Spending Time Appropriately

I’ve blogged before several times about sample manipulation and clean up (i.e. EQ, compression, gating, etc…).  I use a lot of live-sampled sounds in my tracks, often as main/key elements in the overall composition.  So in these cases, properly cleaning up and compressing samples is really important, if I want these elements to stand out well and sound clean in the mix.

For the track I’m working on at the moment, I’m in the middle of doing all the incidentals, and part of that is incidental percussion.  I usually first sequence all of these sounds in the track’s Reaper project, and afterwards go through and automate EQ and compression to get them sitting in the mix properly (usually with a single EQ and compressor instance and using automation to adjust the parameters for each incidental).  That process can be pretty tedious, so I decided this time I’d do all the sample EQ and compression up front (i.e. before sequencing) in audio editing software.  This also was pretty daunting at first, because I had about 20 samples to treat, and I usually spend a good 5-10 minutes per sample finding the right EQ and compression settings, and auditioning on monitors and close listening through headphones.  But as I started working through them, I realised I didn’t need to spend so long on each one…

For samples which are used as key elements in the track, overly careful EQ and compression is really important… your key elements will either comprise the main ‘themes’ of a track, or at a minimum occur many times during the track’s progression… hence you need to spend time making fine and careful adjustments to get them sounding as good as possible.  On the other hand, the incidental samples I was working on might play in total a couple of times at most during the entire progression… plus they often occur at sonically ‘busy’ parts of the track (builds, peak points, etc…), where slight quality issues (like a tiny bit of distortion, or slightly wrong EQ) will likely be masked by all the other sounds occurring at the same time.

It made me realise I could afford to be (what I would usually consider) a bit ‘sloppy’ with my approach to this sample editing… only audition on monitors, and sometimes running mild effects like a slight limiting or compression with minimal or no auditioning (I use Waves L1 and C1 a lot for this purpose, and have used them so much I can usually apply mild adjustments without needing to audibly auditioning).  And more generally it made me think about using your time appropriately.  Time is a precious commodity for a producer… particularly if it’s not your profession and you have limited time to start with.  So you need to really think about the areas where it’s necessary to spend time, and the areas where you can afford to take a more ‘quick fix’ approach.


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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The ‘Rule of 3s’ for Incidentals

A month or so ago, I read an article on musicradar article entitled ‘Robin Schulz’s top 10 tips for producers‘.  I hadn’t heard of Robin until that point, but I really resonated with the advice that he was giving… the stuff he covered was generally also the stuff I tend to think of as key techniques to producing successfully.  I checked out one of his tracks on YouTube too… ‘Prayer In C‘.  The track has an incidental build almost right at the start (0:05)… but surprising for commercial music, the texture of this build is quite thin and sparse… consisting of mainly just a lone white noise sweep, and tends to come in a bit predictably.  It’s similar to the kind of use of this sound that you find in more amateur, ‘bedroom’-type productions.  I’m not at all trying to be critical of the production (I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on as obviously Robin is at least 1000x more famous than me!)… but it’s interesting to observe, because it does stand-out somewhat from most highly polished and produced tracks from big names.

It got me thinking about things that distinguish ‘bedroom’ sounding productions from those from big names on big labels… and one of the major differences from my perspective is the use and depth of incidental sounds.  My general impression is that highly ‘professional’ sounding tracks tend to have multiple layers of complexly woven and sculpted incidental sounds… the kind of thing that adds a subtle but critical sheen of additional depth and detail to a track.  A really good example of this that comes to mind is Sasha’s ‘Invol2ver’ album.  The interesting thing about these types of incidentals is that you don’t usually explicitly hear them when listening to a track… but if they’re removed, suddenly something major is missing and the track sounds much less polished and professional.

Along these lines, for all the tracks I worked on during 2016, I adopted an approach with incidental sounds which I’ve since come to refer to as ‘the rule of 3s’.  That is… for any major build or transition point in a track, I try to have at least 3 separate layers of incidental sounds happening at the one time.  The reason for this… having just 1 or 2 layers of incidentals at such points seems to end up being too obvious… the listener can distinguish each of the layers and the build becomes somewhat predictable.  But for me, 3 layers is the sweet spot where suddenly the layers of incidental, along with whatever instrument sounds are in the track itself, combine to make it difficult for the listener to be conscious of all the layers individually… the sound becomes harder to predict and hence more interesting.

So based on this thinking, I try to make sure I use at least 3 layers of incidental sound at any major build or transition in a track.  You have to temper that according to the style aswell… progressive-type tracks tend to do well with more layers of incidental than harder, more minimal styles… but I think 3 layers is a good baseline to follow.  As a typical default, I would have those 3 layers consist of…

  • A longer white noise swell-type sound
  • A shorter swell (e.g. reversed cymbal)
  • Some type of percussion, possibly through a delay effect

…and make sure that each layer has individual panning to control the side to side depth, aswell as EQ automation to control the front to back.

As an example, the clip below contains the soloed incidental parts from the build starting at 2:43 in Summer Wave

This actually contains about 5 layers on the build/swell side (3 swell-type sounds plus 2 percussive), and 2 or 3 crash cymbal-type sounds layered together… that’s leaning towards being a bit excessive, but also gives the track a lot of depth, and that more ‘professional’ sound I mentioned earlier (and given the more progressive style it lends itself to greater depth of incidental sounds).

If you’re a producer, striving to make your tracks sound more professional or polished, I’d highly recommend you look at your use of incidental sounds… and if you’re only using a couple of layers consider thickening the texture and apply the ‘rule of 3s’.


(Disclaimer: A acknowledge that these days the term ‘bedroom productions’ has no correlation with being amateur or unprofessional… as many famous commercial productions are indeed conceived and realized in a bedroom!)

Being Guided By Your Ears Not Your Eyes

With current DAW software, we have unlimited ability to use automation to hone aspects of sound to a micro level.  And, there is a huge difference in the detail of automation that’s possible today, even compared to relatively recent advancements in hardware technology (like flying faders on consoles)… these days it’s simple to setup unlimited complex routings of automation, based not just on user defined curves and patterns, but fed by audio from other tracks and sound sources.

The screen shot below shows a section of the Reaper project for ‘Cantana 1‘… this is the automation on a single reverse cymbal swell in  part of the track, and is automating volume and pan, plus the frequency and gain of a high-shelf filter.  Typically I would have at least 2 or 3 such sounds in parallel, at 20-30 different places throughout the track.


As with many technological improvements though, endlessly flexible automation can be a blessing and a curse.  Recently I’ve found that although being able to automate sound changes in such fine detail can make it easier to achieve highly professional-sounding productions, having such a detailed visual representation of automations can lead you to have an over-dependence on visual cues, and stop just using your ears and listening.  I find this particularly with creating the automation on incidentals like that in the screen shot above… having a visual instinct that automation curves should be linear or evenly progressive, and then tending to let that instinct override whether that type of curve actually sounds right or not in context.  The ‘shape’ of automation at a given point should be driven by the other sounds at that point, and not by having a curve which looks ‘nice’.

I find this also when auditioning parts of tracks and watching the main ‘arrange’ page of a DAW… it’s very easy to anticipate changes and parts that are coming up by their depiction on this screen, and this can prevent you from having an objective, and listener-centric opinion on those parts and changes.

I’ve also read countless interviews with pro producers in Sound on Sound and online who say similar things, and often try and switch off DAW screens when tracking and mixing to avoid this.

As this year’s progressed, and I’ve trusted my ears more and more, I’ve started becoming much more aware of how distracting visual cues in a DAW can be, and tried to more and more ignore them, and focus solely on what I’m hearing.

The benefits to finishing work which might not be your best

it can feel like a waste of time pushing through and completing a track which you know is unlikely to be your best work. But…

(Disclaimer: the opinions expressed herein are those of musician periodically battling perfectionism.  The views stated may be irrelevant to artists who do not experience this condition.)

In a recent post i mentioned I’ve been working on a new track.  That was a while ago now, so work on the said track has progressed from the early stages of putting together individual elements and layers, to finalizing by doing final mixing and adding incidental effects.  The incidental effects bit is something which to be honest i don’t enjoy that much… it’s really crucial in the sense that doing it wrong can result in a track which doesn’t have a professional sheen… but at the same time i don’t find it nearly as inventive or creative as experimenting with the more musical elements of a track.

During the process I’ve periodically had doubts about whether I actually like this track or not.  I seem to cycle through days when I think it’s quite good, and others where I find  myself thinking it’s not up to scratch.  During the early parts of the writing process it came very close to being binned altogether on several occasions.

Coming back to incidental parts… Often, if I’m really happy with how a track has turned out, I can easily get stuck spending way too long on trying to perfect the incidental parts… I guess subconsciously I know I’m pleased with the progress of the track, and don’t want to take it a step backwards by pairing it with less-than-perfect incidentals… which can lead to hours and sometimes days doing micro adjustments to incidental levels, EQ, automation etc…

I found with the current track though,  it was different.  Given I was already ambivalent about it, I found approaching creating incidentals was much easier… my mentality was more along the lines of ‘I just need to get this done to a reasonable level quickly’, rather than ‘this has to be really good so I don’t spoil the good work I’ve already done’.  As a result of the more relaxed approach, not only did the whole thing get done more quickly, but being less fixed and a bit more adventurous allowed me to discover a couple of new techniques along the way.

I guess the general point I’m trying to get to is this… It can feel like a waste of time pushing through and completing a track which you know is unlikely to be your best work.  But, doing so can provide some value… i.e. being able to approach something with a more relaxed, less perfectionistic attitude can…

  • Allow you to find faster ways to complete routine tasks
  • Let you experiment more and hence discover new techniques, benefit from ‘happy accidents’, etc…

…and, it always provides some satisfaction to at least complete a task and create something tangible, rather than spend hours working on an idea which ultimately gets thrown away.

EQ Automation on Incidental Effects

using EQ automation to fade incidentals in and out goes a long way to achieving a natural sound

Creating more realistic incidental effects is one of the most important things I’ve learnt over this period of writing music full time… and when I say ‘incidental effects’ I’m referring to background effects which enhance depth, or create additional emotion or tension in music.  In electronic dance music these are also often referred to as swells, drops, sweeps etc… and at a fundamental level can be implemented using faded-in white noise (for a swell) and a crash cymbal (for a drop).

These kind of sounds are interesting because the listener doesn’t usually explicitly notice them, but will notice the absence of them, or notice them in a bad way if they’re inappropriately used, or sound unnatural.   Having appropriate, smooth, and natural sounding incidentals is a key factor to making your music sound like it’s professionally produced rather than sounding like it was produced in a bedroom.

At a basic level you’ll usually want your incidental sounds to sound relatively natural, and using EQ automation to fade incidentals in and out goes a long way to achieving this.  In the physical world, sounds that are further away from us are perceived as having a rolloff of low and particularly high frequencies, as compared to the same sound emanating from a closer position.  If we take the aforementioned white noise swell and crash drop as an example… a basic sequencing of this would fade in the white noise (using volume automation), and let the crash hit and fade out naturally at the peak point.  The following clip gives an example of this over a rough loop idea…

This sounds OK, but also somewhat obvious… i.e. the listener will be subconsciously aware of the white noise right from the point where it starts.  Because these types of effects have been used so much, and for so long in electronic dance styles, used as above, you run the risk of it sounding predictable and uninteresting to the listener (something along the lines of ‘ah, there’s the white noise, so I guess a peak point is coming!’).  By using an automated low pass or high shelving filter along with volume to fade the white noise in, it sounds more like the natural physical world, and also kind of ‘sneaks up’ on the listener… i.e. comes in much less obviously and hence the listener doesn’t overtly notice the sound so much, but is still drawn into the effect.  Using an upward swept high shelf filter on the white noise (plus a little downward sweep on the crash) sounds like this. ..

To me it’s a subtle, but also significant difference difference, and a first step towards getting more realistic incidentals, and an overall more professional sound.  Increased realism could then be achieved with panning, and additionally automating your reverb sends,  to have more reverb when the sound is ‘further away’.

As mentioned I’ve picked up many small techniques for improving incidentals during this year, so this will be the first of several posts on the subject.