I met Robert Clifton-Harvey in the FREE Sound Design Class I’m currently attending. After looking at his Soundcloud profile, I was amazed how he makes his orchestral sounds. I’ve always wanted to make an orchestral track but my sounds just suck balls. His tracks, in my opinion, can be easily used for short films. I also stumbled upon a sample of a VST he made, Tiny Metal Impact, which is a sample of metal sounds hitting each other. His Metal-ness doesn’t stop with metallic sounds hitting each other, though. He actually was part of a Metalcore band before, shredding some guitar. Growing up listening to Metallica, Pantera, Black Sabbath, etc., and currently wanting to sequence orchestral music, I somehow can relate to Rob. So I just had to ask him some questions!
Learn more about Rob’ s music, his Tiny Metal Impact VST and more after the jump!
1. I read that you started playing the piano when you were 8, switched to electrical guitar in the 90s and now you’re sequencing orchestral music. Yeah… tell us about how all of that happened?
I come from a musical background. My English grandma was a sophisticated piano player, “the family legend” has it that she played with the great Dame Melba on occasions. My mother is a piano player, my uncle a guitarist, and in the quiet suburban part of town where I grew up, nearly all of the kids would at some time learn to play the piano or keyboard. So when I was around the age of 8, my mom decided it was time to force me to take piano lessons. At first it was okay, and I decided I liked the instrument. It was new, it was exciting, it was a completely unknown world to get lost in and to explore. But creating wasn’t a part of my piano education, only copying what the ‘big ones’ like Mozart and Beethoven had already created, so I quickly lost interest in the piano again.
Along came puberty, and with it two friends who independently introduced me to Grunge and Metal music. It took a while to get me hooked, but within a few weeks I turned from Dune, Praga Khan and Plastic Bertrand over Nirvana and Silverchair straight to Metallica, Pantera and Slayer. In the following years I switched to a school that had a room for band practice and encouraged its pupils to form bands and make music. It was a normal secondary/grammar school, nothing fancy, just that they supported young people’s wishes to “be in a band”. So obviously I was around musically involved people, and thus decided I wanted to learn playing the guitar in order to make the sort of music I enjoyed listening to. My parents wouldn’t support this impulse, looking back at my quickly lost interest in piano playing, so I did what’s probably the most rock star thing a 14 year old could do: I did paper rounds, saved all my pocket money that was formerly spent on computer magazines and soda pop, and when Christmas came along and finally gave my savings the necessary volume – I just went to a store and bought a rubbish guitar, FX pedal and amplifier. It was a love story from then on. I would come home from school (about 13:30h), drop my school bag and start making the strangest noises until it was time for dinner. I’m an autodidact, so it didn’t take long to figure out how to make the noises more pleasant, and after reading just 1/2 a book on guitar playing I found a store that had two Metallica sheet music books with tabs in store, so that was step two. The songs off their ‘Ride the Lightning’ and ‘Load’ albums became the first in my repertoire. The big difference to the things I played in piano lessons was that I could actually identify with the music I tried copying. I knew that learning how to play those songs would teach me the necessary tricks and moves to start developing my own riffs and tricks. After not quite two years of guitar playing I was way ahead of all the others in the bands at my school as far as technique goes. Combining the theory I had from the piano lessons and the determination (I’m too humble to call it ‘talent’) to play guitar I set out to write my own songs and make the world a louder and more metal place than it was.
After playing in some very strange formations, and not playing in any band for a few years, I finally met the lead vocalist from my last big project, who was actually still in a band but not quite as happy with it as he wanted to be. Came Halloween 2008, and with that last concert in his former group we quickly conjured up a local drummer and bassist and started our own project. It took only 5 rehearsals until we had our first song not just written but also recorded (home made quality), and it was the topic of this first song (“Repeat”, lyrics on YouTube) that made us choose a name for our project: Exit Dead End. No one really liked how it sounded, too much like “accident”, but it was powerful because of the ambivalence it suggests – is it about taking an exit into a dead end, or is it the exit from a dead end? I stayed with the band all the time, wrote most of the music and a large part of the lyrics, and just got it all going and kept it together. One of the album tracks even has me “singing” on it. Even though it sounds arrogant, and none of the guys really spoke it out loud, I think it was pretty clear to all that the band would fall apart if I left. Which, ironically, was exactly the reason why we parted. I had too much to do myself, I started handing out assignments and being angry when others didn’t keep up… so in the end we weren’t a band anymore, we were a club that met to sit in the sun, smoke, drink and listen to me ranting about the missing morale and dedication. So we inevitably started disagreeing and finally split up.
It was near the end of that band phase when I started getting bored with the monotony of just making Metal music all the time, and I started looking for a contrasting genre to work in. I found this contrast in the (computer-based) Soundtrack genre, call it “trailer music” or “movie music” or “epic orchestral scoring” or anything in that direction if you will. I was fascinated by the powerful emotions one could create and cause and support with it, because it’s so much more than just “classical music”. It’s actually a clever art of using some classical elements and blending them with this very special ingredient that’s always so hard to find: whatever does the trick. So there are almost limitless possibilities of what one can use and how one can use it to create a good track in this genre, and that’s the aspect of it that attracted me the most. Having no boundaries. If there needs to be a powerful rock guitar or a synthesized bassline or a certain special noise in the track to make the orchestral background create a certain feeling – then so be it. What you can hear on my “chokehold” page at SoundCloud is a documentation of the evolution from a bleeding beginner to an ambitious amateur. If you listen closely, you can spot the development, the progress of each track against the others. In some of the first I gave no care to note velocities, later I started bringing sound samples and modulation effects into the game, I discovered articulations, I explored the possibilities of arranging melodies so that one instrument would introduce it and another section would “steal” it over and over again, I went from using only Kontakt’s factory content to using almost exclusively non-factory libraries, ranging from free to pricy… so the overall sound as well as the small details have very much matured over time.
2. I took a look at your free VST – Tiny Metal Impact and it has cool percussion sounds in it. Why suddenly into creating VSTs, and more importantly, how do you make a VST anyway? [download link and audio sample will be included]
First off: I am also a programmer, yes. I attempted VST/AU programming a few times over the last years, but it’s a topic that’s just way too deep for me. To be any good at it, I would have to give it more time and focus than I seem to have available, so I’ve decided to leave this part to others who are already good at it.
To make my sounds widely avaiblable, I would have to use the most common samplers such as Kontakt/Halion/Mach5 and create new instruments and patches for each one of them. Unfortunately, I don’t have the necessary time and money to do that. So I decided to take the easy way out and use this great piece of software called MaizeSampler, that lets me create quite elaborate virtual instruments and GUIs, and with which I can export plugins for the two big platforms (Win/Mac) without any requirement for a specific software sampler to be installed.
As to why all that: with the possibility to use, or rather mis-use, every given sound or noise as an instrument arose my curiosity towards sampling and sound design. I grew aware of the fact that even by spending the largest amounts of money on the most exquisit and most exclusive libraries – I was still limited in my possibilities, because I could only resort to exactly the same arsenal of sounds as all the other home producers out there. I could arrange the notes differently, vary the articulations, layer different libraries… but I would still only have the same basic sounds all the others had. That was how I developed the need to find strange sounds, to record and sample them, and to arrange them into virtual instruments I could later on use in my own productions and have sounds in there which would separate my overall sound to that of others.
Having been a member of some well-known online communities focusing on recording, sound design and effects for several years now, I once as a beginner who had no cash and no sounds could profit from other people’s ingenuity, creativity and generosity. It is this spirit that drives me to give back something to others in these communities, not just something to plainly enjoy, but something to inspire them, give them access to sounds they didn’t have before. Sadly, I’m currently trying to move from one city to another, so that leaves me hardly any time to spare for creating these virtual instruments.
As you mentioned, I recently sampled and released Tiny Metal Impact, a free virtual instrument consisting of highly percussive sounds (made by small metal objects colliding). That was a first step into the open and, to be honest, an experiment as to how the way I would deliver the samples would be received or rejected by the community. Seems like it’s being widely appreciated, so I’ll keep on creating and giving – once I have the time for it.
3. I like how your orchestral tracks sound. Do you make these for films, video games, etc.?
No, none of those are the case. All creativity and progress aside, unfortunately I’m still missing the one thing I need to create my orchestral-ish tracks the way I want to: a concept. At the moment, I’m just blindly creating “something”, firing ideas at the world, random intent, random success.
What I now need is another challenge, a bigger challenge, like an independent movie project in need of a free soundtrack or something along those lines. An excuse to stop experimenting and start focusing. But that has yet to come.
4. I’m just curious, what VSTs do you use for your drums and strings? They all sound so clear and powerful.
Have a look at the tags I gave the tracks on SoundCloud. The older tracks in the “Phase #1″ set don’t have them, but the newer “Work in Progress” tracks do. They give you a list of all the sound sources I used in the tracks.
5. You must have some cool knowledge on chords before you can make an orchestral track… Do you write the chords first before sequencing them?
It depends. I do know a lot of musical theory, but I prefer not relying on it too much. If something needs to sound a certain way so that I think it’s right, it is completely irrelevant to me if I use a theoretically incorrect approach in order to reach that sound. Theory is not a set of rules to me, it’s a set of guidelines to get me started in a certain direction. To know what sort of interval I need to use between two chords in order to create a certain mood is great, but once the first sketch of a track is keyed in – everything can happen. From then on, I listen only to my heart and not to my head. The only problem, as mentioned earlier, for me is to find that certain direction to start with, as I don’t really have a concept to work along yet. Most of my tracks get born out of spontaneous ideas or simply playing around with sounds.
6. You also have a metalcore band! What instrument do you play? Do you also record , mix and master these yourself since you already know how to put things together in a sequencer?
The last band, Exit Dead End, split up, and now I’m moving to another city, so no – I’m not currently in a Metalcore band anymore. But once the transition phase is over and I’m back on track, I’m sure I won’t make it long without finding or founding another band. I am a Metal guitarist through and through, and I really need to be on stages destroying my ears.
But being free of a band also means another thing: not being limited by the skillset of other musicians. So at the moment, I have the possibility to completely unfold and go absolutely crazy, as there is no drummer to complain that the measures are too odd, and no singer to whine about losing track after the opening verse etc. I’m totally free to work on a project that can be titulated as nothing else but satirical nerdism. It’s all about confirming clichés specific to the Deathcore genre – but at the same time letting it still be intelligent and interesting enough to not just count as blunt parody. Uneven rhythms, incomprehensible riffs, very low tuning, very high speed, a lot of breakdowns… It has an offensive name, which is the first cliché to be fulfilled, and it is still in a very early concept stage, so I don’t think it would be appropriate or even worth linking it on your blog.
Usually when have an idea in mind, I start by programming the basic drum rhythms. Alongside that I’ll play guitar, to see how the two instruments work together. Once I’ve got the drums worked out, I’ll record the guitar tracks – both dry DI signal and over a real amp and cabinet. The amped tracks give me a first impression of how the guitar will behave and function throughout the track. After that comes the bass, usually just a DI track and some elaborate processing in the box. Last step are vocals, nothing too fancy going on there. The guitar DI tracks come to use when I’m done with recording and arranging other instruments or refining the drums, because then I might need to re-amp and re-model the guitar sound so it will fit into the rest of the mix.
Once everything sounds about half-way-there, I start mixing the track and … I wouldn’t call it “mastering”, more like “polishing it up” afterwards. True mastering is an art for itself, and I would never dream about comparing my own mild attempts to the work of those out there who have really dedicated themselves to the cause.
7. What other VSTs do you plan to make?
I pointed out earlier, I don’t actually program the VSTs, I only produce the sample content and shape the sounds into a virtual instrument.
I have absolutely no idea what and when I’ll release next. Currently awaiting realisation are two sampled instruments, one is an eastern European stringed instrument, the other involves a radiator…