The Closing

I’ve been meaning to post this for a couple of weeks, to catalogue a significant event in my journey as a full-time producer… what’s the event?? Well, after 15 months working on music production full time (plus another 4-5 months part time), I’ve returned to my standard (and regular paying!) work in IT.

I felt like it was appropriate to write a post to ’round off’ that part of my experience. Even when you’re doing something you love every day, it not always easy… remaining self-motivated, working alone and missing human interaction, and having to support myself with pretty much zero income, were all challenges I faced along the way. BUT, to be able to be immersed in something I have passion for and find so rewarding, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Although the time I can spend producing will be more limited going forward, the skills I’ve developed over the last 18 months will allow me to see tracks through from inception to completion way more quickly than I could have done before. Plus there’s the satisfaction and confidence from knowing that I can make tracks that from a production perspective, are on par with stuff released on labels… that was one of my main goals of he whole process, and massively satisfying to have achieved. Overall, I have no regrets about taking the risk of leaving well paid work to follow my dreams, and in the absence of the unfortunate financial constraints (that one about needing money for food, shelter, etc… 🙂 ), I would keep producing full time.

To any readers who are thinking of leaving or taking a break from work to follow a creative pursuit, I’d really encourage you to take a chance, and try to make it happen. I was surprised that a lot of the creative skills and thought processes I honed during 2016, can be equally beneficial when applied to my usual work in software development… growth in my profession didn’t halt even though I was working in a very different discipline.

Although technically the ‘sabatic’ part of this blog is over for now, I will definitely continue to write and produce music in my spare time, and want to keep posting any interesting aspects of music production I discover going forward.

And, just a final note is to say ‘thankyou’ to the readers who have been following my journey over the last 18 months… It’s been exciting to see visitors from corners of the world I’ve never been to, and to likewise read about the fantastic artistic pursuits you guys are involved in. I hope you found something beneficial in the things I documented here, and for your readership and support, my sincere thanks.

When the Problem is Staring You in the Face

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…

  1. 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.
  2. Be realistic about how much dynamic range you can achieve in styles which are innately highly compressed.
  3. Listen to and compare to your reference tracks regularly!

Does Knowing Musical Theory Help Production?

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.

Getting Comfortable With Your Environment 2

I’ve learnt a lot about the importance of subtle physical comforts in a space

I arrived back in Tokyo last week, and had my first day back into writing today, after about a two-week break over the new year.  As I wrote about over the last few posts, for whatever I reason, I wasn’t 100% settled working in Sydney this time, and although I came up with a couple of good ideas, I didn’t progress through with them as far as I would have liked.  It’s a bit strange, because it was the second period I had working in Sydney in 2016, and the first one was actually quite fruitful and productive.

However, getting back home and working in the place I’ve become accustomed to over the last year, it became more clear why I wasn’t so productive in Sydney this time… it broke down to 2 basic things… sound and comfort…

Sound, because I realised that I’ve really grown to know and trust the sound from my monitors and studio room in Tokyo.  After a year of working on here every day, I just know how the sound will translate to the final mix, and after having mixed a number of tracks that I’ve been happy with, it just boils down to confidence, and the resulting speed with which you can make tonal changes and mix decisions.  I just didn’t have the same confidence in Sydney… I knew there were a lot of parts that I couldn’t judge properly, and either kept changing them back and forth, or knew that I would have to fix them when I got home… and this led to everything taking longer, and a reduction in the ability to commit to a part and then move onto the next stage.  The room sound was probably a big contributor this too…  I blogged before about the uneven bass response in Sydney, and aswell I noticed on returning, as soon as I first walked into my apartment, just how much lower the ambient noise is here… likely it’s a lot to do with the construction (i.e. my apartment here is solid concrete on the walls, floor and roof, as compared to drywall and wooden floors in Sydney).  OK, admittedly domestic construction materials are not the most interesting thing in the world to blog about, but are important from a producer’s perspective, as it makes a huge difference to the room acoustics, and hence how well you can hear what you’re working on.

In retrospect, the other big factor in my lack of progress was comfort.  Sitting at my usual desk and comparing, I realised that in Sydney…

  • Screens were too far away and too high… felt like they were ‘looking down on me’ as I tried to work
  • Not enough leg room under the desk
  • The chair wasn’t as comfortable

…granted these are small (somewhat ‘precious’) things in isolation, but together they made a big difference to the level of comfort, and hence I think my propensity to be creative.  It was just nice today to slip back into familiar and comfortable surrounds, and in the couple of hours I worked today, I did as much as I would have in a whole day last month.

It’s fairly obvious that a good monitoring environment is crucial to your ability to mix and produce well (as I’ve now re-proven to myself), but moreso I’ve learnt a lot about the importance of subtle physical comforts in a space, and how it can really help or hinder your creativity.

Neutralizing Your Ears

The human body is really good at adjusting our senses to our present surroundings, and making them seem ‘normal’.  This is a phenomenon which affects all senses… for example…

  • If you wear goggles with a tinted lens while skiing, your eyes adjust to the tint, making it appear normal.  This is most obvious when you remove the goggles… e.g. after adjusting to, and then removing goggles with a yellow tint, the snow will look blue.
  • Our taste adjusts to strong flavours, making subsequent flavours taste less intense.  The reason ginger is served with sushi is to neutralize your taste in between pieces, so that the full flavour of each can be properly experienced.
  • Most people can relate to entering a room with a strong or bad smell… after spending 5 – 10 minutes in that room, the smell isn’t as strong anymore.

… and hearing is no different.  For example if we listen to music that is bass heavy for a long period, and then do a mix, our ears will have ‘normalized’ to the bass heavy sound, and we’ll very likely produce a bass heavy mix.

For this reason it’s important that before writing or mixing we neutralize our hearing to something well balanced.  In my case I have a collection of 5 or 6 well produced reference tracks in varying styles, and with slightly different tonalities (i.e. some are a little bass light, others are slightly bright, etc…).   The first thing I do each day is listen to 20-30 seconds of several of these reference tracks, to neutralize or normalize my hearing towards a cross section of balanced commercial mixes.  Also, if I’m doing a long mix session, I’ll periodically re-listen to the reference tracks… during lengthy mixing, it’s easy to listen to a track so repetitively, that a mix that is potentially unbalanced starts sounding normal.

Also, when listening on monitors or rooms with an uneven frequency response, it’s equally as important to listen back to reference material on a regular basis, to help avoid imparting the inverse of this unevenness on your mix (e.g. mixing a track bass-light, because your room has over-emphasised bass response).

It’s OK to Not Do Things

I’ve recently gone through the process of final mixing for my track ‘Cantana 1‘.  I came to the point of mixing the bass line, and had a bunch of ‘standard’ effects I wanted to apply (as in ‘my standard effects’… EQ tweaks, sidechained compression from the bass drum, etc…).

Usually I’m super cautious with effects that give too much stereo width to the bass… I’ve been made mildly paranoid by knowing a lot of club subwoofer systems are mono (hence the potential for cancellation of bass frequencies), and by stories of needles jumping out of grooves on vinyl.  But at the same time I do like to have at least a little space/width, and possibly movement in the bass, so my standard practice previously has been to put a mild stereo chorus or similar on a high pass filtered duplicate of the bass line track, and blend it in.

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of tracks with bass lines that have much more width than what I would typically apply… especially moreso in minimal techno styles (I’ve heard many examples recently, but ‘Squeeze the Trigger’ by Noaria is one which has a reasonably amount of out of phase bass content).  Hearing this made me keen to move away a little bit from my previous conservatism, and use more chorus/doubling type effects to try and get a thicker bass sound.  I had this idea in my head for a couple of weeks while I was putting the basic parts of Cantana 1 together and sequencing, so when it came to mixing, it was almost a foregone conclusion that I must have some type of chorus on the bass line.  But despite auditioning several plug-ins, I couldn’t find anything that brought an improvement without also creating additional issues.  Because I’d set out to do this from the start, I really persisted, and spent a good couple of hours trying numerous different combinations of plugins in parallel, on different EQ bands of the bassline etc… but at the end of the day, if I stepped away from my expectations, the chorus didn’t improve things.  So after a lot of experimentation and perseverance, I decided to dispense with it and just go with the original, mono (but smooth and thick sounding) bass line.

Was an interesting experience, because having had the expectation in my head for several weeks, I persisted with trying different options for probably a lot longer than was necessary.  It just highlighted to me that When you’re writing or producing, you need to keep an open mind to changes, and most importantly use your ears over and above your expectations or preconceptions.  At the end of the day if something doesn’t sound right, or doesn’t make an improvement, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Building a Knowledge Base

the next time you need to apply a particular process could be months down the road… your chances of remembering the fine details of that process after such a gap are slim

Producing music via a DAW and software is an inherently complex thing. Whether it’s knowledge of how to setup complex routings within a DAW, an understanding of how a synthesiser plugin works, or knowing how to use an often subtle effect like compression or EQ, we frequently have to learn and then apply complex technical processes as part of music production.

Compounding this complexity when you only produce music occasionally (e.g. as a hobby), is the fact that the next time you need to apply the particular process could be months down the road… your chances of remembering the fine details of that process after such a gap are slim.

Over the years producing music as a hobby, I tried to avoid wasting too much time in these kinds of situations by keeping a diary… everytime I learnt something new and/or useful I’d write notes about it in the diary.  On many occasions, the diary proved useful… in fact sometimes I would do a process, and be surprised to find that I’d already documented that process in the diary months earlier (and completely forgotten about it).  But, the diary was basically just a long Microsoft Word document, and hence had limitations with regard to indexing, searching, and attaching things to it (especially sound clips).

When I started producing full time, I looked at moving from the Word document to some kind of personal wiki software.  There are lots of options the personal wiki arena, but I ended up using a package called ConnectedText.  This has been a huge improvement on the Word file.  The biggest benefit is that every article you write can be classified, and classified across multiple, hierarchical categories… it means that it’s really quick to find articles and notes I  wrote previously… usually by just going to the right top level category and navigating down the tree.  The process of creating new articles is also pretty quick, and it’s easy to link to files and folders, and embed images (like screenshots) and sound clips.

By virtue of the fact that it’s quick and easy to create notes and articles in ConnectedText, I’ve ended up writing over 300 articles over the last 10 months… I surprised myself the first time I realized it was that many.  But the best part of it has been the time saving when it comes to looking up processes that I know I’ve done before and can’t remember.  It also really allows me to quickly find documentation of complex or unusual processes, and has given me a feature-rich platform to create ‘howto’ type documentation on.