My Personal Top 20 Songs (Part 4)

Last ones!

16. Dr. Who Theme – Ron Grainer/Delia Derbyshire (BBC Radiophonic Workshop) (1963) – Source: Gallifrey
There are so many reasons I love this song. Being a great song, standing the test of time, and being re-imagined almost as often as the doctors have been regenerated. Having a life of its own outside of the show, thanks to things like the KLF spinoff.
The work that went into the original recording is beyond stupefying. It sounds so much like something I would do (and have done), that I feel like Delia and the crew at BBC who did this are part of my extended musical family. If you know me at all, you’ll probably agree if you read this piece I salvaged from the wayback machine. The whole crux of it is that “each note was individually hand-crafted”. I’ve manually synched together multiple tape decks for multitrack fakery, done tape collages with dozens of splices, and taken my MIDI files into a hex editor to manually tweak parameters on every single note in a sequence, so I know a bit about what this must have been like. I also know that the results are usually worth it. Obviously, I’ve covered this song numerous times. It’s another one of those pieces with a time signature that is worth arguing about, but for the sake of simplicity I always just dial in as 12/16 to make things easy. (IMHO: “triplets” are the bit of music theory I’ve always considered a mathematically inconsistent hack…naysayers, fire away!) Also, last but certainly not least, hearing this song always reminds me of watching the show with my dad when I was a kid, and I’m truly thankful for those times.

17. Fool’s Overture – Supertramp – Source: Even In the Quietest Moments (1977)
(Link is not to the original, which is still my favourite, but this is a really good live performance too…I can’t find a decent link to the studio version anywhere!)
A funny thing about this song, if there was ever a piece that you’d need sheet music to learn how to play, this would be one. There’s even a PICTURE of the sheet music for this song on the front cover of the album! Hilariously, at least for the decades I spent scouring the globe for it, no such commercially available sheet music actually exists. I spent a long time figuring out the intro piano section (the first 2 minutes) by ear, and months of tweaking it, realizing that this note here was wrong, or that arpeggiated chord was missing a note, requiring all five fingers to play properly. When I walk into a piano store (sadly, never having owned a real piano in my life), I’ll sit down at the nicest piano they have (usually some half-million dollar work of art I could never afford) and start playing this song. It always gets a reaction from people. Things like “what IS that?!”, or “I’ve never heard anyone play that before”, or (the best) “I’ve never heard anyone play that PROPERLY before”. I’ve even, on one occasion (while playing a $480k extended grand Bösendorfer at a shop in San Francisco) had everyone in the whole store stop everything to listen. IMHO, this is in part because, although technically accurate, the emotion this song is trying to convey resonates so strongly with me that it pours out of me whenever I play it. It always leaves me shaking a bit.
I could also talk about how great the rest of the song is, for many of the same reasons as the other songs on this list, or talk about how I was introduced to this song via mix tape my dad sent to me when I was 8, and he was stationed up in Alert for 6 months. (Thanks again dad!) Like every song here, there are so many reasons why it matters to me…

18. Big Time Sensuality (The Fluke Moulimix) – Björk – Source: Big Time Sensuality single (132 TP 7 CDL) (1993)
Björk…what can I say? If you don’t know me at all, I could say a lot. If you do, you’ve probably heard more than you can stand already. I wouldn’t claim to be her most hardcore fan, but I don’t think I’d want to meet someone more extreme about it than me. For over 20 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever had more than a day or two at a time that I haven’t listened to her. (That’s one reason why, even camping, I make sure I always have some kind of music player and headphones with me). This song was probably the first thing I heard from her after Tappi Tíkarrass, KULK, and Sugar Cubes, and I was so thrilled that she was finally launching a solo career where she was “in charge”, it was finally her unrestrained, undiluted, uncompromised artistic vision. This song, and in particular this version, and the crazy video that accompanies it (link above is to an even better, rare alternate version) really hammer that feeling home. It’s only one small part of everything she represents as an artist, but something I treasure, and keep coming back to.

19. Bad – U2 – Source: The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
Link is to the Wide Awake In America version, but every version of this song is perfect in its own way. I know it’s the “in” thing to hate on U2 now, but screw all those people. Some of the best concert moments I’ve ever had were at U2 shows, and in particular around this song. Some of the best jams I’ve ever had were U2 covers, and my moments of zoning out for hours at a drum kit usually involve playing early U2 songs. This song hits me hard, and encapsulates so much of that. Also the message of the lyrics, and the “I don’t care if I completely destroy my vocal chords” delivery of them, really does make me feel wide awake whenever I hear it. As an aside, I also vividly remember spending all day watching the live broadcast of Live Aid in July of 1985, and even coming out of my crappy TV speakers, U2’s performance of this song was incredibly powerful, and was the highlight of the whole day for me.

20. Stereo – Watchmen – Source: Silent Radar (1998)
(I also love this version equally) A Winnipeg band! Go figure.
This song is me. Every word of it, every sound, everything. On every level. Even literally. My life *is* a stereo. (Kinda cheaply made though) I’d write about it more, but it’s all way too personal. If you know me though, you already know this song, even if you’ve never heard it before.

So, there you have it. You might be surprised by some of the missing things, like how, for example, there’s no Nine Inch Nails, no Bach pieces, no Tragically Hip…all I can say is, my top 100 has a lot of that, and no way am I going to write about it all! These are the songs that made the cut, is all. I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear why…


My Personal Top 20 Songs (Part 3)

Continuing, still not in any order other that what I feel like writing about today…

11. Skinny Puppy – Smothered Hope – Source: Remission EP (1984)
Skinny Puppy was my introduction to “alternative”, and the whole concept that there was music being made that you would never hear on the radio in a million years (even though it had mass distribution, lots of sales, and a dedicated fan base), and in many cases, it was truly great. It didn’t hurt that they were from Vancouver. It also didn’t hurt that between me and one of my best friends, we had almost all of the gear that they used to create their earliest work. Obviously, we covered their songs, and this one in particular sounded impressively close to the original. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what exactly it is about this song I love so much, but it never gets old for me. I even quoted from it in my high school yearbook. FYI: Yes, that drum machine is a Roland TR-909, and yes, this was many years before everyone, even Madonna, started using it. I think that was the “jump the shark” moment where my friend decided to sell his.

12. Kings – This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide – Source: The Kings Are Here (1980)
Yay! Another Vancouver band. I swear these are all coincidences, as I never lived in Vancouver until 1999. Believe it or not, I found this album (on vinyl) in near-mint condition in a recycle bin in New Westminster, around 2003-ish. This song is the textbook for rock keyboard players. It’s especially nice that you can pan the whole track hard-right and get a pretty good isolated listen to just the keyboard parts. It has the holy trinity of rock keyboards: schmaltzy piano, hammond rock organ, and mini-moog synth lead. Of course I know how to play this song, but I’ve never been in a band willing to cover it. I love getting two songs for the price of one, and I love how they get away with rhyming “wanna” and “Toronto”.

13. Stealers Wheel – Stuck In the Middle With You – Source: Stealers Wheel (1972)
I’ve loved this song since my earliest childhood memories. Listening to it now, I still find it hard to believe that it was recorded in 1972, as the sound quality of it outshines just about everything else from that era. Maybe that’s because it came out of Apple Studio (not Abbey Road studio…the other one, where Let It Be was recorded), and George Martin was probably involved. I’ve been a sucker for hand claps my whole life, and this song is probably why. But it’s the bassline that makes this song for me. I spent a crazy amount of time around 1994 painstakingly programming the whole bassline into a Boss DR-550 drum machine, and I can tell you, it’s WAY more intricate than you would believe, just casually listening to the song. Around that time, I had the song stuck (hah!) in my head for several months. I would wake up in the morning with it playing in my head every day, and I thought I had gone insane and it would never leave. I’m always just a little nervous about that whenever I hear it again.

14. The Cars – Drive – Source: Heartbeat City (1984)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Love or hate Mutt Lange, as a music producer, you either listen to/read every word he says, or ignore it at your own peril. This song is a beautiful example of why. This is a rare case where the lyrics are a big part of the emotional connection I have with a song. Oddly, I can place myself in the shoes of both the singer, and the person being addressed (and not just because I haven’t owned a car, nor had a drivers license for most of my life). This is another intricate song that I’ve deconstructed and painstakingly covered, right down to the stereo panning on the tambourine. A large part of the original was created using a Fairlight CMI, (a state of the art Series IIx, IIRC) one of the world’s first music computers, which I desperately dreamed of owning for many years. The “Adoption” section of that Wikipedia article linked above reads like a laundry list of my favourite artists, and yup, even Trevor Horn (see #3 in my top 20) shows up.

15. Gordon Lightfoot – Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Source: Summertime Dream (1976)
See also this great video. According to this interview, Gordon Lightfoot himself considers this the best song he’s ever written. I love this song so much, I can hardly describe it. Even if I listen to it 5 times in a row, the hair on my arms all stands up every single time. The lyrics, and the way it faithfully recounts an actual event while still being entirely musical is a feat. It’s also genre-defying. You could say it’s a folk song, but the rock guitar in it gives it more weight. The arpeggiated synth part around 2:30 (2:45 of the linked video), right up to the climax of the “story” is so trivial, but so critical to the success of the emotional impact of the song, I consider that pure artistry. Whenever I pause to consider what “Canadian culture” is, this song immediately comes to mind.

Only 5 left!

My Personal Top 20 Songs (Part 2)

Continuing with the list. Keep in mind that these are in semi-random order…

6. M – Pop Muzik (12″ Mix) – source: 12″ single (1979)
A friend of mind had this single when we were around 9 or 10, and the whole concept of it blew my mind. Here was a full-sized 12″ record, but you played it at 45 RPM, and there was only one song. The idea of an extended remix was also new to me, since Duran Duran wasn’t a thing yet. Two things in my life probably came from this particular song. First, becoming a DJ a few short years later, collecting my own 12″ singles and playing them in front of hundreds of people. Second, deciding that saxophone was my instrument of choice in school band. There are so many odd connections in my life to this particular song that I could write a book. The short version: This song is at the start of side one of the first blank cassette I bought, the first song I burned to CD-ROM, and the first track transferred to blank MiniDisc. The reason I bought a MiniDisc recorder was to bootleg U2 shows when I knew I was finally going to see them, after totally missing the ZooTV tour. I saw (and booted) 4 shows on the PopMart tour, in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Minneapolis, and Montreal. Guess what the opening “hype music” for that whole tour was, as U2 came on stage? U2 – PopMart Intro (Mexico City) What an awesome song too, by the way. I never, ever get tired of it.

7. Mark Snow – The X-Files Theme – source: too many to list (1993, 1996 extended version)
If you’ve seen my CD shelf, you might notice that down near the end, there a whole section for ‘X’ that has tons of versions of X-Files theme remixes, and X-Files music. To my knowledge, I have all the X-Files music that’s ever been released, even the rare, numbered multi-CD box sets with hours and hours of score queues. Music in movies, tv shows, and video games has always been something I pay extremely close attention to, and everything Mark Snow creates raises the bar for what “background music” could be. I’ve done a number of covers of the X-Files Theme itself, but generally, I often find myself thinking “how would Mark Snow approach this?” when I’m working on particular types of composition. Asides: Whenever I get my hands on a keyboard with a good piano sound, one of the first things I do is set up a stereo delay on it, so I can play the theme on it. Also, I love songs that have a strong 12/16 meter superimposed on top of a standard 4/4, which this song is a prime example of.

8. Nazareth – This Flight Tonight – source: Loud ‘n’ Proud (1973)
This is one of the first songs I loved as a little kid, and if you’ve read my Intro post on this blog, you know that story. It was my introduction, specifically, to what I call the “galloping bass”, which is simply playing on the 1st, 3rd and 4th 16th notes in every quarter measure. That galloping bass kills me every time, and I love most songs I’ve ever heard that use it. I also love the total meter change at around 2:15 (the “doo-wop” section), the haunting guitar wailing, and the relentless hi-hats.

9. New Order – Bizarre Love Triangle (Shep Pettibone Remix) – source: 12″ single (1986)/ Substance 1987
Surprise! This song has that “galloping bass” too. I loved playing this song as a DJ, and it was what I call “intelligent dance music”. I’ve covered this song, and what a project! This song taught me a lot about drum machine programming, synth sound crafting, sequencing, and especially the importance of stereo placement. Every sound in this song moves. And those sounds! This song has the best use of a vocoder I’ve ever heard, and I almost convinced myself to build one (I had schematics for it) just because of it. An interesting thing I discovered about this song is that the chords in the chorus, while seemingly simple, are definitely not. There are two sounds playing entirely different chords that should clash horribly, but don’t. When I was figuring out that part of the song, and just playing those chords together by themselves, I kept thinking “that can’t possibly be right, can it?”…but it is. Last, but not least, my singing voice, as I’ve been told, and honestly believe, is extremely similar to Bernard Sumner, so I can sing this and other New Order songs very well.

10. Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like We Do – source: Frampton Comes Alive! (1976)
Once of the greatest concert performances/recordings of all time. I have a surround sound mix of this on DVD-A that is even more incredible. Of course, the talking guitar is the biggest highlight of the song. I also love the decision to fully integrate the sound of the crowd into the recording, making it so immersive. The keyboard solo, by Bob Mayo, from around 4:10 to 5:35 is, well, inspiring and depressing at the same time. After years of trying, I know that I’m just physically incapable of playing that well. Still, it gives me something to strive for.

My Personal Top 20 Songs (Part 1)

This is my current personal list of top 20 songs. These are the songs that have had the most impact on me, shaping my taste in music, and in some ways my whole personality. This list hasn’t needed to change much in the last decade or so, since these songs have had incredible staying power with me. Of course, I have a top 100 list as well, that is even more diverse, and includes an insane range of musical genres, and spans centuries. But these are the ones I go back to time and again, because of both the quality of the songs themselves, and the personal connections I have with them. I’ll be describing a bit of this in the next few posts. So, in no particular order:

1. Afro Celt Sound System & Peter Gabriel – When You’re Falling (album version) – source: “Volume 3: Further In Time” (2001)

This one has the least definable reason for earning a place on the list. Of course, the production is stellar, and especially the recording quality of ACSS’s vocals has a clarity and presence that is unusual for a group of vocalists of that size. But for me, this is an exercise in raw emotional connection with a song that goes beyond any technical reason. I first heard/saw it used in an IMAX presentation called Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk, in 2002, and have loved it ever since.

2. Enya – Storms In Africa (Part II) – source: Bonus track on some versions of Watermark album, b-side of original 7″ single (1988)

Specifically part II, which has lyrics in English. The brightness of this version is unlike anything else released at the time. So many crystalline layers of treble in the vocals, strings, and percussion. The prominence of the African drumming in this version, coupled with the field recordings of rain and thunder give it a power that elevate it above the other popular Enya songs, in my opinion. I spent a long time (successfully) perfecting my own cloning of the arpeggiated synth sound that runs through it, and I spent hours playing that part by hand. This was one rare time where I specifically walked into a record store and bought a 45, just for the b-side. It became a “road trip tape standard” for years.

3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome To The Pleasuredome (including all intro sections) source: Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1984)

This is a bit of a cheat, because I’m including “Well…”, “The World Is My Oyster”, and “Snatch Of Fury (Stay)” in this (which the link above misses), as I consider them all intro sections of the song. This is a flat-out masterpiece. Ostensibly a dance track, it has so many different things going on, it defies any genre pigeonhole. A perfect example of the determination and perfectionism of Trevor Horn, one of my personal idols for his contributions to the world of studio production. Every note and sound in this work was clearly painstakingly created and placed. Particularly noteworthy are the insanely complex bassline, backwards hi-hat loops, various layers of field recordings, brilliant guitar effect work, and sound palette encompassing so many different types of sounds (I tried counting once, and got lost after 100 ). This song never fails to make me feel awake and alive, no matter how I’m feeling before I listen to it.

4. Front 242 – Headhunter V1.0 source: Front By Front (1988)

Hey, I just discovered while looking for a link that “COMA Music Magazine ranked “Headhunter” as the greatest industrial song of all time in 2012.” Well ok then! Yes, I have the 4 CD set that has nothing but remixes of this song. But Version 1.0 is where it all started for me, and I had already been a pretty big Front 242 fan for at least a couple years before it was released. The way they proved that the Yamaha DX-7 synth, a staple of 80s synth pop, could be tortured to produce some really harsh sounds directly informed my own FM synthesis creation process for years. As a DJ at the time, putting this track on and watching the entire dance floor go ballistic was always deeply satisfying. Even 10-15 years later, I would still occasionally be in a club when this got played, and clearly there are a lot of people who still remember (or freshly discover) how perfect this song is for jumping around like a maniac. Also, I think I may have suffered a little bit of permanent hearing damage watching them perform it live during the Reboot tour, one of the best concert experiences of my life.

5. Imagine – John Lennon source: Imagine (1971)

What can you say about the quintessential song about world peace? Yes, I remember exactly where I was on the night of December 8th, 1980, and it had a profound impact on me. I could write a whole separate essay on how it changed my perception of the adult world, and how I felt connected to the adults in my life at the time because they were all as shocked and devastated as I was. I still stop what I’m doing on that day every year, and spend some time listening to John Lennon. I’m a decent keyboard player, and a decent singer, but I’m rarely coordinated enough to do both at the same time with any success. This song is one notable exception. If I ever had to perform live by myself somewhere, this is probably the only song I’d feel confident I could do some justice to.

Etherium Audio – Demo Scene ‘Zine article circa 2004

Here is an article that was published some time in 2004 for a Demo Scene ‘Zine online, and possibly even in print. I can’t remember exactly what it was, and can’t find it online now. If anybody knows, or knows a Lonnie Taylor (editor for the publication that I submitted this to), please let me know, as I’d love to read the whole issue again. I believe it also had some other contributions from fellow Northern Dragons members.


After the release of the 4K demo Etherium that Northern Dragons entered into Assembly 2003, I got a few emails from people asking me for some details about how we accomplished the audio. The intention of this article is to provide a bit of insight into what we did, and hopefully answer some of those questions. You can check out the demo on Pouet at, and visit Northern Dragons at

Our overall game plan, to leverage the skills of the people involved, was to create a complete sound engine module in C++, and have it converted to NASM and optimized afterwards. Since it seems that a lot of the DirectSound examples available online are in C++, it was a lot easier to figure out what we were doing that way. That, and I just felt a lot more comfortable doing a bunch of ugly trig in C++.

The playback engine is just a bunch of DirectSound intialization stuff that you get to by including DirectSound header files and libraries from .dll files, and defining some data structures. As a musician/math guy, it was nice to have a framework for all the initialization details created for me in C++, and then let the coders take what I had and put it into assembly. Taking that idea one step further, you can also use a framework like that to let different people work on the math, creating the sound palette, and someone else write the actual music. It’s all about division of labour, and making it a solid team effort.

The main thing I was working with was a huge ‘buffer’ in memory that you can think of as a wave. I don’t remember the numbers, but the track was about 2 minutes long, 16-bit (2 bytes) mono, at 22050 samples/second, so it’s roughly (2 bytes/sample)*(22050 samples/sec)*120 seconds =  5292000 bytes = ~5 MB. That’s a contiguous chunk of memory you can access like an array, and they’re all zeros to start with. When you’re done building into that, you just pass a pointer to it to the DirectSound engine, and say ‘here, play this’. In our case, we said ‘play this with stereo reverb’ (specifically, Direct Audio DSFXWavesReverb), so it sounds a little less dry. You can really notice it in the kick sound.

So then, you need your sounds. I built this whole thing with functions…calling functions…calling functions. The lowest level of function was just an equation for each sound. You pass it some stuff like a frequency, an amplitude, and a start position (your intial array index to write to the buffer). The equations are pretty basic trig functions, and I won’t really get into the details. They’re mostly one-liners (but ugly mothers) in a for loop. Believe it or not, the lead sound is almost a pure sine wave. The amplitude envelope is as simple as a quarter sine wave itself. Draw the quarter sine wave that goes from 1 down to 0, multiply the amplitude by that, and you get a really cheap non-linear roll-off. I also figured out how to do an inverse exponential roll-off just by taking the amplitude, and multiplying it by 0.999999 over and over, which I used on the whooshing sound.

One of the things I strongly urge people to do is use an initial volume ramp on their sounds. It’s the biggest thing that I hear other people missing in this sort of work, and it makes a huge difference. Those initial clicks you hear on every note in some productions…well, they can drive your audience crazy, and can’t be great for speakers either. Here’s a code snippet to show what I mean, and how easy this is:

value *= (amp/50*count);
value *= (amp*envelope_function(count)));

If you think about it, (50 samples)/(22050 samples/sec) works out to around 2 milliseconds. Enough to eliminate a click, but not enough to really damage your attack transients, unless you’re being really picky.

The kick drum was the cheapest thing ever. It’s a sin wave that drops from (I think) something like 60Hz down to 40Hz, with that quarter sine rolloff I was talking about. Dirt simple.

The whooshes were, as I said, generated with the random number generator. I just kept increasing the rate at which it chose new numbers for my samples, so the pitch of the noise goes up. The flanger took care of smoothing out the ‘burbling’ you would otherwise hear at the start. A real bonus here was the fact that we already had a random number generator for other areas of the production, so it turned out to have multiple uses, increasing our bang-per-byte.

The chords were a little trickier. I don’t even remember what the final version ended up being, but I think it was a sawtooth, with the points of the teeth flattened into something square-like, so it didn’t sound quite so harsh. The math for that, while not involving trig, was one of the hardest parts for me to get right.

A few words about effects. If you have one sound you want to put a static delay on, like our lead sound, it’s simple to incorporate the delay right into the sound, just by writing to 3 or 4 further offset locations in the sound buffer, with a scaled down amplitude for each. It makes the code pretty tight, and then you don’t need separate delay functions, or have to worry about using a DirectAudio delay effect that turns your whole mix into a jumbled mess.

I did write a separate flanger function, just because the code was pretty cheap and simple, got reused in a few places, and ended up being smaller than it would have been to turn on a DirectAudio flanger. When you’re building these effect functions, think hard about what parameters you want to control. My flanger had start and end times, depth, rate, and mix amount. Knowing which settings can change between calls, and which are constant can help a lot with optimization later, when every byte counts! Something else to think about for the conversion to assembly: parameters are cool, but more challenging for the folks coding it to assembly. Setting up the assembly routines to accept a pointer to a datastructure that holds all the values for a given effect is a cheap and effective way to create a simple music scripting technology. ’nuff said!

Then you have a melody block function that calls the sounds with the right frequencies, with a bunch of offsets (plus a master offset). Call that block a bunch of times in a loop, where the master offset increases, and you generate that melody block over and over. You build the entire thing with blocks built on blocks, and the whole thing becomes a lego exercise from that point. I think that part is where all the musical creativity goes, and I leave that as an exercise for the reader!

Hopefully that gives you some ideas, whether you’re considering doing this for the first time, or even if you’re a veteran in this area. Either way, I wish you tons of success, and look forward to having my socks knocked off!

Chris Deschenes (umdesch4)
Northern Dragons Audio Lead