Garrett (garote) wrote,

The History of "Loader Fight"

In 1998 or so, a music track I made got published on a CD called "Battery Sentinel". It was a compilation CD announcing a new record label created by my friend-of-a-friend Ben Arp. I also had tracks on the second and third compilation CDs and was asked to do a full album, but I never felt inspired enough by any one theme. Then a few months later my friends and I accidentally formed a "band" called The Braindead Monkeys, and that satisfied my music production interests for the next 10 years or so.

Here's an Apple-lossless version of the track, for posterity.

Nice and spooky, eh?
Aaaaah I remember those days.
Let me tell you about this music, and some of the silly technology that went into it.

"Loader Fight" is assembled almost completely from samples taken from the films "Aliens" and "The Abyss" (both directed by James "Iron Jim" Cameron in the 1980's.)
I had both movies on laserdisc, so I decided I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, and extract the sounds of both movies in the highest quality I could find - and then mess with them.

What's laserdisc you ask?
Laserdisc was a bizarre semi-digital storage format that put audio and video on gigantic iridescent platters, like an oversized CD with two playable sides.

Here's an example of one, next to a regular CD for size. If you're not sure how big a CD is, well... Hey, how's it going in the future? Have I paid off my mortgage yet?

These things were HUGE, and very pretty looking. The large size of the discs made them awkward to use, though, and the way they stored the video signal was quite complicated. Pretty soon DVDs became popular, and they made laserdiscs look really stupid, and people began abandoning the format. In the late 90's you could walk into a record shop or a video store and find a whole bin filled with "special edition" versions of movies, sometimes really rare stuff, all on laserdisc, with discount prices, slowly gathering dust. That's how I found the "special edition" versions of both "Aliens" and "The Abyss", as well as really cool box sets of "Fantasia", "Dune", and "Akira".

Here's what this version of "Aliens" looked like:

The whole box weighed something like 7 pounds, and when I found it in the bargain bin it cost 40 dollars.
These days you could get a WAY, WAY BETTER version of the movie - with just as many special features - on blu-ray for less than 1/3 that amount, brand-new. Less than 1/4 if you consider inflation. And both the television and the blu-ray player would cost less too.

Hooray for progress!

This is what my laserdisc player looked like.

This is a model made by Pioneer. I got it for free from my friend Andy, who in turn got it for free through some nefarious means. I think he actually stole it from somewhere. I could ask him about it I suppose, but it's not like it matters. If you wanted to buy one - and I have no idea why you would, really I don't - you could get one off eBay for 45 bucks plus shipping. Then you could plug it in, insert a laserdisc, and listen to it slowly go vvvvrrrrrrrrrrooooooooooo as it spun the disc up to some insane RPM inside the box, generating a whole lot of waste heat.

Anyway, laserdisc players had this feature where they could do "digital audio out" on the back, if you plugged in an optical cable. I had an optical cable, as well as a sound card for my computer that would supposedly accept a digital input of the same type, but after fiddling with it for weeks I couldn't get it to work. Turns out that even though the connectors were the same, the digital signal emitted by the player was incompatible with the signal expected by the audio card in the computer. A complete standards fail. Utter disaster. The Pioneer player made a digital signal that could ONLY be read by specific compatible digital amplifiers - also made by Pioneer.

(Right about here I would actually insert about half a dozen strong curse words, out of habit, based on the years I spent working in the Apple computer labs. I would call Pioneer a bunch of bungling morons who shipped a box full of roasted electronic garbage and called it a product, and then overcharged for the privilege of tooling around their own stupid mistakes. Of course, I'd be saying all that out of a desire to amuse my fellow engineers and motivate them to do better. If you say it in a silly-sounding voice and include a few fart noises, the idea comes across.)

So what I did was, I ran cables from the analog audio output of the laserdisc player instead, to the analog audio in on my computer. I effectively went from digital to analog and back again. But that was still pretty good. It was WAY better than anything I could have scraped off of a VHS tape, for example. Most of those weren't even in stereo. Hah!

Once I had the audio in the computer, I cut it into all kinds of little pieces with names like "Abyss-chain_draw-loud" and "Aliens-loader_stomp_2-loop" and so on. Here's all the pieces I eventually used in the song:

The construction of the music, from raw samples to finished version, took about 80 hours I think. I worked in bursts of four or five hours, spread out over several months. The program I used was called CoolEdit Pro, and it looked like this:

That's a screen shot of the sample arrangement for the first two minutes of the song. See the highlighted region? The chunks in that region are the "hi-hat" part of the drum loop. Each chunk is a consolidation of a bunch of smaller samples, with additional bizarre filters applied to the whole chunk. I built the original "hi-hat" sequence in another file, a piece at a time, and it looked like this:

That's how we did things back in the old days. Actually that's how we do it noawadays, too. The only difference is that we have more freedom to go back and tweak the settings earlier in the process without re-doing a lot of work.

Anyway, when my composition hit the two minute mark, the program had so many samples in it that it was starting to slow down, so I finished it in another session, then grafted the parts together. Here's the second part:

I actually built two endings to the track - a first draft, and then an alternate. I eventually went with the alternate. Just for the heck of it, here's an MP3 version of the first draft ending. It's a fun concept, but the alternate works better as a composition I think.

Aaah, these walks down memory lane are fun. Well, fun for me anyway. Thanks for coming along for the ride!
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