I had an interesting experience over the last couple of weeks, with a mixing problem that should have have been obvious and easy to fix, but because I was too focused on details, I missed the bigger picture and let the problem persist for way longer than it should have.
I’m still in the finishing off stage of a track which has ended up becoming the most drawn out and time consuming piece I’ve worked on so far. I just looked back to previous posts and realised I said I was on the ‘home straight’ with it more than 2 months ago.
Part of the reason this track took longer than others was that it was the first where I’d used an acoustic instrument for one of the main themes… an acoustic piano riff (from NI’s ‘New York Grand’). As with acoustic percussion samples I’ve discussed in a previous post, any recorded acoustic instrument is inherently going to have a much greater dynamic range than synthetic sound. And to fit this into the generally very narrow dynamic of club music, considerable but careful application of compression is required.
The piano riff I came up with, I thought, had a nice dynamic… getting thicker in texture and a bit louder/stronger towards the end of the riff… I felt this gave it a bit greater feeling of tension. Although a fair amount of compression would be required to make the riff fit well in the mix, I was keen to try and preserve as much of that dynamic as possible. Hence when mixing I was too focused on trying to preserve dynamic of the riff that I’d liked in the soloed part. This unfortunately led me to being too cautious in applying compression, and ended up pushing the piano part way too high in the mix (in order to get it to stand out properly). Added to this was the mistake of not following my own advice and regularly checking back against reference tracks, so when I finally did do a side-by-side comparison with my usual reference material I’d created a kind of ‘inverted smile’ in terms of frequency spread… with piano and mid-range way too dominant, and not nearly enough bassline nor cymbals.
Once I figured out my mistake, it was pretty easily corrected with a simple application of Waves’ Renaissance Axx compressor (after having spent at least a week going in the wrong direction)… sure I had to sacrifice some of the nice dynamic I had originally wanted to highlight, but looking back, I think that original desire was misguided. The track I’m writing is in a minimal-techno style… where narrow dynamic and very loud overall track levels are commonplace… the expectation to keep a main acoustic instrument part fairly dynamic, and achieve a competitive level in the overall track was a bit unrealistic.
So 3 important lessons I learned for going forward…
Audition parts in the context of a mix. Things that sound good on a soloed part may no longer sound so good, or even be completely lost in the context of a whole mix. I was too swayed by trying to work towards a soloed piano sound which I thought sounded good… it would have been better to have always auditioned it in the context of the mix right from the start.
Be realistic about how much dynamic range you can achieve in styles which are innately highly compressed.
Listen to and compare to your reference tracks regularly!
I read a good piece on musicradar the other day about approaches to arranging (or what I usually refer to as ‘sequencing’). A couple of the tips in that article really resonated with me (namely 1 – ‘start in the middle’ and 5 – ‘draw it out’) because they were things that I ‘discovered’ myself during my work in 2016. The most useful of those was the idea of ‘starting in the middle’ so that’s what I’ll discuss today.
Sequencing is one of the things that I find more difficult in the production process. At the point of starting sequencing you’ll usually have a bunch of track elements or layers you’re happy with, and you need to get from that point to having a rough form of a track, making sure that the sequence remains interesting throughout, and showcases the element or layers as you’d intended. This is a pretty big step, and the path to get there is ambiguous… and in fact there’s not one, but many paths that could eventuate… i.e. there’s actually an almost infinite number of possibly sequences which could turn out good. I think because of this I used to sometimes experience hesitation at starting out (similar to what I wrote about in my procrastination post).
For some reason I always used approach sequencing in a linear/serial way… i.e. starting from the absolute first beat in the intro, and working through the sequence to the end. But I found this was difficult and often lead to uninteresting sequences (like the first 2 minutes of the track ended up just predictably introducing a new element every 16 beats). At some point during 2016 I decided I needed a new approach to this, and that’s when I found the same ‘start in the middle’ technique described in the article…
By the time you start sequencing, you would have likely been working on the individual track elements for a reasonable amount of time… hence you’ll have a good idea of which elements/layers sounds good together, and which combinations and build-ups of layers you want to showcase as the main theme of the track… so since that should be clear in your mind, start by sequencing that part… i.e. create the main build/peak part of the track first. You might also have other ideas for kind of ‘precursor’ builds to the main build/peak point, so put those in the sequence too. Once you have these main ‘points of interest’ in the sequence, you can more easily ‘fill in the gaps’ between the points (more easily than trying to build the sequence start to end). Most DAW platforms should be capable of inserting and deleting time measures (and preserving automation lanes etc…) if you need to extend or contract the gaps between the main points, so there shouldn’t be any technical limitations either from working this way.
I now find that the intro and outro are usually actually the last parts of the sequence that I make… and they often don’t require too much attention, given that in club music your main goal for these parts is usually not to make them interesting, but to make them easy for a DJ to mix with the next or previous track in a set.
This was a technique which I found a huge help in expediting the process of arranging/sequencing. The ‘draw it out’ technique also mentioned in the article was another, so I’ll write about that (and maybe include a real sequence drawing I used for a track) in a future post.
I’m finally on the ‘home straight’ of a track that started out simple, and has ended up taking ridiculously long to finish. I’m basically at the stage now where there’s two significant things that need to be done in addition to mixing and general final polishing… ‘decorating’ the build/peak points of the track, and adding all the incidentals. Even though these two tasks should be straightforward, I’ve been subconsciously dodging them for the last week or two… and I’m now at point where I’ve done every other minute (and occasionally unnecessary) tweak to other parts of the track in an inadvertent effort to avoid them.
Today I consciously realised that I’ve been side-stepping these tasks for days, and after some thought the reason became clear. Both of them are time consuming, and a little tedious… often involving listening over and over to small sections of the track and making repeated small changes to automation curves. It’s a ‘routine’, rather than ‘creative’ process… I can clearly envisage the end point I want to be at, but unfortunately getting there requires a lot of time, trial and error, and repetition of the same task.
Interestingly, before 2016 I often experienced similar procrastination when trying to come up with new ideas for tracks and parts within tracks. However, now that’s a process I usually enjoy… so it made me think about what’s changed. I think it boils down to 2 main things…
A lot of the procrastination around coming up with new track ideas stemmed from a fear of failure… i.e. fear of the disappointment of spending a lot of time trying things, and not coming up with anything good. Now though, I really look forward to and enjoy discovering new ideas. My experience during 2016 proved on numerous occasions that I could come up with ideas that were way outside of my expectation, imagination, and perceived limits of my own ability. The fear has been replaced by a curiousness, and almost an excitement about what kind of ideas I’ll discover, that I can’t imagine right now.
My understanding and knowledge of the instruments I’m using has improved a lot… not only can I experiment with more ideas in a shorter time, but I have a greater ability to think about a way of manipulating or creating sound, and then actually realising that sound through the equipment (i.e I’m better to being able to audibly create sounds I can hear in my head).
So I’ve eliminated procrastination in writing new material, but it’s still slowing me down with more routine tasks. I think it boils down to what I touched on in point 1 above, and can be well explained using the following analogy… Coming up with new track ideas has become like going on holiday to a country you’ve never been to before… you don’t know what you’ll discover, but there’s a fair chance it will be new and exciting, and even the process of getting there is often an adventure. Conversely, creating incidental parts is a bit like doing the weekly shop for a big family… the end result is not particularly outstanding nor exciting, but is necessary… and the process of getting it done is lengthy and a repeat of something you’ve done many times before.
So what’s the answer to avoid procrastinating? Unfortunately I don’t have any easy nor groundbreaking solution… what needs to be done can be easily interpreted from a quote I heard many times from former mentor (and i believe variations of which have been used by Lewis Carroll, George Harrison and others)… “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do”… i.e the best thing you can do is just make a start and get moving.
I guess I’ll leave it there… I’ve got shopping to do.
Pad sounds usually exist (as the name suggests!) to ‘pad-out’ an arrangement, and give it some additional texture and depth. As they’re usually designed to sit behind the main instruments/elements of a track, you can often get away with more abstract textures, created by more complex chords. I can still clearly remember my eureka moment many years ago, when I discovered that really nice pad sounds could be made with a low-pass filtered synth patch, played by a thick, jazzy chord (9th, 11th, etc…).
During 2016 I experimented quite a lot with different ways of making pad sounds, and discovered that you don’t have to limit textures to complex jazz chords… you can use all kinds of diatonic structures and ‘chords’ which are way outside of the bounds of traditional music theory.
The example I’ll use is part of the pad sound I used in ‘Push On‘. I used a couple of different instrument layers to arrive at the final sound, but one of those layers used a preset sound from Spectrasonics Atmosphere. The soloed layer sounds like this…
… and was played using the following ‘chord’…
That’s basically the first 4 intervals of a C major scale played together in consecutive octaves. It’s also miles away from anything that you’d learn from traditional Western music theory (it can actually be ‘played’ by two very comfortably spaced fists on the keyboard!). This is the kind of chord I would never expect to fit into anything but the most avante-garde of music styles (due to preconceived ideas of what harmonies will work), and hence would be very unlikely to try or experiment with when putting a track together. But I discovered last year that you can often use these types of complex and unconventional chords for pads (I used similar and often more complex chords in other tracks I produced in 2016 aswell).
Part of what makes it possible is the use of low-pass filtering in pad instruments. If you were to play the same chord on a loud piano or with an orchestral string patch, the mash of upper harmonics it would produce would sound quite messy and dissonant (like playing the piano with your fist!). But as this patch has a lot of those upper harmonics rolled off, it allows more complex (and traditionally dissonant) sets of intervals to work better together.
Just as a reference, a single note played on the same Atmosphere patch sounds like this (with no high-pass filter and hence more low end)…
When creating pad sounds, it’s worth messing around with complex and unconventional chords and intervals. It often allows you to create much more texturally rich and deep sounds than you could achieve with more traditional chords, but still maintaining consonance in the overall result.
If you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired
In my usual (i.e pre-2016) work as a system engineer, I never used to have to think much about getting into the right mental space in order to work productively. Ofcourse making software is fundamentally a very different discipline to producing music, but I always found with software I could start working pretty much immediately… there was a clear, tangible problem that needed to be solved, and to get to the solution you just had to start working on it.
With music production it’s often very different… to be effective (and sometimes just to get started well), it’s important to be in a creative headspace. This is moreso the case with certain stages of the production process… e.g. being in a creative headspace is much more important if I’m trying to come up with new parts or tracks, than it is if I’m doing something more routine like mixing.
Also, the success of the start of a day producing can be heavily influenced by the success (of lack thereof) of the previous day. Specifically… if I’ve ended the previous day frustrated that no good ideas were coming, or trying unsuccessfully to fix a problem in the mix, it could make it more difficult to motivate yourself, and to get off to a positive start.
So, it’s critical to try and get yourself into a mental space that’s conducive to being creative… and a really good routine I’ve found to do this is…
Start the morning in a place separate to the studio – It can be difficult/intense to spend 8+ hours a day in a single room… I particularly found this in early 2016, having come from a busy and spacious office environment and constantly changing locations (for meetings etc…), to being stuck in one small room and in front of a PC all day. I would always start the day in a completely separate physical space (usually a coffee shop close to home).
Listen to some music you like – This is something I usually do while having said coffee. It always helps to spur creativity by absorbing inspiring examples from the same creative discipline.
Read some material which gets you thinking in depth about producing – For me, this is the most important technique… if I can read something inspiring about production (or in fact anything music related), it immerses your thoughts in that space, and has a hugely positive effect on getting you into a creative place. It’s also a great antidote to the kind of frustrations or lack of inspiration mentioned above… often giving you fresh ideas, or approaches on how to attack a problem. Specifically, the material I commonly use is…
Inspiring music news sites and blogs (CDM is a favourite for me)
Magazines like Sound on Sound… esp practical columns like Session Notes, Inside Track, and Mix Rescue
Inspiration tends to come and go unpredictably… and if you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired. Being able to put yourself into a more creative headspace moves you towards having more control over periods of inspiration, and allows you to best utilize your time.
In my recent post on questioning ‘Does Knowing Musical Theory Help Production?‘, I said I’d give a few examples of where I found a musical structure that was outside the rules of traditional Western music theory, but sounded good none the less… so here’s the first example…
My most recent track on soundcloud ‘Cantana 1‘, has a bassline whose pitch rolls around a lot through portamento… but is centred around an A note… hence you could say the track is in the key of A. But… the main synth ‘stab’ and vocal pad sounds are based around a B flat minor chord. That’s a semitone away from the key of the track, and is about as far detached as you can get from ‘correct’ structure and harmony according to the rules of classical Western music theory I learnt from the AMEB. With this semitone interval the track sounds like this (as per soundcloud)…
…if I was to pitch the stab and pad sounds down a semitone to match the key of the bassline, it would sound like this…
Interesting huh? It’s subjective, but although the second clip does sound more ‘correct’ in terms of harmony, the odd interval in the original version gives it a more dark, and unresolved sound… and to me, ultimately makes a better track.
Looking back, I’m a bit surprised I discovered using a bassline and chord separated by a semitone at all. When I’m putting together the various layers of a track, I’m usually implicitly aware of what key the track is in, and that leads me towards preconceived ideas of what harmonies will work, and what won’t (these kind-of ‘burned in constraints’ I mentioned in the previous post). Given that traditional theory would say that a tonic and tonic + 1 semitone interval would not work, I’m surprised I even experimented with that combination in the first place. I can only guess I had adopted a kind of ‘hit random chords’ approach to finding new parts, and just happened to stumble on this semitone part that happened to work well.
Anyway, the takeaway is to try and keep an open mind when you’re coming up with new parts and ideas. Use any knowledge of music theory you have to help expedite the process, but don’t get caught up in letting that knowledge restrict your ability to discover things.
I watch a lot of the Fact TV ‘Against the Clock’ series. It’s a nice way to look at how other producers do things, and sometimes get some new ideas that can help your own approach and work. One interesting observation from these videos is that there’s a fair variation between the formal practical and theoretical training that producers possess… I.e. you see some guys who seem to go for the ‘lots of random notes until something sounds OK’ approach on an Abelton Push-type device, and on the other hand, guys who get behind a keyboard and start dropping improvised parts like a jazz session musician. I’m not making an elitist-type judgement here either… there’s not necessarily a correlation between the quality of the track ultimately produced, and the instrumental skills of the producer. But it’s something that got me thinking, and something that I was aware of in my previous year of full time music production.
I always learnt instruments and formal music theory from a fairly early age… first through the AMEB and then through school and high school, and while I’ve been very grateful for that knowledge and how it can often help and expedite my music production, like other elements I’ve written about, it can sometimes be a double edged sword. On the plus side, the benefits I see are that…
When trying to come up with new ideas for tracks and parts, an understanding of scales and their relationships can help you to more quickly come to potential parts that fit nicely with whatever you’ve already got. I think without that understanding, you’d have to cycle through things a lot more randomly (like just trying every key in an octave until something sounds good).
I think it’s easier and more quick to translate ideas you hear in your head into a tangible sound, project, score, etc…
But, at the same time, there are lots of ideas that don’t fit into the formal bounds of music theory that can still sound interesting and/or good… and I feel like the problem is sometimes, that having those theoretical constraints ‘burned in’ to your thinking can stop you from accessing and finding these “don’t fit” ideas.
There’ve been several times over the last year, where I surprised myself by finding a sound, interval, or harmony which was a bit outside the boundaries of Western musical theory, but sounded good nonetheless in the context of the track I was working on.
I’ll try and go into detail on a couple of these over the coming weeks.