Computer Mastering Michael W. Dean’s 1983 Magnum Opus, “The Solstice Suite”



Download MP3 of Michael’s 1983 one-hour piece, The Solstice Suite, HERE.




Unlike DJ or Neema, I did not go to “J-School” (journalism school) for college. However, at Jamestown Community College (JCC) in Western New York State, I did take “Communication” classes, which basically taught you to be an intern at a local radio station. And maybe if you were lucky as an intern, you’d eventually get to be on the air. I took a different route to radio. But in my last semester of college, the second part of my second year of the two years I attended, I recorded a one-hour piece of music as an independent study in Communication. I composed and recorded the music, and wrote a paper explaining the process. I got an A. I also got Fs that semester in my other four classes (in English, History, Math and Phys-Ed), because I spent every day that semester skipping all my classes to lock myself in a room and compose and record that one piece of music that got me the A.

Inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, my “Solstice Suite” is four movements: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, flowing into each other. The instruments I played on it are: nylon string acoustic guitar, electric guitar (including slide), steel string acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, voice, bass guitar, synthesizer, timpani, cymbals, triangle, recorder (the woodwind instrument), tape loops and SFX (field recordings I made of crickets, birds, and rain). The music is reminiscent of third-rate Pink Floyd Ummagumma, (esp. the Pink Floyd song, “Grantchester Meadows”), Brian Eno, and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” The Solstice Suite is, at moments, musically painful for me to hear now. But other parts are brilliant and beautiful, especially some of the acoustic guitar bits. I’m impressed that I pulled this off at age 18.

I recorded it in JCC’s “studio”, which was basically a converted concrete-walled 5′ x 6′ broom closet with two stereo reel-to-reel tape recorders, a cheap dynamic microphone and stand, a cheap four-channel mixer, and a pair of headphones. But for three months it was my home. It was the only thing I ever did in school, kindergarten through college, that excited me. I’d clock in every morning and stay until the janitor would kick me out after dinner. I pictured that some day this would be my day job, and in some ways, it was a lot of good early self-training for what I do now.

I did the multi-tracking by recording one part onto one reel-to-reel, then I’d play that back through the mixer into the other reel-to-reel, listen on headphones and add another part. Each time I did this, it would add tape hiss. Plus, I mastered to cassette tape, which made for even more hiss. And then made copies of THAT, on CHEAP cassettes. One of those, that my sister has had in her attic for 30 years, is what I made this file from. I’m glad she saved it. She sent it to me a year ago, I finally found time to do something with it.

To make this file, I had to get a cassette tape player. I haven’t owned one in 20 years. I got a decent-ish one from Salvation Army this morning, for five dollars. I tested it out in the store with one of their tapes. It sounded wobbly and horrible. It was a new wave band from the 80s (Berlin, who I actually like) and I thought “Maybe that’s how it’s SUPPOSED to sound……” So I tried another tape. It sounded fine. The lady threw out the first tape, and rang me up. I also bought the good tape, just to sound check my computer-import process on something expendable instead of my only copy of something from 30 years ago. The tape I bought was the soundtrack to “The Big Chill.” It was 25 cents.

When I got home I put in The Big Chill, and messed around with rewinding and such, I had to re-trigger muscle memory of how to actually use a cassette recorder, it’s been so long. The sound wasn’t bad, the main thing I hate is that you can’t immediately jump to a particular song. CDs and MP3s have spoiled me.

I finally got it how I wanted it, and tested importing some audio of The Big Chill to my computer. Sounded fine. A little tape hiss, but I can fix that in post. I closed that file, and put in my Solstice Suite tape. I played each side into Sound Forge, sort of mastering as I went, riding the volume knobs (left and right) on the cassette player to not get distortion. When I was done with both sides, I broke for dinner, then came back and used the Noise Reduction filter in Audacity to remove as much tape hiss as possible without crunching the sound. Usually when I do that for stuff I record on a computer, if I even have to, I use 6 Db of noise reduction. With this, I had to use 26 Db. Yikes! The noise print (taken from the beginning of the import, after the tape started and before the music started) was horribly loud. There was also a 60-cycle hum.

Here’s a shot of the meters in Sound Forge while the tape was playing, but before the music started. That’s a LOT of noise!:

Here’s a shot of the meters in Sound Forge while the tape was playing, with quiet parts of my music:

quiet signal

Here’s a shot of the meters in Sound Forge while the tape was playing, with loud parts of my music:

loud signal

So, you can see I had my mastering work cut out for me.

After importing the tape to the computer (while riding the volume output on the tape player), then noise reducing, I brought the two WAV files (from Side A and Side B of my tape) into Sony Vegas, and added a little mid-high EQ to make up for what was lost in the noise reduction. This was tricky, because I wanted to add enough to make it have some “air” without bringing back the noise. After a few spot-check listens I think I found a good mix. I also had to find the right place and amount to cross-fade the end of Side A and the beginning of Side B.

Then I output a single WAV file, normalized it in Sound Forge (I actually used the “voice” setting, it sounded better than the “music” setting). I made the result into a 128-k 16-bit Stereo MP3 using Lame Drop. I rather like the results.

It was pretty neat how the music was in my head while playing, even though I haven’t heard it since shortly after I made it, 30 years ago. If I hadn’t been busy riding the volume controls while importing it, I could have picked up a guitar and played along pretty well.

I’m struck by how SAD some of the music is. I was a sad young man, and in a lot of pain. I’m incredibly happier now, much more comfortable in my own skin, and pleased with how my life turned out.

When I was done recording this in 1983, I actually took out an ad in a magazine and sold copies of it for two dollars. I sold three copies. I felt great. It was the first time I’d sold my creative work. It inspired me. Though I advertised it as “meditation music”, and while importing it today, I couldn’t help but think, “This would NOT be very meditative!” I wasn’t scamming anyone, I actually LIKED to meditate to music like this back then.

I DID commit one bit of “rock and roll swindle” to get this made. It’s something I would NEVER do now, but I’m kinda impressed with the ingenuity a young me had. I really wanted to use a synthesizer on this, but did not have access to one. I went down to the music store, looked at a $5000 ARP duo-phonic synth, and told the store owner “My dad wants to buy me a synthesizer, but he wants me to record me playing it for him to hear.” I brought a tape recorder and recorded me noodling on the synth for about a half-hour, then left, and imported it into my project the next day. My dad did not have five grand to drop on a synth for me.

The Track Listing is:

Winter – 15 minutes
Spring – 15 minutes
Summer – 20 minutes
Autumn – 9 minutes

I played everything except the whammy bar guitar on “Autumn”, which was my roommate Gregg Bowles. I credited him as “Odd Guitar.” He wanted to be credited as “Bad Guitar.” I should have let him. I like that credit now, and it fits.

The reason the “Summer” part is not cheery, and is more “blip beep”, is I was trying to imitate the sound of insects. lol.

I do love the lyrics on “Autumn”, the only lyrics in the whole suite (except the repetitive tape loop of me singing something like “you live your lives ignoring priceless guidance from above.” lol). The lyrics on “Autumn”, about watching the sun set while looking at “two empty cups of tea”, were inspired by an actual event….a woman using me as her one-night stand, having tea in the morning, and leaving. And me feeling sad and reflective in the autumn morn as I stared at our empty tea cups.

While writing this blog post, I did a search to find out how to spell the Pink Floyd song “Grantchester Meadows”, and ended up falling down wormholes on YouTube. A few of them were this very talented young lady from Poland, named Sylwia Urban, playing the FUCK out of some Pink Floyd.

It was so good, it made me almost not want to put the Solstice Suite up. This gal is about the same age I was when I made this music, and playing like I wanted to be able to play back then. My wife said “But she didn’t WRITE that music.” True. And I think it’s sort of like the four-minute mile. There was a time when no human had done that, and it was believed no human ever could. But once someone did it, a lot of runners did it. And I didn’t have YouTube when I was 18. Now you can take lessons online, for free, in any subject. When I was 14, ya had to PAY for guitar lessons. And I had to walk uphill, both ways, in the snow, to my guitar teacher’s house. Which is why I gave up after about four months of lessons. If I could have watched, for free, close-up videos of guitarists playing any song, I would have been a better guitar player back then.

The really nifty thing about the Solstice Suite, to me, is how mastering it and putting it up on the Internet is sort of like me now communicating with a young me back then. It could be part of the soundtrack for my book chapter “Letter to a Young Me.” If you’d told me in 1983 “One day this music will be listened to by thousands of people”, I would have said “Cool!” (or maybe “Of COURSE IT WILL BE!”) But if you’d added “…and you’ll be the one mastering it and distributing it yourself, on a home computer that’s more powerful than what they sent a man to the moon with. And you’ll be and sharing it with those thousands of people via a worldwide network of interconnected home computers, sent over phone lines and little television cables” it would have blown my mind. Because none of that technology was possible yet.

–Michael W. Dean