Tumbleweed

Tom and Alan Sanderson – Tumbleweed | download mp3

Tumbleweed
words and music by Tom and Alan Sanderson

Do you belong here?
Do you belong here?
Do you belong here?
Do you belong here?

Take the train to London
This is the land my fathers came from
Walk the pavements up and down
Is there a place for me in this town?

I’ve been to the east
I’ve been to the west
I don’t know where I belong
I’ve been to the north
I’ve been to the south
I don’t know where I belong

Ride the bus to Nashville
Find the place where music was born
See the lights and hear the sounds
Is there a place for me in this town?

Europe
Do you belong here?
Asia
Do you belong here?
North America, South America
Do you belong here?
Australia, Africa
Do you belong here?

Gonna drive to Hollywood
Is there a place for me in this town?
Gonna walk with the stars.
I may as well be living on Mars!

Tom Sanderson: vocoders, synthesizers, drums
Alan Sanderson: vocals, guitars, bass, synthesizers, vocoder programming, mixing, mastering
Johann: synthesizer effects
, vocoder programming

Tom’s Notes

I don’t normally have a clear goal when trying to create music. I was probably menu-diving through the “MG” type synth patches. I think these are based/sampled from Moog analog synth instruments or at least based on them. The bass synth and lead synth voices are both in this particular sound bank. Anyway, sometimes a certain instrument can unconsciously recall the music it is famously associated with. So I think I hear a lot of late 1970s into early 80s New Wave. The percussion samples are real TR-808 sounds from off the Roland FA-06, made popular in early hip-hop, Electro (for those unfamiliar with the genre, look it up), techno, and electronic music. I could have made a drum loop but it’s eluded me how to make linear sequences with loops in them on my particular hardware. Plus I like the variations of a linear percussion sequence. That’s probably the boring part of this project.

Being that this is a simple sequence, it came together really quickly. I added a few things – like a high frequency heavy bell-like analog type synth sample. It started sounding a bit more like late 70’s German electronic music. I exported and shared my sequence with Alan. I was hoping that he could take my really simple parts and do some interesting things with them. And he sure did! I tried to help shape the yet untitled song by contributing lyrics and vocals to complement those that Alan had thought of. My early efforts were largely unsuccessful.

But then I began to think about it “outside the box” and started trying to think of ideas for Alan to paste in rather than a long vocal. What made the cut from my end was an announcer-like vocal which Alan processed and lined up. The vocoder processed from my spoken vocal is the lines: “I’ve been to the north, I’ve been to south, I’ve been to the east, I’ve been to the west” and also listing off the habitable continents (excluding Antarctica which is only habitable indoors or if you have incredible hardy stock).

In June I bought a Talkbox effect pedal. Many are familiar with talkbox use in tandem with guitar by Peter Frampton, Aerosmith, Joe Walsh, etc. but I have found it is used very frequently for keyboard instruments in Electro (there’s that genre again), funk and related music forms. Unlike vocoder in which a synthesizer or computer processes a vocal or a sound and blends it with a synth patch by notes played on a synthesizer [reference Alan’s explanation of computer process], the talk box actually has a small speaker that is run through a tube that you put in or near your mouth. The speaker is playing sounds you are creating though an electric instrument. With the tube in or near your mouth you can blend the sound of your electronic instrument with the moving of your mouth (not actually singing or speaking like on vocoder). With improved technique you can even make the instrument sound like it is singing. A microphone is used near the mouth to capture the blended sound.

I fed a Saw wave type synth lead through the M222 talk box and had some success, though it’s not too easy to get a good instrument performance AND move the mouth appropriately with exaggerated annunciation. I was also using the joystick on the Roland to pitch bend and trigger the expression to vibrato/oscillate. If you are trying to tell the difference between what robotic voice is the vocoder and which is the talkbox, the talkbox lines say “I don’t know where I belong.”

Alan’s Notes

My head just about exploded when Tom sent his original sketch to me. What a fantastic sound! I was getting ideas the first time I listened to it; right away I knew that it needed guitars in the choruses, and a Peter Hook-ish bass solo.

A few days later I was out running in the hills near my home when the line came to me: “Take the train to London / Is there a place for me in this town?” I lived in England for two years when I was younger, and much of that time was spent in London. British trains, buses, and sidewalks are all familiar sights to me. As much as I loved it there, and as much as my heritage springs from that place, I never really felt like England was my home. I descend from a branch that was broken off from that tree, but it doesn’t fit into the old trunk anymore.

By the end of my run I had sketched out the choruses for London, Nashville, and Hollywood, and had developed a vague idea of what I thought the song was about. I have felt somewhat un-anchored in my life because of moving frequently in my younger years, and the effect of these moves was compounded by social anxiety. This song expresses that strange feeling of rootlessness. It also addresses the outsider status that a small-time hobbyist like me feels in comparison to the major centers of media creation in the entertainment industry.

I imagined a Mark Knopfler vocal style for the choruses, but it came out a little closer to Morrissey. Oh, well.

Tom really liked the chorus idea, and we started working on verses to expand on the theme. One iteration included the tumbleweed metaphor, and that became the working title for the song. Our early efforts at the verses didn’t seem to fit quite right, or at least I was sure we could do better. Again I had an epiphany while out on a run. The instrumentation of the verses is really Kraftwerk-like, by Tom’s design, and I am a big Kraftwerk fan. As I was running along I thought, “What would Kraftwerk do?” (Aside: WWKD — I like it! I think I’ll put that on a wrist band.) The answer, as soon as I had phrased the question that way, was obvious: something minimalist and highly repetitive, with dissonant chords! That’s when the “Do you belong here?” lyrics came to me, and once I had recorded them the song really felt like it was on course.

In fact, I thought it needed even more Kraftwerkishness. When Tom sent me his announcer voice track I decided to turn him into a robot. I have wanted to play with a vocoder for a long time, and this song was the perfect opportunity to dig in and finally figure out how Calf Vocoder works. My son Johann helped me set it up, and we paired it with a sawtooth wave in Yoshimi. It took a lot of tweaking knobs and some heavy compression to get the sound I wanted, but I think Tom made for a fine robot.

Calf Vocoder in action.

The original sequence ended after the Hollywood chorus, and at this point in the production I thought the ending sounded too abrupt. So I cut and pasted the verse loop four times to add an extended outro, similar in approach to The Telephone Call, and spent an hour or so garnishing it with sampled voices from earlier in the song. I also made a dedicated echo delay track, where I would place the samples more or less randomly to add texture. When Tom sent his fantastic talkbox track I added some of those samples to the ending as well.

The last ingredient I added to this lovely sonic stew was from my new toy: a Yamaha Reface CS. This is a digital hardware synth which emulates the sounds and controls of an analog synth. It is a lot of fun to tweak the sliders and play with the sound in real time — much more engaging and imagination-stimulating than a software synth, in my opinion. The Reface CS provided all of the slow portamento sounds in the mix, and the pad synth underneath the bass solo. Johann used it to make the sound effect at the end of the last chorus. With the exception of that last sound effect, which needed some heavy compression, all of the Reface CS tracks are presented as-is, with no further effects added in the DAW. The Reface CS parts of the outro were inspired by Kraftwerk’s Metropolis and by the brilliant first movement of the A side track on the Automat album.

Yamaha Reface CS: a small form factor digital hardware synth which emulates the sound and interface of an analog synth.

Many thanks to Tom for coming up with such a great song idea and for letting me throw paint on his canvas. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed making this song.

I also think that processing my emotions in this song has been therapeutic for me. It has made me realize that I’m not as rootless as I sometimes feel, and that my anchor is pretty firm after all. As an adult I can choose where I live, and my adopted hometown is a wonderful place to be.

Info and Stats

  • Production dates: May – August 2021
  • Hardware:
    • Synthesizers: Roland FA-06, Yamaha Reface CS
    • Guitars: Fender Telecaster, Ibanez AM53, Austin Bazaar bass
    • Interfaces: Tascam DP24SD, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, Behringer Xenyx 1204USB
    • Dunlop MXR M222 Talkbox
    • Microphones: DIY condenser microphone by Michael Willis, CAD GXL220 Condenser Mic (used with wrap-around PopFilter), Shure SM57-LC Instrument Microphone (used with talkbox)
    • Behringer Ultra-DI DI400P
  • Software:
  • Total tracks: 27
    • Vocal (including talkbox and vocoder): 12
    • Synthesizers: 10
      • Roland FA-06: 4 synth + 2 drum
      • Yamaha Reface CS: 4
    • Guitars and basses: 4
    • Echo delay: 1
  • Cover image by Alan Sanderson, adapted from an image by Alvesgaspar. Lettering by Tom Sanderson
Alan Sanderson

writing: https://medicineandfaith.com music: https://sanderson.band

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s