electric guitars were processed using the usual mix of Rakarrack effects (three different clean tones in the atmospheric section) and Guitarix (the Running Wild preset for heavy tones in the finale). For the first time, instead of my Fender Stratocaster I used my EVH Wolfgang for all the electric guitar parts, and I really like how it sounds.
- Vocals were recorded with my sister's Neewer condenser mic (NW-500). It was my very first experience with one of those, and I have to admit it was a bit painful. First of all, for some reason it refused to work with my Scarlett Solo: at first I thought it was because it lacked phantom power, but 1. the Scarlett Solo has a button to provide that, and 2. after throwing money away on an external phantom power provided it still wouldn't work. Eventually, I got it to work using a combo splitter and plugging it as a regular mic in the laptop (which provides the 5V it needs, with no need for phantom power). Apart from that, I think it will be obvious I have no clue on how to record vocals, as they sound much worse than the rest... besides, I'm pretty sure I could have greatly improved the way they sound in the mix, but after all I'm not entirely displeased with the result in the verses (apart from the P's that are a bit too loud). The vocals in the ending are a different picture, instead: they were supposed to be a mix of 4-5 voices and be quite powerful, but the end result was quite messy (mostly because it was supposed to include my ugly voice in the finale too, which sucks badly ), which is why I only left my sister harmonizing with herself in a much more subdued way. Unfortunately this also ended up with her voice mostly covered by the rest of the instruments... hopefully I'll learn how to handle vocals properly in the future.
- Finally, I also decided to install and (ab)use the Dragonfly reverb plugins, since I had seen them mentioned in several different places: I actually used both the "Hall" and the "Room" reverb plugins, the former on all the orchestral parts (choirs, strings, brass), and the latter on everything else. I have to say thanks to Michael for his amazing job on those! While I've probably made more than one mistake in configuring them and the related aux tracks, I think their end result was quite impressive, and I'm really looking forward to use them even more in the future.