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.

Procrastination

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.

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.

being-guided-by-your-ears-not-your-eyes-1

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.