Blog Archives

New sounds: Drones and Atmospherics

We have a new soundpack! Drones and Atmospherics Volume One consists of two six-minute ambient drone sounds that GMs can use to underscore unsettling, creepy or otherwise dramatic scenes in their adventures. You can hear and download our new drones at toxicbag.com or drivethrurpg.com.

A blasted heath. An alien planet. Cyberspace. A distant moon orbiting a dead world. The End of Time.

Sometimes you don’t need a specific ambience. Sometimes you just want there to be something…ambient. A background, an atmosphere, a drone.

Whether you’re running a horror campaign, sci-fi opera, fantasy epic or anything in between, the Drones and Atmospherics series gives you a variety of creepy, mysterious sounds to underscore your most unsettling locations.  Each drone is six minutes long. We’ve given them names, because “Drone 1” and “Drone 2” wouldn’t be very evocative. But don’t just take our titles as gospel – use them for whatever you like!

Drones & Atmospherics Volume One includes two six-minute creepy mood-setting drones.

Haunted Drone: an electronic hum supports random bursts of mystic energy that drift back and forth across an unearthly abyss.

The Ruins Drone: A wasted land? A devastated planet? The slow song of a dead people drifts across the shattered sky.

Drones and Atmospherics I cover

Ghost in the Graveyard soundtrack

We love those old horror movies from the late 1970s and early 1980s; the slasher films, the monster-from-outer-space films, the zombie films. What we especially love are the soundtracks. The really low-budget, simple scores that eschewed live orchestras in favor of banks of analog synthesizers and were often composed and performed by the director himself. And we love to use those soundtracks in our games. But invariably, we’ll cue up a track from one of these films to underscore a dramatic moment and realize that the players were thinking less about the game – and more about the movie the music came from.

So we decided to create our own awesome 80s horror movie music. As fate would have it, we do have a few vintage analog synths in our studio (including an old Moog Rogue and a Roland Juno 106), so we fired them up and started playing.

The result is the “Ghost in the Graveyard” soundtrack album: nine dark, moody music pieces performed on classic analog synths in the style of those fantastic 80s horror flicks.

There’s no movie, of course, just a bunch of cool music. But we kinda didn’t let that stop us. Just for kicks, as we were mastering the album, we also rounded up a couple of local actors and shot fake trailers and opening credits for the movie that doesn’t exist.

Ghost In The Graveyard Trailer #1 from Toxic Bag on Vimeo.

And we didn’t stop with the trailers! Downloads of the soundtrack from DrivethruRPG or Toxic Bag also include a special set of souvenir lobby cards, 2 movie posters and a reproduction of a 1983 newspaper ad with showtimes for “Ghost in the Graveyard.”

Clearly, we had a lot of fun working on this project. We hope you enjoy it as well.

You can see the trailers at our YouTube and Vimeo pages, and buy the soundtrack at Toxic Bag dot com or DrivethruRPG.

Special thanks to Stephanie Lewis, Alan Vuchichevich and Ele Matelan for their great work on the trailers!

Dose of Delia: birthday edition 2011

Once again we wish you all a Happy Delia Derbyshire‘s birthday!

Your Dose of Delia for today is Moogies Bloogies, Delia Derbyshire with Anthony Newley. Enjoy!

Mackers 2010 and the Waterphone

As I mentioned earlier, I revisited Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth this summer, having done a sound design for it at another school a year and a half previously. The challenge as I saw it was not to repeat myself or simply regurgitate my own sound design and music. I think I was pretty successful at that. The music and ambient sound for the 2010 production is not as heavy and industrial as the one I did in 2008, but still manages to be creepy and unsettling.

For this new Macbeth, I made liberal use of Todd Barton, Joel Henigson, and Richard Waters’ Waterphone sample collection. It’s set up for Kontakt, but I don’t own that software, so once I’d bought the sample set I built 2 sampler instruments in Reason, placing the samples where they seemed to make sense (one of the sample sets, Todd’s I think, came with a handy .pdf that showed how he mapped the samples in Kontakt, so I just aped that layout in Reason). I also threw some of the bowed samples way down in the lower octaves and they gave me some fantastic drones.

For $15 the Uncharted Waters Waterphone sample set is a great sound design tool. I recommend it highly.

I’ve also posted a montage of sounds from Macbeth on my Soundcloud page:

Projects update: March 2010

Here’s the news in Toxic Bag-land right about now.

I’ve just finished sound design and final mixing for the new Getting To Know video, a 20-minute cartoon about French painter Edgar Degas. My brother Tim Griffin provided the voice of Degas. The DVDs should hit the virtual shelves in a few weeks.

There are currently two theatre projects on the Toxic Bag calendar. The first is Hobo Junction’s new musical “The Regulars.” Chicago multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Przygoda is working with me on arrangements for all the songs. Composers Josh Zagoren and Dan Krall send us fantastic demos, and we embellish them with all sorts of rock-musical awesomeness. “The Regulars” opens May 7 at the Apollo Theater in Chicago. Our stage manager, Amy, is blogging about the pre-production process as well…and of course visit the Hobo Junction Facebook page for video updates from Josh!

The other show is Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” at Moraine Valley Community College. It opens the last week of April, and we haven’t had our first production meeting yet so I’m not sure what form the sound design will take. However, I have been listening to a lot of George Antheil while reading the script, and I think I may move in that direction. We’ll see…

Meanwhile, Mr. Blood is down in his lair building new Toxic Bag products, and I hope to have some sort of definite announcement about that –and some other things– very soon.

The conversation…

This week’s Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast features an interview with Nick Keenan (sound designer for Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”) and Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli (sound designers for the Goodman’s “Rock and Roll”).

I haven’t seen Nick’s “Piano Lesson” design (though I intend to) but I thought the design for “Rock and Roll” was pretty fantastic.

The three designers do a great job of taking us through some of the design choices behind their shows, and as Nick says, it’s a good piece of the aesthetics conversation we’ve all been talking about.

And since I’ve been saying that at some point I should join this discussion, I’m going to jump in on some topics they covered..

The Palette
The mention of “the palette” was cool. I’d like to hear more from them about it. It’s an important facet of the way I tend to work—the musical palette especially. Drawing the palette into sharp focus (or not) gives me a very clear idea of what I’m driving towards. Frequently it’s my “way in” to the show. To wit:

Boy Gets Girl: A stalker gradually eradicates a young woman’s identity. The palette for this show was two musical pieces, one of which gradually insinuated itself into the other until all traces of the original music were gone.

re: Alice: this show almost had a non-palette. In Wonderland anything can happen, so the music runs the gamut from orchestral electronica to ambient acoustic guitar to screaming Minor Threat-esque punk rock.

Macbeth: the director wanted to use Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major (the “Ghost”) but have a hard industrial edge to the music. The main music palette, then, was “Ghost” as it would appear on a Nine Inch Nails album (for lack of hipper shorthand). Every piece was based on some theme or phrase from the Beethoven piece, which tied the show together while (hopefully) not becoming redundant. Limiting the instrumentation to processed piano, low horns and drum machine helped as well. This also gave me an opportunity to find a place to break out of the palette: when the MacDuff family is slaughtered, Macbeth has moved beyond killing politicians and soldiers—men whose lives inherently carry some danger—and now we’re seeing a child butchered onstage. The heavy drums were still there, but a distorted electric guitar and a processed female wail replace the melodic instruments, and Beethoven is nowhere to be found.

The Cinematic Approach
Nick, Josh and Ray make an interesting point about the influence of film on theatrical sound design and how it pushes designers, especially their generation (and I think these guys are 5-10 years younger than me) to produce more lush, full designs. I’m very influenced by cinematic sound as well (being part of the Summer Blockbuster generation myself) and I think for me it goes in phases. I remember doing very immersive sound designs where I wanted every location to have its own signature, its own background sound, and I’d create ambient beds that would run under entire scenes. I’d do that for a few shows and then back off of it and go completely in the other direction, aiming for a more stark approach. Part of that (of course) had to do with the shows and directors I worked with. But I also know that I go through phases of wanting to try different approaches, and recently that’s involved how lush or spare I get with designs.

More on this soon!

Dose of Delia: Birthday edition

I’m dead keen on limiting resources…You need to have discipline in order to be truly creative. If you’re just given total freedom to do anything you like… You’ve got to impose some discipline on either the form you’re going to use or the sounds you’re going to use.
–Delia Derbyshire

Today’s Dose of Delia is in honor of what would have been the composer’s 72nd birthday. As I’ve said in the past, Delia Derbyshire is best known to sci-fi fans for her electronic realization of Ron Grainer’s theme music for the BBC television series Doctor Who.

Delia Derbyshire 1937-2001

Delia Derbyshire 1937-2001

It sounds like synthesizers, but Delia’s recording of Doctor Who was created with tape editing, electronic filters and tape loops. She’d record individual notes from oscillators and other electronic sources, one by one onto tape, cut them up with a razor and stick them back together in order. As someone who’s edited miles of tape, I can tell you: that’s a long and labor-intensive process. Delia assembled Doctor Who over the course of two weeks.

From delia-derbyshire.org:

Within a matter of months [after joining the BBC Radiophonic Workshop] she had created her recording of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme, one of the most famous and instantly recognisable TV themes ever… “Did I really write this?” [Grainer] asked. “Most of it,” replied Derbyshire.

On the score he’d written “sweeps”, “swoops”… beautiful words… “wind cloud”, “wind bubble”… so I got to work and put it together and when Ron heard the results.. oh he was tickled pink!
–Delia Derbyshire

Have a jelly baby and enjoy Delia Derbyshire’s recording of the Doctor Who theme. Happy birthday, Delia!

You Better Beware

Or I Might Take A Tumble

As I’ve said before, Delia Derbyshire is the BBC Radiophonic Workshop musician who recorded Ron Grainer’s theme music for Doctor Who.

Today’s Dose of Delia is “Here Come The Fleas,” a charming track from the 1968 White Noise album. Interestingly, the guitar solo sounds like something from a Brian Eno album from 1973 or ’74…


Delia Derbyshire CDs and DVDs can be found at her website.
I ain’t connected to that in any way; I just thought you should know.

Long Distance Runaround

We’re (virtually) putting the band back together

Soon after college I moved into a small house in Des Plaines, IL with a couple of friends. The rhythm guitarist for the band I was in moved with his girlfriend to an apartment a few miles away, but the bass player and drummer settled in Ann Arbor, MI and Milwaukee, WI respectively. Needless to say, this created a huge challenge as far as rehearsing, songwriting and recording was concerned, and when piled atop personality clashes and creative differences the geographical separation caused the band to eventually disintegrate.

Years later, I formed an experimental music project called Donny Who Loved Bowling with my friend Chris. At the time he lived near me in Chicago, and we put together about half of our first CD by getting together in my studio once a week or so. But then he moved to Austin, Texas and things got decidedly more difficult. We finished the CD by renting a dedicated studio space for a week, taking vacation time and flying Chris to Chicago. And while that was a hell of a lot of fun, we knew that constantly taking vacations and flying across the country was not going to be financially feasible for long. Nor would it be artistically satisfying; we wanted to be able to make music without having to spend months planning and scheduling, and without going broke on plane tickets. Without some sort of practical solution this band may have folded as well.

Of course, as Donny Who Loved Bowling is an experimental/studio-only band, rehearsing for (and performing) live shows is not something we’re concerned about. We just need to be able to record. So we decided to figure out a way to collaborate on recordings over the internet. Chris set up a .mac account with a publicly-accessible folder so that we could upload tracks whenever we had something new to share. And since both of us have home recording setups, we only rarely had to spend money to go into a commercial studio.

What happens now is that Chris will put together a track on his Apple Garageband rig, and then upload an .aif of the rough mix and “splits,” which are the individual tracks –guitar, bass, drum machine, and so forth—to his .mac account’s public folder. I download the files, throw them into my Pro Tools system and add my own tracks. I spit out a reference mix and upload it back to the public folder so he can hear what I’ve done. Then he’ll add some more stuff, or send me an email telling me what he thinks of where the song is at, and we repeat the back-and-forth process. Once we’ve done all of the overdubbing we want, we use this same procedure to mix the song—I upload each successive mix and wait for feedback from him via email.

To tweak and perfect this workflow, we spent the last 18 months recording a full album’s worth of cover songs entitled Butcher Covers, which we put out as a download-only release earlier this year.

Butcher Covers

Butcher Covers

The next step is to apply this process to an album of original material, and we’re already well into that.

Of course it helps that we don’t have the interpersonal sturm und drang that the old band had. But it’s fantastic that we’ve managed to find a simple and inexpensive way to continue to create music despite a thousand-mile separation.

Tuesday Miscellany

I’m not a programmer or physics major, so many of the jokes fly past me, but I really do enjoy xkcd.

The comic I’m posting about won’t fit on this page, so I’m afraid I’ll just have to link to it. Sorry. Go ahead and look at it; I’ll stay right here.

This happens to me frequently, and in fact happened just last night. Oddly, though, when I have “back in college” dreams I also construct an entire section of Michigan State’s campus (and a few blocks off campus) that doesn’t actually exist. It’s generally located at the northeast corner of the actual campus. This is doubly odd as, being a radio/TV major I spent most of my time at the Communication Arts building, which is to the south and more or less west-ish.

The imaginary guitar shops just north of the imaginary MSU campus are quite cool, I have to say.

Today’s Dose of Delia:
Delia Derbyshire is best known to sci-fi fans as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop musician who recorded Ron Grainer’s theme music for Doctor Who. She was also a tremendously influential electronic music composer.

Today’s Delia Derbyshire track is “Love Without Sound,” from the 1968 White Noise album An Electric Storm.

%d bloggers like this: