Future Imperfect

So here's our attempt to be Rush.

Future Imperfect


Track Breakdown

Just for fun, I've written some notes about each interesting section of the song.

0:00 - 0:12 "Intro" theme
The first thing you hear is the chords of the Carvin Bolt+ "Blueshifter", recorded direct through the Line6 POD amp simulator, a nice crunchy amplifer setting. 
I recorded the guitar twice, the two tracks panned hard left and right, with some aggressive EQ notches applied to each track at different frequencies, adding some subtle differences to each side of the stereo spread. Additionally, I've made a severe roll-off on anything under 200Hz, removing most of the bass frequencies from the guitar.
Accompanying the guitar is XLN Addictive drums (performed using the SPD-20 8-pad controller) and the Carvin BK5 bass, recorded through a different patch on the Line6 POD. 
In the past I've had trouble getting a good bass sound - I've tried the POD before and failed; and I've tried virtual effects like Guitar Rig, and Amplitude, but this time, something clicked in a good way, and the POD is victorious with a patch with some drive and mid-frequency scooping, and a lot of treble for grit. 
The bass sounds just great on its own, but in the mix I applied a couple of tricks: 
  • I applied some EQ roll-off at frequencies above 2 kHz because there's other instruments that need that frequency space. There's still sufficient volume on the remaining signal that you can hear the grit and squeak and pop from the bass, but it is pulled down so as to not get in the way of the guitar.
  • Anything below 100 Hz got -12db to free up the drums.
  • Finally, I unabashedly cut the track into segments and applied aggressive volume enveloping so that the note transitions are staccato and crisp, muting things like muffled string vibration, bass resonance, etc. When the bass it supposed to be quiet, its now dead quiet. Without this inter-note muting, although you don't hear the extra fluff directly, it can muffle up the mix. You can sure notice the difference when its removed. 
The second time through the chord sequence, we're joined by a lead guitar (the Gibson L6-S), plus a mixture of "Hammond Organ" - the Roland VK8 - and "Trumpet Synth", as realized by a nice "GX-1"- type sound on the CS-80v virtual instrument from Arturia. (This combined Hammond+GX1 sound is, of course, a total steal/homage to Keith Emerson's tone palette from '77.)
The organ and synth together give a nice statement of the main theme.  Let's make something clear from the get-go:
It's often that composers hear a riff or chord sequence that sounds great, and only later on do they realize they've ripped it off some other famous song or composition by another artist. Sometimes it's tolerable, and sometimes not. Shortly after Walter and I jammed around and came up with this set of chords, we thought we'd lifted it from Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Rage Hard" from their excellent sophomore album "Liverpool", but now I think a more direct influence would be the iconic phrase from "Who Are You" by The Who.
Earlier versions of the composition had this sequence in 4/4 time signature, but I think it works better in 7/8. This also helps reduce the similarity with the inspirational sources.
Either way, I'm comfortable with it.
0:25 - 0:33  "Pre-verse"
In the pre-verse section, we hear a gentle minimoog-style repetitive synth motif - that's a patch on the Roland Fantom keyboard, "Soaring Lead" or similar.
0:33 - 0:47  "Verse 1" 
The arpeggiated ostinato guitar behind the verses and choruses is primarily the Carvin DC127, nick-named "Woody". I'm using the piezo pickup which yields a nice, "pseudo-acoustic" sound but it is really its own thing. Panned over on the other side, at low volumne, the same notes are duplicated by the Bolt+, to add a little gritty complexity to the sound. 
For extra nerd points, realise that the verse chord sequence is actually the same chord sequence as the verses in "Into the Shade", only backwards.
Vocal-wise, the verses are a single take, panned center. I also made a duplicate of the verse vocal track, and applied a "Guitar Amp Distortion" FX plugin to it and reduced the volume, so what you hear in each verse is the natural tone plus just a hint of the distorted version, giving the verses a slight gritty edge.
0:47 - 0:53  "the B-C pause" 
The primary players in this sweet 4/4 - 7/8 motif are the "Hammond" and the "trumpet synth".
The Dimension Pro VST synth adds some strings in the upper registers for some extra  sustaining sweetness.
The B note is reinforced with a virtual stomp on the "Moog Taurus pedals" to really punch out that low note.
The Moog Taurus pedal bass synth was a mainstay of 70's prog bands - particularly Rush, Yes and Genesis - and it is notable for being felt rather than heard. It has a very distinctive "sound" and can only be emulated, not replaced. (It has to sound right, not any bass synth note will do.) I am very grateful to Antti's re-creation of the Taurus synth in VST form, which I am using here.
0:53 - 1:08  "Chorus" 
And on the subject of ripping off other artist's music, the guitar arpeggios here in the chorus are yeah-kinda-sorta-like Bryan Adam's "Run To You" but I swear I didn't notice until much later.
For the chorus vocals I panned two takes 25% left and right for a "double-tracked" sound. 
I have duplicated certain select phrases from the chorus, and placed them into a separate track, using the Pentagon I virtual synth as an FX plugin to get the vocoder effect (the technique is explained here). I've used a custom saw wave patch for this, one with a wide frequency range that works well with the vocoder.
1:20 - 1:34 "Verse 2" 
Here I lower the guitar arpeggios by 3 db and bring in some strings, courtesy of the Dimension Pro VST from Cakewalk. This multi-timbral synth allows patches to have multiple instruments, each responding to separate MIDI channel. I've set up a four part patch with Violin 1, 2, Viola and Cello parts, which I then orchestrate with four independent MIDI tracks in SONAR, recorded in separate takes. This gets a nice result - you can hear each "voice" of the string section playing their own dedicated melody, rather than just block chords - a much more realistic effect.
Of course, here, it's barely noticeable. The strings are mixed pretty low.
I particularly like the drum-bass shuffle/harmonic at 1:26 behind "shouldn't have tried".
1:41 - 2:22   "A-D-A Floating Ambiance"
Here, I'm trying to evoke the sensation of floating underwater, peacefully, with the bright sun flickering down through the gentle undulations of the ocean surface.
Six or seven tracks of heavily delayed/reverberated guitar are combined into a wash of sound. I recorded the guitar years ago when I still had the Carvin TL60, running  the piezo pickup through my old Digitech GSP 21 effect unit. It may be an rather antiquated device, but it has a really nice reverberation algorithm inside it.
The Dimension Pro string section adds some sustaining chord harmonic movement in the background.
Also, I'm doing some deep breathing exercises.
At 2:02 we move from A to D and our little friend the Fantom monosynth leaf comes in with a reprise of the "Strange But True" motif, followed by somebody stepping on the Taurus' D pedal again.  Now back to A, leading up to... 
2:22 - 3:10  "Guitar Solo" 
With the mix stripped back to Drums, Bass, and 'Hammond" backing up the lead guitar, the Carvin Bolt+ takes off on a solo that is tons of fun to play. This is actually the only lead guitar part performed on the Bolt+. Everything else is the Gibson L6-S, but I needed the Floyd tremelo on the Bolt+ for the swoops and dives of the Solo. 
You can hear the "hard-tailed" Gibson come in at 2:31 with a high counterpoint melody.
At 2:53, the string section joins in for some high sustained notes, followed closely by chiming chords from the DC127, as the solo winds up.
3:22 - 3:43 Verse 3 / BC pause 
At 3:42 there's a deliberate deviation from script as the rhythm guitar plays on alternating beats, giving an automatic hard left-right panning effect. 
4:12 - 4:37 The big finish 
A slight variation on the opening theme, in A then back to D. At 4:36 there's a sudden and deliberate modulation from D to E, so the song finishes up, ready to segue seemlessly into the next track, "Strange Finale".
I did it for technical reasons, but musically, I really like the last minute change. If the rest of the song is proclaiming, "something's gotta give", then this is the shifting of the foundations.
4:37 - 5:26  "Outro" 
I love the Taurus pedal note at 4:40. The song closes out with twin Gibson L6-S melodies dancing around the Fantom monosynth line. 

Technique: Vocals

I don't consider this track to have weird vocals or anything but after listening to it, Eldest Brother asked me what I'd done to my voice. So here's the process:

First, I recorded 6 or 7 takes of the vocals. I use a nice cardoid condenser microphone with a pop screen but no additional FX, accepting the natural reverberation of my studio room.

I cut the tracks into separate clips for each contiguous lyric phrase, and selected the best to construct a single best take for each verse, and two best takes for the choruses. Not surprisingly, usually I ended up selecting from take 2 or take 3. 

After assembling the vocal tracks, I use the Tools menu in SONAR to run Adobe Audition 1.5 as an external wave editor, and clean up each clip - removing any obvious spikes and reducing "breath" sounds, not to eliminate but just to reduce them a bit. This step could have been done using a compressor FX during the recording, but I've tried doing that, and I prefer to do it manually. (I probably just don't know what I'm doing with the compressor parameters.) 

At this point I cheated very slightly and used a pitch correction tool to fix the worst vocal glitches. It was usually just two or three slightly flat notes per verse. The tool in SONAR is called V-Vocal and although it has an 'auto-tune' mode, I don't use it. I fix the flat notes manually, basically just moving them enough so that you no longer notice the flatness, rather than making them perfect. Subtle is best for this sort of thing. It's easy to inadvertently introduce noticeable pitch artifacts so I always listen carefully to keep it natural.

For the choruses I panned the two takes 25% left and right for a "double-tracked" sound. 

The verses are the single take, panned center. I also made a duplicate of the verse vocal track, and applied a "Guitar Amp Distortion" FX plugin to it and reduced the volume, so what you hear in each verse is the natural tone plus just a hint of the distorted version, giving the verses a slight gritty edge.

I have separate busses for the vocal reverb and vocal delay effects, and I use buss send envelopes on the vocal tracks so that I can be precise about what parts of the track have reverb and delay applied. That's why only certain words in the phrase are accented with echo delay, and only certain parts of certain words get reverb'd. The effect is to make the lyric flow and sound good without drowning it.

Finally, and most obviously, in this track I have duplicated certain select phrases from the chorus and placed them into a separate track, using the Pentagon I virtual synth as an FX plugin to get the vocoder effect (the technique is explained here). I've used a custom saw wave patch for this, one with a wide frequency range that works well with the vocoder.


Into The Shade

192kbps MP3


The verses of this song are based around a simple fingerstyle guitar riff that I came up with years ago. We had a clear idea about the structure of the song; and we had a melody for the choruses; and Walter came up with a wonderful chord progression for the "middle-eight" break and guitar solo. But that was all we had. I guess we could have just left it in the vault, unfinished and un-realized, except for the fact that it is a vital component of the Strange But True suite: the verse chord sequence is a 180 degree flip of the verse chord sequence from a later song in the suite (Future Imperfect, if you must know). And the symmetry  is just too cool to discard.

So earlier this year I sat down with my lyric book and worked up a set of lyrics that suited the mood of the piece, and started to record. Over these last two months, the song has really come together faster than is typical; indeed, I am currently listening to "final" mixes in the car and I'm still not totally sick of the music, which unfortunately is the norm at this stage.



Feel the need to learn and test our self-reliance
Push the limits of the land and who we are
Put our minds to solving mysteries with Science
Sending probes to the nearest star

Gas emissions feeding ozone deconstruction
Grain belt slipping up the belly of the beast
Commerce engines driving tubes of mass seduction
Siphon payday to the priest

   Long ago we stamped our feet to the rain-maker's melody
   Felt the beat and electric heat of the thundercloud parade
   Stretch a hand to the medicine man, taste the latest remedy
   Every nervous reflex reeling us into the shade

Emotional wrecks at security checks for our protection
Iron curtain rising in the final act
Product placement in the pay-per-view election
Faith is trending over Fact

   In the flickering shade of a Steel Tree, in the battle field's sterility
   Feel the sweet electric beat of a sixty hertz crusade
   Purple pills from the Pharma Girl; tickets to tranquility
   Tuning in to the scorpion dancing into the shade

Is it right for you? Ask your Doctor; Drink the magic potion
Join the ranks of the no-think tank; blinded by the Right
We are reflected in the plastic-covered ocean
Toxic soil on sacred sites

   Too much noise, too much information
   Unfiltered data feel a vague sensation
   Century overload; can't tune out the station
   Solving every problem with the wrong equations  

       under the flickering steel tree
       where I bombed you and you bombed me

music © 1989 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls  
Lyrics © 2012 Colin Nicholls

Strange But True

196kbps MP3


This song opens "side two" of the album, and provides an introduction to the suite of thematically related songs and instrumentals that follow. Well, they are musically related, if not lyrically.

The main concept here is to have the second half of the track be much more natural, acoustic and "organic" in nature, after the heavily electronic reverberating introduction. As such, I added "real" shaker, tamborine, and doumbek to the percussion track. 

For those of you who may be familiar with the second compilation CD from the alt.music.yes newsgroup, Second Attention, you may recognise an earlier version of this track as the opener. I think this new version is much improved!



You stare into the mirror, it's
a window on a world you can't define
wishing you could get away, but 
wondering how you'll ever find the time

    Reach into the strange but true
    a secret deep inside of you
    a dream of past experiences
    memories that you can not remember

You learn of myths and mysteries, 
moving through forbidden zones you find
of how to make the great escape and 
face the worm that hides inside your mind

    Listen to the strange but true
    the truth is almost clear to you
    written out upon the pages
    realise that nothing lasts forever...

music & lyrics © 1990 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls

From the archives: The Evolution of a Track

(These tracks have been taken from a series of very old cassette tapes on which we used to record all our ideas, many years ago.)  

Early Stages 1989

96kbps MP3

Walter came up with the main keyboard riff for the verses, then a bit later on I used the awesome power of the M1 sequencer to create the intro section. The first "early stages" keyboard sound is actually an Akai X-7000 sampler loaded with a few seconds of a sustained violin note from a Nigel Kennedy's Let Loose CD. Alas, we no longer own the Akai which is a shame, because easy-to-use 8-bit samplers are coming into their own these days.

Strange But True 1990

96kbps MP3

Enter the Korg M1. The fast, repeating piano riff in the second track was a complete accident - I think we accidentally set the playback tempo of the sequencer on 300%, and realised it sounded cool. I love the sounds of the old Korg Polysix in part two, as it fades out...

Solo Flight

192kbps MP3


This peice evolved out of a jam session we had, many years ago. We've tried rebooting it several times - see below for a complete evolutionary tree.

For the longest time, this remained an instrumental, but recently I noticed when I played it in the car on my way to work, I was humming a different melody and lyrics started coming to mind. So, it got revamped, and I think it's the best thing I've done so far. 

I think this marks the 50% complete point of the album. Yay!




It was the day that Terry took me flying
Drive the Great South Road to Drury field
Outside the car we stand and watch the gliders
See a flash of sunlight from the keel

A month ago, I tried, but could not end it
Howard Jones was on the stereo
Bailing out before the song was over
She trusted me to never let her go

Feel the vector from the tow-rope's tension
The cockpit lurches with the winch release
Cast aloft in limbo, wind suspension
The breath of God above, the scars beneath

Indicates a left and checks the rear-view
The white Ford changes lanes, the traffic passes
Hands fixed to the wheel, at 10 and 2
Tears refract the light behind her glasses

   Stop! Let's roll the backup tape, restore the memories
   That's it; the moment that I broke her heart

And for a while, we share the ride with angels
See them smile, and think we've found a home
Dragging at our feet, the Earth is calling
No wings to hold us up, we're falling down

Falling Down
Falling Down 

music © 1989-1993 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls, lyrics © 2011 Colin Nicholls

From the archives: The Evolution of a Track

(These tracks have been taken from a series of very old cassette tapes on which we used to record all our ideas, many years ago.)  

Solo Flight 1989

96kbps MP3

I don't know where the rhythm sample came from. Possibly an Icehouse or Mr Mister track. In delicious 12-bit resolution, looping on the Akai X7000 sampler by taping down the low C key. The bass is definitely another sample, I'll assume a note from one of my acoustic guitars. Ethereal pad from the Korg Polysix; drones from the Roland Jupiter 6. Then we jammed for 8 minutes. And then we did it again, only this time we pressed RECORD on the tape deck. It was impossible to stay in time with the looping sample... but somehow, it didn't matter.

I have nothing around today that can emulate those luscious tones from the Polysix... I really should invest in the Korg Legacy VST collection.

Solo Flight 1990

96kbps MP3

Once the Korg M1 showed up, we gave it another go, using the sequencer and multi-timbral features to best effect. The Roland D-50 lent it's unbeatable "Glass Vox" patch to the mix. But somehow, something was lost in translation. On the plus side, the piece gained a new middle section.

Solo Flight 1993

96kbps MP3

With multi-track recording at our disposal, I gave this piece another try, using Chapman Stick, guitars, and sequenced drums to push it in a new direction. 

And here it stayed for 15 years.

Solo Flight 2008

96kbps MP3

I remember loading up the TruePianos VST, and experimenting with digital delay effects, playing around, and suddenly I was playing the Solo Flight chords... and sometimes that's all it takes for inspiration to hit. 

Painting Abstracts On Location

192kbps MP3


Chorus in 7/8 time, verses in 4/4. Pulsing guitars, sustaining keyboards, offbeat bassline, jazzy middle section. Walter and I collaborated on the chorus lyrics, which are perhaps a little too busy. In the last couple of years I threw out the mediocre verses and replaced them with new ones that actually told a real story. Much improved.

I am very proud of the jazzy piano in the middle section, it took a lot of practice. Walter could have played something more interesting in just a few takes, I expect, but he wasn't around to do that.



Across the room I saw your face
You caught my eye with a hesitant smile
I took you home, showed you the place
I remember your words, you said:

   I'm painting abstracts, on location
   faking a picture and signing my name
   Painting Abstracts, no salvation
   from the painful pictures that collect in my brain

   Painting Abstracts, my creation
   is the one way I know, and it's never the same
   Painting Abstracts, one solution
   is disolving the memories, and forgetting the shame

Under your sleeve I saw the scars
You told the truth and not the usual lie
a secret wrapped inside the past
a line was drawn, I turned and looked away

Across the years, I lost a friend
Not suicide, but a stupid disease
I should have seen you at the end
Regret is a stone, in my head

   We're painting abstracts, on location
   ignoring reality and enduring the pain
   Painting Abstracts, on probation but 
   we're robbing the bank to keep playing the game 

   Painting Abstracts, our protection is
   the color's so vivid we don't have to explain
   Painting Abstracts, on location
   we're taking a remedy, that is keeping us sane. 

music & lyrics © 1990/2011 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls

From the archives: Early Stages

(These tracks have been taken from a series of very old cassette tapes on which we used to record all our ideas, many years ago.)  

The first relic features a Roland Jupiter 6 and Korg Polysix. I don't own the Jupiter anymore (stupid, stupid...) but I think Walter has the Polysix in working order still. The second relic demonstrates the power of the Korg M1 sequencer, if not the talents of the guitar player... for dedicated fans only, I'm afraid. The chord sequence of the middle section is the same, yet completely different.

Coming up with the riffs (1989)

Taking Shape (1989):


A Sample of One

192kbps MP3


This little instrumental was hiding inside my Yamaha nylon-string guitar in 1989, and took shape in 1990 when the relatively new Korg M1 sequencer allowed us to throw some strings, drums, and acoustic bass at it.

For the longest time this piece was "Untitled" but recently one seems to have become appropriate.

Finally last year I re-recorded this track, but I was having trouble settling on which guitar to use. I couldn't record a version that had the same quality of sound that the original demo had. 

Most recently I completed the track this month, using my Ovation Balladeer, recorded using a Zoom H2 portable recorder as a stereo feed into my computer. 


music © 1990 Colin Nicholls

Playing with the Big Boys

192kbps MP3


This song is made up of three themes that seemed to want to be in the same piece together. Walter and I collaborated on the music and lyrics. As I recall, Walter had an alternative set of lyrics and melody for the the bridge section, but alas, we don't have a recorded version of that.

Although pretty much all instruments have been re-recorded and performed by yours truly, I do want to point out that the D-550 synth solo is Walter's original performance, captured in the MIDI sequencer back in 1990-somthing.


From the archives: Early Stages

Diving back into the cassette archives turns up some interesting fragments. I try to do this research before finalizing anything in the project, in case there is something worth recapturing - an odd note, a turn of phrase, or something, that was present in the early versions and deserves to be retained.

However, in the case of this song, I think we got everything we were looking for. These (edited) historical archives are for true fans and paleontologists only:

Themes 1 (1988)

Themes 2 (1988):

Themes 3 (1990):

Instrumental demo from 1990:


I watch them run and jump and play outside my window
I want to go out and join in the fun
Mother tells me no, she says that I'm just too young
They play too rough, and I'll get hurt in the end

      She stops me playing with the big boys
      Playing with the big boys
      Playing with the big boys, is where I want to be

Watch them throw and catch the ball, down in the park
I want to go down, and join in the game
Sometimes is rough, being the smallest kid
When they choose the sides, I'm always left at the end

      I want to play with the big boys
      play with the big boys
      playing with the big boys, is where I want to be

And one day, when I am big and strong
I'll walk through the gate, and feel I belong
And when I get there, will it have to be so hard?
the big boys are playing in another back yard

      Playing with the big boys
      Playing with the big boys

At night, when Mother tucks me into bed
I always dream, of staying up late, instead
In the morning, though I have grown by one day
I'll always be too young, to be a part of their play

music & lyrics © 1990 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls

Head in the Game

192kbps MP3


I remember this coming together musically very quickly out of a jam session shortly after we bought the Korg M1, but although we had the lyrics shortly afterwards, I never tried putting them together until a couple of years ago.



You're going for the high score in your artificial landscape
Conflict with the secret code of honor of machines
Accumulating hit points with a ruthless manic fervor
Slipping past the traps and pitfalls pictured on the screen

Don't you realize, there isn't an escape key
You can’t expect to exit without feeling any pain
Activating laser beams to edit out your problem
Gain an extra life and stay ahead in the game

Gambling on your past performance, dicing up your chances
proposing winning gambits but your deck is always stacked
Dealing false alternatives, and aceing their decisions
You know the turning card will be the Joker in the pack

Don't you realize, that there isn't an escape key
You can't expect to exit without feeling any pain
The dealer hits you with a card to edit out your problem 
Counting on the river puts your head in the game

     All I did was get a replay
     All I did was play the game
     Thought I'd figured out the answers
     But somehow all the rules had changed

You're Rolling up your characters and challenging the circle
Hiding from your conscience in a world of mystic themes
passing off as casual friends subverted to your service
escaping intact from the danger vivid in your dreams

Don't you realize, that there isn't an escape key
You can't expect to exit without feeling any pain
Casting double sixes to edit out your problem
Multiply the bounty on your head in the game

Don't you realize there isn't any future
Hiding in your habit where no-one can point the blame
Rocket jumps and bunny hops will beat the low-ping bastard
Real life re-targets on your head in the game

music © 1989 Colin Nicholls & Walter Nicholls; lyrics © 1989-2010 Colin Nicholls

Cloud Chamber

192kbps MP3

Notes - December 2005:

Cloud Chamber is the first completed track of a suite of instrumentals, a side-project which I have tentatively dubbed "Maxwell Tangent's Divergent Thinking". Musically it's ambient, techno, loop-based instrumental music with plenty of guitars and processed natural sounds. But it's early days, it could end up going in a different direction. I hope to have each track segue seamlessly into the next one in order to make one long piece of music. So far the tracks are being written in reverse order, because Cloud Chamber is the final movement.

I was working on this track on the later half of 2001, and therefore I've dedicated it to the victims of the World Trade Center attack in September 2001.