Chad Bouchard and I were extremely close friends in high school. I last saw Chad in person two decades before his podcast, Hyperlab Omni, was born. After the COVID-19 pandemic spurred us to finally reconnect virtually, we were mutually surprised that we were both active in the podcasting world (he as a writer and host, me as an engineer and editor).
After hearing a sample episode, I couldn’t help but pitch Chad on something that felt both Quixotic and Herculean: Creating a custom underscore for a full season of a podcast, every episode of which had wall-to-wall music behind everything.
Some quick math suggested about 10 hours of music.
I lusted for this chance simply because I’ve never tried it before. Could I create that much music in the time needed? Could it be more active, interesting, and energetic than just drones? Could it be efficiently made but still be expressive?
Given the show’s focus on magazines from the late 70s and early 80s, it seemed only natural to use synthesizers like analog computers. I’m normally not one for musical nostalgia in my own work, but this seemed like a fun challenge…and a nice indulgence in recapitulating some of my core influences. I aimed to build self-generating or self-playing modular synthesizer patches that could evolve and morph on their own, needing just a little human interaction to keep them evolving and interesting. It seemed like a great way to approach generating that volume of material while staying true to the “science-weird” themes explored in the podcast.
It worked well, and these mostly self-playing patches formed the bulk of the soundtrack’s first volume. All the compositions and their effects were rendered in real time, as stereo takes with no overdubs. One really cheap trick was to print some of the tracks I composed to tape and just play them back at half speed. I did that as a test – as a joke, really – but surprisingly, it fit a lot of the material, and we stuck with it. The album contains a mix of those half-speed laybacks and full-speed versions never heard on the show.
I used a lot of classic analog synthesis tricks to keep things moving and interesting. Lots of tracks were clocked and timed with looping envelopes that would send end-of-cycle or end-of-rise triggers. I used sample and hold circuits to transpose sequencers or quantizers, so that things stayed in key (for those tracks that weren’t just atonal freakouts). I used logic and comparator circuits to allow the states of LFOs to be compared and then events would fire based on those comparisons. I used a mix of subtractive, additive, and wavetable synthesis, avoiding granular synthesis as sounding too modern for the show.
I made liberal use of external preamps and a stereo spring reverb rack unit to impart more heat and flavor to the pieces. I chose to apply no compression in the mixing stage, instead recording with huge amounts of headroom. Mastering was kept entirely analogue.
These cues were long. I mean, really long. The shortest one was seven minutes long, the longest was half an hour. I was surprised when the greatest challenge of this project wasn’t making the music, but how to curate it down to a listenable length as a soundtrack album (or four, as was the plan at one time). In one of those classic “duh” moments, once I realized the tracks would make for a fun listen as a continuous mix (a format I love and have released in the past many times), I was freed to make any cue any length I wanted, so I aimed for an always-shifting, ever-changing soundscape approach for the soundtrack in its album form.
This is also a great time to give a special shout out to the cover artist for the album, Anxo Vizcaino. Discovered by the album’s logotype designer (and longtime design collaborator) Corey Holms, I basically just re-wrote the brief that Chad gave me for the music, and Anxo jumped in with great enthusiasm given his love of some of the same magazine the show itself discusses. He was an utter joy to work with.
But it quickly became clear that some moments couldn’t be underscored generatively, even those that I would perform with in real time. You’ll learn more about that in the production notes on Volume Two, which is coming soon! Stay tuned to learn more.