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Joel Roston Composer | Instrumentalist
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Anatomy of a Fun-rangement

10 Apr 2017

Today, I’m releasing the EP Domain Vol. 2 (Electronic Fun-rangements of Civil War Songs), my second and probably/maybe final EP of Civil War songs.

With the release of the first EP, Domain Vol. 1, I published this accompanying blog post, which gave a somewhat coarse explanation of how I put the songs together.

For this new joint, I thought that it might be fun to go a couple of levels deeper into the construction of one of the jamz on the EP.

The only thing you need to know going into this blog post that you might not know is that there’s a technical, like, ecosystem in the audio recording world called MIDI. Given our goal here, I’ll describe MIDI as being like a word processor for sound. You know how in a word processor, you can type letters/words and then choose whatever font you want? MIDI is just like that, but instead of words, you’re inputting pitches and instead of changing visual fonts, you’re changing the texture of the pitches. You can program pitches into a MIDI editing program by hooking a special piano keyboard up to your computer and “playing the pitches in”; once you have the music just how you want it, you can choose what instrument you’d like those pitches to sound like. There are jillions of different instruments/sound-fonts out there and hundreds of companies are releasing tons more every day.

Beyond choosing how a pitch sounds texture-wise, you can get super granular editing MIDI data in pretty much any way you can think of. One of the reasons my Civil War songs sound so wonderfully, blissfully mechanical, for instance, is that I made sure that, for the most part, all of the pitches in a given song are (1) the same volume and (2) exactly on the beat.


The song I’m going to discuss is called “The Dying Volunteer [of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment].” If you read the blog post that accompanied the first EP, then you’ll know that it’s one of the songs in Dover’s “The Civil War Songbook.”

Here’s the exact sheet music included in the book courtesy of the Library of Congress.*

So, the first thing I did was to input every pitch of the score into a MIDI editor and choose a couple of simple textures — just so I had something to listen to when I played it back. In the file, I broke the song down into three tracks:

1. The vocal melody
2. The piano’s right hand (RH)
3. The piano’s left hand (LH)

Here’s what the song sounded like right after inputting the pitches. In this version, I’m using a marimba for the vocal melody and a piano for RH and LH:

Just to be crystal: That was the music EXACTLY as it was written by G. Gumpert except, in place of an actual singer or singers, we heard a marimba.

The next thing I did was choose/design textures that I enjoyed for each of the three tracks. I wound up using a synth for RH, a different synth for LH, and a guitar sound for the vocal melody.

That brought me here:

We’re still hearing the exact same music as the first track, but the instrument-sounds have changed.

That brings us to the point where I started composing my own new parts. The first thing I did was to add a drum part. I tried to make the kick drum pattern a little weird because, for pretty much all of the Civil War songs I arranged, the bass part is rhythmically identical to the kick drum part, so making an interesting, herky-jerky kick drum part sort of guarantees a janky, off-kilter bass part.

Here’s what the song sounds like with the drums added:

With the drums done, I knew exactly where the bass notes were going to go, so I chose pitches that supported the RH and LH harmony, plopped one in at every kick drum hit, and assigned the whole bass track a synth-y sound that I enjoyed.

Here’s the track again with the bass part:

At this point, as with every track on both EPs, I got to a place where I sat back, listened to the song and thought, “Hey, it’s sounding like a real song! It’s kind of boring, though.” so I listened through again to see if I could figure out what it needed. The first thing that occurred to me was that I could compose a second, sometimes-counterpoint-y/somtimes-parallel-harmony-y guitar part for the second verse. I tried it and it ruled.

The second guitar comes in at around 1:15, but, for the sake of blog-ular continuity, here’s the whole song:

I thought things were really shaping up after I added the second guitar part to the second verse, but I still felt like the song needed something more. After experimenting with a bunch of ideas, I wound up writing a new melody to go over the chorus-y parts. I chose a sort of reverb-y, far-away-sounding synth sound and panned it to the left to set it apart from the other textures I was using.

You can here it here, first at around :43 and again at roughly 1:48:

And that was that. Done!

The only thing left to do was to send it, along with the four other tracks on the EP, to my pal Scott Craggs over at Old Colony Mastering to run it through his special sparkle-adding gizmos.

A couple of days later, he sent me back the slightly louder, slightly sharper version that’s on the EP, which you can hear here:

And that, my friends, is how the South was won.

*For the sake of compliance, here’s every possible suggested citation that they give for it:

Chicago citation style:

Gumpert, G, F Losse, and G Gumpert. TheDying volunteer. G. Andre & Co., Philadelphia, 1861. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed April 09, 2017.)

APA citation style:

Gumpert, G., Losse, F. & Gumpert, G. (1861) TheDying volunteer. G. Andre & Co., Philadelphia. [Notated Music] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

MLA citation style:

Gumpert, G, F Losse, and G Gumpert. TheDying volunteer. G. Andre & Co., Philadelphia, 1861. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, . (back)

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