The last time I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind was in the early 1980s. I was a kid, and I watched it on television. Some parts of it were too scary for me. The rest was too strange for me to understand.
It popped up on Netflix two nights ago and I fell in love with it. Spielberg was only 33 when he wrote and directed it. Most filmmakers have a rough early period of awkward films before they hit their stride, but apparently Spielberg was born a master of cinema. Must be nice.
The film has this iconic five-note tune that the characters use to communicate with the aliens. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve probably heard the notes. The movie was stuck in my head and as part of unpacking it I turned those notes into a song.
Every creative endeavor has its downside. Writing a story is fun, but proofreading is boring. Programming is fun, but debugging is a chore. Likewise, it’s fun to come up with melodies and rhythms, but mixing and producing sucks.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that it’s hard to proofread something you’ve just completed. When re-reading, you tend to read what you thought you wrote instead of what actually wound up on the screen. Likewise, I have a lot of trouble mixing something I just composed. I’ll hear all the various parts the way I composed them, and it’s not until I come back much later that I realize all the layers have blended together into mush. In particular, I love low frequencies and strong basslines, and often my kick drum ends up lost in the deep parts of the mix, like someone trying to clap out a rhythm in the middle of an applauding crowd.
I uploaded a spectrograph view of the track to YouTube so you can see what I mean. Check it out:
This lets you visualize what’s going on in a sonic sense. Dots near the bottom of the view are low frequencies and they get higher as you move up the screen. The brighter the pixel, the louder the sound. If one area is saturated with near-white pixels, that means you’re probably losing some detail.
The kick drum appears at the 1:12 mark. You can see it’s a bright white blob of pixels at the bottom of the mix. In a lot of my older work, I never bothered looking at the spectrograph. If I had, I would have noticed that the bottom was already bright, so when the kick drum hit it couldn’t punch through the existing bass frequencies. You could kinda hear it, but in dance music it really needs to stand out. I mean, that’s sort of the entire point of the genre.
In this track you can see the bottom of the mix is basically empty aside from the kick drum. I added an EQ to strip out the low-band stuff from all of the musical tracks. This protected my drum, but I managed to mess up a couple of instruments and I didn’t notice until after I’d uploaded the track to SoundCloud and YouTube. At the start of the song it does this call / response thing where it plays the five-note motif high and then echos back a few octaves lower. This is something that happens during the movie and is a natural fit for the track. The thing is, the response is supposed to be this booming cosmic force. But I stripped out the low frequencies when I was trying to make room for my kick drum. I listened to the track, heard what I expected to hear, and hit upload.
There are a lot of other problems with this track, but this one bothers me because it would have been easy to fix. (What I should have done is disable the EQ until it’s time to add the kick drum. That would have left it with the intended booming response at the start of the track.)
Yes, I could got back to fix the track, but it’s always something. In figuring out how to avoid one problem, I blunder into another one. If I fixed this bug I’d just create another. It’s easy to pour a lot of hours into fussing with a track and I can never tell if I’m really improving the thing or if I’m just going around in circles. It takes practice to get good at the stuff and I’m just not there yet.
Despite all the bellyaching and navel-gazing, I actually dig this one. Here’s the track view if you’re curious:
Yes, I’m aware that Deadmau5 did the same idea years agoIf that track is region-locked for you, search for “Closer” by Deadmau5., except his take on the melody is awesome and actually works as an EDM track. Still, projects like this are a good learning experience for me and maybe someone out there will dig the tune.
 If that track is region-locked for you, search for “Closer” by Deadmau5.
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