I like Biosphere’s (Geir Jenssen’s) music very much and one of my favorite albums is Shenzhou. The album is made up of repeated looping of Debussy orchestral track samples. The title song is particularly interesting to me as I like the depth and width of the sound. I was able to figure out how to remake it and I’d like to show you how I did that.
First, let me say that I am not at all interested in duplicating Biosphere’s work for personal monetary gain. I only want to learn how to make such music and then I would apply it to my own music. Basically, this is not a lesson in how to make cover tunes.
Here is a comparison of the Biosphere track, “Shenzhou,” and my own:
First I analyzed Shenzhou and it was quite easy. It is comprised of a loop from Debussy. This particular loop comes from the Debussy song “Images pour orchestre- III. Rondes de printemps.”
According to WhoSampled.com, this is the track, and they’re correct, but the sound is not coming from the correct performance in their example. I asked them to change it, but they refused, so be aware that WhoSampled is incorrect on the version.
The actual version is from “Boulez Conducts Debussy.” Boulez is a superior conductor and the sound he produces is leaps and bounds above most of the others, so if you can, get anything by Boulez to have outstanding source material to work with.
You can find the loop about 1:17 into the song. Here is a YouTube video of it and starting at that 1:17 point, you will hear it play:
I bought the CD of Boulez Conducts Debussy and converted all of the tracks to WAV format using Exact Audio Copy.
From there, I pulled in the track to my DAW (FL Studio) and cut the loop (using Edison in my case). You could do this in any DAW and audio editor.
Clicks and pops I removed by properly using Edison and I have written before about how to do this successfully. Once I had about the right loop (mine is a little off and I could have fooled around with it to get it exactly right, but that was not my intent), I put it in my DAW as a track and replicated it end-to-end so it would repeat.
I placed a copy of Shenzhou as a WAV file next to my loops in an adjacent DAW track so I could switch back and forth and compare them.
My series of loops, was not normalized and I left the loop as-is, just as it came in from the classical music CD. Visually, you can see the finished track by Biosphere has a much higher amplitude, as it should (being finished, mastered and all), compared to my loop string.
Playing them both, they sound similar in pitch and cadence, so that was a match. Some items were different. I could hear these things on the Biosphere track when compared to mine:
- Amplitude – Biosphere’s was much louder.
- Equalization – Biosphere’s track was much louder in the bass region and had some reduced mids and highs. Although I could hear some of the highs really clearly, so it seemed like it was a complex type of equalization involved.
- Reverb – there seemed to be additional reverb added in the Biosphere track.
- Compression – maybe some, but maybe it was only the equalization making it sound like it.
- Saturation – I could detect a bit of saturation in the Biosphere track, but not a lot.
- Filter sweep – I could hear what sounded like a filter sweeping through the Biosphere track because the sound would become muffled and then canned and then brighter. This sounded like a filter to me.
This all meant that I needed to line up some effects for my track to make it sound the same as the Biosphere track.
First I applied the FabFilter Pro-Q to my loop track. I used the “EQ Match” feature to first get a profile of Biosphere’s track and then applied the matching algorithm to my own. Wow – what a difference that made! I had to tweak only a few settings to get it really close to a perfect match.
Most of the sound qualities I wanted came only from this one effect – an equalizer. Still, there was an airy, width to the sound that was missing, but that I could recognize in my track as a lack of reverb.
With the sound 90% there from equalization alone, I applied the 2CAudio Aether reverb to the channel. I flipped through dozens of presets before settling on the factory setting of “D Orchestra Hall.”
That took the sound exactly in the direction needed and I was 99% there.
One last thing would complete the sound, but you have to listen to the whole Biosphere Shenzhou track to know it. It is the filter sweep sound that is going on during the whole track. Sometimes the sound gets a muffled sound and then becomes brighter. This sounded like a filter to me so I tried Lo-Hi from Goodhertz just before the reverb and by varying the frequency slider during the playback, I could get my track to mimic the sound of the Biosphere track. I could potentially use the Xfer LFO on it also, but in this case, I didn’t.
I read in an article that Geir Jenssen (Biosphere) really likes the Akai S950 sampler for its filter that sounds so good to him. (source)
“My two favorite instruments in the ’90s were the samplers from Akai: S950 followed by S3000. I could use these almost blindly. The lowpass filter on the S950 is so unique that I acquired another S950 on the used market this week. The filters are the most important part of all the instruments for me. I have read a lot about filters lately and found out that Roland SH-5, an analog synth from 1975, should have the best lowpass filter ever. So when this came up for sale on the second-hand market here in Norway recently, I just had to purchase it. Roland has also recreated the SH-5 filter in the Eurorack module SYS-505. That’s why I’ve also invested in Roland’s System 500 Complete Set, a Eurorack version of System 100M from the ’70s. So even though I do not fully master these instruments yet, the SH-5 and System 500 are my favorite instruments at the moment. Otherwise, I just have to say that I can not work with many of the new instruments that have a lot of LEDs. It looks ugly and destroys concentration. System 500 and SH-5 are perfect in that respect and remind me of my old Sony shortwave radio from the ’70s.” – Geir Jenssen (source)
What I found was that if I took the LoHi plugin and automated the frequency slider to match the Biosphere original track, I could get a near identical filter effect. I set it to high pass (HP) and moved the slider to allow more or less of the high frequency in and the low out. In the video below, you can see the Frequency slider move while the track plays and follows the line of automation in track 5 (just above 6). Notice the contour of the original Biosphere track on track 3 has a contour to it while my loops are on track 4 and are even. The Lohi filter creates the contour in the sound by the filtering (what you hear, not see in this case, but that should seem similar to the original Biosphere track (on 3).
With this, I’m 99.9% there. The additional effects mentioned below are in there as well in the video, so really it is closer to 99.99999% the same as the original Biosphere track. So there you go, replicated almost identically with a cut up orchestral loop, some creative equalization and filtering, and some reverb with normal mix down and mastering techniques.
More thoughts on the filtering – either the original was as equalization analysis shows or it was inverse:
- If it was inverse then while I used a high pass filter, it is more likely that Biosphere used a low pass one and probably the one on the Akai S950. You can see the tilt of the equalization skews toward the low end from my Pro-Q3 analysis. It tilts at about 250 Hz. This analysis by Pro-Q3 was probably while the low pass was engaged, so it is not a surprise to me that I need to use a high pass to get it back to “normal” so to speak in some places including the beginning and end where the low pass was probably not engaged in the original, but my high pass must be fully engaged.
- It is was as I measured, then the high pass filter I used is exactly right.
There’s no way to tell which it was, but I suspect it was as in point 1 above where there was no filter and then a low pass was applied in places – not as I did in my replication.
The SP950 vst implementation of the Akai S-950 sampler is excellent and I would recommend experimenting to get the sound by using this one. LoHi works really well, but the SP950 incorporates the sound better as it is closer to the original Akai sampler. The filter of the SP950 is modeled on the Akai S-950 while the pitch-shifting effect of the E-mu SP-1200 where the recording was made at a higher speed then proportionally brought back down to a slower one afterward, producing artifacts and aliasing.
The RX950 vst works o.k. also, but I like the SP950 vst better.
I put my standard mixdown compressor as well as a tape effect for saturation, and a boutique EQ for gentle finishing of the tone, ending with my standard limiter. These didn’t do much to the sound, but I liked the sound marginally better than without so I left them in.
What I Learned
Doing this little exercise, I learned a lot of things:
- It is easy to make a loop-track-based composition and have it sound good (without actual tape). The loop was simple and it took only a few minutes to cut it out in my DAW (not tape) and get it looping well. But, I would probably not do this with my music because the sample I used here is not my own and I don’t want to get in trouble. I did it just for this exercise, because the Biosphere track used it and I needed to do the same to replicate the track in understanding how it was done.
- You don’t need a lot of effects to make a track like this. Two effects made this track almost exactly like the original. Simplification is key. Less is more, and all that.
- The width, depth, and tone of the track came mainly from the loop material itself and not a lot of effects. This surprised me.
- The incredible stereo width of the track came, in part, from the radical equalization – notice how the low tones are emphasized in the EQ curve while the high tones are attenuated. The source material had a lot of high tones, so this brought them back to a flat, normal status, while the low was overemphasized. This made, in effect, a deep “smile curve” on the material – causing the highs and lows both to have a part while the mids were dropped/flat. I see this a lot in Biosphere’s works, and this explains it.
- A good equalizer is invaluable and Fabfilter Pro-Q is amazing. It did 90% of the heavy lifting on this track. The “EQ Match” feature was impressive. It was the first time I used it and I will again.
- A great reverb is invaluable. It finished the track and gave it the airy goodness it needed while not sounding canned or tinny.
- Filtering was a finishing touch and made the repetitive looping interesting by changing the tone. It was incredibly easy to achieve this, but it belies the fact that some serious thought had to have gone into the whole track in order to achieve the desired taste. Where I could just copy the original, it takes considerable effort and artistry to dream all of this up in the first place and sincere respect to Biosphere for this magnificent achievement.
Bonus Lesson Learned: I have a new appreciation for Debussy’s music and classical music in general.
Also, copying is the only way to learn: