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Phase 6: Mixing (and Mastering)

Coming The Room Beneath New Albion

Ah mixing.

I can write and record an entire song in three days. I mean, melody, lyrics, play every instrumental part, vocals, EVERYthing. Three days.

I can mix and fidget with it for the rest of my damn life.

Turn this instrument up juUUUUUUuust a hair…. this down… oOO, piano’s too strong on this part, go in and play the piano chords softer… ride cymbal is too loud on this part… guitar effect doesn’t cut through on this part, try another…. no try another…. wait the first one was the best… etc, etc, etc.

I can do this forEVER.

There does come a point when listening to a project when nothing truly bothers me and it’s ready to finally be released. This is usually about 2 hours before the moment i promised to release it.

The Room Beneath New Albion is due out tomorrow. It was finished early. Early meaning last night, about 40 hours before the actual release. That’s a record. Not that i didn’t think of something i could fiddle with this morning, but i have also learned there is a limit to how much you SHOULD fiddle. You can fiddle until you have completely new album. You can fiddle until you have redone everything, then redone THAT to change it back to the way it was in the first place. Do not do this. Be decisive. When it no longer bothers you STOP questioning it, let it be, and finish the thing.

Still, getting every detail just right can be excruciating. It’s difficult to go into the process in any more details because the mix and the sound is so subjective. I like it like this, so i mix it the way i like it.

When i first started making albums i was in high school. My buddy Jeff Miller and i would go to this music store every year and rent a 4 track. We’d write an entire album worth of material, get friends of ours who played bass and drums to play the songs, record it and make an album.

I heard the first of these albums just last XMas for the first time in many years. Dear God, it was excruciatingly bad. Although to be fair, Jeff’s end held up pretty nicely. As did the other musicians. My end of things was by far the weak link.

This exact pattern would play out over the next several years. Every year we’d rent a 4 track (then 8 track) and record and album. After high school, i went to college for a year and a half, dropped out, moved up to Penn State, formed a band with ol’ Jeff and continued to make our yearly album. For another 2 years at least.

By the end of this cycle, we were just about hitting 21 ( i think we made the last one at 20) and we actually recorded in a real studio in this college town. And here’s the thing: each album did get better and the very last one, Justacorp, was actually, for first time, an actual decent album, all things considered. I mean, not professional by any industry standards, but for that moment in time, it was a level up. The cycle had completed and an education of sorts had been gained. We had brought ourselves from adolescence into young adulthood, or whatever you call that age that 21 is.

Interestingly, as usual the worst parts of the album are on my shoulders. I know this sounds a lot like over the top modesty, but it’s not and here’s why: First of all, it’s true. Secondly, for those of you reading this who aren’t adults yet, who are full of ambition and this whole hurdle of just NOT SUCKING for 5 FRIGGIN MINUTES is an issue…. my brothers and sisters, i hear your pain. I understand. I have been there.

As a youngin’ i had lots of potential. Truly.  And a WHOLE lot of artistic ambition. LOTS of that. I wanted to make concept albums and tell musical stories on an EPIC level. Oh yes i did.

But i made poor and immature artistic decisions (art does reflect life). My abilities did not match my ambition. I had neither the skills nor the…. taste and maturity to do what i wanted and instead of aiming at a target i could actually hit, i aimed WAAAAAAAAY the fuck out of reach. And honestly, the reach WAS impressive. Where i was trying to hit was truly noteworthy (unless of course you’re most of the world and think musicals and concept albums are utter shite to begin with). But i couldn’t hit it. I tried. I kept trying. I still couldn’t quit hit it. And oh how i tried. Over and over. Rinse and repeat. Years and years and years passed. I had some good times and i had some reeeeeal lean times. Everyone i knew got decent jobs and started to actually… make it in life. I worked shitty jobs that i hated, refused to get any type of job which could become a career (because like a moron i wouldn’t give up the dream), and slaved away broke as fuck making albums absolutely nobody heard or gave the slightest shit about.

But. I did get good. I did develop the skill level i needed. I did grow up and gain vastly better artistic decision making abilities. And i did go and make exactly the kind of shit i wanted to make from the beginning: fucking epic musical stories.

And this is how i learned how to mix. Advice on mixing: that’s kind of it. You do it a billion times until your ears get half decent.

AH! Hang on, i remember why i got sidetracked on a bunch of personal mush. Right… so, back in the 4 and 8 track days, i used to mix the old fashioned way. You put your fingers on the faders and you move the faders very suddenly to new positions whenever you needed the mix to change. You’d put masking tape next to each fader and you’d draw like… 8 different lines with numbers like V1 for Verse 1, C2 for 2nd chorus and when the at part would come you’d have to move the faders REALLY fast to the new spot. See, the 4 track would play into another tape player (or a DAT deck. Anyone remember those? Ah the beginning of the digital era). You’d press record on the DAT deck, then play on the 4/8 tracks and then you’d have to mix live on the spot as the DAT recorded. Screw up and you’d have to stop the whole thing, rewind all the decks and start again.

I loved that shit. Seriously. I actually miss that. Don’t get me wrong, when i FINally got a computer and figured out how to do music on a computer instead of using a keyboard with a 16 track sequencer which fed out into a 4 track (2 tracks, left and right) which i then added vocals to (on the 2 free tracks)… when i finally got a computer my whole music making ability JUMPED up several notches. And automated mixing… you’d have to be moron to go back. But still. I miss live mixing. It was… so in the moment. It was living in record.

Well. Wasn’t that a meandering post on mixing.  Let’s sum it up: play a bunch of tracks. Mix those tracks together so that it sounds good to you. Rinse. Repeat. One day quit your day job.

And with that our series is over. I have tried to give as open and transparent a look into my process as i can actually put into words.

Tomorrow you can tune in to hear the bonus New Albion story, which obviously i hope you enjoy. It is, truly, a love note from me to you. All of you listening and buying and writing about these albums online, i do not take you for granted. In fact, i LOVE YOU. So i’m sending you a love note tomorrow.  Until then, my pretties.

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Posted by on November 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Phase 5: Recording the Vocals

Coming The Room Beneath New Albion

Just to be clear: The Box Set is coming. It is not yet on sale, but will be in about 2 weeks. The Bonus Album is being released digitally first on Monday, then about 2 weeks after that the Box Set will go on sale. Thank you all for your patience. Trust me, you will KNOW when it goes on sale. I will be very, very vocal.

Okay, Phase 5, the vocals.

By the time i’m ready to start recording the vocalists, the album is enormously close to being done. There’s usually only some mixing issues left. The vocalists are always singing over a pretty finished product. There are some fairly obvious reason for this. Normally, for the New Albion projects, i fly to London to record them personally. There’s a flurry of scheduling that happens over the course of weeks beforehand, much of it often very complicated (getting 3 performers’ schedules to line up over a one week period is a logistical nightmare). Since i’m flying in, there is no room for error. Flying back if mistakes are made or if i change parts is not really an option. So the vocal parts have to be SOLID. No mistakes, no changing my mind later.

The vocalists i work with on the New Albion albums are top notch. Lauren Osborn, Kayleigh McKnight, Oliver Marsh, Jason Broderick… these people are consummate professionals. I don’t have to worry about them delivering substandard performances. It don’t happen. Direction is usually needed to line up their talents with the specifics of what the song or character require, you know, letting them know that i would like a particular line sung held back, or loud, etc. But what i don’t have to worry about is that we’re going to spend 4 hours just trying to nail one song. Usually they can sing it all in 2 sessions.

I must make sure as much unknown guesswork is removed from the equation. How can i be sure the vocal parts are really going work  before i hear the vocalists? I’ll tell you this, guessing what vocals parts are going to sound like and actually hearing them are VERY different creatures. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re not. That is why all the vocal parts have already been sung out before the vocalist ever enter the picture. EVERY part, every harmony, everything, is sung out by me in a demo version long before i ever head off to record them. Each album has a demo version where i’m singing every part, often pitch adjusting my voice to hit Lauren’s high notes. ( i have a very particular female persona who only exists in the world of +3 pitch adjustment). This way i have tested all the vocal parts and am sure that they work.

Don’t get me wrong, they sometimes sound terrible. Me singing Lauren’s lines is often a dreadful audio experience i wouldn’t subject a captured Voodoopunk double agent to much less a real listener. But it does the job just fine in telling my ears whether the melody itself will work when sung properly.

So… all the vocals parts are written and sung out. I then print out sheet music of them, and send sheet music, the song with demo vocals, the song with no vocals and a lyric sheet off to the singers. I fly in. We set up somewhere (often a microphone in Lauren’s living room), record the singers and i fly back home to mix. If you’re in St. Albans you MUST have the carrot cake from the bakery near the tower. Oh GAWWWWWD that thing is good. Damn do i love me some carrot cake.

We’ll talk about mixing next time for out very last Phase. I do want to touch on one more aspect, which is vocal fx.

All vocals have both compression and reverb. There is almost no exception. I use VC-64 Vintage Channel for compression. It’s got a nice compression plus a de-esser, Eq and gate. For the layman: compression tightens the sound/vocals. In recording you don’t want the vocals going too soft and too loud, all over the place. Listen to someone talking or singing live in a room. Then listen to an album. You hear how on an alum the vocals sound so…. tight. So right in your face and on top of the music. That’s compression. Very important. There is no album you will ever hear without it.

A de-esser, which i don’t often need, but when i do, I DO, takes the s sounds off a vocal. Sometimes females can have a very loud “s”. When recording anybody, i always use a spit screen in front of the mic and this makes p’s and s’s softer and not obnoxious. (take that spit screen away and p sounds will be HORRENDOUS). But sometimes, certain voices have over the top s’s when miked. A de-esser makes those go away. To a large extant.

EQ is EQ, i’m going to assume you all know that one. Gate makes the sound shut off when the volume gets below a certain level. So for instance when the performer is fidgeting in between verses the sound will shut down and come back in when they sing into the mic. I don’t use gate so much because often i need to record a vocalists being very soft and gates can often cut off the ends of words. When Lauren holds out a note, getting softer and softer and barely singing the s at the end… gates love to cut her off. So i don’t use them. But VC-64 Vintage Compressor has it if i want it.

I use Sonitus Reverb. It’s good and the fact is i know it backwards and forwards. Reverb is echo. Not delay, just… echo. Picture a person singing in a bedroom. Now picture them singing in a bathroom. Now a cave. Now a cathedral. Now a kitchen. That’s reverb.

There are times i want the voice to sound like it;s on an old record: Izotope Vinyl.

There are times i want it to sound like it’s coming through a pair of crappy speakers, or a meagphone, or an old tape recorder: Audio Ease’s Speakerphone.

Lastly, the only other effect i’m liable to add is delay-lay-lay-lay-lay. I might add this to a vocals for a particular song. I like to sometimes add it to Lauren on the big, grand finishing chorus. There’s no delay on the rest of the song, but when the big, giant end chorus gets belted i put some delay on her. It just… it gives the sound a little epic quality.

Many producers get REALLY geeked out over various effects. I am not as geeked out as many others, and to be honest, they are better off for it and i am worse off for it. I don’t spend as much time as i should going through piles of compressors and EQs and reverbs, fiddling and learning the subtle differences between them all. In fact, i fiddle until i find one that wors for me and the i use the crap out of it. The time spent geeking i could spend writing and playing. There albums… they have to be written, stories written, parts conceived, played, melodies conceived, play, lyrics written, sung, recorded, mixed…. it’s a big shit-ton of work with a lot of levels happening at once and… i only have so much time. I can’t spent hours and days geeking out over effects. I just need something that works and to use it.

I am grateful to my other producer friends who give me advice on where to go to find a good effect when the time comes so i don’t have to do that work they do. I WOULD be a better producer if i did more of this however. What i would REALLY like, is for the operas to get big enough that money eventually materializes to go into a real, serious recording studio and record a big studio version of the steampunk opera. Remember, all these album is just me, a computer, a keyboard and a mic. That’s it. Just once, a big, serious studio, with big serious boards and equipment. And an engineer that knows his shit. I would sit and watch him work. I could learn more in a week then i learn in 2 years.

One day.

One day VERY soon i will buy a new microphone. I use a Rode NT 1-A. For the price range it’s the best choice you could make. Aspiring producers with little money, the Rode NT 1-A is the bomb. However, the quality of the vocals on my albums is not excellence and i’m arriving at a point in my career where i should be giving you listeners excellence. When i get paid from some freelance commercial/game work i’ve done, i’ll be purchasing an AKG 414 and we’ll bump the quality of vocals on my albums up a notch.

So, there you go. My little discussion on recording the vocalists, a HUGE part of my albums. The vocalists make the entire thing sink or swim. It’s what people listen to. i can have all the backing tracks i want, i can have all the details in all the backing tracks going on and have worked out for months and none of it matters if the vocals don’t cut it.

The operas are designed so that if you broke everything down to just a piano, guitar and singers, you could perform the pieces and they would be enjoyable. The Room Beneath New Albion changes that a bit. For the new one coming out i’m not even going to pretend it’s every going to be performed. it is meant to exist as an album. It is written and produced as an album, specifically. You’ll understand when you hear it.

See you tomorrow, boys and girls.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Collected Stories From New Albion

New Albion a steampunk city

Over the course of writing this blog i’ve occasionally written tales set in the New Albion universe. I’ve been meaning to collect them and have them in one easy to find page and now i’ve finally gotten around to it.

If you look at the top of the blog, where it lists pages such as Home, About, Buy The Full Album, etc, you will see a new tab, Stories From New Albion. In this are all the stories taking place in New Albion or about its residents.

While i do sometimes try to go back and fix the really horrible grammatical and spelling errors which plague my writing  and posts due to the limited time constraints i have in my day to actually bang out blogs, many survive i am sure. Apologies.

If there are any facets of New Albion you would like written about in the future let me know. Otherwise this new page will sit here for all y’all’s casual perusal.

Stories From New Albion

Here is the list and links as they appear on the page above:

Simon The Albatross:

The Origin of Talking Animals In New Albion (The Albatross, Pt. 1)

A Study in Faeries (The Albatross, Pt. 2)

Alchemists and Secret Handshakes (The Albatross, Pt. 3)

We Finally Return To Talking Animals (The Albatross, Pt. 4)

Agatha And The Library (The Albatross, Pt. 5)

Black Magic Banking (The Albatross, Pt. 6)

The Great Heist (The Albatross, Pt.7)

The Death Of Simon The Albatross (The Albatross, Pt 8 Conclusion)

The Red Haired Dwarf:

The Red Haired Dwarf Pt. 1

The Red Haired Dwarf Pt. 2

The Red Haired Dwarf Pt. 3

The Red Haired Dwarf Pt. 4

The Red Haired Dwarf Pt. 5

The Fae Under New Albion (post dieselpunk, pre atompunk):

The Fae Beneath New Albion Pt. 1

The Fae Beneath New Albion Pt. 2

The Fae Beneath New Albion Pt. 3

The Fae Beneath New Albion Pt. 4

The Fae Beneath New Albion Pt. 5

The Fae Beneath New Albion Pt. 6 (Final)

.The Fairy Tales of New Albion:

The Fairytales Of New Albion Pt. 1

The Fairytales Of New Albion Pt. 2

The Fairytales Of New Albion Pt. 3

The Fairytales Of New Albion Pt. 4

The Fairytales Of New Albion Pt. 5 (Conclusion)

The Little Dead Girl:

The Little Dead Girl.

The Little Dead Girl 2

The Little Dead Girl 3 (Conclusion)

Various:

The Albino Tribe Underneath New Albion

The Red Haired Lad

The Two Thieves

Snapshots From New Albion (steampunk era)

Snapshots From New Albion (dieselpunk era)

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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The Death Of Simon The Albatross (The Albatross, Pt 8 Conclusion)

Simon the Albatross, New Albion, The Steampunk Opera

We now fast forward 18 years. The girls have grown into 35 year old women. Sam the Mouse and Simon the Albatross should have died long ago, but in fact they have barely aged due to the Faerie essence in their blood. Agatha is in her 40s and owns the library. In fact she has built a number of libraries all across New Alibon and is active in founding and funding literacy programs and scholarship foundations who give students educational grants for University.

The Gang is still active. After the Vault heist they became rock stars of the underworld and over the years have worked with and for numerous colorful characters and groups of various dubiousness. They have a solid reputation and almost every client and aquaintance in their history speaks highly of them.

For many, many years the New Albion mafia was run by a red haired dwarf. The Gang and the dwarf got along very well on the rare occasions their paths would cross. However, one day the dwarf was killed and his killer, his son, took over the mob. The son did things differently and brought a new philosophy to running the underworld. At the end of the day this is a story about competing philosophies and the fallout.

The red haired dwarf was legendary for a pair of silver dice he always carried wth him. It was said that for major decisions he would role the dice and base his decision on the outcome. Obviously he had a system whereby a certain number meant a certain type of decision. This legend was a favorite to tell and talk about, and the dwarf was loved for it. However, few actually believed it was true. Everyone assumed the die rolling was a showpiece, a piece of theater that was part of the dwarf’s colorful presentation. He was such an effective mob boss that he couldn’t actually be so insane as to really use die roles to determine his major decisions.

We will go ahead here and now settle this dispute. The dwarf most certainly did use the dice to make decisions. The dwarf believed in a chaos element, a randomness of chance or fate and believed embracing it made him a more effective leader since his style was more in tune with the way reality went about its business.

The Gang did not use dice or any colorful props, but they did agree with this outlook in their own way. In fact, the trouble started when Sam the Mouse argued this very point. Actually, no, that’s not fair to Sam. The trouble started with the red haired dwarf’s son brought the Gang in to swear him fealty.

The son had been in power a for awhile. He was little by little bringing everyone of any importance in the city’s underworld to swear allegiance to him. The Gang was not at the top of the list so it took awhile to get around to them, but one day they were indeed brought in.

The son was a different man from his father. In fact those stupid dice had driven him nuts over the years. The son didn’t believe in idiotic props or clownish displays of decision making. He knew they best way to run and even expand an empire is through tight control. He didn’t leave anything up to chance. He micromanaged, he got down into the tiny details, he believed in diligence and discipline, he believed in holding the reins tight, he believed in a strict regiment, in the pursuit of effectiveness, excellence, in hierarchy and dictatorship.

He lectured the Gang on all this. He went on for quite a bit. He had delivered this lecture before and in fact had worked it into quite an impressive delivery. There were a few lines the late middle he was still honing but he was almost perfectly satisfied with the final memorized lecture. The speech did go on, though.

It was Mags who rolled her eyes even though Sam was going crazy trying to bite his tongue. The son caught the eye roll. He stopped his speech and walked up to Mags and got in her face and asked her if there was something perhaps she felt she had to add.

It was Sam who spoke up. Sam had worked on strategy and mission planning for 22 years now. In his younger days he too had aspired towards the perfectly planned plan, but over time had yielded to the truth that no plan survives contact with the enemy. When he embraced this, embraced that plans must allow for improvisation and spontaneity and must be able to breath and turn on a dime, he became a much better tactician.

He explained this to the son. He pointed out that many of the son’s points were all well and good, the pursuit of excellent and a disciplined approach, but his obsessiveness with control and rigidness were flawed and were inferior to a more open, chaos embracing approach and would also simply create more resentment.

Obviously the son wanted to squash Sam right there and then. There were a number of people present, some of importance and this disagreement of philosophy was sure to be discussed at length for a long time afterwards. The son felt his only recourse was to prove his methods and he demanded a contest.

The son would plan and execute a highly difficult heist, as would the Gang. They must use the same number of people. When asked how many people the Gang wanted they said five. Considering they were known as the Gang of Four, this was interesting and the son made note. But five it was. Both sides were to begin immediately. The contest was not only to be judged on success but on elegance of execution and lack of detection.

The Gang won hands down. Both succeeded but the son’s methods were clearly not as elegant and creative. He got away with the heist but had some trouble as where the Gang not only succeeded but the people they stole from didn’t even know they had been robbed and swore after the fact that they hadn’t.

The judging council ruled in favor of the son of course, not wanting to lose their lives, but everyone, the entire underworld including the son himself knew he had been not only shown up, but shown up with flair and style.

The son was furious. Vengeance was necessary.

However to kill the Gang immediately after the contest would be an admission of defeat. He’d lose face. Again.

But…. but. There was a fifth. The Gang of Four was not truly a gang of four. There had long been rumors of a fifth and the gang themselves had confirmed it when they requested five players. This fifth was the perfect target. Eventually the son discovered Agatha and ordered her death. Her very painful, very gruesome death.

Men were sent to the library where Agatha now lived, having built very luxurious apartments both underneath the great library and in what was once the attic. The men entered at night, heavily armed.

Simon however loved to perch on the top of library and watch the city. He saw the men. He flew into the library. They entered the main room where Agatha was meandering and set upon her. But Simon flew in attacked the men before they could get near her. He clawed and bit at their faces and when they threw knives at Agatha he intercepted them, all three of them, one after the other, using his body as a shield.

The fact that a bird flew in front of one hurtling knife and stopped it by taking the blow then, with the knife sticking out of him flew and intercepted a second knife is downright preposterous. The fact that the same bird, with two knives sticking out of him still remained airborn and intercept yet a third before finally collapsing due to the weight and the injuries is outright impossible. But he did it. He loved Agatha. He loved them all. He would have died for any and all of them a hundrend times over. And laying there with three knives sticking out of his little body, that was indeed teh day he died.

Agatha had been roundly surprised when the men came in, but upon seeing Simon attack and then fall, responded as quick as she could. She was an accomplished witch, but her spells for tight spots were mostly defensive. She cast a quick protective spell, then caused the room to disorient for her attackers, then basked herself in shadows and escaped. As she fled tears streamed down her cheeks over poor Simon, and by the time the Gang found her was weeping uncontrollably.

The Gang buried Simon the next day. They were devastated, but Sam was inconsolable. For a week the little mouse would not rise. He just lay there in his little dollhouse unmoving. After a couple of days Mae would come  by twice a day and force him to eat and drink, force him to live.

At the end of the week Sam got up. He scampered up onto the table top where Mae, Mags and Agatha were sitting. He told them they were going to now systematically destroy the son and see his dead body hang from a bridge with three perfect knife wounds for all to see, and that dangling there, the son would wear a metal plate around his neck. Sam was very adamant about the plate. He then walked away to go eat. The three women looked at each other, then shrugged and nodded.

The war lasted 6 months.

It was not actually so bloody. Sam and the women were well liked and had built up a lot of good credibility and trust, and they cashed in on this. They worked hard to develop a strong series of allies before they ever even took a step towards engaging the son. For all of Sam’s rage, he conducted a campaign based on calm, cold, masterful tactician’s logic. It was not a war of armies, it was a war of subtly and out maneuvering and Sam masterminded by far the best campaign of his life. In fact, a large part of his end game relied on the Gang having spilled as little blood as possible. He was successful in this.

All right. He was mostly successful. Up until the end game was not very bloody, but the end game itself was pretty damn bloody. And when it was all over, he had the son captured, knifed three times in very exact spots then hung from a bridge, but not by the neck. Nor were the knife wounds instantly fatal. No, the son died very slowly while hanging off the bridge. And he was fitted with a plate sticking out from the front of his neck, extending out about 15 centimeters perfectly perpendicular to his face.

On this plate sat Sam. The whole time the son dangled, slowly dying, Sam the Mouse just stood in front of his face and stared him in the eye. Just stood there. For an hour and a half. Didn’t move. Just stared into his eyes.

When the son finally died Sam scurried up the rope and went home to where Mae, Mags and Agatha were eating dinner and trying to think of what to do as New Albion’s premiere band of thieves.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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The Great Heist (The Albatross, Pt.7)

old bank vault

It is usually assumed that the Gang Of Four (the two girls, Sam the Mouse and Simon the Albatross) initially became cat burglars in order to provide themselves much needed food and money. This is not really accurate. They did indeed need food and money and burglary did provide these things. But in truth, they began enacting ever increasing heists of breaking, entering and stealing in order to practice. They were practicing for a single heist they knew it would take them years of training to pull off, and this heist was not for any personal gain, but so they could help their secret fifth member break a terrible curse her father was caught in.

Agatha had been researching curses and artifacts for years and one thing she knew for sure was that in order to break the curse upon her family and stop these stupid, psychotics wraiths from showing up and dismembering everyone whenever she got even mildly tiffed, she would need the actual artifact that had caused it. But this artifact was in the possession of the most powerful banking family in the city, the Millhouse Seths, and locked in the single most secure vault in all of New Albion.

The girls, Mae and Mags, Sam and Simon had all vowed they would help their dear friend Agatha the Librarian, even if it took years, which it did. They discussed and discussed it and agreed they would have to become thieves extraordinaire, so they set about this task with great focus.

Sam quickly proved to be the strategic brains of the group. He would plan more and more complicated operations over time and showed a genius for tactics and planning. Also, as a mouse, he was sometimes invaluable in getting into difficult rooms.

Simon, being a bird, was not only the perfect lookout, undetectable and airborn, but through flight he could transmit messages from team member to team member with a speed unheard of at that point in New Albion history. He could also simply make off with a desired item. If Mags procured say, a necklace that she needed to get off her person as fast as possible, she could simply reach outside the nearest window give it to a waiting Simon who would fly it to safety.

Mae and Mags had always been good at gymnastics, but now they trained themselves to perfection. The human element was needed in their heists, although at times they themselves did not actually need to enter the room with their desired target item was kept. They were needed to interact with other people, usually to act out a narrative and as teenagers they had to learn how to pass as adults or play the child/youth card.

Agatha never went on heists, but instead acted as researcher. She had access to architectural blueprints for the entire city as well as information about the history and details on any building, neighborhood, or social strata.

Their first few “jobs” were incompetant near disasters, but they quickly became a well oiled machine and after two years were nothing short of dazzling. Legends of a master cat burglar began to spread across the city and Sam quickly recognized the value of such a thing. The legends assumed a single male, which the gang would play off of. Sometimes they would leave taunts by this fictional male and other times not, carefully changing their tactics so that police would build a false methology and character analysis.

However, even after two years they were nowhere near ready. It took another two years of work after that until the gang finally thought though they might be skilled enough to tackle the M&S vault.

The problems were multitude. The vault was buried far underground and other than that no one knew a thing about it. Procuring information on the vault tooks months and several raids on the Millhouse Seth Manor and some of their top clients as well as the bank itself. The daughters also spent over a year building identities as rich, spoiled heiresses. They were too young to pass for the kind of high power client who would garaunteed to get their possessions stored in the main vault, but by hiring an actor to play their wealthy father on a few occasions and some well placed appearances and press they built an identity and account that was recognized by the bank.

The amount of time and energy that went into just getting information about the vault was tedious enough, so imagine the shock and near defeat they felt when they discovered that due to the MIllhouse family’s propensity for black magic, the vault was not actually stored in this dimension.

The gang was all sitting around, shoulder slumped, mouths hanging open, in near tears. It was Simon was got them out of their stupor. In the library was a Victrola, an exciting new contraption at the time. Simon played it, and the cylinder on it  was a brass march. Simon marched up and down the table with a paper hat on his head, head up, chest out, in a gesture of complete resolution. Everybody laughed and before long they were marching in a line around the library. They sat back down again, their spirits raised and got back to planning.

Agatha’s years of researching magick and Sam’s years of developing complex heists were tested to their limits, but after some time the entire Gang came up with a Plan. It had taken over four years of training, a year of prep, but finally they enacted their great Plan.

Mags made an important deposit for their prime account in the mian vault. The Gang had amde a number of very valuable depostis over their career to build up their credit and insure they had a deposit box in the main vault. The item to be stored was strange, but it was done.

Sam the Mouse was in the item, and so he ended up in the vault. Once he was certain it was after hours he crawled out and began work. Also in the item was a bag of salt. He bit a hole in the bag and dragged the salt around the vault floor in a circle.

Each night the vault was sealed with both locks, seals and sigils, impervious to thieves and occultists. The vault upon being sealed magickly was transported to another dimension, a dark, chaotic one where if any human were to enter, the sight of which would drive them instantly insane.

Sam cast a circle and scratched the various runes taught to him by Agatha. Meanwhile, back in the basement of the library, Mags, Mae, Agatha and Simon did the same. Each team created the exact same Circle and at the appropriate time opened a portal connecting them. Simon the took a rope in his beak and flew into the portal in order to connect the two Circles.

A human could never have done it as it required watching where you’re going. However human vision and albatross vision are quite different and although they had not been certain this part of the plan could actually be pulled off, in fact Simon was only partially bothered by the chaotic alternate dimension. It freaked him out but did not drive him mad.

He landed in Simon’s circle. Mags and Mae then put on blindfolds and crawled slowly along the rope, through the monstrous abyss, not daring to open her eyes and ignoring the terrible sounds howling arouond her. Agatha kept the ritual going, the portal open, and the rope anchored.

Once in the vault, the girls went to work scouring the boxes in the area where the family was most likely to store the artifact. At this point time began ticking. The more important boxes would have astral golems protecting them. The astral golems existed to do one task and one task only: if the boxes were disturbed they were to fly through the astral byway to deliver an alarm to another golem on the other side.

Due to this never having happened before, the Gang could rely on a little bit of time passing before trouble came barging in. However, as time goes, not much. Not much at all.

They worked as fast as they could. The boxes were sealed well and to open them the girls had brought hammers and chisels. They pocketed a full items of interest, but mostly just methodically went through the boxes as quickly as possible. Finally the room began to rumble and the sigils and seals covering the door began to glow, signalling impending intrusion. Time was up.

Mags was the one that found it. The door began to open. Simon was already waiting with the rope in his mouth. Sam tucked himself into Mae’s bra and the girls leapt from the walls to the rope. Mags would have landed poorly on the floor and would have probably broken something, but the floor disappeared completely.

When the door opened, the room would return to reality. The Gang banked on this. The rope connecting the Circles would still exist in the terrible dimension and the room would simply disappear from around it. Thus the Gang was left clutching a rope suspended in the space of a horrific dimension, terrible, terrible sounds howling around them, the girls unable to open their eyes lest they go insane and Sam unable to open his eyes simply because he was scared shitless. They all were and the fact that he peed in Mae’s bra was never held against him.

Simon was their only hope. With the end of the rope in his beak, he slowly flew it and those clutching it in a ball together across the nightmarish space, the chaotic nonsensicalness, the blasphemous unreality, slowly but surely until he reached the portal and landed them all in the Circle in the library where Agatha waited. She immediately closed the Circle after them.

Simon suffered from nightmares the rest of his life. They were worse during the weeks following the heist, but the Gang cared for him with great love, and eventually they receeded, only appearing a few times a month from then after, more when he was stressed.

Agatha’s family curse was lifted. While there is more to the story, we have spent more than enough on this particular chapter. There were a few more heists needed and a couple more adventures required to get the job done, but we assure you dear reader, the mission was accomplished and Agatha’s curse was forever done away with. She remained with Gang thereafter, never going on jobs but always as their unknown librarian and 5th member.

When the Gang first entered the Vault they left their cat burglar calling card and despite the family’s best attempts to keep the theft under wraps, it got out, at least amongst a certain strata of New Albion and the gang found their reputation after that to be elevated to an almost unfathomable level. They soon found themselves with a power and influence they had to struggle to come to grips with.

There are so many stories to tell and perhaps one day they will be told. But we cannot go through their entire career here and now. It is time for us to skip ahead and talk of how Simon’s end came about.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Black Magic Banking (The Albatross, Pt. 6)

black magic banking

If you were to ask as to the what industry Agatha the librarian’s very prestigious family were stewards of, most people would correctly answer banking and trading. There would only be a small number, almost too small to even be worth mentioning would who answer Black Magic. Both would in fact be correct.

Agath’s family had been bankers in New Albion for generations. Akers Finance was of the great Banking firms of the city. They were always in close competition with  M&S Banking owned and run by another prestigious family, Millhouse Seths.

The banking industry in Albion can be viscious. Each family was always trying to guess what the other was doing, find the best investments first, or sweep the carpet out from under the other. This started innocuously enough as good old fashion business rivalry, but over generations the rivalry had grown into all out epic.

It had started escalating when the families had started hiring spies. The spies led the hiring even deeper spies who would not just infiltrate the business but attempt to marry into the family or least date daughters and sons. A bunch of the money used by Beltane Undustries to fund Project Doolittle, the talking animals experiment, had been providing by M&S. A dog who could  secretly understand language and talk would be a super spy extrodinare.

But spies were only tips of the iceberg. After some time, willing to try anything, the familes started exploring alternative methods of out predicting the other. The first generation to use psychics and clairovoyants to give them an edge were thought to be flat out insane and an embarassment to the family name, but this sort of thing soon became par for course. In fact, supernatural methods worked well enough that soon each family had a branch dedicated to witchcraft. It made sense. Each generation produced individuals with different strengths. While normally most sons and daughters would be good at finance, trade and the market, there were always a couple artsy and therefore useless types. They would be sent to learn witchcraft.

Witchcraft led to ceremonial magic and soon, based on the types of results the familes needed, they decided to stop putzing about with this namby pamby crap and became immersed in full out black magic. As their underground war escalated and families needed to constantly keep up with and best the other, from market predictions to investment strategies to casting and defending from hexes and demonic assaults, they would employ the best and brightest New Albion and other city states had to offer. This included some of the darkest magicians and rituals ever devised by either man or demon.

Both banking families heavily invested in trading companies who brought all manners of imports into New Albion. The Akers had scored a major coup by cornering the tea market and all ships sailing in with shipments of teas and herbs were protected by a complex array of glyphs and sigils. M&P scored big by backing the trading company responsible for silk, and thus on and on it went.

Agatha’s grandfather, Augustus had been at helm of Akers Banking his entire adult life and was one of the stronger stewards of the family business. His son, Agatha’s father, worked closely with him and was a solid CEO in his own right, but a life time of trying to live up to his father’s shadow and gain some type of approval, which was very, very difficult to do, had made him a bit obsessive, and while being a workaholic he had a secret opium habit he kept in very careful check.

There were in New Albion a number of major executives and power players who used opium to take the edge off their immensely stressful and hard working lives and most were part of an underground club who catered to them. The club provided an expensive but mysterious atmosphere, fine cigars, top notch brandy, opium and should you desire it, a discreet partner of whatever gender you required. Agatha’s father had two particular friends at this club: an executive of one of the top trading companies and a dark magus who was a bored dandy from a long line of money who tried desperately to be a poet but whose genius at creating and working spells and ceremonies gave him a claim to fame and feared notoriety.

It was the three of them who had come up with a plan to attack M&S. One of the trader’s ships had returned from an exotic port with a very strange relic which the magus had recognized contained a very ancient, wild and powerful energy of a nature never before seen in New Albion magic circles. This could be a game changer. They would use it to strike a major blow against M&S Finance.

Each family had a basement with a black and red pentagram room were they concocted a lot of their family rituals, but this extraordinary curse would require proximity to the curse. Access to their sworn enemies Manor was difficult and so they plan had been underpreparation for some time.

However, it must be noted, although acess was difficult, it was not as impossible as one might think. The reason for this also ties in to th same reason the curse went awry. Let’s start with why the curse went awry.

They curse would affect everyone within a series of rooms. The three men were stationed secretly in a servants hallway behind the rooms. Their view of the inside of the rooms was limited, so they knew some of the most important people they needed to do away with were present, but not necessarily everyone present. If, say, Augustus’ wife was there with his daughter but off to the side, they might be missed.

We realize we may be completely trying the attention of our audience if at this point we take a detour and suddenly bring up Romeo and Juliet but it makes explanation easier and will explain why access to the house is not impossible. Romeo and Juliet, the story of two young lovers, who despite their family’s feud and rivalry yet find passionate adolescent love.

This sort of thing is not rare. Actually, it happens all the time. It happens like clockwork with the Akers and the Millhouse Seths.

Despite their family’s endless feuding, children of the two families get the hots for each other all the time. Forbidden love, the unallowed passion… its a garaunteed recipe for sexual attraction. The elders let it happen because they know that the torrid affair almost always ends very badly. Once they rut themselves into boredom it usually ends nastily and the jilted lover will become even more passionate in their taking up the family war.

There are occasional problems. The unexpected baby for instance. Agatha was that unexpected baby. Augustus’ wife had an affair with a Millhouse Seth which unknown to Augustus produced what he thought was his daughter. Augustus’ wife, as a kindess, would twice a year secretly go over to the real father’s place to show him his daughter.

Because of the all the secret copulating, some members of the other families did know secret ways into their rival’s house. Just to wrap that little mystery up. In any case, Augustus cast the curse, the artifact was juicing up for the big boom, and as the three men were exiting he saw his wife and child in his rival’s room and instantly understood what was going on.

So why did he go back, grab the artifact, throw it down into the basement in which they had come, where his two conspirators had already fled to and then throw himself down and on top of the evil thing? He insured his own destruction. Didn’t he realize the little girl, Agatha was not his? Didn’t he realize his wife had been unfaithful? Didn’t he realize he was doomng himself and his two companions?

The answer is simple: Yes, he realized it all. He realized the girl was not his real daughter. He didn’t care. He loved her to death and back. And he loved his wife. And he was absolutely unable to let his family be harmed so he did the only thing he could think of to do in the circumstance: he took the curse for them.

As for his two companions, they were opium buddies. Given a choice between them and his girls, well, they got screwed.

And that’s how the three of them ending up as shadow wraiths who roam the fog of New Albion never able to live outside the fog and never able to die. They possess immense power. Immense. They’re dumb as doorknobs but they’re powerful as hellfire. Why would you cast a curse on an enemy that makes them powerful as hellfire? Well, you wouldn’t, but that magus was an idiot who didn’t actually fully understand the artifact. Also, by dying in a room where a high emotion was present, namely Augustus’ desire to sacrifice himself for his daughter, this last emotion permeates their undead life. They are thus not only extremely powerful, they are extremely dedicated to and protective of Agatha. She has to worry about getting annoyed with the baker if he rips her off because the damn wraiths, one of which is her father, are likely to pull his entrails out.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Agatha And The Library (The Albatross, Pt. 5)

Gothic Library, New Albion Library

After escaping from the Laboratory it was Simon the Albatross who thought of holding up in the place that became his and Sam the Mouse’s home for years, the library.

Simon loved to read. Sam thought the idea was brilliant and was eager to spend time exploring knowledge so he could further his schemes and ambitions. Simon however just simply loved to read and did it with a joy and passion even Sam did not possess. He would read fiction, history and biographies endlessly.

The New Albion main library was enormous, gothic and easy for a mouse and albatross to find a home in where they could spend nights and lazy days.

Simon would perch on the roof at sunrise and sundown every day. He would watch the people go by and the librarians come and leave work each day. He became attached to one librarian in particular, a young woman named Agatha who, despite her mousiness, had an aura of both interest and kindness about her. During her less busy times she would often browse the the occult section of the library and it seemed she possessed quite an interest in dark magic and curses, which seemed at odds with her demeanor.

Simon caught all that went on in and about the library and so it was only natural that he would be the first to identify when two new residents decided to adopt the library as a home.

Simon would watch two ragged teenage girls enter the library about and hour or two before closing time and not  leave until the following morning an hour or two after opening hours. Simon quickly tracked down where they were staying, deep in the subterranean section of the stacks. They made themselves a little camp and repositioned the stacks to hide themselves and their few belongings. It became apparent quickly that one of the girls was not well. The other would leave during the day to find food. Some days she was successful and some days she wasn’t.

As the sick girl grew sicker and sicker, Simon made the call to involve Agatha. He flew down and initiated contact with her. At first she thought he was adorable and charming for a bird, and giggled at his attention as he danced about in front of her and cawed in response her questions. Soon though she began to realize he possessed some intelligence beyond normal and was trying to tell her something. When he arranged sticks in front of her that spelled “CAN U HELP” the fun ended and she was actually a bit freaked out, but she still agreed to come with him.

He led her to the girls. They were terrified and the healthy one was defensive and clearly able to be dangerous. But her sister was truly sick and she had certainly recognized that help was in fact needed. The girls were terrified of moving and so Agatha begged them to stay and ran home to get her tea and herbs.

Agatha was not at all a black witch and her interest in the subject will become apparent in just a bit. She was very well versed in other aspects of Craftwork and excelled at medicinal herbs and teas. It took 3 days, but early each morning and throughout the evening she would tend to the sisters and the sick one soon became well again.

After healing, they stayed on at the library and Agatha brought them food each morning and evening. The girls would climb like monkeys all about the subterranean stack and soon found alternative entrances and exits to the outside world and even New Albion underground. They all but adopted Simon. He introduced them to Sam who was absolutely against any contact with humans, but who soon begrudgingly took to them.

Then one day their father came. He was not alone. He was a nasty, thuggish looking ruffian and had three others with him. They had been trying to track the girls down and it had finally dawned on them that girls who loved to read might take to the library, a place it was surprising he even knew existed and which he had certainly never stepped foot in in his entire ignorant life.

Simon, Agatha and Sam already knew the girls’ story. It was not pretty. Their father was very into alpha male dominance, considered them his property and when they had reached their flowering age had taken the liberties he felt due to him. The girls had born it as best they could, but when he made arrangement to share them with his thuggish associates they finally broke and fled. This was why they were hiding out in the library.

The thugs began their search of the library and Simon first warned the girls, then flew to get Agatha. Agatha lived in a perpetually foggy area by the docks and she came running. The girls had clambered to get to their hiding place but in doing so had made some noise which had convinced their father and his cronies they or someone at least was in the otherwise deserted looking old library. The cowered in terror and Sam kept them company trying to keep them calm and thinking rationally.

Agatha arrived right as the thugs found the girls. The father was about to grab them and beat them bloody, the sisters were about to fight to the death if necessary, and Sam cursed himself for not planning ahead meticulously, a mistake he would never repeat ever again, when mousy little Agatha stormed through the stacks and demanded the brutes turn around and leave immediately or suffer dire consequences.

The sight of little, thin, black haired, thick glasses wearing Agatha threatening them with her little fists all bunched up was utterly hysterical to the men and actually stopped what would have been a moment of explosive violence. They had a good, roaring laugh and were all quite happy at the prospect of getting to be alpha males over another unexpected little treat who come to look at her and think of it, might make for a good time after they beat her into submission a bit first.

Agatha of course was no fool. She was well aware of what was about to go down. This is why she sighed. She was not surprised for a second it was going to come to this. So she sighed, shook her head and removed her glasses.

The fog creeped in.

As said before, Agatha was not involved in black magic in any way. In fact her interest in it was all about undoing a curse, a rather torrid bit of business involving her father which we shall get into in more detail tomorrow. However, in the interests of keeping it simple for the moment, the curse involved a perpetual fog that wandered around the city and the 3 entities that dwelled in it. These three entities could not live outside the fog, they were cursed to wander about in the fog for a long, long, long time. They were no longer quite human. Exactly what they were is much too much trouble to try to work out here and now, so we’ll go with shadowy wraithlike and leave it at that.

One detail that should be mentioned however is that they were fiercely, fiercely loyal to and protective of Agatha. And they were very dark. Bad dark. The product of very bad black magic. Really, at that time in the city’s history, it is not an exagerration to say that if there was one person in New Albion you did not want to fuck with, it was Agatha.

We know that you, dear reader, are surely a gentle soul and do not need to or wish to lower yourself to hearing the sorted, awful descriptions of the screaming, howling, and crying the father and group of thugs underwent. We know you are far too kind and generous to want to sully yourself with sick and disgusting details of what happened to those bastards. We applaud you and your better nature. For those of you unpossessing of such a better nature, we will not stoop to such a level of debasement, and really, you should be ashamed of yourself for wanting to revel others’ misery, but if it’s any concillation, there was indeed a great deal of misery, a LOT of screaming and weeping and the details are, we assure you, VERY sick and very disgusting. And would involve an abnormal amount of talk about entrails.

And this is how the Gang of Four met and bonded, along with their fifth conspirator who has historically remained otherwise unknown. The Four eventually became the most famous cat burglar in New Albion and even eventually heads of the Mafia many years later. However one of the first ways they honed their skills was trying to help Agatha out with a rather nasty curse her family was involved in due to a trading company dispute two decades earlier.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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