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Bedroom Studio Tips Revisited

Three years ago I posted a list of some music production methods and tips on my blog that still gets some attention. Now, here’s some other good read (I hope).

Moreover, you really should check out the most popular post on this blog about the best tips on music production that I can think of.

Headroom for MP3

I’ve written about the importance of headroom when submitting your track to a professional mastering engineer, but you should also pay attention to headroom when you do this on your own and when you encode MP3s.

Okay so when the track is mastered at 0 dB (the maximum level for digital audio files) many converters and encoders are prone to clip. Lossy compression formats utilize psychoacoustic models to remove audio information, and by doing so introduces an approximation error, a noise which can increase peak levels and cause clipping in the audio signal – even if the uncompressed source audio file appears to peak under 0 dB.

In Practice

For example SoundCloud transcodes uploaded audio to 128 Kbps MP3 for streaming. In this scenario, use a true peak limiter to ensure the right margin depending on the source material. A margin of -1.0 or -1.5 dBFS should work for no distortion (sometimes -0.3, -0.5 or -0.7 would work, but it’s safer to have greater margin).

Add Life to Your Mix

Sometimes when I read about music production and audio engineering stuff I come across ideas that I personally wouldn’t use in my music, but nevertheless could be interesting – at least in theory – and perhaps someone else dare to try.

Here’s one: record your “as is” mix from your monitor speakers, using a couple of microphones, and then blend the recording with your final mix.

This could add vibrance and “realism”. It could of course also clutter your mix if you overdo it. If needed, try to poke the recording to play with the phase relationship.

Recording your mix like this can add some analog imperfection by revealing a little of the studio’s ambient, and the colors of the mics, preamps and monitors would also print this sound layer. And you need not to record in the studio, you could put the monitors in a (non-acoustic treated) reverbant room, or record with an opened window… You get the drift.

No Reason to Go Back

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I’ve started making electronic music on the Amiga 500 using music trackers many, many years ago.

I then got a PC and used several shady Cubase versions. After that, I got a Mac and started using Logic for a while. At that time FruityLoops was weak and Reason’s sequencer wasn’t in a good place. But then something happened – Reason 6.5 introduced rack extensions and shit. And then came version 7, and I though it was the greatest. Everything was fine –  for a short while. When Propellerhead released version 8, focus had shifted to the surface, and community building seemed to be the new black. So I switched to Ableton Live.

Reason 9 just revealed. It adds pitch edit, scales and chords, note echo and dual arpeggio. What do guys think? Well, I for one, am not going back.

FM à la Analog Four

One of my favorite synths is the Analog Four, and with the OS update 1.22 a while back, Elektron added new LFO synchronization modes and destinations and made this synth even more awesome. (If I only could take one of my synths to a deserted island, it would be the Analog Four.) Anyway, in short that means I’m now able to apply pitch tracked LFO FM behavior.

Here’s a way to start (not rules):

  1. Set triangle (as a substitute for sinus) waveform on an oscillator.
  2. Open up both filters.
  3. Set the LFO speed to any multiples of 16.
  4. Set the LFO multiplier to over 512 and synchronize it to the oscillator you’re working with.
  5. Let the LFO restart when a note is played on Trig Mode.
  6. Choose sinus as the LFO waveform.
  7. Set frequency or pitch modulation to the oscillator as LFO destination. (Also try different destinations later, like the filter frequency.)
  8. Set depth of the LFO modulation (or, if you’re using the first oscillator, let the second assignable envelope control this).
  9. If you use Depth A in the step above, then try to fade in or fade out the modulation.

Also, there’s a few videos on YouTube describing these methods, like this, which is a good walkthrough, even though it’s a bit unfocused and lengthy.

Understanding Hip Hop Production

I imagine that most readers of this blog are aspiring producers of electronic music. Its subject are not limited to only electronics, but I haven’t mention the word “flute” or “acoustic guitar” even once since the start of it all.

Anyway, electronic music is such a wide genre and has more to do with gear and techniques rather than a certain style of music.

So I’m into music production and old analog hardware. Here’s the thing, I’m into hip hop, and mostly trapish contemporary shit for the time being. And as a vintage gear head, I feel kind of alone.

Of course I’m influenced by Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk, older Depeche Mode, Warp Records, Hyperdub, Skinny Puppy, Front 242 and so on, but equally so by hip hop producers, such as J Dilla, DJ Premier, Timbaland, RZA, The Neptunes, Dr. Dre, DJ Shadow, RJD2.

And right now, I think my favorite producers/songwriters are Noah 40 Shebib and PartyNextDoor. And Noisia, and Zomby, and Burial, and perhaps Datsik around 2011.

Many electronic producers don’t seem to appreciate or understand hip hop production. I’m not talking about these people mentioned above, but about hte generic bedroom electronic music producer. They might think of hip hop as turntables and loops. But modern hip hop production uses the same gear and share many point of contacts with electronic music. (Of course, it’s kind of banal, because so do all popular styles of music.)

I don’t know, I don’t have an agenda here, I’ve just been thinking about this when browsing through different forums and groups. Most connoisseurs and nerds of synthesizers make techno, electronica, house, synthpop, industrial, edm or synthwave, not many make hip hop.

Rhythm Against Rhythm

The term polyrhythm denotes the rhythmic dissonance created by the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms in different time signatures. This can be systemic, the basis of an entire track – cross-rhythm – or just a brief momentary disruption, e.g. the hi-hat or snare triplets rolls on a trap beat.

Try it out yourself: Program a drum loop, set the kick and snare in a straight 4/4 rhythm, but put hi-hats in a 6/8. Add a bassline pattern in 4/4 and put some chords in 5/4, voilà! (You may have to set up your sequencer or piano roll grid to 48th notes.)

With polyrhythms, this loop just got more interesting, less predictable and got some character.

Today’s Best Tips on Music Production

10 essential tips… 20 mistakes… 30 production secrets and so on, such lists seems to be really popular these days. Although many of them are just full of crap. Especially forget about the longer checklists – even if you could find some good advices there, most tips are just nonsense, like “don’t mix bass with headphones”.

Anyway, to you aspiring producer, here’s a few things I think you should care about:

  • Listen to different styles of music and try to identify what you like and what you dislike.
  • Analyze your favorite artists’ work in great detail. Theorize with both feet on the ground.
  • Go ahead and copy other artists, but don’t settle there – tweak and add your own style and flavor.
  • Cover, remix and remake your favorite tracks, it’s a good and fun way to learn about music.
  • Use reference tracks, compare your shit to others, but don’t get paralyzed when your track doesn’t bang as loud as them.
  • Learn about synthesis and learn how to sound design different kind of instruments, e.g. strings, plucks, percussion (make synthetic drums using waveforms, a noise generator, filters, envelopes and such).
  • Check your music productions on several systems; from high-end studio monitor speakers to iPhone earbuds.
  • Sleep on it. Let your track mature over night and return to it with fresh ears.
  • Go hardware, get tactile if you are growing tired of a software-based environment. To actually play an instrument or to turn a real knob is really something else.
  • Get inspiration from collaborations with other artists. Just reach out to people you admire – this is globalization, this is the time of teh internetz.
  • Try to keep passionate about creating music, but don’t be afraid to make some demands of yourself, just to push things forward.

A Method to Make Synth Strings

Recently I got a Roland Alpha Juno-2. It’s an analog synth that has a couple of uncommon features: pulse width modulation on both the pulse/square and the sawtooth waveform, and a 7-stage contour generator, which adds a huge range of sonic possibilities.

Anyway, the AJ-2’s pretty good for lush polyphonic pads and strings. But instead of writing a review of this nearly 30 year old synth, I thought I’d give you guys a quick rundown of how to make strings, which you can translate to other subtractive synths. For this, I’m skipping the unique features of the AJs, although it’s best if the synth you’re using has pulse width modulation (PWM).

  1. Set a first oscillator to pulse, give it a pitch of 8’.
  2. Add slow movement by applying some PWM. You might need to use a LFO to do this; route LFO (triangle wave) as source and the oscillator’s pulse width as destination.
  3. Set a second oscillator to sawtooth and an octave higher than the first. Detune the pitch a few cent steps to render unison and fatten the sound.
  4. Mix the two oscillators so that the second is slightly lower.
  5. Add a subtle amount of vibrato (pitch modulation) using a LFO (triangle wave or sample and hold) to modulate the pitch of both oscillators.
  6. Bring in some white noise, though most of it should be muted by the LPF (see below), it can give the sound a little shimmer.
  7. Add a sub-oscillator set an octave down from the first oscillator.
  8. Set the low-pass filter to about halfway (aim for a mellow tone) and add a bit of resonance.
  9. Optionally, you can tweak the filter envelope for timbral variation.
  10. Adjust the amplification envelope to a slow attack and a medium release time. Bring up sustain so that the sound doesn’t lose volume over time.
  11. As far as effects go, try chorus, a little delay and/or a hell of a lot of reverb.

There you go – a thick, lush, synth string. Nothing like real orchestral strings, but yet a sound with its own characteristic, that’s just as valid as any other instrument.

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