The blog is back, after a brief hiatus. It’s good to get back to sharing tips and thoughts with everyone. This time I’m going to talk about an issue that has evolved, not through changes in trends, technique or the thinking behind how to make good music, but as a consequence of changes in the equipment and technology we use when we create. With the invention of the virtual studio the possibilities are almost endless, but is this an entirely good thing?
Firstly, let’s take a look at the finer differences in the way we make music now compared to how it was when we worked in rooms stacked to the ceiling with Rolands, racks and reels of tape. Nowadays, I’d wager that the majority of music (electronic music at least) is made by people sitting at a computer running a DAW with a mouse and keyboard, enjoying the fact that there are no limits on how many tracks they can run, no limits on how many synths or samplers they can call up, and most importantly: absolutely no limits on the chains of effects processors they can have on each of those tracks (CPU constraints being the obvious exception). Actually it sounds pretty wonderful on the face of it doesn’t it?
In the past, in the hardware studio, where most, if not all the great tracks of yesteryear were made, the reality was very different to that which we enjoy today. It is very likely that you would have only had a few good multi FX units, maybe one great compressor, only a couple of quality tube EQ’s. Each of these items could only be used once without physically connecting it up to a different sound source, so the logistics were very different and this really put restrictions on the way you worked a song. A by-product of this was that it made you think a lot more about the fundamentals of what you were trying to achieve with a certain sound, this extra emphasis on getting sounds right at the source is something that, in my opinion, we can miss in a modern world set-up. The resulting production can often end up leaning too heavily on fx and other crutches to get a song sounding up to scratch when the fundamental audio is not strong enough.
Once again I’ll preface this with the notion that I am speaking very generally, indulge me if you will, as the benefit in this is not hard and fast rules, but in being aware of all the options & ways things can be done. I’m not saying all modern tracks suffer from this, but I know for a fact we can all be guilty of it sometimes.
So, they had to pick the right sounds, they had to get it right from the start, which meant most of all thinking about and knowing what they wanted and being clever about it. This skill, this way of thinking, has sadly fallen by the wayside with the proliferation of synths with ton’s of pre-sets all lathered in lashings and lashings of creamy fx.
Let me also point out, there are times when using loads of FX to create something that is really far from the original source sound is an art-form in itself! But it’s important to know the difference between when you are doing that and when you’re trying to shoe-horn the wrong sound in. Nowadays it is so easy to keep loading up more and more processing, and that fact alone can easily take you down the wrong path when you are learning. Even after 30 years in the business it can sometimes seem like a good road to walk after a long studio session, but remember one rule: unless you have a specific artistic intent to get crazy with loads of effects, you should be able to get your mix-down sounding musically & rhythmically good, with only the level faders and very little else. If you cannot get 90% of the way there dry then the sound isn’t right, and you need to look at how you can fix that, which is what I will talk about next…
What sound is right?
So how can we spot when a sound isn’t quite right? Sounds so easy and simple, and in reality it is, unfortunately, the way we make music nowadays and the way a lot of people learn to make music can often be quite counter intuitive to the artistic realities of writing music. The simple truth is you just need to train yourself to think about sounds in a slightly different way; noting certain characteristics and judging them as you go along. If you actively do this as you work eventually you will be doing it automatically, and spotting the issues will come a lot easier. Until that day here are a few pointers which will give you a leg up.
The way a sound fits into your production has many aspects, but two of the most important are:
1. The envelope (shape) of the sound: Does it have too much attack? Does it decay too slowly and drag the music down? Is the attack too slow and has it lost rhythmic impact?
If you are certain you’re happy with the sounds’ overall tone and you are sure it’s pretty spot-on for your idea, the first place to reach to adjust is the envelope(s). All synths have these and all samplers too, but if needs be, most modern DAWs allow you to edit directly on the waveforms so you always have options. Getting your envelopes right is a really important step in making sure your song flows and has energy, problems here can really distract your ear as a track progresses. Work with the envelope’s attack, decay and release and work changing the shape of the sound, try taking the part in and out and think does is slow the track down or pull the mix or rhythm off kilter in any way when it comes in? Often by working with just the timing, envelopes and level faders you can slot things into a nice little pocket where it becomes a hard working part of the track.
2. The tone and frequency content: ask yourself does the sound fit in the overall sound of the track? Or does it stand out and sound like it’s from a different track? Is the timbre too harsh or dull?
Your main tool for fixing elements which are not tonally right in the mix is corrective filtering and EQ. You need to listen to problem sounds and compare them to the overall tone and frequency palette of your whole production, as the overall impression of your whole song can be ruined by an out of place part. That said, using differences in textures and tones is a great way to add spice and individuality to your productions, so just because something is different in this sense, doesn’t make it wrong. If you decide to keep a sound in your production, make sure you are doing it on purpose. If you do decide to tweak a sound to make it fit in there is one absolute rule: keep it subtle, if you find yourself cutting away and changing the sound in any drastic ways, then ask yourself why are you using that sound in the first place? always retain a mental image of what you’re trying to accomplish and achieve before you start to work on a sound. A good option is to take a step back and think if you could make changes at the source? Adjusting the filters on the synth or sampler can often yield better sonic results than adding in extra digital processing, and sometimes even changing the notation or octave of the part, or starting with a new sound altogether can be a better option. In fact, you will be amazed how often you realise the sound is wrong, and it was just the idea of what the sound should be that you were hooked on.
The Pre-set Trap
We have all done it, and I think I’ve mentioned this before. You write a new sequence using a “placeholder” sound then settle in for a flick through of the pre-sets of your favourite synth, looking for something to jump out at you as THE RIGHT SOUND. It never does, time passes, and you start to become bored and impatient, your whole original feeling / enthusiasm for the song starts to wane.
Finding the right sound can be tricky, especially if you’re not comfortable in programming your own. There is no simple answer to this as there has to be a synergy between the sound and the way it’s played to create evocative music. Each sound plays differently and will react differently – you need to take advantage of this to get a great line going. If you have to look through pre-sets, look through them while playing the keyboard live, even if you can’t play very well. Set your beats playing and have a jam, that’s what making music is about. Just the process of playing around live on top of your music will give you a much better idea of the right sound when you find it. With enough practice you will soon pick up how to spot the kind of sound you’re after, and from then on in, you will never get stuck in the pre-set trap again, well hopefully.
A Great Balanced Mix
Well now you’ve rooted out the parts that were pulling your mix askew and you have a great “dry mix” going with just the faders, maybe a splash of EQ even. Now is the time to think about your FX, Delays and Reverbs. These can be the icing on the cake, looking back to the days when you only had one delay you really had to think about how you used it for maximum impact, and once you have a great “Dry” balance on top of that their effect is 100 times more potent than if you were relying on them to bed sounds into the mix. The key word to keep in your mind with Reverb and Delay when using them outside of the obvious effect mind-set is: Balance.
When using reverb you are looking to balance the reverb so that it becomes part of the natural sound, adds dimension to the image without flooding things, without it sounding like a solo in a giant warehouse and without taking away from the rhythmical or musical flow of the track you have painstakingly crafted in your basic mix. (Side Note: There is nothing wrong with warehouses & music ;-)) So ask yourself, as you add in some ambiance, does it slow the track down or wash it out, or even just impose too strongly? If so, it might be a little too much in terms of it’s mix level, or the decay could be too lengthy. Is the reverb too bright? Or is it too boomy? Once you’re thinking about all these elements as you tweak your reverb then you should be able to add a dimension and a sense of depth to your track without taking away any of the direct goodness of the dry mix.
To work your delay in nicely you need to be thinking the same things as you did with reverb, but with the addition of making a judgment on the rhythmic quality of the delay itself, is it working with your groove? Is its level low enough to leave the emphasis on the right parts, but loud enough to be worth keeping in it. That said, of late I have become fond of delay timings which are a little fast or a little slow. As long as you’re aware of it and making sure the groove and balance are not affected, you can really gain a great texture.
Once you have your lovely balanced mix, tastefully put together, I am sure that you will start to notice the smallest of changes can offer massive musical differences. It will be as if you are working on a whole new level of accuracy and this actually opens up a myriad of mix options. It is one of the main appeals of the old analogue desk – track by track, individually; the difference in sound can be hard to notice to the untrained ear. But, taken with a perfectly balanced mix, and making the most out of the small effects that you get from the desk and other equipment, you can create something that has all the subtle things that REALLY matter in music – that can sometimes be missing when you work only on a computer.
Put the emphasis on getting the sound right at the source, getting the fundamentals right. Going from there, you will find that your tracks come together easier and sound better 100% of the time. Instead of spending hours trying to fit stuff in that fundamentally isn’t right – your sounds will sit in nicely by default, and all your work will be striving to enhance them. This fundamental fact, and the affect it has on your basic happiness with the music you create, is astonishing.
When you hit problems, e.g: bad mixes, you know the songs you don’t get around to finishing, you always intend to re-work but you feel you’ve lost the magic and motivation and never get round to it, it can often be that you are hung up on problems in the basic dry mix and the sounds themselves and you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong. It is often the case that you’re holding onto sounds which you think are right but are really where the problem lies. You can lose your subjective judgement and end up working things in an emotional way. Don’t get me wrong, music is all about emotions, but the creation of music is a dark art, a balancing act between keeping your analytic perception of the composition, and vibing with the emotion and enjoyment of the music itself. A good example of this problem in action is when people push the kick too high in the mix to achieve more groove or thump, when in reality it has the opposite effect dragging things back and bottoming out your energy and balance.
Hope you’ve found this useful – now go and break the rules.