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production technique

Recording Levels

Gain staging refers to the process of managing the relative levels – at each stage of the audio signal path – in the mix to prevent introduction of noise and distortion. This can have a profound impact on the quality of your recordings.

Generally, the goal is to keep the signal chain as clean as possible, that is, high above the noise floor without overloading. Proper gain staging is critical in setting the levels to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio of the input signals.

Treat every device in the setup as an opportunity to compound errors. Consider both hardware and software components of this issue (although headroom is not really a problem in the digital world).

So don’t run hot during mixing or the D/A converters will start to introduce clipping and artefacts. Still, you can clip shit, e.g. the drum channel (by doing so you can achieve some effect, some pop). That being said, never let the master fader clip.

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.

Machined Drums Part 2

This is the second part of synthesizing drum sound. The first part covered the kick drum and the snare, now it’s time for the hihats and the hand clap. Let’s dig right into it.

Synthesize Hihats

There are several ways to create a metallic-sounding hihat and it can be rather complex. A simple way though, is to use a pure noise source with HPF, or a square wave with ring modulation. (It’s also possible to mix these two sound sources.)

Set the envelope of the VCA to a slow decay and a quick release time. Play staccato which should render the closed hithat, while a held note produces the open sound. You could of course save two patches with different decay and release to finetune both of the variants.

Add presents to the hihats by boosting at 3 kHz on the EQ.

It’s very hard to mimic recognisable, convincing, metallic percussion. This quest have defeated many before me, thus I’m just letting it be. Still, if you insist of accepting a sound you could use as a cymbal – though it sounds totally unrealistic – then grab a hihat patch, accentuate the high-pass filtered white noise, add a longer decay and release time and put some flanger effect to it.

Synthesize Hand Clap

To achieve something that can be called a hand clap, try to run white noise through a band-pass filter and use two individual EGs to shape the VCA. Modulate the first envelope with a LFO; set to sawtooth and the frequency to about half way, to and render a clap effect. Then set a second envelope to a long decay to add reverb. You should tweak these parameters as you se fit.

Boost the mids on the EQ to make an aggressive snap.

Try to put on a gated reverb effect to the sound, or just a tiny delay.

Machined Drums Part 1

This is the first of two articles about creating drum sounds with a synthesizer. While many of the popular vintage Roland TR-x0x sounds are generated by analog circuitry, it is possible to achieve a variety of drum sounds using a common monosynth.

My aim is to give you some basic ideas and guidelines of the concept – presented as simple as possible. These are, after all, quick and dirty tips and tricks of a rather complex subject.

First off, you can use an analog or a digital synth, even a softsynth, it really doesn’t matter, although it needs to meet the given specifications, like noise source, voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA), preferably a faster envelope generator (EG) and so on. The output will of course differ from different synths.

Ideally, the synth should have a couple of oscillators (VCO, DCO et cetera) with different waveforms, a ring modulator, a white noise generator, high-pass (HPF) and low-pass filters (LPF) able to self-oscillate, ADSR EGs, separate for filter and amplifier, and in a few cases, e.g. hand claps, a low-frequency oscillator (LFO) with selectable waveforms.

Synthesizing the Kick Drum

Use a LPF that can be sent into self-oscillation. Set cutoff to zero, turn up the resonance almost to max. Use a filter envelope to modulate the cutoff in a quick downward sweep, that is, turn up decay, just a little bit. Also give the sound a little release time. VCF envelope amount should just over half.

Combine this zap or thud sound with a VCO sine wave or a sub oscillator played on a low note. On the amplification envelope, set a short decay and some release. Go ahead and contour these EG parameters; a longer decay and release time can introduce a tonal quality to the sound (but keep attack and sustain at bay). To get it right, you might need to reduce the VCF EG amount and raise the cutoff frequency just to let the lowest harmonics pass.

You could boost a little in the 50-150 Hz range on an EQ to add some bottom depth.

Synthesizing the Snare

Use a white noise source and two oscillators, i.e. triangle wave, at different pitches. Run the noise through an HPF to add more snap.

For a more complex sound, you could use individual VCAs, filters and contour generators for the noise and the oscillators, and then mix the levels of the three sound sources. If you use a separate HPF for the oscillators, try sending it into self-oscillation, to get extra tone and resonance.

Contour the VCA (or multiple VCAs) with a just little decay and release (as always, the attack should be instantaneous and a snare drum shouldn’t sustain).

Use an EQ and cut the low-end. Boost the mids around 500 Hz to add body to the sound, and boost some at 2.5 kHz for extra snap and attack.

That’s it for now. Here’s a sound example of drums made on the microKORG using this concept, https://soundcloud.com/johaneckerstrom/suffix.

The next part will cover synthesized hihats, toms and hand claps, and perhaps even cowbells, claves and metallic percussion. We’ll see.

About Drum EQ

Firstly everybody would tell you to have a minimalistic approach towards EQ-ing and to cut rather than to boost. They would say that subtractive EQ avoids adding unnecessary gain to the signal and such. But by doing so, you might need to increase the volume of the instrument you’re working on, because cutting are essentially lowering the gain.

That was the first tip, and now there are a few frequency ranges that you should pay attention to.

Kick Drum

Usually you’d like the kick drum to have both a thick bass thump from the low-end and a driving click from the mids. So to add some extra weight (that is low-end punch or bottom depth), boost at 50-150 Hz. Don’t overdo it as it can clutter up the low-end. And don’t boost the extremely low frequencies as this will mostly cause a muddy sound. If possible, use bell mode on the EQ to better isolate the frequencies.

To reduce boom, or tighten and clean up the low-end in general, set a high-pass filter around 50-60 Hz. (20 Hz and below only adds unnecessary energy to the total sound.)

If the kick drum needs more body, boost some in the 90-120 Hz range.

Apply cut somewhere in the 150-600 Hz range to treat muddiness, while boxiness is most prominent near 400 Hz. Also apply a notch filter at 250 Hz, that can add thump or slap attack to the kick drum.

Push between 2-4 kHz to add attack, and also boost a bit between 4-7 kHz to make the kick drum snappy.

Remove extreme high (for a kick drum you shouldn’t need anything over 10 kHz) and low frequencies (at least kill everything below 20 Hz) with a high- and a low-pass filter.

Snare

You can, more or less, use the the same tips as for the kick drum above with a few changes and additions.

Cut at 80 Hz to remove rumble.

If the snare sounds thin, boost at 125-150Hz for a little weight and a full snare sound. And to give the snare some punch, boost around 250 Hz.

The body of the snare should be around 500 Hz, adding there will give a rounder sound.

Boost around 2 kHz for some crispy edge and add at 2.5 kHz for extra snap and attack. Also add clarity and even more punch by boosting around the 3 kHz area.

You might want to give the snare som air and presence by raising somewhere between 6-15 kHz, like at 10 kHz.

Hand claps and rim shots can mostly be treated as snares.

Toms

For the floor tom that needs low-end fulness, add some at 80-100 Hz, and for the smaller rack tom lift somewhere closer to 250 Hz.

Increase thump and add attack around 250 Hz.

Cut the mids around 400 Hz to reduce boxiness.

Add attack by boosting between 4-7 kHz (depending on the size of the tom).

Hihats and Cymbals

When you’re done mixing the volume level of the hihats, you usually don’t really have to boost or cut. Still, the clank or gong sound is around 200 Hz, but if you want definition, then roll off everything below 500-600 Hz using a high-pass filter. By doing so, you clear out low-end information that is nonessential for the hihat.

If the hihat is sounding thin, boost around 400-800 Hz.

Cut at 1 kHz to remove jangling, and treat clangy sounds by cutting between 1-4 kHz.

A small boost with a wide Q at the 3 kHz range will add presents to the hihat.

Add brightness and get sizzle by lifting at 10 kHz. And if the sound is too harsh, then make a high-shelf cut around 16 kHz.

That’s it. Next time I’ll guide you through the creation of synthesized drums.

Note: processing sampled sounds can turn hihats pretty harsh, therefore use a de-esser to affect the problem frequencies without messing with the overall volume or clarity.

Bass for Dummies

Here’s  a song I’ve made with the volca bass and keys, https://soundcloud.com/johaneckerstrom/house-of-missiles.

The bass sound is actually programmed in Step Mode as a simple pattern in 1/16 notes, and then resampled a few times with different manually movements. There are not many effects on the bass, just a multiband compressor and a little Haas for stereo width. (Then of course side-chain, triggered by the kickdrum.)

Breakdown

The bass sound is made on the volca bass. First group all three VCOs together (VCO GROUP) and turn them on (VCO1, VCO2 and VCO3 lit). Leave PITCH 2 off but detune PITCH 1 (down) and PITCH 3 (up) for a thick unison effect. Have the first (VCO1) and second (VCO2) oscillators generate a sawtooth wave and the third a square wave (VCO WAVE).

On the low-pass filter section (VCF) you’ll need a little resonance to make the LFO go well into audio range, so put PEAK level on 11 o’clock.

Set CUTOFF frequency at 11 o’clock. (As for knob movement, slightly raise CUTOFF level at the same time as EG DECAY/RELEASE drops.)

Now, set the LFO RATE to max and TARGET to CUTOFF modulation. Adjust intensity (INT) to 9 o’clock or so. This little trick – modulating the filter cutoff point (or pitch) with an audio range oscillator – introduces some buzz or grit (read: distortion) to the sound. And if you turn down the intensity a bit, you will get a fat analog sound.

Turn on the envelope generator for volume (AMP EG ON). On the EG section, set ATTACK to null, DECAY/RELEASE to 1 o’clock – turn this knob to about 10 o’clock and back again – and CUTOFF EG INT to 10 o’clock.

Problems

There were two technical problems with recording the volca modules: first MIDI latency and second, mono recording.

I’ve spent an hour or two trying to solve the MIDI offset, but didn’t succeed. In the end I just ignored it. (Well, someday I will fix it, for sure.)

And about the mono recording. The volca modules (bass and keys) are each a 3 VCO strong monosynth, and both of them have a stereo audio output. I can’t make much sense of this, but I could connect the each device to (A) a mono or (B) a stereo pair input on the audio interface (Propellerhead Balance). I chose to mono to save input ports. Moreover, I’ve read somewhere that the so called stereo, is just one mono signal rendered as left and right. This might be wrong though.

The Wavetable

While you can make tons of random noise with simple waveforms (sine, sawtooth et cetera), wavetable synthesis offers even more possibilities. And softsynths – like the semi-modular wavetable synth Massive – are hugely popular among dubstep producers.

Before I move forward, let me just say that there are several definitions of what a wavetable is, and the word itself has seemingly different meanings to different people.

Moreover, nowadays, there are elaborated wavetables, such as Malström (which is mixed up with granular synthesis) or Serum (which is able to create, import, edit and morph wavetables, and manipulate these on playback in real-time), not to mention samples and synthesis (S&S) or vector synthesis.

Essentially, however, a wavetable synthesis is based on periodic reproduction of an arbitrary, single-cycle waveform, and it implies modulating (scanning) through a wavetable in real-time as part of the synth architecture.

More simply put, a wavetable is a set of sampled single-cycle waveforms that a synth can read from and use as its oscillator shapes.

The two fundamental aspects of wavetable synthesis are making the sound evolve in time and changing the timbre at different points across keyboard.

What to Expect

The kind of sounds wavetable synthesis can produce is almost limitless. Sweeping through a wavetable is a wide palette to use as the basis of sounds. Not only can wavetables emulate sounds reminiscent of analogue synthesis, but also strange, moving and unearthly sounds with unique timbres suitable for all kinds of shit. Expect the unexpected.

I think I stop there, this post is just supposed to be an introduction to get you interested in wavetables (if you weren’t already). Maybe there’ll be reason to return to this subject later on.

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